Supporting a Networked Community of Learners

Lorraine Sherry and the Internet Task Force
University of Colorado Denver

Full citation:
Sherry, L. (1996, October). Supporting a networked community of learners. Tech Trends, 28-32.
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Members of the Internet Task Force who contributed to this document:

Supporting a Networked Community of Learners

Currently, there is a great deal of current interest in using the Internet as a powerful constructivist environment for learning. We needed to know how our School of Education, and in particular, our Information and Learning Technologies (ILT), and our Curriculum, Learning, and Technology (CLT) emphasis areas, could make the best use of it.

To answer that question, our faculty advisor and a group of graduate students founded the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD) Internet Task Force in September, 1994, and worked on the project we're describing here, with three goals in mind:

  1. to enable students, faculty, and staff members of our program to join the Internet culture;
  2. to develop a knowledge-building environment for graduate classes and seminars; and
  3. to conduct research on telecommunications technology adoption, learner support, and computer-supported collaborative learning.

Our Vision

We envisioned a networked learning environment that would:

Collaborative knowledge-building situations have been studied by many researchers. Pioneering work was done by Brown and Palincsar (1989), who worked with young students using a method called reciprocal teaching. Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994) added electronic conferencing to facilitate the communications process and to serve as a database for student questions, comments, reflections, and peer-reviewed reports.

Other researchers, notably Pea (1994), Edelson, Pea, and Gomez (1996), Brown (1994), Crook (1994a, b), Savery and Duffy (1995), Yakimovicz and Murphy (1995), and Hanson and Gladfelter (1995), studied mediated knowledge-building environments, with the latter three groups focusing on adult learners. Hanson and Gladfelter (1995) and Crook (1994a), dealt with our own area of interest: electronic discussions and conferences in graduate seminars.

Our Task Force engaged in a number of collaborative projects: upgrading and maintaining Instructional Technology Connections (our database of theoretical sources, research connections, and other online resources related to learning technologies), the Online Helpdesk (our electronic performance support system), writing on-line tutorials, creating electronic job aids, and designing a home page on the World Wide Web (WWW) for the School of Education and our program. We found that Pea's (1994) concept of transformative communication, Savery and Duffy's (1995) problem-based learning (PBL), and Crook's (1994a) idea of using computers as resources of common knowledge and communication most closely described our diverse tasks and learning experiences.

In Pea's vision, there are two forms of communication: the information transmission view, in which knowledge is imparted to the learner by some form of instruction, and the ritual view, in which learners come to share common knowledge and values through participation and socialization with other group members. Pea stresses that these two forms of communication are not mutually exclusive. When learners participate in inquiries at the frontiers of knowledge in a field, and with mature communities of practitioners in a discipline, the communication process transcends both the information transmission view and the ritual view, and gives rise to a transformative process. Here, both learners and mentors are transformed as they push the frontiers of knowledge and expand their expertise and skills.

Crook's (1994a) emphasis also is on the use of technology. Mediated communication can scaffold and support adult learners; it also serves as a medium for building and sharing a common base of knowledge and experiences within a networked community that is dispersed in time and place. Crook prompts us to "move from collaborative interactions through computers, past interactions at them, and toward interactions that are resourced in relation to them" (p.30). Though such shared efforts require an environment that supports collaboration and common goal setting, the knowledge-building process occurs because of the lively forum of joint activity and social interactions that take place among the participants.

Applying this to our own situation, we found that electronic mail (e-mail) provides an effective means of asynchronous communication, while the HTML authoring language is a useful experimental tool for building a shared knowledge base and a learner support environment. We approached our project as an open-ended, authentic task, just as as we might tackle a problem in a PBL environment. We used the Internet, our e-mail discussions, and our shared set of hypertext documents to create a potent environment for collaboratively organized learning, problem-solving, and design.

Through geographically distributed interactions, participants in our own mobile, networked community of learners can now add value to the resources they use. Moreover, the flexibility of such collaborative environments provides scaffolding for learners in times of rapid technological change, where standard approaches such as books and formal classes may not be appropriate.

Dealing with our virtual community's anticipated needs

We started with an informal needs assessment of key participants in the CLT program. They expressed a desire for further upgrades in our electronic performance support system, more educational resources, clearly-written job aids describing how to upload/download files and carry out some of the more mundane Internet-based tasks, tutorials on creating and linking electronic documents, and information about file sharing on the university network. Each member of our Task Force accepted individual responsibility for one of these tasks and proceeded to develop an electronic document to meet these stated needs.

Some of our members had participated in research measuring usage and attitudes toward technology (Wilson, Hamilton, Teslow, & Cyr, 1995; Sherry & Morse, 1995). To give further direction to our project, and to define its objectives more clearly, we conducted a formal survey of faculty and students within the division of Technology and Special Services, which housed our two emphasis areas. Respondents requested timely postings of internships and assistantships, information about upcoming professional conferences and calls for papers, and details about the ongoing restructuring of the graduate programs. Their primary learner support requirements were to locate instructional materials, consult with classmates, instructors and advisors, and download remote files. They also needed to develop expertise in carrying out literature searches, accessing, printing, and organizing scholarly information. Respondents placed less importance on collaborative activities, though some participants expressed a desire for more socialization on the network.

In January 1995, the university's network services unveiled its new World Wide Web (WWW) server. From that time on, students could conveniently share files using the WWW rather than accessing and copying files from other student accounts or the university's gopher server. This change of scope enabled us to embark on a collaborative venture in which information could be dispersed among student files, with each author taking ownership of his or her particular piece. Utilizing hypertext links from a centrally accessible document, we were able to move from piecemeal interventions to a systemic approach toward information delivery and performance support.

Design, development, and implementation of our learner support system

Our first concern was to be sure that every member of the division could connect to the network, create a student account or access the faculty e-mail system, use either a textbased or graphical browser to access our Internet job aids and resources, and communicate effectively via e-mail. We designed and distributed a paper job aid describing Instructional Technology Connections, the Online Helpdesk, our tutorials, and our School of Education home page.

Next, to be able to access, share, and disseminate information over the network, we needed to create and link electronic documents. Team members designed and implemented three tutorials to assist new users in this process:

  1. Share your knowledge
  2. Build your own home page
  3. Makepage (Customize a generic home page template)

"Share your knowledge" enabled users to build and share knowledge locally and globally in three different ways: e-mail discussion groups, file sharing among student accounts, and posting papers and projects for peer review on the university server. "Build your own home page" guided users through the process of designing their own home page in the HTML authoring system, with hypertext links to other documents and resources, in the html authoring system, thereby making their research, projects, and work-in-progress available on the WWW. "Makepage" allowed users to create a personal public directory with a generic HTML template containing standard home page features. Using the e-mail text editor and the Lynx browser, they could then customize the sample home page, adding information and connecting to distant links.

Once these supports were available, we were then free to follow a more systemic approach to learner support: to design and develop a home page for the School of Education. This was intended to link all of the tutorials and job aids, Instructional Technology Connections, the Online Helpdesk, information from the student handbook and the university schedule, and locally produced monographs and scholarly articles by our faculty and students, and to make them accessible to all users from a single access point.

The process of conceptualizing, designing, developing, implementing, and pilot-testing the home page is described in detail elsewhere (Sherry and Myers, 1996). The UCD School of Education home page is now available on the Internet, and is also listed with Einet Galaxy and the Arizona State University list of educational resources. Initial reactions from other faculty members as well as members of the global educational community on the Internet have been very favorable. By utilizing tried-and-true guidelines for screen and message design, simple and straightforward navigation links, and iterative design with close participation and feedback from typical end users, we have come up with a workable system that meets the needs of our mobile, distributed, networked community of learners.


As with all new systems, it will take a while to enculturate our users into exploiting its full potential. Though our students and faculty are adept at the use of e-mail, and generally make good use of it in graduate seminars, doctoral laboratories, and schoolwide discussions among students and members of the Doctoral Committee, it is still too early to involve many of our members in full-scale collaboration with researchers at other universities, or to produce massive numbers of on-line journal articles for the world to see. However, we feel that we have made an excellent start in this direction, and that our system will continue to evolve in time as more users begin to take advantage of it.

On a practical level, we have been acquiring a collection of scholarly products from graduate students and faculty alike: literature reviews, research reports, and theoretical articles. Not only do these online publications disseminate our research to other universities and scholars; they also serve as models of portfolio items for our doctoral students. We are also proud to announce that Instructional Technology Connections has won AECT's 1996 "InTRO" Award for best instructional techology site on the Web. Our programs and products have attracted new graduate students from around the world - not just in the instructional technology program, but also in several other programs housed within the School of Education. As a result, other division directors within our school have now become interested in developing program-wide pages, as well as faculty and student home pages, and linking them to the School of Education page.

In the area of pedagogy, we have been working with Web-based learning. Members of our ILT and CLT programs participated in the Virtual Instructional Design case study conducted over the WWW by the University of Virginia. Some of our classes and seminars have constructed theme-based annotated bibliographies and posted them on class pages. Students and faculty alike have mentored new students as they learn how to build individual home pages and use them as online information management tools.

We also carried out a research study as our team designed and built our home page, and developed a model for the collaborative learning/design process as a result. Our preliminary findings show that as we use mediated communications to carry out an authentic task, build a shared base of knowledge, experiences, and common understandings, and generate further research questions, the group's discussions have a strong and positive influence on the metacognitive processes of individual group members. We plan to continue research in computer-supported collaborative learning, as well as to explore new and better means for effective use of the Web as a stimulating, engaging learning environment.


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