Digital learning community capacity building and a convergent model of knowledge
Asia and Middle East's First & Only Monthly Magazine, Web Portal on Innovation in Education
May 2006

Digital learning community capacity building and a convergent model of knowledge

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In the larger context of an emerging global knowledge society and economy, education policies around the world have stressed the increasing importance of both ICT and ‘active’ models of lifelong learning. Similarly, aid for development has often focused on local capacity-building in terms which increasingly refer in various ways to a perceived digital as well as economic divide between developed and developing social or community contexts. Common to both formal learning and development is an alternately theoretical and informal assumption of “knowledgebuilding” which is often contradicted or frustrated in practice because of the difficulty in effectively reconciling or connecting topdown imperatives and bottom-up aspects of local context. This article investigates how ICT is integral to new, changing, and characteristically ‘21 century’ models of knowledge in the inevitably connected contexts of both learning and community development (e.g. Weigel & Waldberger, 2004; Bracey & Culver, 2005). Indeed it argues that recognizing this connection is an important basis for encouraging both dialogue and action to overcome related missing links which often frustrate related policy, project and general imperatives for the integration of ICT in schooling for deep or active models of learning, and the similar goal of local autonomy in ICT-focused community capacity-building projects. Thus the paper focuses on identifying and refining a convergent 21st century model of knowledge-building (also, life-long learning) grounded in the local contexts and typical processes of the human condition in retreat from topdown, fixed and privileged models of knowledge and education. Such a notion of knowledge-building to encourage active, innovative and open-ended learning and capacity development thus represents a convergent link between the alternately informal and formal aspects of digital learning on one hand (e.g. Jonassen et al, 2003; Weigel, 2003), and the alternately community-based and institutionallyorganised notions of social capacity development (e.g. Blumenthal 2003; World Bank Knowledge and Learning Group, 2005). Why new educational theories/ fail to be connected to local contexts of learning and practice “Without sufficient training and support, ICT equipment put in schools [and in ICT centres generally in developing countries] is often under utilised, and in some cases entirely redundant. Any meaningful roll-out of ICT hardware must be accompanied by training to have any impact” – K. Woods, Digital Links quoted in C. Witchalls (2005), ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’, The Guardian, February 17 2005. It is increasingly clear that in the 21st Century ICTs are tied closely to the emerging requirements and opportunities of a global economy and networked knowledge society – also, that a related emerging digital divide may represent the very survival of many local communities and even regional societies around the world. Thus, there is growing awareness of: (a) the related ‘community development’ and ‘educational implications’ of ICTs, and (b) the importance of assisting remote or rural areas in developing countries (Papert & Calvallo, 2002). Many initiatives aimed at tackling both global and regional notions of a digital divide are being funded, supported and investigated by both governmental and NGO agencies in rural and developing contexts of the Asia-Pacific region (Weigel & Waldburger, 2004). Our previous investigations into (and dialogues with others about) both the possibilities and issues of sustainability related to community ICT learning centres in the Asia Pacific region have realised that the key to an effective as well a sustainable approach lies in (a) the connections between education and community development; (b) agenuinely dialogically or interactive partnership model that allows for the examination of external or ‘top-down’ influences on one hand, and local interests or ‘bottom-up’ contexts on the other, and (c) recognizing and addressing both the sufficient conditions of ICT development(including designing and training for locally relevant models of authentic use) as well as the necessary conditions including ICT infrastructure and general accessissues (Richards, 2005a).ICTs represent a dilemma for schools, universities and other educational institutions everywhere in terms of
the challenge to transform the rhetoric of new ideas and models into actual practice and an appropriate  organisational context (Richards 2004). In other words, it is not always  easy to see through the short-term frustrations of ICT integration to  understand how this can productively transform education in the long-run.  The resulting gap or missing link between innovative rhetoric and
policy on one hand, and actual implementation and practices on the  other, is often the source of much frustration for both teachers and their  students. This is especially the case where (e.g. even in wired societies  such as Singapore and Hong Kong)  the residual effects of traditional values and an examination-oriented  curriculum often make it difficult to translate new and innovative policies  into institutional practice – unless teachers redefine their role and authority in the learning process in  other ways. Towards positive prophecies of life-long learning Promising capacity development  project models indicate that ICT community learning centres do  represent potentially viable and transformatory agencies for  connecting up local communities and schools in less developed regions.  Such projects exemplify how a  strategic approach can do a great deal  with limited resources and that the key is promoting a similarly proactive  attitude which links into a local community sense of ‘where there is
the will there is a way’. In other  words, the digital divide in learning is much more an issue of attitude and  cultural context than technical capacity or access. We have thus  identified three related focus questions that have to be considered  together or integrally rather than in isolation as is often the case: 1. What are the infrastructural, requirements for ensuring  ongoing access to computer systems whilst avoiding  unnecessary costs?  2. How can school-based education and community development be  linked to promote the engagement of community members?  3. What are the appropriate training  and educational design needs for effective learning?  Figure 1: Global dilemmas  about educational ‘cultural change’    Learners often want more hands-on, learner-centered and outcomesoriented approaches by their teachers, but also  till want the ‘right answers’  bypass the learning process (pedagogical) • Educational institutions have generally embraced the rhetoric, policy and theory of ‘new learning’, but are not often prepared to productively change  actual practices  • ‘Societies’ today want their young to be somehow innovative  nd become  successful in a future knowledge society or global economy, yet at  the same  time retain acquiescence to traditional values of the past Adapted from Richards 2004 Figure 2 depicts how ICT-CLCs  represent or at least exemplify a convergent future vision of learning,  community centers, and new ICTs linked together for integrated  educational and social purposes.  The key to such a vision is a complementary or dialogical  rather than oppositional view of
how learning for personal and/or social purposes provides a  sufficient or motivating basis for social and economic progress  grounded in an ethos of community  development. In short, learning is more effective when it goes beyond basic information or skill  acquisition to also focus on relevance, process and authentic  applications. In terms of the so-called digital divide of rich and poor or centre and margins,  such a perspective on the  potential role of ICT-CLCs is  one of recasting a defensive strategy of mere survival into one a more positive one of potential ‘thriving’.
Convergently, many of the educational policy initiatives promoting ICTs in schools and higher education are premised on new  learner-centred and constructivist theories of learning which project the  goal of more active and innovative learners harnessing the educational  possibilities of ICTs. Constructivist  models of learning (e.g. Jonassen et al, 2003; Weigel, 2003) are  typically  contrasted with models of teaching and learning which emphasise a hierarchical and linear “transmission”  of content or skills from authoritative teacher to passive learner. Such  influential concepts as ‘anchored instruction’ and ‘situated learning’ outlined how novice learners develop  better applied understanding and generic skills in terms of specific  examples, problems and authentic learning contexts – a framework for  linking ICTs, problem-solving, and  content-specific teaching or learning. In this way ‘knowledgeable’ teachers
and/or experts should be able to  better transmit their knowledge. Practical concepts such as problembased learning, collaborative learning,  project work, authentic assessment and inquiry-based activities all  represent alternatives to the linear  and hierarchical assumptions of formal lesson-planning and course
design. Such approaches emphasize  how effective learning should rather be understood as a process, cycle  and/or set of stages proceeding from  nitial skill or information acquisition to more applied and reflective  understanding, knowledge and even  innovation. It may be argued that general notions of constructivist  learning tend to mix up and sometimes confuse or oppose the alternate cognitive and social  aspects of knowledge building. Whilst in one sense they do  converge in ‘active’ modes of learning some of these models arguably either directly or indirectly  privilege the social and critical thinking over individual and local contexts of practice as well as  theory over practice. Towards a convergent notion  of the knowledge-building  process  Although ‘knowledge-building’ is a central concept in new ICT-focused  learning theory it has been  influentially defined as the process by  which ‘expert groups’ construct knowledge as a social process of   collaborative discussion and synthesis of ideas (Scardamalia and  Bereiter, 1999). Such a definition exemplifies a common dilemmas of  much new learning theory to remain inherently conceptual, top-down and  elitist, and thus at odds with the grounded and potentially innovative  practice and active learning of ‘every learner’. Just as  As indicated above a common ‘communities of practice’ model informs various notions of digital learning and capacity-building for  either institutional or community  development. General organizational learning models such as articulated by  Wenger (1998) have especially articulated with social constructivist  models of digital learning. Weigel (2003) for instance directly connects  various general notions of a ‘community of practice’ with specific  learning ‘communities of inquiry’ in constructivist classrooms and related  lifelong and virtual modes of learning. A ‘communities of practice’ model is indeed most helpful for engaging  with the challenge of ICT integration in particular educational and  social contexts. As McNabb & McCombs (2002) point out, professional learning  communities (of practice) involve  three levels of interaction – community, institutional and  individual – which inform two key collaborative approaches to ICT   professional development: (a) thecollegial sharing of resources; and (b)  particular ICT professional development projects. McNabb & McCombs article makes special mention of the e-learning facility of  networked learning communities and e-learning professional  development – extending from the collaborative use of intranets through to the use of learning management programmes.  ICTs have made possible new modes  of formal as well as informal ‘lifelong learning’ that are as applicable to  communities and institutions as well as individual learners. Á bottom line  is that the kind of active experimentation needed to build and transform any kind of personal  knowledge can be initiated through partnerships and dialogue but  ultimately requires self-organisation and self-learning. A convergent  notion of 21st century knowledgebuilding which harnesses the learning  possibilities of ICTs serves to overcome the paradox identified in the Knowledge Management literature as  Figure 3: Towards a convergent framework of 21st Century Knowledge-Build  ng ‘if only we knew what we know

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