Learning from Learners, Internet Style

By Neal Howard Brodsky

Sequence: Volume 33, Number 2

Release Date: March/April 1998

"What we need is more interaction. That would be better than all these textbooks."

- Riki Haley, Co-creator of the prize-winning "Online Planetarium" for the 1996 ThinkQuest contest as a high school senior. Currently a college sophomore.

"In times of change, learners inherit the earth"

- Eric Hoffer

Riki Haley has a dream. Her dream is to be one of the scientists at NASA who launch and monitor the space shuttle. How badly does she want this dream? Last summer, she packed up her car and drove two of her best friends 500 miles to Space Camp in Alabama just for the afternoon to see what was going on down there.

Riki is a graduate of Craigmont High School in Memphis, a school with its own planetarium. Now a Resident Assistant in one of her university's dorms, she's just taken a break from counseling her latest freshman crisis. There's an e-mail from her that's just popped up on my computer screen asking whether she can intern in our offices next summer as we complete the process of receiving entries for the ThinkQuest contest, the world's largest academic competition on the Internet. Two years ago, Riki herself had gone on the Internet on a friend's advice, looking for scholarships available to women. She found us.

Riki won her scholarship. Now in college, she's elated with her work connecting Physics to her new major in Computer Science. But there's a measure of unhappiness in her voice when I follow up with a telephone call. I ask her what's up. "Most everything's just tests down here," she says, "and we're not supposed to work with anyone else." "Oh," I say. ThinkQuest students work collaboratively on their entries - some for up to 1,000 hours. After this, some of these kids are looking to match the power of that experience at college, but some institutions of higher education are lagging behind in encouraging students to learn the same way that they'll one day be required to work.

A New Generation of Learners

Colleges and universities are about to admit to their halls a new generation of learners. They have grown up in a period of collapse for societal structures and of recombinant, interlacing growth in electronic diversion. Theirs is a world of videogames; multi-tasking and attention spans geared to what speaks to them effectively. Many of our most inquisitive learners have been at least supplementing their pre-college studies, utilizing Internet communications technology. Their "learning diet" has included - in addition to content forays - a hefty dose of "Internet community-based interaction." Some of this has been recreational in nature (e.g. "chat rooms" and MUDS). But programs such as the ThinkQuest contest have been demonstrating a methodology that integrates academic subject matter in areas ranging from liberal arts to science and mathematics with a collaborative quest to teach and learn via the Internet.

ThinkQuest entry numbers were up 60% last year with 18 countries participating in team-based learning. But more to the point, our interactive library of student-produced educational tools - the ThinkQuest entries - are collectively receiving more than a million "hits" each day on the Internet. That's competition for the U.S. Library of Congress.

Why are students gravitating here? I suspect that the stunning interest and fluency in computer interaction demonstrated by the approaching college generation is partially rooted in the neural-quick satisfaction of seeing JAVA applets and hearing WAV files at the touch of a keystroke. But this is not just about technology. It's also about basic "smarts." Many students graduating from secondary schools into their college years know they will emerge into a world where team-based programmatic and problem-based learning is a primary activity in many circles. These include the worlds of academia, business and finance, the sciences and the new multimedia arts that will draw from television, telephony, fine art, as well as the written and spoken word. Much of the communication within these worlds will be mediated by advanced communications technologies such as the Internet.

What should educators realize about all this? First, many of the challenges facing both teachers and students will by no means be restricted to technology. The tasks at hand, in many instances, will still be grounded in the person-to-person and group dynamic methodologies that are as old as the search for knowledge - ongoing questions that revolve around the nurture of human beings as they learn.

Almost 20 years ago, I first taught media production skills to undergraduate students at New York University's School of the Arts. In those days, my students carried around weighty, reel-to-reel video tape recorders to document the social changes in the inner city. Only our small class saw the majority of our finished videotapes. Now, freshman college students, some of them former ThinkQuest participants, are publishing their work on the Internet and interacting with a potential worldwide audience. If this does not represent a "sea change" or "paradigm shift," it signifies at the very least a fast-evolving change in learning style and offers instant motivation for sharing knowledge with a wider set of interested students and faculty.

In this vein, how can we "nest" the new learning and communication styles of students in the unique structures that our colleges and universities provide?

Merging New Styles with Old Structures

Douglas Van Houweling, formerly vice provost for Information & Technology at the University of Michigan and now president and CEO of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development offers several thoughts on this vital issue. First, he points out the value of the small, residential campus experience. "The tremendous value of residential learning communities at colleges and universities is something that we often take for granted." But he also notes the disadvantage, especially in our larger institutions, in situations where "students are sometimes treated as identical" from the standpoint of instruction.

How do we take advantage of an expanded "learning community" that allows for a wider range of learning and communication styles? Van Houweling believes, after considerable experience with universities across the country, that we must finally admit to the truth of the matter. He says that while most Ph.D. faculty members "have been trained to learn in semi-isolation in order to produce a given piece of scholarship, the fact is that the greater number of potential learners who are candidates for higher education may not be that good at isolated learning."

Rather than "screen out many who might become the great innovators of their generation," Van Houweling says it is now possible "to give students the option to access knowledge in a broader array of learning styles that includes distance education, and multimedia along with collaborative research and discovery techniques." In fact, he says, "universities and colleges that offer students the option to provide information about their preferred learning styles to professors will have a distinct competitive advantage and undoubtedly prosper."

The particulars of distance education and cross-campus interaction by students and faculty is another challenge that Van Houweling intends to address through the advanced infrastructure developed by Internet2. Among the possibilities to be facilitated will be remote access laboratory devices, digital libraries and later, virtual reality modeling and interaction applicable to a wide range of disciplines.

With the technology breakthroughs available in the near future, a primary opportunity for universities and colleges will be to extend the successful onsite learning communities they now manage in one or more locations to communities not constrained by geography. Van Houweling zeroes in on the popularity of "real-time" chat spaces on commercial online services such as America Online to make a key point about the management of educationally-based virtual communities. "We need to create opportunities for people to speak to each other and to see each other while looking at the same material. That's one of the things that will really be exciting about Internet2 and the varied communities of interest and academic endeavor that will develop."

Gathering my interview notes, still on paper before their inevitable migration to my laptop, I think of young Riki Haley wending her way toward the day of her dreams. I'll have to ask Riki to keep me posted on her progress via e-mail or other electronic means. As a college student and learner, she has set out on an exciting path over which her interactions and discoveries - with textbooks and without - will undoubtedly reap great rewards.

Neal Brodsky writes on the accelerating interaction between technology and learning for non-profit Advanced Network & Services, Inc. [email protected]


The roots of the ThinkQuest program mentioned above stem from a 1989 conversation between its creator, Allan H. Weis, now president of nonprofit Advanced Network & Services, Inc., and Kenneth King, then president of Educom. During a break in a conference they were attending, the two discussed the possibilities for further uses of network computing to serve the university research and education communities. Weis, who would soon complete his 30-year career at IBM to found the company he now heads, told King of his own frustrations as a secondary school student preparing to enter college, and added, "If there's one thing I'd like to do to make learning more challenging and fun, it would be to enable students and teachers to build their own learning tools." Six years later, when the IBM unit headed by Weis, which had been responsible for building the National Science Foundation Backbone Service (NSFNET), was sold to America Online for $35 million, he had the discretionary funds to do something about it.

In 1995, the ThinkQuest program was launched along with many other activities. In 1996, the company helped establish the National Tele-immersion initiative that will enable users in different locations to collaborate in a shared, simulated environment. In 1997, funding and leadership of the Internet2 Engineering Group was provided to serve the Internet2 cooperative effort of more than 100 universities working together with industry, government and nonprofit organizations on this vital tool for future research in higher education.

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