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'That Which Weaves Together': The NSF Cyberlearning Report

The National Science Foundation issued its Report of the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning on June 24, 2008 -- "Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge." The purpose of the report is to create "A 21st Century Agenda for the National Science Foundation," but in fact the agenda can be applied to all of higher education in the U.S.

The report quotes Michael Cole's 1996 book, Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), presenting "context" as "that which surrounds us" and "that which weaves together." The Web now surrounds us, but how do we weave our new world together? The report provides ideas for higher education in the STEM disciplines to do so.

The Significance of the NSF Report

The report is an invaluable addition to our understanding of the impact of the technology explosion of this century: seven pages of key references -- more than 150 of them; the report is written by 12 prominent authors who speak authoritatively, and very readably; it is an important recognition of where we are; and, it speaks with urgency about education recognizing that the knowledge infrastructure has changed more rapidly than education has been able to adjust to.

The report urges the NSF to "emphasize the transformative power of information and communications technology for learning, from K to grey." (p. 7) It reflects the building consensus that educational institutions should no longer think of how to adapt technology to the existing curriculum, but how to transform the enterprise to thrive in the changed knowledge infrastructure.

The Stages of Human Interaction

On page 11 of the report, we find a graphic from Roy Pea and Jillian Wallis representing the stages of human interaction over the millennia, from face-to-face to symbol mediated to communication mediated to network mediated and, finally, to cyberinfrastructure mediated. The graphic shows that today's students take part in all five mediations.

We can imagine a circular arrow connecting recursively the cyberinfrastructure stage back to legacy human values of orality and social connectedness ("face-to-face"). The Web is not only new, it has grown enormously because in some ways it's an antidote to the distancing factors so prominent in the age of the automobile. Web technology brings the world back to human scale.

The report laments how slowly education has changed in response to the great opportunities of cyberlearning (see excerpts below, all from page 12):

  -- [Since A Nation at Risk,] "Few of the innovations tried over the ensuing 25 years have resulted in large-scale systemic change in education. Despite the revolutions wrought by technology in medicine, engineering, communications, and many other fields, the classrooms, textbooks, and lectures of today are little different than those of our parents."

  -- "Education and Learning are not the same thing, nor are schools the only venue for learning."

  -- "Today's learners live in that online experiential environment [the digital environment]; today's schools do not."

What Do We Do?

The report suggests that NSF help "Develop a Vibrant, Generative Cyber-learning Field." (p. 21) This field would help develop the new kinds of expertise needed now, would help develop new public-private partnerships, and address the challenges to research.

The challenge to research is partly how to deal with the data deluge, both the opportunities and the threats.

The report recommends re-examining "what it means to 'know' STEM disciplines." (p. 28) "Humans reason differently in STEM domains -- and learn differently -- when the knowledge representational systems for expressing concepts and their relationships are embodied in interactive computing systems, rather than historically dominant text-based or static graphic media. (p. 29) We are in a new era of knowledge because our knowledge is being constructed differently.

The NSF Report is eye opening in its blunt assessment of education today. It is a comprehensive program for NSF and, by extension, for all of us. The recommendations provide us all with ways to re-strategize the enterprise. And re-strategize we must, for, as the report shows, education lags behind the realities around it: It exists in a context that surrounds it, but does not recognize yet how it all weaves together.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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