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Virtual Community Project: Learning Environment

[Note: The following article appeared in the "Graphics Exchange Magazine" 4th anniversary issue. The author, Grace Visconti, is a freelance writer who tracked the development of the Information Artist model for two years. She can be reached at her website. While the phrase "network learning environment" was not used at the time, many elements in this description will inform later entires on that topic.]

New Age Learning Model Drives Elementary School Production of Virtual Community CD-ROM Project
By Grace Visconti, 1995

...

October, 1995 marked an unusual CD-ROM release from the education sector. The Virtual Community produced by River Oaks School teacher Brian Alger and his students of Oakville, Ontario is a production that has received the support of both Industry Canada and Apple Canada. Soon it will be made available to schools across Canada.

The River Oaks CD-ROM is a by-product of an innovative educational model developed by Alger called the Information Artist Instructional Model (IAIM), a teaching model built on three specific tool sets that Alger calls "Strategic Exploration", "Theatre of the Mind" and "Pioneering New Media" and a general set of learning principles labeled the "Ecology Of Learning." IAIM formed the basis for the development and implementation by Alger's class of The Virtual Community, a special comprehensive project to develop a model community.

"To work in a successful community you have to be cooperative, and if you're not cooperative, just think what life would be like," explained Willie, a student in Brian Alger's class. Willie was a team player in the development of this year's project "The Virtual Community."

Alger continued to use his Information Artist instructional model this year in the classroom to assist his students in exploring, developing and implementing a project called The Virtual Community. Although not part of the River Oaks curriculum, this project used information artistry to involve the students in interactive curriculum development. Ironically, in the process of designing this community, the students learned to cooperate as their very own mini-community.

"The instructional model that I have been developing over the last little while was applied this year in a bigger way. The criteria for curriculum development and assessment essentially stemmed from the model dealing with Strategic Exploration, Theater Of The Mind, Pioneering New Media, and the Ecology Of Learning.

Strategic Exploration focuses extensively on establishing a hierarchy of information resources, developing literacies to access information media, and then finding ways to restructure the information with what the student already knows. For example, he told the students that their most important source of information will always be people, places and things. This expanded the whole notion of field trips. In preparation for this phase, software training was done for telecommunications, accessing the World Wide Web, and electronic mail so students could get in touch with experts in the field. They established their own field trips related to their inquiry and dialogued with skilled professionals on their expertise that resulted in electronic mentoring in the classroom. Electronic encyclopedias, CD ROM, books, newspapers and magazine were used as secondary sources in support of their concrete experiences.

"They have to get beyond me to get at this, which means we had to develop a vehicle for getting them out of the school when I knew I had to be here with the other thirty. So we got all that worked out to the point where they did their own permission forms. They had interview procedures that they went through and so on. It's more of what an ethnographer would do. You get out and live with it for a while," explained Alger.

"Once they laid down that kind of information foundation," Alger explained, "we looked at ways of connecting what they already knew with what they were learning. One of the things I discovered that was really important to them was to experience something first, and leave the books until the end so they could get out and talk to people, see places, do things. The CD ROMs, books, and so on, served more as an enhancement to concrete experience."

The Theatre Of The Mind formalizes the whole area of thinking skills. The major objectives of Theatre Of The Mind are to create and idea and to invent something. A number of creative thinking tools and strategies were included to help direct the student's attention in a conscious manner. This stage also included how to establish a vision, develop an action plan in which the students set the goals, broke them down into manageable parts, and were asked to set time limits for those goals. Essentially, these action plans became criteria for their self-assessment, which encouraged independent thinking.

Alger took into consideration Edward de Bono's research when designing The Theatre Of The Mind. First, he had to find applications that had to be formally taught. Second, there had to be meaningful applications that tie into real experience with these kinds of artificial tools. He took de Bono's advice and started formally teaching it and developing thinking tools that were combinations of his own thinking tools. These tools are then combined into constellations or strategies. The idea is to allow the students to have a wide repertoire of tools and then have the students combine them without their teacher. In having the students become "teachers," it forced them to learn their subjects inside and out since you canít teach something effectively unless you know it well.

Alger continued, "Often, we donít question enough the foundation of logic, because you can make anything sound logical. I think politicians are good at that."

As a society, we often get trapped in our own paradox. Edward de Bono talks about an expert being someone who keeps digging the same hole deeper. Joel Barker talks about paradigm paralysis where we stuck in a mode of thinking in which there might be some fundamental flaws that need to be looked at and changed. That's the danger of logic.

The third component of the model is Pioneering New Media. Rather than just training the kids to become good in traditional forms of communication that also look at creating forms of communication.

"First," Alger explained, "you have to learn the standard forms so we explore poetry, learn the essay, learn to write a proper paragraph. But what did Beethoven and Whitman do? They created forms so why arenít we doing thatÖ of course we can do thatÖ so we're doing that. This kids pioneer their own media."

Alger agreed that there had to be a fair amount of assistance at the beginning of the year that gave the students the literacies they needed. He had to work extensively on collaboration, since the students were new to him this year. Unless there are high performance teams, the learning process will be hindered. They had to understand the language of communication before they went to the tool. It was McLuhan who said that it's the artist that will find new and innovative uses of technology, not technicians. If you look at what companies do, they offer their technology and encourage artists to be creative. It is the artist that they rely on to find unique uses of the "tool" by pushing the potential of new technologies. Once new uses are discovered, an application or program can be redesigned because of an artist's exploration of that tool.

"It has to be collaborative, and multimedia by its very nature is a collaborative venture. In the beginning, it was fairly directed by meÖ a lot of formal lessons in front of the class, a lot of time to look at process," explained Alger. By mid-year, the students worked independently. The teacher became more of a facilitator on the side where he often circulated freely, and talked to the students on a one to one or small group basis.

The Ecology Of Learning is the overseer of the other three areas and focuses on the issue of collaborative learning and self-assessment strategies so that students can make judgments about themselves. This is fundamental in the classroom at all levels: student-to-student, teacher to student, and beyond these relationships. In addition, this area dealt with conflict resolution and collaborative skills where the students were not only organized into teams, but were each assigned to different leadership roles. Though each group had a group leader, there were additional recognized leaders in the classroom who were proficient in graphics, sound/music, and video production. As the collaborative learning developed, these leadership roles evolved and changed over the year.

"Another belief I have," said Alger, "is that the assessments and evaluations the students make of themselves are far more important than any I'll ever make of them. Evaluation is something that has to come from the inside of the student out toward the teacher, rather than being imposed from the top down. They learn more about themselves, their own habits and how they think which in turn allows them to be more reflective, self-corrective and independent." As the students get to know themselves better they are more likely to be effective leaders when they complete their education and enter the workforce.

Since the River Oaks curriculum is set up to integrate the classroom with the real world, they have transcended one of the major stumbling blocks in the education system today, the noticeable lack of integration with what is happening outside the classroom. This integration process was illustrated when a group of students working on the Virtual Community Project used QuickTime to bring information and experience into the computer so the knowledge assimilated could be shared with others. This particular group went to CRS Robotics In Burlington, Ontario, where they filmed the application of robotic arms. They transferred the information into HyperCard stacks, enhanced it with text, and created their own primary information resource media.

"Students and teachers have been living in an artificial world," Brian says. "Education, I think, has done that for a long time. It's created a system that almost lives independently of the rest of the world, even to the point of creating our own system of evaluation whereby we judge ourselves."

The whole idea of self-assessment is not only allowing students to make conclusions about their work, but to develop criteria together that need to be shared up front with everybody else before venturing forth. In fact, people have referred to Alger's classroom as more of a business model than a traditional classroom model since business generally includes empowering the employee, high performance teams, developing relevant skills, accountability and so on.

"You need to learn to establish your won criteria," Alger told his students, "and not just to rely on mine. We have to understand that grades and marks are essentially useless. They donít mean anything. What you think about your work is more important."

With the Information Artist model in place, the students were able to design the Virtual Community of the future with greater ease due to the flexibility provided by this model.

"I guess overall this year it's been pretty fun 'cause it's the first year I got to work independently and that's one of the big words for this class," explains Willie. He added that Mr. Alger let's them think on their own, but not to a sill extent.

"My favorite part is being free to have my own ideas and use them," agreed Erin, "to see how far they could go instead of saying donít do that because you donít have enough time. It was fun to see for myself what I could do, how I could do it and how far it could go."

"In our class, we have leaders that know the most about certain subjects so if you're working on something and you donít know what to do, you can always ask them or go find the person that knows the most about the subject and if they don't, then ask Mr. Alger," concluded Laura.

Willie, Erin and Laura are three students who helped to design The Virtual Community. Rather than researching what made communities work, they focused more on creating their own community by contacting experts in the field, and finding out exactly what is needed to create a workable community. When asked about the nature of their Virtual Community the students had some very specific answers.

"We're hoping not to be too greedy because right now, I think the world is a kind of money grubbing and people sell something for five bucks when it should be a dollar and so we are hoping that people will be kinder to each other and trust each other more," confided Willie.

Erin continued, "Most people donít really have any idea what the future is going to be like and what new things are coming out. If you just went up to someone and said that this is what our community s going to be like, this is how people are going to be, this is what technology is and where it's heading, then I think some people would freak out and not want to know. I think if they saw it and if they knew it wouldnít be robots ruling the city then maybe people would be able to accept it and like it better."

"We're trying to make it include technological advances, but that's not all it's going to be. It will be environmentally better," concluded Laura.

In planning the stages of the Virtual Community, three different themes were set up: Technological Innovations, Mythology and Community Design. Each of these themes was developed using the Information Artist framework. Within these themes, there were different sub-groups created by the students: four in Technological Innovations; four in Mythology; and three in Community Design.

"In Technological Innovations, my topic was telecommunications," Laura explained, "and when I was first got assigned a topic I panicked because I didnít know anything about it. I learned a lot about coming up with my own ideas and what there is now. For the community, I have worked with architecture and I learned what you have to do is harder than I thought. We actually emailed some people from the Buffalo School Of Architecture And Planning. We got a two page email letter back with information on urban planning and more contact people we could follow up with."

During the Technological Innovations theme, the various teams explored ways in which the technology could be effectively implemented in the community. To obtain background information, they visited various companies. The New Media Team, for example, went to Toronto to visit Discis, a publisher of CD ROMs to explore how this technology is currently being developed. The Communications Team explored how email systems, telecommunications and interactive television would work in the community. Finally, the Community Systems Team explored applications for a variety of technological systems within the community.

A major objective of Technological Innovations was for the students to create their own inventions that could actually be useful in the community. For example, Steve came up with a unique idea for interactive television. He formed a partnership with Mike, another classmate, and together they designed an interactive movie poster. The poster was an advertisement for a movie based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Morphs were made with the camera where they first filmed pictures of Mike as a scientist and then dressed him up as a monster and filmed again. The end result is Mike changing from a doctor to a monster and when you clicked on various text, more information about the movie became available. Through a television, people could explore a movie interactively and then make a decision about downloading the movie. The students generated their own knowledge, and in the process moved beyond text-based only communication.

During the Community Design theme, students became involved in the physical construction and computer modeling of their community. The goal was to construct a scale model of the community using wood, cardboard, glue and so on. Blueprints and artistic renderings were created on the computer, printed in color, then curt and paste into physical models. The model was constructed on a four by eight sheet of plywood directly in the classroom. Once completed, the physical model was filmed and digitized into QuickTime video clips. Interactive media was then sued to share this experience with others.

As part of the Community Design group, preparation for planning the scale model of the community was taught by the Design And Technology teacher, Mr. Zander, who worked with them all year applying their mathematical skills. Before they started the actual scale modeling of the Virtual Community, the students were asked to do a scale model of their rooms in 3D from a side view, top view and a bird's-eye view. Also, they were assigned the task of scaling three pieces of their furniture. The building would work on solar power. If there was a power failure, solar energy is stored in the home's cells and there would also be a back-up generator. Another option would be cold fusion, which the Japanese are developing right now. In addition, the ecology of the community will work extremely well because everything is in walking distance such as parks, shopping, a wildlife preserve and other facilities. There would be less pollution in the community because the car would be used less frequently.

"In Community Design, our goal was to create the Virtual Community, the actual model, designing the buildings and the HyperCard stacks with that and trying to make a better community than what we have now," explained Laura. Her favorite part of this project was participating in the building of the community from start to finish, and witnessing the whole creative process.

Virtual Reality will also be used in this community mainly for educational and medical purposes. Willie did extensive research into the positive and negative effects of virtual reality and he saw some real dangers with how it is promoted in our society today. The addictive effects would definitely not be encouraged in their Virtual Community because their mandate is more humane, and less consumer driven.

"Virtual Reality should be used more for education 'cause entertainment takes it too far. For instance, there's this game called Daktal Nightmare. You're walking around and things are coming at you and you're like, wow, that's really neat. Then you spend all your money on getting one. Virtual reality can wreck you because you get so hooked on being in another world. It's too much of a shock to come back into this world."

One danger of virtual reality is that the nervous system of each person is different and therefore adverse effects are possible depending upon people's thresholds and sensory capabilities when they are in a virtual state. By being aware of what is going to happen in this virtual state, you enter the virtual environment with a greater understanding thereby lessening the disservice effects. Willie got this information from the Internet. In addition, he went to the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario, for three conferences on the subject where the participants discussed the positive and negative effects of virtual reality. In fact, there was a discussion of one case where a seventeen year-old went into a coma after playing a virtual reality game for a length of time.

"If you're going to do virtual reality, you have to be ready for how explosive it can be. I didnít try it right away 'cause I didnít want to just think of what it was and then do it. I wanted to study it more. I tried a lot of virtual reality so I accepted it and nothing happened to me because I knew what was going to happen," insisted Willie.

To further their education on virtual reality outside the classroom, some of the students went to the Ontario Science Centre for the Information Highway exhibit where they contributed their talents to the display called CitySpace. They designed 3D buildings in a program called Infinity #D, which resulted in the final Virtual Reality CitySpace design.

"It's simulated virtual reality, so we actually designed some of those buildings and it's like walking through a town and you can control it," explained Laura.

The visit to the Ontario Science Centre gave them ideas on how to present their scale model of their own Virtual Community to the public. They will take a small camera, film the community, and turn it into QuickTime movies to share it with other people.

During the mythology theme, the goal was to utilize the five forms of art - literature, poetry, art, music and drama to create a variety of messages. The idea was to develop the belief system that the students wanted people to have in their community. Rather than treating the arts as academic disciplines, the students became artists themselves and focused on expressing their ideas through metaphorical thinking. This represents the intuitive side of thinking. Artistic skills were developed in response to the message they were trying to communicate to others.

"We saw that in each community, no matter where it is, they always have art. So this is what mythology was about, mostly the arts of the community," explained Erin.

One of the topics in the Mythology group was equality, where the premise was no one was better than anyone else since inequality destroys the community. The mandate of the Virtual Community is to have sharing and cooperation as it foundation rather than operating as a status-driven, divided one.

"Everybody should be equal," insisted Willie, "Cause when you think about it, what gives somebody the right to think that they're higher than someone else? If it was the other way around, you wouldnít like that. If someone says oh, I'm smarter than you or I'm going grow up to be taller and then say, it happens and in about twenty years some one goes up to him and saysÖ hey, guess what, I've got a better life than you then they're like, but what about my lifeÖ it's good for me, so why isnít it good enough for you?"

Within the Mythology theme was the Terabithia team. The students were encouraged to study "The Narnia Chronicles" by C.S. Lewis. They explored the concept of Narnia and became interested in two different kinds of maps. Of course, the question arose why is it that a topographical map doesnít have lines on it. When Alger asked why people created borders it was a difficult question to answer. Nature doesnít do this. Therefore, the focus for this community was eliminating divisions that separate countries.

This in turn raised the question what is really wrong with our communities and how can a Virtual Community work differently? Is it technology that makes it better? Is it the actual function and operation of a community that creates harmony or is it the foundation of that community and how we relate to each other that makes a difference?

"I think," Alger explained, "that most of it has to do with our mythology, the stories that we hold in our heads. It was Joseph Campbell who was talking in The Power Of Myth about how North American society has lost their mythology, lost the stories that we live by."

Is there a fundamental problem with how our communities operate that reflects a "bigger picture" relating to human nature? What do we have to change to make our communities operate better? Technology might make life easier, but it does not change the foundation of the bigger picture, for instance, how we choose to operate our governments, educational institutions and local communities. Surprisingly, the students see clearly what is wrong with our society and they have no illusions.

"Let's say we're getting virtual reality baseball in our home," concluded Willie, "but say I'm happy and donít have it. I donít need all that stuff. I donít have a computer and I'm still happy. So technology doesn't have to overlook happiness."

"It's just the whole thing about greed," explained Erin. "If there was no greed I think everyone would get along and the world would be the most perfect place to live in. I know it's kind of negative but I donít think you can stop greed."

Laura added, "It would be very hard to achieve, like the perfect community with no one being greedy."

What better place to create equality and start changing the foundation of "community" than within the four walls of a classroom, where transforming the present model of education to a more holistic one is an outcome that will affect the "bigger picture." Alger considers himself a facilitator, one who stands back and watches after the basic literacies have been taught so the students can use them as tools in their own creative process. When he comes up with an idea, he shares it. He is a participant in the whole process and sometimes he is inferior to what students are thinking because the ultimate goal of the education process is the power of choice to invent, to be whom we choose, and to contribute our very best. When the power of creativity is nurtured to the optimum degree, new forms are invested. An instructor cannot really teach a student what to choose and how to invent, but he can teach literacies that start the process.

The evolution of the Information Artist instructional model became more defined this year. According to Alger, he is in the process of developing a growth strand for each phase of the model. The model could then be used and evolved by other interested teachers.

The creative process needs to be taught and experienced in more schools. We have to "expand" what we mean by creative because we set up rules to be creative that donít make any sense at all. For example, though preparation in text-based communication is necessary, teachers should also be able to recognize when a student has a visual talent. The teacher needs to develop it further because it not builds the student's "self-esteem," but it inevitably will become a larger contribution shared in the classroom. Howard Gardner's work with multiple intelligences has a great deal to offer in this area.

So what did Alger learn as a "student" this year from all of the "teachers" in his class?

Alger admitted, "I really agree with what you just said there - the teacher as the student and the students as teachers. The whole evolution of this thinking with the Information Artist is the result of working with kids, and without them it wouldnít happen."

By the fall of 1995, Alger and his students will have produced The Virtual Community CDD ROM so other schools can benefit from their work. The production of this work has received the support of both Industry Canada and Apple Canada, and will be made available to schools across Canada. There are also plans to establish a multimedia forum using SchoolNet that could provide a national support mechanism for other schools to begin developing their own interactive media productions. The Virtual Community CD ROM would serve as an initial performance benchmark.

"Marshall McLuhan's global villageÖ an aspect of this is to get the kids' audience as broad as possible. We want to take the CD and find a way of pressing as many copies as we can and distribute it freely. We donít want to make money. We just want to share it as globally as possible so that the whole idea of a global knowledge building community is facilitated. People will then generate their own knowledge and distribute it globally. Communication is democratized. The future of all this lies in the cyberspace being created on the Internet," concludes Alger.

This is the essence of learning. As individuals and as communities, it's not the act of learning that drives us, but the passion behind it that propels us forward. Through the exploration and implementation of the creative process, the nature and outcome of the path rests with each individual's power of choice, thereby influencing the evolution of what Marshall McLuhan so effectively dubbed the "Global Village."

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Navigating the Virtual Community Entries
1) Introduction
2) Information Artist Learning Model
3) Description of the Information Artist Learning Environment
4) The Skin of Culture


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