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NSF issues report on Cyberlearning

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

The National Science Foundation released a report on Monday entitled Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge. The report was issued by the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning, chaired by Christine Borgman at UCLA. Cyberlearning is “the use of networked computing and communication technologies to support learning.” This is an incredibly broad term and encompasses nearly everything that the scholarly community engages in: research, publishing, pedagogy, assessment, records management, discovery and access. The report outlines a a range of technical, social and pedagogical recommendations to NSF and the community focused on more broadly applying and benefiting from existing cyberinfrastrucutre for learning, as well as building out capacity for the future.

The five top-level recommendations of the group were:

  • Encourage the development of cross-disciplinary “cyberlearning field”
  • Instill a “platform perspective” into cyberlearning, including interoperable design of hardware, software and services
  • Focus on the power of technology to
  • Adopt policies and programs that promote open resources
  • Focus on sustainability of post-grant funded initiatives

It is very clear that we are only beginning to grapple with the questions regarding the incorporation of technology in learning. While there is much to chew on in this report, the two of these recommendations that caught my eye during a quick skim of the report, were the focus on openness and interoperability. Interoperability is a key problem that most systems face. The group’s recommendation that NSF fund the creation of an Open cyberlearning platform into which new hardware, modules, and the feed the system with further interoperable components funded by NSF is an intriguing model. Although we are at an early stage in the evolution of networked tools for learning, I expect that this approach would be too top-down and unwieldy to be widely successful. A more realistic approach would be to ensure that the existing and growing networks and tools be interoparable, becuase we can certainly expect that there will be approaches growing up outside of the funding network of NSF and the numerous other funding bodies (even presuming that they do work together as proposed in the report).

The second focus, however cold pay true dividends. We as a community have limited ability to envision how scholars and students will engage with content in the future. The ability to reuse, remix and apply discoveries in new ways will be the critical area for success of information technology in the future. The report highlights the application of research data in this regard, but it is equally true of software tools, methodologies, and educational materials. Enforcing the application of openness principles on funded research would expand the availability of these resources, but also likely speed the creative application of those resources in new and innovative learning methodologies.

If you are engaged at all in the educational environment, the report is worthy of a close read.