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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Communities of Practice: The Role of Classification Schemes and Taxonomies

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It had been a hard day in the e-learning trenches, and online English composition faculty member Immaculata Deleuze (please see the Fictions of Deleuze and Guattari, highly recommended) was looking for some place to share her pain. She logged into the College of Ste. Justine English Department's page, and perused the discussion boards and links. It was a remarkably jejune experience. There was the same 3-week-old discussion thread about exam procedures, and a set of links to software she did not have time to learn. One thread led her, unexpectedly, to a set of audio files for the Da Vinci Code. She listened while clicking on the links to the various textbook websites and an online grammar review. This was more like it, she thought. Unfortunately, there were only four links to e-learning content, activities, or objects, none which tied directly to her courses.

It occurred to Dr. Deleuze that there may be a community of users out there who had developed resources she could use in her English classes. Was there an up-to-date MERLOT? Something with objects she could use with Learn-O-Rama, the new learning management system that Ste. Justine’s information technology team developed, would be ideal. Despite the IT team’s enthusiasm, and platform’s accolades at e-LearnTech’s national convention, the faculty and staff of Ste. Justine insisted that Learn-O-Rama was not very friendly. One issue that made it unfriendly was that it required rigid SCORM compliancy. Jill sighed. She loved “Grammar Bytes” at, but because all objects had to be hosted on the Ste. Justine server, she could not use it.

Frustrated, she typed a quick e-mail to the chair of the department, Dr. Pantagruel. It was an exercise in futility. Dr. Pantagruel was in complete agreement, but they were a choir of two. Was there any way to reach across the entire campus and solve some of the pressing problems that Learn-O-Rama presented? Was there any way to share objects and e-tivities?

Logging onto bloglines (, she read the latest feeds, then clicked on the links to her favorite blogs. Glancing over some promising headlines, she clicked on “Projects and Collaborations” link to Stephen Downes She read a few items on the topic of collaborative learning, then posted what she considered a brilliantly ironic remark about tangential communication, then went on to the next link.

That was the main problem with all these collaborations, Jill thought. There was a lack of direct communication. Sure, sometimes people actually answered a question, but more often, the responses were tangential.

Community through groups and discussion boards.

She thought of the google.groups she had joined. Although they were bulky, they were a great improvement over the old “usenet” and discussion groups. Immaculata had recently joined the “Historical Romance Book Group.” It wasn’t that she knew anything about historical romances. The concrete topic – a virtual book club – seemed to be one of the few places she had ever found a group of people who stayed on topic.

There were a few elements she did not like, however. One was the idea of a moderator. Despite the claims of researchers such as Salmon (2002), who claimed that the key to successful e-learning and teaching was moderating the discussion board, Jill felt annoyed by the moderator. She felt inhibited, and tended to self-censor, even though she knew one reason for that was because of “comment-spamming.” No one needed Viagra ads in a Historical Romance group discussion. Moderators also tended to over-control and micro-manage, which put the back in the dreaded “sage on the stage” role. In an article she read by DiRamio (2005), Immaculata read that research demonstrated that instructors should not inhibit collaborations by micro-managing, nor should they control the information to be disseminated.

Storing and retrieving information: The importance of taxonomies

What frustrated her most were elements that had to do with retrieval. Even if she had an idea to share, it was hard to know where to post it on a campus-wide discussion board. A clear taxonomy needed to be developed. Jill clicked on the Living Taxonomy Project (LPT) and read the mission statement developed by its visionary founder, Stacy Zemke:

The Living Taxonomy Project is a collaborative effort aimed at creating a global set of open source, standards-based taxonomies for education. The purpose of these taxonomies will be to provide a free cataloging structure for the collection and sharing of education materials around the world. We will be appending new taxonomies on a regular basis and invite our users to add edit these taxonomies as well as suggest or create new ones.

In this case, a taxonomy referred to a classification system. Certain assumptions and questions had to be worked out, and collaboration / discussion was the best way to do it. For example, are taxonomies developed around an alphabetized list that is designed to be all-inclusive? Or, do the taxonomies and the sub-divisions emerge from causal relationships, or families?

Stacy Zemke had addressed many of those questions. She also challenged people to think about issues in a new way. Jill was most intrigued by the film genre taxonomy, as well as math taxonomies. Could this approach work?

Taxonomies are best worked out in the natural sciences -- Immaculata thought of mineralogy as a good example. Igneous rocks are classified by texture, normative (suite-- this has to do with the way the minerals were formed), and modal (depends on the relative amounts of certain rock-forming minerals). Taxonomies could be confusing and conflicting. Yet, they were a great way to get to understand a thing in an in-depth way and from multiple perspectives.

Threaded discussions (topics not clearly spelled out – need taxonomy). How would she go about classifying the topics? DiRamio (2005) suggested that the way that information is shared should be user-driven. Students should be able to assume leadership roles in collaborations. Likewise, faculty and staff should be able to organize information. It should not be technology or interface driven. Instead, the technology should work for the users.

All text, no objects. Immaculata knew that her courses could be much better if she had more learning objects, and “e-tivities.” They should encourage engagement. But, she had no way to obtain or share.

Perhaps she would approach Dean Bataille about developing a shared e-space where individuals could organize objects. Would these ideas work in a university setting? Could they develop a place where they could share objects, and activities?

Even more importantly, the faculty and staff could be given guidance in how to use the objects through effective training and online guides. What constitutes an effective instructional strategy? Immaculata thought back to when she first started developing websites. Her first one had a lot in common with Angelfire’s “The World’s Worst Website” -

Immaculata hoped that she did not commit the same errors when she used online learning objects. She knew that she should keep the outcome in mind, but it was important to let others take a leadership role so that both the outcome and the way to achieve the outcome, were fluid, flexible, and meaningful.


DiRamio, D.. (2005). Measuring online community. Online Classroom. June 2005. 2-4.

Gorard, S. & Selwyn, N. (1999). Switching on the learning society? -- Questioning the role of technology in widening participation in lifelong learning. Journal of Education Policy. 14. 523-534.

Govindasamy, T. (2002). Successful implementation of e-Learning. Pedagogical considerations. ScienceDirect-The Internet and Higher Education, 4, 287-299.

Living Taxonomy Project.

Orrill, C. H. (2002). Supporting online PBL: design considerations for supporting distributed problem solving. Distance Education, 23, 42-57.

Pavey, J., Garland, S. W. (2004). The integration and implementation of a range of ‘e-tivities’ to enhance students’ interaction and learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 41, 305-315.

Salmon, G. (2002). E-Moderating: the key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page.

What If You Had To Choose? Three Necessities for Blended and Distance Learning

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Let's imagine that there exist just three “pivotal conditions," and let's consider how those conditions might fit into the goal of determining how to make effective learning environments (face-to-face, online, blended, and my new favorite -- “pod-blended"). Face-to-face instruction refers to traditional classroom delivery and online refers to 100% Internet or web-based delivery. Blended learning indicates a hybrid mix – part face-to-face, and part web-based, while “pod-blended” indicates a multi-delivery mode mix, of portable data devices (iPods, pdas), multimedia, online, and face-to-face. There is no prescribed ratio or distribution of delivery modes.

1--- Flexible environment that allows the facilitator to respond to learner needs.
Face-to-face: The syllabus creates a structure, with an emphasis on learning outcomes, rather than a rigid obsession with marching through content. This allows the facilitator to conduct ongoing needs assessments in an informal manner, and adjust accordingly, to assure relevance of discussions and content. Group work expedites the process of discovering the needs of the learners, as well as the best configurations for collaborative work.

Online: Because learners develop what could be thought of as “ambiguity anxiety” when they are working online, it is very important to have a clearly defined structure. However, it is important that the structure is not too rigid. The online environment is flexible when the facilitator is able to clarify, add discussion questions, encourage collaborative activities, and post illuminating and relevant articles. It is also flexible when students are able to post and upload items in order to share in a meaningful way, tapping into the energy of weblogs, collaborative space (comments, etc.), and wikis.

Useful article: Carol Twigg’s “Innovations in Online Learning: Moving Beyond No Significant Difference,” published in the Pew Symposia in Learning and Technology, held December 8-9, 2000, in Phoenix, AZ, and published in 2001 by the Center for Academic Transformation at Rennselaer Polytechnic (Troy, NY), contains a number of interesting and relevant insights with respect to flexibility and a learner-centered approach. In the section entitled “Improving the Quality of Student Learning,” it is pointed out that “a fundamental premise of the symposium is that greater quality means greater individualization of the learning experiences for students” (9).

While this is still undoubtedly true in 2005, the burden is not so much in the facilitator-student interaction, but in the constellation of learning activities that can be modified to achieve desired (and clearly identified) learning outcomes.

2--- Content developed with a view to providing theoretical underpinnings.
Face-to-face: Although classroom activities result in discussions that focus on specific readings, issues, or problems, they are most productive when all are mindful of the theoretical groundings and the principles that support the “learning by doing” or the “situated learning.” Such an approach allows students to create generalizations and universal applications to specific experiences. It also creates the common thread that gives learners an ability to communicate with each other and learn from similar experiences. Improved self-efficacy and self-concept are natural outgrowths of this constructivist approach.

Online: Translating a dynamic, “learn-by-doing” experience-based-learning environment into an online learning space is not easy. Often one finds that there are “disconnects” between the collaborative activities or the experience-based discussions and tasks, and the instruments used to assess learner mastery of the content and skills. How does one bridge the gap? How does a multiple choice test fail to assess the broad spectrum of general and specific knowledge gained in a “situated learning” based environment?

One strategy is to tap into the rich semiotic environment of the e-learning space and to utilize icons, graphics, and visual representations. A theoretical framework is often most effective when it is laid out graphically, in a way that makes the connections between activities and underlying theory extremely transparent.

Although the facilitator will guide students to an ability to work with the organizing principles that underpin the readings, discussions, and learning activities, the student should have a conceptual framework clearly in mind. This is often most effective in the online / distributed environment when diagrams, lists, and tables provide a graphical representation of the information, and a well-organized bibliography anchors it.

Even though we may be conditioned to think of online learning as something that occurs when seated at a laptop, with the learning looking into the monitor, it is important to recognize that the paradigm is shifting away from that. More content is being accessed through pdas that have web access, but which can also store data through pdf files (Palm, Treo, Blackberry). Individuals are now downloading audio content and playing them on portable audio players, most frequently iPods.

With that in mind, it is important to make connections between content, concepts, and illustrative points or vignettes. For example, it may be important to present information to learners in the form of concepts / news bites, followed by a story / vignette, and then a question-and-answer session. Radio programming that comes to mind that would illustrate this would be National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ( ), with vignettes reminiscent of This American Life ( ). Finally, engaging question and answer sessions can be presented in the manner of Calling All Pets ( ).

It is very exciting to think of the ways that distance learning is evolving, and the directions that mean that the costs of access could fall dramatically, or at least result in more efficient use of resources, with extreme portability.

Useful article: Nada Dabbagh’s “Distance Learning: Emerging Pedagogical Issues and Learning Designs” Quarterly Review of Distance Education 51 (1), 2004, pp 37-49, contains an invaluable table which maps instructional strategies to pedagogical models and learning technologies (47).

3--- Communication and interaction-friendly environment
Face-to-face: Although traditional face-to-face learning environments have long been characterized by a pedantic “sage on the stage” who “holds forth” in a lecture mode, for the last 20 years, the reality has been quite different. Even where there are large lecture presentations, this constitutes only a small part of the classroom activity. Much is done in small labs or in discussion groups, containing 8 – 15 individuals and a facilitator. The perceived authority of the facilitator is mediated in this environment, and there is more of a focus on the discovery and presentation of outside information.

Online: Making sure that communications are purposeful and learning outcome-focused is the responsibility of the facilitator. In addition to guiding students so that they respond to certain questions pertaining to the content being discussed, facilitators help individuals find strategies to overcome the limitations of the sometimes rigid and/or overly deterministic semiotic realm of the discussion board.

Effective communication builds student self-efficacy, and helps students learn by doing, and master skills on their own (situated learning).

As students interact, the effective facilitator should be able to identify and intervene to repair holes in scaffolding and do it for learners in an individual manner.

Useful article: M. J. Hannifin, etal, discuss the way that students learn to develop strategies for organizing, interpreting, and internalizing knowledge when they engage in interactions via technology, and via interactive multimedia. What is perhaps most interesting about this article is the way it anticipates the emerging trend to expand “hybrid” to include not just face-to-face and site-based multimedia (a television or a computer), but also portable devices. Their article is entitled “Student-centered learning and interactive multimedia: Status, issues, and implication” in Contemporary Education 68(2), 94-99.

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