We tend to think about education as either distance or face-to-face, but with the increased use of network technology in the classroom the reality of the traditional classroom is often a lot more of a spectrum. Some lectures are recorded so that students who need to miss a class can watch them at more convenient times; instructors sometimes make blogging a class requirement, and mailing list discussions among current student bodies, staff, faculty and alumni often infiltrate the walls of the brick and mortar building. The merging of the “on” and “offline” educational environment is nowhere more clear than in the School of Information, where I conducted exploratory ethnographic research of the I School community and the impact of networked technology on the face-to-face interactions there.
Interviewing students, staff and faculty and observing social interactions in the student lounge, the classroom, the co-lab and corridors, I concluded that the “spaces between” class play an important role in the learning experience because it is here where students can construct knowledge with their peers and practice the performance of their new identities. The fact that these spaces are located outside the purview of those in authority and that they enable students to choose who they can be intimate with is critical to the success of these spaces for enabling peer learning. In contrast, private digital spaces are unavailable to students, with the result that students attempted to use spaces like Facebook to engage with one another resulting in harms including exclusion, identity crises and self-censorship. I noticed that the architecture of online-only educational spaces (looking at learning management systems, social media learning systems and open educational learning environments) seemed to replicate only the classroom space during class but without the protective walls available in conventional learning environments.
Alex Smolen, another I School grad, drew from my research and from current thinking in the field of “privacy by design” to develop a simple methodology and tool to think through the privacy impacts of a technology. Together we developed a proposal and a set of prototypes for the innovative Peer to Peer University to think about the online privacy of their students, not only to protect the rights of P2PU students, but also with the goal of enhancing the kind of peer interaction that seems to be missing in the all-open approach.
This is really just exploratory research but we believe that the lack of nuanced social environments in online learning systems is a big part of what is leading to high dropout rates in distance/online learning programs and that we really need to build for “intimacy” rather than either the “private/closed” or “public/open” architecture characterised by current systems. By looking at successful learning communities – even if they are mediated only partially by networked technologies – we can start to understand how online educational systems can be better designed to afford greater possibilities for learning.
You can read more about the Masks project here.