INF530: Digital Essay
"Synthesising the old with the new: Digital information ecology and its impact on education design practice in higher education

This essay will explore how the nature of the digital information ecology is impacting on education design practice, specifically in higher education. First, it looks at the literature around digital information ecology. Then the essay turns to the exploration of educational and learning design within this digital information ecology; later concluding with a look at some learning experiences designed into the post-graduate subject INF530 Concepts and Practices for a Digital Age.

The Literature

There is no denying that with the dawn of the internet and the World Wide Web the way people seek out, engage with and acquire knowledge has evolved (Thomas and Seely Brown, 2012). We no longer merely ingest information from a single source, we access and even actively contribute to a vast hyperlinked network of information sources (Campbell 2013; Conole 2012; Downes 2012; Thomas and Seely Brown 2012).

Information ecology which is the relationship of information to the people seeking it and making sense of it within the information environment is nothing new (Steinerova, 2012); what is new is the combined effect that the internet, computing and digital communication networks have on the ways we engage with information (O’Connell, 2015).

It is no wonder that the digital information ecology has evolved into a participatory ecosystem where endless communication links are established. Social media platforms such as twitter, facebook, blogs and wikis continually transform the spaces and ways we engage with information and each other. It is this call for ever more personalised filtering, sharing, curation and producing that makes up the digital information ecology. Whilst there is greater opportunity to locate information and connect with persons or communities, Conole (2012) argues that it has also created a ‘fragmentation of voice’ (p.55). Due to the many channels of communication and at times non-linear dissemination of information, there is a need to develop strategies to validate the information retrieved (Conole, 2012, p.55).

The flow of information in this digital age impacts on many aspects of our lives. In journalism, its impact can be seen in how news and historical moments are captured and shared, disrupting the role of traditional news outlets (Campbell, 2013).

In the field of science and technology, ideas become reality faster; breakthroughs are quicker and closer together, all due to the speed of information exchange (Johnson, 2014). So, what does the participatory and hyperlinked nature of digital information ecology mean for educators and their design practice?

Education Design

Although researchers involved in the exploration of teaching and learning skills in the digital age all concede that no one can predict what the future learning environment will look like (O’Connell, 2012); what is evident ,as Thomas and Seely Brown (2012) points out, is that digital information ecology is constantly evolving with the active participation of people from all walks of life. The literature further suggests that by understanding and accepting that this evolution, which has moved production and consumption of information from the hands of the few to the many; educators can better shape their education design practice, catering and adapting to the rapidly changing digital environment.

Haste (2009) who defines the learners today as ‘Tool Users’, explains that where once humans learned by solving problems alone in their heads, the digital information ecology now allows us to use tools to solve problems by interacting with the information environment and culture, as well as interacting with key people using the communication tools that are readily available to everyone.

Therefore, we don’t necessarily require to hold all knowledge and information in the world, but rather we need to ensure that we are well-equipped to make useful connections and links within the digital information ecology, and know how best to do this (Downes, 2012).

At this point the discourse on education design splits into two factions. One faction aptly named “technological determinants” (Kirkwood, 2014, p.208) are those who believe that technology-led learning design will readily engage students in the learning because they are using devices and platforms they already engage in, in their everyday lives (Philip & Garcia 2013); and therefore readily prepares students for the 21st Century workplace. Philip & Garcia (2013) and Kirkwood (2014) argue against this type of design practice. Research has found that the problem with ‘technological determinism’ is that more often than not, the learning experiences that are created are merely digital replications of teacher-led and therefore didactic practices (Kirkwood 2014; Herrington et al. 2010; Stiles 2007); ignoring the changing learning practices where students are more social and participatory in their search for information (Conole, 2012).

The second faction in this discourse, on the other hand, believes that there is no single expert and that the nature of the digital information ecology is blurring the lines between student and teacher (Conole, 2012). As Conole (2012) explains, while Web 2.0 tools and social media can support the students learning, contextualising the use of technology in the subject design rather than simply including all the latest tools is more beneficial to learners who are already facing a multitude of new experiences. A key point Conole (2012) makes is that learners who have high learning needs do struggle to understand the various tools on offer to support their learning and therefore he argues that consideration of the incorporation of guided learning pathways is still a must.

It is therefore no surprise that it is the latter of the two discourses that is influencing education design practice (Conole 2012). As Teräs & Herrington (2014) and O’Connell (2012) observes, what is emerging is the repurposing of viable and well-grounded teaching and learning pedagogies, such as connectivism (Siemens 2014; Downes 2012), and practice-based learning (Wenger 1998; Lave & Wenger 1991), set in the context of the digital environment.

The synthesis of the new (i.e. the participatory and hyperlinked nature of the digital information ecology) with the old (i.e. underpinning learning concepts) emerges.

Learning Experiences in INF530

This essay now turns its attention to this synthesis and how it is played out in a post-graduate subject design.

Designed as the introductory subject for the Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation), INF530 Concepts and Practices for a Digital Age‘s learning design is influenced by the concept of practice-based learning (CSU, 2015). According to Judy O’Connell, the Subject Coordinator and Course Director, practice-based learning which is underpinned by a reflective practice, allows students to engage with the theory through ‘learning by doing’ and ‘learning from doing’ (CSU, 2015, p.5). In addition, the subject calls for written reflection of the students’ learning experiences using digital communication tools such as a blog and an online discussion forum (CSU, 2015).

“Within the context of this subject, experiential engagement is employed to foster creativity and initiative for new situations in connected environments for professional practice, and a capability for confident personal autonomy and accountability in knowledge networking.” (CSU, 2015, p.5)

With this in mind, providing an authentic context is central to the subject’s activities and tasks. Therefore, the main learning happens not only within a Learning Management System (Interact2 - CSU’s instance of Blackboard Learn) but also by using various social learning tools such as a blog tool (Thinkspace - CSU’s instance of edublogs), Twitter, Diigo, and Flipboard. According to Teräs & Herrington (2014), authentic context involves the immersion of the learner into the complex environment and situation. The inclusion of activities using the social learning tools in this subject design allows students to explore and experience the exact concepts and practices covered in the subject throughout the session.

In the following tweets from INF530 students, you will find a few discussions around the experiences of students of the exact concepts they discuss and cover within the subject readings and resources such as information overload in the digital information ecology, digital curation and preservation, including issues with technology itself.

These tweets between INF530 students reveal that at the beginning the experience was of confusion that came with the sometimes very new technological tools, and the influx of information from varying sources. Later, guided by the Subject Coordinator and also supported by the developing INF530 students learning community; the students began showing that they were learning the best ways to filter, validate, and then curate information. This experience feeds directly into the subject learning outcomes (you can view them here). It should also be noted that through engagement with Twitter, former INF530 students also joined the conversation and were providing mentoring and support where they could (without prompts from the Subject Coordinator).

The list of INF530 students’ blog URLs can be found at the end of this essay, and what is evident while browsing through the blogs is the active sharing between students of their own expertise and learning experiences; as well as the synthesised learnings from other students.

It becomes evident while browsing through these blogs that the overall experience of INF530 students is one of the journey from chaos to the road of knowledge construction in the digital age, with various students reflecting on and capturing their journey with comments such as:

“INF530 has helped enormously to develop my IT unit as well as the strategic direction for the faculties I am in charge of (Arts and Technologies). Considering authentic tasks combined with fortuitous timing gave my students the opportunity to make recommendations to the company about to redesign the school website.” (Plenty, 2015)

One true measure of the effectiveness of the learning design employed in this subject, is what O’Connell calls “your own personal measure or change” (2015, May 20). To highlight this, O’Connell talks about the experience of a former INF530 student whose digital essay (see here, Heather Bailie) went viral when she shared the link on Twitter. 12 months later, O’Connell is still seeing ripples of that experience within education discussion circles.

Conclusion

This essay made a brief attempt at reviewing INF530 students’ learning experiences with INF530’s subject design. INF530’s subject design reflects the need for educators and education design practice to look at the repurposing of viable and well-grounded teaching and learning pedagogies set in the context of the digital environment. In the case of INF530, O’Connell framed her subject design around practice-based learning, reflective practice and connected learning. By setting the subject design around the nature of digital information ecology which is participatory and hyperlinked by nature; INF530 situates its students in the authentic context of the concepts and practices it hopes to impart.

The synthesised design of this particular post-graduate subject shows that the old (i.e. tested and grounded learning design pedagogy) is not lost in this digital age; rather what can be seen is that it provides the foundation of better immersing of students’ learning into the digital information ecology. In this particular case, the learning design pedagogy acts like a life jacket around the students’ neck while adrift in the big ocean. While INF530 students feel like it maybe a long way to land, they know that there are resources, support and guidance on hand; they just need to ask, connect and link. Of course due to this essay’s length constraint, this only looked at one subject in a post-graduate course and therefore scope to analyse the students’ experiences in the full course is still there to be explored in-depth. One could look at whether or not the same design framework is used throughout and how successful or challenging it is for both learner and teacher.

References

Campbell, D. (2013, May 3). Disruption and the new ecology of information. Retrieved from https://www.david-campbell.org/2013/05/03/disruption-and-the-new-ecology-of-information/

Conole, G. (2012). Designing for learning in an open world (Vol. 4). Springer. Available as ebook from CSU library. http://www.eblib.com

Charles Sturt University (CSU) (2015, February). INF530 - Concepts and Practices for a Digital Age [Subject Outline]. Retrieved from CSU Interact2 (Learning Management System), session 201530.

Downes, S (2012). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Haste, H. (2009). Technology and Youth: Problem Solver vs. Tool User (Part 1 of 4). Retrieved from youtube, https://youtu.be/YZRoS5QlJ44

Herrington, J., Reeves, T.C., & Oliver, R. (2010). A Guide to Authentic E-learning. New York and London: Routledge.

Johnson, S. (2014). How we got to now with Steven Johnson. PBS. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/E8P7Q0sGzPA

Kirkwood, A. (2014). Teaching and learning with technology in higher education: blended and distance education needs ‘joined-up thinking’ rather than technological determinism. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 29(3), 206-221. doi: 10.1080/02680513.2015.1009884

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Connell, J. (2012). So you think they can learn? Scan, Vol 31. May, 5-11. Retrieved from https://heyjude.files.wordpress.com/2006/06/joc_scan_may-2012.pdf

O’Connell, J. (2015). “3.2 Information Fluency”. Module 3: Knowledge Networks - Connected communities, open access, and connected learning [INF530 Learning Module]. Charles Sturt University, Australia. Retrieved from https://interact2.csu.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-249314-dt-content-rid-635373_1/courses/S-INF530_201530_W_D/module3/3_2_Information_Fluency.html

O’Connell, J. (2015, May 20). INF530 Final Assessment 2015 [Online Meeting Recording], posted and retrieved from CSU Interact2 subject site.

Philip, T. M., & Garcia, A. D. (2013). The Importance of still teaching the iGeneration: New technologies and the centrality of pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 83(2), 300–319,400–401. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/1399327199?accountid=10344

Plenty, L. (2015, May 23). “The Emergent IT Teacher” [blog post] Lisa’s Thoughts, retrieved from http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/lisa/2015/05/23/the-emergent-it-teacher/

Siemens, G. (2014). Overview of Connectivism. Retrieved from youtube, https://youtu.be/yx5VHpaW8sQ

Steinerova, J. (2012). Information ecology-emerging framework for digital scholarship. Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) Proceedings, 12. Retrieved from http://ozk.unizd.hr/proceedings/index.php/lida/article/viewFile/66/37

Stiles, M. (2007). Death of the VLE? A Challenge to a New Orthodoxy. Serials; The Journal for the International Serials Community 20, 1:31-36. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lih&AN=24572628&site=ehost-live

Teräs, H., & Herrington, J. (2014). Neither the Frying Pan nor the Fire: In Search of a Balanced Authentic e-Learning Design through an Educational Design Research Process. International Review Of Research In Open & Distance Learning, 15(2), 232-253. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=97234530&site=ehost-live

Thomas, D. & Seely Brown, J. (2012). Cultivating the Imagination in a World of Constant Change. Forums Future. Retrieved from https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ff1208s.pdf

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

INF530 Student Blogs URL list

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/informativeflights/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/connectreflect/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/info530concepts/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/reflectionbyamanda/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/ronnie/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/perfectwave/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/mtnf/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/insidemyhead/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/diginanna/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/andrews/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/yvette/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/riverflows/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/kellis/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/ss2s

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/iteachilearn/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/joyharley/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/meghastieinf536/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/edkherbert/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/theindependentvariable/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/cameron/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/kerryj/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/chrisdj/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/emusings/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/karenmalbon/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/mtnf/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/historyms

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/researchchallengereflect/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/lifelonglearner/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/molah/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/lynoxley/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/lisa/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/katschrav/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/hyacinth/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/rachelthomason

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/lookwhoschalking/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/fromheretothere/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/ripples/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/mindfullypresent/

http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/marc

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