Online communities offer a potentially vast untapped resource that could be used to boost the effectiveness of children's education, UK academics argued today.
Elizabeth Hartnell-Young, a research fellow at the Learning Sciences Research Institute at Nottingham University, and freelance statistician Karen Corneille, told the International Journal of Web Based Communities that online communities offer a "real opportunity" to improve learning.
Hartnell-Young explained that many children "engaged readily with the site", and that even children with less developed ICT skills benefited from interacting with others.
"Educators played a powerful role in mediating learning, managing the communities, setting guidelines for participation and linking students with outside experts," she said.
However, the researchers believe that such online communities are not yet mature enough to provide a fully rich learning experience.
As part of the assessment of the online learning community, the academics defined the process of learning not simply as rote learning of events and objects, but the creation of knowledge products including information, principles and theories.
The researchers noted that translating the concepts of teaching, learning and knowledge-building to an online community is "no simple task" as the web is a disparate mix of material.
The boundaries provided by a protected online learning system allow teachers to mediate the learning process in a secure and safe way, the researchers explained.
The team set out to find instances of how Think.com, as an example of an online learning community, helps the learning process.
They assessed how such a system encourages a range of "digital" literacy by enabling students to create their own material, and to interact and collaborate with users in different learning tasks.
"As evidence of digital literacy, we considered individual students' pages and the range of text, files and images with which they filled these pages," Hartnell-Young explained.
The team also investigated whether a sense of identity and audience existed and the kinds of social skills developed by users on message boards and voting.
They sought examples of joint tasks where groups worked together within a school, between different schools, and internationally.
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