Volume 22, No. 2, July 2012
Environment Education Online Learning in a Community of Practice
Dr. Susan Sharma
Environment studies are now understood to permeate all other fields of study including life skills education. Education in general is undergoing a transition in India with the arrival of disruptive technologies. With the advent of web technologies, there is a universal trend towards individualized learning, life-long learning and collaborative learning.
Our project scope is restricted to Environment Education online, at the portal http://www.IndianWildlifeClub.com which is a community of practice of nature lovers. We strongly believe that environment is a fast changing learning area which can benefit immensely from a life-long learning approach in continuing education.
1. Architecture of IndianWildlifeClub.com
The architecture of IndianWildlifeClub.com has been designed keeping in mind ease of use, handy tools and the bandwidth currently available in the country. The web based services/knowledge modules are delivered to the user through the browser and have been developed using the Windows platform. The first task was to create a fool-proof system of registration that captures static data from the users. Thereafter, content generated by users is captured into a database which encourages user participation and conversation.
We have also laid great emphasis on lifelong learning (searchable archives of monthly e-magazines, archives of chat transcripts, relevant videos) and supporting the development of young people’s skills in creativity and innovation (online quiz programs, interactive polls, green humour, short videos).
The functional modules created for registered users of are:
1. Facility to write weblogs on preselected topics and comment on others’ weblogs. Edited and archived content is available for users in a searchable format.
2. Facility to upload trip reports under designated heads. The nonlinear nature of the web permits these trip reports to become available on all related searches.
3. Facility to vote in online polls.
4. An E-magazine called “Wildbytes” available to all registered users.
5. A tool to search through the archives of “Wildbytes”.
6. Monthly online chat moderated by an expert in the field. Chat transcripts are saved in our database and are available for users in a searchable format.
7. A personalized Learning Page for every member.
The above features are considered bare essentials to harness the knowledge/power of the users with a view to learning from each other.
2. Literature Review
2.1 Communities of Practice
Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better. Communities of Practice inherently have a self managing nature and manage the knowledge generated themselves.
To understand how communities of practice represent the foundation of a knowledge strategy, it is necessary to keep in mind the three fundamental characteristics of such communities:
Domain: The area of knowledge that brings the community together, gives it its identity, and defines the key issues that members need to address. A community of practice is not just a personal network: it is about something. Its identity is defined not just by a task, as it would be for a team, but by an "area" of knowledge that needs to be explored and developed.
Community: The group of people for whom the domain is relevant, the quality of the relationships among members, and the definition of the boundary between the inside and the outside. A community of practice is not just a Web site or a library; it involves people who interact and who develop relationships that enable them to address problems and share knowledge.
Practice: The body of knowledge, methods, tools, stories, cases, documents, which members share and develop together. A community of practice is not merely a community of interest. It brings together practitioners who are involved in doing something. Over time, they accumulate practical knowledge in their domain, which makes a difference to their ability to act individually and collectively.
The combination of domain, community and practice is what enables communities of practice to manage knowledge. The domain provides a common focus; the community builds relationships that enable collective learning; and practice anchors the learning in what people do. Cultivating communities of practice requires paying attention to all three elements. These elements provide the structure underlying the doughnut model of knowledge management proposed by Wenger (2001).
2.2 Personalized Learning Environment (PLE)
A definition given by Lubensky (2006) describes a “PLE as a facility for an individual to access, aggregate, configure and manipulate digital artifacts of their ongoing learning experiences.” PLE platforms differ in the construction and utilization of the possibilities for personalization of knowledge resources, learning activities and the opportunity for flexible management and extension of used technical tools. Their functional characteristics include suitable graphical user interface, content presentation layouts and templates, drag and drop function, functions for searching, embedding, socialization, sharing, communication, collaboration, online/offline usage, and level of control on proposed learning resources.
Nowadays, the distributed form of learning is the preferred instructional model that allows educators, students, and content to be located in different, non-centralized locations so that instruction and learning can occur independently of time and place. The distributed learning model can be used in combination with traditional classroom based courses, or with traditional distance learning courses, or it can be used to create completely virtual classrooms.
Figure 1. The PLE at IndianWildlifeClub.com
2.3 Peer Production of e-Learning Content
Peer production as a method for content creation for e-Learning can be defined as the digital content created, edited, enriched and validated by peers, in other words by people on the ”same hierarchical level”. In the context of e-Learning content creation, the peers should also be defined by their characteristics. Thus they should also be open-minded, perceptive and aware of their competencies and responsibilities in terms of effort, attention and reaction rate. They can also be expected to possess strong relational and auto-critical skills, exhibit good relationship management and a deep subject matter competence in a specific sector of knowledge (Fischer & Kretschmer, 2008).
The term “peer production” in the learning context has similarities with the term “user-created content”. The “group emphasis” is also highlighted in the discussion of “informal learning”. For example, Cross (2006) states that informal learning is strongly fuelled by the communication of peers and that this communication is the critical element in informal learning. In our project, the communicative element is fostered by the strong involvement of the peer group in e-Learning content creation.
3. Research Questions
Online education is possible only because of the technology changes that have impacted all areas of contemporary life. High-speed networks, nearly ubiquitous computing availability, and software to support teaching and learning have combined to provide the foundation on which online learning has grown.
Based on a very detailed literature survey, we have formulated the following research questions which have direct relevance to the Community of Practice at IndianWildlifeClub (IWC).
§ Is learning in a community/club less stressful?
§ Is environment education a life-long learning process?
§ Is environment education best imparted in an informal way?
§ Do community/club members feel constrained when it comes to doing their bit toward protecting the environment?
§ Should environment education be based on field reports and scientific data?
4. Data Collection and Analysis
A questionnaire based survey was administered to the 5,000 plus online community at IndianWildlifeClub.com. We received a total of 295 responses. 87% agreed that learning in a community/club is less stressful. 81% of the respondents also agreed that the online content spurs them on to read more about issues which concern them. Although there are text books on Environment Education which are introduced in schools and colleges and distance education courses available online and offline, 99%of our respondents agreed that environment education is a life-long learning process. 95% of the respondents also felt that environment education is best imparted in an informal way.
95% of those surveyed agreed that environment education must have a basis in field reports and scientific data. Considering that the large majority of IWC members are young and tech savvy, this result did not come as a surprise. Corporate bodies and government institutions, who consider EIA (environment impact assessment) reports a mere formality, need to sit up and take note of this. This unmistakable confirmation for using field reports and scientific data as the basis for any environmental action is also a wake-up call for our institutions and ministries which routinely take major decisions for political and individual gains.
5. Research Potential
Environmental awareness has a link between local activities and people’s lives. Communities, whose members network online, are more likely to work together to make a lasting change on the environment they live in. Ours is a futuristic project, which can serve as a pilot project for many more such efforts in various other fields, which will come up once the Indian Government opens up the bandwidth for use of the common man. For a system that holds the archives of user generated content, there is the potential to tailor the interface and the learning environment (such as type of learning resources, complexity of material, etc.) to the individual, particularly where e-learning is taking place. There is potential to study usage statistics of tailored content to substantiate these claims. The non linear nature of the technology which supports collaboration in a community of practice is also extremely useful in a research environment.
The primary function of universities is to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to prosper in their professional careers. Today, to be successful, students need to continually enhance their knowledge and skills, in order to address immediate problems and to participate in a process of continuing vocational and professional development. Involving students in managing their own learning in a variety of contexts, such as building their own personal learning environments according to their goals and interests, is one way of developing the skills and motivation that will serve as tools for lifelong learning beyond their formal education. The PLE can provide students with the tools needed for the establishment of self-organized learning, for controlling, managing and updating their learning supported by technologies and possibilities for social interactions.
Environment education is a life-long learning process and is an ideal segment of education which can be addressed by a CoP. It is desirable to build environmental conservation on events and efforts that have gone by archiving them in digital form in a CoP. More important, since the CoP is made up of individuals, the collective experience of this group consisting of experts and laymen is there to draw upon. Environment can be protected only when each one of us finds a personal reason to protect it. This concept change in the individual coupled with the collective impact of NGOs, Trusts and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives of Institutions as against their isolated impact, is what can prevent accelerated changes in the environment caused by human activity detrimental to the environment.
7. Implications for Policy and Program Development
Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations (Kania & Kramer, 2011). As of now, our CoP is geared towards collective impact of individuals. But the CoP can really take off in a big way when partnerships are fostered with various other organizations, especially those that are working on offline projects. Unlike most collaboration, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants. Although rare, successful examples of collective impact are addressing social issues such as education. Large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations. Evidence of the effectiveness of this approach is still limited, but certain examples suggest that substantially greater progress could be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social problems if non-profit organizations, governments, businesses, and the public were brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.
Reforming environment education, conservation of wildlife, restoring wetland environments, and improving environment health are all adaptive problems. Adaptive problems are complex; the answer is not known, and even if it were, no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change. In these cases, reaching an effective solution requires learning by the stakeholders involved in the problem, who must then change their own behavior in order to create a solution. Recent advances in Web-based technologies have enabled better networking among organizations and use of common systems for reporting performance and measuring outcomes. These systems increase efficiency and reduce cost. They can also improve the quality and credibility of the data collected, increase effectiveness by enabling organizations to learn from each other’s performance, and document the progress in the field as a whole. It is also possible to quickly determine what processes are universal and which require adaptation to a local context. As learning accumulates, our CoP will incorporate new findings into the Internet-based knowledge portal that will be available to any community wishing to create a collective impact initiative based on our CoP’s model.
Participation and successful learning through online collaboration is available only for those who are digitally fluent and aware of and prepared for these opportunities. It is important to take into account those who are not accessing them or do not have sufficient critical knowledge, and to help these people to use them safely and productively. People with lower education levels need special support to be equipped with the skills and confidence to benefit and value learning in these settings. Formal education should prepare people from early on to take part in a world where their knowledge will become practice through experience with others. What contributes to the emergence and success of learning in ICT-enabled communities, and how can they promote quality and innovation in lifelong learning and education systems in India is a challenge for policy makers.
§ Cross, J. (2006). Informal learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. Pfeiffer.
§ Fischer, T., & Kretschmer, T. (2008). Benchmarking peer production mechanisms, processes and practices. Deliverable of WP3 of the QMPP project.
§ Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011, 36-41.
§ Lubensky, R. (2006). The present and future of Personal Learning Environments (PLE). Retrieved from http://members.optusnet.com.au/rlubensky/elearningmoments.html
§ Wenger, E. (2001). Supporting communities of practice: A survey of community-oriented technologies. Retrieved from http://www.ewenger.com/tech/index.htm.
 The project was funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi during 2010-2012.