Communicating Unique Characteristics of the Field
Following from this need, panelists celebrated a set of key characteristics of the field:
- Exploratory. Panelists strongly supported a focus on exploratory projects because we cannot definitively know what form the future will take, and thus we need to harness the imaginations of the designers.
- Ambitious mashups. Panelists strongly resonated with this concept (discussed earlier), which emphasizes explorations of unique combinations of emerging technologies. Explorations of mashups opens our eyes to divergent future possibilities.
- Research and Design Iterations. Panelists valued cyberlearning as a field that iterates rigorously between design and research. The field builds prototypes in order to conduct research with them, and thereby to understand the theories, methods, and design patterns that will be important in the future.
- Interdisciplinarity and Convergence. Panelists noted growth of practices that integrate multiple expertises, recommending that core teams include both computer science and learning sciences expertise. Of course, these two disciplines are just a beginning for many successful cyberlearning projects; other necessary disciplines need to engage and work convergently to answer shared research questions.
- Lifelong and Lifewide Learning. Many other research programs occur in silos according to the age, grade-level or special needs of the learner or are organized by the topic that students will learn. The field of cyberlearning projects notably traverses these boundaries. Multigenerational learning is explored. Researchers who worked with early learners, school-aged learners, university-aged learners and beyond exchange ideas. Boundaries between formal and informal learning are crossed. This is important.
Going forward, panelists raised provocative remarks about where the field could further articulate its self-understanding and better argue for funding resources:
- What is the right type of shared infrastructure (what NSF terms “mid-level infrastructure”) that is needed to advance an exploratory community of researchers?
- How can the field better argue for its research-and-design activities as rigorous and capable of producing distinctive and much-needed outputs?
- How can the field better investigate “constellations” of technologies used over a variety of contexts in a person’s lifetime and not only designs for particular learning experiences?
- How can the field sharpen its disciplined balance between unpacking the exciting possibilities of emerging technology and discovering how people learn equitably?
Strengthening Reporting of Project Outcomes
Panelists lamented that overall it is too hard to locate the insights and outcomes of cyberlearning projects. It is easier to find information on what will be explored than on what was learned through the exploration.
Perspectives from panelists on this challenge overlapped around the following themes:
- Clarity on Outputs. Broadly speaking, project outcomes include research findings and design insights, and include both “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts.” Yet there is a sense that the field is clearer about what kinds of things it explores than it is about what it produces. Funders, of course, want to know what outputs the funding leads to, so this is a critical issue for sustaining funding to the field.
- Innovative Communication Formats. Panelists appreciated the efforts of CIRCL to advance novel dissemination formats, like primers, synthesis, and perspectives. Finding the right formats for documenting knowledge so it is “useful, intelligible, and relevant” to audiences is critical. Existing conferences and journals can be helpful, but novel venues and formats are judged by panelists to be very important.
- Audiences. Panelists highlighted the broad audiences that care about and have much to learn from this field. One panelist suggested that shaping the public image of what learning looks like is very important. Others focused on audiences such as educational practitioners, industry and entrepreneurs, and policy-makers.
- Themes. Panelists cautioned against assuming that themes like the previous NSF “Big Ideas” would continue into the future. They recognized that connecting to broader societal themes accelerate communication. For example, cyberlearning informs us greatly about remote and online learning, which relates to the current pandemic. Also, themes of human-centered computing and social justice with Artificial Intelligence are on the rise. The field could re-think what broader societal themes best amplify its messages.
Enhancing the Equity Work
Expert panelists advocated for maintaining a strong focus in cyberlearning projects on equity, including anti-racism and social justice. To the CIRCL team, equity has been a persistent and important feature of many projects. And yet, the equity-relevant characteristics of projects can seem diffuse. The field needs to more clearly define what its equity work in this field and how it expects to make progress. Further, stronger reporting of equity relevant outcomes is needed, whether those outcomes are design innovations, research findings, or new forms of participation in the process of investigating future learning.
Panelists suggested a range of possible actions for the field in the future. These include:
- Involving diverse participants in the work. Cyberlearning projects already have a strong history of women leaders as well as some history of leaders who a Black, Latinx, and other identities. Panelists suggested renewing efforts to cross-connect to HMCUs and MSIs. Structurally, cyberlearning projects should be designed to include institutions and leaders who are not already privileged in their search for research funding.
- Tackling pressing issues. Ethical issues regarding artificial intelligence and data analysis are worrisome to the field and to panelists; it is important to accelerate the field’s progress on these issues.
- Human-centered computing is another broad theme that implies participation of stakeholders in the world, and cyberlearning could lead by providing models of what it looks like to work on these issues together.
- Openness in knowledge exchanges. Panelists also noted how sharing knowledge broadly is essential to creating an inclusive shared community that can collaborate on equity issues together.