Creating Virtual Design and Learning Communities

Ted M. Kahn

DesignWorlds for Learning, Inc.

Senior Fellow

UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies



Institute for Research on Learning (IRL)



If computers are universal control systems,

let's give our children universes to control."

--Theodor H. Nelson, ComputerLib/Dream Machines (1972).

"Consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it."

---Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, Creativity (1996)


Technology is not a panacea for solving all (or even most) of our problems in American education. However, technology can be a very effective catalyst for change. In order for technology to achieve its promise in improving student learning, we now need to find ways to:

  • scale, leverage and sustain successful innovative efforts in curriculum reform, teaching and learning research (not just through technological means, but also through major investments in developing and leveraging teachers' and students' intellectual capital, as well)
  • establish stronger linkages between use of technology and teachers' curricular goals/teaching practices, national curriculum standards/state frameworks, and use of alternative assessments
  • extend the power and utility of individual educational technology applications over a broader range of applications and over more years of student use
  • develop new means of combining the use of different software applications to achieve a synergy in learning
  • enable broad-based, cross platform interoperability of partial and complete products from authoring, simulation, and multimedia/Web design and production applications
  • support collaborations among diverse communities of stakeholders in educational reform, including collaborative end-user design and authoring of cost-effective learning environments, tools, and alternative publishing/distribution arrangements.

Through enabling the growth of new kind of learning communities, the EOE has a critical role to play in helping achieve these goals. This is especially true if we anticipate high levels of student achievement as we shift away from a paradigm of learning as technology-enhanced delivery of information to one of collaborative student and teacher design and construction of new knowledge resources with various experts in new kinds of learning communities. I believe a key to answering Oppenheimer's critiques lies in our making a paradigm shift about learning: from learning as individualized acquisition of multimedia-enhanced information delivery to learning as a distributed, iterative and social process of collaborative research, design, and analysis of new knowledge, coupled with adequate opportunities for reflection. In this model, we focus less on the value of information acquisition and more on enabling value creation through increasing participation in learning communities.

Thanks to the rapid growth of the Internet and World Wide Web, we now have many examples of learning and design communities (Kahn, 1997). Cyberspace is, in fact, are a learning and work environments designed largely by end-users. As we move from a model of the Web as a set of hyperlinked "pages" of information to a set of online communities collaborating in the creation and utilization of new knowledge, the educational sites and applications on the Web need to be enhanced to incorporate more powerful learning environments, including new kinds of visual multimedia authoring languages, visualization and exploration environments, and new kinds of collaborative communications tools. Like the designers of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, we are now the designers of the worlds of Cyberspace that we will inhabitat school, at work and at home. If, as Cesare Pavese has said, "To know the world, one must construct it," then we will all need to learn collaborative knowledge design skills so that our virtual learning and work environments can effectively support our knowledge work and creativity.


In order to build an effective national infrastructure for lifelong learning, we must ensure we have appropriate technology and connectivity to enable all people to have access to learning resources. But at the same time, we must give equal attention to the human side of the learning picture: What kinds of activities kids, teachers, and others will do with this infrastructure?


Below are very short summaries of three current projects in which my colleagues and I are now involved that we might use as case studies for understanding the different roles the EOE might play in helping us achieve our goals. For each, I have raised some questions which I hope will stimulate discussions and dialog on the EOE Web site.


I. Multimedia Makers is a virtual educational multimedia and Web design studio among K-12 schools and informal learning centers (Mestel, 1996; Kahn & Ullah, 1996). This project, now managed by DesignWorlds for Learning, was originally created by the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) as the basis for developing a DesignNet TM for virtual learning and design communities. Co-sponsored by the former Broad Alliance for Multimedia Technology and Applications (BAMTA) and Pacific Bell's California Research and Education Network (CalREN), Multimedia Makers was designed to show how networks could support distributed, collaborative multimedia content creation while enabling technology integration into multiple curricular areas. Multimedia Makers was also an outgrowth of the enthusiasm of several teachers participating in IRL's Middle School Mathematics through Applications Project (MMAP) , a major comprehensive curriculum and technology research and development project, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation. Participation has since expanded to include teachers and students in 15 San Francisco Bay Area K-12 schools, educational R&D projects, and informal learning centers.

What is common to Multimedia Makers and the MMAP project is an active, design-based and real world applications approach to student learning. Multimedia Makers focuses on enabling students and teachers at geographically distributed sites to work collaboratively together (and with media and content professionals) to design high quality, interactive and multimedia learning environments and curriculum content. The project is based on capitalizing on students' high levels of talent and interest in creating their own multimedia and Web sites. It is also designed to produce a creative synergy between the diverse talents, skills, and knowledge (as well as diverse technology resources) of different schools communities. Thus, one school community might be very good at animation, another might have stronger experience in interactive design, and another might have high levels of music or audio talent. By using the network to leverage these creative talents and resources, we hope to enable the participating schools to become an educational design resources for their communities.

During the past year, several schools expressed interest in the recent NASA missions to Mars, as well as other space exploration topics. A core of Multimedia Makers schools jointly decided to participate in the Passport to Knowledge/NASA-sponsored "Live from Mars" project as a vehicle for exploring how students could develop their own educational multimedia content about Mars. Different elementary and middle school student teams worked on design of multimedia projects about Mars in the future (including animated videos, QuickTime movies, Virtus VR models, and HyperStudio stacks). The projects ranged from whisical future shoe factories on Mars to addressing issues of a multinational group of Mars space colonies. During 1997-98, collaborating schools have continued to integrate these and other projects into an emerging Virtual Future Mars colony on the Web (for example, see Edenvale GATE students "Mars Virtual Olympics" activities) .

EOE as a Student Resource: This project is an example of an EOE opportunity as creative resource broker. How do we help students find educational components they (and their teachers) could use in both their individual team projects, as well as to assist the design of the larger Virtual Mars site. How can we help students move from creating multimedia reports/presentations to more interactive, guided tours and simulations?


II. U.S. Olympic PBS CyberSchool . This project was conceived as a national, collaborative educational effort linking teacher professional development in understanding how to use the Internet and Web-based technologies with student and teacher -designed educational content. Communities of professional developers, as well as approximately 100 teachers around the country, collaborated in designing and producing exemplary Web-based learning activities in mathematics, science, and social studies associated with the February, 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, for use by students and teachers in grades 4-8 around the country. A single Web site (TheU.S. Olympic PBS CyberSchool, powered by IBM) was created to house these educational activities, as well as to become the active learning activity access point for students, teachers, and parents around the country during two weeks in February, 1998.

EOE as a Teacher Professional Development Resource: Most K-12 teachers know very little about Java and component approaches to designing interactive educational software and learning activities. Thus, the PBS CyberSchool project could utilize the EOE as both an exemplary resource of Web-based educational objects, as well as an opportunity to discuss how to find, integrate, and test some of these objects as part of their creative design activities. For example, how do we find applets that might be relevant to students understanding the physics of downhill skiing or snow boarding or the mathematics related to figure skating?


III. "The Art, Science and Technology of Learning (ASTL): Designing Learning Environments for the 21st Century" ASTL was an invitational, international workshop for educational experts/mentors and teachers from both developing and developed countries who are collaboratively designing interdisciplinary educational projects they wish to carry out with each other. The workshop is being carried out in three phases, ranging from finding interested teachers and partners via e-mail and a web site to bringing a small number of participants with promising projects to a four-day workshop in the Northern Galilee region of Israel in November, 1997. Our current work with this project is on a participatory design approach to educational collaborative projects, focused on teachers in both developing and developed countries defining and implementing projects that have real value to communities in both developing and developed countries. In many of the developing countries, use of the Internet and the Web is at its earliest stages, so this activity involves a great deal of cross-learning among participants in understanding appropriate roles of the Web and different computer applications in helping them achieve their educational goals. One example of a project that has emerged from ASTL is a collaboration between elementary students at Edenvale Elementary School in San Jose and older students at the Idalina School in Sao Paulo, Brazil. These students are doing a comparative study of the historical roots, causes and current state of water pollution and other environmental pollution in their respective countries, as well as showing how art can be used as a vehicle for social action and change in addressing this issue.

EOE as a Project Definition and Planning Resource: If we can use the EOE as one element in helping develop an international learning community, we increase the opportunities for active participation by students and teachers around the world. Projects such as the GLOBE Project, TERC's Global Lab, the I*EARN Network, and National Geographic Society's Kids Network have all demonstrated the enormous opportunity for using telecommunications to improve both content learning and raise levels of cultural and global understanding. How do we help broker the necessary technical and content design expertise to assist teachers who are designing collaborative international projects involving science, technology, and the arts?

These projects embody what I will call the three pairs of "C's":

- Content in Context: The value of educational content depends on the context in which this content is going to be used. For example, information about the composition of the soil and atmospheric conditions on Mars is very dynamic because it is being gathered and analyzed in real time as part of the current NASA Mars exploration missions. How scientists decided to gather and interpret this data is at least as important (if not more important) than the information about Mars that we actually receive.

- Creativity in Communicating Knowledge: All of the national curriculum standards include enabling students to use a broader range of media and methods to communicate their knowledge than traditional standardized tests. It is well-known that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it (or communicate it) to others. We also have interdisciplinary fields of inquiry now (such as chaos and complexity theory) in which finding new ways to use computers and multimedia to visualize and communicate data and patterns are as critical to our understanding as the data themselves.

- Collaboration for building Communities of Learners: Effective participation in the global economy means being able to work collaboratively with a wider diversity of other people. Business and industry have continually highlighted that today's schools need to prepare students to work collaboratively in teams (co-located or virtual) as one of the top priorities for educational reform. The Internet and the use of Web-based tools and resources are one of the best vehicles we have for achieving this goal–and in the process, we can also help build sustainable learning communities.


My own overall goal for all of these projects is to help achieve a paradigm shift, from a society of information consumers to a society of active knowledge producers, and in so doing, to increase all people's access to learning resources and participation in lifelong learning communities. In this context, the Educational Object Economy (EOE) will hopefull grow to become a major collaborative resource– of tools, content, and interactions among participans–for enabling the kinds of constructivist learning projects described above to fluorish In order for participants in these projects to achieve the visionary goals they have set for themselves, they will need the continuous help of other pioneers–teachers, developers, researchers, and other students from a diversity of backgrounds–who are willing to construct new ways to develop and share new applications, as well as to creative extend the utility of each others' work. We hope that these kinds of projects, together with active and broad participation in creating and using the EOE, will help create "communities of innovation" that can acclerate the spread of the best environments for learning for all us.



Kahn, T. M. (1997). From Bauhaus to Lehrhaus : Creating Design and Learning Communities for the 21st Century. Computer Using Educators, CUE Newsletter, 19, 3, May-June, 1997, 1, 3-4, ff.

Kahn, T.M. and Ullah, L. T. (1996). Learning by Design: Integrating Technology into the Curriculum through Student Multimedia Design Projects. MindShift Connection (Tucson, AZ. Zephyr Press), Nov., 1996, 4-7.

Mestel, R. (1996). It's Child's Play. New Scientist (U.K.), No. 2025, April 13, 1996, 24-27.


Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Ted M. Kahn.


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