CyberOne: A Glimpse of the Future Classroom?
While there is no shortage of educators experimenting with interactive tools like blogging, wikis, immersive virtual environments and the like, Harvard Law School’s CyberOne course is throwing the entire Web 2.0 playbook at one group of very eager students. Does this experimental class presage the future of K-12 education?
I’ve been a big fan of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society for a long time; getting to interact with their students, teachers, fellows and bloggers was one of the great pleasures of my recent 30-month stint in Boston. Berkman’s founder, Harvard law professor Charlie Nesson, is not one to shy from bold moves, so I wasn’t at all surprised when he announced this summer the creation of CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion . Charlie, along with his daughter, Professor Rebecca Nesson and Professor Gene Koo describe the course this way:
If we do say so ourselves, the course will be unlike any that has ever been taught. It is a course in persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space. Throughout the course we will be studying many different media technologies to understand how their inherent characteristics and modes of distribution affect the arguments that are made using them. Students will be immersed in this study through project-based assignments in which they will be using these technologies to make their own arguments.
This paragraph may summarize in a nutshell what they’re up to, but it only scratches the surface of all the innovative and cool things they’re doing this semester. First, there’s the course’s embrace of openness. While it’s designed for students of the Harvard Law School and extension school, CyberOne is open to the public. Anyone may attend the lectures virtually, download videos of the lectures and participate in class discussions via the course’s Moodle site and wiki. Meanwhile, the curriculum itself is being released as open content: all of the lecture videos, as well as the syllabus, are being published on a Creative Commons license. They’re encouraging the public to use these materials freely and mash them up for their own purposes. (It’s only a matter of time before an industrious K-12 educator adopts these extraordinary materials for their own lessons, assuming they could ever be allowed to teach online civic engagement as a topic in itself.) Even the course materials are downloadable for public consumption.
For those people auditing the course who yearn for a you-are-there-at-Harvard experience, Charlie and his team have decided to teach the course in a parallel universe - the immersive 3D environment known as Second Life. Second Life is one of the most popular non-gaming virtual reality environments on the Internet, with hundreds of thousands of virtual participants, or avatars, from around the world. (My avatar is named Abdi Kembla; he’s a former child soldier from Somalia, but that’s a story for another blog.) When you join Second Life, you create an avatar and are given the option of buying land, where you can construct your own buildings - schools, drive-in theatres, refugee camps, whatever comes to mind. And when you meet another avatar, it’s being controlled in real time by someone else on the Internet.
Second Life is home to pretty much everything you can imagine in real life, both good or bad, and thanks to CyberOne, it’s now home to the first accredited course from a major university. Each time students gather at Harvard for the class, virtual participants gather on Berkman Island, a virtual representation of Harvard’s law campus. It’s complete with buildings, trees and paths that exist on the real campus, but it’s populated with fanciful avatars of all shapes and sizes, from purple humanoids to Mr. PotatoHead. But each of these avatars is a real human being, somewhere in cyberspace, attending the course online, accessing live streaming video of the lecture and chatting with other students. Charlie and Rebecca have even put together a short video explaining their use of Second Life in the classroom. It’s a little hokey, but it’s fun seeing how the two of them represent themselves as virtual characters.
Then there’s all the blogging. Students are expected to use their Moodle accounts to keep journals of their class experiences, from the topics they discuss to the use of the Web 2.0 tools during the course of the semester. The three instructors post content on their own blog on a regular basis.They also have a class photo blog on Flickr where students document their activities in pictures.
They’ve even been given access to a brand-new programming environment called Scratch. Developed by the MIT Media Lab, Scratch is an example of what I sometimes refer to as Web 3.0. While Web 1.0 allowed people to read content and Web 2.0 allows people to write content, Web 3.0 allows you to execute your own programs over the Internet. Until now, online programming was limited to those individuals with a high level of requisite technical skills, but new tools like Scratch will allow people to graphically construct their own software. In the case of the CyberOne class, students will be expected to use Scratch to design their own online games. No previous programming experience is required - just like blogging allowed people with no online publishing experience to become publishers.
Last but not least, CyberOne is employing an online question tool. This allows real life and Second Life students to ask questions online and have them appear on the wall behind the instructors. Other students can then comment on questions and rank them, helping the instructors steer the discussion. I’ve seen this tool used at Berkman events before, and it’s a powerful way to get participants chatting about the subject matter at hand, though it can also lead to bouts of mischief - particularly if you happen to have yours truly in the audience.
From the reports I’ve read so far from students, participants are loving this course. It’s a chance for them to experiment with multiple interactive tools in a highly constructivist way, while engaging in a rich discussion on the impact of these tools on law and civic life. I wish I had time to audit each lecture in Second Life; there’s an amazing list of guest lecturers and topics on tap for the rest of the semester. Yet I wonder if something like this would ever fly in a K-12 context. The Second Life part complicates things somewhat, since it’s not intended for minors, though Second Life is piloting a youth-oriented version with the organization Global Kids. And Scratch is so bleeding edge that only registered law school students can access it until early 2007. But all of these other tools could be used in any classroom, right now, if the will were there. Would the course’s expectation of high-level online participation work in a world where No Child Left Behind - and soon, perhaps DOPA - reign supreme? Sure, I can see innovative schools like Chris Lehmann’s Science Leadership Academy embracing the thinking behind CyberOne, but they’re the exception and not the rule.
Is CyberOne just an eccentric online experiment, or does it portend to future K-12 classroom practice? Could you imagine something like it occurring in your school? Would you want to see it happen? -andy