The Role of Citizens as Creators of Knowledge
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The possibility that citizens could act as knowledge creators on a large scale is an emerging trend in our societies that could have strong implications in the e-learning sector.
Moving towards a new paradigm
Until now, e-learning users and pupils have been considered passive receivers rather than creators of knowledge. The "virtual world" has reproduced the traditional teaching model based on the hierarchy of knowledge, the tutor’s position of power and the role of the pupil as a consumer of information.
This model is beginning to change, for various reasons. These include the arrival of a large number of young people with high levels of expertise in the use of ICT, people easily capable of creating websites using complex multimedia resources.
At the same time, there are some social changes that are fostering a new structure in the information flow. According to Tony Bates, “in the industrial economic model, where you have hierarchies, a transmission model of information works very well because the information comes from the top, you don’t challenge it. Particularly in a very large university you have the same hierarchy, you have professors, lecturers, researchers, students, and so the transmission model fits an industrial society” (1).
However, the industrial economic model is being transformed into a new paradigm. Moving to a knowledge-based society means new social patterns. In addition, the new communication model is basically a horizontal one. Hierarchies are not based on a top-down model, but on the acceptance of individual expertise. Such a context is encouraging the role of each individual as a creator of knowledge in a horizontal network.
This new paradigm could potentially have an important social and political dimension. The role of citizens as creators of knowledge would help to transform the net into a truly interactive space, employing a decentralised model to make greater wealth and diversity of information available. This idea may have clear implications for the concepts of citizenship, participation and democracy in Europe.
The educational dominant paradigm has evolved in recent decades. The “transmission metaphor” has been substituted by the constructivist approach, and this new scenario promotes the role of citizens as creators of contents.
The current dominance of the constructivist approach has been determined by some Reports. For instance, the study "New Learning Environments in School Education" carried out under the eLearning initiative and eLearning Action Plan, has identified “a shift in focus away from content and the ability to reproduce facts and knowledge towards the creation of knowledge. Pupils should be active participants in constructing knowledge through their own learning processes, both working alone or together with peers. Experimenting and exploring are important aspects of this active construction of knowledge.” (2)
According to Rosa Bottino, “the prevailing metaphor is that of the system as an environment where knowledge is transmitted in order to be acquired by the user.” But now learning is “progressively viewed as being based on an active exploration and personal construction, rather than on a transmisive model” (3). This conception leaves a lot of room for the activity of learners as creators of knowledge.
Since lifelong learning is currently seen as a process affecting everyone throughout their lives, and since e-learning is beginning to take off in a big way as a tool with widespread use, we are laying the foundations to encourage the creation of contents by citizens on a large scale.
Some examples from Europe could help to illustrate the potential of citizens as content creators.
The People’s War website, established by the BBC to create an archive of people’s personal memories of the Second World War, received 13,000 comments and stories in the first three months of its life.
The @Brest site was created by Brest City Council and has encouraged scores of individuals and associations to create content. In the Brest area there are some 70 websites that publish contents on a regular basis through the participation of some 300 citizens.
Futura Sciences is a website devoted to scientific dissemination. The web site is promoted by a student from the École Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications (Paris) and one and a half million pages are read every month.
The emergence of new tools for creation
Another important aspect in this process concerns tools for creating content. Numerous examples of tools which have been created exist in Europe – often with public support – to help users develop their ideas in cyberspace. Such a case is the PHARE project, developed by the Académie de Rennes to provide free tools for schools to create customised intra or extranets. In Germany, the Schulen ans Netz site has developed a tool called Primolo, an easy-to-use website generator for young people. The SPIP (Système de Publication par Internet) is freely available from the site Uzine.net and had helped many organizations and individuals to publish information on the Internet. The free software Clic has been used since 1992 for creating thousands of pedagogical activities which address different areas and educational levels. The activities have been designed by teachers on their own initiative, and can be reused freely in a library of activities in the Clic Zone.
The European Commission’s View on Content Creation
The European Commission has recently (January 2005) published a report to summarize two consultation workshops: ‘Access Rights for e-Learning Content’ and ‘Creating, sharing and reusing e-Learning Content’. The workshops were held in Brussels on 27 and 28 October 2004, with the participation of experts from the EU.
The Report states that “the process of involving content users in creation needs to be formalised and encouraged, for both individuals and groups of users. Not only does this create more and better content, it also strengthens and enriches the learning process. This is particularly true for young people, who already have the ICT skills necessary for content development.”
Consequently, one of the recommendations of the Report is to “develop freely accessible web based services for citizens to access and produce content, supported by a simple interface”.
Discussion: will citizens’ implication in knowledge creation change e-learning?
It is too early to know how the situation will evolve and how far knowledge and content creation by users will go. The thousands of web logs arising can be regarded as an indication of the future, but everything is still in its infancy.
Anyway, the implications of content & knowledge creation by users have the potential to affect e-learning in a significant way. Advanced students will be able to create websites with useful information and rich resources to help other students – or just for fun. Students will be able to share knowledge through personal websites. The process could benefit informal networks of citizens, members of associations sharing common interests and many other types of communities.
It is obvious that Lifelong learning processes can benefit enormously from these new facilities.
(1) Segarra, David. Interview with Tony Bates, professor of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya: “e-Learning should be used strategically and not as a tool that everyone uses”. January 2005, elearningeuropa.info portal.
(2) New Learning Environments in School Education. January 2005, elearningeuropa.info portal
(3) Bottino, Rosa. “How ICT-Based Learning Environments Have Evolved and Which Are Current Perspectives?” October 2003, elearningeuropa.info portal
(4) Report on e-Learning Content: Access Rights, Creation, Sharing and Reuse. December 2004, European Commission - European and Training DG.