Does the availability of online learning tools encourage more collaborative approaches to education? Over a decade ago, articles within The Journal of Interactive Online Learning emphasised the value of using online tools to enhance teachers’ productivity and professional satisfaction, enabling them to have “a voice” beyond the classroom. More recently, students have been encouraged to use collaborative writing tools, such as Google Docs, to enable them to reflect, in the light of each other’s experience, on their potential roles as creators of knowledge, or portfolios, from the earliest stage of their studies.
It has been suggested that in creating such portfolios, individuals can organise their learning according to their own “Personal Learning Environment” based on the use of their personal choice of information-management tools. Furthermore, if an individual student becomes accustomed from the earliest stages of their studies to applying their learning to the idea to creating a portfolio, it can potentially show an employer that they have learned to apply their acquired skills and knowledge to different contexts, as well as to work within teams, far more so than a mere proof of qualification could ever do. From this premise, it has been suggested that the use of social-media tools (including customised “elgg” tools) may also become a basis for the educational process to become more “progressive” due to its receptivity to utilising any or all forums for educational purposes.
The value of collaboration is certainly not a new idea: the saying that “two heads are better than one” is as old as society itself. What is, perhaps, a new idea within this debate about online learning tools is the attempt to redefine what is the purpose of a “liberal arts education”. While this has connotations for all forms of educational institutions, it is a debate that is perhaps most related to the long-term educational debate (since universities were first created in medieval times) of “what is the idea of a university?”. On the surface, redefining the parameters of this debate in the light of contemporary society’s needs may seem to be only a positive development. A traditional argument regarding the value of a liberal arts education is that it is a process that enables an individual to fully develop their understanding of what it means to be human and, from this basis, acquire the skills necessary to later contribute as a free individual to the development and collective wisdom of adult society. This very notion of collective wisdom may seem to have connotations of religious precepts, or a preoccupation with the ideas of wisdom and discernment as moral concepts. To many contemporary eyes, however, this can seem to be too much of an “ivory tower” idea, as if education is a process designed to satisfy only the individual, not the community. And yet what is a community but a collection of free individuals?
What is the relationship between the collation of knowledge and collective wisdom? From a business perspective, the value in the collation of knowledge is the aggregation of data sets to enable more effective, or productive, business analysis tools. The “big data sets” generated from online social media exist to serve this purpose and this can only be a good thing, according to a business logic. But does this data embody human wisdom if it does not take account of the free agent that is the individual? Is the traditional “liberal arts education” idea still not the ultimate guarantor of individuals’ independence of thought, even if it be still conceived partly in the light of the traditional contrast between Greco-Roman (abstract logic) and Judeo-Christian (moral logic and wisdom) world views or traditions of thought?
Just as coexistence is an essential feature of life, there is no reason why different models of education can or should not also coexist. Online research tools and presentations can illustrate the past worlds of Greco-Roman and Byzantine civilisations just as much as the present, and they should also be able to highlight the common denominators of life in every age. If there is perhaps a naïve sense, or even fear, in some quarters that new forums for the dissemination of information can serve to dissolve meaning, this may be but the result of the sense that it is the business world rather than the humanitarian intellect that is setting the agenda for such developments. However, a flip side to this situation is that processes cannot be assessed fully until all results are produced.
It may be true that the business world has played an ever-growing role in the professionalisation of society ever since the nineteenth century. It may also be true that it is only in the present of ubiquitous online information that the results of this development are becoming evident to all. The forums for online learning may be considered as an illustration that the processes of business-analysis of information and humanist-enquiry, also based on information, are and essentially have always been co-existing and far more mutually beneficial than may be evident on first glance. The old saying that it is by the fruit that we can recognise the value of the endeavour has myriad connotations that can be as liberating for the mind in the present as in any age. The processes of mind mapping may simply have changed its outward form.