Social Learning, Online Virtual Environment, and Discussion Forums: Technological Tools Fostering Aristotle’s Good Society

” Of the three lives Aristotle speaks of, the life of action, the life of contemplation, but we lack the other, contemplation. That, I thought, is why ours is a violent city.”         ~ John Donne

Introduction: 

 According to Aristotle, a culture can be judged based on how it pursues three lives: the life of activity and productivity, the life of enjoyment, and the life of contemplation. In an English classroom, for example, I could translate these three lives to writing, reading, and thinking about what one reads and writes respectively. As our society ineluctably transitions from a print-based to a digital culture, it is important to examine these three ‘lives’ of the learning 2.0 classroom in their technological forms–social learning, online virtual environment, and ‘learning to be’ platforms.

Social Learning–Life of Activity and Productivity:

Brian Morgan and Richard D. Smith in their article, “A Wiki for Classroom Writing,” discuss the use of wiki in literacy education as a means to improve writing. They show through a project done by Mr. Smith’s classroom how wikis are great tools that help in writing instruction. In his class, Mr. Smith had students conduct research at the library, and students composed first individualistic writing drafts. Students shared their drafts by uploading them on their group wikis. Each group collaborated together through the wiki to revise, edit, proofread, add sections, and ask questions about revision and grammar. In that sense, the collaborative wiki format “makes revision an integral part of the process” (p.81).

A positive highlight regarding wikis is that in addition to the skills of writing that students acquire in their regular classrooms, in wikis, the writing process is “more visible to the students and teacher” (p.81). Hence, the writing process was emphasized and revision consisted of continual process of slight collaborative modification. This, as we know, strengthens the students’ abilities to engage with the text as writers and readers. The environment “provided immediate, contextualized feedback,” thus strengthening the relations among audience, purpose, and structure of the writing” (p.81).

In addition, the use of wikis allowed students to participate more frequently and freely. They could post their brainstorming ideas, preplan through graphic organizers or mind maps, and restructure their draft as the project progressed. Wikis, as we see, can be considered strong tools that enhance the writing instruction through the collaboration of writing–highlighting the phase of activity and productivity in the English classroom.

This shift in which students study in groups and collaborate together transforms the learning into another level of life of activity and productivity in which the premise of “I think, therefore I am” becomes “We participate, therefore we are” as Brown and Adler explain it in their article “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0” (p.2).

Online Virtual Environment–Life of Enjoyment:

 Online research, reading, exploration is another tool that brings forth a gift of easily accessible, readily available, rich information, and active interest to reading. In their article, “The Best of Both Literacies,” Margaret Weigel and Howard Gardner capitalize the strength of online reading as they encourage this new digital media of literacy. They show how students now with the unlimited access to information “can pursue a myriad of personal interests through digital media. For virtually any interest you can imagine, you can probably find a website” (p.40). Thus, teachers can use the new media to incorporate students’ interests into the formal curriculum and by doing so, learning becomes “more interesting, personal, and relevant” (p.40).

Students could work with a series of text based and multimedia materials that will make them able to assimilate information and be able to distinguish what is considered important and what is trivial. For example, Wikipedia “involves process of legitimate peripheral participation that is similar to the process in open software communities” allowing students to participate in the critical reading process (Brown and Adler, p.20).

Through such activities, the online virtual environment offers students powerful incentives and joy to engage with materials and learning. It’s “affordability, ease of access, and breadth and depth of compelling content provide powerful resources that educators have at their disposal in today’s classroom” (p.41). Thus, it becomes another technological tool used that can instill the phase of enjoyment in the classroom culture.

Online Discussion Forums–Life of Contemplation: 

 The life of contemplation can be reflected through the deep discussion, critical thinking, and exploration of complex ideas that technological multimedia offers for students. With online wikis, message boards, facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other social networks, the potential for creativity, learning, and discovery encourages deep thought, deeper reflection, and a better understanding as students become are involved in extended discussions, debates and study sessions and connections.

Implementing Socratic-type discussions in online discussions and engaging students in this level of discourse are motivated by curiosity that springs from questions. This curiosity brings forth more questions, which create a cycle of curiosity that leads to deeper understanding and thus, to a higher level of thinking. The Decameron Web is a great example that illustrates the resourcefulness of the web leading to a life of contemplation as students are allowed to try out the “scholar’s” stand on issues as they debate in open source communities their thoughts.

Students may become more engaged in their interests and may start thinking about them even beyond the classroom sessions as they get to reflect on others’ ideas and critiques which leads to “learning to be.”

Conclusion: 

 Online literacy through social learning, online virtual environment, and online discussion forums prove to meet the needs of different individuals within a culture and foster all three dimensions of Aristotle’s good society. The implementation of such technological tools can help shape the development of an analytical, probative approach to knowledge in which students view the information they acquire not as an end in itself, but as the beginning to deeper questions and new further articulated thoughts and thus shift happens from learning about to learning to be…

References: 

 Adler R. P.  & Brown, J. S. (2008). Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. Educause Review, 43 (1), 16 – 32.

Koopman, B. L. (2011). Socrates to Wikis: Using Online Forums to Deepen Discussions. The Phi Delta Kappan, 92 (4), 24 -27.

Morgan, B., & Smith, R. D. (2008). Technology in Literacy Education: A Wiki for Classroom Writing. The Reading Teacher, 62 (1), 80 -82.

Weigel, M., & Gardner, H. (2009). The Best of Both Literacies. Educational Leadership, 66 (6),

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