Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Online Curriculum and Creating Community

I met with several staff yesterday from the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education. Like many offices and organizations, they would like to increase the usefulness of their online materials. This office is amazing. Over the years, they've written no less than 11 major curricula that can be used by both teachers and folks that provide training to teachers. All of their materials are available on the Web and many have been written with Web parts that provide interactivity.

So what's their problem? Success is their problem. Their curricula are in use by thousands across the country. They'd like to provide more help to the users and would really like to help teachers understand how entire units can be used to teach biology. But like many offices, they don't have the resources to redevelop the existing materials in any kind of reasonable time frame.

So what's the solution? The answer lies within the Web 2.0 revolution. What is Web 2.0? It excitement and energy. It is innovation. It is what we saw in the 90s when everyone had to have a Web site. Most importantly though, Web 2.0 is community. Community is what makes social animals different from solitary hunters that live out most of their lives alone. The behavior of social animals are complex and driven in part by what is happening to their fellows. In 1994 Web pages were essentially solitary animals. Yes, they could link to other pages but their behavior wasn't affected by those links. Enter now the twenty first century. Web pages are no longer alone. They interact with other pages and are changed by those interactions. This is called "social media" and it is the essence of the Web 2.0 revolution. It is the difference between a solitary insect such as a preying mantis and a social insect like a honey bee.

Have I digressed? One solution is to build a community where the members can help each other. This will reduce the burden on OSE resources while promoting successful self help. Social media can be used to create an environment where users will find what they need quickly, share what they've learned and connect with others who have similar interests and goals.

The essential idea is to create a Web site where members can easily post questions or information. Over time, users will establish their own folksonomy for the Web site. Foksonomies are informal taxonomies where community members assign their own tags or key words to information. The system uses those tags to create connections with other related information. Users can quickly follow those key words to information and answers that are likely to help them.

Members will also be able to set up profiles and share information about themselves and their aspirations. Profiles allow members to be found by colleagues and other like-minded folks. And more importantly, members will be able to view the profiles of the "friends of their friends", so to speak. This allows members to rapidly find like-minded individuals.

The success of this approach to Web site design is proved by the rapid proliferation of social media sites such as LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and Del.icio.us.

The office is only in the planning stages now. But stay tuned, I think the drive and creativity of this group will produce a site that will challenge the public's view of a "government" Web site.

Jim Angus