George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

A New Model of Education: Designing Virtual Communities for Creativity and Learning

The boundaries that define various school stakeholders are breaking down.

May 1, 1999

Bringing about real change and innovation in any endeavor or organization is really about people. Though technology can be a catalyst for much-needed change in our educational system, it can be really effective only if we support, enrich, and leverage the creative work and lifelong-learning opportunities of all the people who, together, form a learning community -- learners, providers, payers, and policy makers.

In the past, the domains of learning for each of these four stakeholder groups were considered separate from the others. For example, students were viewed primarily as learners, authors and publishers were the providers, parents and teachers were the payers, and government officials, school administrators, and members of the school board were the policy makers. This division of responsibility was based largely on a model of education and views about learning and work that emerged from the needs and practices of the industrial age.

Early in the twentieth century, most students were being prepared to work in factories or organizations that required very little innovation or continuous learning. In this model, knowledge creation was viewed as the activity of a few select experts, and the "packaging" and transfer of this knowledge or expertise from teachers to students (as if knowledge were a substance) was the dominant model of education in the classroom.

Individual competition, standardized assessment, and eliminating as much variation in as many aspects of the teaching and learning process as possible were also seen as major goals of education, as they provided predictability regarding which students were most likely to succeed -- and which were most likely to fail.

"Knowing is literally something which we do."-- John Dewey

As we have entered the information and communications age, a major shift has taken place in our understanding of how people really learn (both in classrooms and informally), as well as in what kinds of work and preparation are required for twenty-first-century jobs.

A main area of job growth is in what former Labor secretary Robert Reich called symbolic analysis, or knowledge work. In this kind of work, value is developed by all the groups involved in a learning community through creating, sharing, and applying their own new knowledge, not just in acquiring or absorbing knowledge created by others.

In the area of knowledge work -- and with the rapidly increasing use of computers, multimedia, and the Internet -- a learning community is created through an alignment of the four domains or stakeholder groups shown below. This process is inherently a set of collaborative, constructive, and creative activities of members of all these groups, and members may play all four roles (sometimes simultaneously) in creating a shared vision of a learning community.

The success of these communities will ultimately be their ability to become effective and creative knowledge designers, as well as information consumers. And it is in their ability to create new knowledge for themselves, their local communities, and others globally where these communities add real value.

Toward Virtual Learning Communities

The growth of new kinds of virtual learning communities has emerged as a by-product of the rapid growth of the Internet and related new media. Data and information are now being created at a far faster rate than most experts can convert this information into forms of knowledge that can be communicated effectively to teachers, students, and the general public.

Virtual communities address this problem by providing an environment for people to connect with and learn from others through collaboratively participating in the construction of new knowledge. In their book Net Gain, John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong identified four basic kinds of needs these virtual communities provide their members:

  • interest (for example, shared interest in biology, cosmology, or cars)
  • relationship (for instance, shared life events, such as cancer, death of a loved one, senior citizens seeking companionship)
  • fantasy and imagination (say, use of online role-playing games to bring out different aspects of members' personalities and talents)
  • transactions (trading, buying and selling, brokering, and so on)

Research in the cognitive and learning sciences has also showed us that different people learn in various ways and have distinct learning needs at various times in their lives. Many research groups, such as the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) and the Center for Workforce Development of the Educational Development Center, have also pointed out that learning is a fundamentally social activity -- whether it be in schools, workplaces, or other environments.

It is also going on all the time, often through the informal interactions we have with different people every day. (This is one of the main reasons for the widespread popularity and rapid growth of chat rooms and email as today's dominant forms of interaction on the Internet.)

Government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, have already supported many exemplary programs in developing new curricula, integrating technology, and providing new models for professional development of teachers. One of our greatest challenges in education is how to spread or scale the successful innovations from these funded programs to new participants and how to leverage the investment in educational research and development through connecting these efforts with one another. Using technology to build virtual learning communities may well be one of the best means to support teacher collaboration, as well as providing widespread scale-up of these efforts.

Building Communities of Knowledge Designers

A uniqueness of cyberspace is that the growth of the Internet enables (and demands) the continuous creation of new content, interactive learning, and collaboration environments -- and the users themselves are creating more and more of this content and knowledge. Like the designers of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, we are now the architects of the worlds and spaces of cyberspace that we will inhabit -- at school, at work, and at home.

As Cesare Pavese said, "To know the world, one must construct it." Thus, we will all need to learn skills in collaborative-knowledge design so that our virtual learning and work environments can effectively support our knowledge work and creativity.

"Consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it."-- Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi

From my own work, I have realized that a key feature of successful virtual learning communities is when members design or make something together. Just as members of an orchestra, jazz ensemble, or rock group make music together, the most effective virtual learning communities are designing knowledge-based products and services together.

In order to do this effectively, new kinds of skills need to be developed that take advantage of the diverse and unique talents and experiences of different members in these communities. Below is a list of seven general kinds of new basic skills for creating effective communities of knowledge designers:

  • know-who (social-networking skills, locating the key people and communities where competencies, knowledge, and practice reside -- and who can add the greatest value to one's learning and work)
  • know-what/know what-not (facts, information, concepts; how to customize and filter out information, distinguish junk and glitz from real substance, ignore unwanted and unneeded information and interactions)
  • know "what-if . . .?" (simulation, modeling, alternative-futures projection)
  • know-how (creative skills, social practices, tacit knowing-as-doing, experience)
  • know-where (locating the best information and resources one needs in various learning and work situations)
  • know-when (process- and project-management skills, both self-management and collaborative group processes)
  • know-why . . . and care-why (reflection and organizational knowing about one's participation and roles in different communities; being ecologically and socially proactive in caring for one's world, for others, and the environment)

I believe "know-who" is one of the most neglected of these skills in schools, and yet it is one of the most critical to the success of any major enterprise in life. Because human talent is ultimately our most important resource, finding key people who have the right kinds of ideas, talents, or resources you need just at the right time is a huge challenge.

One interesting example of an Internet company that takes this notion quite seriously is the Mining Company, one of the few online startups to recognize just how important people are to the information-search and information-access problem. Rather than rely on intelligent agents and search engines, the Mining Company has built a national network of people who act as information pathfinders or brokers to help others mine their way through information space via their personal recommendations, indexing, and organizing of information resources.

Examples of Successful and Emerging Learning Communities

The ASTL Edenvale-Idalina Water Pollution Research & Arts Project

Over the past year, Linda Ullah and her fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students at Edenvale Elementary School, a school in a very low-income community in San Jose, California, have been carrying on an online collaboration with Tania Callegaro, Eliana Fredo, and other teachers and their high school students at Idalina School, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The Edenvale-Idalina collaboration was one of the major successes that emerged from online matchmaking and an international conference/workshop for teachers and educators from developing and developed countries called The Art, Science and Technology of Learning (ASTL): Designing Learning Environments for the 21st Century.

In November 1997, the ASTL conference brought together six educational coaches or mentors together with over forty teachers and educators from fourteen developing and developed countries. Participants were chosen after partnerships had been created over the Internet based on the promise of interdisciplinary educational-project proposals for providing exemplary educational experiences to students and teachers in both the developing and developed countries.

Both groups of students have been engaged in a comparative study of the historical roots, causes, and current state of water and other environmental pollution in their respective countries. A major product of their collaboration is a Web site that communicates the ongoing learning of the students and teachers in both schools -- in this case, knowledge and understanding about pollution, evidenced by presentations that integrate science, social studies, art, and poetry.

The Web site they have jointly built is unique in showing the importance of art and poetry as powerful communications vehicles for raising awareness and effecting social action in addressing the issue of pollution. The collaboration between these teachers and students has also enabled both schools to find just-in-time learning resources they need to accomplish their work.

For example, the participants discovered a Web resource that translates between English and Portuguese, as well as other languages. The project has raised the level of cultural understanding of both communities while also providing the teachers with a means of expanding their own learning and professional-development horizons well beyond the walls of their individual classrooms and schools.

At DesignWorlds for Learning, a company my wife and I cofounded to help develop and support meaningful online collaborations among teachers, kids, parents, and media and content professionals in schools, homes, and museums worldwide, we are working with a number of other projects in which new kinds of learning communities are being created.

Here are a few examples of some established and emerging learning communities sponsored by a variety of entities. (For more information, see our Web site.)

Passport to Knowledge

Passport to Knowledge has been pioneering the creative integration of live television broadcasts from remote locations with ongoing interactions with professional scientists over the Internet to bring cutting-edge scientific exploration and research directly into K-12 classrooms.

This collaboration between executive producer Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, NASA, PBS, and the National Science Foundation has provided students and teachers with live and ongoing interactions with scientific explorations and expeditions in remote environments that few people could experience directly. Recent Passport to Knowledge projects have involved divers and robotic vehicles in the Antarctic Ocean and atmospheric scientists on the Kuyper Airborne Observatory, the Hubble Telescope, the Mars Pathfinder, and the South American rain forest.

As one example, "Live from Mars" structured a number of learning activities for students to learn about Mars, beginning in fall 1996 with the launching of NASA's Mars Pathfinder and other Mars missions. The project included a major international event: the live webcast of the landing of Pathfinder on July 4, 1997, seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Learning and the Arts

Three Los Angeles educational organizations have been developing major online professional-development and curriculum resources around the arts: The Getty Education Institute for the Arts has created ArtsEdNet, a major resource and forum for teachers and arts educators around the world. In addition to offering sample curriculum activities, this site provides a discussion forum about the role of the arts in educational reform. We are now working with the Getty Education Institute to expand its resource into new kinds of virtual learning communities that encourage active participation and contributions by students, teachers, parents, artists, policy makers, and educational researchers.

A related project is the Galef Institute's DWoKNet, designed to provide a virtual professional-development community concerned with interdisciplinary learning in and through the arts. Based on the institute's "Different Ways of Knowing" (DWoK), a major curriculum integration effort in elementary schools, this Web community provides a number of discussion forums around issues of using the arts and humanities for curriculum development, integration, assessment, and school reform.

A third effort is a special MA program for teachers in "Design and Creativity in Education," developed by Doreen Nelson at the California Polytechnic University at Pomona. Nelson has been the key pioneering developer of the methodology of "city-building education" for kids and teachers in K-12 schools and higher education over the past thirty years. She and some of her former students and teachers are now using videoconferencing and the Internet to collaborate with schools in Japan and other countries to design cities, communities, and even civilizations of the future.


ThinkQuest, an educational project created by Al Weiss and Advanced Network and Services, is an annual international competition involving student teams designing interactive Web-based education and learning environments. Millions of dollars in donated college scholarships for students and honoraria for team sponsors and schools have made this the largest showcase of its kind for encouraging collaborative student creativity in cyberspace.

Teams of two or three students ages 12-18 from different schools (and often from different countries), have collaborated to design and produce a wealth of multimedia learning experiences on the Web, culminating in an annual awards ceremony attended by thousands of people.

Last year, a ThinkQuest junior competition was added for students in grades 4-6, and another contest -- ThinkQuest for Tomorrow's Teachers -- is now under way. In this competition, teams made up of preservice and in-service teachers, along with university subject-matter instructors and faculty from colleges of education, develop Web pages around content areas and/or professional development.

The Educational Object Economy

The explosive growth of the Internet over the past few years has enabled an unprecedented global linkage of information resources. One catalyst for the use of the Internet in interactive learning has been the development and growth of the Java programming language, as well as other related software technologies that allow small applications to be designed that can run on any computer. These applets can be easily linked and integrated with other applets or components, analogous to the way you can put together your own home stereo or entertainment system.

The Educational Object Economy (EOE) was initially designed as an advanced research project at Apple Computer, with funding from the National Science Foundation, to develop a new model of virtual communities that could learn from each other's contributions about how to best develop and use new component software for education and informal learning.

Over the past four years, the EOE engaged the interest and contributions of hundreds of members from all over the world -- including major high tech companies, colleges and universities, K-12 teachers, students, and others -- to create a global virtual community committed to improving interactive learning and education on the Internet. EOE members have contributed more than 3,000 Java applets and other resources for use in education to a specially designed Web site.

The site uses database technology (FileMaker Pro) that can be easily exported to either Mac or Windows servers. Through the creation of a starter kit of freely downloadable files and templates, known as the Generic Object Economy (GOE), the project has made it possible for other groups to set up their own virtual communities and Web sites in a matter of hours.

The EOE's structure has been used in major university consortiums, such as the California State University system's MERLOT project, as well as in developing countries interested in developing their own local interactive learning resources.

SRI International and the Center for Innovative Learning Technologies

The Center for Innovative Learning Technologies is a major virtual research and development consortium, funded by the National Science Foundation. Its partners include SRI International, the Concord Consortium, the University of California, Berkeley, and Vanderbilt University. One of its project themes is Tools for Learning Communities.

In a related project at SRI, also funded by NSF, ESCOT (the Educational Software Components of Tomorrow Project) is bringing together major mathematics and science-related educational-technology and curriculum projects to collaboratively develop software components and communities of teachers who can use and exchange their resources with each other to support curriculum reform and teacher professional development. Another related effort is TappedIn, an online virtual teacher professional-development community.

The Autodesk Foundation and the PBL Network

The Autodesk Foundation has become internationally known for its support of project-based learning through its annual national PBL conference for teachers. In a related effort in the area of supporting new kinds of school-to-work and school-to-career efforts, the Autodesk Foundation is one of many partners that has created the Bay Area School to Career Action Network (BaySCAN), which includes a number of coalitions of schools, businesses, and institutions of higher education in multimedia learning, teaching and learning careers, financial services, and information technologies.

One important resource in the multimedia area is SkillsNet, created by the Bay Area Multimedia Partnership to provide resources for students, teachers, and businesses around multimedia and Web-based skills development and career opportunities.

Towards the Future: The Mars Millennium Project

In a related project, designed to showcase student artistic, scientific, and social creativity, the White House announced the Mars Millennium Project for 1999-2000, a collaboration of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Getty Education Institute for the Arts and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

In this project, K-12 student teams will learn about what it takes to create sustainable, vital communities through designing communities of the future for groups of one hundred pioneers to live on Mars by 2030. This major educational project for the millennium year involved collaborations between and among many business, science, arts, and education partners, and it was also intended to catalyze an international forum for discussion about how to improve our own communities now through projecting ourselves into what ideal communities might be like in the future. A Web site of information about this exciting project can be found at


All these projects embody three elements that are fundamental for successful virtual communities:

  • Content in context: The value of educational content depends on the context in which this content is going to be used. For example, information about the nature of water pollution in both Sao Paulo and San Jose is dynamic because it is being gathered and analyzed by the students themselves, as well as engaging students in finding other resources on the Web to assist their analyses.
  • Creativity in communicating knowledge: All the national curriculum standards include enabling students to use a broader range of media and methods to communicate their knowledge than traditional standardized tests. It is well known that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it (or communicate it) to others. New interdisciplinary fields of inquiry (such as chaos and complexity theory) require that students find new ways to use computers and multimedia to visualize and communicate data and patterns. The creation, sharing, and use of various forms of knowledge in multiple media support the important idea of encouraging students to communicate their knowledge and understanding to an authentic audience of their peers, teachers, and professionals.
  • Collaboration for building communities of learners: Effective participation in the global economy means being able to work collaboratively with a wider diversity of other people. Business and industry have continually purported that today's schools need to prepare students to work collaboratively in teams (colocated or virtual) as one of the top priorities for educational reform. The Internet, along with Web-based tools and resources, is among the best vehicles we have for achieving this goal -- and, in the process, can also help build sustainable learning communities.

Acknowledgements:I wish to thank Milton Chen, Sara Armstrong, and Mark Sargent of GLEF for encouraging me to write this article in conjunction with this current issue of Edutopia.

My thanks, too, to Jeremy Roschelle, Jim Spohrer, John Lilly, Martin Koning-Bastiaan, Anil Srivastava, and Ed Gaible for their interest in, and support for, and collaborations on my past work and articles for the EOE. I am also grateful to Sherman Rosenfeld, Uri Marchaim, Linda Ullah, and others who participated in our ASTL workshop in Israel in 1997, where we actively began to explore many of these ideas with our collaborators.

I am also very grateful to have worked with Ted Mitchell, Morley Winograd, Jack Gottsman, Dave Master, Yen Lu Wong, and several others who participated in the INC "Conversation for Learning in the Information Age" during 1996-97, and to Jeff Kelley and my fellow principals and colleagues at CapitalWorks, where we are actively designing ways to optimize human capital performance, knowledge work, and continuous learning in business and industry.

Finally, special thanks to my wife and DesignWorlds partner, Frona Kahn, and to our two sons, who are continuing to help us invent what life, learning, and technology will be all about in the coming century. © 1999 by Ted Kahn

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