Role of Computers in the Promotion of Environmental Education

Computers have caused a revolution in education, but the tremendous changes seen in the last decade may be surpassed in the next as those computers are connected in a global education network.

Teachers and high school students sample the water in Lake Baikal in Siberia while at other lakes around the world, other teachers and students take similar samples from local lakes and subject them to the same simple water-quality tests. Via their school computers, they exchange their results and their observations about how water pollution problems are the same around the world. They are part of a “global laboratory” project that includes scientists specializing in water pollution.

A similar computer network pins citizen activists, joined with students, teachers and scientists, in “sister watershed” groups throughout the world.

Amateur birdwatchers and biologists pool their rare bird sightings in a North American computer network that is linked with bird researchers in Central America and South America.

The differences between classroom and community education are blurred on the global computer networks. Voluntary organizations, government agencies, students and teachers are all involved in a real that has become, for many, a virtual classroom, without walls, and increasingly without borders.

Already, pilot projects have high school students sharing the methods and results from field studies of environmental quality, using computer telecommunication to leap national boundaries. Elementary school children share their life experiences end visions of the future the same way. Their messages to one another, passed with tremendous speed and shared simultaneously among many classrooms, provide strong, personal lessons in science, geography and human relations.

Environmental education curriculum development, pursued independently and often in isolation by teachers, school districts and universities over the past two decades, is now linked in a global forum that can respond immediately to the ever more complex and urgent environmental problems the world faces. Teachers the world over are connecting with their counterparts to discuss how they can do their jobs better. Co-ordination of international education projects is less burdened by the constraints of time and travel budgets as computer networks provide forums for collaboration.

The technology for this exchange takes advantage of the personal computer’s ability to communicate over standard phone lines using a modem. The simplest networks connect personal computers in a “store-and-forward” system that echoes messages from one to the next, until all have copies. These least-cost networks are linked to larger, faster computers that act as central information storage banks and relay stations. They in turn exchange information with one another and tap the power and data in computer systems at major research and educational institutions.

In many ways this vast new sea of information presents its own challenges, often akin to “drinking water from a fire hose.” The enormous glut of fact and opinion is impossible to take in, and has forced those who would taste its power to devise new ways for organizing and sampling the information flow.

Electronic mail services and computer “conferencing” let students and teachers communicate with each other privately, or publicly as members of large discussion groups. Computer conferences are organized much like those where people meet face-to-face, except that the meeting rooms are inside each participant’s computer. Computer conferences transcend time zones, since participants review and comment on each others’ written postings as their time and interest allows. Everyone gets to read and think about questions or statements posed in a conference, and everyone has a co-equal opportunity to reply.

Computer networking is making classroom walls disappear. Real environmental problems are entering the classroom with immediacy via computer nets, and students are jointly seeking understanding and solutions with scientists, citizen activists, journalists, government officials and community leaders of all kinds. While access to computer networks is still remote for most people on the planet, it is becoming more and more available to the gatekeepers and opinion-leaders who help shape common understanding of the global situation. The increasing abundance of the multiple information sources available via computer networks, if viewed as a well-stocked marketplace, may also stimulate demand for more and better goods by the world’s information consumers.

Citizen participation in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), for example, has been ccoordinated via computer networks on seven continents, giving NGOs access to complete text of the preparatory committee documents, and providing public forums for news and issue discussion. This availability of information has a dramatic effect on how an event such as UNCED permeates the mass media everywhere.

Underlying the often chaotic view presented by the mass media, structures are developing to channel the new rivers of information to empower this and coming generations to deal with the issues it describes. A variety of efforts at computer networking for environmental education provide some great models. At the root, these efforts are all based on the same notion: that environmental problems must be viewed with a global perspective, but responded to by individuals acting locally, in their own communities or homes.

All of this new technology is not without cost, and the developed countries are clearly ahead in providing computer access for education. But even in the United States, where computer telecommunication is becoming commonplace, profit rather than educational reform is a dominant force in determining who gets access.

The harsh reality has motivated citizen computer networks to band together in the international Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to make computer network access broadly available. The APC hosts several promising educational efforts on its partner computer networks that now extend to more than 90 countries around the globe. These services may be tapped by anyone with a personal computer and modem, often via a local call, at costs roughly equivalent to a newspaper subscription or monthly telephone bill.

The education projects offered on the APC networks are examples of how low-budget computer communication can fit into community programs and classrooms.

The Role of Social Learning Portal in Research and Education

The significant changes in the means people collaborate and share information have opened the way to form various study groups at different places and from different disciplines. A distributed learning environment not only involves teachers and students within the university, but extends to students at different universities as well. Nowadays, many technologies are used in e-learning, from blogs to collaborative software, virtual classrooms, forum exchanges, social media and mobile technologies. One of the most important characteristics of web 2.0 technologies is that they emphasize sharing, participation, and collaboration. A well-designed learning environment helps to improve learning by making information and instructional content available and accessible anytime and from anywhere.

Social learning is defined as a new paradigm of finding, consuming, creating and contributing information via collaborative commons. In this environment, community creates and maintains multiple forms of content and members of this community are able to find and consume content via an informal path. Collaborative learning environments have been proven to offer significantly higher quality of content as compared to formal learning environments. Additionally, social learning creates a higher degree of engagement among participants and members can benefit mutually from the links, cross-talk, and feedback. A lot of research has been done on the role of Web 2.0 services in supporting social interaction between students, teachers, and researchers.

In light of the benefits associated with the rapid advance in information technology and the growing popularity of social-networking sites, many websites are moving to adopt learning communities for easily sharing knowledge. Social learning websites are expanding and becoming more specialized; they support creating private and public work spaces. Furthermore, those websites promote active conversation between students, employees, teams, project clients, and partners. ‘Livemocha’ is an online language community that is specialized for language learners, connecting with native speakers for instructive help. ‘Bloomfire’ is an additional example which specializes in building an effective knowledge base for businesses through a collaborative environment; this website easily supports sharing knowledge and the discussions that surround business topics. ‘Google Docs’ is a service by Google that allows people to share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with others. ‘Zoho’ supports creating collaborative portals for effective knowledge management. Users can create a searchable, centralized information repository for easy organizational access. Some websites offer communities to build their own social networking website (i.e. ‘socialgo’). They provide a set of features including profiles, messaging, groups, events, chat, forums, blogging and file upload. To enhance online collaboration between students, there is need for online community that can connect students from different universities and research centers.

This article highlights the importance of developing a Social Learning Portal between universities as an application of social learning between academic institutions. This specialized community can be administrated by information technology centers at universities. This community includes university students and teachers, and accounts are granted to students with valid university IDs. Information about students’ universities and departments are public in this online community. The social learning portal can be divided into several communities; one community for each department, including all participating universities. Each community can be further divided into sub-communities according to specialization, for example, the major community is Computer Science, sub-communities include Computer Networks, Web Development, and Object Oriented Programming. In addition, joint communities can be formed between different departments, which can help different university students share experiences and collaborate. For example, a research project may include students specialized in Computer Science and Bioinformatics. Students who belong to this community can share the proper, related learning content and resources easily with other students.

This social learning portal enhances scientific research; it provides an online working structure for collaborative projects. Embedded in a user-friendly interface, the portal will offer research and publication guidelines for students. In addition, Social Learning Portal supports research group formation (under the supervision of involved departments) that combines students from different universities and various academic backgrounds. Instructors can add new groups according to their research interests, they can assign research participants to the group, and activities can be viewed by students from all universities; when students join the group they can see the group’s posts on their wall, and they can participate by writing comments. Furthermore, students can contact instructors from other universities. Universities can assign weekly hours for instructors to be online and discuss some problems posted by students (office hours).

To develop a successful social learning website, factors must be considered during the design and development and some questions must be raised:

1. What is the role of universities for successful implementation of social learning?

2. The attitudes of teachers and students towards using social learning platforms, and the effectiveness of existing platforms.

3. What are the possibilities and barriers of implementing new and effective features/technologies for social learning in universities?

By introducing a specialized social learning community, the quality of the education process at the universities will be enhanced, scientific research will be emphasized, and social networks will be a more effective and reliable tool.