Towards a self-organising learning environment
Jon Dron, Chris Boyne, Phil Siviter, Richard Mitchell, University of Brighton
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This poster presents a practical demonstration of the current iteration of CoFIND (Collaborative Filter In n Dimensions), a web-based collaborative learning environment, the structure and content of which is generated by the combined individual actions of the learners who use it.
CoFIND starts with the assumption that there are many useful learning resources available on the World Wide Web and that learners will be able to find such resources and learn from them through a process of study and conversation. The main module which defines CoFIND is a system for collaboratively bookmarking learning resources. Links to resources are entered by the learners themselves and are stored as URLs. These URLs need not refer to an online resource as the system allows learners to generate and store a web-accessible textual description of any resource at all, be it a film, a book, a person, a place or a particularly interesting object.
Collaborative rating through qualities
Incorporating a collaborating rating mechanism, CoFIND allows its users to generate new metadata about learning resources in the form of evaluation criteria known as qualities. All resources may thenceforth be evaluated by all users of the system according to how well they match those qualities. CoFIND's ability to rate resources in more ways than the conventional like/dislike or use/not-use criteria of a conventional collaborative filter provides the n dimensions referred to in its name.
Qualities describe what learners value in resources. Typical qualities are "useful" , "good for beginners" and "comprehensive" , although learners may enter any quality that they wish. Resources are returned in a list ordered by a metric based on their average ratings and number of ratings received for a selected quality. To avoid an unmanageable profusion of qualities, the list of selectable qualities is ordered by popularity, with unpopular, seldom used qualities falling off the bottom of the list altogether in a process analogous to evolution. Successful qualities thrive by providing lists of resources that are useful to learners.
An online learning environment
As well as its collaborative bookmarking system, CoFIND incorporates a number of more conventional features found in online learning environments, including the ability to upload files to the system and a threaded asynchronous discussion forum for each resource. Uploaded files and individual discussion messages may be added to CoFIND as resources, allowing the collaborative rating system and discussion mechanism to act as ways of evaluating and assessing resources generated by the learners themselves.
CoFIND allows topics (binary categorisations of resources into subject groupings) to be entered by the learners, thus creating a collaborative course structure. Work is in progress to make these topics self-organising, but at present they are simply accepted by the system and allow their originators to place them into a hierarchical structure.
The combination of collaborative rating in n dimensions, collaborative resource generation and categorisation, together with the means to discuss and comment on resources gives each CoFIND system the ability to build and to organise itself according to the inputs of its users. No CoFIND system is quite like any other and each CoFIND system can organise itself in many different ways depending on the qualities that learners are seeking in resources, and so it tailors itself to the specific needs of each individual learner and each group of learners that use it.
CoFIND is implemented using Microsoft's ASP. It is configurable to allow its administrators to limit the ability of learners to add topics, qualities, resources or upload files. This gives it the flexibility of behaviour to enable it to be used in a range of more conventional environments than the completely self-generating form of the full version.
Uses of CoFIND
CoFIND has been implemented in a number of different forms to provide support for conventional taught courses, including the following examples:
- Using a version of CoFIND that prevents users learners from adding resources or topics, students of HCI have collaboratively generated the criteria which they believe make a website more or less usable.
- A version of CoFIND which prevents students from adding topics has been used to provide the resource base and online discussion mechanism for an undergraduate module in networking, where lecture and tutorial notes co-exist with other resources related to the lecture themes. This not only encourages students to contribute to their own module, but also encourages them to evaluate the lectures and tutorials themselves. In this way CoFIND provides a feedback mechanism which helps the tutor to better adapt the module to the students' needs.
- Full versions of CoFIND are used to support a masters degree in information systems as well as a final year undergraduate module in network management, where the systems are allowed to develop without constraint.
This poster demonstrates these systems and the results achieved through using them.
Links to various CoFIND systems and related resources may be found at http://www.it.brighton.ac.uk/staff/jd29/cofind.html
- Jon Dron
- is a Senior Lecturer in Networking and Network Management for the School of Information Management at the University of Brighton and is a PhD candidate researching self-organising network-based learning systems.
- Dr Richard Mitchell
- is Visiting Professor of Computing for the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Brighton. His wide ranging research interests include design by contract and object oriented design, in which areas he chairs/is on various programme committees throughout the world.
- Dr Chris Boyne
- is a Senior Lecturer for the School of Information Management at the University of Brighton. His broad research interests range from philosophy to interface design.
- Phil Siviter
- is a Senior Lecturer for the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Brighton. His main current research interests lie in developing a framework for interoperable courseware objects.