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The aim of this paper, which is based on a text originally written in teh context of the PALETTE project, is to explore trends in the development strategies of online tools and services and how they relate to leading-edge practices in collaborative working and learning. We  pay particular attention to mechanisms by which various functions are combined to provide more complex, tailor-made solutions on a flexible, personalised basis. This reflection is grounded on a survey of existing practices and trends as found and discussed online.

When talking of future developments we need to be aware of what Chaos Theory calls "path dependency". That is to say, the extreme importance of the starting point for the nature of outcomes of future paths in complex situations. For this reason, we have chosen not to limit ourselves to any one particular set of existing tools or services. In addition, we have sought to detect emerging lines of force in the present situation as the best way to approach the future rather than speculate about future uses and tools.

At the same time, the widespread success of certain emerging technologies does condition what will be acceptable in the near future. Users who are accustomed to the possibilities and the ease of use offered by platforms like Google Docs or Last FM or Flickr or Diigo or FaceBook … will not want to use tools that don’t have comparable performance and ease of use (1). While the number of users acquainted with these new tools remained small, developers could afford to ignore such changes, but as levels of adoption rise and users become familiar with and then take for granted these new possibilities, developers may no longer be able to ignore the demands of users.

See also "Building on unforeseen ideas from technology watch" which was a follow up to this article.

Nodes and axes of change in the way technology is used in learning

Two of the greatest challenges in working on the usage of technology are the rate at which both the technology and its usage change and the complex relationship between usage and technological development. The apparent acceleration of change raises methodological problems both for research on learning and organizational practices as well as for software development, in particular when that rate of change is faster than the pace of development or research. In this case, there is a risk that development produces software that is no longer needed and research produces knowledge about situations that is no longer pertinent. These problems are made all the more difficult if the change is not linear, but involves the emergence of unexpected shifts in paradigm.

Evidence would seem to indicate that just such a paradigm shift is underway in the uses of technology for exchange, collaboration and knowledge building. On the one hand there is the incumbent, insular approach, building closed islands of software that can do a considerable number of tasks and that are aimed to capture clients, locking them in to a given logic and blocking them from changing because of the investments made. Such services have longer development times limiting their ability to respond to change. They also require a longer learning curve for potential users and new versions, although welcome, are also a disruption of use. On the other hand, there are micro-applications that are open, supple, flexible, modular and interconnected allowing combinations of functions and services that offer new possibilities each time: never twice the same solution. These applications, which generally need a platform to work, are easy to use and require very little effort on the part of the user.

A similar paradigm shift would seem to be underway in learning. The traditional institutional approach to learning is closed and complex, making learners dependent on the incumbent organisation for learning. It involves delivering the same pre-packaged knowledge to whole groups of learners. Note that even in those places where a more personalised approach has been adopted, it is still geared to the institutionalisation of learning. Learners are seen as individuals and their acquisition of knowledge is carried out and tested individually. Learning takes place in fixed locations, at fixed times, with approved content and with officially appointed people who also have the right, the duty and the power to assess and certify what has been learnt. The new learning paradigm is much more open and flexible. It opens the door to non-institutional and informal learning. It involves collaborative learning that pursues tailor-made paths dictated by individuals and groups. It also shifts emphasis from distributing tasks and sharing ideas to monitoring progress and refining goals (2). Learning takes place at any time and in any place. Any person is a potential source of learning. The value of much learning, as in Communities of practice (CoPs) is "measured" by its usefulness in solving concrete problems and explaining and improving the way things are done. It can also be assessed by its contribution to the strength of the identity of the CoP and its capacity to assimilate new members and new ideas.

On closer scrutiny, however, this image of the paradigm shift oversimplifies our understanding of the situation: with a before and an after and a rift in perspective or approach between. As a model on which to base understanding and to pilot change, it is too limited and too limiting. In reality, there are a whole series of axes and nodes of tension along and around which usage is evolving and it is the combination and the interaction of these axes and nodes of change that make up the overall evolution of the situation. As an example of such axes of tension, there is that between processes and results: both in terms of use of software services but also in terms of learning, different approaches range from emphasis on results to an accent on the process, and why not a combination of both. Another axe would be between the privileged place of learning, working and connecting like the school or the workplace or the home and the "here, there and everywhere" in the vision of "ambient" learning and "pervasive" technology. Confronted with this complexity and the related uncertainty, the piloting of work on developing usage of technology for learning purposes lacks a holistic approach to the emergence of new usage that could provide guidance for technological development and the pedagogical and organizational support to communities of practice.

It is interesting to note that predictions (3) of major technological advances, unless they be in publications specifically centred on education, make no mention of learning. An intriguing paradox: in the so-called society of information (and knowledge) learning is not seen as being at the forefront of technological development. Pursuing that paradox, while highly worthy of exploration, would take us beyond the scope of the current text.

The present article sets out to explore a number of current nodes and axes of change that punctuate, traverse and shape the usage of technologies for exchange, communication and learning by structured as well as ad-hoc groups and communities. It does so not so much in terms of specific technologies but rather in terms of generic characteristics of usage and tools related to the evolving technology. Examples are given, however, of existing technologies that illustrate aspects of these forms of usage.

Nodes and axes of change

From castles to Lego bricks and back again

On the one hand, there are the applications. The metaphor for these applications might be the castle with its wall of protection, its guarded access to the outside world and a whole life that goes on within its walls that is largely self-sufficient. These integrated applications are generally multi-functional, invariably complex, frequently proprietary and often closed. They work on a computer and require a specific OS. They may be able to connect to other applications on the machine or beyond to the Internet, but that interaction is limited. The data is often in a format that is specific to the application and can only be used by another application if it is transformed into another format. You have to pay for these applications and they are periodically up-dated, at a price. New versions need to be seen to be new. If they weren’t why would you pay for them. Learning how to use them takes time and amongst the plethora of their functions many are frequently not used. In the area of learning, much of the commercial but also open source response to the need for online tools has pursued the integrated application paradigm, with the development of learning platforms, learning management systems and other VLEs (Blackboard, Moodle, ILIAS, First Class, WebCT,...). The use of such integrated applications could be seen to correspond to more formal and institutional settings, providing what would appear to be a stable and trusted place for learning.

On the other hand, there are the micro-applications. The metaphor here might be the Lego bricks that plug together and are interchangeable. Each brick has its own function, shape and colour. And thanks to the base-sheet provided with the bricks, you can build any number of things with them. Micro-applications are generally mono-function. They are modular, open and designed to communicate and interact with other apps and APIs across the Internet and between machines. They are OS independent, although they generally require a platform online. They often separate function, content and layout such that content can be dealt with by any number of micro-apps and appearance and language can be dictated by the user without affecting content. As a result, micro-apps are potentially interchangeable. The short development cycle for such micro-apps makes them more suited than larger integrated applications to a fast changing context in which practices evolve rapidly. As a result, these micro-apps are likely to be more used in less formal and informal learning and in contexts that require rapid adjustment to complex, fast changing situations as in the case of many professional CoPs.

There is however, not necessarily an opposition between the two "paradigms", provided they can work together. Modular micro-applications allow easily modifiable chains of actions to fit a wide variety of customisable working scenarios, but certain fixed chains of actions, as in more complex integrated applications can also be useful and convenient.

Layout and interaction

The Web was initially intended by workers at CERN to help publish and exchange results of research. HTML was designed to permit a minimum structure for text documents. Progressively other elements have been added to text on the Web page and the layout of these elements has become more flexible and complex. By "layout" we mean the physical positioning of "objects" (such as blocks of text, photos, videos, sound) with relationship to each other. Applications like Dreamweaver or iWeb enable the creation and positioning of such blocks for web pages.  With time, some of the "objects" included in the layout may be computed on the basis of data taken from elsewhere. The 2D metaphors used in this work include the page, the window, the desktop, and the workspace.

One result of the use of platforms that enable the composition of "computed" objects together on one web page (see Netvibes or Facebook or Popfly) is that the user can "compose" his or her own "environment", aggregating personalised sources of information and selected functions. In so doing, such modular, flexible environments potentially challenge the existing monolithic learning environments mentioned above, although, to the best of our knowledge, no one has yet created such a platform dedicated to "learning" (or social networking for knowledge development).

In terms of “layout”, much of what is presented in the "layout" mode is the result of a process rather than the process itself: web pages, articles, photos, videos, statistics, ... There is some depiction of processes as with mind-mapping using sites like or software like Inspiration. In these cases the relationship between objects is not just a question of position but also of the nature of the relationship depicted by arrows, lines and symbols. For the moment, there is very little dynamic depiction of processes. This would involve the interaction between "objects" in terms of use or transformation of data from one by another with changes taking place in real time. One could imagine a tool for peer exchange and group learning, for example, that graphically represented the process of a project with its phases and outcomes (linking in to other applications for collective editing, assessing and publishing material as well as planning and managing work) and, at the same time, helped identify shortcomings in knowledge within the group in relationship to the project (linking to evaluation tools) and assisted the formulation of suitable learning strategies (scenario building tools) as well as pointing to possible sources of knowledge (sophisticated search engines for documents and a social networking context for sharing knowledge and experience). 

On a different level, in terms of the interaction between micro-apps in relationship to learning, particularly in CoPs, one of the consequences of the modularity of such apps, their relative simplicity, their mobility and the portability of data, is that so-called "learning scenarios" can be mapped out with a combination of apps in a much more flexible way at a finer level of granularity, tailor-made on a case-by-case basis by the users themselves. Such "interactive" learning scenarios might also combine a limited number of larger integrated apps or platforms with a multitude of micro-apps. Each new learning situation is then an occasion to combine and re-combine a series of functions using apps and micro-apps. That the combination might be different each time implies that the contractual relationship between the user and the makers of apps will probably be different, involving a much shorter-term relationship and looser ties on the part of the user and a much more compelling necessity for the programmer to respond to users' needs and propose new and better ways of doing things. Simplicity, ease of use, intuitiveness, high level of integration, reliability, capability, minimum user investment,... will be major user-based criteria for judging the quality of apps.

Here, there and everywhere

Let's look at the notion of "place" with respect to computing, seen from a (simplified and very approximate) historical perspective. Stage one: there is the computer and a limited "something" inside it that is relatively inaccessible to most people. Stage two: as graphical interfaces appear, "place" shifts to the computer screen and becomes more accessible and richer in terms of content. The creation of the computer "mouse" links the hand to the eye and makes moving around the screen easier. At the same time, computers begin to communicate with each other and can exchange certain documents, albeit clumsily. Stage three: the Web is born and any computer can access the web. With the advent of the Web, a metaphorical virtual world comes into existence that is accessible from anywhere, although content is limited mainly to text documents in the beginning. The computer remains the privileged window onto that virtual world, although access is only possible when the computer is connected to the Internet. Stage four: the virtual world can be embedded in the computer resulting in a first blurring of the frontier between the computer as the home foyer and the Internet as the big outside virtual world. Widgets, calendars and other gadgets synchronise with data online creating the illusion that the Web is in the computer. Updating only occurs when the computer is online and it is only automatic one-way from the Internet to the computer. Stage five: offline working synchronises automatically when connected, up-dating material online. Google Gears or Adobe Air, for example, are working on this (See TechCrunch article ). So the distinction between here and there fades even further as the computer increasingly becomes a possible anchorage of the virtual world - one that is here, there and everywhere.


A number of inventions have influenced our notion of mobility. Ranging from the sandwich to the portable phone and including such things as the portable radio, the Walkman, the Diskman, the portable computer and the PDA, these inventions all favour more or less instant access to resources that otherwise would have remained out of reach. The key factors as far as mobile communications are concerned are decreasing size of access devices, ubiquitous access via wireless links and "rich" content. As key functions and critical information covering a large range of activities in life are increasingly more readily available online, the need to access this information and those functions becomes more pressing. From a user perspective, this implies the constant availability of a "virtual" world and the related activities, even when one is on the move. One of the challenges in accessing the Internet from multiple devices in various places, is the need to control access to your documents, programmes and working environment in secure but user-friendly ways (the single sign-on).

But mobility is not just about machines and access, it also about data and access to that data. Data itself needs to be mobile so that it can move from one platform to another, from one application to another. Data needs to be in a format that can be used by all similar types of apps. Data also needs to be potentially available both online and offline. Google Gears, for example, works with a local cache that acts as a temporary store when the machine is not connected to the Internet. There is also the question of functional mobility, freeing micro-apps from platforms and operating systems that they can function in many different environments. As a result, the operating system or the platform used could well become less important.
Individuals and groups

There is a double movement underway both in terms of learning systems but also in terms of technological possibilities. On the one hand, the individual is increasingly enabled (technologically) and empowered (pedagogically, institutionally and socially) to pilot his or her own learning. "Personalisation" has become a buzz word and the concept has driven efforts to personalise learning in schools. The degree of personalisation ranges from a limited choice between a series of options dictated by an institutional (and technological) context and complete freedom extending to non-institutionalised and informal learning supported by all manner of technologies, many of which were not initially conceived for learning.

On the other hand, learning is less and less perceived as an individual activity. From a theoretical perspective, learning is increasingly considered to be situated, embedded in a context with individuals, groups, devices, objects, tools, etc. At the same time, learning is seen to be distributed, i.e. the knowledge is shared amongst the members of a group or community (4). Amongst other things, growing interest in peer exchange and communities of practice reflect that change. Sharing and collectively working on resources become key activities, with tools like Wikis and platforms for social bookmarking supporting it. In this context, resources need to be either individual or shared at a flick of a switch.

Content creation

An axe of change crosses the field of content, stretching from the "broadcast" paradigm in which unified content is made available centrally for all learners to the distributed paradigm where content is created by a large number of actors and freely chosen from by those who are interested in it. The textbook is typical of the broadcast paradigm and much use of the Internet characterises the distributed paradigm. The broadcast paradigm builds on the idea that the creation of content is the province of experts and that people learn by assimilating existing knowledge through pre-designed content (otherwise known as "surface" learning). In technological terms, it corresponds to certain VLEs and elearning platforms designed to deliver set content according to a curriculum or course and carry out standard testing using methods like multiple choice questions. In the distributed paradigm, much of the content is produced by the learners themselves. In creating content and sharing it with others, learning is achieved through the negotiation of understanding and the reification of that understanding in the material published (this is known as in-depth learning). From the perspective of the experts of the broadcast paradigm, the distributed paradigm raises the question of quality control. From the perspective of the champions of distributed paradigm, the content produced is the fruit of authentic learning. In technological terms the distributed paradigm implies enabling the creation of web pages, providing tools for social bookmarking, enabling exchange and collaboration, facilitating the storing and recovery of multiple documents,... It also implies the provision of diagnostic tools and tools for self-evaluation. It is interesting to note that that learning platforms generally embed an implicit pedagogical choice.

A second axe of change crosses the content field: one that stretches from knowledge embedded in content as a complex, interrelated whole to modular content where small parts of knowledge are articulated and can be combined to make more complex knowledge. This second, modular paradigm in technical terms is epitomised by the "learning" object, in which small manageable units of content and, in some cases, related software functions are stored in a repository and can be retrieved and combined to construct a multitude of learning scenarios. This paradigm might even be called "industrial" in that it follows an industrial metaphor of construction using standard spare parts. Much of the meaning in the embedded paradigm lies in the relationships between the different ideas in the overall content. This meaning is lost in the industrial model if no provisions are made to represent the relationships between objects.

Alan McCluskey & David Touvet, Fribourg.

  1. As an example of how foresight and good design can set the bar very high for other players, see this article about the iPhone which says: “The touchscreen device loaded with a full Web browser that allows people to shrink and enlarge Web pages set a new standard for what people can expect when surfing the Net on their phones.”
  2. Hewitt J., Scaramalia M., Design Principles for Distributed Knowledge Building Processes, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1998.
  3. See, for example, the Wall Street Journal on "Thinking about Tomorrow"
  4. Houghton, Warren, Engineering Subject Centre Guide: Learning and teaching theory for Engineering Academics, HEA Engineering Subject Centre, Loughborough, 2004
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Created: September 9th, 2008 - Last up-dated: September 9th, 2008