People often talk of the Internet as a venue for open learning. But this openness often means simply that students can explore a vast array of resources, perhaps coming across sources that neither they nor their teacher expected.
It’s useful to think about the various ways that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) create additional possibilities for open learning, including both its benefits and costs. Several years ago, Umesh Thakkar, Eric Jakobsson, and I along with others developed such an analysis for the case of Biology Workbench (see Molecular Science Student workbench and Swami). The general idea is that Biology Workbench could facilitate open world learning.
Biology Workbench is a suite of computational tools and data sources, which is used by scientists across a wide range of disciplines to explore and analyze protein and nucleic acid sequence databases. There is a wide variety of analysis and modeling tools, within a point and click interface that ensures file format compatibility.
Thus, Biology Workbench is not an alternative tool for teaching biological concepts, although students who work within it can expand their understanding of biology significantly. Rather, it is an exemplar of a venue for learning, one in which students explore genetics, protein structure and function, physics, chemistry, and other domains of inquiry, invoking processes of pattern-matching, probabilistic reasoning, and both inductive and deductive analysis. Its potential significance for learning relates to three major ways in which it is an open system.
Open Data and Problems
The Workbench architecture provides the potential for using information technology to provide an open world of learning and exploration. Previous approaches to using computers in education have focused on the creation of closed worlds in which students could navigate and explore. Many of these computational environments are excellent and useful, but they are limited. Students are not encouraged to investigate the unknown. In general, students cannot investigate phenomena that the creators of the environment themselves do not know.
The open environment of the Biology Workbench is fundamentally different. By providing access to essentially all that is known about biomolecular sequences and structures, together with powerful analysis and visualization tools, the Workbench makes it possible for students to learn more than what their mentors and teachers know, and even to generate new basic knowledge. The key idea here is not only that there is a large amount of material, but that the data are constantly changing as a result of scientific work. This is true of course for the Web in general, but appears more striking in the case of rapidly changing molecular data (see point #2 below).
This aspect of the Workbench was exemplified by one instructor who was using the Workbench in a university class. She commented that once the students went beyond working through specified exercises, they were essentially doing original biological research, doing analyses that perhaps had not been done before, and she was hard pressed to know how to grade their work.
Open Computational Environment
In addition to providing a window to the entire world of molecular biology, the Biology Workbench is open in a second sense. It is continually growing, adding new features that extend its capabilities and domain of applicability. New domains of applicability include the ability to reconstruct metabolic pathways by utilizing data from newly developed microarrays (gene chips and metabolic flux chips) and the ability to do molecular simulations. The Workbench continues to grow as the whole field of computational molecular biology grows, because it is more than a computer program. It is a computational environment that integrates tools for exploring and learning about all aspects of molecular biology. This dynamic growth is both a plus and a challenge for teachers or curriculum designers who might reasonably seek consistency in their curricula.
The Biology Workbench exists within a community of investigators working across a variety of areas within molecular biology. These investigators are not only users, but creators of the system, as they add their research results to the available corpus of articles or their findings result in additions or other modifications of the databases. This community is a powerful resource for education, but it does not exist to meet educational needs per se.
Students who attempt to learn through the Workbench are able to enter into that community of investigators. In so doing, they have stepped outside of the protected world of the classroom. Their learning becomes much less structured, even potentially hazardous without the assurance of carefully vetted curricula, but it can also be far more engaging and applicable to learning beyond the classroom.