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The Web as a Creative Thinking Partner

By Michael DeSchryver / December 2016

TYPE: INSTRUCTOR DEVELOPMENT
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The web forever changes how and when information is accessed and mobilized for use. Ubiquitous mobile devices provide a near infinite database of both hard and soft resources for consumption in schools, at work, and beyond. Anyone with basic search skills can find the same information as their fellow students and workplace colleagues. As such, a new paradigm for information consumption and knowledge production is emerging. The competitive learning advantage of web usage is not about finding static information, but producing flexible knowledge from what the web has to contribute. When users provide a "value-add" to online information, it transcends and is transformed into contextually specific knowledge that emerges from a generative process. In this way, the web becomes more of a creative cognitive partner and less of an online encyclopedia.

This is no small feat. However, teaching users how to harness the web for context-dependent, higher-order thinking is the logical evolution in a rapidly knowledge dependent world. Some of my recent work provides a beginning roadmap for doing just this [1–4]. Initially, my work with undergraduate pre-service teachers demonstrated the pressing need to explore this topic. Then, once I began working with advanced Web users, I proposed a theory that outlined a framework for more generative web-based learning. What I call "Web-Mediated Knowledge Synthesis." Since then, I have been integrating and adapting these ideas in online master's courses. This article outlines the development and application of the "Theory of Web-Mediated Knowledge Synthesis."

Web-Mediated Knowledge Synthesis

I began thinking about the impact of the web on creative thinking many years ago. At first, I studied how aspiring math teachers used the web to brainstorm new and creative ways to teach students about probability and the Pythagorean theorem [5]. The results were not promising. Eight undergraduate students, across 4.5 hours of online research, used only 20 conceptually unique keyword search phrases (rarely outside of the mathematics domain), and generally produced ideas experts in the field rated low on creative scales. These findings supported other research indicating that the web is primarily used for information finding [6]. That is, even given a creative task, many users do not use the web as a creative partner.

My next study netted more intriguing results. It was a two-part study, and started with an extended literature review of educational psychology, reading comprehension, hypertext, and web-based reading, Cognitive Flexibility Theory, and creativity. From this review, several ideas came to the fore. First, much of the previous research about online learning used synthesis to describe higher order use of the web. However, the definitions of synthesis in these settings were often lower order in nature. It entailed organizing, combining, rearranging, rewriting, compiling, and/or structuring web-based information in a way that facilitated understanding of the text(s) encountered. As such, I developed a proto-theory of synthesis for learning in online settings.

When organizing or combining information, users demonstrate a "synthesis of meaning." A more sophisticated, higher-order, way to generate knowledge from the text(s) encountered would be to practice a form of "creative synthesis." In the former case, web users develop an understanding of the explicit and implicit informational meanings in online texts. In the latter case, web users generate knowledge that is neither explicitly stated nor implied in the texts.

Armed with this perspective, in the second part of this study, I observed a more expert group of students. In this inquiry, advanced learners (graduate and professional school students) used the web to explore ill-structured tasks related to climate change. Across the eight participants, a variety of more creative uses of the web emerged. And, from the data analysis, the theory of Web-Mediated Knowledge Synthesis was born. This theory is comprised of several components that work at times individually, and at other times in concert, to support creative syntheses of knowledge in Web-mediated learning environments. These components are:

  1. divergent keyword search phrases;
  2. synthesis for meaning;
  3. in-the-moment insights;
  4. repurposing;
  5. reinforcement; and,
  6. note-taking.

(More detailed accountings of this research and the theory development are available in my earlier works [1–3]).

Divergent Keyword Searching. When discussing how the web might require "new" skills and strategies for reading and research, the first major differences between offline and online learning is that nearly all-online activity starts with a keyword search [7]. Of course, the choice of keywords impacts what you see. As noted earlier, participants in the first study who explored probability and the Pythagorean theorem rarely used keywords unrelated to their task; their keywords demonstrated consistent search phrases. In the second study, not only did participants use keywords beyond those outlined in the task, they also explored keywords beyond the climate change domain. Both of these comprise divergent keyword search phrases, with those from outside for the domain considered "far afield divergent."

Synthesis for Meaning. Combining, rearranging, rewriting, or compiling information from the web helps users synthesize meaning from the various resources they encounter. From the second study, the role of synthesis for meaning as a crucial component to supporting creative synthesis of knowledge emerged. In this way, web users need to be able to know more about the topic(s) they are exploring before they can creatively synthesize knowledge about it. What the web may provide is a real-time proxy for background knowledge. That is, even though participants in the second study did not know much about climate- change behavior, the web helped them quickly fill in gaps in this knowledge.

In-the-Moment Insights. There are several more generative activities that supported creative synthesis on the web on my second study. An in-the-moment insight occurred when participants visited multiple websites (which, of course, can happen quickly on the web), they began to bounce these ideas off each other to combine them with background knowledge. This sort of combinatorial idea play often supported conceptual leaps beyond the web resources visited. New knowledge was generated. However, the knowledge produced by this specific activity was often not a "solution" to the task at hand, but one of the creative building blocks toward a full creative synthesis that represented a more holistic solution.

Repurposing. Participants in the second study also found information on the web that could be modified in substantive or meaningful ways to provide additional building blocks towards a larger solution. This was a generative form of repurposing information into new knowledge. It happened when the one or more of the essential qualities of information found on the web changed, while other qualities stayed the same. The participants added value to this by facilitating a contextually productive evolution of it. The web is technologically amendable to this sort of transformational thinking, and there is a parallel cultural shift toward remixing that is now prevalent across knowledge domains [8].

Reinforcement. In large part due to the scope and multiplicity of the web, participants in the second study also encountered the same or similar ideas at different times and in different resources during their sessions. Analysis of these instances demonstrated revisiting information multiple times on the web can strengthen understanding (i.e., produce a synthesis for meaning), and at other times lead to additional generative insight (i.e., results in an in-the-moment insight or repurposing). The primary benefits of reinforcement derive from seeing similar ideas through different perspectives and in different contexts.

Note-taking. Participants in the second study were encouraged to "use any techniques or strategies for saving and organizing information" they deemed helpful. There were no specific requirements for note-taking or providing references. But, of these participants, seven of the eight took substantial notes during their sessions. Some of these were offline, and some online. The notes varied from verbatim to summary. Most were linear, but some of the offline notes were also non-linear. However nearly every synthesis activity in the study resulted in or from some form of note-taking. This emphasized the continued importance of note-taking as learners move from traditional offline resources to those primarily found online.

Creative Synthesis

As noted above, the various components outlined occurred alone at times, at other times in quick secession, and at other times in near harmony. In doing so, this multiplicity of component use helped produce holistic solutions to the problems and tasks provided that were "new and more or less well-integrated" [9]. The process was iterative, but otherwise followed no clear path. That is, at times each component supported other components, and in various combinations supported creative synthesis. For instance, synthesis for meaning, in-the-moment insights, repurposing, reinforcement, and note-taking all supported new divergent keyword choices at different times. The complexity demonstrated when these components worked together in this way is explored in detail [1–3].

Teaching Web-Mediated Knowledge Synthesis

With a working theory in hand, I moved on to a more ecologically valid environment to further explore these ideas. In the context of a design-based research study, I have since been integrating this framework into an eight-week online classes in the master's in educational technology program at Central Michigan University.

The course evolved as follows. First, each week has a different "real-world" topic for students to explore from two different task perspectives. They are first asked to explore and document their learning about an open-ended topic using the web (a reading-to-learn task). The second task is a more focused, creative task (a reading-to-do task); students are asked to write a memo to a specific audience in their field. Each week, students also reflect on the skills and strategies they have practiced, and peer review the work of a fellow student.

Along with the new topics, students also get a new set of skills and strategies to promote creative exploration of these topics on the web each week. During the first week they focus on note-taking. A key point of emphasis is that online notes are often considered permanent and offline notes temporary, each with different affordances.

In the second week of the class, students are given a new topic and encouraged to synthesize meaning across several websites each time they make entries in their notes. Specifically, they are instructed to "combine information from at least two websites for each key idea. " As technical support to this process, students are also encouraged to use multiple browser tabs to organize search results and resources visited.

In week three, along with a new topic, I introduce the strategies of divergent keyword searches and "background checking" ideas. For the latter, whenever students find or have an idea they think is new or creative, they are asked to search more about that idea to develop a greater sense of its true creative impact. The "background" phrasing is used to encourage reinforcement of ideas in a more colloquial, student-friendly manner.

During week four, I ask students to document any "aha" moments they encounter on the web. Use of colloquial language proved more amenable to student understanding than in-the-moment insights. The hope is the students begin to see the web as a creative cognitive partner. I also ask students to incorporate short one-minute breaks during their online research for this week, which is intended to support incubation, an oft-cited essential for creative thinking [10]. Finally, students are encouraged to visit "a variety of website types (newspapers, blogs, journals, videos, comments, etc.) to facilitate a multiplicity of resources, perspectives, and forms."

In week five, students are introduced to the idea of repurposing. They are instructed to find ideas from outside of schools (the context for most weekly topics), and try to change them somewhat to fit the purposes of the weekly educational topic. In so doing, they are asked to provide a link to the original web page, indicate the specific text from that page that they are repurposing, and describe what they change about that idea and what stayed the same.

Week six is a break from the reading-to-learn and reading-to-do tasks, as we revisit several important ideas through online discussion. The two most critical of these include: (1) what constitutes a "new, creative" idea; and, (2) the difference between using the web to verify existing ideas and information and using it to synthesize meaning. Once students could better grasp theses concepts, the skills and strategies they were practicing made more sense to them. During week six, students are also afforded the opportunity to reflect upon what skills and strategies work best for them, and for what type of task.

In week seven, students are assigned a final topic and practice time for all of the new skills and strategies introduced during the semester they deem useful. Finally, during week eight, students perform two transfer tasks. In the first they take a step back and look at the reason for the skills and strategies introduced in the course through the lens of Carr's now infamous assertions about the web making everyone stupid [11]. Then, they focus more narrowly on the skills and strategies introduced during the semester and explore how they might be able to integrate some in their own teaching to benefit their own students.

At present, the design-based research underlying these efforts has produced a stable curriculum intervention, and the tasks are producing work that is demonstrating anecdotal evidence of gains in student abilities to use the web as a creative partner. There is also promising data that points to how students are beginning to differentiate what skills and strategies are best used in learning versus creative tasks. I continue to teach these courses and collect related research data. The next steps include performing more rigorous analysis of the work products provided. For instance, using expert review to analyze the task two products from week one and week seven to determine if qualitative changes in creative products over time are evident.

Implications

Although the Web-Mediated Knowledge Synthesis theory emerged from both laboratory and classroom settings, it has likely implications for any setting where the web is used as the primary source of information and ill-structured tasks that require creative solutions are common. This includes many university subject-areas courses, most professional degree settings, and any workplace that contributes to or benefits from the "knowledge economy." The tasks, terminology, timing, and scaffolding provided in my current courses can easily be adapted to nearly any learning context that centers around complex problems that require creative solutions. In my course, I provide both individualized feedback and generalized feedback. However, over time, the ratio of the latter to the former has shrunk, as need for specific general scaffolding has become apparent and can be accomplished in a somewhat programmed way through general feedback. In this way, not only can the curriculum model be repurposed for a variety of teaching and learning environment, but so can much of the feedback.

Give that ubiquitous access to information is beginning to devalue information as a commodity in both classroom and the workplace, knowing how to add value in the form of creative synthesis will be an increasingly important skill set. This article provides an overview of some work underway that may provide a roadmap to preparing both students and professionals to better do so.

References

[1] DeSchryver, M. Toward a theory of web-mediated knowledge synthesis: How advanced learners used the web to construct knowledge about climate change behavior. Doctoral dissertation. Michigan State University. 2012.

[2] DeSchryver, M. Toward a framework for Web-mediated knowledge synthesis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association, Dallas, TX. 2013.

[3] DeSchryver, M. Higher-Order Thinking in an online world: Toward a theory of web-mediated knowledge synthesis. Teachers College Record 117, 3 (2015a).

[4] DeSchryver, M. Web-mediated knowledge synthesis for educators. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 58, 5 (2015b), 388-396.

[5] DeSchryver, M. and Mishra, P. Googling creativity: An investigation of how pre-service mathematics teachers use the web to generate creative ways to teach. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY. 2008.

[6] Kuiper, E., Volman, M., and Terwel, J. The Web as an information resources in K-12 education: Strategies for supporting students in searching and processing information. Review of Educational Research 75, 3 (2005), 285-328.

[7] Henry, L.A. SEARCHing for an answer: The critical role of new literacies while reading on the Internet. The Reading Teacher 59 (2006), 614-627.

[8] Lessig, L. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York, The Penguin Press, 2008.

[9] Bloom, B.S., M.D. Englehart, E.J. Furst, W.H. Hill, and D.R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1956

[10] Smith, S. M. Fixation, incubation, and insight in memory and creative thinking. In S. M. Smith, T. B. Ward, and R. A. Finke (Eds.), The Creative Cognition Approach. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1995, 135-156.

[11] Carr, N. Is Google making us stupid? What the internet is doing to our brains. The Atlantic 301, 6 (2008), 56-63.

About the Author

Dr. Michael DeSchryver is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Central Michigan University. His research focuses on using the web for creative thinking and teaching for creative thinking. He is also the director for Central Michigan University's new Doctorate in Educational Technology, offered completely online.

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