CDL Dean's Blog

By Tom Mackey, Ph.D.

iStudy: Social and Community Informatics

Posted by tom mackey on January 22, 2011

One of the many advantages to teaching at SUNY Empire State College is having the chance to develop personalized learning contracts with students for independent study opportunities.  As a College, we offer individualized and collaborative approaches to learning that include independent study, group study, and a range of open and online studies (with 500 courses to choose from).  This sense of openness and innovation to multiple modes of learning was outlined brilliantly in the 1971 Prospectus for a a New University College to establish a non-residential, degree-granting University College, which of course became Empire State College.  This document declared the importance of flexibility and experimentation (which is an ongoing activity) and established the emphasis on individualized learning, distance learning, prior learning assessment, service learning, and international studies.

It is within this framework of innovation and flexibility that allows current students who take online courses, for example, to also pursue independent studies with instructors (either F2F or online).  Conversely, students who pursue independent study options in F2F settings can enhance their degree plans with online studies, and/or service learning. 

In the fall term I had the chance to work with a student on an Independent Study (iStudy) that illustrates the value of this kind of flexibility.  The iStudy emerged from a conversation in an online course I teach in Digital Storytelling.  I happened to blog about a course I developed at another institution on the topic Social and Community Informatics.  This was an Honors course that met F2F and included an extensive online component.  Students completed service learning projects and worked collaboratively to document this work in blogs, wikis, and in-class presentations.  I wrote about this experience for a chapter entitled “Developing Blog and Wiki Communities to Link Student Research, Community Service, and Collaborative Discourse  in my second book, Using Technology to Teach Information Literacy. For the iStudy version, the biggest challenge was to develop a learning contract for an individualized study based on a collaborative course model.  I worked this out with the student who completed the study and it was a highly successful experience. Student feedback on the learning contract and learner-centered observations made throughout the study contributed to the evolution of this project during the term.

Outcomes of this study include a course blog from the student entitled A Time to Help, as well as a multimedia presentation that documents her leadership in managing a community-based food drive for the Regional Foodbank of Northeastern New York.

The learning contract for this course also allowed for a comprehensive field study observation of the service learning location, and the exploration of social and community informatics as an emerging field through writing, reflection, technology exploration, and interaction with members of the community and community partners.  All of the projects for this study, and communications between student and instructor were completed entirely online, based on F2F work, and at the local level.  Imagine the network of learners we could connect, across the state and around the world, using Social and Community Informatics as a way to engage with diverse communities.  In this 40th Anniversary celebration of Empire State College, it is important to note the accomplishments of our learners and to reflect on the openness and flexibility we have to create  learning environments that take many forms.