Launched in October 2005, this research and development project is working to create an open virtual learning environment for university students across Europe by connecting different open source learning systems and tools and providing interoperability amongst them. In this learner-centred space, students and educators may work collaboratively on assignments across disciplines and across countries - with a focus on the integration of students and universities from the New Member States (NMS) and the Accession Countries (AC). iCamp offers students and educators tools for collaboration and interaction as well as access to a variety of resources.
This project uses technology to create an infrastructure for collaboration and networking across systems, countries, and disciplines in higher education. iCamp pursues the idea of gathering people (learners, facilitators, peers, etc.) into one common virtual learning environment. This virtual environment does not consist of a single software system, but is composed of various interoperable tools and platforms. Each element of this patchwork of open-source solutions and the entire space are compliant with a paedagogical model built upon a social-constructivist approach. This model encompasses social networking, scaffolding for self-directed learning, incentives, and cross-cultural collaboration aspects. The efforts have resulted in guidelines on paedagogical and technical issues, as well as in an open-source software package that links student blogs and other social software tools into a virtual collaborative learning environment.
iCamp personnel at more than a dozen universities across Europe set out to close the gap between existing educational software tools - usually rigidly structured and teacher-controlled - and the free-wheeling, self-directed social software students use in their spare time, such as blogs, messaging, feeds, and other social networking services. The researchers believe that students gain new knowledge and skills most readily by working together with others on projects that they themselves define and manage, facilitated rather than controlled by teachers. In addition to the specifics of what students learn, organisers point out that iCamp's approach prepares them to be more self-directed, teamwork-oriented, and technologically adept later in life. "It's a more democratic way of using technology for teaching, where each learner can build his or her own learning environment and pick the tools needed for a specific learning task."
During the course of the project, the iCamp team followed a design-based research approach with a strong focus on designing for real-life trials, getting feedback from practitioners and feeding this knowledge into advanced paedagogical concepts and new technological developments. For example, having acknowledged that weblogs would be one of their basic building blocks, researchers worried that blogs generated on different systems were often not compatible, so students could not conveniently manage joint blogs or track and contribute to each other's blogs. The iCamp software developers found that support for interactions between blogs was essentially unavailable. To solve this problem they developed FeedBack, a system that essentially lets blogs and bloggers communicate with each other easily and manage automatic feeds and updates smoothly.
Once they had resolved the interoperability problem, the researchers went on to create additional communication and collaboration tools. One of these tools is an open-source software package called iLOGUE, which "scaffolds" self-directed learning by guiding learners through the steps of specifying a learning contract, setting goals and sub-goals, identifying resources, and maintaining a learning diary, and discussing their learning progress and problems with the facilitator and their peers.
The technical development was based on a large survey, covering over 100 institutes in 27 European countries. As one example, social science and computer science students studying quantitative research methods took on the task of designing an online questionnaire. The social science students shaped the content while the IT students developed the software. The researchers learned that the tools they have developed work well, but also that the software alone does not guarantee success. Project facilitators need to be highly motivated and experienced in this novel approach to learning. In addition, resolving national and institutional differences in requirements, curricula, and even course scheduling turned out to be prerequisites for success.
To foster public awareness of its work, iCamp produced material such as leaflets, a project website, a poster, a promotional video on Youtube, and the handbook "How to Use Social Software in Higher Education". A printed version will be distributed to higher education practitioners at future events, which also afford networking opportunities with other initiatives that have facilitated cooperative iCamp spin-offs. Click here to access the handbook and other iCamp resources. All software developed in the project is publicly available in the iCamp public code repository.
iCamp personnel assert that one of its greatest strengths "has definitely been the large [amount of] fieldwork that was performed during the three years and that made us aware of current highly restrictive institutional policies with regards [to] the use of technologies. Such restrictive policies are hindering factors when it comes to educat[ing] autonomous and self-organized citizens. The democratization of institutions remains an important move that we need to take in Europe and we believe that the iCamp approach may be one small step in this process."
The project is funded by the European Commission under the IST (Information Society Technology) programme of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
"Learning by Blogging", in the ICT in Education e-newsletter, from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, December 16 2008; iCamp website; email from Barbara Kieslinger to The Communication Initiative on April 29 2009; and "iCamp Final Report" [PDF], January 2009.