Using Metanotation as a Tool for Describing Learning Systems

Using Metanotation as a Tool for Describing Learning Systems

Philip Barker (University of Teesside, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-380-7.ch003
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Metanotation is a powerful tool for describing systems, objects and processes. This chapter illustrates how this tool can be used to specify the nature and characteristics of learning systems and the various artefacts from which they are composed. It is suggested that messages and messaging systems are the fundamental building blocks from which learning artefacts are created. The chapter therefore discusses the nature of communication and messaging from an educational perspective and then outlines how various types of message artefact can be used to build hybrid learning systems that involve the use of Webs, Wikis, weblogs and electronic books.
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In keeping with Shannon’s fundamental theory of communication (Shannon, 1948), this chapter regards communication as a process that involves the movement of information from one location to another. The process involves three types of agent: sender, transmitter and recipient. The sending and receiving of information can have important effects on the states and behaviour of the entities that are involved in a communication process. This is particularly so in the case of educational communication - the intent of which is to share ideas, skills and knowledge. It is therefore important to consider the role that communication and messaging systems play in relation to learning systems development.

Naturally, effective communication between individuals, groups of people and between people and machines is fundamental to human existence. It also underlies many important industries - such as those based on broadcasting, advertising, publishing, education and entertainment. Within each of these areas of activity, effective communication depends critically upon the existence of appropriate ‘media’. The printing press was the first major step forward in the use of mass communication media (Eisenstein, 1980). Now, of course, we also have film, radio, television and the Internet. All of these are powerful vehicles for the transmission of material to widely disparate audiences. Never before, in the history of communication, have media been as important as they are today. Indeed, in his famous book, McLuhan (2001) coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. Nowadays, when using this phrase, we often employ it in order to reflect how dependent organisations, groups and individuals have become on the use of media for projecting an appropriate system image (or ‘persona’) from self across to others. This is particularly relevant in the case of online communities.

From an educational perspective, effective communication is an essential pre-requisite for virtually all forms of learning activity. This communication can involve both local and global interaction with other people or objects that are external to ourselves. It can also be based on various forms of personal reflection and introspection. Of course, it is important to remember that learning is a continuous process that takes place with different intensities during an individual’s personal lifecycle. Naturally, the intensity of any given learning activity (and the level of motivation involved) is likely to be strongly influenced by the nature of the stimuli that are embedded within the communication events in which a person participates. Bearing in mind the implicit and fundamental importance of communication in relation to the design of learning systems, this chapter discusses the basic nature of this activity and then goes on to analyse the types of artefact that are used to support communication within learning environments.

As hinted at by McLuhan, fundamental to the idea of communication is the concept of a ‘message’. Essentially, communication takes place as a result of passing messages between two (or more) communicating entities using an appropriate ‘channel of communication’ - the ‘medium’. There are various ways in which this can take place and various issues that need to be considered when analysing a messaging system. Two fundamental points that have to be taken into account are: the physical content and transmission of a message (from one location to another); and the cognitive interpretation of a message within the mind of its recipient(s). Obviously, messages can be very short (as is the case in a SMS text message sent using a mobile phone) or much longer (as is the case of an article that is published in an electronic or paper-based journal). Books (both paper-based and in electronic form) may be regarded as composite or aggregated collections of many individual messages each of which is related to a particular topic of discourse - see, for example, Worstall (2005).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Learning System: A learning system is essentially a collection of artefacts that are ‘brought together’, in an appropriate way, in order to create an environment that will facilitate various types of learning process. Learning systems can take a variety of different forms - for example, a book, a mobile form, a computer, an online forum, a school and a university. Most learning systems will provide various types of learning resource and descriptions of procedures for using these to achieve particular learning outcomes. They will also embed various strategies for assessing the levels and quality of the achievement of their users.

Descriptive Metanotation: Within the context of studying systems, a metanotation is a linguistic framework that is used to describe the nature, structure and behaviour of different types of system. Metanotations usually consist of a pre-defined (axiomatic) set of primitive objects, classes of constructed objects, rule sets and transformation operators that can convert one type of object into another according to the rules specified in the set of rules.

Semiotics: This term is used to describe the scientific study of signs and symbols and the relationships that exist between them in relation to the creation of messages and the meaning that these messages embed. Signs and symbols can take many different forms - for example, textual, sonic and graphical. The meaning of symbols often depends upon their size, colour, proximity, order of presentation, and so on.

Messaging System: A message is a communication artefact that is used to transfer information from one entity to another. Messages can take a wide variety of different forms - for example, a gesture, a postal letter, a SMS text, an electronic message. A messaging system is an infrastructure that facilitates the creation, transmission, delivery and storage of messages. Electronic mail is an example of a messaging system since it provides facilities for creating sending, receibving and storing electronic messages.

Electronic Book: An electronic book is essentially a corpus of electronic information to which a book metaphor has been applied. This gives the corpus many of the structural and visual attributes that are normally associated with conventional paper-based books. There are many advantages associated with electronic books - for example, ease of distribution, updating and searching. Collections of electronic books are usually stored in a digital library facility along with other types of similar artefact such as electronic journals and electronic pamphlets.

Communication: Communication is a process by which signals, data, information or knowledge is transferred from one location to another. Usually this involves a sending agent, a transmission mechanism and one or more receiving agents. Communication can take place between people - for example, one person talking to another. It can also take place between people and the various other types of object that they use - such as computers and mobile phones. Often, the use of technology to support communication between people is often referred to as technology-mediated communication. Communication can also take place between different types of machine - particularly, computers.

Digital Object Repository: This is a digital storage facility upon which are stored various types of digital artefacts such as messages, images, sound clips, text, and so on. The repository provides mechanisms for storing, retrieving and managing the objects that are sent to it. This type of storage system usually requires various types of management processes in order to ensure that the contained objects are stored in a way that ensures their efficient retrieval as and when they are needed.

Dynamic Web-Based Artefact: A web-based artefact is an object that exists within the context of an electronic web structure. Web pages are the most common example; these can be of two basic types: static and dynamic. The latter are able to change their content and appearance as a result of various types of perturbation (or change agent) that are applied to them. Two of the most common types of dynamic web-based structure are wikis and weblogs - of course, there are many other types of dynamic web artefact such as bulletin boards and online conferencing systems.

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