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Synapse: An Idea Manager for Learning

Chris Jennings

Synapse is an online personal database for constructing knowledge that allows users to associate independent ideas with relevant web content and dialogue meaningful observations with others.

Imagine that all of the knowledge and written work you had accomplished in school related to information from your personal and professional life in a customized database for on-demand retrieval. Synapse is an online personal database for users to construct knowledge by associating new ideas with relevant information captured online, annotating content with original thoughts and observations, and sharing that independent thinking with peers that have similar interests.

Synapse can be used to take notes, perform research, find related knowledge, or record personally relevant information, thereby alleviating the need for copying and pasting links or bookmarking. Users can construct knowledge by creating original ideas in an editor or capturing meaningful information they have read online using a browser extension. Synapse gives users the opportunity to organize information and associate it with similar items using tag words for searching.

Once entered into the database, Synapse uses the tags to find related pieces of personal knowledge and creates tag clouds to navigate to similar content items. Users can also annotate original ideas or captured information with draggable sticky notes to make contextual observations. Both the original idea or captured item along with annotations can be shared with other users who can build on that knowledge by submitting their own ideas.

Synapse connects new concepts with previously explored ideas. It encourages users to explore ways they structure knowledge in a useful and engaging way. In a scholastic context, Synapse creates a record of academic research and learning outcomes that students may revisit and revise on demand for life-long learning and reference. Synapse gives instructors the additionally ability to pre-evaluate students prior to teaching and make informed curriculum decisions about gaps in student knowledge. Instructors can then share information and references in a format that students actively make compatible with their own associations.

After Jean Piaget formalized the idea of constructivism in 1967, educators viewed learning as the construction of new knowledge based on individual experiences. The idea that learners compare new information with existing representations of the world inspired educators to reassess how people process and retain knowledge. As Margaret Gredler points out, individuals construct knowledge in different ways based on prior experiences that is often complex and multi-dimensional.

Ernst Von Glaserfeld emphasizes that the responsibility of learning should increasingly reside with the student, rather than instructor. Learning takes hold when learners construct their own understanding of a subject matter based on prior knowledge and experience rather than simply repeating back information.

Additionally, Colleen Willard-Holt shows that a dynamic model of assessment can better evaluate student learning compared to traditionally static models requiring rote memorization. In a dynamic model, assessment acknowledges the interactive nature of learning and becomes a two-way relationship between instructor and student through meaningful dialogue of the student’s work and progress.

Synapse is based on a social constructivist model of learning in that it requires students to actively build on foundations of prior knowledge in cooperation with their peers and instructors. It recognizes that learners organize and contextualize information in different ways relative to their own social and cultural backgrounds, and so expects that each person’s evolving knowledge database will be distinct and unique. Instructors can use Synapse entries to assess student knowledge and work, make helpful suggestions, and provide resources to better educate learners.

The broad audience for Synapse includes people interested in finding better ways of managing information as a means to enhance learning. Synapse users should be willing to put in some time to process information that they find relevant and engage in dialogue about content. They should also be inspired to create their own content (whether borne of independent thought or inspired by information captured online) and willing to share that content with others in the service of furthering knowledge.

The natural audience for Synapse is students who are Internet proficient and committed to the idea of improving their learning processes and general knowledge of subject areas. An ideal group of learners include what learning theorists have termed “digital natives” -- a generation of learners that have grown up using technology tools first-hand as part of their everyday lives. They have tendencies to absorb information quickly using images, video and text from multiple sources simultaneously, are used to receiving media and information on demand and expect immediate responses and feedback. Digital natives are considered ideal candidates for “student-centered” learning which empowers students with the self-awareness and tools to create their own structures of knowledge. These learners tend to be more autonomous, active in their learning, highly creative and communicative, and play key roles in their own learning processes.

User Scenario
Because of the flexible nature of this application, Synapse can be used in a variety of ways:

Mike is reading an article in the New York Times that has to do with the industry in which Chris works. Instead of copying and pasting the article into email with general comments or sending it directly from the website, Mike captures the article using his Synapse browser extension so that it associates with his existing network of personal knowledge. He then writes a comment and moves that comment to the relevant part of the article and shares the article with Chris using the application. Chris gets in an email in his box with a link to the article where he can read the article as well as Mike's in-line comments, and reply back accordingly.

Jesse is sitting in class and someone makes a reference to the "uncanny valley". Jesse has never heard this term before so he does a quick internet search and finds some history about the term. He uses Synapse to capture the information and associate it with similar information in his database. As he mouses over his new content, he can see other items related to it that he may have forgotten or wish to revisit.

Kim is a college instructor with a small class of students who record their academic work and research using Synapse. She asks the students to share the work they have completed on a particular topic through the application. Kim can then take some time to see what kinds of work the students have recorded and send them ideas with annotated comments from her own personal database that relate to their work and fill gaps in their knowledge. Kim can also watch their work evolve over time as they accumulate new research and produce original ideas whose structures are more transparent than simply seeing the final result.

Sarah hears about an up and coming new artist that has a show at a local Chelsea gallery. She has not heard of this artist before, but the work sounds very inspiring to her. She opens up Synapse on her Internet-enabled mobile phone and records the information with tags based on her understanding of the work. When she next logs into her computer, the information will show up on her Synapse home page. If tags to the work exist in the database, she can visit revisit content that she has previously recorded to map relationships with this new artist. If her tags don't already exist as items in her database, Synapse will direct her toward an Internet search that will allow her to bring in relevant information.

Kesha is having a political discussion with some friends at a bar where she remembers reading a relevant article with some interesting facts that she can't quite remember. During the course of the discussion, she discretely looks up the article that she captured using Synapse on her internet-enabled mobile phone and recounts the figures expertly to her impressed friends.

The Synapse back-end is largely built in PHP running on an Apache development server with MySQL. The front end is built using a combination of PHP with Javascript/AJAX. The browser extension capture tool is adapted from an open-source Firefox extension called Aardvark ( which is written in Javascript.

The application is cross-platform running on both Windows XP and OSX in all major browsers and is untested in Windows Vista. However, the browser extension capture tool at this time only works in Firefox 1.5 or better. To utilize all the features and for best performance it is recommended that users use Firefox.