Personal learning environments

Dominant design is the idea that, once a design has risen to prominence, all innovation will aim at improving it, rather than competing alternatives, regardless of whether the dominant design is better than the alternatives. The most commonly used example seems to be the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was implemented when typists would type fast enough to jam the keys of old typewriters. The QWERTY layout was designed to slow down typists in order to prevent jamming the keyboard. So, even though it’s not the optimal layout for typing, and we no longer have the problem of jamming keys, we still see all innovation aimed at improving the current, dominant design, even though it’s not the best.

Another commonly used example is the institutional learning management system (LMS). It would be hard to argue that this represents an optimal design for driving learning, yet this is the design that has risen to dominance in the higher education sector. All efforts to enhance online learning are therefore aimed at improving the LMS, rather than investigating the merits of competing alternatives.

One alternative that continues to be ignored is the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Many others have written about this and I’m not going to try and summarise their work but I did want to capture some of the ideas that I find most appealing about the concept.

We say we want students to be lifelong learners but we encourage them to use a system – the LMS – that cuts off access to their learning artifacts when they graduate. In most cases they are cut off from all of their activities at the end of each year. There is absolutely no incentive for students to invest any time and effort developing a learning space that they will lose at the end of the year. All of their interactions, content, grades, etc. are all deleted – or at best, archived – and are lost to the student. The data that they created is mined and used by the institution to make choices about future cohorts but even that data is lost to the student.

Now consider the PLE, the primary advantage of which is the fact that control of the learning environment reverts back to the student. When the student enters the university they are given hosted space on the institutional servers and taught how to manage that space. Some universities are already moving forward with this innovative system, called A Domain of Ones’ Own. In this system the student controls their data and gives permission to the institution – or any other 3rd party – to use it.

Another thing that really stands out for me is the fact that learning consists – in large part – of creating networks. The networks may be biological in the connections you make with people, digital in the connections you make with devices and content, and cognitive in the neural connections you make over time. Learning is fundamentally about networks; Think web, not website. The LMS deletes your network when you graduate, while the PLE enables you to take your network with you.

The PLE enables us to connect with people as well as with systems. People have a central online space that they control and then choose how to best to use that space and it’s connected services to learn. They choose the tools they’re most comfortable with, pull in data from other services (e.g. Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) and are able to publish their work into any of those services too. A PLE doesn’t preclude the possibility of students being connected to their institutional LMS, it just gives them other options for connection and developing networks.

There are no single platforms that constitute a PLE and no set frameworks that describe how they work; they are personal to you. However, there are some design principles to take into account that make sense for networked learning. The collection of services in a PLE should allow for:

  • Diversity: Did the process involve the widest possible spectrum of points of view? Did people who interpret the matter one way, and from one set of background assumptions, interact with people who approach the matter from a different perspective?
  • Autonomy: Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?
  • Interactivity: Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives?
  • Openness: Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?

In terms of the practical features of the PLE, it should enable the following activities:

  • The aggregation of personally meaningful information, resources and ideas in a variety of formats e.g. text, images, video, links, tags, etc., from a variety of sources.
  • The student should be able to remix those resources into different formats by reinterpreting, combining and editing them using their own personal insights.
  • It should be possible to repurpose the resources so that the student can use them for a different objective than what they were created for.
  • The student should be able to publish the newly created artifiact in a feed forward mechanism that adds new ideas to the world.

If we want students to take advantage of the enormous possibilities enabled by digital and online learning environments, we will have to challenge the dominant design of learning management systems in higher education. We need to think about systems that not only provide the support that students’ needs for their learning, but also create space for them to move in ways that suit them rather than the institution. The adoption of personal learning environments will not only require significant changes to institutional systems and how these platforms are provided to students, but will also challenge educators to think differently about the kinds of learning activities and assessment tasks that they use in their teaching practices.

Additional reading

Activity Theory, Authentic Learning and Emerging Technologies

Selection_001For the past few years I’ve been involved in an NRF-funded research project looking at the use of emerging technologies in higher education. One of the products of that collaborative project was an edited book that has recently been published. Professor Denise Wood, one of the editors, describes the book on her blog:

This edited collection seeks to fill the current gap in understanding about the use of emerging technologies for transformative learning and teaching by providing a nuanced view, locating higher education pedagogical practices at an intersection of emerging technologies, authentic learning and activity systems.

The book, which is edited by Professors Vivienne Bozalek, Dick N’gambi, Denise Wood, Jan Herrington, Joanne Hardman and Alan Amory, includes case studies as examples, and draws from a wide range of contexts to illustrate how such a convergence has the potential to track transformative teaching and learning practices in the higher education sector. Chapters provide the reader with a variety of transformative higher education pedagogical practices in southern contexts, theorised within the framework of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and tool mediation, while using authentic learning as a pedagogical model upon which this theoretical framework is based.

I made a small contribution to the book in the form of a case study that emerged from my PhD work as part of the project. Professor Jan Herrington wrote the introduction to the section on the Case Studies:

Moving from theory to practice in higher education is deeply challenging. While exploring pedagogical models in the literature may lead to tacit understanding of general principles, actually implementing these principles in practice can be an entirely different matter. Authentic learning is a pedagogical model that is sometimes misunderstood, such as when teachers believe that in order for authenticity to be achieved, learning must occur outside the classroom in the real world. In fact, authenticity – as described in this model – can readily be achieved within the regular classrooms and lecture halls of the university environment. Providing examples of successful cases of such authentic learning environments offers an opportunity to explore the practical application of a theoretical model, and provide concrete instances of implementation in different subject areas. This chapter provides three such cases. The cases presented here provide international examples of authentic learning in practice across different discipline areas, using different technologies, and focusing on different aspects of the approach. The first case (Case study 14.1) describes the use of reflective analysis and role play in the study of obstetrics, using the model of authentic learning described in Chapter 5 (Herrington, 2014). It focuses on the use of technology as a mediating vehicle for authentic learning through the use of practice dilemmas. The second case (Case study 14.2) describes specific tasks developed within an authentic learning environment, using characteristics of authentic tasks (Herrington, Reeves, Oliver, & Woo, 2004). This case describes the use of complex contexts and the development of case notes in the study of physiotherapy. The final case (Case study 14.3) explores the use of wikis and blogs to mediate authentic learning in sport science education. All the cases represent authentic learning in action, and include details of the context, the tasks, and the problems that inevitably arise when teachers necessarily relinquish their more traditional role to allow students to take primary responsibility for learning. They are also effectively works in progress, where solutions are refined and improved in successive iterations. But above all, they are visible and tangible exemplars of theory in action.

While my own contribution was small, I’m really proud that I could be part of the initiative. The book is available on Amazon in a variety of formats.

I enjoyed reading (July)

Artificial Intelligence Is Now Telling Doctors How to Treat You (Daniela Hernandez)

Artificial intelligence is still in the very early stages of development–in so many ways, it can’t match our own intelligence–and computers certainly can’t replace doctors at the bedside. But today’s machines are capable of crunching vast amounts of data and identifying patterns that humans can’t. Artificial intelligence–essentially the complex algorithms that analyze this data–can be a tool to take full advantage of electronic medical records, transforming them from mere e-filing cabinets into full-fledged doctors’ aides that can deliver clinically relevant, high-quality data in real time.

Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality (Maria Popova)

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

Is it OK to be a luddite?

Perhaps, there is some middle-ground, not skepticism or luddism, but what Sean calls digital agnosticism. So often in our discussions of online education and teaching with technology, we jump to a discussion of how or when to use technology without pausing to think about whether or why. While we wouldn’t advocate for a new era of luddism in higher education, we do think it’s important for us to at least ask ourselves these questions.

We use technology. It seduces us and students with its graphic interfaces, haptic touch-screens, and attention-diverting multimodality. But what are the drawbacks and political ramifications of educational technologies? Are there situations where tech shouldn’t be used or where its use should be made as invisible as possible?

Reclaiming the Web for the Next Generation (Doug Belshaw):

Those of us who have grown up with the web sort-of, kind-of know the mechanics behind it (although we could use a refresher). For the next generation, will they know the difference between the Internet and Google or Facebook? Will they, to put it bluntly, know the difference between a public good and a private company?

7 things good communicators must not do (Garr Reynolds): Reynolds creates a short list of items taken from this TED Talk by Julian Treasure. If you can’t watch the video, here are the things to avoid:

1. Gossip
2. Judgement
3. Negativity
4. Complaining
5. Excuses
6. Exaggeration (lying)
7. Dogmatism
Reynolds added another item to the list; 8. Self-absorption

Personal Learning Networks, CoPs Connectivism: Creatively Explained (Jackie Gerstein): Really interesting post demonstrating student examples of non-linguistical knowledge representation.

The intent of this module is to assist you in developing a personalized and deep understanding of the concepts of this unit – the concepts that are core to using social networking as a learning venue. Communities of Practice, Connectivism, Personal Learning Networks, create one or a combination of the following to demonstrate your understanding of these concepts: a slide show or Glog of images, an audio cast of sounds, a video of sights, a series of hand drawn and scanned pictures, a mindmap of images, a mathematical formula, a periodic chart of concepts, or another form of nonlinguistic symbols. Your product should contain the major elements discussed in this module: CoPs, Connectivism, and Personal Learning Networks. These are connected yet different concepts. As such they should be portrayed as separate, yet connected elements.

The open education infrastructure, and why we must build it (Davis Wiley)

Open Credentials
Open Assessments
Open Educational Resources
Open Competencies

This interconnected set of components provides a foundation which will greatly decrease the time, cost, and complexity of the search for innovative and effective new models of education.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-09-20

Posted to Diigo 09/19/2010

  • Knowledge in complex settings is a process of negotiation…an interplay of entities…a dance. And being knowledgeable in these settings requires an awareness of process and flow, not of being in possession of “knowledge”
  • What has happened in journalism will also happen in education: breakdown of a single controlled narrative, increased role of amateurs, challenges to the existing business model, etc
  • How should teaching and learning be structured in a networked world?
  • Should Africa (or any region of the world) duplicate the educational system of Europe or North America? Should Africa adopt the curriculum of these regions? How should teaching and learning be delivered? How many schools should be built? What is the cost of building the physical support structures for learning and knowledge for a region like Africa? Is there a better way? What are the costs of building a technological infrastructure – internet connectivity and computers – in comparison to building schools and purchasing textbooks? (it’s not an either or question – effective learning with technology from my experience, involves a blend of online and face-to-face).
  • We need to throw out most or our assumptions of learning systems, content, learning design and delivery in order to build the future of Africa’s learning and knowledge infrastructure
  • Ingenuity and creativity from within Africa will address this challenge – it’s not something that development agencies should “do for Africans”
  • The learning process is less uncertain. How will the next generation of Africans be educated? What is the learning model that will fulfill this urgent, foundational, task?
  • Right now, educational content flows into Africa which creates an external cultural injection. African educators have an opportunity to create a content/cultural outflow from Africa by increasing collaboration with each other and producing open content for other educational systems in the world to utilize. Open content is not enough. We need to open up the learning system as a whole to the benefits of participation, socialization, networks, and peer interaction
  • Education in Africa, like many other systems in the world, would benefit enormously from a shift to social participative networked learning
  • Two-critical questions need to be answered by anyone who wants to adjust the education system: 1. What does technology now do better than people can? 2. What can people do better than technology?
  • Content duplication, scaling, and reproduction are far better managed by technology. One recorded lecture can be seen a thousand times online without significant increase in expense. The content broadcast of any course can be opened and shared online fairly easily, using simple tools like Skype, ustream, or Elluminate. Duplicating content – where we are now with open educational resources is easy and cheap.
  • the social dimensions of learning are still best managed by humans
  • Sugata Mitra has demonstrated the value of peer and self-directed learning in India
  • In Africa, the foundational learning and knowledge development that must take place to break the cycle of crisis and urgency can best be met through social participative networked learning. In this model, educators can take advantage of the scalability of open content, the broadcast potential of lectures and recordings, and the social interactive potential of large-scale peer-based learning
  • Traditional educational models simply cannot scale rapidly enough
1. It should be based on a unit of influence that is at the control of each individual (i.e. connections not networks)
2. Scale social interactions (not only content) so large network learning occurs, but in a way that permits various group/collective sizes
3. Promote and benefit from learner autonomy, helping learners to building skills and capacity for ongoing learning
4. Use distributed, decentralized technical infrastructure (p2p not centralized)
5. Extensively use learning analytics, preferably blurring physical and virtual interactions
6. Use curriculum intelligently (linked data/semantic web) in order to provide learners with personal and adaptive paths
7. Allow information splicing so that flows can be adjusted and organized to reflect different learning and social tasks
8. Enable easy variance of contexts – or as my colleague Jon Dron states – “context switching”.
9. Offer varying levels of support and structure, under the control of the learner. If a subject is too challenging, learners can choose a structured learning path. Or, if learners prefer greater autonomy, more flexible paths can be adopted.
10. The system needs to learn from the learners (Hunch is a good example)
11. Integrate activities from various services so learners can centrally interact with data left in other services (Greplin)
12. Provide learners with the tools to connect and form learning networks with others in a course and across various disciplines (diversity exposure to ideas and connections needs to be intentional)

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-08-02

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-05-24