Thursday, December 16, 2010

Who is to say what is active participation?

The online discussion that George started by his post on lurking on #PLENK2010 made that Helene and me at NRC wanted to know a little more on how people perceived themselves to be: 'lurkers' or 'active producers', what determined their choice and how important lurking or actively producing has been for their learning as this really goes to the heart of learning on MOOCs. That’s why we produced the surveys.

People who have read my blog posts and earlier comments on George's and Jenny's blogs know that I researched 'lurking' in the past and already know that especially self-directed learners will fall into the lurking category. Of course we should not forget that the majority of PLENK participants are mature adults with a high level of education and a predisposition to self-directed learning through their natural development as human beings, so it is not surprising that only 40-60 people chose to be active producers on the course and all others (around 1550) chose not to during the 10 weeks that PLENK ran.   I also found the paper by Nielsen (reference by Eduardo Peirano as one of the comments on George's blog post) on lurking on the Web illuminating as it confirmed that the numbers of 'lurkers' in PLENK are no different from the numbers in other online networked engagement. 

The basis of MOOCs has always been four activities: 1. Actively aggregating, 2. Actively relating these aggregated resources to earlier experiences and knowledge, what Stephen Downes calls remixing,  3. Actively repurposing; producing a digital artifact with this mix of thoughts, and 4. An actively sharing stage. 

If it is true that people don't require the producing activity for their learning, we might have to reconsider if it is necessarily to promote it as strongly as it has been done at the start of MOOCsin the past. Of course as some people mentioned in the discussion, if nobody is an active producer, there is not much to base the remixing stage on. It also takes away a lot of the creativity that people showed through the artifacts they produced and that we all discussed, admired and used to develop our own ideas and thoughts.

Ctscho (commenting on Jenny's blog), I agree with you that George was wrong to add negative connotations to the activities of most of the PLENK participants, as of course the ‘lurkers’  have been actively engaged in the course through the other three activities: aggregating, remixing and sharing. And our research so far shows that people were actively engaged in these activities, although the sharing took mostly place outside the PLENK course structure and sometimes after the course had finished because people needed time to think about the high level of resources and information they had to digest during the course. It would not surprise me if George did this to provoke the discussion ;-)

If the majority of PLENKers think that their active participation, without the producing stage, is legitimate (and the empirical evidence that we collected so far clearly points in that direction) it might be that George has to eat his hat ;-), and reconsider his ideas, beliefs and feelings regarding what type of activity is required for learning on a course of this nature.  Current theories of learning show that activity is conductive to learning, but luckily they do not prescribe what type of activity this would have to be!

 Another issue that needs to be considered is if the format of the course, which has not changed much since the initial MOOC CCK08, is really conductive to people actively engaging and producing.  It came up throughout the course that the active producing and engagement in the course might be stimulated by a higher level of ‘strong’ rather than ‘weak’ ties amongst participants. Of course this will always be challenging in a course with this high number of participants (1614). People suggested for instance a ‘buddy’ system, where old-timers would be encouraged by facilitators at the start of the course to form some groups to support new-comers. It was also highlighted that the latter were least likely to have the confidence to produce, and the closer ties might create an atmosphere of trust that would make people feel more at ease than on the wide open open course.  The Second Life group also turned out to be perceived as a place to make people feel comfortable. Of course it cannot be denied that in a course like this there were some strong characters and power-plays between participants (and facilitators) as in any other place where humans congregate that might have influenced engagement and participation.

For the development of our PLE, it is important to get as much feedback from you as possible on this as we have to decide what features we can or should build into our PLE to create the best possible environment to support learning. The surveys are still open and so far 68 people have filled out the lurking one and 28 the active producer one. Comments on other issues are also welcome, in the surveys or on any of the blogs and discussion forums with the #PLENK2010 tag.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Active participation - lurking on PLENK

It is a while that we had the last PLENK2010 session, but quite an interesting debate has flared up about the importance (or not) of active participation in Massive Open Online courses such as #PLENK2010. You might have seen George Siemens' blog post and comments, and the ones that followed by Jenny Mackness and John Mak .To learn more from PLENK participants on this issue, Helene Fournier and I hoped participants would not be quite 'surveyed out' yet and would be willing to fill out one of the two surveys below.

NRC researchers would like to invite Active Participants in PLENK2010 to fill out a survey on their experiences in this Massive Open Online Course. Active participants include learners who actively contributed to discussion forums in the course Moodle, blogs, twitter, social networking sites, and in the sharing and production of artifacts. The Active Participant Survey can be found here

NRC researchers would like to invite PLENK2010 Lurkers to fill out a survey on their experiences in this Massive Open Online Course. Lurking is defined in this context as passive attention, silent participation, and/or self-directed learning. There has been a lot of interesting discussion on the topic of lurking on the BlogSphere so we would like to explore the issues a bit more through this survey. The PLENK2010 Lurker survey can be found here

The research team thanks you in advance for your invaluable contribution to the research! Contact Helene Fournier ( for any further inquiries about the surveys or the research.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Modelling PLE based learning

InWednesday's  #PLENK2010 session Sebastian Fiedler gave us his thoughts and ideas on Personal Learning Environments. He moved the discussion from the technology to the concept and made us think about the personal learning, rather than the learning environment in PLE. His model to analyse personal learning looked like this:
During the discussion following his presentation quite a few questions were asked about this framework: would people move from 1 through a continuum to 5? How would this work?  Howard Johnson in his blog pointed out that PLE based learning is very much embedded in the context in which it takes place. Learners are in a constant flux, working here, playing there, interacting on Twitter, drinking coffee in the local community centre. That is also my problem with this model: it is all about the self, but this self doesn't operate in a vacuum. I would prefer to see a model of learning that encompasses the context and interactions that people engage in. I produced a model of PLE based learning a while back that incorporates the learning context. It has Kolb's learning cycle at its heart, but also shows the process of aggregation of information, relation of the materials to earlier experiences and knowledge, creation of digital artefacts and sharing of these with the wider world and communicate about them with others.

Of course while learners are going about their lives and are involved in activities that make that they learn, their personal development continues and I have found the Perry stages of development, as described in an earlier post, helpful in understanding how this might work.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Feeling uncomfortable with Personal Knowledge Management

Harold Jarche illuminated participants on #PLENK2010 on his ideas of Personal Knowledge Management on Friday. The way he sees it seems to boil down to doing something with information in an effective way: share it and/or action it.  Vlimaka on Cryselina linked some of the readers of the week in an interesting way to what Harold had to say and made the connection between PKM and Knowledge Management in organizations and how the two might compare.

I have some problems with Knowledge Management and even more so with the term Personal Knowledge Management.

1. My first problem is that it gives me the jitters to see that another business term has crept into the social sciences. There have been widespread protests at the use of the word 'capital', to describe the value of our social, human and cultural interactions as human beings in terms such as 'social capital', 'cultural capital' and 'human capital' as it was suggested that in these more is at stake than monetary gain. Do we really have to call the way we organize our personal interactions with others and our creative actions which help us to transform information into knowledge management? Is there not a more inspirational term available? I would say 'enrichment', 'organization' or 'development' would already be better terms, or perhaps 'creation' or even 'control' but perhaps people in PLENK will be able to come up with a better term.

2. To me there also seems to be a tension between the words 'knowledge' and 'management'. In my idea of knowledge there is not much of it that you can manage. It is related to the problems Stephen Downes already saw in 2003 with knowledge management . Knowledge is not the same as information or data, which you can capture and store in systems.

Knowledge in my view is related to the context in which it emerges. Depending on your view of knowledge, it can be constructed, which makes that it is related to the earlier experiences and or knowledge of individuals or others in his or her surroundings. This makes that it would be hard to manage as it would be related to the context in which it is produced over which you don't have control.

It might emerge through a process of immersion, sharing on networks and actions related to information processing, eg. through blogging and receiving from and tweeting information and resources and artifacts on to other people in a connectivist view of knowledge, this makes the management of it even more problematic as knowledge would be embedded in the context in which it emerges, and span a person's mind, the people involved in the interactions and the tools used to carry out the actions and interactions. The only management you would be able to do is to ensure that the conditions to achieve knowledge development are being met, for instance by installing tools on your machine that allow you to  communicate, create artifacts, and push out the artifacts produced onto the Web, but to me these are the least significant in the knowledge creation process.

The only view of knowledge that I can see that would allow for management is the traditional view, where institutions such as universities who produce a high form of knowledge can chop it into bite size chunks, make these into course packages that instructors can pick of the shelf for the students to digest. And even there one would argue in a quality teaching situation, more will happen than the transfer of this managed knowledge; students would be expected to make connections with what they already know and information they find outside the institution, or with information and resources provided by the instructor. And there would be communication to share what is known. Learning outcomes might not quite be what the manager would have intended.

 What then about knowledge management in the workplace? What defines the current knowledge workers job? Here as example a description of 'portfolio' adult educators by Fenwick, that I think is also applicable to other workers today (2003, p.175):

'They are increasingly expected to adapt themselves to conditions of flexible jobs, flexible knowledge and skills and flexible work loctions . . .Within these flexibilised employment arrangements, a career has become an individual's responsibility, a lifelong human resource project crafted through the process of continuous reflexive self-assessment, continuous learning and adaptation and of course self-marketing.'

To me people's career and flexible knowledge once again mean that knowledge in the workplace is again related to the context in which it is generated; the workplace, the knowledge worker him/her self, the professional network. The only instance I can see related to the management of knowledge has to do with the optimization of work by employers, businesses and corporations. What are they to do when a valued worker leaves? How to capture what the worker has learned? Well, I would say they need to allow sufficient time between someone leaving and a new person to be appointed to ensure that work-related knowledge is not lost. There needs to be a process of enculturation and immersion of the new employee in the proximity of the leaving worker, but it seems in the work place of today time is not allowed for this.

So, what do I think of (personal) knowledge management?  No thanks, not for me!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A model of a PLE: Socratic questioning or connectivist participation in an information stream?

Maria Andersen presented at #PLENK2010 today. She discussed her ideas of a Personal Learning Environment. she proposed a new model of education, rather than to rebuild the old system. A revolution, rather than an evolution as she couldn't really see institutions changing very much.

Her ideas for a PLE are quite different from the connectivist model and this has in my view a lot to do with her view of knowledge. As a mathematician she still sees a place for a basic body of knowledge that can be built upon, while I think connectivists prefer to see knowledge as a mesh of interwoven connections at which learners  pull and push to give it shape by actively engaging with and in it.

She would like learning button where people could go to for answers to Socratic questions about a certain topic. Of course first a great number of people should be willing to ask the questions, but if enough people engage in it, a world of questions would be out there related to the interests of many people. She sees intrinsic motivation as the major driver to learning and envisages learners to want to engage to satisfy their natural curiosity. You can find a paper in which she elaborates on it here.

My guess is that connectivists will find the questioning too structured as people would not be in control of their own learning, and won't be actively engaged in producing artifacts. But if the pool of questions would be large enough in the fashion similar to the development of the wikipedia, and  reach a tipping point, the thing would start to lead a life of its own,  people would like to get involved and people would be able to see it as a bit of fun, some intellectual sparring.  I think it could work especially if semantic elements were to be built in, where questions would be suggested by friends, or recommended after engaging in earlier question and answer activities, and friends would be able to help out and give feedback on answers.

I can't wait for the first batch of questions relevant to me and my interests to appear in my PLE. I will have to wait a while for it, but not that long, I don't think! It seems that more and more people are interested in PLEs and their development.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Formal learners have the best of both worlds?

Thanks Dave, your post has finally made me put my fingers on the key board to write the post that I have been thinking about for the past days. You start with where most discussions on the PLE originate, in an opposition to the institutionally controlled LMS. To me it seems more helpful not to take the technologies as the central point of discussion, but the forms of learning: formal (as in institutions) and informal (as on open online networks).

The idea I liked most to move from formal towards informal learning comes from Ivan Illich, who would like to rid us of ‘scholastic funnels ‘(1992) and instead create ‘community webs’ .He would like people to be able to call on the teacher or peers of their choice, teach if they feel they have something meaningful to say and call meetings to share resources whenever possible (1971).

This sounds pretty much like a Personal Learning Environment to me. To move community webs onto online networks was never his plan, though. He was very much wary of technology as it might further develop the ‘surveillance society’ that he abhorred. He could see, however, the use of technology to serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction ‘and values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.’

To me there are three major challenges to achieve this type of webs online:
1.                   Power
2.                   The network as a place to learn as opposed to an educational institution – the role of the educator/knowledgeable other
3.                   The learner as a developing human being –critical literacies

1. Power

Dave and other network enthusiasts (and I count myself as one of them) speak often about the power that  educational  institutions hold over learners. What they rarely discuss however, are the power relations on online networks.  Everyone familiar with the work of Barabasi will know that there are power relations on the online network, as there are in educational institutions. Barabasi found through his research that participants on networks are not only selective, but that the nature of networks prevents network “surfers” from having access to all information at the same level.

The most intriguing result of our Web-mapping project was the complete absence of democracy, fairness, and egalitarian values on the Web. We learned that the topology of the Web prevents us from seeing anything but a mere handful of the billion documents out there.
                                                                                       (Barabasi, 2003, p. 56)

We are in the hands of corporations such as Google to help us find the resources and documents that we need, which makes us dependent on them to build an ethical dimension into their search algorithm. Of course we have found other ways to filter our information; knowledgeable others we trust can provide us with relevant and interesting information . Bouchard (2010) and Boyd (2010) still see problems with these as well and question the possibility of hierarchy-free peer to peer connections on the Web:

However, the notion of  'supernode' predictably emerges when some contributors are recognized by a  number of others as having particular relevance to, or knowledge of a problem. There seems to be a natural tendency within the 'perfectly' democratic network to organize itself, over time, in a hierarchical system composed of leaders and followers. We are then left with a social organization that resembles the 'outside' world of government and commerce, with the difference that the currency of exchange in the network is not money or power, but reputation and popularity.
                                                                             (Bouchard, 2010, p. 3)

Boyd (2010, p1.) also emphasizes problems with this:

Instead, what we're seeing is the emergence of a new type of information broker. These people get credit for their structural position. Although the monetary benefits are indirect, countless consulting gigs have arisen for folks based on their power as information brokers. The old controllers of information are losing their stature (and are not happy about it). What is emerging is not inherently the power of the creators but, rather, the power of the modern-day information brokers.

To me it seems that there is a shift in power from educators who might operate in educational institutions, who are paid to provide learners in their care with a rounded education, and with this I mean they provide information that encompasses a multitude of points of view on a topic that they are supposedly experts in. The online information brokers, however, who operate on networks, are free agents and do not have a responsibility or obligation to provide a critical point of view. They might do this, but do not necessarily have to.  I don’t know of any research in the role of information brokers in networked learning. (If you do, please let me know).

2. The network as a place to learn as opposed to a group in an educational institution

Now, I know that proponents of learning on networks see this differently. Stephen Downes for instance represents in this blog post and this image a particular picture of learning on networks and in groups (in formal education). He argues that on perfect networks the diversity, autonomy, openness and connectivity will facilitate optimal conditions for learning.

To me there are some issues with this. Firstly, as I just hinted at, power relations on networks are not as perfect as that. Secondly, networks are not as diverse as might be optimal as research has shown that there is a tendency for tribalism on the Web. Thirdly, not all learners are as autonomous and possess the critical literacies to make them comfortable with the negotiation of online networks for learning. 

 People learning in a group in an institution seem to have the best of both worlds:  Groups don’t operate in a locked room; members of a group can move onto the Web and the network of their choice whenever they like. Groups are also not necessarily the one way knowledge transfer entities that Stephen describes. There are examples of a totally different approach to group learning . The advantage that groups in formal education have over self-directed learners on networks is that support is provided for learners who need an extra step up to feel comfortable in the learning setting.  I like the matrix Gerald Grow (1991) provided on the matches and mismatches of learner needs and educator support.  Good teachers have always kept in mind the balance there is in supporting and letting go. I also like the model of learner autonomy by Paul Bouchard (2009) that shows that learners need to address different aspects, some psychological, others pedagogical, in order to feel comfortable while learning in semi-autonomous learning environments.

Also as mentioned earlier, a knowledgeable person is present and being paid to make that people become aware of issues a self directed learner on a network might not come across. ‘Kerr refers to Kay’s non-universals for instance, a series of understandings (identified on the basis of research by anthropologists) that are not learned spontaneously, and which are common to all known human societies – for instance, “deductive abstract mathematics, model-based science, democracy [and] slow deep thinking.” Kerr suggests that if learning these non-universals is considered important, then methods ought to be identified to teach them.’ (Kop&Hill,2008).

As a researcher who has carried out research in the importance of ‘presence’ in learning I am also concerned about the lack of intensity of the learning experience on open online networks compared to a formal class room.  A body of knowledge is emerging that emphasizes the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ ties in different learning situations (Jones at al, 2008).  Here a link to an earlier post on presence and the learning experience.  

In my view ‘rubbing up conceptually to other people’s blogposts’ is still a very different experience than sitting opposite the person and communicating in a real life situation. It is more like reading a book or an article than experiencing a person with all five senses. Research  seems to indicate that the higher the intensity of the interactions, the higher the engagement and motivation to be actively involved in the learning experience (Kop, 2010).

I would like the level of communication and collaboration in learning to reach the level of a dialogue. This is what educators such as Freire aspired to in order for learning to be a transformative experience, rather than for it to remain at the level of a conversation. Critical educators such as Freire (Freire and Macedo,1999, p48) who worked in areas of social and economic deprivation and intended to bring about transformation in people’s lives by using education for awareness raising of injustice and power relations in society. He thought it to be essential that teachers have a directive role. In this capacity, teachers would enter into a dialogue ‘as a process of learning and knowing’ with learners, rather than the dialogue being a ‘conversation’ that would remain at the level of ‘the individual’s lived experience’. He found it important to engage in a dialogue because he recognised the social and not merely the individualistic character of knowing.

He felt that this capacity for critical engagement would not be present if educators are reduced to facilitators. You can feel where I am going:  is it enough for facilitators on this course to have a ‘hands-off’ approach’ and provide information, or should facilitators engage with the topic of the week and  at creating a learning environment that makes people think at a deeper level? I would be interested to hear from you. Chris Jobling already said a little bit about this on his blog yesterday.

I also have here a quote from a discussion post by Antonella Esposito on the #PLENK2010 discussionboard that I though expressed well where networked learning is moving, but also its challenges:

I believe that harnessing the value of technology-based informal learning deals with managing a good balance between serendipity and intentionality. It deals with a double ability: on the one hand the ability to lead your attention towards threads of discussion which reasonate what you are studying or working on, or merely are interested in; on the other hand, it deals with the abilty to surf the complexity of an open environment, in which interdisciplinarity, different stages of competence and the interplay of personal, professional and scholarly level of conversation offer new views to be sifted and expanded.
The more you “live” in such social spaces, the more you need sophisticated literacies to integrate them in your own learning journey. (Antonello Esposito on PLENK discussion forum week 4

This leads me to my next point.

3.  The learner as a developing human being –critical literacies

In all of this we should not forget that we are all developing human beings. I would like to go a little deeper into Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development. Perry arrived at his scheme through empirical research in college education, and there has been some criticism and also some extensions to the scheme have been developed (see Moore and Williams(2002) Understanding learning in a postmodern world: reconsidering the Perry scheme of intellectual and ethical development, in)  The nine stages have been depicted in some cartoons here (slideshows by William Rapaport in middle of page)). Perry saw 9 stages of development, which progress from a dualism between right and wrong. , starting with the identification with an authority figure, then on to a stage where different positions and beliefs are acknowledged, but are simply wrong; as the learner always thinks he is right and the other is wrong.

The third stage is seen by Perry to include attempts to include diversity and moves towards acknowledging that there is a multiplicity in human opinion, experience and ‘truth’. He says at this level ‘the acceptance of uncertainty to be legitimate . . . is for many students an exciting one'. In position 4 the learner moves towards the notion in this uncertainty that one’s own thinking is the important thing. In position five a relativism is added to the mix and the learner becomes aware that the context influences one’s thinking: ‘one’s task in life is finally understood fully as intellectual and ethical – a question of judgments and meaning-making in both academic and personal contexts. (Perry, 1998).

In position six to nine the emphasis shifts from being intellectual towards being ethical and involve commitments. Commitments are chosen and are anticipated, clarified and refined in light of ‘legitimate alternatives, after experiencing genuine doubt, and reflecting a clear affirmation of one’s self or identity – define one’s identity in a contextually relativistic world’ (Moore & Williams, 2002). quite sophisticated and according to Perry this level is not reached till post-graduate learning.

Why bring the Perry scheme up here? In many instances over the past years I have been asked how people might be able to cope with the challenges of learning on online networks. As Antonella expressed in her post, we require sophisticated skills, literacies  and advanced development to learn independently. Stephen Downes and I facilitated another Massive Open Online Course earlier in the summer with as topic Critical Literacies, as we are well aware that learning on new open online learning environments requires different capacities from learners than more traditional learning settings (although we might not quite agree on them (:-)). Stephen has given several presentations on this, which are more entertaining than my words so I have linked them here.


Oeps, this post has become a little longer than expected. The main point I have tried to make is that learning on open online network is quite different from learning in a formal educational setting: it is self-directed which requires different conditions for a learner to thrive than in formal education.

It also doesn’t seem to me that learners in formal settings have such a bad deal: they have structures that support them in their learning, and no, I am not that pessimistic about the teaching in institutions. It is not a ‘unity’sausage, where all lecturers, teachers and professors are all good or bad at teaching, and use all the same tools and resources and the same pedagogy. They are as diverse as participants on a MOOC, or nodes on a network providing information. Of course they have the advantage of moving on and off networks as they please as well as their learners, so are they the fortunate ones?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The symbiosis between theory and practice

Last night and this morning on the Twitter #PLENK2010 a discussion went on about the relation of theory and practice. Questions were raised about the need for theory at all.

Well, I have learned over the years that to me theory is very important. For one to understand why I practice in the way I do. Also to question decisions made by politicians about education and schooling; so to understand what their aims and objectives are with schooling and if they are in the best interest of children and adults. One framework that has helped me in this over the years is an adaptation of the Alexander Framework, from the E836 course Study Guide of the MA in Education course by the OU in the UK. I have included it here.
Should not all educators be thinking about the four questions in this diagram? What should learners learn? How should the learning be taught and assessed? What is an educated person? Why should learners be educated in this way? And should not all educators be aware of the invisible influences on the learning and teaching process, such as ideas, values and culture which will influence the views of learning, knowledge and education of themselves and their institution? I find that this picture shows fairly clearly what part of the teaching practice we can observe, and what influences are hidden in  formal educational settings.What it lacks is the role the learner plays in all this, as her or his voice is hidden in the pedagogy of the institution. The way adult learners have shown their agreement or disagreement with the relation between theory and practice is with their feet: At the moment they feel the teaching no longer relates to their lived in world and their context, they will leave the course. Of course children do not have this choice as schooling is compulsory.

Since I have started working on the research and development of a Personal Learning Environment my ideas of what should be in the diagram have changed slightly, as the observable practice has changed; the curriculum content, assessment and pedagogy are no longer related to the institution, but to the learners autonomous drive to find out or do something new, so I now use the following visualization:

It is the learners themselves whose ideas, values and beliefs will influence their learning. A certain level of reflection on their own learning, knowing and education is important to make progress on their learning journey, or if you find that too directed, on their climbing frame of learning: scrambling up one moment, moving sideways or back down and in another direction the next time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

PLE components on the climbing frame of learning

Hi all who responded to my post on the eXtended Web through #PLENK2010.

Several of you wondered how a recommender system might work and if it would make your search less rich rather than richer in the end. On the PLENK discussion forum several of you made some suggestions. And yes, you've hit the nail on the head. The problem with recommender systems is that someone puts the algorithm together that decides what is being recommended, and what has priority in the recommendation.

What I find most fascinating about developing a PLE is how these systems might be combined with 'human' factors. You can for instance have a recommender based on your earlier searches and learning activities, and add it as a 'smart' search' option in your PLE (so it doesn't replace, but is added to your usual googling). I would like to add an 'ask a critical friend' option, that would not give you the answer that you would get from the friends and aquaintances you would normally consult, but from people with an opposing point of view. A bit like the role of the quality teacher who wouldn't lead you to the easy answer, but who would lead you to another paper, another activity to carry out, to push you further in your thinking.

These might need to be connected to 'scaffolds' in the form of communications tools for instance, or reflective diaries, or tools to make you think about your self that would push you up the climbing frame of learning. I see learning not as moving from A to B, but up and down, and from left to right and back; not as the lineair pathway that (educational institution) administrators would like us to follow. It is more related to our activities and interests in life than a pre-defined curriculum; it would put tools in our hands that we would feel comfortable with in addition to connections to people we feel we could trust but who would challenge our beliefs and ideas. It would make us take action and dare us to take risks and leave our comfort zone; to take that next step into the unknown, but  still with some support; the level of which we will be able to determine ourselves. Wouldn't that be neat?

Monday, September 27, 2010

The use of data to advance learning in a networked environment

The #PLENK2010 subject of the week is the eXtended web. In my blog post used in the resources of this week, I highlight a number of issues related to this: The use of Intelligent data for PLE development and networked learning, the challenges of an open online networked environment for learning, and access to technology.

In this post I would like  to delve a little deeper in the first aspect on how data can be used to 1. enhance people's searches, and 2. on how data can be used by educators, or 'knowledgeable others' to enhance people's learning.

I will start with the second point first. Ken Clark for instance carried out a study to find out if 'individual teaching staff [can by], reflecting on their courses, learn anything important from examining their courses through analytics? How can this be done effectively? What do they find?'

Of course academics and researchers have researched people's learn and teaching for quite some time, but it is only recently with the introduction of LMSs and their back-office data (eg on how often people access the course, for what activity etc.) that this type of data has been analysed. It has been analysed by administrators, to find out' learning outcomes', but to me this information is fairly limited. It becomes much more rich when you also analyse the 'discourse', the text people have written for instance in discussion boards, or on Massive Open Online courses such as PLENK, other written material and artifacts produced by students and facilitators, such as blog posts, to reach a better understanding of the ways in which people teach and learn.This analysis might help to enhance future courses and future teaching, facilitation and learning. Educators can be involved in this research themselves and directly use their findings to take action to make changes to course/curriculum/interactions etc.

The second new possibility that data collection offers, is that collected data might inform people's searches: By collecting data on people's earlier learning projects, or from people's personal profile, ranking systems and recommendations could be produced that might provide people with 'smart' information, more relevant to their needs than without.

Of course there are problems with this type of data collection as the use of 'intelligent marketing' is currently showing us. Especially privacy issues have been highlighted as being problematic as before you know it people you don't want to know particular things about you, will know them and use them in ways that are not necessarily what you intended the data to be used for in the first place. So there are also  ethical issues for research.

On the other hand, the information abundance about which I wrote in an earlier post, make it near impossible for a single human being to find and analyse all information by him/herself without some type of aggregation and filtering, or communication with others.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Contrasting Institutional learning with personal learning

All the posts and comments on the #PLENK2010 discussion board this week so far have given me something to think about. It was a conscious decision to put the subject of the week in the title of this post. It seems most discussion has revolved around the technical platform that an institution or a person might use, rather than on what these platforms actually mean in the learning of participants.

In my experience, and that is in a brick and mortar university, the LMS/VLE is mainly used to support the teaching and administration that takes place in the institution. The PLE/PLN is there to support learning. This different emphasis makes all the difference to me. Institutional learning is very much focused on what the teaching staff provides, rather than what students as autonomous learners can find for themselves. In my PhD research I looked at a crossover possibility, where within the institution over a two year period a slow transformation was created from highly supported learning and a directive teaching approach towards autonomy in a research project in which social media played an important role.

My research highlighed the importance of communication in learning to crate a high level of social 'presence'. An LMS/VLE is problematic in facilitating this.On the one hand teaching staff might meet students on a regular basis, so there might not be such a need for discussion board interaction, on the other hand major problems with power relations on discussion boards have been identified. Also. some people will perform well by not contributing much in discussions, but instead spend time in self-directed study away from the course site, while others perform well by communicating extensively with tutor and other learners. 

Nonnecke and Preece explain that when people are not participating in the discussion board (otherwise called ‘lurking’) this is not necessarily a bad thing: ‘Lurking is not free-riding but a form of participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 51). Research by Bedouin in non-participation in online discussion found that the people who were not very visible in the online classroom ‘spent most time reading assignments, reading others’ comments, web searches, writing assignments and spent less time on writing online messages’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 52).

Gulati’s research indicated that half of these learners identified themselves as self-directed learners, rather than social learners. The way people participate in online discussion depends, apart from a tendency to autonomous learning, also on a number of other factors as argued by Mann and also Levy. They posit that the openness in online dialogue and the power-relations within an online learner group are important issues in creating relations of trust within the online community (Mann, 2005; Levy, 2006). This resonates with Gulati’s research results that also identified that the power relations in the discussion forum influence participation. She found that confidence and affective issues were important aspects, while the level of knowledge displayed by some participants was also a determining influence on the level of participation and confidence of others.

I don't know how you experience the  use of discussion forums on this course as opposed to finding your own way of communication and collaboration on your own PLENK network, through the use of blogs, wikis, Twitter and other tools? My research showed that feedback from knowledgeable others in their learning was crucial to move on, develop and learn, but that it was not necessarily important that this other would be a university instructor. The level of presence was important, however. And  Dron and Anderson (2007) see a difference in presence and engagement in the learning activity if there is a high level of presence (that you can find for instance in a group on a course) but lesser so on a network with a looser structure and even lower on a collective, through applications such as flickr or delicious, where the connection with others is facilitated through tags.

This is clearly one of the major challenges in this MOOC as the numbers are high and the learner group is dispersed and participants might not speak the same language. I can already see though how it is not only the facilitators that provide feedback and support. The more this happens the more successful the learning I believe.

Dron, J. and Anderson, T. (2007) Collectives, Networks and Groups in Social Software for E-Learning, World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education (ELEARN) 2007, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada

Gulati, S. (2003) Informal learning: Building an argument for Inclusive Online Learning, 2003 ATHINER Conference, Athens

Levy, P. (2006) Learning a different form of communication: experiences of networked learning and reflections on practice, Study in Continuing Education, 28,3, pg. 259-277

Mann, S. J. (2005) Alienation in the learning environment: a failure of community? Studies in Higher Education, 30, 1, pg. 43-55

Friday, September 17, 2010

Caught by the pulse of this learning event

Jenny called it the resonance and I just read a blog post, but can't remember whose it was, where it was called the pulse: this event has a momentum that really catches you; the participants, and also the facilitators. I presume I can't speak for any of the others, but this learning event has taken over my life. I find it addictive and hard to not check my #PLENK2010 Twitter stream at night and read some blog posts. I found myself watching a football match and at the same time writing a blog post for PLENK. The emails are streaming out of my inbox with queries and discussion topics that I would like to get talking about. Where will I find the time in the next 10 weeks to be involved in PLENK and to do other work?

I understand the feeling several of you have expressed of being overloaded; luckily I don't feel overloaded as I have carefully made selections of my readings and communications from the Daily and discussion board, but I do feel as if this event has caught me by the scruff of the neck (or is that not an English expression?) and its pulse has caught me.

This week we tried to define PLE and PLN and I think we have done that and more as we already started unpacking new aspects of the PLE/PLN debate, with discussions on information abundance and the attention economy, and blog posts and technologies to show what a PLE or PLN could look like. I liked some of the creative wording that materialized: 'The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time'; I could see the keyboards and hear the music. And other creative expressions in the production of videos and podcasts that has already taken place. The different language streams are also really good to see, but I wish I would be able to figure out what the Spanish posts have to say, which I can't, so I might have to invest some time as some did to use an online translation service to give me a gist of what went on there.

A new dimension will be added to the mix from next week: Every Wednesday  for the next nine weeks someone with expertise on the topic of the week will join the Wednesday session to provide us with a different focus to the debate and I look forward to next Wednesday with Martin Weller from the Open University in the UK and the topic of the week: Contrasting personal learning with institutional learning.

Thank you all for spicing up my working life this week and I hope we can keep the vibe of the conversation going next week.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Information abundance leads to restricted depth?

As a comment to Jenny's blog post on 'breadth versus depth - an illusion?'  in #PLENK2010 I have repeated here a short section of the literature review of my PhD thesis as I though it might bring some depth to the discussion adding literature on 'information abundance' and  'economy of attention'.:

Burkeman and Johnson wonder if we really want all this new information? They highlight that;
The end result of a perfect search world is that as fast as answers are generated and consumed, new questions come quicker, with the consequence that ignorance expands. . . What we know that we don’t know expands faster than what we know.  . . . there is this sense that the world is out there to be Googled. But linking from one thing to another is not the same as having something to say. A structured thought is more than a link.’
                                                                            (Burkeman & Johnson, 2005, p. 5)
Furthermore, Hagel explains that there are other problems with the information abundance and introduces the notion of the “attention economy”.
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate the attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
                                                                                                      (Hagel, 2006, p. 1)
Hagel argues that the more information is available, the less time we have available to go into any depth when analysing the information. In addition, Goldhaber (1997) posits that, by using new technologies, we might end up chatting, but not necessarily about anything of substance. The abundance of information and the poverty of attention could be the cause of changes in thinking processes. If we compare the information behaviour of people in antiquity with current scholars, the former were able to spend their time contemplating minute details and perhaps discuss findings with a small number of people, while contemporary thinkers, if they make use of the Web, might be engaging with gigabytes of information and possibly communicate with a wide variety of people dispersed all over the globe simultaneously. Suggestions have been made that these new ways of working might influence our thought processes (Bauerlein, 2008; Armstrong, 2004). Dennis and Al-Obaidi (2010) for instance compare changes in modes of thinking and concepts through the new technologies with an “epistemic rupture”, while Greenfield problematizes Internet use as opposed to the book.
When we read a book usually authors take you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative series of interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree or that you enjoy, but none the less as you turn the pages one train of thought succeeds the last in a logical fashion.
                                                                                             (Greenfield, 2006, p. 1)                         
She argues how in traditional education teachers and tutors compare and contrast narratives with one another and help people with the building of a conceptual framework in doing so (Greenfield, 2006, p. 1; Greenfield, 2004). The Web is changing this linear process and of course not everyone uses books in the linear fashion she describes. New Internet-based ways of obtaining information, such as following hyperlinks, which are an integral part of the Internet experience, and the creation of knowledge by participation in informal, interactive online phenomena, in which people take part at their leisure offer opportunities for engagement in a wide range of subject choices according to one’s own interests. This offers learners the chance to follow their own learning journey in a manner suited to actively constructing knowledge and linking it to their own experiences in an autonomous fashion, while collaborating with others. Greenfield is concerned however, that if people do not have access to a robust conceptual framework developed over time with the help of knowledgeable others, they might have problems constructing knowledge (Greenfield, 2004).
The abundance of information on the Internet and other information sources have raised concerns about the feasibility for individuals to critically analyse all that is available to ensure reliability and validity and to manage the vast streams of information now available. Bauerlein (2008) even goes as far as arguing that the lack of attention span because of this overload of information and the different resources used today have created the “dumbest generation of Americans” to date. CIBER (2008) researched how people acquire information and how information behaviour has changed over time. They surveyed literature from the 1980s and 1990s and carried out primary research on internet based behaviour themselves and they found that “power-browsing”, the clicking of hyperlinks and the skimming of web pages,  replaced traditional chronological reading and longer term critical thinking. Advanced information searching was lacking and the level of information literacy, in the form of validating information and sources, was at a low level (CIBER, 2008).

Sandbothe argues that the ‘comprehensive and systematic development of reflective judgement at all levels of the population and on a global scale is the central task for a democratic educational system in the twenty-first century’ (Sandbothe, 2000, p. 67). This might not be promoted by the new ways of accessing information. Moreover, McKie emphasised that people, when they start an information search, will take into account the amount of time required for the search, where they expect to find the information and the route to take to get there. Not everyone uses the same route as people are different and have different learning preferences, cultural backgrounds and personalities. She argues that to give too much guidance would be a mistake as it would constrict the experience and the possibilities of finding the relevant information (McKie, 2000).

Walters and Kop (2009) argue that information literacy is acquired at a young age and highlight that “information behaviour” is a developmental process at a deep level and that this sort of behaviour will be very difficult to advance substantially later in life, eg. on a course at university. Bass, on the other hand, highlighted that there is a great deal of evidence to show that electronic environments encourage analytical and reflective practice. In addition, ‘there are clear indications that the electronic era will provide an unprecedented opportunity for immersion in archival and primary materials, and consequently the making of meaning in cultural and historical analysis for all kinds of learners, from novice to expert’ (Bass, 1999, p1.).

Bruce saw the information abundance as an advantage over earlier media in ‘the way it can open up our questions. We ask one thing, but the Web leads us to ask more questions and to become aware of how much we do not know’ (Bruce, 2000, p. 107). He would like us to use the Internet not to “pick and choose” what fits in with our own points of view, but also to take on board what discomfits, and to look for alternatives that make us think. It should perhaps be questioned if people will do this of their own accord or that they will need the guidance of an educator. He saw the greatest challenge as a change of our search strategies from looking something up, to incorporating web-searching into thinking and reflection processes in order to enable a fruitful investigation. 

New emerging collaborative tools that facilitate networking and communication with others might aid in developing such a referencing strategy. Also information aggregators could help with the organisation and streamlining of searches.In addition, PLEs that have 'smart' data analysing and recommending features could enhance searches to be relevant to the needs of learners and increase depth of reflection and thinking.