Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Commons - pedagogy for 'human beings'

Last week I read Mohamed Amine Chatti's post comparing the ideas of Wenger on a Community of Practice with his ideas on Learning as a Network. It made me realise that it is time for me to put together my thoughts on learning on online networks. Chatti explains that in a CoP there is a central 'hub', the community, where through social interaction, participation and communication with others in the community, people move from the periphery to the centre of a community and that this process makes that people learn. Learning in his LaaN would be different as it would be more an individual process. The learner would determine the activity and the people who he or she  communicates with and might help in his or her learning, rather than that the social participation in a particular community would be at the heart of the learning.
Other views of teaching and learning have emerged over the past few years. Weller explained the idea of a 'pedagogy of abundance' in which people learn informally in an environment of  easy access to an abundance of information and conversation with people facilitated through technology. Kenway (2001) discussed the need for direction from adult educators as it is not just enough for technology to be there and used, or for that matter for attempts to be made to make the use of technology more effective, eg through intelligent aggregating and recommender systems, but for  people to look critically at technology and what technology does to change our lives and society. Wheelahan discusses a   'pedagogy of human beings' as in the uncertain and complex times in which we now live different forms of knowledge determine our lives and should all form part of the learning we do, where they might influence our formal education, or our lives in the workplace or at home. Technological change has not been the only change in post-modern society!
This morning I received a link to the periodical of CASAE, the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education in my inbox, in which one of the articles took me back to the thinking of Ivan Illich  in which he proclaimed that technology helped to facilitate the 'closure of the commons' (1991, p51.).  The restriction of people in society to determine what happens to the world in which we live. Illich’s vision was to see people take ownership of the learning process, rather than institutions controlling their education. In order for agency and participation to return to the learning experience, Illich (1971, p. 2) called for ‘the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats’.
Silke Helfrich (2010, p3) argues for people to re- claim the commons; 'to take our lives in our own hands, and to protect and widen what is common to us, instead of witnessing its enclosure and privatization.' she emphasises that the commons trans-sect all issues in society, and could ensure that all knowledge is brought together, and no longer is fragmented as it currently seems to be (Midgley, 1991) . Would we  live more wisely by making connections to all disparate issues that have slipped away from our control at a time that multinationals and banking institutions seem to have been in charge and determined the direction, rather than representatives of the people? Helfrich questions who really owns the world in the super-complex times that we now live in and states that: 'The commons enhances self-determined rules and commonly developed & controlled open technologies instead of proprietary technologies which tend to concentrate power within elites and enable them to control us' (2010,p3).
Why do I write this on a blog related to a Personal Learning Environment?
It is so easy when designing and developing a technological innovation to only look at how the technology will increase the effectiveness to the user, rather than to also think about the wider implications of its use. When developing a PLE would it simply be enough to develop a useful tool, and to work with partners to achieve knowledge transfer to achieve a high-spec product development, or should it be of paramount importance that the wider community is served in the words of Illich:
1. To liberate access to things by abolishing the control which persons and institutions now exercise over their educational values. 2. To liberate the sharing of skills by guaranteeing freedom to teach or exercise them on request. 3. To liberate the critical and creative resources of people by returning to individual persons the ability to call and hold meetings – an ability now interestingly monopolized by institutions which claim to speak for the people. 4. To liberate the individual from the obligation to shape his expectations to the services offered by any established profession- by providing him with the opportunity to draw on the experience of his peers and to entrust himself to the teacher, guide, adviser or healer of his choice. (Illich, 1971, p. 103)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The interface of a Personal Learning Environment

The way a website looks and feels to the user is important in the experience a person will have while online. Nathan Shedroff has written extensively about 'the online experience'. As people are unique, they will each have their own experience, but, Shedroff  identified several factors that are important to any good experience and should be incorporated in the online design. I have adapted these a little to incorporate in these the issues important in creating a positive online learning experience.

These six principles are: 

1. Time and duration: A learning experience will quite often start before the learner even puts fingers on key board; a process of reflection precedes the actual learning activity, and thinking processes might continue long after the actual online activity has finished.

2. Interactivity.  People can interact with people and resources online and for the creation of meaningful learning experiences it will be important to ensure that the layout and connections between the two, information and communications tools to connect people through the interface, are intuitive and make sense to the learner. 

3. Intensity. The level and depth of these interactions will be important to the experience people have. The higher the level of engagement in the interactions, the deeper the experieince.

4. Sensorial and cognitive triggers. ‘There are many ways to view the same thing, though we often become so accustomed to certain standard views that we take the possibilities for granted and forget to even explore alternatives.’ (Shedroff, 2009, p70). Trying to find new forms to present, represent and visualize what we are trying to communicate will be important in engaging learners in learning activities.  ‘The most important aspect of any design is how it is understood in the minds of the audience.’ (Shedroff, 2009, p60) Everyone will create mental maps of what they have experienced and the crunch is to design the PLE in such a way that what you would like the learner to remember or know will remain in his mind. Which once again makes the design of the interface of the PLE important.

5. Breadth and consistency. The design of the learning experience, through the PLE interface, should be consistent. People experience not only with their finger tips on the key board, but as a whole person; through the senses, but also cognitively and emotionally, so the whole experience should  make sense to people and 'hang together', be holistic, even though details could be different.

6. Significance and meaning. Shedroff claims that if all these factors are incorporate in the design of the experience, it will be meaningful. I would like to add issues of relevance here as well as the more relevant the information on the site is, the higher the motivation to use it and the more meaningful it will be.

There are also  a few other issues of importance to the design of the PLE interface, related to usability. Accessibility is one; after all, if people cannot access what they would like to learn, they cannot experience it.  Simplicity and 'learnability' are two other issues. The simpler the operation of the site, through the interface, and the easier it is to learn how it 'works', the better the accessibility. In the technological landscape of today there will be a need to weigh up the accessibility issues against what is now possible in terms of interface design and tools and applications used.  The W3C has set worldwide standards for accessibility.

Peter Korn from Sun Microsystems  advocates thinking about accessibility issues from the start of the design and development process as it is difficult to adapt a site to full accessibility at a later date. A site that is fully accessible to all, including to people who use screen readers for reading text, might not have all the flash visual and interactive 'bells and whistles' that can now be created.  An alternative that is seen quite often is the design of two sites: one text based and another that contains a variety of images and objects. Choices will have to be made!

What makes a PLE different from a news aggregator?

People frequently ask me what makes a Personal Learning Environment different from a news aggregator or an application such as iGoogle, which also bring information sources together.  Similarly to the question that has been asked  about the iPad over the past week: In what way is it different from equipment that is already out there? My top choice of articles on the iPad  was by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian newspaper. He questions Apple's assertion that the iPad will make our lives more efficient and thinks it should be branded differently:  'Come off it. It's an oblong that lights up.  .  .  I want to hear how it'll amuse and distract me; how it plans to anaesthetise me into a numb, trancelike state. Call it the iDawdler and aggressively market it as the world's first utterly dedicated timewasting device: an electronic sedative to rival diazepam, alcohol or television. If Apple can convince us of that, it's got itself a hit'.
A PLE is not as high profile as a new Apple-device; it is still only researched by a relatively small group of people world wide.  But the interest in informal as opposed to formal learning is growing and some interest in the PLE was noticable at the Alt-C conference in the UK last autumn and at the PLE conference that we organised in collaboration with Manitoba university. Stephen Downes highlighted the trends in personal learning in an online presentation  to an audience in Australia last night.
The PLE is meant to help learners  manage all tools they use for learning.  It is expected to not only make life more efficient by aggregating information, but to add to this by using currently available technology that will facilitate intelligent information gathering and recommend information relevant to the person using it. This in combination with  communication tools to connect learners to one another and knowledgeable others.  The presence of editors, publishers and scaffolds related to learning and education can  help a person to make the  PLE truly personal, with the learner at the centre, while actively engaging in producing digital artifacts that are based on the original information collected and that can be published online to make them available for discussion with others.  It is expected to be a pedagogical platform that can help learners with the management of all tools, activities and components related to their learning journeys.