Monday, July 19, 2010

The eXtended Web and the Personal Learning Environment

The eXtended Web and the Personal Learning Environment
Steve Wheeler’s presentation on Web3.0 has stirred Stephen Downes and George Siemens into discussing not Web3.0, but Web X (or Web eXtended) as Stephen calls it, on their blogs. Semantics in names and name tags aside, Web 1.0 mainly seemed to consist of semantics, Web 2.0 of connections, communications, multi-media, virtual worlds and the introduction of mobile devices through the emergence of wireless and higher Internet connection speeds; while Web 3.0 connects data streams in a supposedly intelligent way.
The combination of all four would lead to Web X.0 (Steve) or Web X (Stephen). I myself actually prefer the full name ‘the eXtended web’ as it tells us a little more about its possibilities for learning, and George rightly asks for the lift of the debate from semantic games towards what this Xweb (;-)) means for education and learning.

I am mostly interested in these developments in their relation to Personal Learning Environments as several people over the past months have asked me why I think there is a need to develop a Personal Learning Environment at all. Applications and aggregators of information are freely available and people can take their pick of their preferred ones and create their own network. Why would anybody need some researchers and developers to work on a PLE for them? After all, we all know how easy it is for conglomerates to take over the development of tools and applications and transform them into a moneymaking machine, rather than the powerful and promising tools that they could be for the learner.

Well, there are three issues that I find important in this respect.

1. Intelligent data connections are one exciting option for PLE development and networked learning, as these connecting data streams could through intelligent use of personal data, and of data and searches generated through earlier learning activities, inform the new searches and learning activities.  Recommender systems of information, resources, critical friends and experts could form part of the access options for learners in a PLE that they would not likely be finding in a self-directed fashion.

2. That brings me to the challenges of an open online networked environment for learning. It is all good and well as academics and learning technologists with a high level of epistemological maturity and critical thinking skills to feel confident that all adults, if they want to, can find the relevant information they need, and communicate with others online and learn in the process. The reality, however, is different and research is available to show that not all adult learners are able to critically assess what they find online and might prefer to receive guidance from knowledgeable others. There is also research available to show how difficult it is for anybody to reach and access a deep level of information by using search engines. Self-directed networked learning stops with a commercial search engine or highly visible node on the network, whose interests might not be served by providing the learner with information far removed from its top search results or choice of displayed resources.

Interestingly, educators have highlighted that there is a real need for critical literacies while learning informally on networks. A high number of courses and publications discussing critical literacies are emerging, and show that educators in the field also see that a major stumbling block to personalized learning on informal networks is that people might not necessarily have the critical literacies required to learn and search independently.
Learning in my view is not synonymous with accessing information, and requires a level of reflection, analysis, perhaps also of problem solving, creativity and interaction with people to be able to get the best out of the structures and sub-structures of the Internet. A PLE with the right components can help with this.

3. Access to technology. Issues of access to technology have been moved aside in recent years as the majority of people in the northern hemisphere should now have access to technology. I have followed the trends in access and digital divides over the past six years; in haves and have-nots being able to access technology, and it is true that more than half the population of countries such as the UK now have access to technology, broadband and the Internet. It still means that millions don’t have access and don’t use the Internet. There are reasons for their non-participation. Some are related to age and socio-economic group, but some are also related to relevance, confidence and skills set. Clearly the most vulnerable people in society and the people who could benefit from access through cheaper bills and access to social services are also the people not using it.

The people least likely to use the Internet are also the least likely to participate in adult education. And I haven’t even spoken about the people on the southern half of the globe, where the access and participation rate to technology and learning is even lower and the group of vulnerable people greater. Should we just leave these people behind?

Or could PLEs that would provide help with Internet use and might be used on mobile devices be the answer to making the Internet relevant to the lives of all? Although technology is not high on the priority list of excluded people, slowly but steadily they become involved as it is clear that there is a correlation between the rate of convergence and the access threshold for people. The higher the rate of convergence of digital devices, the lower the access threshold to technology use has become. I think that PLEs that hold the right components will aid learners who are not so confident in using the internet for learning activities.

What components would be needed?

The components that were formulated in Stephen Downes’ vision for a PLE at the start of the PLE project of the National Research Council of Canada are the following: 1. A personal profiler that would collect and store personal information. 2. An information and resource aggregator to collect information and resources. 3. Editors and publishers enabling people to produce and publish artifacts to aid the learning and interest of others. 4. Helper applications that would provide the pedagogical backbone of the PLE and make connections with other internet services to help the learner make sense of information, applications and resources. 5. Services of the learners choice. 6. Recommenders of information and resources.

I think Stephen was right. The further we are in the process of developing these components, the clearer I can see how together they could really work in a PLE based on the eXtended Web. The could help overcome challenges related to learning on informal online networks, such as to advance people’s confidence levels in using technology and increase the relevance of their searches and communication.

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