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.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Clear challenge in learning: match or mis match between learner needs and educator support

In 1991 Gerald Grow drew up his matrix of matches and mis-matches between learner stages and teacher styles and the first few days on #PLENK have confirmed to me that in any learning situation there is a need for a certain level of support to learners, also to participants in a course such as PLENK so they do not to feel that they are drowning in an overwhelming sea of information. I think that all four of us  facilitators are providing support in one way or another, in addition to several of MOOC old-timers and it is interesting to see that participants in the course have their own strategies to find support. Some posted comments on the course blog containing technical questions, while others used the Moodle discussion board or email, while I have also seen questions on Twitter and participant's blogs.

To me the level of autonomy that learners have and can handle is one of the major challenges for successful learning in a Personal Learning Environment as it is clear from a body of literature that not all learners are able to fully direct their learning them selves. This can be because of age and level of maturity, but there are also factors influencing the successful self-directed learning of adults. Paul Bouchard from Concordia University in Montreal distinguished four major groups of influencing factors: 1. Related to issues of motivation, confidence and self-efficacy of learners; 2. related to organizing and sequencing resources and information and time; 3. related to language and increasingly other media used in learning; and the fourth related to economy, as people make a cost and benefit analysis about what type of learning they will get involved in, which could be in a formal course where they receive a qualification if positive learning outcomes are achieved, or informal related to interest for instance.

It is my current job with our PLE group here in Moncton to research, think about and find out what kind of support learners need in a PLE and then to translate this into a pedagogical platform and technical support structure that will enhance the learning experience.  We will tell you more about our research throughout the course, but I was hoping that you would be willing to engage in this thinking process and tell us what would have helped you in this first week to find your feet, to get into the swing of things that wee bit easier. What scaffolds or climbing frames of support might help you in this process of self-directed learning?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Another exciting open learning event will start on Monday!

I am really pleased to be involved in another connectivist course. A Massive Open Online Course on Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge this time; #PLENK2010. I was a student at CCK08 and CCK09 and was facilitator this year at a Critical Literacies course with Stephen downes, and I will also facilitate at this one on Personal Learning Environments, which promises to become another cracker. Already over 900 participants have enrolled and the last few weeks in Moncton have been frantic with anticipation and preparation to ensure a learning environment would be ready on time to accomodate such a crowd of learner

This time there will be four facilitators, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier and I and that also promises to bring some spice to the online debate as from our pre-course discussions it has already become clear that we don't have the same views on learning; on how personal or how social it is for instance.

I really like the hustle and bustle of this type of courses and the initial confusion, which slowly moves towards clarity via lots of moments of excitement, insight and pure joy to be able to communicate worldwide with people who are interested in what I am interested in.

And this time the course is also part of the research that we at the National Research Council of Cananda here in Moncton are currently carrying out. We're trying to research and develop a PLE that forms a pedagogical platform on which people can truly learn; not just aggregate information. That is my challenge here, to ensure that that happens.

I see this course as a great opportunity to learn from participants what their ideas are of what a PLE should or could look like, but also of how they like to learn themselves and what tools and support mechanisms they would find helpful with that.
Let it all begin!