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


  1. Hi Rita,
    "My research highlighed the importance of communication in learning to create a high level of social 'presence'. An LMS/VLE is problematic in facilitating this." I do see this pattern recurring in MOOC since CCK08, 09, EdFuture, CritLit2010 and here PLENK2010. How did this occur? Wasn't it inherent in the design of a MOOC? Why LMS/VLE may not be ideal in supporting some learners in MOOC? I think we (Jenny, Roy and I) have attempted to research through our Blogs and Forum as Communication and Learning Tools, and some common themes emerged that did reveal many of the issues and challenges you mentioned.
    May I summarised as follow?
    (1) Teaching (LMS/VLE Moodle) versus learning (Blogs, Twitter, FB),
    (2) Participation via active participation (LMS/VLE Moodle) & Blogging versus lurking through reading, listening etc.
    (3) Self-directed learners (lots of bloggers) versus social learners (may be forum posters, FB, Twitterers)
    (4) Power relations (instructors, peer learners),
    (5) Confidence and affective issues,
    (6) Levels of knowledge displayed. To this end, we have found some significant differences in views and perceptions between instructors and participants in forums versus blogs.
    (7) Feedback from others (instructors, in particular, and knowledgeable others, including other guest speakers, more experienced teachers and learners.
    (8) Level of presence of instructors and participants in LMS/VLE Moodle. This could be contrasted with the presence of instructors and participants in blogs, Twitter, FB, SL, Amplify, and collectives (Delicious, Google doc, wikis etc.)
    (9)Large numbers of participants
    (10) dispersed learner groups, which could lead to "disaggregation" of networks, and the development conflicts within and amongst groups and within group members, when each one wishes to have his voice heard, acted upon and responded in reciprocity, and the differences in views and perceptions which may give rise to arguments. Here conflict resolution is not easily achieved due to the lack of consensus.
    (11) The language issue and misunderstanding arising from the syntax, semantics in posts and cultural values in the exchanges.
    (12) The pedagogy that is inherent in VLE and PLE in MOOC – PLENK2010.
    Wonderful to learn from and share your insights.
    I will respond with a detailed response post later with further sharing.

  2. Rita,
    This was great. You have taken a complex and fragmented discussion on #PLENK and answered many of my own questions with solid research and great writing. The PLE vs. LMS debate almost seems like an artificial or contrived. And yet, I can allow that as the rage for the LMS begins to cool, we need to look for a next organic step.

    I particularly liked how you reframed the notion of "lurker" into self-directed learners, rather than social learners. As one who is shy to voice, I much prefer it. And I certainly learn a lot from the discussion, even when I'm not in there talking or writing. I take weeks or months to constuct a blog post, making rapid discussion unlikely. Thanks again for your great clarity and heart. I enjoyed it.