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?