I had hoped to get this post out last week, but the dissaggregation 2 post came out instead and here I am in the middle of week six trying to combine a post that addresses both evaluation and success… and then i realized… that kinda makes sense. The problem with creating an evaluation model for a PLE is that it will inevitably have a strong impact on the success of the PLE. If the PLE is essentially about emancipation (which Scott Leslie tells me everyone believes in the comments of the previous blog post) then the scaffolding applied to allow for evaluation seems like the other end of the counterbalance.
This post is as much a simple reflection on my own practice… I hope you find it useful.
Presenting The Challenge
In the passed several blog posts we’ve talked about how the PLE can contribute to people committing to learning in a different way. To learning as practice… as a side effect of the work that they do everyday. In a PLE modelled course all the work that you do can contribute to the overall work that you produce, it can interact with work that you’ve done before and, most importantly, it can connect with other people doing great work out there as well. Those connections between your work and the work of others is where the real magic, where the network in the uh… network… really starts to pay dividends.
But wither the facilitator… It’s all fine for people to go out and do ‘real’ work on the internet, but how am I supposed to know that they’ve done it. Sure they can tag it… but what about comments? Sure they can repost in their blog… but that takes it out of its normal context. How do you evaluate work done in a PLE? How do you make sure that you are out there connecting and helping students make connections? How do you provide enough scaffolding to ensure that ‘nervous’ or ‘resistant’ students are coming along? How do I help provide comments? How do i find everything? I mean… in my Moodle course I just press on someone’s name and i find all their work.
Building the perfect system
So… off I went to try and build the perfect system. I started years ago using html, moved to moodle, elgg and drupal (all content management systems of one kind or another).
phase 1. I taught my first online classes on invisionboard, a discussion board software. I had 200+ writing students all working collaboratively in a discussion forum, editing writing, talking shop… it worked pretty well. But I wanted more! I had tried to cobble invisionboard together with a variety of other pieces of software, you know, calendar, assignment tracking… and then I found Moodle.
phase 2. Oh wow, I thought, here’s a system with all of the things I want in the same place. They had forums, and wikis and assignments and a gradebook. Piles and piles of toys. Except all those things were in the same place, and I started finding things constrictive… Where were my students going to put their content when the course ended… I had students coming up to me wanting to continue the conversation. Did i just delete these courses where people were feeling like they were connecting with each other when they were done?
phase 3. And then I found ELGG. It lets people have their own identity. They could blog, they could… uh… manage files. Lots of cool stuff. You, yourself, can live in your own location, you can write to whom you would like, be open or not. Seemed kind of ideal really. But it was kinda hard to use, and people got lost in trying to make connections, they kept expecting the connections to be there… and they weren’t. At the time (elgg has changed a bit since then) there was NO real way to start in ELGG. You couldn’t easily just ‘go to the home page’ and this made people crazy.
phase 4. By the summer of 2008 I thought i had it all sorted out. I would build a system out of drupal, loosely modeled after the interesting work that Funnymonkey had done for/with us for the http://livingarchives.ca project. It had a blog, that could be public or private. It had a very simple organization, by date, of the people in your group who had written reflections on their blog, reverse sorted to allow you to comment on those people who hadn’t been commented on yet. It was all in one place, I had feeds coming out of it in a dozen ways. The other main piece of functionality is that I had an ‘almost-wiki’ where students collaboratively built a textbook from the course. http://edugrids.org. It’s still there. No really… I still do the updates on it. I still have it.
There are others I haven’t mentioned, I made some detours down the wikis paths, and down some other ways. Suffice it to say that I’ve tried a few things on my way to trying to set one of these things up. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Building from scratch – writing your own html is annoying
Using a VLE – moodle (blackboard etc…) a blackbox, no matter how you open it up, its still designed to be top down, it’s not for empowerment, it’s designed to keep work tidy.
Using ‘social software’ – While some of the projects we ran with ELGG (youthvoices comes to mind, now transferred to drupal) were successful, it was difficult for people to get started in it. It was committing to a new country without knowing if you wanted to be there… tough to make that ‘yours’
Building your own – You have to own it. and when you own it… it doesn’t belong to your students.
Overall – These things are about the teacher. Not the students. I don’t know of a way to design a system that changes this.
Why I gave up trying to build a system
So then this summer I looked back at the 2008 course site i was still managing and said NO! I’m NOT doing it again. Everytime i throw away a system, a webpage, a moodle course or something like that I’m breaking up a community (even though the students have likely long left) that I tried to make my students believe was important to build. I’m breaking connections that others may have to my students work… The whole thing works against my philosophy. So i don’t do it anymore.
The internet is my PLE
In the course I taught this summer, I had the students go out into the wild with their work. I asked them to set up a blog on wordpress.com. I asked them to get a twitter account. I told them that they would need to keep track of each and everything that they wanted me to evaluate and put it in a googledoc. I said “I”m not going to look for it, I want you to interact with people, keep track of it, and tell me why it was important.” You can see the full plan here… http://wikieducator.org/User:Davecormier/Books/Educational_Technology_and_the_Adult_Learner I wont belabour the point… those interested in such things can wander over there and take a look at it. I stopped building systems, and I’m happy about it.
So… what can this mean for evaluation
There’s no way of knowing whether my summer course will replicate itself, but i had the most satisfying evaluation experience of my professional career. My students each handed me in VERY different pieces to evaluate, each reflecting their own style and their needs after the course. They all did 10 or so blog reflections, which fit to a format. They each sent me in a ‘reflection and collaboration report’ which included a grade for them posting in comments they had made and explaining how those comments for formative in that context. They also handed in a “learning network plan” which included things like links they hadn’t followed, things they found challenging they might go back to, interesting people they could follow… things like that. I really enjoyed going through them.
So what can this mean for whatever success might mean
My goal for their PLEs was that they should be as individual and as focused on their own context as possible. I also wanted to make sure that the content was in a format that they would be able to use after the course as easily as possible. Their blog posts are still out there (though some people may argue that this isn’t necessarily great) but in collecting and choosing how to organize all their work, they each seemed to create something that was personalized enough that they could see it as a valuable go forward reference if nothing else. Maybe, for some of them, it was the start of getting networked enough to be able to carry on with the work on line in as professional way as possible.