My PLE model is the internet – no more system for me

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 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. 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 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… 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.

Disaggregate power not people – Part two: now with more manifesto

I’ve been putting together a short discussion for my university around the reasons that a given professional might want to go ahead and blog. Why put thoughts out that are incomplete, that still need work? Won’t this impact my standing as a professional? Won’t some people misunderstand and think that I’m simply a sloppy thinker?

Some people will see your work that way… and i’ve had my share of that the last couple of weeks ( comes to mind) but the response on the disaggregate people not power post from a couple weeks ago puts the reason why i blog in clear focus. I started PLENK2010 very conflicted in my feelings around the PLE/N, unsure about where the technology ended and the learning begins, but with all of your help, I’m now feeling better 🙂

A word on PLE vs. PLN
For the purposes of this discussion lets agree that the PLN (Personal Learning Network) is a description of the network of people in which I learn. It is a description of people online or offline. This simplistic definition may strike some of you as unfair, but without getting the PLN out of the way, this discussion gets even more complicated.

Two definitions of PLE
Whether in the most significantly edited wikipedia article on the subject, the NRC and @downes run project ‘creating’ one or oft cited research on the subject, it seems clear that the dominant interpretation of the term PLE is a technological environment created to allow students a personal rather than a course based view of formal(ish) education. A technology which, as Wilson et. al suggest

is concerned with enabling a wide range of contexts to be coordinated to support the goals of the user.

the PLE operates at a personal level in that it coordinates services and information that is related directly to its user and owner. However, the PLE can also be considered global in scope as the range of services it can potentially coordinate is not bounded within any particular organization. The user can connect their PLE with social networks, knowledge bases, work contexts, and learning contexts of any size to which they can obtain access.

The distinction, then, between a VLE/LMS and a PLE is that the former is course or institution based, and the later is person based, irrespective of the courses that a person is taking. The history of PLE wikipedia article cited earlier is a long string of technology projects that detail the ways in which we can create a technology that will increase the global ‘range of services’ that will allow an institutionally supported system to allow the student to set their own goals, organize their learning content and to allow their formal work to interact with ‘the real web’. (this if you’ll allow that in the quote above, the clear distinction is being made between “their PLE” and “social networks, knowledge bases, work contexts… etc…)

Definition 1 –This is personal (as in, given to one person) learning environment (as in, space identified by the institution from which you can then connect to the free web)

Here are some live blogging notes from Michelle Martin while listening to a Stephen Downes talking about his PLE… he speaks of flickr and googledocs and skype and gliffy as PLE. Or, a tad more colourfully

This from Scott Leslie. This is clearly not ONE technology that allows you to work with others… the middle section of the diagram are about the physical location of the learner (say desktop), and then they extend from there. They include technologies, people, relationships, events, from a ‘personal’ perspective.

Definition 2 – This is a Personal (as in, me the person) learning environment (as in, the ecology in which I learn)

So we have two views
In Definition 1 we have PLE as a pedagogical change in education from a course based focused to a learner based focus. In Definition 2 we see learning as irrespective of any formal system, it is a PLE that describes the world as it is… with communication streams be they telephone or twitter, as the ecology in which I learn. In this second definition you will see my rebel yell of education referred to in the earlier Disaggregation post.

Definition 1 as power maintained
In the first definition we have a system that is ‘created for’ students, that is maintained by a university (and, one would imagine payed for by their fees payed to the institution) where lines of connection are created that the student may then fill. It is a software system that locates the students in a concentrated area that makes it easy for them to find each other, easy for a professor to find their work, and makes it easy to get things started. It is preferable to the VLE in the sense that a student gets to keep working on things from one course to another, it provides that e-portfolio style location for their work, gives them an individual presence inside their learning institution.

These are all services provided FOR the student by the institution. Services that, usually, will then be taken away once the student moves on to other learning areas. Now, you might say that I can export the content of my work, or through some SCORMish mumbo jumbo i could move it from one institution to another. It’ll be fine, i’m told, as long as we have good standards. But this version of the PLE is controlled by the institution. The institution holds the switch, they control the pathways that are allowed for learning, the connections that can be made (maybe by decision, by technical ability or by standards imposed guidelines)

While i see this as preferable to the coursed based LMS, it still leaves the learning in the hands of the institution. This means that if you leave, even if you take all your content in some exported format, you lose the connections of your learning. Any links in and out of your work get borked, any habits that people have of coming to visit your work go away, your work at creating a sense of place go away. You do not own it.

(caveat: I am not speaking of learning in the sense of ‘coming to know a thing.’ The majority of introductory classes probably belong in a nice structured VLE. I’m thinking of student ‘becoming’ professionals or, better, those who are already. /caveat)

Definition 2 – disaggregating power
There is a very different power relationship between being given a space which ‘enables contexts’ and ‘allows supports’ for a user and a space that you build and support for yourself. It dodges those institutionally created problems of student mobility, of losing the connections formed in your learning and gives you a professional ‘place’ from which you can start to make long term knowledge network connections that form the higher end of the productive learning/knowing that is possible on the web. The power is disaggregated in the sense that while attending an institution of learning you are still under the dominance of the instructor or the regulations surrounding accreditation, but coming to your learning space is not about that dominance. The power held (and, i should probably add, that you’ve given to that institution in applying for accreditation/learning it’s not (necessarily) a power of tyranny) by the institution only touches some of your work, and it need not impede any work you choose to do.

Here’s where I get to the part about the ‘personal’ that’s been bothering me
The danger in taking definition two as our definition for PLE is that we lose sight of the subtle, complex dance of person and ecology so eloquently described by Keith Hamon in his response to my post. Maybe more dangerously, we might get taken up as thinking that learning is something that happens to the person, and not as part of a complex rhizome of connections that form the basis of the human experience.

Learning (and I don’t mean definitions or background) and the making of connections of knowledge is something that is steeped in complexity. At each point we are structured in the work (written in a book, sung in a song, spoken in a web session) of others that constantly tests our own connections and further complexifies our understanding. This is the pattern of knowledge as i understand it. It is organic, and messy, and subject to subtle manipulations (intended or otherwise) of power. Having a place of ownership within that complexity, whether we call it ‘the personal’ or not, is vital to emancipated thought.

We have created an educational system that focuses on the content to be distributed from teacher/institution to a student. We have controlled curriculums and then told students what, where and when to learn. Students have been taught to obey and now we want them to decide. Definition 1 described above does not, in my mind, leave enough room for that decision, for control of learning. It certainly disaggregates the institutional framework of learning (courses) but it does not disaggregate the power of the insitution. Definition 2 is far more personal, the power is centred in the learner. You can have your own blog, your own place to store your files, pictures, conversations and, most importantly, a place to centre connections.

We need to remember that the ‘personal’ is about emancipation, not about being alone. Learners need to remember that the connections are still needed, they just need to go out and make them, they will not be provided. The side effect to the power granted, is that simply ‘doing the work’ (read: posting my response to my blog) is not the end of the work. The work needs to be connected to others, learning is still about people.

Cluster and Focus -> Surviving week 4 of a MOOC

Had a quite excellent weekend of meetings with George Siemens, Sandy McAuley and Bonnie Stewart regarding our research on MOOCs. We’ve rewritten a good deal of the stuff from the video I released a few weeks ago about how to be successful in a MOOC based on some of the feedback we’ve gotten, some discussions I’ve had with people in the different elluminate sessions and the results of our narrative enquiry. We have four broad steps for success in a MOOC… but as we’re already a few weeks in, I’m going to focus on steps 3 and step 4.

The distributed nature of a MOOC offers a variety of challenges to the participant. PLENK2010 central has a list of suggested readings for the week, two live events and a discussion area for people to connect in. ‘The Daily’ rounds up the posts and tweets from the day and keep people apprised of what is going on in the course. But this is only content. It’s a description of connections maybe, but it hardly satisfies the goals of the MOOC as we’ve talked about them?

We’ve noticed, MOOC after MOOC that weeks 3 and 4 are the most difficult for students. The ‘newness’ of it all has faded at this point, we’ve covered some of the more basic material, and for many participants, its enough time that they start to sit back and reflect on the experience and evaluate if this is something that they are going to be able to commit 6 more weeks to. Why finish the course? Why continue to participate? How do I get the most out of this process?

There are two main questions surface over and over again throughout this course. The first, and most enduring question is

What am I supposed to do now?

Followed closely by the second most common concern

How am I suppose to keep track of all the things that are going on in the course?

Step 3 – Cluster
One of the easiest ways of dealing with the scattershot nature of this course is to pay close attention to your clusters. By this point, if you’ve been participating and working along with others, you’ll likely have found some people that are doing what you are doing, who are interested in what you’re interested in, or with whom your ideas seem to connect easily. This is a natural clustering process that happens in a network… it’s a combination of making strong ties to a smaller number of people, looser ties with a larger number beyond that, and maybe not paying attention to other work that you find distracting or doesn’t fit in with where you see yourself going.

Step 4 – Focus
Any MOOC is necessarily going to need to be directed by the participant. There is not way to do reasonable consultations with 1400 people, and no way to create a set of activities that is going to satisfy the needs of those participants nearly as well as they can do that themselves. So… this week you need to find a point of focus. I think that those who do well in MOOCs are often those who find something in their professional activities, find a particular angle of interest in the learning materials… something that they can turn into their own final project. This might be something that you do with your cluster, and it might be something that you do on your own. Focus. Find it.

The answer…
The answer to the two questions, then, is that by clustering, you’ll be able to concentrate in deeper ways on the work of specific people. For many people this is going to offer a richer experience than trying to loosely follow a hundred people and their work. The answer to ‘what do i do now’ is simple… it’s up to you. The MOOC provides a jumpstart on a topic, some guidance, some access to people who’ve spent a bunch of time considering this stuff… and it provides access to a ready made network for you to borrow and make your own. The success of the process, from there, is up to you.

Of course, some of you just love being in the chaos of it all for ten weeks… and that’s good too 🙂

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