Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Have My Own Tools Thanks

I had an interesting dichotomy erupt during a conference presentation -attended by faculty and sessionals (grad students). When speaking about the use of social technology (OK people are social not technology but still labels are useful), anyway, a student stood up and asked "Why don't we use the tools we already use? Why not Facebook and IM or SMS chat or Ipodcasts?' To which an instructor responded (first year instructor) and said "Why should we have to use their tools - why don't they have to use ours (eg. Blackboard, Elluminate) if they attend our schools?" The discussion that ensued covered a lot of ground - from privacy to control issues, to autonomy, to freedom, to opportunity, to technology burdening to copyright issues and learning ownership.

I also had a slight mutiny in a course I TA'ed. (I spoke of this before) I established an internal installation of Elgg for the students to use as for personal reflection, project planing, collaboration and resource maintenance. Howeverthe day I demostrated and registered them to the Elgg environment our server sucked big time and it was slow and painful. By the next day all students had exited to the tools they know - Facebook, SMS and IM. Of course I blustered and countered with a posting about Facebook security and copyright issues, and of the CIA involvement - but it fell on deaf ears.

So another question to ponder. Do we build and support a series of loosely connected tools (eg. Elgg environment? Are we just creating another LMS? Should students use their own tools and networks? Why shouldn't their space be a learning space? Mind you I'm not sure the students really want their private world (Facebook) merged with their academic world.
Knocking down the LMS Walls

Institutionalized education has erected a series of walls around what was supposed to be an exercise in flexible and open learning accesss - that is the use of web based interactive communications technology to deliver distance learning. The predominant tool used to date has been the Learning Management System which primarily just recreates the controlled, enclosed learning environment called the lecture hall. Consider the terminology -LMS is a learning management tool designed for the institution not the learner. It is a confined space where learning events occur, assessments are submitted and grades assigned.
The learning events have no "life" beyond the box of the LMS. It serves a closed audience - students interact with a few other students, and a teacher and a few TAs and a limited amount of prescribed content. There is no linking to the world wide web, no connections to the world beyond the instruction in question. There is no continuation of learning. You register for a course, you get access to the LMS, you exit the course. No artefacts leave with you, no connections made are maintained, no history of learning is preserved, no eportfolio. Informal and nonformal learning, workplace experience, internships, cooperatives are not accommodated.
We are at the juncture where the promise of continuous learning, learner directed learning can be met. But not with an LMS, nor any other closed environment designed to aid the university in confining and controlling learning.

The virtual learning environment or personal learning environment is the next phase. How that environment is configured and presented is open to question. There will be greater autonomy. less instructor control, less institutional control. There will be continuity and persistence in learning. One example of this approach is the Elgg tool (see or

Elgg is a persistent user controlled personal learning environment that can be linked into WebCT or Moodle but can also exists by itself, beyond the course, beyond the program, beyond the institution. It's an environment with a set of tools and a a file repository designed to meet a students' needs as they move from course to course, to instituion to institution, to workplace to workplace, to community to community, etc.

I'm researching a number of applications of this tool - as a course delivery system that will morph into a community of learners; as a community of practice for in service teachers; as a community of reseachers for reserach activity; as a virtual home for 3rd age learners to share, connect and communicate. I see a lot of promise here that requires us to really reevaluate how we teach and how students learn - and this time we have to recognize that we are not in the business of confining learners, nor are we the owners of their learning experiences - it is our dutyto be stewards of the process and to free them up to explore the world with us and without us.

Sample apps of Elgg platform:

the primary educational application of Elgg platform; feel free to join and experience!

Emerge is the support project for the UK Joint Information Systems Committee

Rucku is Rugby's first dedicated Social Networking platform.

Myrichmondva - the concept behind the system is to develop a fully customizable community landscape.

emeraldinsight is a personal web space and hosting service that supports learning, networking and collaboration.
Noone came to the Community

The Elgg environment that I have been making extensive use of is essentailly a buffet of technology - with personal profiling, blogs, wikis, group creation, access restrictions, folksonomy tagging, notification, eportfolio and soon openID - I'm trying to model it as a course tool that morphs into a community as required and dips into formal and informal situations like a spaceship docking at a space station, taking on connections and resources and readying for the learning flight to the next waystation but carrying its own connections and resourcese throught the connectosphere.

I have three projects going on now - as a collaborative/group work course tool for a distance course, which hopefully will evolve into a cohort community, then a community of practice as the students graduate and continue/go back/begin worklife and can then dip back into formal or informal learning; as a community of practice for career teachers working grades 9-12; and a lifelong learning community for 3rd age learners taking educational vacations.

But you know of course that if you build it, they may not come, or they may go elsewhere. My Elgg install was slow, so of coure my students flocked over to facebook - a social netwrok thay are already on and are familiar with. Of course privacy issues, content ownership and who's watching your entries (CIA, etc)didn't deter them. For the career teachers I've held workshops at their conference, even had a list of teachers supplied by the faculty of Education and had workshops and pizza ready to go - total show of 4 people over all 3 workshops. And this is just to get the people familiar enough with the toolset to join in and become a seed group.

Bent but not broken I continue on. Issues still keep plaguing me beyond actual membership (even if no one shows up I need a plan). I'm still grappling with a number of pedagogical issues - control vs. autonomy, organic growth or planned growth?, user experience vs. user autonomy, stewardship vs facilitation/moderationx, am I creating communities of practice or "communities for practice" as Christopher Sessums describes. More questions - when time allows I'll expound on these.

I am looking to incubate a web-based community of practice where educators share a common identity, shared and reflected ideas, feedback, models, and concepts that leads to a "becoming" - of enhanced individual and collective learning.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Control and Autonomy

Control and autonomy seems to be the issue all around - both for those of us who would like to implement change and use "unsanctioned" technologies and for the student who wants to be in a position to make their own decisions -
How we can support use of social software to allow community cohesion without our presence creating the Hawthorne Effect? My use of Elgg is winning more acceptance within our Masters in Communications technology program - but I'm struggling to identify the degree of required intervention that is necessary to position students to connect and share, and having to constrain myself from being too involved in both the design and the delivery of the learning experience.While a self organizing environment is not necessarily an effective learning environment, the opposite can also be stated.
I grapple with the unknowns- can an independent, commited community of learners evolve from an instructor controlled learning experience? does learning continue without the direct intervention or even guiding hand of the instructor? can an instructor be just one of the learners at any point in the learning continuum? can we impose our technology on a users experience?
I think social software has great potential to not only allow us to advance a degree of cosntructivism but to allow the evolution of learning from an instructor led institutional experience into a learner directed journey. Too much of what we do now is built around confinement - I want to see what learning can be like when it is truly a freebase journey, where students dip into and out of formal learning experiences, meld it with their own informal and nonformal experiences, worklife and social life and maintain a record of reflections, connections and artefact development over the time of their lifelong continuous learning. But then having taught high school I know we don't create independent learners -we stifle them - and then I foolishly think they want freedom in higher education. In a society predicated on credentialism, most students just want what they need to know to get success and money. But those are just the environmental challenges we face.
As a learning designer I often speak about how I represent the interests of the learner in the face of institutional and professorial expectations. But until the advent of social software, and the unbundling of learning management systems I've never been able to actually act on my ideals. Now I can - to a degree - and it is daunting and challenging at the same time.
The MET School: Connections and Friendships
Ewan McKintosh introduces an example of the school walls expanding - the MET School - innovative, small-school environment, where non more than 120-150 kids are led in groups of 12-17 students by advisors. No 'teachers' in sight. You msut visit his site and view Leala's video - an ex drop out high school student who thanks to this MET is now univerity bound and working as an intern in an area of her interest (not what the shool decided was her interest) - I love the comment she makes that through this she became a learner and a teacher!

The MET school is an initiative of The Big Picture Company - a nonprofit company that believes that schools must be personalized, educating every student equally, ONE STUDENT AT A TIME. Each student’s learning plan should grow out of his or her unique needs, interests, and passions...students and families are active participants in the design and authentic assessment of each child’s learning. Schools must be small enough to encourage the development of a community of learners, and to allow for each child to be known well by at least one adult. School staff and leaders must be visionaries and life-long learners. Schools must connect students, and the school, to the community - both by sending students out to learn from mentors in the real world, and by allowing the school itself to serve as an asset to the local community and its needs. Finally, schools must allow for admission to, and success in, college to be a reality for every student, and work closely with students, families, and colleges throughout – and beyond - the application process.
Artichoke: Edubloggers as “Prisoners of the nation state.”

Some phrase just resonate - for example this one from Artichoke at edubloggers - "We have been seduced by our inability to imagine ourselves as superfluous to student learning."
We talk about the freedom and autonomy afforded by social software and web 2.0, the democratization of the learning experience - and we have been talking for years about student centered learning and constructivism - but ultimately we have been doing no more than peering outside the box we are in because "We have been seduced by our inability to imagine ourselves as superfluous to student learning."

As Stephen Downes has stated before we are still talking about learning as if it is just a retrofit of what came before "to promote a view of learning that is traditionalist, rather than oriented to the future, one that seeks to preserve the existing trappings of education, most notably, schools. But with the advent of web 2.0 we should be looking at changing the definition of learning - to get rid of our mindset and "to use technologies to leverage our ability to personalize learning, facilitate students' learning while taking part as full citizens in the wider community.

Artichoke reaches into the past to quote Ivan Illich and show us how our thinking has fossilized -

"A good education system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and finally furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.” - Ivan Illich 1971

Does this description require a classroom? A school? A teacher? An instructional designer? A subject matter expert? A single web site? A learning management system? Does it require a set of controls? Prescribed subjects and established content? Ulitmately the only constant should be the learner.

Friday, July 06, 2007

How are people making use of the web?

Look at the strength of the creators - ages 12-26. This is the group that academic institutions aim at - are we ready to accomodate their idea of learning, their independence and their individualized creating and connecting? And look at the size of the inactives ages 41-60+. These folks are prime for social media - having them connect online and being part of a continuous learning strategy can open more markets for academic institutions.
Faculty Use of Social Networks

Thomson Releases Survey on Faculty and Use of Social Networks

A preliminary look at a survey found nearly 50 percent of faculty respondents familiar with social networking technologies, including blogs, MySpace, and Facebook, say such technologies "have or will change the way students learn." Curiously, however, about two-thirds of faculty respondents also said they do not feel social networking will have an effect on how they teach—or are at least uncertain if it will. The survey, conducted for Academic publisher Thomson Learning, reflects "a lack of awareness and understanding" of these emerging technologies, suggest administrators.

The Thomson Learning survey, was conducted over a five-week period and included 677 professors, most of whom have been "teaching for more than ten years at four- or two-year colleges and universities on the subjects of humanities/social sciences or business/economics." ...survey also found, however, that that there is significant room for growth in faculty members' use of technology: 59 percent do not have their own web sites; 82 percent have yet to make a podcast, and only ten percent have their own blogs. ...key findings indicate "a large opportunity for faculty introduction, education, and integration of social networking and media tools, for both professional and personal use."

A large opportunity indeed. Faculty has not yet opened their eyes to a big wake up call - social networking technologies will change the way students learn and the way teachers teach. The whole dynamic of pedagogy will change - the chart I posted after this entry shows that those aged 18-21 are the Creators - those who publish web pages, write blogs, upload videos - these are individuals used to working without boundaries, connecting with whom they please, mashing and creating anew - independently - and they will want their input recognized, appreciated and used. Active, constructivist learning apporoaches will be demanded. Students will want more freedom, more control of resources, learning strategies - and this will impact on our structured approach to educational programming - we will have to refine our idea of teaching "episodes" (course, program) we need to "fragment" learning into connected learning scenarios, within modifiable and open learning environments that persist and stay within the control of the learner after they leave our relationship. Ownership and control of learning will shift to the student. We have to change. Wakey, wakey - there's a tsunami of change approaching...