Personal Learning Environments: A Report from the Field

GPACW 2010 Presentation, Oct 8 2010

Draft up on 10/10/10. Yet to come, embedded file to notes on course.
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Notes for a GPACW 2010 presentation
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PLEs: A Report from the Field. Slides

Proposal: Personal Learning Environments: A Report from the Field

A small but significant and lively group of researchers and educators in Europe have abandoned learning management systems such as Blackboard and D2L for alternative pedagogies and models of tertiary education, things like open education, social learning, free texts, open educational resources, massive collective courses, edupunk, and personal learning environments.

These alternatives make use of Web 2.0 technologies, and the growing popularity of smartphones, netbooks and tablets, to give more and more control to the learner. Learners set up their own personal learning environment, using their own selection of social tools such as weblogs, wikis, Twitter, and Flickr, to suit their own purposes and goals.

This fall, I will be in the UK, talking with a few of the major players in this new area of teaching and learning. For this 20 minute presentation, I will Skype in from the UK to report on recent developments in social learning and PLEs, and a consideration of what digital rhetoric and composition can bring to the table.


Opening Exercise: Make A Mental List

First day of TA training in comp/rhet - an exercise that became stock in textbooks - spent time freewriting about the material situation of writing. What pens, pencils, paper? Where? What time of day? Warm up routines, etc.

Exercise was to get us thinking about process and led to reflective consideration of that process as a way of developing some metacognitive control.

So: Think about when you work either formally or informally, at home or in a coffee-shop or elsewhere. What do you use? I mean materially.

What Is A PLE

PLE is more than a set of gear. It exists in and supports informal learning: that is, learning complex matters - how to garden, how to play the guitar - that is not institutionalized, but developed by the learner on the fly.

When viewed this way, university learning takes a side seat to the learner. Institutional learning might be PART of the total, but it need not be all.
Definition and informal learning

Attwell: from eLearning Papers • •1 Vol 2, No 1 • January 2007 • ISSN 1887-1542
“A PLE is comprised of all the different tools we use in our everyday life for learning. Many of these tools will be based on social software.”

If we consider learning only as something done in institutional settings, then a PLE has little to offer. But if we look a learning as something that is continuous, with some episodes of formal learning, and some - if not most - of informal - then considering PLEs is significant.
The idea of a Personal Learning Environment recognises that learning is continuing and seeks to provide tools to support that learning.
It also recognises the role of the individual in organising their own learning.

PLEs recognize the idea that learning is influenced by the materials and technologies we learn with. Learning is embedded, situated in contexts and situations - realized in the network. Goodbye to Learning Objects. This is something we in comp/rhet know already but have been slow in considering.
Moreover, the pressures for a PLE are based on the idea that learning will take place in different contexts and situations and will not be provided by a single learning provider. Linked to this is an increasing recognition of the importance of informal learning.

George Siemens: Connectivism: In an LMS, learning functions take a back seat to management functions. Siemens starts with connectivist groundings in pedagogy. Began to develop connectivism in 2004 as a network aware sense of learning. features from > Alec Couros Developing Personal Learning Networks for Open and Social Learning

Connectivist social learning will be familiar to comp/rhet people because it draws on Vygotsky and social construction - but it focuses on external processes and actions and systems. Not an internal dialogue but an external, social, socially-grounded, and material exchange. For connectivism, knowledge is in the network, in the connections between nodes: people, ideas, actions. The PLENK course is an example - it has been designed to enact a connectivist pedagogy.

from Siemens, Elluminate session of Oct 6:

Learning a complex discipline becomes network formation, growing, pruning connections. This is a definition of learning better tied to the network society today. Connective learning can be mapped to what we do when we act outside the formal institution, when we engage in learning on our own - that is, when we compose. That there is a point of connection between learning and use. And the tools and methods of ple/ns are aligned with the process of learning as network formation. A PLE is driven by the autonomy of the learner, and so lets them engage in learning a complex activity.

I would add that connectivist pedagogy is wrapped up in language - representation - not just discursive language, but a semiotic sense of languages. What we learn is what we represent to ourselves using the media and modes we have available. Gunther Kress.

Stephen Downes draws on Siemens and connectivist pedagogy. from Introduction to Connected Knowledge”:

Here's the sense of representation. “Our knowledge consists of interpretations of perceptions, which are in themselves distinct from any physical reality that may have caused them. In this sense, one might say that these interpretations are 'constructed' - that is, they are the result of some mental or cognitive process, rather than something that comes delivered to us already assembled.
Inference is, broadly speaking, the manipulation of these bits of knowledge, in the abstract, to produce new bits of knowledge.

Define knowledge and learning with these ideas, and PLEs begin to make sense. PLE, then, is (Downes) a self-designed exercise machine, helping a learner make connections: eg, observations, connections, inferences, meanings - allows learner to collect, catalog, organize material, and to create new artifacts - and then share them with other learners.

For a learner, a PLE allows you to immerse yourself in a community of practice - where you can practice being one of those practitioners.

In this model, information is not taught by means of the PLE. Instead, the course content is created by the participants themselves. Learners are presented with a set of resources from other participants and teachers and may do with them as they please.

Different students will go different directions, engage in different activities, create different artifacts.

To make this work, connectivist course creates a diverse, multi-perspective and I would add multi-modal environment, with the expectation that the interaction of these people from different perspectives will interact to create new and unexpected knowledge.

This is not group work. Learners might form ad hoc groups, might even choose to form and create in groups, but that is there choice, not a function of an assignment.

It IS distributed, both in perspectives and interests - and very possibly physically. Might have to be physical in order to really get a range of perspectives and interests.

MOOC Slide: MOOCs, Connectivist pedagogy, and PLEs

Learning activities as outlined by Downs and Siemens are realized in the design of the MOOC. That is, they have designed a course that enacts connectivist pedagogy and makes use of PLEs. I’m currently taking part in one called PLENK - PLEs networks and knowledge. In its 4th week, and runs into November, 10 weeks.

Term coined in 2008, when Siemens and Downes opened a course on connectivsm and connective knowledge to nonregistered users. 14 registered for credit; 2300 just to participate.

This year, Siemens and Downes are running more of them - specifically aimed at massive, non-credit enrollment. Siemens and others are doing research on them, all participants are developing the idea of MOOC in more detail. This is essentially crowd-sourcing to bootstrap our understanding of a new form of massive course and PLEs. That is, the participants are doing the research and mind work.

Cormier and Siemens, 2010: <>
PLENK2010 Slide

[Insert/link to file: Notes on the PLENK course]

At one level, the PLENK course might sound a lot like what grads and post-grads are supposed to do: define a research interest, design a way to approach it, produce something, and report on the work along the way or at the end. But because the plan is coming from others, and because there are others involved, this feels very different. Challenging, motivating, increasingly engaging.

Issues slide: A Radical Shift: Everything Changes

PLEs, MOOCs, open learning demand a change in mindset. As I mentioned, need to see informal, extra- institutional learning as seriou learning worthy of serious consideration. Are Connectivist pedagogy/PLE/MOOCs a key to solving the problems of education? - No. Downes et al aren’t claiming that. Notice how we want to see these ideas as a Solution. Instead, they remind us of the formal framework in which we think of education: we tend to consider education as something formal, institutional - A Solution.

Issues regarding PLEs and MOOCs
“The development and support for Personal Learning Environments would entail a radical shift, not only in how we use educational technology, but in the organisation and ethos of education. Personal Learning Environments provide more responsibility and more independence for learners. They would imply redrawing the balance between institutional learning and learning in the wider world. Change is difficult but it is probable that the rapid development and implementation of new technologies and social change make change in our educational provision inevitable.”

You can probably anticipate most of these:

teacher's role
changes from guide on the side because there is no path to guide through. Downes: “there is no path” so teacher doesn’t guide. Facilitator, aggregator, curator is the one we’re discussing. via Steve Mackenzie

<>, also Leigh Blackhalll <>
“Curator: play the role of interpreting, organizing, and presenting content, Facilitator: able to guide, direct, lead, and assist learners, not necessarily being a subject matter expert.”

One thread of the discussion in the MOOC - and by that I mean content - is pointing towards considering the teacher’s role - balancing scaffolding and curating with the letting the learner define and create her own PLE/PLN.

student's role
This is where the use of a PLE comes into play: There are so many people involved, so many possible threads to follow, that managing them is key. I won’t say, “It becomes a problem” because managing the discussion, the stuff, is part of the learning - that is, we learn by managing. Complexity is not a problem to be overcome or removed. Rather, to synthesize ones own take and feed it back into the loop demands a technical means and prompting synthesis - a problem.

student support
Tech support might seem to be a mess - and learners do need a good sense of the technology to really work this course. But they can engage the course at a low-tech level. But think about pedagogical support: scaffolding and bottlenecks. A big chunk of student support comes by way of other participants. Getting read and feedback when you post it sweet and motivating. Reading what others have done and taking cues from there is support.

It’s possible to assess the course itself, but how do we want to handle assessing the learners? I don’t see this as a problem: Define what you want to use to measure and measure it. Might look at artifacts, at participation or some angle on participation. Can do a pre- post-test, but you would have to measure something the student was engaged in, something the student actually addressed. Might want to write or compose a reflective work ... Since the MOOC is outside the institution, so is the assessment.

epistemic of learning
the state of knowledge and what we consider valid knowledge might need to shift so we can see the connections between informal learning - gardening - and privileged formal learning - lit crit, philosophy, history ...

Everything Changes when we look at the PLE

(almost) Everything changes when we redefine learning as informal: our most fundamental concepts become moot or need massive redefinition. Guide on the side - gone. Requirements and prerequisites - gone. Testing - gone as an assessment tool. Assessment - redefined. Teacher - redefined.

Are PLEs, PLNs, MOOCs, connectivist pedagogy part of an educational paradigm shift? Probably. I can see the anxiety rise among the Galileos of education - ed specialists and instructional designers with a lot of investment in LMS, in learning in controlled environments. I’ll let others debate the front line on this one. I’d rather sit back and watch the fireworks.

Graham Attwell argues that PLEs and MOOCs demand a change not only in "how we use educational technology, but organization and ethos of education."

It's a change in that character of education that is fascinating - and it involves us as teachers of writing and rhetoric because when the character of learning changes, our rhetoric of teaching must change to suit.


"Personal Learning Environments provide more responsibility and more independence for learners. They would imply redrawing the balance between institutional learning and learning in the wider world."

Given the independence of learners using a PLE, we need to look for ways to scaffold learners. We need to help them develop their rhetorical prowess so that they can learn. Eg: become adept with dialogue rather than monologue. Discover and trace the languages of the field of practice.
We do this not by direct instruction - although that’s possible - but by some aspect of the PLE exercise machine. That requires re-thinking the task.

We need to review the social climate with learners to see where the bottlenecks are and consider how to address them. Eg: students can be reticent about introducing themselves to online colleagues, or about posting comments, engaging in a forum of a very mixed group where they feel secondary, outclassed.

Because what they can learn depends on what they want to, learners will need scaffolding in developing their own local projects for learning.

Developing routines and techniques for learning.

What about critical thinking?

Look at critical literacies. [link to come] That's critical thinking in practice.

Where does this point to for us in comp/rhet? What do we do?

Those of us in comp/rhet are well-positioned and well-suited to get on the PLE bus. The pedagogy and epistemology on which connectivism rests is ultimately rhetorical or semiotic; we in rhet/comp have researched how people actually write for years to substantiate both that we learn by composing and how it happens. We have looked at the material situations of composing, how tools influence what can be done. Good comp courses have always been courses in practice - developing tacit knowledge - rather than declarative memorization and feedback. Our rhetorical and semiotic knowledge suits is the kind of knowledge learners need to scaffold themselves.

At minimum, start thinking about the materiality of learning
not teaching, but learning: those situations, places, contexts, materials and devices that students are using to learn with - including txt and phone, twitter and email. And start re-thinking learning as something that continues w/o us and outside of our purview. Informally, not consciously structured.

start thinking about leveraging PLE and MOOC techniques in classes. We do this already when we assign students work - projects - outside of class, but extend that further. I’m looking at using Downes’s four activities to structure projects in a few of the courses I’m teaching when I return.

Level 3
Introduce the PLE as an in-class project: students defining their own scaffolds, aggregations and remixes

Level 4
Take the risk and run a MOOC: De-latch learning from formal teaching. Pass the responsibility for learning over to the students. Push them into their own PLEs - and assign the responsibility to them to designate a feed to you as a curator.

Then share what you’ve done.

Thank you

Thank you for listening patiently on a quite possibly dodgy Skype connection. I hope you have found it worth your while.

The Players

Search twitter or google using #PLENK2010

Spring 2011
Weblogs and Wikis Design Notes
Weblogs and Wikis with MOOC design

Pooley Bridge and Far Sawrey, Cumbria, Oct. 1 - 8, 2010.

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