Archive for the ‘Wales Wide Web’ Category

Exploring Personal Learning Environments

October 8th, 2009 by Dirk Stieglitz

In September, we organised a symposium on Personal Learning Environments at the the 2nd World Summit on the Knowledge Society (WSKS 2009), “an international attempt to promote the dialogue for the main aspects of the Knowledge Society towards a better world for all.”

I rather rashly promised to publish the products from the symposium. It has taken a little longer than I had hoped, but here they are. The slides and links to the full papers are included in the text, the audio recordings of the presentations can be accessed at the bottom of this page.

The first speaker was Ricardo Torres. His paper was entitled “Using Web 2.0 applications as supporting tools for Personal Learning Environments.”

The abstract is as follows:

” This paper shows the results of a pilot study based on a proposed framework for building Personal Learning Environments using Web 2.0 tools. A group of 33 students from a Business Administration program were introduced to Web 2.0 tools in the context of an Information Systems class, during the academic year 2008-2009, and reflected about this experience through essays and interviews. The responses show evidence of learning and acquiring skills, strengthening social interactions and improvement in the organization and management of content and learning resources.”

You can download his full post here.

The second presentation was was by Cristina Costa from the University of Salford. Her paper was entitled “Teachers professional development through Web 2.0 environments. 

Her abstract reads as follows:

“Teacher professional development is no longer synonymous with acquiring new teaching techniques, it is rather about starting new processes as to engage with new forms of learning, reflected in the practice of teaching. With easy access to the panoply of online communications tools, new opportunities for further development have been enabled. Learning within a wider community has not only become a possibility, but rather a reality accessible to a larger number of individuals interested in pursuing their learning path both in a personalised and networked way. The web provides the space for learning, but the learning environment is decidedly dependent on the interrelationships that are established amongst individuals. The effectiveness of the web is reflected in the unconventional opportunities it offers for people to emerge as knowledge producers rather than information collectors. Hence, it is not the tools that most matter to develop a learning environment where more personalized learning opportunities and collective intelligence prospers as the result of personal and collaborative effort. Although web tools provide the space for interaction, it is the enhancement of a meaningful learning atmosphere, resulting in a joint enterprise to learn and excel in their practice, which will transform a space for learning into an effective, interactive learning environment. The paper will examine learning and training experiences in informal web environments as the basis for an open discussion about professional development in web 2.0 environments.”

You can download her full paper here.

The third presentation was by Tobias Nelkner from the University of Paderborn. He talked about the development of a widget infrastructure to support Personal Learning Environments. Here is his abstract:

“Widget based mashups seem to be a proper approach to realise self-organisable Personal Learning Environments. In comparison to integrated and monolithic pieces of software developed for supporting certain workflows, widgets provide small sets of functionality. The results of one widget can hardly be used in other widgets for further processing. In order to overcome this gap and to provide an environment allowing easily developing PLEs with complex functionality, the based on the TenCompetence Widget Server [1], we developed a server that allows widgets to exchange data. This key functionality allows developers to create synergetic effects with other widgets without increasing the effort of developing widgets nor having to deal with web services or similar techniques. Looking for available data and events of other widgets, developing the own widget and uploading it to the server is an easy way publishing new widgets. With this approach, the knowledge worker is enabled to create a PLE with more sophisticated functionality by choosing the combination of widgets needed for the current task. This paper describes the Widget Server developed within the EU funded IP project Mature, which possibilities it provides and which consequences follow for widget developer.

You can download his full paper here.

The fourth was Maria Perifanou from the University of Athens. She talked of her experiences of using microblogging for language learning. the abstract reads:

‘Learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge and instruction is a process of supporting that construction rather than communicating knowledge’. Can this process of learning be fun for the learner? Successful learning involves a mixture of work and fun. One of the recent web 2.0 services that can offer great possibilities for learning is Microblogging. This kind of motivation can raise students’ natural curiosity and interest which promotes learning. Play can also promote excitement, enjoyment, and a relaxing atmosphere. As Vygotsky (1933) advocates, play creates a zone of proximal development (ZDP) in children. According to Vygotsky, the ZDP is the distance between one’s actual developmental level and one’s potential developmental level when interacting with someone and/or something in the social environment. Play can be highly influential in learning. What happens when play becomes informal learning supported by web 2.0 technologies? Practical ideas applied in an Italian foreign language classroom using microblogging to promote fun and informal learning showed that microblogging can enhance motivation.”

Maria’s full paper can be downloaded here.

The final speaker was Graham Attwell from Pontydysgu. He talked about the European Commission Mature-IP project which is developing a Personal Learning and Maturing Environment. His paper was jointly authored with John Cook and andrew Ravenscroft from the Metropolitan University of London. Here is the abstract:

“The development of Technology Enhanced Learning has been dominated by the education paradigm. However social software and new forms of knowledge development and collaborative meaning making are challenging such domination. Technology is increasingly being used to mediate the development of work process knowledge and these processes are leading to the evolution of rhizomatic forms of community based knowledge development. Technologies can support different forms of contextual knowledge development through Personal Learning Environments. The appropriation or shaping of technologies to develop Personal Learning Environments may be seen as an outcome of learning in itself. Mobile devices have the potential to support situated and context based learning, as exemplified in projects undertaken at London Metropolitan University. This work provides the basis for the development of a Work Orientated MoBile Learning Environment (WOMBLE).”

You can download the paper here.

Podcast music is ‘Miss is a sea fish’ by Ehma from the Jamendo web site.

Cartoon Planet – A Pedagogy of Change

October 6th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Reflection is a big buzz word these days. But there sometimes seems a inverse relation between researchers talking about reflection and examples of how reflection can be facilitated in practice. For this reason I very much like the work I have been doing together with Cristina Costa and Helen Keegan from the University of Salford in the European Commission funded ICONET project. We have written a paper called ‘Cartoon Planet: Micro-reflection Through digital Cartoons – a Case Study on Teaching and Learning with Young People’. Just to make sure praise goes where it is due: Cristina designed and ran the workshops.

NB Scroll to the bottom of the paper for a downloadable PDF version.


When considering formal and informal learning, we can see that the way young people today play, interact with others and take part in the surrounding world also represents the way they learn (Brown, 2002). Whist young learners in the 21st century are seen as being increasingly independent, simultaneously group skills are more important than ever before. Flexibility and adaptability are key to lifelong learning in a networked society, as are personalised learning opportunities (Green, Facer, et al 2005). However, such approaches may be missing from formal education where the focus on standard content, in a drive to measure and assess learning, means that sometimes there is little scope for learners to participate in school life in an engaging and relevant way. This becomes even more challenging when working with ‘disadvantaged’ young people, who often lack the confidence as well as the opportunities and supporting environment to develop a stronger self-awareness (i.e. awareness of their personal skills and abilities). Educational activities, which promote self-reflection and encourage young learners to engage in a learning journey by mixing fun with pedagogy through web technologies, can provide a powerful recipe in the classroom (Passey, Rogers et al, 2004). It not only increases the level of enthusiasm, it can also boost the pupil’s motivation and help create new ways of fostering learning and social engagement, in addition to new forms of teaching (John, 2005).

This paper focuses on the development of innovative learning activities and teaching and mentoring methodologies as part of the European ICONET Project, which is piloting a range of approaches to the recognition of informal learning in different countries and for different target groups. In this paper, the authors will consider the recognition of informal learning in the school setting, encouraging personal and joint reflection on formal and informal competencies with the use of web cartoons and micro activities supported by a hands-on, exploratory learning approach. We describe how young people were encouraged to use computers as an effective, hands-on, creative medium to develop self-awareness and engage in reflection on their own skills and competences. We also explore the advantages of giving learners access to the web and the issues to be addressed when working with them, and report on how this experience helped the researchers realize the potential of web-based activities to promote active engagement and reflection by young people. The importance of the presence of the teacher/tutor as a mentor to provide personalized support will also be considered as a key factor for the success of this experience. We conclude with suggestions for future research in the area of web 2.0 technologies, new educational trends and innovative practices as a contribution to creative learning experiences.


Education should aim to provide a transformative experience (Torosyan, 2001). With the spread of digital media and social computing this ideal may be seen as easier to achieve. In a society where new technological innovations are released daily, creative innovation in today’s education is to be expected. Yet, the panorama is somewhat different from optimistic predictions by educational theorists. According to the latest IPTS report (Ala-Mutka, Punie and Redecker, 2008), despite the wider availability of technology and the Internet, most classroom practices still fail to provide learners with innovative, creative and social approaches to augment and motivate learning. The ‘educational shift’, grounded on social and personalised pedagogies, as advocated by most of the literature, is still in progress (Williamson and Payto, 2009). Nevertheless, in the last decade there have been numerous policy initiatives, programmes and projects to adapt educational systems and institutions to the digital age (PLTS, 2009). Web based interactive environments can contribute to a shift in pedagogy and learning approaches. Such approaches are not new (the debate on educational change has been long running), but access to social computing offers new opportunities for radical pedagogic approaches to teaching and learning (UNESCO, 2004).

Even so, the transformation of the classroom does not rely so much on the technology as on the instigation of strategic approaches to modernising education and the willingness of the practitioners to adopt such approaches (Travers and Decker, 1999).

A Pedagogy of Change

A pedagogy of change does not mean that teachers become irrelevant. On the contrary, they become more important than ever (Redecker, 2009), in providing and mentoring learning experiences. The construction of new knowledge through collaborative and cooperative activities, which are personally meaningful to the learners, are core to a pedagogy of change (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007). However it is often argued that learning, as a dynamic process, is dependent on the learner’s willingness to interrelate with his/her learning in order to develop understanding (Barr and Tagg, 1995), it is equally contended that an effective learning experience is also influenced by those who help foster learning through active methodologies and personalised support.

Modern pedagogy, based on social processes, is not new. The idea that learning develops through dialogue and active processes has been much discussed, although not always practiced (Alexander, 2005). Learning relies both on granting the individual an active voice and creating an environment for collective listening and mutual support (UNESCO, 2002). That is probably one of the most radical changes the contemporaneous pedagogical approach is seeking to encourage. However, education systems are still based on an industrial age with the purpose of delivering mass-education (McLuhan and Leonard, 1967). The use of digital technologies is playing an important role in promoting change in education (Anderson, 2007). Participatory media has focused attention on the idea that teaching and learning practices have a strong social component, and that learning is a dynamic activity and naturally embedded in daily life (Bull, Thompson, et al, 2008). The interactive web not only enables collective understanding; it can also facilitate personal development and reflection through social engagement. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of learning environments is dependent more on human interaction than on technology. A pedagogy of change relies strongly on the actions of practitioners to promote such change, and also on the institutional support that is given to it. (Pritchard and McDiarmid, 2006) Equally it is dependent on the engagement of learners. Effective practices in teaching and learning rely on the commitment of both parties.

Formal education remains important. Whilst there is still a need for learning centres, these centres have to be become less formal, and provide different learning contexts, to remain relevant to those seeking meaningful learning opportunities (Du Bois-Reymond, 2004). This is especially true when working with ‘disadvantaged’ learners who may not relate to a programmatic and standardised education, but who are able to show, and most importantly, realize their potential, when engaged in different and less formal approaches to learning. A pedagogy of change could be rooted in the development of innovative learning activities, focusing on the learners’ personal and collective experience, with tutors/teachers acting as guides and mentors in the construction of knowledge and the understanding of experiences in the communities and networks in which learners participate. The school of life is a good teacher, but the learning from daily activities still needs to be recognized and capitalized as part of a formal education. Social computing can help in this as it can link the school setting with other environments where students learn in a more informal manner.

Innovative Learning Activities – Using the web to bridge learning (formal and informal)

In the recent years there has been a growing acknowledgment of the importance of informal learning (Cross, 2007; Attwell 2007). Life experience is recognised as relevant to personal and professional development, with lifelong learning taking place in a variety of scenarios and settings. Competences and skills are developed through experience and social interactions although frequently are not formally accredited as they remain outside the formal curriculum (Burley, 1990). This can demoralize and alienate those who fail to achieve formal academic qualifications but still possess skills and competences achieved in other contexts. As Cross (2007) points out, most of the skills and knowledge acquired are developed through informal learning. How we capitalize on that acquired knowledge and recognize learners’ skills is something that needs to be addressed, as recent debates in this area suggest[1].

The development of Internet and web environments is providing increasing access to free and informal learning opportunities and communities. Although learning has never been restricted to a classroom, it has met with boundaries, however internet has pushed these boundaries wider than before(Lindsay and Davis, 2007), and now even within the classroom, learning no longer is bound to a single place.

However there remain a number of outstanding issues: how to capitalize on those ‘marginal’ learning experiences, and valorise the competences and skills acquired through daily life, while assisting still learners in reflecting and realizing their full potential. The social web may assist in the development of learning activities which enable the engagement of students with their own learning. However, as pointed out before, the panoply of web applications currently available is not a solution per se. A pedagogical strategy focusing on effective engagement of students and promoting reflection on their learning is fundamental in leveraging the relevance of the technology. The ‘distractive’ side of the Web can hence be converted into a powerful learning and reflective tool. That is partly what the ICONET- Cartoon Planet project approach, described in this paper, tried to achieve. Through the development of a learning strategy ‘camouflaged’ by elements of ‘excitement’, ‘fun’ and ‘play’ with the use of interactive learning activities and digital cartoons for micro-reflection about personal skills and competences, we were able to engage learners in a way that activities with the same purpose, but with different strategies, might have not.


“There’s something wrong when a person is able to do something really very well, but is not considered smart if those things are not connected with school success” (Howard Garden)

The University of Salford is a partner in the European Commission funded ICONET project. This builds on the previous ICOVET project focused on developing and testing validation procedures for vocational skills gained by young people outside the framework of institutional education. The ICONET mission is to build on those experiences and develop new approaches and pedagogical tools for the validation of informally acquired competencies by disadvantaged young people. The main goal is to develop a space within the education system to introduce informal learning methods and pedagogical approaches targeted at engaging the learners with their own learning through active reflection.

The ICONET approach was incorporated into both Year 8 and Year 10 of the Salford Young People’s University (SYPU), a Summer School Programme for 11-16 year olds, providing a first-hand experience of life at the University with an opportunity to meet current students and lecturers. SYPU is a community outreach initiative aimed at young people who traditionally would not tend to go to University. The Year 8 SYPU Summer School is sponsored by AimHigher Greater Manchester, ‘a Government’s initiative to widen participation in higher education in England through activities that raise the aspirations of young people’.

The ICONET intervention was developed in conjunction with the SYPU. The curriculum criteria were based on three broad aspects of teaching and learning:

  • an interactive approach;
  • a focus on informal learning and skills;
  • attractive, diverse strategies for class engagement.

The approach focused on the use of interactive web and game-based reflection to involve learners from the Salford Young People’s University with their own learning in a fun, meaningful and personalised way.

The pupils taking part in this programme were between 11 and 16 years old. Classes were usually comprised of pupils from different backgrounds. However, most of them came from disadvantaged social environments and educational backgrounds, and were considered to be at risk of not pursing further education as it is not part of their family culture. This can often cause them to unconsciously discard Further and Higher Education as a possibility to progress their formal education.

ICONET – Cartoon Planet – Approach

The University of Salford’s ICONET approach was based on engaging the young learners from SYPU in interactive situations that would stimulate reflection about their own skills in a familiar environment, and thus help them realize their own potential. Hence, two-hour face to face workshops were planned and offered by the researchers/tutors. The workshops, entitled ‘Cartoon Planet’, aimed to promote the idea that learning can be exciting. The sessions were organized around activities that were supposed to be fun and stimulate active participation. The aim of the workshops was:

I. To stimulate guided reflection about the learners’ strengths and skills with different peer groups through group activities.

II. To utilise Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to empower students to communicate their skills and competences in an interactive and personally meaningful way.

To fulfil the workshop’s main goals, two different sections were planned and developed as part of the workshop. During the first part of the workshop, the pupils were invited to take part in a set of activities which aimed at introducing them progressively to the topic under focus: the recognition of their skills and competences. These activities were not only designed to prepare them for the second phase of the workshop, but also to involve the learners in discussions and guided reflection around the areas ‘they were good at’. The role of the tutors was to mentor the learners in their discussions and to help them understand and describe their skills in a more CV orientated language, and most importantly to facilitate reflection and self learning.

The second part of the workshop required the use of computers and took place in a computer laboratory where learners were asked to (re)create themselves online, as avatars (a digital representation of oneself), and describe their skills using voice and text. The avatars were later published and presented to the rest of the class at the end of the workshop.


Preparing the ICONET workshop

The researchers worked closely with the SYPU team to diagnose the needs and requirements of the participants. They also attended the training session offered by the SYPU coordinating team for the tutors who would be working with the young people during the summer school. This was useful in providing an understanding of the SYPU coordinating team’s epistemological approach to teaching and learning with disadvantaged young people and an exploration of innovative strategies to reach out to learners through the use of active learning approaches. Ideas from the training session were incorporated in the ICONET – Cartoon Planet approach.

As a result, the workshop sought to create a learning environment focused on personal and group engagement and support, where there would be scope for personalization, and where the learning activities were designed to be flexible and adaptable for the different groups of students that would participate in the sessions. Furthermore, the ICONET – Cartoon Planet design was based on the Mind Friendly Learning Framework (Greenhalg, 2001), which is based on a process of stimulating learning through a series of pedagogical steps developed to enhance learning with ‘more inclusive and powerful experiences which develop learning to learn skills’. The eight steps of the Mind-friendly learning framework are:

1. To create a friendly and positive learning environment through engaging ice-break activities that will pose exciting challenges to the learner;

2. To connect learner’s previous knowledge with new learning experiences;

3. To provide a general perspective on what the learning activity entails;

4. To negotiate the learning process and outcomes to achieve

5. To develop a diverse teaching strategy to enable multi-sensory learning

6. To engage learners actively with their own learning through an exploratory approach

7. To show provide opportunities for learners to share their learning with others

8. To encourage reflection and inquiry throughout the learning process

The workshop was planned and designed to accommodate the eight principles of the framework presented above, offering a variety of learning activities which aimed at creating a lively, engaging learning experience for the SYPU participants.

Cartoon Planet Sessions during SYPU 2008

The Cartoon Planet sessions took place in July 2008 as part of the SYPU 2008 programme[2]. An average of 12 students, both male and female, took part in the daily sessions.

The sessions started with a brief introduction about the aims of the workshop and were followed by an “Introduce Yourself” activity. Pupils were asked to share aspects of their experience that they were proud of and that they would like to share with their peers. This helped to create an environment of trust and provided pupils with the confidence to communicate with one another and the tutor.

Afterwards, the facilitator of the session introduced the idea that people have skills and competences which might not solely relate to their formal school learning activity, but which are all the same relevant to be included in their CV. This was explained in a language that was familiar to them (no educational jargon was used) and learners were prompted to reflect about “things” they were good at and proud of while using their own words. The facilitator explained this would help them later to ‘translate’ the knowledge of their skills into a more academic language, which they could include in their future résumé. The workshop activities proceeded with learners being asked to work in pairs and to take part in an interview role play – playing both the interviewer and interviewee – where they had a chance to ask and answer questions that would lead them to reflect about the topic they were exploring. This activity gave learners a sense of achievement and as the learners progressed in their activities, the tutors could notice the learners’ own excitement and interest in exploring their own skills and sharing their abilities with their peers. A mix of amazement and enthusiasm is probably what best describes the ICONET – Cartoon Planet workshop. As noted down in the researcher’s field notes, ‘the learners were delighted to find about themselves through themselves, and also through the eyes of their classmates’. For example, one of the pupils approached the tutor to ask question about one of her peer’s skills. She asked if ‘being good at doing people’s makeup’ was a skill. Her classmate had reported about such activity and she thought it could be added to that pupil’s skill list. The tutor prompted both pupils to think about what it meant ‘to be good at doing people’s makeup’ and how that could be articulated with one’s competences. Together they concluded that those were relevant artistic and social skills. As the researcher wrote down in her notes, a sense of realisation of that pupil’s potential had been understood by the pupil herself and that shone through the light of achievement in her eyes. Such small anecdotes as this may seem irrelevant, yet are important in developing confidence and recognition about skills and competences developed outside the traditional school curriculum.

This was followed by a group activity. The entire class was asked to form a round table. The facilitator introduced learners to the formal skills concept, explaining what was meant by the terminology used in the EUROPASS CV regarding skills and competences. Afterwards, the interviewers were asked to present the findings of their interviews. At this stage all students were prompted to help their colleagues verbalise their skills. The entire class participated in this joint reflection, contributing to the collective knowledge of the class.

To introduce the second part of the workshop students were given a card where they were asked to write down a sentence which would summarize their skills including interests, hobbies, sports, and social activities. This would be their “passport” to the next phase of the workshop which was the key to the “Cartoon Planet’. The game component added some vibrancy to the activity and learners were still enthusiastic about being in class. Once the cards were completed they were granted access to the Computer Lab and asked to explore the use of cartoons to express what they had learnt about themselves. They were asked to create an Avatar (an interactive, digital cartoon) to symbolize their ‘selves’ and their learning too. [At this stage it is important to note that secure access to the internet was provided through an application called NETSUPPORT limiting student access to the web application used for the avatars. To enable this, special software called NETSUPPORT was used.]

The creation of the speaking cartoons aimed at introducing a fun element to the session. It also aimed at analyzing how these tools can motivate learners’ and their engagement.

The learners remained focused and did not attempt to browse other sites [this had been one of the main concerns of the SYPU tutors, moderators and coordinator, when considering the Internet as a learning tool].

The understanding of the use of online learning tools appeared quite straightforward The participants were enthusiastic and most were proficient in working with computers. Even those with less experience were fast at mastering it.

However there were no assumptions about learners’ digital proficiency and support was provided through brief demonstration of the use of the tool. Nevertheless, participants were quick to understand the concept, although it was the first time they had used that specific application.

Although students were quite fast in reflecting on their strengths, they required help in expressing their competences in the formal or academic language of a CV. They also required support and personal guidance to focus on the task. Reflection was an exercise they didn’t seem to be used to.

In summary, the ICONET – Cartoon Planet approach supports learners in recognising their own skills and competences and thus realizing their potential outside the formal school setting. By providing tools to support reflection, the ICONET approach encourages young learners to tell their own stories in a more confident and exciting way. Furthermore, the reflective component, which can be problematic in a school setting (Reference), seemed to work well. This is probably due to the fact that the concept of ‘reflection’ was not evoked throughout the workshop. The tutors rather embedded this component in the activities in a way so that they were ‘disguised’ by the environment and the different tasks. It is almost the case that the learners were learning without thinking they were doing so. In day to day life learning happens naturally and reflection is integral to that process. It is only when we try to ‘make’ people learn that it often goes wrong.


From the verbal feedback we received from the learners themselves, and the mentors and coordinators who spent more time with the learners, the Cartoon Planet sessions seemed to have been popular. The young participants’ informal feedback indicates this was a successful approach in terms of applying ICONET methodology. Feedback included “this is fun” and “now I can use these skills in my CV”. Learners were reported to have enjoyed the way the topic was presented to them and the way they were asked to explore their skills. The micro activities helped motivate the learners’ involvement in the workshop, whilst also allowing students to learn more about themselves while they engaged in this micro-reflection exercises.

A longitudinal study would be needed to fully analyse the impact of the ICONET tool in recognising informal learning. Unfortunately the workshop was offered only once and the regulations of the SYPU did not permit follow up contact. It was therefore not possible to identity the longer term effect of the ICONET – Cartoon Planet approach. However we believe that this approach can help foster deeper and ongoing reflection about informal skills in an appealing way to learners.

It is our impression that the two different sections of the workshop played a vital role in the success of the session. The personalised mentoring and constant support provided by the tutor to the small group of young people, as well as the freedom they were granted to collaborate with each other while exploring their skills seem to have enhanced motivation and active involvement in the workshop.

The fact that learners were allowed to use computers to create their own avatars appealed to their creativity and reinforced learning from the first part of the session.

In short, we would like to argue that there are a number of key elements that can enable the engagement of young people in this area:

  • Face to face contact – as a strong (initial) component of the learner activity (young people need personalised guidance);
  • The creation of a friendly, flexible and interactive learning atmosphere by the tutor;
  • Tutor’s constant and personalised support to facilitate learners’ engagement with the activities (small groups of students are advisable);
  • The use of ICT to help keep the learners’ interest and motivation;
  • The development of activities based on social learning approaches;
  • The inclusion of a fun component as an integral part of the learning activity.

The approach also raises issues around internet safety. The aim of the workshop was not to focus on digital literacy, but rather to use an interactive web application to enable self and group reflection about informal skills. Hence, net safety was not a focus for the workshop. The workshop provided only restricted access to the internet in line with concerns expressed by the organisers of SYPU. However, if this workshop was to be developed as part of a longitudinal study, with more sessions behind offered over a longer period of time, it would be interesting to develop a parallel strategy on e-safety and digital literacy to build on learners’ computing skills and thus empower them deeper understanding and know-how about both the benefits and pitfalls of social computing.

PDF Version

You can download a PDF version of this paper here.


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[7] Burley, D. (1990) ‘Informal education – a place in the new school curriculum?’ in T. Jeffs and M. Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

[8] Brown, J. S., (2002). Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn. United States Distance Learning Association. Retrieve from Last accessed 29/03/2009

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[10]Du Bois-Reymond, M (2004) Youth – learning – Europe, YOUNG, Vol. 12, Issue 3, pp. 184-203.

[11]Green, Facer , Rudd, Dillon and Humphreys, (2005), Personalisation and digital technologies, FutureLab Report, Retrieved from Last accessed 19/05/2009

[12]Greenhalgh, P. (2001) Reaching Out to all Learners. Stafford: Network Educational Press. (A useful aide memoire produced at a very low cost to enable organisations to buy multiple copies. Provides an overview of mind friendly learning.)

[13]John, P., (2005), Teaching and Learning with ICT: New Technology, New Pedagogy?, Education, Communication and Information, Vol. 4, No. 1., 101.

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[1] See discussions in the SCOPE community as ain example:


Communities and Control

October 5th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I don’t know how many of you read the Ecologist. But an article in the recent online edition about the demise of the Freecycle movement in the UK makes interesting reading. The Ecologist explains: “Freecycle is, in essence, a giant internet-based swap shop, made up of thousands of localised groups allowing users to give away stuff they don’t want any more, and receive stuff they do want.

The rules are simple: whatever you give away must be free, and you can’t keep taking without giving. The aim is to keep useful things out of landfill, and although there are no official figures as to how much waste the network has kept above ground in the last six years, with nearly 5,000 groups in over 70 countries, and a total membership tipping 6.5 million people, it’s hard to deny its success.”

But as they go on to report: “over the last month, simmering tensions in the network have boiled over, resulting in more than 40 per cent of the 510 UK Freecycle groups breaking away to form an independent network called Freegle.”

The issue appears to be over control, with US organisers keeping tight ownership of the Freecyle tradename and maintaining a close grip on how the network is organised and managed. This despite their dependence on local group organisers.

This is not the first dispute to split an internet based dispersed community, nor will it be the last. Communities, be they face to face or online, require facilitation and decision making processes. Yet just because the community is online does not change power relations. And when community members feel they no longer have access to decision making processes, or that decisions handed down are unjust, they will often challenge such leadership.

Such issues are particularly fraught for communities of practice and for networks established to support projects. Whilst they may wish to promote community involvement and participation, often decision making rests on ownership (in the case of education networks often with the funding body).

Ultimately the only answer is to develop community governance models. But just as with business models, we are yet to catch up with changing patterns of participation and involvement enabled by Web 2.0. The old committees that we elected to run our community societies and clubs in the past may not be suited to the forms of participation and interaction engendered by Web 2.0 technologies.

Whilst there are programmes and projects looking at ideas of digital democracy, this work is still in its infancy. What does digital democracy mean? And how can it best be organised? How do online communities mediate power relations?

The new independent Freegle network appears to be growing fast. It will be interesting to see how they organise themselves.

Twitter and blogging

October 3rd, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Just a quick comment on the ongoing debate about whether twitter is killing blogging (for an excellent summary of the arguments see the Cloudscape on the subject. The picture above, from the stats plug in from the back end of my blog, shows the referrers to the Pontydysgu site today. Referrers means just that, where they have come from.

In past times the main search engines, Google and Bling, would have been the major entrance point, other than people who move from one page to another within the site, thus showing Pontydysgu as the referrer.

Nowadays twitter increasingly dominates the referrers list (especially given that my Facebook account displays an aggregated twitter feed, as does Netvibes). This suggests a more symbiotic relation between Twitter and blogs, where Twitter is used as a trusted source of literature and reference, rather than just an alternative form of blogging.

How can we best use technology at conferences?

October 3rd, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Last weeks video adventure at the European Conference on Educational Research (#ECER2009) – where we interviewed some 40 or 50 participants on video plus more on audio – has provoked quite some discussion on how we can use educational technology to support conferences. First lets provide a little background information.

ECER is a long running and popular conference. It attracted some 2050 enrolled delegates and covers a multitude of themes in educational research, organised by semi autonomous networks and coordinated by the European Educational Research Association (EERA). Whilst interest and participation in ECER is growing fast in terms of size, the conference is probably at its maximum. As ex EERA Secretary General, Martin Lawn explained to us on video, ECER is traditional hosted in university accommodation and few – if any – European universities have space for many more delegates than 2000. And talking to delegates – whilst they appreciated the breadth of the conference and the chance to talk to researchers from different areas of educational research – the very size of the conference was felt to be problematic. With many sessions running in parallel it was difficult to select sessions from the 229 page paper based programme.

ECER has done little with technology in the past. The web site (based on Typo 3) provides access to a PDF version of the programme and to standard information on travel and accommodation but little more. Although the use of technology for learning is obviously a theme in some of the sessions and networks (notably the Vocational Education and Training Network) and there is a relatively small network focused on ICT and learning (Network 16), Technology Enhanced Learning has never been a major theme at ECER.

There are four main arguments for embracing more technology. First is to ease the undoubted difficulties in administration and managing the conference. Second is to provide timely updated information to participants. Thirdly is to make the face to face conference more accessible, for instance through interactive programmes. Fourthly is to facilitate networking between delegates. but perhaps the most compelling argument for the use of technology is the idea of Open Education. Technology could allow the conference to turn itself outwards and to allow participation by those unable to afford either the time to attend or the quite expensive delegate fee. Access is obviously particularly problematic for younger researchers – who possibly might benefit most from a conference of this nature. Rather than being an episodic event on the educational research calendar, ECER could be at the centre of what is called by the European Commission the European Research Area. At the same time this would allow ECER to grow, whilst remaining limited in terms of physical attendance.

So at a practical level what technologies could be used?

First and most important is to set up a social networking site for the conference. Cloudworks, BuddyPress, Ning or Mixxt are all possibilities. However, in my mind CrowdVine is probably the best for the ability to create individual conference programmes. If this was done, I am sure it would encourage more delegates to attend network events, other than those of their own immediate network.

Attention needs to be paid as to how to provide rich information about sessions. I posed this question in a previous blog post about the #AltC conference. Seb Schmoller from ALT put forward a number of interesting suggestions in a comment on the post:

“What is it about a session that you need to know to make a decision about whether to go to it?
Inclusion of a micro-abstract – 140 characters max?
Themes addressed?
Type of session (demo, workshop, symposium, etc)?
Level of experience aimed at?
Where on tech/learning spectrum it lies?
Extent to which it has a strong data or numerical component?

Other comments and suggestions included encouraging presenters to make a short video or audio about their contributions. In terms of the participants to ECER (for the most part non-techies), this would require a very simple web based facility to do this – maybe CrowdVine could consider this?

Thirdly stream the keynote sessions and other selected sessions and publicise this in advance. Encouragement and support could also be provided to the different networks to consider streaming some of their sessions. A second screen should be provided in streamed sessions for allowing feedback from those participating remotely.

Fourthly continue what we did this year in producing videos and podcasts from the conference (probably with a little more organisation and preparation than we did this year 🙂 ).

Fifthly, consideration needs to be paid as to how to easily allow presenters to upload their papers and presentations to a central or distributed repository. ECER does not require full papers to be produced and this is a weakness of the conference. However, VETNET has now over 60 of the 90 or so presentations on-line and other networks should be encouraged to follow suit.

One small but key measure would be to adopt a common hashtag and publicise this in advance. As far as I can see only four or five delegates twittered this years conference – but it may be that different people used different tags.

One way of encouraging more use of Twitter – or whatever microblogging service is trending next year – would be to distribute large screens around conference spaces. These could not only be used to show real time aggregated feedback, but also to provide information on upcoming conference sessions.

This is of course only a starting point. But if these steps were taken, they could allow ECER to turn itself outwards, not only to researchers in Europe but to researchers in other continents. With the announcement of the formation of the World Education Research Association at this years ECER, it would be a timely move forward

Vygotsky and Personal Learning Environments

October 1st, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I have a 18 year old intern student, Jo Turner-Attwell, working for me. When I was in Vienna at the ECER conference, I left her the task of looking at Vygotky’s work in relation to Personal Learning Environments. This is part of the research we are undertaking in the Mature-ip project. And here is her summary. Pretty good start I think!

“Vygotsky died in 1934, almost a century ago, however his theories are becoming more relevant than they ever were during the course of his live. In particular the Zone of Proximal Development and the theories developed from this idea are more important than ever before. In addition to this his strong themes of the importance of social interaction and learning with assistance are being more closely looked at.

The zone of proximal development is the area between what an individual can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with assistance. Vigotsky’s definition is ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers. It is easy to understand through the idea of school text books. Those that are not too hard and not too easy, so challenging whilst not being beyond a students capabilities, are the optimal level of difficulty and right in the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky believed that learning shouldn’t follow development, but rather should lead it. A student should constantly be reaching slightly beyond their capabilities rather than working within them.

The method of scaffolding has been developed from Vgotsky’s theories. This is the concept that teachers or trainers, should simply assist their student until they are ready to act alone. A good example of this is a bike, moving from stabilisers, to someone running behind, to riding alone. This overlaps with the concept of a zone of proximal development, where some forms of scaffolding work for some people and not for others. Zones of proximal development vary and often different types of scaffolding are needed to reach the same goal. Vygotsky’s theories suggest students should lead their learning and teachers simply assist and rather than judging students on what they know in standardised tests, learning should be done through looking closely at their zone of proximal development. This allows learning to be developed around the needs of the learner, rather than learners trying to fit their needs into current standardised curriculums. This is particularly important as the current examination system can fail to support students who struggle in examination conditions, or excel in the practical side of learning.

This links in well with the concept of Personal Learning Environments or PLEs. The idea that the student themselves creates a virtual space to manage their own learning, whilst allowing room for social networking as a support system. This could combine the informal areas of learning with a more academic e-portfolio type system. This in theory is a fantastic idea, particularly in the way of social networking, which I do think it is important teachers begin to recognise more as a good teaching support method. However I do believe that this would have to be specific to formal learning. Types of informal learning would continue on separate social networking sites where students could interact privately among themselves. During my A Level studies it was not uncommon for teachers to assist their students through current informal online social networking systems as teachers began to take on a more friend-like role. However for my 14 year old sister this sort of student teacher relationship would be unthinkable. Not because I feel it would be inappropriate but more because I know that she would see it as an invasion of her privacy. This need for privacy in addition to support I believe would also exist within employer and employee relationships. This can clearly be seen from current issues of employers judging people’s employability on their facebook sites. I know I personally present myself differently upon my facebook site to the way I like to be seen in my work environment, but still feel I benefit from areas where I can communicate with my employer online, currently I use skype. Therefore I believe there is the need to keep formal learning environments and informal learning environments apart. Limiting the room for PLEs to grow.

A more significant problem I had was how one standardised PLE system could be used to support different types of students, particularly those who were better with practical studies. If the idea of a Personal Learning Environment was that an individual invented it, then how could teachers assist with the development of this?  How could it be standardised? Also surely teaching this would turn it into formal education and would students still see it as their own space, and could teachers cope with only having access to certain areas? How could student that need more help receive that help through a similar model to a student that needed less?

However this is only one area where I feel that Vgotsky’s theories are relevant. I believe that judging students on their zone of proximal development and their potential for learning could allow students that struggle under exam pressure and to work within time limits to receive the grades they deserve. I know many students far smarter than myself who when put in an exam situation struggled and received lower grades than me. My mind being better suited to the remembering of large amounts of data, rather than me necessarily understanding the work better. When first asked the question of how we could measure this I drew a blank. But in fact part of Vygotsky’s theories is less capable students being shown things by more capable students, therefore why couldn’t students understanding be measured on their ability to convey the information they have learnt, maybe even after being shown how by a more able other. Allowing a student to reach the top of their Zone Of Proximal development. In my own admission this also has its flaws in that some of the most intelligent people struggle with teaching and I’m no educational expert so do not have the answers to these flaws. However this did lead me towards ideas of widening the way people are assessed, meaning ongoing assessment of a students progress and a students ability teach could simply make up parts of achieving a grade along with traditional examinations and coursework. If informal learning is as important as formal learning varying the way students are assessed can only work in their favour. However this does again lead into difficulties, as with anything, in that students may receive closer grades, and it may be difficult to differentiate from students who previously would have been placed in very different catorgories.

Also at the root of many of the differentiation of students who may excel in informal learning but not in formal is the subjects that are classified as worth studying. What is worth learning? I found this question upon one of the sites on which Vygotsky’s work was studied and it made me think. School curriculums are so very narrow in comparison with the potential in university courses where the opportunities of what to study are endless. Technology in particular I feel is under represented. When I first came to Pontydysgu I had no idea what a learning platform or PLE were and couldn’t work many of the standard systems on a Mac. These technological systems seen at the forefront of education are barely heard about within education systems. In a technological age I cannot help but wonder why this sort of important knowledge is not being taught, why students aren’t studying the more complex area of technology. We use technology everyday, probably know more than many of our teachers, yet it is not part of any standardised curriculums, it is all informal. I had to quickly learn how to edit audio and video, work a spreadsheet, funnily enough mainly through scaffolding techniques. Audio and video in particular is the kind of technology that only my peers who learnt informally would be able to do. This is most likely because of the lack of knowledge of teachers, not as a criticism of them but rather an emphasis on the fact that the technology we use so often today has mostly come about since many of them finished learning. This to me suggests the need for some sort of lifelong learning system, which again the PLE can support. Although the problems of standardising appear again, there is clearly a need for the general population to have a way to keep up to date with fast changing technologies as technology is moving on before it has the opportunity to be properly implemented. Even in my sixthform a student himself bought in a wireless rooter due to the lack of one, so that students could use their laptops and access the school network. Although moving a long way from Vgotsky the roots in his theories can still be seen in that social interaction is needed for this sort of technology to be fully accessible to everyone. Different people will need different methods to help them grasp these sort of technological systems, particularly as I believe teachers would struggle as much as, if not more, than students.”

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    News Bites

    Zero Hours Contracts

    Figures from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in total almost 11,500 people – both academics and support staff – working in universities on a standard basis were on a zero-hours contract in 2017-18, out of a total staff head count of about 430,000, reports the Times Higher Education.  Zero-hours contract means the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours

    Separate figures that only look at the number of people who are employed on “atypical” academic contracts (such as people working on projects) show that 23 per cent of them, or just over 16,000, had a zero-hours contract.

    Resistance decreases over time

    Interesting research on student centered learning and student buy in, as picked up by an article in Inside Higher Ed. A new study published in PLOS ONE, called “Knowing Is Half the Battle: Assessments of Both Student Perception and Performance Are Necessary to Successfully Evaluate Curricular Transformation finds that student resistance to curriculum innovation decreases over time as it becomes the institutional norm, and that students increasingly link active learning to their learning gains over time

    Postgrad pressure

    Research published this year by Vitae and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and reported by the Guardian highlights the pressure on post graduate students.

    “They might suffer anxiety about whether they deserve their place at university,” says Sally Wilson, who led IES’s contribution to the research. “Postgraduates can feel as though they are in a vacuum. They don’t know how to structure their time. Many felt they didn’t get support from their supervisor.”

    Taught students tend to fare better than researchers – they enjoy more structure and contact, says Sian Duffin, student support manager at Arden University. But she believes anxiety is on the rise. “The pressure to gain distinction grades is immense,” she says. “Fear of failure can lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.”

    Teenagers online in the USA

    According to Pew Internet 95% of teenagers in the USA now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.

    Roughly half (51%) of 13 to 17 year olds say they use Facebook, notably lower than the shares who use YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat.

    The survey also finds there is no clear consensus among teens about the effect that social media has on the lives of young people today. Minorities of teens describe that effect as mostly positive (31%) or mostly negative (24%), but the largest share (45%) says that effect has been neither positive nor negative.

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