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The Future of Learning Environments (short version)

June 3rd, 2010 by Graham Attwell

In March I wrote a paper on ‘The Future of Learning Environments; for a publication from the IATEL conference held in Darmstadt last year. I have been asked to produce a short verion of the paper for translation to German. Here it is.

The Future of Learning Environments

1. Introduction

The present ‘industrial’ schooling system is fast becoming dysfunctional, neither providing the skills and competences required in our economies nor corresponding to the ways in which we are using the procedural and social aspects of technology for learning and developing and sharing knowledge.

One major impact of internet technologies has been to move access to learning and knowledge outside of institutional boundaries. The internet provides ready and often free access to a wealth of books, papers, videos, blogs, scientific research, news and opinion. It also provides access to expertise in the form of networks of people.

Schools and universities can no longer claim a monopoly as seats of learning or of knowledge. Such learning and knowledge now resides in distributed networks. Learning can take place in the home, in work or in the community as easily as within schools.

Technology is also challenging traditional expert contributed disciplinary knowledge as embodied in school curricula. The explosion of freely available sources of information has helped drive rapid expansion in the accessibility of the canon and in the range of knowledge available to learners. We are being forced to re-examine what constitutes knowledge and are moving from expert developed and sanctioned knowledge to collaborative forms of knowledge construction.

2. The challenge to traditional learning environments

The present north European schooling systems evolved from the needs of the industrial revolutions for a literate and numerate workforce. Besides the acquisition of knowledge and skills needed by the economy, schools also acted as a means of selection, to determine those who might progress to higher levels of learning or employment requiring more complex skills and knowledge.

The homogeneity of existing schooling systems and curricula is in stark contrast to the wealth of different learning pathways available through the internet. The internet offers the promise of Personal Learning Pathways, of personal and collaborative knowledge construction and meaning making through distributed communities.

The evolution of the school system can also be seen in terms of dominant media. Frieson and Hug (2009) argues that “the practices and institutions of education need to be understood in a frame of reference that is mediatic: “as a part of a media-ecological configuration of technologies specific to a particular age or era.” The school, he says is “a kind of separate, reflective, critical pedagogical “space,” isolated from the multiple sources of informational “noise” in an otherwise media-saturated lifeworld.” Thus, schooling systems have become isolated from the changing forms of learning and knowledge exchange facilitated by the internet.

3. How we use computers for learning

Web 2.0 applications and social software mark a change in our use of computers from consumption to creation. A series of studies and reports have provided rich evidence of the ways young people are using technology and the internet for socialising, communicating and for learning. Young people are increasingly using technology for creating and sharing multi media objects and for social networking. Such a process of creation, remixing and sharing is similar to Levi Struass’s (1962) idea of bricolage as a functioning of the logic of the concrete. Young people today are collecting their treasure to make their own meanings of objects they discover on the web. In contrast our education systems are based on specialised tools and materials.

Social networking is also increasingly a source of learning and the development and sharing of knowledge. A UK survey (McIntosh, 2008) has found the main use of the internet by young people, by far, is for learning: 57% use the net for homework, saying it provides more information than books. 15% use it for learning that is not ’school’. 40% use it to stay in touch with friends, 9% for entertainment such as YouTube.

A further survey into the use of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises found few instances of the use of formal educational technologies (Attwell, 2007). But the study found the widespread everyday use of internet technologies for informal learning, utilizing a wide range of business and social software applications.

It is not just the material and functional character of the technologies which is important but the potential of the use of new technologies to contribute to a new “participatory culture” (Jenkins at al). “Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways.”

Thus we can see the ways in which technology and the internet is being used for constructing knowledge and meaning through bricolage and through developing and sharing content. This takes place through extended social networks which both serve for staying in touch with friends but also for seeking information and for learning in a participatory culture.

4. Personal Learning Environments

In education, technology has been used to maintain existing practices “by perpetuating the Industrial Era-inspired, assembly line notion that the semester-bound course is the naturally appropriate unit of instruction (Reigeluth, 1999).” Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver (2005) argue that course management software leads universities to “think they are in the information industry”.

This contrast to ”the authentic learning environments prompted by advances in cognitive and constructivist learning theories.” Socio-cultural theories of knowledge acquisition stress the importance of collaborative learning and ‘learning communities.’ Agostini et al. (2003) complain about the lack of support offered by many virtual learning environments (VLEs) for emerging communities of interest and the need to link with official organisational structures within which individuals are working. Ideally, VLEs should link knowledge assets with people, communities and informal knowledge (Agostini et al, 2003) and support the development of social networks for learning (Fischer, 1995). The idea of a personal learning space is taken further by Razavi and Iverson (2006) who suggest integrating weblogs, ePortfolios, and social networking functionality in this environment both for enhanced e-learning and knowledge management, and for developing communities of practice.

Based on these ideas of collaborative learning and social networks within communities of practice, the notion of Personal Learning Environments is being put forward as a new approach to the development of e-learning tools (Wilson et al, 2006) that are no longer focused on integrated learning platforms such as VLEs or course management systems. In contrast, these PLEs are made-up of a collection of loosely coupled tools, including Web 2.0 technologies, used for working, learning, reflection and collaboration with others. PLEs can be seen as the spaces in which people interact and communicate and whose ultimate result is learning and the development of collective know-how. A PLE can use social software for informal learning which is learner driven, problem-based and motivated by interest – not as a process triggered by a single learning provider, but as a continuing activity. Attwell. Barnes, Bimrose and Brown, (2008) say a PLE should be based on a set of tools to allow personal access to resources from multiple sources, and to support knowledge creation and communication. Whilst PLEs may be represented as technology, including applications and services, more important is the idea of supporting individual and group based learning in multiple contexts and of promoting learner autonomy and control. Conole (2008) suggests a personal working environment and mixture of institutional and self selected tools are increasingly becoming the norm. She says: “Research looking at how students are appropriating technologies points to similar changes in practice: students are mixing and matching different tools to meet their personal needs and preferences, not just relying on institutionally provided tools and indeed in some instances shunning them in favour of their own personal tools.”

5. Vygotsky and Personal Learning Environments

A Personal Learning Environment is developed from tools or artefacts. Vygotsky (1978) considered that all artefacts are culturally, historically and institutionally situated. “In a sense, then, there is no way not to be socioculturally situated when carrying out an action. Conversely there is no tool that is adequate to all tasks, and there is no universally appropriate form of cultural mediation. Even language, the ‘tool of tools’ is no exception to this rule”

Vygotsky developed the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which is the gap between “actual developmental level” which children can accomplish independently and the “potential developmental level” which children can accomplish when they are interacting with others who are more capable peers or adults.

In Vygotsky’s view, interactions with the social environment, including peer interaction and/or scaffolding, are important ways to facilitate individual cognitive growth and knowledge acquisition.

Vykotsky called teachers – or peers – who supported learning in the ZDP as the More Knowledgeable Other. “The MKO is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the leaner particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher, an older adult or a peer” (Dahms et al, 2007). But the MKO can also be viewed as a learning object or social software which embodies and mediates learning at higher levels of knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner presently possesses.

The role of a Personal Learning Environment may be not only that of a tool to provide access to ‘More Knowledgeable Others’ but as part of a system to allow learners to link learning to performance in practice, though work processes. And taking a wider view of artefacts as including information or knowledge accessed through a PLE, reflection on action or performance may in turn generate new artefacts for others to use within a ZPD. Social media and particularly video present rich opportunities for the modelling of ways of completing a task, especially given the ability of using social networking software to support communities of practice. However, imitation alone may not be sufficient in the context of advanced knowledge work. Rather, refection is required both to understand more abstract models and at the same time to reapply models to particular contexts and instances of application in practice. Thus PLE tools need to be able to support the visualisation or representation of models and to promote reflection on their relevance and meaning in context.

Within this perspective a Personal Learning Environment could be seen as allowing the representation of knowledge, skills and prior learning and a set of tools for interaction with peers to accomplish further tasks. The PLE would be dynamic in that it would allow reflection on those task and further assist in the representation of prior knowledge, skills and experiences. In this context experiences are seen as representing performance or practice. Through access to external symbol systems (Clark, 1997) such as metadata, ontologies and taxonomies the internal learning can be transformed into externalised knowledge and become part of the scaffolding for others as a representation of a MKO within a Zone of Proximal Development. Such an approach to the design of a Personal Learning Environment can bring together the everyday evolving uses of social networks and social media with pedagogic theories to learning.

6. The Future of Learning Environments

The major impact of the uses of new technologies and social networking for learning is to move learning out of the institutions and into wider society. Institutions must rethink and recast their role as part of community and distributed networks supporting learning and collaborative knowledge development.. This is a two way process, not only schools reaching outwards, but also opening up to the community, distributed or otherwise, to join in collaborative learning processes.

The future development of technology looks likely to increase pressures for such change. Social networks and social networking practice is continuing to grow and is increasingly integrated in different areas of society and economy. At the same time new interfaces to computers and networks are likely to render the keyboard obsolescent, allowing the integration of computers and learning in everyday life and activity.  Personal Learning Pathways will guide and mediate progression through this expanded learning environment.

References

Agostini, A., Albolino, S., Michelis, G. D., Paoli, F. D., & Dondi, R. (2003). Stimulating knowledge discovery and sharing. Paper presented at the 2003 International ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work, Sanibel Island, Florida, USA.

Attwell  G.(ed) 2007, Searching, Lurking and the Zone of Proximal Development, e-learning in Small and Medium enterprises in Europe, Vienna, Navreme

Attwell G. Barnes S.A., Bimrose J. and Brown A, (forthcoming), Maturing Learning: Mashup Personal Learning Environments, CEUR Workshops proceedings, Aachen, Germany

Clark, A. (1997) Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Bradford Book, The MIT Press

Conole G. (2008) “New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies”, in Ariadne Issue 56, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue56/conole/

Dahms M, Geonnotti K, Passalacqua. D Schilk,N.J. Wetzel, A and Zulkowsky M The Educational Theory of Lev Vygotsky: an analysis http://www.newfoundations.com/GALLERY/Vygotsky.html

Fischer, M. D. (1995). Using computers in ethnographic fieldwork. In R. M. Lee (Ed.), Information Technology for the Social Scientist (pp. 110-128). London: UCL Press

Friesen N and Hug T (2009), The Mediatic Turn: Exploring Concepts for Media Pedagogy. In K. Lundby (Ed.). Mediatization: Concept, Changes, Consequences. New York: Peter Lang. Pp. 64-81. Online version available at: http://learningspaces.org/n/papers/Media_Pedagogy_&_Mediatic_Turn.pdf

Herrington, J., Reeves, T., and Oliver, R. (2005). Online learning as information delivery: Digital myopia. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 16(4): 353-67.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1962) La Pensée sauvage, Paris, English translation as The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1966)

McIntosh E (2008) Research Summary Series 1: How do people use the internet, http://ltsblogs.org.uk/connected/2008/08/10/research-summary-series-1-how-do-people-use-the-internet/, accessed June 1, 2010

Razavi, M. N., & Iverson, L. (2006). A grounded theory of information sharing behavior in a personal learning space. Paper presented at the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Reigeluth, C. M. (1999b). What is instructional design theory and how is it changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory. (pp. 5-29). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wilson, S., Liber, O., Johnson, M., Beauvoir, P., Sharples, P., & Milligan, C. (2006). Personal learning environments challenging the dominant design of educational systems. Paper presented at the ECTEL Workshops 2006, Heraklion, Crete (1-4 October 2006)

Vygotsky L.(1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Tweetbacks

  1. A UK survey (McIntosh, 2008) has found the main use of the internet by young people, by far, is for learning http://bit.ly/9QixmO

  2. What’s important is the potential to use new technologies to contribute to a new “participatory culture”(Jenkins at al) http://bit.ly/9QixmO

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  1. [...] “Based on these ideas of collaborative learning and social networks within communities of practice, the notion of Personal Learning Environments is being put forward as a new approach to the development of e-learning tools (Wilson et al, 2006) that are no longer focused on integrated learning platforms such as VLEs or course management systems. In contrast, these PLEs are made-up of a collection of loosely coupled tools, including Web 2.0 technologies, used for working, learning, reflection and collaboration with others.” Graham Attwell, Pontydysgu, 3. Juni 2010 [...]

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