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Context and the design of Personal Learning Environments

July 1st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Part two of my new paper on Personal Learning environments, focusing on context, and written for the PLE2010 conference in Barcelona next week.

How can the idea of context help us in designing work based Personal Learning Environments? First, given the varied definitions, it might be apposite to explain what we mean by a PLE. 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. In terms of technology, 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.

As such, PLEs offer some solutions to the issue of the fluid and relational nature of context. PLEs, unlike traditional educational technology are mobile, flexible and not context dependent. They can move from one domain to another and make connections between them. Secondly PLEs can support and facilitate a greater variety of relationships than traditional educational media. These include relationships within and between networks and communities of practice and support for collaborative working. PLEs shift the axis of control from the teacher to the learners and thus alter balance of power within learning discourses. And, perhaps critically, PLEs support a greater range of learning discourses than traditional educational technology.

PLEs are able to link knowledge assets with people, communities and informal knowledge (Agostini et al, 2003) and support the development of social networks for learning (Fischer, 1995). Razavi and Iverson (2006) suggest integrating weblogs, ePortfolios, and social networking functionality both for enhanced e-learning and knowledge management, and for developing communities of practice. 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.

So far we have stressed the utility of PLEs in being flexible and adaptable to different contexts. In a work based context, the ‘Learning in Process’ project (Schmidt, 2005) and the APOSDLE project (Lindstaedt, and Mayer, 2006) have attempted to develop embedded, or work-integrated, learning support where learning opportunities (learning objects, documents, checklists and also colleagues) are recommended based on a virtual understanding of the learner’s context.

However, while these development activities acknowledge the importance of collaboration, community engagement and of embedding learning into working and living processes, they have not so far addressed the linkage of individual learning processes and the further development of both individual and collective understanding as the knowledge and learning processes (Attwell. Barnes, Bimrose and Brown, 2008). In order to achieve that transition (to what we term a ‘community of innovation’), processes of reflection and formative assessment have a critical role to play.

Personal Learning Environments are by definition individual. However it is possible to provide tools and services to support individuals in developing their own environment. In looking at the needs of careers guidance advisors for learning 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. Based on an scoping of knowledge development needs, an initial list of possible functions for a PLE have been suggested, including: access/search for information and knowledge; aggregate and scaffold by combining information and knowledge; manipulate, rearrange and repurpose knowledge artefacts; analyse information to develop knowledge; reflect, question, challenge, seek clarification, form and defend opinions; present ideas, learning and knowledge in different ways and for different purposes; represent the underpinning knowledge structures of different artefacts and support the dynamic re-rendering of such structures; share by supporting individuals in their learning and knowledge; networking by creating a collaborative learning environment.

People tagging

However, rather than seeking to build a monolithic application which can meet all these needs, a better approach may be to seek to develop tools and services which can meet learning needs related to particular aspects of such needs. And in developing such a tool, it is useful to reflect on the different aspects of context involved in the potential use of such tools.  The European Commission supported Mature project is seeking to research and develop Personal Learning and Maturing Environments and Organisation Learning and Maturing Environments to support knowledge development and ‘maturing’ in organisations. The project has developed a number of use cases and demonstrators, following a participatory design process and aiming at supporting learning in context for careers guidance advisors.

One such demonstrator is a ‘people tagging’ application (Braun, Kunzmann and Schmidt, 2010). According to the project report “Knowing-who is an essential element for efficient knowledge maturing processes, e.g. for finding the right person to talk to. Take the scenario of where a novice Personal Adviser (P.A.) needs to respond to a client query. The P.A. does not feel sufficiently confident to respond adequately, so needs to contact a colleague who is more knowledgeable, for support. The key problems would be:

  • How does the P.A. find the right person to contact
  • How can the P.A. find people inside, and even outside, the employing organisation?
  • How can colleagues who might be able to support the P.A. be identified and contacted quickly and efficiently?

Typically, employee directories, which simply list staff and their areas of expertise, are insufficient. One reason is that information contained in the directories is outdated; or it is not described in an appropriate manner; or it focuses too much on ‘experts’; and they often do not include external contacts (Schmidt & Kunzmann 2007).

Also Human Resource Development needs to have sufficient information about the needs and current capabilities of current employees to make the right decisions. In service delivery contexts that must be responsive to the changing needs of clients, like Connexions services, it is necessary to establish precisely what additional skills and competencies are required to keep up with new developments. The people tagging tool would provide a clear indication of:

  • What type of expertise is needed?
  • How much of the requisite expertise already exists within the organisation?”

At a technical level the demonstrator includes:

  • A bookmarking widget for annotating persons, which can be invoked as a bookmarklet
  • A browsing component for navigating annotated people based on the vocabulary
  • An employee list and profile visualization of annotated people
  • A search component for searching for people
  • A collaborative real-time editor of the shared vocabulary that allows for consolidating tags and introducing hierarchical relationships
  • An analysis component for displaying trends based on search and tagging behaviour.

The application seeks to meet the challenge of aligning the maturing of ontological knowledge with the development of the knowledge about people in the organization (and possibly beyond).

Early evaluation results suggest that people tagging is accepted by employees in general, and that they view it as beneficial on average. The evaluation “has also revealed that we have to be careful when designing such a people tagging system and need to consider affective barriers, the organizational context, and other motivational aspects so that it can become successful and sustainable. Therefore we need to develop a design framework (and respective technical enablement) for people tagging systems as socio-technical systems that covers aspects like control, transparency, scope etc. This design framework needs to be backed by a flexible implementation.”

Technology Enhanced Boundary Objects

A further approach to supporting Personal Learning environments for careers guidance professional is based on the development of Technology Enhanced Boundary Objects (TEBOs). Mazzoni and Gaffuri (2009) consider that PLEs as such may be seen as boundary objects in acting to support transitions within a Zone of Proximal Development between knowledge acquired in formal educational contexts and knowledge required for performance or practice within the workplace. Alan Brown (2009) refers to an approach to designing technologically enhanced boundary objects that promote boundary crossing for careers practitioners.

Careers practitioners use labour market information in their practice of advising clients about potential career options. Much of this labour Markey information is gathered from official statistics, providing, for example, details of numbers employed in different professionals at varying degree of granularity, job centre vacancies in time series data at a fine granular level and pay levels in different occupations at a regional level, as well as information about education and training routes, job descriptions and future career predictions. However much of this data is produced as part of the various governmental departments statistical services and is difficult to search for and above all to interpret. Most problematic is the issue of meaning making when related to providing careers advice, information and guidance. The data sits in the boundaries of practice of careers workers and equally at the ordinary of the practice of collating and providing data. Our intention is to develop technology enhanced boundary objects as a series of infographs, dynamic graphical displays, visualisations and simulations to scaffold careers guidance workers in the process of meaning making of such data.

Whilst we are presently working with static data, much of the data is now being provided online with an API to a SPARQL query interface, allowing interrogation of live data. This is part of the open data initiative, led by Nick Shabolt and Tim Berners Lee in the UK. Berners Lee (2010) has recently said that linked data lies at the heart of the semantic web. Our aim is to connect the TEBO to live data through the SPARQL interface and to visualise and represent that data in forms which would allow careers guidance workers and clients to make intelligent meaning of that data in terms of the shared practice of providing and acting on guidance. Such a TEBO could form a key element in a Personal Learning environment for careers guidance practitioners. A further step in exploring PLE services and applications would be to link the TEBO to people tagging services allowing careers practitioners to find those with particular expertise and experience in interpreting labour market data and relating this to careers opportunities at a local level.

There has been considerable interest in the potential of Mash Up Personal Learning Environments (Wild, Mödritscher and Sigurdarson, 2008). as a means of providing flexible access to different tools. Other commentators have focused on the use of social software for learners to develop their own PLEs. Our research into PLEs and knowledge maturing in organisations does not contradict either of these approaches. However, it suggests that PLE tools need to take into account the contexts in which learning takes place, including knowledge assets, people and communities and especially the context of practice. In reality a PLE may be comprised of both general communication and knowledge sharing tools as well as specialist tools designed to meet the particular needs of a community.

Conclusions

In seeking to design a work based PLE it is necessary to understand the contexts in which learning take place and the different discourses associated with that learning. A PLE is both able to transpose the different contexts in which learning takes place and can move from one domain to another and make connections between them. support and facilitate a greater variety of relationships than traditional educational media. At them same time a PLE is able to support a range of learning discourses including discourses taking place within and between different communities if practice. An understanding of the contexts in which learning takes place and of those different learning discourses provides that basis for designing key tools which can form the centre of a work based PLE. Above all a PLE can respond to the demands of fluid and relational discourses in providing scaffolding for meaning making related to practice.

References

Attwell G. Barnes S.A., Bimrose J. and Brown A, (2008), Maturing Learning: Mashup Personal Learning Environments, CEUR Workshops proceedings, Aachen, Germany

Berners Lee T. (2010) Open Linked Data for a Global Community, presentation at Gov 2.0 Expo 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ga1aSJXCFe0&feature=player_embedded, accessed June 25, 2010

Braun S. Kunzmann C. Schmidt A. (2010) People Tagging & Ontology Maturing: Towards Collaborative Competence Management, In: David Randall and Pascal Salembier (eds.): From CSCW to Web2.0: European Developments in Collaborative Design Selected Papers from COOP08, Computer Supported Cooperative Work Springer,

Brown A. (2009) Boundary crossing and boundary objects – ‘Technologically Enhanced Boundary Objects’. Unpublished paper for the Mature IP Project

Lindstaedt, S., & Mayer, H. (2006). A storyboard of the APOSDLE vision. Paper presented at the 1st European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning, Crete (1-4 October 2006)

Mazzoni E. and Gaffuri P .(2009) Personal Learning environments for Overcoming Knowledge Boundaries between activity Systems in emerging adulthood, eLearning papers, http://www.elearningpapers.eu/index.php?page=doc&doc_id=14400&doclng=6&vol=15, accessed December 26, 2009

Schmidt A., Kunzmann C. (2007) Sustainable Competency-Oriented Human Resource Development with Ontology-Based Competency Catalogs, In: Miriam Cunningham and Paul Cunningham (eds.): eChallenges 2007, 2007, http://publications.professional-learning.eu/schmidt_kunzmann_sustainable-competence-management_eChallenges07.pdf, accessed 27 June, 2010

Schmidt, A. (2005) Knowledge Maturing and the Continuity of Context as a Unifying Concept for Integrating Knowledge Management and ELearning. In: Proceedings I-KNOW ’05, Graz, 2005.

Wild, F., Mödritscher, F., & Sigurdarson, S. (2008). Designing for Change: Mash-Up Personal Learning Environments. elearning papers, 9. 1-15. Retrieved from http://www.elearningeuropa.info/out/?doc_id=15055&rsr_id=15972

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

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