Last year I took part in an excellent confernce in Darmstadt last year on “Interdisciplinary approaches to technology-enhanced learning.” Now they have asked me to contribute to a book based on my presentation on ‘Learning Environments, What happens in Practice?. I will post the book cpater in parts on the blog as I write it, in the hope of gaining feedback from readers.
The first section is entitled ‘The Challenge to Education”
Firstly it should be said that it is not technology per se that poses the challenge to education systems and institutions. It is rather the way technology is being used for communication and for everyday learning within the wider society.
Whilst institutions have largely maintained their monopoly and prestige as bodies awarding certification, one major impact of internet technologies has been to move access to learning and knowledge outside of institutional boundaries. The internet provides ready and usually 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. Conferences, seminars and workshops can increasingly be accessed online. Virtual worlds offer opportunities for simulations and experimentation.
Id course this begs the question of support for learning although there are increasing numbers of free online courses and communities and bulletin boards for help with problem solving. 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. Mobile devices also mean that learning can take place anywhere without access to a computer. Whilst previously learning was largely structured through a curriculum, context is now becoming an important aspect of learning.
Technology is also challenging traditional traditional expert contributed disciplinary knowledge as embodied in school curricula. Dave Cormier, (2008) says that the present speed of information based on new technologies has undermined traditional expert driven processes of knowledge development and dissemination. 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. The English language Wikipedia website, a collaboratively developed knowledge base, had 3,264,557 pages in April, 2010 and over 12 million registered users.
The present north European schooling systems evolved from the needs of the industrial revolutions for a literate and numerate workforce. Schools were themselves modelled on the factory system with fixed starting and finishing times with standardised work tasks and quality systems. Students followed relatively rigid group learning programmes, often based on age and often banded into groups based on tests or examinations. 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.
It is arguable whether such a schooling system meets the present day needs of the economy. In many countries there is publicly expressed concerns that schools are failing to deliver the skills and knowledge needed for employment, resorting in many countries in different reform measures. There is also a trend towards increasing the length of schooling and, in some countries, at attempting to increase the percentages of young people attending university.
However the schooling system has been developed above all on homogeneity. Indeed, in countries like the UK, reforms have attempted in increase that homogeneity through the imposition of a standardised national curriculum and regular Standardised Attainment Tests (SATs). Such a movement might be seen as in contradiction to the supposed needs for greater creativity, team work, problem solving, communication and self motivated continuous learning within enterprises today.
Furthermore, the homogeneity of schooling systems and curricula is in stark contrast to the wealth of different learning pathways available through the internet. Whilst the UK government has called for greater personalisation of learning, this is seen merely as different forms of access to a standardised curriculum. The internet offers the promise of Personal Learning Pathways, of personal and collaborative knowledge construction and meaning making through distributed communities.
The schooling system is based on outdated forms of organisation and on an expert derived and standardised canon of knowledge. As such it is increasingly dysfunctional in a society where knowledge is collaboratively developed through distributed networks.
One thing we know about social networking is that it doesn’t stay still. Witness the decline of Bebo and My Space, which only two years ago looked all conquering. Now Facebook is in its zenith but how long will this prevail?
I am interested in the connections between the different affordances of social network sites and how we communicate (both on-line and face to face).
My Space was above all a site to talk about music and for bands to communicate with us and with each other. In those terms it remains highly stressful.
Facebook could be said to inherit the mantle of Friends Reunited. Whilst the latter sought just to allow us to stay in touch (or get back in touch) with friends from school or university – interestingly the attempt to extend it to the workplace didn’t really take off – Facebook started out primarily as a place to connect with present friends in college or university. Even following its expansion outside education the principle remained the same – friends mutually followed each other with both having to consent to the connection. Twitter changed all that by allowing non reciprocal connections i.e. I can follow people without them following me. And people rapidly grew long lists of followers. Different people use Twitter in different ways. For me, it is a great resource repository – an informal, real time feedreader if you like. And despite the long running debate as to whether Twitter is killing blogging, I find myself reading more blogs as a result following links in tweets.
Bit I wonder if the social is missing somehow from these social networking services. In an article in Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson says:
socializing doesn’t scale. Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. “They feel they can’t possibly be the person who’s going to make the useful contribution,” ….. So the conversation stops. …. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun — but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.
In that respect I think the rise of ‘extreme; social networking site Chatrouette is interesting. According to the Guardian newspaper:
When users visit the site and switch on their webcams, they are suddenly connected to another, randomly chosen person who is doing precisely the same thing somewhere else in the world.
Once they are logged in together, chatters can do anything they like: talk to each other, type messages, entertain each other – or just say goodbye, hit the “next” button and move on in an attempt to find somebody more interesting.
Perhaps predictably, Chatroulette is reportedly host to “all sorts of unsavoury characters” and the Guardian quotes “veteran blogger Jason Kottke, who has spent years documenting some of the web’s most weird and wonderful corners, tried the site and then wrote about witnessing nudity, sexual activity and strange behaviour.”
But I wonder in Chatroulette is a sign of us wanting to use the internet as a social space to meet new friends, in the way we might face to face in a bar or at a party. Despite the attempts of Mr Tweet or of Facebook to introduce us to new people, they lack the randomness and intimacy of human face to face serendipitous encounter.
And I wonder too if that may be some of teh thinking behind the new Google Buzz social networking service. I can’t find the link now, but when I first looked at Buzz (in the pub!) on my mobile phone, there was a tab for ‘local’ allowing me to specify the geographical radius for activity I wanted to see. Along with us wanting to recreate the opportunity for meeting new friends, I think the future for social networking may be local, with us wanting to use such services to be able to find out what is going on around us, at a distance in which we can physically reach.
So as social networking becomes part of our everyday life, it may be that we want to integrate it into our everyday physical spaces, rather than extend the range of the everyday to unreachable zones of cyberspace.
Just an idea.
I was idly wasting time reading my twitter stream and it occurred to me that I seem to be getting less tweets these days. So I twittered out “Is it my impression or do i get less tweets these days. Following more people so are they just tweeting less?: And in the wonderful way that twitter works back came a reply from @paulbrichardson: “I am getting fewer tweets too. But there is more substance to them – usually expressing or referencing an idea..” This was quickly followed up by “Worried that my last tweet points to an attempt at a taxonomy of tweets. I am definitely not going there though…” And of course @tmartinowen couldn’t resist the bait: “here is a totally unsubstantial tweet – just to keep the classification going – or does the parenthesis give it substance?”
Nor would I wish to risk a classification. But there do seem to be a few things going on in the way we are using twitter (or at least the people I follow). There are far less of the straight forward “good morning Twitterverse” or “had a great lunch” or “tired and going to bed now” type tweets. u suspect this was a leftover from the Facebook status update days (in the same way few people are bothering to update their skype status nowadays). Have we simply become bored with our own mundane lives?
And Paul is right – most of the tweets I receive do seem to be on points of substance and many point to a resource. This may be due to the increasing use of sophisticated Twitter clients and to cross application linking through the API (e.g posting Diego links to twitter). Twitter is becoming a rich repository of links to resources. However discovery remains problematic and harvesting is tricky due to lack of longevity.
This is all to the good. But I am increasingly missing the social nature of Twitter which also seems to be on the wane. We are using twitter for reporting and shouting out but does it still retain the social and collaborative nature of its early days? Of course there remain the odd maverick – @johnpopham’s #uktrains series is strangely compulsive.
A further trend is to increase the ability of machines to read twitter through hash tag taxonomies. As reported in the ReadWriteWeb a group of hackers ” in collaboration with Project EPIC, developed a new syntax to make it easier for computers to read tweets from areas that are affected by a disaster. If adopted widely, this new hashtag-based syntax will make it easier to automatically extract data about locations or the status of a road or person.”
But as comments on the blog pointed out such taxonomies are far from people friendly. is there a trade off between machine readable functionality and human and social uses of media?
Twitter is an interesting platform because of the wide affordances in its social use. The changing ways in which we are using Twitter may point to the evolution of the use of wider social media in the future.
Anyway – time to send a tweet announcing this post
Pontydysgu is involved in a number of European projects. Typically, these projects involve partners from five or more organisations in different countries working together around a hared work plan. Projects can last from two to four years.
One of our main roles is to provide technologies to support project development. This is not unproblematic.
Whilst three or four years ago most projects were content with a simple web page giving access to project objectives and results, we have been trying to use technology to improve collaboration between the partners, who due to distance will usually only meet face to face two or three times a year.
Levels of experience and confidence in technologies varies greatly.
One of the biggest changes in the last two years has been the use of Skype and Flash Meeting for regular audio and video communication between meetings. Both are far from ideal. ‘Can you hear me?’ is still the most common sentence to be heard in many of these meetings. Talking participants through the Windows microphone and video set up panels is still a pain. But overall the use of such simultaneous communication tools has changed both the form and intensity of collaboration.
We have also seen a slow move towards using multimedia. The days when the outputs of projects were limited to downlaodable Word or PDF files is passing. More and more project members are experimenting with podcasts and video, although once more levels of expertise and confidence vary greatly.
Platforms have remained problematic. We experimented with ELGG and Joomla before moving to WordPress. The problem with all is that they were really too difficult for project participants to use. We largely failed to break the pattern to project partners ending us their content to put on the site. And without regular participation, project web sites remained largely static, with only flurries of activity as they were updated.
We have also experimented with social software platforms including Ning and Facebook. Ning is relatively easy to use, although limited in terms of design etc. And critically you lose control over your own data, when using externally hosted applications. Facebook groups are great for notification of events etc. but offer little else. Ownership issues are even more problematic.
We have also initiated a number of bulletin boards but these once more require a critical mass of activity before they really become of social use.
The reason we have looked at these platforms is the desire for more sociability in platforms for projects. That includes the look and feel and ease of use, but especially the foregrounding of presence. Who are the members of a project or network. Who are they working with? What are their interests and what are they doing? WordPress blogs are great but the reality is that few participants can be dissuaded to blog regularly on a project platform.We customised WordPress with a plug in called Freefolio and that helped in terms of showing presence but it was still hard showing participants remotely how to use the back end of WordPress.
Our latest experiment is with the Network for Trainers in Europe website.
The Network has the following aims:
Essentially the network is designed to bring people interested in the training and support of trainers together to share materials and experiences. We have migrated from the previous WordPress Freefolio site to Buddypress. And although the site is by no means finished (especially the stylingl, NB setting up new accounts is suspended at moment but will be back on by the weekend), I am enthusiastic about the potential of Buddypress. Firstly Buddypress is centred around people and the activities of members, offering much functionality often associated with commercial social software sites. secondly it is easy to use, with little need for users ever to go to the back end. thirdly, through the affordances of the individual and group wires (walls), friending etc. it makes it easy for members to contribute through gesturing rather than being forced to write substantial blog posts.
The proof of the pudding is of course in the eating. Will members use the new site. To some extent that will depend of what activities the project undertakes. But it will be very interesting to see if the use of a full blown social networking application can lead to enhanced communication and collaboration between researchers and trainers drawn form every European country.
MOOCs and beyond
A special issue of the online journal eLearning Papers has been released entitled MOOCs and beyond. Editors Yishay Mor and Tapio Koshkinen say the issue brings together in-depth research and examples from the field to generate debate within this emerging research area.
They continue: “Many of us seem to believe that MOOCs are finally delivering some of the technology-enabled change in education that we have been waiting nearly two decades for.
This issue aims to shed light on the way MOOCs affect education institutions and learners. Which teaching and learning strategies can be used to improve the MOOC learning experience? How do MOOCs fit into today’s pedagogical landscape; and could they provide a viable model for developing countries?
We must also look closely at their potential impact on education structures. With the expansion of xMOOC platforms connected to different university networks—like Coursera, Udacity, edX, or the newly launched European Futurelearn—a central question is: what is their role in the education system and especially in higher education?”
The cost of austerity and privatisation
There is growing concern over the consequences of the English (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different policies) government’s cutbacks and privatisation of careers guidance for young people. The International Centre for Guidance Studies reports on a discussion paper called ‘Cost to the Economy of Government Policy on Career Guidance: A Business Case for Funding and Strengthening Career Guidance in Schools‘ from Lizzie Taylor who is an Careers England Affiliate Member. “The report claims that the economic consequence of current government policy on career education is an escalating annual cost to young people in reduced and lost earnings, reaching £676m p.a. in 2018 before dropping back slightly to £665 m p.a.2022. The total cost in reduced and lost earnings to young people in the period 2013 to 2022 is estimated as £3.2bn.”
Open Education 2030
The Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) –part of the Joint Research Center of the European commission – is calling upon experts and practitioners to come up with visionary papers and imaginative scenarios on how Open Education in 2030 in Europe might look with a major focus on Open Educational Resources and Practices, in different education sectors.
The foresight scenarios submitted can be normative or descriptive, idealistic or provocative, critical or imaginary, reflective or polemic, imaginative or concrete, comprehensive or selective, general or specific. They should be both inspiring and scientifically sound.
Submissions are free to choose any angle, subject, approach, but they say the future vision and/or scenario should address the key question of how Open Education in 2030 in Europe might look, and include the role of OER.
More details from the EU Europa website.
PLE Conference Update
I wasn’t overoptimistic about the Personal Learning Environments Conference this year. Discussions about PLEs have been subsumed in the hype over MOOCs. And most conferences are struggling with the ongoing recession. But I am delighted that we have received 59 submissions including a number of great proposals for interactive workshops.
The PLE Conference takes place on 10 and 12 July in Berlin.
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Our next programmes will be live from the Online EDUCA Berlin 2012. We will broadcast at 11.00 CET on the 29th/30th of November. Here the stream URL: http://uk2.internet-radio.com:31022/live.m3u