Archive for the ‘e-portfolios’ Category

Personalised Radio Ciphers: internet-radio and augmented social media for transformational learning of disadvantaged young people

May 11th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

This is proposal submitted by Andrew Ravenscroft, Graham Attwell, David Blagbrough and Dirk Stieglitz for the PLE2011 conference in Southampton has been accepted. We are going to have a lot of fun. And remember you can join us too. Whilst paper submissions are closed you can still submit proposals for posters pecha keucha or the media competition until June 11th.

Introduction: Designing personalized new media spaces to support transformational and emancipatory learning

Relatively recent research into, and definitions of, personalised learning environments (e.g. van Harmelen, 2008) have proposed new technological configurations or learning design patterns. These typically harmonise individual learner agency and initiative with a developing ecology of open web services and tools. This is the PLEs from an ‘alternative learning technology perspective’. Another and complementary way to view personalisation, that has a history beyond relatively recent technological developments, is to view ‘personlisation as practice’. In this sense, personalisation is rooted in the ‘deep’ matching and development of learners interests, experiences and motivations with their chosen informal or formal learning trajectories, that may be realized through personalised technologies. This is a psycho-social approach to personalisaton and learning technology design and use, that conceives of learning as something that grows out from the learner, rather than something that is acquired from some pre-structured, ‘external’ and ‘imposed’ curricula.

This position is particularly important when we are attempting to find technology-enabled ways to engage, retain and support the learning of disadvantaged people who are excluded, or at risk of exclusion, from traditional learning paths and trajectories. Arguably, this problem is most severe in the burgeoning numbers of NEETs (Not in Education Employment and Training) throughout the UK and Europe. Addressing the needs of these growing communities requires new and radical approaches to learning, learning design and technology-enabled practice. One foundation for a radical and technology-enabled pedagogy for disadvantaged groups is the groundbreaking work of Paulo Freire (1970).

Applying Friere to PLE design: Technical reformulation of ciphers

In Paulo Freire’s seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Freire, 1970), he emphasized the importance of critical engagement in and analysis of broader societal ‘cycles’ and their effects. One way to do this is through using lived culture, and praxis (action that is informed by values) as the foundational elements for developing circles that promote transformational learning. These ideas have recently been taken up within the non hierarchical, shared, creative, inclusive, safe and supported spaces called “ciphers” – which have emerged from the urban youth culture particularly around hip hop music (Wiliams, 2009).

We are currently using this cipher concept as a metaphor for designing and developing RadioActive, a hybrid of internet-radio and augmented social media platform to support the transformational learning of disadvantaged young people.

The RadioActive pilot

This presentation will describe the design, piloting and evaluation of RadioActive with NEETs in the London Borough of Hackney. The radio-social media platform is being co-designed with these NEETs and their support actors (such as youth workers and parents) in Hackney (in London). A key aspect is that the ‘going live’ aspect acts as a catalyst for community engagement and cohesion, linked to related social media activity. Put simply, the internet-radio gives a presence, real-time narrative and an energy that drives participation, interaction and content creation.

This is an innovative and participative broadcasting model that combines Open Source or easily affordable technology to create ‘the communities’ radio platform. This deliberately fuses, inspired by Web 2.0 trends, traditional distinctions between broadcaster/program planner and listener/consumer. The holistic design concept is an edutainment platform and hard to reach community combined, via the cipher approach, into a connected ‘live entity’ rather than the community being seen as a separate audience that is broadcast to.

The central idea is that this radio cipher provides the means to initially engage and retain NEETs, who can then be exposed to and participate in informal learning activities that lead to the development of skills and competencies that prepare them for Further Education or work. They develop both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills through RadioActive. The softer ones relate to personal expression, the development of self-confidence and self-esteem, and the development of collaborative working skills. The harder ones involve the development of concrete digital literacy, media production, communication and organizational skills, that can exploited in other education or employment related activities. Similarly, their artefacts and competencies are recorded (e.g. in an eportfolio) or made public (e.g on the web) in ways that can be presented to potential Educators or Employers.

The proposed conference activities

This contribution will follow the collaborative and praxis driven spirit of this project and the PLE conference, through incorporating 2 related activities:
1. A presentation linked to the archive of the pilot radio show;
2. Mashup madness or a community in harmony? Live RadioActive show and DJ set during a social event at the conference, with RadioActive DJ’s mixing a set based on 1 or 2 favorite songs suggested by each delegate.

References

Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum Publishing.

Van Harmelen, H., Design trajectories: four experiments in PLE implementation, Interactive Learning Environments, 1744-5191, Volume 16, Issue 1, 2008, Pages 35 – 46.

Wiliams, D. (2009). The critical cultural cypher: Remaking Paulo Frieire’s cultural circles using Hip Hp culture. International, Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 2, 1, pp 1-29.

More thoughts on e-Portfolios

April 14th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

E-Portfolios just won’t go away. I has an interesting email the other day from a friend in Austria (yes I know it is old fashioned to use email, but I still do sometimes 🙂 ). Graham, she said, I am looking at e-portfolio’s from a techno-sociological view on ICT based innovation. “For me it is still strange, how many initiatives have been out there and why in – especially German-speaking countries – so little uptake is to be seen.

And I agree totally with you that it is more than the software, rather the tension of the educational
system which does not really want an individual development….”

I think the issue of e-portfolios remains interesting, not least in that we have a relatively mature, socio technical development which can provide us some understanding of the issues involved in the use of technology for learning.

Here are a few observations:

  1. Often e-Portfolios have been introduced in situations where they are not really relevant or useful. Especially in north america, they have often been viewed by students as another layer of assessment and not only unnecessary but an aditional burden of externally imposed testing.
  2. Allied to the above e_Portfolio design has too often been obsessed with outcomes and assessment systems, to the extent of ignoring any learning which cannot be accounted for within the formal course struture.
  3. When lined to more radical pedagogical thinking, the use of e-Portfolios has often been constrained by course and accreditation demands and regulation.
  4. Many people are developing e-Portfolios through the use of social software – it is just that they are not using e-portfolio software and don’t call it an e-Portfolio. But they are using technology to record their achievements and reflect on their learning. Just because this might take place on a blog, on Facebook or Twitter, does it mean it is not an e-portfolio.
  5. E-Portfolio’s have considerable potential in the vocational sector, where they can bring together work and classroom based learning and allow an interlinking of theory and practice. Yet this is one area where there has been limited piloting.

Just one final point. In the UK there seems to be a creeping take up of e-Portfoliso in those occuaptions where continuing professional development is mandatory – e.g teching, medical sector. Hoever, to my knowledge, there is no proper evalaution of this development.

Do we need educational software?

April 6th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

In a reply to my post last week on Donald Clark’s article about ePortfolios Ben Werdmuller said “From reflection, to privacy, to institutional feedback and portability, these are all things that the wider web is working on, and it makes no sense at all for the elearning sector to be tackling them on their own – except for the worst kind of closed business motivations.” And I think he is right.

For some time now I have been questioning the idea of educational technology – of technology development specifically focused on education. That is not to say there is no place for research on the use of technology for learning – nor of implementation of insubstantiations of technology specifically in a learning context. But the educational technology community can only be the poorer for developing ideas and applications based on use cases posited in a silo – outside of the rest of the world.

Indeed, I would suggest that the reason this came about was because of a focus on control and management of learning – and thus on replicating and reinforcing institutional practices, rather than supporting the learning process itself. Whilst institutional practice may be quite particular and confined to the educational sector, learning processes take place throughout society. If we start designing for learning, their is nothing in the use cases of those designs which separates them from the home or from work or the wider community.

And if we take our main focus as design for learning, then we have a far greater chance of developing technologies which can transform learning, rather than reinforcing the class and technology divides which inhibit access to education.

E-portfolios – taking learning out of the shoebox: a reply to Donald Clark

April 1st, 2011 by Graham Attwell

The ever provocative Donald Clarke has posted an interesting article – E-Portfolios – 7 reasons why I don’t want my life in a shoebox. It has sparked off a lively debate with Simon Grant wading in to defend E-Portfolios.

Clarke makes two key points in his argument. The first regards lifelong learning:

People do not see themselves as ‘learners’, let alone ‘lifelong learners’. It’s a conceit, as only educators see people as learners. Imagine asking an employer – how many learners do you have? People are individuals, fathers, mothers, employees, lawyers, bus drivers, whatever….but certainly not learners. That’s why an e-portfolio, tainted with ‘schooling’ will not catch on. By and large, most adults see school as something they leave behind and do not drag along with them into adulthood.

Of course he is right, but there are two ways to look at the idea of lifelong learning. And I do not think this new paradigm of the lifelong learner is a conceit of educators but rather is a policy directive. In a fast changing economy and a period of rapid changes in technology and working practices the drive of such policies is to say that we should all be involved in learning for all of our lifetimes to ensure we are employable and have up to date skills and knowledge etc. etc. This is part of a longer term debate over who pays for education and whose responsibility is it for maintaining our ability to find jobs. In this scenario, unemployed people only have themselves to blame for having no job. If they had maintained their skills they would now be able to find employment. It is indeed a conceit – or rather a deceit – but one which is ideological in intent. But of course educators are being coerced to make this happen.

But there is a second way to look at the idea of lifelong learning. We all learn to a greater or lesser extent every day. Not from the schooling system but through work and play, through informal learning. Of course we do not recognise that as learning and often would not identify ourselves as learners. And then the issue is how that learning can be recognised societally. Not through ‘my life in a shoebox’ but precisely my life outside the shoebox of formal certification and records of achievement.

And coming back to Donald’s shoebox – is this anything new? Prior to e-Portfolios, we all kept bundles of certificates and formal qualifications – indeed often in a shoebox. e-Portfolios have the potential to free us from such restrictions and such narrow ways of looking at learning.

But I agree with Donald when he says:

Media are linked on the web and cannot be easily stored in a single entity or within a single entity, so the boundaries of a real e-portfolio are difficult to define, and will change. An e-portfolio would have to cope with my social networks but they are proprietary. Information wants to be free fiscally and ontologically. We want to be part of all sorts of expansive and variously porous networks, not boxed in.

E-portfolio systems – as they have been conceived – have often been proprietary – despite Simon Grant’s and others’ best efforts to promote interoperability standards. Even that is not the main problem. The main issue is that our digital identity and thus the story of  our personal achievement is scattered across the web. E-portfolios have firstly tended to overly value (and prescribe) formal learning and achievement and secondly have failed to allow us to present our digital presence and life stories in any meaningful way.

Then arises the issue of whether all the effort (and money) expended on e-portfolios has been wasted. On the whole I think not. e-Portfolios is merely a term which was used to encompass the research and development of new forms of technology beyond the VLE – what we now often call Personal Learning Networks or Personal Learning Environments. Perhaps the term e-portfolio is no longer relevant. But that work maintains its coherence and validity. That we have moved on from earlier developments is unsurprising. The use of computers in business and entertainment and for all kinds of other uses is hardly a slow moving field. We cannot expect the use of technology for learning to be any different.

There is one part of Donald’s article with which I would disagree. He talks of a ‘recruitment myth’ saying:

I spent a lot of time recruiting people and what I needed wasn’t huge, overflowing e-portfolios, but succinct descriptions and proof of competences. If by e-portfolio you mean and expanded CV with links to your blog and whatever else you have online, fine. But life is too short to consider the portfolios of hundreds of applicants. Less is more.

In my experience employers are precisely wanting to move away form formal competences to learn what people can do. One Romanian CEO in an advertising company told me he would not employ anyone who did not have an active web presence. Many employers – especially in small enterprises – just Google someone to find out more about them. So yes, I do think we need an application which allows us easily to create an expanded (digital) CV with links to whatever we have online. We do not really have such an application at the moment. If this is to be called an e-portfolio or something else does not matter.

Finally I think Donald disproves his own point when he says:

I can see their use in limited domains, such as courses and apprenticeships, but not in general use, like identity cards.

It seems to me Donald’s “limited domains” are pretty broad. Of course the use of any software, educational or otherwise, is contextual. Contextual in place and time and contextual in terms of why and how we use it. And those are some of the main issues for those wishing to explore the future of e-portfolios or whatever else we call them!

Learning spaces and e-portfolios

June 21st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

There is an interesting interview with Rob Arntsen, the CEO of MyKnowledgeMap in the latest edition of the Eifel newsletter. Rob was asked to describe his vision of ePortfolios.

“We believe that the term is perhaps too general and becoming overtaken by events as the learning technology market evolves. On one hand I prefer the concept of a person’s individual learning space, such that the individual is in control of what they identify as their tailored learning space, which embraces their social networking space and which allows them to showcase and to grant access selectively.

On the other hand, for obvious reasons, the historic trend behind e-portfolio development has been driven by institutions to primarily address institutional interest in delivering a solution in this area. That requirement is still valid, and so we need to see the concept that allows the “bridge” between an individual in control of their own learning space and the institution’s valid need for some form of consistent method of interlocking with their students learning processes. This is why we are developing Learning Slate, which is an open source development, initially with Hull University and JISC.

……The changes we have seen in the e-portfolio market are many and varied. There has been the growth in use of significant open source solutions such as Mahara, the merging of reflective style portfolios with competency orientated assessment, and the linkage with assessment. I also am starting to get the feel that this space is becoming more important than the traditional LMS/VLE product and may perhaps take centre stage at some point. Generally we are seeing more interest in video content and e-book content alongside other content, and indeed the close integration of video and e-books within e-learning and assessment objects.

Perhaps the most dramatic and rapid change has been the very strong interest in mobile phones, especially smart phones and related technology. I suspect this will continue to evolve quickly with the advent of the i-pad and similar devices.”

Rob’s idea of a learning space is similar to the Personal Learning Environments we have described on this site. And Rob is right when he says “the historic trend behind e-portfolio development has been driven by institutions to primarily address institutional interest in delivering a solution in this area.” But I am not sure why he says this requirement is still valid if students are in control of their own learning in their own learning spaces.

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!

June 1st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Yesterday I wrote about the perosna methodology we have been trying out in the European G8WAY project on educational transitions. At the recent project meeting in Bucharest we split into groups to look at some on the initial interviews which have been carried out. I presented two interviews, undertaken in the UK by Angela Rees from Pontydysgu.
We had been asked to look at the interviews and discuss:

  1. What is the most relevant learning event of the case?
  2. Is this learning event only relevant in its national context or there features common to different countries?
  3. How we can make use of this learning event in relation with:
  • Benefits for young people (What kind of support can we provide?)
  • What is the impact on the proposed project Web 2.0 platform?

In this post, I will present Kat. In our discussion we consiered Kat to be almost a persona in herself, with a little further analysis added to the case study. Kat is focused on what she wants to do and an accomplished self directed learner. She learns from courses, from different jobs she undertakes, from the internet from reading and from her own research. We noted that transition is becoming more and more a permanent or overlapping state. Kat is constantly learning and her life appears a long period of transition with shorter periods of more intense transition occuring from time to time.

In terms of the potential of Web 2.0 to support Kat in her transition she lacks web tools to present her knowledge, research and achievements. Kat also explains that she spends much time searching for potential PhD opportunities. It seems somewhat surprising that noone has thought to develop a portal to allow easy access to such opportunities (or have they?). Kat might also benefit from the provision of e-guidance or e-counselling.

The project partners felt the case study to be relevant for their own countries (Portugal, Greece and Sweden). In fact Kat might be seen as following the typical career of a modern international researcher!

Kat,

Case Study

Motto: Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!

Demographic and biographical Characteristics

Kat, 29, female, comes from a well educated background, she is currently living alone in rented accommodation in France. Kat finds herself moving house frequently between London, France, Spain and her family home in Newcastle in order to take advantage of short term work placements as they arise. She enjoys the arts, always has her nose in a book and has an extensive, global network of friends and acquaintances.

Transitions

Educational and transitional pathways:

After graduating from her first degree in Zoology in 2003, Kat has been opportunistic in her method of finding field work, relying on contacts, friends of friends and recommendations.

“The issues I faced were gaining relevant experience to work in my chosen field, although that’s probably an issue specific to ecologists/biologists. I found it wasn’t too hard to get a job, but said jobs were little or no paid field assistant positions. My university lecturer helped me to find my first job, after that it was various contacts I made along the way. I’ve still not decided what I want to be when I grow up!”

This has lead her from the extremes of studying meercats in the Kalahari to birds on Skomer Island. Because of the nature of project work, Kat finds it difficult to find employment all year round. Her long term ambition is to study for a pHd and so lead her own research projects. With some fieldwork and research experience behind her Kat decided that the best way to pursue her dream was to return to Academia, she graduated with an MRes from Imperial College London in 2008 and has since been in a transition period waiting to be accepted onto a pHd. During this time she has been applying for pHd courses in her specialist area and working as an office temp in between taking on temporary research positions. She thought that the Masters level qualification combined with her research experience would give her an advantage in gaining a PhD placement.

Motivations and Strategies: Kat is quite particular about the type of research she wants to do, as such she has limited her search for a doctorate to universities which she perceives to be good. She also has a clear idea of the specific area in which she wants to work. She would rather wait to be accepted to study her own research proposal than compromise her ideals and spend four years working in an area that does not interest her, even if it would mean her being able to lead her own research sooner. She thinks that it is more beneficial to her to work on short term field work jobs in the meantime in order to make more contacts and keep her research experience current.

Ad hoc learning scenarios

The diverse nature of field work means that every six months or so, Kat embarks upon a new project and has to learn a new set of skills from scratch. Examples of this are identifying species of trees or birds, tracking, capturing, tagging and weighing animals, learning to use different laboratory management tools and data entry systems which are unique to the project. The work is very hands on, she says that it would not be possible to learn the skills as part of an on-line training course.

Support Services used

Lecturers and tutors on her first degree course passed on email addresses of researchers working in Kat’s areas of interest, from these few contacts she has built up her own network of potential employers and project supervisors.

Learning type:

Two main ways of learning are detectable:

Learning from practical experiences: Kat learns new skills on the job, now that she is becoming a more experienced researcher, she also finds herself supervising and teaching skills to the less experienced project workers.

Self-directed learning: Kat will find relevant research papers on the internet and also borrows books from the library. She also uses e-books, particularly when she is working outside of the UK.

Information and Communication Technologies

Much of Kat’s networking has been done via email, she also keeps in contact with colleagues via Skype. She uses websites to search for biology PhDs and field assistant positions.

“ I tended to use those websites more just for browsing to look for job adverts rather than creating a profile and finding people with similar interests. People with similar interests tend to be potential competitors for natural science-type jobs & PhDs which are a bit scarce, I imagine a facebook style network might inhibit a free and easy sharing of info and tips on jobs that you’ve seen.

Plus I really doubt that researchers or potential employers would take the trouble to search the site for good candidates. The nature of PhDs and field assistant jobs is that there are so many people wanting them, you just put the advert out there in New Scientist or wherever, then sit back and wait for the applications to flood in.”

She thinks that the most useful web tool would be something that pooled all of the jobs available onto one site,

“kind of like a temping agency who were in touch with every single Life Sciences university department and every ecological organisation in Europe, with details of jobs or field assistants required. You could go to them and say “I have these skills, I’m looking for paid/volunteer work, I’m available from this date” and they could place you in a suitable position. I doubt it’s feasible, as it would be an enormous undertaking but I, for one, would definitely sign up to such a thing. It would take away all the work and the hours and hours spent browsing online for positions.”

She does think that social networking could be useful particularly for putting new graduates in contact with established researchers, however she is very wary of networking with people in the same position as herself because of the fierce competition for jobs and placements.

Using media for e-portfolios and Personal Learning Environments

March 17th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Another quick article in the ‘rethinking e-Portfolio and Personal Learning Environments’ mini series.

One of the problems in Technology Enhanced Education, I am coming to think, is that new media are very different from traditional paper and book based media. And as Friesen and Hug (2009) argue 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.” This configuration, they say, is one in which print has been dominant. They quote McLuhan who has described the role of the school specifically as the “custodian of print culture” (1962) It provides, he says, a socially sanctioned “civil defense against media fallout”  – against threatening changes in the mediatic environs.

So what is appropriate content for an e-Portfolio may not be that required by our education systems and institutions, Much of university education is based around essays. Research is still judged by publications in scholarly journals.

Essays and journal content do not make for inspiring web content, however good. Indeed like most other people, I simply print out papers I want to read. But more importantly such paper oriented publications lack the richness that the web can bring, through linking, through the use of multi media, through links to people and increasingly through location specific enhancement.

This problem is not unique to education. As the Guardian newspaper reports, it is also a pressing issue for publishers nervously awaiting the arrival of the iPad and wondering how to produce materials for both print media and for use on a mobile device.

The Guardian interviews Wired editor Ben Hammersley who says “Digital convergence pushes content to more and more devices, but for the requirements of each can be very different. For example, location data can be important for reading stories on the iPhone, while linking is essential for web publishing, and typography has to change for publishing on a tablet computer.”

Hammersley is developing a new content managements system to overcome this problem. Called ‘Budding’ , the system appears to be based on mark up code to allow multiple use of texts.

“Having to learn to write in markup isn’t an imposition, any more than having to learn shorthand or telegraphese. And as with learning any new language, you gain a new soul: writing in markup would allow you to embed code” Hammersley explains on his blog.

“The ability to embed code within a story gives us whole new realms of possibilities for journalism and publishing. Digital platforms are connected and location aware, so why not use that? At the moment the answer is “because your infrastructure won’t let you,” but if it could, the potential is extraordinary.”

In another blog entry he says: “One of my basic points is that having lots of metadata means you can do lots of really nice stuff when you transition from print to online, or print to multimedia. But that metadata needs to be captured and stored as close to the original author as you can. The moment when you can write this stuff down and store it is fleeting, and once it has passed, it has passed forever, for profitable values of forever at least.”

And according to the Guardian: “Budding should also provide an archive for writers as the project aims to transfer the writing and editing online to the cloud, and export it from there to multiple formats such as Indesign or blogging software.”

This sounds very much like part of a Personal Learning Environment to me: a tool which can allow us both to capture contextual learning where and when it happens and to repurpose it for presentation in different media, including on-line through an e-Portfolio and in written formats for essays and scholarly publications.

The only draw back I see is the mark-up language – would academics, students, learners use mark up. Maybe they would, if there was enough obvious gain. And maybe we could develop a simple menu allowing the markup to be added from a visual editor. After all, word processors juts use a menu system to add mark up to text (and a long time ago with Word Perfect the mark up code was written).

Ben Hammersley says he is going to offer Budding free to authors. I’ve signed up for a trail. But could we work out a mark up code for a PLE or e-Portfolio?

References

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.

McLuhan, M. (1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

More notes on e-Portfolios, PLEs, Web 20 and social software

March 16th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Some more very quick notes on teaching and learning, e-portfolios and Personal Learning Environments.

Lets start with the old problems of Virtual Learning Environments – yes one problem is that they are not learning environments (in the sense of an active learning process taking place – but rather learning management systems. VLEs are great for enrolling and managing learners, tracking progress and completion and for providing access to learning materials. But the learning most often takes place outside the VLE with the VLE acting as a place to access activities to be undertaken and to report on the results. In terms of social learning, groups are usually organised around classes or assignments.

The idea of Personal Learning environments recognised three significant changes:

  • The first was that of a Personal Learning Network which could be distributed and was not limited by institutional groups
  • The second was the idea that learning could take place in multiple environments and that a PLE could reflect and build on all learning, regardless of whether it contributed to a course the user was enrolled on
  • The third is that learners could use their own tools for learning and indeed those tools, be they online journals and repositries, networks or authoring tools, might also be distributed.

Then lest throw social software and Web 2.0 into the mix. This led to accordances for not just consuming learning through the internet, but for active construction and sharing.

This leads to a series of questions in developing both pedagogies and tools to support (social) learning (in no particular order):

  • How to support students in selecting appropriate tools to support their learning?
  • How to support students in finding resources and people to support their learning?
  • How to support students in reporting or representing their learning?
  • How to support students in identifying and exploring a body of knowledge?
  • How to motivate and support students in progressing their learning?
  • How can informal learning be facilitated and used within formal course outcomes?

How can we reconcile learning through communities of practice (and distributed personal learning networks) with the requirements of formal courses?

I am not convinced those of us who advocate the development of Personal Learning Environments have adequately answered those questions. It is easy to say we need changes in the education systems (and of course we do).

In one sense I think we have failed to recognise the critical role that teachers play in the learning process. Letsg o back to to Vykotsky. Vykotsky called those teachers – or peers – who supported learning in a Zone of Proximal Development 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.

Of course learners operate within constraints provided in part by the more capable participants (be it a teacher peer, or software), but an essential aspect of this process is that they must be able to use words and other artefacts in ways that extend beyond their current understanding of them, thereby coordinating with possible future forms of action.

Thus teachers or peers as well as technology play a role in mediating learning.

In terms of developing technology, we need to develop applications which facilitate that process of mediation. Some social software works well for this. If I get stuck on a problem I can skype a friend or shout out on Twitter, There is plenty of evidenced use of Facebook study groups. Yet I am not sure the pedagogic processes and the technology are sufficiently joined up. If I learn from a friend or peer, and use that learning in my practice, how does the process become transparent – both to myself and to others. How can I represent by changing knowledge base (through DIIGO bookmarks, through this blog?). And how can others understand the ideas I am working on and become involved in a social learning process.

I guess the answer lies in the further development of semantic applications which are able to make those links and make such processes transparent. But this requires far greater sophistication than we have yet achieved in developing and understanding Personal Learning Environments,

Rethinking e-Portfolios

March 14th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The second in my ‘Rethinking’ series of blog posts. This one – Rethinking e-portfolios’ is the notes for a forthcoming book chapter which I will post on the Wales wide Web when completed..

Several years ago, e-portfolios were the vogue in e-learning research and development circles. Yet today little is heard of them. Why? This is not an unimportant question. One of the failures of the e-learnng community is our tendency to move from one fad to the next, without ever properly examining what worked, what did not, and the reasons for it.

First of all it is important to note that  there was never a single understanding or approach to the development and purpose of an e-Portfolio. This can largely due be ascribed to different didactic and pedagogic approaches to e-Portfolio development and use. Some time ago I wrote that “it is possible to distinguish between three broad approaches: the use of e-Portfolios as an assessment tool, the use of e-Portfolios as a tool for professional or career development planning (CDP), and a wider understanding of e-Portfolios as a tool for active learning.”

In a paper presented at the e-Portfolio conference in Cambridge in 2005 (Attwell, 2005), I attempted to distinguish between the different process in e-Portfolio development and then examined the issue of ownership for each of these processes.

eport

The diagramme reveals not only ownership issues, but possibly contradictory purposes for an e-Portfolio. Is an e-Portfolio intended as a space for learners to record all their learning – that which takes place in the home or in the workplace as well as in a course environment or is it a place or responding to prescribed outcomes for a course or learning programme? How much should a e-Portfolio be considered a tool for assessment and how much for reflection on learning? Can tone environment encompass all of these functions?

These are essentially pedagogic issues. But, as always, they are reflected in e-learning technologies and applications. I worked for a whole on a project aiming to ‘repurpose the OSPI e-portfolio (later merged into Sakai) for use in adult education in the UK. It was almost impossible. The pedagogic use of the e-Portfolio, essentially o report against course outcomes – was hard coded into the software.

Lets look at another, and contrasting, e-Portfolio application, ELGG. Although now used as a social networking platform, in its original incarnation ELGG stared out as a social e-portfolio, originating in research undertaken by Dave Tosh on an e-portfolio project. ELGG essentially provided for students to blog within a social network with fine grained and easy to use access controls. All well and good: students were not restricted to course outcomes in their learning focus. But when it came to report on learning as part of any assessment process, ELGG could do little. There was an attempt to develop a ‘reporting’ plug in tool but that offered little more than the ability to favourite selected posts and accumulate them in one view.

Mahara is another popular open source ePortfolio tool. I have not actively played with Maraha for two years. Although still built around a blogging platform, Mahara incorporated a series of reporting tools, to allow students to present achievements. But it also was predicated on a (university) course and subject structure.

Early thinking around e-Portfolios failed to take into account the importance of feedback – or rather saw feedback as predominately as coming from teachers. The advent of social networking applications showed the power of the internet for what are now being called personal Learning networks, in other words to develop personal networks to share learning and share feedback. An application which merely allowed e-learners to develop their own records of learning, even if they could generate presentations, was clearly not enough.

But even if e-portfolios could be developed with social networking functionality, the tendency for institutionally based learning to regard the class group as the natural network, limited their use in practice. Furthermore the tendency, at least in the school sector, of limited network access in the mistaken name of e-safety once more limited the wider development of ‘social e-Portfolios.”

But perhaps the biggest problem has been around the issue of reflection. Champions have lauded e-portfolios as a natural tools to facilitate reflection on learning. Helen Barrett (2004) says an “electronic portfolio is a reflective tool that demonstrates growth over time.” Yet  are e-Portfolios effective in promoting reflection? And is it possible to introduce a reflective tool in an educations system that values the passing of exams through individual assessment over all else? Merely providing spaces for learners to record their learning, albeit in a discursive style does not automatically guarantee reflection. It may be that reflection involves discourse and tools for recording outcomes offer little in this regard.

I have been working for the last three years on developing a reflective e-Portfolio for a careers service based din the UK. The idea is to provide students an opportunity to research different career options and reflect on their preferences, desired choices and outcomes.

We looked very hard at existing opens source e-portfolios as the basis for the project, nut could not find any that met our needs. We eventually decided to develop an e-Portfolio based on WordPress – which we named Freefolio.

At a technical level Freefolio was part hack and part the development of a plug in. Technical developments included:

  • The ability to aggregate summaries of entries on a group basis
  • The ability add custom profiles to see profiles of peers
  • Enhanced group management
  • The ability to add blog entries based on predefined xml templates
  • More fine grained access controls
  • An enhanced workspace view

Much of this has been overtaken by subsequent releases of WordPress multi user and more recently Buddypress. But at the time Freefolio was good. However it did  not work in practice. Why? There were two reasons I think. Firstly, the e-Portfolio was only being used for careers lessons in school and that forms too little a part of the curriculum to build a critical mass of familiarity with users. And secondly, it was just too complex for many users. The split between the front end and the back end of WordPress confused users. The pedagogic purpose, as opposed to the functional use was too far apart. Why press on something called ‘new post’ to write about your career choices.

And, despite our attempts to allow users to select different templates, we had constant feedback that there was not enough ease of customisation in the appearance of the e-Portfolio.

In phase two of the project we developed a completely different approach. Rather than produce an overarching e-portfolip, we have developed a series of careers ‘games; to be accessed through the Careers company web site. Each of the six or so games, or mini applications we have developed so far encourages users to reflect on different aspects of their careers choices. Users are encouraged to rate different careers and to return later to review their choices. The site is yet to be rolled out but initial evaluations are promising.

I think there are lessons to be learnt from this. Small applications that encourage users to think are far better than comprehensive e-portfolios applications which try to do everything.

Interestingly, this view seems to have concur with that of CETIS. Simon Grant points out: “The concept of the personal learning environment could helpfully be more related to the e-portfolio (e-p), as both can help informal learning of skills, competence, etc., whether these abilities are formally defined or not.”

I would agree: I have previously seen both as related on a continuum, with differing foci but similar underpinning ideas. However I have always tended to view Personal Learning Environments as a pedagogic capproach, rather than an application. Despite this, there have been attempts to ‘build a PLE’. In that respect (and in relation to rethinking e-Portfolios) Scott Wilson’s views are interesting. Simon Grant says: “As Scott Wilson pointed out, it may be that the PLE concept overreached itself. Even to conceive of “a” system that supports personal learning in general is hazardous, as it invites people to design a “big” system in their own mind. Inevitably, such a “big” system is impractical, and the work on PLEs that was done between, say, 2000 and 2005 has now been taken forward in different ways — Scott’s work on widgets is a good example of enabling tools with a more limited scope, but which can be joined together as needed.”

Simon Grant goes on to say the ““thin portfolio” concept (borrowing from the prior “personal information aggregation and distribution service” concept) represents the idea that you don’t need that portfolio information in one server; but that it is very helpful to have one place where one can access all “your” information, and set permissions for others to view it. This concept is only beginning to be implemented.”

This is similar to the Mash Up Personal Learning Environment, being promoted in a number of European projects. Indeed a forthcoming paper by Fridolin Wild reports on research looking at the value of light weight widgets for promoting reflection that can be embedded in existing e-learning programmes. This is an interesting idea in suggesting that tools for developing an e-Portfolio )or for that matter, a PLE can be embedded in learning activities. This approach does not need to be restricted to formal school or university based learning courses. Widgets could easily be embedded in work based software (and work flow software) and our initial investigations of Work Oriented Personal Learning Environments (WOMBLES) has shown the potential of mobile devices for capturing informal and work based learning.

Of course, one of the big developments in software since the early e-Portfolio days has been the rise of web 2.0, social software and more recently cloud computing. There seems little point in us spending time and effort developing applications for students to share powerpoint presentations when we already have the admirable slideshare application. And for bookmarks, little can compete with Diigo. Most of these applications allow embedding so all work can be displayed in one place. Of course there is an issue as to the longevity of data on such sites (but then, we have the same issue with institutional e-Portfolios and I would always recommend that students retain a local copy of their work). Of course, not all students are confident in the use of such tools: a series of recent studies have blown apart the Digital Native (see for example Hargittai, E. (2010). Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”. Sociological Inquiry. 80(1):92-113).  And some commercial services may be more suitable than other for developing an e-Portfolio: Facebook has in my view limitations! But, somewhat ironically, cloud computing may be moving us nearer to Helen Barrett’s idea of an e-Portfolio. John Morrison recently gave a presentation (downloadable here) based on his study of ‘what aspects of identity as learners and understandings of ways to learn are shown by students who have been through a program using course-based networked learning?’ In discussing technology he looked at University as opposed to personally acquired, standalone as opposed to networked and Explored as opposed to ongoing use.

He found that students:

Did not rush to use new technology

Used face-to-face rather than technology, particularly in early brainstorming phases of a project

Tried out software and rejected that which was not meeting a need

Used a piece of software until another emerged which was better

Restrained the amount of software they used regularly to relatively few programs

Certain technologies were ignored and don’t appear to have been tried out by the students

Students used a piece of software until another emerged which was better  which John equates with change. Students restrained the amount of software they used regularly to relatively few programs  which he equates with conservatism

Whilst students were previously heavy users of Facebook, they were now abandoning it. And whilst there was little previous use of Google docs, his latest survey suggested that this cloud application was now being heavily used. This is important in that one of the more strange aspects of previous e0Portolio development has been the requirement for most students to upload attached files, produced in an off line work processor, to the e-Portfolio and present as a file attachment. But if students (no doubt partly driven by costs savings) are using online software for their written work, this may make it much easier to develop online e-portfolios.

John concluded that :this cohort lived through substantial technological change. They simplified and rationalized their learning tools. They rejected what was not functional, university technology and some self-acquired tools. They operate from an Acquisition model of learning.” He concluded that “Students can pick up and understand new ways to learn from networks. BUT… they generally don’t. They pick up what is intended.” (It is also well worth reading the discussion board around John’s presentation – – although you will need to be logged in to the Elesig Ning  site).

So – the e-Portfolio may have a new life. But what particularly interests me us the interplay between pedagogic ideas and applications and software opportunities and developments in providing that new potential life. And of course, we still have to solve that issue of control and ownership. And as John says, students pick up what is intended. If we continue to adhere to an acquisition model of learning, it will be hard to persuade students to develop reflective e-Portfolios. We should continue to rethink e-Portfolios through a widget based approach. But we have also to continue to rethink our models of education and learning.

Developing mobile applications to support My Learning Journey

January 25th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

A quick post about mobile devices and work based learning – which I know I have been going on about a lot lately.

So far most of the work on mobile learning at a practical level seems to me to fit into four categories:

  • applications designed to provide information for students – about their courses, lecture times, venues, transport information, buildings etc.
  • what might be called learning objects – small apps designed to support learning about a particular topic or issue – often using multi media
  • apps or projects aiming to improve communication between learners or between learners and teachers
  • information – revision guides etc. designing to promote mobile access to resources

There is nothing wrong about any of these and they all may be useful in pushing mobile learning forward. But I think they may fail to really extend forward ideas about tecahing and learning 0 they are all essentially repackaging existing elearning applications for mobile devices.

The big potential I see for mobile devices is in their affordances of being always on – or almost always on, in the fact that we already accept the idea of the frequent but sporadic use of the devices for all kinds of activities such as taking photos and messaging – as well as making telephone calls – and that they are portable.

in other words – taking learning support to areas it has not been taken to before. And prime amongst these is teh workplace. It is little coincidence that many of the main take-up areas for elearning are for those occupations which involve regular use of computers e.g in ICT occupations, in marketing and management etc. Ans one of the main issues in developing elearning for vocational or occupational learning is the contextual nature of such learning and the high cost of producing specific learnng materials for relatively low numbers of learners. Vocational students often wish for learning materials to be in their own language, thus exacerbating the problem of small numbers of users for specific occupations.

It is also interesting to note that despite many researchers pointing to the importance of reflection as a key pedagogic tool, there has been limited pedagogic and technical development to facilitate such an approach.

The use of mobile devices can overcome this. They can be used in specific contexts of location, tasks, experince, colleagues and allow ready means of reflection through the use of photographs, video, text and audio.

If linked up to a server based ‘portfolio’ this could form an essential part of a Personal Learning Environment. Furthermore the learning materials become the entire work environment, rather than custom built applications. And tools such as Google Goggles could easily be incorporated (although I have to say it seems more alphe than beta ot me – I havent managed to get it to recognise a single object so far!).

I am mush taken with a free Android Ap called Ontheroad. It doesn’t do much. It is designed its ays for you to share your adventures on the road You have to set up a free account on a web site. You can publish active trips (I am going to try to make one this week). You can add articles including your position by GPS, you can add text, multimedia, dates and choose which trip to publish it to though the telephone network or by SMS. You can browse existing articles and look at comments. You can add media including photos already on your gallery. Or you can record a video (audio support seems limited).

And it is all synced through a server. It would not take much to refocus this app to a Learning Journey, rather than a road trip. And it could be incredibly powerful in terms of work based learning.

So I do not see a great technical challenge. the bigger challenge is in developing a pedagogic approach which incorporates informal learning in the workplace and such a portfolio based on practice within formal approaches ot education and training.

If you are interested in working with me to develop these technologies and ideas please get in touch.

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