Changing perspectives on VLEs/PLEs, eLearning and MOOCs

March 4th, 2015 by Pekka Kamarainen

My recent posts have been reports on my efforts to catch up with debates in EdTech communities and with recent pilots with MOOCs. I made use of a relatively quiet period in our work for the Learning Layers (LL) project to read what Graham Attwell has recently written on these issues. (With quiet I don’t mean that we would have had nothing to do. My point was that we have been more occupied with preparatory tasks – not much to blog about them.)

Now it seems that I have to move on to the actual preparation of the forthcoming Design Conference. Therefore, I have to postpone my further reading to some other time. At this point I make only few comments and notes for myself what to read next.

1. Changing concepts – changing perspectives

It strikes me that in the long run several changes in terminology in EdTech (and before EdTech became a big number) have paved the way from teaching-centred to learning-oriented approaches. Just thinking the changes from ‘distance teaching’ to ‘distance learning’, ‘remote learning’ and finally to ‘open distance learning’. In the beginning phase ‘eLearning’ was hyped as an alternative paradigm – the new promising mainstream to push into periphery the traditional academic teaching and learning culture. Gradually the initiatives with ‘eLearning in practice’ have brought into picture far more realistic approaches (with emphasis on technology enhanced learning TEL).

A similar transition seems to have taken place in the debates on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) vs. Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). As Graham put it a quote that I have picked from his earlier blog: “At a development level, there is little point in trying to develop a new PLE to replace the VLE. Instead we need to provide flexible tools which can enhance existing technologies and learning provision, be it formal courses and curricula or informal learning in the workplace or in the community.”

To me, the above repeated quote might be also the key to understand adequately the potential of MOOCs. I have the impression that the early phase of the MOOCs has been misused or misinterpreted to create a picture of a renaissance of e-teaching (by global missionaries) in the form of massively open online courses. What I see coming up in the newer blogs is increasingly a picture of scalable learning opportunities via which professional communities reach new dimensions. If I have understood it correctly, the initiative LangMOOC is looking for opportunities to develop language support practices for transnational cooperation activities. To me, the pilots in the employment services point to a similar direction. But I am eager to learn from those who are involved.

2. What should I/we look more closely

Even with the risk that I will not have that much time I will list some blog articles that I should try to go through in the coming time. I have sadly neglected a most valuable resource – the blog Wilfred Rubens over Technology Enhanced Learning – but with these issues I must catch up with some topics. My priority issues will be the following ones (published quite recently but to the very point I want to catch up with):

Vormen van e-learning (February 25th 2015)

Here Wilfred gives a differentiated view on different forms of e-learning (I think he identifies 11 variants).

Nieuwe EMMA MOOCS van start #EUMOOCS (February 27th 2015)

Here Wilfred gives insights into European cooperation intiatives to develop MOOCs.

Hoe lerenden binnen MOOCS opereren? (March 2nd 2015)

Here Wilfred reports on a study that has analysed the activities of learners of MOOCs.

So let us see when I get to deepen my understanding of MOOCs and similar learning arrangements that transform the perspective from ‘courses’ to social learning in professional communities.

More blogs to come …

What do we learn from debates on VLEs, PLEs and MOOCs for workplace learning?

February 24th, 2015 by Pekka Kamarainen

Currently our EU-funded Learning Layers (LL) project is preparing itself for the Design Conference of the Year 2, which will take place in March in Espoo (next to Helsinki) in Finland. We will be discussing issues of Co-Design, Evaluation and Exploitation. Surely, our work with the Learning Toolbox will be high on the agenda. But, as the name of the event says, we should consider, what is important regarding design, transfer of innovations and scaling up of innovations.

From this perspective I have looked over the fence and explored, what our colleague Graham Attwell has been writing recently on the debates on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on his blog Wales-Wide-Web. Of course, his blog articles are available on this same Pontydysgu site. But sometimes it is worthwhile to highlight some points that we may pass too quickly when reading his flow of posts. Here some of the highlights that I have picked as lessons from the debates:

1. Graham’s comment on the optimistic prediction on the impact of mobile technologies on workplace learning (July 6th 2014)

Prediction (formulated by Graham): “the workplace becomes part of the Personal Learning Environment and conversely the PLE becomes part of the work process. At the same time, such an approach can bring together both formal and informal learning.”

Comment (by Graham): “It hasn’t happened yet and it is worth thinking about why. One reason maybe that only recently has seen the spread of sufficiently powerful mobile devices and applications. Another is the suspicion of employers about the uses of such devices in the workplace. Most importantly may be the failure to develop pedagogic approaches for mobile learning.”

2. Graham’s comments on trends and fashions in Educational Technology (June 15th /April 29th 2014)

What is floating, what is sustaining: ” Ideas and trends emerge, peak and die away as attention moves to the latest new thing. At the time of writing MOOCs dominate the discourse. Yet the developments around Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) have not gone away.  It could be argued that the development and adoption of PLEs is not so much driven the educational technology (…) but by the way people (…)  are using technology for learning in their everyday lives.”

Managerism/Consumerism/Prosumerism: “Even when Learning Management Systems were in their prime, there was evidence of serious issues in their use. Teachers tended to use such environments as an extended file storage system; forums and discussion spaces were frequently under populated. In other words such systems were used for managing learning, rather than for learning itself.  Learners expropriated and adapted consumer and productivity applications for their learning.”

Contrast between VLEs/PLEs: “At a development level, there is little point in trying to develop a new PLE to replace the VLE. Instead we need to provide flexible tools which can enhance existing technologies and learning provision, be it formal courses and curricula or informal learning in the workplace or in the community. It can be argued that whilst most educational technology development has focused on supporting learners already engaged in educational programmes and institutions, the major potential of technology and particularly of Personal Learning Environments is for the majority of people not enrolled on formal educational programmes.”

Open learning/Open Educational Resources/ MOOCs: “Such changes are reflected in the growing movement towards open learning, be it in the form of MOOCs or in the increasing availability of Open Educational Resources. The popularity of MOOCs has revealed a vast pent up demand for learning and at least in the form of the c-MOOCs has speeded the adoption of PLEs. MOOCs are in their infancy and we can expect the rapid emergence of other forms of open learning or open education in the next few years.”

MOOCs – only hype?: “MOOCs are now set on the downside of the hype cycle and it is not difficult to find critics – or even those predicting their immanent end. I can’t see much sign of them going away = if anything there seems to be more and more MOOCs appearing – although that may be just a result of better discoverability. However there does seem to be huge variation in design, duration and above all quality although we do not really have any agreed criteria for measuring quality.”

So what: “Despite the issues of design and quality, the sheer numbers of learners signing up for MOOCs deserves some reflection. I interpret it as a vast pent up demand for opportunities for learning. (…) MOOCs have enabled a massive expansion in the scope of subjects on offer as Open Education. So, even though I sympathise with the critics, particularly as to the quality of pedagogy, I think we should see MOOCs in that light. MOOCs are one iteration in the use of technology to greatly expand Open Education and to make that education available to everyone.”

OK, here I have picked some thoughts that Graham has brought forward in the course of debates and as candidates for ‘lessons from the debates’. However, these are still at the level of educational debates. What we in the Learning Layers are looking for, is something to put into practice and something that sustains in the hard test of practice. I think Graham has something more to say in this respect – I will continue my reading.

More blogs to come …

Barriers to Personal Learning Environments

January 19th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I am speaking at a joint Evolve / Educamp on line session tonight about e-Portfolios and PLes. Coincidentally, I have been working on background research for the Mature project which is seeking to develop Personal Learning and Management Environments to support professional development and knowledge maturing services.

One topic in my brief for Mature was to look at barriers to the introduction of PLEs and PLMEs. As I wrote two weeks ago, PLEs are with us now – in the sense of how learners are using computers to support their own learning. But at the same time there appear to remain institutional and organisational barriers to the wider adoption of PLEs.

Anyway this is what I came up with for the Mature work. I would love any comments or feedback.

Issues in introducing PLEs

Despite the interest from the educational technology community, the implementation and institutional support for PLEs remains slow. This may be a reflection of the need to address a series of issues, both related to approaches to teaching and learning and technology development.

Learner Confidence and Support

One of the reasons why current VLEs have been successful is that they allow universities to centralize support and thus ensure a certain level of competence and quality of experience (Weller, 2005). Supporting learners in creating their own learning environments would be a major challenge.

Furthermore many learners may not have the confidence and competence to develop and configure their own tools for learning. However, Wild, Mödritscher and Sigurdarson, (2008) consider that “by establishing a learning environment, i.e. a network of people, artefacts, and tools (consciously or unconsciously) involved in learning activities, is part of the learning outcomes, not an instructional condition.”

Moreover, the advances in Wb 2.0 tools and social software are reducing the technological complexity and knowledge required by the user in configuring such tools.

Moving beyond issues of technology, many learners may feel challenged by the shift towards more learner centred provision and by the idea of managing their own learning. Setting aside issues of whether this is a core or meta level competence, learners will often still require support.
Institutional control and management

A further barrier to the introduction of Personal Learning Environments may be fear by organisations of loss of institutional and managerial control. This is a complex issue. It may imply a difficulty in pedagogical change and innovation with the move towards more learner centred learning. It may reflect the requirement of institutions to utilise computer based systems for managing programmes and students with present functionality for this provided through integrated Virtual Learning Environments. It could also reflect the requirements of centralised curricula and prescribed learning materials and learning routes. It may also reflect the preference of Systems Administrators to control software systems and server access and the need for data security.

At university level many students now use their own laptop computers, thus alleviating some of these issues. However, this will not be so in an enterprise.

Also at university level, many institutions are moving towards Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs). These may allow specific learning services to be delivered in formats that can be consumed through a PLE, whilst maintaining the integrity of administrative systems and services.

Contexts of learning

In seeking a generic approach to PLE development, design and provision, there is a danger of overlooking the different contexts in which learning and knowledge development take place. Not only will different users be dealing with different knowledge, subject areas and data, but the physical environment in which the learning takes place will vary as will use of the learning. This may have profound implications for PLE design and deployment.

Experimentation, Development and Interface design

There are many interesting projects working on different aspects of learning design and development and contributing to what we might call a future PLE. Inevitably, much of this work is being undertaken by computer programmers and specialists, with a greater or lesser understanding of education and learning. To evaluate the potential of such developments requires trialling with real users. Yet, most of these projects are at best at a beta stage of development. Many do not have well developed user interfaces and the design of such interfaces is time consuming. Yet, without such interfaces it is difficult to persuade users (individual and organisational) to involve themselves in such trialling.

User centred design models may offer a way forward in this respect.

Personal Learning Environments have happened

January 10th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

There has been some discussion lately questioning why Personal Learning Environments have been so slow to take off. I think this misses the point. PLEs are here. they are being used every day by thousands of users all over the world. True, there is no branding saying PLE. And the PLEs differ greatly, technologically and in how they are being used.

PLEs were never about developing a new generation of educational software. PLEs were about a change in the way learners used technology to support their learning. PLEs were about reflection on different sources and contexts of learning. PLes were about learners taking control of their own learning. PLEs were about collaborative and social learning

Web 2.0 and social software has facilitated that happening. Be it Facebook or Ning, blogs or Wikis, Webquests or social bookmarking, it has taken place. Not every learner is progressing at the same pace and has the same confidence in developing, configuring and using their PLE. Why should they? Learners move at different speeds in different contexts and at different stages of their lives and learning journeys. Learners have different personal preferences for the tools they use for learning and the mode of learning they prefer. Learning takes place in different contexts – institutional and workplace. But the changes we talked about when we first discussed the idea of the PLE is happening all around us.

Of course it is true to say that institutions have not supported that change – if they have recognised it at all. Institutions remain wedded to control and management models and the LMS or VLE suits that purpose. However, the slow move to web services, the slow adoption of standards and increasing interoperability are making it easier for learners to utilise institutional course provision within their PLE.

But the big change will not be through the univeristy and schooling systems. The big change will be as work based leaners and learners not enrolled on any institutional course use technology to support their learning. Of course that will not be educational technology as such. It will be tools like Diigo or PBwiki, Twitter and WordPress. This does pose a question as to the future role of educational technology. Essentially the adoption of the PLE has passed educational technology by. The cutting edge of the so called educational technology community is no longer with the developers or systems administrators. It is the pedagogists, the teachers, the facilitators and the learners who are leading development. And that is as it should be.

If PLEs are incompatible with the system then how do we change the system?

December 10th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

Goerge Siemens has written an important post called ‘Systematization of education: Room for PLEs?’ Why do I think it is important? Because George tries to look at the relationship between the development and uses of technology and the societal organisation of education.

The crux of his arguement is: “PLEs are great. They’re just completely incompatible with the existing education system.”

George quotes Evetts, Mieg, and Felt who “suggest that expertise has as a significant sociological component. Power, authority, and validity all play a role. Focus on accountability, audits, and performance targets are now heavily intertwined with professionalism. Structures of control – such as education – are not solely about knowledge and the interaction of learners with academics. Education is a system based in a sociological context. Or, more bluntly, there is “no fundamental difference between the pursuit of knowledge and that of power.”

A PLE, in contrast, is a tool/process/concept that addresses the needs of learners. It is not, to date, integrated with the power structures of society. It is only – and perhaps even honorably – about knowledge. It’s entirely possible that an integrated power structure can be built at a grassroots level, thereby developing the capacity of PLEs to replace existing LMS tools (which again, find their strength in existing power structures of control and data organization under the umbrella of the institution). This transition will not, however, occur without a corresponding power shift that emphasizes networks as an alternative to hierarchical curricular control structures that begin with industry and government setting research agendas and often influencing standards and curricular needs.”

As George says: “The modernization of education: during the industrial revolution, education transitioned from a personal relationship between faculty member and learner to a systematized model of large instructional classes and numerous teachers.”

He concludes: “Education has ceased to be about the individual learner (the early university model) to being about the existing power allocation of society (today’s model as a by product of industrial techniques applied to education).

As a result, it makes perfect sense that LMS are popular. LMS’ speak the language of the current power structure in education: control, accountability, manageability.”

I agree with almost everything George says. But I am far less pessimist than him. I think George misses two things: the inherent contradictions in capitalist societies and the power of individual and collective agency.

Just as there are contradictions in the capitalist economic system, so are there in the different superstructures which support that system. Yes, education has become systematised to deliver the education and training required by modern industrial societies. But at the same time, the system is unable to keep up with what is required. It is not just a question that curricula cannot keep pace with the speed of technological and social innovation. It is an issue that the skills and knowledge required by today’s technology cannot be delivered through a rigidly sytematised, market led educational system. Furthermore, globalisation, the rapid turnover in employment and occupations and the implementation of new technologies have led to pressures for continuing learning – what is being called lifelong learning. Present education systems cannot deliver this. Hence the never ending reforms of our schooling systems and the ongoing financial problems of universities. Putting it simply, it will cost too much to extend the present model of institutional education to deliver the learning required by the present phase of capitalism. PLEs and MOOCs offer alternative models – for better or worse. Although institutions may resist such models, they will have little alternative than to embrace change.

OK – that is the first argument. The second is based on individual and community agency. The education systems are powerful. But they are not hegemonic. There have always been spaces for individuals and groups to organise their own learning in their own way. In the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries workers organised their own education through the Mechanics Institutes, just as today we find an increasing wave of self organised and open learning available through the web. There are many innovative teachers experimenting with new technologies. Often this work is going on on the fringes of the system, where the control may be less strong. Language teaching is one such example. Most language schools are only interested in results and if the teacher chooses to use PLEs or Web 2.0 tools then they do no object as long as the results are good. Today I was talking with Maria Perifanou, an Italian language teacher in Tessaloniki in Greece. She told me how her students are using Edmodo, set up as part of their langauge course,  to communicate about what is happening in the riots. “They send messages, songs, links, express opinions… they used it these days to tell about  their situation…in Italian…so this brought them their need to share opinions…to become a community.”

It is not merely a question that the system has to change before we can adopt Personal Learning Environments. PLEs support informal and social learning. It is that informal and social learning which can change the system. It is notable that the uprising in Greece is being led by students – many of whom are still at school.

We all can have agency in changing the system and the use of social software and the development of peer networks is part of that process.

Blogging and Podcasting for Self Directed Learning

September 4th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

This was recorded live at the EduMedia conference in Salzburg. Many thanks to Andreas Auwarter who recorded the audio and did the post processing.

Social Software, Personal Learning Environments and the future of Education

September 4th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

I accepted an invitation to do a keynote presentation at a conference on Web 2.0 at the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal on October 10th. What I dinn’t realise is that they wanted me to write a paper. I am not so keen on formal papers these days – I far prefer multimedia but I finally got down to it. I greatly enjoyed readng up for he paper and quite enjoyed writing it – though am frustrated at all the things I did not say. And I still find the academic text format a bit stifling. Oh – and I hated doing the referencing (though that is my fault – I should have done it as I wrote). Anyway here is the paper. I am trying to out in scribd to see if this makes sense as a way of blogging a paper.

If you prefer you can download the paper here – portplesfin

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