By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education
I ended my last report from PLENK 2010, the “Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge” course, with the revelation that teaching several classes this semester and being a student in a massive open online course (MOOC) at the same time provided me with some challenges to “manage and balance” – an important competence for the informal learner. The closing line in that report, “my next PLENK review might take a little while,” proved prophetic. This summary of the last four weeks of PLENK is at the same time a resumé of my overall learning experience since last Friday’s web conference was the final curtain for the class.
Week 7: Help for the Information Hoarder!
Week seven dealt with tool choices within one’s personal learning environment. Should I try out this new mind mapping software or not? How many different environments can one person use? What level of diversity is helping or hindering my students’ knowledge creation process? Albeit the official motto was “Tools – What Exists, What Is Being Built?”, my attention in the reading material and web conference was centered on an article by Maria Andersen, “The World Is My School: Welcome to the Era of Personalized Learning.” Andersen is a math professor at Muskegon Community College (Michigan) and an education technology specialist. Her topic was information overflow, created within our personal learning networks, and how we need new tools that enforce not only information retrieval but information reflection. She says:
We have information flowing at us at such a fast rate that we can’t remember what information we actually want. We need information to come back to us once or twice so it has a chance to percolate in our biological memory with all the other ideas and facts and lead to deeper understanding. We can look up all sorts of facts and we can save all sorts of facts. We can bookmark them, we can clip them in Evernote, but what’s happening is that we have become information hoarders. The problem is, we are not getting back to reflecting.
To ameliorate the problem of senseless, aimless information hoarding instead of meaningful learning and understanding, Andersen proposes a system that supports informal learning through a personal, self-designed question repository she calls “SOCRAIT.” Here is how this new PLE tool could work:
I might write a simple question and answer for myself: “On July 27, 2010, the US Justice Department made a decision about DRM. What was the decision and what are the implications?” Following this, I’d write a short summary or clip a few sentences of content from the article to summarize the findings. Along with the question and answer, SOCRAIT would save the source URL (link to the content) and I could tag the question with metadata tags I indicate (e.g. Copyright and DRM). Later in the day or the week, when I have some down time, I could reengage with SOCRAIT. Here’s how it would work: I read or listen to a question, answer it in my head or out loud, view or listen to the answer, rate my understanding, and go to the next question.
Week 8: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Week 8 dealt with “Personal Information and Knowledge Management.” Under the banner of web 2.0 and social media, easy-to-use tools have given individuals greater control over information creation and sharing and at the same time have greatly increased information overload. This conundrum might be best described by a line from T.S. Eliot’s play The Rock: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The guest speaker in the Elluminate Web conference was Harold Jarche, consultant from “Internet Time Alliance” who views personal knowledge management as “practical methods for making sense of the increasing digital information flows around us” (Jarche, 2010; webcite).
Jarche opens his talk with a quote from the ethnographic researcher Lilia Efimova, who stated that personal knowledge management is about shifting responsibility for learning and sharing from the institution to the individual – which offers great challenges for both sides. Jarche’s advice: “Reduce the noise in your personal network. Find the right people to connect to and don’t worry about missing something.”
Week 9: Blended Learning with PLEs
“Freely accessible, open educational resources (OER) are increasing rapidly. Such resources coupled with user friendly web applications empower networked students to transcend the traditional concept of classroom” (Drexler, 2010). Her talk focused on the use of PLEs in K12 teaching and learning (grade 7 students). “When you are working with younger students in a K12 environment, you have to be mindful of the terms of service. Many web 2.0 tools require that whoever is using them to be over thirteen to set up an account.” Her design based research approach resulted in a model for the networked student.
In the forum discussion, participant Jennifer Chesney made an interesting point for personal learning in the university environment:
In a University or College, when it comes to defining the learning environment, whose learning environment needs matter more – those of the student or the professor? … [The] student is taking six to eight courses from six to eight different professors. So she now has to go to six to eight (potentially) different places, each with their own unique interface to get each of her assignments, do her assignments, collaborate online with her classmates, etc. (MOOC PLENK2010, November 2010)
Week 10: The Weak Spot of PLE – or MOOC?
The last week of the course was reserved for critical perspectives on PLE/Ns, i.e. their weaknesses and drawbacks. Concurrently, the participants were encouraged to evaluate the course via an online questionnaire and draw a personal resumé of their learning experience. The last guest speaker of the series was Sebastian Fiedler, researcher at the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna and PhD student at the University of Turku (Finland). His thoughts are very well summarized in the paper “Personal Learning Environments – Concept or Technology?”
An open question is how to foster ongoing participation. As Chris Jobling described his experience in the MOOC: “Am I alone in feeling that this course has gone through a development that seems like a frontier town in the American gold rush? Intense excitement and rapid growth at the start. Ghost town and tumble weeds at the end” (MOOC PLENK2010, November 2010). Some participants suggested a shorter period of time for the course to counteract “discussion fatigue.” Others simply saw their workload getting in the way. Informal learners find it difficult to set time aside for achieving their learning goals, as the example of Jim Stauffer illustrates:
I have not been very active in PLENK for the last two weeks because of other commitments. It was a deliberate trade-off – PLENK was optional, my job was not. The choice was necessary. It came as a bit of a surprise though, how much I missed the interaction. With my decreased activity, feedback dropped accordingly. No comments on my few hurried blog posts – no back-and-forth when there’s only time to read a few discussions, and static backchannel in Elluminate recordings. I have certainly experienced reduced satisfaction because of reduced interaction, but I have to accept the responsibility as my own.
Fig 4: George Siemens’ user statistic for PLENK2010, view full presentation at slideshare
Highlights and Lessons Learned
Over the last 10 weeks the MOOC’s participants have explored various tools, concepts, and principles influencing personal learning environments. Numerous guest speakers have presented their views on personal learning activities, tools and networks. The collaborative learning process was mirrored in distributed conversations that took place both in the course discussion forums and the participants’ personal blogs. Looking back, the major lesson I have learned and deeply enjoyed was to see a truly constructivist teaching style at work.
If I had to summarize the pedagogical approach of the massive open online course it would come down to the following recipe: “Learning by reflecting on your own practice and creating artifacts based on this reflection.” As George Siemens puts it:
Creating something is an important activity. When you create a blog post, podcast, or concept map, you’re sharing your sensemaking activities with others. Others, who are at a similar point in the course, may find resonance with your artifact. Your sensemaking activity becomes a node that others can connect to and engage with. Multiple sensemaking artifacts offer more diversity than only centering activites around readings and resources that the instructor has provided. (MOOC PLENK2010, September 2010)
Throughout the class, participants have developed a tremendously impressive amount of artifacts, many of them developed towards collaborative knowledge gathering. A great example is the “Top 100 Learning Tools Bingo” by Chris Jobling. My favorite information visualizations for personal learning is the “rubber ducky PLN” by Ian Woods.
To all the PLENK2010 participants: Thank you and good luck with keeping your PLEs afloat!
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