“In all this, the relationships and the collaboration are more important than the technologies.” Hargeaves (2012)
I’ve been thinking around personal learning environments for a while, here and in other places, and also around extending the community of enquiry model to include the idea of agency – the extended network of resources and tools that exists for the learner outside, and their capacity to use it to engage more effectively.
A really interesting series of blog posts by Dom Norrish around how he sees MOOCs impacting on learning at another academy Trust has helped me crystallise things and I hope set out something here that pulls it all together.
This text started life as a course assignment on designing an e-CPD strategy, but I’ve edited and extended it quite significantly – for anyone interested the references at the end are all ones I’ve got a lot out of reading.
A whole plethora of terms exists for software and systems to manage courses. Watson and Watson (2007) present a range of types of LMS but define them in general as as a necessary technology to effectively implement the new approaches to instruction suitable for the Information age. The LMS doesn’t have a happy track record with the schools I work with, although a few still cling on in niches here and there, and we’ve been developing something quite different which I’m describing here.
An alternative to the LMS is the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) which Downes (2006) describes as connecting the learner to a range of services, not all educational. In Downes’ view, the PLE allows the learner not only to consume learning resources, but to produce them as well, on their own terms and with their own tools. Milligan (2006) defines them as the alternative to monolithic systems providing content and services geared to institutional needs rather than that of their learners.
Couros (2010) includes openness in the definition of a PLE concluding that they grow from the spirit and working practices of the open source movement and reflect a move away from the closed single provider culture of traditional education systems.
In defining the PLE Couros (2010) and Downes (2006) align them with a much wider debate around the very nature of education systems and the ownership of software (including the open source movement). Pragmatically, from our organisation’s perspective of seeking to improve provision within the system, those arguments are irrelevant. Our agenda is to give maximum benefit to our staff and students in the best value and safest way possible.
The technological approach of a PLE is however attractive, if we are seeking longevity of interest (through a more situative approach), engagement outside working hours and locations and the agility to rapidly adopt and develop a compelling offer that transitions well from a PC and LAN environment to one that is almost entirely web and mobile based.
Anderson (2006) sets out a range of arguments for and against both PLEs and the institutionally operated LMS. Key to the advantages of the PLE is the ownership of the tools by the learner and their existence outside the context of their course of study, speed of innovation and adaptability. He describes a LMS as being more stable and secure and purposefully designed for course delivery concluding:
“Although there is something quite compelling about the vision of a lifelong learning environment that is centred upon and perpetually belongs to the learner, I think we are some distance from being able to operationalize that vision.” Anderson (2006)
Whilst I may be persuaded by many of the arguments for PLEs, I share Anderson’s concerns about adopting them in their purest form.
· Whilst we might subscribe to a lot of the thinking of the Open Educational Resources ‘movement’ we can’t always put that into practice (for example when using materials we have licensed) – so we need to control who can access what. Identity, and managing it, is essential for us, for safety above all else. The fluid and open model of the PLE, where identity and control sits outside the management of our organisation is an abdication on our part of responsibility.
Recognising the tension between meeting student expectations to exert control and institutional needs to secure quality delivery, Mobbs and Dence (2008) describe the challenges for course designers and tutors in adapting to situations where course content may not be where learners want to interact with it. They recognise that in reality this is not an either/or debate but one in which learners may choose to selectively use their own tools, and institutions and course designers will adopt strategies in response.
Wheeler (2010) attempts to define a middle ground where the institutional provision and the learner’s personal tools inter-operate, inviting the learner to continue to use their personal tools within a PLE approach, but allowing the course provider to retain control of their content and how it is presented. I agree and would argue that in a web environment, combining content and ensuring inter-operability is already commonplace in retail, news reporting and leisure and this should be the same for education.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are by their very nature open in a way that is not relevant to our relatively small, closed audience. Norrish (2014) describes the SPOC (small, private online course) making use of a lot of a PLE toolset, but with a managed “enterprise social network” at its heart.
Highly collaborative “cMOOCs” exemplify an effort to offer open opportunities to learn that allow high levels of autonomy, but their scale and nature has potential for students to become disengaged. Mackness et al (2010) highlight student disengagement from feeling abandoned (“autonomy does not mean casting learners adrift but it does require learners to embrace independent learning”). They found students choosing to use a subset of the tools available to avoid trolling behaviour by their peers in the open forums and retreating to comfortable sub-groups where they may not in fact experience the kinds of diversity necessary to reflect and co-construct effectively.
Mobile learning is probably the only e-learning approach to truly support spontaneous reflection and self-evaluation, both vital components of situative and cognitive approaches (Traxler, 2009). To develop our own LMS type apps, or buy them is a costly process but most of the tools we use and our learners use already have good mobile apps of their own.
The description given by Wheeler (2010) of a ‘cloud learning environment’ in which the student is able to deploy a mixture of their own and institutionally provided tools alongside courses is a very close match our vision for our schools – which I’ll share here as a “managed Personal Learning Environment (mPLE).”
The heart of our mPLE is identity management.
For all access to our systems we need to know who the person is and what they are entitled to see and do. Happily we have been able to develop a system that talks to several of the biggest ID systems externally (eg Google ID, Office 365) so an account created on our system can carry over to give access to a very large range of other tools and services.
Essentially such a system is an uncoupled, de-constructed LMS that allows the learner to incorporate additional tools of their own as required and as they become available
One of the key tools within the mPLE is the environment where collaboration takes place – that online hub for the community of enquiry. Like what Norrish (2014) describes as an enterprise social network, it needs to be managed, auditable but offer the same affordances that users will have come to expect on public systems.
We’ve used the term “professional intranet” internally for some time to describe the online space for staff to publish and share resources. As our thinking has evolved the term intranet doesn’t seem adequate, as it conjures up an image of something highly curated and more a publishing platform than a place of collaboration – I think “professional social network” may be a better term.
Although Traxler (2009) described mobile learning as a separate strand of development, almost defined by the limitations of the technology at the time rather than the affordances, development in recent years now makes it a possible to deploy the same, or better access to mPLE tools on mobile devices that our community can use anywhere, indeed, many of them are being provided with mobile devices as their primary computing resource.
Anderson, T. (2006) PLE's versus LMS: Are PLEs ready for Prime time? Virtual Canuck. Available at: http://terrya.edublogs.org/2006/01/09/ples-versus-lms-are-ples-ready-for-prime-time/ (Accessed on 2nd February 2016)
Anderson, T. (2016) A Fourth Presence for the Community of Inquiry Model? Virtual Canuck. Available at: http://virtualcanuck.ca/2016/01/04/a-fourth-presence-for-the-community-of-inquiry-model/ (Accessed on 13th February 2016)
Caulfield, M. (2013). xMOOC Communities Should Learn From cMOOCs, EduCause. Available at: http://www.educause.edu/blogs/mcaulfield/xmooc-communities-should-learn-cmoocs (Accessed on 2nd February 2016)
Couros, A (2010). Developing Personal Learning Networks for Open and Social Learning, Emerging Technologies in Distance Education, Ed. Veletsianos. Available at: http://www.aupress.ca/books/120177/ebook/99Z_Veletsianos_2010-Emerging_Technologies_in_Distance_Education.pdf (Accessed on 7th February 2016)
Downes, S (2006). Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge, IT Forum 17/10/06, Available at: http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/paper92/paper92.html (Accessed on 7th February 2016)
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Hargreaves, D. (2012) A self-improving school system: towards maturity, National College of School Leadership Available at: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/15804/1/a-self-improving-school-system-towards-maturity.pdf (Accessed 10th February 2016)
Lam, J. (2015) Autonomy presence in the extended community of inquiry [online]. International Journal of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, Vol. 8, No. 1, Dec 2015: 39-61. Available at: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=705821081676347;res=IELHSS
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Milligan, C. (2006) What is a PLE? The future or just another buzz word? JISC e-Learning Focus. Available at: http://www.elearning.ac.uk/news_folder/ple%20event/view.html (Accessed on 7th February 2016)
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