Friday, February 08, 2008

Can you "teach" PLEs?

Yesterday morning, I wrote this on Twitter:

I immediately got a couple of tweets back saying let us know how it goes, so here goes. I should start by saying that I don't believe you can "teach" someone how to build a personal learning environment, any more than you can teach them "wisdom" - it's an experiential, contextual thing. So the answer is no, you can't "teach" PLEs, and instead we'll have to use the dreaded F-word (facilitate). I approached the session by using my PLE tutorial as a jumping off point to help students ask the question How can I manage information overload on this module?

There was a slight stunned silence early on, and I'm sure that for some of the students the volume of new information was a bit overwhelming, but from my perspective the session went well, and I'm hoping Jo, who was also there, will add her comments. The questionnaire we ran lends some support to that view, with 50% of the students saying they found the session useful for the module, 50% neutral and no negative opinions. All of the students said that they found the session and the tools demonstrated useful for some aspect of their studies.

There were some clear winners with the students, notably the Google suite. The interlocking nature of all the Google applications helped, as did the fact that it only required a single log in to access everything. Interestingly, most of the final year students in this group did not already have Google accounts. (One of the fun parts was trying to explain to one student why they couldn't log into "their Google account" using details :-) It came home to me again what a powerful position Google has built for itself by the way it has extended its core business to encompass so many aspects of online activity. Once the Google social network is in place, it's game over.

Although we tried to be relatively neutral in facilitating, if anything, we pushed as a potential solution to information overload that they should investigate. We had a few takers, but not as many as for Google Reader, and for me, the most interesting part of the session was the fact that a couple of students found new ways to do things that I had not considered. I was particularly impressed that they discovered without prompting that they could use Google Reader to rip individual posts from a rather recalcitrant VLE RSS feed without post pages (via the <item> tags in the feed, although they weren't working at the code level), and tag them in Reader:

Obviously this approach wouldn't work for information sources other than RSS feeds, and it was a concern that once they had discovered this, they showed little interest in alternative ways of working with the information, such as As expected, the students were quite goal-directed to a particular task, but learning that they could add Facebook friend feeds to Google Reader did create some interest!

My major concern over the outcomes of this session is the silo-jumping aspect, from the VLE to Google, without investigating the full range of tools available and their potential affordances. To someone encountering the concept of a PLE for the first time, the amount of new technology can clearly be overwhelming, so this pattern is not surprising. To successfully facilitate a session such as this it's sensible to break down the PLE concept into bite-sized pieces, and to illustrate these through practical competence-based tasks which when put together, span the whole range of a functional PLE.

Overall, I'm going to claim the session was successful since I learned something new about Google Reader! What's your experience of "teaching" PLEs?


  1. Just read it - v interesting - keep 'em coming!

  2. I think Alan's analysis of the session is very accurate. I was amazed at how quickly the students 'got' the concept we were trying to explain. It did start with a few basic questions 'so what do I use to make my PLE?' 'can I just sign up for this delicious thing, or is it not allowed by the university?'. Once they could see how RSS worked and they discovered tagging, they were away! These students had a clear motivation and need to handle the information on this course, and revision for exams was obvisouly focussing them on the task in hand. Watching them tag was wonderful, they were reviewing the information in each post, deciding on the content, checking their assumptions and putting in as many keywords as they could think of.

    The social aspect of reader was not something that they ventured into, but I did suggest that they share their tags and a couple started adding other feeds, such as Alan's microbiology blog and even facebook friend's status updates.

    Overall I was very impressed by how they took to the concept, and even if they didn't realise it, the synthesis of knowledge that they started to produce was astounding!