Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Playing in the PLE sandpit

CAPITAL Yesterday I attended a workshop, or "sandpit", on PLEs ("Personalised/Personal Learning Environments") run by the CAPITAL project (Curriculum And Pedagogy In Technology Assisted Learning) commissioned by Becta. The event had three strands of activity:

1. An opportunity to play with and discuss a number of emerging PLEs and related technologies.
2. Agree the scope of issues and challenges facing the personalization of learning environments.
3. Share views on what will work or won't in the future.

We managed 1 and 3, but 2 was and is more problematic. Although we all tried to focus on the pedagogy of PLEs, inevitably we were continually dragged back to the technology. Interestingly, money was less of a concern (as in "we need to pay developers a lot of cash to build this"), except with regard to institutional responses to the impending crisis in public spending - will universities play it safe and try to pull "learning" back inside a Chinese wall?

In the morning, there were a series of "oases" - technology demonstrations from a mixture of vendors and current projects. I started off with PebblePad to get it out of the way. Not much to say about it that I haven't said here before, except to note again that PebblePad tries to encourage "reflection" by imposing a structure, and emphasises privacy online.

Martin Macgillvray demonstrated the Nottingham Learning Gateway, an LEA CMS based on Microsoft Sharepoint. The intention of this project is that the fine granularity of access control that Sharepoint provides plus content filters results in personalization. It's a nice project, but in a Large-Hadron-Collider-hammer-nut sort of way.

Next up was a Skype chat with Graham Attwell, which proved difficult for personal and technical reasons (background noise), but Graham talked his usual sense, including some nuggets which proved to be very useful later in the day:
  • Separate assessment and accreditation.
  • What is a PLE is the wrong question. The correct question is Why is a PLE?
After that, I played with the new versions of Blackboard, including the development version, which was interesting, but slightly irrelevant in regard of the present situation at UoL. Future versions of Blackboard will make much more personalization possible, but the institution will control this (... so draw your own conclusions). In order to provide political balance ;-) I then looked at the Desire2learn VLE. Similar to the forthcoming versions of Blackboard (surprise!) and with greater flexibility of roles, but again, these would be controlled by institutional policy, so if you're working at the University of Omgwemustcontrolthetechnology, you won't be seeing much in the way of personalization. The d2l e-portfolio looks rather nice, although of course it sits within the VLE, so students will be excommunicated when they leave the institution.

The highlight of the day for me was talking to Angela Smallwood, from the School of English Studies at the University of Nottingham, an LSRI Associate and Co-Director of the CETL for Integrative Learning. She made a convincing argument that the main challenge in education is lifewide learning, not lifelong learning. Angela was a contributor to the JISC infoKit on e-portfolios and subscribes to the view that self-publishing is crucial to a PLE and the best e-portfolio solution is distributed - a "mashup PLE". "Big box tools" tend to be rejected by students in favour of social sites:

Hartnell-Young et al 2007 Impact study of e-portfolios on learning partners
Hartnell-Young, E. et al. (2007) Impact study of e-portfolios on learning partners

In the afternoon, several discussion session attempted to pull together the strands from the morning. One of the themes which emerged from the day was the important distinction between:
  • Personal (what's in it for me?)
  • Personalized (what's in it for the institution?)
Don't confuse the two! Students should apply the "crusher test": if it was put in a crusher, would it hurt? If so, it's part of your PLE. Academics and institutions should ask themselves the Attwell question:

Why is a PLE?