Monday, December 15, 2008

The PLE chickens come home to roost

Old School In the last 18 months it's been very hard to convince myself that I had anything to say which could be better expressed in a formal academic paper than in a couple of blog posts or even as an argument developed in a series of tweets. Finally, I do, and here's the recipe so you can repeat the experiment which generated the data:

Take 200 raw first year undergraduates. Wash well in cold water. Marinate in Web 2.0 for 10 weeks and season with Michael Wesch's A Vision of Students Today. Then ask them to draw a mind map of their personal learning environment (PLE).

At this point, I'd like to put up a slide show of some of the submissions. Unfortunately, privacy concerns prevent that, so I'll have to describe some of the common features. Of course, there was variation, with some examples showing more maturity than others. This was reflected in both the number of resources and tools shown and in how they were connected. However, following what these students were reading on Google Reader and bookmarking on delicious throughout the past term has been a fascinating and for the most part rewarding experience. The students however, hated this task, and comments on the module questionnaire show a complete lack of understanding why reflection on learning might be valuable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, connectivity was a major theme in every example. In addition to the more "academic" components such as Google Reader and delicious, MSN messenger, Yahoo messenger, Twitter, Facebook chat, etc, were indicated to be essential components of learning. I was pleased that 100% of the submissions contained Google and Wikipedia. This is an internal control since any student who did not include these would be lying, or perhaps more accurately, filtering the truth to what they thought we wanted to see. However, Wikipedia in particular engendered some guilt, and a number of students who presumably had previously been criticised for using Wikipedia felt they had to justify its inclusion.

What was a surprise, to me at least, was the seamless blending of online work and social spaces, with the implication of extensive multitasking (music, information, eBay, etc). The reason I was surprised by the extent of this was because two years ago students were making clear distinctions between online spaces, erecting barriers between "work" and "social" spaces. This now seems to have gone. If you were inclined, you could say that this cohort of undergraduates truly seem to be digital natives.

Jo commented recently on how much her PLE has changed in the last year. It would have been good to have a snapshot of each student's PLE at the start and end of their first term. I wonder how much change the module we have just finished has generated (and how much is simply due to the experience of university). Clearly formal education alters a PLE. We just don't know how, or how much.

Update: I forgot to mention how popular YouTube was as a feedback channel on this course - Martin's comment below reminded me.