Terje's musings on educational research


Last week I had an opportunity to visit a local educational conference and this year’s theme was “Turning point in education”.  Although Tallinn University’s session started only at 17:00 in the afternoon we got a considerable number of participants. I started with the Learnmix project and re-conceptualisation of  e-textbooks, Dr. Kairit Tammets continued with a presentation about teacher-training and internship supported by a specific web-based environment eDidaktikum and Piret Lehiste introduced an additional training module for teachers what she calls a Smart Teacher (Nutiõpetaja). The goal of the training program is to provide educational technology related knowledge and skills for in-service teachers.

I have to admit that I got the impression that our ideas are a bit too radical and far away from an average teacher and conference visitor, however, this was our chance to introduce new ideas, show different ways and bring international research on educational technology closer to an Estonian audience.

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After my “conference rally” (two in a row just before your holiday is quite challenging) in Poland and Germany I managed to squeeze in a short visit to Linz. I am one of the coordinators of PSST (Personal & Shared Strategies for Teachers in Web 2.0) intensive program and we run this for the second time.

Despite of my short visit, it was a pleasure to be part of the intensive program. I met some nice and interesting people from Croatia, some old colleagues from Romania and a bunch of active participants from Latvia, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia and Estonia. By the time I got there they had created a nice and creative atmosphere, full of interest and motivation to learn something new.

The idea of this intensive program is to bring together people from different countries who are interested in educational technology and its implementation possibilities into teaching and learning. Our participants are mainly students who are in the middle of teacher training programs in their countries. Some of them also work as teachers already. Such a program allows to share experiences, success and failures, introduce new technological solutions and innovative pedagogical approaches, practice giving presentations and formulating arguments.

Due to my recent participation in the PLE2013 conference I decided to introduce the concept of PLE (personal learning environment) and BYOD (bring your own device). We discussed about the potential challenges and benefits of BYOD in primary and secondary education. I tried to encourage people to think about the questions such as: Are technologies merely tools that human beings use? How has “technology” changed the ways in which we know, learn, and communicate? What kind of role technology plays in education? I ended my presentation with the claim (unfortunately I haven’t figured out yet who is the exact author of this, but I stumbled across a photo on Flickr):

“In the same way that music is not in the piano…learning is not in the device”

for some food for thought.

By the way, it is already decided that this intensive program will take place also next year.

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For this year I have planned so far only two conferences. In the beginning of July I was in Torun, Poland for the WCCE2013 (10th World Conference on Computers in Education) with the theme “Learning while we are connected” and in the following week in Berlin, Germany for the PLE2013 (Personal learning environment) with the theme “Personal Learning Environments: learning and diversity in the cities of the future”.

These two conferences were rather different in terms of their organisation. While the first one represents a typical big, traditional conference with keynotes, parallel sessions, etc. the latter one tries to break away from this format and create a relaxed atmosphere, where people can interact more, have discussions and arguments in smaller groups.

At the WCCE2013 conference together with Sebastian H.D. Fiedler, we presented a paper “Networked narrative accounts of personal learning projects: an instrument for systemic intervention research in higher education”. Surprisingly the organisers of the conference put our paper in a session, which had a bunch of papers from a totally different field and had a completely different focus from my point of view. Thus, it created a bit of an alien feeling to be there and I could see the audience didn’t connect much with what I was trying to get across.

Our paper can be summarised as follows:

In the context of systemic intervention research on teaching and learning practices in higher education the reconfiguration of patterns of control and responsibility has turned out to be an essential lever for change. This paper presents how insights from pervious work on adult’s learning projects, the reflective use of negotiated learning contracts and journals, were digitally re-mediated through the use of open, web-publishing practices. We describe how this approach has been used to support participants externalising and “bootstrapping” of personal learning projects in the digital realm and briefly discuss the potential use of the resulting narrative accounts for the reconstruction and analysis of individual trajectories of development.

At the PLE2013 conference we presented the paper “Personal Learning Environments: A conceptual landscape revisited”. This is our attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the current research focuses within the PLE field.

The abstract of our paper says:

This paper reports on a renewed attempt to review and synthesise a substantial amount of research and development literature on Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) published in recent years. Earlier comprehensive review efforts (Buchem, Attwell, & Torres, 2011; Fiedler & Väljataga, 2011) had attested considerable conceptual differences within the research community. If and how these differences have qualitatively changed since 2010, is the focus of an ongoing literature review project. While the project is still work in progress, some provisional findings and insights are reported and discussed.

Despite of the slightly unfortunate session room it allowed to create a rather lively discussion on issues related to PLE. In general, I got the feeling that we, as researchers, are very much concerned with technological developments of PLEs and don’t pay much attention on pedagogical challenges.

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In the beginning of August 2012 I took part in an intensive program called “Psst” (Personal & Shared Strategies for Teachers in Web 2.0). The purpose of the program was to provide opportunities to develop knowledge and skills using technology for teaching and learning. The intensive program brought together 25 students from Romania, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Austria. Topics covered during the intensive program were rather wide, from storytelling to serious games, from Web3.0 and copyright issues to philosophical aspects of technology in our society and education.

Although being in this field for quite some years now there is always something new to learn. Students’ presentations demonstrated the use of various tools and services in formal educational settings. I got a bunch of new tools to try out myself. For instance, BigBlueButton synchronous communication tool turned out to be a rather useful finding for my teaching. As I have a few courses taught entirely online, I’ve been looking for quite some time a nice alternative to Flashmeeting. In addition, Anneli demonstrated some tools for storytelling (ZimmerTwins, Creaza, Mapskip, Storybird). However, having all these fancy tools at our hands, I noticed that we tended to forget about what actually makes up a story and what the necessary characteristics are. Is a video introducing a set of London’s sights forming a story?

Our Latvian team also demonstrated some interesting sites and tools for making music, which I can imagine can be a nice supplement to music lessons. Some examples are:

or some music databases, in which the content is under one of the Creative Commons licenses:

I found Christian Kogler’s presentation about McGurk effect (a perceptual phenomenon) and interesting one. He also claimed that “we don’t see what we don’t know”, which made me think of a concept “affordances” we have used in our research to analyse the rationale for using particular tools for certain purposes.

Although our colleagues use quite a bit of technology in their classrooms, I nevertheless got the impression that we tend to repeat traditional teaching practices without considering or rethinking whether the roles and responsibilities should change, whether a different culture of learning should be accepted and promoted. And what is exactly this different culture of learning?

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Last week I had an opportunity to visit ICALT2012 conference in Rome. Although, I consider ICALT in general as a very technology-oriented conference, Dr. Milos Kravcik and his colleagues have managed to offer something for me by organising again a workshop dealing with self-regulation in education. In some ways it was a continuation of their workshop, which took place last year in ICALT2011 in Georgia.

As expected most of the participants found it hard to present their ideas and work within 10 minutes, which unfortunately resulted in a situation, where there was any time left for later discussions and questions raised by the workshop organisers. This would have been the most interesting part for me.

For this workshop I carried out together with Sebastian Fiedler a small study in Tallinn University. As I have been teaching in Institute of Informatics for quite some years and trying to bring in innovative practices, but also enhance students’ competencies in the area of self-direction, I started to notice differences in students’ use of their weblogs. It was interesting to see how mainly 3 different use patterns occurred among our master students:

1. Some students use their weblogs only where it is required (some courses in our institute are weblog-based) and make a rather typical use of features a weblog offers, such as, categorisation, tags, study-buddies.

2. Some students use their weblogs (in addition to required courses) also for reflecting on courses and activities, which take place in learning management systems or in some other closed environments. This group of students has extended their weblogs and has started to perceive their weblogs as a central environment for organising their master studies.

3. Some students add work and hobby-related information in addition to their formal studies. For instance, they provide reflection on work-related tasks, present their CV, write about their ideas in the field of technology and education.

It is interesting to note that we have four different master programs in our institute. Two older ones, from 2002 and two recent ones. The recent programs consist of some courses, where digital instruments such as social media is used, but the older programs run mainly in a traditional way. Thus, looking at these four programs hardly any student from older programs uses a weblog, but students from the recent programs have started to make use of their weblogs as a central environment for their studies.

Redesigning courses in a way that gives students more control and freedom, we can witness how a light top-down push has encouraged students to experiment with the self-controlled, digital instrumentation. Practicing personal digital instrumentation they are gradually becoming more competent in supporting and digitally mediating their study practise, but also developing their dispositions in the area of self- direction.

With the use of weblogs and other digital instruments, particular patterns of control and responsibility, ownership, provision, and so forth, emerge, which start to compete with, contrast, and contradict the patterns and practices that are still dominating higher education. This, in turn, can be seen as a driver of adoption of new practices by other teachers.

Recent discussions on self-regulation and technology tend to be about recommender systems for students, which help them to choose a right activity. I have seen many such presentations and I still find it hard to understand in what way and how these systems actually enhance students competencies in the area of self-direction. Perhaps I have to learn more about studies with real users in order to grasp the idea.

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Unbelievably nice weather here in Estonia has kept me away from all the work related tasks. Thus, my PLE 2010 conference insight comes with a delay.

About my observations…
First of all, the PLE2010 conference confirmed the fact that conferences can be organised in a nice way and they can provide a nice atmosphere. I am not good at all at socializing, but I enjoyed this friendly and “academic free” crowd. Big thanks to organisers!

Secondly, as I have done a thorough literature review on the concept of PLE, I was surprised that I didn’t meet people who have written their thoughts about PLE’s in academic papers. Most of the names were unknown for me. Either I haven’t managed to get all the PLE related papers, which is quite probable nowadays or the crowd hoping around in the PLE2010 conference is not much of the academic type who publish their work in journal papers and other conference proceedings. I guess this is one of the signs that discussions and conversations happen somewhere else…

I have to admit that the conference in terms of content didn’t provide any new insights for me personally, but rather gave me a confirmation that we are still struggling with the common understanding of what a PLE is. An attempt to define the concept failed from my point of view.

Henri et al. (2008) claim that PLE is not a fundamentally new concept. Before the era of massive use of technology we live through, learners have always had to organise their own learning and develop some kind of PLE. PLEs were comprised of course notes, conceptual maps, summarises and personal working/learning documents that students exchanged. Now a day, PLEs are much richer in terms of volume of content, exchanged contents and technologies. Face to face peers and friends support, students meetings in cafeteria and tutoring were also part of more traditional PLEs. This sounds very logical, at least to me and aligns very well with Sebastian Fiedler’s PLE definition: a potential (personal learning) environment for a particular learning activity is made of all the resources (artefacts, natural objects, people) that an individual is aware of and has access to at a given point in time and that s/he can turn into instruments to mediate her actions (Fiedler & Pata, 2009). This is still the best definition of a PLE…in my opinion.

Nevertheless, the majority of researchers and educators tend to talk about PLE as only a technological solution, a collection of tools and services still provided by institutions. Trafford (2006) questions such an understanding of a PLE and the concept of environment being too narrow and development focusing on replicating VLE functionality on these machines seems even narrower. He tries to caution against going from general notions about ‘PLEs’ to specific ICT connotations using that term. Isn’t there much more behind the term? I have a feeling that the basic questions like “why” and “what for” are left untouched. What is it this concept tries to solve or change in current educational settings?

Decomposing the terms of the concept and challenging them separately might help us to grasp the concept and understand what might be behind the term. According to various definitions and explanations of the word ‘personal’ it refers to pertaining to a particular person or belonging to a person in some ways. On the one hand the word ‘personal’ has a connotation to an ownership, constituting to a personal property, on the other hand it refers to a personal relationship to something, for example a personal trainer. In a latter case an individual doesn’t own it, but receives special, individual attention. I have a feeling that many educators and researchers tend to understand “personal” from this point of view…I don’t own it, but I can change a few things according to my taste.

‘Learning’ is usually understood as the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge, behaviors, values or preferences. The term learning can be a process consisting of different activities in interaction with the individual’s environment. On the other hand, on a more general level it can be also understood as a product of some sort of activity. It refers to a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from practice and can be measured retrospectively. Learning as an activity defines the nature of the environment. We can also talk about a personal work environment…

An ‘environment’ is understood as (constructed) conditions that surround an individual and provide a setting in which the individual operates. These conditions (may) affect and facilitate the nature of the individual, his/her development and actions. Environment can be seen as our understood and perceived reality, which provides information for behavioral appropriateness (Harrison & Dourish, 1996). An environment can consists of everything (for instance human, material and digital resources) one perceives at a certain point of time in relation to a specific action in mind. On the one hand, intended activities define the environment and its nature, but on the other hand environment structures these activities and interactions. The individual starts to perceive the resources of his environment and potential activities in relation to the (lack of) resources for a particular activity (project) at a given point in time.

An environment becomes a learning environment when one intends to carry out a learning activity (project). A learning environment can be anywhere since we learn constantly. It is rather a matter of drawing boundaries of the environment in accordance with a particular learning project. Learning environments can be also formed by others according to their perception of a potential learning environment, which might not be suitable for others.

Resources in one’s environment can be various tools whether virtual or physical; people, such as friends, colleagues, facilitators, etc. and signs of their activities, artefacts – representations of people’s work, which can be for example books, lecture notes, photos; and time, which is partially defined by a particular project. This kind of interpretation of the resources in accordance with a particular project shows what can be done, what are the functions of the environment and what is missing. Activity derives much of the ability to perceive. A learning environment is a place where people can draw upon resources to make sense out of things and solve problems. The learning project adds meaning and awareness to the resources that are located in the individual’s learning environment. The sense of presence of different things, people and the ongoing awareness of activity and tools available allows us to structure our own activity, but also integrating communication and collaboration. However, from an observer’s perspective monitoring of an individual‘s environment and its interactions is complicated.

The learning project, initiated by a student himself, defines the objectives and expected outcome with the evaluation criteria. The learning environment can be considered a personal learning environment if the individual owns it, if individual exerts control over it. It means the individual’s opportunity to design, gain access to, utilize, modify and attach meaning to it according to his current project. The PLE situates itself around the student and his project. I can perceive my environment with different resources, but I might not use them for mediating my activities. And this changes all the time, depending on the location and time.

According to different projects and activities it may function differently at different times. However, some features of the environment can be used in a routine manner. They can have temporal properties. The environment can be different at different times with different tasks. But an experienced learner might start to repeat certain actions and use certain resources repeatedly. Such an understanding of a PLE requires considerable changes in current teaching and studying practices in order to make this happen…I believe that it is worth to revisit the concepts of self-direction in education in general and learner control and responsibility in particular.

This is my understanding of a PLE.

Hence, coming back to the PLE2010 conference, it was surprising for me to see questions like ‘how do we develop students who are PLE-able?’ I believe that we even can’t ask a question like this. I would say that everybody is PLE able, everybody perceives some sort of environment and its affordances in relation to his task. It is just a matter of one’s experiences and awareness of options that could support and mediate one’s activities within a particular environment. I think that our (educators) role is to show alternatives, various options that emerge now with technology and different ways of approaching learning and teaching…

Or some other examples of questions: ‘Is PLE and PLN a same thing?’ When institutions come in? These questions give away askers understanding of a PLE…I still believe that there is much more behind that concept, not just a technological revolution. I still believe that we have to go back and ask whether we even need this concept and what for…

Fiedler, S., & Pata, K. (2009). Distributed learning environments and social software: In search for a a framework of design. In S. Hatzipanagos & S. Warburton (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Social Software and Developing Community Ontologies (pp. 145-158). Hershey, PA, USA: IGI Global.

Harrison, S., Dourish, P. (1996). Re-placing space: the roles of place and space in collaborative systems. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work CSCW’96, Boston, MA (pp. 67–76). ACM, New York.

Henri, F., Charlier, B., & Limpens, F. (2008). Understanding PLE as an essential components of the learning process. Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 3766-3770). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Trafford, P. (2006). PLEs as environments for personal and personalised learning. Retrieved June 14, 2010, from http://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/site/asuc/oucs/staff/pault/

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