Terje's musings on educational research

I have planned a few conference trips in 2011 and I was encouraged to check out conferences I have never been to so far.

1. 20-22.06 2011 NBE2011 – The Social Media in the Middle of Nowhere is going to take place in Salla, Lapland, Finland. The conference is organised by University of Lapland, Faculty of Education, Centre for Media Pedagogy. I am a co-author of three papers:

1. Väljataga, T., Põldoja, H. & Laanpere, M. (2011). Open Online Courses: Responding to Design Challenges.
2. Väljataga, T. & Fiedler, S. (2011). Interventions in higher education: re-interpreting the concept of learner control
3. Sillaots, M. Väljataga, T. & Laanpere, M. (2011). Using bookmarks and tags for creating students’ personal learning and knowledge space.

2. 6-8.07 2011 iCALT2011 – Educational Technology Forecast: Cloudy with a Slight Chance of Gain is going to take place in Athens, Georgia, USA. This is the 11th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies. I am involved with the two following papers:

1. Fiedler, S. & Väljataga, T. (2011). Expanding the concept of learner control in higher education: consequences for intervention design. (main conference)
2. Väljataga, T., Tammets, K. & Põldoja, H. (2011). Competence development of pre-service teachers with the support of LeContract. (workshop: Self-Regulated Learning in Responsive Open Learning Environments).

3. 13-16.09 2011 ECER2011 – Urban Education. The European Conference on Educational Research 2011 is going to take place in Berlin, Germany. I am a co-author of two papers, which are going to be presented in the 6th network – Open Learning: Media, Environments and Cultures. The titles of the papers are the following:

1. Väljataga, T. & Põldoja, H. (2011). Enhancing community gravity in open online courses.
2. Väljataga, T. & Fiedler, S. (2011). Personal Learning Contracts for modeling one’s personal learning environment.

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This academic semester started for me with two new courses: New Interactive Environments for IMKE (Interactive Media and Knowledge Environments) international master’s program and Learning Environments and Learning Networks for Educational Technology master’s program. Both of them have been rather challenging tasks mainly because I teach them with other colleagues and we had to design them basically from scratch.

Learning Environments and Learning Networks (in Estonian) concentrates on different opportunities to support one’s learning environment with technological solutions. In addition to various potential learning environments this course also focuses on learning networks and their applicability in a learning process. The target group of this course is mainly active teachers and educational technologists who have come back to the university to get a master’s degree, but also to acquire new knowledge and skills regarding educational technology. The course has four contact days, rest of the activities are done online.

New Interactive Environments (in English) focuses on the (re-)design of new interactive environments for collaborative work and study. Particular attention is paid to the analysis, representation, and (re-)instrumentalisation of human activities and activity systems with networked tools and services. The course will be conducted online and uses a variety of assignment and collaboration formats.

Both courses are supported by a set of networked tools and services, in which personal Weblogs are the most important tools.

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I don’t know why, but it seems that many interesting conferences and events in my field happen in Barcelona. Don’t get me wrong, Barcelona is a very nice city and I would always go back.

Next event I am interested in is called Barcelona Conference – Self-regulated Learning in Technology Enhanced Learning Environments: Challenges and Promises, October 1st, 2010. Currently this topic belongs to one of my main interests and has a very close connection to my PhD dissertation. If I could only solve my travel grant problem…

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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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Recently I was working on the master’s level course descriptions I teach. This year, we can decide whether our course ends with an exam (it can be whatever student work that can be graded from A to F) or a pass-fail assessment without any grades. I was very eager to choose the opportunity to change the assessment method of all my courses from a graded exam to a pass-fail assessment. But later, I was strongly recommended to consider a grading exam if there is a slightest chance to give grades in my courses. First of all I find it extremely difficult to give grades on master level students, secondly I strongly believe that grades should not be a motivator anymore for a student in an university.

I was told that the main reasons to favor a grading exam are the following:
1. if there is no grade, a student would not want to put any extra effort on your course, because he or she can get a positive result with only putting minimum effort on this.
2. in order to get a stipend (in our case as a reward for being a good student), an average grade of the courses will be calculated. So, the courses, which end with a pass-fail assessment will not be counted.
3. in order to graduate from the university with cum laude the courses will be counted which have ended with a graded exam.

This is a good example of showing what Geis (1976) has mentioned. One responsibility of an university is “to act as a certifying agent: selecting, classifying, and accrediting on the basis of achievement”; and other responsibility is “to provide a rich environment for personal growth, self-actualization, or individual fulfillment” (Geis, 1976). Geis rightfully claims that these responsibilities are contradictory to each other and difficult to achieve at the same time. As universities continue to offer the same old, tired, and narrow group of reinforces, most importantly: grades (Geis, 1976), it is quite obvious what universities consider to be a more important responsibility to take. Giving grades at the end of the course falls to some extent into the same category – serving the certification function on the one hand and a motivator on the other hand.

My attempt is to provide students with challenging experiences, which allow self-direction, individual fulfillment and personal reflection. My main contradiction here lies between students who get more control over instructional dimensions and the need to measure student’s performance according to the objectives and standards set by someone else.

Master’s level students are adults, adults, who in most of the cases can reflect on what they have learned and how they have changed. Me as a teacher has my own values with respect to a certain learning experience and based on that I draw inferences. A student has his own values. “Given different values and different perspectives learning becomes a relativistic concept. Learning is appreciated differently, depending upon the psychological position of the observer” (Harri-Augstein & Thomas, 1979). We have a clear dilemma here. To give a student more control (including setting one’s objectives, finding right strategies, building his own personal learning environment and assessing his achievements), but leaving him aside from evaluating his progress is controversal to the concept of learner control. This would represent only an illusion of increased learner control. Furthermore, if one has taken control over something, then one should also take responsibility for it. And isn’t it what we want our students to be able to do?

Therefore, for me it either makes sense to let students themselves evaluate and give grades to their learning outcomes, which at least partially forms the final grade or we both agree on a basis of reflective conversations whether the student has met certain requirements in order to pass the course. Although in the first case, the practice has showed to me that grades which can change everything are not very objective anymore if given by a student himself (I don’t claim that teachers grades are more objective). Who would like to give himself a bad grade if he knows that this might reduce his chances to get a stipend…Thus, I find it more accurate and fair to let a student and a teacher to evaluate whether the student has passed or failed, instead of figuring out whether he/she is worth B or C.

It shows very clearly that the only motivational factor in higher education is still a highest positive grade. This is one of the aspects, which shows that we treat adult learners as primary and secondary school children. I find this attitude already wrong – assuming that students only work hard if there is a chance to get a grade and hardly work at all as there is only a pass-fail option…If we already start with this assumption there is not much to hope for…

Geis, G. L. (1976). Student participation in instruction: student choice. The Journal of Higher Education, 47(3), 249-273.

Harri-Augstein, S. E., & Thomas, L. F. (1979). Learning conversations: a person-centered approach to self-organised learning. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 7(1), 80-91.

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