Monday, 11 May 2009

Informal Learning Technology

There's a fantastic post by Stephen Downes - New Technology Supporting Informal Learning.  In his post, he really is looking primarily at the University of Manitoba's Connectivism Course that he designed and delivered with George Siemens to 2200 students in Fall 2008 and you can tell that he's busy thinking about the technology behind the Fall 2009 course.

So as you read this, keep in mind that Stephen was primarily talking about technology that can support a Formal Learning Event that heavily leverages Informal / Social Learning as it's primary mechanism.

It's definitely worth a read.  Somewhat random thoughts as I reviewed the post.

Training Modalities

Stephen tells us at the outset:

Online learning today is beginning to be dominated by developments in games, simulations and related technologies. (Akili, 2007)

I was just recently looking back at my post Training Methods and have been evaluating submissions as part of preparing for the upcoming eLearning Tour.  Both of these suggest that Stephen's use of the term "dominated by" is probably misleading.


Stephen and I see similar kinds of complexities:

our best response to the variability and complexity of the subject matter along with the changing nature of the learner is to design systems that are decentralized, to push learning decisions down the hierarchy or out to the edges of the network.

Stephen goes through a great description of the course.  There's a lot to learn from that experience.

Certainly one of the things that jumps out at me was the same learning goals challenges that we faced in the work literacy course that we ran during a similar timeframe:

Because there were so many people contributing to the course, and because the content of the course actually shifted and varied according to participation and input into the course, it was necessary to emphasize to students that their role in the course was not to attempt to assimilate all course content. This was neither possible nor desirable. Rather, students were told that their role was to select and sample course content, pursuing areas of interest, reading related material from both within and outside the course, and then to contribute their unique perspective based on this reading.

For flow learners with flow learning goals, this likely worked quite well.  For directed learners, likely this was a bit disconcerting.

Still the fact that within the context of a formal learning event, they heavily use student activity aggregated together is a very interesting model.  In some ways, you could say that this might be an interesting model to experiment with as a formal/informal hybrid at the start of some new project.  A facilitated, get up to speed on a subject, kind of thing.

I'd be curious to hear thoughts on that kind of learning experience.

I also find it interesting to see the parallels to what I'm doing right now as I explore aspects of professional speaking.  I'm using aggregation and interactions with various bloggers on the topic to learn about it.  This is the same technology that is behind eLearning Learning and Communities and Networks Connection.  It allows multiple people to contribute to the aggregator and tries to filter and organize that content.  Stephen was dealing with that as part of the course and had to make daily sense of what was going on.  Possibly some of the social signals that we could use could have helped him, and I'll be curious how he automates more of that for the Fall 2009 class.

PLE Functions

Stephen's description of the main elements in the personal learning environment (PLE) was very interesting:

In the PLE project being undertaken by the National Research Council, the functionality of the PLE is depicted in four major stages: to aggregate, that is, to collect content from the individual's and other online content service providers, where aggregation includes elements of recommendation, data mining and automated metadata extraction ; to remix, or to organize content from several different sources in different ways, including through automated clustering; to repurpose, or edit, localize, or otherwise modify or create new content; and to feed forward, or send the content to subscribers and other web services, either via RSS syndication, email, Twitter, or other relevant services. (Downes, Theory of Learning Networks, 2004)

PLE functions:

  • aggregate
  • remix
  • repurpose
  • feed forward

It's interesting to see this perspective on the PLE where it is part of the Connectivism course and students are naturally motivated (or required) to share.  When I look at this from more the PWLE (Personal WORK and learning environment) perspective, I find that there are similar functions, but possibly a different mind set.

Looking back at my Tool Set series at the start of this year, there were very similar kinds of capabilities being described.  At first, when I looked at Stephen's list of functions, I felt like he was too content centric and had left out the people (see Networks and Learning Communities).  In many cases, I find myself searching for the right person as an answer to my learning / work need rather than finding the right content.  And I feel that Leveraging Networks is Key Skill and the most important Knowledge Worker Skill Gap.

However, as I read further in Stephen's description he said:

A network of PLEs is a learning network.

And certainly the effect of the network of PLEs is similar to the search for individuals that I describe.  People naturally congregate and interact around content that they've found interesting.  This is an issue that I've found fascinating about networks – content-centric vs. people-centric.  If you think of Flickr, Wikipedia, Delicious – these all are content-centric networks.  The content is the central element but there's lots of social aspects and interaction.  Whereas when you look at LinkedIn (leaving aside Answers and Groups), it's a people-centric network.  LinkedIn certainly is adding all kinds of content-centric connection opportunities with Answers and discussions via Groups. 

Thanks Stephen for a great post and a lot of insights into the technology side of supporting informal learning.

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