Personal Learning Environments

From Sonson on Flickr
From sonson on Flickr... click on image to go to source

At CELC 2009 I was part of a panel of students that tried to answer the question: Personal Learning Environments. What do students think? The other students on the panel were Angeli and Zack. Cindy Underhill was the mastermind that brought us all together and did a superb job of directing things.

So what did us, the students have to say about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)? I don’t know how much I can speak for Zack and Angeli (although we did agree on the majority of things), but here are my (heavily supplemented) answers to the core questions that Cindy asked:

1) What do we know about how students define personal learning environments?

For this question I avoided the (arguably defunct) definition of PLEs as an environment that educational technologists create for students to learn in (nobody even brought it up in the session). Instead, I defined it as “the environment in which I learn” (I think a lot of people are starting to agree with this definition as well). This includes a bunch of distributed technologies (a topic that I regularly blog about), but it also includes other things, like my classmates, my roommates and very big pieces of paper. This is important, so everybody in ed-tech listen up: you cannot create an entire PERSONAL learning environment for students! It is impossible. Every student has their own way of learning, every student evolves their environment continuously (look at how my tools have changed) and any one tool will be obsolete as quickly as any other piece of technology. Don’t despair though… there is still plenty of work for you to do. What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn. The process should be as follows:

  1. Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
  2. Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
  3. Let them know it exists and show them how to use it (the part, in my opinion, that professors and educational technologists are worst at).

I didn’t get a chance in the session to really flesh that out… but there you have it. Give me the tools and let me use them to build my own environment.

2) How do PLEs contribute to the development of learning competencies?

With my definition above, this question doesn’t make too much sense. The reality is, that a PLE only really contributes to the development of a student’s “learning competencies” when they know what the hell that means. Or when they care. Students don’t often take the time to think about how their current study techniques are actually helping them to learn. They just study and pray that they pass the exams… which brings me to the next question…

3) Are PLEs effective without educational reform?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
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The answer is… only a tiny bit. My PLE is helping me to get good grades… not to learn. In fact, because of how education works, most students don’t have PLEs… they have “PGGEs” (Personal Grade Getting Environments)! At the end of the day, that is what most students really care about. Why shouldn’t they? As Cindy said in her follow-up post “We’ve structured the education system this way, it’s not their fault”. I am often way too busy memorizing things to actually learn them.  Learning takes time and effort… it also takes practice and conversation, it is much more efficient to get good grades by memorizing the textbook. This is not only a curriculum problem, it also has to do with the whole way degrees are structured. A Small anecdote for a recent event in my life:

After speaking to someone in Science advising I realized that I will not graduate from University if I do not take the second introductory (1st year) Physics course. I took the honours version of the first course and scored 87%.  I would dearly love to take a 4th year Psychology course on human behaviour instead… but if I do take it, I won’t graduate. The irony is that for me, the Physics course will be a breeze, I will ace it easily.  I find it so easy that it doesn’t interest me at all. If I took the Psychology course I would enjoy it a lot more. It would also be a lot more difficult and I would actually learn something new. It would contribute far more to my plans for the future than the Physics course.

Seems wrong doesn’t it? That same story is being told by countless times hundreds of thousands of students all around the world.  Then professors complain that the students are not interested in the stuff they teach. If you give students the freedom to choose what they will learn and emphasize through proper assessment that they are there to learn and not just there to get good grades, then students will be interested. I would bet my life on it.

Conclusion to that long-winded rant: Without educational reform students don’t care about learning, therefore their “learning environment” is severely neglected, making it ineffective.

4) What’s your role in supporting the development of personal learning environments?

This was kind of a double-edged question… one for us to throw back at the audience. My comment that I threw back out to the audience was this:

You cannot expect students to think about and improve on their learning if you are not modeling the behavior and seeing what works and what does not.

They may all have finished formal education, but in this information age we all have to continually learn and the better we are at it, the more successful we will be. My challenge then, to anyone who reads this post is:

Think about your own personal learning environment. Really dig deep and figure out what contributes most to how you learn. What distracts from that learning? Now, patch, build and experiment with your own environment to try and improve it. You will find yourself much better off for doing it.

If you are involved in education at any level and you cannot do what I have asked above… then you are really incapable of helping students do it as well.

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The two fundamental problems of education

OLPC pilot Thailand - Ban Samkha - hiking
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While attending the 2009 Canadian e-Learning Conference I was suddenly struck by the fact that there were two very different ways that people were trying to better education. There are simply two things that need to be accomplished before education is fixed. These are:

  1. Access
  2. Reform

Access is an obvious challenge, there are too many people in the world that do not have access to a good education.  Reform on the other hand is less obvious, but also necessary, even the best education that is given to the wealthiest of people is deeply flawed and missing something essential, that education has to be fixed.

Now, here is the problem, where do we devote the most of out attention in order to have the maximum impact possible? On the one hand, giving the uneducated even the most basic education seems to be the most important, but again, do we want to be giving them a deeply flawed education? However, we can’t ignore those that suffer while we slowly chip away at the entrenched problems that education currently faces.

Since both are necessary, the only real course of action is a two-pronged approach. Whenever dealing with one problem we need to constantly be mindful of the other. This can be done as they often go hand in hand. The best example of this has to be the open education movement. By creating open and free educational resources (as well as encouraging their re-use) we not only provide access (by lowering the cost of providing/consuming education) but also help with reform, as we allow (and encourage) educators to build on and refine what others have done… creating something much better, instead of continually reinventing the wheel.

Of course, open education is not the only way that we can marry these two goals. The one laptop per child initiative, efforts to utilize technology in the classroom, project-based learning and a whole host of other movements and projects are capable or bridging the gap between these two fundamental educational goals. All that it takes is some thought, creativity and awareness. I challenge anybody who is working to try and improve education to really think about which one of the problems they are currently addressing and to look for ways to augment their effectiveness by addressing the other problem.

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Seth Godin: Create a movement

If you are one of the people who watches the TED talks often (and if you are not, it is in your best interest to become one) then you have already seen the video below.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

I was introduced to the phenomenon that is Seth Godin by my friends Rob Winson and Matt Corker. Seth Godin is one of the most revered marketing gurus of our time.

In this TED talk he talks about the importance of creating movements or “tribes”. He says that every now and then “someone stands up and says: this one is important”. This is a cause that I am passionate about and I want to organize people around me to help get something done. He ends with “go out and create a movement”.

:en:Seth Godin
Image via Wikipedia

My movement is simple. Let us help to fix education. Education is broken. There has to be a better way to teach human beings to contribute to society than what we are currently doing. Studying textbooks and tests are an incredibly inefficient way of learning. Humans have evolved to rely on education. We have stopped adapting physically and are using education to drive our adaptation. In order to continue to evolve and create the best society that we can, our education system has to evolve. The fact that things are being done the same way that they were done 100 years ago is crazy. Education has to be fixed.

Now of course I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to fix education, nobody. I have some ideas, but they are not guaranteed to work. What is needed is for students, educators, parents and anybody else involved in education to experiment openly and to document their successes and failures. For people to realize that things are not working and for them to work to improve them. With critical mass, we can change things.

So, wanna join my tribe?

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Grading on a curve. Making students evil?

Disney - Evil Emperor Zurg!
Image by Express Monorail (Hiatus) via Flickr

While studying for my recent test in Artificial Intelligence, I used Quizlet (still an awesome service) to create a deck of flashcards in order to help memorize all of the terms. As I was about to post the link on the class discussion board so that others could use it, I hesitated. The reason for my hesitation? I asked myself, “if the grade for this test gets curved? Would others using this possibly lower my grade?”

The answer to the question is of course yes. If the grade had been curved my helping the rest of the class would have hurt me. I posted the link in the end but am still disgusted by the fact that I even considered not sharing with others just to improve my own grade. I am even more disgusted by the fact that I have to make that choice. What if I was really into getting good grades (although we all know what I really think of grades)? Could I mislead people on discussion boards or during study groups in the hopes of bringing down their grades and increasing my own? How many students do this at the moment? Yuck!

So, the model of curving grades is broken. If it fosters malicious competition then it is not a model that should be used. The model cannot just be thrown out though, as it is very useful.It protects students from professors who have lost touch with just how difficult their material is. It helps to make sure the course grades from year to year are consistent. So how to fix the model?

My one proposal is to give students who work towards increasing the understanding of their fellow students some form of bonus grades. If a student can provide proof of the fact that they helped to increase the understanding of their peers then they should be rewarded in some way. Sharing is a good thing… not a punishable offense!

 

Update: The actual test that I took was not curved in the end. In fact it was a really well written test with all the questions relating directly to the learning goals of the course and most students in the class did really well. I still have many other courses where grade curving and scaling will be applied this year, but Artificial Intelligence isn’t one of them. 

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A problem with learning outcomes… and mayby curriculum in general

A line through 20 points?
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Having clear learning goals in a course has been a great step forward for education.  In courses where this practise is used (and used well) students know exactly what they will be able to do if they successfully learn the material in the course. There is also a clearer view of what the practical requirements are for what they have to do to prove that they have learnt what they are supposed to learn.

The problem comes when you don’t really agree with the learning outcomes of a course. Now, I know that any course contains core material, but at the same time students should have the freedom to decide what they concentrate on. For example:

I am currently taking a course called “Numerical Approximation and Discretization”. The learning goals boil down to “understanding, selecting, utilizing, assessing and creating” different Numerical Approximation techniques.studying

Now, I will never have a career in numerical approximation. However, I might find it useful to understand and select techniques of numerical approximation in some future research that I do. I will probably never have to create my own technique so why should I learn how to do it? Or even more importantly, why should I be assessed on my ability to do that? Would it not be possible for us to be provided with a range of possible learning outcomes for a course and let us choose the ones that we want to pursue? Those can then be tested more rigorously. We would still be exposed to the other things, but will be allowed to concentrate on that which we are passionate about. I don’t think that this is that far fetched, for instance I already get to choose the courses in the program that interest me, why not have a choice over the goals within those courses?

I know that any form of granularity makes a professor or curriculum committee’s job much harder. However, in courses where assessment is already based around certain outcomes I feel it would not be too difficult to weight assessments based on the student’s preference in outcomes.

It all really boils down to this: Should students have some kind of input on their goals learning goals for a specific subject, or is that something that should only be decided by a curriculum committee?

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The problem with grades

Yesterday I followed a link from D’Arcy Norman to this article in the Globe and Mail about a professor who was fired because he gave all of his students A+ grades so that they could focus on the learning instead of worrying about grades. While reading the very humorous comments I stumbled across a reference to this Calvin and Hobbes comic:

© Universal Press Syndicate
© Universal Press Syndicate

It highlights what I hate most about the way the world conducts education.

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What education will look like in 10 years

“What education will look like in 10 years” is the title of the talk that I gave at the UBC Terry Talks conference a few months ago. Terry Talks is a conference modeled after the famous TED talks and it was a raging success. In my talk I touched on the different ways in which I believe education is going to change. I spoke about how it is going to become more collaborative, more “real” and more open. I gave examples of places where all of these changes are starting to manifest themselves and drew some predictions of where things are going to go.

They don’t show my last slide, but in it is a big shout out to a few people like Brian Lamb, Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom, Scott Leslie, Gardner Campbell, Alan Levine and D’Arcy Norman, all of who’s presentations, tweets, blog posts, comments and plain old conversations have helped to shape so many of my ideas and beliefs. I think that this stuff really matters and it was your collective influences that helped me to see that.

Here is my talk embedded below:
http://blip.tv/play/AerXPpPRSA
To see more of the talks you can visit the Terry Talks Website.

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Top learning tip… make friends!

I really think that  having friends in your class is one of my best indicators of success. Last term I had some classes where I had friends, I had classes where for many reasons I was unable to get to know anyone and then I had classes where I found friends around halfway through the term. These divisions were almost exactly reflected in my grades. Having people to discuss the content with, having people to study with, even just having the joy of seeing a friend be that extra motivation to go to a lecture made a huge difference for meHCI team.

This term things are much better. I know people in every one of my classes and it has truly made a huge difference to the way I feel about school. I want to be in every class, not just because of what I will be learning, but also because of the great social interactions that I will be having. I am so excited for an academic term filled with social-academic connections that will do wonders for my grades as well as for my overall happiness!

My team from CPSC 344
My team from CPSC 344

Learning tools for 2008/2009… revised!

So my last post was a bit premature. Here are some of the revisons to the plan:

1)  OneNote has failed me. It worked so well in my previous classes, but I am finding it useless at the moment. Why? Well the lectures are carried out differently. In my previous classes the PDFs required a lot of diagrams and annotations… OneNote handled that perfectly. However, at the moment all the PDFs that I get are pretty self-contained, the only thing I need to do is summarize and organize the material in them.

2) So in order to replace OneNote, I am using FreeMind  again. I think the reason that I didn’t enjoy FreeMind when I used it last year was that I didn’t have a system for icons and decoration. Now that I have a system (and another mindmap to remind me what my system is)! I am really enjoying taking notes on FreeMind. Below are some pictures of the start of my maps:

CPSC 344 HCI.1

Here is my “cheatsheet” map telling what all the icons mean (as I come accross a new type of content I just choose and icon and add it to this sheet so that  don’t forget the mapping).

iconcheatsheet

3)I’m probably not going to use the map on my wall, just due to the fact that I have the FreeMInd maps now. I might start printing them though and stick them up!

wallmap

 

Fickle… I know. But hey, in order to succeed we need to try new things!

The last piece of course blog the puzzle… for now

So it’s 4:30 in the morning and I am nowhere near ready to go to bed. So instead I did the final quality testing for my “add user widget” WordPress Mu plugin.

This plugin eliminates the question that I’ve been asked plenty of times “what if a student who is not in the class adds themselves to a course blog?”. I think the answer is simple (and I think Jim and Brian would agree with me)… just delete and/or ban the user. However, in order to eliminate this barrier on implementing course blogs I modified the plugin to allow professors to enter a list of student emails. If the student’s email is in the list they can then add themselves to the list. This means that in conjunction with my Add to BDP RSS widget that Professors or institutions can decide whether anyone can add themselves, subscribers to the WordPress Mu system or only users that are in a specific list. This will now work for all three of the course blog types that I created.