Last week I spoke at ETUG 2010. My talk was entitled “Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective”. In the talk I made a case for user-centered design and then explained the perspective of over 96% of the users of educational technology. Below is the video of my presentation (only starts about 1:50 into the video) and read on for a short summary.
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:
- Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
- Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
- 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?
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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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.
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.
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?