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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Under Construction

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Creative Commons License photo credit: carboila
So as some people have noticed lately my blog’s theme has changed. This is simply due to the fact that since last summer when I coded the old theme I have learned a lot about usability, accessibility and just general good practices on the web. As such I couldn’t stand the old theme any longer (due to its violation of those practices) and had to change.

While the new theme does still break a whole bunch of rules when it comes to accessibility and usability, I will be fixing those as soon as I can. The theme is chosen for its style and how I identify with it more than anything else. One of the key fixes is going to be a nice (really complex to code) JavaScript navigation. However, due to the fact that school is in crunch mode and due to my impending trip to Mexico, I will not be able to fix things up as early as I would like.

So there it is, new theme with many changes and improvements still to come. Comments, suggestions and all that jazz are welcome (especially as I am still on the fence about some of my ideas).

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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New content

So I finally got around to adding the stuff that I had planned to include on this site months ago (even though I probably have less time to do it now than ever)! The sections that previously said unknown now include a sparkly new resume and a mathematically challenging contact form. About time.

TiddlyRésumé
Creative Commons License photo credit: psd

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

Swurl, get your act together!

I really, really want Swurl to be something useful. For those who do not know what Swurl is,  is a lifestreaming app that does a beautiful job of displaying all of your internet activity in one place. The timeline view of Swurl is facinating, it really does a great job of visually representing your online life in a pretty calendar. I find myself taking pictures and uploading them, just to make my Swurl look prettier. Not only does Swurl do a good job of displaying your life, but it also discovers your friends in other social networks and keeps a list of them for you to view their activity… zero work is needed on your part.

So what is the problem?

Swurl doesn’t give you a way to take things out of Swurl. Yes there is an RSS feed… but any lifestreaming app has that. What makes Swurl brilliant is not its ability  to aggregate your life… it is Swurl’s ability to make it visually stunning. Swurl provides no mechanism for taking that great visual feast and putting it in your own space. I guess their intension is for you to turn your Swurl into your primary web presence… but for those with established blogs (which is something that is highly likely for their primary audience of early adopters) the idea is laughable. 

I think that in order for Swurl to not get lost in the infinity that is the Internet it needs to provide a way for users to bring their beautful Swurl content into their own spaces, through embed code, or badges… or anything that works really.

Until that day comes though I guess I will have to be happy with links and being the only person who ever really sees my Swurl.

My Swurl: http://andremalan.swurl.com/timeline
swurl.JPG

My learning tools for 2008/2009

So I’ve now had a week of classes. It feels great to be learning again after 8 months of solid work. Since I last wrote a similar post to this I have a gained a much better perspective on all the tools out there and know what works for me and what doesn’t. So, here goes my big bad list of learning tools for university:

Microsoft Office OneNote:

I cannot find any note-taking software that comes even close to OneNote’s ability to keep notes for school. The three levels of navigation and ease of printing PDFs straight to OneNote (seeing as almost all professors insist on delivering their notes in PDF and note HTML) puts OneNote ahead of everything else. I would desperately like to use EverNote (because I can use it from more places than my personal computers with OneNote installed), but it doesn’t let me scribble all over course PDFs like OneNote does.

Mind Mapping:

 
My big mind map
Last year I tried out FreeMind as a means of organizing notes after they were taken. It was great software and worked pretty well, but I just didn’t enjoy using it. I think that the limits of current screen sizes is what makes virtual mind maps so difficult. I just felt like I could never see the full picture and the detail at the same time (which, I believe is something mind maps should let you do). So instead I went lo-tech and have taped a giant white piece of paper to my wall that I will use to map and connect all of my courses on. It is a new experiment, let’s see if it works! I might also resort to using FreeMind again especially for the guest lecturers that are going to be coming in to my Software Engineering Course as there won’t be any predefined lecture notes that I can annotate in OneNote.

To-do lists:

I tried Remember the Milk a few months ago and for some reason it just didn’t stick. I revisited it about three weeks ago and now find it invaluable. The big change I think is that you can embed your to-do lists everywhere! I have my list in my gMail, my iGoogle, my Google Calendar my iPhone and on my desktop. I can send tasks to it using Jott. I find that if my to-do lists are not in my face I forget to look at them. With Remember the Milk I can have a constant reminder.

Remember the milk lets you categorize items, add recurring items (a great one is “pay bills”) and lets you know when things are overdue. Remembering to hand in an assignment, or study for a midterm will be a whole lot easier with Remember the Milk.

Flashcards:

Most courses require some degree of memorization. Quizlet is so much better than any other online flashcard app that I have tried. It gained me plenty of marks last year and everyone that I know who uses Quizlet swears by it. It is easy and fun to use. It is collaborative. It has tests. It will soon have an iPhone app. Enough said.

Time Management:

Google Calendar is possibly the greatest tool ever. My life would be incomplete without it. I actually have over 15 calendars in there that I use to organize my life and keep track of the people around me.

Collaborative Projects:

I’m already using Google Apps for my work on the Student Leadership Conference, so I will probably use that (if my team agrees that is) in my Software Engineering and Human-Computer Interfacing projects. I’m still looking for a good collaborative way to do UML diagrams, seeing as how expensive Gliffy has become.

Pen and Paper:

For my Math courses I’m going the old fashioned notebook route. I really don’t see any other way (seeing as I don’t have a tablet PC). Hopefully the big mind map will compliment it nicely though and maybe help to make some connections between the three Math courses that I am taking.

I will monitor the effectiveness of all of these tools and update depending on what works and what doesn’t (or if I find something around the internet that blows one of these out of the water).

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Site redesign

So anyone visiting might have noticed a new theme for this site. I’m going to be doing a complete overhaul in a few weeks time, but I thought I would start using the theme that I am going to be modifying in order to get a feel for it.

Fireworks

For anybody unlucky enough to not live in Vancouver, here are some photos and a video that I took from English Bay at the 2008 HSBC celebration of light finale. The HSBC celebration of light is a 4 million dollar show that is put on every year at English Bay in Vancouver. It runs over four nights and each night has over half an hour of fireworks. The rest of the pictures can be found on my flickr

Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.Fireworks by you.

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