Saturday, April 04, 2009

Web 2.0 and Your Own Learning and Development

I've been circling around Stephen Downes' work over the past 2 years while digging into eLearning concepts for my GDLT course. I'm sure I've seen his name on a number of articles and comments, but never really felt the urge to chase them up. Today (gesh, yesterday now, sun's rising) I had a talk to Scot about ePortfolios which lead to my lament about their current state. During my conversation Stephen's name came up again as an example of authority via attribution. Now, during a browse of David Jones' site and following a related link to a connectivism course assignment, Stephen pops up as the course coordinator! Too many coincidences to not follow up, so I checked out his website and stumbled on the very thing I've been trying to get my head around during this past year: PLEs are not just for my future students, they are for me too...

This is awesome! Exactly what I'd been thinking crystallized into a neat package. I'm excited!

Inspired to comment more and link more, here's a rundown of my thoughts on the topics presented in the video:

Not online courses of formal development, but rather how to use the new tools (Web2.0) to enhance your own learning
I've been a little disappointed with the blackboard software used for the GDLT. It offers most of the things that I think I want (linkable content, discussion, grading, peer review), but somehow it does't deliver them in an efficient manner. On the flipside I've found that through more targeted use of RSS, Delicious, blogs and blog comments, I have grown my own network to research this eLearning phenomenon. Bring it on, focus on me!

3 Principles: Interaction, Usability, Relevance
Interaction: For me I'm finding out that I'm more and more a social learner. I want to talk to people and I want to listen to their ideas. One of the courses this year had a tutorial session for on-campus students. The video of this session was far more approachable than the 3 weeks of reading about and around the subject matter, and made a lot of things fall into place. I felt jealous that I couldn't participate fully in a face-to-face session.
Usability: I agree in general about things being useful if they are simple to use and reliable, but not really grabbing me yet.
Relevance: This reminded me of a brief conversation with Ron on the way home from Shed Men tonight regarding how to do effective Google searches. Once you have built up a skill of effective googling (so that you almost always get the exact thing you were looking for as the top link on your search), it changes the way you treat knowledge into facts (retrievable) and application (mashup, analyse/reject alternatives, apply).

Interaction: Human contact, Human content
Exactly! I want to learn, I crave learning. Face to face contact is the best method of getting someone's ideas and perspective from their mind to mine. When we communicate we are always on the lookout for feedback as to whether the receiver is understanding it, or whether you need to explain it from a different angle, or whether you can skip ahead to the next section. Greater interaction breeds faster communication.

Place yourself, not the content at the centre
Lectures relying on a broadcast model is so true. It cuts down on the interaction, but I believe it elevates the human content. It allows the presentation of an idea in a prepared manner, rather than in a fluent conversation. You would hope that the preparation of the content makes it easier to transmit the original concept. I do see exactly what Stephen's talking about though; instead of relying on the content delivery from an educational institution, put in the effort to organize it around you.

I've been feeling recently that my attitude to the GDLT course has gone through just this process. My notion of an academic institution used to be one of an authority without question. They are there to educate; You do the things they tell you to get the piece of paper. That was different to chasing up on my hobbies and interests, even if my hobby was closely aligned to the content at in the course. Placing yourself at the centre rather than the content means that YOU take charge of the direction of learning in the area of interest rather than the direction of the coursework. This difference becomes evident once the coursework is completed. If the content is at the centre of your learning environment then when you replace the content (to do another course) the rest of your learning network goes out the window with it. If you are at the centre of learning the topic, that network can remain even though the coursework is long gone. Life long learning here we come!

Interaction: Your personal network
Lots of tools to use for setting up your personal network. Most of them I use already to a greater or lesser extent. I think the key here is the purposeful use of the tools to create a learning environment rather than just a social medium.

An example is RSS. I have used RSS in some form since it's inception, but mainly from backend processing. I knew of RSS readers and their capabilities, but never really found them to be all that useful because not every page supported RSS. This undermined the intention of a reader to be the main point of contact with the net. During last year I set up Google Reader to start aggregating websites I found interesting for the GDLT course. It took about 6 months before I noticed a change in my perception of Google Reader. Instead of being a tool to track websites for the course (since I was no longer doing that subject), it became a tool for tracking my areas of interest. The trick is to follow smart people that challenge you to think. This purposeful use of the technology transformed it from a tool for delivering content to you, to a place where I'm challenged to learn every day.

Interaction: Pull is better than Push
To me this is the key to engagement learning. If you can convince someone that they need to seek out the answer, they are much more receptive when the answer is provided. Pull means they have a need for the information, whereas push may or may not hit the mark of what they were expecting to learn.

Interaction: Speak in your own voice
I've certainly known for a long time that I can communicate more effectively face to face, or failing that, a phonecall. I've tried doing podcasts etc, but Stephen gives me more conviction that I should be trying harder to communicate via voice, especially recording voice instead of just sitting here typing it down.

After Showing Sandy the first part of this article and illustrating how she could use web2.0 to construct a PLE around Digiscrapping, I also indicated that she could be recording her own thoughts about how she made each piece to potentially help others. In reply to the answer "That'd be too long!", I thought that voice recording would be an alternative with a paragraph or 2 as a summary for the blog. Reflective learning and all that.

Interaction: Share your Knowledge
I like the sentiment, but I think that a lot of people (like Sandy) feel that there's no point in sharing because nobody with find value in what they have to say. I know that when I started this blog there was no real desire to be famous or to publish, but just to get my thoughts down somewhere searchable (and to practice typing). It reminds of a quote I heard at the start of one of the subjects this year that "any data is useful if it can be managed" (searchable, taggable, mashable).

Interaction: Make it a priority / habit
Yes, something I need to do better. I'm just starting out in validating the process in my own mind, but the procrastinator in me is going to be a lifelong enemy...

Interaction: Guerilla Tactics
Yeah baby! This is really the clincher for me. Why bother whinging about the lack of interaction on Blackboard when you could easily set up a wetpaint / wikispaces / ning group and launch off again. I think it's still a hangover from sitting back and expecting the Uni to take the lead.

This year I went to the Reso college with a direct need to set up partnerships with other students or a Bundy study group. 2 months later I still haven't talked to anyone apart from the Blackboard forums, so I'd say that I'm failing at guerilla warfare so far. Maybe I need more conviction to take the lead in setting up my own support group, or maybe others either don't have the knowhow to take the initiative, or maybe they don't care? I doubt any of the first year's would have had the same determination as I did at the start of the year (not knowing what's on offer), or have the technical knowhow that I do on all the Web2.0 technologies, or have the interest to search out things like this video, so maybe Guerilla warfare is a LOT harder than it sounds...

Usability: Consistency, Simplicity
As a contract programmer there are some basic interface tenets behind these 2 elements. A good user interface shares a lot of the properties of communication tools because they are trying to achieve the same thing: to let the information flow. You should be able to intuitively do what you want, when you want. A good usable tool facilitates this, rather than getting in the way.

Usability: Summarize, summarize, summarize
Back to that quote again. All data is valuable once it is in a manageable form. Summarizing makes the data more valuable by providing even more context for searchability & mashability. Delicious does this with aplomb as it is trivial to tag multiple relevances according to what others have already tagged it, or your own personal take, or your own comments. It all depends on exactly what you want to remember it by / communicate it by and your care factor. If you don't care that much about tagging it's still dead simple to +d, click, click, click and you're done. All the effort of adding value is taken away so that it increases the perception of worth once you start relying on the data down the track.

Usability: Guerilla Tactics - Your institutional CMS is almost certainly dysfunctional
Ahahahahaha! My thoughts exactly. All the bits, but somehow it just doesn't work. Definitely a usability issue.

Blogging: The people who talk about blogs as publishing, they're the ones getting it wrong
Well, I certainly agree with the sentiment that a blog is simply a place for notes, but I think organized blogging also has its place. They've hijacked the medium and made it something different, but I don't think they are wrong in doing that.

Flickr: They have creative commons licensing
Never really used Flickr because the pictures I wanted to share are easier / more contextual inside a blog post. Didn't know that you can tag a photo specifically for CC use though, that might sway me right there.

GMail: Create a gmail account and forward important mails to it
I'm finding that it's even more useful to have multiple gmail accounts for backing up different mail addresses, then filtering them through to one account for display / regular mail use. Best thing about gmail is the spam filtering and the archiving. Hotmail recently released pop3 support so that will be one of the last emails to be integrated into the system. The one remaining is my university account that only seems to have IMAP support. Need to look for an IMAP to pop pipe...

Google Desktop
Tried using it when it came out, but it still impacts too much processing time compared to the once-a-month search I needed it for. With more and more things going to the web I see this is less and less as a needed tool. Seemed like a good idea though...

Relevance: Getting what you want - RSS
Agree now, but there are still webpages that don't have RSS. I'm still looking for an RSS subscription for Stephen's daily newletter. It might be there, but it's not obvious yet. (and no, I don't want to subscribe by mail if I can help it, it's part of my primary learning environment, but my chore basket for work)

Edit: I take all that back, not only did I find Stephen's feed sitting on the main page, but subscribing wasn't working because it was already in my list kinda feel really foolish now.

Google reader definitely comes into its own once you have more than around 50 feeds, but my unread postcount will forever stay at (1000+). I've even had to make a "_critical" tag for feeds that I absolutely must check each time I'm logging on, regardless of the different fields of interest that I have.

Relevance: shun formal classes
I've had this urge to do almost exactly that. A couple of the comments and thoughtful discussions I've had have been in Blackboard forums. If I want to link to these now or refer to them 5 years later I can't because that information is locked up in a closed system. I'm in the process of putting together an ePortfolio and am keen on using it to replicate assignments / poignant discussions for future relevance. That or plonk it on here, which was my first thought before getting fired up on ePortfolios.

Relevance: Demand access
I really don't like demanding, why not request it? Where'd common courtesy go? I'm a systems admin and if someone presented a valid arguement why they feel they need a certain technology then I'd most likely agree unless there are factors that they have not considered. Shadow systems and backchannels are all well and good, but demanding you purposely subvert the system is a little much.

You are at the centre of your own Personal Learning Network

To gain from self-directed learning you must be self-directed
I'm dawning on the idea that the purposeful construction of your own network to follow challenging ideas is the key to self-directed learning. I know I'm self-directed in my own social network and I'm involved in formal learning, but this makes the link between the two for me.

These principles should guide how we teach
It's a little scary thinking that, as a prospective teacher, kids will demand what whey want to learn next. Does every child have the discipline to know what they want? To do the English studies instead of the ball sports? In my vision of a virtual learning environment, each student will have a learning manager assigned to them (guidance officer?) that helps them build a learning plan through the units available with the knowledge of parental desires, societal desires, societal needs and the kid's personal preferences. Not exactly self-directed, but as much self-direction as possible.

Hopefully the upshot is increased engagement. If the student feels in control of their learning network, they are the ones looking for answers and ready to be lifted to the next level.