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Intervention into formal elearning

September 9, 2008

Need for intervention has been discussed in one of the Edmedia 2007 symposiums.

Here i and Terje Väljataga provide the draft description of the main requirements for teaching and learning in open distributed learning environments that combine institutional tools, as well as, social software, when focusing on promoting collaboration, social networking and self-direction competences. These learning settings were planned and tested in three case studies of the iCamp project.

The iCamp project aimed at introducing interventional strategies to the formal educational environments, bringing these closer towards new frontiers in the changing work environments.

Where intervention is needed?
In formal educational settings teaching and learning is overtly conducted in the highly structured learning management systems and abstract contexts, which differ from the future work settings, where using top-down maintained systems may be impossible, and the tasks are rather situational and problem-based.

The developers of the institutional learning environments are ignoring the fact that there is a growing chasm between the choice of tools and selection of learning patterns in formal learning-settings and informal real-life settings.

The courses provide few possibilities for self-directing learning process, and do not support planning for personalized learning paths beyond institutional and formal frameworks.

Cross-border collaboration and learning in communities and social networks, using various social publishing, managing and communication tools, also combining them with institutional systems is, however, already becoming a mainstream strategy in the real-life project situations.

Areas of intervention

Based on these limitations of the formal teaching settings to meet the competences needed in post-industrial work framework, the following areas of intervention were identified:

– Planning learning in the conditions of uncertainity and ambiguity in the dynamically evolving learning environments, which presume continuous willingness to learn, and competences to manage and update the systems according to the current context.

– Accepting the need for assembling learning environments beyond institutional borders and learning management systems – integrating social software and LMS systems into various learning landscapes, following the learners’ objectives.

– Facilitating the freedom of entering into the formal learning process with different Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), promoting the willingness of using these systems consistently in formal and informal learning settings for life-long learning.

– Introducing the need for shifting the responsibility of planning and maintaining the personal and group learning environments and learning patterns from teachers towards learners in order to facilitate self-directing competences and enable learners to achieve stronger compatibility with various contexts.

– Putting the focus of some courses in higher education on planning, monitoring, and evaluating personal and group learning processes beyond the specific domain-centered courses for promoting the development and internalization of self-directing competences.

– Inviting teachers and learners to initiate and participate in the challenging real-life assignments, involving communities and networks beyond institutional counterparts.

– Changing the focus from assignments that promote private individual learning of knowledge and skills towards those that favor shared community-based knowledge building and obtaining the complex competences.

– Accepting and promoting learner-defined context and contents and initiating social publishing.

What we expect from learners?

Following these areas of intervention it was expected that in the exploratory cases learners were:

– Involved into the collaborative knowledge-building activities and getting experience of working in networked communities.

– Prompted to plan, monitor and suggest evaluation methods of their learning activities, becoming more self-directed.

– Guaranteed a freedom of choosing the most suitable tools for their learning activities, and achieving competence of maintaining their personal and group learning environments for realizing individual and group objectives.

What facilitators must consider?

The empirical explorations, how learning should be organized in this increasingly unpredictable context, where learners and facilitators are confronted with complex, dynamically changing, and unexpected requirements, were one of the major pedagogical tasks and contributions of the iCamp project.

Analysis of the exploratory iCamp cases revealed several aspects what the facilitators need to focus when entering into the new learning situations:

– Dealing with the institutional restrictions when planning for integrated courses between institutions or beyond higher institutional border: difficulties in integrating systems, planning domain tasks, integrating assessment criteria.

– Coping with the facilitators’ and learners’ stress that originates from starting learning in the initially unstructured system that is evolving in the course of action.

– Being prepared to reorganize the facilitation responsibilities beyond institutional borders: monitoring, scaffolding, providing technical help, organizing assessment, motivating students.

– Reorganizing domain learning into problem-based, integrating problems from various learners’ work contexts.

– Coping with the facilitators’ and students’ stress that initially learning environment cannot be filled with teacher-defined contents but the contents would be evolving as part of the activities and are learner-defined.

– Overcoming the suspicions related with open social publishing, dealing with copyright issues and fear about the quality of learning materials.

– Making amendments to the domain learning for the sake of developing self-directing competences in an entwined way in order to increase the possibility that the learners could use these skills later in similar contexts.

– Accepting that self-directing, if not internalized will be hindering domain learning, and coping with the subsequent stress learners would feel.

– Originating grounding events for planning the shared tool landscape and shared objectives.

– Being aware of and coping with the tension and stress that students perceive when self-directing in collaborative and social networking situations.

– Integrating individual and collaborative assignments to deal with the competition between individual self-reflection and group level reflection and activities at both levels.

Composing personal learning environments (PLEs)

An iCamp project treated a personal learning environment (PLE) concept more as subjective, psychological concept, offering a broader, naturalistic view on what comprises a personal environment in which intentional learning is carried out. It was assumed that individuals who need to select the technological means for creating personal or distributed environments in order to support their own work and study activities also need to be competent in terms of managing technology and its subcultures and common practices. Thus forming a PLE of tools and services, resources and people often requires a trial-error approach, which in turn can help to advance the necessary dispositions (knowledge, skills, orientations, etc.) for self-direction in education. However, obtaining the competence with evolving new social technologies and practices can be gained only if using these environments in various personally meaningful activities without the fear to learn from failures.

A PLE of the students and facilitators in iCamp cases entailed all the instruments, materials and human resources that an individual was aware of and had access to in the context of the educational projects at a given point in time (Fiedler & Pata, 2008). The PLEs were constructed both by the learners, as well as, by the facilitators, indicating that in iCamp intervention models the distinction between different roles of learners and teachers was intentionally diminished.

Every personal environment was different, depending on the individual’s preferences and expectations, his/her process of personal development and mental processing. Individuals constructed their environments so that its components afforded them to create the experience they desired and to act according to their purposes. A PLE was entirely “controlled” or constructed by an individual and was adapted according to the individual’s needs and current activities during each case study process. A PLE was often extended, e.g. the components of an environment were replaced or complemented with additional ones. Some components were also eliminated or temporarily excluded if they did not serve the purpose anymore.

PLEs models in three iCamp cases involved the following integrated tools: WordPress (or other blog; social bookmarking tool Del.icio.us or Scuttle (or other); Skype or XLite VoIP tool; MSN or other instant messaging tool; Videowiki; Flickr; e-mail; feed-on-feed or other aggregator; iLogue learning contract management tool.

A distributed group environment

If an individual takes part in some collaborative work- and study activities with others, some common goals and objectives for action need to be established and maintained (Fiedler & Pata, 2008). The challenge is to bring personal expectations, experiences, roles and environments together in order to form a functional collaborative setting. In this case parts of a PLE inevitably start to show qualities of a human activity system (Engeström et al., 1999). From an observer’s perspective an individual PLE starts to overlap partly with other personal environments and a temporarily functioning distributed learning environment emerges. A distributed environment serves as long as the collaboration among these individuals is going on (Fiedler & Pata, 2008).

An iCamp practice of using social software in elearning has been moving from the establishment of initial personal learning environments (PLE) towards combining these with other people‘s PLEs in order to carry out some joint learning activities (Tammets, Väljataga & Pata, 2008). This often means changing and expanding each individual‘s PLEs, and integrating new tools, resources and people to their PLEs, while suppressing the use of others in the sake of forming a shared learning environment where all the tools can be used equally by the group members for collaborative tasks.

An iCamp project conceptualized a distributed learning environment as a group managed environment that is a mix of some parts from the individuals’ personal environments and some new components that might be needed to carry out particular collaborative tasks. A distributed environment emerges when the collaborative activities such as interaction between individuals, communication and shared activities are executed. Distributed learning environments are also dynamically changing in terms of its components, structure and extension. Changes are defined by the individuals‘ preferences, negotiation process and the nature of their collaborative activities.

Individuals ascribed various roles when using PLEs in the iCamp case settings that required collaboration and social networking. The learning environments of collaborative groups and the course were constructed integrating different learners’ and facilitators’ PLEs with the shared collaborative tools. The collaborative tools used in iCamp groups and course landscapes were: social publishing tools like Google.docs, Zoho, Google.groups, wikis like XO wiki, Wikispaces, and group blogs like WordPress; synchronous group meeting tools like Flashmeeting, Skype and XLite; social networking tools like Ning.com; aggregators like feed-in-feed or other similar.

Competition between PLE and collaborative areas of the distributed learning environment

In distributed environments different actions can be distinguished: conversational actions related to subject-matter issues (terminology, concepts) or related to regulative issues (distribution of work, roles, media) and productive actions in which the actual task is executed and objectives are materialized (Fiedler, Pata, 2007). Naturally both types actions are highly intertwined and actors switch rapidly from one to another. In loosely-coupled, networked work-settings, both types of actions need to be mediated by an appropriate selection of tools and services. While making decisions regarding the technological enrichment of a personal learning environment only requires a conversation with oneself (reflection), collaborative settings require the explication, negotiation and mutual acceptance of a selection of technological means in order to form a functional distributed learning environment.

These two major activities: narrative self-reflection and collaboration are performed in different subspaces of the distributed environment. Furthermore, these activities are of highly competitive nature and demand a lot of cognitive effort. In iCamp case studies students were guided towards self-reflection and self-direction activities by making use of their PLEs, while at the same time they were prompted to perform collaborative activities in distributed shared learning environments. Thus students and facilitators were challenged by the competitive nature of self-reflection done in single PLEs against the other-directed reflective activities done in distributed shared learning environments.

Using feed- and tag-technologies enables people to mash and combine their different types of reflections using them as evidence of their self-directed behavior. Learners may also mash their reflections with those of their co-workers, peers or experts they monitor, thus, creating and visualizing new challenging and maybe controversial constellations for them to ponder about. Social software enables individuals also to publicly distribute their personal reflections and to share them within groups and communities, since personal self-directed work forms the basis on which the group work builds on.

A conflictual situation with regards to self-reflecting practices and collaboration may emerge when learners are challenged to look at their personal learning activities from the group perspective. In collaborative settings self-direction has to take place in the social context of the group, personal planning and actions need to be related with the shared outcomes of the group. To maintain the learner‘s motivation, the individual learning objectives need to be entwined with those objectives people have as members of the group. This means that the personal learning contracts have to be dynamically revised in the group context. In addition to reflective self-evaluation, in group context, the peer-evaluation becomes an important criterion also for the individual learner’s progress. Self-reflection may be distracted by other-reflection practices the group performs during collaboration. Instead of looking at how the individuals achieve their learning goals as part of the group the focus shifts on reflecting how well the group and its individual members perform.

The model introduces the assignments and artifacts in three iCamp cases.

The research group within the iCamp project conducted several learning experiments in which learners were prompted to establish their PLEs and conduct self-reflection in their personal environment, while simultaneously being involved in the group activities in various types of distributed environments (eg. shared weblog, shared wiki, combined distributed learning environment from various socials software tools). In iCamp case studies students were asked to set up their personal tools landscape from a range of pre-selected tools and where assisted by their facilitators and technical support. Then they were asked to form groups of 4-6 students from different countries for certain group work. For this collaboration task the students had to negotiate their common tools landscape and thus create a distributed learning environment. For self-reflection purpose the students were asked to establish a personal learning contract and to do regular (once a week) reflective writing in their learning process. The students were recommended to use either iLogue or their personal weblogs for this self-reflection task.

Important stages in the activity patterns of interventional course design were following:

• Cross-institutional planning of the course: tools and systems, interoperability, content, problem-based project topics, facilitation, assessment

• Establishing readiness for intervention among facilitators: motivation, learning competences in ambiguous situations, dynamically evolving course environment, self-directed students, conversational scaffolding at learning contracts

• Assembling the learning environment – diversity of personal environments and group environments, learning to use the systems

• Forming the groups: topic-based selection, peer-selection, facilitator-selection

• Individual assignments: self-reflection, conversational learning contracts, personally motivating

• Collaborative assignments: domain learning, team-level regulation, grounding the learning environments, learning from the process

• Facilitation and peer-support: Monitoring and regulating, motivating, coping with stress situations

• Regulating cross-institutional facilitation: learning from facilitator experiences

• Assessment: self-evaluation, peer-evaluation, project-based-evaluation, assessment of individual- and group-work, coherent cross-institutional grading

In the three case studies of iCamp project the complexity of new elements eg. self-directing with conversational contracts and social networking, increased. This was because of learning from the previous experiments.

In the first case study, the focus was on collaboration. Although students and facilitators were instructed to initiate PLEs, the PLE use was not supported by any official course assignments. The main central collaborative space was a shared weblog, but this environment was occasionally extended with other tools for social publishing, aggregating information, communicating synchronously. The main observations from that study indicated that the students did not use their PLEs if the PLE use had not been internalized, the PLEs were neglected for the sake of visiting and working in the collaborative space (Pata & Väljataga, 2007). Another observation indicated that in case of tension in the group, the tasks were overtly conducted in one central environment of the group – in the shared weblog. However, if the group had bigger coherence in objectives, task- and role-management, they used various tools and divided the actions between the tools – for example planning was done in the Skype or Flashmeeting tool and simultaneously a summary of talked issues was composed in the Google.docs environment.

In the second case study, dedicated to self-direction and collaboration, it was intended that students keep using the PLEs during the learning process actively, self-directing their collaborative work that they do in the collaborative XOwiki environment with the shared project. The usage of PLEs was supported by the task of self-reflection, using the conversational learning contract method. The students had to plan, monitor and evaluate their progress using the contract elements in their weblog, or alternatively using the special too iLogue. Facilitators, who commented self-reflections, supported the self-directed work. The collaborative work environment was a wiki for each group. Several other tools for finding and organizing relevant information and events eg. a search engine Objectspot, feed-on-feed aggregator, Scuttle social bookmarking tool and event planning tool XXX were used. The second study revealed that the students tended to neglect the collaborative wiki and work individually with the subtasks of the joint project in their PLEs. They summed up their personal work mainly by gluing parts of the individually composed artifacts together. This case study revealed that there is a competition between individual work, self-reflection and the collaborative work. The main proposition from the results of this case was the need to integrate self-reflection tasks into the group tasks and facilitate the self-reflection more actively, providing various templates and commenting students’ efforts consistently.

The third case study, dedicated to self-direction, collaboration and social networking, was run in the integrated environment consisting of the institutional Moodle for keeping learning materials, offering some central support, enabling the students to register to the course and receive the assessments in private mode. The activities of this case study took place in the distributed learning environment, consisting of various students’ and facilitator’s PLEs, where they worked individually, and of the collaborative spaces that were used for doing collaborative assignments. We provided a set of tools developed at iCamp project, but the students were not restricted to use these tools, but could find and integrate other social software tools to their PLEs and distributed group environments. It case study was considered to give students and facilitators some experience of planning and dynamically changing their distributed learning environments, which is a task of high ambiguity and involves potential tensions. It was also assumed in this case that social-networking competence would develop in the long time period, and this course can only give some experience how difficult it is to find, get connected and stay collaborating with various people.

The main finding from third study was supporting the observations from the second case about the tension and competition between individual and collaborative activities. It was found that if self-reflecting and self-directing tasks were planned as an integrated part of the collaborative activity, the self-reflection activities still tended to inhibit collaboration and other-directed reflective discourse or vice versa, especially if the students had to work under strict time limits. Our findings from the third case study indicated that it is important to relate the individual self-reflections to the group activities and create awareness about the social system in which the individual learning in embedded. New distributed social tools and services (eg. pushing feeds for the group, mashing and filtering group feeds) that enable to interact from PLE environment in the group space, would be scaffolding such learning process.

More about competition between activities

About cases:
Case 1 schemes
Case 1 group scheme
Paper of the initial design model based on case 1 data.
Case 2
initial scenarious

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3 comments

  1. […] Original kaipata […]


  2. Fantastic article and just what I needed today. I will probably weave some of these ideas outside of the terminology of “course” into “workshop” and ongoing communities of practice contexts as well. Thanks.


  3. Wow, this was enlightening! Thank you for the hint 🙂



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