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Monday, December 31, 2007

About Me

A Quick Overview
I am a Distance Learning Development Team Leader in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at De Montfort University, previously i have worked in web and multimedia development and i am interested in helping myself and other teachers to take advantage of web 2.0 technology to find new and effective ways to deliver interactive and collaborative learning.

Other Interests
I have recently successfully completed an MA by independent study: e-learning and education where my focus was on using social software and web conferencing technology to enhance adult distance learning. In my spare time i am interested in keeping moderately fit, mainly through Swimming and Spinning Classes.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A discussion of strategies for managing social bookmarking teaching and learning activities (using

Many educational benefits are attributed to the activity known as social bookmarking. Whilst re-iterating these benefits this article will discuss and offer a solution to the task of managing social bookmarking learning activities.

Three reasons why teachers and students should join a social bookmarking site

1. Accelerated Knowledge Acquisition: Through personally tagging, building a network of informed users, through subscribing to specific tags and from connecting with like minded taggers, you will acquire phenomenally fast access to resources of interest. What this means is that your access to knowledge is increased dramatically, your knowledge and understanding will develop more quickly and your awareness of current issues will keep you up to date and at the forefront in your field.

2. Portability and Flexibility: Because social bookmarking websites can be accessed anytime from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection the opportunity to tag bookmarks, retrieve information from saved bookmarks and keep up to date with the tagging activities of your network is increased dramatically compared to the option of saving your bookmarks to a location bound home or office based personal computer.

3. Easy and fast searching and retrieval of Resources: your own bookmarks, your network members bookmarks and the bookmarks of all members of your social bookmarking site can easily be searched by keyword or tag to retrieve previously bookmarked resources or find new resources of interest.

More reasons to join a social bookmarking site

4. Easy organization and categorization of resources means teachers can offer improved support for students. Students have a mechanism to assist themselves in self directed study. Tagging allows bookmarks to be organized in a number of different categories, not just one as is the case in a hierarchical folder type set up. Bundling of tags is an additional organisational tool

5. Connections: Tagging can reveal other individuals that have bookmarked the same resources as you and who may therefore share the same interests. Apart from adding them to your own social bookmarking network it could lead to collaboration, support and access to other knowledge resources external to the social bookmarking activity.

6. Sharing your access to knowledge: For teachers’ resources can be made easily available to students and colleagues either through the social bookmarking site itself, embedding bookmark links into web pages or by using RSS Feeds. Students can do the same and learn these valuable skills for other areas of their life e.g. work, family, hobbies.

Individual Motivation
In my view initially the use of a social bookmarking tool such as ‘’ is essentially a tool for the individual to have a convenient location to store and categorize bookmarks for their own benefit, thus enabling 24/7 access from any internet connected computer. In relation to the wider world of the web, the individual tagging of bookmarks has unwitting, unplanned and uncontrived social and group benefits.

As the concept and features of social bookmarking have evolved it is possible that some individuals develop a collective consciousness and the tagging of bookmarks may become more of a social act as well as just for individual benefit. That said, as there is no overwhelming reason or obligation to conform to a tagging standard, then it would seem that primarily the tagging of bookmarks is for individual gain. Which I guess is how it should be for it to be a genuine folksonomic tagging system (that reflects the true tagging intentions of its members). Tagging habits may change overtime depending how influenced an individual is by the rest of the tagging community.

Social Bookmarking in relation to teaching and learning activities
As part of their definition Phillip Jeffrey and Samia Khan from the Human Communication Technologies Lab describe social bookmarking as a “non-hierarchical and inclusive process of groups cooperating ad hoc to categorise and share information using reader-created (e.g. tags” They add “This non-hierarchical concept of tagging to classify and share is called a folksonomy.” (Jeffrey and Khan 2005) .

The differences between social tagging and collaborative tagging are highlighted by comparing the definition of collaboration; “to work together, especially in joint intellectual effort” and the definition of social; "living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation" (ASC 2007) to emphasise that collaborative tagging has more purpose and is perhaps a better way to describe the tagging that will occur in a contrived teaching and learning activity.

Whilst informal social bookmarking has all the benefits mentioned previously, more formal teaching and learning social bookmarking activities bring a number of additional issues relating to secondary tasks such as for example reorganisation and retagging of bookmarks, reviewing and critiquing bookmarks or discussion of tagging strategies. The specifics of various teaching and learning tasks are for another time, the focus of this article centres around two main issues; 1) Task management and 2) A single account strategy.

Scenario and Issues to address

The number of students, the intent of the task and the time in which to do the task will all add to how a task is organised and facilitated. As an example we shall use the following scenario, and assume that the task is completed using the ‘’ social bookmarking site.

If we imagine a scenario where a teacher has 150 students to teach. In order for the individuals in a group to develop some kind of bond and to give focus to the learning activities, the group of 150 is split into 15 groups of 10. Tagging, organising, reviewing and critiquing tasks can ensue from here. The two issues of interest are:

1. Activity Management: How can a teacher maintain and control a number of different groups attempting the same social bookmarking activity.
2. Single Account Strategy: How can this group work be achieved without the need for a separate group account being setup.

Perhaps the first issue is more obvious than the second, but I think both issues are closely related in developing a satisfactory strategy for both teacher and student. I’ll take the second issue first as I believe this is at the heart of a potential problem. When social bookmarking moves into the arena of teaching and learning the emphasis moves onto group work, collaboration and the requirement to complete specific tasks. For social bookmarking the formation of a separate group account seems an obvious and easy solution to organize and control the task. But is this either satisfactory or necessary for the student? Should a student have to work with more than just there own personal social bookmarking account? For the student it is a major inconvenience to interrupt their surfing activity to have to switch from one account to another. For the teacher it is not so much of an issue as one way or another they need to isolate the bookmarks into 15 separate groupings rather than one big group,


Options include:
1. Separate group account – Students all login and contribute to the group account with bookmarks that are specific to the purpose of the learning activity. (teacher can still view activity without having to log into group account, by subscribing to RSS feed)

2. Tag as Individuals; View in separate group account – teacher to create a network of the users in the group. Teacher and users can tag in their own account, and also view the group network tags through ‘’ or RSS feeds. (bookmarks not relating to the learning activity will also appear)

3. Tag as Individuals View in separate group account - using the ‘FOR’ function
students add bookmarks to their own allotted groups whilst tagging in addition to tagging for themselves.(RSS feeds do not appear to be available for this feature)

4. Tag as Individual with unique identifier tag - We can ask the student to include as one of their tags a unique identifier such as the institution name plus a course code and then a group number e.g DMUabcd1234_G1. Then set up a subscription to this tag. (note: there is potential for misspelling, but both teachers and users can access all bookmarks through ‘’ or RSS feeds)

5. Tag as Individual with unique identifier tag. Use a separate group account – Same as four above, but isolates specific learning activities away from other subscriptions teachers or students may have. (So for a teacher that could potentially be capturing many groups subscriptions in one place, they can look at all subscriptions ensuring bookmarks not relating to the learning activity will not appear)

With all of these options (except the FOR function) viewing of contributions would be best achieved by looking at the network, subscriptions or specific tag pages, either
a) Directly within the ‘’ network or
b) By setting up an RSS feed on the ‘’ tag.

If we start from the premise that no extra group accounts are to be setup and that students will only need to tag as individuals using their own ‘’ account then that rules out option 1. We now have to decide what of the remaining four options seems to be the most suitable to manage the activity of fifteen groups of ten. As I would prefer to view any bookmarks via an RSS feed reader this would rule out option 3. Option 2 with the possibility of unrelated bookmarks being included is also ruled out. For similar reasons I would rule out option 4 as this could also include unrelated subscriptions.

Option 5 will allow students to use their own individual account and tag bookmarks with no restriction on how they tag, other than adding a unique identifier tag.
There is no major burden for the teacher by setting up a separate group. The teacher can use the group account and its subscription feature to collate unique identifier subscriptions for all 15 groups, whilst having the flexibility to flick easily to anyone of the smaller subgroups to view specific group unique identifier subscriptions. These benefits can apply to students as well.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the strategy, have you any other ideas in mind? Can you see any problems or inaccuracies with the five options mentioned.

Bonus Point!
For archival purposes bookmarks for each groups subscriptions can be exported to a separate html document.

Food for thought!
Tagging strategies – if you have a blog post on a particular subject that you want to publicize then tag your own blog to circulate to your network and for those people that might subscribe to a particular tag.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Webex Synchronous Environment

Having just completed three online Interactive synchronous classes with eight of my teaching colleagues on the subject of Web 2.0 technology I thought it was time to review the environment from a technical point of view. The online communication tools I.E whiteboard text and drawing tools, innovative pointer tool, text chat and feedback icons have been easily adopted by the participants for use in the session. Video conferencing has not been used, but there is a facility to view 6 webcams at once if desired.

Quality of Audio
The key technical issue is the quality of the audio. Using VOIP the system overall seems to have worked very well. The system limits speaking to seven people at one time, which seems to be better than most competitors. The microphone is passed around to those not in possession of a free microphone who wish to speak. This is achieved easily by the facilitator. The facilitator also has the ability to mute participants which is useful. Participants also have the ability to mute themselves as long as they select their own name first on the participant panel. With regard to muting of participants it was obvious that a lot of background noise could be heard at various times and a much stricter outlining of ground rules to highlight no distractions or using the mute if you are aware of the potential of background noise to interfere with the lesson.

It would seem that everyone could hear me clearly, which was obviously very important especially for those participants that were in the unfortunate position of not being able to be heard. It seems that all those that could not be heard were basically suffering from a problem related to how they initially setup, using the webex audio setup wizard. We will address steps that can be taken to minimise problems in this area later in this article. We seem to be able to get through the sessions ok, if only 1 or 2 had a problem as the participants could still follow the conversation and contribute and communicate via text chat. So most participants once sorted out had no problem with hearing or being heard. Occasionally though people could not hear me for patchy moments of 5-10 seconds or so, maybe longer in some cases. I experienced this myself as a participant in a subsequent session. This would appear to be as a result of the use of VOIP and the way data is transferred over the internet leading to occasional delays in voice data being transmitted across the data networks even though webex use their own private network and most others in this industry use public networks (question for self - is that the Internet only?). So overall it seems that webex does provide an effective application for communicating via audio in using VOIP in a web conferencing environment.
VOIP and Teleconferencing
The actual product that I have been working in is 'training center'. This does come at an extra cost. VOIP usage is charged per person per minute for participation in a session. Teleconferencing linked to the session is also available and I know from having participated in many webex sessions conducted using teleconferencing audio that this is a much more reliable and effective method of audio communication. There is a charge again for this and it is higher than VOIP. Currently I have perceived the use of VOIP as the chosen mode of audio communication because with other companies that use VOIP there are no extra costs involved for students or the institutions and ALSO with a microphone and headset attached to the PC it should be less hassle. As I understand it there are no extra charges for companies that use VOIP over public networks. Although participants will be given a toll-free number to use for teleconferencing my understanding is that most if not all will be charging the institutions for this service. From a participants point of view I think the audio will be clearer and they will need a hands free phone so that they can complete whiteboard and text chat tasks easily. So I don't think teleconferencing option should be dismissed out of hand, but it will be a more expensive option for the institution.

Minimizing Technical Problems
To minimize technical problems related to audio for individual students and to minimize disruptions to classes the following measures will help:
1. An online induction session should be arranged for all students to make sure audio setup works ok. They should not be allowed onto a session until audio setup issues are resolved. If the facilitator cannot help, then the individual student should be directed to webex support (who seem to respond quickly to any queries) to clarify the problem.
2. A document or perhaps a webex recording should be available explaining the step by step process of completing the audio setup wizard, highlighting key points such as
* When indicating the audio equipment to be used make sure you select the correct equipment from the list presented. (Note that if you have 3 or 4 audio devices attached to your machine they may not show up automatically and you need to scroll to find them.
* Headset with microphone is the preferred option for audio quality and if you use them participants need to make sure that during the audio setup wizard process that the option for speaker setup is set to ‘headphones’ and not ‘desktop or laptop speakers’. As a temporary measure in a class – if students have set this up incorrectly the CONTROL key on the keyboard when pressed down can toggle to and from headphones as the preferred choice.
3. Also from the START menu of your machine go to >SETTINGS> CONTROL PANEL>SOUNDS AND AUDIO DEVICES>AUDIO TAB to make sure sound playback and recording are set to the correct devices.
4. Finally if a participant experiences patchy audio during a session they could try leaving the session and then coming back in again to get a better connection.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Adobe Connect Report 2: it ain't happening

Supposed to start delivering a 6 week course online live synchronous course on Monday Nov 5th. In preparation for my course I am massively behind schedule because i was naive enough to assume that adobe connect and the many other products of this ilk were robust enough in the digital age to handle a bit of true interactivity and not just some talking head in a web conferencing system answering a few text chats and ponderously allowing others to speak because the VOIP systems have massive difficulty dealing with multiple speakers. I believe problems are compounded in adobe Connect because of the craziness of having to give presenter rights to participants to access the voice controls and the same problem applies to whiteboards where participants cannot use a whiteboard without presenter rights, meaning that anyone can move onto the next slide or erase text just like that.

during a couple of trial runs with only two people setting aside intermittent patchy audio, there was terrible echo. After investigating i believe problems could stem from the fact that participants can click on all sorts of options, multiple speakers, mute etc and the true host/ presenter is not sure what is going on.

the presenter rights issue aside, all systems seem to struggle with the VOIP bandwidth issue. At might last investigation Webex allow 7 microphones on at once and elluminate 6. I have worked with 5 in a webex environment and it worked fine. As i want to work with 12 at a time it seems that dialing in on a separate teleconference seems to be the best way to ensure that everyone is free to talk freely. I have participated in many sessions of this nature.

The advantage of VOIP in is that there are no additional phone costs to be incurred by either host or user and it's one less technicality to worry about.

Anyhow i have to come up with solutions for a monday start, but all the extra investigation of problems has seriously effected other complimentary preparation for the class, so i am not a happy bunny.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Community Building, Learning Networks and all thatJazz

Sheryl Nussbaum Beach on community building. Sheryl continues to come up with interesting articles. This latest one ties in with my recent thoughts on how best to build an online community of practice/interest. 21st Century Collaborative: Community for Everyone

When i think about DMU, i don't believe there is a mechanism in place that is harnessing to great effect the great knowledge and experience that the people of DMU have to offer. I believe that technologically web 2.0 offers increased options to build a significant online DMU community that will have social and learning benefits.

Currently i love ning networks and their ability to create specialized networks that would be ideal to promote a learning and knowledge community that can spread 'the word' quicker than current methods.

Perdsonally i don't see Blackboard as a unifying force. I have noticed in social networks i have been involved with recently of an example of a move from moodle to a ning network because the environment is percieved to be more conducive to participation. Facebook is i believe to wide and even if a group was setup in this environment it would lack identity and can not be focused to the same degree that a self created ning network offers.

interestingly as i look into to social networks i noticed this article by Mark Hopkins The Real Value of Web 2.0 (Hint: It’s not Facebook), which extols the virtues of twitter and google reader and whilst there is plenty to consider and might be good for the individual i still believe the development of a learning network with social spin offs would be a good thing for DMU.

If it was developed it would be good to debate the pros and cons of the various implementation options available.

Adobe Connect : Interaction and Collaboration

My initiation to interactive and collaborative live online learning was using the webex environment. My opinions of other synchronous collaboration software is somewhat clouded by what i perceive to have been an excellent schooling in an excellent webex environment. Three significant influences were the use of an individualized pointer tool for each participant that could be moved easily around the screen to indicate contributions to the white board, the use of whiteboard tools without giving presenter control to the participant and the use of phone dial in as opposed to using VOIP for audio connection to the host and other participants.

This blog discusses some of the issues of implementing a synchronous class in Adobe Connect. First of all please note as a great source of reference and help the excellent Adobe Connect Blog.

In anaylysing Adobe connect i make the following observations

1. For participants to access the class a host has to open the class. This is fine as the class can be opened early, up to 12 hours in advance to allow participants to logon early to check initial audio connections. Adobe Connect seems easier in this respect to logon which is a good thing as we need to keep the technology barriers to a minimum.

2. Using Flash and the vector based system 'pods' that contain whiteboard, chat and other tools automatically adjust to the size of the participants computers, which again is good. However if you woork on high resolution screens like i do, it is still better to reduce the size down to 1028x768.

3. The Interface is easy to organize and has a good feel to it.

4. It is easy to add content and Url's, which are stored on the adobe server for easy retrieval next time around.

5. I am working on the basis of a VOIP connection as this is the least troublesome for students, both technically and from possible additional costs that may be incuurred. My experience is that a phone dial up is preferable for quality and allowing a large number of users to participate at once. I hope i can overcome this issue and be proved wrong during my 10-12 strong synchronous classes.

Useful Links: Adobe Connect Tips

POINTS to Note
1. After logging on participants need to be given enhanced rights to use the camera and Voice pod and the 'Share' pods which will allow them whiteboard tools to annotate powerpoint slides which are the backbone of the class. The host needs to ensure that the camera is off and that multiple speakers are allowed to speak. Note that webcams are not used as part of the course. They are not really necessary and will take up bandwidth which could effect the quality of audio that is broadcast.

2. When working with participants off campus best to use a connection speed at DSL level and advise students to set their own connection to their own level (modem or broadband dsl). The connection status of each participant can be checked in the attendance list options. in the top right hand corner the strength of connection is indicated with either green(best), orange (ok) or red (not good). Similarly the same colour indication is used when a participant speaks in the camera and voice pod. greyed out when not speaking, green when good connection and speaking.

3. Once given the rights to speak participants have the choice of pressing the 'talk' button down and holding or use hands free to keep it permanently available to speak. Keeping it hands free is my preferred option, but after a practice session this morning there may still be a possible problem with bandwidth availability as my connection was distinctly patchy. I will try again and change a few settings, but it may be that in order to best proceed we'll have to take the approach of holding the'talk' button down.

4.Another irritating issue is that due to all participants acting as a presenter, if one was to use the erase (clear) whiteboard objects tool, then all screen objects are lost and not just the individuals contribution. The way around this for individuals to delete their own whiteboard contributions is to select for example a text object by using the selector tool and drag it slightly to reveal the border resize handles and then press the delete key on the keyboard. This seems ok, but is not totally natural and sometimes it does not seem to work on some text objects that are drawn. If it does not work then using the pointer tool to surround the object with a large invisible rectangle will select the object, (providing the complete area of the text object is covered) and then again use the delete key on the keyboard.

5. One advantage is that once the selection tool is mastered text objects can be easily moved around the screen. Drawn objects that use a pencil for example work slightly differently and the only way to select a whole drawing that is the result of a few pencil lines is to use the pointer tool to draw an invisible rectangle around it as in the second method described previously.

6. Recordings can be made, but unless things have changed recently they can only be saved and accessed on the adobe server. No downloads to your own computer to save or distribute for offline viewing is available.

To achieve the fluid interaction and collaboration i want, so that the only thing to worry about is the learning and not awkward technology requires a lot of research and experience in using the various synchronous classroom options. Consideration of the points above is essential for institutions interested in solutions that are aimed at improving learning. straightforward connections with low interactions will be easy to achieve, but institutions need to look deeper than that.

Connect is offering some ease of access plus points. I will work with it in the coming month to see if i can get it to act in a matter befitting a group of people that just want to concentrate on the learning.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Twitter yeah not!

As i posted my last blog on Twitter, having still not used it and not knowing that much about it. I decided to take jennifer Jones RSS blog feed and add it to my pageflakes page. The feed dropped straight on top of my translitercay RSS feed and guess what the first article of the transliteracy feed was on the use of twitter for intimacy and empathy.

Apps for intimacy and empathy (PART)

This connection has obviously given me a heads up and further pushed 'Twitter' to the forefront of my mind. So connections with people and resources are nourishing my mind, feeding the connections in my brain and as Stephen Downes has highlighted in his own blog articles - The more a connection is used and strengthened there is a corresponding strengthening of the neural pathways in the brain to ensure that the connections stay strong.

In this connective world of web 2.0, where i now inhabit, i know not yet, my location, i don't know where i am going and unlike the real world, there are is no finite physical map. How best do i build my web2 Home to make best use of the possible connections that are available? Questions Questions Questions.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

injenuity » Blog Archive » Twitter is Important

I have been looking more deeply into a number of web 2.0 technologies recently. What i conclude is this, if you are a teacher you should make a vow to yourself to try out a new web technology on a regular basis. It should be built into your weekly schedule - just make time to explore the many new technologies that can help to improve your teaching and the learning experience of your students.

I have only scrapped the surface of how web 2.0 can benefit myself as a teacher and subsequently my learners. It is blindly obvious to me that web 2.0 technologies are an essential part of a teachers toolkit if they wish to offer their students a varied and interesting educational experience. AND THE MAIN REASON IS CONNECTION. I'll say no more for now.

This particular blog was inspired by a technology called 'Twitter' which i have never used and have always previously dismissed as an irrelevant chitty chatty frivolous application. After reading the following blog post i realised i need to try things out before passing judgment. injenuity » Blog Archive » Twitter is Important

The Blog is written by Jenifer Jones, who is a member of the College2 online network (community)

I might in the end not value twitter as a major player in my web 2.0 toolkit, but i'll have more of an appreciation of it's potential and may then be able to find a use for it future solutions to learning or connecting with others.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

An Exploration of Social Networking

This blog is primarily for the benefit of students who are preparing to participate in the forthcoming short Course - Web 2.0 for teaching and Learning: The basics - blogs, wikis and tagging

I guess that we can say the learning has begun.

First of all i believe it is true to say that web 2.0 technology is generally easy and relatively accessible for non-technical teachers to setup and administer. That said tenaciousness in sorting out problems is a good attribute, as is patience and preparing ahead of time.

Our short course will look at a few web 2.0 technologies. These are Blogs, wikis and tagging with the emphasis on social bookmarking. By enrolling you on the web 2.0 learning network i am attempting to use the web 2.0 technology that fosters and encourages 'social networking'.

Social Networking

The most obvious examples of Social Networking sites are 'facebook' and 'myspace' and both are quite obviously about socializing. In an educational situation and in our situation i want to use a social networking' site to support an online community of learners in what can be more accurately described as a 'learning network'. I can see a good argument for the ease with which a participant can float from social to learning interactions on facebook, and subgroups can be setup on facebook with the intention of acting as a group of learners.

The use of the Ning network on the face of it, (once technical difficulties are resolved) is a much better option. A clear distinct learning network (group) can be formed and then managed by the network creator. It is very easy to organize and administer for non-technical users. In my opinion one of the most important factors to foster and stimulate online community participation is the use of email notifications whenever activity (e.g. discussion board postings, announcements) occurs in the network. Ning networks include the web 2.0 learning network that i have created offer this facility.

Whilst Blackboard automatically offers an online community setup, the clunkiness of development (i.e 4 clicks when only 1 is sufficient), the lack of email notifications and not having a full set of features to cater for a smooth running community leads me to look for an external web 2.0 solution.

Another approach that could be taken is the use of google groups, which i have participated in. For aesthetic reasons i did not enjoy working in this environment. but simple and easy to setup and does notify by email of new postings.

Due to the difficulties encountered with ning, i have looked at a number of other social networking solutions - I looked at 'LinkedIn', which is a social network site for professionals which does not appear to add additional functionality for the purposes of our learning group. I have looked at Basecamp, which does have some potential, but is more of a project based setup, but could be customized for our purposes. I found also a competitor to ning networks called ' goingon', which from a presentation and functionality point of view, does not seem quite as good as a ning network. The final item i looked at was not so much a social networking site, but an individual course organizer. This was nuvvo and it seemed simple and easy to setup and could offer a solution to an online home for a group of learners to work together.

If you have any questions or comments about social networking you can comment here for now. I shall keep you up to date with course start dates and details of your first introductory online synchronous session. If we can persevere with ning for now - i think it will be the best option, keep me informed of how you are getting on.

cheers, Steve

Monday, October 01, 2007

Social Networking Tools, Education and Groupwork

What is one to do to harness the power of social networking tools for the benefit of your students and there education. Why bother harnessing social networking tools? Connecting to others in your network will offer unexpected nuggets of knowledge, understanding, avenues to explore and camaraderie. The emotional impact on learning can be enhanced for groups of students participating in a programme of study.

The only requirement of the individual is to contribute to the network. As someone pretty famous once said “Give and you shall receive.” There is a massive reward to be gained even if you did not receive, but personally my brief experience is that you will receive ‘nuggets’ galore. By giving to the learning network your thoughts, feelings and understandings you will crystallize and refine your own thoughts and gain deeper understandings and insights to your chosen field of study. This act of externalization has direct benefits for the individual.

Whilst blogs and wikis can be the focus of particular learning activities, it’s a social networking environment that fosters the emotional well being and incidental learning that can be so useful to the morale and learning of individual students.

Facebook and Ning

How can one go about setting up an appropriate social network? Facebook it seems to me has exploded in the last three months and is in pole position to quickly and easily setup a group and as more and more students are using it, an easy transition from a social to a learning situation can be achieved. And although it feels good to use, my feelings are that it does not offer as good a level of organization of personal resources (photo’s, videos) as a ning based social network. In addition a ning based social network will offer email notification to all members of posts on forums, walls etc. This in my opinion is the glue that keeps the online social network abreast of community developments.

For educators ning networks are very easy to setup and student blogging can be self contained within the group. Access to external wikis is made easy from within the network.

‘Ruby on rails’ and Basecamp

For programmer types and organizations that want to take a good look at the customized services they could offer ‘ruby on rails’ an open framework for web development seems to offer a lot for creative organizations prepared to use it. An example application is basecamp. I need to look into this further.

Google Groups

A quick word on google groups – I have not enjoyed participating in them at the moment – but they do also notify by email notification of all new posts to discussions – so they are good for keeping a community abreast of developments. Easy to setup also.


Bottom line is that Ning offers a very easy way to set up a self contained learning network. Facebook will be central to a lot of students already. The choice is yours.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

21st Century Collaborative Blog

I include the following flake from pageflakes. The 21st Century collaborative is an excellent blog for teachers interested in using web 2.0 technology. Pageflakes which is a personalised RSS feed aggregator allowed me to easily copy the HTML code for the flake and drop it into this blog

On the technicalities: The principle is the same as copying code from a youtube video and pasting this code into a blog, wiki or web page. Note that within the HTML code I can also easily adjust the width and height of the tag.

On the subject matter: The flake includes the 5 most recent articles of the 21st Century blog. The most recent article is about a new research tool. I have not read this article yet, but it sounds as though it could be very useful.

Many thanks to Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach the author of the 21st Century Collaborative for bringing to our attention many interesting developments in this web 2.0 era.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wiki's For Professional Development

It's been a long time. that would appear to be the way it goes when other important elements of study are at the forefront of one's mind:

A link to a blog article i wrote as part of the DMU pathfinder research project i am involvede with:

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Connectivism - Legitimate Learning theory?

Bill Kerr in critiquing connectivism initially offered that a good learning theory should:
  1. contribute to a theory/practice spiral of curriculum / learning reform,provide
  2. a significant new perspective about how we see learning happening
  3. represent historical alternatives accurately
his ongoing views can be read at

Bijdrage van Pløn Verhagen concluded that the ideas that George Siemens had about connectivism were more to do with a pedagogical approach rather than a theory of learning and as such suggests that his theories should be considered at the curriculum level, rather than at the instructional level, where learning theory should be considered.

In reading through George Siemens response to Bijdrage van Pløn Verhagen's critique i am trying to establish in my own mind the legitimacy of connectivism as a new learning theory. I don't expect to do that at this one sitting, but i shall make a start here.

Firstly to say with regard to Kerr's three points about good learning theory, i am not sure exactly what the first point alludes to, the third point i need to review to see what George Siemens has claimed for alternative learning theories and whether this concurs with others general view in the field. It is the second point that i think i can start an argument in favour of connectivism as a learning theory. NB: I do intend to research what others say that a good learning theory should contain to test the validity of this criteria.

With regard point two above, connectivism it would seem does provide a significant new perspective about how we see learning happening.

George Siemens states "We are social beings. Through language, symbols, video, images, and other means, we seek to express our thoughts. Essentially, our need to derive and express meaning, gain and share knowledge, requires externalization."

George Siemens points out that connectivism sees the aim/function of learning to be social. In order to learn, to make meaning we need to socialize, interact and collaborate - to do this we need to externalize our thoughts, feelings and ideas. The process of externalizing will confirm understanding, provide feedback and thus consolidate and confirm the acquisition of knowledge that an individual has constructed.

He goes on to say that " Most existing theories of learning assume the opposite, stating that internalization is the key function of learning (cognitivism assumes we process information internally, constructivism asserts that we assign meaning internally�though the process of deriving meaning may be a function of a social network, i.e. the social dimension assists in learning, rather than the social dimension being the aim of learning)."

The following paragraph from George Siemens offers a view on how externlization fits into the connectivism learning theory

"While the external environment is critical, both Vygotsky and Wittgenstein mistook the environment for the space in which thought gains life, when in reality, the external environment is an additional space for knowledge, thought, expression, and reflection. As an extension of humanity, the external is in itself a space in which we exist�rather than an environment in which our words find existence. When objects and other external entities are viewed as extension of humanity, the notion of learning as a network formation process becomes more palatable. If knowledge exists in external structures of similar nature, as it exists physically within our minds (distributed, neurologically), then it is possible to ascribe knowledge and learning attributes to the distributed nature of networks formed between people."

George Siemens on understanding learning:

"We are growing in our understanding of learning. Research in neuroscience, theories of social-based learning, and developments in learning psychology create new understanding of the act, and process, of learning. As Downes (2006) stated,

Learning�occurs in communities, where the practice of learning is the participation in the community. A learning activity is, in essence, a conversation undertaken between the learner and other members of the community. This conversation, in the web 2.0 era, consists not only of words but of images, video, multimedia and more. This conversation forms a rich tapestry of resources, dynamic and interconnected, created not only by experts but by all members of the community, including learners. (Network Pedagogy section, � 6)"

Important other elements to review from George Siemens article are:

  • Emerging Philosophy of Knowledge, Learning, and KnowingWhat
  • What Makes Connectivismvism a Theory?

Connectivism - A learning theory for a digital age

Since coming across George Siemens I was immediately taken by his theory of connectivism. Being heavily focused on cognitive and constructive theories of learning as part of my study, I had a gut instinct that there is something in George's theory. I have since enjoyed many of George's articles and the clarity of argument that is contained within them. I find the principles of connectivism outlined on the connectivism wiki very useful in comprehending connectivism and situating learning strategies within this theory of learning. Some principles of connectivism are outlined here: About — Connectivism.

Critiques of the theory include:
Bill Kerr:

Bijdrage van Pløn Verhagen:

George Siemens response to Pløn Verhagen critique

Web 2.0 is Connectivity

"Web 2.0 is connectivity - through self expression and technological simplicity."

That was my response to a recent challenge to come up with a snappy one liner to explain what web 2.0 is. In terms of an explanation of web 2.0 it probably does not explain what it is and maybe it is not possible in a snappy one-liner. What it does do i believe is go to the heart and the ethos of web 2.0 technology.

Connectivity is a theme that is figuring strongly in relation to learning, lately for me. In a recent essay i drew attention to the socio-constructivist principles of Vygotsky (1962; 1978) and the view that the higher mental functioning in an individual would not be possible without social interaction (connections) and this social interaction is compatible with brain science theories such as Gee (1992) who suggests that “our capacity for learning can be explained in terms of the brain engaging in this sort of ongoing interaction with the world”.

This was reinforced by the very interesting Stephen Downes half hour blog where he talked about many things including associative learning and how "The result in the brain is strengthening or weakening of a set of neural connections, a relatively slow process." His point is that it's not about content transfer, it's about repeated exposure (preferably where it is highly salient, as this impacts the strength of the neural connection).

He goes on to say that transfer of information via a presentation would not result in knowledge transfer to audiences but it is the "repetition of instances required in order to create a weight of experience on a certain subject." , that will result of an individual acquiring their own knowledge.

The thrust of his blog is that people have to create their own knowledge from their own experiences and that the knowledge becomes stronger through the more connections an individual has exposure to related subject matter. It is the connecting of new experiences/ information which consolidates knowledge acquisition.

George Siemens draws together the ideas of Vygotsky, Gee, web 2.0 technology and the ideas of Downes in his theory of connectivism

What are the implications for teaching?
Teaching staff not conversant with the new technology may well ask, why should i bother with it. Well these web 2.0 technology tools can be used to promote interaction and collaboration amongst students in their own group as a starting point. Connections can be made if desired outside the group to other students and subject experts. Both staff and students can use the new technology to connect easily to resources and contacts to help organize and administer teaching and learning more efficiently. This will improve the opportunity to acquire knowledge.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Synchronous Classroom Models

An online synchronous classroom can be a wonderful environment to create engaging and interesting online learning. Deployment of synchronous classroom software at a higher education establishment needs careful consideration of the intended uses and the ability of the synchronous classroom software to provide the necessary tools and features that will facilitate these intended uses.
One problem for universities considering employing this technology is that they may not have a complete picture of how the technology can be used and therefore at this early stage of adoption not sure whether the features of a particular brand will be the most suitable for their needs.
The tools available to participants are primarily whiteboard text and drawing tools, text chat, feedback icons (yes/no, raised hand, emoticons) pointer/identifier tool, audio (teleconference or integrated Voip), Webcam Video link (although I do not see a need to use webcam video for my purposes).
Tools for the facilitator will include the use of whiteboards, imported PowerPoint slides, application sharing, file sharing and granting rights for participants to use the tools available. Various other administrative tools are also available and important for the facilitator.
At Penn State University they identify various models for the use of synchronous classroom software (
I intend to build on and refine this list to establish how exactly this type of software can and is being used.
My primary interest is using the synchronous classroom as a genuine classroom where interactive and collaborative activities are taking place online. Needless to say I think that this is the most important and valuable use of the synchronous classroom and should therefore have a high priority when deciding on what particular synchronous classroom solution to adopt. The functionality available to facilitator and participant and it’s exact implementation will vary from software to software. Assuming all the standard features are in place, then ideally to deliver the interactive and collaborative learning which I think best enhances community building and student engagement the following is required:
For Participants:
  1. A uniquely identifiable pointer tool (by colour/ name or both) for use on whiteboards.
  2. Freedom to speak at any time (although we would not want them to all speak at the same time)
  3. Good quality Voip (voice over IP). With a headset and microphone students can be hands free to use whiteboard tools. Teleconferencing adds too many extra setup and admin issues, although the audio is good.
  4. Feedback Icons that ideally include yes/no, I have a question, stepped away and feedback eraser.
For the Facilitator:
  1. Sole control over whiteboards/PowerPoint slides whilst participants simultaneously have use of whiteboard text and drawing tools.
  2. Specific control of the rights of participants to use individual features of the synchronous classroom e.g. audio, chat, whiteboard, whiteboard tools, application sharing and remote control.
  3. Ability to Record presentation
  4. Ability to create breakout rooms for small group work.
In this model, although the lecturer’s role is to facilitate learning they need to have control over the environment and its tools in order to ensure that a structured, well thought out session will achieve the intended learning outcomes. At the same time participants/students need the best possible tools to encourage spontaneity and ease of participation in a lesson.
I don’t believe that video webcam’s are necessary to achieve the interactive and collaborative learning I wish to employ, but recognize that others may see value in the use of the interactive live lecture and the videoconferencing models of use.
Compromises necessarily need to be made, but assuming the reliability and the pricing are more or less equal then it would be prudent to ensure functionality that best meets the requirements outlined above are incorporated into any synchronous classroom solution that is going to be deployed.
I have recently looked into a number of synchronous classroom solutions. I shall reveal my findings shortly in my next blog.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

FOE Presentation: Pageflakes - Blogging, Tagging and Aggregating

This blog, was originally written quickly on the fly while listening to an elluminate recording of Dave Cormier presenting on the subject of pageflakes, snowclones and memes. My blog really did not make much sense originally as the main purpose at the time was to tag the blog and see how it would appear on a pageflakes page that Dave had created.

I have now had time to visit the pageflakes website and create my own pageflakes page. I now know that the whole purpose of the exercise was to show how an RSS aggregator such as 'Pageflakes' can pull together in a central location RSS Feeds from different blogs. The clever bit was to then ask the blog writer to tag the page using 'social bookmarking' software such as 'del.ic.ous' and this could be all pulled into the RSS aggregator all under the one heading for review by all that our members of this groupcast page.

As regards snowclones and memes - i'll needto look into that further. For me the most important thing was to realize that how combining of aggregators with the tagging of blogs, makes the use ofblogging in education much more interesting and meaningful.

I have scrubbed some of my gibberish from earlier to give this blog more clarity. My first understandings of Dave's presentation are included below:

Using this blog to tag it in delicious and label it in blogger to see where the FOE2007 tag can feed back into the conference or Dave's webpage. (labelling in blogger was not necessary to appear in Dave's pageflake)

So Dave is talking about a distributed conversation and aggregating the responses in one place. A model to have a participatory presentation like this for a further public content using of the content after the presentation. An alternative approach to wiki's or a discussion board. Something to think about. I've got something out of this at the death of the recording. I have something to get my teeth into.

Tagging, it's all becoming clearer. Into the 20th Hour of this wonderful day, best get to kip now or will regret this tomorrow

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Essays - The Pain and the Joy

I have recently finished my first MA essay with the title "A critique of instructional design models, theories and specific online interactive and collaborative technology related to online adult distance learning".

Quite a lot to fit into a 3’000 word essay, I chose initially to concentrate on 4 models of online learning and critique them. This it seems would have seriously neglected many themes in the essay i.e. adult learning, distance learning, interactive and collaborative technology. Although a lot of useful ground work was done and preliminary feedback from a colleague was positive it felt boring to just take a model in turn, dissecting it and move onto the next one. After discussion with my mentor a suggestion to write the essay around important themes that could draw in various ideas was quite obviously the way to go. The painful decision (because I’d more or less finished my original essay) to rewrite the essay was absolutely the correct thing to do and I feel I have a much better template now for future essays.

Although I have not gone into as much depth on some areas as I would have liked, I felt as though the essay captured my passionate views on how online learning should be conducted. I felt I gave a logical account for the basis of my views and highlighted how an appropriate model of online learning and associated interactive and collaborative technology could and should be used to achieve effective online learning.

Although i personally i feel i have learnt a lot from researching, planning and organising my thoughts for the essay, the essay is perhaps on reflection not as critical as it could be, although i still feel as though I've done a good job. I hope to use my experience of writing this first essay to make improvements in my critical approach for the next MA essay.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tagging - A leap into the unknown


I have just signed up to a bookmark tagging research experiment using the social bookmarking web application

I don't know fully what to expect and i have no preconceived idea as to what i will learn from the experiment, but i have a feeling that there is something of value in being a part of the experiment and i am hoping i will learn new insights into the use of tagging in respect of how it can be of use in a teaching and learning context.

Tagging is a relatively new way to categorize web pages on the Internet. Rather than saving web pages in a hierarchical fashion in folders and sub folders, by multiple tagging of a website you can search for tags and therefore web pages in as many different categories as you like (i seem to tag about 4-5 categories). With meaningful tags this should make it easier to find and retrieve.

In addition the use of social bookmarking websites such as, allows you to retrieve any tag (bookmark) from any machine, anywhere as it is a web based system. Websites tagged can also be made available to other world wide web users and a myriad of connections to users and their tags can be viewed.

So my interest in being a part of this research is that this process of social bookmarking (tagging) opens up possibilities for collaboration ,widening your own knowledge base and enhancing learning though group interaction.

Our task will be to tag over fifty web pages in five blocks of 10 pages over a 4-6 week period.

First Reaction
After tagging just the first two websites i have had couple of A-ha moments:

1. From a tagging point of view- i started with two tags stories and memories, after the second site i realized it would be more meaningful to tag with a category enhancement as WW2stories and WW2memories. I also included ww2 as a tag for both websites. I am not sure i need to do this as using the searching mechanism it will take me to any category starting with ww2 anyway.

2. It feels that there are learning activities that can be created from this. By being asked to tag the websites meaningfully, i am having to read the website with a little more detail and interest than i would normally. I think this can be used to get students to tag and then some kind of discussion can occur about the tagging afterwards. A thought that has come to me is that rather than tag descriptively, a group could be asked to tag emotionally and we could subsequently discuss what emotional tags where attached to a website article and the reasons why?

After completing the tagging of 10 websites, it seems that not all my tags seem to appear. I am assuming thee is a time delay before they appear otherwise it seems strange. Need to evaluate my naming strategy once i a more familiar with the tools available to me. For example the bundling of tags may be useful as part of a naming and categorizing strategy.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wiki’s – The Good, The Bad and the Lovely

Well let’s get the lovely bit out of the way. The lovely bit is really the simplicity. With the predefined setup and limited set of commands/ tags it takes a lot of the time wasted over cognitive decisions of design and fretting over technical competence out of the equation, leaving the wiki page author to concentrate on the business in hand, which is the writing.

I’ll address the Good of wiki’s by focusing on the strengths of a wiki. When asked wiki users could come back with many different responses to the question “what are the strengths of a wiki?” I believe the strengths listed below will encapsulate the many responses to this question.

The first three strengths are arguably subjective and could be open to an alternative view. However it is generally accepted through my reading and experience that the following three characteristics of a wiki are indeed it’s strengths in promoting and encouraging group collaboration:

1. Simple technology – only need internet access and a web browser.
2. Simple and easy to use (creating and editing pages, linking to pages and websites, inserting images and documents)
3. Easy to learn how to use

In addition, the following identified strengths are less open to argument, as they are a matter of fact.
4. Easy to rollback and compare with earlier versions (mistakes can be rectified, malicious vandalism can be deleted)
5. All changes are logged and therefore traceable.
6. All members can act as moderators and guardians of the wiki.

So we come to the bad. Bad is really to strong a word for what I want to convey which is that the success or failure of a wiki for all it’s inherent strengths will be determined by how the wiki is used, regulated and valued by it’s users. It is encumbert on the wiki organizers primarily and the wiki participants subsequently to create and maintain a flourishing wiki that achieves it’s purpose.

In order to achieve this wiki organizers need to draw on best research and practice of co-operative/group/ collaborative learning and apply this to wiki teaching and learning activities to gain best results.

How can they do this? Well hopefully I’ll come up with a few ideas in subsequent blog.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

I’d rather have a wiki than a Blackboard VLE.

If I had a hammer, er no wrong tape responsibility for delivering a distance learning MA or BA Programme I’d rather have a wiki than a blackboard VLE to administer the programme and to co-ordinate learning activities. For argument’s sake I am going to assume the use of the company wikispaces as my wiki space provider as I am familiar with their service. They will host for many different organisations and all are (can be) connected via wikispaces. (alternatives could include hosting your own in house wiki using ‘Mediawiki’)
  • Starting point for this reasoning is that a very low technical competence is by users is required to use a wiki. This is massively important for staff uptake and enthusiasm in engaging in the promotion of e-learning and to cater for the wide diversity of students that will participate on the programme.
  • Technically simple to setup and simple to access. As it is primarily text based web pages all users need is internet access and a dial up connection will be adequate in many cases.
  • Speed and Fluidity. If a student was enrolled on perhaps 8 Modules BANG, they could flick from one module to another just like THAT.
  • Quick Connections/ Communications. A Message box is available BANG just like THAT to pick up messages related to any other 8 Modules from all students and all tutors involved in the programme and to any external members of the whole wikispaces community. (This could include students and staff on partner programmes in other universities).
  • If any pages on a wiki are changed for example student announcements, then each students can be notified of a change immediately to their email BANG just like THAT. (probably be able to send a message to a mobile phone as well soon).
  • Due to the global nature of the wikispaces community many useful contacts with external friends and colleagues in the same field can be made and then easily continued after university life.
  • The way a wiki is setup and they way the page is structured it makes it very easy to back up all pages in HTML or in original wiki text, which also means a fair amount of future proofing can take place as the text will be saved in a format that is XML compliant and will therefore be easily re purposed in the future for perhaps delivering to mobile phones or PDA’s.
  • Being fluent in wiki skills will be a good life skill to have both for Staff and Students.

This is a pro wiki article. To Blackboard VLE and other VLE's I say TAKE THAT can you compete, ‘Respondez vous sil vous’ plait with counter arguments.

Monday, February 05, 2007

HE Institutional Strategies for E-learning

Well just as higher education embraces the notion of e-learning and start investing heavily financially, strategically and emotionally in commercially driven e-learning VLE’s such as Blackboard along comes those damn pesky web 2.0 technologies. After all the staff and student training that has gone into learning how to make that cumbersome beast (my view) Blackboard be a useful catalyst to promote and develop a sustainable and consistent e-learning strategy it is hard to contemplate that their may be a better way forward other than via Blackboard or similar VLE’s.

Now I am not saying exactly for sure what they way forward is, as I am not privy to the costs involved or the administrative, security and control issues, that said a strategy involving web 2.0 technologies should be piloted and I feel eventually adopted if not totally, but in a dual approach over the next few years because of the simple benefits that web 2.0 technologies can offer both students, but just as importantly to staff.

When one thinks of e-learning, the first thought quite naturally is of learning and probably most people conjure up an image of a wed page or maybe an interactive multimedia application. The crucial thing is from an institutional point of view is that apart from the learning, other very important issues are
• Communication between academic staff-students, administrative staff-students and students to student communication.
• Staff training and development
• Staff enthusiasm for the e-learning technology.

In light of the three points highlighted above it is worth considering what web 2.0 technologies can offer. I shall constrain myself to the use of just one web 2.0 technology which is worth exploring as a significant complimentary or maybe alternative approach to the Blackboard VLE approach and that is a wiki.

For staff they are relatively easy to use and learn how to use, they are for group collaboration either via editable web pages or discussion boards. All group members can send messages to each other within the wiki. All group members can choose to be notified of any changes to pages or replies to discussion board posts straight to their email accounts. Pages can be tagged for easy reference, wiki sites can be very easily backed up in html or wiki text format.

Wiki’s can be used for learning activities, project management, project collaboration or as a course management tool. Wiki’s can allow staff to collaborate on projects and developing module material together. The technology is and it has the potential to be useful, it will be up to individuals and groups how they make best use of it.

To give a comparison example, it would be far easier and save so much time in posting an announcement and associated document in a wiki, rather than in the equivalent announcement function in blackboard, especially if the author has to re-edit the announcement or change the associated document.

Another important consideration is that web 2.0 technologies such as wiki’s and blog’s are now becoming commonplace out there in every day life. They are important life skills that students and staff should develop as these transferable skills will be of great benefit to them personally and to future organizations that they work for.

Although there are many web 2.o services freely available on the internet, possible concerns from an institutional point of view may be security and privacy and delivery of service. As an example if we take wiki services on the web these can be made private and secure, as well as having minimal downtime. If institutions are not satisfied with the offerings of companies that do offer wiki servers they can always use ‘MediaWiki’ software which is wiki server software and can be controlled by the institution on their own servers.

To conclude I believe that over the next year or two HE institutions should most definitely design a web 2.0 delivery strategy and adopt and promote it in parallel with any existing Blackboard VLE setup so that they are in position to take the correct fork in the road if required. Personally with a well thought out implementation and staff training plan I believe that the uptake of web 2.0 technologies will spread quicker than an Aussie bush fire and it might have to be if higher education institutions do not want to lose competitive advantage.

Friday, February 02, 2007

That old Chestnut - Blogging

Well here we are and a month has gone by since my last blog. I would love to have included a few more blogs before the end of January 2007 but the reality is that I had a 31 Jan deadline to meet, in relation to the design of a synchronous lesson on the use of wiki’s. So I have not had a wasted month, I have been through the rigour and thought processes of designing for the synchronous classroom and at the same time I have continued with developing my understanding of how wiki’s work/ don’t work both from a technical point of view and from a human point of view.

Ideally I would have wrote this blog entry in the middle of January, but when you are in the heart of battle, it is difficult to break off to give updates when you are on the brink of victory or near the edge of failure.

That said I am here now telling my story and I like the fact that my commitment to blogging draws me back and gets me thinking about the next subject i can usefully blog about. So for me this blogging escapade that I am embarked upon is useful to me in that it helps to:

• Consolidate my knowledge
• Recheck facts that I am not sure of
• Think though the implications of what I am writing and therefore try and understand ideas, concepts and facts that I am writing about.

This is all very well, fine and dandy. As my blogging is in the context of a long haul approach over a two year period and will culminate in a reflective essay on my blogging activities perhaps it is ok that I use my blog to aid my learning as laid out in the three points above.

Practically though on a 12 week module how can reflective blogging be used to benefit the learning of students. Unless some deep thought(learning) is part of the process, then the blog can just become a desperate attempt to get the appropriate number of words, links, images etc etc to meet the assessment criteria. Effective Blog learning strategies – this is a subject for another time....

Further to my recent activities on using wiki’s my next blog will look at the strengths of wiki’s and what teaching/ learning strategies will lead to effective use of a wiki.

Footnote1: As I have just finished writing this blog, it occurs that it is good to give readers an expectation of what to expect in the next blog- hopefully to heighten expectation so that readers will be keen to return and read the next installment.

Footnote 2: I only intended to write a couple of paragraphs just as an update, but it has rekindled my desire to return to the question of “what is the point of blogging?”

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Making Sense of Learning

Theories of Learning
Precisely because learning is not a universally fixed or agreed concept, learning has been defined in many different ways. In trying to make sense of learning it seems appropriate and proper to establish at the outset that there are in fact different ways of learning, and that humans choose to learn different things in different ways.

The dominant focus on how people learn throughout the 20th century has been derived from psychology where the main theories of learning include behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Other major theories of learning are based on a humanistic perspective rather than a psychological view. The humanistic theories are concerned with emotions and feelings and to my mind, can and do work in parallel with the three main psychological theories of learning.

Many other theories of learning have been proposed over the years which predominantly fall within the scope of these four main theories. In some cases due to the complex nature of learning, aspects of many sub theories may crossover the theoretical divisions.

A strong theme that has emerged in recent years has been the influence of social and cultural aspects to the learning process, so amongst the many sub theories of learning, social learning theories are very important in the learning process of humans.

The social learning theory of Bandura emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others(Kearsley 2003)

Brian Science is a study of how physically the brain functions and I think it helps inform the debate on how people learn.

So what are you doing when you are learning? What is the result of the learning process?
Once again with this complex business of learning there are no easy answers. I venture to suggest that it would be fair to say that depending on your viewpoint and/ or what you are learning you will be acquiring or creating knowledge. In discussing Driscoll’s (2000) definition of learning Siemens (2005) states that learning as viewed by the three main theories results in a “lasting changed state (emotional, mental, physiological (i.e. skills) brought about as a result of experiences and interactions with content or other people.

Siemens (2005) highlights that all three major psychological learning theories i.e. Behaviorism, Cognivitism and Constructivism hold the notion that “knowledge is an objective (or a state) that is attainable (if not already innate) through either reasoning or experiences.

After reading the Siemens (2005) article, the key points for me in differentiating between the different theories of learning was the observation that
• Behaviorism and Cognivitism view knowledge as external to the learner and the learning process as the act of internalizing knowledge.
• Constructivism suggests that learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences (Driscoll 2000 in Siemens (2005))

Further to the points above:
• The essence of behaviorism can be captured in three assumptions about learning:
o Observable behavior is more important than understanding internal activities.
o Behavior should be focused on simple elements: specific stimuli and responses.
o Learning is about behavior change. (Gredler 2001 in Siemens (2005))
• In cognitivism, knowledge is viewed as symbolic mental constructs in the learner's mind, and the learning process is the means by which these symbolic representations are committed to memory. (Buell in Siemens (2005)))
• Constructivism assumes that learners are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Instead, learners are actively attempting to create meaning. Siemens (2005))
• Humanists, give primacy to the study of human needs and interests. A central assumption is that human beings behave out of intentionality and values. Huitt (2001)
Theories of learning can be described as explanations and descriptions of how people learn. Terry Mayes and Sara de Freitas (2004) offer the following definition

Theories of learning provide empirically-based accounts of the variables which influence the learning process, and provide explanations of the ways in which that influence occurs
What is apparent from reading the literature is that people can learn in a variety of different ways and are influenced by a number of factors. When it comes to learning material for students, awareness of the different learning theories combined with the learning objectives is essential in guiding a teacher in designing appropriate material for the subject and the objective to be learned.

Models of Learning
One of the most infuriating aspects of reading though the literature is trying to establish a clear distinction between a theory of learning and a model of learning. The difficulty lies in the fact that the word “Model” can be used to try and explain how exactly a learning theory works in a descriptive way i.e. modeling way. “Model” can also be used in a prescriptive way to suggest the best approach to take to enhance learning. In order for me to make sense of this contradiction I take the following views:
1. A theory of learning is a description of how people learn.
2. A model of learning is a prescriptive method (can be tightly or loosely prescribed) on how learning should best occur.
3. Models of learning will draw on various theories of learning and give teachers a framework in which to devise teaching strategies to ensure the maximum opportunity for student learning.
4. Models of learning are really models of teaching (see Teaching/ Learning Models)
5. Models of Learning/ Teaching will guide the Instructional Design activities developed for a program of study.

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