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Thursday, September 23, 2010

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE - PLE's need Teachers

Call it a PLE if you like, to me it is connectivist learning. Other terms that i can identify with are Dave Cormier's 'Community as Curriculum' approach and Wendy Drexler's elucidation of Networked learning in the 'Networked student model' (video) .

I agree with Jenny Mackness blog post on Curation and Balance in that it is the process that is of most interest and relevance when trying to explain to staff and students the benefits of 21st century connectivist learning. I think however the terms PLE and PLN are with us to stay and so an appreciation of the differences between the terms is useful. From the various blog posts it would seem that the consensus is that a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is more concerned with tools and technology and that Personal Learning Networks (PLN) are more concerned with connections to people. I agree with these distinctions and I like Vahid Masrour's (PLE, i think i got it (for me, anyways) concise view of their respective functions.

  • PLE - "My PLE is where I store all my “keys” to the network. The PLE takes me to my PLN through various gates and paths." and later he says "PLE's are nice, and useful, but they're the ticket and ride, not the destination. The destination is the PLN."
  • PLN - "One of the key concepts for me in a PLN is that learning is a social activity.", "The PLN is then more akin to a community, but with much looser connections, described in the literature as “weak ties”. He also states "The key aspect here are the connections, and what I can do with them, in the sense of doing something with them, not just benefiting from them."
PLE's and PLN's in context
Before I move onto the main theme of this post - The role of the teacher in a PLE, I wish to just talk about the context of PLE and PLN use. I can think of three different contexts where a PLE-PLN will be in use:
  1. Unconsciously - Those who without prior knowledge of the terms PLE and PLN learn from online pursuit of their interests combined with ongoing general social interaction.
  2. True self directed independent learners who have naturally seen the potential of connective technology to enhance their own learning and understanding OR initially teacher supported users who are now confident working and learning autonomously in a self directed way.
  3. Teacher supported PLE's and PLN's
As educators who see the learning benefits in a PLE/PLN approach then i think we need to recognize the importance of teacher supported PLE's and PLN's and the need to educate both teachers and students in order to promote this approach to learning.

Balance and the Teacher as Curator/Facilitator
Jenny Mackness and Wendy Drexler both highlight the issue of balance (in many respects), but notably in the issue of teacher intervention and getting the right balance between supporting and scaffolding the learner experience and letting students independently develop and grow their own PLE's and PLN's.

This excellent post by Leigh Blackhall Regarding George Siemens curators and George's subsequent excellent response breaks down possible roles involved in networked learning that the teacher may be classified as (Expert: Someone with sustained contribution to a field, Teacher: experts with authority, Curator: play the role of interpreting, organizing, and presenting content, Facilitator: able to guide, direct, lead, and assist learners, not necessarily being a subject matter expert.

I note that George in his Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching post likes the idea of curator to reflect the role of network administrators/organisers in a networked learning environment. Previously I have always used the term 'teacher as facilitator'. After reading George's definitions i believe curating is probably more apt. In a teacher supported PLE/PLN the teacher will probably do both roles.

Further to this I see the PLE-PLN as part of a learning strategy that runs alongside a more deliberate and social and active learning approach where more contrived learning tasks and activities are instigated to improve connectedness. It's all about context i think, but I note this may go against the grain of leading connectivist thinker Stephen Downes whose views are explored in this blog post - The groups and networks debate (I shall read more on this later).

I see the role of the teacher as curator/facilitator as absolutely critical to helping students to appreciate and then develop the PLE-PLN approach to learning. It seems natural to me that intervention can be gauged on a continuum whereby new PLE-PLN learners are quite heavily supported and this support gradually diminishes as the learners evolve into confident autonomous and self directed learners.

Making PLE's and PLN's work Better

Vahid Masrour finishes his blog post with these questions/observation. "I guess my next question then becomes: why focus on PLEs? Shouldn't we be trying to figure out how to make PLN work better?"

I think he has a good point. Development of your PLE is about working with technology, refining your use of tools to give you more keys or more efficient access to your network of people and resources. This process alone will enhance connectivist learning skills, but it is in addressing how to make PLN's work better that enhanced learning can occur. i.e how to improve connection making and strengthen connections.

We can explore this more at another time, but the main themes worth exploring in this regard are.
  1. Learner centered pedagogic development for teachers
  2. Technological and online skills and practices development for teachers
  3. Technological and online skills and practices development for learners
  4. More use of web conferencing for live interactive synchronous learning activities.
I'' leave you with an excellent book - Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment: A Guide to Facilitating Learning in Higher Education, which will serve as a guide for face to face and online facilitating and focus thinking on how this pedagogic approach can be adapted using the online technology available.


Friday, September 17, 2010

A Deliberate and Effective PLE

Initial reading that has help me to formulate my opinion on this topic is the excellent Developing Personal learning networks for open and social learning article by Alec Courous who explains the rationale for choosing a primary free and open learning environment and describing the course facilitation model to promote an open an social personal learning network, John Mak's Research into the Design and Delivery of MOOC blog post which contains a number of prompts in relation to open and social learning compared with the more structured and traditional way of learning, Dave Cormier's 5 points about PLE'S and PLN'S which gives a good overview of key points on the topic and Scott Leslie's Mother of All PLE Diagram Compilation.

Thinking about my own PLE in relation to the reading led me to developing my own PLE Model. The thinking behind the model is outlined below the following diagram.

Questions that crossed my mind were:

1. Is your PLE Deliberate? By this i mean has your PLE just grown organically by adding and experimenting with different services or have you deliberately organised and designed your PLE to suit your learning Purpose.

2. What is the Purpose of your PLE? which leads onto the question...

3. What model of a PLE fits your purpose? (need to review PLE Models)

When considering Question 2 further questions come to mind such as:

4. What do you do in a PLE?

5. What is learning in a PLE?

Once you have a better understanding of what you do in a PLE, How you learn in a PLE and what the purpose of your PLE is you can in a more informed way address the question

6. What technically do i need to do to make my PLE Effective?

So - What about my PLE, is it Deliberate, does it have a purpose
In asking myself is my PLE deliberate the simple answer thus far is NO. Yes i do have a collection of tools that i use to help with my learning and maintaining personal connections, but previously i have not thought through clearly what i hope to achieve with my PLE. Until now most of my learning is driven by my immediate needs, the galvanising effect of being enrolled on a formal course or involved in informal but Studious and intentional courses such as this MOOC and serendipitous casual learning.

When thinking about the purpose of my PLE it strikes me that i have needs for a number of distinct learning situations, but i shall concern myself with my primary interest which is learning and education and in particular social, active and participatory learning.

Towards a Deliberate and Effective PLE
If we start with the premise that when creating a deliberate and effective PLE you are signed up to the notion you can enhance your learning by learning in an open, social, participatory, sharing way then at the most abstract level I think of what you do in a PLE as the 3x3.
1. Collate, filter/sort and share TOPIC/CONTENT information
2. Collate, filter/sort and share PERSONAL ACTIVITY
3. Collate, filter/sort and share NETWORK ACTIVITY
By actively contributing to these activities you will be contributing to your own and others learning. It can quite a demanding business, but being organised and deliberate will help and being kind to yourself in recognising that you may not have all the time you would like to contribute fully will help as well.

Practically - What do you do in a PLE?
It was interesting perusing the diagrams at Scott Leslie's Mother of All PLE Diagram Compilation, but quite overwhelming at times. Nevertheless it did help me consolidate what i believe occurs in a PLE and consequently has now given me a model to follow in constructing my own deliberate and effective PLE.

To simplify and understand what you do in a PLE I have broken down the key elements to SIX key activities plus your CONTROL center of Choice. We'll call this the CONTROL PLUS SIX model. Linked into this model is the recognition that the web based tools that you use in this model will have multiple uses and can fit in any of the six activities depending on your own learning purpose. The six activities that i have identifed are 1. Data Gathering, 2. Publishing, 3. Communication, 4. Collaboration, 5. Reflection and 6. Planning.

I think most activities can be bracketed under these headings. I welcome any thoughts as to whether these broad categories do indeed capture the range of activity that ensues in a PLE.

The Control Plus Six PLE Model

0. The control centre: Whatever you use to pull together all the collating, sorting and sharing of topic/content information, personal and network activity. May be a combination of tools, not neccessarily just one. For example a Wordpress blog, Integrated Google tools, Personal Blog with Tweetdeck and RSS Feed reader.

1. Data Gathering : (Inbound Activity) - e.g. diigo, delicious social bookmarking, google search, network tweets, network blog posts, facebook links
2. Publishing: (Outbound Activity) - e.g. blogging, creating multimedia, presentations, articles
3. Communication: (Inbound and Outbound Activity) - e.g. discussion forums, tweeting, email, social networking (i.e facebook), web conferencing, instant messaging
4. Collaboration: (Inbound and Outbound Activity) - e.g. wikis, google docs, project collaborations, presentations, research, article writing
5. Reflection: (Neutral - Home Activity) - e.g. blogs, wikis, notes (facebook, diigo)
6. Planning: (Neutral - Home Activity) - e.g. google calendar, project management (i.e basecamp)


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Digital Participation, Digital Inclusion and Social Learning

Digital Participation - Why?

Attended the 'Measuring the Unmeasurable: Digital Participation' Seminar at Birmingham University on Monday 19th July. I was unsure as to what to expect. My motivation to attend stems from my interest in informal online learning and how connectivist methods of online learning can be used to promote digital participation. Also interested in the notion of measuring participation. The purpose of the session was to provide a forum for discussion of the meaning and measurability of digital participation
. Key objectives of this initiative from Birmingham City University was to:
  • To start up a continuing dialogue between researchers, activists and policy-makers about issues of research and measurement.
  • To identify key concerns about the meaning and value of digital participation.
It would seem and i agree that widespread digital participation is a desirable aim for the government of any country. Desirable if you are a government that wishes to be inclusive and not have certain sections of the nation excluded from modern communication. Indeed here in the UK the topic has attracted interest because the previous government identified a goal of increasing digital participation. The new coalition Government also shares this ambition. More information can be found here at the raceonline2012 website. The importance of digital inclusion and digital participation for the Government are emphasised by Martha Lane Fox, the governments UK Digital champion:
"We need to be ambitious, ‘think internet first’ when we design services, and put the needs of the hardest to reach at the heart of industry, charity and government. There is a social and moral case to make sure more people are online but there is a clear economic case too. We will all be better off when everyone is online." July 2010
Throughout the seminar i kept asking myself why - Why are the Government pushing this, What is their motivation, What is their Vision. Martha Lane Fox offers this:

and the seminar introductory text offers this:

"Lord Carter presented the final Digital Britain report in June 2009 (. The report highlighted the need to engage a wider cross section of the public in going online; identifying that such engagement would result in the efficiencies and economic benefits expected from living and working in the digital age. It is quite a detailed report and i have not had a chance to read it yet. As part of the digital participation agenda the following were identified as important topics to address:
  • Digital Life Skills
  • Digital Inclusion and
  • Digital Media literacy

Overview of Proceedings

Speakers at this event included:
  • Professor David Macguire Birmingham University, Pro-Vice Chancellor Corporate Development
  • Paul Watson – Director, Digital Economy Hub for Inclusion through the Digital Economy
  • Catherine Bunting – Director of Research, Arts Council England
  • Alison Preston – Senior Research Associate, Ofcom
Proceedings were kicked of by Professor David Macguire who emphasized the point that we are now part of a knowledge sharing economy and that through the development of digital technology their has been an information revolution, but without effort to achieve digital participation throughout the country then we will perpetuate the digital divide that exists, whee currently 12.5 mullion out of the 65-70 million will not be participating.

Keynote Speaker Paul Watson told us about the Social Inclusion through the Digital Economy
. (side) research project that looks at problems of accessibility, connection at home and in society, transport and capitalizing on the emeregence of creative industries through the eyes of technologists, sociologists, business leaders and end users to provide scalable, sustainable and economically viable solutions. This project goes much wider than just ensuring that people have access to the internet, but does encapsulate good practice in promoting a model of joined up thinking on the subject of digital participation. This short video explains the sort of thing Paul Watson and his team are researching:

Alison Pearson outlined what Ofcom who had been commissioned under the Cartrer Report (2009) to collect statistics on digital participation outlined
the approach they have taken to measuring digital participation. This included measuring:
  • Reach: Who uses the Internet, Where do they use it, How do they access it.
  • Breadth: The ranges and types of Activity
  • Depth: User contributions and Content creation.
Part of the role of Ofcom is to them measure the social and economic impact i.e. The extent to which participating online had improved social contact and economically whether savings had been made. Additionally Ofcom looked at the appetite for take up amongst non users and the reasons why some people do not have the internet at home.

Whilst the final speaker Catherine Bunting had some worthwhile incites into using cluster analysis and segmentation research methodologies to get a firm grip on who is participating in arts based events (off line) and lessons can be learned and applied to digital measurement I was much more interested in How do we get people to participate, what does participate mean or simply asking the question why should you/me participate.

Presumably others felt similarly as the afternoon workshop by Jennifer Jones on Depth
was by far and away the most well attended.

Why is participation important? - Some thoughts!
Well too me it depends on who is answering the question, but the bottom line to me is that participating online promotes social learning and learning in all its forms is a strong foundation for progress within a society. There was a strong feeling i got from our discussions on the day that one of the strong motivations was to save the government money by moving services online - which is all fine, dandy, proper and good but whoever is driving this vision must be driving with a passionate belief that being a digital citizen allows the individual and society to develop and improve both from a social and economic point of view.

If we leave the top end knowledge workers to one side, to encourage full digital citizenship there needs to be a social, life benefit to participating which will attract interest from all levels of the community. To the individual if their are benefits to be gained economically or in terms of convenience then this will indeed be one strand of the motivation. If digital participation can have a link to offline activities that foster community and social activities that would be another important and worthwhile strand. Participating online, mixing and socializing will inevitable lead to informal social learning, but there are also fantastic opportunities to support people online who are looking to learn specific skills and competencies.

So underpinning effective and inclusive digital participation will be education and especially education in the new media literacies that are required to function effectively in a wide range of activities on the web. This may require a change in teaching mentality that embraces new media technology in schools. The video below will set the scene for creating digital citizens for the 21st century.

Alison Pearson of Ofcom talked of the importance of media literacy and on that subject here is a fantastic resource from Ruth Howard one of the participants of a recent CritLit2010 worldwide online course pondering the critical literacies required for the online networked learner. A lot of links here to educators around the world that are discussing and debating how the web can foster social and informal learning.

To wrap up i would say obviously that massive investment in kids education from 5 upwards is imperative. Reading and writing would be a good place to start (and overcome the nonsense of kids in the UK not being able to read and write effectively as they move into teenage and adult life), followed by good grounding, good experience and good discussion on how to participate in a social media driven web world. On that theme Howard RheinGold's Participatory Media And The Pedagogy Of Civic Participation presentation is a comprehensive look at participatory media. For existing adults i do believe the learndirect type centers offer good potential to develop digital and community participation. Having worked in a similar drop-in style computer center for Stafford College many years ago - it was very effective in teaching the basic skills of computing and having a focal point in the community.

Development of other online social enterprises such as those run by Stuart Parker at We Share Stuff and Comunity focused Social Media Surgeries whose aim it is to take make it easier to find and run social media surgeries to support community groups, local charities and local active citizens are welcome initiatives..

Another useful website to help in upgrading basic computer skills is Online basics
That's about it from me - i think you can see that my view is that an aim to improve learning for all and develop better educated citizens is the best way to approach the aim of making digital participation inclusive for all.

I leave you finally with some interesting websites from outside of the UK that may help inform thinking on this subject - One from America The Institute of Digital Inclusion and one from Australia whose aim is to build bridges between educators and technology to help make technology accessible, easy to understand and simple to use.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Connectivist Learning #CritLit2010 #CCK09

After reading George Siemen's post on Connectivism taxonomy and John Mak's response I compared the points expressed with the critical literacy taxonomy that i had published in my last blog post and with my own views on connectivist learning. I have subsequently created a wiki page to develop a Critical Literacies Taxonomy and a wiki page that looks at Connectivist Taxonomy Linked to Critical Literacies. I'd welcome any input to develop and discuss the issues as a group from interested colleagues.

If we start with some feedback on George's proposed connectivist taxonomy. Firstly I agree with the suggestion from Brad Hodge that metacognition could come in as early as connection forming. Maybe at Praxis level metacognition encapsulates more thought about the network. As John Mak asserts maybe in the "chaos and fuzzy dynamic" connnectivist online environment it is difficult to "measure competency in a discreet manner" with regard to the development of a connectivist learner. I based my subsequent Connectivist Taxonomy Linked to Critical Literacies, on John's further proposal that a dynamic n-dimensional (mxn) model of taxonomy may be more suitable. You'll notice from the model that one further distinction i have drawn is that the connectivist taxonomy appears to progress from individual knowledge development and then move on the network knowledge development and i thought it was important to emphasize that distinction.

The other strong points to emerge for me were the 1) excellent point raised by Avi Charkam and the role of the teacher in the taxonomy of connectivist learning and 2) John Mak's highlighting of the social and emotional elements that contribute to learning e.g. emotional control, self awareness, self confidence, motivation, social skills and interpersonal skills, social elements (social awareness, ethics, intelectual property awareness etc). Perhaps a matrix model may help in this regard

On a side, but equally relevant issue these two points struck a chord with me as my in my masters dissertation i proposed a model of distance learning termed SCORE 2.0. This model was inspired by connectivism, wherby i see not just the fantastic potential of asynchronous communication to aid informal learning, but i see the interactive synchronous classroom sessions as a fantastic medium to connect people much more strongly than asynchronous alone. I see the teacher being very important in this model of distance learning - not just in delivering, but in planning the whole learning experience. Connectivist, active and social learning runs through the heart of the model and the teachers role is to engineer and support development of a connectivist mentality. It would seem that the approach to connectivist learning is that it is strongly self directed learning. I believe that connectivist learning can be viewed along a continuum from heavily supported learning to a fully self directed learning and that the teacher has the important role if giving the appropriate support at various times along this continuum.

The key findings of my masters disseration were that the online synchronous classroom when used in conjunction with varied learning activities can be a motivating and engaging environment in which to build a community of learners. Supporting ‘Web 2.0’ technologies play an important part in supporting the community of learners and in helping to develop learner autonomy. Vital to the successful implementation of the model is an appropriately trained and motivated teacher. For those interested here is my dissertation.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Network Learning: A Taxonomy of Critical Literacies #CritLit 2010

From the discussions and reflection so far in the CritLit 2010 course I set out to build on my earlier blog posts and develop my own understanding of critical literacies for the 21st century networked learner. Encouraged by Ruth Howard and John Mak i initially considered developing a taxonomy of literacies in the form of a visual model to capture the elements identified by the Critit2010 group. In considering what to include and how to represent it i started to reflect back on the course materials, presentations and discussions.

Foundational Critical Literacies

Strange as it may seem i have not seen many of the presentations related to the weekly topics, but have worked from the readings and the subsequent blog postings of others. It was good then to work my way through Grainne Conole's presentation on one of the key foundational literacies (as proposed by Stephen Downes) which came in week 1 on Cognition.
Simultaneously i was trying to appreciate the significance of what i would call the other key 'communicative' or 'signifying' foundational literacies of syntactics, semantics and pragmatics and wondering whether these foundational literacies can be worked into my proposed visual model. An example of what i had in mind can be seen is this visual model of Bloom's Taxonomy.

The importance of the other key foundational literacies of 'appreciation of context' and the 'ability to recognise and adapt to change' quickly became apparent in Grainne's presentation. Grainne pointed out that the context of education is itself changing. We have an explosion of new and ever changing technologies, ubiquitous networked access (mobile and broadband) and an abundance of free online tools and applications.Additionally learners themselves are changing - they are growing up 'digital' - i.e technologically immersed, task orientated, group based and just in time mentality and comfortable with multiple representation. This context facilitates new technological approaches that move from a content driven, transmission passive recipient model of learning to a more participative, active and social way of teaching and learning. In this context the six key foundational literacies are going to be much more important for networked learning. Grainne points out that although the technological environment in the 21st century fosters a myriad of affordances (action possibilities) for a learner - the affordances for an individual will be limited to their capabilities - i.e their critical literacies.

Grainne suggests that the technological affordances at all levels (written words and numbers, 1st wave technology - phone, radiot, tape,TV, 2nd wave technology of computer networks, mobiles, the internet) are communication, connection, interactivity and representation and that practices evolve depend on the characteristics of the users (e.g. preferences, interests, skills, context).

We can see for networked learners in the 21st century an example of how critical literacies are important when we consider Grainne's example of using the microblogging service 'Twitter". Examples of use include posting queries, commenting, gathering opinions, sharing ideas, brainstorming, maintaining social presence. We'll just consider some of the issues of using this service that were raised and how they may relate to our foundational critical literacies. Issues identified were:

i) Your 'a-ha' moment (cognition - ability to infer)
ii) is it the right network (context)
iii) your digital voice (syntax, semantics and pragmatics i.e how you communicate)
iv) Inappropriateness (syntax, semantics, pragmatics cognition, context and maybe change)
v) Personal/Private (context and maybe change)
vi) Too much twittering (cognition and maybe change)
vii) Use with other tools (cognition, context and maybe change) and
viii) A passing fad (cognition context and maybe change).

I'd be interested to hear others view on how i have tried to relate these foundational critical literacies to issues raised in twitter. At times i was not sure i could make a clear relationship. Where i feel more comfortable is in trying to align some of the practical (more tangible) literacies identified during this course and positioning these in some sort of schema, taxonomy or model that may inform the inclusion of these critical literacies as part of teaching and learning.

A taxonomy of Critical Literacies (skills) for the networked learner

I have so far collated the information below, i have put it into a semi visual format, but repeated in text format below. Still lots to reflect on, but maybe others would like consider if the top level categories need expanding/changing and what is missing from this taxonomy of critical literacies. Critical thinking skills are considered to be brought to bear on all the critical literacies from 4-7. Final thought as i write this - should these categories be referred to as skills so as not to be confused with our underlying foundational critical literacies.

1. Basic
* i) Reading/Writing
* ii) Numeracy

2. Life
* i) Management of Time, Workload and Prioritising,
* II) Self-Efficacy

3. Computer
* e.g. ECDL - European Computer Driving License

4. Web -
* 1.Managing your Digital Identity - SM
* 2.Recognizing Authenticity and Legitimate Authority - SM
* 3.Emotional and Social Intelligence (Relationship Building and Development inc trust and respect) - JohnM
* 4.Self Expression and Participation - SM
* 5.Wayfinding behaviors and Strategies in Large Virtual Environments – JennyM
* 6.Ask Questions - Think Critically! JohnM

5. Learning
* 1.Interpreting Visual Data RH
* 2.Information management - Network Student Youtube Video
* 3.Self reflection, self-directed learning (with learning agenda, experimentation & practice – JohnM
* 4.Concise, reflective expression and inquiry? . – JohnM
* 5.Appreciating the impact of Complexity Theory? – JennyM
* 6.Literacy of Memory (Storage of data/knowledge/connections –SM
* 7.Storytelling - X28

6. Teaching/ Professional Development
* to explore

7. Research
* to explore

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Getting Anchored in My #CritLit 2010 MOOC


When I started the Critical Literacy 2010 course, I started late and was not exactly sure what the major focus of the course was. In my mind the dominant thought was that this was a course that was primarily concerned with Critical Thinking Skills. Reflecting back at the outset, the course details did outline that:
"Content for the course is being drawn from the presentation Pedagogical Foundations for Personal Learning This presentation provides a frame for an understanding of the critical literacies required in a networked learning environment. Briefly, the elements are as follows: i) Syntax, ii) Semantics, iii) Pragmatics, iv) Cognition, v) Context and vi) Change."
During the course, discussion has emerged around the topic of critical thinking and many of the participants have gone on to suggest practical critical literacies that learners in a networked learning environment need to develop. The six week course as it suggests in the course details does also indeed follow the course themes weekly and these provide a background to the practical critical literacies which are being discussed on the course. I am much more comfortable discussing the practical critical literacies as i previously have not looked at all deeply at the underpinning elements of communication and thinking that are the bedrock of this course. I have not been able to attend the online synchronous presentations and i have not looked at the recordings (included here) yet either:
Impetus to learn more about Philosophy and Communication

Whilst preparing this blog post it seemed that although i believe i have something to contribute to the course that my main focus should be to ensure that i have good (better) grounding in the main underpinning topics and themes. This was a deviation from my intention which was to peruse various blogs from the CritLit 2010 course, looking for further discussion of literacies that might be deemed critical (as in imperative). Instead inspired by Ruth Howard's Blog post Self as a locus of Learning I linked to the following article on the pros and cons of postmodernism. Ruth was directed to this resource by the industrious, forthcoming and very interesting blog postings of John Mak. John's recent postings relating to the topic of critical litercaies include:
Reading the article on the pros and cons of postmodernism.gave me the impetus to get a brief grounding in Philosophy - A subject that i have not previously explored in any great depth. What i discovered from Wikipedia was that "17th century philosophy in the Western world is generally regarded as being the start of modern philosophy,", generally known as the Age of Reason. I learnt that this era was followed in the 18th Century by the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightment preceded the 19th Century Modernism philosophy, before the 20th century philosophy of Postmodernism came to the foreground.

Looking at the main themes of the course, communication is the nub of all the critical literacies being considered and therefore an appreciation of Linguistics, the study of natural language is a useful attribute. Important to note that linguistics can be divided between the study of language structure (grammar including syntax) and the study of meaning (semantics and pragmatics). Within the field, linguist is used to describe someone who either studies the field or uses linguistic methodologies to study groups of languages or particular languages. Outside the field, this term is commonly used to refer to people who speak many languages or have a great vocabulary. Wikipedia 2010.

A closely related field concerned with the general study of signs and symbols both in language and outside of it is Semiotics and whilst considering the topic of pragmatics in relation to a networked learner living in a multimedia environment it seems that communicative elements are going to be more than just the written or spoken word.

The Critical Literacy Pyramid

Since the last time i blogged i have perused a few more postings (not as many as i would have liked) and have been considering all the different Critical literacies that have been mooted. In trying to make some coherent sense of them i started to categorize them into top level literacies and categorized them accordingly. This needs thinking through a lot more,but in trying to catalogue them i have been considering a critical literacy pyramid model. Thus far i have captured the following mooted critical literacies and have categorized them thus:

  1. Basic Literacy - Reading and Writing
  2. Life Literacies
3. Computer Literacy (Digital Literacy - María Fernanda Arenas) – For example Completing an ECDL certificate could be evidence of this
4. Web Literacy - Navigating the Web including use of social media and appreciation of cultural, ethical, social and legal issues
5. Learning Literacy – Appreciation of how to use Web 2.0 tools and technologies in combination with various learning theories and strategies
  1. I observe data visualisation as an emergent critical literacy - Ruth Howard comment
  2. Information management mentioned as a critical literacy Network Student Youtube Video
  3. Self reflection, self-directed learning (with learning agenda, experimentation & practice), and relationship building (same as 2) John Mak
  4. Would that be the critical literacy that I also aspire to – concise, reflective expression and inquiry? . – John Mak
  5. Is a critical literacy for networked learning to know something about Complexity Theory? - Jenny Mackness
  6. Literacy of Memory –Steve Mackenzie
  7. Would another critical literacy be ASKING QUESTIONS? . John Mak
6. Teaching Literacy - Appreciation of how to use Web 2.0 tools and technologies to create and foster learning activities
What about Critical thinking? - see below

I intend to turn this into a diagram at some point. If you can imagine this as a pyramid with 1 at the bottom.I envisage perhaps a set of critical litercies that logically build on the preceding literacy. I apreciate that there colud be some overlapping/fuzzy areas especially maybe beween 5 and 6. Missing from the list is critical thinking which i'd have as an external force from level 4 onwards, (maybe earlier?). I need to think a lot more about it. This is my first stab, i am sure there are other top level literacies and many many more sub literacies ( or maybe not - maybe the list needs to be pruned or merged already). The main thing i wanted to do was to identify some top level literacies, so that all those literacies mentioned can much more easily be related to their purpose.
María Fernanda Arenas wrote a very interesting blog post relating pragmatics to digital literacy and along with Ruth set me off on this quest to know more about the underlying principles of communication and also increased my interest in trying to categorize critical literacies as i have never liked the term 'digital literacy' - it just conjures up images of zero's and one's to me.

What about Critical thinking?Again
Note that this blog post has drawn uncritically from Wikipedia for ease of reference. I generally find Wikipedia a reliable place to get initial descriptions, definitions and overviews from which i can delve into more deeply at a later date. I have found that i have used my blogging in this course more as a storage place for useful links for latter reference. By writing a blog post though i feel as though i have engaged much more with the material in trying to weave the links into a coherent written piece and i love the easy accessibility in retrieving this information (my learning) at a later date. Blogging is great for capturing the learning?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Critical Literacy – The Struggle Moves to a Different Arena – My Arena #CritLit2010

A snapshot of discussion around the term ‘Critical literacies’

The topic of what is actually meant by Critical Literacy has been raised in a number of places. Heli Nurmi an educationalist with many years experience has some great blog posts around the topic of critical literacy in this course and asks the questions “are we going to learn anything new, will we learn about new knowledge building, new media literacies (yes, but what?) or is it only technology which develops?” Heli’s three initial blog post give plenty of food for thought:

To guide others on the course Ulop O’Taat highlights the following text with this signposting - So Ken, if you and others are struggling with what is meant by critical literacies in this course, re-read the opening moodle page.

Critical, as the course is not just about finding out how to use the latest technologies for learning, but to look critically at the Web and its underlying structures. Literacies, as it is more about capabilities to be developed than about the acquisition of a set of skills”.

Ken Anderson in his post on Critical Literacy had previously highlighted his struggle to understand what is meant by Critical Literacies in the context of this course. He identifies two themes from the course information:

  • CL: literacies critical to functioning in a PLE. This definition suggests tool familiarity
  • CL: abilities related to critical thinking, reading, writing i.e. logic skills, syntax etc. as noted in the course outline

And makes an additional observation about the course

  • What I have really found interesting is Kop’s statement that the heart of the ‘course’ is about who controls access to information. Is this what this ‘course’ is primarily concerned with? Those that control the means of distribution (of information)… Will this be a course in Marxism?

My own sense-making of the term ‘Critical Literacies’ and my subsequent learning strategy

I more or less identified the same two strands as Ken, which i referred to in an earlier blog post. In trying to establish what is meant by critical literacies in the context of this course I focused on what I considered to be the two most relevant meanings of ‘critical’ that come to mind. These being:

  1. Critical as imperative. i.e. imperative literacies to have
  2. Critical as in being analysed and evaluated i.e. Literacies that analyse and evaluate

Additionally mindful of the stated aims/purposes of the course I also was aware that i need to consider the following element of criticality.

3. Critical as in looking at (analysing and evaluating) the Web and its underlying structures: i.e. sing traditional Critical thinking skills to analyse and evaluate the web and its underlying structures.

It seems to me that there is already a well established set of generally agreed critical thinking skills – therefore in relation to point 2 above I think the question to be pursued is “What technologies will best facilitate traditional critical thinking skills?”.

With regard to point 1, 'critical' as imperative seems to me to be the most important thing to focus on for the self directed learner in a networked personal learning environment and so far on this course the following critical literacies have been offered from the floor or have been found by me in text or video content that i have perused: My intention is to continue to trawl through the CritLit2010 opinions and offerings to add and then to refine the list:

  1. Management of Time, Workload and Prioritising –Jenny Mackness
  2. Relationship Building and Development – John Mak
  3. Wayfinding behaviors and Strategies in Large Virtual Environments - Jenny Mackness
  4. Literacy of Memory –Steve Mackenzie
  5. I observe data visualisation as an emergent critical literacy - Ruth Howard comment
  6. Information management mentioned as a critical literacy Network Student Youtube Video
  7. Emotional and Social Intelligence – John Mak
  8. Self reflection, self-directed learning (with learning agenda, experimentation & practice), and relationship building (same as 2) John Mak

So i plan to continue looking at themes of the week, but ultimately at the end of this course i hoped to have a clear idea of the emerging critical literacies (as in imperative) that a networked learner should develop. Maybe i should put this list in a wiki for all to add to – need to get this blog post finished and then have a rest first J

With regard to point 3 and issues of power and control, i shall leave that until another time.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Critical Literacy Course: An Online Distribued Learning Model adhering to a pedagogy of self directed learning using a PLE–Introducing #CritLit2010

Some Background

I became aware of connectivist, networked models of learning whilst completing my MA in the use of interactive and collaborative technology for Adult Distance Learners in 2008. I immediately appreciated the fantastic learning opportunities afforded by web 2.0 or social software and during this time I developed a model, of learning which I termed SCORE 2.0 (Synchronous Community Orientated Reflective and Experiential). A lot more research and development needs to be done but essentially i see this model as a combination of formal learning with the informal self directed connectivist model of learning. I look forward to revisiting and refining the SCORE 2.0 Model to compare with the Online Distributed Model of Learning that drives this course as i am keen to work connectivist learning into formal learning situations. Additionally whilst being a learner on CCK08, the first Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) I became aware of this much larger (Massive J), more open way of learning.

Why I enrolled

I enrolled on the course initially to learn more about critical thinking skills. The course also gives me a focus for learning, a motivation to put the hours to read and think more deeply than if i was just perusing the web for learning opportunities. Although the course is built around self directed learning there is a loose structure and more importantly a simultaneous group effort focused on the same themes at the same time (spread over a 6 week period).

What I found

After reading the course details further I found that the focus of the course whilst embracing critical thinking is primarily focused on the critical literacies that are needed to work with technology in a networked personal learning environment. Perfect – I get to:

  • · Think more about Critical Thinking Skills
  • · Think more about Critical Literacy Skills in relation to networked PLE’s
  • · Practically develop my PLE and Networking skills in this MOOC environment.
  • · Learn about Learning

First Thoughts

Firstly I needed to get organised – Do not want to miss any possible postings in this distributed environment. Prior to the course my own personal learning environment has revolved around using tweetdeck to monitor twitter activity. The easy setting up of search columns makes this a great application to monitor twitter activity. John Mak and Irmerli Aro and Michelle Drechsler have recently awoken me to the to the fantastic media rich and connectively sweet environment that is facebook. (I have never fancied using Facebook educationally in a formal class, but adopting it for use as part of your own personal learning network is a WIN WIN WIN situation).

So, for this course I Joined up to the Daily (aggregator of course news), but the best thing at the moment is using Google alerts – a quick and easy notification to my Google mail of anything related to the course using the hash tag #CritLit2010. Started to gather all #CritLit2010 feeds in Google reader, but have reverted back to just working from the alerts in Google Mail.

Found most useful to read the Course details page on the wiki to orientate myself to what this course was all about. The Blog posts of Jenny Mackness, John Mak and Heli Nurmi have initially kept me orientated. I feel; as though I am struggling to catch up, but we’ll see how we go. Mike Bogle’s Warcraft guild for CritLit2010 Blog post and his suggestion of using the gaming arena as a vehicle to facilitate learning seems good to me – I am a strong believer in synchronous online activity to strengthen bonds especially in conjunction with problem or task based learning. Unfortunately have not had time to engage much with other learners yet.

So what is Critical Literacy and what are we (me) to learn about

The Course Introductory page on Moodle states that:

Technology has brought changes to the way people learn and some “critical literacies” are becoming increasingly important. This course is about these critical literacies.

In the context of this course I expect to learn more about Critical Thinking Skills in general and Critical Literacy Skills in relation to networked PLE’s.

Critical Thinking Skills

John Mak posted a link to a useful presentation on the topic of Critical Thinking. The presentation initially asserts that Thinking is a purposeful, organised, cognitive process that we use to make sense of the world”.

The presentation goes onto explain that there are two types of thinking i)Creative Thinking - left side brain activities that generate new ideas and ii) Critical Thinking – right side brain activities involving for example analysing, evaluating, reasoning. There are a couple of definitions offered revolving around the themes such ash reflecting on the meaning of statements, examining the offered evidence, forming judgments around the facts – ultimately it is about checking facts, making assumptions, drawing conclusions, challenging assertions and exploring other points of view.

To quote from the presentation (Module 1: Introduction to Critical Thinking, Zaid Ali Alsagoff 2007)

Critical thinking is the general term given to a wide range of cognitive and intellectual skills needed to:

  • Effectively identify, analyse and evaluate arguments
  • Discover and overcome personal prejudices and biases.
  • Formulate and present convincing reasons in support of conclusions.
  • Make reasonable, intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do.

Useful to consider from the presentation also these Critical thinking Standards:

  • · Clarity - e.g Can you give an example to illustrate your point?
  • · Accuracy - e.g Is the information source valid and accurate?
  • · Precision - e.g Could you be more specific?
  • · Relevance - e.g How is that connected to the question?
  • · Depth - e.g How are complexities addressed?
  • · Breadth - e.g Is here another way of looking at the question?
  • · Logic - e.g You have two contradicting statements - How do you square that :-)
  • · Fairness - e.g open minded, impartial, free of distorting biases and pre-conceptions.

Suggested Barriers to Critical Thinking Include:

  • · Egocentrism
  • · Sociocentrism
  • · Unwarranted assumptions
  • · Wishful thinking
  • · Relativistic thinking

Critical Literacy Skills (in relation to networked PLE’s)

To paraphrase the course designers this course is designed around the notion that to learn effectively in a PLE a certain set of skills and competencies are required. The course has in part been designed to test whether learners can in fact employ these skills to effectively self direct their own learning in a PLE OR whether and additional pedagogy is required prior to the use of a PLE. Note to self: Need to ascertain the role of the facilitators and whether more interventions on their part constitutes an additional pedagogy or whether teacher as facilitator is part of the pedagogy it just depend to what degree they scaffold and assist learning. The competencies identified are drawn from Stephen Downes presentation on the pedagogical foundations of learning. The Critical Literacies required are deemed to be:

  • Syntax – the ability to recognize and use forms, grammars, patterns and other structural properties of communication. This would include information literacy and ontology of information.
  • Semantics – the ability to connect communicative elements to underlying purposes, goals, objectives, theories or meaning, denotation, reference, truth and understanding. Including new ways of interpreting information and evaluating media, through aggregation and filtering for instance.
  • Pragmatics – the capacity to use communicative elements in actions, or to take actions using communication, to express, commit, interrogate, and engage in interactions. Including being active participants in the world and on the Web versus passive consumers.
  • Cognition – the capacity to infer, or detect faulty inferences, to use communicative elements in order to describe, argue, explain or define. Including the power of reflection, authority of knowledge, stability of knowledge, communication as conversation or as dialogue.
  • Context – the capacity to locate a communication in a wider environment, to understand the impact of this environment on semantics and pragmatics, and to assemble and understand sets of communications as expressive of frames, world views, or deontological constructs. Including issues of power, control, and ownership; motivational and affective issues.
  • Change – the capacity to reason dynamically, to detect and comprehend processes and flows, to understand the impact of progressions and differences, to reason employing dynamic events such as games and simulations.

The bullet pointed list above is an Extract from Critical Literacies Online Course Details and Learners in this type of course are expected to exercise the capacities described above.

Course Modus Operandi - Learner Expectations

Four types of activity are expected in this connectivist type course:

  • Aggregation (of content) e.g access Moodle for recommended readings, google alerts, RSS feeds
  • Remix e.g. Keep track of what you have read, maybe via a blog, social bookmarking, post in the moodle discussion boards
  • Repurpose e.g Put your own spin on the content you have aggregated, outline your own understandings
  • Feed Forward e.g. Share your repurposed work with others - Blog about it tweet about your blog or interesting links, share in a social bookmarking group.

Other points to Consider

Early discussions from course members identified the following critical literacies:
  • Management of Time, Workload and Prioritising –Jenny Mackness
  • Relationship Building and Development – John Mak
  • Wayfinding behaviors and Strategies in Large Virtual Environments
  • Literacy of Memory – Transliteracy
Other useful documents in relation to critical literacy competencies is Gráinne Conole's 'New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies' document

Final Thoughts

This initial blog post has allowed me to establish a base anchor from which to now consider the themes of the course. I have consolidated here the main competences and working practices initially expected by the course designers and have briefly started the process of collating others view on what critical literacies are important when learning in a networked environment. I can use this blog post as a reference checklist when analysing my own level of critical literacy. I shall also have a good read of this web article Critical Thinking Development: A Stage Theory to help me understand better the development process with regard to critical thinking. As we are well into week two - I'll need to crack on and move swiftly to consider readings and opinions of others on week 1 theme 'cognition' and wekk 2 theme 'change'.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Technology Celebration at DMU and A Triumvirate platform for success

Symposium Highlight

Just returned from the typically heartening and uplifting Biennial DMU Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium. Biggest impact for me came not from any of the presenters but the attendance of the recently appointed Manager of ISAS (Information Services & Systems), Michael Robinson. It was obvious to see he had a keen and genuine interest in finding out what technology was important to staff at DMU. I had a very brief chat with Michael, but my impression is that he is not just a technical guy, but appreciates how important technology is to the culture not only of teaching and learning, but also to internal and external organisation communication. I hope my first impressions are correct because it will fit very well with all the excellent technology enhanced learning initiatives that our e-learning co-ordinator Richard Hall has driven through.

DMU TEL 10 Conference themesDMU TEL 2010 Conference logo/themes

It's the Culture not the Technology

A lot of what has been achieved at DMU in the field of Technology Enhanced Learning has been derived from a culture that has encouraged innovation, self expression, self development and a sense of worth in contributing to organizational aspirations.
The general theme of the conference centered around the importance of culture in driving the technology and not the other way around. Keynote speaker Dave White warned of the dangers of not being clear about what your values and aims are otherwise technology will drive and push you to places that maybe you do not want to go. An interesting read related to culture and the use of new social media is Tribes by Set Godin

Tribes - Seth Godin
Keynote Speaker Dave White and the points that touched a chord

Other key points Dave made where having an appreciation of the types of students (customers) that we have and how this might affect how we deal with them. Using his excellent Visitors and Residents analogy he offered a view of how the student population will range on a continuum from those just visiting web spaces, getting information and retreating offline and those students that see being online in all manner of web spaces as part of there natural normal daily life, just like going to the park and hanging out with friends. I remember previously reading that Dave suggests that different approaches may taken in different area of life i.e. socially with friends, at work and educationally for example. Not totally sure of the implications for me in any teaching that i do, but i will give it some consideration in the future.

It kind of chimes in with another theme of Dave's which is the conflict of what a student wants and what they need. For example Students often take the strategic surface approach to learning in that they just want to learn about the things that will help them pass the assessment, whereas educationally what they might need to enhance their deep learning is group work and reflective work, which they may find an irritant, but is actually beneficial to them. Dave cited some evidence that just giving students what they want in online distance learning is not engaging enough and drop out rates are high. Dave noted that what students need is collaborative (and other deep learning) tasks to foster engagement and i wholeheartedly agree with this.

These observations tie in nicely with a Faculty workshop on plagiarism i attended yesterday and lead me to conclude that assessment strategies may benefit from a change in approach. Much better to have a series of ongoing tasks and assessments over the course of a semester, rather than one final assignment at the end. from a plagiarism and learning perspective progress can be monitored much more effectively resulting in better support and ultimately improved learning, improved work flow management and improved understanding of good academic practice, which should help in alleviating plagiarism issues in the cut and paste society that we now live in.

Another highlight from the conference was Dave's use of kinder eggs as prizes for his mini quizzes. It was not so much the eggs but the irreverent throwing of the eggs (very accurately) a la an America football quarterback to the winners sitting in the audience. Way to go Dave.

More Highlights
Attended an excellent presentation by Malcolm Andrew and Anthony Eland demonstrating two tools that can be used to develop e-learning materials Xerte And Adobe Captivate. Xerte is free and looks to me like a very useful 'rough and ready' ) way for lecturers to easily create interactive learning material for students.

Adobe Captivate

Adobe Captivate looks slightly more complex for non technical lecturers to work with, but it looks very powerful to me and seems to have the upper hand on my favourite dektop screen recording software Camtasia in that there is much more opportunity to also create interactive learning material and with the added bonus that it can be integrated into Blackboard to collate grades in the gradebook center.

Pleased with the turnout for the workshop that myself and Richard Davies ran on Extending Learning through online synchronous classrooms. (embedded presentation is playing up - try link until i can sort it out)

I thought it was good getting a couple of different perspectives on how this technology can be used. Both examples related to distance learners, Richard delivering live lectures offering convenience to distance learning and a level of togetherness and connectedness that improves upon asynchronous activities and myself conducting more interactive participative classes trying to take advantage of the wide and varied learning tools available in the online synchronous classroom. Using Camtasia we managed to produce two videos that showed snippets of how we worked in this environment. There is definite interest in web conferencing technology, i hope we can build on the interest to enhance teaching and learning and professional development oportunities at DMU. One by product of presenting at this workshop was an opportunity to work more extensively with Camtasia, which I used to edit the recordings of the wimba and webex workshops that Richard and i showed as examples of our work and the decision to use prezi rather than powerpoint to present the workshop. I created a pretty basic presentation in the style of a powerpoint, but it has given me a good grounding in the basics of prezi.

A Triumvirate platform for success
And so to a triumvirate platform for success - What do I mean by this, well Dave White pointed out during his presentation how institutionally that there will be innovators and pragmatists and that there often tensions between the two. Tensions also to be found between the IT Hardware and Software guardians and the needs of a variety groups that have cultural and work practices that lend themselves to a wide variety of preferred approaches in how technology is best deployed.

I see Richard as the University e-learning co-ordinator having led strongly on laying the foundations for a positive and progressive culture for development here at DMU, both from a teaching and learning perspective and more widely in other areas of DMU. It seems to me that our new leader at ISAS Michael Robinson brings a positive approach in engaging with staff needs at DMU. This combined with the strong work that is done in Professional Development at DMU - Academically with Jane Clarke and her team and Generally with Vincent Cornelius and his team I believe lays a strong triumvirate platform for success in integrating technology into the DMU culture and not the other way around.

Go DMU Go :-)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One Year of Bikram and I am Still Standing (but is my knee locked)

The Anniversary!
I thought I would mark my one year of practice by revealing my thoughts about Bikram Yoga. This post is written with the relatively new or not yet started Bikram Yoga attendee in mind. If you have not attended a Bikram Yoga session I hope to inspire you to take the plunge and for those that have like me been practicing for a while, I hope that some of my observations touch a chord and that my observations and any associated links are beneficial. I am a mere novice, but keen and eager to learn more in relation to Bikram Yoga, Yoga, Health and Well Being so I welcome any comments, counter comments and challenges to my observations and perceptions.

Steve Half Moon Pose - Backward BendIt's So Much More than just Stretching
One year of Bikram and I am still standing, still going strong (started 26th March 2009). Like a lot of devotees i realised early that regular attendance will give a core foundation to maintaining good health and well being and this is the primary reason I consistently attend Bikram Yoga classes. From my very first class I have been consistently attending Bikram Yoga classes three times a week. You can feel this notion of well being after each and every class and it is this feeling combined with the knowledge that Bikram Yoga is a well thought out carefully planned system of self development that makes me love Bikram Yoga! Not that Bikram Yoga is easy, it is a tough 90 minute session that for me acts a catalyst to self development both physically and mentally.

I believe that you owe it to yourself to be the best that you can be and an important part of that is physical development. This is where Bikram Yoga comes in as a core element for your own personal development. Once you commit to Bikram Yoga, you learn not only how to improve your posture, flexibility, agility, strength and balance (through the physical postures), but you take a deeper interest in other aspects of your life that may well influence your health and well being. For example drinking water regularly, re-evaluating your eating habits, the importance of sleeping, the importance of resting and the importance of nasal breathing. Regular attendance at a Bikram Yoga class reinforces good habits that promote health and well being. It keeps you on track.

Where I Practice
I practice at Bikram Yoga Leicester, UK. The teachers are fantastic. Each one delivers consistently the Bikram Yoga Program and all give good advice during the class. Bikram Yoga tends to attract clientele with a good outlook on life. The combination of great teachers, attendees of a good nature and a well thought out program of postures that the teachers and the attendees believe in creates a positive vibe during class and a lovely satisfied afterglow when the class has finished. I think a good description is that it is serious fun. There's me below checking in for a session, that's the fun bit, the serious business is about to begin (check out my serious face in later photographs). Fortunately there is fun to be had in serious hard work and the teachers whilst keeping us focused never lose the opportunity to sprinkle humour throughout the class.

Steve Checking in and Looking forward to a Bikram Yoga SessionSo How has it been for Me?
Initially I attended Bikram Yoga to improve my flexibility. It quickly became apparent that there is more to Yoga and Bikram Yoga in particular than stretching and flexibility. I have found attending Bikram Yoga classes a great stimulus to learn, it has been very educational and made me think more about many other aspects of personal development. My previous blog posts Bikram Yoga and the 'Locked Knee' and Shut your mouth: Nasal Breathing is a snorting good choice give an insight to how Bikram Yoga has made me look deeper into issues that may help my own personal development. The bottom line is that I feel good after a Bikram Yoga session, I am pleased with my progress and am confident I will keep improving on all of the postures, even the three 'impossible' postures that I will mention below.

Firstly I think for all of us that attend Bikram Yoga classes we need to recognize that we all have different body shapes and sizes and that there will be some postures that you are more naturally suited to than others. My motto is to enjoy the postures you are good at and work as hard as you can on those postures that seem difficult. There are many postures that I have thought are near impossible (but i always believe with regular practice I'll get there, even if it takes 5 years or more - the funny thing is i do not expect miracles, but I believe in miracles through hard work and determination). There are some 'impossible' postures where i have in fact made some progress, but i still have a long way to go and generally progress has been slow. I'll expand a bit more and share my experience of my struggle with the three main 'impossible' postures:

Eagle Pose (Twist like Ropes): Initially i just hugged myself. I can now clasp knuckles on the right hand under side and clasp my thumb on the left hand under side. I am trying hard to twist my legs (like ropes :-)), but i cannot get my legs anywhere near the back of my other leg. Still lots of work to do here. In the photo below fellow Bikram Yoga attendee Liza gives a great demonstration on how the legs and arms should twist like ropes in this posture. My effort i think is a true awkward pose :-).

Steve and Liza Eagle PoseWhat I know is that to improve on this amongst other things I need to become more flexible in the upper back and the hips and lower back. Tip to myself is be patient.

Standing Head to Knee Pose: For a long time I did not attempt to extend my leg. I can now on occasions extend my leg straight out, keeping a reasonable L shape for the legs. However keeping a straight concrete solid leg which is the essential part of the exercise is something I still have to work hard on. Also i find bending down to clasp the feet in a basket grip and keeping the standing leg straight very difficult. I wish iIhad slightly longer arms :-). Away from Bikram Yoga classes I practice this posture in the swimming pool and lying down on my back (it's a lot easier :-)).

Liza again gives a great demonstration (photo below) on this stage of the posture. As i recall she does a great job on the next stage, actually bending the head down to touch the knee. Can you believe that, actually head touching the knee, for some of us that does sound and look impossible, but as Bikram himself says in his book Bikram's beginning Yoga Class (Copies available at Bikram Yoga Leicester as well) "That's what Yoga is about... Yoga makes things that seem impossible, possible. You can do magic without being a magician.". Bikram also says "I know you won't believe me when I say that in a relatively short time, you will actually consider this one of the easiest poses".

Steve and Liza Standing Had to Knee poseI am pleased with my progress but I need to straighten my back more, get my leg lifted to ninety degrees (and constantly think about locking the knee) before I embark on bending towards my knee. I think the flexibility in my upper and lower back is improving, allowing me to sooner or later get a good clasped hand underneath the foot, which is another key element in this posture. A physically very tough posture, but with improvement in my general posture I can see a chink of light on this posture - it is about 2 or 3 years away though.

Toe Stand Pose: I find this very difficult. I find it very difficult to open my hips to rest the leg on the center of my thigh, consequently when I bend down my leg often slips off my thigh. I pick it back up and put it on once i am down at floor level, but with my arms being slightly shorter than i would like it is very difficult to balance with a straight back and decent posture. Still working on it, but still a million miles away (my ankle and thighs are getting stronger slowly, so eventually my arms can be bypassed and they won't be an issue). No photo's of me in action on this pose - there really would not be much to see, so i have included a picture of the pose from the hotyogadoctor website where many interesting discussions seem to take place. This discussion titled Still can’t do toe stand after 3 years, may be interesting for those like me that struggle with this pose.
Tree Stand Pose - http://www.hotyogadoctor.comFor me, I tend to notice a significant improvement in my flexibility, strength and balance around every three months. This will be on a selected few postures and these will vary every quarter. I still have to think hard about 'Locking the Knee'. It seems whilst developing a strong locked knee balance can be affected in standing poses, which leads to a slight give in the knee to stay standing (I was going to say stay in posture, but until the knee is locked the posture has not even begun :-)). I think I have improved, but it is a gradual process to get that leg like concrete and I am not there yet. In my last session I found that concentrating on locking my knees in half moon pose backward bend supported my back much better, but I felt more wobbly on my legs (if you are not a hard core knee locker yet, try this on your next session - see what you think).

Managing Expectations
Fortunately I do not expect miracles and I came to Bikram Yoga with the mindset that I did not expect to see any improvement for a year (this way I would not be disappointed). Nevertheless i have made undoubted improvements over the year and I am satisfied with my progress. I know from others' experiences that some attendees have gained quick, in some cases near instantaneous results in relation to losing weight or managing pain from persistent chronic injuries, but for me having a low expectation in terms of quick results is a valuable psychological tool in ensuring that I do one of the most important things i can do for my own personal development and that is just to turn up at a Bikram Yoga class and practice regularly, giving the best that i can give on any given day.

Practicing with Injuries
I would not want to NOT practice Bikram Yoga for any longer than a week or so. The thought of going backwards and the hard work it takes to get back in the Bikram groove after just a week away compels me to practice regularly. I have had a few injuries over the year, including a sprained ankle, hamstring strains and lower back pain - so what to do when injuries occur. Well although i have found it annoying and frustrating i believe you still need to practice. If you stop practicing you will start to lose benefits and go backwards. You will need to take advice and best decide how to manage your own injuries, but for me I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is to turn up and do the postures that you can and modify or leave out those that aggravate the injury. Generally i have nursed my way through with reduced effort on some postures (I have found concentrating on stretching tall on half moon pose is good if your back is sore and it made me appreciate the importance of stretching tall in this posture) .Occasionally i will miss a practice or two, but i would never leave it longer than a week otherwise I'll be going backwards. Also let your instructor know as they can give advice as to ways of modifying your postures to allow for injuries.

Beyond Bikram Yoga Classes
Outside of class one of the most significant things I have been inspired to do because of my interest in Bikram Yoga is my own home yoga routine which includes some of the Bikram postures (like standing bow pose below), but also other yoga postures such as handstands and headstands. I decided early on that three Bikram classes a week was right for me, both from a logistical point of view, but also to ensure my motivation remains high and that I do not get stale. I do the 45 minute Home Yoga routines on the alternate days between Bikram classes. As I am not in a sauna environment i usually take it a bit easier, but it gives me a chance to reflect a bit more on the postures and what I am trying to achieve.

Although I like my three day a week strategy, i am conscious that ideally Bikram Yoga practice is a daily ritual and that by taking a 30 or 100 day challenge there may well be physical, psychological and emotional gains to be made. This is something i will explore when i can logistically meet the demands of daily practice. Thinking about strategies it would also be interesting to experiment with a fortnight of double sessions (two in one day). This article 'herniated discs' highlights how one Bikram Yoga teacher/attendee found great value in taking double sessions to overcome her injury problem (lot's of good information about Bikram Yoga as well).

The other significant thing to come out of my Bikram Yoga practice is my realisation of the importance of nasal breathing, culminating in my recent purchase of a nose breath mouthpiece from The blog Set Higher Standards has a great blog post about the benefits of nasal breathing (with informative comments) about nose breathing.

Posture and nasal breathing are key elements to health and well being. Bikram Yoga's carefully thought out sequence combined with great instruction and advice from the rigorously trained Bikram Yoga teachers is a great system to improve these vital elements. Not only that, but apart from developing your musculoskeletal system, the Bikram Yoga postures also address health benefits related to the respiratory,nervous, digestive, immune and endocrine gland systems. Other forms of Yoga, practicing pilates and other conventional fitness training such as running or weightlifting have their place, but I believe Bikram Yoga should be the core anchor of any fitness, health and well being program. It is a solid foundation for personal development. For a great read on the philosophy behind the system read Bikram Yoga by Bikram Choudhury founder of Bikram Yoga and for further information see the Bikram Yoga Website.

Special thanks to Libby, Rachel and Sharan who have been my core teachers during the year. But also to say thanks to Hannah, Harbinder, Nicky and Chris, other teachers at Leicester who have contributed to my development thus far. Thanks to Rachel again for taking the snaps of me whilst practicing at the Bikram Yoga Studio in Leicester. I look forward to what this year brings.

And Finally
Just thought I'd mention this blog ilovesweat - the blogger combines a passion for bikram yoga, healthy living and photography. You might find it of interest as he blogs regularly on his Bikram experience. His photo's have become a bit large of late though :-).

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