I’ve just given a seminar to my research group (The Learning Societies Lab) on the notion of the New Web Literacy, how e-learning systems should change to support it, and what we should be doing as e-learning researchers to enact and understand that change.
I have wanted to present something on this topic ever since I went to ICALTearlier this year. There seemed to be two groups of people present at the conference: practitioners that had discovered Web 2.0 applications and were having great fun experimenting with them, and more traditional e-learning researchers still exploring the cornerstones of traditional e-learning thinking (Virtual Learning Environments, SCORM, Learning Design, Learning Objects and the like).
My thought was that the excited practitioners are like the Nouveau Riche of eighteenth century London. Back then new money was flooding into the Capital from the colonies and into the hands of people who weren’t used to having it. For the first time the Old Money, established families in the Gentry and Aristocracy, were faced with people with a different mindset who were experimenting with their wealth, exploring new forms of literature and music, and engaging with architecture and fashion with no regard for the established rules or structures. At ICALT I thought I saw an analogy in the form of the Nouveau Technorati (New Technical People) – who didn’t respect the old rules of the e-learning world and instead were eagerly experimenting with the new generation of Web 2.0 technologies.
I began to wonder what the underlying cause of this was – what is it about blogs, wikis, social software, resource sharing and tagging that strikes such a chord? I’m not the only one left wondering:
The quote is from Time Magazine, when they broke with convention and voted “You” person of the year, 2006. I think they perfectly captured the zeitgeist, and cut straight to the key issue about these technologies – which is that they are about empowering their users, and giving the ownership of technology back to You.
But who is “You”? Surely the claim isn’t totally Universal? Diana Oblinger starts to tease this apart in her work on understanding the new students. She talks in generational terms about the attitudes of students.
We’ve got used to the Baby Boomers (people in the demographic upsurge that followed the World Wars, and who had their teenage years in the sixties and seventies) teaching Generation X (the disaffected young people who rebelled against the dominance of the boomers, and who had their teenage years in the eighties and nineties). An important distinction between these generations is Computer Literacy, which Boomers need to learn, but which Gen-Xers grew up with. Diana Oblinger makes a case for the emergence of a new generation that she calls the Millenials (but who have also been called the iPod Generation, or Generation Y), who have their teenage years in the 2000s.
Millenials have not just grown up with computers, they have grown up with the Web, and are used to being connected and having information at their fingertips. They also have a radically different approach to participation and privacy that sets them apart from the Gen-Xers, I think that a good term for this attitude and openness is Web Literacy.
As far back as 2000, people were noticing a different mindset emerging in students. Jason Frand listed a number of characteristics:
- Computers aren’t technology – just part of the furniture
- Reality is no longer real – or perhaps Unreality is no longer Unreal – students view activities in the virtual space as being as real as things that happen in their physical lives
- Multitasking is a way of life – they have become used to multiple information channels
- Internet is better than TV – they are the first generation to watch less TV than their parents
- Nintendo over logic – they prefer to try something out than have it explained to them
- Staying connected – they are used, through mobile phones and broadband, to being connected to each other and the information world at all times
Marc Prensky has a great way to talk about the differences between Millenials (who have this mindset) and Boomers and Gen-Xers (who don’t), he talks about Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants.
It is interesting to focus on the different attitudes to education held by Digital Natives and Immigrants. The argument is that Immigrants are much more passive that Natives, and prefer their learning experience to be structured, focused and based on individual experience, while Natives prefer a multi-tasking, random-access approach to information which is much more interactive and collaborative. They also see learning as a natural part of their world, rather than an unnatural adjunct.
If we take these characterisations of our students we can then look at how our current e-learning technologies match up with them to find out if we are providing the sort of support that our Web Literate students actually need.
E-learning at the moment is dominated by the notion of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), these are monolithic systems that provide a single port of call for students and where they can get access to resources, receive notifications about course events and interact with their teachers and peers. It seems obvious that this kind of structured experience, owned wholly by institutions and teachers, does not fit the kind of flexible, random-access mindset of the new Web Literate students.
Actually VLEs have fulfilled an important need. For a number of years the potential of technology has exceeded practitioners ability to use the technology (making course notes available online for example), this technology deficit decade (from around 1995-2005) was well served by VLEs, but their time is probably over.
Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) are an alternative vision that have emerged in the last few years. PLEs explode the functionality of a VLE, the idea is that a PLE is a learning management system used by a student to draw together data and functionality from a wide range of other applications and services. For example, to gather resources from online repositories such as Flickr, news feeds from sites like Technorati, and more specific information from portfolio servers and institutional Student Information Systems.
Examples of PLE software include the early Colloquia system (a kind of desktop learning organiser), PLEX (an organiser that is integrated with a variety of online services), and more recently Elgg (an open source social networking system).
But you could go further. Flock is a new Web browser that understands the APIs of a number of key websites, this allows some very powerful data integration (such as dragging photos from Flickr into Facebook to share them with friends), and NetVibes offers a sophisticated way in which to build and customise a homepage that uses a wide range of widgets to draw information together. This effectively means that one can imagine an extreme PLE made up solely of publicly available Internet applications and services. For example, NetVibes can display calendars constructed of shared iCal files (so imagine if institutions published timetables, coursework deadlines and exam schedules in this format), displays RSS (what if courses had an RSS feed?) and has widgets for key social sites like Facebook (perfect for organising group work).
We can thus see an e-learning spectrum, from VLEs where the institution has almost total ownership, through PLEs, to entirely Web-based systems, where it is the students who have the ownership of their learning experience.
The problem is that we could take this argument a lot further. If we say that students can build their own learning experiences using open online applications, then surely they can do the same thing with content, drawing on online tutorials, help files and examples, creating ad-hoc learning groups using goal-sharing systems like 43-things, and building an independent portfolio of work. In this world, all learning is informal, and the institutions role is purely as an acreditor.
I accept that there is a place for this kind of learning (after all, we don’t stand intellectually still after our University days are over), but I think that just as student ownership matters, so does institutional ownership. Institutions have values that they pass on to their students, and provide a service that guides and supports students to achieve a high quality of learning in a relatively short space of time. It is this spirit – and the access to the professional staff that embody it – that constitutes the added value of an institution, and which students are willing to pay for.
So the question is how could we support student ownership of the experience, without throwing away the institutional ownership of the provision?
I think that the answer is to keep the system in the cloud, in other words institutions provide a number of loosely coupled tools that can be appropriated by students or staff as needed. To make this work the tools have to be functionally focused and have open applicability so that they are easy to incorporate into peoples working spaces, and can be used flexibly in as many different ways as possible. To be successful I also think that it’s necessary for these tools to exist as a public service, but also to be available as open source solutions so that Institutions can run them locally and thus guarantee a certain level of service to their students and staff (in a similar way to the email systems they run today).
I’m currently trying to create a Learning Societies Toolkit, which packages of number of applications with these characteristics that have been developed in the Learning Societies Lab here at Southampton, and am also intending to create public versions of them so that teachers and students at institutions without the capability (or inclination) to move forward in this way have a way in which to access them.
Before I finish its worth drawing attention to a marvelous piece of work undertaken by the Digital Ethnography department at Kansas State University, under the supervision of Prof. Michael Wesch. The following video presents the result of 200 students surveying themselves using a collaborative web authoring tool (Google Docs):
Its a very evocative video, but I don’t entirely agree with the conclusions (that a solution to personalised learning is to return to chalk and talk teaching methods). I think that instead we could concentrate on building e-learning systems that don’t try and enclose students in a safe but suffocating environment, and instead look at building systems that empower both teachers and students, helping them to interact and support one another in an open, flexible way.
It’s time to reclaim the virtual learning environment.
The VLE is dead, long live the VLE!