Funnelling concepts in Education 2.0: PLE, e-Portfolio, Open Social Learning

This is a plead for equidistance and eclecticism. Based on:

  • Being a teacher myself, and having to manage people, marks, syllabuses and on, I heavily rely on centralized solutions that I can barely imagine differently;
  • being (in many aspects) a learner myself, I can’t help myself from the bounds that tie me to monolithic structures, and hence manage an open personal environment where knowledge (and learning) comes in many ways;
  • constantly knowing and meeting other people like me (teachers and/or learners), it is just normal that our paths cross and our knowledge environments overlap and enrich one another;
  • all that said, it is just normal that both as a professional and as a learner I need to assess and be assessed by everything that I do here and there, as learning in the Information Society knows no boundaries.

All these aspects concur in the educational process, though many of them make opposite forces, which is why some certify the death of the virtual learning environment while others consider it alive and kicking; some will seem to be putting all the eggs in the personal learning environment and/or open social learning, while maybe there is still room to reconsider e-portfolios.

All this gets more complicated if we take into account assessment or tracking knowledge acquisition along your whole life.

I increasingly believe that the solution to all this, and put in Simon Grant’s words, may perhaps be not a tool but several tools [and] a tool for bringing together evidence residing in different systems. This is my go at the whole issue:

In general, I see two sets of opposite trends here:

  • On the one hand, the dilemma between the management needs of teaching, which lead to centralization vs. the self-management needs of learning, which lead to de-centralization;
  • on the other hand, the dilemma between the assessment needs, which lead towards individualization vs. the socialization needs, which lead towards openness.

Put these four issues one against the other one, I think we can clearly see that there are interesting intersections between them, and these overlaps are crowded with things that are already happening. What I’ve pictured is not exhaustive in any way, but it gives (me) an idea that “competing solutions” might not be as much of a solution as a hammer is an all-purpose tool.

  • Traditional learning management systems (LMS) have long gone online and included (shyly, though, most of times) the social component by providing Web 2.0 tools or channelling third parties’ content through widgets and open APIs;
  • on the other end, repositories and (hopefully, but very well yet) monitoring tools by means of which both the institution and the learner can access (and assess, if needed) the content of the latter;
  • e-portfolios are, in many cases, the bridge between the “inside” and the “outside”, and I truly believe (or expect) that they will gain increasing importance in blurring the frontiers that still separate virtual learning environments from personal learning environments;
  • last, but not least, personal learning environments do also have a social component, which in its other “end” is linked with virtual campuses, thus closing the circle.

In my opinion the debate of centralization vs. decentralization is not an either-or-debate, but a puzzle that will be solved by weaving the appropriate (and surely complex) tapestry. And I wonder whether the tools (the needles and the clothes, the open APIs and the widgets and the XMLs) are already there, and what lacks is some upgrade on our digital skills and mindsets (and a little bit of time).

Centralization vs. decentralitacion in Government and Education

I have recently been involved in both a project on citizen participation and participation at the University. Not surprisingly — to me at least — both projects share much more than what they differ on. Indeed, they both share a very similar infrastructure:

  • They are both initiatives of the public sector (in Spain, private Universities are really a minority).
  • They both provide core services that have a central source and whose reliability is based on the legitimacy of that source.
  • They both address a large community that is interested not only in getting those services, but in participating in their design, including the transparency and accountability of the whole process.

The central source and need to certify the information generally goes in the opposite direction of participatory design and engagement. The former asks, naturally for centralization, the latter for decentralization.

The fall of transaction and replication costs (the two big constrains of the industrial revolution) make it possible to separate management from participation. It’s like if you could have a football game being played in every player’s living room while still being able to have a game and keep an up-to-date scoreboard and stats.

But, as said, centralization attracts both management and activity to your own platform (the learning management system, the government’s portal), while participation centrifuges activity out to social networking sites.

Simplifying things to the max, my landscape now looks more or less like this (please understand Management in a non-restrictive way):

Education
Participation in own platform Participation in alien platforms
Management in own paltform

Centralized in-house Learning Management System
(I)

Core Virtual Learning Environment
+
Aggregator / open API
+
PKE (PLE, PRP) Constellation
(II)

Management in alien platform One stop shop
+
Custom Cloud Services
(III)
Social Networking Sites Constellation
+
Distributed/diffuse institutional identity
(IV)
Government
Participation in own platform Participation in alien platforms
Management in own paltform Government Portal
(I)
Core Public Services
+
Open data repositories/sources
+
Citizen initiatives
(II)
Management in alien platform One stop shop
+
Custom Cloud Services
(III)
Social Networking Sites Constellation
+
Distributed/diffuse institutional identity
(IV)

In my opinion, there is enough evidence that centralization of participation will not work any more. Education is asking for an increasing de-institutionalization and government portals won’t get any participation just because they were built. This leaves out cases I and III as possible approaches to create strategies that try to match management with participation.

The problem with case IV is obvious to me and is about the risks of Cloud Computing which, again simplifying, are twofold:

  1. The risks of security and ownership, which are still to be fully addressed and fixed by cloud service providers, and which a public service just cannot afford to leave unattended;
  2. and the blurring of the institutional identity, which undermines the main asset of a public institution: legitimacy.

I thus advocate for a mixed solution of keeping your main assets centralized while externalizing all the participatory side (see case II):

  • The core value stays “home”: data of the students, syllabuses, data from the government, government plans…;
  • Centralized, the core information is legit, certified;
  • A centralized management is compatible with a decentralized access: open API and open data provide gateways so that access can be remote but management of data still be centralized, secure, private;
  • Your staff has to develop skills to outreach your target while focussing on management, which is your core;
  • Your staff has to develop skills to monitor and even capitalize what’s happening outside of your platform, but without needing to interfere in off-core activity;
  • Participation is not mediated by management needs or management staff, can freely emerge, and can do it where it pleases.
  • And, most important, participation has the fuel to fully engage with all the information possible;
  • If communication and information channels are open and work in two-ways, the (virtuous?) circle closes and the cycle starts again.

In my Predictions for Social Media in 2010 I revisited the importance of the ePortfolio and the institutional website. As I there said, I plead for the construction of the (e-)portfolio, for a return to the personal or institutional website, using social media as a game of mirrors that reflects us where we should also be present.

Open Data and Social Media Government

Andrea DiMaio writes — Why Do Governments Separate Open Data and Social Media Strategies? — about the need to merge open data strategies and social media strategies. He there complains about open data and social media strategies being treated as independent ones, which he believes to be actually related one to the other one.

I not only believe they should go altogether and hand in hand, but that their interaction defines different ways of understanding government or education. It always helps me to draw things and see what see what comes out of it:

Traditional communication Social Media
Closed data

4-year-term Democracy
Plutocracy
(I)

Populism, Suffragism
Oclocracy, 5th Estate
(II)

Open data Transparency, Accountability
4th Estate, Aristocracy, Goverati
(III)
Participation, engagement
Collaboration, cooperation
(IV)

Case I is definitely what we do have nowadays in most modern democracies: a democracy based on 4- (or 5-) years time span between elections, increasingly ruled by plutocracies bound to the economic powers.

Case II is common in plutocracies willing to be seen as cool. They “engage in the conversation” but, without the required information to feed a true democracy, it finally becomes a dialogue of the deaf. The governments perform populist acts and the masses believe they will be heard by shouting out the louder.

Case III is a genuine approach to openness, transparency and accountability. Nevertheless, without the proper communication channels, data can only be used (then exploited) by the “best” (in an elitist sense of the word), hence the ones that can interpret them and make their feedback get to the governments (the Goverati in its worst meaning).

Last, Case IV, is what we should we be aiming to. I definitely avoided labelling it Government 2.0 because it is surely not the “2.0” what matters, but its components: participation, engagement, collaboration, cooperation… all in all, democracy in its purest sense.

In fact, it is just another way to thoroughly look at e-Government, which means Government enhanced by means of Information and Communication Technologies. Or, if you prefer it, enhanced by means of Information (data, open data) and Communication (Social Media) Technologies.