Digitalingua, the International Conference on Digital Environments and Language Learning, took place last week and I was interviewed by one of the organizers, Lola Torres on the topic of Personal Learning Environments (PLE).
Below you can find the original text of the interview in Spanish, and a quick translation into English.
Although certainly not the best way to define a thing, I like to
think on the Personal Learning Environment as opposed to two aspects of learning, which are, still today, the orthodox and hegemonic form to understand education (and note the change of “learning” to “education” is fully conscious).
When we think of learning we tend to circumscribe it into a formal and institutional environment. Formal in the sense that one “sets” oneself to learn, at a specific time and place, at a stage of life intended for it, and with a more or less defined plan (goals, methodology, schedule). Institutional in the sense that all this is provided in an exogenous way, by an institution (teacher, school, university, academia) that is who determines all aspects of formal learning, which is why we have to move from learning to being taught or educated.
The Personal Learning Environment is rethinking the whole process of learning from the informal and the endogenous or non-institutional, everyone becoming responsible for their own learning plan. And this is largely possible by the digital revolution: the knowledge contained in people and objects is
now available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. So, I understand the PLE as a set of conscious strategies to use technological tools to access the knowledge contained in objects and people and thereby achieve certain learning goals.
Could you explain your PLE as a teacher and as a researcher?
For me it is essential to consider research and teaching as two
sides of the same coin, the coin of knowledge. In this sense, research is but learning, and teaching is but learning
backwards. Thus, there is not a PLE for teaching and another one for research, but there is a PLE that sometimes works in one direction and sometimes in the other one.
And the very same consideration applies, in my opinion, for the PLE of a student. In the same train of thought of considering the PLE as a learning strategy in an open environment enabled by technology, I think is increasingly difficult to argue that the student must always be placed at the end where one only receives knowledge: the PLE puts the person, the learner, in the centre of a mesh whose purpose is that knowledge flows from one node to another one.
In this sense, I do not think there are different PLEs for teachers/researchers or students, but all of them are nodes of the same mesh. It will just happen that in some topics some nodes in that mesh will be denser than others, or that knowledge flows more fluently in some directions than others, but it will be a matter of
flows (thus temporary) rather than of architectures (or structural).
That said, my PLE responds to a simple conceptual framework:
What sources of knowledge do I feed from.
Who do I say that I am, although the sources that one feed from also make up much of the public person that sits in the centre of my PLE.
What I create, which is merely the result of certain knowledge sources transiting through me, producing a new point of view, a gathering of knowledges previously isolated or, at best, a small addition to the original set of knowledges.
What challenge is education-teachers, universities, institutions
education, compared to PLE?
From the moment that we are talking about teachers vs. students, about institutions vs. individuals, about learning vs. leisure, we are creating a series of dichotomies which necessarily place those terms in opposition. But the PLE, if we stick to its definition as a mesh of people and objects oriented towards learning, cannot be conceived as a set of dichotomies or elements placed in opposition.
To consider that the PLE is a good learning tool is to assume,
implicitly, that there has been a radical change in the sociocultural and economic context and that this makes the PLE possible. So, the biggest challenge of Education is to carry on an extraordinary reflection about many things that we now take for granted and, if we end up assuming that the context has changed, it is also possible that the very same foundations of that we call education may also have changed.
Thus, PLEs do not present a challenge in themselves: I believe that PLEs are a symptom of a deep systemic change that goes beyond education. And that systemic change is the real challenge. Digitization challenges basic concepts in Education. Digital content — reproducible, storable and transferable at lowest cost — make irrelevant many of the functions of documentation centres as silos of books. Telecommunications — fast, cheap and ubiquitous — make also irrelevant schools as hubs of talent. And the concentration of content and talent is the foundation of schools, universities, research centres and libraries.
PLEs are proof that some features of the current institutions can be carried on by other “institutions”, and that there is a need to rethink what new role in society should have the former ones.
What advice would you give to a language teacher to start your PLE?
Although this reflection is ex-post, it has helped me — and still does — to identify four stages in the use of a methodology or a technology in setting up my own PLE.
In a first stage, appropriation, one has to know what methods or what technologies exist, what skills should be apprehended to get the best of them, and what are their pros and cons. In this respect, staying up to date of what exists and how people use it is to me a first elemental approach. All in all, it is about initiating the learning process beginning with methods and tools, the same way we know how to locate the nearest library or instruct ourselves in the use of files for our working notes.
The second step is to adapt the methodology or the technology. This step consists in replacing a methodology or technology in a task that we already performed, with the only purpose of replacement of one technology by another one. Even if it might seem absurd to have invested resources to end up remaining in the same place, this phase will help us in answering the following question: to identify “why” or “what for” will I use the PLE, a crucial question that cannot have a void answer. Some people will then begin to manage the sources of information with an RSS feed reader, something that one quickly gets used to by the utility that
it provides. Others will start to sort their bibliographic resources. Others will replace paper notes with a blog or a wiki, always handy, sorted and enabling queries. Others will publish digital files that they had already produced, in various Internet services to increase their outreach.
Once the first the phases of appropriation and adaptation are over, it is then time to improve our learning processes, to make it more effective and/or more efficient. This is often the most rewarding part, as it is when the investment we made in time and effort starts to make sense. If we start with something
easy and something where the impact will be greater, the relative returns will be higher. Following the previous examples, reading information sources can be accompanied by storing what may seem more relevant to us or sharing it on social networking sites to enrich the debate and help in building a network. Or if we publish our notes in a blog we can try and embed our slides, using the most relevant tags, accompanying the slides in our blog with references that we retrieved from our bibliographic manager.
Finally, beyond the improvement of processes, the last phase consists in radically transform these processes. A transformation — if notthe transformation — is to “think digital”. That is, for instance, other than taking notes and copying them to the blog, taking instead the laptop to a talk and liveblog the talk while, at the same time, tweeting the event. What once was an individual and private act becomes now a collective and public act.
And it is in this transformation of the private sphere where we transform the whole system, breaking the personal dichotomies to be able to rethink education as a whole.
The purpose of my session was to provide a frame to explain while Law is nowadays having more trouble than usual in trying to solve many of today’s problems. In other words, the goal was not to enter in specific issues that Law can difficultly fix, but to reflect on how the foundations of our industrial society are being challenged by digitization and Information and Communication Technologies and, thus, how the Law that was built upon those foundations is shaking from head to toes.
The (long!) session was split in three parts
The Network Society, or how industrial institutions’ feet became of clay, which explains how the end of scarcity and transaction costs in the areas of knowledge is questioning most of our institutions — Law amongst them.
The Web 2.0, or how individuals became mass media, which explains how the addition of the social layer to the World Wide Web has transformed communication, culture and creation as we knew it.
The Internet, or how Law became (even) more complicated, where some specific practices and malpractices are identified on a typical task done through the Internet — and challenging the concepts of who or what is the sender, the receiver, the message, the channel or the code.
Here follow the materials that I used in the session and a short collection of bibliographic references.
The Network Society, or how industrial institutions’ feet became of clay
Amongst all the questions, there were two the answers I provided I would like to keep… and share. I answered quite quickly and they come here in the rough. I am sure a thorough reflection would present more accurate thoughts, but I don’t think the general idea would change a lot:
What are the main advantages of teaching-learning using social web technologies?
More control on the learning process by the learners themselves.
More focus on the learning part, trading with a lesser weight on the teaching part.
Increased importance of the learning process, with decreased (relative) importance of the content in the syllabus.
Opening of the formal learning processes towards scenarios belonging to the scope of non-formal learning and, especially, of informal learning.
Dramatic increase of the learning resources (content, experts, tools) at the learners’ reach.
Merging (and confusion) of the different areas of life: learning, professional, personal, leisure.
What are the main disadvantages of teaching-learning using social web technologies?
They demand high (or highest) digital competences. These are a must to make the best of social web technologies and an important barrier of entrance.
They require a certain knowledge in identifying one’s training and educational needs and being able to formulate them as such.
They require a certain capacity to design (autonomous) learning strategies.
Abundance of resources imply that filtering becomes necessary and, thus, filtering competences are important.
Even with the appropriate filtering competences, noise and distraction will happen.
Merging (and confusion) of the different areas of life: learning, professional, personal, leisure (indeed, this is a double edged sword).
The European Commission is in the process of reflecting the past, present and future of telecentres or, in general, public Internet access points (PIAP) or, even in a broader sense, e-Inclusion Intermediaries (eI2).
Amongst others, there are four important issues that are guiding this reflection:
What has the impact been so far.
How has the techno-social scenario changed since they were initially born: increasing adoption of ICTs, importance of broadband, mobile Internet, etc.
How has the socio-economic scenario also changed, i.e. the economic and debt crisis in Europe.
According to the preceding points, what should be done in the future and how, that is, how public policies to foster the Information Society should be designed in matters of universal access/usage.
In this framework, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) organized an Expert Workshop on Measuring the Impact of eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: towards an impact assessment practice?, that took place in May 3-4 in Seville, Spain, and to which I was invited to participate and to contribute with a position paper.
My position paper should verse on the future of telecentres in Europe in 2020, and it was supposed to be what I call a “grounded opinion”: grounded, because it is based on both personal/professional experience and lots of readings; opinion, because, all in all, I was asked to provide my own point of view, what would I do was I to design the policy that would deal with e-Inclusion Intermediaries.
Position paper: eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: horizon 2020
State of the development of the Information Society
I believe that the development of the Information Society has come not to a dead end, but near a point of stagnation:
The industry and governments are most of the time still thinking in terms of infrastructures: how much, how are they managed, what is the regulation to bind them and what is they state of usage (usually in percent of saturation).
Users only care about a huge supply of content and services (for whatever the use) and that these run on affordable infrastructures.
This is, of course, a simplification. But a peek at what governments are measuring and what media are broadcasting gives us an idea of the tremendous bias towards the preceding aspects of the Information Society.
The problem with this scenario is that it has no future, as policies centred in infrastructures are targeting an almost non-existent problem:
In general terms, physical access is becoming a minor issue (remember: Europe 2020). It already is, especially if we do not take into account as an indicator “households with Internet access”, but “people covered by access to Internet”.
The former point is due, in part, because many last mile issues have been solved (e.g. with mobile Internet, e.g. with public Internet access points such as telecentres, libraries, cybercafes, schools and many other venues).
The supply of content and services is buoyant.
The missing gap: capacity building
On the other hand, the two growing problems remain unaddressed by public policies:
A stable share of ‘refuseniks’, that choose not to use the Internet for several reasons.
A growing share of citizens that do need digital skills and literacies that they lack or have to acquire when and if possible.
These two gaps have two main consequences:
An ICT sector which a shortage of supply in terms of highly qualified workers and human capital in general.
A quality of usage of the Internet characterized by inefficacy and inefficiency, and that many find will be (already is) the core of a second digital divide, deeper that the digital divide of access and more difficult to fix because of its (human) nature.
State of the question, the missing gap and e-Inclusion Intermediaries
How do e-Inclusion Intermediaries face the state of the question and the missing gap? In my own (grounded) opinion, either they change or they will perform badly.
Telecentres (understood as not-for-profit and for-development-aimed) will suffer from economic resources shortage, because of the economic crisis and because of Internet penetration. Cybercafes (understood as for-profit and comercially-aimed) will suffer from social sustainability shortage, because of the economic crisis (what solutions are you providing?) and also because of Internet penetration.
Most e-Inclusion Intermediaries have traditionally provided or recently began to provide services related to e-skills. The problem is that those skills are becoming much more complex than simple techonological skills and, indeed, it is a set of digital literacies and capacities that is required. Are eI2 responding to that?
In the same train of though of literacies, what we have found in our conversion from an Industrial Society to an Information Society is that we have done quite good in learning or appropriating technologies an to applying/adapting them to our usual processes. But we have definitely failed in improving most processes and socioeconomic transformation is but a good bunch of “good practices” that we all know but cannot replicate.
A forecast/proposal for e-Inclusion Intermediaries
The telecentre should become an eCentre, a centre that is not a physical place, but a reference resource that can actually be located in a specific location, or embeded within an organization. Telecentres should be insourced in other institutions: in a firm, in a civic centre, in a library, in a government, in an NGO…
Complementary to the former statement, many of the telecentre functions can and should be outsourced. There is evidence that the probability of survival of a telecentre is linked to it being part of a telecentre network: share knowledge, share resources, share contents and services. Outsourcing can take the shape of a core+franchises or a flat network. But reinventing the wheel should be forbidden.
If we believe in the insourcing/outsourcing pair, partnerships come naturally: e-Inclusion Intermediaries should complement a shared project with their added value, while other partners should be left to do the same. Partnerships with governments in the field of sheer “for development” inclusion or fostering e-government; partnerships with the private sector to leverage the expertise in the field and sell it for the sake of economic sustainability; look out for firms to be included as targets of eI2.
Of course, purity should be abandoned: no more either telecentre or cybercafe. It’s about e-Centres and it is about to provide knowledge. The function is what matters and not the means: the function is part of the mission, the means are part of the business/operating plan.
But the function is not fostering ICTs, the function is Inclusion. The ICT centre has to become a Centre-on-ICT-steroids. It is the community — the target — what matters, it is about supporting neighbourhoods, schools, entrepreneurs, living labs… not about supporting ICTs. But we do it with ICTs because we believe in its huge potential.
Bermúdez Ferran, I., Peña-López, I., Delgado Alonso, X., Merino Alcántara, M. & Laín Escandell, B. (2011). Qualificació professional: Dinamització de l’Espai TIC. Barcelona: Institut Català de les Qualificacions Professionals. [Follow the link for the Spanish Version. There is a draft version of this paper in English: ask me if you want it]
The idea of my speech in the session — which I shared with Marc Bogdanowicz — was to perform a quick overview of how the development of the Information Society has been measured in the last 20 years and how the design of these measurements inevitably conditions (or just determines) the design of policies that would come after measurement.
In a nutshell, what was presented is that governments, in general, have focused on infrastructures and what is related to them (infrastructure level of usage, the ICT sector and some regulation of the ICT sector market). And, on the other hand, citizens (in fact, customers) demand a sufficient supply of content and services at affordable cost.
But, it does seem that the long term is missing in both approaches. Besides daily usage or investment, it looks that especially policies focusing in the long term and the strategic level are totally non existent and, thus, we are riding the change but not levering the transforming potential of ICTs. And digital skills might be the what could fill the gap between simple adoption to sheer transformation.
Some examples in the context of Spanish politics/policies were provided at the end in the field of institutional design, education and ICT, open government and teleworking.
More than wires: measuring the Information Society
Peña-López, I. (2009). “Hacia un modelo integral de la Economía Digital”. In Libro de Comunicaciones de la II Conferencia Internacional Brecha Digital e Inclusión Social. Comunicación presentada en la II Conferencia Internacional Brecha Digital e Inclusión Social, 28-30 de Octubre de 2009. Leganés: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
Information Society: where to? with whom? by Marc Bogdanowicz
I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia,
and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university.
I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.