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Monday, May 11, 2009

Informal Learning Technology

There's a fantastic post by Stephen Downes - New Technology Supporting Informal Learning.  In his post, he really is looking primarily at the University of Manitoba's Connectivism Course that he designed and delivered with George Siemens to 2200 students in Fall 2008 and you can tell that he's busy thinking about the technology behind the Fall 2009 course.

So as you read this, keep in mind that Stephen was primarily talking about technology that can support a Formal Learning Event that heavily leverages Informal / Social Learning as it's primary mechanism.

It's definitely worth a read.  Somewhat random thoughts as I reviewed the post.

Training Modalities

Stephen tells us at the outset:

Online learning today is beginning to be dominated by developments in games, simulations and related technologies. (Akili, 2007)

I was just recently looking back at my post Training Methods and have been evaluating submissions as part of preparing for the upcoming eLearning Tour.  Both of these suggest that Stephen's use of the term "dominated by" is probably misleading.


Stephen and I see similar kinds of complexities:

our best response to the variability and complexity of the subject matter along with the changing nature of the learner is to design systems that are decentralized, to push learning decisions down the hierarchy or out to the edges of the network.

Stephen goes through a great description of the course.  There's a lot to learn from that experience.

Certainly one of the things that jumps out at me was the same learning goals challenges that we faced in the work literacy course that we ran during a similar timeframe:

Because there were so many people contributing to the course, and because the content of the course actually shifted and varied according to participation and input into the course, it was necessary to emphasize to students that their role in the course was not to attempt to assimilate all course content. This was neither possible nor desirable. Rather, students were told that their role was to select and sample course content, pursuing areas of interest, reading related material from both within and outside the course, and then to contribute their unique perspective based on this reading.

For flow learners with flow learning goals, this likely worked quite well.  For directed learners, likely this was a bit disconcerting.

Still the fact that within the context of a formal learning event, they heavily use student activity aggregated together is a very interesting model.  In some ways, you could say that this might be an interesting model to experiment with as a formal/informal hybrid at the start of some new project.  A facilitated, get up to speed on a subject, kind of thing.

I'd be curious to hear thoughts on that kind of learning experience.

I also find it interesting to see the parallels to what I'm doing right now as I explore aspects of professional speaking.  I'm using aggregation and interactions with various bloggers on the topic to learn about it.  This is the same technology that is behind eLearning Learning and Communities and Networks Connection.  It allows multiple people to contribute to the aggregator and tries to filter and organize that content.  Stephen was dealing with that as part of the course and had to make daily sense of what was going on.  Possibly some of the social signals that we could use could have helped him, and I'll be curious how he automates more of that for the Fall 2009 class.

PLE Functions

Stephen's description of the main elements in the personal learning environment (PLE) was very interesting:

In the PLE project being undertaken by the National Research Council, the functionality of the PLE is depicted in four major stages: to aggregate, that is, to collect content from the individual's and other online content service providers, where aggregation includes elements of recommendation, data mining and automated metadata extraction ; to remix, or to organize content from several different sources in different ways, including through automated clustering; to repurpose, or edit, localize, or otherwise modify or create new content; and to feed forward, or send the content to subscribers and other web services, either via RSS syndication, email, Twitter, or other relevant services. (Downes, Theory of Learning Networks, 2004)

PLE functions:

  • aggregate
  • remix
  • repurpose
  • feed forward

It's interesting to see this perspective on the PLE where it is part of the Connectivism course and students are naturally motivated (or required) to share.  When I look at this from more the PWLE (Personal WORK and learning environment) perspective, I find that there are similar functions, but possibly a different mind set.

Looking back at my Tool Set series at the start of this year, there were very similar kinds of capabilities being described.  At first, when I looked at Stephen's list of functions, I felt like he was too content centric and had left out the people (see Networks and Learning Communities).  In many cases, I find myself searching for the right person as an answer to my learning / work need rather than finding the right content.  And I feel that Leveraging Networks is Key Skill and the most important Knowledge Worker Skill Gap.

However, as I read further in Stephen's description he said:

A network of PLEs is a learning network.

And certainly the effect of the network of PLEs is similar to the search for individuals that I describe.  People naturally congregate and interact around content that they've found interesting.  This is an issue that I've found fascinating about networks – content-centric vs. people-centric.  If you think of Flickr, Wikipedia, Delicious – these all are content-centric networks.  The content is the central element but there's lots of social aspects and interaction.  Whereas when you look at LinkedIn (leaving aside Answers and Groups), it's a people-centric network.  LinkedIn certainly is adding all kinds of content-centric connection opportunities with Answers and discussions via Groups. 

Thanks Stephen for a great post and a lot of insights into the technology side of supporting informal learning.


Paul Angileri said...

Hi Tony, and thanks for this post. I definitely see opportunities for this formal/informal mixture. I think as Workplace Learning and Performance (WLP) professionals, there are many topics that any one of us needs to get up to speed on, or could benefit from the polish of such a session. I would recommend a design of a session, say, on Social Learning (SL) in a Web 2.0 world. Start with some history on SL and give some modern context. Members of the group would be asked to contribute ideas based on their level of online social interaction, what groups and blogs/forums to which the subscribe, how they solve individual learning problems, and they can compare and constrast their experiences together to fill in the concept for the group. Then have a group assignment to research aspects of social learning. The group could then be empowered to make its decisions on who leads, who researches what, who compiles and presents, etc. From there, the class could take participants through the design and implementation of different SL methods and technologies as separate projects or assignments.

What do you think of this?

Tony Karrer said...

Paul this is a fantastic idea.

What I've been wondering a lot recently is why there are not more gatherings of learners interested in common themes who can work together to learn on the subject. Your SL learning example points square to the opportunity to do more of this.

This is especially a question for me because of the aggregation work I've been doing that can bring together distributed information. If you look at what Stephen is doing, it's similar thought. How can you collect together learners to have them help each other learn?

If you are interested in pursuing the SL example, I know quite a few people who likely would jump on board.

Paul Angileri said...

Good morning Tony.

I think that there's an intermix of things happening here. As in your examples like Wikipedia where the community comes to a source to assemble and police the information, I think that interest is the core driver. Where there are deficiencies in interested individuals and parties coming together, people may be unsure of how to search well, or can even be stuck in their typical modes of thinking. I've fallen into this trap myself on a few occasions, and all it takes is someone asking you to consider how you're using technology or how you're thinking about the context of the activity.

The other catalyst is individual initiative. When I consider one of my hobbies, automobiles, and think about my experiences with online communities centered on brands, types, or models of cars, informal learning is applied in a massive way. There are myriad autmobile forums out there for just about any car. Many of them have a way of initiating new members or other traffic through the use of pinned topic threads that contain most of the primary information someone is likely to be stopping by for (i.e. repair information, technical specifications, purchase inquiries, and a few others). One's hobby is very often a very strong catalyst for learning more on a subject or its sup-topics, and simply observing discussions has many times provided me that third and fourth level understanding that needs to take place for good learning that empowers.

I think one counter-acting element that may contribute to the problem you identify is the CEUs you were discussing last week. In the case of the WLP profession and industry, we as professionals are many times seeking to add that next cert or credit to our resume in order to open more opportunity doors. Getting together a small group that has little clout to learn on one subject or many but without some form of measurable recognition could provide a disincentive. Now I grant that this scenario could be a bit presumptive on my part, and surely WLP professionals do assemble and learn on some level. But I do think that some topics will have some saying "Why learn this within a small group if ASTD/ISPI/eL Guild offer's a 2-day course that gains me a cert I can put on my resume?" There is some benefit though, as more experienced and skilled learners mentoring others is certainly a skill that can be reported and quantified, so there is certainly a baseline benefit to the activity beyond the promulgation of information and best practices.

The solution or prototype that I would propose is that perhaps there could be groups that can come together, submit a proposal to say, an ASTD or ISPI, and be sponsored to conduct a learning intervention on a given topic or topic set. It would take some doing to get these establishments to

So I see a few things things contributing to the current state:
- Individual intitiative (which is probably already present)
- Individual self perspective (which can impede performance)
- A desire for a measurable economic or professional benefit (which can either generate or wane interest)

Is this inline with what you are seeking? I would certainly be interested in pursuing the SL example. I'm sure I could learn from it. For example, I know of Second Life, but have never used it; a session on this service and its possible uses would benefit my understanding.

Tony Karrer said...

Paul - great discussion. Thanks for the thoughts and prompts.

Good point that this certainly requires interest/passion among the participants. And I think there are avenues for coming together to learn about a lot of things. But for other areas, there's no obvious existing place.

The measurement of the result and possibly granting cert is not something I was thinking about at all. That would make this much harder. Stephen and George obviously had to figure out how to give credit. But I was thinking more of informal learning opportunities. Not to say you can't make it more formal and maybe you would get a better result with a bit more drive - otherwise things will get in the way (time).

The Second Life learning I was thinking about was more of a small group getting together to go through a self-directed, team-based learning initiative to learn about and think through the use of SL for Workplace Learning. I think you could find your learning cohorts pretty easily. You could get something going easily. You could engage with people with experience easily.

You will have drop off and uneven participation. You won't be able to give credit. You need some real driver personalities who are passionate about the topic.

But it seems doable.

Paul Angileri said...

That is true. I didn't realize I lost focus (getting away from informal and back into formal) with my last answer.

I could see an informal session that has small formal elements such as a date and time that is sent out, and interested individuals can attend at the date and time after doing perhaps a little prework to get into Second Life, and then once the date arrives and they have done the prework, you can show them around within the Second Life environment. Obviously this is somewhat dependent upon people actually doing the prework part, which would have to be designed and made simple enough to allow them to do it quickly (and to account for the procrastination that some people may do).

Another option would be to record a video screencast with narration, decentralizing the informal event and making it more of a self-paced exploration as opposed to a formally called informal session.