Archive for July, 2010

PLE Architecture

Rita Kop mentions Stephen Downes’ charter/vision for a PLE extending on from a discussion of critical literacies and the eXtended Web, building on Steve Wheeler’s Web 3.0, George Siemens’ xWeb and Stephen’s Web X, to which I would add some of my own thoughts from a couple of years ago on Learning X.0:

The components that were formulated in Stephen Downes’ vision for a PLE at the start of the PLE project of the National Research Council of Canada are the following: 1. A personal profiler that would collect and store personal information. 2. An information and resource aggregator to collect information and resources. 3. Editors and publishers enabling people to produce and publish artifacts to aid the learning and interest of others. 4. Helper applications that would provide the pedagogical backbone of the PLE and make connections with other internet services to help the learner make sense of information, applications and resources. 5. Services of the learners choice. 6. Recommenders of information and resources.

Interesting. Without really attempting to reverse engineer or second guess Stephen’s thoughts, I think this is an evolutionary approach to design the PLE. By that I mean, an approach that says, look at the emerging technology, networks and way people are learning and sharing, and create a solution that would mashup or cross-pollinate technology and context sensitive “intelligent” recommendations.

I have mixed thoughts about this approach. On the one hand, the cross-pollination is a perhaps inevitable in a personal learning environment (to various degrees as evidenced by that discussion on xWeb…), but for me it doesn’t feel like it captures the entire scope that we are confronted with.

Rita points to one such “leak” in terms of critical literacies.

The reality, however, is different and research is available to show that not all adult learners are able to critically assess what they find online and might prefer to receive guidance from knowledgeable others. There is also research available to show how difficult it is for anybody to reach and access a deep level of information by using search engines.

I have not seen the research, but it seems to be confirmation to an intuitive feel that I have. Particularly in India, there is a culture of a very strong “touch and feel” in almost all spheres of life – difficult to substitute the “guru” as the guide. And since search engines are what they are, architecturally, the latter finding also seems intuitive.

The other “leak” I feel is fundamental. “Helper applications that would provide the pedagogical backbone” does not sound quite right. These need to be “core” infrastructure for the PLE inasmuch as pedagogy needs to equally reside at the core as technology and the learner. Of course, what the pedagogical backbone consists of is of prime importance – the reason for building  a PLE as opposed to a PageFlakes.

One more concern is with “personal information”. How is personal information defined? Is it defined as your core demographics, interests and preferences, or is it defined as your actions as implicitly recorded by a search engine, or is it defined as the log of your learning activities captured explicitly by an intelligent system, or is it a combination or extension of that into your professional lives? As a corollary, in the context of the PLE, how is that information useful for recommender systems except in an information management and presentation algorithm?

Again, integrating “services of the learners choice” presents problems. Its like saying, I could add-on a service without worrying about how it helps integrate with my learning in a particular context – sort of like a widget that displays an aggregated feed. To have context built-in and some pedagogy to be in place within the context of a PLE is important and it will determine rules that services will have to follow if they want to integrate into the learning experience. Otherwise, it becomes just a site where various services coexist.

I am not sure what the alternative is to Stephen’s vision, but the above comments have been my starting points when thinking about PLEs.

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To communicate an elusive and esoteric concept such as corporate values or leadership skills in a way that learners at all levels imbibe the spirit and passion with which the company has been created and is driven on a daily basis, is a task that requires continuous engagement and time. It also requires continuous reiteration and elaboration to make sure that values persist even as daily challenges are negotiated by employees.

For employees, it is not only a behavioral change, but also one that requires hard skills to conform to. The employee’s responsibility, additionally, does not end with his understanding, but in making shared that understanding and best practice across peers, team and supervisors.

This is where I feel that simulations, serious games and vibrant collaboration aware learning environments will make a significant impact.

My focus in this area is to provide a mechanism that transcends traditional eLearning approaches such as WBTs and Virtual Classrooms and focuses on behavioral and skill development skills, which has long been the subject of face to face classroom training.

Traditional face to face classroom training has its own advantages. Good instructors can learn a lot from observation of learner performance, the medium lends itself to some wanted unpredictability and creativity and students are immersed better into their learning through role-plays, collaborative activities and inter-personal sharing.

Be that as it may, simulated 2D/3D immersive simulation environments also have their own advantages. Firstly, environments can be created that are physically impossible to recreate or replicate (i.e. situate a large number of learners in) e.g. a production unit. The domain/content environment can be made vastly more informative and dynamic through the use of simulation technology e.g. simulating a business downturn – a complex model with many inter-related variables that change in complex ways as learners make changes to the environment. Thirdly, experimentation with scenarios in a repeatable manner with no real world consequences of decisions is a powerful feature. Fourthly, scaling beyond the reach and capacity of a traditional classroom is made obvious with the use of technology. Fifthly, the knowledge of the most expert and knowledgeable resources in the domain is captured in the simulated environment and training environments are not easily susceptible to individual differences in interpretation, while allow for multiple interpretations to be made possible at the same time. Sixthly, the medium is inherently visual allowing learners to navigate the simulations just like they would do in real life – which, in turn, drastically reduces the need for entry level IT competency.

Of course, there are trade-offs between the two. But I believe that technology can reduce the gap to a significant extent, firstly by the level of immersion that can be created and secondly by the depth of the domain modeling that can be achieved.

With our business simulations for sales (for which we won the Brandon Hall Award in 2009) and customer support, for example, we have seen drastic improvements in performance and performance assessment at a scale much beyond the reach of the traditional classroom. These improvements in performance have resulted from learners identifying and immersing themselves within the simulation environment, believing the simulation to be an effective replica of their business lives. In all over 10-12,000 learners have gone through these simulators till date and these simulators continue to be used and expanded in scope and coverage on an ongoing basis.

Essentially, the approach builds on immersing the learner employee into an environment that is very similar to his daily work environment. We want to model a period of time where the employee, operating at a certain level and in a certain role, will interact with his environment, which consists of stakeholders he engages with in pursuance of his daily tasks, and negotiate challenges that exemplify his understanding of one or more key concepts.

Network Based Training (NBT)

I believe that just as the CBT (Computer Based Training) paradigm transformed into the WBT (Web Based Training) paradigm, it is time now for a new transformation to NBT – the N standing for Network. This belief is strongly grounded in new theories of net pedagogy and in particular, the theory of Connectivism, which stands firmly contrasted against the traditional behavioral, cognitive and constructivist theories.

Connectivism leverages the revolutions in technology and social networking and frontally attacks the problems of our current conceptions and methodologies. It deals with the problem of sense-making in a world with a supra-abundance of information and knowhow. It focuses on learning as a lifelong skill and a framework for understanding and implementing communities of practice and informal learning in the enterprise.

Our system of learning and training is inherently on the lines of a production system. For example, we talk of induction training, then role-based training and then training for career progressions as distinct and discrete phases. In the process, we build barriers between the expert practitioner and a real separation between knowledge and practice. Consequently, we bring upon ourselves problems of inefficiencies, non-standardization and scale which require fresh techniques such as buddy-mentoring and on the job training.

NBTs seek to alleviate some of these issues by bring the expert practitioner, the learning community and the facilitators together on a single platform. Learners form an instant community with each other and people they will work with in the future, sharing knowledge, sharing fresh new approaches and creating new ways to deal with challenges at the workplace.

I believe that learners will benefit immensely from this informal network and collaboration by keeping content fresh, sharing rich and learning experiences meaningful and relevant for learners.

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I was reading with interest Will Richardson’s Motivating DIY Learners and his links to Alan Levine’s The Gaping M Shaped Void for DY Education and then following up on Anya Kamenetz who has written a new book called DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education which I have to read, and I couldn’t stop getting into an uncontrolled bout of expression, perhaps more an unsubstantiated vent.


Do we have a reason to learn? Sure. Depending upon the context, which could range from generating income to enabling ourselves to perform a task to whatever. 

Who benefits when we learn? We should (and perhaps mostly do), but our employer, collaborator or the society at large, directly or indirectly, benefits from our actions that result from our learning.

How are the choices made? Of course, we may exhibit individual agency and demonstrate our choice over what we learn, but that in turn is partly conditioned by our constraints and the expectations we have about the results from learning, material or not. In part it is conditioned or influenced by what is expected of us.

When Alan Levine asks “What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion?”, in the context of Anya’s new DIY U concept (and book), I am reminded of the question that was posed in CCK08 – “What do you think it will take for this change to happen?” (in the context of Connectivism and its potential impact). Both questions are about change, and the change being discussed is as much about the “why” of our learning as about the “how we are learning”. Both questions focus on the traditional systems of education as the reference point.

And this leads to a chain of things – the way the curriculum is designed, the certification process, linkages to placements when we finish a program of study etc. Not that this chain is always something that is well applauded for its outcomes, in fact in India we see a flurry of activity under names such as “Industry readiness programs” which seek to “bridge the gap” between academia and industry. These programmes demonstrate that there is a gap and academia/policy is not moving fast enough to bridge that.

Even when we pass through this chain, it is difficult to estimate what amount of knowhow we are made to pickup, that we would actually be able to push into the field when employment starts. I scratch my head sometimes and ask myself if it was really worth spending time learning about the Gangetic plains in India when today it is a click away, in resplendent glory, on the web. Alternately, if I had chosen to major in Geography, and didn’t know about the Gangetic Plains, that would be a distinct shame, wouldn’t it (actually most of us do forget by the time we get to that stage anyways). This is indeed a personal reflection, by definition not generalizable.

But educators can’t foresee where we will eventually land up, right? So their job is to prepare us for anything – build the foundations. And they are not depressed if we end up turning everything upside down and do something they did not think of preparing us for. In fact I believe that most schools, through their emphasis on discipline and values, try and engineer a well-rounded personality more than just a score-making machine.

Actually speaking then, there is no determinism then in what happens as we progress through the cycle. What does definitely determine where we ultimately land up are the opportunities we get and the choices we make. The opportunities are a function of competition too. And good scores are the embedded rules for smooth propagation in the system (now even those are being supplemented by an additional screening layer of entry assessments).

What equally stands out in my mind is the fact that every passing day, I am able to make better sense of the opportunities or appreciate why I need to learn something. If today, I decided to study as an engineer, I would perhaps do much better than I would have if I had taken an engineering course right after school.

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right, does it. What would schools do then? The one question I have never asked is why do we require 12 years of schooling; why not 5 years of primary education and then increasing specialization for the next 10 years; or for that matter, any other logical breakup? Like in Japan, education is compulsory from 6-15 years. Finland starts its students at the age of 7! I believe, in countries like Japan and Finland, post 15 years of age students can branch off to either an academic stream or a vocational stream. Finland, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand are ranked jointly the highest in the UN’s Education Index. The vocational and academic streams have started allowing some cross-credit exchanges as well (RPL in Australia).

But the fact is, that school starts a year or so later and ends in about 9 years, by the time the child is 15 or so. Then it is time to make decisions to go one way or the other with opportunities to merge at some point.

I like the concept better than what we have here. I would prefer that schools actually cut down on curriculum, maybe by 50% (borne out of experience with my daughter completing 5 years of primary school in 2011 – please don’t teach her India’s 5000 year history in a 4 page chapter). The time “allowed” to learn versus the time actually required to “learn” is probably the best indicator of what we are putting our young minds through.

We did not learn anything from Pink Floyd when they sang “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” – instead, we are overloading our curriculum, overburdening our young minds (now President Obama has initiated “adding” 21st century skills curriculum to STEM!) and generally not aligning with what the economy and society require. 

I somehow think we are really putting the burden of growth on our children rather than dealing with it ourselves. 

So if someone is listening, please do give some more thought to this meandering:

cut down school content, start school later, end it earlier, focus on growing the mind, building teamwork and other “21st century” skills, enabling our children to become responsible and knowledgeable citizens with a global perspective, reshape the assessment tools and frameworks that we have today to evaluate richness and variety of expression in our young minds, build new avenues and focussed curricula to strategically align with what we really need, get industry to recognize vocational education on par with regular degrees – basically – give our children a break, they don’t need this education.

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Of course, Prezi was the inspiration behind this one! Just a short presentation on what I think the next generation learning environments will look like. I have been calling NBTs as an evolution from CBTs and WBTs – the “N” standing for “Network”.

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I came across a recent article in Forbes titled What Educators are Learning from Money Managers. The article is rife with purported linkages between how corporations work and how education could be if it learnt its lessons from the “money makers”. The point made is that if public money (and private funding in public education through donations) in education has poured in, it is not seeing the results it should because the approach may well be wrong.

And the approach by companies such as Wireless Generation, is to infuse assessment and monitoring of student and teacher performance with the help of technology combined with professional practices. Larry Berger, the founder and CEO of Wireless Generations says that Education is in a revolution of sophisticated analysis of the data set. Essentially he is talking about software that lets teachers evaluate their students better and take corrective action very rapidly (“every two weeks”) and the availability of cloud-computing and portability/ubiquity as technology innovations that can support this revolution.

So this is about Charter school operators such as Achievement First, who bring in a professional management and execution of performance based processes (for the student, teacher and school). Joel Klein, chancellor of the 1.1 million student New York City Department of Education, is taking a portfolio-theory approach to education reform, meaning that he wants a selection of large, professional organizations to choose from when he sets up a new charter school. He has learnt, through his experience as an Assistant Attorney General under the Clinton administration, two things – “competition and accountability“.

Chief among strategies are:

  1. Expand the good schools and close down the bad ones
  2. Rely on young teachers coming out of training programs like Teach for America and University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program
  3. Pay teachers higher, but expect longer days and hours; enforce performance based indicators
  4. Employ technology to bring about rapid personalized response
  5. Focus on curriculum and leadership, rather than on bureaucratic roles
  6. Focus on lagging students first
  7. Replicate and scale these best practices

Some of this is kind of an approach is already incubating in India as I have referred to in my other posts. There are professional school operators bringing in technology and best practices, higher accountability and competitiveness, funding is on the increase, teachers do get paid higher, curriculum development is an exciting place to be and there are movements afoot to enhance the quality of teacher training programs and professionalization through movements similar to Teach for America. In fact, I believe, that 6000 high quality model schools, are being set up in India.

There is also, of course, student education loans (given the extremely low fee structures in public institutions) and heavy advertising by private education that is accompanying these trends (and many more market phenomena expected soon).

I am inherently uncomfortable in this notion of productionizing (if there is such a word) education. The problem is that in India the scale is many many times higher (and the infrastructure – physical and human – is many many times lower) that these models instantly would appeal to planners. There is no doubt that we need systems that ensure that a well-qualified and satisfied workforce comes into place sooner than later, that curriculum would benefit from ICT and advances in pedagogy, that teachers also need better working conditions and incentives, that there should be ways to monitor quality etc.

But education as the systematic production of learning, inherently a concept fraught with dangers that theories such as Connectivism identify, by whatever technique or best practice, seems to me the wrong abstraction. I think there are alternate ways that must be tried and tested at the point where we are at in India, rather than playing copycat to the ideas like the ones in the Forbes article.

Why – because what works elsewhere (if it does) may not be the best or viable methodology for us here – our scale, diversity, history, culture, geo-politics, economics and legacy are all different and unique; because Western systems of education and educational technology are under terrible critique at the moment, which means there are important lessons they are learning post implementation that we must take note of; because there is a lack of organized debate on what else could be; because we have a tendency to be motivated by hype more than substance; and because there is serious research happening worldwide that can change the way we think about education and educational technology.

Concretely, WBTs have failed to live up to expectations in terms of quality and effectiveness, but we embrace them as the mode of national level content development; Virtual Classrooms have ended up being more or less meeting rooms with facilitation tools, but we are investing in national level classrooms; Learning Management Systems are changing the world over to include AI, Web 2.0 and social learning, but we are stuck in the bureaucratic management of learning processes; Gaming and Simulations, as also Virtual World technology, are recognized as game changers, but we would rather not go there; and many other examples. I think we are so preoccupied with reach/access that we have not thought hard enough of the what after reach/access? question, assuming it is all there and is the best that can be.

As a consequence, we will go the way the market predicates, and that market will be large with plenty of innovation. But it may not be a market, in my humble opinion, that will provide the largest social benefit.

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