Key to a successful PLE

I compare two sets of findings on constructing a PLE that support and enhance learning. One if from an article by Dr. Wendy Drexler, and the other is on my reflections of the PLE-based course recently launched by George Siemens, David Cormier, Stephen Downes and Rita Kop – PLENK10. I was a lurcher in the course only for the purpose of examining how they constructed a MOOC (massive open online course). I was curious enough to join and skim the readings and postings as I find PLE’s are essential for rich learning.

First, Wendy Drexler shares her findings from a study on engaging students in a PLE in her article, The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy. She outlines the construction of a PLE using various communication, information and networked technologies, and provides a good description and listing of the tools used in the study for others to replicate.

Her message was PLE’s can be successful if they consider and manage the following:

  • balance structure with learner autonomy: the balance between course structure as well as instructor leadership and intervention and student freedom to read, construct and manage their own learning was considered an important element to facilitating PLE-based learning
  • when, where and how  to gauge learner understanding: each student learned, struggled, explored and constructed knowledge at different paces; knowing how and when to gauge this in order to support and guide them is a challenge. It most certainly affects balancing structure and student freedom. Drexler stated, ” Most students expressed comfort assuming greater control of the learning process over time, though how much control and how much time would differ by individual” (2010, p. 382).
  • develop digital and information literacy skills (both learner and instructor): students needed time to learn how to use the technologies as well as evaluate sources they found online; most of the information they were asked to explore was web-based (blogs, websites, expert pages). Drexler suggested instructors and teachers need time to explore and use new technologies, as well.
  • entice student motivation: without motivation to learn at such an independent  level students found the exercise laborious and time consuming. In regards to this, the PLE project outlined in this study was based on students’ picking topics of high and personal interest. This seemed to help.

Second, the PLENK10 course is purely experiential and created as a PLE (and network) that talks about the structure and usefulness of a PLE ( I think assessment will be the largest hurdle to tackle with this format). The creators are a collection of pundits (Siemens, Downes, Cormier and Kop) who are notorious for being cutting edge thinkers on using technology with learning that is based on alternative ways to learn. Some dabble in theories of chaos, social learning, and connectivism – not that I find these the only reality. I have followed their thinking for years and applaud them for continuing their thinking through direct study and experimentation. They are putting their money where their mouths are and the research world might take note.

The feedback by participants on the MOOC (massive open online course) is similar to my experience with an open online forum I participated in a few years ago that was delivered by a team working with Etienne Wenger. We assembled online to work as a community of practice (CoP) to talk about the building and maintaining of a CoP using technology. The organization hosting this forum is called CPsquare. I can’t remember the platform but it was similar to Moodle with various communication devices and interactive features.

I clearly remember being overwhelmed by the emerging dialogue of the many participants and the various sessions (synch and asynch). I came away realizing that people and experts have a lot to say and that there is potential for a number of simultaneous dialogues. I think it is essential to grasp the immediate and important dialogues and redirect energy towards those letting the more minor threads dissipate. And the grasping of the immediate discourse is done by the people, the participants (in this case, members of the community of practice). That is, the individuals of the group/network/community determine important topics, need for action/reflection/consideration, etc. This is the crux of a working thinking group – unfolding the essential topic at the moment. Of course, it helps to have an expert in the bunch to share needed directions or topics as knowledge is built on knowledge. That’s why theory is important to consider.

I believe PLEs are the future of education and that they need to be dynamic and focused at the same time. Its place in academic settings will take some time. We have to remember that we are used to learning formally in a certain way and the shift to a more loosely connected experiential learning format will take some time. However, creating one or two learning activities in this manner would be a breath of fresh air for students who sit hour after hour ingesting other’s words.

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