Social Software, Personal Learning Environments and Lifelong Competence Development- Graham Attwell

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Social Software, Personal Learning Environments and Lifelong Competence DevelopmentGraham Attwell Pontydysgu

The industrial revolution and the challenge to educationIndustrial revolutions are epoch forming events, leading to fundamental changes in the way society is organised. Traditional industries and occupations disappear, new industries and occupational profiles are born, large scale population movements take place and there are profound changes in the way in which we manage our everyday lives. We are at present undergoing a deep and prolonged industrial revolution based on digital technologies on which the development of the World Wide Web and digital communication devices are only two of the more dramatic signs. The reform and reshaping of social systems and institutions has tended to lag behind in periods of rapid technological change and education is no exception. It is arguable that in the UK the response to the first industrial revolution of the 1840s was not seen at least at policy level until the 1903 education Act which legislated for free universal primary education. Of course the new technologies have impacted on education with various phases on innovation, culminating in the present wide scale adoption of Virtual Learning Environments. It is another feature of industrial revolutions that profound innovations in technology tend to be reflected in older paradigms. thus the motor car was first entitled a horseless carriage and in the UK early adapters were forced to employ a person to walk in front of the car carrying a red flag! Similarly in education we have attempted to adapt the technology to the existing paradigm of schooling with the resulting virtual classroom and virtual college. But it is not the development of technology per se which poses such a challenge to education systems and educational institutions. It is the changing ways in which people are using technologies to communicate and to learn and the accompanying social effect of such use. Whilst educationalists struggle to develop popular, functional and compelling educational technologies, young people are in their thousands signing up to social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo, writing and maintaining weblogs using Open Source Software and hosted services, sharing photographs through Flickr, participating in 3D immersive worlds like Second Life and above all forming social communities using different on-line

messaging services such as MSN. It goes without saying that none of these have been designed as educational software. Of course it can be organised that these are just trends, in one years time MySpace will no longer be cool and the kids will be somewhere else. That is probably true but misses the point. Even if MySpace is no longer a cool place to be seen, the young people will still be using social networking and social software for communication and for organising their lives. The reaction of education systems and institutions to the rise of social networking has been at best bewilderment, at worst downright hostility. In the USA an act in going through congress banning access to social networking sites form publicly funded education systems. In most schools students are banned from using mobile telephones for communication in school. Of course, their are many problems - some connected to the so called duty of care entrusted to schools - as well as many issues related to security and to the longevity and ownership of data. But a refusal to engage in these issues risks school becoming increasingly irrelevant to the everyday lives of many young people and particularly irrelevant to the ways in which they communicate and share knowledge. Web 2.0 and social software are particularly important in this respect. Whilst Web 1.0 was essentially a push medium and therefore an extension of more traditional means of communication like books or television Web 2.0 allows young people (or learners of any age) not only to consume information and knowledge but to be active co-creators of knowledge. Thus young people are turning away form television - a medium for passive consumption - towards video sharing sites such as YouTube and GoogleVideo which allows them to themselves make and share their own content and to rate and discuss that content. The potential impact of such changes in social forms of communication can also be seen in the furore in the UK over the (US based) web site RateMyTeacher. Whilst previously quality of education in the UK has been through external inspection by Government (indirectly) appointed experts Her Majesties Inspectors - students are now able to themselves rate their teachers on-line. O(f course there are questions over the validity reliability of such ratings (but the validity of previous inspections could also be challenged). But ignoring such developments and hoping they will go away or it will just be a craze kids are going through - will not help. The changing ways in which technologies are being used for (informal) learning and knowledge sharing requires a fundamental review of our entire approach t o education and learning including the industrial schooling model itself, the organisation of institutions and pedagogy and curriculum. Given that deep lying reforms can take time, such a review needs to be started now. But it is not just young people who are using social software for learning. A seven country study of the use of ICT for learning in Small and Medium

Enterprises, carried out over the last three years, found a number of surprising results There was little use of ICT for formal learning in the SMEs (in fact there was little formal learning taking place at all). In contrast to the paucity of formal learning provision in the SMEs studied, there was a great deal of informal learning taking place. From the study most informal learning appeared be learner driven, rather than planned in conjunction with others in the enterprise, and was problem motivated, although some learners were motivated by their own interest rather than in response to any specific problem. In many cases ICT was being used as part of this informal learning. The main means of ICT based learning was Google key word searches. Managers were often unaware of this learning, although they were frequently aware of the problem which inspired it. There were considerable differences in the use of ICT for informal learning between different enterprises. It would be tempting to ascribe these differences to age, sector, size or occupation but it is hard to discern such causal factors from the case studies undertaken. None of the employees in the enterprises studied had attempted to claim recognition or accreditation for the skills and knowledge gained through informal learning. It is not clear if this is because they are not interested in pursuing further formal qualifications or if it is because they are unaware of any opportunities of claiming accreditation for informal learning. The use of the Google search engine as the major tool for learning is interesting. It raises the question of how people are framing their search terms, how they are refining search strings, how they are selecting from the results of search queries and how they are following hyperlinked texts. For a search result to be useful it needs to both produce materials, ideas and concepts which can connect with the learners existing knowledge base of the one hand and approach the issue or problem being addressed on the other. The ideas of legitimate peripheral participation and proximinal development may be helpful for explaining this process and of understanding how people are making sense of knowledge. Lave and Wenger (1991) propose that the initial participation in a culture of practice can be observation from the periphery or legitimate peripheral participation. The participant moves from the role of observer, as learning and observation in the culture increase, to a fully functioning member. The progressive movement towards full participation enables the learner to piece together the culture of the group and establish their identity. Knowing is inherent in the growth and transformation of identities and it is

located in relations among practitioners, their practice, the artefacts of that practice, and the social organizationof communities of practice.(Lave and Wenger, 1991, p 122). Especially in micro enterprises, SME employees have tended to be isolated from communities of practice. This may be a greater barrier to learning than the lack of time to attend training courses. One of the most powerful uses of ICT for learning in SMEs is the ability to connect to distributed communities of practice. There has been much comment on the phenomenon of lurkers on discussion sites, lists servers and bulletin board. Lurking is very much a process of legitimate peripheral participation. Watching, listening and trying to make sense of a series of posts and discussions without being forced to reveal oneself or to actively participate allows the development of knowledge about knowledge within a community and about the practices of the on-line community. Similar to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation is Vygotskys (1990) Zone of Proximinal Development. This theoretical construct states that learning occurs best when an expert guides a novice from the novice's current level of knowledge to the expert's level of knowledge. Bridging the zone of proximinal development construct with legitimate peripheral participation construct may be accomplished if one thinks of a zone in which the expert or mentor takes the learner from the peripheral status of knowing to a deeper status. This may be accomplished with or without intention as Lave and Wegner (1991) state: Legitimate peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytic viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning. We hope to make it clear that learning through legitimate peripheral participation takes place no matter which educational form provides a context for learning, or whether there is any intentional educational form at all. Indeed, this viewpoint makes a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction (1991, p. 40). However, the expert scaffolds the environment to the extent in which the learner is engaged with the discourse and participants within the zone and is drawn from a peripheral status to a more engaged status. The peripheral learner interacts with the mentor, expert learners and peers within this zone. More able learners (peers) or the mentor will work with the less able learner potentially allowing for socially constructed knowledge. Within the SMEs studies there were few instances of mentoring or continuous contact with an expert. The use of ICT was allowing distributed access to

expertise albeit mediated through bulletin boards, forums and web pages. This leaves open the question as to the process of scaffolding which essentially becomes an internalised process. However the process of less able learners working with more able peers is a common process in seeking new knowledge through the use of ICT. Essentially workers are using search engines to seek out potential forums and contexts for learning. Selection depends on closeness of interest and the level of discourse in the community. There is little point in following a discourse of too low a level, of knowledge already gained, neither is their an attraction to a discourse clearly on an level which cannot be understood. Learners wills eek a community with knowledge at a higher level than their own but which can connect with their prior learning, learning and practice. Typically they will lurk in order to understand the workings of the community and to gain some basic knowledge. After a period of time they might contribute in the form of a question and later again might themselves contribute to the hared knowledge pool. In this ways they move from the periphery through lurking to full bound participants in a community. It should be noted that communities are frequently overlapping and that the use of hyper-links and more recently standards like track-back allow the communities to be dynamic with the emergence of new groups and discourses. This study is important not only in showing how people are using computers for learning but in their use of learning materials. Few of those we surveyed used formal learning materials. they were using materials they found on the web for learning. In education, we have tended to focus on the development of formal learning materials and have ignored the vast potential of freely available objects of all kinds (not formal learning objects!) freely available for learning purposes. It is also important to note that changes in the way in which we learn and develop new competences is a challenge to our traditional subject organisation, based on a disciplinary taxonomy emerging from the Enlightenment period. There is an increasing danger that we are failing not only in how we teach competence development (if indeed competence development can be taught but in the relevance of what we teach. This is most obvious in considering the fats changing competences required for basic (digital) literacy. Although most countries have adopted a rhetoric of lifelong learning, there is little sign that education systems have sufficiently changed to facilitate such a movement. Thus there is a major challenge to our education and training institutions and systems, especially when considering lifelong competence development.

Perhaps the most promising development, certainly in the filed of educational technology is the growing understanding of the potential of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). PLEs go beyond calls for the personalisation of learning, to placing learners in control of their own learning and recognising that learning may take place in multiple contexts. PLEs are important in this debate in that they are not another substantiation of educational technology but a new approach to learning in response to the present challenges to the educational systems especially in the context of lifelong competence development. In the next section of the paper I will outline the ideas behind the PLE. I will conclude by considering some of the changes in policy and practice required to develop on the potential of the use of social software and Personal Learning Environments for lifelong competence development. Personal Learning Environments What is a Personal Learning Environment? Mark Van Harmelen (2006a) says Personal Learning Environments are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for learners to set their own learning goals manage their learning; managing both content and process communicate with others in the process of learning and thereby achieve learning goals. A PLE may be composed of one or more sub-systems: As such it may be a desktop application, or composed of one or more web-based services. Mark says (2006b) the development of PLEs is motivated by: The needs of life-long learners for a system that provides a standard interface to different institutions e-learning systems, and that allows portfolio information to be maintained across institutions. A response to pedagogic approaches which require that learners e-learning systems need to be under the control of the learners themselves. The needs of learners who sometimes perform learning activities offline e.g. via mobile system in a wireless-free hospital, or on a remote mountainside.. As such, a PLE is a single users e-learning system that provides access to a variety of learning resources, and that

may provide access to learners and teachers who use other PLEs and/or VLEs. In a position paper I wrote earlier this year on PLEs (Attwell, 2006) I saw the background to PLEs as a response to the idea of learninga s being lifelong. Learning is now seen as multi episodic, with individuals spending occasional periods of formal education and training throughout their working life. The idea of a Personal Learning Environment recognises that learning is continuing and seeks to provide tools to support that learning. It also recognises the role of the individual in organising their own learning. Moreover, the pressures for a PLE are based on the idea that learning will take place in different contexts and situations and will not be provided by a single learning provider. Linked to this is an increasing recognition of the importance of informal learning. Ubiquitous computing and social software are changing the way in which we learn. Scot Wilson provoked much of the present debate over PLEs with the following drawing (which he called a Future VLE; in February 2006 the term PLE was still not in widespread use!):

The most important change is such a view is to see the learner at the centre and to provide the learner with the opportunity (and responsibility) for managing their own learning. Furthermore it recognised the multiple contexts in which learning took place and the tow way nature of the interactions between the PLE and other web services. It is important to note that the PLE is not a software application as such but rather a mash up of different applications and services although of course, it is possible to develop applications such as ELGG which bring together much of this functionality. and allow ease of access to different services. As such PLEs develop on the potential of services oriented architectures for dispersed and networked forms of learning and knowledge development. Why is the idea of the PLE so important? Stephen Downes (2006) says the heart of the concept of the PLE is that it is a tool that allows a learner (or anyone) to engage in a distributed environment consisting of a network of people, services and resources. It is not just Web 2.0, but it is certainly Web 2.0 in the sense that it is (in the broadest sense possible) a read-write

application. The promise of Personal Learning Environments could be to extend access to educational technology to everyone who wishes to organise their own learning. Furthermore the idea of the PLE purports to include and bring together all learning, including informal learning, workplace learning, learning from the home, learning driven by problem solving and learning motivated by personal interest as well as learning through engagement in formal educational programmes. The pedagogy behind the PLE if it could be still called that is that it offers a portal to the world, through which learners can explore and create, according to their own interests and directions, interacting at all times with their friends and community. New forms of learning are based on trying things and action, rather than on more abstract knowledge. Learning becomes as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract, and becomes intertwined with judgement and exploration. (Seely Brown, 1999) And as Stephen Downs (ibid) says crucially teaching becomes the same thing as well. As I wrote in 2002, Educators play the same sort of role in society as journalists. They are aggregators, assimilators, analysts and advisors. They are middle links in an ecosystem, or as John Hiler puts it, parasites on information produced by others. And they are being impacted by alternative forms of learning in much the same way, for much the same reasons. However whilst PLEs may offer a radical new vision for the development of pedagogy and learning it is becoming apparent that the introduction of the PLE will challenge the existing education systems and institutions. But, critically, the challenge of introducing PLEs is one and the same with the issues described in the first section of this paper. In the final section of the paper I suggest some activities and policies that could facilitate the development of social software and Personal Learning Environments for lifelong competence development.

Supporting lifelong competence development through social software and Personal Learning EnvironmentsI have stressed that the development of Personal Learning Environments is not just another substantiation of learning software. Rather, the use of social software and prototype PLE environment such as ELGG show how the introduction of how Services Oriented Approaches could support lifelong competence development. But it provide a profound challenge to what I would characterise as the industrial model of schooling and threatens what Jeremy Herbert calls the absurd split between learning and knowledge development. What sort of actions and policies are needed if we are to build

on such a potential? During the ICT and SMEs study we looked at the nature of learning taking place in small enterprises: Learning takes place in response to problems or issues or is driven by the interests of the learner Learning is sequenced by the learner Learning is episodic Learning is controlled by the learner in terms of pace and time Learning is heavily contextual in terms of time, place and use Learning is cross disciplinary or cross subject Learning is interactive with practice Learning builds on often idiosyncratic and personal knowledge bases Learning takes place in communities of practice

There has been an upsurge of interest in informal learning in the recent period, However this has mainly focused on establishing equivalency with formal qualifications and it has proved difficult to establish tools and mechanisms for accrediting informal learning. A more productive course may be to recognise that learning takes place in multiple contexts and from multiple sources. Although the study showed the use of computers for informal learning in the workplace it also revealed the importance of previous formal learning for the development and scaffolding of knowledge. Workers in SMEs had also gained new skills and knowledge from non formal learning contexts including evening classes attended outside work time and driven largely by self interest. The provision of portfolios - as an extension of the Europass CV - could be an important form for recognised in the different contexts for learning. e-Portfolios are fast being introduced in schools and universities but had made limited headway for vocational or work-based learning. If e-portfolios were to be of more widespread relevance it is important that they recognise the importance of communities of practice and that they record all learning including informal learning. Present e-Portfolio applications tend to be constrained by the requirements of formal qualifications. The development and use of e-portfolios would require some considerable support. It is naive to expect workers to adopt and develop ePortfolios without mentoring and guidance of some form.

Perhaps the most important finding of our previous research is that learning takes place through engagement in communities of practice. I suspect this is nothing new - however, the use of ICT has enabled the development of dispersed communities of practice. This is particularly important for SMEs where there may be few opportunities for face to face engagement with colleagues engaged in similar practices and with similar problems. From a policy point of view this also poses some issues. It is easy to propose that policies should be focused on supporting the development of communities if practice but this begs the question of how. It is notable that there are very different business structures in the Member States of the European Union. In particular Chambers of Commerce and Trade Associations play very different roles. In some countries they are regulatory bodies and membership is compulsory. In other countries, such as the UK, they act more as social organisations and many SMEs are not members. Similarly there are very big differences between industry sectors. In some industries there are close contact between enterprises, in other industries far less contacts. Clusters of enterprises collaborate on regional basis in some sectors, other enterprises may be part of national or international supply chains. The development of incubator units has been important in Wales as a source of networking and informal learning. Suppliers of machinery and technology may be an important source of information. One size policies will not fit all. A policy of encouraging and supporting the development of communities of practice and engagement in those communities will need to be implemented on a sector by sector and region by region basis, in order to nurture lifelong competence development through informal learning. This tends to imply that within such a broad policy decisions over funding and support need to be taken as close to practice as possible and that such policy implementation needs to be enabling rather than restrictive. In many countries occupational profiles are formally stipulated by regulatory bodies, often involving social partners. Occupational profiles historically arose out of the craft trades and tended to be narrowly defined. The development of broader occupational profiles could be of importance in providing the initial knowledge base for future informal learning, even if that broader based learning was not required for immediate employment purposes. Similarly a broader understanding of digital literacy and its integration within the curriculum at all levels is important in allowing workers to use ICT for learning in the workplace and lifelong competence development. Supporting informal learning should not be seen as in opposition to formal training. Within a lifelong learning scenario it is likely that workers will engage in periods of formal training and periods when most learning will be

informal and work based. Supporting informal learning through communities of practice may well result in an increased awareness of the importance of learning for SMEs and hence to increased involvement in formal training. In terms of the development of ICt for supporting lifelong competence development there is the need for a fundamental policy revue. Past models have focused on the extension of the largely consumer driven model of developing standardised learning materials and component qualifications to be delivered through a Learning Management System or Virtual Learning Environment and of targeted marketing campaigns towards enterprises. This model is not only costly but has made little impact and is unsustainable. If learning is best developed through communities of practice then the focus for programmes and projects seeking to provide e-learning for SMEs should be refocused on the provision of applications and support for distributed communities of practice for SMEs. In terms of software applications this requires the use of social software rather than more traditional e-learning programmes and applications. Rather than subsidise the development of professional learning materials the emphasis could be on the sharing of peer group learning materials through networks. Aggregator applications allow advanced searching and the bringing together of materials from different sources. The refocusing of programmes and projects in this way allow the vision of an ecology of learning materials, rather than the present unsustainable pilot applications. Thus the development and implementation of Personal Learning Environments for lifelong competence development requires not just a new approach to learning software and architectures, welcome though the Services Oriented Approach is, but the shaping of technology and the codevelopment of enterprises and business development policies, new pedagogies as well as educational services to facilitate learning and knowledge development. References Attwell, G. (2006), Next Generation Learning and Personal Learning Environments, paper presneted at Alt C conference, Edinburgh, September 2006, s/3984412244 Downes S. (2006), Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge, Hiler J. (2002), Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem, Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Scot Wilson (2006) Future VLE, the visual version, Seely Brown J. (1999) Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age: Creating Learning Ecologies, Transcription of a talk by Brown at the 1999 Conference on Higher Education of the American Association for Higher Education., accessed 25 July, 2004 Van Harmelen M. (2006a), Personal Learning Environments, Van Harmelen M.(2006b), Personal Learning Environments, Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT'06), Vygotsky, LS, (1978), Mind in Society - The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Editors: Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, USA.


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