Category Archives: PLEs

fedwiki as notebook and a style guide for the coterie

When I first started using a traditional wiki (c. 2002, I think), I mistakingly saw it as a form of wide-ranging publication – a hypertextual companion to the blog. I was looking for a universal notebook-cum-database; a one-stop shop for drafting, revising, and publishing; a elegant – because it was the smallest database that would work – hypertexual support system; the realization of Vannevar Bush’s memex and Ted Nelson’s literary machine. I thought of the wiki as a magic workshop: a place where I could collect and store and organize hypertexually my notes, commonplaces, links, and drafts; with a workbench space to assemble these things into more formal hypertexts; and the capability of publising those hypertexts in progress. A universal reading and writing and learning and broadcasting space.

Wikipedia not withstanding, the wiki isn’t a publishing medium so much as a medium for coterie circulation, something closer to manuscript circulation than world wide circulation of a National Literary Review. The wiki is a medium for neighborhood circulation of notebook-like works in progress, notebooks being closer to manuscripts than blog posts or PDFs or Word docs watermarked DRAFT.

I’m borrowing the idea of coterie culture from Laura Mandell’s recent monograph Breaking the Book. She sets coterie culture next to more contemporary print culture in order to highlight the meeting of scribal and print cultures in 17th and early 18th century England. Coterie publishing of small print runs circulated among a small group of readers “with the same expectation as manuscripts: educated, elite readers would write in them, correct them, modify them” (121). Sound a little like fedwiki? Breaking the Book is worth a read. (I could not find any good reviews of the book yet, so here’s a link to the publisher, Wiley Blackwell.)

I made the early mistake of identifying wikis wiith blogs. Blogs are a publication medium. They are written for and seek wide and anonymous distribution. A blog post is published and may be commented on, but it is more or less finished. But wikis are notebooks, continuously revised and adapted, and in fedwiki revised and re-distributed. As notebooks, they become sources for further work and distribution by other means, such as blogs.

Reconsider the memex. As Bush conceived it, the memex was designed for personal scholarly use and coterie distibution. The trails through memex libraries, as they were conceived, were not meant to be distributed as a set of bound texts distributed to anonymous readers. The idea was that the scholar would reproduce the microfich and hand around to other like scholars – mostly who knew each other. The small group would not need a detailed textual context because it would be a small group, a neigborhood. The NLS seems to have been concepualized in a similar scholarly group context rather than as a worldwide, anonymous mass.

So: a fedwiki as notebook.

Thoughts along this line are circulating in the fedwiki neighborhood as Fedwiki as Memex-Journal. The memex was designed to address the problems of wide dispersal of information and the index. As it’s being discussed on Fedwiki, the problem of integrating sources is being addressed with links to collections and notes on Pinboard, and the problem of indexing is address with RSS feeds and tags.

Along with Ward I imagine a Pinboard-ish community around the product. Sites would have a setting to say where they publish to — RSS feeds, Pinboard, etc. But there also might be a fedwiki specific community that provided better integration.

Wikis would also have certain tags associated with them, and by default would publish new material to feeds and community sites under those tags. Tags would help alert you to new wiki content from anywhere, consistently good wiki content would prompt you to subscribe to all updates of that wiki.

The distribution is not wide but takes place within a specific community surrounding a topic, discipline, problem, interest. Distribution of link trails is more rapid than snail mail but still takes place within a small group, a coterie. I think of these coteries not as pre-conceived audiences that are being passively addressed but as active publics that organize themselves around the content and interests of the group.

I like the name “Steno”. It conveys the notebook idea, but technically stenography is “narrow writing” (steno=narrow) which fits the idea of a collection of small thoughts connected. It doesn’t capture the networked wiki element, but I think that’s OK — it’s easy to say “Steno is your networked notebook”.

Once I have the notebook and coterie distribution in mind, the advice behind a style guide, like this one Mike Caulfield designed for Fedwiki, becomes clear. The guide lists the usually unstated practices of the coterie: the Fedwiki neighborhood.

First, abide by the general conventions of federated wiki:

  • Avoid overlinking
  • Minimize in-paragraph formatting
  • Where possible, write short paragraphs, with one idea per paragraph (to facilitate reuse and rearrangement).

Second, write primarily in a descriptive style. Wikity is less an editorial page, and more a sort of Hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy. Short articles based around a single idea, formula, concept, fact, or dataset are best.

As a notebook, fedwiki is not a reading but a writing platform. Material in a notebook is mined for use in other contexts, and smart practice (both for the notebook and the note taker) is to develop note-making habits that reduce the friction for collecting and mining. Links inside the notebook and outside the notebook take on a functional rather than an aethetic or rhetorical value. Prose chunked into short paragraphs make it easier to move around and circulate within the notebook – easier to assemble into constellations, easier mine, easier to add to. Bullet lists are less valuable than they might be in static publication; the idea of a notebook is to expand ideas, not reduce them to a set of bullets.

throat clearing

Time to get back to the classroom, and that means breaking in some new software, including an updated blogging app, Blogo. It was out orignally in 2009, if my old license key is accurate, but went dark for a while. It’s been released as v 2. It seems roughly the same as I recall it back in 2009: single window, with what seems to be a better image editor. It’s far more pleasent to work in than, say MarsEdit. I was going to say it’s more limited than MarsEdit in handling images, but it’s not: It just handles them differently. Embedding images from Flickr, for instance, is done by clicking on the image and selecting Send to Blogo from the service menu. The embedded image can be tweaked in Blogo, and it’s done.

Reduced face time in three courses

I’m trying out reduced face time in three courses: Tech Writing. A&E, and E-Rhetoric. The last also has an online-only grad section – a design I’m also trying out. All the content I typically generate – aka lectures and my notes – will be online. Activities will be similar to what I’ve used in the past: no tests but lots of notes and making. Deadlines for work are firm to promote timeliness. The idea is to reduce face to face classtime to one session per week and to focus that session tightly on a seminar discussion, or class tutorial, or individual tutorial, depending on what we need that week. Sort of what I remember from attending UCL, crossed with activity and sharing techniques from cMOOCs. As at UCL, face sessions are voluntary: Attendance isn’t required. Rather than a final exam, however, weekly work will verify whether the student might be better off attending the weekly session. Students can use the other class session time to meet and work together.

This design might not sound novel, but it is to me, and I have some apprehensions about it that I hope to work out this semester.

What else? No discussion board. Instead, discussions or exchanges will be attached to wiki pages: Keep the exchanges close to the content. Some collaborative work probably in Google Docs. No video lectures from me: I find them too slow and dispersed for the purpose. Lectures are what students are not coming to hear, right? All reading, for the most part. Some step by step tutorials using Clarify 2. Perhaps some screencasts if absolutely necessary.

All of this places a lot of responsibility on the student for technical skills, so I expect to use a bootcamp approach in the first set of requred meetings (bootcamp borrowed from ds106). Those online only will have to google their way into the technology. Eg “Go to Google and use its tutorials to set up a Google Docs account. Whe you have a Google Document created, email me the link .…” And “Google the term rss. Find out what it is and how it’s useful to you. Sign up for an RSS account online or using an RSS reader on your own computer. From there on, add the RSS feeds to wiki pages for this course that you want to monitor or are working on.” And “Register with Twitter. Use #ENGL2152 to request help or feedback from others ….” I probably need a checklist.

It all adds up to dynamic syndicated learning:

[PDF] Discussion board: A learning objectK Harman, A Koohang – … Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 2005 –… The discussion board thus may be used as a “context board.” For example, the concept of usingthe discussion board as a “context board” fits well within Downes’ (2003b) recommendation forusing syndicated learning content: … Using syndicated learning content. …

Or will it be federated?

Existing online learning experiences lack the social dimension that characterizes learning in the real world. This social dimension extends beyond the traditional classroom into the university’s common areas where learners build knowledge and understanding through serendipitous and collaborative exchanges both within and across traditional subject area boundaries. A next generation virtual learning environment (VLE) can address the limitations of current online systems by providing a richer social context for online learning. We describe the end-user properties of … VLE that fosters dynamic group learning experiences and the development of communities of practice. This proposed VLE provides the capacity to merge the institutional infrastructure for academic computing, enterprise-level networks, Squeak/Croquet-based content authoring, and the educational principles of constructivist pedagogy.

Or another model?And I will need a statement of openness, revised from this, which I’ve use regularly.

Most of the writing we all do for this course will end up on the wiki. Notes, notes on notes, my comments, more notes, group notes and projects. As the course progresses, you’ll find that we can begin to link up these nodes, developing them into topics, and further developing topics over the semester and across semesters. The wiki becomes more valuable (to us, to the next group, and to whomever looks in) the more we develop topics over time.Writing the wiki is an integral part of this course and your learning for this course. As your notes progress, you will begin, I hope, to cross link to the notes and observations of others. University students and professors are now in the business of making their course work in progress available to those interested; it’s another new rhetorical practice of digital space.

I would rather have students work in their own spaces, to set up and use their own PLEs, and then aggrgate their work by linking materials they are submitting for evaluation to a wikiname page. But that’s for later.

And, one final device for this design: A weekly update, in the form of a blog post or wiki page, as appropriate. Downes et al used these in a couple of cMOOCs I participted in, and they worked to highlight substantive work and directions for students. Much as a face to face lecture signals what the instructor sees as important, so the weekly highlights helps students define a focus.

And Blogo?

because I’ve used this post to evaluate it. It has a few idiosyncrasies – and so it should! – in how it imports from the web to the draft, but those became useful quickly. It may be my machine, but Blogo doesn’t seem to be spell-checking. Minor, really. I’m looking forward to using it this semester.

getting past the lms

A good example of what PLEs and MOOCs seek to overcome / bypass / sidestep/ kick sand in the face of: LMS policy. This is a good example from U Toronto. They publish their LMS policy in the guise of a FAQ. An example:

What are the advantages of using the Institutional LMS as a foundation or primary environment for online learning?

Consistency, Security, Accountability and Sustainability 
The Office of the Vice-President and Provost has emphasized the value of consistency of online learning infrastructure in order to ensure that the experience of both faculty and student is of high quality, to make certain that learning systems are robust, secure and sustainable and also to facilitate most effective use of available human and physical resources to support online learning.  Just as the university takes fiscal responsibility seriously, it must also take responsibility for the integrity of IT systems and security of data as an underpinning to online learning activities and our commitment to our students.

Student Experience
The student learning experience within technology-enhanced environments is a key consideration and coherence and reliability of online systems is paramount. Students may be disadvantaged if they are required to learn how to use and navigate multiple systems. The university provides a robust, fully supported centralized Learning Management System (LMS) and anticipates that divisions and departments will take advantage of that system to provide a consistent portal entry point and common interface for students.

The emphasis in both the question and response is not on learning but on managing, and managing of courses and teachers by the Provost rather than managing the students by the teacher. Who asks this question? Management. A teacher would ask, What advantages for teaching and  learning does your LMS make possible that other ways of working do not? A more pointed teacher would ask, What alternatives to Blackboard does this institution support?

And that question is addressed under FAQ #4: If a faculty member wishes to use Web 2.0 and/or Cloud-based Technologies to enhance a course, what steps can be taken to reduce risk and ensure the security of student data?

In FAQ #4, the institution’s interest clearly dominates, and the attitude is clearly off-putting. The answer is not focused on learning or teaching, but on risk, and cast not in a shared language but one of legalities:

Full reliance on a third party service that is not supported by the institution or division, nor through an contract relationship will involve a high level of risk and is not recommended as a primary learning environment, in particular for fully online courses. However, if faculty members wish to take advantage of the benefits of Web 2.0 or Cloud-based technologies as an adjunct activity to enhance a course they should comply with the following directives to reduce the risk in use of third party systems:

The question assumes the LMS will still be the primary technology, the other options – which may be more pedagogically sound and even easier to use and manage are not even supplemental but “adjunct”, a word heavily loaded in the academic world. The answers, of course, is pure commonsense, but cast in legalese, as is the paragraph above, warn faculty off, while side-stepping some valuable information: That having students post their work in open environments is not considered a FERPA violation – a mention made in the Educause source linked to on the page:

Content created by students when using such tools to fulfill course requirements (e.g., creating blogs on WordPress, posting videos to YouTube) should not be considered “student education records” under FERPA. However, copies of such records that are maintained by instructors in their own filesdo constitute FERPA-protected “student education records.”

Even while the FAQ links to this information, it’s left out of the administration’s response. That makes it a curious omission.

Two more observations on language that is shaped to keep teachers in line. A line from question #1 above:

Students may be disadvantaged if they are required to learn how to use and navigate multiple systems.

This is a common management-level gesture at altruism. I’ve never seen evidence of this, but given how it’s phrased (may, or may not; and “be disadvantaged” – a phrasing the invokes an unnamed handicap and places students in a ghetto), it’s not a matter of evidence. A response: It might take an hour to adjust, but learning multiple systems are to students’ advantage, not their disadvantage.

And a line from question #4 concerning opt out:

Should students choose not to participate in such an external environment a viable alternative assignment or activity must be available to them.

This is based on the claim that “Students cannot be compelled to create accounts on non-university systems or with non-university services” so they are to be given an opt out. Not sure why the administration wants to push an opt out rather than suggest that students who don’t want to engage in web 2.0 stuff take another section of the course. Surely the administration is want to offer students a choice. Surely. But the underlying comment for the faculty member is “You can’t force them to do this, so be prepared for more work!”

What would be helpful in this FAQ is the voice of an administration willing to support faculty and students in their learning rather than coerce faculty – and students who apparently can be compelled to create accounts on university systems – into the LMS. Administration has a good rhetorical opportunity here, but they miss it.

It looks like I’m singling out U Toronto, but this bogus FAQ fell in my lap this morning when I was cruising Diigo. Plenty of institutions are using the same arguments to keep teachers in the LMS. (Fewer are likely using a FAQ as a guise, but appropriating the FAQ for policy is becoming common. It’s being used locally to shape and control the arguments concerning banning tobacco on a state campus.)

But back to MOOCs in general and eduMOOC specifically, perhaps the limiting dimension of teaching and learning enforced by an enforced LMS is one of the problems that MOOCs might address – if they become more accepted by the institutions. The embedded LMS is certainly one of the barriers they are going to have to overcome.


summer to do #1: (m)OOC Proposal

Sumer is ycumen in, lhude sing cucu.

I’m heartened by how Weblogs and Wikis is going and can see moving further – especially given the local climate change (BSU President Wraps Cuts in “Recalibration,” Promotes New Modalities. BSU Drops 15+ Faculty in a Weekend. Departments Cut Programs to the Bone – and Deeper. Campus Brain Drain Begins as Recent Hires Flee. Campus Responds to Tsunami with a Shrug.) Yhe time is ripe for revolution: mOOCs, PLEs, and OER.

Looking outside of the local climate:

That last one’s a little tame, but I’ve always like Brown.

My proposal for the University: One or more courses – ENGL 2152 (A&E)? Tech Writing? Web Content Writing, even E-Rhetoric – open to 100+ students as a MOOC/PLE. One course a semester. Just designing and proposing the course is enough for the spring and summer. We would easily get 100+ students in Tech Writing and A&E.

Proposing a (m)OOC for either of these would get campus blood boiling because of how it would have to address The Usual Suspects of sentence-level concerns (It Can’t be Done!) and Quality Control. The university would have to work hard to get (m)OOC-level enrollment in WCW or E-Rhetoric: we would have to promote it out of state, out of system, and online in general. Tears before bedtime for Marketing, as they would loose control of how the courses would be promoted.

That’s invigorating.

Loudly sing cuckoo.

MOOCs and the stock university course #plenk2010

A first consideration of adapting MOOC techniques to the stock university situation.

Have a look at these notes on Stephen Downes’s presentation.

The more I’m immersed in the PLENK course and material, the more possibilities I see for driving MOOC teaching techniques and approaches into the stock university courses I teach.

For instance, we have new a sophomore level Argument and Exposition course (A&E. Gotta like the double joke in that course title) for learning research practices. Downes’s example of how to find a niche and set up a PLE suggests that I can adapt MOOC practices into a course project. The course wouldn’t be a MOOC (maybe a Minimal Open Online Project), and I would have to evaluate the students in the end. But this approach gives students the opportunity to develop tacit practices – both of research and of the subject they are studying with their PLEs. What they create along the way – the blog posts, delicious links, google feeds, and the artifacts they create and post – along with some periodic reflective posts or discussions, provide plenty of material to evaluate the learner, and plenty of material for my supervisors to evaluate the course.

Students will be on their own when it comes to the kinds of activities they take on, the kind of artifacts they create. They may have to learn how to edit and upload videos, they may have to figure out how to share a scanner, and I can see having to have students create their own support network in for the course itself, but that’s part of the beauty of the thing.

What’s in it for us?

  • Not less instructional time, but both students and I get to spend our instructional time differently than we have for the past bunch of years.
  • Less classroom time and more learning time for students.
  • Less lecture prep time because less lecture and more practice time for all.
  • Students might start to learn what it means – tacitly –  to take control of their own learning. Need to measure this.
  • Relatively safe experience in facilitating a MOOC-like course. The course provides my own scaffolding for a more complex move in the future.
  • If it works, a pretty impressive demonstration of an alternative to using D2L.

What’s needed?

As Stephen mentions, The Daily is vital to the movement and maintaining participation in the course. The Daily motivates. The Daily holds participants accountable. I could probably monitor student feeds in my own google reader account, but I’ll probably have to install gRSShopper on Dreamhost.

What else is needed?

Probably an intensive first week or two in getting students to re-conceptualize how the class will progress, and get them comfortable with the approach. Probably need to survey what kinds of online work students already do and get them comfortable sharing that expertise. Probably have to provide some early support for getting RSS feeds together. Probably have to really work on getting students to take responsibility for their learning, for creating and submitting stuff regularly  – and it needs to be regular so that they have a better chance of passing the final evaluation.

Seems worth it so far.

notes on Downes’s PLE presentation #plenk2010

Spent part of a morning and part of the afternoon listening to Stephen Downes’s Oct 20 2010 presentation on Personal Learning Environments and PLENK2010.

When I watch videos, I take notes, so here they are. Stephen covers a lot of territory in this video – some technical, some practice, and some theory and speculation. My next post will have some notes of my own.

Managing a MOOC

>I describe the organization of connectivist courses such as CCK08 and PLENK2010, demonstrate some of the technology, and discuss some of the thinking behind the design.


OV of PLENK2010 from moderator’s perspective. Discusses tech elements of the course: wiki, blog, moodle forum, elluminate discussions.

Design of wiki and course. Found that in practice, no one redesigns the wiki as they expected. Find that the course blogs are being less and less. Instead, moderators and learners are creating stuff on their own blogs and providing links to that material. More comfortable. Forums by week. Open enrollment supports massive enrollment: scales well.

1530 people registered in PLENK. Courses do work in smaller groups, but less well. You have active participation of about 10%.

Distributed course means resources are all over the place on the web, and of different kinds.  Refs to PageFlakes. The idea is that resources are scattered all over the web, and a PLE is a tool that brings them together in one place so you can work with the resources or take whatever perspective you want on the course: just read, or read and create, etc.

Elluminate sessions hit 100 or so. Guests are willing to participate because they are reaching a lot of people – and they record it and so reach even more. [Sessions also mean that moderators interact with each other – which keeps the session moving].

Other component: twitter. They set up a course tag.

The Daily: Seems to be the most important component in the course.  Daily news letter, with compiled links and OVs.

  • Announcements
  • Facilitator posts (links to own sites)
  • Discussion posts from Moodle, aggregated
  • Participant’s blogs, aggregated
  • Twitter posts, with links, aggregated

Goes out every weekday, and is archived. Beginning of the week announces the topic and direction of the course for that week. THis is the thing that gives structure to the  course, it allows them to sustain the distribution of the course.

Uses gRSShopper running a website as a backend to maintain the course website and newsletter. Harvests the rss feed from each blog, harvests appropriate posts that use the hashtag. Each blog is submitted to the grsshopper website, grsshopper draws out the rss feed and verifies everything. grsshopper website also produces the daily.

Example: Downes grabs a delicious rss url to create a daily feed for Delicious PLENK tag. Then adds that feed to the newsletter.

The deal is that the aggregator sends out links that those who have participated have created. The kinds of content that can be aggregated can be selected by the moderator.

This means that the structure of the course is a connectivist map. the content of the course, ditto. The activities, ditto. That is, the course enacts connectivist. Students create content, but also feedsl and aggregations that support the course

Like socail construction? not so much. soc construtoin is more gruoup based – not  requirement here.  Not a deliberative construction. in connectivist, it’s developing personal knowledge.  Not a mater of making meaning for yourself. It’s a matter of organic cognitive – neural network – growth.

The PLE is like an exercise machine. You do the kind of work that people in the discipline do. The knowledge is complex – you can’t put your hands on it to know it. Tacit practitioner knowledge.

The weekly topics is not a curric so much as a research agenda. The participants are along not only for the ride, but they contribute to the research being done by the community that the moderators represent. the beauty is that we don’t get hung on declarative knowledge, but they develop tacit knowledge – if they participate in the activity.

Constructionism from Papert.  Learning by doing and presenting, in a social environ, with other people and reflection.

BIggest difficulty: getting people to get past the listen – repeat mode. Students want to know what to learn to past the test and get the certificate. Problem there is that it leaves all the power in the hands of the instructor. But in more environs, people have to make decision and choices on their own – including in business environs.  Taking control of whatever is part of learning. And if the course doesn’t engage that, then we’re undercutting the learning itself.


Questions: How do you find niche to learn in?

Start with google. Scope out the area. The resources are going to be all over the place, so you need to find them.  Set up a google reader account for the research. locate and subscribe to feeds. You have to sort through sources – select the good stuff and set aside the trash. Subscribe to a few feeds. Treat your google feeds like a daily newsletter. When you see a reading useful to you, put it in delicious or your own blog with some reflection. Tag things, develop them.

Extend your network by adding more feeds, start layering your own topology over what you’re finding. Add flickr images. Join the niche community by locating email lists. Not trying to find authoritative content all nicely organized. Trying instead to get a feel for it. Start watching for activities: conferences, practices that are being engaged in … whatever they seem to be: posts, help articles, discussions. videos …  Post your stuff out there with the others.

Use personal development or photography as an example.

You are in charge of the directional you gain your own perspective. You put aside the idea that there is a thing out there called “personal development” that you must know.

Learning styles and PLEs? Downes: doesn’t know about any research. Seems that because you have control over how you learn, it seems like learners will select activities they are inclined to work with. If you’re visual, you might want to watch and create videos rather than read and write. Learning styles is taking some kicks right now.

MOOCs and assessment: How do you figure out if they’ve done the work or captured the knowledge. A: Short answer is, we don’t figure this out. The connectivist theory separates learning and evaluation. The eval of what an individual has learned is different than learning. The bar is a model: take a test. In the connectivst course, they made the assessment rubrics public so whoever wanted to evaluate the activities could do so. Everyone takes the same course, but people are evaluated by different people in different places, with different criteria: distributed assessment. Downes: certain that this is the way assessment is going to go. Right now, unis have monopoly on certification, but they are going to loose it. There will be a separation of learning and assessment. Students will participate in a network, and from time to time be assessed on what they have mastered.


Next: MOOC in a stock university course

dangers and rewards of taking it social

Outside The Castle, Walthamstow

I attended the PLENK2010 Elluminate session with Harold Jarche on PKM in the corporate setting. Normally, I stand well clear of anything corporate-setting, figuring a fight will break out sooner or later. But the discussion was good. I’ve beem taking a little more interest in The Enterprise lately because I’m hoping to present my sabbatical work in PLENK2010 not to my academic colleagues but to business and laypeople at BSU’s extension service. Keeping that in mind, I pricked up my ears to what Jarche had to say about the value of PLE/N to business.

Which leads me to a side comment Jarche made in the session. In encouraging learners to use blogging for sense-making and reflection, Jarche mentioned getting outside of the email exchange and into the social arena. He advised, Don’t simply trade emails about a problem back and forth. Make the exchange social so that others can join in.

That tweaked me. For the past week, I’ve been having an email exchange with the newly-appointed Director on the role and character of the Center for Professional Development. My take is that the CPD is doing some of the tasks and training that the administration and ITS should be doing, and that the CPD is confining itself to maintaining the status quo for the administration rather than looking towards faculty innovation. The director argues that handling training and surveys is part of the CPD’s collaboration with the administration. I argue that the CPD is a faculty service and should deliver what faculty need in order to develop professionally, not do inservice training. Rather than collaborate, the CPD should lead, push the administration in the direction the faculty want to go.

At any rate, the email exchange is going nowhere. Bogged down. But I really should have realized that the better way to approach the issue is through a social exchange. Rather than emailing the director my comments, I could have posted them to this weblog, then emailed the link with my comments to her and perhaps others. If I had done that, I would have set the arena as social from the start. And this is, after all, what I try to teach.

So why not go social? In this case, it simply didn’t occur to me. Habit of email. It has to be made clear from the start where the discussion is going to go on. And it’s the same habit of email that has constrained the discussion we’re having to a semi-private exchange rather than a social exchange. I know I would get more – learn more, argue better – by reflecting on the role of the CPD in a social space – and I’d bet the director and my colleagues would get more out of it, too. The exchange becomes more valuable when it is shared socially.

Now, going social rather than using semi-private email can also be seen as a power play, or labeled as inappropriate, and could get me ostracized. It’s risky. Institutions – well, the one I work in –  like to keep what they think of as conflict in-house, like to show a unified face to the world – in spite of the good that a social exchange on, say, the role of a center for professional development might bring to the institution and to others. Moving discussions to the social realm can result in being cut out of the loop. Worse, it can lead to everyone playing close to the vest, saying nothing in fear of having to defend the position – going social means cards on the table, no bluffing, and that’s scary.

Is it worth the risk? Some days I think it is. Other days, I’m not so certain. In any case, the ethos of going social is changing, so we might as well get used to it locally. I’m posting this today with some hope that others on the PLENK2010 course might find it useful – and to strengthen my resolve. Next time the opportunity knocks, I’m taking my discussion social.

four or maybe five books that enact autonomous learning techniques for #plenk2010

Drop your caution here

This week’s central question is What skills and practices does an autonomous user need in using a PLE? Set aside the technical skills for a minute to look at the literacy practices. I’m interested especially, and I want to focus on, physical techniques: those material actions we can take on material artifacts (including digital) on the way to creating new (critical) artifacts. The premise is that, yeah, we learn by making artifacts: notes, lists, maps, drawings, photos, houses, buildings, airplanes … in response to other artifacts that we see at least for the moment as prompts to learning (that’s Kress, Multimodality). Semiotics keeps coming up in the readings and background discussion in #PLENK2010, (most recently in Downes’s LOLcats) and from what I’ve seen of it so far, it makes for solid critical practice.

The typical five + one strategy for assessing sources isn’t enough for an autonomous learner, whether it’s

who, what, when, where, why, and how.

or one of the innumerable variations on

  • Who is the author?
  • What do others say about the author?
  • What are the author’s sources?
  • Can any truth claims be tested independently?
  • What sources does the author cite, and what do others say about those sources? Link

These are little more than checklists which suggest accuracy and completeness, typically used by teachers in guiding student review of sources. They are not built for the autonomous learning. The lists suggest that if you address the questions, an accurate answer will come out the other end. How to address these questions is clear t the learner only if she knows how to do it already. For instance, how would you verify whether a that “we are all individuals, and therefore will see the world differently?” (one of favorite tropes of first-year students) can be tested? Learners who are invested in the belief will be tempted to argue to themselves that it’s not testable, it’s a Higher Truth. And so on.

While I’m partial to the rag bag of Critical Thinking Skills <>, they, too, need significant guidance to use well, and the critical thinking techniques have been designed for a social space: multiple learners in multiple groups, with a facilitator who is well-skilled in the practices but outside the argument orchestrating the interaction.

A stripped down version of critical analysis (describe, analyze, interpret, evaluate, borrowed from Stoner and Perkins, Making Sense of Messages) might be appropriate here. There’s enough material manipulation built into the technique (you have to write or otherwise compose – a lot. And composition is material and leaves a trace); and there’s plenty of detail paid to metacognitive monitoring of what you’re doing. Having taught the method for six years now, I know it also requires active, hard learning to gain control of it. Lots of notes, feedback, repetition, and staged introduction of concepts. Lots of scaffolding to get it. But once students get it, they find it repeatedly useful. Makes them autonomous.

In the same vein. Lanham’s Analyzing Prose (2nd ed) enacts a method that comes of direct manipulation of the written work. Lanham enacts in this text a critical attitude towards the works he interrogates. – something Stoner and Perkins, and for that matter Critical Thinking leave out. An approach to a subject being learned is clouded if the learner is too in awe, or too sarky. Something vacillating between those poles is useful.

And two more that go way back: I A Richards, How to Read a Page (1950s, I think), and Anne Berthoff, Forming/Thinking/Writing (1978, 2nd ed 1988). Both are, in essence, how to books – books of self-reflective technique. How to Read a Page was written in response to the self-inflated critical thinking text of its day, How to Read a Book. Berthoff wrote F/T/W in response to the mechanical skills-oriented direction composition had taken in the US schools. Even the titles tell us about autonomous learning: How to … and forming is thinking is composing …

What I really admire about these texts is that they enact the learning techniques they espouse: Stoner and Perkins the least but it’s there, Richards the most – almost to tedium, and Lanham and Berthoff in the sweet-spot middle.

week 6: practice in #plenk2010

Revitalizing powers

The PLENK2010 readings this week point towards critical literacies and semiotics (skills as languages), and the challenge is that the facilitiators are providing less guidance by way of reading of how to connect the ideas to practices. That is left to us.

I say yay. Hooray. Huzzah.

Downes in LOLcats take 2 – about Learning in new media – illustrates the change in literacy on the net, and makes an argument for understanding skills as semiotic transactions in New media is a language. The Jenkins slides 34ff are the important ones here. The ground of PLE is stated in slide 41: when people construct artifacts they are constructing media with which to think < and old saw in comp/rhet. Slide 46 makes the link to critical literacies, when we ask, as good rhetoricians, about purposes, power, assumptions that inform and shape the communication. Objects communicate; they are semiotic artifacts, so these questions can be asked and answered by objects. How does the iPad serve the creators/sellers fundamental purpose? What assumptions are the designers making in their reasoning?

Downes takes a nice shot at Cialdini’s 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive with one arrow: Fallacious Tropes (slide 49). Consider what that book is going to look like: a scientific treatise? Consider who you have to be to take the book seriously because of the title’s claim. Consider the underlying assumptions the authors claim t build on by way of the title’s claim. One shot at that book becomes a killer shot at much of olde worlde educational thinking that is scientifically proven.

Downes: The concept of personal learning is that there is no teacher.

Hang around and skim the related slide shares:, and

What this means, then, is Study Social Semiotics. Now. Read Kress. We speak in artifacts and need to learn the appropriate languages.

To do: Create an exercise for a PLE learner that might allow him or her to link a critical literacy premise with an artifact that illustrates that premise, just as Downes does in LOLcats. Then do that exercise yourself.

Personal Learning Environments: A Report from the Field #plenk2010

Derwent Water

I finally got the text of my Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing presentation onto the wiki at Personal Learning Environments: A Report from the Field. It’s not all there yet – missing a link and the slides – but I want the material available for the GPACW attendees.  I hope it might be useful to some on the PLENK2010 course, too.

We’ve settled in at Keswick, and it looks like I might get a chance to wind my way back into the conversation this week. What’s been frustrating is being on the move. I’ve bee wanting to spend 2 – 3 hours each day scanning readings and discussions, but have found it tough to grab the time. Glad it will all be here later, when I get home and can really dig in to the work.