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.

Digital Literacy

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.


PLEs bridge from Web 2.0 to Web X via #plenk2010

Finally, after two weeks of network limbo in London and Seat Farm Cumbria. I’m back online in a meaningful way – a way in which I can get some work done.  We’re still in Cumbria – outside of Far Sawrey, to be specific – and while Viv is shooting forests, roads, swans, paths, I’m using my mornings to get a GPACW presentation on PLEs together. I present Friday, 4:00 pm local, via Skype, from a wifi site yet to be found.

Drafting this morning, I reviewed readings from last week on Web 3.0, Web X, eXtended Web – just catching up.  So here’s a fast note on Placing PLEs: Two slides from Steve Wheeler’s Web 3.0 presentation. I’ve retitled them for my own notes.

Where we are

Web 3.0- The way forward?.png

















Where we are going


Web 3.0- The way forward?.png


















Summary: PLEs bridge from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0. As we move towards the pragmatic web, we will see the concepts behind PLEs develop, drawing on what we learn from the semantic web, then, I suppose, PLEs will, like the state after the Revolution, wither away. The protocols and some of the applications are already being worked with in rough form (augmented reality apps are available on smartphones), and the PLE has yet to reach maturity. Teachers of the world unite.

And to gloss my gloss, here’s George Siemens, from a blog post on Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching:

We are actively networking. Wow, are we ever. Twitter. Facebook. Blogs. Podcasts. Mobile phones. We are hyperconnected. […] But connection forming is natural. It doesn’t need coercion. We do it with language, images, video. We create, express, connect. And software is now available that aids this innate activity with unprecedented fervor. We build competence, make sense, learn, and growth through our connections. Tools of connections are driving discussions of networked learning and organizational applicability. Surprising to see how quickly the network theme has spread into education and training.

Even if connection forming is natural (I suspect it may be after reading Linked), we will gain by bringing forward the means and modes of connecting: the tools and their affordances.  That ones of the roles work in PLEs can serve: They allow us to study how else can can connect.






three early ples/plns


I’d suggest that the modern PLE goes back to 1945 and that we can get a sense of how they can be used and designed by looking at how some of the first ones show up.

I’d consider the Memex, a unrealized analog device for accessing documents, and for creating new documents and trails between documents, one of the first modern PLEs.  The designer, Vannevar Bush, uses persona in scenarios to indicate how the Memex would be used. We also get a vision of how a PLE is used in Doug Engelbart‘s demo of an early GUI, using a mouse, a querty keyboard, and a chording keyboard to collaborate in realtime using hypertext in The Mother of All Demos, 1971.

A third example is Ted Nelson’s design for another unrealized project, Project Xanadu. Again, Nelson uses personas and scenarios to suggest not only how the system would work but how people would use it.

In all three of these designs, the emphasis is not on the learning so much as the demoing. The learning that goes on by using the PLE is implied, unstated, but the systems are clearly designed for learning.


consideration of two ple/n diagrams: turing machines

I teach writing, so every now and then – at least once each course –  I ask students to abandon written texts with an assignment to “Diagram X …” Might be “Make a diagram the plot of Ulysses.” Or “Diagram your progress – or lack of it – in this course so far.” I don’t ask them to make maps, although many do, and some don’t. I don’t specify what media or mode to use. I let them make those choices.

What happens is that we as a class get to reconsider what we’ve been considering. No one has ever actually diagrammed the plot of Ulysses. What the students produce are not plots. It’s always the diagrammer’s conception of the plot – or, to phrase it better because at this point I’m not isn’t a matter of the individual’s understanding or expression and I don’t want to caught up in the issues surrounding the individual – it’s better to say that each diagram is a representation of the plot.


So, the PLE Diagrams at edtechpost tell us about PLEs – how they are assembled and used – by illustrating various conceptions of them. None of them make an argument for correctness of their conception, nor their completeness, nor their uniqueness, nor their value. They enact the PLE-PLN emphasis we were discussing in the 15 Sept Elluminate session, but they don’t make an argument for the validity of the perspective. They all leave stuff out, and they are all colored by the lenses the makers are wearing at the time.


Here’s a diagram of Elgg.




It’s titled a landscape, but it isn’t a map of land, nor a scape. There’s little that is map-like, although the icons of services tend to function like waypoints. Elgg itself – the user – is represented as an egg-shape in the hierarchical middle of the diagram, just off visual center. Six cloud-like entities are connected by double-headed arrows to the egg, along with one box LDAP, and a second box (SQI) with two single-headed arrows.  One of the cloud arrows is labeled: build own: Communities (That is, you build your own communities). The clouds are labeled in a variety of modes: nouns, verbs (search, weblogging), and characterization (Powerful permissions). Some have detail by way of inputs: Search, for instance, is surrounded by double-headed arrows to content services; weblogging by the same to weblog services. Social Networking is connected to foaf networks, and other Elgg accounts. The boxes (rather than clouds) connect to CMS-like spaces: a CMS by way of LDAP, and GLOBE by way of SQI. The boxes, rather than the clouds, are being used to indicate a formality that the cloud mediators and the egg centerpoint don’t have. There’s a metaphor at work: these mediators, linkers to links, are nebulous, cloudy, fuzzy, organic – in comparison to the big box ideas of CMS and GLOBE – although GLOBE receives more attention in a set of notes.


Two sets of notes appear: One set in green are labeled Notes, and address customization of the system. The second set, in yellow, detail how GLOBE works as an aggregator and agent for locating and selecting the most popular data.


It’s interesting that when possible the iconic logos are used to identify the cloud services. This takes extra work on the part of the designer, so it’s going to carry some significance. There’s less a suggestion of the corporate here (to indicate corporate, the designer would use a box, as with CMS) and more the suggestion of the personal. The CMS, in fact, is generic, indicated only with bare sans serif text, to include D2L, Black Board, Moodle or whatever. The platform, apparently, doesn’t matter: it’s the box.


The search links and the weblogging links all labeled rss – which illustrate that the various services are accessible by the same means; social networking is foaf, or direct when it comes to other elgg accounts.


The search cloud is connected to the personal file repository as well as the central egg, and weblogging by way of the search to the repository.


What to make of this? The learner is in the center, but every path to content is mediated. The personal file repository is just another cloud in the sky – not a central one, either. Other ellgs appear as just another link to an egg rather than to, say, a network. In fact, no other human agents appear in the diagram, which is, in the end, a start diagram and not a network. GLOBE gets some attention by way of notes explaining how it will work, but not what the Elgg at the center will do with the information. GLOBE, in fact, seems to be a central mediator as it will assemble what others in the network are looking at, but not providing direct links to those others. What the learner does with the stuff, the content, the results of searches, is invisible in the egg and under-represented in the diagram. The Elgg searches, blogs, files in a repository, but the diagram represents inputs, but no real sense of how inputs are converted into outputs.


Compare the Elgg diagram to Stephen Downe’s diagram.



The space of the diagram is isolated by a box, and the elements represented by geometric shapes, some of which are template shapes from the design software.  At a hierarchical center is a representation of a computer application. Arrows and notes on the application indicate how it’s used: Inputs appear in the lower left corner pane, selected by a user, the selected content dragged to the editor, where it is worked with, then outputted. There are two sets of inputs, one in light blue, from Local Files, and a second set in light green, from an Identity Server. The human output is represented by rose colored arrows. One arrow goes to a scripts database where the output is distributed by rss to subscribers (generic people, indicated by a simple stick diagram). The second arrow goes to MySpace, Blogger, and Flickr, all indicated not by icons as in elgg but template primitives.


The arrows indicating personal, human production are mapped over the network connections, indicated by geometric black lines and labeled with protocols: OPML and RSS. Protocol labels also appear above the application: HTML + AJAX.


What we’re seeing is the user’s production path layered on top of, and distinct from, the network paths and designs. The terminology of the underlying diagram is dominated by computer terms: pretty generic terms that laypeople will be familiar with: Local file upload, Populates lists and scripts, Save to remote storage. The central application, with multiple panes and a clock-wise indicated path of production, gives a glimpse of what the user does when working with the PLE. It doesn’t diagram how the user makes choices; the user is absent as an agency that selects from a list and outputs another selection.


Both diagrams are diagrams of Turing machines. They both bring in both human and technological frames. But both under-represent how the PLE/N is used, even at a workflow level. And both leave out how things are learned by using the PLE. This is not a flaw. It’s a function of perspective. But it would be interesting to look for and construct a diagram as a scenario of learning. Constructing persona and scenarios are used as techniques for designing websites and software. I’d bet they can be revealing used here, too.


Part of my point is this: When I have students diagram, they report that they have learned something about their own understanding of what they are diagramming, even if it only they aren’t sure they understand it. But I’m not sure from their diagrams what they have learned about the object of the diagram. And the students learn more about what they understand when we analyze the diagrams closely. But, again, I can’t be sure what more they understand about the object of their diagram by way of analyzing the diagrams. They might be able to tell, but I can’t.


I’m not sure what to do with that.


Composed on a MacBook at the living room table. Drafted in DevonThink, from RSS feeds, edited and uploaded using MarsEdit.

Pinboard Bookmarks

bookmarks for September 14th, 2010 through September 16th, 2010

Digital Literacy New Media

Diagrams, exemplars, bootstrapping in #PLENK2010

Ergonomic Workspace Planner, Workstation Installation ToolLooking through some diagrams of PLEs at edtechpost has given me the impetus to create a diagram of my own, and the permission to really goof with it. Exemplars.

To my mind, these diagrams illustrate what happens when a straightforward exercise is approached with a PLE attitude. Given the variety of diagrams, it looks like learners chose their own terminology, media, and modes to work in. The diagrams become semiotically supercharged. The titles, the terminology used, the contexts represented, features of the model overall (eg: where the learner is placed in the model and how represented; how links, knowledge, services, contexts are represented, and the like), as well as the choice of media and mode (whiteboard, big paper, concept mapping software, illustration software, t-shirt) all signify as choices.

The variety complicates easy reading of each diagram and of the collection, but that’s appropriate for the issue. The diagrams become the ground and impetus for another turn. That is, they have to be actively interpreted, worked with, in order to become personal knowledge.

Which opens us into critical literacies. Interpreting these diagrams demands an approach – for, me a semiotic approach. Bootstrapping again. This would be the point where I would look into social semiotics social semiotics as a way of making sense of the diagrams.

Composed at the office, Target, and in the front garden. Posted using BlogPress from an iPad

Pinboard Bookmarks

bookmarks for September 8th, 2010 through September 14th, 2010


#PLENK2010 orientation

Tourists outside Natwest, Soho, 1978

I’m trying to get oriented to the #PLENK2010 course, and taking what Downes and Siemens mentioned in the Elluminate session on Friday into account. Here’s more detail on open courses and MOOCs from Dave Cormier and George Siemens. Learner goals are up to the learners, and learners have to construct – reconstruct or locate – languages: sets of terms, concepts – with which to set and meet those ends.  It’s bootstrapping.

The MOOC mirrors a discussion at a conference, in a research lab, or in a workshop. One of the key reasons for creating an open course is to bring a wide variety of perspectives to bear on a given topic. In the case of Siemens and Downes’s course in both 2008 and 2009 and also Cormier and Siemens’s “Education Futures” course, the instructors were interested in taking a broader look at the ideas. The course members resemble the people in a corner having an in-depth discussion that others can choose to enter. Enough structure is provided by the course that if a learner is interested in the topic, he or she can build sufficient language and expertise to participate peripherally or directly. The registration process is the approach to the conversation; the filtering, the deciding whether or not to participate, happens after registration. The more people who walk over to talk, the better the chance will be that people will contribute to the conversation.

It’s the Socratic method and it seems to lead to dangerous Socratic knowledge –

We are, in effect, returning to Socratic roots. The change that so worried Socrates was the writing down of knowledge, so that a learner could imitate understanding ideas by being reminded of them, giving the learner the “appearance of wisdom,” not its reality.

In my field of rhetoric, whenever someone mentions a conversation, they mention Kenneth Burke’s model of how knowledge is constructed by conversation. So here’s the obligatory link to Burke’s Parlor.

Or, as I roughly transcribed from Downes in the Elluminate session:

You learn by engaging in a community that is discussing and working with the subject matter. You learn what you need to learn by structuring your participation in the course in order to learn what you need to. That’s an aquired skill. Think of it as inquiry. As you and others all finding out what you can about the topic, then getting back together to tell stories. All co-inquirers. Look for stuff. Bring it back.


The scary part is the pedagogical model, which Cormier and Siemens, in a nifty move, cast as the social contract of the course:

The social contract in an open course is based on the participatory pedagogy model. The educator provides a frame, foundation, or platform for learning through starting-point readings and resources. With this structure in place, learners are expected to actively contribute to the formation of the curriculum through conversations, discussions, and interactions. Without the active involvement of learners, the course retains a limited structure of educator-provided content rather than becoming a multifaceted web of intersecting concepts, ideas, and connections to peripheral fields — a bricolage. Educators must be clear in their description of the challenges faced by learners in a bricolage-style environment so that learners will understand the investment necessary for success. That understanding is critical for an effective social contract between educator and learner.

Downes and Seimens were careful in the Elluminate session to make these matters clear, although getting a sense of what they mean in practice will take some more consideration and time.

In more detail, the educator’s role is not the guide on the side (there is no pre-set path to guide through) but multifaceted: amplifier, curator, scout, exemplar, presence.  Here’s the chart from Cormier and Siemens:

Educator Role Activity of Educator Tactics and Tools
Amplifying Drawing attention to important ideas/concepts Twitter, blogs
Curating Arranging readings and resources to scaffold concepts Learning design, tutorials, adjustment of weekly activities to reflect course flow
Wayfinding Assisting learners to rely on social sense-making through networks Comments on learners’ blog posts, help with social network formation, “live slides” method*
Aggregating Displaying patterns in discussions and content Google Alerts, RSS reader, visual tools (e.g., Many Eyes)
Filtering Assisting learners in thinking critically about information/conversations available in networks RSS reader, discussion of information trust, conceptual errors
Modeling Displaying successful information and interaction patterns All use of tools and activities to reflect educators’ modeling of appropriate practices
Staying Present Maintaining continual instructor presence during the course, particularly during natural activity lulls Daily (or regular newsletter), activity in forums, video posts, podcasts, weekly live sessions in synchronous tools (e.g., Elluminate)

To change directions: Here’s the MOOC from a slightly different angle. Michael Wrech doesn’t teach MOOCs, but seems oriented to constructivist pedagogy and MOOC practices as they play out in large, face-to-face, for-credit courses. First, there’s a problem in traditional teaching and learning that social and digital media and mediation can address:

We have had our why’s, how’s, and what’s upside-down, focusing too much on what should be learned, then how, and often forgetting the why altogether. In a world of nearly infinite information, we must first address why, facilitate how, and let the what generate naturally from there.

In parallel with Downes and Siemens, Wrech bases his practice in subjectivities, with the concomitant upset of traditional learning practices and placement of the learner.

As an alternative, I like to think that we are not teaching subjects but subjectivities: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world. Subjectivities cannot be taught. They involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students. Learning a new subjectivity is often painful because it almost always involves what psychologist Thomas Szasz referred to as “an injury to one’s self-esteem.” You have to unlearn perspectives that may have become central to your sense of self.

As an example of teaching subjectivities, Wrech details his World Simulation project, which gives students open-course-like opportunities to remix and share. Students are placed in groups, and are responsible for aggregating and remixing.

A world map is superimposed on the class and each student is asked to become an expert on a specific aspect of the region in which they find themselves. Using this knowledge, they work in 15-20 small groups to create realistic cultures, step-by-step, as we go through each aspect of culture in class. This allows them to apply the knowledge they learn in the course and to recognize the ways different aspects of culture–economic, social, political, and religious practices and institutions–are integrated in a cultural system.

In the final weeks of the course we explore how different cultures around the world are interconnected and how they relate to one another. Students continue to harness and leverage the new media environment to learn more about these interconnections, and use the wiki to work together to create the “rules” for our simulation. …

It sounds like a huge project, but students remix their work into videos, then remix their group videos into one final artifact. The World Simulation itself only takes 75-100 minutes and moves through 650 metaphorical years, 1450-2100. It is recorded by students on twenty digital video cameras and edited into one final “world history” video using clips from real world history to illustrate the correspondences. The final move is to remix again, as they “watch the video together in the final weeks of the class, using it as a discussion starter for contemplating our world and our role in its future. ”

To my mind, the World Simulation project enacts MOOC practice. They are present in the grouping up, in the aggregating, remixing, repurposing, and sharing: repeatedly reassembling stuff into new configurations, then taking that configuration as the next thing to reconfigure. That’s more than iterative; it’s semiotic.


One thing that bothers me about Wrech’s position, and a lot that of others looking at PLEs, is that it starts from a deficit: Here’s a problem – here’s a solution. I’m of the mind that we don’t need a crisis in education to develop alternative pedagogies and practices.

One issue I’m side-stepping right now is what the MOOC learner does in detail. Downes offers this list – Aggregate, Remix, Repurpose, Share – with some examples. That’s not the kind of procedural or methodological talk that learners want.  That might be part of the traditional learning mind-set.  Personally, I’m not bovvered.

Look at use of wikis in PLEs.