Friday, November 12, 2010

Web tools and applications, #PLENK2010

 Last weekend, my presentation entitled PLEs for Teaching ESL and Effective Practice went well. It was mainly an Alberta crowd, so it was a friendly audience. I was pleasantly surprised that there were about 25 people who turned up for the session. What was particularly interesting was the "women of a certain age"--a group of which I'm definitely a member--who spoke with me afterwards. They said that they found it empowering to hear these ideas and the information from someone female and from someone in their own age group. I put the presentation on a wiki (no hand-outs) to force people to go to the wiki and hopefully contribute ideas of their own.

I wasn't presenting on the actual tools and applications that I use in my teaching as I am rather constrained in that area, and I've been presenting on my blogs for a few years now. So my contribution to tools and applications for this week's #PLENK2010 discussion is also somewhat limited. The LMS is moodle. I am not allowed any hands-on role within that, although I can opt to ask for certain applications. I use tools and applications (other than the LMS) most often as enhancements in the courses I teach. Students can earn bonus points for participation in the blogs--not real blogs but activities using blog technology because I want to marry the idea of exercises with some  social networking opportunities for students learning online. I have also introduced reflective online journals, using elgg, on some courses, and these are compulsory. They do the job I wanted them to do--make students reflect on their writing, the writing process, and improve their own writing. I also provide students with online resources that will enahnce the learning experience, and their learning, if they choose to use them.

Unfortunately there is no realistic way to to adopt PLEs into my courses. Students need to come out from these courses with certain writing skill sets, and they have to demonstrate their ability through assignments and a final exam. In turn, students often use these courses as requirements for entry to various programs at universities across the country. If AU is to be seen as a credible university, I have to maintain that standard. I can hope that students will start to develop their own PLEs and have the intellectual curiosity to pursue their learning for reasons other than strict necessity, but only a few students have exhibited such motivation. Without some incentive, I can't get students to participate in extra, online activities. With the blogs, I had to resort to bonus points for participation--without that, students can't see that there is any pedagogical usefulness, even though I won't add activities without having such a foundation. As it is, only 15 to 20% participate in these optional, online activities. I have come to realize that if I want students to participate in something, it has to be compulsory. After completing the online journals, however, it is gratifying to see the number of students who write very positive comments about the experience and what they have learned from it. They just don't appreciate it when they are presented with it at the start of a course.

I find a readier audience amongst my professional peers from whom I have learnt so much. The webheads-in-action group is the best! I only regret that I don't have the freedom to use many of the tools I have learned about because of the requirement that we use sites hosted in Canada (with a few exceptions); I have managed to use blogger because I don't collect student data, they only use their first names, and there's a warning video up front about the internet and privacy courtesy of the Government of Canada. I also try to spread the word to my peers--I've started groups within The Landing at AU for colleagues to work together and collaborate, and I present on various internet related topics and language teaching at conferences. I co-moderate a local CALL-sig and a related blog.

Sometimes it might not seem like much in the grand scheme of internet possibilities, but I also realize that I have come a long way in a fairly short time. My message to my audience is always "If I can do it, so can you!"

Thursday, November 4, 2010


The online discussion yesterday in #PLENK2010 was very interesting contemplating the nature of data, information, knowledge and the relationship between these concepts. It was new territory for me, and it was a mind-stretching experience. I'm sorry to be missing tomorrow's online session with Harold Jarche, but I'm off to a local conference for the next two days where I will be attempting to share what knowledge I have acquired about PLEs over the past two months. I'll have to catch up on the recording later--that place where I always think I will have more time than now.

When I originally submitted a conference proposal with a colleague, much earlier in the year, that would examine PLEs in relation to ESL/TESL teaching and learning, I must admit my view of the topic was rather circumscribed. With this course, my view has widenend, but in many respects, it's still difficult to grasp, and the ideas are difficult to put into a format for easy presentation. There is so much overlap from one topic to another--online tools can be looked at, categorized in various ways. When is a Social Network more than a Social Network?  When does a simple tool, such as a blog, function as more than a blog? I've posted my presentation on a wiki for my professional organization; I've put it there in the hope that it may generate more traffic and interest in the fledgling sig (some real SN perhaps) that I and another colleague have been trying to develop for the past year. Let's see if the fledgling can leave the nest.

At the end of the first paragraph I realize that what I wrote about the future being a place where there is always more time than now very much epitomizes how I handle KM. I'm trying to change this habit because I know only too well that I won't have more time at such future nebulous date unless I wait for retirement--but by then the whole picture will have changed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Last week seemed to get away from me; in part it was general work pressure, but also because I didn't relate well to the question being asked about creating our own tools. I understand the question only too well because I teach in the asynchronous online environment, and I am always searching to find what is available  to satisfy the needs of my particular students. Nearly four years ago, I started using blogging technology (I use that term because these are not traditional blogs) with my students (ESL and Writing) to help them to practice and gadually integrate some of the concepts in these courses while providing them with a rudimentary SN possibility to reduce the isolation of online/distance learners. It seems to be an oxymoron to call them non-traditional blogs. I currently have a proposal in for the Electronic Village Online Fair for the TESOL conference in New Orleans next year called When is a blog not a blog? The most successful of these blogs is the one with the largest number of students registered in that particular course; there's nothing too surprising there.

I guess this all leads to a question of my own. Isn't this adaptation of tools for our own particular situations the way that most of us work? I think of the many innovative ways that language teachers from around the world use blogs in their own particular teaching situations; we all borrow from each other--we repurpose what is already out there. Most people innovate one small step at a time.

When it comes to our own PLEs aren't we going to do much the same thing? A course such as #PLENK2010 provides us with another forum to discuss some of our ideas and to see how other people are approaching the same or similar issues. We can then take the ideas and think about how we can repurpose them for own own particular learning needs.

Part of the discussion last week was about "uber-sites" that host a wide variety of SN functions. I'm very familiar with the AU Landing using elgg, and I also see the various possibilities within moodle. The bottom line, however, always seems to be that these more general sites cannot have the same functionality within specific functions as exists in single concept sites. For instance, I've been hoping to host my blogging activities for students within the moodle course site, but the blog functionality on moodle right now cannot compare with that of Blogger. As a learner, I find having things in one place is much easier, but to some extent we can overcome the multiplicity of sites issues by using aggregators. Nevertheless, kudos to those fellow PLENKERS who are developing sites with a mutliplicity of uses. I seem to keep flip-flopping between the needs of students and my needs as a learner--are they two sides of the same coin?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To Tweet or not to Tweet, and #PLENK2010

 I am one of those holdouts who does not use twitter. Despite people assuring me that I would "get it" once I took the plunge, and despite listening to presentations on the use of twitter, I could not see the relevance to me or the pedagogical usefulness of it in my teaching. Thanks to a fellow participant in #PLENK2010, I found this video that finally explains why I perceive twitter the way I do and validates (to some extent) my feelings on the topic:

The visitor vs resident analogy made by David White definitely appeals to me. I like it because it is not an either/or proposition and also because it does help me understand my own preferences for interacting with the technology. It is also takes account of the difference between professional/institutional and personal space on the internet. This is a distinction that I do try to maintain. Although I am on FB, this is mainly personal; a few colleagues who are also real friends, are also friends on FB, but that's because they are already in my personal life.

Friday, October 15, 2010


This week's readings opened a new can of worms; how do we evaluate learning that takes place within a PLE? I have to relate this to my own learning in #PLENK2010 and to other open, online courses that I have taken. If we end up knowing more than we did when we started, and if we have learned to use new tools, develop new artifacts, extend our own PLE, then we have had a successful experience. The trap is in in thinking we need to learn everything--NOW!

I keep coming back to the idea of learning as a journey, and it's not so much reaching the destination (in formal education that piece of paper) as in what we learn along the way. I'm sure that many of us have taken courses and programs in the past, earned a piece of paper, but ended up feeling disappointed because although we fulfilled some external objectives and goals, we didn't somehow experience what we expected to experience. Perhaps the challenge wasn't sufficient; if something comes too easily, we often don't appreciate it. However, in this course, I and many others (based on blog posts and discussions) find PLENK2010 very challenging. It stretches our minds and expands our understanding. Do I think I will get it "all" by the end of this course--no! I don't think our facilitators know it "all" either as they are exploring many of the related concepts with us, however, they have taken more steps on the journey than many of us. But after this course, I will have the resources to continue to think about PLEs and how to implement them in my own practice both as a learner and as a teacher. I may need to come back for a round 2 of this course, as there is just too much for me to get a handle on right now, but that's all right, too. The journey is proving interesting. I wish I had the time to become more involved with the blogs and discussions, but I don't.

The problem with evaluation is how to measure the success of a learning journey. Traditionally, this is where all of the testing has come into play; in part that is because many learners do not have the intellectual curiosity to want to learn just for the sake of learning. To them, the goal is important. However, we all the need those pieces of paper that say we are qualified to do whatever we end up doing.

Today's Elluminate discussion was interesting in part because of the point made about young children finding it easier to understand the PLE concept than older students who had already been indoctrinated in the good old system. There has to be a systematic introduction of change from these early levels to effect a thorough change, but at the same time, we, as educators, have to be careful that we continue to support methods that work for all students. Too often, new "methods" of teaching something or the other have been introduced into classrooms without the resounding success expected of them: the really capable students seem to learn no matter what, but less capable ones need a variety of supports and methods to also achieve success.

So how do we evaluate the journey? We all know what we have learned or not learned, but can we be relied on to report this accurately. I remember a HS class in which we were allowed to mark our own tests ...;-) The majority of us just wanted out with the least possible hassle. Evaluating the number of "contacts" in a network is too simplistic--the quality of the contacts must be more important than sheer number. How do we construct evaluation so as not coerce certain student behaviours? So how do we learn how to learn in our competitive world? Maybe it is something that motivated, engaged learners can participate in to a greater degree (no pun intended), but all learners should be exposed to learning how to learn and understand how to use a PLE.

I started out by calling this blog "Loose Ends", and I now seem to have more loose ends (questions) than ever before. Nevertheless, I feel that I am making progress on this journey, but in the same way--to extend Stephen's metaphor of the city--that one can learn new things about a place each time one visits, so it is with PLEs and Open Online Learning.

Friday, October 8, 2010


I managed to catch both of the Elluminate sessions this week for #PLENK2010, and they were helpful in reassuring me that I'm not alone in finding Learning Theories not so much a difficult topic but a frustrating one. The best analogy I can think of is that it's like being in a market; every "product" is calling out "Buy me!" However, I see things I like in each product; I like the colour of one, the texture of another, the price of a third, etc. I can also see that some products are enhancements of earlier product models, and that I could find the various products useful in different ways.
In my own teaching practice, I look for a methodology that best suits the particular learning situation; for that reason, I have always favoured an eclectic approach--I'm not so much interested in any one method but using an effective methodology in a particular situation. The bottom line for me is that they all have something to offer in terms of explaining how learning can occur. In some ways I think that maybe we are searching for equivalent of the Theory of Everything that phsysicists hope will reconcile some conflicting theoretical phsyics issues.
Trying to relate all of this to PLEs, however, does bring me to the more recent methodologies, and these are clearly the ones that I'm using in this current course --I'm definitely building on previous learning with this course; the connectivity is helping me to see things in different perspectives and expand my view of the concepts; and I have used scaffolding in other online learning situations to help me learn about the technology and tools in the online universe.
Loose ends persist as I recognize that I am all over the board with teaching and learning; I also recognize that my own online teaching environment is far more structured than the PLENK2010 course. I have been trying to build in a level of connectivism through social networking, but in the asynchronous online world this is not easy to do.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Virtual Way Forward

I've finally got to Steve Wheeler's slide show of Web 3.0 the way forward for the PLENK2010 course--it's mind boggling to use the vernacular. It's fascinating at the same time--how to envision the future from the relatively small (future hindsight) steps we have taken so far. It's also depressing--I feel that although I'm running faster and faster to keep up with new technology, new concepts, etc.,. in reality I'm getting further and further behind.