PLENK, Network Literacy and the Future of Education

This week I came across a few interesting links that served to gel some ideas, or at least confirm the importance of engaging in and understanding networked learning. The first was an open course being taught by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier called PLENK 2010. This 8-week open course covers some pretty interesting topics and provides links to additional readings and resources. Spending some time on this site provided me with some insights about how learning is increasingly more open, connected (networked), and social.

The other piece was an interview that Will Richardson did for EdWeek. In the interview, Richardson touches on the idea of “network literacy” – an idea that really resonates with me – and shared some views about why the teaching of this new literacy is important. While his focus tends to be on the K-12 context his ideas are equally important in higher education. The PLENK 2010 course is a meaningful response to what Richardson is calling for, but I’m wondering where else this is happening? The concept of networked learning remains a bit of a fringe idea when I talk with other faculty about it…and as such it often gets easily dismissed. At the same time, I can’t help but sense that there is a profound transformation taking place right in front of our eyes, and too few people in education seem to be taking notice and considering the implications for education. I just don’t see this as a pervasive conversation in broader education circles… Should it be?

It seems to me there is a gulf of understanding between what many in higher ed. are seeing and thinking and what is happening around them. I liken it to what has happened to traditional news media in the wake of web publishing…none of them (editors, periodicals, newspapers, etc.) saw their own demise coming. Some were nimble and have adjusted…others are still scratching their heads.

A current example of the kind of change that is underfoot is the Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival. This “festival” (read conference) is one of the most interesting I have seen to date in terms of pushing the conversation about the Open Education and networked learning. Combine this with the the announcement this week that OpenStudy is partnering with MIT OpenCourseware and you begin to get a real glimpse of how traditional notions of course-based learning are morphing here. Some very interesting stuff in my opinion.

It seems to me that these examples of changes taking place….(Peer2Peer U., badges for recognizing informal online learning, open courses, open source learning content, etc.) represent a whole different ballgame. Perhaps a bit radical for those with a conservative lens…but I think any position / view of the future of education needs to take into account the changes taking place here.

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Social Media Narratives

social-media-marketingI had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on the impact of social media in education at a recent Social Media Club – EDU event, along with Jon Becker and Lon Safko. The focus of the conversation was on how social media is generating fundamental shifts in teaching, learning and collaboration. It was a fun and interesting event to be a part of, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the event and share a few additional thoughts.

The Social Media Conversation – Who’s In?
The SMCEDU event was a unique opportunity to have both a business and educational perspective of social media offered up on the same plate, and it was fun to see how these mingled. One of the things that I found immediately interesting was the make-up of the audience…there were a few students and some faculty members, but the majority of folks in attendance were business professionals. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the broad interest in social media in the business sector. What I continue to find interesting are the ways folks in business and education speak with different levels of confidence and understanding about the role of social media in different contexts. It seems, at least from my take of the business perspective, that there is a greater sense of purpose driving the adoption of social media – namely to grow brands by connecting with and being responsive to customers. I think this kind of approach to social media works pretty well for businesses, but I’m not sure it transfers neatly to educational contexts. In conversations I’ve had with faculty members about social media, the suggestion that they are their own personal brand is a fairly foreign if not bizarre concept. Many are a bit skeptical (and rightly so) of the business metaphor that suggests students are customers, and that a primary role of education is to prepare students for the workforce. Clearly education also plays a fundamental role in helping people develop intellectual and ethical judgment, comprehend and negotiate relationships with the larger world, and prepare them for lives of civic responsibility and leadership. I’m not sure that these are always part of the workforce narrative about the need for certain kinds of skills and habit of mind. I think that when the driver for participating in the conversation about the role of social media in education emerges from a business narrative and marketing rationale, it makes it too easy for some educators to readily dismiss it and disengage. That is unfortunate, because the conversation about social media is too important to education – on a number of levels – to have it set up to be so easily disregarded. Introducing a healthy dose of critique of social media in general, and recognizing when one narrative is being privileged over another might better serve us all.

Trend v. Transformation
The idea that trends in social media change quickly is a huge understatement. The common refrain seems to be…how do you keep up? How do you stay current? What should you be paying attention to? What is most important? Again, from my perspective as an educator its not about trends…it is about a fundamental transformation in the ways we connect, exchange, collaborate, and learn. Fundamental change is afoot…that is the message – not trying to find the best way to drink from the fire hose. When the message is about emerging trends more significant questions and ideas get passed over. I find that many educators are still at the stage of making sense of how the affordances of new forms of digital media – access to information, networking, shared knowledge creation – are impacting what it means to teach and learn. There is little attention paid to the most recent social media trend. Again, perhaps this illustrates some differences in the narrative we offer about the importance and role of social media.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
One of the things that I have been hearing in conversation with colleagues interested in social media is that students are steeped in social networking practices from experiences on Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc., and that we can build on these experiences to support formal learning in courses that we teach. The idea seems to be that we can leverage experiences students are having in these spaces, and transfer them into web-based collaborative learning experiences on sites like Ning and Wetpaint. I’m not so sure. I think it is a worthy environment to experiment with and explore, but there is something very different about elective participation in web-based communities and required participation in a social network for a course. Plenty of questions emerge: Is required participation in a community, really a community? Can initial required participation in social media for learning lead to sustainable participation that is self-selected? What drives learners to elect to engage in social media to support their own non-formal learning? So I’m looking for good answers to these and other questions, and would look forward to hearing thoughts about whether these questions matter or if I’m missing the mark here.

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Thinking about RSS, Aggregation and Credibility

I think it is fair, and perhaps rather obvious, to say that RSS fundamentally changed our experience of the web. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of aggregation, both in terms of personal aggregation I can achieve by subscribing to feeds in my RSS reader, and aggregation as a service that is provided by an ever increasing number of news and information portals. As aggregation of media sources becomes an increasingly common and accepted practice, I’ve become more interested in how sources for feeds get vetted and served up at some of the more popular information portals. I know this is not a new idea and that others have certainly entertained the question before, but I’m not sure we ask the question enough of ourselves, or in the work we do with students.

A couple of class sessions ago I explored the idea of RSS and aggregation with the students in my Learning with Digital Media class. I wanted my students to do three things:

  • Set up and use web-based RSS readers to customize information and resources they wanted to have regular access to; essentially setting up a personal newspaper.
  • Explore a process for determining the credibility of content that appears in sites that aggregate news and information.
  • Critique the process of aggregation and raise questions about its impact on how we access news and information.

Students worked in small groups to evaluate four different sites that aggregate news and information. We looked at Google News, NewsCred, Alltop and digg. I selected these sites because I felt they represented different approaches to selecting content for their aggregated feeds. I encouraged students to consider some questions as they examined these sites: Is the process for content selection transparent? In other words, does the site describe how it aggregates the information it presents? To what extent do you feel the content is credible (subjective 1-10 rating scale with 10 being most credible)? What can you offer as a rationale that supports your credibility rating?

The ensuing discussion was interesting. There actually seemed to be a general consensus among the students about the credibility of content on each of these sites. I’ll talk about them briefly here from least to most credible as viewed by the students and try to tease out some overall themes.

Alltop seemed to be viewed as the least credible among the sites. Students tended to see it as middle of the road in terms of credibility. There is a preponderance of blog content on Alltop and the students maintained a general skepticism of information on blogs, even though they acknowledged that blogs can be interesting to read and be quite credible. In addition, there was uncertainty about the selection process on the blogs that were aggregated on Alltop. On one hand it seemed like blogs were aggregated by a combination of self-nomination and then peer review through readership which determined the shelf-life of a blog. This created a view of Alltop that was clubbish, and this diminished the perceived credibility of the content.

digg held slightly greater appeal for students, perhaps due to familiarity with the site. Students seemed to find value in the user rating process that digg employs – the more “diggs” the better or more credible the story or site. However, students also acknowledged that digg tends to cater to a particular demographic, and that content there may not always be of interest to the general population. So while they favored the “voting” process for determining credibility, they also acknowledged that the most popular content on digg was not always the most credible.

NewsCred was a site that not many students had heard of prior to the activity, and represented a hybrid model where custom feeds can be created from established reputable sources, and individual stories / sources receive a credibility rating from users. Students seemed to value what NewsCred was trying to accomplish by making the vetting process for its feeds more transparent, but lacking a complete understanding of the process some students remained uncertain about the ultimate credibility of the feeds. Overall however, NewsCred was viewed quite favorably by students in terms of perceived credibility of aggregated content.

Google News was generally viewed as the most popular and credible source for aggregated information feeds. One student commented that Google is a “household brand” and is simply trusted. A few students however commented that Google News functions on the same kind of algorithms that drive search returns, and that these can be “gamed” or manipulated. So the top stories in Google News are not necessarily the most credible or even the most relevant. Students also commented on the recent mistake, where a 2002 story about a United Airlines plane crash showed up as a top story in Google News and sent the company’s stock tumbling. Accidents like this were viewed as occasionally occurring in an automated system where there is no human intervention or oversight.

As I reflected on this experience with my students a few points emerged that I continue to think about:

1) Students are aware of the range of reliability and credibility of specific sources (e.g., NY Times, BBC, CNN, etc.), and they occasionally seek these out for top stories and breaking news.

2) Credibility of aggregated feeds seems to be significantly shaped by perceived credibility (Google is a “household brand”) and not necessarily an understanding of any vetting process.

3) Students place value on a vetting process where users can vote on the popularity or credibility of a story or source. Human intervention is seen as valuable, and students rely on their social networks for identifying interesting and relevant content on the web. Credibility is shaped by views of the social network.

As the demand for quick and mobile access to news and information continues to grow, aggregation is positioned to play a defining role in the ways we obtain information. And while providers of aggregation services need to strive to be more transparent about their vetting processes, it seems like we need to be thinking about ways to engage students to think critically about the process of aggregation as well. I’d be very interested in your views on this and whether you even see it as an issue. If so, what questions and suggestions do you have for helping us all better understand how aggregation is changing the game?

{Image credit: Picture Perfect Pose}

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Student Blogging and Digital Footprints

When students blog in an academic context, they often do so because it is an expectation in a course they are enrolled in. Some may blog for personal purposes outside of class as well, but I suspect that they are the exception and not the rule. In the work I am doing with students this semester I have asked them to create blogs that we call Learning Journals. Nothing really new or groundbreaking here, but I have been interested in students’ views about being asked to reflect on their learning and to write in these public spaces on the open web.

My hope is that these students will see their writing (and commenting) in the blog space as part of being involved in a larger conversation that is taking place within the class, and more importantly can spill outside the walls of the class and impact a much wider audience. For me, one measure of success would be that they experience both community and culture in the blogosphere; a bridging of the academic and the personal.

There has been a range of responses to the idea of the Learning Journal. Some students have indicated that blogging is not something they would choose to do if it was simply a personal choice, and I certainly respect that. To my surprise, a few students already had a blog space and chose to integrate their learning reflections with their personal musings, which I think is great. Still other students express concerns and reservations about writing in a publicly accessible space, and seem uncertain about potential implications of such practices down the road. Still others see blogging as silly navel gazing.

Within all of these views there is an inherent tension between digital spaces that are seen as personal and those that are seen as academic. Questions of identity, and how our on-line behaviors impact and shape it, are ever-present.

I try to remain sensitive to the variety of perspectives that my students bring to the practice of thinking, musing and writing on the open web. There is risk and tension there for me as well. I’m making a value judgment. I fully realize that I’m requiring them to engage in blogging for an academic purpose, with the hope that it becomes a rich enough learning experience that it transcends the academic and becomes personally valuable. Ultimately, I hope they come to learn and value that free and public space on the Web is an important right that they have. I also realize that in asking my students to blog, they are generating content that leaves a digital footprint and becomes part of their online persona. This can be tricky business, perhaps more so in some contexts than others. But these are not new ideas. I am certain that other faculty engaged in blogging have been thinking about these issues for some time, and writing far more eloquently and incisively than I have here. Yet for me, reflecting on this has made me more sensitive to the idea that when we ask our students to generate content on the open web, we are in effect asking them to create and modify their digital footprint.

The notion of the digital footprint raises several questions for me. Am I being unnecessarily concerned and putting too much emphasis on the implications of “requiring” students to contribute to an on-line persona guided by academic expectations? How do we move to the point where blogging is something students do on their own, as opposed to something that is done to them? Is the academic “push” to blog one of the only ways where students ambivalent to blogging will gain experience and perspective on the importance of public publishing on the web? What other questions should we be asking here? Let me know what you think.

{Image Credit: Paddy Wight}

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Student Views on Defining Digital Media

Last week I met my students for the first time in a new course I’m teaching called, Learning with Digital Media, a special topics course being offered out of the School of Mass Communications. The course title is somewhat ambiguous, which was partially intentional, and could be interpreted in a range of ways. One important aspect of the course is for us to collectively come to an understanding of what digital media means to us. We began our first class with some discussion about how we should define digital media, and this blog post is an attempt to capture a part of our discussion.

Perhaps predictably, students began with a description of hardware and devices, like cell phones, laptops and PDAs and how these devices are connected and networked to the internet. In addition to devices there was talk of data and storage. Much of what they focused on early in the discussion could be described as concern for things electronic.

The conversation changed course when one student remarked that the existing society / culture will tend to define technology in ways that reflects the dominant technology of the day, this was described as a “working form where you are at” perspective. This remark brought a very different flavor to the discussion. Students shifted their focus to thoughts about how digital technologies have impacted how information is distributed, and they saw information as being easily transferable and something they could also interact with. The emphasis was not on how devices / hardware were connected, but rather how people and information were connected.

I was intrigued by the insights students had into how this connectedness and ease of exchange of information – supported by digital media – had impacted their views of communication. They saw information as something that was highly customizable, and this allowed for the development of highly segmented audiences that could be easily catered to. Students seemed to see this as both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand it seems to expand the realm of communication opportunities, and at the same time control our access enabling a focus on very specific interests. In essence they seemed to be suggesting that the power of digitally mediated communication was simultaneously open and closed. Our freedom of access in fact tightens our focus. That is something I need to spend more time reflecting on.
At the end of the discussion we spent some time thinking about key questions we hoped to explore in the course. Several students signaled concerns about where digital media was taking us, and expressed some genuine uncertainty about how the Internet could continue to advance. The general question of “where do we go from here?” captured the difficulty of we face in understanding what digital media innovations could possibly lie ahead. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. They wondered about where we would be if the digital media we have come to rely on somehow went away. They were concerned about how expectations – for everything – have become instantaneous, and how technology has become an “intruder” in their lives. They seemed to also express the concern that technology use begets more technology use, and questioned the extent to which their “free time” has become increasingly eliminated. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. I’m looking forward to exploring these and other questions with them this semester, and hope they’ll chime in here and on their own blogs as their thinking about digital media continues to develop.

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Academic publishing…say hello to web 2.0

I recently had the opportunity to share some thoughts about how the web is impacting traditional notions of academic publishing with a group of doctoral students in the School of Social Work at VCU. It was a wonderful chance to share some emerging possibilities that are currently taking shape, as well as point out some things on the horizon.

The presentation was also an opportunity for me to formulate and pitch some ideas that have been cooking for a while. I really appreciate and admire the School of Social Work students for the interest and willingness to engage with the ideas of how web 2.0 practices are reshaping some long held views about scholarship.

[slideshare id=290850&doc=scholarship-technology-where-do-we-go-from-here-1204581709634095-4&w=425]

There are some tough questions and issues out there for new – as well as established – scholars to consider about how and where to “publish” their ideas given the range of emerging web-based possibilities. I tried to hit the obvious features on the landscape, and pose some questions for discussion.

Are published articles in open access peer reviewed journals as valuable as those in print-based journals? Is the quality of the peer review process all that different in between these distribution mechanisms? Can blogs written for academic purposes be a form of scholarly publication? Is web-based peer review in blogs and wikis a legitimate means of vetting scholarly work? Do podcasts represent a new form of academic publishing? Can web-based videos be considered scholarship?

These are thorny questions. Some answers reside in the willingness of various disciplines to wrestle with emerging notions of collaboration, expertise and participation.

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del.icio.us not Tasty for Everyone

When I encountered del.icio.us about two years ago, it was the first taste of web 2.0 I experienced, and it opened a whole new world. I not only thought it was an amazing way to store my own web links, but to also connect with others that had similar interests who were also saving bookmarks on the web. The idea if social bookmarking was very appealing to me then, and it remains so now. This web-based practice is generally useful and convenient, but it is also a powerful way to discover new resources, build connections among people with similar interests, promote collaboration, and tap into a new way of organizing the web. In many ways, I see it as a bit of a gateway experience to exploring new instructional possibilities and practices…if you get this one, the doors to the participatory web begin to open up.

Clearly everyone doesn’t see it the same way.

In the work I do with faculty to explore meaningful uses of technology to support teaching and learning, social bookmarking – and the concept of tagging in general – is something I try to promote. Some faculty members immediately see the value and become tagging junkies (and encourage their students to do it as well), some have a passing interest and tolerate it for a while and still others see it as bizarre. “Why would I want to share MY bookmarks with people I don’t know?” or “This is a great tool, but I really don’t want to share with anyone…can I keep it private?” or “What do I need a network for?” Comments like these always give me pause for reflection. I try to understand the resistance.

One thing I have been giving more thought to recently is the language and meaning surrounding the ideas of “social” and “bookmarking.” Social brings thoughts of conversation, interaction and public exchange. Bookmarking brings images of one-on-one with a browser, individually saving sites, a private act, and sharing –when it happens – is with an emailed link.

Social = open + public
Bookmarking = personal + private

Like oil and water…these are at odds. Some folks see social bookmarking and say…you must be kidding…mix private and public? The initial contact with the idea seems so foreign that many can’t get past the semantics. They won’t even come to the table. The ideas – appealing to early adopters – are in need of some translation, reconceptualization or repackaging to be more broadly appealing. The practice of social bookmarking needs an emulsifier to mix together seemingly disparate ideas and make a tasty dressing.

I suspect that the language surrounding many of the web 2.0 practices and tools that instructional technologists readily use to communicate with each other, may well leave others scratching their heads, unable to share in the excitement and possibility. I’m feeling a strong need to use different language to talk with faculty members about something like social bookmarking. Sometimes I think that a simple [re]packaging can get the job done. But I’m wondering how social bookmarking can be [re]labeled so that more educators can engage with the notion of building connections through resource sharing? Is this really even necessary? Am I totally missing the boat here? Should I even be concerned?

In a recent post, Will Richardson commented:

We’re in the “Networking as a Second Language” point in teaching, this messy transition phase that is slowly gaining traction where we are beginning to understand what this means but not quite sure yet what to do about it.

I think this notion of “second language learning” gets at a little bit of what I’m struggling with. I think I’m looking for a way to translate, to use concepts in the first language to assist folks in understanding concepts in a new language. I’m feeling a little bit at a loss about how to proceed…

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Tag clouds as a heuristic

I have been fascinated by the concept of the tag cloud since I encountered it for the first time a few years ago on flickr and del.icio.us. I’m not always too sure what to make of them, but my interest in using the tag cloud as a form of knowledge representation was renewed at the recent ELI Conference.

During a session presented by George Siemens and Cyprien Lomas, they offered some interesting perspectives on using web-based tools to assist with data visualization. One of the tools was, Many Eyes, which provides the opportunity for unique visualization of data. One of the options in ManyEyes is the generation of a tag cloud from large amounts of text. I had come across ManyEyes some time ago and thought it was pretty interesting, but at the time I just didn’t have a strong sense of what I might use it for. As happens all too frequently, I let it get buried under a host of other tasks and other ideas demanding my attention.

During the session George Siemens commented that he will occasionally – when he is bored – take the last several months of posts from his blog and dump them into ManyEyes to create a tag cloud. Someone in the audience immediately picked up on this and suggested that we take the last several years of the Horizon Report and generate tag clouds for the sake of comparison. This idea really seemed to resonate with people in the session, and the back channel communication being conducted on Twitter immediately began to light up with this idea.

Picking up on this idea after the conference, Chris Lott generated tag clouds of the most recent Horizon Report, as well as for past reports from 2004 – 2007, and posted them to his blog. Interesting stuff…

This practice of generating tag clouds for knowledge representation also appeared last week following President Bush’s most recent state of the Union address, one version of which can be found here. Both of these examples suggest an interest in using tag clouds as a form of sense making that is gaining in popularity.

This recent activity and buzz surrounding tag clouds has increased my interest in their use as a form of knowledge representation. Sometimes I find that when I look at tag clouds of data sets I get a flash of insight that leads to some realization, something that helps me analyze underlying meaning and sub-text. And sometimes I look at tag clouds and see…well….just clouds. Data haze. However, I am thinking increasingly that there is something a tag cloud reveals in a way not otherwise possible. In this way I think that the creation of tag clouds represent a replicable method for directing inquiry and attention when we are engaged in learning or problem solving…in other words a heuristic.

I am a huge of using technology tools in ways that help us to do things that would otherwise not be possible…or otherwise so time consuming and tedious as to discourage a particular practice. Many Eyes, for its ease of use in generating tag clouds from large amounts of text, permits a level of analysis that would otherwise not be possible. Taking hundreds of pages of text and representing the frequency of key words can be accomplished in mere seconds. There is also another web-based tool, a bit less sophisticated than Many Eyes, called TagCrowd that permits similar tag cloud generation using text, as well as just entering a URL for a website…so perhaps some interesting potential here as well. Ultimately, I think this kind of practice opens the door for us to ask some interesting questions and perhaps lead to inquiry that might otherwise remain unexamined.

So, I am continuing to think about practical ways this might be employed in educational contexts to support learning and inquiry. Building on the basic blog / report idea from George Siemens, I think the following practices would also be of interest:

  • Tag clouds for individual and class sets of student papers / essays.
  • Tag clouds for speeches and lectures.
  • Tag clouds for analyzing the content of websites.
  • Tag clouds of classic pieces of literature.
  • Tag clouds generated from set of stories covering the same news event.

Just to name a few…

The other thing I wonder is, if we engage in these kinds of practices in the classroom, what are the kinds of questions we should be asking students to wrestle with? how do they interpret tag clouds? Are they of value in supporting learning? Inquiry?

In any event, I’m sure I’ll be doing my fair share of dumping data into Many Eyes and seeing what kinds of patterns and questions emerge. I remain excited to learn about other creative uses for the tag cloud that are bound to emerge, but one I’m thinking about is a web-based application that would create a tag cloud from selected podcasts (transcribed text content) where the tags are also links to the list of podcasts addressing that concept. Anybody know of something like that?

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