Sunday, October 01, 2006

Building community in learning environments – what about teachers?

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Having extolled the virtues of sharing, my blog has been void of any further contributions. I'm sorry about that and aim to post a few entries in the coming week, especially as I prepare for the Educause conference in Dallas. At the very least I should elaborate soon on my abstract for my poster session on Wednesday evening.

In the UK there's been a lot of discussion and debate around the notion of personal(ised) learning environments (PLEs for short), with further funding available from the JISC in their latest call (04/06 Capital Programme) - see e.g. e-learning strand Call III. All this has raised fundamental questions about the nature of learning as individuals and within communities, let alone what this means in terms of software systems. It can be a heady and contentious mix and in all of this I wonder what about the role of teaching, guidance and so on? Is it being devalued?  So here I'm going to reflect on my brief experience with an online venture where personal spaces and community were closely connected, with occasional pauses to refer to learning environments. However, in this case I'm thinking especially about involvement among academics (faculty).

About 10 years ago (Autumn '96), I received an email out of the blue responding to my personal Web pages on Buddhism. The message invited me to "take the site to another level" and join a new online venture. Was I interested? Even then before spam was suffocating Inboxes, I was somewhat wary, but out of curiosity I sent a reply. Soon after I received another message, this time from someone else, who expanded a little on what his 'associate' had expressed before. I was informed, "This is going to be the biggest thing to hit the 'Net!'"

For one with English sensibilities, a touch of understatement is considered slightly more appealing. However, when some elements about the venture explained to me, it seemed to me a good proposition. The basic premise was that hitherto to find a quality-controlled and edited guide to resources on the 'Net there was little choice beyond the impersonal Yahoo-style directories. This venture was to change that by creating a kind of directory service with real people serving as expert guides to the resources.

I eventually joined as one of the first 'Guides' for what was then called The Mining Company, later My task was basically to maintain and develop an area in their site on Buddhism, publishing an original article at least weekly and growing an edited links directory. The article could be a news item or topic of interest, so not dissimilar to a blog entry. Further, there was a requirement to foster community, mainly through synchronous discussions. How personal could this area be? How much did it have to conform to corporate demands? There was considerable freedom - you could write on the topic of your choice; the input from others came largely on the style of presentation, writing with the audience in mind, with the aim of establishing rapport. I enjoyed the work and I think most others did too, and that is one of key factors of its success.

The connection between the individual and community was built on personal interest and enthusiasm on a topic close to one's heart and there's ample evidence that it worked well. It wasn't just the model that was well designed, the whole infrastructure that supported the Guides was excellent – regarding the technical setup, content creation was straightforward using ready-made templates and any processes (e.g. file transfer) were well documented. However, there was another layer of support readily available behind the scenes within the organization, which had a feeling of a synergetic whole – whether it was to do with administration or the mentoring received when building your area. I found the mentoring particularly attentive and encouraging.

However, I had a very basic problem - access to the 'Net. A convoluted story, but it ended up with some forlorn investigations into mobile wireless access, which would prove prohibitively expensive. I also had to write up a doctoral thesis, sooner rather than later, so with considerable reluctance I gave up the work, before even the official launch! My articles are still available, just in my personal space, starting with the First Noble Truth .

The way the system gelled, across personal and technical spheres was altogether impressive and I often wonder what those of use involved in online learning systems, particularly in HEIs, might learn from this. On a structural note, the Mining Company's site was quite regimented, largely static content, with only a handful of templates, though considerable scope to use HTML as you wished. What a visitor is likely to notice about the site is:
  • there's someone who is looking after the pages personally
  • it's informative
  • it is kept up to date
  • on sending a query, you receive a prompt and helpful response contains a lot of instructional material and I'm thinking about it almost as a virtual academy with hundreds of academics who are very engaged online. That's not a huge number, yet has been in the top 10 in terms of Web traffic – don’t think it was the biggest thing to hit the ‘Net, but it wasn’t far off! It shows that there is a natural thirst for knowledge that can be served remarkably well through a special synergy.

If I now glance over to WebLearn, the institutional Virtual Learning Environment that I currently administer, what observations can I make? It's quite busy with thousands of staff and students accessing it more than occasionally, with probably more staff contributors than Guides. We have discussion lists, discussion boards, user groups, lots of interactive tools and various other ingredients. There's a lot of help documentation and a widely publicised email address for help, to which colleagues and I try to provide a prompt and helpful response.

After all that, the environment is often described as "useful" in terms of access to information, but I've not seen much online community. A lot of the content is to do with adminstration, is provided in large batches, updated infrequently with little indication of what's fresh or topical. Academics are as passionate as anyone about their own subjects, but compared with Guides, they are generally less enthusiastic and nowhere near as engaged online. Perhaps it's not surprising given that an Oxford education is largely face-to-face, epitomised by the tutorial system, where networking is done inside the walls of colleges and departments. Yet it's is evident among students that there's scope for online engagement to mediate physical communities - an entry in Facebook is apparently sine qua non.

There are actually well-known limitations of Oxford's face-to-face networking because academic connections seem to be quite often the outcome of serendipity more than anything else. The limitations are perhaps more obvious when considering that increasing amount of research is interdisciplinary in nature. In fact, even the most recalcitrant professors are using the Web and email frequently, so I think we're missing the right means or environment of online communication; there ought to be better means of fostering the expert teaching community. Perhaps it is just a matter of resources? Perhaps academics are under too much strain, so can't embrace anything beyond what they're doing now? Or maybe I'm just naive - I once tried to encourage an exchange of ideas between two dons who both had an interest in software for teaching logic. The response was frigid!

The work on PLEs, at least as I've encountered it as sponsored by the JISC, is focused on students, but that's only part of the picture – or just one side of the equation when considering 'learning and teaching'. The relative lack of engagement among academics indicates to me that a greater emphasis is needed on teaching, tutoring, mentoring and guidance and through that more academics may become fuller contributors online.
So does that mean we need to look at the Personal Teaching Environment (PTE) or the Personal Instructional Environment (PIE) or the Personal Guidance Environment (PGE)? But then what about the Personal Research Environment (PRE) and the Personal Administration Environment (PAE)? As someone who favours a holistic approach, there seems to be a serious risk of fragmentation that I don't find very appealing, even though each probably have distinctive characteristics.  The problems become manifest when you try to build systems - there's a temptation to build distinct systems for each.   It’s already problematic to distinguish between a VLE and VRE - and if there are significant differences do you go and build completely separate systems for each?    It's early days, though I gather that some patterns have been established in the JISC-funded Building a VRE for the Humanities.

There are actually numerous alternative online educational environments that lend themselves more to personalisation and community that may support the teaching side more. Pete Robinson, one of my colleagues in the Learning Technologies Group occasionally asks me have I taken a look at Elgg. I've always replied that I’ve only glanced at it, having never been able to allocate time to explore, but feeling I really ought to make time. Yet where might I find the time to consider even some of the issues this raises within an institutional context...?

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