Tuesday, October 03, 2006

From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: Personalisation in MyWebLearn

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.

Here's my second post to explain the poster session that I'll be hosting in Dallas.

There's been a lot of promotion of 'personalised learning' in the UK, strongly encouraged by the government, and this is reflected in funding available to JISC projects. Within JISC itself, CETIS has a PLE project. On the 6th and 7th June 2006 there were a couple of meetings organised up in Manchester to explore the area.  I was invited to attend the first one and then subsequently required to submit a short paper. Although a bit of an inconvenience, it did provide a prompt for me to step back and try to make sense of what's going on. My experiences from the RAMBLE project had already pointed to looking at a student's daily routine as a whole and this very general view stayed in my mind as I wrote on 'PLEs as Environments for Personal and Personalised Learning'  The set of papers as a whole showed a huge diversity of views and my impressions at the meeting itself indicated that there's little consensus on what all this means in practice.

In terms of software, personalisation seems to mean the ability to customise and work with information flows - there are a plethora of tools, to read, aggregate and process, including PLEX, which has emerged from the CETIS PLE work. But how do these tools relate or even integrate with HEI systems? I think that's the major challenge. The answer at the moment seems to be generally "they don't" so I see them as floating largely unanchored; without appropriate guidance on their use, it's questionable what learning and instructional value such tools can provide. Yet, it's generally acknowledged that most institutional systems are fundamentally constraining, not providing sufficient means to pool information freely from different sources, to share, interact and so on.

As institutions have to address this problem, they will be scrutinising what resources they have and if they're limited, they might naturally ask, what can be done with our present systems that may move us in the right direction? This is the kind of view we took at Oxford: WebLearn's access controls (as introduced in my previous post), don't have a fixed concept of role, so any user can be granted the rights to create resources. WebLearn also situates content in a hierarchy. Putting those two together, we decided to create a User area for any University card holder - both staff and students - in which they could create their own areas, using most of the tools available .

Enter ... MyWebLearn!

You can think of MyWebLearn operating in a similar way to personal Web space that many HEIs offer, but there are quite a few features that make it distinctive:
  • fine-grained access controls - this allows for the same content to be partially viewable by the public (no accounts), fully viewable by account holders, editable by class mates, managed by a small group.
  • file uploads are just point and click - there's no need for ftp as file management is through Web forms. There's also a somewhat quirky Java applet that has a few extra niceties.
  • tools available: these can set these up for any individual needs, as would a staff member do in a course area.
However, WebLearn lacks some features often available to some extent in personal Web hosting, for instance you can't write your own programs or scripts.

The structure comprises three areas:
  • Public Space - space for content accessible by everyone.
  • Private Space - space for content accessible only by the MyWebLearn space owner.
  • Bookmarks - for convenient storage and revisiting of any WebLearn address.
Some of the suggested uses are as follows
  • Students working on a project could create an area private to themselves, and upload and store drafts of essays and other working documents. You could use the Messaging Room to do this in a conversational framework
  • There's a newsfeeds tool supporting RSS and Atom to read in and aggregate favourite newsfeeds.
  • The Logbooks tool can be used as a personal learning diary, which you can selectively share and allow others to post. At the moment, it's probably the nearest thing we have to a blog.
  • You can run your own surveys, with varying amounts of anonymity using the Questionnaire tool - so you could have a tear-off public survey open to the public.
  • Create a public-facing Web site advertising your portfolio... HTML is ubiquitous in the system and most tools have a little wysiwyg widget to support authoring.
We have a basic guide which describes in more detail what it is and how to get started.

I'm conscious we need to develop more use cases, oriented around activities, but perhaps these will emerge. We already see scope for further development work: ways to search for browse areas, internal messaging, FOAF-style communities, sharing data through syndicated newsfeeds and so on.

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