Personal learning space and the Digital Reputation
A transcript of a public lecture I gave at the University of Greenwich. The first (I believe) from an education graduate
Personal Learning Space and the Digital Future - October 2012
Introduction In this presentation I am going to say a lot about e-learning as you might expect from the title, but of course what it's really about is effective teaching and learning and how we can blend and sometimes bend technology into that purpose. E-learning is the continuing pursuit of good teaching and learning, effected through technology. One of the mistakes teachers make, and it is made for historical reasons is placing an over reliance on technology to make teaching and learning good and in the process suspend their own judgements on the upshot of it all. They allow in effect the technological tail to wag the pedagogical dog.
The reason I started with this warning is that I want to talk about a particular aspect of technology which offers conceptually challenging and in some ways offers quite revolutionary approaches to learning that will challenge current curriculum design as well as the way the management and administration of learning is undertaken and we cannot be dazzled by the brilliance of the technology to do the job for us because it won’t. What I am talking about today is very much an issue for teachers.
How we use these technologies are matters of pedagogy and design science. I stress this because 5 to 10 years ago teachers, perhaps for good reasons were nothing more than grateful recipients of what technology was given to them but that is an attitude whose time has passed.
I start with some naked sycophancy. I am a graduate of this university and my work on using personal learning space started here and I am indebted to my tutors.
I came to formal higher education late in my teaching career, relying on my basic teaching qualifications and work experience which is a common root into further education. My FE background may occasionally show itself in this lecture with occasional vulgar glimpses of poor academic underwear, where so much of what we do in FE happens as a result of what we called reaction research; we try something and react when it goes wrong…
But I am a graduate of this University and I am better than that now. I learned to think more critically, I learned to enquire more widely and I learned to marshal my thoughts and ideas more carefully. I did all this, not just with Malcolm and Simon’s help but through the use of this emerging technology that I want to talk about today. My major project was on the evolution of e-portfolios. I used one in my course. I've used one and contributed to many others ever since. I have taught modules of courses with them without recourse to the VLE and this lecture now brings you and me up to date on where I am on this particular continuing journey.
Technology for the One. Apart from technology becoming faster and more reliable over the last five years it seems in particular, software becomes ever more capable and more refined and we have been able to use this in education to do more and cleverer things. But there is one area in particular where technology has changed and is challenging education practice; this is adding to our stock of technology ‘for the many’ to the technology ‘for the one’. In a word, personalisation. With personalisation we now have technology that tracks the individual learning and not just the group learning. A huge step in our e-learning journey and much overlooked, or perhaps wilfully ignored by many as they wait for the software writers to bring us the jewels rather than grapple with this in partnership. It is easy to ignore. This is not using technology in familiar ways as the VLE does, but new ways of using known ideas with new software.
Instead of having centralised single pieces of software that all learners work inside, it has been replaced or perhaps augmented by technology for individual use. Perhaps the greatest example of this would be the rise of applications on the Android and iPhone. The worry of five years ago that we would not be able to remember more than two or possibly three passwords for software accounts that led to arguments for one centralised behemoth application now gives way to a fragmentation of software that is given extra urgency because it is being driven more by learners and learner expectation rather than colleges and universities. Those that thought ignoring it for a while was a good plan can read what students think about that on student-owned FaceBook pages and Twitter because they are using examples of the personalised apps. Family it even if we aren’t. A good example of this is how It has been replaced by what we see on an iPhone that could have somewhere in the order of 20 to 40 different applications which have single purpose and an array of solutions to help with security. It is a collection that customises itself to our waking day (and some to our sleeping night as well.)
Definitions and characteristics In education this ‘technology for the one’ has allowed the fuller realisation of personalised learning. In its original meaning we were taught that personalised learning meant students prefer to learn by seeing or doing or thinking or copying and so forth, which translated in a speech by David Milliband in 2004 as ‘ high expectations of every child, given practical form by high quality teaching based on sound knowledge and understanding of each child’s needs’, and it is the ‘each child’s needs’ that is the operant part here. None of the rest is of this quote is anything but the obvious, it is the application of this through technology that he is referring to. What we can now make of personalised learning is that each learner can, within the confines of agreed learning outcomes and group processes, follow, even self-manage (particularly in the age of the emerging MOOC, a massive open on-line course) an individual learning journey that is contextualised to their own situation and circumstances and ultimately leads to a personal understanding of what is learnt that can then be applied in unique ways, in short, learning journeys can be as peculiar as the learner’s own life experience. Personalised learning has moved from something that is done to the student, to something done by the student themselves and with it comes huge opportunity to improve the depth and detail of learning.
In this lecture, I want to explore this idea through the use of personal learning space, the e-portfolio, which is the main education weapon of choice in ‘technology for the one’.
What might this mean for the relationship between the teacher and the students? How might the management of learning be affected and what new ways of learning are available to us all through it?
I want to explore how all these various types of learning blend together. I want to ‘big up’ as they say the value of reflective thinking and insightful learning and where this technology fits with what we already use. I will list the considerable challenges we face by its introduction, but in the process argue that the pain is worth it. Finally I want to make some suggestions about the future of learning itself and how in time we will move from students completing courses to students developing professional reputation and be able to say quite literally when they leave our colleges ‘hello world, this is me.’
Personal Learning Space is easy to describe. It is a space, electronic, probably cloud based, that is personal to the owner who controls it. The subject matter of the content is ‘the author’. The learning part refers to the ability to marshal and repurpose content to fashion stories. It will include themes, narratives, presentations, and conclusions about the owner, based on the content and the owner’s operation on it. First and foremost it informs the author and much of it may not be seen by others.
Personal learning space is sometimes referred to as an e-portfolio. A portfolio is a constituent part of a personal learning space. It’s the part where we store and index content. Portfolios have been around long before computers to be a place where we put items that are important or valuable to us in some kind of order or index so that we can show a body of work and we can show it in an organised, often linear fashion. But technology for the one allows us now to manipulate portfolio content in a new way; we can share it privately or publicly. We can re-purpose it.
So when we say e-portfolio, we mean it in this broader sense of a personal learning space. It can be confusing but it is a convenient shortcut and I will mean it in this way for the purposes of this presentation.
Ideas for using e-portfolios
So how might we use one?
As an aside here I do think we, teachers, need to use one first if we are to understand how to use them successfully with students. More on that later. Well to start with we can add then link content and activity together or refer from one to another, joining ideas, developing threads of learning, connecting to other threads and building up a volume of work. Being cloud based, we can ask people anywhere who we know and respect to criticise our work. These people may have nothing to do with our college, and tutors may not know they are doing it. It could be a sponsor, an expert in the field, someone we want to impress, an academic who is known to hold different opinions on a subject being studied, a person with whom we wish to build a reputation. It could be a student mentor in the year above. These are critical friendships. Critical friendships that turn into a conversation can become mentoring and it is these activities that turns a portfolio into personal learning space. I believe very strongly that it is the interventions of others that we seek out who challenge and support our work that add real quality to our reflective activity and insightful learning.
Hopefully I am making the case for a portfolio to be so much more than simply a collection of random personal bric-a-brac and self indulgent thoughts, more on that when I talk about the challenges.
As in all things in education, it is the craft with which we use it rather than taking software at face value that is so important and is another strong reason for those that intend to use e-portfolios in their course start with developing their own. It is no surprise that most of the portfolios I have been showing belong to teaching staff. But there’s more to an e-portfolio. We can add any other experience or thought or activity, achievement, ability to our portfolio beyond coursework, making other connections, beyond our academic life and into our private and social lives which means that a personal learning space isn't simply about what we learn in the course. Indeed in time what will happen is that the coursework will simply become one more component, albeit a big one of a larger collection of items which means that we don't use portfolios simply to show what we have acquired in study at university or college, but that it can begin to show who we are as people in the broadest possible sense, in truth, 'the rounded self' to which we add what we want to take from our course. I am going to say more about that later on. For now it is interesting to consider that in future students will come to college, possibly with a portfolio already underway and what they acquire, again in the broadest sense while studying with us will simply be one more component part that will be added to an ongoing profile of them the person rather than simply them the qualification.
Capturing, marshalling, repurposing, threads and themes. But we can do even more with e-portfolios. How might we find these threads and themes that run through our collective musings and experiences? Because portfolio content is peculiar to the owner, tags can be added that allows content to be given a particular label that goes beyond its prima facie purpose.
An illustration or example of an underlying skill if you prefer. An artefact such as contributions to a group assignment diary may be a good assignment but also a great example of an ability to contribute to a team, take constructive criticism, collaborate with others, working with stronger and weaker colleagues in a given area. So, in the lifetime of a degree course, a portfolio may demonstrate the ‘rounded graduate’, who on leaving this university is defined by say10 soft skill attributes, such as imagination, creativity, tolerance, ability to synthesise knowledge, demonstrate respect to colleagues, determination, team working, ability to react positively to criticism, and mental agility, and all this drawing on knowledge and activity that came from the course and the class.
Howard Gardner talks of 5 minds and if, for argument’s sake we were to take this as a theoretical construct of a rounded person, we can use tags in our portfolio to thread other stories through the content. But we could add other skills to this. Ability to think creatively, able to respond positively to criticism, ability to adapt based on new learning etc. My point is the list of tags can be a simple set of 5 for the course but the student may choose to add others particular to them because they have a need to demonstrate something or wish to develop evidence of tackling a weakness.
Divergent thinking Here’s another interesting possibility….One of the great benefits of this new level of personalised learning is the ability to accommodate and therefore encourage divergent thinking skills. This is not the same as creativity as such, but they do provide space to catalogue ideas, to reinterpret questions and find multiple answers and thoughts that flow from it that may have previously slipped through our mental fingers; we just didn’t hold the ideas. Each student can use this personal space to see how they might tackle problems, perhaps leading to error and correction at worst, and innovation at best. It allows our academic subjects to develop by celebrating imagination, individuality and the power of ideas. Portfolios do this by providing the recording space to plough the individual furrow of a new idea in privacy perhaps to start with, but ultimately to share.
One of the requirements for self-employment and sought by employers is to have candidates with the ability to think on their feet, to be adaptable, to be creative, and have a certain robustness in a world of constant change all of which requires the ability to develop creative and imaginative approaches. E-portfolios accommodate this and provide a means to demonstrate them on an individual basis. Again it does not argue against the need for convergent thinking skills it's just that we're now able to show that we deliver both.
A portfolio for learning is much more than simply a collection of artefacts that are indexed. It is never a finished work, but a work in progress.
10 principles concerning the assessment of learning
This is because it can be repurposed reordered, written about, criticised by ‘respected others’, form part of a conversation. It is always open to revision in the face of confronting new learning. All of this content can be reworked in order to find threads or themes or patterns or instances of strengths or weaknesses in the owners working and professional life. This all sounds very wonderful and the ideas of students achieving all this is not new; it is just that we have not had a mechanism before that allowed it without creating a monumental bureaucracy. And before we get too carried away with this there are huge challenges to make any of this possible for universities, not least educational culture, attitudes of staff and expectations of students and we will look at these points shortly. Before I do, I want to look at one more huge opportunity e-portfolios offer learning.
Whatever content is added, there is no escaping this ‘so what’ construct’ If you place something in a portfolio you will be asked at some point to justify its inclusion. The subject matter of any content added to a portfolio is always ‘the author’, a justification will need to be given for its inclusion at some point which by that author which is why portfolios tend to be seen as places where the process of reflective thinking and recording takes place that sometimes, hopefully, leads to what we're more interested in as educationalists: Insightful learning.
Reflective thinking and Insight I wasn't able to attend Dr. Atherton's lecture on the criticism of reflection. I followed it online and I thought it was excellent but I disagreed with much of what he concluded. Such is the relationship between reflective thinking and portfolios that a criticism of one is a rebuke to the other so you might expect me to have a different view. I do think for example that Firefighters will need skills beyond the content of the manual and the body of agreed responses to tackling fires for example. Rather than reflection being seen as a decayed idea, I believe the problem is that it has not yet been developed and the way learning technologies are going, the focus on the individual will make this an essential skill and activity.
I have stolen an idea from Thousand and Villa.
Reflective thinking in the style of Thousand and Villa (2001)
What is reflection? It is an opportunity to write about anything we choose where we place ourself in an event or circumstance, often ones we have recently experienced first-hand and think about what it means to us by replaying it. Reflective thinking is often retrospective and we replay actions and thoughts and their consequences as we reflect normally from a third person perspective. This retelling of our story requires all these activities to have occurred.
In formal learning the writing and thinking will be set around course work and learning outcomes. It requires a degree of honesty and expects us to be critical in our thinking and behaviour and muse about how we may have done things differently, hopefully better. That may be the end of it.
But it is possible that on some occasions we find a new revelation or truth about ourselves and it changes how we stand in relation to the course, it’s content, and experiences. This is insightful learning and as a result of this process it is also possible that by stringing two or three or more of these reflective episodes together we may find insight there too. An example of this is the process of memorising street names, memorising how they link up, working out journeys, improving them, deciding we don’t want to go there and through insight go somewhere else. Insightful learning is perhaps the best kind of learning because it informs, alters and underpins our values and therefore our reactions and behaviour. It is where we confront ourselves with what we have understood, particularly where it challenges settled understanding. But this is learning that is caught by the learner, not taught by the tutor which is why it is so important to have a time, a place and a mechanism for each of us to capture what in the past may have been lost or at least seen only fuzzily.
Whilst this does not replace the absolute necessity for developing a body of knowledge and the application of a disciplined mind in following any subject or in any work, this underlying attitude and values informs how we apply what we know and behave and react in an emergency to a new or unexpected situation and I would argue that is impossible to do anything in this world without having that body of understanding about ourselves. If nothing else it is the source of personal confidence and I would argue that this is the underlying behaviour that defines any profession.
Atherton is right to say the firefighter will run by the manual, but instinctive behaviour is the result of profound or insightful learning which is the book plus understanding the underlying values.
A crude example is this computer. It runs by the manual and it will never be more than that until it does not need me to think for it. Who was it said that it is first important to know yourself? Actually, according to Wikipedia (its on the internet so it must be right), 11 people claim this as original thought. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_thyself so it must be true….
Why the subject is on our radar now is that at long last technology has given us a means to accommodate this approach to learning and thinking. Writers have always understood the value of learning being a personal experience as well as a class or group enterprise, it's just that we didn't have a mechanism that allowed learning to be delivered in such complex form and as personal as this. Indeed the Victorian model of rank and file classrooms that we still use so much today is based on batch learning, not because it was a particularly good idea but because it was economically efficient and thought to be good model to deliver knowledge and was of its time. It still has its place for some aspects of teaching and learning but we are at the point where we cannot ‘unknow’ about personalisation and regardless of the huge challenges it means it won’t go away and if it will improve the quality, perhaps a better word would be the profundity of learning, it must be tackled and led out by educationalists…. us.
Challenges So what are the challenges to learning and teaching with the introduction of personal learning space and indeed there are many... Firstly it changes the relationship between teacher and student. E-portfolios indirectly force learners to make sense of the learning rather than simply to record it. Courses that use portfolios will not sustain students who want to sit passively, and receive information from peers and teachers and writers. This will terrify students who expect to be taught by tutors and in ‘passing’ the course have their tutors set the number and height of barriers that need to be cleared and tell them how and when they have achieved this.
It offers the prospect of meta-learning. This overlay of a commentary on what is done and learned and, by keeping the overlay running, a commentary on the process of learning and the course itself.
What do we do with that as teachers if anything, after all it isn’t ours? Does it have course value, is it part of the Learner Voice? Is it dangerous and capable of damaging the course if published? What if it is wildly enthusiastic?
There will be more negotiation over the setting of assignments and students will be able validate their own learning first rather than submit it to a teacher for approval.
Portfolios will allow the capture of accidental or informal learning, the ‘off the wall’ creative ideas mentioned earlier; the kind of learning that can slip through the fingers. The danger is it may have little value and needs students develop a maturity through experience of what to capture. In short, there will be hoarders of junk unable to see their way through everything. How do we help them?
Writing and recording reflective thinking is not easy. Many will just give a commentary on ‘who did what’. We will need to teach how to think reflectively and record it. It is a lost skill to many teachers let alone students.
On the administration of learning, portfolios will sub-consciously push students to managing their own learning journey which they may think is not what they signed up to. It is something done more often as part of CPD in later working life.
Portfolios will capture learning understanding that will help decide what needs to be studied next. It will sustain the learning journey through a conflation of all these behaviours and students may not like it. I can think of tutors I have met who won’t like it. It suggests a lack of neatness in a course that has a beginning, middle and end and not just a couple of punctuation points in a students life-long life-wide learning journey.
Students will be able to develop in their portfolio both the private self and a public persona.
The two will crossover and sometimes one will inform the other cryptically. This notion of the public persona and the development of reputation will be revisited in the last part of this lecture but there is a skill in getting this right and it is a new skill that many are getting wrong.
The VLE has been with us for number of years and it is relatively straightforward technology in that it consolidates what we already know and do as teachers, what students do as students and how we interact professionally to achieve effective teaching and learning. But portfolios are different in that they fundamentally affect the relationship and provide a new more refined, more personalised route to learning. The consequences for the administration of learning are immense.
University management will struggle as they attempt in the usual manner to administratively standardise processes but it is not possible to ‘standardise the personal’, when we know that the two ideas cannot live inside the same sentence.
If students are using their portfolio where will it sit once they leave college? What if a student brings a portfolio with them, wanting to assimilate their course into it? And how will managers feel about the amount of learning that is effectively hidden so that it offers challenges to the need to constantly check and formatively assess?
This is a set of the bigger issues and there are others I am sure yet to be found. We need pedagogical answers to these issues before we embark on using portfolios. Some are easy and others very hard but the most difficult will be the ones that needs a change of attitude and culture. I hope my argument has made the case to say that the quest is worth it because of the benefits to learning in the long run. There is perhaps a more compelling but slightly less noble reason to get on with this and that is that students are going this way already with social media and in many cases making a complete hash of it. Who is going to help them learn and master their digital reputation if not us?
It is why we need to lead out with this and use e-portfolios first so we know how to use them with our students.
The boundaries of software & the three pillars
I want to look at the wider picture of technology structure to see how all this might fit together. It helps in deciding what a portfolio comprises of and should contain and further, defines by mutual exclusion what a personal learning plan should look like and that when these two are added to the VLE where group activity in the enterprise of learning takes place. As with all technology it isn’t just about what it does but where its boundaries lie and how the learning activities are spread over a collection of technologies. This is a discussion about tutor and student behaviours and not technology software.
I think we have three main pillars which I offer as a model for a basic e-learning provision and the e-portfolio is the last of the three to arrive for reasons already covered.
In short they answer the questions: how am I doing, how are you doing and how are we doing? Peripherals such as handheld technology, social media and other firmware simply fit as contributors into one or more of these three areas as enablers. In defining the portfolio, we define also the the second of these pillars and is the opposite to portfolios. So we have the VLE for the mutual activity and enterprise of learning. The PLP to record the record of study and the portfolio to capture what has been learnt.
So… to the future then and Reputation
Students are bringing their portfolios into their university experience and they are adding it to their own story. This is happening now but in an uncontrolled way, without sufficient guidance and with often unintended consequences, many of which won’t come to light for a few years - maybe.
Facebook is a portfolio but not with the refinement required to manage reputation but it is being used extensively by students. According to Intersperience, an American organisation that monitors social media use, The average 22 yr. old with a Facebook account reports having up to 1000 connections. Even if this is not true, the fact that users would boast this says something for the power of this life choice. 13-15 year olds, the generation coming here in 3- 7 years time report having 450 friends. These aren’t digital natives, as described by Malcolm Prensky in 1982. That term was used to contrast them with the digital immigrants, my generation. The truth is we are all now digitally indigenous. The natives read the net as if it had always been there, but the indigenous write and create on the net and it appears we do it with gusto!
So it seems that the concept of personal space is alive and well, but the learning part, relating to the harnessing and guidance/management/teaching of this by educators is severely underdeveloped and we are seriously behind where we should be to support all the great pedagogical benefits that might come from it.
We need to start to manage this portfolio building more purposefully, starting with a better software tool. We can refer to FaceBook quite properly as a social portfolio, as opposed to the reflective portfolios we are more interested in. We need to get students to create for themselves this new type of e-portfolio; an intended, crafted, on-line summary, a personal digital package, perhaps what will become a digital brand and as that brand is trusted a digital reputation. Of course we actually all have an online reputation already. We find it by typing our name into Google. If you use any of the ‘find my ancestor’ websites we realise even the dead have an online reputation of sorts. Some have arrived at digital celebrity with a Wikipedia entry. Surely managing this process and constructing it has to become part of the contract of entitlement with our students and we should make it the business of universities to develop and claim that expertise.
The Learner Entitlement As students develop their “unique brand”, we will be in the business of helping them develop their digital or perhaps more accurately their professional reputation. The ability to capture so much of an individual will transform education from ‘qualifications’ to ‘qualifications plus me’ and in time perhaps to ‘me plus my qualifications. Engineers will show their their personal skills, Firefighters their cunning in fire fighting, nurses the value of compassion, physicists, their imagination, Counsellors that edgy side, and, lord help us, accountants, their sense of humour. The celebrities and superstars of today are working hard on mastering the development of their unique on-line reputation already and no doubt employ people to help them do it. An interesting speculation is to wonder about new careers opening up in ghost-tweeting and ghost-portfolio writing. Take Twitter for example. Can you imagine the value of students being followed by people who work or have reputation in the field the student is following? It might include people who may have a bearing on their future employment. A new pub game would be to ask your students to think of the top 20 people they would like to follow their tweets and what you might share with them.
According to twitterholic.com, Lady Gaga has the highest following. Every time she tweets, it is read by 30 million people around the world. Of the top 100 people followed, other than President Obama, Bill Gates, Twitter.com and FaceBook.com, The New York Times and the Dalai Lama, they are all celebrities, footballers, and pop stars. Can it be that the world of fluff and bauble has stolen such a march on everyone else or is it that tweeting is perhaps a critical skill in maintaining recognition, the life-blood of celebrity. Even ‘Lala from Lala Land’ is tweeting. Every pearl of wisdom from that account is lapped up by 1.9 million people. 4,926 people follow the University of Greenwich. A bit to go to catch up with the Dalai Lama who has 5.24 ‘followers’; perhaps I should qualify that by saying ‘online-followers’.
You can see why Niall Ferguson in his Reith Lecture this year recorded in July in Edingburgh entitled ‘Civil & Uncivil Societies’ talked about the power of the web to create huge networks that are ‘broad but shallow’. But perhaps the development through Twitter of ‘shallow’ but broad networks is a good thing?
This is a consequence to the conclusion that the increasing ubiquity of technology to support individual learning journeys will create distinct opportunities for developing very sophisticated digital identities that will interest potential employers and help our students find a level of confidence in their ability to work for themselves as well as develop a customer base to make that happen.
This is not new. This list is from Kent University Careers and lists the attributes asked for by employers in order of frequency. Notice how few of them can be demonstrated directly, but can be evidenced through an e-portfolio. What struck me about this list is that no-one asks for the knowledge that came with the degree. It must be taken as a ‘given’ but it demonstrates how valuable an e-portfolio is in highlighting these abilities that are achieved through study, many of which can be picked out retrospectively and universities are so good at developing but not perhaps capturing explicitly.
Here is a zulu Witch doctor earning a living by reading the bones. This is a good way of using a portfolio maybe. Fill your bag with content important to you and then tip out the content to find themes, threads, strengths and weaknesses in the content and fashion together chosen content to tell the story.
Those that do well in developing socially useful (or even notorious) identities will develop a digital reputation and those that do this best of all, will reach the dizzying heights of becoming a digital celebrity. What chance then a new module in every course called Digital identity building? Might it become one of the Graduate skills? Might universities be seen as places where this process begins but also continues to be supported throughout a working life? A method if you like to maintain a connection to the University and returning bouts of byte-size learning that refreshes the portfolio? Imagine helping students create, develop and protect a reputation and finally enjoy basking in the mutual pleasure of that celebrity.
So, in the future, every student, to some degree will be a digital celebrity and universities will need to think how they can help create Reputation Management. Perhaps the next mutation of the digitally indigenous will be to digital celebrities. The idea of reputation fits with the move away to preparing people for work to preparing them for a role. On the back of any university’s ability to do this will come its own reputation and ability therefore to recruit new students, in short what we've created here is the ability of the students who leave your university, able to demonstrate not simply perhaps merely a qualification but who are able to present through a first-class portfolio the ability to say “hello world, this is me”.