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The CMS and the PLN

January 19th, 2010 jonmott Comments

It’s a been a long time since I blogged. Between sending my son off on a mission to Brazil, celebrating my 20th anniversary with my sweetheart, working on some offline writing projects, taking some time off for the holidays, getting back into the swing of things with the New Year and the new semester, and launching our loosely-coupled gradebook at BYU . . . Well, let’s just say I’ve been a little busy.

During my blogging hiatus, I did manage to get a paper published with my friend and colleague David Wiley. In the paper, we catalogue what we believe are the fundamental weaknesses of the CMS.

Writing this paper and taking some time away from blogging has allowed me to think some things through. As the title of my blog constantly reminds me, technology is only as good as the change and improvement it brings to teaching and learning. I have become supremely utilitarian when it comes to teaching and learning tools, applications and platforms. When it comes to the CMS and the Personal Learning Network (PLN), I readily admit that there are plusses and minuses to each. (For some thoughts ont the distinctions between PLNs and the PLE, see the references below).

I’m currently writing from ELI in Austin, Texas where I will make a presentation about open learning networks. As part of my preparation, I asked my PLN via Twitter (see below for a listing) for sources that delineate the strengths and weaknesses of the CMS and the PLN.

Here’s my meta-listing based on the research I did with David for our article, my own experience, and what I’ve gleaned from the resources shared by my online colleagues:

CMS Strengths

  • Simple, consistent, and structured
  • Integration with student information systems (SISs) so student rosters are automagically populated in courses
  • Private and secure (i.e., FERPA compliant)
  • Tight tool integration (e.g., quiz scores populated in gradebooks)
  • Supports sophisticated content structuring (e.g., sequencing, branching, and adaptive release)

CMS Weaknesses

  • As it is widely implemented, the CMS is time-bound (i.e., courses go away at the end of the semester)
  • Teacher, rather than student, centric
  • Courses are walled off from each other and from the wider Web, thereby negating the potential of the network effect
  • Limited opportunities for students to “own” and manage their learning experiences within and across courses
  • Rigid, non-modular tools
  • Interoperability challenges and difficulties (significant progress is being made on this front, but the ability to easily move data in and out of the CMS and to plug in alternative tools to replace or enhance native tools remains to be seen)

PLN Strengths

  • Almost limitless variety and functionality of tools
  • Customizable and adaptable
  • No artificial time boundaries–remains “on” before, during, and after matriculation
  • Open to interaction and connection with persons without regard to their official registration in programs or courses
  • Easily sharable with others both inside and outside of courses, programs, and institutions
  • Student-centric (i.e., each student selects and uses the tools that make sense for their particular needs and circumstances)
  • Compilable via simple technologies like RSS

PLN Weaknesses

  • Complex and difficult to create for inexperienced students and faculty members
  • Potential security and data exposure problems–FERPA issues abound
  • Limited institutional control over data
  • Absent or unenforceable SLAs–no ability to predict or resolve Web application performance issues, outages, or even disappearance

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it begins to clarify the picture in my mind. If we persist in an either-or debate about the CMS versus the PLN, we will be falling victim to what Jim Collins calls the “tyranny of or.” When faced with difficult decisions, we often cast them–artificially–as dichotomies. We must do this *or* that. Collins argues that the alternative is to find ways to leverage the “genius of and,” to bring together the best of both alternatives and create a chimerical best-of-both-worlds solution.

That is the vision of the open learning network–to bring together the best of the CMS and the best of the PLN to create a learning platform for higher education that meets the broad and diverse needs of faculty members and students engaged in the teaching and leaning process. Doing so is what I get paid to do–to provide technologies that will help teachers and learners be more effective without having to worry about technological complexities and navigating the swirling waters of apparently contradictory paradigms.

Please comment with your suggestions for improving my listing of strengths and weaknesses and I’ll edit the lists (with attribution). If you have additional resources to add, please share those as well.

More fun to follow soon . . .

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RESOURCES

ELI’s “7 Things You Should Know About … Personal Learning Environments

Alec Couros: “What is a PLN? Or, PLE vs. PLN

Steve Wheeler: “It’s Personal: Learning Spaces, Learning Webs

David Hopkins: “Pedagogical Foundations for Personal Learning

John Seely Brown: “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0

Edublend: “Cloud Learning Environment – What is it?

grazadio_elearning’s PLE Bookmarks on Delicious

Things I’ve written on the subject …

Bush & Mott: “The Transformation of Learning with Technology: Learner-Centricity, Content and Tool Malleability, and Network Effects

Mott & Wiley: “Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network

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PLNs, Portfolios, and a Loosely-Coupled Gradebook

June 16th, 2009 jonmott Comments

Note: In this post, I reference articles from the Winter 2009 edition of Peer Review, the theme of which was “Assessing Learning Outcomes.” I highly recommend the entire issue if you’re interested in student learning assessment and portfolios. I recently provided an overview of BYU’s loosely-coupled gradebook strategy at TTIX 2009. (We are currently building a standalone gradebook in partnership with Orem, Utah based startup Agilix.) As part of my presentation at TTIX, I also described our plans to leverage the same technology we’re building into the gradebook to implement a loosely-coupled portfolio assessment tool.

The driving purpose behind these efforts is to bridge the gap between our institutional network and the cloud, between the predominant “course management system” (CMS) paradigm and the emerging model of personal learning networks (PLNs), between student-centered and institution-centered portfolios, etc. I maintain that bridging this gap is a necessary condition for the significant transformation of learning via technology. Until learning tools and content become more malleable (i.e. open, modular, and interoperable) we will not realize the full potential of an interconnected, networked world in education.

Student Learning Portfolios & Institutional Assessment

Portfolios are increasingly at the nexus of student learning, institutional assessment, PLNs, CMSs, and assorted other aspects of the higher ed milieu. Student learning portfolios are essential in the movement toward more valid and authentic assessment in higher education. However, the focus on institutional and program assessment has, at least in some instances, diverted our attention from our primary objective of improving student learning. As Trent Batson observed in 2007, that the initial effort to enhance student learning with portfolios has been “hijacked by the need for accountability” to boards of education and accrediting bodies.

This trend is worrisome. If the focus on portfolios shifts primarily to institutional and program assessment, we will have missed out on the essential value of portfolios. Portfolios have the potential to galvanize and enhance student learning. As Miller and Morgaine have observed: “E-portfolios provide a rich resource for both students and faculty to learn about achievement of important outcomes over time, make connections among disparate parts of the curriculum, gain insights leading to improvement, and develop identities as learners or as facilitators of learning.”

Given the potential benefits of portfolios, I believe that student learning portfolios should, first and foremost, belong to and be maintained by individual learners. Gary Brown supports this view, maintaining that portfolios should be student (and not institutionally) operated: “A real student-centered model would put the authority, or ownership, of [ePortfolios] in the hands of the students: They could share evidence of their learning for review with peers, and offer that evidence to instructors for grading and credentialing.” Such an approach increases student ownership and responsibility for learning. It also affords portability and longevity since students are not dependent upon a particular institution (or set of institutions) to provide them with portfolio technology and storage space.

Clark & Enyon have argued that have to get past this tension between student and institutional portfolios: “The e-portfolio movement must find ways to address [institutional assessment] needs without sacrificing its focus on student engagement, student ownership, and enriched student learning.”

Bridging the Gap

So exactly how can we bridge the gap between student-centered learning portfolios and institutional assessment needs? I propose that the loosely-coupled gradebook strategy we’re pursuing can be leveraged to provide a viable solution to this problem.

Here are the dimensions of a loosely-coupled portfolio assessment strategy:

  1. Institutions of higher learning should focus on what they do best and on what only they can do. Namely, they should admit and register students, manage course enrollments and  degree program rosters, and maintain secure records and communications tools for faculty and students engaged in the learning process.
  2. We can then leverage the best online, third-party applications for student publishing, networking, and portfolio creation. Individual institutions (or even institutions working together) would be hard pressed to produce applications comparable in quality and stability to Google Docs, YouTube, Blogger, Acrobat Online, MS Office Live, Wikispaces, and WordPress.
  3. Teachers and learners should embrace the power of the network to enhance, extend and improve learning. Even if institutions could develop and deploy better tools than those freely available online, it would be a bad idea to do so. The fundamental value proposition of these apps is that, since they live in the cloud, they’re accessible anytime, anywhere, by anyone. The openness this affords promotes greater transparency and expanded opportunities for collaboration.
  4. Students should be encouraged to be effective, technologically literate, digital citizens who are proficient using a variety of online tools. As they participate in the learning process, they should regularly save and aggregate their work, packaging and repackaging it for various audiences. One of these audiences might be those responsible for degree program review and assessment.
  5. Once students have assembled their collections of learning artifacts, metacognitive commentary, and portfolios, they might then be required to simply “register” the URLs of their portfolios and artifacts with their institution. Those conducting program and institutional assessment would then use a lightweight “overlay” tool to review and assess submitted student work.

The various aspects of this approach and the associated work flow might look something like this: Portfolio Assessment Diagram

The Power of a Loosely-Coupled Strategy

The “open learning network” (OLN) strategy I’ve written about from time to time is based on several value propositions. One is that institutions should do what they do best (manage student data, facilitate secure communication between teachers and learners) while leveraging third-party, cloud-based applications for such things as personal publishing and collaboration. The loosely-coupled gradebook strategy described in previous posts is a key component of this larger idea.

Another central value proposition of the OLN is the connectedness it facilitates between teachers and learners both within and without institutional boundaries. When learners not only consume online content, but also refine, improve, remix, mashup, and create new content themselves during the learning process, their learning is more authentic, meaningful, and enduring. And they build deeper, more profound connections between facts, concepts, and the other human beings they interact with. This notion of of connectedness is a fundamental aspect of what we consider education and literacy today.

George Siemens blogged today that:

“Not only are we socially connected in our learning, but the concepts that form our understanding of a subject also reveal network attributes. Understanding is a certain constellation (pattern) of connections between concepts. . . . being a literate person is not so much about what you know, but about how you know things are connected.”

I concur. As we continue to pursue the OLN vision, it is essential that we facilitate opennes in the learning process to promote greater interaction and connections with content, people, cultures, and places. It is with this end in mind that we ought to promote personal learning networks (PLNs), OLNs, and loosely-coupled gradebooks. We want our students to be literate, connected, and efficacious life-long learners who make their homes, their communities, their workplaces and the world better places than they found them.