Downes’ ideas about PLEs in the BECTA paper

Downes (2007) quotes O’Hear:

…in Stephen O’Hear’s view, we have a long way to go: ‘Like the web itself, the
early promise of e-learning – that of  empowerment – has not been fully realized. The experience of e-learning for many has been no more than a hand-out published online, coupled with a simple multiple-choice quiz. ,,,,,,   In contrast, e-learning 2.0 takes a ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ approach that combines the use of discrete but complementary
tools and web services – such as blogs, wikis, and other social software – to support the creation of  ad-hoc learning communities.” Downes 2007 p18

and then Downes adds his own view that management of learning in PLEs  shifts from LMSs to the learner by stating that

The idea behind the personal learning environment is that the management of learning migrates from the institution to the learner. The PLE connects to a  number of remote services, some that specialise in learning and some that do not. Downes 2007  P18

So what do these sites not specialising in learning “add” to the PLE  and why are the services that are not about learning important at all in relation to the “learning” – is it that the personalised nature of the PLE enhances the learner’s predisposition or motivation to learn or even just to return and use the PLE ? But then if returning and using the PLE is a feature of the freedom to include anything then are the no learning related inclusions somehow part of the learning maybe they enhance learning by association. Actually what is being learnt and how that is enabled by inclusions of things not related to learning items is an interesting idea that might be worth investigating?

Downes is arguing again that there is a shift in learning from consumption to production:

The PLE allows the learner not only to consume learning resources, but to produce them as well. Learning therefore evolves from being a transfer of content and knowledge to the production of content and knowledge. Downes 2007 p19

Ok at this point Stephen Downes veers to a little more specific references to others in the field of  educational theory namely Wenger and Kuhn – so the production of content is part of it but that production is not done alone and it sort of or seems to require “knowledgeable others” involved in a “conversation”:

According to Wenger, ‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they  do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’. In essence, in this theory, to learn is to immerse oneself in the network. It is to expose oneself to actual instances of the discipline being performed, where the practitioners of that discipline are (hopefully with some awareness) modelling good practice in that discipline, or as Thomas Kuhn would say7, knowing how to solve the problems Downes 2001 p20

Strangely this knowledgeable “community of practice” that is modeling “good” practice in a discipline as a way for others to “learn” via immersion in the network does not require a strong commitment or dedicated strong communication between the expert and learner practitioners. In a counter intuitive fashion unlike perhaps in face to face learning communities – a “weak” set of ‘ties” connections is advocated for this to work in the “new” online Web 2.0 – social networking communities:

An online community might be a much looser set of associations, what social network theorists such as Mark  Granovetter would call ‘weak ties’10. A community in this sense could best be described as a cluster of common
associations, where these associations are represented as membership in buddy lists, connections in peer-to peer  networks, and other sorts of contact lists. Weak ties are necessary in order to allow the spread of knowledge, and in order for weak ties to be created, ‘there must be
several distinct ways or contexts in which people may form them’. Downes 2007 p20

So this is weird, the the communities with the weak ties are the best way to get these learning networks to work. Downes does not say it directly here, but this is probably because of the need for diversity in contributions.  This is deduced, by me, as derived from the principle of “diversity” claimed by Siemens as one of the 12 indicators of connectivism. Downes takes the claim for  diversity and the consequent outcome of weak ties a little further by arguing that the learning should not focus on the “group” but on the weak ties that are formed in a “loose” network:

So learning occurs in communities, but communities cannot be based on the  group, but rather, the network, where  connections cut across existing  boundaries, via weak ties, to form layers  of association. The implication is that the  course content (if any) ought to be  subservient to the discussion, that the  community is the primary unit of   learning, and that the instruction and the  learning resources are secondary, arising  out of, and only because of, the   community.

Wow – not only is the group secondary to the community and the community is where the learning is, even the instruction and the content is secondary to the discussion by the community for learning.

What apparently is primary for learning, is not the group but the weak connections that allow for a  porous and not bounded community or network to discuss and get input from other sources presumably diverse other sources.

Downes argues that LMSs and institutional learning is designed to prevent diversity by excluding

diversity is either tacitly or explicitly discouraged. A common complaint found on such sites is the plea to ‘’stay on topic’ or ‘keep the discussion off-list’. Many such groups require registration and identification before posting is allowed, maintain strict acceptable use policies, and often prohibit non-members from viewing the discussions. Downes 2007 p22.

At this point however there is an additional feature that is enabling of learning and that is based on the content creation possibilities and justifications for the establishment and maintenance of these weakly “tied” communities. It seems content creation is another central pillar alongside – diversity and weak ties for learning:

The result is that people, students  included, have a much greater capacity to create, and therefore, insofar as a capacity to create supports learning, a  much greater capacity to learn. The ‘pedagogy’ behind the PLE – if it could be still called that – is that it offers a portal to the world, through which learners can explore and create, according to their own interests and directions, interacting at all times with their friends and community. ‘New forms of learning are based on trying things and action, rather than on more abstract knowledge.
‘Learning becomes as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract, and becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration.’ (Graham Attwell) Downes 2007 p23

Maybe the content creation requires an audience and that weakly tied, diverse audience is key to the content creation process. My reasoning here is that I can understand content creation as beneficial to learning – but the motivating force of the the diverse audience ensures that the content creation process has a purpose and a moderating force or at least a reference point for content creation and feedback on that.

Boundaries of content shift in these user content driven scenarios and Downes aligns with the now widespread acknowledgment and support afforded  multidisciplinary approaches to content creation and learning. He  argues for contextualised learning of subject specific content using an example of the learning of algebra:

They will learn the principles of algebra and other fundamental subjects as needed, progressing more deeply into the subject as the need for new knowledge is provoked by the demands of the simulation. Learning opportunities – either in the form of interaction with others, in the form of online learning
resources (formerly known as learning objects), or in the form of interaction with mentors or instructors – will be  embedded in the learning environment, sometimes presenting themselves spontaneously, sometimes presenting themselves on request. Downes 2007 p24

The “learning needs” or need for learning arrive in a context that is stimulated possibly by “simulations” or “learning objects’ or by interactions with “mentors” or ‘instructors”. So Downes is not denying or rejecting the value of teaching, teacher, instruction  or teaching resources such as “learning objects’. These for him need to be, as is commonly now argued,  contextualised as “learning opportunities” in a real world interaction or discussion, that may become available through interactions with “mentors or instructors”.

I may be overplaying this but it is a recognition of some sort of learning design that is presented or lain out for students by teachers or someone else. It is not random group or community generated content the content is multi disciplinary yes and in a real world context yes but it is generated by a learning object or by instruction.

Countering this however is the more undirected content that  might be made available via RSS feeds into the learning spaces. Downes characterises the feeding of information into or from a PLE as automatically arriving without conscious internvention:

What RSS does is to transform a piece of content created by a student or instructor from something that is a static and stand-alone object into something that resembles a stream or a flow. Contents syndicated in RSS become part of other contents, and this interaction occurs seamlessly, with no conscious  intervention on the part of the creator needed to make this happen. A learning
environment that contains RSS feeds  becomes dynamic; the contents of those feeds are what makes it dynamic. Downes 2007 p25

The notion of no conscious intervention is one i want to investigate further but i will do that in a new post above. Sorry this one is so long I just found it all very interesting and it might be  a sign of my lack of discrimination in identifying the main theme or themes  in PLEs and online learning – many issues raised in relation to the idea of personal learning and personal networks are in line with my thinking but so different from wht might be expected of educational theory that I believe they require thoughtful contemplation  and perhaps even more extensive comment than I have entered into here.

The notion of no conscious intervention is a huge issue in education for me, and one that needs a post to differentiated it

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