Personal Learning Environments for Contemplation and Awareness: An Architectural Approach Mari Cruz Garcíawords: 3959Student nominated-criterion:This paper will be judged on the extent to which it compiles and presents research evidence for thevalue of personal learning environments and eportfolio platforms in support of reflective learning1) IntroductionThere is no single definition for a Personal Learning Environment, as it is a notion difficult toconceptualise: Attwell (2007) highlights that it is not a software product, but a paradigm shift in theway that we understand and use educational technologies. Wilson et al (2007) express its learner-centred philosophy and the symmetry in the relationship between tutor-learner. Downes (2007)describes a PLE as a portal to the world through which learners can create and explore accordingto their own needs and therefore, “it is a tool that allows a learner (...) to engage in a distributedenvironment consisting of a network of people, services and resources” (2007, p 24). Ravet andAttwell (2007) provide a compelling metaphor about the nature of PLEs and eportfolios defining thelatter as the DNA and raison dêtre of a PLE, without which “a PLE is nothing more than a glorifiedLMS or VLE” (2007, p 4).One of the most complete definitions of the term is provided by Educase (2009): “personal learningenvironment (PLE) describes the tools, communities, and services that constitute the individualeducational platforms learners use to direct their own learning and pursue educational goals”. Thisdefinition reifies the double nature of the PLE as a framework or plethora of services thatenable the creation and connection of meaning in the context of a community of enquiry.Reinhard (2009) and Ravet (2007) have identified reflection and connection as the key functions ofa PLE. Web 2.0 technologies are software tools that allow individuals to gather and exchangeinformation in a network, as well as authoring and distributing multimedia content. Thepopularisation of these technologies, along with the emerging theory of connectivism (Siemens2005) – in which learning can rest in a community or network and a learner can improve their ownlearning exponentially by connecting to a network - may lead to the temptation of considering PLEsas some kind of read-write-share web 2.0 application.Yet learning is a complex process. It involves two modes of thinking: one discursive, active andrational, focused on the creation and sharing of knowledge, and the other reflective, insightful andreceptive, focused on the apprehension of knowledge (Levys 2007). A well designed PLE shouldsupport both modes of thinking: active and reflective. Learning is the “result of sharing the world”,as Downes suggests (2007, p.27), but also the result of contemplating the world.
This paper analyses how a PLE should address and support the two dimensions of learning,reflective and active, linking them with the core functions of reflection and connection. This paperintroduces the theoretical model of the Artefact-Actor-Networks (AAN) as the Solomonic solutionthat can best balance reflection and networking. This paper also describes the main characteristicsof an architectural approach based on the AAN model.2) Two modes of thinkingLoy (1997) observes that “In the West and the East a distinction between types of thinking ispractically as old as philosophy itself” (quoted in Levy 2007, p 245). In the West, Josef Pieper(1952) distinguishes two modes of thinking rooted in the medieval philosophy of Scholasticism: “The medievals distinguished between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus . Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding ..., whereas intellectus refers to the ability of ‘simply looking’ (simplex intuitus ), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. The spiritual knowing power of the human mind, as the ancients understood it, is really two things in one: ratio and intellectus : all knowing involves both” (quoted in Levy 2007, p 241).Ratio and Intellectus, the discursive and intuitive modes of the human mind, are also implicit inImmanuel Kants notions of Vernunft and Verstand (Levy 2007).Eastern philosophies also recognise two forms of knowledge: vijnana and prajna, which can beunderstood, respectively, as the equivalent of ratio and intellectus. The Buddhist tradition definesthem as: “Vijnana is deliberative, analytical and predictable; intellectual, abstract and wordy; concerned with parts and concepts ... Prajna, on the other hand, is immediate, spontaneous, and unpredictable, akin to a flash of lightning … Prajna is holistic, often paradoxical, and essentially incommunicable. Prajna is valued more highly than vijnana which is described in a traditional Buddhist saying as the raft to be abandoned upon reaching the other shore” (Sumison 1994).In modern pedagogy, Schön (1883, 1987) distinguishes two modes of knowing relevant to learning:reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action (quoted in Reinhardt 2010, p 2 ). Reflection-on-action isa contemplative process which starts when the actions has ended and cannot be changed. It is thereflection when the learner is not involved in the action (usually after the event), and its consciousnature relates to intellectus, the receptive dimension of learning. On the contrary, reflection-in-action refers to ratio, the discursive thought required to apply the individual knowledge to controlan action. It is the ability of thinking what we are doing while we are doing it.In Connectivism, learning is conceived as the creation of content in the context of a community ofpractice1(Downes 2007). Yet this definition is only acknowledging the active dimension of learning,reflection in action. Learning also involves a state of receptiveness for knowledge (Sumison 1994,Krishnamurti 1974). Receptiveness should not be misunderstood as “consumption”, assuming thatthe learner plays a passive role just engulfing and memorizing data. Receptiveness, the intuitiveand reflective dimension of learning - reflection-on-action-, means that the learner is actually awareof what he/she knows, being able to connect concepts, actions and individuals into higher units ofmeaning. The learner has acquired an insight, an awareness of the knowledge available within thecommunity of inquiry.1‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn howto do it better as they interact regularly .Wenger, E, (2006). Retrieved 16 April 2011. Http://www.ewenger.com/theory
What type of PLE design is able to support both reflective and active dimensions of learning? Whatkind of social network is able to connect not only individuals and groups but meaning andconcepts?3) Artefact-Actor-NetworksDownes defines a network as “a collection of connected entities, where a connection is somethingthat allows one entity to send a signal to another entity” (Downs, 2007, p 25).Networks can be classified according to the entities – also called nodes - they connect. Socialnetworks, for instance, represent social structures by means of ties among individuals or groupsNodes in a social network are called actors. Hence social networks are also known as Actor-Networks. The connections or linkages among the actors can be used to interpret the socialbehaviour of the individuals involved (Reinhardt et al 2009). Social networks represent a significantelement of a PLE framework because they allow learners to expose themselves to interactions withpeers and more knowledgeable ones (MKO) for a particular topic or discipline, a process that,according to Vygotsky (1978, quoted in Reinhardt 2010, p 2) is essential for learners mentalmaturity and individuality.Social networks can be a powerful platform for building communities of practice, but they do notallow their members to link concepts and data semantically. These networks lack the necessarytools for annotating and categorizing contents, so that members can tag the resources infolksonomies2. Social networks as Actors-Networks do not allow users to create the onlinemetadata required to associate, classify and share the knowledge already in the network in amindful way. Let us think, for instance, of social sites such as Facebook, LinkID, Messenger orNing. Members in the networks that these sites support do not know the contents or resources thatother members are accessing and how these members interact with the contents. The possibilitiesof constructing meaning are only limited to replicating the “good practices” or new knowledgemodelled through interactions.Let us consider now web applications such as blogs, wikis or video-sharing websites. Networkswhose nodes are no longer individuals or groups, but contents, are called Artefact-Networks. Theirnodes are artefacts, which can be pictures, videos, blog entries, wiki articles or mp3 audio files.Artefact-Networks try to establish semantic relationships between artefacts. They try to makestatements about the way artefacts are linked or used. Two artefacts are related when there existsa semantic relation between them (Reinhardt et al 2009). Social bookmarking sites, such asDel.icio.us, or blog-searching engines, such as Technorati, allow individuals to build Artefact-networks. They link resources through their associated metadata, which have been added byindividuals via social bookmarking (social tagging).Since Artefact-Networks are able to establish semantic links around knowledge, it would betempting to define PLEs as Artefact-Networks adopting an architectural approach similar to a socialbookmarking site. Yet this architecture would not provide learners with the instant feedback andcommunications that enhance the process of learning in a community of enquiry. If a PLE is amirror of the external world, “although one can spend a great deal of time in collecting and taggingdata, [in Artefact-networks] there is no tool providing the kind of instant feedback a mirror would”(Ravelt 2007, p 5).Artefact-Actor-Networks (AANs) are the theoretical model that can best balance the need ofreceiving and interconnecting meaning (reflective dimension) with the requirements for feedbackand collaboration (active dimension). Artefact-Actor-Networks are consolidating multilayered social2 Folksonomy can be understood in this context as “a decentralised, social approach to creating metadata for digital resources. It is usually created by a group of individuals, typically the resource users, who add natural language tags to online items, such as images, videos, bookmarks and text”. Folksonomy and taxonomy are not equivalent terms, as the latter is the process, within subject-based classification, of arranging the terms given in a controlled vocabulary into a hierarchy. UKOLN, University of Bath (n.d.). Retrieved: 17 April. Http:// www.ukoln.ac.uk/qa- focus/documents/...81/briefing-81-A5.doc
networks and artefact networks in an integrated network (Reinhardt et al 2009).While consolidatedsocial networks can only establish relations between actors, and consolidated artefact networkscan only establish relations between artefacts, Artefact-Actor-Networks contain semantic relationsbetween actors and artefacts. By combining social networks with artefact networks, AANs are ableto store information about “the ties between artefacts from multiple sources and the actors involvedin their creation, modification and linkage … They help to understand how communities are usingartefacts and which role these artefacts play for object-centred sociality .. . Artefact-Actor-Networksare saving the semantic context and supply the storage of metadata from people and artefacts. Inother words, they deliver a great collection of data to connect social networks with person andartefact networks” (Reinhardt et al 2009, p. 3). Figure 1. Artefact-Actor-NetworksA semantic relation can be defined as “a relation which says something about the context of it”.(Reinhardt et al 2009, p. 3). Artefact-Actor-Networks are able to establish three types of semanticrelations: • Actor-Actor-Relations (ACT2 relation), which describe the nature of relationships between involved persons. They characterise simple connections, friendships or kinships. • Artefact-Artefact Relations (ART2 relation), which provide information on how artefacts are connected. An artefact can reference other artefacts or a derivative of an artefact in an earlier version. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative3 or the SIOC Project4 are examples of3 The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, or "DCMI", is an open organization engaged in the development of interoperable metadata standards Dublic Core, http://dublincore.org/4 The SIOC initiative (Semantically-Interlinked Online Communities) provides a Semantic Web ontology for representing rich data from the Social Web in RDF. SIOC, http://sioc-project.org/
technical standards defining ART2 relations. • Artefact-Actor Relations (AA relations), which provide information about the kind of connectivity between artefacts and actors. They connect actors with their respective artefacts, but they are also able to identify the set of actors which are semantically related to an artefact.Reinhardt (2010) states that PLEs built on the basis of the AAN Model can address both thereflection and connection core functions because they can “store artefacts that result fromindividual or communal learning activities and the relations between them” (p 6). A PLE which isable to analyse and store semantic relations between artefacts, actors, and between actors andartefacts encourage awareness, understanding it as the learners ability of knowing whichindividuals are connected to the same network, what they are doing, and how their own actions oractions of others in the group can affect them (Reinhardt 2010).4)An architectural approach based on the AAN Model.The two main hindrances for the development of PLEs are the lack of: • open elearning standards (Wilson et al 2005) • a clear understanding of the different components involved in a PLE architecture (Ravet 2007).This section outlines an architectural approach aimed to overcome both hindrances based on theArtefact-Actor-Networks theoretical model.4.1 PLEs components, hosting and ownership.Reflection and networking are not the only functions of a PLE. Eportfolio and PLE are intrinsicallyrelated concepts, as mentioned before. Eportfolios represent the instantiation of how a “framework”or “plethora of services” can collect, connect and manage the capital developed by a reflectivelearning individual, transforming it into evidence for a specific purpose. Capital can be understoodin this context as competences, knowledge and social networks (Ravet 2007).Borrowing the terminology from Ravet (2007), the two main components of a personal enabledlearning management system are:•Eportfolio organizer (or Personal learning space manager)•Eportfolio management system (EMS)While a PLE is a rather “ethereal” concept, Eportfolio organizer and Management System aretangible software applications with clearly distinctive aims: • EMS is a system/s used to manage (produce, consume and exploit) elements of individuals learning capital (knowledge, competences, social networks) for a specific purpose and in a specific context: scaffolding learning, academic assessment, employment, etc. An EMS is not a system that hosts eportfolios (a very common misconception), but a system that manages and builds eportfolios. • Eportfolio organizer, or personal learning manager, is a system/s used by individuals to collect, organize, aggregate, connect and publish learning capital in order to support reflective and active learning for personal and professional growth. ‘
Figure 2. PLE’s main componentsThe distinction between these two components makes it easier to address questions such as howples/eportfolios can support formal and informal learning, ownership and, from a technicalperspective, how to manage and host the systems and the data integrity.Since the purpose of EMS is to build eportfolios for specific purposes, it seems logical that theyinclude functions of both eportfolio and assessment management system in support of formallearning within an institutional environment (i.e. education or employment). Learning capital isorganized in artefacts. The structure of the artefacts and the ACT2, ART2 and AA relations aremainly decided by the institution. However, depending on the purpose of the eportfolio, there maybe a certain flexibility for negotiation between the learner and the institution.EMS are database portfolio systems (Kimball 2005) in the sense that systems and databasescontaining students’ work are usually hosted and maintained by the institution or a service provider.The institution is accountable for the integrity of learners works and, in exchange, it keeps theownership - totally or partially - of the work. Nevertheless, data ownership in database portfoliosystems is a complex issue, and the agreements adopted between learners and institution dependvery much on the type of assessment, the kind of learning capital, the institution or even theeducation policy of the country (Attwell 2007b)Personal learning managers, or eportfolio organizers (EO), are mainly used in support of informaland life long learning. The learner has complete freedom to design the AAN, including the structureof the artefacts and the ACT2, ART2 and AA relations. Eportfolio organizers are web portfoliosystems (Kimball 2005) as they transfer the responsibilities of hosting and managing the systemsto the learner. This last one is likewise responsible for the integrity of the stored data. Web-basedEOs offer a high flexibility in terms of ownership and interconnection of the learning, yet the price tobe paid is an inefficient management and inconvenient storage in comparison with database EMS
(Kimball 2005).Both Eportfolio Management Systems and Eportfolio organizers exchange information with othersoftware platforms and web services, a dialogue that cannot be supported without the adoption ofa Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Rich Internet Applications (RIA) technologies.4.2 Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Rich Internet ApplicationsSOA is a manifold concept. For the scope of this paper, it can be defined as the architectural modelthat supports interoperability between heterogeneous modules, known as services, throughstandard interfaces and messaging protocols (Santanach et al 2007, Orchestra 2007).SOA is based in the concept of loose coupling5, which means that the dependency between eachcomponent of the system has been reduced to a minimum. Loose coupling therefore facilitiesinteroperability. PLEs based on a SOA model can be visualised as “a system of blocks or piecesthat fit together. Each piece is a box that carries out an activity within its limits and is invisible to theother boxes. The boxes fit together in a heterogeneous system that has very few dependencies. Itis easy to reconfigure and rearrange the system and change the pieces in it “ (Santanach et al2007, p3).Rich Internet Applications (RIA) are web-based applications that function as traditional desktopapplications but requiring a web-browser (or client) for access. Unlike traditional applications,software installation is not required unless for installing certain pluggins such as Activex, Java,Flash or similar technologies. RIAs use functions from different sources which are integrated intotheir own system via lightweight APIs6, without the need to implement the functions once again(Reinhardt 2010).5 The W3C Glossary defines coupling and loose coupling as: “Coupling is the dependency between interacting systems. This dependency can be decomposed into real dependency andartificial dependency:• Real dependency is the set of features or services that a system consumes from other systems. The real dependency always exists and cannot be reduced.• Artificial dependency is the set of factors that a system has to comply with in order to consume the features or services provided by other systems. Typical artificial dependency factors are language dependency, platform dependency, API dependency, etc. Artificial dependency always exists, but it or its cost can be reduced. Loose coupling describes the configuration in which artificial dependency has been reduced to the minimum”. W3CGlossary. Retrieved 19/04/2011: http://www.w3.org/TR/ws-gloss/6 API (Application Programming Interface) is “a language and message format used by an application program to communicatewith the operating system or some other control program such as a database management system (DBMS) or communicationsprotocol”. PC Magazine. Retrieved: 22 April 2011.http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia_term/0,2542,t=application+programming+interface&i=37856,00.asp
Figure 3. An Architectural Approach based on the SOA Model
The flexibility of SOA and the vast range of RIA technologies can enrich the Artefact-Actor (AA) semantic relations in Artefact-Actor-Networks by allowing learners to select and arrange different types of contents and data representations. The way of doing so is through widgets7. These are small embeddable applications that are usually executed within runtime containers such as an html page or desktop applications (Taraghi et al 2010). Widgets can respond to users actions enhancing the interactivity of RIAs. Most of the social sites and content-authoring web applications, such as Wordpress, Drupal, Ning, Elgg or iGoogle, support the use of widgets for embedding contents from other platforms or for data visualization purposes. However, merely embedding content widgets in a web platform does not allow learners to link either artefacts stored in different platforms or users logged in different social networks. In order to enhance learners awareness, Reinhardt (2010) proposes to build widget-based awareness dashboards able to make statements about ACT2, ART2 and AA semantic relations rather than “copying and pasting” content from other sources. 4.3 A widget-based dashboard for awareness One of the current tendencies with regard to the development of PLEs is to design personal learning managers and eportfolio management systems as widget-based customizable websites or desktop applications (Taraghi et al 2010, Reinhardt 2010). The personal learning manager can be fully customized by the learner, while the EMS usually includes some compulsory content widgets prescribed by the institution. There is not a definitive emerging tendency about which software development kits 8 (SDKs) can best support the development of widgets which can be embedded into PLEs. Taraghi et al (2010) propose JavaFX as the leading scripting language to build PLEs as a “mashup of different widgets” (p 27 ) for html websites and mobile phones apps. JavaFx introduced the feature of “drag-to-install” which allows users to drag widgets in or out of the PLEs dashboard or browser window. Reinhardt (2010) mentions Adobe Flex 4 Framework9 and the MVC framework Mate10 as open source SKDs for building a widget-based awareness dashboard that support learners individual awareness and reflection needs. Reinhardt describes a prototype of dashboard - named AAANalyzer- developed in Flex, Mate and php, which support reflection-on-action for individuals in a learning community. The AANalyzer implements a meta-layer, which is characteristic of the AAN model that contains aggregators for actors and groups of actors and artefacts. Either designed as a desktop application or web platform, the graphical user interface (GUI) is the 7 The W3C defines widgets as: “full-fledged client-side applications that are authored using Web standards. They are typically downloaded and installed on a client machine or device where they typically run as stand-alone applications outside of a Web browser. Examples range from simple clocks, stock tickers, news casters, games and weather forecasters, to complex applications that pull data from multiple sources to be "mashed-up" and presented to a user in some interesting and useful way.”. W3C (n.d.) Retrieved: 21 April 2011. http://www.w3.org/TR/widgets/ 8 A software development kit (SDK or "devkit") can be described in general terms as “ a set of development tools that allows for the creation of applications for a certain software package, software framework, hardware platform, computer system, video game console, operating system, or similar platform” . Wikipedia . Retrieved: 21 April 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_development_kit. I have preferred to use the term SDK instead of scripting languages (although some of the examples quoted are, in the end, scripting languages), as the concept of SDK encompasses the whole framework for which a scripting language is developed. 9 Flex Framework is defined by Adobe as “a is a highly productive, free, open source framework for building expressive mobile, web, and desktop applications”. It supports features for high interactivity and rich data representation. Adobe. Retrieved: 21 April 2011. http://www.adobe.com/products/flex/10 Mate is a tag-based, event-driven Flex framework. Mate framework has been created to make it easy to handle the events that Flex applications created. Mate. Retrieved: 21 April 2011. http://mate.asfusion.com/
PLE component that allows learners to interact with artefacts and actors. The GUI is implementedas a widget-based dashboard by means of the aforementioned SDKs.In order to support reflective learning, a GUI design should include the following elements: Figure 4. Elements of a GUI for reflective learning 1) Navigation bar (sidebar): It is designed “as a navigation element as well as information element” (Taraghi et al 2010, p 28). The navigation bar categories are decided either by the institution or the learner, depending on the PLEs purpose, and show information about the artefacts, actors, groups and projects (main learning activities) taking place in the community of practice. 2) Widget area: It contains the different widgets available in the personal enabled environment. This area is usually structured by columns (Taraghi et al 2010, Reinhardt 2010) 3) Widgets: .They can be easily installed or deleted by means of the “drag-to-install” feature, and they can be resized, maximized and minimized according to the learners need. Reflective learning is supported by 6 types of widgets that establish semantic relations
between artefacts (content, knowledge, competences) and the actors using them (Reinhardt 2010): •Project Widget: Projects can be described as the learning activities that link actors (participants) and artefacts in a community of practice. The Project Widget contains information related to the project administration for a particular project, such as project logo, start date, end date, artefacts involved in a project, etc. It also contains a collection of the project’s tags that ensure the relation between artefacts and the project. A click on each tag displays the corresponding artefacts within the Artefact Widget. •Keyword Cloud Widget: It presents a word-cloud for the project, which contains all keywords of all artefacts of the project and all keywords of artefacts that contains at least one projects tag. The keyword cloud displays its content in alphabetic order highlighting the most popular keywords with increased size. •Members Widget: It shows all the actors participating in a given project displaying their name and pictures. No information is given for anonymous participants (i.e. people using the artefacts or project tags but not registered as actors in the system or network). The click on a member displays the information in the Person Widget for that member. •Artefacts Widget: It represents a collection of artefacts that were previously selected in other widgets, for instance, from the Project Widget, the Person Widget or the Keyword Cloud Widget. If a keyword is selected within the Person Widget, then all artefacts that the selected actor interacts with (for all the projects in which the actor takes part) are shown in the Artefacts Widget. Moreover, the actors interacting with an artefact are displayed and linked to the appropriate Person Widget, provided the participants are registered in the system or network. •Person Widget: It shows all the information related to a participant. In addition to name and picture, it contains information about the participants location and project memberships. The Person Widget also shows person-related key words (from artefacts the person interacted with) in keyword cloud style.4)Personal dashboard area: If the Widget area is designed to promote receptiveness forknowledge, the personal dashboard area supports the creation of new artefacts to beaggregated to projects and shared among the participants. The learner can personalize thisarea including widgets for content creation (blogs, wikis, video sharing, etc).
Figure 5. Widget-based dashboard5)ConclusionPersonal Learning Environments represent a powerful framework for balancing the two forms ofthought of the human mind in the context of formal education. PLE should not be just designed asthe integration of content-authoring tools with social networking sites. They should follow thetheoretical model of the Artefact-Actor-Networks so that learners can connect and reflect onknowledge, making sense of what it has been learned and how their actions can affect others.SOA, RIAs and widget-based dashboards represent the key architectural features in order toestablish semantic relations between artefacts, actors, and artefacts and actors located in differentnetworks. Widgets should not just be used to embed contents from different sources but to showthe contents as artefacts linking them with the projects or learning activities in which they are used,and with the actors or participants that interact with those artefacts.The main hindrance for the development of widget-based dashboards able to achieve the former isthe lack of open standards for defining semantic connections between elements fromheterogeneous networks. Metadata standards containing information about contents, users,learning activities and the way that these three elements interact with each other, need to bedeveloped and widely adopted by the e-learning community, if we want PLEs to become trulylearning networks, rather than networks for learning (Downes 2007)______________________________________________________________________References:Attwell, G. (2007). Personal Learning Environments – the future of learning? eLearning Papers
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