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The following article is based on a short presentation given to colleagues from Did@cTIC, Fribourg University during one of our regular discussion lunches (d-Lunch). Many thanks to them for the stimulating discussions. It also relates to an earlier article called "The sharing of links online" about personal learning environments (PLEs) and to a subsequent article about P(L)Es called "Configurations for learning and change".

Tracing out learning experiences

If someone asked you what you had learnt this year in your work, apart from in courses or training that is, you might find it is surprisingly difficult to answer. It was certainly the case for colleagues and I when we tried. It is somewhat easier to identify learning if it is already labelled as such and is structured in terms of learning objectives like a course or an in-house training. Whereas ‘things you’ve learnt as you go along’ are not necessarily readily identifiable as learning and are not broken down into convenient categories such as: learning objectives, competences, exercises, tests, … Yet a large proportion of what we learn is informal in nature.

If I were to talk in terms of images, I’d say that looking back over the past year in search of ‘learning experiences’ was rather like looking over a wild, endless sea out of which the occasional outstretched hand rose above the waves brandishing a flag with a name on it only to disappear again almost immediately. It was somehow difficult to grasp those ‘helping hands’ and to haul them into full sight to examine what happened. There seems to be a strong resistance to laying hands on informal learning experiences.

One word about ‘learning experiences’ before going any further. The word ‘learning’ is strongly bound to our experience of learning in institutions (schools, colleges, universities,… ). Such learning is explicit and formal, at least in appearance. Everyone knows they are supposed to be learning something in such situations. The learning I am talking about here is more about situations where we learn but we don’t necessarily call it learning. The word ‘experience’ refers both to the contact with the world around us and the knowledge we derive from it. By definition then, learning experiences are those events and activities from which we learn by experience and can identify, to a certain extent, what we have learnt.

So I set out to tame one of those experiences. I chose a recent example that concerned better understanding the notion of personal learning environments. But before I describe the process that went to make up that experience, let me insist on the fact that this experience as described here is the fruit of ‘hindsight’. It hardly existed as a perceived ‘process’ in my head while I was actually living it and things that now appear to follow as the consequence of what went before were not necessarily seen as such at the time.

An example

1. A starting point … an opened door …

Professor Charlier asked me to check the English of an article she had written with France Henri. It was about PLEs – personal learning environments. I’d never heard of them before although I discovered later that the concept had been around for a while. I felt the notion had considerable potential and, in my excitement, I scribbled my ideas on the subject in the margins of that article.

2. Some reading … getting the lay of the land

I searched for a few links on the Internet about the subject, mainly to find definitions. I wanted to be able to better grasp the concept by re-working the words used to describe it. At this stage my reading was rather ‘superficial’. I didn’t seek out all the learned texts about the subject. I hadn’t got the time for that. Writing here about what I did reminds me of the idea of ‘rapid prototyping’: finding out what existed had to be quick and approximate so I could move on to the next stage. In writing this article I have discovered other articles about the subject that open further prospects. It is not sure however that I will pursue the question, despite the interest it holds for me. Unlike the expert who pursues a well-traced course in a given field, I tend to explore things that strike me at the moment and then move on to something else. Maybe constantly being open to learning possibilities requires such an ‘amateur’ approach where ‘amateur’ might be understood as a lover of learning.

3. Challenging what exists … going beyond boundaries

As I read what was written about PLEs, I constantly hit up against what I saw as limits to the concept. I did what a metaphor does: I transferred the concept to a different place to see what new ideas and images that created. Instead of thinking of PLEs as a set technical structure, albeit different from person to person, I tried to see it as much more fluid and changing and modular. As a result I challenged the boundaries within which the concept was anchored in the texts I had read. And the concept began to take on a new meaning for me.

4. Exchanging ideas …

Already at this stage I wrote a quick mail to friends on what I was thinking about. I wanted their reactions or input. It doesn’t always help but sometimes doing so can produce interesting new avenues. Sometimes, and it was the case here, the avenues were too far from what I was exploring so I did not travel down them.

5. Questioning ways of doing things

I have been involved in international research over the last two years about communities of practice and that has drawn my attention to the notion of practice. Put very roughly, practice is the way we go about things. Within a group there are shared practices that are negotiated with others and go to make up a ‘body of practice’ that gives identity to the group. In this case I decided to examine my personal use of a PLE around the activity of sharing and annotating links. My reflexion about PLEs had led me to include the notion of practice so it was only natural that I examine simultaneously the tools and the practice. In doing so, I could see that certain technical possibilities offered by some online tools were simply not a part of my practice. Some of those didn’t make any sense in terms of my practices, others were more promising, like the possibility offered by DIIGO to annotate web pages. Note that, whether or not I adopt that practice, as well as a number of others I examined, depends on whether or not others also adopt them. So, for all the ‘personal’ nature of the environment, it is ultimately also conditioned by collective practices.

6. Writing an article…

I drew all the material together from this exploration and wrote an article: The sharing of links online. The writing itself further contributed to improve my understanding of what I’d been exploring. The challenge of communicating ideas to others forces you to think carefully about what you have done and what you have to say. Not all avenues followed are fruitful. Sometimes when you get to trying to write you discover that the ideas don’t hold together or that what you thought was ground breaking turns out to be much less so.

7. New practices

I mentioned above that I (re-)discovered possibilities that I have subsequently tried to include in my way of working. At the current moment, for example, I am not sure if I will continue to use sticky fields to comment on web pages (See: PDFs, DIIGO and collaboration online). It will depend very much on how many other people in my network do something similar and it becomes a way of exchanging ideas and comments together.

When this subject was discussed amongst my colleagues, one of the key factors we identified as working against such learning is the lack of time. It is surprising that in a university, a place where ground-breaking knowledge is supposed to be developed, extremely little time is set aside for people to think about the way they work. As elsewhere they are victims of the pressure to ‘perform’ and get the work done. In our discussions another factor struck me: the reticence of people to think of their own informal learning in terms of processes.

Alam McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: May 14th, 2009 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 2009