Technology in Pedagogy, No. 6, October 2011
Written by Kiruthika Ragupathi
Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) are becoming more widely used by educators who are responding to the e-Learning needs of their students (Harwood, 2011). The idea of a PLE recognises that learning is ongoing and seeks to provide tools to support that learning thereby enabling individualized learning. A PLE, therefore, is a combination of the formal and informal tools and processes used to curate, reflect and critically evaluate the information obtained.
PLEs enable “non-formal learning within a formal learning context”, says Mr Harwood from the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) at NUS. In this session, he shared his experience on how and why his centre introduced SymbalooEDU as a PLE platform to support students in their learning of English for academic purposes. Then he went on to provide insights from a pilot study on the PLE platform.
Platform for peer and independent learning
The current situation
The online version of Self-Access English Learning Facility (ITSELF) was set up to provide materials to help students improve on their grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading and writing skills and thereby encourage independent and lifelong learning. In recent years however, they found that students were not accessing the facility – students were not aware of it or just did not use it. The main reasons reported were the materials were not easy to access and not as engaging as they could be.
With the support of the CELC e-learning committee, Mr Harwood conducted a needs analysis survey of 600 CELC learners. It was clear from the findings that students prefer mobile internet devices. The laptop computer was by far the most common way students (97%) accessed the internet and 42.3% of them accessed it on their smart phones. The needs analysis showed that students also learn in many different spaces- 41.2% accessed and learned online in retail Wi-Fi hotspots while over 20% used it on public transport. With regard to the preference of using online materials for study purposes, 91.5% of respondents preferred a mix of materials that have been prescribed by the tutor and those that they perceive as important. However, 78.1% claimed that they need help finding good websites to support their learning. Most students (92.3%) also indicated that they prefer customizing the available online course resources in one space and organising the categories to their individual preference.
Thus, it was important for the team to construct an online space featuring specially selected websites, video tutorials and other resources required for the course that would allow their students to personalize the information provided.
PLE for peer learning and sharing
Wheeler (2010) summarized the PLE (as shown in Fig 1) and suggested it not only encompasses the personal web tools and personal learning networks (connecting people through social network) but it takes in the experiences as well as learning through other formal media contexts like the TV, music, paper based materials.
According to Anderson (2006), “A PLE is a unique interface in the owners’ digital environment. It integrates their personal and professional interests (including their formal and informal learning), connecting these via a series of syndicated and distributed feeds.” Clearly, PLEs are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning. Hence, Harmelen (2007) suggests that teachers can use PLEs to “provide support for learners to set their own learning goals, manage their learning; managing both content and process, communicate with others in the process of learning and thereby achieve learning goals.”
That was exactly what Mr Harwood with the CELC e-learning committee set out to do, he facilitated the construction of one such environment, curating content that simultaneously allowed students to peer share and peer tutor the newly learned knowledge in a social environment. He shared an example of how a peer sharing approach worked well in his classes. In a business communication module, one of his students shared a fantastic resource on presentation skills. Using Facebook as a media, Mr Harwood ‘liked’ that resource which then prompted his students to use it as a learning resource. This further paved the way for further discussions in the class and allowed students to exchange ideas and share their experiences on how to improve presentation skills.
SymbalooEDU is a software application that enables learners to organize, integrate and share online content in one setting or Personal Learning Environment. The visual interface and ease of aggregating content and sharing it makes SymbalooEDU a great resource for teachers and instructors, says Mr Harwood. The platform also allows educators to create mixes of tailored resources and share these mixes with students (Harwood, 2011).
SymbalooEDU works by enabling users to simply construct customizable tiles which are linked to URLs of online resources. Once a grid of tiles (or webmix) is created, it can be shared with others via email. The application has a grid layout, with color icons (called tiles) within each space. The user can organize the tiles however they like and a search box at the top of the grid allows users to quickly search for specific resources or add them to their SymbalooEDU webmix. Thus, the platform allows educators to create mixes of tailored resources and share these mixes with students and allows students in turn to easily access, share and update content. One of the main advantages of this environment is that it allows for hosting almost every other platform within this space – learning management systems (IVLE, Blackboard), social networks, Facebook, Twitter, mySpace, Collaborative cloud tools, Google docs, Dropbox, Integrated curriculum activities such as blogging (Harwood, 2011).
Constructing the webmix
Their team discussed the content and materials of the Intensive English Programme (IEP) courses offered at CELC and identified the following five elements of the curriculum for inclusion in the webmix:
In order to make the webmix easy to navigate and visually attractive, different coloured tiles were used for different topics.
Mr Harwood explained how two icons were selected from the ‘symbalooEDU’ collection to signify the type of resource tile – ‘book’ was chosen to signify text-based content and ‘a speaker at lectern’ was chosen to signify video content. They also added social media tiles for Facebook and twitter along with the CELC language learning portal. This was then shared with the IEP students at the start of their IEP courses.
Pedagogical Advantages that PLEs Offer
SymbalooEDU is a very useful tool to support learning. However, Mr Harwood recommends educators to:
Thus, it is important to collect quality learning resources, curate, categorise them effectively and make them easily accessible to students anywhere, anytime (easily achieved through SymbalooEDU).
Summary from the Discussion
A lively discussion followed Mr Harwood’s presentation that touched on issues related to using social media in classes. Many participants were positive about the benefits of using this tool to support learning. One of the participants said that he had registered for SymbalooEDU during the session itself and had already started planning his course for the next semester. Another suggested that he would use it to showcase exemplary work of his students. There were others who pointed out that switching to this format will solve a lot of problems that they have been facing with Delicious, a social bookmarking tool, while others felt that this will act as a good motivation for their students.
Q & A Session
Anderson, T. (2006). PLE’s versus LMS: Are PLEs ready for Prime time? Retrieved October 18, 2011, from http://terrya.edublogs.org/2006/01/09/ples-versus-lms-are-ples-ready-for-prime-time/
Harwood, C. (2011). Review of SymbalooEDU, the Personal Learning Environment Platform. Retrieved October 18, 2011, from http://blog.nus.edu.sg/eltwo/2011/03/27/a-review-of-symbalooedu-the-personal-learning-environment-platform/
Van Harmelen, M. (2006). Personal Learning Environments. In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT’06). Retrieved October 18, 2011, from http://csdl.computer.org/comp/proceedings/icalt/2006/2632/00/263200815.pdf
Wheeler, S. (2010). Anatomy of a PLE. Retrieved October 18, 2011, from http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2010/07/anatomy-of-ple.html
(Research and references provided by Chris Harwood)