How do you evaluate a learning environment? What criteria does one use to reflect upon? In the first paper on the definition of learning and learning environments, I mentioned what is important to me when talking about learning and how this is influenced by technology. For me these aspects – social and technological – are primordial when working with good technology enhanced learning environments (TELE’s). Last time I also mentioned the Personal Learning Network (PLN) and why this is an important part of any students (academic) life. Therefore I will evaluate 2 situations where TELE’s are used, one concerning the more traditional use of technology in the form of a Learning Management System (LMS) and one regarding a more open and connected network of tools.
I created this mind map to give an overview of possible criteria, valuable in the use of TELE’s. These ideas are mostly gathered from personal experience. A very common LMS, used here in Belgium, is called Smartschool. In essence it’s a Dutch translation of a Blackboard-like environment and throughout the years they have expanded their functionality, to meet the demands of the workplace. I’ve worked with Smartschool for some years now, as well as numerous web 2.0 tools. This experience, together with the insights offered by Gee (“Learning by Design”) led me to this overview of evaluation criteria I find important in a good digital learning environment. This resume is not and can not be complete. With the ever changing technological world and the constant flow of new information these criteria too, will be subject to change.
Learning Management Systems
I’d like to talk about LMS’s like Blackboard, Moodle, Smartschool (Belgian LMS), etc. These common variations of TELE’s are widely used in education, since they offer a digital environment, constructed in the mindset of traditional education. By this, I mean that they offer an environment compartmentalized into the different aspects of an educational institute in the physical world. You can create classes with course materials, assignments, an area to upload those assignments, maybe a forum for some discussions, links to different websites containing extra information about the course, etc. However, they operate in a very closed way. All users should log in to the system granting them access to different courses and their materials, depending on their level of access. But all this is very contained in a separate digital version of the physical school.
Smartschool is no exception in this. They too offer a closed system where students can engage with content but always within the compounds of the LMS. There is no connection with “the rest of the web” (other than the web links). Students (nor teachers for that matter) can implement the use of different tools into this environment. This lack which disables co-design, distributed knowledge and sharing, works as a hindering factor. Pedagogically, I find that there are still some challenges to overcome.
Technologically, Smartschool offers an easy to use system. The IT-departement and teachers alike can, with the help of some ICT skills and a healthy dose of common sense, setup the system in a way that they see fit. Connections with the administrative systems are possible, enabling them to import student data from outside the Smartschool environment. Setting up your digital course, could happen a bit more fluently. For instance, setting up a test, requires you to create a folder about one part of the course, in this folder you can create a pool of questions and only then can you compose a test, using the questions from the pool. This has the advantage of creating a database of questions to be used in every way you see fit, but the effort involved doesn’t outweigh the outcome.
Learning Analytics can be gathered automatically, if you pay extra for the necessary optional LMS units. They are not a part of the “basic” system. Which brings me to the aspect of costs. Like every business Smartschool tries to make a living, but the costs involved could be a little more democratic in my opinion. Feedback on the other hand is built-in, so commenting on assignments is possible, however this too takes an enormous amount of time.I recently came into contact with another LMS called Edmodo. This LMS, in my opinion, has a much more open character, yet still works within a defined system. Due to the fact that it has more the touch and feel of a social network (which it actually is, an educational social network), students will feel more at home in this environment than in others. They still have the benefits of the secured/closed course, but are far more free to implement outside material in their communication. As a teacher you can also award badges to your students (cfr. gamification – James Gee) adding the element of competition and challenge to the mix. The service is free, very easy to setup, accessible on mobile devices,… A video:
Personal Learning Networks
The idea behind this, is that students learn to build their own PLN. Teachers should introduce different tools for different tasks, so students come into contact with as much tools as possible, learning for themselves which ones they like and don’t like. With this information they can expand their library of tools and start choosing for themselves which are suited for different assignments. I’ve tried out many before I got to the PLN I currently use. Now, I’ve created my own identity and can share my content throughout different means.
These basic tools are mostly free to use (extra functionality will cost you) and offer a lot of possibilities to import or export data to or from the software. A lot of these web 2.0 tools offer mobile apps, enabling students to make use of it on the go. Also, due to the nature of using different tools, the principle of distributed knowledge is adhered. Yet different tools create a network, not only of tools but also of the people using it, enriching the user greatly!
Gathering analytics depends on the tool you use, but generally is harder to do than in a real LMS. There are drawbacks to this open system. However consider the pro’s: web 2.0 tools are open, enable sharing, offer identity, let students co-create, are low cost, are really easy to use, come in mobile apps,…
A lot of aspects need to be considered before implementing any digital learning environment. Communication between all the actors is very important to obtain to a well founded system. I prefer the more open and personal aspects of the PLN, maybe in combination with an education social network like Edmode, opposed to the closed nature of a, sometimes costly, LMS. For me it’s the connectivist nature of the PLN that stands out. Being able to connect with others, even from outside your institute, to communicate with them, really engage with them enables higher knowledge. It forces the mind to think harder about all these new opinions and extract the important parts from them. Connecting with others lets your network grow in ways one couldn’t have thought of before. This organic way of growth is, I think, the way to go in education.