The PLE Project, in it’s formal incarnation, wound up a couple of weeks ago with a final get together with most of the participants gathering over pizza.  The participants were asked to complete one final survey and an informal discussion around the process, products and concept ensued.  The ideas and passion that this group of teenage boys brought was invigorating.  Our meeting began at the beginning of lunch and I ended up kicking out 3 die-hards once we’d continued to talk through their last period class and on into after-school time.  Some big ideas and loose plans for the future came from the session that I’d like to share.

There was general agreement among the participants that the concept of a PLE was good and that most students in a school community would benefit from having one.  There were differences of opinion as to which elements are most important, and what form a universally adopted PLE concept would take.  There were some key areas of agreement however.  First and foremost, PLEs are about connected learning and, as such, a critical mass of community involvement must be achieved for the concept to benefit the community.  The application of a PLE to student course work was frustrating to students when they felt that there was little other online connected involvement in their classes.  Students reported that they typically had two (of eight) teachers that used any form of online component to their coursework.  It is hard to connect an online tool to an offline class.  If all teachers incorporated some form of online organization to their classes, there would be something for those with PLEs to connect to.  While simply being able to connect to an online duplication of what is already happening in the classroom only leverages the technology in a minor way, it opens the door to many other uses of the technology.  From here, online discussions, asynchronous collaboration and connections to experts outside of the classroom can begin.

There was also a feeling that a PLE concept implemented in a school setting should include organizational tools.  While this idea doesn’t fit the more traditional concept of a PLE, the value is unmistakable.  At the same time a student is bringing in information streams from classes and the outside world, they are also bringing in calendar information and announcements.  A student would be connected to information at the class level, the school level and the broader world of learning through the same portal or dashboard.

It was interesting to hear feedback from this group regarding the ease of use of the tools that we explored in the project.  While the project did attract a certain contingent of tech geeks who were comfortable playing in a digital space and required little instruction, there was a significant portion of the group where many of the tools were new and the idea that any of the tools that we used could be used for learning constituted a significant shift in thinking.  What this means to the large scale implementation of a PLE ecosystem is that tools need to be simple to use and that all tools will include a learning curve for many users, regardless of age.  We cannot assume that digital natives will simply know how to use a digital tool and will naturally gravitate toward it.

Perhaps the most significant observation that I made related to the control of learning in a students life.  It was disappointing that it seemed to be a revelation to many of the students that education was something that they had a part in.  I was hoping that in a school that prides itself on participatory learning, critical thinking and other forms of deeper student engagement that the students would understand that their learning is not something that happens to them, but something that they make happen.  If a student believes that course content flows from the teacher directly into the student’s head, then there is no need for connected learning of any kind, much less a kind of learning where the student actively pursues opportunities to engage with ideas on a broader scale.

The true keeners in this group were drawing diagrams on the whiteboard by the end of the reflection period.  They mapped out interface designs and flows of data that would go into a personalized solution.  They recognized that there is no single tool that exists that brings together all incoming and outgoing information in a Portal/Portfolio interface.  They believe strongly that organizational tools need to be part of this same framework.  They understand that for this to be a true powerful toolkit, it has to be used by a critical mass of learners in a community.  They believe that they can build such a tool and are looking to next year as an opportunity to do just that.  Beginning in September (or perhaps staring over the summer), a small group of students will be working with me to put together an interface that could be sent out into the community.  Their hope is that it could be designed, built and trialed in the school within one academic year.  Simultaneously, there are other opportunities within the school, particularly at the grades 8 and 12 levels that will allow me to continue to explore the PLE concept within my school environment.  While this marks the end of the formal 14 week project that began in January, the exploration and building has really just begin.  Stay tuned for further advances in the wonderful world of PLEs!

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