Sunday, 26 February 2012

PLEs and Information Systems: an epiphany.

I have had an epiphany. A very late one. Something that must have been screaming at me from the back of my brain for at least 3 years, but for some reason I had chosen not to listen. Here it goes:

PLEs are Information Systems.

Don't give me THAT look. I didn't say it was a huge breakthrough. But this, for me, is A Big Deal. Let's go back a few years.

In 2003 I was offered a job as a teacher in a Business Administration programme. They needed someone to teach e-Business, and I was a professor, could sort of speak English and was a geeky fellow, being a student in a Multimedia Engineering PhD programme. So it kinda made sense. For the next five years, I taught not only that, but also Mathematics, Calculus, Introduction to Information Systems, Business Information Systems, e-Learning systems, and a few other subjects. Someone recommended me to another Uni, and by 2008 I was teaching 20+ hours a week. A bit too much, as the Universe would promptly made clear, by having me faint midway through a lunch with my parents and partner. It was time to cut back on the hours.

Which I did almost immediately, mainly for other reasons that are the subject of a different post. So let's just say that I went from 22 to 6 hours a week. The mathematically inclined will immediately spot a hole in my finances. The Universe managed to fix this by having another job be offered to me right away. It was a challenge, so I took it. It involved heading the e-learning research department for a foundation.

All this happened just before the summer; a summer that I spent in the UK, working with a research group, and which made me, in the end, change my dissertation topic. I had discovered the wonderful world of learning technologies and PLEs. Again, another post.

So when I started my job at the foundation as e-learning projects coordinator, the first project I came up with was based on PLEs and secondary school teachers. And for the next 3 years, I would focus mostly on that project, a few bids, some collaborations, a lot of conferences and events, and PLEs. With some teaching on the side. I did manage to combine my teaching with my research, and had a couple of groups that were very interested in learning about PLEs and Web 2.0. They helped me a lot with my research, and I will be forever thankful to them. But I digress.

The point is, if there is one constant through my teaching post-2003 (before that, the constant was Chemistry) is Information Systems. I have discussed them with my students a million times, tried to come up with our own definitions, talked about computer-based IS as opposed to any IS, and so on.

Research-wise, I had been working on a proposed framework for building PLEs based on Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education, adapting that for secondary school teachers, then for entrepeneurs, and in the end designing training modules that would help anyone put together a PLE by actually learning and choosing the tools. In the meantime, I would get together from time to time with an ever-growing network of colleagues and friends, and discuss PLEs approaches and definitions until the cows came home.

I hope you can see where I'm going with this.

I clearly remember this one time, when Graham Attwell asked a bunch of us, wide-eyed, innocent researchers-to-be, what was a definition of PLE. All I could produce was: "it empowers the learner". Which is clearly NOT a definition. Graham didn't think so, I can tell you that.

The following year, I helped organise the first face-to-face PLE conference, which we appropriately and originally named "The PLE Conference", and one of the sessions was devoted to trying to come up with a definition of PLEs. I can't tell you what happened, on account of having spent most of those 3 days running up and down the building making sure everything was working as expected, but I'm told no working definition came out of it.

Gear by mag3737
Gear, a photo by mag3737 on Flickr.
  And now I've realised that, even though it is not THE definition, that is what a PLE is: an Information System. Or, if you prefer, an information system.

So now I'm thinking I could have said, "An information system that helps empower the learner". That sounds much better. Oh, well. It took me just 3 years.

I'll finish this here (because if not I could continue rambling for ages), with the definition of IS we use in one of my classes. It says:

"Information Systems are the means by which people interact with hardware and software in order to process data that is important to them." (Not really sure what's the exact source. Will try and find it, if there actually is one.)
And, more specifically:
"An information system is a work system whose internal functions are limited to  processing information by performing six types of operations: capturing, transmitting, storing, retrieving, manipulating, and displaying information." (A general, yet useful theory of Information Systems, S. Alter, 1999)

Sort of what we do with a PLE ;)

I have seen PLEs and Open Information Systems mentioned together, but I have never read anything that proposes that a PLE is actually an Information System, using those words. Of course, I may have missed it, or it might be out there and I haven't read it yet, but just wanted to get this off my chest. Done.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Connected Educator: a review

Here we go. As I mentioned in my first post, I had agreed to review a book, "The Connected Educator", by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach) and Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall). Sheryl was kind enough to send me a copy, which I have really enjoyed reading. I wanted to do the book justice, so I took my time.

  The thing is, though, that you do not just read it and are done with it. Oh no. Sheryl and Lani will ask you at several points to actually DO something. For example, add yourself to The Connected Educator map (the Map Yourself! activity), which I promptly did. Or create an account on Diigo; something I didn't do, seeing as I already have a delicious account (now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I must have one anyway, created during my 2008 discovery of Web 2.0 apps while in Leicester. But that's another story/post). Or start a blog. ;)

And so it goes, covering this or that topic, asking you to go ahead and try something, making yourself stop and reflect. It is not a manual, in the sense that following all the steps won't magically transform you into a connected educator, but it will challenge you, question you, open your eyes for new ways of doing things, trying new tools, and generally helping you change or improve your approach to teaching and learning.
Is this a book for everyone? I'm sure some of my colleagues will take a look at it and say that they don't need it - been there, done that. And that's probably true. But sadly, they/we are still a minority. Most educators WILL benefit from reading this book. If they are already on their way to being "connected educators", this book will help them fill in some gaps. If they are new to this world, they will have a great time - probably the key to this: if you don't enjoy it, chances are you won't try it.

I have been teaching for 16 years, and have been interested in learning technologies for almost as long, even before realising there was such as a concept as Learning Technologists. Some of the concepts were familiar to me, and even some of the authors that are referenced throughout the book. I have been lucky enough to have met Alec Couros, Cristina Costa, Grainne Conole, George Couros, Gabriela Grosseck, Carmen Holotescu, Malinka Ivanova, Yong Zhao and George Siemens, during the four or so years I have been doing research on learning technologies.

In most cases, I had met them virtually before actually having the opportunity to have a face to face conversation with them. And that is just one example of how technologies allow us to develop strong communities and networks, even if we never actually meet some of the colleagues that are part of them.

Something else I liked about the book, and that resonates with the way my team and I approach helping teachers embed ICTs in their practice, is the fact that tools DO NOT take center stage. They are presented as that, tools, in a very matter-of-factly way: "This is X, it works this way, why don't you try it? What other uses can you think of? How would you use with your students?". There are many examples and testimonials throughout the book, something that conveys the right message: until you actually try these applications, don't dismiss them as just another gimmick or gadget; see for yourself whether they are actually any good.

Is this a perfect book? Maybe not - there are always things that can be improved, and as it is usually the case with printed works, some of the things that are mentioned in it will change, disappear or something new will take their place; this is particularly true in the case of tools and applications. Many of us still remember the "will they close it, will they not" scare with delicious, courtesy of Yahoo. But that's how the Internet is,  and I think we need to learn to live with it.

I would have used QR codes for some of the URLs, figures or tables, not just for convenience, but also to show these tools by example. But this is just my personal opinion, and in no way a shortcoming of the book. One more thing that is very interesting is the fact that you can subscribe to The Connected Educator self-paced eCourse, and you will receive a newsletter that will guide you as you read the book and help you put it into practice.

Something did surprise me: I found no specific mention of Personal Learning Environments. Should they have been mentioned, though? This is an issue that in some way or another we have been debating for the last three years, in the context of The PLE Conference. Is the PLE a part of the Personal Learning Network? is it the other way around? are they the same thing? and so on. Other related concepts are indeed discussed in the book, such as Communities of Practice and Personal Learning Networks and, in my opinion, anyone that manages to create a PLN is at the same time developing a PLE.

I see myself re-reading this book, discovering new things, and using it for my work with teachers and educators. A great resource, and definitely recommended!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

1 pic a day 2012: January

I confess I was intrigued by the "1 pic a day" challenge: I had seen it on Facebook/Twitter and had wondered what was the point of the whole thing. It seemed like a major commitment with no audience at all, so all in all, a bit pointless. But when my friend Cristina proposed that we tried the challenge this year, I immediately said yes. Cristina has a way of convincing people to do stuff, so I couldn't say no. Plus, I enjoy a challenge; I have, after all, changed my thesis topic after several years into my Ph. D. (don't try this at home, kids).

So, Cris set up a closed  group on Flickr, and I joined her, IleneDawn, Mrs. Maccas and Wollepb in this adventure. So far we have 92 pictures (as of today), which means not everyone has managed to keep up with it. That's fine, as I don't think this should become a burden, and everyone should do this at their own pace. And there's the question of, you know, life. And family, and jobs, and, well, stuff.

After 39 days, and as many pictures, I have to admit I'm hooked. Even if I don't get a comment on Flickr or Facebook, it is an interesting exercise. (I'm posting to both and making my pictures public and visible outside the closed group - I haven't done it on Twitter, and now I'm wondering why, as I'm a self-confessed Twitteradict). It keeps my eyes open for new things, makes me look at the same old streets in a different way, thinking about this or that frame, or how things would look with a different light, at some other time of the day, in a different season, and so on. I spent a whole afternoon with CosmoCat, aka Chahira, taking pictures and having lots of fun, just to get the one image I posted that day.

These are the 31 pictures that I took in January (not in order):

So, no portraits or people, except for that one pic of my parents' wedding. I couldn't say why, but I think I'm gonna keep this trend. I do take photographs of friends and family and post to Flickr, Facebook or Twitter, but somehow I subconsciously  decided not to include those.
My cats are there, though: Sebastian (full name Jonathan Sebastian III) was January 1st, and Sophie (aka Sofia Cristina) was January 3rd. There's four flowers/plants, which is not a lot, considering I spend a lot of time around those. Let's see what happens in the spring.
There's also food, of course. I'm a foodie. There's tea and coffee, plus Japanese and Colombian. My Thesis is there, my ex-workplace, assorted buildings (I can't help it, I live in Barcelona), a gift from the lovely Berenice and her crazy/adorable daughter, Bea; one from the Wikipedia blackout #fail, my CD collection, my aunt's emergency pill kit, and some random pics that I never thought would end up here.

I intend to keep this up, so at least once a month I'll post about the pics I'm taking. And the possibilities for next year are endless: follow a theme each month or do a theme according to numbers, so all pics from the 1st day of the month are about the same subject, same with the second and so on; or just do numbers, and try and get 1 to 365 in pictures. We'll see. for now, I'm enjoying this exercise, and as with so many things, what I enjoy the most is being able to share it.

Hello world...

Well, this seems to be it. After years of thinking that I should have a blog, I'm finally starting one. I can't promise I will post every week (which is my intention for now - this is most definitely not a daily blog), but I will try to keep this alive. There have been many events that led to this, but the most recent ones were Cristina (Costa, @cristinacost) inviting me to join the "1 pic a day" challenge, and me agreeing to review a book, "The Connected Educator", by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach) and Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall). One of the upcoming posts is in fact that review (I promise, Sheryl!).
For now I will be writing as a reflection exercise, and mostly for myself: I am not delusional nor is my intention to have a massive audience. But I think I should practice what I preach, and this is one piece of my digital identity that has been missing for a long time. So, here we go!