FYI: on Growing Personal Learning Environments

Photo courtesy Balanced Crafts on Flickr

The latest issue of FYI recently arrived in the post.  Yay! FYI is the quarterly journal of SLAV (School Library Association of Victoria). This is the issue that focussed on Learning Communities and featured the article I wrote last year about Personal Learning Environments for students. We concentrated on Year 9’s last year as part of their Pathways and Careers program but the groups delegated to me were so large (75-90 students) it was difficult to assist everyone properly and caused some lag issues with the site and our internet system at school.

I’ll be focussing this year on helping the Learning Enhancement students set up their PLEs. I think teaching one class at a time will mean that I can give much better support. PLE’s are really a two-part job: 1) Get the site set up; 2) develop the learning environment. Nothing new there – its alway learn the tool then use the tool.

Here’s the article below for those who can’t access the journal —

Growing Personal Learning Environments

At the end of 2010, I reached a cherished goal; the completion of my Masters degree in Teacher Librarianship. In 2011, I changed schools and what a change it was! After 10 years, I moved from a very small, independent primary school to a 1200+ government secondary college – all part of a plan to stretch my professional wings.

Sound scary?

It could have been but it wasn’t really. That’s because I didn’t do it alone; I had my ‘net’ with me. Or should I say my Personal Learning Network. The resources (human and literature-based) I’d been cultivating to support my learning helped me to swiftly engage with my new school community. As I found myself drawing on my PLN to help me in my new role, it set me to wondering about the students’ networks. How well do they use theirs? Are they even aware they have one? What can I do to help them make better use of their learning community and grow their learning networks? One day (via a blog I subscribe to) I came across a video of a Year 7 student in America demonstrating how her PLE works. After researching to learn more, I knew I’d found an avenue.

What is a PLE?

We all have favourite tools, websites, and people we trust to help us learn. We may access videos and podcasts as we carry out research; write blogs or reply to posts as we get involved in pursuing our passions. But bookmarking everything can become unruly and jumping from Facebook to forums to keep up with topics and groups can result in ‘info-whelm’. A Personal Learning Environment or PLE is a way for students to grow, curate and organize their learning. PLEs are online environments; they are individualised, learner-created and learner-directed. The platforms most widely used to create PLEs are social dashboard sites such as iGoogle, Netvibes and Symbaloo.

How are we using PLEs?

After reading more about PLEs, I evaluated a few dashboard sites. I chose Netvibes based on user-friendliness, visual appeal, physical layout, flexibility of features, and the fact that it has an active help forum. When I approached our Head of Library about introducing PLEs to students, I’d already set up a sample PLE to demonstrate (http://www.netvibes.com/bottomdrawer/). She saw the value in it and took the idea to the school administration. The idea was approved and time provided in the schedule to introduce PLEs to the students and teachers. We originally envisaged working with students at the end of Year 10 so they would have a PLE for their VCE studies, but the school’s Pathways & Transitions team became interested in the project. We now introduce PLEs to the Year 9’s at the end of Term 4 and help them incorporate their Pathways Planning into the PLE as well as their regular learning areas and subjects. We built a Wikispaces site (http://vsc-ple.wikispaces.com/) to introduce learners to the concept and purpose of a PLE and to guide them through the set-up process on Netvibes. We were given a session with each of the Year 9 groups so students had time to work through the wiki, ask questions and receive guidance from the TLs. Teachers contributed website suggestions for different subjects to get the PLEs started and we demonstrated RSS feeds and Twitter #topic searches during the session. We encouraged teachers to set up Netvibe sites too so students could follow them (as well as each other) in order to connect, collaborate and share resources. We are looking forward to evaluating the success of the PLEs at the end of the year with a short user survey.

What are the benefits?

A PLE is not an assignment or something teachers need to check up on or assess. A PLE is a way of putting control, choice and responsibility back into the hands of the learner, helping them to become more independent. PLEs are set up according to each student’s learning needs, styles and preferences. The social aspect of PLEs can offer a way to create and/or strengthen connections within the school community. They offer a consistent connection to resources from home, from school and via mobile access. They encourage collaboration and sharing of resources as well as reaching out to the wider community with possibilities such as Twitter and Skype. Research is also suggesting that such learning environments encourage the integration of formal and informal learning (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009). This in turn promotes a positive attitude toward learning and develops lifelong skills.

Conclusion

I am excited with this new opportunity to support our learning community, but I’ve tried to imagine the pitfalls too. A student might set a PLE up then choose not to use it. However, they will have increased their awareness of new resources and possibilities available to help them learn in the future. I can also imagine students adding sites to their PLE that are not relevant to their studies: games, chat and other distractions. Filters will block most of them at school but stepping back, these are study skills topics ripe for discussion: myths of multi-tasking, effective time management strategies and goal setting. Problems can be opportunities! The giving and getting of support for everyone is the essence of learning communities. Demands on students and teachers are increasing so we all end up time-poor and overwhelmed by information possibilities. A PLE can offer students a Web 2.0 way to control and organize their learning lives just like they do their social lives. It can help build skills, connections and habits that will last a life-time. Win-win!

Reference Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). 21st Century learning environments. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/tools-and-resources/publications/600

PD Reading Challenge: Connect to Enchant

Photo courtesy: Martin Deutsch from Flickr cc

The 2nd chapter in Kawasaki’s Enchantment focuses on achieving likability. Basically, be nice! Everything works better when people are nice and try to get along. He lists likability as the foundation to success, I agree. The steps towards likability are easy:

  • get close
  • make contact
  • get connected

As I read through his list I’m mentally ticking them off. So far I’m going OK with all of those points. The last one however is one I want to work on in 2012.

Build relationships/Connect

TLs often get stuck in the library with supervisory duties at lunch and recess so we miss out on the social aspect of the school staffroom. I plan to change that while I still focus on the many teachers that come into the library; they are my target audience to start with. They already come to us but I want to delight them so much they become the type of customers that help spread the word. So creating relationships with them is my first goal. I’m going to start with the simplest of things to get connected with other staff:

  1.  I’m going to change the way I enter the school. Starting on day one, I’m going via the main entrance rather than the back carpark. In this way I will walk by the general office and the staffroom every morning and evening. I’m bound to run into people – could it be as simple as that? Well a good start I believe.
  2.  I’m going to learn all the staff’s names – no easy feat, there are over 100 but I’ve been there a whole year now and still only know about 30 (and some of those are shaky). I’ve got a staff photo somewhere and I’m going to study.

I like the quote attributed to the Brafman brothers (authors of another book about making business connections):
“… the single most important factor in determining whether or not you connect with another person is neither personality nor mutual interests – it is simple proximity.”

My PD Reading Challenge

Infograph courtesy: Social Media Max on Flickr cc

One of my NY resolutions was to take time to read the PD books I’ve purchased over the past couple of years. I started on my Professional Reading Challenge during the summer holidays. I have six books lined up.

Guy Kawasaki’s book, “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions” is essentially a business motivational book but even from the blurb I could see the practical applications for the school library service. (The above link will take you to a video speech he made about “Enchantment”).
The inside jacket blurb starts:

Enchantment, as defined by bestselling business guru, Guy Kawasaki, is not about manipulating people. It transforms situations and relationships. It converts hostility into civility and civility into affinity. It changes skeptics and cynics into believers and the undecided into the loyal.

Now I’m not worried about people feeling hostile towards our school library, I’m concerned with something much more insidious – apathy and ignorance to what we do and how we can help the school to become a much better learning community. I’m passionate about what I do; I work hard to build trust and offer a stellar service but I really want to go the next step towards empowering others and so I’m looking for some guidance. I hope there is much to reflect on and put into practice here.
I’m also looking for practices to take my leadership skills to the next level. This book promises to help one bring about change in other people and I am particularly interested in effecting change when it comes to assisting teachers to use ICT and feel comfortable in changing the way they teach.

Diving into Digital Fiction: Locating/Selecting Part 3: Web Fiction and Online Novels

Online/Web Fiction

This form of fiction is simply a regular novel or collection of stories that exist online. Web fiction authors often publish on blogs or community wikis. Readers can comment, review, and subscribe to novels if they are still works in progress.

Web Fiction Guide

This is a community site with online novels, story collections and reviews. You can select from categories and one of those categories is young adults. There is quite a collection to choose from, some still being updated and others complete. Readers score the stories and stories are tagged as well so you know what you’re getting into ahead of time. Some of these stories can be downloaded as pdf files so could be loaded on to handheld devices, some are available on Issuu, some  also have podcasts with them so students can read and listen, a bonus especially for ESL students or those with reading difficulties. Novels still in progress often have an rss feed available so you automatically receive the next chapter when it comes out. Here are a few I’ve dipped into (each quite different) so I plan to include:

Scary Mary

Impeccable Petunia 

Mortal Ghost 

Also part of this site is Top Web Fiction a listing of the top rated stories on the site.

One of the downsides of using a site like Web Fiction Guide is it does leave your students the option to go to other categories of fiction, one of which is erotica. This may or may not be blocked by your school filters. Common sense says active supervision is a must if students are the ones searching and selecting stories online.

Fifty-two Stories with Cal Morgan

Fifty-Two Stories is a website run by Harper Perennial (part of HarperCollins) and is a showcase for short stories. Each year a theme is selected and authors contribute their offerings. Each week one story is selected for publication on the site. The theme for 2011 is: ASK. The quality of writing is professional, the stories are for general consumption so again it pays to preview what’s on offer although I haven’t run into anything untoward.

One of the offerings worth a look on this site is  The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a novella by popular author and screenplay writer, Neil Gaiman.

free-online-novels.com

This is another community offering novels in different genres. It was started by a Christian self-published author so features some of her writings but also contains many other self-published authors. There does not appear to be any mature content stories on this but preview before selecting. I did like the fact that this site includes some online graphic novels. The down-side of this site is that there are no ratings on it so quality is highly variable.

In Terms of New Fiction

Hyperdeck-one Henry Swanson flickrcc

Photo by Henry Swanson on Flickr cc

First, I want to pause and consider what I’m doing through the lens of the InformationProcess (always good to take a step back and view the big picture).

1.   Defining: what do I really want to find out?

I want to find out what digital options are out there for  readers, I want to know more about new kinds and modes of fiction available in the online environment. I then need to narrow this down to what’s out there that is appropriate for lower secondary students to look at.

At the end of this experiment/exploration I’d like to discuss with the teacher our observations/conclusions on:

  • If the students weren’t motivated to read something because it was printed on the page, were they any more motivated to read something because it is delivered online/digitally/in a different way?

As I deepen my search for online fiction, I’ve also run into a lot of terms and aconyms that I should document for future reference. Defining the terms now means I can stick to the ones most relevant to my needs.

Online fiction

While this term should be self-explanatory I wanted to be sure and so looked for a definition. There wasn’t one, but I ran across this wonderful article by David Backer that eloquently described the search I was on:

Literature is supposed to be a culture’s conversation with itself. A way of telling the story of its time, its moment. It’s a healthy and necessary thing, an authentic expression of the truth of the age. As a writer and student of literature and of this conversation, I went in search of the new fiction. I wanted to see its extent, the borders of its world. I wanted to do a little cartography to glimpse the map of our conversation with ourselves.

Backer’s article along with some google searching, leads me to believe that the term online fiction describes fiction that stays on the straight and narrow – fiction in its traditional delivery (words in whatever form the piece dictates) but brought to the reader online. Backer’s search did not reach the borders of the world I was looking for, not by a long shot.

Digital Fiction

Wikipedia provides this definition of digital fiction:

… fiction that is written for and read on a computer screen, that pursues its verbal, discursive and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium, and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium. (definition created by the Digital Fiction International Network at Sheffield Hallam University who support research in the field of digital fiction)

Transmedia storytelling

To my mind, the best definition of transmedia is on Seize the Media and if you go to the link there is also a very useful diagram clarifying how it all works.

Transmedia is a format of formats; an approach to story delivery that aggregates fragmented audiences by adapting productions to new modes of presentation and social integration. The execution of a transmedia production weaves together diverse storylines, across multiple outlets, as parts of an overarching narrative structure. These elements are distributed through both traditional and new media outlets. The online components exploit the social conventions, and social locations, of the internet.

Electronic literature /fiction

Good old Wikipedia saved me from sidetracking to read N. Katherine Hayles’s entire article, Electronic Fiction:What is It? (It’s great but very academic, I have dipped into it several times now).

Wikipedia passes on the Electronic Literature Organization’s definition of electronic fiction (also cited by Hayles):

“work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.”

It appears to include animated poetry, hypertext fiction, collaborative fiction, chatterbot stories and other forms of interactive fiction.

Interactive Fiction (IF)

This is probably the form of electronic fiction people are most familiar with. Most often thought of as a type of game, IFWiki.org explains it simply as:

A computer program that generates textual narrative in response to user input, generally in the form of simple natural-language commands

So with no shortage of keywords to make use of (and already several leads from my initial reading) I’ve started searching in earnest.

2. Locating: Where can I find the information I need?

I’ve got to admit that even though I’m a trained and true Teacher Librarian I still start with a Google search. But I have an excuse/motive. I look for what I know then use the articles’ background information to drill deeper.  So when googling ‘online fiction’ and I find Backer’s article, I use it to explore the sites he speaks of and then ones mentioned on those sites and graduallly patterns of connection begin to appear. Certain people’s names re-occur or blog sites are recommended and mentioned and I rapidly close in on the expert opinions I’m after. Here are also a couple of sites that I’ve been finding particularly helpful in exploring this new landscape:

If Kate Pullinger is the international guru then Angela Thomas is the Australian expert in multimedia authoring.

Angela has a blog you can access here and a digital fiction wiki that you can access here

I’ve also been able to drill down into this field by following Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling blog.

Interactive fiction has several sites for dedicated fans including: