Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hunters and Heels, PLENKS and Platforms : ConVerge 2010 - A Review

It was the Twitter stream projected on multiple screens which held my attention at the recent ConVerge 2010 Conference in Melbourne (November 25-26). As the Tweets birbled and scrolled on screen the keynote speakers faded into the background. On both days I'd watch as those in audience tapped away on their laptops quoting those who spoke, pouncing on the words of others and just as quickly setting them free into cyberspace as if they were liberating caged doves.

This behaviour fascinated me. The "knowledge hunters" in the audience presumably believed they were broadcasting valuable or new information to wider networks and audiences elsewhere. There was something almost slavish about the "note taking" behaviour of those in the audience which troubled me. In fairness I generally worry about voracious note takers --- are they actually listening to what is being said? I discourage my own language students from taking too many notes. I want them to be there with me in the moment, hopefully engaging me or the material I present directly, thinking through and subsequently coming to new personal understandings for themselves.

On those two days of the conference I had no sense of the Twittering forming a part of any worthwhile dialogue. There seemed to be relatively few or no Tweets coming back at us which provided any constructive or critical foil to what was being reported. Sure, it was fun and there were one or two comical Tweets on screen which provoked a giggle or two from the audience. But just how important was it to discover that the keynote speaker had picked up her high heels during a recent trip to Barcelona?

And all the while I wondered if the mad tappers actually believed they were contributing to some larger fund of knowledge elsewhere?

Who were they talking to? How widely distributed, how valuable, was this strange on the spot reporting? Were these virtual gems evaporating into the Twitter-sphere as quickly as they were being typed out? Or were the Tweets being received by other like-minded professionals providing new leads and references, faciliating bold new insights and opportunities for reflection and learning somewhere?

All of this got me thinking about the quality of information circulating within these personal online networks --- the Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) if you like --- of the conference attendees.

By coincidence, members of an online community of Adult Community Educators to which I belong, had recently started a discussion about PLNs.

PLNs and PLEs (E for Environment) or more broadly, PLENKs (Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge) appear to be all the rage at the moment. The PLENK philosophy popularised by Canadian, Stephen Downes, is basically a connective knowledge theory underpinning the explosion of social networking and use of Web 2.0 for teaching and learning.

New Zealander, Joyce Seitzinger (of the Barcelona High Heels fame) referenced many diverse examples of PLNs, encouraging the attendees to study the self-articulated learning programs of various practitioners from around the world --- and to add to the long list with a PLN of their own. These PLNs, to my mind at least, end up looking like indecipherable diagrams from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory though they may be helpful to some. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Now on the subject of PLNs, I must say that Stephen Downes ideas appear to me to be neither new nor particularly "revolutionary". The great romantic image of the Automath --- "the self-taught man" --- the person who possesses a high degree of self motivation and enthusiasm for self education is very much an elitist 19th century notion.

Pedagogically, the reality is not all of us are in a position to "teach ourselves" as easily as Downes suggests. Many people do not possess the foundation skills, knowledge, language, literacies or the required access to social networks to embark upon such an ambitious, self directed learning project in the first instance.

Here I think about my own Adult Literacy and Language students with often low or no education in their first language. They neither possess the means to buy, set up nor contemplate online social networking as a meaningful learning pathway or program. PLENK assumes a substantial pre-existing knowledge and skill base to be useful to the learner. OK for me and you, but as a general educational approach for all?

Another colleague, Michael Gwyther, commenting on the discussion about Downes and PLENK at acenetwork.ning remarked:

The ol PLN idea suggests we are already skilled in using knowledge, sorting it, shaping it, customising it, catergorising it. What of those who are not? Perhaps I am redredging the old Learning to Learn arguments we had in the late 80s and wonder if this is a fine idea with those of us hip to organising knowledge and using Web 2 but wheres the roadmap to helping those who aint?

Downes ideas largely impress me as being a new form of 70s style Progressivism (a "let them feel their own way" approach, this time with a high tech, social networked twist). Both old and new versions of this story are essentially the same, with the focus on the individual possessing an almost-mystical capacity to articulate his or her own learning needs. He or she realizes this potential by force of his or her own will and by conjuring the knowledge-power of others through diffuse networks. A tall order project indeed.

But back to the Conference. I commented on Geoff Young's blog recently that "the assumed learners" at nearly every workshop and presentation I attended at ConVerge 2010 were "young, tech saavy twenty-something year olds".

Older adult learners -- adult basic education learners -- do not exist in this ideal, high tech vision of personal learning through networks.

I commented:

There was hardly a single mention of older learners within the TAFE sector (although they actually make up quite a considerable percentage of the student cohort). Have older learners fallen off the radar all together? What about the pedagogy / androgogy + relevance of Web2.0, social networking etc, etc for this significant proportion of learners? Most students in the Adult Community Education sector are 55+ but I suspect the focus is well and truly on younger learners in TAFE because of the greater number of potential articulations into employment that can be made?

Geoff's reply, took not only older learners, but interestingly, older teachers into account. His fears are, I agree, cause for concern:

I’m worried about both sides of this cohort; are our older teachers and learners tech savvy enough to be active participants within a framework that would seem to be catering to a much younger market?

And there's the rub --- we are really talking about education for Youth and not considering the needs of many learners who require careful initiation into the use of technology and online tools for learning.

Of course it it easy to bang on about technology and PLNs when your learners belong to a class and generation accustomed to social networking, who are au fait with the internet and comfortable with the idea of using technology independently for learning and leisure purposes.

I was disappointed that the organisers felt it necessary to haul in Andrew Douch, apparently for a second year in a row. "Douchy" is a teacher from the secondary school sector working with already tech saavy teenagers. Andrew is an "inspiration" but teenagers are a far cry from your regular adult learners challenged by technology. The two groups are hardly comparable and I thought the choice of this presenter was rather inappropriate and confirmed my suspicion about the narrowness of focus on younger learners.

Interestingly an attempt was made at ConVerge 2010 to promote and massage this Downesian connective knowledge theory into the government's fanatical training agenda.

At ConVerge 2010 we were introduced to the TrainingVC, (formerly the TAFEVC) and its new LMS centre-piece, Moodle 2.0.

At times I wondered if Moodle Inc. might not be the major sponsor at ConVerge 2010 so heavy was the spin being placed on the product by the entrepreneurs of the TrainingVC. We were led to believe this Learning Management System (LMS) confined within the secure, firewalled boundaries of a "virtual campus" - a mere platform - is capable of accomodating or facilitating just about anything as far as elearning is concerned.

Pause for reflection on the words of Christian Dalsgaard from Aarhus University:

learning management systems do not support a social constructivist approach which emphasizes self-governed learning activities of students ...self-governed and problem-based activities are not very well supported by LMS. LMS are to a large extent developed for the management and delivery of learning – and not for self-governed activities of students. Learning processes of the kind described in the social constructivist approach outlined in this article cannot be managed. What can be managed, however, is the administrative aspects of a course. Thus, a management system is limited to organizing administrative issues

For me, there seems to be an apparent conflict or contradiction between PLENK and the world of the controlled LMSs of the TAFE institutional sector, which as main beneficiary of the Government's fanatical Training agenda, has most to gain. It surprises no one that business managers and bureaucrats are interested in the administrative power of tightly managed LMSs which provide convenient (but by no means reliable) evidence of "learning outcomes". It amused me that at ConVerge 2010 there was so much talk about social networks and ephemeral philosophising around the concept of PLENKs --- all the while imagining elearning happening within highly controlled, institutionally driven online educational environments.

And even though I tweeted and twittered incessantly wanting an explanation why and how TAFEVC in 2001 had become the TrainingVC 2010, I predictably got no reply. So much for my attempts to find answers through the twitter stream at #converge10!

Note: Photo of Joyce Seitzinger's Spanish high heels republished with the permission of @botherbybees

This article also appears at


  1. As the theorist behind this Downesian fanatical training agenda I feel I ought to make a few points.

    First, it's always pretty easy to show that something we say has already been more or less said before. Consequently I am not particularly concerned about whether what I say is novel or merely a rehash of something already said. What matters is whether it is right.

    Personally, I doubt that 1970s progressives were saying the same thing I'm saying, mostly because the mathematics, science and terminology did not exist. And I *do* address the criticisms they faced. But it doesn't matter. If they were prescient, great! It's not a competition.

    Second, I have addressed the question of the skills and attitudes needed to succeed in a connectivist environment on numerous occasions. If people presenting the ideas and theory did not cover this, they can hardly be blamed; a one-hour presentation doesn't allow coverage of everything.

    But last summer I addressed an entire course to 'critical literacies'. I've looked at the subject in numerous presentations. I wrong a very popular article, 'Things You Really Need To Learn', which describes what ought to form the foundation for a 21st century education.

    I know, or I know, that many students and even adults are not in a position to manage their own learning. They do not have the skills and discipline. This is unfortunate, because it leaves them dependent and unable to adapt.

    But the argument that we are currently doing it wrong should not stand successfully against the argument that we should be doing it correctly.

    I have long argued - and many others before me! - that children should be encouraged to learn creative and critical thinking, logic, analysis and reasoning, scientific method, and those other tools an autodidact will have in plentiful supply. That they do not have these tools today is no reason to continue to teach them specific dates and places, or to have them memorize formulae by rote.

  2. My reply is here:

  3. I teach adult learners. Don't underestimate them. An eighty four year old studying computers so that she can help her grandchildren. These students chose to learn. They choose the content from the descriptions we gave them. We can often let them down by not living up to their expectations. We are most likely to do this once we have stereotyped them and we are most likely to do this when we expect them to do things the way we do.
    My son was using youtube to find pokemon video's and game walk throughs before he could read. He could find club penguin by recognising the color of the logo in the history list.
    My point here is that the web can be used non verbaly by pre-literate users, and just because thats not how we use it, it doesn't mean it cant be done!
    Finnaly me tap-tap tapping away at the back of the hall on my open laptop... If its my college class, I'm trying to read the slides online, because the print on the power point slides is too fine for my fading eyesight.
    If its some where else... maybe I'm fact checking the more preposterous claims of the speaker, or finding and bookmarking the references they are providing.