June 02, 2006

The death and rebirth of the MLE?

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In a recent blog entry, Casey cheered the demise of Managed Learning Environments. I suggest that new web technologies open up the possibility of a new kind of learning environment that is both lightly managed and decentralised.

Yes, the rotten decaying body of the corporate Managed Learning Environment stinks. We should bury it.

Hold on a minute, i detect a heart beat. Can it be revived? Should it be revived? Perhaps it will come back having undertaken some kind of near–death moral transformation. Born again.

Sorry, i'll get to the point. We are seeing the emergence of a kind of self–assembled, loosely coupled, lightly managed learning environment (LCL–MLE?). This is made possible by the increasing ubiquity of RSS data feeds, single sign on, and keyword tagging, along with service development and provision strategies such as agile development and managed diversity.

The idea behind the old fashioned centralist MLE (OFC–MLE?) was that the user could see a range of data about the learning process, all in one place. So they would see their timetables, list of courses, marks, tasks, courese content etc all together. And furthermore, it would be possible to join them up. OFC–MLE systems would contain all of this data in a single repository, as a tightly coupled system. Years of painful experience demonstrates that such monolithic systems are hard to develop, difficult to maintain, and harder still to engage the wide range of people and processes. The answer has been to grow more independent services, with responsibility distributed more widely and designed to meet the requirements of each type of user (academics, students, administrators, communications professionals).

The trick is for each of these two make its content available openly to the people and systems who need to use it, but in a filterable, secure and timely manner. This adds up to a LCL–MLE. And that means a data environment in which people can:

  • advertise information so that it gets to the right people (using directories and search based upon keyword tagging);
  • find relavant information (using directories and search based upon keyword tagging);
  • recommend information to others (by building their own del.icio.us style directories or by adding additional tagging);
  • combine information in a single location, and present it in a useful way (see how RSS feeds are blended in the left hand panel of the E-learning at Warwick web site.
  • allow the user to return information to the systems from which it was harvested, or to get diverse information to interact;

The last of these is enabled by Single Sign On, which is the key to allowing people to easily go from information, presented anywhere, to functionality that allows them to act on it. For example, on a page that I have constructed from a combination of sources, I could see that there is an interesting event happening, and easily add that event to my personal calendar without having to go off into a separate system.

Keyword tagging also contains some revolutionary force. Remember how OFC–MLE systems where built on the assumption that learning processes were constructed by a single individual (or well coordinated team) with a strong overview of all of the contents and connections that should be contained in the learning experience? That has always been the antithesis of the kind of research based learning (RBL) that makes a top UK university what its is. RBL is more like a mentoring and guidance model, in which less centred and hierarchical teams develop a shared understanding of the direction in which the students should be steared, and then input resources, links to resources, and feedback that does the work of moving the students in the right direction. The student is themselves expected to gradually (or sometimes quite quickly) take over the helm and navigational responsibility. OFC–MLEs tend to work against this. But imagine a technology that allows the teaching team to create and select resources, and then annotate, tag and connect them for the students. The students can then explore these resources, and even create their own tagging, annotation and networks of them, to be shared with others or even assessed by the teaching team.

The E–learning Advisor Team are already working on several projects that exploit these possibilities. Our web architecture (Sitebuilder, Warwick Blogs, Warwick Forums etc) provides many of the tools that we need to make this a success.

The second generation of online learning technologies are developing in a very different direction to the Old Fashioned Centralised systems. The direction is, happily, much more akin to the kinds of activities that a university like Warwick encourages.

See this interesting paper on Connectivism presented to Google by George Siemmens.

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