Introduction

Much of the teaching and learning at university is still carried out in classrooms and many teachers are still enslaved by the idea that knowledge can only be transferred by them to students face to face. To me, this is a misconception about teaching and learning. I believe that students can learn from many sources, and as an educator, we should create an environment in which students can learn from many sources to develop and realise their full potential. Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my students. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” My observation of the changes in the knowledge landscape effected by recent advancements in IT has strongly reinforced my belief that learning is not necessarily confined to classrooms or any physical location; rather, it can occur anytime and anywhere. In particular, the advancements in social and professional networks convince me that increasingly students can benefit from the knowledge resides in today’s massively connected networks. I consider it as the responsibility of teachers to show students how to build and expand their trusted networks and to learn from them. This learning environment has to be easy to set up and adapt, highly customizable, pervasive to use and ubiquitous.

With these objectives in mind, I introduced the use of a Personal Learning Environment & Network (PLE&N) for teaching and learning in 2010 and have used it in all the subjects that I teach since. PLE&N is a self-configured online environment which allows students to connect with other learners for effective knowledge sharing and collaborative knowledge creation. Spawned by the insurgence of Web 2.0, social media and massively connected networks, PLE&N started to gain traction about 5 years ago and the first online course on PLE&N was offered in 2011. Results have been very encouraging and learners continue to use it after they have graduated from the university.

Synopsis

Objective

Over the last decade, there has been a paradigmatic shift in the way in which university education is being delivered. A recent report by Ernest & Young titled "Universities of the Future" published in November 2012 has summarised these trends very well. The traditional large classes of one teacher to many students are diminishing. In its place, learning increasingly takes place in groups of teachers, students, and other subject matter champions. Learning becomes highly learner-centric, multimedia-oriented, and often a wide variety of internet resources including social media is being utilised, among other things, to enhance learning outcomes. Furthermore, the ever growing popularity of free and high quality online material released by many universities and educational institutions worldwide e.g. EdX, Coursera, MIT Open Courseware etc. has meant that today learners and teachers can factor in these readily available sources of learning content to enhance the quality of teaching and learning outcomes. From the business and IT perspectives, cloud computing, with its inherent characteristics of ubiquity, scalability, massive connectivities, data interoperability, and storage capacities, has meant that individual learners can now easily and flexibly orchestrate customised cloud-based services. Such services include sourcing and rating of learning content, location of expertise, creation and use of collaboration tools to support information and knowledge management activities, and the creation of learning communities for on-going and ad hoc discussion and resolution of issues and problems.

This project seeks to develop a cloud-based learning system that can be customised for groups of learners and support them with active and continuous learning in a blended environment. More specifically, the objectives of the project are

1. Identification of the major stereotypes of learners studying at the PolyU
2. Location of the appropriate tools, data sources, and learning content suitable for supporting each type of learner
3. Development of a prototype system
4. Conduct trials and evaluate the effectiveness of the prototype system for supporting personal active learning

Objective 1 determines the learning requirements of each type of learner and hence sets the scene for the identification of tools, data sources and content to fulfil the learning and career needs of the learners (Objective 2). For example, major groups of learners include full time undergraduate students with little working or limited working experience, part time undergraduate students with working experience, postgraduate students with substantial working experience,etc. Objective 3 involves the integration and configuration of the selected learning environment as cloud-based services on the Internet. Objective 4 involves the use of the prototype learning system to support, for example, flipped classrooms, validation of ideas discussed in class, tackling of real world problems based on taught concepts, and the leverage of learning communities for continuous learning beyond the passing of a semester.

Approach

After extensively evaluating the public domain Web 2.0 tools that support online learning and collaborations, we chose to use Google Address Book, Google+ Communities and Feedly (an RSS reader) to form the common backbone tools for the PLE&N. All learners are given a configuration guide to set up their PLE&N. They are also encouraged to recommend new and quality feeds for selective topics. The PLE&N offers students a personal learning space which they can control. Students can participate and contribute to the PLE&N anytime by posting (with annotations) new articles that they have found, reviewing and commenting on other students' posts, responding to the teacher'™s requests, and recommending appropriate feeds for a topic of common interest, etc. Furthermore, the PLE&N is customisable and extendable to suit individual students depending on their needs and preferences. As long as a student uses the core set of tools, he/she can supplement his/her PLE&N with additional tools and feeds. This possibility of personalising the learning environment enables and encourages students to manage their own learning as an independent and inquisitive learner. The experience of exploring and adopting alternative learning processes (a peer-based, network-based, social connectionist approach to learning) transforms their mindset and also develops their capabilities for life-long learning. Students are asked to reflect and provide input on their learning experiences in using the PLE&N after each semester; teacher also assesses the class's overall learning outcomes compared to classes that had not adopted the PLE&N. Indirect benefits of the PLE&N are also collected e.g. change in learning behavior, reference to PLE&N material in conducting background research etc.

Engagament

Through the PLE&N, students can have instant access to my expertise (which may include updates to a specific issue, advice on quality reading materials, and referrals to connect with other experts in my network, and more) any time outside class hours. At the same time, since every student has his/her own level of knowledge and experience, depending on the concerned topics, students can also play the role of a teacher, sharing knowledge and experience with others, thereby enacting a co-learning environment. More importantly, I have adopted various strategies and tools to expand their learning network and connect them to the real world which serves as our open virtual classroom for my students to learn, explore and apply. I invited selective graduates and practitioners (e.g., visiting/guest lecturers, illustrious professionals, etc.) to join our PLE&N circle for the subject, to offer advice and guidance and to share practical knowledge in their field of expertise. I have fused PLE&Ns from two different classes on the same subject (e.g., two classes of ISE458 Introduction to Knowledge Management), thereby creating a totally unprecedented environment for online cross-fertilisation of knowledge between junior and senior students (with and without working experience), coursework and research students, students and industry practitioners, and more. Senior or experienced students can help to share their knowledge and experience with junior students. Research students can offer their insights more from an academic or theoretical perspective.

Impact

The majority of the students find the PLE&N environment a valuable supporting learning tool in their learning experience. During the trial period, all materials relevant to the enrolled subjects by the students are shared via the PLE&N. A litmus test for students'™ appreciation of the PLE&N indeed is that more than 90% of the learners express they wish to remain in the PLE&N after semester is over. Anecdotally, some 10-15% continue to post and comment in the PLE&N even after they have graduated from the university. Furthermore, a small number of students (who are working professionals) introduced the use of the PLE&N in their own organization for enhanced knowledge sharing and information awareness.

Excerpts of some of the students' feedback over the years on the PLE&N are collated below:

œ"Easy to install, search, leave comment. And it is good to keep me updated."

"œInnovative learning method"

"œInteresting and convenient learning experience, without this, I won't read and digest articles with much motivation."

"PLE&N is really interesting, I hope there will more and more people share knowledge with others via it."

"œNice experience in using this kind of teaching / learning method. Broaden my sight since lots of material can be gathered from PLE&N."

"œFeel comfortable and gain valuable experience from it"

"œI think it is quite interactive and I really enjoy it. I hope it can be used in different academic areas."

"œPLE&N is a good platform for us to discuss and collaborate. It's a new learning way for us to share ideas. I appreciate that I can contribute to this subject. I hope everyone will continue share information here in the future."

"Since the PLE&N was first introduced 5 years ago, more than 1,000 students have adopted it and more than 10 subjects offered by our department is using the PLE&N."

"While much remains to be learnt and fine-tuned, an early evaluation is that this revolutionary approach to learning has been a positive educational experience for students. I find it very rewarding to see that the PLE&N has helped students transcend the boundary of the traditional classroom setting into one that has no physical boundary, offers ubiquitous access, and operates dynamically with networked learners, and at the same time it has helped transform my students into more independent and inquisitive learners. Below I will attempt to explain why the PLE&N has been able to produce such a transformative learning experience."

Next Steps

Even more exciting, I plan to expand the above to cover students from two different universities based in different locations. I am planning to establish such fused groups between PolyU students and PhD students at Bangkok University, Thailand, later this year. As such, this open virtual classroom significantly expands the sources of learning beyond the teacher and the library, at the same time enables students to exercise lateral thinking and draw collective wisdom from various social and professional networks. PLE&N therefore offers a location-independent, synergistic and ubiquitous learning space which motivates each and every one of our students to learn. Furthermore:

I can supplement a past lecture, meaning that I can provide new or supplementary information that was not available or not presented when a specific lecture was delivered;
I can pick up weak signals from students'™ postings, which often show their level of understanding;
I can gauge the level of interest by students on specific topics based on their postings (or lack of postings) on those topics;
I can study the learning behavior of each and every student, thereby enriching my knowledge of the cultural norms of various groups of students. This knowledge helps to refine/customise my teaching approach to accommodate different types of students.
I plan to gather learning analytics, analyse the data and then customize/personalize the delivery of content, pedagogy and tools for individual students to suit their needs, background and ability.

Other Information

PDF - Click to download
PDF - Click to download
Other - Presentation on the PLE*&N
YouTube Video - Student Feedback on using the PLE&N - 1
YouTube Video - Student Feedback on using the PLE&N - 2
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