Thinking about PLEs and LD at the CETIS conference

At the recent JISC CETIS conference we had two very interesting sessions on PLEs, in which we gave a lot of attention to the role of IMS LD. This is also a major theme in the TENCompetence project, which is developing a “Personal Competence Development Environment”. The following text is based on my notes during the sessions which I have edited (perhaps not enough) and pruned (even less).

Before I write about the PLE and LD aspects I’d like to comment on Ernest W. Adams’ entertaining and interesting plenary talk on the philosophical roots of games design which (perhaps surprisingly) linked with the PLE discussion which followed.
He described three perspectives on culture

English and French philosophy
Classical and Romantic
CP Snow’s two cultures

His basic point was that the culture of programmers is in the Classical and Scientific tradition, and informed by the English positivist and rationalist philosophical tradition, and that this tradition is ill equipped to meet the challenges of narrative game play. The narrative references of gaming are largely limited to the hero and the saga, mediated by Tolkien. So the challenge faced by the games designer is to write technical documents which enable the creation of narrative, and the games industry finds itself striving towards romantic ends using classical means
I tried to map this onto educational technology, and it brought to mind something which Stafford Beer wrote: “we tend to live our lives by heuristics, and to try and control them by algorithms”. He defines a heuristic as specifying “a method of behaving, which will tend towards a goal which cannot be precisely specified because we know what it is, but not where it is”.It seems to me that we are in this situation in the domain of teaching and learning, which is in general neither exhaustively defined nor agreed upon. We know in general terms what we want to achieve, and we try out a variety of strategies in our interactions which seem to lead us in the right direction, often using very subtle and intuitive criteria in our decision making. This enables us to deal with situations which would otherwise be too complex to handle. For example, when deciding on the next activity for a class the teacher does not (and cannot) take into consideration the full complexity of the current cognitive and affective state of each learner, and the relative importance of learning outcomes to each of them. On the other hand the culture of the programmer (and, I think, the educational technologist) leads to algorithmic solutions which require explicit statements of goals and procedures. Bill Olivier made a related point in his earlier plenary presentation, quoting Brown and Duguid’s statement that practice is what you do to make the process work.
It seems to me that we need to think a lot harder about how our algorithmic systems (like IMS LD) can best support the heuristic approaches which are ubiquitous classroom practice, rather than precluding them, and how these fit with support for systems which enable interactions guided by heuristics (like social software and many of the aspects of PLEs).

Oleg Liber of CETIS introduced the PLE session by pointing out that we are now living in a new world where the technology available outside institutions is richer than what you find inside. Can we exploit that external technology and blend that with what is inside? That is a broader agenda than what we had before, and the PLE is a key aspect of this. Oleg talked about how the idea of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) links to other themes which we have been discussing for a number of years: personalisation, accessibility and inclusion, and how IMS Learning Design (IMS LD), and the wider learning design approach has been enabling this by pushing for more pedagogic variety and appropriateness.

Amanda Oddie from the team at Liverpool Hope University described the courses that they have been running using IMS LD with of learners in courses, funded by JISC. They have been using Reload to create the Units of Learning, and running them in SLeD, but they have found Reload rather hard to use and that the performance of SLeD needed to be improved. Their current project LD4P is looking at IMS LD from the users’ perspective. They have fixed the performance problems of SLeD, and is working on improving the interface of Reload and SLeD. It was interesting to hear that the process of modelling with IMS LD was generally seen by teachers as providing an interesting perspective on their practice. They have found that making practice explicit can help identify where there are problems in the learning design, for example checking that the learning is really happening. Teaching is highly complex, learners are complex, and capturing in technology is hard, so you need the complexity of the specification. It is the power of the specification which makes it attractive. Director is not easy to use either, and if practitioners see the power of IMS LD they may be willing to get to grips with it.
The problem is that although the names of the elements can be changed to be more friendly, when you want to edit level B then you find you get involved in editing XML, and this is too hard.
This contradicted the assumption that many of us had held that the specification is intrinsically too complex for practitioners to handle (and an interesting angle on how algorithmic analysis can support heuristic practice).

We had an interesting conversation about the need which teachers sometimes have to change the UOL when it has already started. Amanda commented that this was a problem, but that a work around was to divide a course up into a separate UOL for each week. Bill Olivier argued that this is not a problem which is inherent in the specification, but rather a function of the fact that the Coppercore player precompiles the UOL. If you had an interpreter engine there would be nothing to stop you changing it on the fly. You would get efficiency problems, but these could be improved by using a hybrid approach, with precompiled acts, for example.
It is also true that you can use IMS LD as an import and export format, leaving the system free to do what it wants with its own internal representation of the UOL in between these two events.
Another issue with IMS LD which was raised in discussion was the set up of services. For example, we might have a special space on Second Life we want to use. But if you put the URL into a UOL which is going to be reused in different runs, then all the students will come together on the one space. If this is not what you want, and you want to separate the learners from different runs, then you have to generate the URL at runtime. This means putting a spaceholder in the URL, and generating it at runtime. At the moment it’s not clear what is the best way of dealing with this. This seems to be one of the key issues to be addressed in relation to IMS LD.

Phil Beauvoir, lead developer of Reload, said that in building the application he was not thinking about making it beautiful or intuitive, but rather about exposing the elements. So, in terms of Ernest Adams’ presentation, what we have is a collection of classical trees and tabs. So maybe we need to get romantic! He outlined the development work which is planned for LD authoring tools in the TENCompetence project.

Raymond Elferink presented the repository which is being developed in the context of the OpenDock project. He explained that there are a lot of repositories out in the world, and that they are mostly big things written in Java, which requires a lot of expertise and machines to run it. What OpenDock wants is to address low tech requirements and provide high accessibility. This will stimulate sharing and reuse, and this is a key issue because the content providers of the future are the practitioners themselves. Integrated support of Creative Commons and interoperability specifications is a vital part of this. The repository can be installed on any LAMP server, so small institutions groups and individuals can use the system on rented web space.
There was general agreement that the value of IMS LD is in sharing, rather than in using it as part of the quality process or accreditation (where there are specified learning design features which must be adhered to).
Mark Stiles added that one of the important things about LD is that it does enable richness, and there are other systems, like Blackboard which are moving in the other direction. But we should ask ourselves if it works, and if it is worth doing. We are putting a lot of effort into this, and we are doing it on faith.
Bill Olivier of JISC commented that people who are working on pedagogy from a face to face perspective are also wrestling with the comparative value of the pedagogy. So the argument is outside the technology

Oleg Liber distinguished between the personal aspect of a PLE, which means that everyone should have tools to make a system which suits them, and personalisation which is about making all content accessible to all people (and tends to be about individual learning). We went on to discuss what this meant for accessibility in PLEs. Web standards can take us so far, but you will always hit limits for accessibility. When you think you have got it right, you inevitably get it wrong for some people, even if you do the best you possibly can. Someone will need adaptation, which will conflict with the needs of organisations. It’s not always in the interests of the people who are writing the standards to pay attention to this. We need to bridge this, and we have to talk about disaggregating resources, but the conflict is there.
You can’t make an object which is accessible to everyone, because you don’t know what they’ll want to do with it and in what context. So we can’t provide accessible content. We need to enable people to be able to manage this, and the contribution of the PLE is in separating the information from the instrumental presentation that people are faced with. By stripping out the services we can enable people to develop their own solution. On the other hand we should remember that the solution may not be technological, it may be someone sitting next to the user. So the content itself seems to be increasingly irrelevant, its how you access it is important, and this means that application design and functional requirements profiles become central.
Mark Johnson reminded us that accessibility is not only about UI design. Learners have different learning styles, and that’s accessibility too. There’s a need for guidance, so there’s a need for a teacher presence.
Bill Olivier made the link with IMS LD. Content needs to be stored in a well known XML format that can be configured in the PLE. LD has persistent personal properties, so you could write conditions in your UOL which would make the PLE presentation layer adaptable.

Finally Mark Johnson of The University of Bolton discussed recent developments in Firefox. A browser is a low variety tool, but recently this has been changing. Flock is a development of Firefox which includes some of the aspects of PLEs. It has RSS reading built into it, and has links to other services in the Web2 sphere which are useful. For blogging it will take the user to the editor and send text to their blog. To configure it you just set up the services, the news feeds, the blogging services,, flickr. The tool serves as a focus to bring these services together, it allows for a considerable amount of personalisation.
XUL (XML User Interface Language) is used in Firefox (Microsoft have their own).
One of the things that makes XUL interesting is its relationship with RDF. XUL is built around RDF data structures, which opens up new possibilities well beyond conventional data description languages. This makes it increasingly easy to create a personal learning tool set, going beyond the normal limits of the browser window (which is what institutions tell us we have to use).

If you’d like to discuss any of this or need more information, please contact me at
dai -dot- griffiths -dot- 1 -at- gmail -dot- com