|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2010, 26(3), 369-385.
The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy
University of Florida
Principles of networked learning, constructivism, and connectivism inform the design of a test case through which secondary students construct personal learning environments for the purpose of independent inquiry. Emerging web applications and open educational resources are integrated to support a Networked Student Model that promotes inquiry-based learning and digital literacy, empowers the learner, and offers flexibility as new technologies emerge. The Networked Student Model and a test case are described in detail along with implications and considerations for additional research. The article is meant to facilitate further discussion about K-12 student construction of personal learning environments and offer the practitioner a foundation on which to facilitate a networked learning experience. It seeks to determine how a teacher can scaffold a networked learning approach while providing a foundation on which students take more control of the learning process.
Personal learning suggests learner autonomy and increased self regulation (Atwell, 2007; Aviram et al., 2008). However, increased responsibility and control on the part of the learner do not necessarily equate to learner motivation (Dede, 1996). Students engaging in networked learning research must be more self-directed. Not only are they navigating a number of web-based applications for the first time, they are also required to take an active role in the learning process by making decisions about how to search, where to search, and why certain content meets a learning objective. No longer is there a smooth, charted path that defines what must be done to get an "A". Traditional, lecture-based classrooms are designed as passive learning environments in which the teacher conveys knowledge and the student responds (Chen, 2009). Imagine the potential frustration that self-regulated learning holds for students who are quite comfortably accustomed to specific teacher directions with finite expectations.
Teachers, on the other hand, are challenged to provide an appropriate balance between structure and learner autonomy in order to facilitate self-directed, personalised learning (Beaudoin, 1990; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010). Such a scenario further presents challenges to traditional forms of assessment. If the learner has primary control, the teacher must consider alternative assessments (Pedersen & Liu, 2003). The role of a teacher within a student-centered approach to instruction is that of a facilitator or coach (Wang, 2006). "He or she supports the students in their search and supply of relevant material, coordinates the students' presentations of individual milestones of their projects, moderates discussions, consults in all kinds of problem-solving and seeking for solutions, lectures on topics that are selected in plenary discussions with the students and conforms to the curriculum" (Motschnig-Pitrik & Holzinger, 2002, p. 166).
The purpose of this test case is to introduce a model for the student construction of personal learning environments that balances teacher control with increased student autonomy. The students in this study are in effect, networked learners in training. Therefore, a level of structure is required to scaffold the learning process. Students use synchronous communication, Really Simple Syndication (RSS), information management, and human contacts to learn. Examples of emerging web applications for each of these categories are highlighted. The Networked Student Model establishes a baseline that begins to address what level of structure is needed to facilitate networked learning while providing a foundation for greater student control over the personal learning environment.
Figure 1: The Networked Teacher (Couros, 2008)
It is a model through which teachers begin to build professional connections to support teaching practice. Couros built this model based on feedback from a number of teachers who were actively participating in networked learning for professional development. He used their input to tweak and revise the model (Couros, 2008). It serves as an example of the numerous connections or nodes that comprise a professional network.
Figure 2: The Networked Student
These include academic social contacts, synchronous communication, information management, and really simple syndication (RSS). Social contacts include teachers, classmates, students outside of the class, and subject matter experts. Synchronous communication refers to video conferencing and instant messaging. Information management activities include locating experts, evaluating resources, accessing scholarly works, and finding other open educational resources (OER). RSS encompasses blogging, subscription readers, podcasts, wikis, social bookmarking, and other social networks. Students will not necessarily make use of every subcategory; however, this list represents the tools available to the student for constructing a personal learning environment on a specific topic of study.
The networked student follows a constructivist approach to learning. He or she constructs knowledge based on experiences and social interactions (Jonassen et al., 2003). Constructivism encourages "greater participation by students in their appropriation of scholarly knowledge" (Larochelle et al., 1998).
Technology supports this appropriation as a collection of tools that promote knowledge construction, an information vehicle for exploring knowledge, an active learning tool, a social medium to promote conversing, and an intellectual partner to facilitate reflection (Jonassen et al., 2003). Each of these components is present in the Networked Student Model. Students use RSS and social bookmarking to organise information and build upon prior knowledge with the goal of completing a task or meeting a learning objective. Social media, or web-based applications designed for the purpose of interacting with others online, promote conversations. Blogs are an example of a vehicle through which students can reflect on the learning process. The sub-parts coexist to support a constructive learning experience. The student's personal learning environment pulls them all together.
Siemens (2008) associates the concept of connectivism with networked learning. He asserts that learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions, and learning is a process of connecting nodes or information sources (Siemens, 2004). The Networked Student Model of constructing personal learning environments is reflected in many connectivist principles. Often the traditional classroom setting provides a forum for a limited point of view, perhaps just the teacher's, a textbook author, and possibly other students in the class. Conversely, in the networked learning environment, blogging is a key component of the personal learning environment through which students respond to and collect the opinions of others. Students identify blogs that target a specific unit of study, and they have the option to respond with opinions of their own. They are taught to discern between fact and opinion and appreciate the value of both.
In a traditional classroom setting, the teacher has primary control over the content. He or she selects or designs the curriculum. Networked learning gives students the ability and the control to connect with subject matter experts in virtually any field. The skill to identify valid content and expertise, recognise questionable sources, and compare conflicting viable points of view is essential in an ever-expanding information age. The connection to humans is an essential part of the learning process. That connection expands to include access to resources and creative artifacts. Computers and mobile devices continue to broaden access to all types of information and learning sources. As quickly as content becomes available, web applications are released to assist in the management of that content. Subsequently, learners take advantage of the availability of content presented in a newly organised format. Ultimately, the personal learning environments that are constructed by humans become available to others who wish to study the same topics. New learners, only connected via their computer or mobile device, may not have personal contact with the originator of the personal learning environment, but they learn from and contribute to the collection of sources. The networked student constructs knowledge that can be built upon in other contexts. That knowledge resides within the network to be activated by the learner at any time in the future. There is always the capacity to add nodes to the network (Siemens, 2009).
The networked student constructs a personal learning environment one node at a time. Once these connections are formed, they must be revisited and built upon to facilitate further learning. The personal learning environment lives beyond time spent in a classroom, especially if the learner chooses to activate it. Yet even in the situation where one learner abandons the personal learning environment, if created as an open resource, it becomes a strong node from which others can learn.
With so much information to manage, it is increasingly difficult to stay abreast of changes in a given field, much less track implications arising from related fields. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) allows learners to subscribe to changing content and makes tracking changes easier. Yet it is still up to the student to determine what to include within the context of study. As more control is shifted from teacher to learner, increased responsibility falls on the individual to make decisions about which nodes in a network are most important. This decision making process comes with experience. Networked learning provides a means for K-12 students to become comfortable in this rapidly changing environment.
Ultimately, meaningful learning occurs with knowledge construction, not reproduction; conversation, not reception; articulation, not repetition; collaboration, not competition; and reflection, not prescription (Jonassen et al., 2003). Jonassen's perspective of meaningful learning guides the design of constructivist learning environments. The design of the teacher-facilitated, student-created personal learning environment in this study adhered to constructivist principles with the goal of developing a networked student who took increased responsibility for his or her learning while navigating an increasingly complex content base. The teacher was a facilitator in the process helping the student scaffold network learning and manage the content as it became more complex.
Construction of a personal learning environment does not necessarily facilitate comprehension or deep understanding. Learning potential exists in what the student does with the compilation of content and how it is synthesised. The networked student model is one of inquiry, or the process of "exploring problems, asking questions, making discoveries, achieving new understanding and fulfilling personal curiosity" (National Science Foundation, as quoted by Chang & Wang, 2009, p. 169). Inquiry is no more effective than other instructional methods unless the delicate balance is struck between teacher-centered and student-centered approaches. The instructional goal is "to actually promote cognitive activities" (Chang & Wang, 2009, p. 169). In guided inquiry, the teacher provides the problem and directs the students to the materials for investigation (Colburn, 2000). The teacher is necessary to help the students navigate the breadth of content, apply the tools properly, and offer support in the form of digital literacy skills and subject matter expertise. Yet the teacher may not be the only expert in the learning process. The ability to locate expertise beyond the classroom walls is one powerful benefit of a well-structured personal learning environment.
Principles of connectivism equate to fundamentals of learning in a networked world. The design of the teacher-facilitated, student-created personal learning environment in this study adheres to constructivist and connectivist principles with the goal of developing a networked student who will take more responsibility for his or her learning while navigating an increasingly complex content base.
For the networked student project, each student selected a contemporary issue or topic for which he or she had a strong interest. Student choice was an important aspect of the Networked Student Model as it represented a key requirement for self regulated learning (Boekaerts, 1997). During the course of the project, the students had to be motivated enough to maintain various network connections with the goal of learning more. Passion for a topic was one means of motivation. A final project for which the student received a grade provided assessment of each student's ability to synthesise the research. It also served as an additional extrinsic motivator. The ultimate goal was for the student to learn the process of building a personal learning environment to be activated as needed for future learning in any subject area.
Upon completion of the semester, an open ended survey was administered to collect student perceptions of the learning experience relative to their autonomy and comfort with the networked learning format. The survey took into account the general format of the course and isolated questions targeted to understand student perceptions of networked learning specifically. Items 3, 4, 5, and 6 reflect that focus. The following survey was administered after the coursework was finished, but before students were aware of their final grade.
This course has been different from others you have experienced in a number of ways. Please reflect on your experience in each of these categories with regard to difficulties, positive and negative outcomes, and how it impacted your learning.
The students had never participated in networked learning, so a significant amount of time was allotted at the beginning of the project to address digital literacy as well as task and organisational skills that would be required in the online environment. A number of combinations of Goodyear's (2005) patterns for networked learning (Table 1) were applied in the preparation and implementation phases of the unit. Selecting from tasks, organisational forms, and learning environments in Table 1, the teacher differentiated instructional strategies and student activities. These were modeled in the classroom environment before moving to contacts outside the classroom. For example, students participated in classroom debates relative to contemporary topics of the time. Face to face arguments were supported with online resources. Individuals, pairs, or small groups investigated and evaluated the resources to determine the validity of the content. Further discussion was facilitated to critique resources and investigate alternatives. The learning environment slowly shifted from the classroom to online.
Whole class cohort
|Self selecting group|
Table 2 provides the list of tools in the order introduced for this test case, along with the level of structure associated with each component. This research in no way promotes selecting one tool over another. In fact, new web applications emerge regularly that may be more effective than those selected for this project. Google is used repeatedly because signing up for one account gave students access to a number of useful learning tools. Still, there are numerous tool options for any given component of the Networked Student Model. It's helpful to explore all the options and select the tool that best meets the instructional needs. The level of structure is adjusted based on the prior experience of individual students.
in test case
level of structure
|Social bookmarking (RSS)||Delicious|
|News and blog alert (RSS)||Google Alert|
|News and blog reader (RSS)||Google Reader|
|Personal blog (RSS)||Blogger|
|Internet search (information management, contacts, and synchronous communication)||Google Scholar|
|Video conferencing (contacts and synchronous communication)||Skype|
|Content gathering/ digital notebook||Evernote|
The process and tools are overwhelming to students if presented all at once. As with any instructional design, the teacher determines the pace at which the students best assimilate each new learning tool. For this particular project, a new tool was introduced each day over two weeks. Once the construction process was complete, there were a number of personal web page aggregators that could have been selected to bring everything together in one place. Options at the time included iGoogle, PageFlakes, NetVibes, and Symbaloo. These sites offer a means to compile or pull together content from a variety of web applications. A web widget or gadget is a bit of code that is executed within the personal web page to pull up external content from other sites. The students in this case designed the personal web page using the gadgets needed in the format that best met their learning goals. Figure 3 is an instructor example of a personal webpage that includes the reader, email, personal blog, note taking program, and social bookmarks on one page.
The personal learning environment can take the place of a traditional textbook, though does not preclude the student from using a textbook or accessing one or more numerous open source texts that may be available for the research topic. The goal is to access content from many sources to effectively meet the learning objectives. The next challenge is to determine whether those objectives have been met.
Figure 3: Personal web page compiles learning tools
Points were earned for meeting the following requirements:
The student's ability to synthesise the research was further evaluated with a reflective essay. Writing shapes thinking (Langer & Applebee, 1987), and the essay requirement was one more avenue through which the students demonstrated higher order learning. The personal blog provided an opportunity for regular reflection during the course of the project. The essay was the culmination of the reflections along with a thoughtful synthesis of the learning experience. Students were instructed to articulate what was learned about the selected topic and why others should care or be concerned. The essay provided an overview of everything learned about the contemporary issue. It was well organised, detailed, and long enough to serve as a resource for others who wished to learn from the work. As part of a final exam, the students were required to access the final projects of their classmates and reflect on what they learned from this exposure. The purpose of this activity was to give the students an additional opportunity to share and learn from each other.
Creativity is considered a key 21st century skill (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009). A number of emerging web applications support the academic creative process. Students in this project used web tools to combine text, video, audio, and photographs to teach the research topics to others. The final multimedia project was posted or embedded on the student's personal wiki page.
Analysis and assessment of student work was facilitated by the very technologies in use by the students. In order to follow their progress, the teacher simply subscribed to student social bookmarking accounts, readers, and blogs. Clicking through daily contributions was relatively quick and efficient.
Four key areas were targeted to assess the success of the project and determine whether an effective balance between teacher control and student autonomy was achieved:
I thought this was the best part of the course. Having us create out own learning tools such as our blogs required me to become much more knowledgeable about a topic than say just reading from a textbook. Also, I got a sense of pride in being able to look at my completed blog and say, "I did this". (Student 3, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)Negative comments focused on the time it took to build the learning environment and a level of discomfort in trying to adopt a different style of learning.
I liked this because it made me a more well-rounded student, and I'm pretty sure all of this networking will be a huge help in college next year. Especially since I will most likely be taking some Internet courses over the years. (Student 1, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
This, I was not as interested in personally. I really did not find this fun or entertaining but that is just me. Others may love doing this. I just found it very time consuming and I did not really have the time or will power to constantly be updating or working on it. (Student 5, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)The reference Student 5 makes to fun and entertainment is interesting. Perhaps learning with technology was perceived as something that should be fun and entertaining. Though it is doubtful this student would have referred to the traditional learning environment as such. The teacher did not present the personal learning environment as fun and entertaining, but merely as a different approach to learning.
The following comment, also tagged as negative, offered a provocative perspective on the way Student 8 perceived prior learning experiences and how they affected her opinion.
I thought it was a little more difficult. I was actually thinking about this last night. I think it was more difficult because we are used to textbooks and etc. But if we started out young I can see things getting done much faster. I can imagine that in the future (just speculating) that our society could be much more efficient with our time if we did much more on computers at a younger age rather than in textbooks. (Student 8, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)Use of technology for learning, other than typing papers or conducting searches, was new to the students. There was minimal and inconsistent integration of technology by teachers in the high school. Students had little prior exposure to digital literacy skills. Responses relative to the use of technology were positive in 10 instances, negative in 3, and neutral in 2. Most positive responses were related to increased comfort with technology and improved learning through its use.
When I came into this class, I wasn't very good at working with technology. I have taken so much knowledge away from all of the technology that we have used. (Student 7, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)Negative responses reflected a general frustration in dealing with technological difficulties and could be summarised in this response. "I didn't really like this because I always seem to have technological difficulties" (Student 2, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
The use of technology to complete projects helped out a lot, because you can get so much more information through the internet and at a much faster speed, than you would with a text book or other books. I also think that the different types of projects that we were able to do through the computer were much better. (Student 12, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
Nine out of 15 students indicated that time management was the most difficult aspect of the course. Yet, of the fifteen students participating in the project, thirteen were able to manage weekly assignments per the schedule. Two students fell behind and expressed frustration at the amount of work required to catch up. Teacher intervention was required to facilitate their successful completion of the course. They were given a daily list of tasks designed to scaffold the time management aspects of the project. Time management issues were less associated with construction of the personal learning environment and more concerned with the blended format of the delivery. It was an adjustment for students to manage work outside of class even though they enjoyed the freedom of attending a formal class meeting only 3 out of 5 days a week.
Fourteen out of fifteen students answered positively when asked if they felt equipped to study other topics in this type of format with less guidance from a teacher. The one student responding in the negative qualified the response with, "Not yet, probably next year I'd be able to, but I definitely couldn't do that, say, tomorrow" (Student 2, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008). The remaining comments indicated greater comfort with technology, increased confidence, and an ability to do more independently as long as a teacher was available at some level for assistance.
Yes, I believe I would do great in another class like this because I am passt the getting use to technology so I could jump right in without wasting time being confused or lost. (Student 11, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)Five of 15 responses directly mentioned the teacher as still necessary, even if the student was prepared to take on more of the responsibility for learning.
I do feel equipped to study like this with less guidance from a teacher, I feel I have all the resources I need in order to do well in another study. (Student 12, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
Yes, because I feel this format is very straightforward and could suffice as a once or twice a week class even because everything we need is online and outlined in Moodle, and as long as the teacher would still be there to answer the occasional questions, I would feel equipped. (Student 1, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
Yes, I definitely feel equipped enough to study other topics in this format with less guidance from a teacher. Even though we only met three times a week, I still felt like I could talk to the teacher at anytime because all I had to do was write an e-mail. (Student 4, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
Personally I think that as long as the teacher is there to answer any questions that we may stumble across, that I feel equipped to study other topics in this format. It helped being able to email you with any questions that we had. (Student 5, Reflective Survey, 17 December, 2008)
Varying levels of student comfort with technology, motivation, and self direction have implications for future design iterations. Students in this test case were accustomed to a preparatory school curricula relying primarily on traditional teaching methods such lecture, note taking, discussion, small group work, and papers. The students, though generally motivated, were primarily concerned about what is minimally required to earn a high grade. Moving from a passive to active role in the learning process was a new experience for them. While the Networked Student Model affords the learner more control and responsibility, the teacher must continually balance this freedom with enough structure to keep students on task and engaged in the learning process. Longitudinal studies with students who have a solid foundation in technological skills and digital literacy would provide a more accurate measure of the level of teacher control and scaffolding that could be adjusted as students mature in the process.
Teacher practice was significantly altered as a result of implementing the Networked Student Model. There was little if any lecture, considerable technology trouble-shooting, and a lot of one on one or small group facilitation. A student's success depended upon his or her motivation but also greatly on the strategic guidance of the teacher. The teacher's ability to gauge students' understanding and progress were key to achieving a balance between student autonomy and teacher intervention. Adopting a networked learning approach would require considerable teacher professional development and a philosophy different from that of most current educators. The implications of the latter on the potential of networked learning are far reaching. They extend to school policy, hiring practice, and pre-service teacher education.
Networked learning blends the concept of educator expertise with learner construction and views the role of teacher as curator, an expert learner who creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected (Siemens, 2007). The teacher in this study had characteristics and beliefs quite different from many of her teaching peers. Teacher beliefs about the value of technology as a teaching tool may determine effective integration more than traditional forms of professional development (Mueller et al., 2008). Even in an organisation in which the culture supports innovative programming, teachers will need ongoing mentoring and support. A cognitive apprenticeship model in which less experienced teachers practise with the guidance of those who have already implemented networked learning is likely a more effective approach than traditional professional development. Similar consideration is warranted for pre-service teaching programs. Providing opportunities for pre-service teachers to experiment with network learning from both a teacher and learner perspective may influence the likelihood that they will apply these techniques in their future classrooms and gain the experience to gauge teacher versus learner control.
The Networked Student Model is a work in progress. As web technologies evolve and personal learning management becomes easier, students will gain even greater access to knowledge and more learning control. The construction of personal learning environments has potential; however, extensive research is needed to document best practices, explore the changing role of teacher and student, apply evolving innovations, refine instructional design, and consider pedagogical implications. Social networking and sharing of personal learning environments between students holds further promise as more students participate in networked learning and post their results in an open forum.
This networked student test case, conducted with high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, reflects a small group of homogenous students in an independent preparatory school. It does not inform the outcome of a networked learning approach in an inner city school with a widely diverse population or within alternative learning environments such as virtual schools. Student success and amount of teacher control and scaffolding may be quite different in these environments.
The researcher welcomes further discourse on the Networked Student Model, its potential value, and challenges. A video representation of the project is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwM4ieFOotA
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|Author: Wendy Drexler PhD|
School of Teaching and Learning, University of Florida
140 Norman Hall G518, Gainesville, FL 32611
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: http://wendydrexler.com/
Please cite as: Drexler, W. (2010). The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(3), 369-385. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/drexler.html