Personal Learning Environments

Unleashing the Power of Web 2.0

Students take their ePortfolios to new levels, while the pundits look on and try to fathom what's next, and the market responds with Web 2.0 goodies.

Unleashing the Power of Web 2.0

Students take their ePortfolios to new levels, while the pundits look on and try to fathom what's next, and the market responds with Web 2.0 goodies.

The Washington State University ecodesign project began as an exploration of more effective ways to explain a complex field-- and as a way to get the university's engineering students interested in studying it. The challenge broke new ground: Until recently, ecodesign was not likely to pop up on most engineering students' radar. But to solve the problems associated with global warming and climate change, it had become clear that engineers needed to be educated in ecodesign techniques.

So, led by a WSU faculty member collaborating with a research assistant, a corporate sponsor, and a still-growing network of university and industry partners in the US and Europe, the project team eventually developed a framework to help make sense of the diversity in the ecodesign arena, and to establish an evolving bachelor's-level ecodesign curriculum for both US and European schools of engineering.

The project team documented its efforts, conclusions, and solutions in the awardwinning electronic portfolio, "Understanding Ecodesign". Happily, the team's extensive use of multimedia attracted the attention of the WSU ePortfolio Contest judges and snagged it one of two second-place awards. Developed on SharePoint Server (Microsoft's web-based collaboration and document management platform), the ePortfolio includes social networks, video mashups, wikis, access to cloud (web)-based versions of MS Officetype software, and lots of links to Wikipedia and other web-based resources. Project Lead Chuck Pezeshki says the team also made extensive use of Skype for daily communication with Europe, including video when possible.

Pezeshki credits his wife and partner on the project, Kelley Racicot, a WSU graduate with a BS in mechanical engineering and an MA in education, for building most of the ePortfolio, and for all of its technical sophistication. Not so surprisingly, Racicot reveals that Web 2.0 technology was a focus of her graduate studies in education.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about how we might use some of these new technologies in the classroom, and I feel we used them very effectively in the ePortfolio," she maintains. "But," she adds as a postscript: "I don't yet see these technologies being used to their full potential."

Defining the Points on the Continuum

"Yet" is the operative word here, says Gary Brown, director of WSU's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, which sponsored the ePortfolio contest. According to Brown, so-called Web 2.0 technologies are just beginning to impact the evolution of online learning, but in the long term, they are certain to blur the definitional lines between ePortfolios and personal learning environments (PLEs).

"I'm not big on definitions, especially in this space, where things are moving and changing so fast," Brown admits. "But we can and should begin to think about the electronic portfolio as part of a continuum. On the far end of that continuum, we see an assessment management system; on the other end, is something that better resembles a PLE. The Web 2.0 technologies that are emerging now-- technologies that incoming students increasingly use to organize their personal lives-- are changing what we think of as an ePortfolio. Mashups, for example, allow students to combine webbased applications and resources into something new that they own themselves and can make available to anyone. That's moving the locus of control away from the institution and putting it into the hands of the student."

Brown's aversion to definitions notwithstanding, right now PLEs can be loosely defined as systems designed to hand off much of the control and management of the learning process to the learners themselves. Through PLEs, students set their own learning goals, track their own progress, select and organize their own learning content, and interact with peer students and others across the campus and the globe.

Unleashing the Power of Web 2.0

ANGEL LEARNING ISLE in Second Life is open to educators as a testing ground, to help them understand how to use a virtual world to create an educational experience.

The Evolution of Web 2.0 and the ePortfolio

The link between ePortfolios and PLEs probably was first noted by Scott Wilson, assistant director of the UK's Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards. In his 2005 presentation to The University of Sydney, Wilson demonstrated how ePortfolios incorporate the architectural models of PLE systems. (The slides of Wilson's presentation are currently available on Flickr, the Web 2.0 photo-sharing website. View them here.) And clearly, PLEs cannot function without Web 2.0 tools: A key component of the PLE is the social networking software needed to support student interaction with schools and with peers. Social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster fit neatly under the Web 2.0 umbrella. So do wikis (web pages for open collaboration), blogs (personal online diaries), file-sharing sites like Flickr, and collaborative tagging or "folksonomy" tools. The new generation of desktop-type applications that reside on the web, such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets, also are part of the Web 2.0 roster. Of course, MapQuest, Yahoo! Local, and Google Maps (easily the most-mashed resource on the web) are included in that resource list.

Speaking at April's Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, tech book publisher Tim O'Reilly (widely credited for coining the term "Web 2.0," which came into popular usage after he organized the first Expo in 2004) told conference attendees: "The real heart of Web 2.0 is collective intelligence, which I have defined as harnessing the network effect to build applications that get better the more people use them. Applications that are built on open, decentralized networks actually lead to new concentrations of power."

WSU graduate Kelley Racicot built most of her engineering team's highly sophisticated ePortfolio; not surprisingly, Web 2.0 technology was a focus of her graduate studies in education.

"The key is that it's all on the web," agrees Brown. "It seems implicit in the name, but it's worth clarifying that [Web 2.0 technology] is not something that you take home and install on your desktop. And though Web 2.0 technologies were not specifically designed for education, these are the kinds of technologies that students increasingly are going to find ‘out there,' and they are shaping the skills and expectations students bring with them to the universities."

O'Reilly points out that this is all part of the evolution of the web itself, into a "global platform for everything. It's this amazing tool for harnessing collective intelligence," says the visionary. "It's not just about participation or building a platform but, literally, about making the world smarter…. This is an amazing revolution in human augmentation. We're at a turning point akin to [the development of] literacy or the formation of cities."

Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English and director of the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at Florida State University, leads the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research with Barbara and Darren Cambridge. The NCEPR includes over 45 institutional partners from around the world. From Yancey's point of view, Web 2.0 is definitely impacting the ePortfolio, but in bits and pieces. Blogs, for example, are becoming a commonplace component of electronic portfolios, and social networks are appearing and gaining some traction. Yancey also has observed tagging capabilities bundled in some ePortfolio systems, but mashups are barely in evidence, she notes. And that seems curious, for "mashup" emerged early as the buzzword of the Web 2.0 world. (A mashup is a lightweight web app that combines content and services from unrelated, even competing, websites. "You take Google Maps, for example, and combine it with, say, the eBay Real Estate listings or Chicagocrime.org, and you've got something new," explains IT industry analyst Jason Bloomberg.)

But even though mashups have been slow to the ePortfolio gate, Yancey agrees with WSU's Brown that ePortfolios and Web 2.0 technologies in general are intersecting in the most interesting ways. And that's because "Web 2.0 assumes a way of being that is social, that doesn't discriminate between formal and informal learning, and that has the future built into the model," Yancey observes. "Historically, most schools haven't shared these values, at least institutionally, though of course individual faculty and staff have. Some models of ePortfolios seek to expand the typical boundaries of school-- both in time and in spaces of learning-- in ways characteristic of Web 2.0. Interestingly," she adds, "some models were engaged in this expansion before Web 2.0."

Still, the evolution of the ePortfolio in a Web 2.0 world has as much to do with the students as it does with technology. "I see other moves having to do with bringing together what students learn inside and outside of school," Yancey explains, adding that students are "remixing the school ‘given' and the everyday ‘found.' And I see them shifting from consuming information and critiquing it, to also creating it in ways that experts do. We see this on a small scale in undergraduate research initiatives; the multimedia and linking activities characteristic of ePortfolios seem to facilitate this."

The Market: Meeting or Anticipating Demand?

While ePortfolio and PLE users experiment, and visionaries prognosticate, the eLearning product vendors aren't quite sure where Web 2.0 is taking the ePortfolio. No matter: They're forging ahead and adding Web 2.0 capabilities to their offerings, in anticipation of whatever may come next. Here's what they're saying:

Digication . Jeffrey Yan, a former educator and the cofounder of ePortfolio systems provider Digication, believes that Web 2.0 could be nudging the ePortfolio back toward its original purpose. "ePortfolios were originally intended to showcase student work and use that system as a student-centric learning model," Yan says. "So, the concept [of the ePortfolio] isn't that far from the personal learning environment. Yet, in the last several years, many ePortfolio technology companies have focused purely on assessment and accountability. The result is a kind of numbers-churning application, which doesn't have much to do with student learning. But call them what you want-- next-generation ePortfolios, ePortfolios 2.0, or PLEs-- I absolutely agree with this direction, and I'm starting to see educators beginning to see the value in it, too. I think we're getting back to what is so intrinsically useful about ePortfolios." In fact, Yan says that the evolution of his company's flagship product, Digication ePortfolio, has been directly influenced by at least one Web 2.0 trend: social networking. "Web 2.0 is about building communities. Flickr, for instance, isn't just about making slide shows; it's about building a community of photographers who share and celebrate each other's work. We, too, focus on creating learning communities."

Desire2Learn . John Baker, CEO and founder of eLearning solutions provider Desire2Learn, sees Web 2.0 as a source of inspiration for the capabilities included in his company's first ePortfolio product, Desire2Learn ePortfolio, launched this past March. "Web 2.0 is having a big impact on [our] technology, behind the scenes," he discloses. "In terms of things like Ajax, the UI controls around tagging, and folksonomies, all of that is being embedded in our products." Ajax (short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), for example, uses browser technology to deliver web pages that function and feel more like desktop applications. Like Yan, Baker declares that his company, too, is focusing on "harnessing the power of the social network." In fact, according to the Desire2Learn CEO, the company views the launch of its new ePortfolio system as the launch of a social learning platform. However he terms it, the release does indeed come with a social networking feature, and what the company calls "Web 2.0 standard interface components," including a dashboard, tagging tools, and an in-line help feature (in-line help systems provide pop-up help information right on the page, next to the area where it is most applicable).

As for the advent of the PLE, "Many people are talking about a shift from a formal learning environment to a personal learning environment," Baker acknowledges, "but I don't think that's the case. Personal, formal, and social learning have always been a part of the overall learning experience, and they're not going away. I think what we're seeing now is people building tools and technologies that reflect-- and improve on-- what's happening in the real world."

Angel Learning . Learning management systems (LMS) provider Angel Learning is poised to jump in to Web 2.0 with both feet, says Angel Chief Products Officer Ray Henderson. Henderson reveals that the company will be adding to the value of its current offerings, but only because officials "carefully considered" how these emerging, web-based technologies are being utilized. "When I hear people talking about ‘Web 2.0,' they're often talking about Google applications, Blogger.com, social networking, and even things like Second Life," he points out. (Linden Lab's Second Life is a 3D, online, open-ended virtual world-- essentially, a social network service combined with aspects of a metaverse-- in which "players" assume roles embodied by avatars, and interact with other avatars. Since it was launched in 2003, Second Life has become an international phenomenon filled with thousands of "residents" who explore the environment and participate in individual and group activities. Second Life residents even buy and sell items and property in the virtual world, on eBay.)

"The concept [of the ePortfolio] isn't far from the PLE. Yet, many ePortfolio companies have focused purely on assessment and accountability. Now we're getting back to what is so intrinsically useful about ePortfolios" -Jeffrey Yan, Digication

"These are technologies that allow students to engage in activities related to learning, and create evidence of a learning outcome," Henderson continues. "And they offer students a great deal of freedom to explore topics and network with others. I agree that these technologies can provide very powerful experiences. But the challenge we face as an industry is how we combine the power of that experience with the virtues of a learning management system-- things like the organization of, and the ability to assign, work; collect grades; and archive student results for future audit."

Angel's Web 2.0 response to that challenge: The next version of its flagship learning management system (to be released in spring 2009) will come with a bona fide framework for mashups. Henderson says the company will use Google's public APIs to allow seamless integration of external content to its own learning systems. For instance, students will be able to create a mashup with, say, the Google Docs online word processing application, and then submit it to the Angel system directly. He explains: "The system will provide the ‘container' and the place to put the grade, while maintaining the tether to Google Docs." The mashup framework also will include support for mashups with the YouTube video-sharing site and Google's Picasa photo organizer. "Say you're writing a response to a test question-- or, if you're a teacher, building a test question," Henderson explains. "You search for a keyword, find a YouTube video, and then embed the video directly into the document, inside Angel. That content will live at YouTube, but the experience will be brought into the Angel environment. What we're doing is providing more building blocks for students, with existing building blocks from other places; a key Web 2.0 concept."

"The LMS model that has existed for the past 10 years," Henderson adds, "sees itself as something like an enterprise resource planning [ERP] system, in which every form of content is created natively. My vision is that the LMS becomes more of a hub with spokes going out to other environments, and that it provides the containers, structure, and organization for content that is increasingly generated all over the place."

Additionally, Angel has staked out virtual territory in Second Life-- an island it shares with a group called the Second Life Education Community, or SLED. Angel Learning Isle is now open to educators as a testing ground to help them understand how to use a virtual world to create an educational experience. But, Henderson warns, it's still pure research and development. His best advice to others looking to expand their teaching and learning efforts into the Web 2.0 world? "It's a work in progress; keep that in mind and come for a visit."

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