LMS vs PLEs. The heading for two of last week’s reading list for week 2 of #PLENK2010 evokes a power struggle. It’s all about “balancing teacher control and student autonomy” (Wendy Drexler), or a “conflict between a centralised and a decentralised model” (Martin Weller), open vs closed systems etc. What is at stake here is power and control. Comparing one system with another brings up this type of dichotomies in an almost natural fashion. And by the way, how many times have I been asked to “compare and contrast” in various essays over my recent two years as a mature student? This type of exercise has its limits as it almost imposes a decision matrix framework where pros and cons are weighted in a spreadsheet against a fixed set of criteria. What I find more interesting is to figure out what each system tells you about approaches to learning and knowledge, and this is precisely what George Siemens has been doing over the last few years with his theory of connectivism which finds its best implementation within a PLE/PLN framework. Stephen Downes illustrated this brilliantly as well in Wednesday 24th September Elluminate session (which I only listened to yesterday). In a nutshell, an LMS will suit a constructivist approach to learning whereby content is organized, learning is structured, sequential, placed within context, managed etc. Whereas a PLE/PLN tool structure reproduces the connectivist approach of knowledge as “a pattern of relatedness” (Siemens) which is “embedded in a mesh of connections” (Downes).
Wendy Drexler’s “Networked Student Model” provides a very good example of potential PLE/PLN implementation, building “one node at a time”. However, I can’t help thinking there is an attempt here to derive a “PLE system” that would formalize a suitable toolkit when the author states that “[…] 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.” Is this not trying to fit the PLE/PLN model into a constructivist framework? Is it an attempt to apply a top down approach (ie control) to what should essentially be a bottom up process? Best practice stems from regulation and quality assurance whereby a work practice that is successful should be replicated and standardized. I can’t help relating this to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework which I have come across more and more in knowledge management (especially Harold Jarche) and educational blogs lately.
This framework is mainly used in Knowledge Management and Business to describe problems or situations and support decision making for instance, but I find this approach equally relevant to education, especially in light of the current LMS vs PLE debate. Underpinned by a constructivist approach to learning, LMS are ideally suited to “simple” problems as in “problem-based learning” whereby knowledge is slowly constructed within an organized environment. “Comparing and contrasting” is a prime example. Problem solving activities, experiments, case studies etc. remain “simple” problems insofar as they are framed by known research methodologies and “best practices”. “Complicated” problems already force the learners to consult experts and tap into Communities of Practice. Is this a feature of the LMS? As far as I am concerned, I think PLE/PLNs are far better suited to dealing with potential complex/chaotic situations in the real world (ie a knowledge economy). One of the central arguments of Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” is precisely that in a “flat world” or in a knowledge economy, simple tasks are going to be outsourced and automated and that there is an increasing need for the education sector to move away from “a vertically oriented curriculum whose goal is the creation of students with a fixed set of skills and knowledge”(p.327). A knowledge economy environment requires lateral, creative and innovative thinking which can only be fostered by a more fragmented and inter-disciplinarian approach to education and training. A connectivist PLE/PLN can facilitate this I think.