Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

What are the assumptions which PLEs/Learning 2.0 etc overthrow

Friday I am supposed to be giving a 30 minute overview of the PLEs@CQUni project. The tentative title is “PLEs@CQUni: Origins, Rationale, Outcomes and Future?”. As part of the origins section I was going to talk about some of the fundamental assumptions of university learning and teaching which PLEs, learning 2.0 and associated concepts, memes and propaganda are undermining, or at least questioning. The following is an attempt to outline some of those and hopefully a plea for the perspective of others.

This isn’t an attempt to get the definitive list. I’m sure there are others out there – pointers welcome. This is an attempt to put together a short list which can be used to make strong points to my potential audience and encourage them to consider that, just maybe, it’s time to reconsider a few practices.

Closed classrooms

Old, closed classroom

The idea that the classroom is restricted by four physical walls and a roof has been under attack through the use of e-learning. However, much of e-learning, as currently practiced, still restricts learning and participation to the classroom. If not the physical classroom, at least to those that are enrolled in the course.

There are levels to this. At the most restrictive level even the members of the course aren’t able to access the content and learning archived in an online course before or after the term/semester has ended. Even if this access is possible, anyone not in the course cannot typically gain access.

Increasingly through movements like open educational resources, open courseware, open access journals and others the notion of restricting access to learning within universities, especially public universities is being questioned.

The practice of openness was a fundamental component of the early Internet and subsequently the open source community. That practice has started to inform/infect other areas of practice and certainly appears to be embodied in social media.

David Wiley picks up these theme and does it more justice in this journal article. And put it into practice.

George Siemens and Stephen Downes are taking this to the extreme with an open course on connectivism and connective knowledge.


The traditional practice of university teaching and the most common current practice of e-learning at universities were based on one fundamental assumption – scarcity.

The knowledge held by the university academic was scarce. Learners would find it difficult, if not impossible, to access that knowledge via any other means but attending formal courses run by the university and the academic with the knowledge. Textbooks were scarce and expensive.

In the 90s, access to the Internet was scarce. Especially in the early to mid-1990s people were often enrolling at Universities in order to gain access to the Internet. Universities became responsible for providing the modems and other infrastructure to provide that access. Subsequently, services on which to host content, discussions and other services on the Internet/World-Wide Web were scarce. Universities had to provide the infrastructure to host the content, discussions and other services associated with learning and teaching.

Then a funny thing happened. These things became abundant. People didn’t have to come to universities for information, expertise, Internet access or Internet content, discussions and other services. They were spoiled for choice.

The first place I go to find an answer to a question is Google. I’m sure I am not alone.

The first place I go if I want to

  • put a powerpoint file online is Slideshare;
  • share an opinion or a publication is WordPress;
  • engage in some collaborative editing of a paper is Google docs; or
  • share some images is Flickr.

And each of the above tend towards being open.

Knowledge and internet services are now abundant. As George Siemens mentioned in a recent talk “When you have 3 dogs you give them names. When you have 10,000 cattle you don’t bother”. Number or amount matters. You do different things when resources are scarce than when they are abundant. Practices have to change.

We have already started thinking and doing playing with how this might change in terms of providing course websites with out first Web 2.0 course site.

Primacy of formal learning


The majority of the emphasis in university learning is on finishing the course. Be it the learning going through the course or the academic teaching/designing the course, the focus is on the course. At the extreme end of this perspective is the situation where the course doesn’t connect with the outside world. Doesn’t recognise that most learning doesn’t happen in a formal classroom.

On the web and in the literature you can find numerous folk (1 and 2 ) who will suggest that the vast majority of learning does NOT happen in a formal education or training environment. Most learning occurs in ad hoc, unexpected interactions with peers, family and friends.

In the current “knowledge-based economy” it’s the responsibility of universities to recognise that learning doesn’t stop when students graduate (not does it start when they enrol). They will keep learning, the will need to. It’s our responsibility to help them develop these skills and perhaps to collaborate with them in the on-going need for lifelong learning. Perhaps leveraging the benefits of their informal learning as the move through life can improve the quality of our formal courses.