Personalized Learning Networks (PNL’s) and VW’s

Exploring new technological resources such as VW’s and their unique environments opens new dimensions of the formative teaching and learning process. Current space-temporal barriers are opening and disrupting up the ESL teaching field. The contexts within VW’s requires thoughts about how the role of ESL teachers in VW’s. Also, an exploration of the dynamics of ESL students entering VW’s, their learning, the interaction between peers, teachers and ‘drop-ins’ or visitors is necessary. Exploring, sharing and learning in a VW unfolds venues of student network collaborations, leading to Personal Learning Networks (PNL). ESL language acquisition cannot be understood without this social and educational perspective.

Virtual Worlds are emerging as a strong educational phenomenon because they enable participants and in-world travelers to meet and socially interact with others in a variety of online environments. Users navigate these online environments utilizing an avatar. Avatars are personalized by the user and act as their ‘alter ego’ in their chosen virtual setting. There is a multitude of virtual worlds focused on education. Here a small sample: ScienceSim, Heritage Key, Active Worlds Educational Universe, Secret Builders and WizWorld Online.
VW’s invite and require a certain degree of self-organization in the personalized trajectory of improving L2 language skills. The importance of self-organization as a learning process is stated by Wiley and Edwards:
“Jacobs argues that communities self-organize a manner similar to social insects: instead of thousands of ants crossing each other’s pheromone trails and changing their behavior accordingly, thousands of humans pass each other on the sidewalk and change their behavior accordingly.”
In her article, Wendy Drexler, University of FloridaI, “The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy” states:

“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.”

Balancing the benefits of technology and real-life experiences in the experiential realm will be a challenge for the educational system at large. The benefits of VW’s are anchored in participants’ ability to create PLN’s; enhance their imagination; to grow and learn; to create with one’s mind and fingers a world that existed only as a representation and then enter that world as active learners. One future of education is the establishment of learning communities where we come to learn with each other and from each other in a collaborative process. Collaborative processes give rise to vibrant cultures of growth and development with the result of a harvest of student achievement filled with a growth mindset, mental flexibility, curiosity, risk taking and intrinsic motivation.

Teaching Philosophy

20160831_134638Jasmin B. Cowin, Ed.D.

As a teacher and facilitator, I establish learning communities where we come to learn with each other and from each other in a collaborative process. Collaborative processes give rise to vibrant cultures of growth and development with the result of a harvest of student achievement filled with a growth mindset, mental flexibility, curiosity, risk taking and intrinsic motivation. My approach to teaching is student-centered with the aim to open the doors of knowledge not only empirically but emotionally as well. As a facilitator and ESL learner, I sat where my students sit today. Genuine sympathy and sincere empathy for their struggles, aspirations, successes and failures guide my teaching philosophy. My former ESL professor at Rice University (a life-time ago) gifted me her guiding quote on teaching ESL writing: Caelum video lussit, et erectos ad sidera tollere vultu (He bid them look at the sky and lift their faces to the stars.) Ovid.
Technology is changing the context of education. Cultivating digital literacy is an essential part of a writing course. In today’s workplace, digital literacy is essential. But teaching and learning should go beyond access to basic technology based tools. Students must learn to apply digital resources to creatively solve problems, produce innovative projects, and enhance communications to prepare for a career in any field. My writing courses encourage a dialogue between technological tools and students to achieve polished, in-depth pieces highlighting a mastery of analysis and form.
I reflected deeply on Driscoll’s (2000) definition of learning as “a persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world” and rely on Siemens’s reflection (2005) on that definition; “[Driscoll’s] definition encompasses many of the attributes commonly associated with behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism – namely, learning as a lasting changed state (emotional, mental, physiological (i.e. skills)) brought about as a result of experiences and interactions with content or other people,” in the context of technology a modern, yet common sense approach in higher education classrooms. “Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized,” and going on to say that, “the field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.”
Academic ability is not necessarily an indication of intelligence as talent is diverse. Often instructional methods are preoccupied with academic ability. I prefer a common-sense approach where the writer’s mind focuses on both the practical and analytical. Interactive, collaborative, and personalized instruction address the hopes and aspirations of nascent writers. I encourage diversity in writing with a broad curriculum to feed the spirit; writing about issues which resonate; fostering creativity in the writing process while embracing and consistently applying essential cornerstones of the writing process.
Beyond grammatical skills, writing a college-level essay requires the following: a thesis; factual support; and clear lines of logic to link the factual support into arguments either supporting or refuting the thesis. Regardless of the topic; from art to business, from journalism to international relations; any compelling essay will require these elements. Therefore, in our essays classes use Google based fact sheets to scaffold their arguments and delineate thinking in a clear, organized method. These personally developed Google instruments provide writing exercises through which students can concentrate on the logical components of the writing process by choosing relevant facts, analyzing them, and developing clear arguments based on such facts. This fosters a writing approach which lends itself to writing across disciplines. Our elevator pitches focus on the topic and infuse the course with real-life presentation experience using various technology suites while simultaneously fostering fluency, strong delivery and a sense of real-life application for ESL students.
The Experiential Learning Philosophy and authentic learning in a student-centered classroom are the cornerstones of my educational approach. My primary goals in teaching writing are: First, increasing students’ metacognitive awareness so that they better understand themselves as learners and enable students to take responsibility for their learning. Second, providing a clear lesson structure with objectives and aims for students. Third, improving students’ understanding of, and ability to accurately use English in speaking, writing and reading. My overarching goal is to develop communicative competence.

Connectivism, Siemens, and teaching in 3D Enviroments

This week I was struck by the Siemens’ article Connectivism: Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Siemens states, ‘Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning. Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Technology is altering our brains => the tools we use define and shape our thinking.” I believe Siemens (p.8) makes an excellent point in relating learning theories and the impact of technology and new sciences => chaos and networks.

Again, I am looking at what this means in relation to teaching ESL and ELA in Virtual 3 D environments. My predisposition is the belief that learning is about to enter the “chaos and network” realm. Furthermore, the concept of “unbundling” colleges and universities might put much of learning online or into 3D environments, which is more aligned to hybrid constructivist – chaos approach where “learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences.”

VW’s strengths as learning platforms for English language teaching and training lie in their multinational, multiethnic, and multilingual set-up. “The organization and the individual are both learning organisms.” VW’s essentially are sandboxes for highly immersive experiential learning where almost any conceivable educational scenario can be simulated and carried out. In-World students often identify strongly with their alter-ego avatar. Avatars can manipulate and use objects while socially networking in a 3D environment. With an alter ego buffering the self-conscious hurdle of fluency practice participants are more likely to speak to peers and mentors, join or form groups to meet like-minded persons, seek out casual conversations and enjoy educative congregating such as coffee house socializing, fire-pit talks or rezzing in to meet new group members for hang-outs.

Hodges notes:

Conversations depend on action-perception systems operating in dialogical arrays to orient us to the ecosystem and to identify its goods, and the directions in which we might go to realize them. Language, thus rendered, is a values-realizing activity, one that allows us to engage in the moral tasks of caring for others, ourselves, and the ecosystem within which we all live. (Hodges 2007b, p. 602)

Again this points to  networks, an interconnected world and “decision-making itself [as] a learning process” (Siemens p.5)

Once participants become comfortable in their virtual learning environment, they experience VWs as places that enable both native and non-native interaction with a potential for community building and Virtual World –> Real World (RW) carryover. Particularly favored features are instantaneous virtual traveling (teleporting) to a variety of locations on SL, the existence of support groups and forums for formal and informal learning, all of which enable L2 language acquisition through innovative experiences.

L2 is furthered not only through voice communication and interacting with a broad range of accents, pronunciation, and language usage but also through lectures, presentations, RL-like lessons, team teaching, collaborative projects, quests, storytelling, games, and roleplaying. Other favorite activities include holodecks with instant simulations focusing on situation-based learning, which potentially leads to higher retention due to word, image, action and experience association. Speed writing is inadvertently practiced through in-world blogging, twittering such as BlogHUD and SLTweets with choices of private versus public text. VW’s encourage volunteerism with eagerness to participate and connect to RW supplemental experiences such as web 2.0, are opportunities for introspection, self-examination, observation of others, and the ability to log out at any time => self-organized, controlled experience.
In VW’s there is a new orientation and (de)evolution of the teacher status as hierarchy has no place in VW, all are learners. The teacher’s role becomes that of a “facilitator” of both content and process. In the content area tasks, subjects, problems are being addressed while in the process area it is the how which is being addressed. Procedures, format, tools, style of interaction and group climate play a significant role in enabling students to interact and reach their fullest potential. So facilitator-teachers essentially become guides or discussion leaders. The process of facilitation is a way of providing leadership without taking the reins. A facilitator’s job is to get others to assume responsibility and take the lead. I believe this reaffirms “Chaos,” as the “cryptic form of order” – the connection of everything to everything section in Siemens Alternative Theory part (p. 4)

Skepticism for professional ESL teachers centers around possible gung-ho adoptions of lessons, an undefined SL learning curve due to a lack of clear objectives since most of the learning arises from self-determined experiences.Other issues center around confidentiality (recording chat), certified vs. non-certified teachers who have various linguistic backgrounds, reliability, and other collaboration difficulties, plus no apparent dominant standard such as American, British or ‘Globlish.’ In his article “Rethinking Language Learning: Virtual Worlds as a Catalyst for Change,” Dongping Zheng of University of Hawaii cautions “that many educators simply apply their classroom approaches in the virtual space, treating the environment merely as input.”

In my interpretation of this quote, this means that ESL teachers try to transfer their Behaviorist or Cognitive teaching approaches into the Chaos and Networking Reality – an unsuccessful approach which does not work in a 3D environment.

I believe that Virtual World – 3 D learning will one day become a standard tool in the 21st Century classroom, especially with the rise of 3D technology. However, there is a tendency in educators, particularly administrators, to look for a panacea. As virtual world technology strengthens, some will look to these virtual worlds with just such an eye. Sydney Papert and the predictions he made in Mindstorms asserts that we are “…indeed in the world of the future, a world where connectivity spawns creativity, where the ability to transcend barriers to communication and to spread seeds of growth and knowledge has been enhanced to a point almost beyond comprehension just thirty years ago.”

Virtlantis self portrait.PNG