My New Learning Environment

Hot Air Balloons Flying over Bagan during Sunrise ~ Myanmar (Burma)

Today I started at my new job at Tampere University of Applied Sciences as a key account manager. And I feel more than happy about it. Here’s why.

Lately I’ve been in the midst of many international and national (Finnish) level discussions about learning environments, what is teaching, the teacher’s role in the future, how social media can support learning and how learning actually happens. And often than many times I feel the discussion about these is very mixed, based many times in feelings (of technological hype) and not on actual research and observations of our times.

We are in a paradigm shift from the industrial age to a knowledge age and network society. This I hope, we all already have agreed upon and can move on and stop repeating it. Currently others are going forwards with great and not so great new ideas and methods, and others still think that this is a trend that will pass and thus do nothing. I don’t want to contribute to this importan discussion as a know-it-all, but as a person who really tries to understand the forces behind the true complexity of human learning in a new kind of world.

But why am I so happy? Because of my love of learning. And I have a new learning environment. I’m currently also studying my Master’s in Instructional Design and Technology in Open University  Malaysia through a fully online programme where participants are around the world, from Malaysia to Swaziland and of course Finland (that’s me). We are using open social media environments like Google+, other G-Apps, forums, but more importantly, a learning framework which is based on characteristics I believe to help people in actual learning of complex things, not just remembering disconnected facts.

Addition to my studies, the environment where my work takes place, supports applying the learned straight away. It also goes the  other way around; my social learning process helping me with the challenges I face in my work. And I can see and participate in how the education evolves globally.

These combined are my learning environment. Like I’ve said before, a learning environment is not just some technological platform, or a class or some course, but the whole system where you make your learning to happen.

This is why we should stop thinking the term “learning environment” too narrow ways, or stop using it overall. It doesn’t mean that places for the so-called ‘intentional learning’, e.g. educational institutions don’t have their place anymore. They have, but the whole learning system that can help us grow as persons is much more.

Isn’t this just too simple? 😉

Google+ – A Big Buzz About Nothing?

I don’t usually write those kinds of “social media posts” where I ponder what some services might or might not do for us, but now that I’ve been using Google+ in a couple of authentic e-learning cases, I have to reflect it a little bit.

Everyone is currently discussing and writing about what happens between Google+ and Facebook, often going to the level of which one is better, who will dominate and yadda yadda yadda. This isn’t one of those posts.

When I started to experiment with Google+, still that time in its beta, I also thought a bit “So are they trying to swallow the market share from Facebook, or what is this?”

Now I don’t actually care too much about that. Through the eyes of authentic e-learning theory supported by open social media technologies, Google is really building something potentially remarkable with affordance we are just beginning to undersand, and also, at least I, is beginning to adore. And for me, that is way more interesting than just mere commercial dominance for the digital consumer souls. Here’s why.

I’ve been experimenting with Google+ & other Google Apps in my Master of Instructional Design & Technology studies and in an online collaborative teacher training programme. These both programmes have their backgrounds in authentic e-learning and social learning theories, and are using open social media services instead of just services clearly defined as VLEs (Virtual learning environments) e.g. Moodle or Blackboard Learning System. Although these are also in use, still have their place and are not totally forgotten.

I’m not sure if I can be explicit enough to describe what potential, or like I already stated affordance, lies in Google+ and using it in the authentic learning context, but there indeed is a huge one. But we also need to better understand and internalize the pedagogy needed for these service to live up to their potential.

As without people and the right kind of learning process to guide their way, these tools achieve nothing or at least much less. Using some of the older models of teaching, where teacher is the center of excellence, cripples the use of these tools and using them becomes just something cosmetic, not something revolutionizing.

Here’s some of the affordances of Google+, Google Apps & their integration that I feel are really worth mentioning after using them in learning.

You have the so called social layer, people interacting more informally, in this case supported by Google+. I feel many people don’t truly understand how important the informal interaction layer actually is. It helps the people to become a group, or a team. This is crucial in social learning process to start to happen.

Creating Circles of specific people, like your learning group or class, helps you easily post topics that may interest just them, or ask for help from those in your team. In a way these are very simple things, but psychologically, very important. It shifts the learning and the responsibility more to the learners, perfects their collaboration and stimulates their creativity when they are working together.

Hangout with extras, more advanced version of Hangout feature in Google+ which is still a bit under construction, is finally something you can use for collaborative video conferencing, to share your screen & write documents together in or from Google Docs (you can even start new ones straight from the Hangout). So everything’s in the same place. The usability of Hangout is simple enough and overall works quite well. If this feature evolves further, it could be a good alternative to challenge Adobe Connect and others.

These are just a couple of interesting features I feel are worth mentioning in this time when Google+ has been publicly open only a short period of time. Of course there are still gaps with Google’s attempt to integrate, well, just about everything. For example Blogger is a bit stiff and I’ve had to deal with many frustrated people trying to get its registration process to work seamlessly. But clearly, they are building an interesting ecosystem of services which can definitely be used together with suitable learning process.

And this what is happening is very important: When we have something where we have the social layer to easily interact and communicate with other people, the ease to create, collaborate and share, streamlined usability and learner centered approach from the get-go (as these are our own profiles through which we do things), we are a huge step forwards of a true 21st century learning environment, to use globally.

The learning environment isn’t just some class or the organizational VLE anymore, but everywhere you can find something to learn. The mental learning environment isn’t “on” only when you sleep in the class or interact with a learning management system. It’s where you create it.