The Personalisation Paradox


Image courtesy of Neil Turner (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License)

Image courtesy of Neil Turner (Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial License)

This post was triggered by reading a discussion between Alan Cann from the University of Leicester and Neil Currant from the University of Bradford. I was interested as they were discussing PebblePad. This matters as the University of Bedfordshire is currently in the early stages of rolling out PebblePad. Prior to this we’ve been a mandatory Blackboard shop.

The discussion seems to be rounding off with a fair degree of common ground but what struck me was the issue of a single instituion-wide solution to a given eLearning need against the open adoption of an eclectic range of tools as required. As a full card-carrying member of the Web 2.0, creative commons, open source, PLE, mac-using tendency I’ve always seen Blackboard as an evolutionary dead-end. Surely nothing that bad could be the future of education technology? And indeed, no single proprietary platform could ever be the magic bullet of eLearning. Nothing will ever meet all our needs, forever. The trouble is, it’s easy to get caught up in “anything but Blackboard” euphoria. But as Alan Cann pointed out, PebblePad is just another proprietary eLearning tool that seductively offers to meet all your ePDP/ePortfolio needs. The temptation is to roll it out across the University as “the way”. Now the nice people from Wolverhampton are not Blackboard Inc – no preemptive patent attacks, no suppression of academic papers at conferences, but the dangers are still there. And then its based on Adobe Flash… No University should base its strategy on any single private company whose first loyalties are necessarily to its shareholders, not its clients.

If we’re going to use PebblePad then it has to be intelligently. I do believe in holding academic course teams (or individuals, where there are more courses than staff 🙂 ) accountable for what they’re doing but I think you mandate the quality and standards, not the use of any particular software brand – get the job done but how you do it is down to you. But Neil is right too – if you do the ultimate in personalisation and just say to all students, “go and find a bit of software that suits you and get on with it”, what they’ll hear is, “go to the pub”. And then there’s the acceptance of technophobia in academic staff. No academic could say “don’t ask me to recommend books or produce handouts because I don’t read and write too well” but it is OK to say “sorry, I don’t do computers. Call tech support”. Central ICT and eLearning are expected to provide a very high level of support to individuals and teams, normally with woeful levels of resourcing. It’s very easy and understandable for them to want to stick to a single university-system that they can get a good understanding of.

So this is the paradox of personalisation. How do you enable a supportive, integrated eLearning environment that allows genuine personalisation for all members of the community? Regarding ePDP, given where we are, I would advocate specifying what we expect from an ePDP process – top down – and then offering PebblePad as a default, centrally supported option but encouraging experimentation by anybody who wants to do it differently – bottom up. This may come with a caveat of reduced central support and a request to share the outcomes of any innovative practice.

ps. Whilst writing this post, I’ve seen the posting on Blackboard’s blog regarding the opening up of their platform to integrate with other VLE-like systems. This looks like an interesting development. Too early to really judge what it’ll mean. My first thought is that we need to get their angle – how will this make them more money? Or is it a defensive move to keep them in the game longer? Whilst I’m sympathetic to Moodle and Sakai (and with all due respect to Ian Usher and what he’s doing in Bucks), I do feel that the age of VLE-like systems is passing. So just connecting VLEs together might be useful in the short term, but I’m pretty certain that it won’t be significant in the long term.

3 Responses to “The Personalisation Paradox”
  1. I like where you are heading in your thinking. You and your readers may be interested in an NLE – a Network Learning Environment.

    NLEs, such as Scholar360, combine all the academic features in a VLE with Web 2.0 features and a secure social network.

  2. Neil Currant says:

    I agree with your conclusions. Part of the problem is what is driving what? One of our drivers for PebblePAD was partly to try and kick start the whole PDP agenda. PDP is something which often gets shortshrift in some courses when compared to main content of the course.
    So in one way, PebblePAD offers the chance to say to academics, ‘hey here’s a tool that can help students put together personal development plans and hopefully it doesn’t involve a lot of input from you’. Not the ideal solution and not the way I would want things to be but I guess it is trying to play the game of trying to raise the profile of PDP in general.

  3. I certainly won’t argue with you! It is a paradox finding ways to make Web 2.0 work in an institutional context. The obvious problems for institutions like how to manage a diverse set of web based tools and how it can ensure business processes can be supported make Web 2.0 a challenge.

    We think we’ve created a product in PebblePad that can support institutions in their provision of personal learning and ePortfolio type activity. Some of our most rewarding successes have come from seeing students arrive with next to no IT skills and moving to a stage where they have the confidence to go and use their own preferred Web 2.0 tools in a public area. Obviously this is probably more due to effective teaching than anything else but PebblePad does provide the framework to allow students to develop.

    I think good teachers make themselves more and more redundant as the semester progresses creating independent learners along the way. Maybe software is the same. PebblePad may be the first step for many towards developing their confidence and independence as Web 2.0 users. Obviously I hope they’ll think PebblePad is fantastic and want to carry on using it, but if they move on to other tools and see value in them then I’d still consider helping them with their first steps a success.

    We hope that we can bridge the gap and provide a mechanism to bring institutions the facilities they need from Web 2.0. In addition to the facilities PebblePad provides we have support for RSS, Flickr and YouTube. This means users can bring things in from elsewhere so PebblePad is not the be all and end all. We see this as an area we want to develop further but it is tricky to get the balance between the institution (and its processes) and the individual right.

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