New Opportunities

Pontydysgu - Bridge to Learning

Bangor (WAL)/ Bremen (GER), July 2008 - (by Kirsten Seegmüller) The new generation of eLearning will combine social networks with context-based services. Even though formal content will not vanish, modern technology will support user-generated informal content. And teachers have to adapt to a new role as facilitator instead of a pure information transmitter. CHECK.point eLearning spoke with Graham Attwell, founder and senior researcher of Pontydysgu, about this current progression.

Pontydysgu is quite an unusual name - where does it come from?

Graham Attwell:
It is a Welsh name. Our offices are situated in Pontypridd, 12 km from Cardiff. "Pont" also means bridge and "dysgu" means learning; we see Pontydysgu as building a bridge to learning. It is not an easy name to remember, but however the users spell it, Google will find it.

What does eLearning research currently focus on?

Graham Attwell: I see several directions. One is the development and improvement of Web 2.0 applications, social software, and community learning. There is also research into the individualisation of learning, but that is the wrong approach. We should rather speak of personal learning environments. Big movement is going on in the development of mobile learning, for example with smartphones.

Research will speed up because mobile devices get cheaper. Mobile learning is not new, but it has meanwhile become mainstream. These devices are limited in their use for text-based virtual learning environments, but are very powerful in supporting communication, enquiry-based, and collaborative learning and multimedia content creation.

Can you give an example?

Graham Attwell:
Twitter is a social network and microblogging system. As in an SMS, users are limited to 140 characters in a message. You are able to select other users to follow, and other users can decide to follow you. Twitter has an open API for third-party developers, and there is a growing number of applications and services that build on Flickr to support its use for learning, amongst other things.

You mentioned personal learning environments. What exactly are PLE?

Graham Attwell:
Personal Learning Environments are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for learners to set their own learning goals, manage their learning - managing both content and process - and communicate with others in the process of learning.

Instead of institutional spaces organized by teachers, you have your own learning spaces where you can integrate all kinds of content you have created at work or at home. PLEs support a range of different media from which the users can choose.

Do didactic and pedagogical concepts have a chance at all in social learning?

Graham Attwell:
Learning always involves some kind of pedagogical concept. But the big change in eLearning lies in the switch of control - away from the expert to the user. Teachers should thus focus more on encouraging their students to develop their own self-directed learning skills rather than on transmitting information.

So where do the students get the knowledge from?

Graham Attwell:
It's funny, but even if there is a good university website with easy registration, students look up information in Google. This means that search engines must be improved. But learning 2.0 goes way beyond content: first of all it should support the creative process. Creativity is a critical activity, important for daily life and the job. People today have to be able to see things from different viewpoints. We have plenty of information, but the next step is to put it in relation to other information, to justify and communicate knowledge and express opinion. This is much more important than the information itself.

How would you describe a good pedagogical learning technology?

Graham Attwell:
A good learning technology allows reflection on learning. But technology is not the problem; the big challenge lies in the development of learners' own digital identities and to get students to take more responsibility for their own learning. One tool that can help in this is the e-portfolio.

But how can kids take responsibility for their own learning? When should they start to build up an e-portfolio?

Graham Attwell:
There is no specific moment, but the younger the better. It is a process of growing up. Interactive learning can start as early as in kindergarten. They can learn how to work with blogs, and many schools have wonderful websites developed by the students themselves.

What does this mean for the teachers?

Graham Attwell:
They have to get used to the fact that in some areas, their students know more than they do. They need the confidence that they still have an important role to play. Instead of teaching facts, they should give their students the opportunity to explore the content themselves. In history, for example, instead of memorizing dates by heart, students could explore simulations of ancient Rome in Second Life. This makes it more interesting for both teachers and learners.

What will eLearning look like in 2020?

Graham Attwell:
Firstly, we will drop the "e" from "eLearning". Learning will based on a combination of face-to-face training, computer and web-based courses, mobile learning, and much more. Learning will be embedded in daily life, and we have to integrate informal learning since perhaps 85 percent of learning is informal. And as we think more in images than ever before, photographs, videos, and various visualisations will play a major role in learning.

Web 1.0 was based on the consumption of content, but web 2.0 is based on both creation and consumption. In the future, we will interact with computers to both consume and create through everyday activity in our lives, rather than through a keyboard.

For example?

Graham Attwell:
When you are standing on the Acropolis, your mobile phone will "know" where you are and give you all the information you need on this historic site. But ubiquitous computing and mobile devices raise questions of privacy and of who owns our data. A big question will be how we shape our digital identities - we will start a new project on this issue in September.

What situation will society face in the future?

Graham Attwell:
Within the next five or six years, we will see massive changes in education that will affect work, private life, and communication. Since 1992 we have been living thorough a new and deep industrial revolution that is changing the way we live. This will lead to social tensions. Fifteen years ago nobody thought that in 2008 everyone would possess a mobile phone.

However one thing we should not forget is that learning should be fun, a serious game.