Stephen Downes: ‘This is the next era of learning’

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Image: Stephen Downes, courtesy of Stephen’s web

In this guest post, Stephen Downes, Senior Researcher for the National Research Council of Canada and pioneer of major e-learning developments such as MOOCs, syndicated learning and the concept of connectivism – introduces us to the next generation of learning technologies: ‘learning and performance support systems’. Launching in beta this month, the technology is expected to take the online learning experience to a whole new level.

By Stephen Downes

 Over the last decade our team at the National Research Council of Canada has explored the forefront of learning technology. We were a key part of eduSource, a pan-Canadian learning object repository network, we developed a collaborative learning resource development workflow system with Desire2Learn; we developed open education resource business models for OECD; we introduced the world to e-learning 2.0 and the concept of syndicated learning; we helped pioneer the concept of connectivism and, over the last few years, we have built on our development of the world’s first Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

This year we are building on work we have undertaken over the last few years to develop and deploy the next generation of learning technologies, which we are calling ‘learning and performance support systems’. This is the outcome of an internal prototype called Plearn – ‘Personal Learning Environment and Research Network’ – and develops the idea of learning support based on personal and individual needs. This is not simply ‘personalised’ learning, it is a step beyond that. Rather than offering a customised version of some generic offering, we propose to enable each learner to develop their own custom programme from the ground up.

Our application, which launches in a limited beta September 30, provides individual learners with the tools and support necessary to access learning from any number of providers – not just educational institutions, but also their friends and mentors, their current and future employers, community and social programmes, and much more. Built on current and evolving learning technology standards, it provides access to MOOCs, to traditional learning management systems, to stand-alone courses and software, and even to the world of the Internet of things.

At the core of LPSS is a system we call the ‘personal learning record’ (PLR). A person’s LPSS system keeps track of everything related to learning – exercises followed, tests taken, games and simulations attempted, work read – and stores that all in a single location. In this way, unlike a learning management system, it combines data from the learning environment, the work environment and even the social environment, thus enabling adaptive learning software to close the loop between learning and performance. The PLR is also combined with a learner’s personal library and their personal e-portfolio, and links to credentials offered by and stored by learning institutions, employers, and social network activities, such as badges.

LPSS recognises and is designed to meet the need for these records to be private and privileged, owned not by some company or institution to support their own marketing or business plan, but gathered by and owned by the learners themselves. Individual learners decide for themselves how much information to share with the rest of the world, and all the information is stored and managed securely in a ‘personal cloud’ (PC), a personal network of cloud storage services that can even include a storage system run on their own network drive located in their own home. There’s no central database of student records that can be hacked by intruders or shut down without warning.

Access to LPSS is by means of a ‘personal learning assistant’ (PLA). At first, the PLA will be designed to provide access through a web-based interface, but the project team will quickly develop mobile access as well. In addition, LPSS is designed to function as a plug-in or extension to other software applications; we call this the ‘projection’ of LPSS functionality into spaces where it is needed. Learners will be able to draw on their resource library to quote text or add images to work they are creating in Word documents or animating in videos, and they will be able to save directly from these applications into their personal cloud and share with their personal learning network. Over time, LPSS services will be projected into commercial simulations, online games, devices such as appliances, machinery and tools – the possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

The LPSS is therefore only a part of a much wider learning network, one populated by hundreds of software providers, content authors and publishers, simulation and game designers, and educational institutions. As the capacities of LPSS increase, we are inviting commercial and institutional partners to work with us to develop new learning opportunities linking individual learners to governments, companies, and more. We are building on known and open technology – standards like SCORM, IMS LTI, Common Cartridge, the eXperience API, and more – to enable providers to work, collaborate and even compete in a seamless end-to-end network linking learning to learners.

The NRC has already engaged in a series of projects with international partners to support open online learning worldwide. Among them include a project on open educational resources with the Organisation international de la francophonie, a collaborative MOOC on education futures sponsored by the Gates Foundation in cooperation with Desire2Learn and EDUCAUSE; numerous projects with Canadian universities; development work with Canada’s Defense Research and Development Corporation; a project in language learning with the Arab League Educational; Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) and many more. Each of these projects adds to the capacity of LPSS, extends its linkages to other applications, and extends its knowledge in specific institutional and industrial contexts.

At ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN in December we will be able to talk about the results of our first round of beta testing with an invited user based from partner organisations and the public at large. We will understand more fully the needs of people to connect with different applications and engage in learning activities while moving seamlessly from learning support to productivity tool, from desktop device to workplace equipment. Building on our experience and research of massive open online learning for six years, and on the development of similar tools and technologies over that time, we will be looking at the pointed and difficult questions in online learning: can I access it? Can I use it? Does it help me get things done? Does it demonstrably advance my career and improve my life?

In the meantime, we welcome enquiries from prospective partners and collaborators interested in developing new educational opportunities, new marketplaces and exploring new environments and services that can be connected to LPSS. We are welcoming individuals interested in signing up for our beta trials as we shake down the system and test the resilience of the core platform. Sign up at http://lpss.me.

WATCH: Interview with Stephen Downes at OEB 2014

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You can hear more from Stephen Downes and the results of LPSS so far at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN.