# PLENK2010 – Breadth versus depth – an illusion?

This is a response to Dave Ferguson’s and Stephen Downes’ comment’ on my blog post . Well actually more of a reflection than a response.

I understand Dave’s response. I can see that he is coming from the same place as I am in concerns about balancing depth and breadth in online courses, i.e. the practicalities of knowing how to manage the breadth of information we are exposed to on an open online course and knowing where to focus. This is a common concern. For example in her blog post Linn – talks about trying to avoid being ‘overfed’. Others have talked about feeling overwhelmed as George has noted – in his Moodle forum post (Making sense of (in?) abundance – in the General Discussion Forum). These feelings are very common, so is the depth versus breadth problem an illusion as Stephen claims?

To quote Stephen in full – he writes:

It occurs to me that the depth versus breadth problem is an illusion. One person’s breadth is another person’s depth. It’s an artifact of how we divide the world. If we divide it by discipline – computer science, physics, art – depth looks like one thing. But if you divide it by function – saving lives, educating children, building bridges – depth looks like something very different.

My experience with thinking about depth versus breadth has always been in terms of the ‘overload’ problem discussed above and ‘recognised’ by Dave. This is a real problem so in that sense is not an illusion – it is something experienced by many learners and something that many teachers think about in trying to select a curriculum for their learners – and it has become more of a problem now that we have so much ready information and networks at our finger tips. How do we know where to focus? This ability to filter, select and focus is a critical literacy skill that will be important to develop. This was discussed in the Critical Literacies course and Matthias and I have also discussed it in relation to e-resonance.

But Stephen’s point gives us a different perspective which is also very relevant to the networked world. I think my own experience of looking for depth has been in going deeper into a given discipline – but I can now see that the links/connections that you can make as a result of being part of a large learning network can also enable a depth of knowledge and understanding that might not be achievable through a single discipline.

This reminds me that Etienne Wenger often talks of the value of learning that takes place at the boundaries of communities of practice – i.e. where there is overlap between different communities. Paul Lowe has also made reference to Etienne Wenger in his blog post – The PLE as a roadmap of the landscape of practice. I can see links between these ideas and those related to balancing breadth and depth in learning.

I can also see that in this age of PLEs, PLNs and networked learning it will be important to be able to gain depth of knowledge and understanding both through digging deeper into a given discipline and through being able to exploit the diversity and breadth of our networks. But the question still remains of how best to keep this breadth and depth in balance and avoid losing out on both counts through an inability to manage information overload.

#PLENK2010 Immediate thoughts

It is interesting that this course has attracted so many people (over 1000?), but the Critical Literacies course attracted far fewer – and I’m wondering why, since a critical literacy must surely be to be able to manage a personal learning environment/network. Is it because the management of a personal learning environment/network is more practically focussed, but consideration of critical literacies is more conceptual/academic?

I have had a quick look at all the readings for this week. I was intrigued by Scott Leslie’s Mother of All PLE Diagram Compilation and thought I had better try and construct my own diagram – which I started to do and even considered using Prezi, until I realised that all this is terribly time consuming and I didn’t see that I would gain a lot. In my head I know which tools I use, why, when and with whom – I use most of them every day. I also know who I am networked with, which communities I follow and which tools I use to meet up with different groups/individuals. Having said that, looking at the diagrams was a spur to activating my Twitter account which has lain dormant since I created it ages ago. Now seems like a good time to test out whether it should be part of my PLE/PLN.

But more interesting for me is Dave Cormier’s blog post – Five points about PLEs and PLNs – Dave Cormier (Blog post) because he is talking about the related issues and why we should think about this at all. Like him I have always been concerned about the confusion between e-portfolios and PLEs (he didn’t express it like this – but this is the issue that his post raised for me). A lot of universities in the UK have introduced e-portfolio systems which are tied into the University’s platform. (Is this because of assessment requirements or am I just being cynical?). When the students graduate and leave the University they have to buy their own portfolio. It all seems very inflexible to me and ties the students to a system which ultimately may not suit their needs, when they move out into the world of work.

But an alternative perspective on e-portfolios is that at least everything is in one place in what is presumably a secure environment.  The disadvantages of open source distributed environments are not too difficult to identify; for example, you may lose your environment, as when Ning suddenly decided that users would have to pay for their previously free site.

There is also a concern lurking in the back of my mind about the effect of distributed environments on the quality of learning – i.e. the old breadth versus depth concerns. I personally find it very difficult to balance these. I have been very fortunate that my experience with distributed networks such as those promoted by the open courses I have attended, CCK08 and Critical Literacies (I only attended part of this one) has enabled me to experience more depth than breadth, in that I have ‘met’ research partners in these courses and have been able to collaborate in research projects which, as an independent consultant, not affiliated to any institution, would have been difficult to organise without these networks.

For me the  personal/conceptual interactions between small groups are more stimulating/interesting/fulfilling than a wide network of connections, but paradoxically I need a distributed network in order to find the resonating connections to lead to the conceptual and personal connections that I value. Resonating connections is very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment since Matthias Melcher and I have just completed writing a paper on this very topic after months of discussion. See The Riddle of Online Resonance – and yes – now that I have realised that there obviously is a link between the issues surrounding PLE/Ns and e-resonance – this is a shameless plug of our paper 🙂