Personal Learning Environments experts meeting

Hosted by cetis in Manchester.

These are personal impressions and I apologise in advance if I have misinterpreted or failed to credit anyone’s pet idea or hate!

Thoughts for would-be teachers in this online learning environment!

1. Pedagogically, it is important to understand that teacher intervention is not the tool itself, but what flows through the tool!

2. Understand and reach out to your learners, inhabit the world in which they live – blogs, MySpaces, iChat, Skype, etc.

3. Value who your learners are now so that they believe you want them to ‘grow’ in the future.

4. Be the person you want your pupils to be – model desired behaviour (Stephen Downes).

5. Development of technologies such as foaf to include resources and activity descriptions could utilises PLE as a ‘lightweight’ approach to the flawed learning design approach.

Thoughts for would-be experts in PLE!:^)

1. A general agreement that a PLE isn’t a ‘thing’, that is not a piece of software but a philosophical starting point that has gained some recent currency because of the rapid changes in technology and society at the early part of the 21st century. This is not without difficulties though, as through the act of discussing PLE we were drawn into the reification of the concept as an object:^)

2. Huge tension between the institutional ownership of learning (broad definition) and the individual’s ownership of their learning. This includes artefacts produced, data surrounding student choices, student participation in learning activities and platforms, etc. For Universities, this data is potentially a valuable commodity in terms of their quality assurance processes, compliance, and potentially for predictive purposes. However, why not make this data more widely available so that the learner might use it to make informed choices and others to plan better.

3. The dividing line between a PLE and an e-portfolio was thought to be very blurred. Discussion around repository for an individuals work centred around the old chestnut of faith in the power of common standards making interoperability and thereby transfer of content between institutions and other providers of e-portfolio a reality – pie in the sky optimism in my opinion. A second position expressed was keep the provision of such services out of the hands of Universities, schools, etc as they are institutionally incapable of understanding the implications for individuals and of taking decisions that support the development of PLE – my opinion.

4. Significant debate around where PLE relate to formal and non-formal learning. There is a risk that the formal learning will hijack PLE for their agenda of delivery, compliance, assessment, etc.

5. Stephen Downes inspired the diagram below of the kind that my old boss Stephen Heppell was very good at constructing and explaining when trying to get across to people significant or paradigm shifts. None of the ideas are new, but it is one approach to summing up the rationale behind PLE – please add any thoughts.

6. Stephen D identified four ‘tests’ of a PLE system encompassed by the overarching idea that I have paraphrased as – personal empowerment and capacity: the ability to be successful! I have remembered and interpreted them as does a PLE promote:
I. autonomy of the learner – the ability to make informed learning choices
II. diversity in acknowledging different forms of skills and knowledge and learning environments
III. openness – symmetry of power relationship and the use of tools
IV. connectedness – interaction between individuals and groups

7. PLE will necessarily evolve first outside of institutions and then perhaps between institutions.

8. Don’t start with the institutions – the issues become very complex and a PLE initiative/project will quickly drown.

9. A PLE is the tool used to organise oneself on the web and the management of identity is the key issue. Plugins to standard browsers should readily handle this – the browser announces your chosen ‘persona’ and then manages the ‘harvesting’ (pulling back and display in a standard way.), re-mixing, and ‘planting’ of data using RSS technology.

10. In its simplest, and perhaps most realistic form, it is simply a tool that manages links, API, single sign on, RSS Relationship between the online learning environment and real world.


These were my thoughts on the reasons why we need PLE submitted for consideration before the PLE meeting Download file

These were my thoughts on the reasons why we need PLE submitted for consideration before the PLE meeting.


Stephen Powell

Why PLEs? If we are arguing that PLEs are likely to emerge as an important aspect of future eLearning, on what do we base these arguments? These will necessarily address organisational, technological, pedagogical and philosophical concerns.

Concept or software application ��� a practitioners perspective!

My background

I am an action researcher and project-leader of Ultraversity, a large-scale action research initiative at Ultralab, a unit of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. The project aims to explore ways of widening participation and promoting lifelong learning in higher education (HE).

To meet these aims, the Ultraversity project developed a new undergraduate workplace degree that is delivered entirely online through communities of inquiry where students, learning facilitators, and ‘guests’ meet together.

The pedagogy developed is underpinned by action research methodology, negotiated learning contracts, collaborative learning and culminates in a workplace exhibition that is intended to promote change in the organization. Students develop their ability as critically reflective problem solvers who know ‘why and how to’.

To achieve the above, the discerning selection and use of online technology is of central importance. The Ultraversity project has (over the past three years) used a variety of approaches including proprietary, open source, and free web service technology.

As an educationalist, I have a passionate belief in the power of learning as a means to freedom and empowerment for individuals, groups and society at large. This belief informs the direction of the Ultraversity project through my role as project leader.


My position is informed by the Nesta Futurelab paper “Personalisation and Digital Technologies” (2005), which identifies four key areas central to the goal of personalisation in education through the potential of digital technologies: enabling learners to make informed educational choices; diversifying and acknowledging different forms of skills and knowledge; the creation of diverse learning environments; and the development of learner- focused forms of assessment and feedback.���

I would argue that a broader understanding of personalisation in learning is essential in the debate surrounding Personal learning environments (PLE’s.)

Software is important, but that is only one part of the equation. The notion of personalisation through the use of digital technologies encompasses a wide scope. As the PLE ‘zealots’ naturally focus on the technology, we run the risk of becoming distanced from the potential beneficiaries of this ‘revolution’.

Much of the software currently ‘imposed’ on learners by institutions is unnecessarily hierarchical and imposes a ‘class structure’ that does not empower, and in fact promotes a culture of dependency amongst learners.

However, as everyone reading this will know, there is a massive change underway beyond the walls of educational institutions as students of all ages adopt ‘learner centred’ social software and other web services. Institutions do have a choice; do they embrace the developments as in the Edinburgh scenario (2004) “Web of confidence” or do they retreat behind the bunkers and go “Back to the Future”.

An undergraduate student at Ultraversity has just completed his Ba Learning, Technology and Research degree. In his validation and defence if his dissertation through exhibition, he claimed and provided a working model of his own PLE. This ���conceptual��� PLE included emerging technologies (numerous web services- Ferl, 43 Thinks, Flickr, blogs, wiki, etc.), support and development of online communities both owned by the institution and developed under his own initiative, a portfolio of work, collaboration with peers and experts.

I believe that he has developed a PLE in the important sense of the word. He hadn’t authored any software, but has made discerning choices about what technologies best support the forms of knowledge generation he identified as important to him.

The challenge for us is how does emerging PLE software support and promote the kind of learning described above.

Checklist for PLE

Software reflects the philosophy behind those who direct its development. In the headlong rush to develop new technologies that might lay claim the label of PLE’s, I suggest a philosophical ‘litmus test’ might be helpful when specifying software.

I don���t believe that this is the same as developing a ���pattern language to describe what PLE’s may do, and how these patterns relate, as this approach risks loosing sight of the wood for the trees.

Some suggested tests (some developed from Nesta):

  • support learners in making informed educational choices;
  • promote the development of different forms of skills and knowledge;
  • support the use of diverse online learning environments;
  • promote a social model of learning
  • support learner- focused forms of assessment and feedback
  • be accessible from different technologies and machines – work, home, PDA, PC, etc.
  • interoperate with institutional technologies ��� library systems, VLE, SMS, etc.
  • be portable and sustainable ��� user not tied to a particular provider or PLE platform


I believe that we do need a new wave of software that is developed from a different philosophical stance. PLE solutions are merely tools, but potentially powerful if they can makes sense of an increasingly complex world for the online learner. As a starting point even doing nothing more than taking care of the ���cognitive strain��� imposed by organisational and navigational tasks would be great.

Clearly, the challenges are many. At an institutional level, there is a great deal of inertia and resistance to change with more often than not a desire to exert more control to ensure compliance. In this environment, pedagogical issues are often of secondary concern.

I have touched on philosophical issues from a technical perspective, but would leave with a closing thought relating to intended verses an unintended outcome of the agenda of PLE. The approach to learning most often promoted by educationalists is wrapped in a language of collaboration and social constructivism. Is there a risk that an agenda of personalisation could move us in a different direction towards individualism at the expense of student collegiality and a social model of learning?

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