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The present and future of Personal Learning Environments (PLE)

This post is recast from an assignment I completed about four months ago in a Masters Degree course entitled Innovative Practice and Emerging ICT, in which I investigated what PLEs are meant to be and where they might be going. It was originally part of a class wiki.

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Towards a Definition
  3. Driving Forces
  4. Developments to Date
  5. Barriers
  6. Future Potential
  7. References
  8. Web Links

Introduction

A definition for the term Personal Learning Environment (PLE), remains elusive. Conception about what should constitute a PLE depends on the perspective of the commentator. For example, the priorities for a PLE are different for a tertiary student, a university administrator, an instructor, a working professional, or an adult who persues an eclectic path of lifelong learning. Metaphorically, an individual may engage in a learning process that is either more acquisitional or participatory (Sfard, 1998). There are inconsistencies across these positions about what a PLE should do. But whether constructively and defensively, interest in PLE appears to be growing.

At the time of writing this introduction (August 2006), no particular product or service exists that can definitively be categorised as a PLE, although some prototypical work is in progress. An inclusive, authoritative account about PLEs does not yet exist. Only a handful of articles have appeared in the academic and public press about PLEs since the term gained currency in 2004. This article has been compiled after tracking recent conversations in the blogosphere and following social bookmarks.

Towards a Definition

The following definition is intended to introduce the general nature of PLEs:

a Personal Learning Environment is a facility for an individual to access, aggregate, configure and manipulate digital artefacts of their ongoing learning experiences.

This definition captures the following salient aspects, which seem to be common across all current viewpoints:

  1. PLEs are effectively controlled by the individual, thus decoupled from institutional portals like university Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) or workplace Learning Management Systems (LMS) for which the design goals are in response to institutional requirements.
  2. The artefacts operated upon through PLEs include the digital resources and references with which individuals wish to engage presently and perhaps recall in the future. Resources include not only static text and media but also dynamic services and their artefacts, such as instant messaging, online forum and weblog conversations. Whereas an ePortfolio contains actual assets for the purpose of reflection, assessment or self-promotion, the PLE includes a broader repository that also includes links and commentary for all three purposes.
  3. The primary goal of a PLE for an individual is to bring all the disparate artefacts of interest for learning under a single operating roof. The presumption is that there are many artefacts, organising them is time-consuming and it's easy to forget about or lose them. PLEs are meant to simplify managing these artefacts, creating meaning through aggregation, linking and metadata tagging (eg comments, keywords).
  4. A PLE integrates with the digital services to which the individual currently subscribes. These could be the university VLE, the workplace LMS or a collection of so-called Web 2.0 services like social bookmarking or photo sharing.
  5. A PLE spans the various learning experiences to which an individual subscribes throughout life. High school students may begin to operate their own PLE, hooking it into their school's VLE. Upon university entrance, it could be connected to the university VLE. If entering professional practice, the individual could then link the PLE to workplace learning and professional development facilities. All the while, the individual may wish to link selectively to an evolving parade of Web 2.0 services which are found to be useful for enabling personal growth and learning.
PLE Venn diagram

This diagram shows how PLEs are situated at the intersection of VLEs, Web 2.0 and an expanded view of ePortfolios.

Driving Forces

How a PLE might ultimately be deployed is bracketed by the forces driving its evolution and the barriers to acceptance.

The structure, features and policies of most VLE implementations tend to perpetuate the traditional instructivist models of education. The primary purpose of the systems is to organise course content for transmission to enrolled students. Only some VLEs provide shared file areas and collaborative facilities like chat and discussion forums. In universities, VLEs often act as secure gateways to digital indexes and research journals. Unless students manually copy materials out of the VLE walled garden, all traces of their learning experience through the VLE are lost once they complete their studies.

The notion of a PLE arose in response to the technical and policy constraints imposed by institutionalised VLEs and LMSs in both educational and workplace settings, which are perceived to impede personal learning choices. University administrators view access to external web services as a risk to the institution rather than an affordance for learners and faculty. Hence, they prefer the more limited view of PLEs as a configurable extension to a VLE, especially when they continue to see themselves as the monopoly technology service providers for their learning community (eg online enrolment, email addresses).

In North America the commercial vendors of VLEs dominate. There are unconfirmed media reports that the VLEs supplied by Blackboard Inc. serve over two thirds of all universities in Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, in Europe more sites use inhouse and open source implementations (Vuorikari, 2003).

In January 2006, Blackboard Inc., the leading commercial vendor of academic VLEs, was granted US patent 6,988,138 on "Internet-based education support system and methods", even though there is evidently a long history of virtual learning environments. It does not appear that the patent, if enforced, has any direct bearing on the emergence of PLEs, although the patent action may foster a backlash against VLEs.

Interestingly, some faculties have implemented and manage their own VLEs which are more dynamic, more concerned with learning experiences and are publicly-licensed products (eg .LRN, Moodle, Plone, Drupal, Sakai). These allow custom extensions, which may pave the way for the development of open APIs for connection by PLEs.

Enlightened educational practice has increasingly embraced student-centred learning. This includes the assignment of tasks with an open, constructivist foundation, where students push learning forward through active collaboration, problem-solving, investigation and discovery, creating meaning on their own terms. Where the Web serves as an avenue of inquiry, it seems natural that part of the student-centredness should be in the choice and configuration of tools for action. This is the space for a PLE.

So far, discussion about PLEs has emanated primarily from academic circles, who recognise that there are learning opportunities with some Web 2.0 services.

The use of ePortfolio (electronic portfolio) software and services is well established in many higher education jurisdictions, with administrators having set policies for their use (primarily for assessment). If PLEs are viewed simply as an extension of ePortfolios, then acceptance of them may be more assured.

Adults who engage in relatively unstructured inquiry or informal learning, for reasons of professional or skills development or general interest, could benefit from tools and techniques to organise their endeavours. At this stage, there is little anecdotal evidence of interest in this area. However, the possibilities may simply not be widely known yet.

For each online service, an individual's identity must be provided for each session. On one's regular personal computer, identity retention alleviates the problem by availing cookies and field prefills, including passwords. But this advantage is lost when using multiple computers. So organising one's personal learning through a variety of web-based services involves managing multiple login names and passwords. A PLE could alleviate the daily problem of login identification by storing and safeguarding the data for automatic application. This problem could also be eased by developments in Identity 2.0, an evolving standards-based scheme in which an individual's single, unique, verifiable web identity claim could be applied to securely grant access to multiple web services.

Software development companies are keen to make their product or service a nexus of attention. Whilst some learners may persist with the DIY approach to organising the scattered pieces of their learning environment, companies would rather see a PLE promoted as a particular product or service which solve the problem of that messiness. This applies not just to software for personal computers, but also for mobile PDAs.

Developments to Date

A WebTop is a new class of web-served applications enabling single-screen one-click preconfigured access to other web services which can be nominated by the user, for example photo sharing (eg FlickR), online calendar, weblogs, integrated feed aggregator, online word processor (eg Google Writely), shared spreadsheet (eg Google Spreadsheet), shared whiteboard (eg GE Imagination Cubed), social bookmarking (eg del.icio.us, Furl) and consolidated productivity services (eg Zoho). So far they are primarily aimed at business users, but many of their features match what is prescribed for a PLE. Examples include YouOS, 30Boxes and NetVibes.

A Mashup is like a WebTop, but the web services are combined much more tightly so that data from one is used to access information in another. A simple example is the integration of weblog with an embedded online calendar. In a more advanced, customised example, data from a particular Google Spreadsheet could be fed into Google Earth. A PLE could be implemented as a mashup.

The open source Mozilla FireFox browser has been extended by Flock to create a WebTop which integrates your browser with your weblog and other web services.

Some edubloggers have expressed the view that PLEs exist already in an ad hoc manner. Through their weblogs, they reflect on their own work and experiences and link to others. Through mashing into their weblog templates, they can directly open their own social bookmarks, images and other web services to which they subscribe. They use publicly-accessible server space to store and share files.

If an individual has enough server space available, with the right software facilities in place, plone or Drupal could be installed and employed as a PLE. These are content management systems (CMS) which handle many types of content including a wiki. Third-party modules may be added (eg KNotes weblog). This wiki entry about Personal Learning Environments is presented by a customised implementation of plone.

From late 2005 at Bolton University in the UK, A JISC-funded and CETIS-sponsored team are designing a reference model for a PLE. Through the project they will define the scope, review the theory, come up with scenarios (use cases), look for and document patterns, and define some specifications. All the while, the programming part of the team build some prototype software to see if it all makes sense. This prototype is called PLEX. Their project wiki offers the most comprehensive consideration about PLEs currently available. (Milligan, 2005)

The concept of an ePortfolio emerged from the paper-based folio used by design students for over half a century. By the mid-1990s, students began uploading examples of their work and linking them statically to their home pages, creating webfolios. Database-driven server-side applications (and the tools to build them) matured by the end of the millennium. By 2002, there was feverish activity to create ePortfolios as personalised learning content management systems. (Batson, 2002) Whether developed in-house or by software vendors, many higher education institutions began to implement them. Most ePortfolios are intended for document management, retrieval and presentation. (EduTools, 2006). Products offer various features for organisation, annotation, document linking, reflection, collaboration, formatting, goal setting, reporting, import/export and communication. Some are components of VLEs (eg Blackboard ePortfolio). Importantly, almost all ePortfolio products are licensed by institutions rather than individuals. Therefore, they are neither portable nor interoperable.

Barriers

In the absence of a new product or service, only those who are tech-savvey with a willingness to tinker will consider integrating their learning world through a wiki or a weblog. Whilst this is much easier than it used to be, thanks to templated software, it is unlikely that a large percentage of people will take this up.

For PLE software and services to be useful for students who must deal with a VLE, VLEs must provide the capability to interoperate. This requires that VLEs make secure software gateways (eg. APIs) available. It is unlikely that commercial VLEs are willing to distribute their control of the learning environment and provide flexibility, preferring instead to keep users within their proprietary range. In March 2006, Blackboard Inc. announced plans (Blackboard Beyond Initiative) to create network to connect users and alumni of their worldwide implementations, including proprietary social networking, personalisation, file sharing and ePortfolio presentation. It is in their commercial interest to cast their proprietary net as far and wide as possible.

On the other hand, such gateways for open source VLEs could appear and be implemented subject to institutional approval. But standardisation (aside from RSS feeds from within the VLE environment) is improbable, with each VLE having its own processing and storage idiosyncrasies. So the market will rely on developers providing separate plug-ins for each VLE, to mash into the learner's PLE. The prospect of a lot of moving parts seems unassailable.

The issue of intellectual property and the management of digital rights looms large. Copies of research papers from subscribed journals may be located in a walled VLE for access by a particular cohort. But does subsequently peeling them into or referencing them from a PLE stretch the licence too far? These issues need to be addressed.

People fear putting all their eggs in one basket. Users must be able to export their PLE repository in some generic format for safekeeping, especially if the PLE is a web service.

PLEs may be seen as an extension of ePortfolios, but the latter are rarely used beyond school. The perception of ePortfolios as merely a presentation layer for stored digital assets must be stretched if PLEs are to be seen as their natural successor.

Future Potential

Because developments about PLEs are at such an embryonic stage, it would not be prudent to predict with too much conviction what will happen. Many published forecasts of technology adoption draw a line from current work as if the technology is determined to succeed (eg EDUCAUSE & New Media Consortium, 2006). But the barriers are significant, not least due to the lack of a clear vision of what a PLE should do.

The success of PLEs (those which are independent of commercial VLEs) will depend on:

  1. the ease with which they can be implemented and used by learners
  2. interoperability
  3. the confidence that learners and institutional administrators have with them.

While some prescribe a vision for learning which promotes pedagogies consistent with social constructivism (Dalsgaard 2006), getting there is quite another matter. As with any paradigm shift, the biggest barrier to technological revolution lies in the political and commercial inertia of the status quo. Many commentators believe it can only occur through grass-roots effort which will bootstrap a new market. (This is what occurred with ePortfolios.)

In the next year we should see a consolidation of views about what constitutes a PLE. There are benefits to both web-served (ie. like webtops) and desktop solutions, so surely hybrids will appear.

It is probable that within the next year pilot PLE projects will appear which will mash configurable access to Web 2.0 services into online ePortfolio-type environments. The next hurdle will be for higher education teachers to recommend that students obtain individual licences for these first-generation PLEs in conjuction with or as replacements to institutional ePortfolios. This shift will not be tivial, as there will be resistance to institutional policy change regarding the use of ePortfolios. Publicly-funded PLE projects will be more readily accepted.

This should kick-start efforts to create gateway APIs and plug-ins into open source VLEs, which can then be mashed in too. This development will be difficult and take considerable time. The success of this integration will be a determining factor in the viability of PLEs as a widely-used product. It will probably take at least three years for a PLE platform to become stable and a critical mass to have the confidence to take advantage of the technology.


References

Batson, T. (2002). The Electronic Portfolio Boom: What's it All About?," Campus Technology. Accessed 31 Aug 2006 from http://www.campustechnology.com/article.asp?id=6984

Dalsgaard, C. (2006). Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems, European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 12 July 2006. Accessed 31 Aug 2006 from http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2006/Christian_Dalsgaard.htm.

EDUCAUSE & New Media Consortium (2006). 2006 Horizon Report. Accessed 25 July 2006 from http://www.educause.edu/LibraryDetailPage/666?ID=CSD4387

EduTools. (2006). ePortfolio: EduTools ePortfolio Review. Accessed 31 Aug 2006 from http://www.edutools.info/static.jsp?pj=16&page=HOME

Milligan, C. (2005) Colin Milligan Weblog, elgg.net. Accessed 31 Aug 2006 from http://elgg.net/cdmilligan/weblog/3720.html

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors of learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13.

van Harmelen, M. (2006). Personal Learning Environments. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT'06), IEEE.

Vuorikari, R. (2003). Virtual Learning Environments for European Schools, a Survey and Commentary", European SchoolNet, EUN Consortium, Brussels.

Vuorikari, R. (2005). Can personal digital knowledge artefacts' management and social networks enhance learning? European SchoolNet, EUN Consortium, Brussels. Accessed 31 Aug 2006 from http://elgg.net/riina/files/-1/1444/social_networks_learning_vuorikari_22_9_2005.pdf.

Web Links

All web links are current at 31 Aug 2006 (see document source to view all URIs)

To follow current conversations about PLEs, start with the following del.icio.us tags:

PLE (user rlubensky): http://del.icio.us/rlubensky/PLE

PLE_Workshop_2006: http://del.icio.us/tag/PLE_Workshop_2006

Also these tags about PLEs from Technorati:

http://www.technorati.com/tag/Personal%20Learning%20Environments

http://www.technorati.com/tag/PLE?language=en

Creative Commons License Published under a Creative Commons License

A PLE research resource I have been building is at:
http://octette.cs.man.ac.uk/jitt/index.php/Personal_Learning_Environments

Thanks for dropping by, Mark. Your resource was one of the first I found while researching PLEs--check my references and deli.cio.us links.

Ron - thanks for such a useful piece. I've developed a workshop game using some of these ideas here. I'm not an edutech specialist and would welcome any comments and ideas

Hi Ray, a nice article.
Your definition - how do you handle non-digital artifacts?

eg Michelle Martin's Moleskin, in her comment on PLE's.
http://michelemartin.typepad.com/thebambooprojectblog/2007/04/my_personal_lea.html
-or a mindmap after a brainstorm where we used markers and paper??

Is this the flickr connection?? Take photos of the key stuff??

-Derek

Hi Derek, well I just know you're confusing me with somebody else:-) But that's okay. Regarding non-digital artefacts, I was quite specific about a PLE being digital. But a PLE could host a searchable index to metadata about offline resources. For example, I just sold a car today and the record of it on the online sales site is descriptive metadata about it. It's the retrievability of a PLE that's important down the track, I mean why else have it?

LMS are very popular in our days and sometimes it is not so easy to publish your content there. Personally I create presentations in PowerPoint and then using iSpring Ultra (http://www.ispringsolutions.com)publish it to any LMS. Teaching for me is easier with iSpring Ultra.

This was a great post. Great references!



I would appreciate you reading my rough drafts for publication and giving me your opinion as well. Especially on the one entitled: "For Costumizable Learing Environments" which seems to be your area of expertise.



thanks.


http://tweaklearning.wordpress.com/articles/

Thank you so much for the information you provided on your blog. I didn't understand why I was learning about PLE's and now I do. I found something you said very interesting; unless the people are ready to deal with all this new phenomenons, it won't work. I feel like blogs, email and other sources of technological nature are very helpful and saves all of us a lot of time, but I feel that it will only work if people are ready to accept all the new changes in life.

Sincerely,

Diana. S

I just learned about the term PLE today and found this is what I have been looking for myself and for my students for years. Ease of use and management, and flexibility are important for the success of such environment. with so many web tools and services today, many users are having trouble keeping track of the service web sites, userids and passwords.
Three years after the publishing of your article, I think Google is making a great progress in providing users with a usable PWLEE (Personal Working, Learning and Entertainment Environment) with iGoogle, Google Doc and other Google tools. I hope Google will add something like wikispaces also.

I have required all my middle school students to create accounts for iGoogle, Google Doc, and Google Notebook; create blogs provided by our school web site hosted by eChalk. In the future, after working out with eChalk, my students may able to host their e-portfolio on the school web site (now host on school server)

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