Friday, June 02, 2006

Personal learning environments

Like Graham Attwell I too have been asked to produce a paper for the PLE workshop next week. My thoughts are below, and comments are most welcome.

Why Personal Learning Environments?

This paper looks at some of the drivers behind Personal Learning Environments (PLE), and what their implications are. This is followed by a brief discussion of the learning environment as it currently stands and how I believe that it will change over the next 5 or so years. The conclusion that I arrive at is that PLEs are at best a temporary phenomenon as what we are aiming at is a personal environment covering work, leisure and learning and that there is a need to be able to integrate all these better. Within this environment there will be some specifically educational tools.


Drivers for PLEs fall into two categories: social / political / educational and technical and it is worth looking at each of these and their implications for PLEs

Social / Political / Educational Environment

There are a number of important changes in the social and political environments that will have an impact on PLEs and their adoption; some will encourage their use whilst others may act as barriers and it is important to be able to use the former and be aware of the latter and if necessary attempt to circumvent them.

  • Assessment is a huge barrier to change in education, and never more so than now, with more and more assessment (SATS, GCSE, AS, A2, modules and degrees). Assessment drives the curriculum as schools, colleges and universities encourage students to do well at their examinations rather than concentrating on education. Many assessment agencies are terrified of cheating in general and plagiarism in particular. This may affect their views of PLEs, and they need to be actively sold to assessment and QA agencies.

  • E-Portfolios are currently being pushed heavily by the government, and hence by government backed agencies. Currently there is little clarity as to the function of portfolios as they can be used for any of three purposes which are difficult to reconcile and require different forms of control and ownership.

    • Reflection - Here students are expected to keep work, including work in progress, and to reflect upon it. It means that much of the content of the portfolio will be private, or semi-private and will include things that have not worked as well as things that have worked. This has been widely used in the art and design community for over 100 years.

    • Assessment - The portfolio will contain that which the student wishes the assessor (tutor) to see. It may include intermediate stages if that is required, but will be intended to gain good marks rather than as a resource to learn from. It may (but need not) contain the assessments, transcripts etc.

    • Publication - For use as a CV it would contain the best pieces of work (not all work that needs to be assessed) and transcripts, grades, awards etc.

  • Life-long learning implies that learners will be moving between schools, colleges and universities and building up their skills and knowledge base to meet their own personal goals (work and leisure related) and here may be one of the main drivers for PLEs. However, it needs to be noted that life-long learning has dropped down the government's agenda (at least in England) with the priority being learners under 30 at the moment.

  • Personal choice is another big buzz phrase at the moment, however as has been frequently pointed out it often conflicts with efficiency (a choice of schools implies empty places for instance).

  • Personalised learning (also referred to as child centred learning and student centred learning) is seen to be of growing importance, with a recognition that each learner is coming from a different understanding and has different learning goals. However, this is contradicted by the National Curriculum.

  • National Curriculum defines what, and increasingly how, children should learn with the literacy and numeracy hours dictating teaching at the micro level and the new requirement to teach reading with synthetic phonics. There are also effectively national curricula at higher levels defined by GCSE and "A" level curricula and on many university courses by validating bodies (such as the general medical council).

Technical environment

There are a number of developments in the technical landscape that will have a significant impact on education and these are not all pointing in the same way.

  • Portals offer an integrated environment that provides access to a wide variety of tools and information sources through a single (web) front-end and increasingly integrated back-end in order to provide value-added services. However, portals belong to institutions and primarily provide access to their resources and working methods. While portals can offer significant amounts of personalisation this is within limits set by the system owner.

  • Web services allow applications to be broken down into smaller units with standard interfaces so that applications can be built from a variety of sources and allow institutions or users to assemble a set of services that meet their specific needs. It is not clear (to me at least) how big an impact web services will have on the way that applications are developed and more importantly on users.

  • Application services that host applications for clients are becoming increasingly important form of outsourcing, and are likely to be particularly important for schools and smaller colleges who may not be able to retain all the expertise that is needed to manage all their applications for themselves. This can be done by commercial organisations, clusters of schools or by a university or college for the schools in its area.

  • Web 2.0 which is moving the web from being transmissive and concerned with information to being concerned with community building, collaboration and sharing.

  • Ubiquity and mobility means that people are now working with varied types of device (desktop and laptop computers, PDAs and smartphones for instance).

Ownership and control

One of the key tensions that will become more apparent over the next few years is ownership, and there are several aspects to this: ownership of the information and ownership of the assessment / validation processes and consequently ownership of learning.

Ownership of information

There are three types of information that are relevant here, and they have very different legal, social and educational implications.

  • Learning information - including learning objects are created and owned by individuals, publishers and institutions. The rights that students have to use these vary enormously from those published under a creative commons license to those under very restrictive licenses. However, once a student has imported the information into their PLE they are going to want to be able to access it whenever they review the content of that unit. If they are sharing information with others, because they are discussing their learning at work for instance, they will want to be able to share all relevant content. There is thus a huge issue of property rights that needs resolving.

  • Student created information Students create considerable amounts of information in their learning including notes, essays, project reports, portfolios and so forth. In schools there are often limits on who they can share that information with; many schools have blogs that are only visible within the school. Again, with a PLE the student has far more control over what they can do, and this will cause conflicts between those that want to control what students may do and the students themselves.

  • Assessment information It is logical for students to want to be able to keep all their learning information together, including grades and awards. However, clearly they cannot be allowed to edit that information. It could be that students only hold a copy or that the information is digitally signed, but a solution will be needed to this.

Ownership of assessment / validation process

Assessment (especially summative assessment) are highly controlled and fiercely guarded; indeed the awarding of degrees is universities' unique selling point. Only they (plus now the Law Society) are allowed to award them. Through their oligopoly this gives universities huge power over their students. The same can be said of students in compulsory education.

Assessment bodies and their agents (schools) have huge power where education (and especially the resulting qualifications) are instrumental. This has effectively meant that what the university or school says goes. If you don't like it then you don't get your qualification! This, for instance, has allowed universities to continue with attendance based qualifications rather than competence based ones, and why the selection of VLE is often made for the way it will work with the student record system rather than for its educational benefits; although to be fair these are poorly understood at the moment.

Development issues

The question then is what type of environment do students want, and conversely what type of environment are they going to get and in particular where will control lie? I cannot pretend to have the answer to these questions, but here are some pointers which I think will determine the shape of environments for the next few years. Institutions will not be willing to let go their control, so PLEs will have to adapt to the environment that is being used by institutions (whether that is a VLE, portal or e-portfolio). This has huge implications for the way in which PLEs are designed and implemented.

  • They will need to work with content elsewhere; and especially that which is accessed through institutional portals and VLEs

  • They will have to offer considerable benefits beyond those offered by institutional systems if they are to gain currency.

  • They will have to be extremely simple to install, configure, maintain and backup as without that most students will not be willing to take the time and effort to use them instead of a system provided up and running by their institution. This has the further implication that most students are likely to run a fairly "vanilla" installation unless it is extremely easy to use alternative and additional tools and these interoperate seamlessly with tools that peers and teachers are using.

  • They will need to interface seamlessly with a wide variety of PLEs (including both commercial and open source ones) - so that they can retrieve and post information to them. This implies not so much being standards based as supporting whatever APIs other systems support.

There is an important corollary of the last two points, that there is a grave danger of PLEs, and their tools, only being able to offer the highest common factor and thereby stifling innovation and preventing users from doing what they want. If one party is using a collaborative tool which offers a series of additional features these will be unusable unless the other party is using a tool which offers the same functionality. However, when new tools come out few will be using them and the need to work with others may delay the use of these features.

VLEs, PLEs and PEs

The other problem that I have with PLEs is that they are addressing part of the problem and therefore not solving it. The answer must be to create a personal environment that supports work, leisure and learning and integrates them in a holistic manner so that it is easy to move between them and to organise all ones information, communication and collaboration in a way that suits the users working methods.

PLEs are a step in this direction, but need to bear in mind that they must be extensible to include the areas of life. In effect becoming the users portal on the world. This leads me to a number of design conclusions that will help create a workable model for PLEs.


From the above I would suggest that PLEs need to have the following characteristics if they are too succeed

  • The architecture needs to be very open in order to support the widest possible number of tools - both educational and other; including tools like MSN, yahoo and aim, search tools etc. etc.

  • It must be easy to install and configure and as it will grow with the user easy to adapt as needs and experience change and new tools become available.

  • Information should be held on a server (possibly with local caches) as the user may want to use it on a number of devices (home, work, education - PC, PDA, smartphone), and this will also provide back-up and security. Note that I am not suggesting who should own the server (ISP, educational institution, LEA, employer or government or some other agency).

  • The PLE will be holding a considerable volume of data requiring a complex organisation and good tools for understanding it. There are a few such tools about, for instance TheBrain ( and many potential ways that might be helpful in representing and presenting data are shown at Visual Complexity (

  • It must be possible to move all information from one PE to another, as we will not get it right first time and users will not wish to be tied to one supplier (however friendly they are this year). Also, the tools that suit a primary or high school child may not be the best for a postgraduate or for CPD.

  • It should be capable of being incorporated within institutional portals (both at work and at education).

  • It needs to naturally support a variety of different pedagogic approaches and learning styles and working methods and different ways of learning.

  • it needs to work with multiple data / information / document sources including personal ones, college ones and work ones.

  • It needs to support the user in keeping confidential information confidential (eg. work related information going into public areas).

  • It needs to enable users to publish in numerous different ways information that they want to, including as each of the three types of portfolio discussed above.

Finally, and most importantly of all, there is a need to engage with stakeholders that really drive the educational processes: funders, examination boards, educational institutions, publishers, LEAs. Without that PLEs will be a glorious failure.

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