I have been doing a lot of thinking about the personal learning environment (PLE) as a concept for teaching and learning this week as a result of my ‘enrollment’ in the Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge (PLENK) 2010 online course. The PLENK course is a joint venture between the National Research Council of Canada (Institute for Information Technology, Learning and collaborative Technologies Group, PLE Project), The Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University and the University of Prince Edward Island. Facilitators. This course is facilitated by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and Rita Kop; big thinkers in education futures and people whose work I follow quite avidly.
I am in South Africa, some of my course’mates are in Asia, many are in Europe and there is a bunch in North and South America as well. How is that possible you say? Well its what they call a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) which means anyone can latch on to the conversations and debates facilitated through forums, twitter, blog posting, live synchronous discussion through an Elluminate session, and content aggregation.
Technology provides a number of ways for a group of people interested in a certain topic, in this case PLE’s, to discuss and debate the issues. The Ellumiate session usually features a facilitator talking about the weeks topic and allows for live discussion between participants. I have listened mostly to the recording of these live interactive sessions because of the time difference here. So although I can not comment and engage live with the presenters and students, I can listen to what was discussed.
As an added benefit, I had a number of informal conversations about the PLE with colleagues here in the Centre for Educational Technology at UCT. One of my colleagues is also taking the course so it is great to have that local discussion happening in addition to the course content.
The Concept of the PLE
The PLE makes so much sense for me. I see it as a place for a learner to keep track of people and content on the web, draw connections between people, concepts and content, and share their reflections on their online and in class experiences.
I imagine the concept of the PLE as a way to track interactions with content. For instance I now use Twitter to make note of interesting things I find on the web. As much as Twitter is about sharing ideas with others, I also use it as a record of what I have encountered and can then return to later on, drawing connections to other things I have found since.
The difficulty nowadays is trying to keep track of where you made reference to a certain piece of content. Did I tweet that? Or did I put it in Facebook? Maybe I bookmarked it? We are now seeing search engines which search only your own social media channels (twitter, facebook, linkedin) to find out where you may have uttered a specific link, thought, or had a particular conversation.
I think the idea of the PLE is the centralized place where you can get access to all of the people, webpages and content you need to operate. Whether it is your homepage, facebook profile (probably for many), blog, or e-portfolio. I think we need to start identifying what tools we can use to manage the PLE rather than be the PLE.
A Proposition for PLE Management
Many people (including me) want to explore what we can use to manage the PLE? What software can we use to actualize the concept of the PLE? Although Dave Cormier suggested we not focus on the tools, I think it is helpful to have some tools in mind as we frame the PLE discussion.
The learning management system (LMS or VLE) has attempted to provide a place for students to access content related to their study and connect with other learners. However, with the recent moves to ‘openness‘ and having seen so many of the great stories of openness emerging the LMS is beginning to look too ‘closed off’ for students to reap the benefits a PLE may offer. LMS’s are also quite difficult to integrate nicely with third party content from other sites.
I am a firm believer that content should be hosted in the most suitable content platform available on the web. As Martin Hall put it in our brief discussion yesterday, ‘the tools are out there’. So there is little need for universities to start building video streaming facilities on campus, as Youtube does quiet a nice job streaming video content. Why would we build a web application to share presentation documents when we can use Slideshare or GoogleDocs to share them easily on the web? The same argument could further be made for the LMS as so many new tools have become available. But this of course brings up a number of ownership and access issues which are certainly quite important to large institutions-and I am not going there!
I think when many people imagine the PLE, they envision this magical space where all of the learner content can be put. I like to think about the PLE as a place where all the learner content can be managed and shared. I would like to propose that we step back before we step forward. Half of the academics I know aren’t even blogging yet. One can easily create content on a blog as well as easily integrate content from any web 2.0 platform (twitter, youtube, slideshare, etc) Blogs are also useful for inviting comments and discussion, building relationships, aggregate content outwards, and provide a great space for reflecting. So I am going to attempt to build a PLE management tool using a simple WordPress blog. The blog is a perfect space to manage your PLE. Or could it be PLEE (personal learning environment experiences?)
Lastly, I do have some concern about the idea of ‘forcing openness’. The PLE needs to be open and accessible to all, as that is how many of the proposed benefits are reaped. I don’t believe that all students will be comfortable in having their learning experiences exposed to the world. So a balance needs to be struck between openness and comfort in using PLE’s with students. I think this is an area which will need great consideration as we go forward implementing PLE’s in structured learning environments.
I hope to keep blogging about my experiences with the course as this is a major component of the MOOC learning model. I predict my ideas will change over time as I interact with the course leaders and other participants. I will always have this post to look back upon, as I track my development in understanding PLE’s.