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Questions and Answers on Peronal Learning Environments

March 19th, 2007 by Graham Attwell

In January I published an artcile entitled ‘Personal Learning Environments – the future of eLearning?‘ in the second edition of e-Learning Papers, a new journal published by elearningeuropa.

The online journal subsequently invited readers to ask me questions about the paper. Very fine questions they were too. I have just got round to answering the answers will no doubt appear on the elearningeuropa portal shortly.

But if you impatient here are the questions and the answers. Seriously – I think some of the issues are worthy of further discussion – although I am not quite sure of the best forum for this. Anyway – feel free to add your comments here.

Question: Michael Feldstein, author of eLiterate weblog, writes about e-learning predictions for this year 2007 and says: “…despite a ton of buzz in the edu-blogosphere and some merit, ‘e-Learning 2.0’ will only see limited success in terms of widespread diffusion.” Do you think this is realistic or pessimistic? Do you agree or disagree with him?

ma_moreau (France)


Answer: I’m not really sure what e-Learning 2.0 is or indeed if it a useful concept. But if he is referring to the use of social networking and social software applications for learning then I think he is most certainly wrong.

2007 will see increased adoption, experimentation and implementation of all manner of different software applications – most not designed for learning – to enable creativity and sharing. This includes the use of blogs, wikis, e-portfolios and social networking software.

True – the diffusion will probably be limited at institutional level. Institutions have invested a great deal of resource in Virtual Learning Environments. But we increasingly see not only students but teacher as well bypassing institutional systems to experiment with new applications for learning.



Question: You say “PLEs are not an application”. So, how can we actually set up our own PLE? And you, do you have your own PLE? If yes, could you explain how is it organized?

antonf (Italy)


Answer: As Jan Lai says in the question below: “PLEs are more a methodology or an approach to technology enhanced learning than an application.” However they do imply a movement away from seeing e-learning taking place within external spaces – e.g. institutional Virtual Learning Environments – to an understanding of learning taking place in wider contexts – both on and off line – and including the home and work as well as institutional courses. So rather than go to institutionally controlled spaces to record and reflect on learning, the learner will establish and manage their own space. Access to that space and interchanges that take place will be under the control of the learner rather than the institution.

Yes, I do have my own PLE, comprised of a ‘mash up’ of different desktop and web based applications I use for my everyday work and increasingly reliant on local and web based services. It isn’t particularly efficient and it has some pretty big gaps at the moment – but I hope to develop it further over the next year. Central to my PLE is the people I work with and the applications I use for communication with those people.

Question: Hello Graham. I’m involved in company training and in one of your presentations you claimed that social software can be used in workplaces for informal learning. Could you tell about this more in detail? What application you would recommend and how this kind of learning could be integrated to the formal training that the company carries out? Many thanks for your time!

jennyli (Norway)


 Answer: There are two approaches to this. One is to use social software attempt to encourage and facilitate informal learning in the workplace. regardless of curricula. The second is to use social software to extend the present formal training. And of course both approaches could be combined. Which approach is adopted does have implications for pedagogy and learning arrangements. If employees are encouraged to take part in informal learning – outside the context of formal programmes – and if the company wishes to recognise or certify that learning – then some form of Accreditation of Prior Learning will be needed.

Anyway, coming back to the software, wikis are being extensively used for collaborative documentation and exchange of ideas. My favourite is MediaWiki. Many companies are introducing social networking software for developing communication and facilitating the formation of Communities of Practice.  ELGG is a great application for this.

Web logs are another applications which can be used for individual to reflect on their learning from everyday experience. Web logs can also be extended to develop an e-portfolio, although this will require some support.

I read somewhere that IBM are encouraging employees to make podcasts and are excited by the wealth of informal knowledge being shared through the podcasts.

Question: Hi Graham, I would like to have your point of view on the effort by Bolton University to create a “all inclusive” PLE software. I have personally a very skeptical position towards the desire to transform an informal approach to e-learning (that’s how I see PLE: a methodology and not a software) into a “platform”. Do you see any future for such kinds of “formalization” of PLE?

Thanks a lot, Jan

Jan Lai (Italy)


Answer: Hi Jan, there is always a space for innovative, well thought out experiments in developing new applications. And who knows, PLEX may turn out to be a great tool. I suspect, though, it is more a proof of concept and research tool, than an application designed for mass use. As such I think this is fine, as long as it is seen as an application developed to support the idea of the PLE, rather than a tool which is the PLE.

Question: Dear Prof. Attwell, we are using a PLE (a mash up of ELGG, wiki and social bookmarking) for sharing knowledge inside my organization (a research center).  Do you think that PLE could be considered suitable in every context (schools, universities, workplace) and for all kind of competences? In which way do you think that PLE will affect the learning and training evaluation?

epanto (Italy)

Answer: It is interesting that you say you are using such a mash up for sharing knowledge. I think one of the developments which is inherent in my concept of the Personal Learning Environment is to close the gap between Knowledge Management and learning. It seems a little absurd that such a big gap has been allowed to develop in the first place. But as to your question – could a PLE be considered suitable for every context – I think that the key ideas behind the PLE – of user controlled learning – is suitable for every context. Of course how it is introduced, the form and organisation of the PLE and the amount fo help that learners will require will differ greatly. And yes, I think it is suitable for all kinds of competences. However, once more, we have to recognise that the pedagogic approach and the form of the PLE may well differ according to subject or competence. A PLE could be used very differently for studying history or for learning to become a carpenter. But the principles are the same.

Question: Hi Graham. Today many elearning experts are talking about Immersive Learning Simulations, Rapid Interactivity tools,  Games, learning interactions, etc. How would you relate these with Personal Learning Environment?

sarus (Germany)


Answer: In much the same way as I see anything else working as part of a Personal Learning Environment. I don’t really understand why people are getting so excited about the use of games. After all we have always used games in learning – quizzes and competitions are hardly new. true – we are only just beginning to develop the use of on-line games and environments. But that is just because we have been very slow in developing new pedagogic approaches to e-learning. I have said before that I think the introduction of e-learning led to a reverse in pedagogic innovation. We are just getting back on track now. As for immersive environments, I think there is considerable potential. But if I look at much of what is being developed in Second Life, it is not very inspiring. We are in danger of recreating the traditional lecture theatre – the only difference being that our avatar attends instead of us in person. I also worry a little about who is managing these environments and for what purpose. I do not think that MTV, for example, has a great interest in learning. And many of these environments require considerable bandwidth and modern computers with a  fast graphic card. Nevertheless the developments here are definitely worth following.

Question: Dear professor Attwell, I’m involved in the “Personal EU” organisation concept: How do you see the challenges of the initiative as a step towards an European “dream team” society?

takapiru (Finland)


Answer: Hi – I certainly like your ideas around developing intercultural networks and I appreciate the variety of different social software tools that you are using to do it. However, I am not quite sure I understand the idea of the Personal EU.  

I tend to think that knowledge is best shared and developed through communities of practice. Communities of practice as Etienne Wenger says are based on a shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time.

Whilst the EU may style itself as a community it most certainly is not a community of practice. As such I am slightly sceptical about developing the kind of people based portal you appear to envisage. Of course it may be that I have misunderstood your ideas.

For me a dream team society would be one that rather than seeking the highest levels of implementation of information technology sought to eradicate poverty and inequality. But perhaps I am just old fashioned!

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