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Personal Learning Environments for creating, consuming, remixing and sharing

April 23rd, 2007 by Graham Attwell

Firstly, apologies to those of you who have emailed me about different entries in this blog and have not yet had a reply. I am struggling with a mountain of work and will try to get back to everyone by the end of next week.

Over the weekend a worked on editing the paper I produced on Personal Learning Environments for the TenCompetence conference in Manchester in January. It is going to be published somewhere – not quite sure where. I had a bit of a struggle with the review notes.

The reviewer said “. The call was for papers of 2000 words, and while some degree of flexibility is acceptable, your paper is well over the limit. Please reduce the word count to 2500 excluding abstract and references.”

Hm – the original was 8000 words so certainly was over the limit.

But then she or he went on to say:”In making this revision please give greater prominence to the SME study, and discuss it in greater depth. If there are empirical findings, please present these in a well organised form, as they may provide a basis for defining the new pedagogy, activities and policies which you are seeking to define.”

A little tricky. But in the end quite helpful as it forced me to consider which were the really important arguments for the PLE. And my conclusion was that “The most compelling argument for the PLE is to develop educational technology which can respond to the way people are using technology for learning and which allows them to themselves shape their own learning spaces, to form and join communities and to create, consume, remix, and share material. ”

I’m copying the whole paper into this blog. Despite the blog software getting a bit creaky these days the print view does work quite sweetly. If you read the original there is not really anything new (although I have all the references properly done now) – if you didn’t (shame on you) then I would love to hear your comments.


A recent article in Wired (Andrews, 2007) talked of “a shift from aging, top-down classroom technologies like Blackboard to what e-learning practitioners call personal learning environments – mashup spaces comprising feeds, blog posts, podcast widgets – whatever resources students need to document, consume or communicate their learning across disciplines.’

The article reflects the growing interest in the educational technology community in Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) as the next wave of innovation in Technology Enhanced Learning.

In previous papers I have sought to explain PLEs as a concept rather than as a technology based application. Such a concept is rooted in social and pedagogic development. In this paper I will briefly explore some of these developments and focus on the changing ways in which we are using technology for learning. This, I will argue, is the main driving force which should inform the shaping of next generation learning environments.

How we use computers for learning  There are many different movements in education which are driving the development of PLEs. These include the promotion of continuing and multi episodic learning, an understanding of the importance of informal learning and the move towards competence based education. But, the most compelling driver may be the changing ways learners (young people in particular but by no means just young people) are using computers for learning. This paper is largely based on an empirical study of informal learning in Small and Medium Enterprises.  Create, consume, remix, and share  John Seely Brown in a speech in 1999, looked at the new dimensions of “learning, working and playing in the digital age”. One dimension he drew attention to was literacy and how it is evolving.  The new literacy, the one beyond text and knowledge, he said, is one of information navigation. Linked to this was learning and how that is shifting. He pointed to the growth of discovery or experiential learning. As kids work in the new digital media, he said, rather than abstract logic, they deploy Bricolage. Bricolage relates to the concrete and has to do with the ability to find something – an object or a tool, a piece of code, a document – and to use it in a new way and in a new context. But to be a successful bricoleur of the virtual rather than the physical you have to be able to decide whether or not to trust or believe these things. Therefore the need for making judgements is greater than ever before.  Navigation is being coupled to discovery and discovery being coupled to bricolage but you do not dare build on whatever you discover unless you can make a judgement concerning its quality or trustworthiness.  The final dimension Seely Brown addressed was that of action. He suggests new forms of learning are based on trying things and action, rather than on more abstract knowledge. “Learning becomes as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract, and becomes intertwined with judgement and exploration”.  Seely Brown’s early study has been reinforced by research by Lenhart and Madden for Pew Research (2005). The study found that 56 per cent of young people in America were using computers for ‘creative activities, writing and posting of the internet, mixing and constructing multimedia and developing their own content. 12 to 17-year-olds look to web tools to share what they think and do online. One in five who use the net said they used other people’s images, audio or text to help make their own creations. Commenti9ng on the study Lee Raine (BBC, 2005), said: “These teens were born into a digital world where they expect to be able to create, consume, remix, and share material with each other and lots of strangers.”  Learning in the workplace  Of course there is almost certainly a generation gap in the way computers are used for learning. But a seven country study of the use of ICT for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises found a number of surprising results (Attwell, 2007).  There was little use of ICT for formal learning in the SMEs (in fact there was little formal learning taking place at all). In contrast to the paucity of formal learning provision in the SMEs studied, there was a great deal of informal learning taking place. From the study most informal learning appeared be learner driven, rather than planned in conjunction with others in the enterprise, and was problem motivated, although some learners were motivated by their own interest rather than in response to any specific problem. In many cases ICT was being used as part of this informal learning. The main means of ICT based learning was Google key word searches. Managers were often unaware of this learning, although they were frequently aware of the problem which inspired it.  There were considerable differences in the use of ICT for informal learning between different enterprises. It would be tempting to ascribe these differences to age, sector, size or occupation but it is hard to discern such causal factors from the case studies undertaken. None of the employees in the enterprises studied had attempted to claim recognition or accreditation for the skills and knowledge gained through informal learning. It is not clear if this is because they are not interested in pursuing further formal qualifications or if it is because they are unaware of any opportunities of claiming accreditation for informal learning.  The use of the Google search engine as the major tool for learning is interesting. It raises the question of how people are framing their search terms, how they are refining search strings, how they are selecting from the results of search queries and how they are following hyperlinked texts. For a search result to be useful it needs to both produce materials, ideas and concepts which can connect with the learner’s existing knowledge base of the one hand and approach the issue or problem being addressed on the other. The ideas of legitimate peripheral participation and proximinal development may be helpful for explaining this process and of understanding how people are making sense of knowledge.  Legitimate peripheral participation  Lave and Wenger (1991) propose that the initial participation in a culture of practice can be observation from the periphery or legitimate peripheral participation. The participant moves from the role of observer, as learning and observation in the culture increase, to a fully functioning member. The progressive movement towards full participation enables the learner to piece together the culture of the group and establish their identity. “Knowing is inherent in the growth and transformation of identities and it is located in relations among practitioners, their practice, the artefacts of that practice, and the social organization…of communities of practice.”(Lave and Wenger, 1991, p 122). Especially in micro enterprises, SME employees have tended to be isolated from communities of practice. This may be a greater barrier to learning than the lack of time to attend training courses. One of the most powerful uses of ICT for learning in SMEs is the ability to connect to distributed communities of practice. There has been much comment on the phenomenon of ‘lurkers’ on discussion sites, lists servers and bulletin board. Lurking is very much a process of legitimate peripheral participation. Watching, listening and trying to make sense of a series of posts and discussions without being forced to reveal oneself or to actively participate allows the development of knowledge ‘about knowledge’ within a community and about the practices of the on-line community.  Similar to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation is Vygotsky’s (1978) “Zone of Proximinal Development”. This theoretical construct states that learning occurs best when an expert guides a novice from the novice’s current level of knowledge to the expert’s level of knowledge. Bridging the zone of proximinal development construct with legitimate peripheral participation construct may be accomplished if one thinks of a zone in which the expert or mentor takes the learner from the peripheral status of knowing to a deeper status. This may be accomplished with or without intention as Lave and Wegner (1991) state:  “Legitimate peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytic viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning. We hope to make it clear that learning through legitimate peripheral participation takes place no matter which educational form provides a context for learning, or whether there is any intentional educational form at all. Indeed, this viewpoint makes a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction (1991, p. 40).” However, the expert scaffolds the environment to the extent in which the learner is engaged with the discourse and participants within the zone and is drawn from a peripheral status to a more engaged status. The peripheral learner interacts with the mentor, expert learners and peers within this zone. More able learners (peers) or the mentor will work with the less able learner potentially allowing for socially constructed knowledge.  Distributed communities and informal learning  Within the SMEs studies there were few instances of mentoring or continuous contact with an expert. The use of ICT was allowing distributed access to expertise – albeit mediated through bulletin boards, forums and web pages. This leaves open the question as to the process of scaffolding which essentially becomes an internalised process. However the process of less able learners working with more able peers is a common process in seeking new knowledge through the use of ICT.  Essentially workers are using search engines to seek out potential forums and contexts for learning. Selection depends on closeness of interest and the level of discourse in the community. There is little point in following a discourse of too low a level, of knowledge already gained, neither is their an attraction to a discourse clearly on an level which cannot be understood. Learners wills eek a community with knowledge at a higher level than their own but which can connect with their prior learning, learning and practice. Typically they will lurk in order to understand the workings of the community and to gain some basic knowledge. After a period of time they might contribute in the form of a question and later again might themselves contribute to the hared knowledge pool. In this ways they move from the periphery through lurking to full bound participants in a community. It should be noted that communities are frequently overlapping and that the use of hyper-links and more recently standards like track-back allow the communities to be dynamic with the emergence of new groups and discourses.  This study is important not only in showing how people are using computers for learning but in their use of learning materials. Few of those we surveyed used formal learning materials. They were using materials they found on the web for learning. In education, we have tended to focus on the development of formal learning materials and have ignored the vast potential of freely available ‘objects’ of all kinds (not formal learning objects!) freely available for learning purposes.  What about educational technology?  Despite the widespread and increasing use of computers for informal learning and for communicating, creating and sharing, educational technology remain less than compelling. Compare the vibrancy of many of the web spaces targeted at young people and the massive take up of My Space, compared to the lack of discourse on many institutional VLEs.  Of course it could be said that the evidence I have cited is for informal learning and that formal education is different. Learning can be hard and may not be fun. Different processes and technologies are needed for engagement with a formal body of knowledge and for navigating a formal curriculum. It might also be argued that different forms of educational technology are required if there is the presence of a skilled teacher or facilitator. A further argument is that the learning processes I have described are based on voluntary learning and rely on a high level of self motivation. What about those learners who lack high levels of self motivation and are unaccustomed to managing their own learning? There is a degree of truth in this. But I am unconvinced that our present educational technology, based essentially on managing learning, rather than encouraging creativity, provides any better motivation for learners.  In a paper published in German last year (Attwell, 2006), I argued that the lack of innovation and the limited didactic approaches to learning using computers within the educational system is perhaps not surprising. The development and adoption of e-learning has not taken place in an ideological vacuum; the forms and uses of technologies are shaped by political and social processes. If learning is a social process (Guile and Young, 1997), then any consideration of the development and impact of e-learning and e-learning technologies needs to examine the wider social, economic and cultural processes and discourses involved in the development and implementation of new technologies in education.  Three dominant policy discourses in education have shaped the development and implementation of e-learning: commodification, privatisation and a restricted discourse of lifelong learning, which in turn are based on broader discourses around globalisation and the privatisation of knowledge.    Such dominant discourses have tended towards limiting the impact of ICT within the mainstream education and training systems and of holding back the development of new didactic and pedagogic approaches within formal learning.  The danger is that the education system will become irrelevant to many peoples learning needs. It will be seen as an imposition. Young people will turn to social spaces for communication and developing ideas. Access to quality learning provision for adults will be dependent on companies and private training providers.  The most compelling argument for the PLE is to develop educational technology which can respond to the way people are using technology for learning and which allows them to themselves shape their own learning spaces, to form and join communities and to create, consume, remix, and share material.  What is a Personal Learning Environment?  The development and introduction of Personal Learning Environments is not merely a replacement of one generation of educational technology buy a new set of applications. It does not just mean replacing Blackboard or Web CT with ELGG or Mahari or WordPress or providing tools for mash-ups (welcome though this might be).  Rather, it represents a significant shift in pedagogic approaches to how we support learning processes.  This means a move from seeking to use technology manage learning to encouraging and facilitating wider social learning processes, encouraging and valuing both informal and formal learning and recognising the different contexts in which learning takes place.  Central to such an understanding is placing control of learning in the hands of learners themse3lves and providing learners with the skills and competences to manage their own learning.  This implies significant changes in the role of educational institutions. However, it is not to say that institutions and teachers have a lesser role to play. Institutions will continue to be important in providing access to expertise and to structured bodies of knowledge as well as to qualifications.  However, it is important that institutions understand they no longer have a monopoly on knowledge which is distributed through different communities of practice. Teachers will play a critical role in guiding and facilitating learning processes.  Educational technologists will have a difficult role in supporting the different (social software) applications which learners and teachers may choose to use for developing and sharing knowledge and there may have to be a rethinking of the role of institutions as technology providers. A critical issue will be responsibility for data. Ultimately, learners will have to take responsibility for their own data and will need education and help in assuming this role.  There remain many issues to clarify in the movement towards Personal Learning environments. This is not surprising, considering the implications of such a change. PLEs are not the result of new technologies per se but of fundamental changes in how we use technology for learning and in the social organisation of education. Although PLEs may appear to represent a threat to existing institutional provision of learning they also represent an opportunity for shaping technology to facilitate a profound extension of access to opportunities for learning.  References  Andrews R  (2007) Don’t Tell Your Parents: Schools Embrace MySpace, Wired, 19 April 2007,, accessed 21 April 2007  Attwell G, 2007 (ed). E-Learning in Small and Medium Enterprises, Navreme & Pontydysgu, Vienna  Attwell, 2006, E-Learning und die sociale Gestaltung mder Technik, in Bittingmayer U & Bauer U (eds), Die Wissensgesellschaft, Mythos, Ideologie oder Realitat, VS Verlag fur Soczialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden  BBC (2005) US youths use internet to create,, 4 November 2005, accessed 20 April 2007  Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  Lenhart A and Madden M, (2005) Teen Content Creators and Consumers, Pew Internet,, accessed 21 April 2007  Seely Brown J. (1999) Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age: Creating Learning Ecologies, Transcription of a talk by Brown at the 1999 Conference on Higher Education of the American Association for Higher Education., accessed 25 July, 2004  Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society (es M Cole et al) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass MA

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