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How my Personal Learning Environment is Changing

December 29th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

Alec Couroso has been pondering on the differences between a Personal Learning Environment and a Personal Network. The replies from a Twitter shoutout are interesting. But I am not really convinced. For me the idea of a Personal Learning Environment was never limited to the tools we use for learning or to on-line learning. It is what is says – the environment in which we learn. And that includes work, the home, our social environment and the institutional learning programmes in which we participate. It includes books and above all perhaps it includes people.

What distinguishes PLes from VLEs, e-Portfolios, or from classroom and lecture based learning for that matter, is that it brings together informal and formal learning. It recognises the primacy of the learner on driving and developing their learning. And – in terms of tools – it provides them the means to organise their own learning. Whilst I don’t really see the point in distinguishing between a PLN and a PLE there are changes in the ways we are learning and the tools we are using to learn.

Tow years ago a wrote a short paper on PLEs in which I listed the tools which comprised my PLE:

  • “Word processor for writing papers like this – Nisus Writer Express
  • E-mail client for communication – Mac Mail
  • Diary for managing my work and sharing with others- iCal linked to my web site
  • Audio for making podcasts – Garage Band
  • Video editor for making multi media presentations – iMovie
  • Weblog client for various blogs I contribute to – Ecto
  • Content Management System for creating web sites – Joomla
  • Personal Weblog – Knotes
  • Photo editing programme – iPhoto (and plug in for uploading to Flickr)
  • Photo sharing service – Flickr
  • Web Browser – Firefox
  • Bookmark sharing service – Delicio-us
  • Podcast publishing – Joomla plug in
  • Presentation software – Keynote
  • Newsreader – Net Newsreader
  • Instant messaging and VOIP – Skype
  • Search engines – mainly Spotlight and Google
  • FTP client for sharing multimedia files – FileChute”

I still use quite a lot of these tools. But for most of my web based publishing I have moved to WordPress. And I now use Open Office as a work processor. For bookmarking I use diigo. And Vienna is now my newsreader of choice. But these are small changes. What has changed since i produced this list is the development of web based tools for social networking. Facebook has come and almost gone (although more on that in another post). Twitter is a critical part of my PLE. I live on skype and sometimes venture out in Second Life. I regularly facilitate or participate in sessions on Elluminate. But it is not even the advent of new tools but rather chnages in the way we are using the web for learning. So whilst before my PLE comprised of a series of tools for managing learning, for consumption and for creation, and tools for communication – today the communication tools are central in managing my networked and collaborative learning. Web 2.0 tools have allowed us to put the social back into online learning. That for me is why elearning 1.0 never really worked. Learning is a social activity. Early e-learning applications tried to bypass the social. Interaction was with the computer, not with other learners.

Personal Learning Networks, Personal Learning Environments – I don’t really mind what we call them. What is critical is that a PLE / PLN helps us in organising our learning and helps us make the connections with those with whom we want to collaborate and share, whoever, wherever they are.

7 Responses to “How my Personal Learning Environment is Changing”

  1. it’s so hard to define a PLE – to come to a common understanding of what it is. It is probably (almost certain!) because it is personal, and every individual has a different and simultaneously identical way of learning. Confused? me too! 🙂
    The fact is that we all learn with and from one another [People – like you said], but we have different ways of pursuing our learning. That reflects the tools we use, the environments we join in and contribute to, both online and offline, by static resources and opportunities for interactive sharing. My PLE is heavily influenced by the people I come together with to debate the issues that concern me in an open way. That’s the added value of todays’ people’s attitude towards their own and others’ learning. The access and listening to to a rich diversity of opinions and ideas.

    In this sense, it’s hard to describe my PLE … it’s not static and it is hard to aggregate in one place,…also because it is hybrid…it combines offline and online spaces …turned into environments in which I feel comfortable to pursue my learning while engaging with others, especially because of the atmosphere people help create. Those environments are supported by specific tools / platforms, but even those change along the times, as new ones appear and we move to the” next best thing”, as some of the members of the circles I belong to do the same.
    Offline, the office used to be a good place for meetings, now the Student Union Bar is becoming more and more popular for gatherings. Online the same happens. I have progressively also moved from to diigo, for instance, because some of my “Learning Buddies” have moved too…
    Are those spheres of influence ( the people I most relate to within the communities and groups I participate in and who help me make my choices) my PLN…?
    … need to think more on this…

  2. Ray Tolley says:

    It was Humpty Dumpty who said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” – and this is the problem with PLE. We have different views of the acronym according to our standpoint. Graham dismisses the e-Portfolio as not being a formative tool (on which point I strongly disagree) and then assumes that his omnivoracious PLE can provide all the answers.

    I would argue differently. My view of a PLE is firmly based on the Learning Platform or VLE common to most schools and thus closely linked to the MIS. That environment or interface that the pupil is provided with is ‘a’ learning environment which should adjust automatically to the needs of the learner. Yes, in many schools at the present time this perception is not well engineered. It is my opinion that the VLE should recognise the age, aptitude, ability, accessibility and attitude of the student and provide an interface based on Semantic Web technology.

    According to a learner’s progress the PLE would then provide the right tools as needed at that time eg. for a 5-yr old learning to use a ‘Paint’ type of graphics package the PLE would know to list a simple application rather than CorelDRAW or AutoCAD. Similarly, a search engine being used in an English lesson would provide a list of appropriate authors’ works and not the more abstruse efforts of a Ph.D lecturer. Again, the PLE for an academic, studying some aspect of Law, might suggest further areas of study, recognising elements so far covered.

    If Graham wants to hijack my possibly conventional definition of a PLE all well and good. But can we therefore devise different names or should we resort to PLEv.1 PLEv.2 etc? Or has Graham got a better word for ‘my’ version of a PLE?

    Best Wishes,
    Ray T

  3. @Ray T
    Not sure I share the same point of view. I think we are talking about different things here. First, unconsciously I associate PLEs especially with adult learning, probably extending it to high school students who should have already grown more mature to make their own choices concerning the way they learn. This however requires they have been supported on developing meta-skills…something I think the educational system still needs to work on. We need to learn how to walk before we can start to run and jumping around!! Young kids need closer, monitored support, which is different from closed, restricted environments. We need to start supporting their accountable presence online by being role models and engage in joint reflection on how to create a reputable presence online, the advantages and disadvantages of belonging to cyberspace, and above all to create responsible citizens.
    Another point I would argue is that there is a portfolio (reflection component) embedded in my PLE – that is in fact what brings all the elements of my PLE together in a more tangible way, as that same personalized ‘making sense’ of my experiences with others is what constitutes my Personal Learning (I can get information, be acquainted with people’s ideas and practices, but only when I get a deep and personal understanding of those phenomena can I say it has contributed to my learning/knowledge. The mere access to information does not imply learning or construction of knowledge; but the interaction with people and what I extract from those experiences thereafter (my personal views) might be.
    And of course, as my last point I see a PLE as something that develops rather natural and, I’d risk to say, even unplanned. As Graham pointed out, what constitutes my PLE today might not be entirely what represents my PLE in 6 months time. As an individual who engages in different environments to congregate with like-minded people, and whose ultimate result is to be ‘enlightened’ with some new ideas, my PLE can only be dynamic, progressive and most likely featuring state of the art tools and approaches with most institutions have a hard time complying with. My PLE only dependent on my own willing and motivations. It is Personal, personalized and aims at reflecting who I am, what my interests are, how I learn, when and where that learning starts taking shape. Hence, its sustainability depends on my activity and any intrinsic motivations / reasons I might have. It is not formalized in any way. Which doesn’t mean I don’t take part in institutional learning spaces, which some of them I could even call an environment! 😉

    As for PLN, I still haven’t come across any concrete definition of it.When I first saw this new term, the first thing I thought about was the people I feel more closed to in my learning, and who belong to different networks and communities I also belong to, but who not necessarily know each other. In that sense, my PLN would correspond to my circle of (dispersed) learning buddies, who I personally am connected to. But I am not sure that is what is meant with PLN….

  4. Jay Cross says:

    My PLE = the environment in which I live my life.

    It’s a vocabulary issue. I put great stock in Graham’s PLE concept and others I heard in Salzburg last year. But they weren’t mine.

    As a resident of the People’s Republic of Berkeley, I have to stress the Personal part, for that requires freedom, not standardization. PLEs, like oil paintings, will come in many colors.

  5. Graham Attwell says:

    Jay – I totally agree. But this still raises a number of issues. Firstly we need to help learners in identifying the environment in which they live their lives and in particular the opportunities for learning in that environment.
    And Ray, I did not say the e-Portfolios were not formative, but that all too frequently the use of the e-Portfolio was limited to the prescribed curriculum and to formal sources of learning.
    Many of the tools you describe in your reply, Ray, are of great interest and I know of a number of excellent projects, like the EU I-camp and Mature projects, which are developing and testing such tools.
    But a Personal Learning Environment is not based on tools alone – even though advanced tools of the type you describe will be of much use in developing a PLE. It is rather a different approach to learning – one in which learners are encouraged to both control their own learning, albeit with support and guidance, and to treat all of their environment as a potential source of rich learning. And although I would agree with Cristina that at different ages and different stages students need a different degree and even form of support, I see no age barriers to such an approach to learning. One of my main concerns is that at present access to learning support and especially access to learning technology tends to be limited to those enrolled on formal programmes of education or training. One of the major promises of the PLE is to extend learning opportunities to everyone, regardless of whether or not they are a school or college student.

  6. Paul Bailey says:

    I agree Jay

    PLE – Oleg Liber differentiated for me “Pesonalisation for the learner” vs “Personalisation by the learner”. I am more interested in how learners can choose how they learn, which is what makes the PLE agenda intersting.
    For me it has always been about control and choice. Having said that many people like to be told what to do. We could see it as continuum. I am not sure it is linear… where personal control is what we are all seeking….

    I agree with Graham – this is not just about tools.
    But for me the challenge is slowly learning new social networking tools….


  1. […] four or five years (yes, that long). I was led to this reflection by Graham Attwell’s post, How my Personal Learning Environment is Changing. As is so typical, this reminded me of something I read recently but couldn’t remember what: […]

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