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Personal Learning Environments and Context

June 29th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I am rushing to produce my paper on ‘Supporting Learning in the Workplace’ for the PLE2010 conference (and trying to resist the temptation to recycle previous material!). The paper focuses on the issue of context, building on discussions I have had with Jenny Hughes, based on her contributions to Stephen Downes and Rita Kop’s excellent Critical Literacies course.

The  key section (which is most certainly only a first draft) is called “Problematising the Learning Space: Contexts for Learning.” Any feedback very welcome.

A major issue on designing a work based PLE is in problematising the learning space. This involves examining relations, context, actions and learning discourses. Vygotsky’s approach to cognitive development is sociocultural, working on the assumption that “action is mediated and cannot be separated from the milieu in which it is carried out” (Wertsch, 1991:18).

The socio cultural milieu mediating actions and learning in the workplace includes s series of different relationships (Attwell and Hughes, 21010).

The first is the relationships between teachers and learners. Yet, as we have already pointed out, much learning in the workplace may take place in the absence of a formal teacher or trainer. It may be more appropriate to talk in Vygotskian terms of a More Knowledgeable Other. “The More Knowledgeable Other. is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the leaner particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher, an older adult or a peer” (Dahms et al, 2007),

The second relationship is that between learners themselves. The third is relationships between learners and the wider community. In the context of work based learning that community could include formal education institutions, communities of practice or local or extended personal learning networks. Institutions. And in the context of Personal Learning Environments it is important not to forget the relationships between learners and technology. Technology will play a key role in mediating both the other relationships and mediating learning itself.

The socialcultutal milieu also includes the learning contexts. The most obvious aspect of context is where the learning takes place. Learning takes place in wider physical and online communities as well as at home and in the workplace. This relates to the issue of. physical domains. We can learn through h training workshops, through online communities or even through watching a television programme. A key issue here may be the distance of that domain from our practice Learning about computing through using a computer means the learning domain is close to practice. However learning through a training workshop may be more or less close to actual practice. Equally some enterprises have developed training islands within the workplace with aim of lessoning the distance between the learning domain and practice. Obviously the context of practice is key to work based learning and we will return to this issue. A further aspect of context is the wider social political, cultural and sub cultural environment. This in itself contains a raft of issues including factors such as the time and cost of learning and rewards for learning.

A further and critical aspect of context is what is judged as legitimate in terms of process and content. How are outcomes defined, what constitutes success and how is it measured?

Another critical issue on problematising the learning space is the nature of different learning discourse s. Learning discourses are dependent of different factors.

Firstly they can be viewed as am set of practices. Wenger points out that we practice eis not learned individually but is dependent on social relations in communities.

“Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise. It makes sense, therefore to call these kinds of communities communities of practice.”

Although the nature and composition of these communities varies members are brought together by joining in common activities and by ‘what they have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities.’

According to Wenger, a community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:

  • What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members.
  • How it functions – mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity.
  • What capability it has produced – the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time.

A community of practice involves much more than the technical knowledge or skill For a community of practice to function it needs to generate and appropriate a shared repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It also needs to develop various resources such as tools, documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community. In other words, it involves practice: ways of doing and approaching things that are shared to some significant extent among members.

Secondly, learning discourses can be viewed in terms of processes methodologies and structures. As we said earlier work based learning may be more or less structured and formalised and the degree of interaction of learning processes with work processes.

Learning discourses can also be seen as taking place through the exploration of boundary objects, Boundary objects are another idea associated with Vygotsky and have attracted particular interest by those interested in Communities of Practice. The idea was introduced by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer (1989): “Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.”

According to Denham (2003) “boundary objects serve as point of mediation and negotiation around intent” and can comprise a place for shared work. Denham goes on to say “Boundary objects are not necessarily physical artifacts such as a map between two people: they can be a set of information, conversations, interests, rules, plans, contracts, or even persons.”

As a class of knowledge artefacts their importance may lay in their role in dynamic knowledge exchange and are “associated with process, meaning, participation, alignment and reification.”

Whilst reports and documents may be considered boundary objects, they can also be seen as information spaces for the creation of knowledge. A boundary object could also be a space for dialogue and interaction. Ravenscroft (2009) has advocated “knowledge maturing through dialogue and the advantages of linking ‘learning dialogues’ and artefacts.” Knowledge maturing, he suggests, can be  “supported through setting up an appropriate dialogic space in the digital milieu

The key aspect of learning discourses it that they are fluid and relational. Vygotsky held that “environment cannot be regarded as a static entity and one which is peripheral in relation to development, but must be seen as changeable and dynamic.” It is this fluid and dynamic nature of learning  environments and discourses which provides the central challenge to the design of a PLE, particularly in a workplace context.

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3 Responses to “Personal Learning Environments and Context”

  1. Say more about assessment. Who defines the assessment. Who does it. How does the learner learn from it. How is the assessment instrument (re)negotiated as the learning progresses. We have been thinking about some of these ideas under the heading “Harvesting Gradebook”.


  1. Communities of practice needs to generate and appropriate a shared repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories.


  1. […] Attwell, no seu artigo Personal Learning Environments and Context, reflectiu sobre a necessidade de associar um contexto aos PLE’s. As relações entre os […]

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