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PLE2010 Conference – what did we achieve

July 17th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Dave shows off the super sized Manchester PLE
Photo Samscam

Its been a week off from the blog. Following the PLE2010 conference in Barcelona I took a short holiday. And since I have been back I have been fighting (unsuccessfully) a power failure in my office. So now I am squatting in a friend’s house and using my laptop.

I have much to say about the PLE2010 conference – I am not quite sure where to start.

Firstly it was a truly social conference – social in the both face to face and distant participants were involved in the different sessions. Social too, in the way the pre-conference discussions ran into the conference proper and then into the discussions at coffee breaks and in the evening. The formal conference was just one part of the whole event. And social in the use of media. Besides the live streaming of many sessions, it woudl appear the conference generated over 5000 tweets on the first day (the tweets are archived here).Indeed, for many of us it was the first chance to meet face to face people we have been collaborating with on line for a long time.

Much of this was down to the design of the conference. the pre-conference publicity and discuxxiosn had been focused on social media and in particualr twitter. And the programme design, from unkeynotes to cafe style sessions, debates amnd workshops, was signed to facilitate social interaction and participation. And it is encouraging that many have said they will relook at how they are organising conferences and draw on our ideas.

But what about the ideas? Firstly it was very heartening to see that we seemed to have moved beyond the stage of defining a PLE by what it is not i.e. not a VLE. Instead participants were looking outwards, at how to support learning. I am not sure how much we shared common understandings and meanings around PLEs (sadly I cannot find a record of the session which tried to arrive at such a common definition) but there seemed sufficient understanding for common debates.

One controversial issue was how far it was possible to provide an institutional PLE. This debate was driven by the folks from SAPO Campus in Portugal who are trying to do just that (and still managing to find time for late night and in depth analysis of the failings of the Portugese football team!). My own take is that I do not mind where the tools for a PLE come from as long as the leaner is in control.

Two ‘discourses’ particularly heartened me. The first was between educational researchers and practitioners and software and technical developers. This is an oft troubled discourse in the ed tech community. It may be that the common understandings around the idea of a PLE are allowing these different groups to work together in new ways. I particularly enjoyed the session on using Google Wave as a PLE and was impressed by the Talkingabout video sharing site. But what charatcterised these ideas – as in others I could not attend but heard from others about – was the innovation in appropriating technologies for pedagogic innovation.

Another – and more problematic but recurrent discourse was the issue of motivation. Participants were trying to develop PLEs with students inside the schooling and university systems. But surveys and anecdotal evidence suggests students are wary being overly focused on what work they need to do to pass exams, rather than exploring ideas and learning. And most students view direct didactic teaching as the best approach to passing their exams. As such they have little time for reflection or indeed little understanding as to why they should engage in such activity. This is problematic. We may consider their longer term learning important and thus view the development of meta-cognition and problem solving a priority. But perhaps inevitably under the present education systems their major concern is just to jump the next hurdle in the education race.

My only personal disappointment was that the major focus for PLE development and implementation for the vast majority of participants was for learners within schools and universities. There was limited interest in work based learning or in learning outside teh existing systems – the very areas where I think PLEs have the greatest potential.

Indeed, I think we have to consider the wider issue of where to locate the PLE debate. Clearly it is not just another instance of educational technology. But neither can it be easily subsumed in considerations of pedagogic approaches to the use of ICT for learning. I increasingly feel that the whole issue of PLEs is closely related to the ongoing discussions around open education. The very promise of PLEs is to understand the use of technology for learning in a new way, in a context where learning becomes part of society and is free and open to all.

But now there is a lot of work to be done. We have over 70 papers and many offers of publications. Most participants seemed to assume that PLE2011 was already on the cards (watch this blog for more news on that). And the bigger question is how we can use the ideas and networks generated by the conference to build a collective community of practice based on networking and sharing. Any thoughts or ideas  very welcome.

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