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Personal Learning Environments, division and interpersonal dissent

December 21st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Norm Friesen has taken a look at the use of commercial and social software applications for Personal Learning Environments in a paper published in First Monday and entitled ‘Education and the Social Web. Connective learning and the Commercial Imperative‘.

The major thrust of his argument is that services such as Facebook, Twitter and Digg or even Google are designed around the interests of advertisers rather than of users.

Particularly interesting is Friesen’s point  that such services deny any negative responses or the ability to express disapproval or dissent. So whilst the Facebook ‘like ‘ button populates thousands of web sites there is no such button for dislike. Equally Twitter tells you when you have followers, but not when someone has chosen no longer to follow you. The business model of commercial social networks is based on advertising, assisted by data collection and powerful tracking and analysis capabilities.

Freiesen concludes that the pattern of suppressing division, negativity and interpersonal dissent runs counter to common models for pedagogic engagement and interaction. Commercial software services by design serve other priorities than learning, indeed they are often opposed to it.

Friesen reiterates the social process of education, but does not see knowledge as being exclusively embodies in networks of connection an affiliation, in the way some researchers have.

It is hard to argue with much that Norm Friesen says in this paper. However, there are other models for social software applications, other than advertising. Indeed, the last sic months has seen increasing numbers of previously free applications launching premium services (either for extra fiunctionaility or file space or to get rid of the advertisements!).

Nevertheless I have always been wary of the idea of basing a Personal Learning Environment on Facebook or Google.  Facebook offers far too little user control. Google, on the other had, produces some excellent software tools, which can be used as part of a PLE without long term dependencies, I think.

Norm Friesen limited himself to commercial providers in his paper. However applications like Buddypress and Elgg, both available as Open Source, have growing social functionality. Furthermore for those users willing to learn a little, they offer plenty of opportunities for designing their use. It may be that it is that process of design which is mots important in developing a Personal Learning Environment. I have written before of how the PLE itself should be seen as outcome of learning as well as a process. Probably the major failure of commercial social software services is that they deny the user that involvement in the design process.

And going beyond the issues Norm raises, the issue of control is once more bubbling near the surface. Whilst most institutions have been looking at the possible cost advantages of using cloud services, the service providers have shown though the wikileaks saga how susceptible they are to governmental and commercial pressures.

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