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Understanding Personal Learning Environments: Literature review and synthesis through the Activity Theory lens

August 22nd, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Ilona Buchem proposed to me and Ricardo Torres that we should undertake a systematic review of literature on Personal Learning Environments as our contribution to this years PLE conference held in early July in Southampton. We set out to review some 100 journal articles and blog posts in three langauges.

The major challenge was how to classify and analyse the material. We set out with an original framework comprised of  three tiers of analytic categories:

●      A top tier with the three dimensions: “Personal”, “Learning” and “Environment”;

●     A  middle tier with two domain perspectives: “Pedagogy” and “Technology”;

●      A bottom tier with a set of core concepts and a scale from “high” to “low”.

However, the first reading and analysis of selected literature led us to the conclusion that focusing only on the three dimensions at the top tier level as described above leaves out other central aspects related to PLEs. At the same time the three original categories are too broad and encompass different notions that need further disaggregation.

Thus we decided to use Activity Theory as a basis for our analysis reasoning that the idea of PLEs places the focus on the appropriation of different tools and resources by an individual learner and there is a general agreement on viewing learners as being situated within a social context which influences the way in which they use media, participate in activities and engage in communities. Learning outcomes are considered to be created in the process of tackling the problems and challenges learners meet in different contexts by using tools and resources leading to outcomes. The perspective on learning as tool-mediated, situated, object-directed and collective activity is the basic tenet of Activity Theory (Engeström 1999; Engeström, 2001).

Overall, I think the approach works well. We found that the core concepts around PLEs such as ownership, control, literacy, autonomy or empowerment are often mentioned in the literature but seldom defined, theoretically grounded or differentiated. This obscures the overall picture and understanding of PLEs. We identified a series of ‘open research questions’:

  • What types of ownership and control are relevant to PLEs?
  • What motivates and demotivates learners to establish own PLEs?
  • Which norms and values guide the development of PLEs in different contexts?
  • What roles are played by different actors in a PLE?
  • What is the relationship between ownership and collaboration in a PLE?
  • How do PLEs contribute to identity development?
  • How to balance power between different participants in a PLE?
  • How to support the development of literacies necessary to establish a PLE?

You can read the full paper below or download a copy. We would very much welcome feedback from readers.

Thanks especially to Ilona for all the hard work she put in in getting this paper ready for publication.
Understanding Personal Learning Environments: Literature review and synthesis through the Activity Theory lens

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