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Personal Learning Environments: Context is King!

July 23rd, 2012 by Graham Attwell

The last few weeks have been hectic with travel, conferences, bids and more. In the next few days ~I will try to update on some of this but first, before I forget, some quick thoughts on the Personal Learning Environments 2012 conference in Aveiro.

First on the form of the conference. PLE is what is now becoming known as a flipped conference. Rather than formal paper presentations, chairs of sessions work together with presenters to find more participative forms of delivery involving interaction with participants. The aim is not just to present research findings and ideas, but to discuss and build on that work and develop new knowledge.

This was the third PLE conference and with a sufficient number of participants having been at previous conferences and enthusiastic about the format, the sessions were even better than before. This year we were better at recording outcomes and many of the sessions have been well documented on the project web site. The physical space is central to this type of event and in that respect Aveiro was perfect with flexible spaces and good connectivity.

As in previous years we continued our practice of organising two unkeynote presentations, each with two people. Antonio Dias de Figueiredo and Frances Bell involved the participants in discussing a number of key issues, crowd sourced previous to the conference (see report on Frances’s blog). On the second day Ricardo Torres and Grainne Conole presented a series of video clips reflecting on the VLE versus PLE debate. And whilst I think that the issue is somewhat out of date, it sparked a big and ongoing response on twitter and on the Cloudworks site.

Each year we try to introduce new ideas. This year we piloted the idea of ‘One Conference – Two venues’ with face to face meet ups taking place (more or less) simultaneously in Aveiro and Melbourne. The time differences prohibited any real time link ups. But with both venues using the same #PLEConf hash tag, there was an almost seamless 24 hour flow of tweets around PLEs. Interestingly it was hard at times to work out which of the venues the tweet had been sent from.

Anotehr innovation this year was experimenting with the use of Mozilla Badges. Whilst the badge titles seemed to multiply alarmingly in the run up to the conference, it provided us with a very good insight into both technical and pedagogical issues involved with badges. I think overall the verdict was positive but their are still questions to answer. You can see a full collection of the badges here.

This year the organising committee instigated a two stage review for contributions – reviewing firstly abstracts and then secondly full papers. I was personally opposed to this fearing that such a ‘heavier’ review process would discourage participants. I think I was wrong. It might be due to other factors, but the quality of the contributions this year – at least those that I have read – seemed much higher than in previous years. And, if done well, such a review can support people in developing their ideas. Overall though, I remain unconvinced about review procedures and wonder if we could try some other forms of supporting contributors in developing their ideas (open review processes or on-line review workshops? ).

There was also a noticeable change in terms of the focus on many contributions.

At the first conference, in Barcelona in 2010, PLEs were a largely new and unexplored concept. Much effort and discussion was expended in trying to arrive at a common definition of a PLE, in debating the dichotomy between technological and pedagogy approaches and constructs to developing Personal Learning Environments, and the role of PLEs in institutional strategies.

Further discussions focused on the impact and affordance of Web 2.0 and social software on developing PLEs.

The following year at the Southampton PLE conference concerns – for instance over a tension between pedagogic and technical developments – appeared less irreconcilable with the majority of participants agreeing that a PLE can be seen as a pedagogical approach with many implications for the learning processes, underpinned by a ‘hard’ technological base.

Participants also agreed on the need to continue thinking around practices for enriching the learning process through formal and non formal learning and begun to explore the different contexts in which PLEs might be used. In this process, attempts to invent new acronyms to differentiate contexts (of PLE components, or tools), often at only a theoretical level, addded little extra-value to the previous analysis.

Aveiro had a different focus. Many of these previous debates seemed slightly irrelevant. PLEs were no longer a construct but a reality 0- in part I guess due to the increasing use of social media for learning but also with the main streaming of Massive Open On-line Courses and the increasing attention being paid to extra institutional learning.

Where as before we had many discussions about what a PLE might look like, there were now many examples of applications supporting PLEs, ranging from mash ups to Cloud services to institutional provision.

Thus the focus shifted to the different contexts in which learning takes place and to pedagogic processed, in particular how to support learners in developing their learning through a PLE. And with an increased focus on context, research had broadened. Instead of being confined within the education domain, we are seeing the emergence of interdisciplinary research – for instance bringing together work science and innovation research to understand how PLEs might be of use for learning at the workplace.

The latter subject is of particular interest to me and a group of us agreed we would set up a wiki to continue working on this. Of course commitments made in the hothouse of an intensive conference are not always fulfilled but I hope we manage to do this. And if anyone else is interested please get in touch.

Finally, despite the best intentions of all of us to support the conference organisers, inevitably much of the work falls on the shoulder of the local team. Many thanks to Carlos Santos and to Luis Pedro  and all the other colleagues from Aveiro who made the conference such a success.



7 Responses to “Personal Learning Environments: Context is King!”

  1. Luis Pedro says:

    Thanks Graham. And I agree with what you said: discussions were more focused and context was definitely king.

  2. Ademar says:

    Excellent summary of PLE 2012, Graham!
    Many thanks to you, Carlos Santos, Luis Pedro, Aveiro team, and all participants, to make thos event so enriching and fruitful for those of us bridging education, technology, social media, to make learning more effective and motivating!!! Obrigado! :)

  3. Thanks for this interesting summary Graham. If you ever do get round to creating a wiki about PLEs in the workplace, then I’d be interested in exploring ideas.

  4. Fátima Pais says:

    It was a great conference…
    Having the opportunity to talk to people who only know and admire the work in the informal context was a privilege to me.
    Thanks to you and the organization (Aveiro team rules!)
    Thanks to everyone – this conference was almost “magical”!

  5. JPaz says:

    Thks Graham

    I’ve found the double review procedure a good idea, although open to improvements.
    Waiting for the developments you talked about in the end in the speaker’s corner about future space(s) for the PLE community (if I understood right). Made me wonder what binds it… (interest, assumptions, beliefs, practices)

    Best Regards

  6. Creating a personal learning environment beyond the institutional knowledge silos is the only issue for the billions of workers (and knowledge workers) get the “future work skills 2020″ .

    Best Regards from Berlin


  1. […] Ein Bericht von der Personal Learning Environments 2012 Conference in Aveiro, der dritten PLE-Konferenz in Serie. Mit einigen interessanten Stichworten: So bezeichnet sie Graham Attwell als “flipped conference”, weil die Veranstalter auch hier versucht haben, klassische Präsentationsschlachten zu vermeiden. Dann die Idee “One Conference – Two Venues”, denn nicht nur in Aveiro, sondern auch in Melbourne traf man sich: “The time differences prohibited any real time link ups. But with both venues using the same #PLEConf hash tag, there was an almost seamless 24 hour flow of tweets around PLEs.” Und schließlich wurde auch in Aveiro mit Mozilla Badges experimentiert. Für alle inhaltlichen Dinge, die die interessante Entwicklung des PLE-Themas betreffen, empfehle ich den Griff zum Original. Graham Attwell, Pontydysgu – Bridge to Learning, 23. Juli 2012 […]

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