Archive for the ‘Mature’ Category

2012 PLE Conference papers now online

December 17th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

In these days of repositories and Open Online Resources publishing should be easy. But it is still not so simple. For one thing there is all the editing and checking = for another developing / begging or borrowing the technical infrastructure.

The PLE Conference organisers are committed to publishing all contributions to our annual conference online with a Creative Commons License. And thanks to hard work by Carlos, Luis and Sara, the proceedings of the 2012 conference, held in Aveiro, Portugal, are now online here.

Check it out – if you have any interest in Personal Learning Environments you will find much of interest.

Knowledge is social

September 25th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

I like this presnetation by Harold Jarche. In another post on his website, Harold says: “Innovation is inextricably linked to both networks and learning. We can’t be innovative unless we integrate learning into our work. It sounds easy, but it’s a major cultural change. Why? Because it questions our basic, Taylorist, assumptions about work; assumptions like:

A JOB can be described as a series of competencies that can be “filled” by the best qualified person.

Somebody in a classroom, separate from the work environment, can “teach” you all you need to know.

The higher you are on the “org chart”, the more you know (one of the underlying premises of job competency models).

PKM is a framework that enables the re-integration of learning and work and can help to increase our potential for innovation. It’s time to design workplaces for individuals, and their Personal KM, instead of getting everyone to conform to a sub-optimal structure that maximizes capital but not labour.”

Boundary Crossing and Learning

August 13th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

I have been long interested in the idea of boundary objects especially in relation to the use of technology for learning in the workplace. In general I think one of the issues with Technology Enhanced Learning is that we have tended to ignore the importance of physical objects in learning and practice.

Following the presentation by Alan Brown and myself on Technologically Enhanced Boundary Objects (for use in careers guidance) at the final Mature-IP review meeting, Uwe Riss kindly referred us to two papers:

This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept by Susan Leigh Star


Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects by Sanne F. Akkerman and Arthur Bakker.

Sadly neither is available for open access (I have university access but I find it very frustrating when there is no open access to important work).

I haven’t read Star’s paper yet, but found the paper by Akkerman and Bakker very useful. They define boundaries as “sociocultural differences that give rise to discontinuities in interaction and action.” They have undertaken an extensive literature review of the use of the idea of boundary crossing in education. In particular I think that Baktin’s idea of ‘dialogicality’ helps explain how learning takes place with multiple sources of ideas and knowledge (which some are referring to as ‘abundance’, through the internet as well as through structured, course based learning.

Bakhtin’s basic line of reasoning was that others or other meanings are required for any cultural category to generate meaning and reveal its depths:

Contextual meaning is potentially infinite, but it can only be actualized when accompanied by another (other’s) meaning, if only by a question in the inner speech of the one who understands. Each time it must be accompanied by another contextual meaning in order to reveal new aspects of its own infinite nature (just as the word reveals its meanings only in context). (Bakhtin, 1986, pp. 145–146)

This Bakhtinian notion of dialogicality comes to the fore in the various claims on the value of boundaries and boundary crossing for learning: learning as a process that involves multiple perspectives and multiple parties. Such an understanding is different from most theories on learning that, first, often focus on a vertical process of progression in knowledge or capabilities (of an individual, group, or organization) within a specific domain and, second, often do not address aspects of heterogeneity or multiplicity within this learning process.

In the second part of their research Akkerman and Bakker look at the “four dialogical learning mechanisms of boundaries”:

  1. identification, which is about coming to know what the diverse practices are about in relation to one another;
  2. coordination, which is about creating cooperative and routinized exchanges between practices;
  3. reflection, which is about expanding one’s perspectives on the practices; and,
  4. transformation, which is about collaboration and codevelopment of (new) practices.

Developing Work based Personal Learning Environments in Small and Medium Enterprises

July 5th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

This is a work in progress. It is the first draft of a paper by Ludger Deitmer and myself for the Personal Learning Environments Conference to be held in Aveiro next week. We are looking at how we might develop work based PLEs drawing on the work on the forthcoming Learning Layers project. there is a downloadable version (in word format) at the bottom of the post. Your feedback is very welcome.


Developing Work based Personal Learning Environments in Small and Medium Enterprises

Graham Attwell, Pontydusgu, Wales

Ludger Deitmer, ITB, University of Bremen, Germany


This paper is based on a literature review and interviews with employers and trainers in the north German building and construction trades. The work was undertaken in preparing a project application, Learning Layers, for the European Research Programme.

The paper looks at the development of High Performance Work Systems to support innovation in Small and Medium enterprises. It discusses the potential of Personal Learning environments to support informal and work based learning.

The paper goes on to look at the characteristics and organisation of the building and construction industry and at education and training in the sector.

It outlines an approach to developing the use of PLEs based on a series of layers to support informal interactions with people across enterprises, supports creation, maturing and interaction with learning materials as boundary objects and a layer that situates and scaffolds learning support into the physical workplace and captures people’s interactions with physical artefacts inviting them to share their experiences.


Building, construction, Small and Medium Enterprises, informal interactions, boundary objects, workplace learning, scaffolding

1. Introduction

Research and development in Personal Learning Environments has made considerable progress in recent years. Yet although often acknowledging the importance of informal learning, such research continues to be largely focused on formal educational institutions from either higher or vocational training and education. Far less attention has been paid to work based and work integrated learning and still less to the particular context of learning at work in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) (Gustavsen, Nyhan, Ennals, 2007). Yet it could be argued that it is in just these contexts, where work can provide a rich learning environment and where there is growing need for continuing professional development to meet demands from new technology, new materials and changing work processes, that PLEs could have the greatest impact. A work environment in which the workers plan, control and validate their work tasks can both competitive and productive (Asheim 2007). It also requires that workers are able to make incremental and continuous improvements to work processes to develop better products and services. This in turn requires continuous learning. In contrast to predominant forms of continuous training based on activities outside the workplace, and in response to the perceived lack of take up of Technology Enhanced Learning in SMEs, we propose a dual approach, based on informal learning and the development of network and mobile technologies including Personal Learning Environments. This paper will describe an approach being developed for learning in SMEs, specifically in the building and construction industry in north Germany.

Our approach is based on the development of high performance work systems in industrial clusters of SMEs. In this context, individual learning leads to incremental innovation within enterprises. Personal Learning environments serve both to support individual learning and organisational learning through a bringing together of learning processes (and technology) and knowledge management within both individual SMEs and dispersed networks of SMEs in industrial clusters. Our approach is also based on linking informal and work based learning and practice and formal training.

The paper is based on literature research and on interviews with employers and trainers in the building and construction sector. This work was undertaken in preparation for a project called Learning Layers, to be undertaken through the European Commission Seventh Framework for Research and due to commence in November 2012.

In the paper we look at the ideas behind high performance work systems and industrial clusters before examining the nature and context of the building and construction industries and particularly of SMEs within the industrial cluster.

We develop a scenario of how PLEs might be used for learning and suggest necessary developments to be undertaken to facilitate the adaptation of such technologies for learning.

2. The challenge for knowledge and skills for the workforce

Many industries are undergoing a period of rapid change with the introduction of new technologies, new production concepts, work processes and materials. This is resulting in new quality requirements for products and processes which lead to an emergence of new skill requirements at all levels of personnel, including management, workers, technicians, apprentices and trainees. These changes can be described as a paradigmatic shift from traditional forms of production towards leaner, agile and flexible production based on high performance work systems (Toner 2011).

Leaner business organisations have less hierarchical layers and develop ‘close to production intelligence’ in order to be more flexible to change and to customer demands. The qualifications required of workers within such production or service environment are broader than in traditional workplaces reflecting a shift from functional skills towards multiskilling. Skilled workers require practical and theoretical knowledge in order to act competently in the planning, preparation, production and control of work and to coordinate with other departments in or outside the company.

Information and communication technologies – including both technologies for learning and for knowledge management – are required to allow more decentralised control to support just-in-time and flexible production and services. A key to flexibility and high productivity lies in the qualification profiles of the workforce and in the development of worker-oriented production technologies, which allow more flexible control in the production process.

The following table illustrates the change in innovation management within such companies and the consequences for the skilling of workers, technicians and the apprentices. This change in production philosophy can be described as a move from a top-down management approach towards a participative management approach (Rauner, Rasmussen & Corbett, 1988; Deitmer & Attwell, 2000) which requires a commitment to innovation at all level of the workforce, not just at the management level.

Innovation management by: control Innovation management by: participation Organisational consequences for the skilling of emerging workers
function-oriented work organisation business-oriented work organisations Learn to work within the flow of the business process and at the work place through experience-based learning
steep hierarchy flat hierarchy Self regulated working and learning based on methods like plan, do, act and control cycle
low level and fragmented qualifications shaping competences Be able to shape workplaces and make suggestions for improvement of services and production processes
executed work commitment, responsibility Developing vocational identity and occupational commitment
external quality control quality consciousness professional level of training based on key work and learning tasks

Table 1 Innovation management and the skilling of workers (Deitmer 2011)

3. Learning by doing and drivers for incremental innovation

Toner (2011) points out that a ‘learning by doing’ strategy in an innovative work environment can lead to gradual improvement in the efficiency of the production processes and product design and performance (Toner 2011). Such improvements are based on high performance skills by workers. High Performance Work Structures are based on the practical knowledge of the workers underpinned by theoretical knowledge (Nyhan 2002, Rauner). Practical knowledge is generated in the context of application and is shaped by criteria such as practicability, functionality and the failure free use of technologies.

In high performance work systems (Toner 2011, Arundel 2006, Gospel 2007, Teece 2000)  the following qualification profiles are emerging:

  • High levels of communication, numeracy, problem solving and team working are required as managerial authority is delegated to the shop floor including the design of the workplace, maintenance and continuous product and process innovation
  • Broad Job Classifications which allow functional flexibility by limiting occupational demarcations and requiring workers to be competent across a broader range of tasks than is conventionally expected which in turn requires broad based training.
  • Organisational learning around new patterns of activities is based on capturing the learning and work experiences of individual workers and teams of workers
  • Flat management hierarchies provide more responsibility for individual workers and work teams in problem solving and in organising work processes

High Performance Work Systems require a commitment to innovation at all levels of the workforce; this process is more inclusive, democratic and incremental rather than elitist, imposed and radical. The empowerment of the work force to make proposals for changes and improvement is key. However the adoption of such practices requires continuous learning linked to knowledge management and systems and technologies to support such processes.

Thus the development of work based PLEs could be linked to wider processes of innovation within SMEs.

4. Learning and innovation in Regional Clusters

Many SMEs organise themselves in clusters or networks in order to collaborate, to share knowledge and skill, or even to exchange staff. The network dimension is particularly important as regional clusters have been understood as an instrument of scaling learning in heavily SME dependent sectors. This is reflected by large EU projects like European Cluster Excellence Initiative. It is much easier to economically justify the creation of learning materials which can be reused in an entire cluster and hence by many organisations than just for a few individuals. The challenge from a network point of view would be to identify such high potential learning materials and to find ways to distribute them efficiently within the network. The current focus of cluster initiatives is almost exclusively on scaling up formal training by organising training across network members. While a Communities of Practice perspective has been adopted in some cases to address informal learning processes, these are usually not effectively supported through information technologies (Prestkvern & Bardalen 2008).

Effects resulting from relationships in networks of small organisations for learning processes have received little attention in Technology Enhanced Learning research to date, despite these networks having been identified as a potential way of fostering favourable learning conditions (Deitmer & Attwell 2000). However, we can build here on work in diverse fields looking into these network effects. Seminal work by Granovetter (1973) has made distinction between strong and weak ties in such networks. Further studies investigated the network effects on experience sharing (Baum, 1998), on social networks (Cross, 2001), of trust on knowledge transfer (Levin, 2004) on communication for innovation (Müller-Prothmann, 2006), on communication with new media (Haythornthwaite, 2002) and more recently on networked learning (Ryberg, 2008). However, the effects on informal learning and on the creation of shared knowledge artefacts are still open issues.

The development and implementation of Personal Learning Environments within the context of regional clusters could support this form of networked informal learning.

However there remain barriers. Research suggests (Perifanou, forthcoming) that SMEs may still be concerned about a perceived loss of competitiveness through openness in collaborative learning contexts. Similarly some SMEs regard learning materials, especially those generated within their organisation, as a potential source of future revenue.

5. Learning approaches and technological support for learning at the workplace

Research suggests that in SMEs much learning takes place in the workplace and through work processes, is multi episodic, is often informal, is problem based and takes place on a just in time basis (Hart, 2011). Rather than a reliance on formal or designated trainers, much training and learning involves the passing on of skills and knowledge from skilled workers (Attwell and Baumgartl, 2009). Dehnbostel (2009) says that learning in the workplace is the oldest and most common method of vocational qualification, developing experience, motivation and social relations. Learning at work is self-directed, process-oriented form of lifelong learning that essentially contributes to personality development and professionalism, and promotes innovation and employability (Streumer, 2001; Dehnbostel, 2009; Fischer, Boreham and Nyhan, 2004).

A survey undertaken in Germany found work based learning comprised of 43% of training and learning undertaken by enterprises (Büchter et al., 2000).

Thus work based learning is seen as a potential approach to developing continuing learning for the broader competences and work process knowledge required for high performance workplaces. Rather than a reliance on formal or designated trainers, much training and learning involves the passing on of skills and knowledge from skilled workers (Attwell and Baumgartl, 2009). In other words, learning is highly individualized and heavily integrated with contextual work practices. While this form of delivery (learning from individual experience) is highly effective for the individual and has been shown to be intrinsically motivating by both the need to solve problems and by personal interest (Attwell, 2007; Hague & Lohan, 2009), it does not scale well: if individual experiences are not further taken up in systematic organisational learning practices, learning remains costly, fragmented and unsystematic.  It has been suggested that Technology Enhanced Learning can overcome this problem of scaling and of systematisation of informal and work based learning. However its potential has not yet been fully realized and especially in many Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), the take-up has not been effective. A critical review of the way information technologies are being used for workplace learning (Kraiger, 2008) concludes that most solutions are targeted towards a learning model based on the idea of formal, direct instruction. TEL initiatives tend to be based upon a traditional business training model with modules, lectures and seminars transferred from face to face interactions to onscreen interactions, retaining the standard tutor/student relationship and the reliance on formal and to some extent standardized course material and curricula.

The development of work based Personal Learning Environments have the potential to link informal learning in the workplace to more formal training. Furthermore they could promote the sharing of experience and work practices and promote collaborative learning within networks of SMEs. Research suggests that in SMEs much learning not only takes place in the workplace and through work processes, but is multi episodic, is often informal, is problem based and takes place on a just in time basis (Hart, 2011).

Learning in the workplace draws on a multitude of existing ‘resources’ – many of which have not been designed for learning purposes (like colleagues, Internet, Intranet) (Kooken et al. 2007). Research on whether these experiential forms of learning lead to effective learning outcomes are mixed. Purely self-directed learning has been shown to be less effective than most guided learning in many laboratory studies and in educational settings (Mayer, 2004). On the other hand, explorative learning in work settings has often been reported to be beneficial, e.g. for allowing construction of mental models and improving transfer (Keith & Frese, 2005). Some form of guidance may be necessary to direct learners’ attention to relevant materials and support their learning (Bell & Kozlowsky, 2008). This is especially true for learners at initial levels (Lindstaedt et al. 2010).

One approach to this issue is to provide scaffolding. The use of scaffolding as a metaphor refers to the provision of temporary support for the completion of a task that a learner might otherwise be unable to achieve. Scaffolding extends the socio-cultural approach of Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1978) suggested that support for learning was provided by a Significantly Knowledgeable Other, who might be a teachers or trainer, but could also be a colleague or peer. Attwell has suggested that such support can be embodied in technology. However, scaffolding knowledge in different domains and in particular in domains that involve a relationship between knowledge and practice requires a closer approach to learning episodes and to the use of physical objects for learning within the workplace. Thus rather than seeing a PLE as a containers or connections- or even as a pedagogical approach – PLEs might be seen instead as a flexible process to scaffold individual and community  learning and knowledge development.

6. Developing Work based PLEs in the Building and Construction Sector

In the first section of this paper we have looked at the idea of high performance work systems and innovation and knowledge development within industrial clusters. We have suggested that Personal Learning Environments could facilitate and develop these processes through building on informal learning in the workplace.  We have recognized the necessity for support for learning through networked scaffolding. In the second section, we will examine in more depth the north German Building and Construction sector, developing a scenario of how PLEs might work in such a context. We will; go on to suggest further research which is needed to refine our idea of how to develop work based PLEs.

7. The Building and Construction Cluster

The building and construction trades are undergoing a period of rapid change with the introduction of green building techniques and materials and new work processes and standards. The EU directive makes near zero energy building mandatory by 2021 (European Parliament 2009). This is resulting in the development of new skill requirements for work on building sites.

The sector is characterized by a small number of large companies and a large number of SMEs in both general building and construction and in specialized craft trades. Building and construction projects require more interactive collaboration within as well as between different craft trade companies within the cluster.

Training for skilled workers has traditionally been provided through apprenticeships in most countries. Continuing training is becoming increasingly important for dealing with technological change. However further training programmes are often conducted outside the workplace with limited connection to real work projects and processes and there is often little transfer of learning. Costs are a constraint for building enterprises, especially SMEs, in providing off the job courses (Schulte and Spöttl, 2009). Although In Germany, as in some other European countries, there is a training levy for sharing training costs between enterprises, there remains a wider issues of how to share knowledge both within enterprises and between workers in different workplaces. Other issues include how to provide just in time training to meet new needs and how to link formal training with informal learning and work based practice in the different craft trades.

The developments of new processes and materials provide substantial challenges for the construction industry. Traditional educational and training methods are proving to be insufficient to meet the challenge of the rapid emergence of new skill and quality requirements (for example those related to green building techniques or building materials). This requires much faster involvement and action at three levels – individual, organisational and cluster. The increased rate of technical change introduces greater uncertainty for firms, which, in turn, demands an increased capacity for problem solving skills (Toner 2011). Despite the recession there is a shortage of skilled craftspeople in some European regions and a problem in recruiting young people for apprenticeships in higher skilled craft work in the building and construction industry.

In the present period of economic uncertainty, it is worth noting that the total turnover of the construction industry in 2010 (EU27) was 1186 billion Euros forming 9,7% of the GDP in 2010 (EU27). The construction industry is the biggest industrial employer in Europe with 13,9 million operatives making up 6,6% of the total employment in EU27 and if programmes were to be launched to stimulate economies, construction has a high multiplier effect.

8. Mobile technologies and work based Personal Learning Environments

Although the European Commission has pointed to the lack of take up of e-Learning in various sectors, this is probably too simplistic an analysis. It may be more that in all sectors, e-learning has been used to a greater or lesser extent for learning in particular occupations and for particular tasks. For example e-Learning is used for those professions which most use computers e.g. in the building and construction industries, by architects and engineers. Equally e-learning is used for generic competences such as learning foreign languages or accounting.

In the past few years, emerging technologies (such as mobile devices or social networks) have rapidly spread into all areas of our life. However, while employees in SMEs increasingly use these technologies for private purposes as well as for informal learning, enterprises have not in general recognized the personal use of technologies as effectively supporting informal learning. As a consequence, the use of these emerging technologies has not been systematically taken up as a sustainable learning strategy that is integrated with other forms of learning at the workplace.

9. An approach to developing PLEs in the work place

We are researching methods and technologies to scale-up informal learning support for PLEs so that it is cost-effective and sustainable, offers contextualised and meaningful support in the virtual and physical context of work practices. through the Learning Layers project we aim to:

  • Ensure that peer production is unlocked: Barriers to participation need to be lowered, the massive reuse of existing materials has to be realized, and experiences people make in physical contexts needs to be included.
  • Ensure individuals receive scaffolds to deal with the growing abundance: We need to research concepts of networked scaffolding and research the effectiveness of scaffolds across different contexts.
  • Ensure shared meaning of work practices at individual, organisational and inter-organisational levels emerges from these interactions: We need to lower barriers for participation, allow emergence as a social negotiation process and knowledge maturing across institutional boundaries, and research the role of physical artefacts and context in this process.

10. The Learning Layers concept: an approach to support informal learning through PLEs

Work based Personal Learning Environments will be based on a series of Learning Layers. In building heavily on existing research on situated and contextualised learning, Learning Layers provide a meaningful learning context when people interact with people, digital and physical artefacts for their informal learning. Learning Layers provide a shared conceptual foundation independent of the personal tools people use for learning. Learning Layers can flexibly be switched on and off, to allow modular and flexible views of the abundance of existing resources in learning interactions. These views both restrict the perspective of the abundant opportunities and augment the learning experience through scaffolds for meaningful learning both in and across digital and physical interaction.

At the same time, Learning Layers invite processes of social contribution for peer production through providing views of existing digital resources and making it easy to capture and share physical interactions. Peer production then becomes a way to establish new and complementary views of existing materials and interactions.

Three Interaction Layers focus on interaction with three types of entities involved in informal learning:

  • a layer that invites informal interactions with people across enterprises in the cluster, scaffolds workplace learning by drawing on networks of learners and keeps these interactions persistent so that they can be used in other contexts by other persons,
  • a layer that supports creation, maturing and interaction with learning materials as boundary objects and guides this processes by tracking the quality and suitability of these materials for learning, and
  • a layer that situates and scaffolds learning support into the physical workplace and captures people’s interactions with physical artefacts inviting them to share their experiences with them.
  • All three interaction layers draw on a common Social Semantic Layer that ensures learning is embedded in a meaningful context. This layer captures and emerges the shared understanding in the community of learners by supporting the negotiation of meaning. To achieve this, the social semantic layer captures a number of models and lets the community evolve these models through PLEs in a social negotiation process.

The following scenario within the building and construction industry illustrate how these technologies will be operational in the regional North West German building and construction cluster.

11. Building and Construction Scenario: Cross-organisational Learning for Sustainable Construction

A regional training provider for the building industry offers courses on how to install PLC (programmable logic control) based lighting systems, a new technology designed for more efficient energy consumption. Veronika, a vocational trainer at a regional branch, designs a course on PLC based systems where she provides electronic materials. In the course, she distributes QR tags which participants can stick on devices in order to receive information on demand. She also integrates work-based exercises in her teaching where users tag PLC systems with QR tags, take pictures or create short videos, and add their personal experiences with these systems that they make available for other people as learning experiences [Artefact Interaction Layer].

Paul is a skilled electrician working in craft trade electrician service company who has not used PLC technology before. The PLC installation instructions are difficult to understand for him because he lacks experience with such installations. He scans the QR tag attached to the PLC with his tablet PC. The system suggests course materials from Veronika’s course, relevant standards for the installation from a technical publisher, as well as a short video documenting the installation steps recorded by a colleague [Artefact Interaction Layer]. Moreover, Paul receives the information that two people have experience with this particular PLC [Social Semantic Layer]. Paul calls one of them over Skype and checks that his plan and understanding of the installation is sound and then proceeds with the installation with the help of the video. As several further questions remain, Paul posts them using voice recording and photo to a Q&A tool [People Interaction Layer].

Paul’s question is forwarded to Dieter, an Electrical “Meister” in another SME using similar devices, based on his user profile indicating that he has experience with PLC, and because he has indicated his willingness to help. Dieter briefly answers Paul’s question, including links to materials (Pictures, …) available in the learning layers repository. Dieter is a well-known “problem solver” in his SME network. By support of the Learning Layers technology he has created a training business in which he gives technical advice service and trainings to other building electrician companies. His comments can be traced by others and recognized as service from the Electrician’s Guild.

Veronika, the vocational trainer, is notified by the system that there are currently many new activities around PLC programming and views the concrete questions that occurred [Social Semantic Layer]. With the notification, she also gets recommendations for the most active and helpful discussions and for most suitable and high quality materials people have suggested [Learning Materials Interaction Layer]. She decides to include these in her course to illustrate solutions to potential problems.

The four layers described in the previous section provide the core of the conceptual and technological approach for the development of the PLEs. There are two further critical elements that will be crucial for reaching our vision. These elements are needed for effectively integrating the different layers.

12. Further Research 

Integration of work practices with learning to support situated, just-in time learning

We need further investigation into the relationship of informal learning and workplace practices on the individual, organisational and on the network level. In extending previous work, we will especially focus on physical workplaces and the opportunities and constraints that come with supporting learning. Secondly, we require a further focus on existing barriers and opportunities for scaling peer production and learning in cooperative-competitive SME networks. This work will create a model for scaling informal learning in a networked SME context and ensure that the use of tools is integrated through practice as suggested for example by Wenger, et al. (2009). But we generally acknowledge that a key factor for enterprises to staying agile and adaptive is to have a highly skilled workforce. With the rapid development of new technologies, staying up-to-date with know-how and skills increasingly becomes a challenge in many sectors.

Integration through a technical architecture for fast and flexible deployment:

Our idea is to base PLes on mobile devices, either the users’ personal devices or devices provided by the enterprises. However,  the Learning Layers concept is based on fast and flexible deployment in a networked SME setting with heterogeneous infrastructural requirements and conditions. Current learning architectures are typically deployed as monolithic in-house installations that lack flexibility for inter-SME networking in response to fast-changing environments. On the other hand, externally hosted solutions are too restricted to features, devices and environments supported by the provider, again impeding flexibility and fast development cycles. Thus, the challenge of both fast and flexible development and deployment of learning solutions is currently not optimally catered for. This issue requires further research and development.

13. First Conclusions

This paper presents the early stages of research and development towards producing a system to support Personal Learning Environments in the workplace. There remains much work to do in realising our vision. We are attempting both to theoretically bring together approaches to innovation and knowledge management with learning and at the same time to develop pedagogical approaches to scaffolding learning in the workplace and develop technologies which can support the use of PLEs in networked organisational settings.

Our ambition is not merely to produce a proof of concept but to roll out a scalable system which can support learning in large scale networks of SMEs.

Our approach to developing the use of PLEs is based on a series of layers to support informal interactions with people across enterprises, supports creation, maturing and interaction with learning materials as boundary objects and a layer that situates and scaffolds learning support into the physical workplace and captures people’s interactions with physical artefacts inviting them to share their experiences.


The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of the partners in the Learning Layers project application, on whose work this paper draws heavily.


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Dittrich, J., Deitmer, L. (2003) The challenges in Teaching about Intelligent Building Technology. The Journal of Technology Studies. Vol 29, No. 2

European Parliament (2009) Announcement of European Commission on workplace learning. EU Communications 933/3 (cited from UK National Apprenticeship Service, Richard Marsh speach, 02/2012, Apprenticeship Week, London.

Boreham, N., Samurçay, R., & Fischer, M. (eds) (2002) Work Process Knowledge, Routledge: London

Floren, H. Hofmaier, B. (2003), Investigating Swedish project networks in the area of workplace development and health promotion by an support and evaluation approach. Halmstad: School of Business and Engineering,.

Gospel (2007), High Performance Work Systems, unpublished manuscript prepared for the International Labour Office, Geneva

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.

Gustavsen, Nyhan, Ennals (2007) In: Björn Gustavsen, Richard Ennals, Barry Nyhan (eds.) Learning together for local innovation: Promoting Learning Regions, Luxembourg: EUR-OP, Cedefop reference series; 68, pp 235-256

Hague, C., & Logan, A. (2009). A review of the current landscape of adult informal learning using digital Technologies. General educators report, Retrieved Jan 16, 2011 under

Hart, J. (2011) Learning is more than Social Learning,, retrieved 5 July, 2012

Haythornthwaite, C. (2002). Strong, Weak, and Latent Ties and the Impact of New Media. The Information Society 18(5), 385-401.

Kooken, J., Ley, T., & de Hoog, R. (2007). How Do People Learn at the Workplace? Investigating Four Workplace Learning Assumptions. In E. Duval, R. Klamma, & M. Wolpers (Eds.), Creating New Learning Experiences on a Global Scale (Vol. 4753, pp. 158-171). Heidelberg: Springer. Retrieved from

Kraiger, K. (2008). Transforming Our Models of Learning and Development: Web-Based Instruction as Enabler of Third-Generation Instruction. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1(4), 454-467. doi:10.1111/j.1754-9434.2008.00086.x

Levin, J. (2004) Sociological snapshots 4: seeing social structure and change in everyday life, Sage: Thousands Oaks

Lindstaedt, S., Kump, B., Beham, G., Pammer, V., Ley, T., Dotan, A., & Hoog, R. D. (2010). Providing Varying Degrees of Guidance for Work-Integrated Learning. (M. Wolpers, P. A. Kirschner, M. Scheffel, S. Lindstaedt, & V. Dimitrova, Eds.) Sustaining TEL From Innovation to Learning and Practice 5th European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning ECTEL 2010, 6383(6383), 213-228. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-16020-2

Lundvall, B. A. (ed.) (1992), National Systems of Innovation: Towards a Theory of Innovation and Interactive Learning. London: Pinter

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14-19.

Müller-Prothmann, T. (2006). Leveraging Knowledge Communication for Innovation. Framework, Methods and Applications of Social Network Analysis in Research and Development. . Frankfurt Peter Lang.

Nyhan, B., (ed.) (2002) Taking steps towards the knowledge economy reflection on the process of knowledge developments, European Centre for the development of Vocational Training, CEDEFOP.

Nyhan, B. (2002) Capturing the knowledge embedded in practice through action research In: Barry Nyhan (eds) (2001), 111-129.

Perifanou, (forthcoming) Collaborative Blended Learning manual Version 2

Rauner, F. Rasmussen & Corbett (1991) Crossing the Border. The Social and Engineering Design of Computer Integrated Manufacturing System. London: Springer

Rauner, F. (2007): Praktisches Wissen und berufliche Handlungskompetenz Europäische Zeitschrift für Berufsbildung Nr. 40 – 2007/1

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Streumer, J. (ed.) (2001). Perspectives on learning at the workplace: Theoretical positions, organisational factors, learning processes and effects. Proceedings Second Conference HRD Research and Practice across Europe, January 26-27, 2001. UFHRD, Euresform, AHRD. Enschede: University of Twente.

Teece, D.J., Pisano, G. and Shuen, A. ( 2000) Dynamic Capabilities and Strategic Management, in:  Dosi, G., Nelson, R.R. and S.G. Winter (eds) pp 334 – 379

Toner, P. (2011) Workforce Skills and Innovation: An Overview of major themes in the literature OECD Education Working Paper series. Paris

Vygotsky L.(1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPSquare

Download the paper here in Word format  PLE2012






What we’ve been doing

April 10th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

the last three months have been pretty hectic. So much that I have been somewhat lackadaisical in posting on this blog. Partly it has been due to the sheer volume of work and also traveling so much. For some reason I always find it difficult to blog when I am on the road. Another reason is that a lot of the work has been developmental and has naturally generated a series of notes and emails but little writing. Its time to make amends.

In this post I will give a short run down on what we have been up to. Over the next couple of weeks I will post in a bit more detail about the different projects and ideas. All the work shares a series of ideas in common:

  • The work is based on the ideas of open education and open data
  • The projects seek to enable practitioners to develop their own learning materials
  • Most of the project incorporate various elements of social software but more importantly seek to utilise social software functionality to develop a shared social dimension to learning and knowledge sharing
  • Most of the work supports both face to face and online learning. However we have been looking hard at how learning and knowledge development is socially mediated in different contexts.

Open Data

Over the last year we have been working with a series of ideas and applications for using open data for careers guidance. Supported by the Mature-IP project, by Careers Wales and Connexions Northumberland and more lately UKCES, we have been looking at how to use open data around Labour Market Information for careers advice and guidance. Needless to say, it has not proved as easy as we thought, raising a whole series of issues around target users, mediation,  and data sources, data reliability and data interpretation, amongst others.

We have encountered a series of technical issues but these can be overcome. More important is understanding the social uses of open data for learning and decision making which is much harder!

Webquests 2.o

The original idea of  Webquests was based around a series of questions designed to encourage learners to search for new meaning and deeper understanding using web based tools and resources. Although Webquests have been used for some time in schools and colleges, we have been working to adopt an updated Webquest 2.0 approach to the needs of learners in Small and Medium Enterprises. These inquiry–oriented activities take place in a Web 2.0–enhanced, social and interactive open learning environment (face to face and/or on–line) that combine at the same time collaborative learning with self–paced learning.

Once more, this work has posed a series of challenges. While we have been pretty successful in using webquests 2.0 with SMEs, it has proved harder to enable practitioners to develop their own online learning materials.

Work based learning

We have been continuing to explore how to use technology to support work based learning and in particular how to use mobile technologies to extend learning to different contexts in Small and Medium Enterprises. We are especially interested in focusing on work practices and how technology can be used to support informal learning and practice in the workplace, rather than the acquisition of more formal knowledge. In order to finance this work we have developed a number of funding applications entailing both background research and (more enjoyably) visits to different companies.

We are fairly confident that we will get support to take this work forward in the near future.

Social media and social empowerment

We have been looking at how to use social media and in particular internet radio, not for promoting social inclusion, but for giving a voice and opportunity for expression to those excluded form access to traditional education and media. Once more, we are confident that we will be able to launch a new initiative around this in the next couple of months.

We will be publishing more about this work over the next couple of weeks. If you are interested in any of these ideas or projects please get in touch.

Open Learning Analytics or Architectures for Open Curricula?

February 12th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

George Siemen’s latest post, based on his talk at TEDxEdmonton, makes for interesting reading.

George says:

Classrooms were a wonderful technological invention. They enabled learning to scale so that education was not only the domain of society’s elites. Classrooms made it (economically) possible to educate all citizens. And it is a model that worked quite well.

(Un)fortunately things change. Technological advancement, coupled with rapid growth of information, global connectedness, and new opportunities for people to self-organized without a mediating organization, reveals the fatal flaw of classrooms: slow-developing knowledge can be captured and rendered as curriculum, then be taught, and then be assessed. Things breakdown when knowledge growth is explosive. Rapidly developing knowledge and context requires equally adaptive knowledge institutions. Today’s educational institutions serve a context that no longer exists and its (the institution’s) legacy is restricting innovation.

George calls for the development of an open learning analytics architecture based on the idea that: “Knowing how schools and universities are spinning the dials and levers of content and learning – an activity that ripples decades into the future – is an ethical and more imperative for educators, parents, and students.”

I am not opposed to what he is saying, although I note Frances Bell’s comment about privacy of personal data. But I am unsure that such an architecture really would improve teaching and learning – and especially learning.

As George himself notes, the driving force behind the changes in teaching and learning that we are seeing today is the access afforded by new technology to learning outside the institution. Such access has largely rendered irrelevant the old distinctions between formal, non formal and informal learning. OK – there is still an issue in that accreditation is largely controlled by institutions who naturally place much emphasis on learning which takes place within their (controlled and sanctioned) domain. yet even this is being challenged by developments such as Mozilla’s Open Badges project.

Educational technology has played only a limited role in extending learning. In reality we have provided access to educational technology to those already within the system. But the adoption of social and business software for learning – as recognised in the idea of the Personal Learning Environment – and the similar adaption of these technologies for teaching and learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – have moved us beyond the practice of merely replicating traditional classroom architectures and processes in technology.

However there remain a series of problematic issues. Perhaps foremost is the failure to develop open curricula – or, better put, to rethink the role of curricula for self-organized learning.

For better or worse, curricula traditionally played a role in scaffolding learning – guiding learners through a series of activities to develop skills and knowledge. These activities were graded, building on previously acquired knowledge in developing a personal knowledge base which could link constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose.

As Peter Pappas points out in his blog on ‘A Taxonomy of Reflection’, this in turn allows the development of what Bloom calls ‘Higher Order Reflection’ – enabling learners to combine or reorganize elements into a new pattern or structure.

Vygostsky recognised the importance of a ‘More Knowledgeable Other’ in supporting reflection in learning through a Zone of Peripheral Development. Such an idea is reflected in the development of Personal Learning Networks, often utilising social software.

Yet the curricula issue remains – and especially the issue of how we combine and reorganise elements of learning into new patterns and structure without the support of formal curricula. This is the more so since traditional subject boundaries are breaking down. Present technology support for this process is very limited. Traditional hierarchical folder structures have been supplemented by keywords and with some effort learners may be able to develop their own taxonomies based on metadata. But the process remains difficult.

So – if we are to go down the path of developing new open architectures – my priority would be for an open architecture of curricula. Such a curricula would play a dual role in supporting self organised learning for individuals but also at the same time supporting emergent rhizomatic curricula at a social level.


Reflections on Personal Learning Environments

January 5th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

I got a great email from Rui Páscoa, Sérgio Lagoa and João Greno Brogueira, Masters students at the Open University in Portugal. One of their teachers, they say, Professor José Mota, “asked us to interview someone who is a reference in online teaching and, based on thisinterview, write a 2000-word paper as one of the compulsory activities for the subject ‘Elearning Pedagogical Processes’.”

They sent me the questions and rather than write a long text I agreed to reply by video. The questions – see below – are excellent – in focusing on the key issues around Personal Learning Environments. I struggled with some of my answers – it would be great if anyone else could add their ideas by video or in the reply box to this blog entry.


  1. What is the pedagogical model you follow as an online teacher and why?
  2. You have been developing some serious thinking on PLEs. How important are they in the learning process?
  3. Do you advise your students to follow a specific  “model” or do you give them full freedom in building their PLE?
  4. Ever since the concept of PLE appeared there have been several discussions about this issue and the concept itself has been evolving. In what way has the PLE interfered in the change of elearning pedagogical models? Or is the PLE merely “a tool” that you can use and take some benefit from in the already existing practices, without real influence in changing them?
  5. Many Universities and Colleges offering online courses tend to adopt pedagogical models quite close to traditional teaching and learning, centred on transmitting contents in closed environments (LMS/VLE) controlled by the institution. How shall we overcome this traditional approach and persuade the universities to change their practices?
  6. Elearning is becoming more and more relevant, both in formal and informal education, and it is seen as essential in lifelong learning processes. How do you see the future of elearning, bearing in mind the technological development and the social and economical changes that will come along with the evolution of society?

Training and learning

December 21st, 2011 by Graham Attwell

This time of the year things are supposed to be quiet. Christmas parties and that kind of stuff. However at Pontydysgu its not like that this year – though a dare say we may stop for the odd mince pie and glass of mulled wine in the next few days.

We have been completing project reports and writing new proposals. And I have been traveling for the last five weeks. So there is plenty to update on this blog.

The week before last I was in Bucharest for the final conference of the PREZENT! project – aiming to increase participation in continuing training for those at risk in the labour market. The project has taken a series of actions over providing access information, and awareness about opportunities for continuing and lifelong learning in Romania.

And it turned out to be a very inter sting event. The conference organisers had produced a draft strategy on training in Romania and used the event for consultation prior to submitting the strategy to the education ministry. Although I was struggling to follow the debate (my Romanian being non existent) the strategy certainly seemed to have sparked off a considerable discussion.

Yet many of the issues were hardly new, or indeed unique to Romania. Delegates were concerned about business models and how training should be financed. Indeed, there seemed to be much support for the idea of a training levy on enterprises. Delegates were concerned about the quality and regulation of training. And delegates were concerned about professional development for training and particularly over the use of technology for training.

Personally I felt they were over optimistic about the potential impact of legislative change or even at getting legislation right. However this might reflect different cultures and certainly in the past there has been some evidence that Romanian governments have taken more interest in training than the UK (although that is not difficult!).

My contribution to the conference was mostly based on the use of technology to support informal learning. And although everyone was very polite and said how much they had enjoyed the presentation I am not sure they got it. Learning remains inextricably bound to formal training programmes usually linked to classroom or workshop delivery. Whilst there might be acknowledgement of the importance of informal learning it goes no further than that.

Possibly it is because trainers see no role for themselves in informal learning. however I have long held that informal learning does not happen by accident. Informal learning depends on rich learning environments be they in school or in the workplace. And informal learning depends on the ability to use that learning in work or in everyday life. For many their job does not provide either that richness in activities or in learning environment. For many the workplace is just a source of drudgery. And this could be the vital role trainers could take – in designing and developing rich learning environments. But I think for that we would require new ways of recognising learning based on learning processes rather than merely accrediting outcomes. And whilst education and training remains dominated by a discourse around competences that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Work Process Knowledge, Developmental Competence and rhizomatic knowledge

November 11th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

A number of years ago I did a couple of studies, funded by the European Commission on the use of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are defined by the European Commission as those employing less than 350 employees. My overall conclusions were that whilst few enterprises were using Virtual Learning Environments or indeed any other formal e-learning platforms or technologies for learning this did not mean that learning was not happening. Instead many employees used computers everyday for informal learning. Learning was motivated by the need to solve problems in the workplace or surprisingly often by curiosity and interest.

The technologies employed varied but they included Google, Bulletin Boards and email. Ask-a-friend was a common pedagogic strategy.

Now several years on, the European Commission’s Research Programme on information technologies has launched another call for projects designed to crack the perceived issue of the lack of use of Technology Enhanced Learning in SMEs.

And they still haven’t got it. They seem to have an assumption that there are hard to reach sectors or that the technology just isn’t good enough. Or, often is cited, the lack of access to hardware and connectivity.

Of course, since I did my orginal study, there has been considerable changes in technology. The biggest is probably the widespread use of mobiles, (handys, GSM, cells), many of them internet enabled.

But talking to employers this week I don’t see many changes in how the internet is being used for learning. There is one big change though. The employers I have spoken to are aware that computers can facilitate learning and knowledge exchange and support those processes. Back before few employers even knew their employees were involved in learning (mind, many of the employees also didn’t call it learning!).

but the learning processes remain informal. Human communication is most valued, albeit technology mediated. There remains little take up of formal e-learning programmes.

There does seem to be an increasing awareness of the need to link learning and information and knowledge management processes. There is also intense interest in the ability of new technologies to be utlisied at or near the work process and to support the development of what I call work process knowledge or developmental competence.

The concept of Work Process Knowledge emphasises the relevance of practice in the workplace and is related to concepts of competence and qualification that stress the idea that learning processes not only include cognitive, but also affective, personal and social factors. They include the relevance of such non-cognitive and affective-social factors for the acquisition and use of work process knowledge in practical action. Work often takes place, and is carried out, in different circumstances and contexts. Therefore, it is necessary for the individual to acquire and demonstrate a certain capacity to reflect and act on the task (system) and the wider work environment in order to adapt, act and shape it. Such competence is captured in the notion of “developmental competence” (Ellstroem PE, 1997) and includes ‘the idea of social shaping of work and technology as a principle of vocational education and training’ (Heidegger, G., Rauner F., 1997). Work process knowledge embraces ‘developmental competence’, the developmental perspective emphasising that individuals have the capacity to reflect and act upon the environment and thereby forming or shaping it. In using technologies to develop such work process knowledge, individuals are also shaping or appropriating technologies, often developed or designed for different purposes, for social learning.

it seems to me that if we really want to introduce Technology Enhanced Learning in the workplace (and especially in SMEs) we have to find ways of supporting the development of work process knowledge and developmental competence. The problem is that most formal elearning programmes are tied to very traditional notions of competences, which are often only loosely connected to practice. This is one of the reasons I like the idea of rhizomatic knowledge, as put forward by Dave Cormier and currently being discussed on the #Change11 MOOC. Rhizomatic knowledge in the sense of work process knowledge is  generated by practice in communities and technology can be used to scaffold the development of developmental competence through practice (incidentally I think this overcomes many of the objections to the idea of rhizomatic knowledge as discussed on Dave’s blog).

Has Open and Linked Data failed?

October 26th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

I am intrigued by this presentation. Whilst I appreciate what Chris Taggart, who has been invo0lved in the development of the opencorporates and openlylocal data sites (and who undoubtedly has more experience and knowledge than me of the use of Open and Linked Data) I would be less pessimistic. I see the use of open and linked data as in very early days.

Firstly, although I appreciate that politicians and bureaucrats do not always want to release data – I think there is still a groundswell in favour of making data available – at least in Europe. Witness yesterdays unveiling of the Italian Open data store (sorry, I can’t find the url at the moment). And although Google search results do not help promote open data sites (and I am not a great fan of Google at the moment after they wiped out my account ten days again), they have contributed very useful tools such as Refine, Fusion Tables and Public Data Explorer.

I still think that as Chris Taggart says in one of his first slides the biggest challenge is relevance. And here I wonder if one of the problems is that Open and Linked Data specialists are just that – specialist developers in their own field. Many of the applications released so far on the UK Data store, whilst admiral examples of the art of development – would seem to have little practical use.

Maybe it is only when the tools and knowledge of how to work with Open and Linked data are adopted by developers and others in wonder social and subject areas that the true benefits will begin to show. Open data applications may work best, not through dedicated apps or sites, but when incorporated in other web sites which provide them with context and relevance. Thus we have been working with the use of open and linked data for careers guidance (see our new web site, which includes working demonstrations).

Bu even more important may be finding ways of combining Open and Linked data with other forms of (human) knowledge and intelligence. It is just this form of knowledge – for instance the experiences and informal knowledge of careers guidance professionals, which brings relevance and context to the data from official data sets. And that provides a new design challenge.

  • Search

    News Bites

    Number students outside EU falls in UK

    Times Higher Education reports the number of first-year students from outside the European Union enrolling at UK universities fell by 1 per cent from 2014-15 to 2015-16, according to data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

    Data from the past five years show which countries are sending fewer students to study in the UK.

    Despite a large increase in the number of students enrolling from China, a cohort that has grown by 12,500 since 2011-12, enrolments by students from India fell by 13,150 over the same period.

    Other notable changes include an increase in students from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia and a fall in students from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

    Peer Review

    According to the Guardian, research conducted with more than 6,300 authors of journal articles, peer reviewers and journal editors revealed that over two-thirds of researchers who have never peer reviewed a paper would like to. Of that group (drawn from the full range of subject areas) more than 60% said they would like the option to attend a workshop or formal training on peer reviewing. At the same time, over two-thirds of journal editors told the researchers that it is difficult to find reviewers

    Teachers and overtime

    According to the TES teachers in the UK “are more likely to work unpaid overtime than staff in any other industry, with some working almost 13 extra hours per week, according to research.

    A study of official figures from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that 61.4 per cent of primary school teachers worked unpaid overtime in 2014, equating to 12.9 additional hours a week.

    Among secondary teachers, 57.5 per cent worked unpaid overtime, with an average of 12.5 extra hours.

    Across all education staff, including teachers, teaching assistants, playground staff, cleaners and caretakers, 37.6 per cent worked unpaid overtime – a figure higher than that for any other sector.”

    The future of English Further Education

    The UK Parliament Public Accounts Committee has warned  the declining financial health of many FE colleges has “potentially serious consequences for learners and local economies”.

    It finds funding and oversight bodies have been slow to address emerging financial and educational risks, with current oversight arrangements leading to confusion over who should intervene and when.

    The Report says the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Skills Funding Agency “are not doing enough to help colleges address risks at an early stage”.

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