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The affordances of Web 2.0 and the development of Personal Learning Environments

March 1st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

This is work in progress. It is part of a report I am writing for the European G8WAY project which aims to support learners in transitions between school and work, school and university and university and work. The report is focused on the development of  a common pedagogy framework for the development of web 2.0 learning environments, based on clearly defined pedagogy criteria. The aim is to conclude a framework, which enables us to map onto digital media and e-tools with regard to their learning characteristics, such as thinking & reflection, conversation & interaction, experience & activity or evidence & demonstration. This can then be used as the basis against which to benchmark pedagogical principles for any particular learning scenario developed within G8WAY.

I am writing the report in a wiki and attempting to develop a coherent framework for the report. The first section, a draft of which follows below looks at the affordances of Web 2.0 applications and the development of Personal Learning Environment. The next section will briefly summarise pedagogic theories and see how web 2.0 tools can be used to support learning according to different pedagogic approaches. A further section will look at the issue of educational transitions and in particular use Activity Theory to examine the contexts in which learning takes place within transitions. I then want to try using Grainne Conole’s model for mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design to map the tools against these contexts and illustrate this with mini learning activities. I will then take my own favourite learning theorist, Vygotsky, and see how his ideas can be used for supporting learners in transitions and how the model can allow the selection of different tools (at least that is the plan 🙂 ).

Anyway here is a very rough draft of the section on Affordances and Personal Learning Environments.

There are changing ideas of how technologies can be used for learning, in part inspired by the emergence of Web 2.0 services and tools, but in part due to a critique of previous generations of learning software. Oliver (2002) points out that although many described instances of elearning claim to draw upon theoretical positions, such as constructivism, few explain how they embody the principles and values of that approach. Attwell has pointed to the difference between espoused pedagogies and the reality of the learning designs.

In part this may be due to lack of confidence and knowledge by teachers in pedagogic approaches to Technology Enhanced Learning. But it may also reflect the affordances in practice of Learning management systems and Virtual Learning Environments. Socio-cultural theories of knowledge acquisition stress the importance of collaborative learning and ‘learning communities’ but Agostini et al. (2003) complain about the lack of support offered by many virtual learning environments (VLEs) for emerging communities of interest and the need to link with official organisational structures within which individuals are working. Ideally, VLEs should link knowledge assets with people, communities and informal knowledge (Agostini et al, 2003) and support the development of social networks for learning (Fischer, 1995). The idea of a personal learning space is taken further by Razavi and Iverson (2006) who suggest integrating weblogs, ePortfolios, and social networking functionality in this environment both for enhanced e-learning and knowledge management, and for developing communities of practice.

Based on these ideas of collaborative learning and social networks within communities of practice, the notion of Personal Learning Environments is being put forward as a new approach to the development of e-learning tools (Wilson et al, 2006)  that are no longer focused on integrated learning platforms such as VLEs. In contrast, these PLEs are made-up of a collection of loosely coupled tools, including Web 2.0 technologies, used for working, learning, reflection and collaboration with others. PLEs can be seen as the spaces in which people interact and communicate and whose ultimate result is learning and the development of collective know-how. A PLE can use social software for informal learning which is learner driven, problem-based and motivated by interest – not as a process triggered by a single learning provider, but as a continuing activity. The ‘Learning in Process’ project (Schmidt, 2005) and the APOSDLE project (Lindstaedt, and Mayer, 2006) have attempted to develop embedded, or work-integrated, learning support where learning opportunities (learning objects, documents, checklists and also colleagues) are recommended based on a virtual understanding of the learner’s context.

However, while these development activities acknowledge the importance of collaboration, community engagement and of embedding learning into working and living processes, they have not so far addressed the linkage of individual learning processes and the further development of both individual and collective understanding as the knowledge and learning processes mature (Attwell. Barnes, Bimrose and Brown, 2008). In order to achieve that transition (to what we term a ‘community of innovation’), processes of reflection and formative assessment have a critical role to play.

Personal Learning Environments are by definition individual. However it is possible to provide tools and services to support individuals in developing their own environment. In looking at the needs of careers guidance advisors for learning Attwell. Barnes, Bimrose and Brown, (2008) say a PLE should be based on a set of tools to allow personal access to resources from multiple sources, and to support knowledge creation and communication. Based on an initial scoping of knowledge development needs, an initial list of possible functions for a PLE have been suggested, including: access/search for information and knowledge; aggregate and scaffold by combining information and knowledge; manipulate, rearrange and repurpose knowledge artefacts; analyse information to develop knowledge; reflect, question, challenge, seek clarification, form and defend opinions; present ideas, learning and knowledge in different ways and for different purposes; represent the underpinning knowledge structures of different artefacts and support the dynamic re-rendering of such structures; share by supporting individuals in their learning and knowledge; networking by creating a collaborative learning environment.

Whilst PLEs may be represented as technology, including applications and services, more important is the idea of supporting individual and group based learning in multiple contexts  and of promoting learner autonomy and control.

Personal Learning Environments offer both the framework and the technologies to integrate personal learning and working and to support learners in transitions. Coneole (2008) suggests a personal working environment and mixture of institutional and self selected tools are increasingly becoming the norm. She says: “Research looking at how students are appropriating technologies points to similar changes in practice: students are mixing and matching different tools to meet their personal needs and preferences, not just relying on institutionally provided tools and indeed in some instances shunning them in favour of their own personal tools.”

Auch a development would appear to reflect the changing ways in which young people are using web 2.0 tools and social software for social and entertainment purposes as well as for learning.

Web 2.0 applications and social software mark a change in our use of computers from consumption to creation. Young people are increasingly using technology for creating and sharing multi media objects and for social networking. A Pew Research study (Lenhart and Madden, 2005) found that 56 per cent of young people in America were using computers for ‘creative activities, writing and posting of the internet, mixing and constructing multimedia and developing their own content. Twelve to 17-year-olds look to web tools to share what they think and do online. One in five who use the net said they used other people’s images, audio or text to help make their own creations. According to Raine (BBC, 2005), “These teens were born into a digital world where they expect to be able to create, consume, remix, and share material with each other and lots of strangers.” VLEs and LMS systems were designed as ‘walled gardens’, to isolate learners within institutional, class and subject bound groups and precisely to prevent the open social networking which characterises the ways in which we are using computers to communicate today.

It is not only that learners are using personal tools to meet their own needs and preferences, but teachers also. Whilst in the past, teachers would need technical support for software applications, the widespread availability of online environments and tools has allowed teachers to move outside of institutional VLEs. A wide range of different social software applications are being used for learning including blogs and wikis, social networks such as ELGG or Buddypress, mico blogging applications, shared presentations and social bookmarking tools. Some teachers have experimented with popular social networks such as Facebook for supporting learning. Many of these were not designed for learning and have simply been appropriated for that purpose. Other software vendors for instance Apple have developed learning specific areas such as iTuneU.

Recent research suggests that students are moving away form desktop applications such as Word to use Cloud applications like Google Documents to save money. These applications also tend to offer enhanced opportunities for collaboration.

Furthermore the development of Open APis allows applications to be embedded – thus it is possible to view Utube videos, to access Twitter and to present slideshows all within a personal blog.

However these developments are not unproblematic. Not all institutional provision can be accessed through a PLE. using multiple tools often means logging in separately to different accounts. There are issues around privacy, online safety and digital identities.

Data created in one application may be difficult to move to another. Online cloud providers may go out of business arising issues of data preservation.

Above all there remain pedagogical issues. With a wide array of potential tools available how do teachers and students choose the best tool for a particular task? Is it possible to look at the affordances for learning of different types of social software and group them? One major issue is the context in which such tools are being used. Later in this report we will suggest ways of understanding the contexts in which learning for transitions is taking place and look at a framework for matching groups of tools to such contexts to facilitate the development of Personal Learning Environments.

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4 Responses to “The affordances of Web 2.0 and the development of Personal Learning Environments”

  1. Hi Graham, picked your article up from Futurelab’s education eye and found your article very interesting.

    My personal work on pedagogy (see A is for Apple ) and my professional work at smartassess seem to practically overlap your academic study.

    At smartassess, I am just putting the finishing touches on a wordpress 3 CMS with buddypress for social collaboration, with realsmart and google apps all under one Single Sign On remotely linked to our schools’ MIS system (SIMS and Facility) to provide dynamic provisioning and authentication.

    When you have a system (or groups of systems) like this, you tend not to focus on one tool for one job, but many tools for many different jobs/contexts/personal preference.

    If you want to talk to me, or get your hands on the technology to inform your study, whatever, let me know… gwyn [at] smartassess [dot] com @gwynap

  2. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi Gwyn – would be extremely interested in seeing more of what you are doing – strangely when your comment came in I was out at a meeting discussing a similar idea for developing a system.

  3. Hi Graham,

    have a look here

    The actual portal is at – if you want to have a play, email me! ok! Gwyn


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    The affordances of Web 2.0 and the development of Personal Learning Environments, by @GrahamAttwell

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