Terje's musings on educational research

An insight to the PLE 2010 conference in Barcelona

Unbelievably nice weather here in Estonia has kept me away from all the work related tasks. Thus, my PLE 2010 conference insight comes with a delay.

About my observations…
First of all, the PLE2010 conference confirmed the fact that conferences can be organised in a nice way and they can provide a nice atmosphere. I am not good at all at socializing, but I enjoyed this friendly and “academic free” crowd. Big thanks to organisers!

Secondly, as I have done a thorough literature review on the concept of PLE, I was surprised that I didn’t meet people who have written their thoughts about PLE’s in academic papers. Most of the names were unknown for me. Either I haven’t managed to get all the PLE related papers, which is quite probable nowadays or the crowd hoping around in the PLE2010 conference is not much of the academic type who publish their work in journal papers and other conference proceedings. I guess this is one of the signs that discussions and conversations happen somewhere else…

I have to admit that the conference in terms of content didn’t provide any new insights for me personally, but rather gave me a confirmation that we are still struggling with the common understanding of what a PLE is. An attempt to define the concept failed from my point of view.

Henri et al. (2008) claim that PLE is not a fundamentally new concept. Before the era of massive use of technology we live through, learners have always had to organise their own learning and develop some kind of PLE. PLEs were comprised of course notes, conceptual maps, summarises and personal working/learning documents that students exchanged. Now a day, PLEs are much richer in terms of volume of content, exchanged contents and technologies. Face to face peers and friends support, students meetings in cafeteria and tutoring were also part of more traditional PLEs. This sounds very logical, at least to me and aligns very well with Sebastian Fiedler’s PLE definition: a potential (personal learning) environment for a particular learning activity is made of all the resources (artefacts, natural objects, people) that an individual is aware of and has access to at a given point in time and that s/he can turn into instruments to mediate her actions (Fiedler & Pata, 2009). This is still the best definition of a PLE…in my opinion.

Nevertheless, the majority of researchers and educators tend to talk about PLE as only a technological solution, a collection of tools and services still provided by institutions. Trafford (2006) questions such an understanding of a PLE and the concept of environment being too narrow and development focusing on replicating VLE functionality on these machines seems even narrower. He tries to caution against going from general notions about ‘PLEs’ to specific ICT connotations using that term. Isn’t there much more behind the term? I have a feeling that the basic questions like “why” and “what for” are left untouched. What is it this concept tries to solve or change in current educational settings?

Decomposing the terms of the concept and challenging them separately might help us to grasp the concept and understand what might be behind the term. According to various definitions and explanations of the word ‘personal’ it refers to pertaining to a particular person or belonging to a person in some ways. On the one hand the word ‘personal’ has a connotation to an ownership, constituting to a personal property, on the other hand it refers to a personal relationship to something, for example a personal trainer. In a latter case an individual doesn’t own it, but receives special, individual attention. I have a feeling that many educators and researchers tend to understand “personal” from this point of view…I don’t own it, but I can change a few things according to my taste.

‘Learning’ is usually understood as the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge, behaviors, values or preferences. The term learning can be a process consisting of different activities in interaction with the individual’s environment. On the other hand, on a more general level it can be also understood as a product of some sort of activity. It refers to a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from practice and can be measured retrospectively. Learning as an activity defines the nature of the environment. We can also talk about a personal work environment…

An ‘environment’ is understood as (constructed) conditions that surround an individual and provide a setting in which the individual operates. These conditions (may) affect and facilitate the nature of the individual, his/her development and actions. Environment can be seen as our understood and perceived reality, which provides information for behavioral appropriateness (Harrison & Dourish, 1996). An environment can consists of everything (for instance human, material and digital resources) one perceives at a certain point of time in relation to a specific action in mind. On the one hand, intended activities define the environment and its nature, but on the other hand environment structures these activities and interactions. The individual starts to perceive the resources of his environment and potential activities in relation to the (lack of) resources for a particular activity (project) at a given point in time.

An environment becomes a learning environment when one intends to carry out a learning activity (project). A learning environment can be anywhere since we learn constantly. It is rather a matter of drawing boundaries of the environment in accordance with a particular learning project. Learning environments can be also formed by others according to their perception of a potential learning environment, which might not be suitable for others.

Resources in one’s environment can be various tools whether virtual or physical; people, such as friends, colleagues, facilitators, etc. and signs of their activities, artefacts – representations of people’s work, which can be for example books, lecture notes, photos; and time, which is partially defined by a particular project. This kind of interpretation of the resources in accordance with a particular project shows what can be done, what are the functions of the environment and what is missing. Activity derives much of the ability to perceive. A learning environment is a place where people can draw upon resources to make sense out of things and solve problems. The learning project adds meaning and awareness to the resources that are located in the individual’s learning environment. The sense of presence of different things, people and the ongoing awareness of activity and tools available allows us to structure our own activity, but also integrating communication and collaboration. However, from an observer’s perspective monitoring of an individual‘s environment and its interactions is complicated.

The learning project, initiated by a student himself, defines the objectives and expected outcome with the evaluation criteria. The learning environment can be considered a personal learning environment if the individual owns it, if individual exerts control over it. It means the individual’s opportunity to design, gain access to, utilize, modify and attach meaning to it according to his current project. The PLE situates itself around the student and his project. I can perceive my environment with different resources, but I might not use them for mediating my activities. And this changes all the time, depending on the location and time.

According to different projects and activities it may function differently at different times. However, some features of the environment can be used in a routine manner. They can have temporal properties. The environment can be different at different times with different tasks. But an experienced learner might start to repeat certain actions and use certain resources repeatedly. Such an understanding of a PLE requires considerable changes in current teaching and studying practices in order to make this happen…I believe that it is worth to revisit the concepts of self-direction in education in general and learner control and responsibility in particular.

This is my understanding of a PLE.

Hence, coming back to the PLE2010 conference, it was surprising for me to see questions like ‘how do we develop students who are PLE-able?’ I believe that we even can’t ask a question like this. I would say that everybody is PLE able, everybody perceives some sort of environment and its affordances in relation to his task. It is just a matter of one’s experiences and awareness of options that could support and mediate one’s activities within a particular environment. I think that our (educators) role is to show alternatives, various options that emerge now with technology and different ways of approaching learning and teaching…

Or some other examples of questions: ‘Is PLE and PLN a same thing?’ When institutions come in? These questions give away askers understanding of a PLE…I still believe that there is much more behind that concept, not just a technological revolution. I still believe that we have to go back and ask whether we even need this concept and what for…

Fiedler, S., & Pata, K. (2009). Distributed learning environments and social software: In search for a a framework of design. In S. Hatzipanagos & S. Warburton (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Social Software and Developing Community Ontologies (pp. 145-158). Hershey, PA, USA: IGI Global.

Harrison, S., Dourish, P. (1996). Re-placing space: the roles of place and space in collaborative systems. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work CSCW’96, Boston, MA (pp. 67–76). ACM, New York.

Henri, F., Charlier, B., & Limpens, F. (2008). Understanding PLE as an essential components of the learning process. Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 3766-3770). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Trafford, P. (2006). PLEs as environments for personal and personalised learning. Retrieved June 14, 2010, from http://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/site/asuc/oucs/staff/pault/