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An Introduction to Personal Learning Environments


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DateNovember 18, 2009 Posted by: Laura Overton   Keywords: collaboration, informal learning, innovation, Social Media

Making learning personal – using PLEs to enhance learning

At a recent UK conference, an informal poll of learning and development professionals showed that whilst almost 50% of people had heard of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), only 3% had actually used one.  PLEs are common place in academia, but in the UK workplace the take-up is not great.  According to Brandon Hall , 2009 would see five main trends in learning:

• Mobile learning
• DIY learning
• Flexible learning environments
• Virtual worlds
• Games and simulations

PLEs have been said to realise all these developments in learning and bring about radical changes to the way in which learning takes place.  This article looks at the importance of continuous, informal and social learning and considers how PLEs can meet the needs of 21st century learners.  It considers what PLEs are, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of using them. 

What is a PLE?

In describing PLEs it is useful to dispel a few myths, and consider what they are not.  In particular, PLEs are not specific software applications, nor or they systems for creating or delivering e-learning content.  Learning Management Systems and Content Management Systems are not PLEs, and in the strictest sense, neither is a Virtual Learning Environment.

A PLE is a concept based on Web 2.0 technology.  It is a browser-based collection of tools and systems which create an environment where learners access information from a variety of sources.  The main point of PLEs are that they are personal – they are learner-centric and can be whatever the learner wants them to be.

PLEs are based on the idea that most learning takes place informally, in different contexts and scenarios, and that content is not provided by one single provider.  They create an environment where learners can access, aggregate, configure and manipulate digital artefacts of their ongoing learning experiences.  With PLEs, learners can control and manage their own learning, setting their own learning goals and managing both the content and process.  Importantly, they can communicate with others whilst they learn – sharing experiences and collaborating on projects.

PLE elements

 PLEs are made up of a number of different elements (known as widgets) including:

  • Production tools – allowing learners to develop their own content eg via a blog or wiki
  • Collaboration and sharing tools – allowing learners to share their content with others, and to work with others on projects or assignments
  • Communication – allowing learners to communicate via a variety of media such as instant messaging, video-conferencing or email
  • Storage tools  - allowing learners to store their own content, preferences
  • Aggregating content- allowing learners to access a variety of information relating to a particular topic (eg news items)
  • Aggregating people – allowing learners to join together via social networking sites
  • Aggregating software – allowing learners to mash-up (or join together) various elements into one place
  • Identity management – allowing learners safe, easy and quick ways of logging in to websites
  • APIs and protocols – these are key requirements for PLEs to grow as a concept. Rather than locking learners into a particular platform, where content is confined to a space owned by an organisation, the learning can be in a platform under the control of the learner

Many of these elements are available free-of-charge and are easily accessible on the web and straight-forward to use.  The following picture is an illustration of some of the more familiar elements that could make up a PLE.

social media image

Benefits and drawbacks of PLEs

Using a PLE brings many benefits to the learner, including the ability to:

• Create a repository of material about a particular subject matter
• Communicate and collaborate
• Organise material in a way that is personal to you
• Learn formally and informally
• Learn at a time and place to suit you
• Learn throughout your life
• Use whatever tools and devices you want (eg mobile phone, PS3, Wii)
• Interact with friends and wider communities
• Explore a subject in an informal manner
• Reflect on your learning
• Submit work for assessment and review

However, there are drawbacks.  The sheer number of tools available may be overwhelming.  Their use is very much dependent on the learner’s computer and information literacy and their propensity to use technology to enhance their learning.  Different pedagogical viewpoints exist and it is essential to reconcile the structured nature of formal education with the informal attributes of networked learning.  For some people access to technology and software may be limited and there are data privacy and security issues which need to be overcome.

Whilst PLEs are used frequently in compulsory education, FE and HE sectors, their take-up within the workplace is limited.  Organisations may be reluctant to give employees carte-blanche use of the internet in order to access facebook and YouTube.  A cultural shift is needed, both within Learning and Development teams and IT departments to create the environment in which informal learning via the internet can take place and is acceptable.

From a pedagogical viewpoint there is a debate as to the responsiveness and intuitive nature of PLEs.  To what extent do they appeal to individual learning styles, or is it a case of one-size-fits-all?

The ROLE project

The ROLE  project is a European-wide project that is addressing the responsive and intuitive element of PLEs and building an environment which is both responsive and open.  Responsive Open Learning Environments (ROLEs) will empower the learner to build their own responsive learning environment – an environment which is aware of the learner’s preferred learning process and that reflects this back via individually-adapted content and elements.

The ROLE project is a consortium of 16 European organisations – and represented in the UK by the British Institute for Learning and Development and the Open University.  To find out more about the project visit the website http://www.role-project.eu where you can register for updates, join the debate about the future of technology enhanced learning, and help shape the future of responsive learning environments.


Article contributed by Karen Velasco

Deputy Chairman, the British Institute of Learning and Development and Managing Director, PeopleSolve Ltd.

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