Personal learning environments

Dominant design is the idea that, once a design has risen to prominence, all innovation will aim at improving it, rather than competing alternatives, regardless of whether the dominant design is better than the alternatives. The most commonly used example seems to be the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was implemented when typists would type fast enough to jam the keys of old typewriters. The QWERTY layout was designed to slow down typists in order to prevent jamming the keyboard. So, even though it’s not the optimal layout for typing, and we no longer have the problem of jamming keys, we still see all innovation aimed at improving the current, dominant design, even though it’s not the best.

Another commonly used example is the institutional learning management system (LMS). It would be hard to argue that this represents an optimal design for driving learning, yet this is the design that has risen to dominance in the higher education sector. All efforts to enhance online learning are therefore aimed at improving the LMS, rather than investigating the merits of competing alternatives.

One alternative that continues to be ignored is the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Many others have written about this and I’m not going to try and summarise their work but I did want to capture some of the ideas that I find most appealing about the concept.

We say we want students to be lifelong learners but we encourage them to use a system – the LMS – that cuts off access to their learning artifacts when they graduate. In most cases they are cut off from all of their activities at the end of each year. There is absolutely no incentive for students to invest any time and effort developing a learning space that they will lose at the end of the year. All of their interactions, content, grades, etc. are all deleted – or at best, archived – and are lost to the student. The data that they created is mined and used by the institution to make choices about future cohorts but even that data is lost to the student.

Now consider the PLE, the primary advantage of which is the fact that control of the learning environment reverts back to the student. When the student enters the university they are given hosted space on the institutional servers and taught how to manage that space. Some universities are already moving forward with this innovative system, called A Domain of Ones’ Own. In this system the student controls their data and gives permission to the institution – or any other 3rd party – to use it.

Another thing that really stands out for me is the fact that learning consists – in large part – of creating networks. The networks may be biological in the connections you make with people, digital in the connections you make with devices and content, and cognitive in the neural connections you make over time. Learning is fundamentally about networks; Think web, not website. The LMS deletes your network when you graduate, while the PLE enables you to take your network with you.

The PLE enables us to connect with people as well as with systems. People have a central online space that they control and then choose how to best to use that space and it’s connected services to learn. They choose the tools they’re most comfortable with, pull in data from other services (e.g. Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) and are able to publish their work into any of those services too. A PLE doesn’t preclude the possibility of students being connected to their institutional LMS, it just gives them other options for connection and developing networks.

There are no single platforms that constitute a PLE and no set frameworks that describe how they work; they are personal to you. However, there are some design principles to take into account that make sense for networked learning. The collection of services in a PLE should allow for:

  • Diversity: Did the process involve the widest possible spectrum of points of view? Did people who interpret the matter one way, and from one set of background assumptions, interact with people who approach the matter from a different perspective?
  • Autonomy: Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?
  • Interactivity: Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives?
  • Openness: Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?

In terms of the practical features of the PLE, it should enable the following activities:

  • The aggregation of personally meaningful information, resources and ideas in a variety of formats e.g. text, images, video, links, tags, etc., from a variety of sources.
  • The student should be able to remix those resources into different formats by reinterpreting, combining and editing them using their own personal insights.
  • It should be possible to repurpose the resources so that the student can use them for a different objective than what they were created for.
  • The student should be able to publish the newly created artifiact in a feed forward mechanism that adds new ideas to the world.

If we want students to take advantage of the enormous possibilities enabled by digital and online learning environments, we will have to challenge the dominant design of learning management systems in higher education. We need to think about systems that not only provide the support that students’ needs for their learning, but also create space for them to move in ways that suit them rather than the institution. The adoption of personal learning environments will not only require significant changes to institutional systems and how these platforms are provided to students, but will also challenge educators to think differently about the kinds of learning activities and assessment tasks that they use in their teaching practices.

Additional reading