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What is a PLE? The future or just another buzz word?

Colin Milligan
Last modified 26 Sep, 2006
Published 30 Jun, 2006
On June the Seventh, the Chancellors Conference Centre in Manchester provided the venue for an event hosted by the CETIS Pedagogy Forum to discuss a new and exciting topic, the Personal Learning Environment (PLE).

The rather hazy concept of a PLE has been around for a while now, but with CETIS receiving JISC funding to develop a Reference Model for the PLE space, the pace of work, and debate, in this area has increased lately.

The event was actually the second part of a two-day event. On the first day, the PLE team (based at the Universities of Bolton and Strathclyde) had gathered together a group of ‘experts’ to discuss the PLE concept. All participants provided a position paper and the day was spent debating some of the key issues. Readers are recommended to look at these papers as they reflect some of the very interesting thinking that is taking place in this area.

The second day was designed to report back on those discussions as well as present our current thinking on the nature of Personal Learning Environments to a wider audience. The audience of around 50 included some of the experts from the previous days meeting, as well as a cross section of learning technologists and lecturers from across HE and FE, many of whom are regulars from other Pedagogy forum meetings. With an area which is new and relatively uncharted, it was important not too preach too much and so the day was designed to include as much group discussion as presentation.

So What is a PLE?

If we think of institutional learning environments (usually referred to as Virtual Learning Environments or VLEs), they tend to be monolithic systems providing content (PowerPoint slides, lecture notes) and services (such as email, conferencing) to the learner. But these systems are geared entirely to the management needs of the institution rather than the needs of individual learner: they are administration environments not learning environments. Are systems like these an inevitable compromise to the perennial problem of education: too many students and not enough teachers? Can we re-examine the online learning experience and design a set of tools which more fully support the learning process and are more closely matched to the needs of individual learners? These tools would give the learner greater control over their learning experience (managing their resources, the work they have produced, the activities they participate in) and would constitute their own personal learning environment, which they could use to interact with institutional systems to access content, assessment, libraries and the like. The benefit of a PLE is that the learner has one set of tools suited to their needs, which they can use to interact with a number of different institutions throughout their studies.


The day was split into two, with the morning given over to the background behind the PLE concept. Oleg Liber gave an introduction by describing the changing vista of education (more part time learning, greater emphasis on informal and lifelong learning, increased use of portfolios for assessment and recording achievement) and the role of emergent technologies (blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, and other tools and services which have been collectively labelled ‘Web 2.0’) which threaten to disrupt established systems. Mark Johnson then followed this with a more theoretical presentation on the role for a Reference Model to enable us to coordinate our approach to the design of new learning technologies. After the first round of discussions, Colin Milligan presented our initial concept of a Personal Learning Environment and other similar visions which had been suggested from members of the international eLearning community, before presenting a summary of the PLE Reference Model we have produced and the methodology used to generate it.

The Discussions

Twice during the day, we broke up into around eight groups for a half an hour discussion of some of the issues raised by the presentations, with questions acting as starting points and team members or PLE experts present in each group to keep the discussion on board. One of the key aims of the discussion sessions was to discover what questions and concerns are raised within the practitioner community to this concept which is both new and radical. The following list summarises some of the key issues and concerns:

  • There were opposing views on current institutional systems, from those who thought they were straightjackets, stifling learning, to those who realised their value in facilitating large scale online provision of learning materials.
  • There was some concern that the introduction of PLEs would be highly disruptive – highlighting a key challenge: that there should be a gradual and managed transition between current and future learning environments. Recent moves by BlackBoard and other VLE providers to open up their systems and adopt a more Service based approach are seen as essential to the long term prospects of learning systems more closely matched to learners needs.
  • There was an acknowledgement that the Web 2.0 tools and services (blogs, wikis, chats, shared workspaces) which form the basis of the PLE concept would be an inevitable component of education in the future, given that students will arrive at college or university with considerable experience of these tools through their use of MySpace, Bebo and other social networking sites. Failure to utilise these tools would alienate students and institutions would risk becoming technology ghettoes.
  • There was some debate as to whether the technology really matters at all. Inherent in the concept of a PLE is a move away from large-scale high-stakes assessment towards assessment by portfolio and generating evidence of competency. Is such a shift ever likely to occur, and if so, to what timescale?

Something Concrete

After a day of talk, the final session provided an opportunity to show off some concrete prototype development work undertaken as part of the PLE work, and led by Phil Beauvoir (who was also the main developer of the RELOAD Tools). Whilst not intended as software to be used with students, the prototype, called PLEX, demonstrates some of the key concepts of the PLE. Scott Wilson presented PLEX, and showed how the tool enabled an individual to collect and share information and resources from various sources, create and join groups of users, establish and participate in activities, and discover new learning opportunities through different channels. All this functionality was made possible by utilizing established protocols for passing and sharing and information.

What are we left with?

From the PLE team’s point of view, the day was a success: we enjoyed hearing the views of our audience and listening to their concerns. Individual examples of PLE-like tools, and courses which utilise web 2.0 tools to create a richer learning experience are now appearing, and the PLE concept looks set to stay in the limelight.

Want to know more?

The Reference Model work is now drawing to a close and documents designed to suit the needs of a range of audience will start appearing soon on the PLE project web site.

See the presentations from the day

Position papers from the experts day

A long list of PLE relevant links

Colin Milligan, June 2006


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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