What is a PLE? More than a suite of tools? More than social media?

Jocene and I are having a bit of a chat about PLEs and she raises a number of questions or perspectives in her last comment in that discussion that are worth of thought. So, I’m starting a new blog post here, rather than making a comment (the inequity in power and ease of use between the editing tools/interface used to create a post and those used to make a comment – very limited – make an interesting comment about the assumptions and affordances of a blog).

The issues raised by Jocene I want to consider include:

  • Is the notion of PLEs separate from those of Web 2.0/social media tools?
  • The connection of PLE with a set course.

A PLE is not a collection of Web 2.0 tools

In her comment Jocene makes the following point

I keep trying to separate the notion of PLEs and that of Web 2.0 social media tools. The latter may be used to construct various PLEs, but even the sum of these tools, in any PLE context, is still not the PLE itself. A suite of Web 2.0 tools is not a PLE.

My response/current belief can be summarised in two points:

  1. Yes I agree, but how else do you engage in this work?
  2. The tools have to come first, don’t they? No?

How do you do it? or Is a Web 2.0-based PLE better?

This section turned into something different as I was writing. The original point was to ask a question of what more could a University do to enable students’s use of PLEs without focusing on Web 2.0 based technologies. I’ll get to that, but first I’m reflecting on my experience and wondering whether or not a Web 2.0-based PLE is better than a traditional one.

A personal collection of tools to support your learning is nothing new. We’ve all done it. I had a collection of folders and loose leaf paper that I used at University back in the 80s to supplement my textbooks and handouts from the academics. Managing this collection of resources/tools effectively was half the battle of learning. I imagine I did some, perhaps many, of the tasks that Graham Atwell outlined in the slidecast that kicked off this conversation.

The following wasn’t planned. It arose out of thinking about this problem and the idea of comparing my old PLE with my new PLE using the tasks outlined by Graham Atwell in his slidecast.
Those tasks included:

  • access and searching;
    This was incredibly time consuming and poorly supported in the old style. The Internet, Google and my blog provide a much better set of tools to support this. Both individually and also socially, collaboratively with others.
  • aggregating and scaffolding;
    In the 80s this was called photocopying and placing in folders – rarely to be accessed again. What I did access was put into structures and frameworks that perhaps helped me understand.
  • manipulating;
    Much of the learning I have undertaken has always been around ideas and information – computer science, information systems, learning and teaching, philosophy etc. – part in due to the nature of the disciplines but also the nature of teaching/learning. Manipulating the artifacts associated with this learning in my old PLE was laborious. In fact, if I attempt to do this now – e.g. write more than my signature – my body rebels, aches and generally says “stop!”. As a techie the manipulations I can perform in my new electronic PLE is so much easier, powerful and interesting.
  • analysing;
    Given that I eventually graduated there must have been some analysis of the content of my old PLE. I must have worked out what some of it meant. I believe my new PLE is orders of magnitude better at helping me in this analysis. The ability to access hugely diverse opinions and have tools like Google, Wordle and many others to perform various forms of low-level analysis is a great help.
  • storing;
    The question of long-term viability is still open. Moving from my old website to this blog has probably led to some loss of information. But keeping information is getting easier. I certainly have very little of the content from my 80s PLE. The multimedia nature of the new PLE, however, is a significant improvement. On my laptop I have videos and audio that I consider important. I also think there is something to be said for the way that my new PLE makes it much easier to store information/learning in a fragmented form, which is a good thing, really it is.
  • reflecting;
    Did my old PLE help in terms of reflection. To some extent. But the private nature, difficulty of manipulating, storing, accessing and searching that old PLE certainly placed significant constraints. My new Web 2.0 PLE makes reflection much easier. It lets me find and link my thoughts together. The form of a blog and its connection to a diary also helps encourage reflection. (Not to say that the technology determines this, it takes discipline and motivation on my part – but the affordances of the new PLE help.)
  • presenting;
    My old PLE led to presentations only in the form of formal, necessary presentations. To some extent that remains true, but even this post is a form of presentation, perhaps of representation. Trying to show my understanding. Even this bit of reflection is available as a “presentation” for others. The combination of presentation and reflection add meaning, at least for me as the author.
  • representing;
    I’m not sure I got Graham’s meaning on this one. However, the word points to me about representing the meaning and identify I place on what I’ve learnt in my PLE. Have I got it wrong? My old PLE had very little connection with me. If someone picked up the collection of folders and textbooks there wouldn’t be a lot in it that represented me. The odd comment, not a lot of reflection. With my blog, it’s a different story. There are photos of what I experience, there are small personal storied intermixed with the work and learning. Does there need to be a separation between learning and others aspects of life? Certainly in my PLE (my blog) there isn’t one.
  • sharing;
    With my old PLE I could do little or none of this. Access to those folders and their contents was not readily available to folk (access) and the searching was poor. With my blog I’m currently averaging around 50 or so “sharing events” a day as people visit the resources on it. They generally come here through links on WordPress, elsewhere on the web or through google searchers.

However, during my undergraduate education I certainly didn’t engage in the move from “sanctioned knowledge” to “collaborative forms of knowledge construction”. I didn’t talk to many folk, worked on my own with the “sanctioned knowledge” and my own constructions. Almost certainly the poorer for it and am now engaging differently through the Web 2.0 tools. Why the difference?

I’m certainly more mature and open about learning, perhaps I just wasn’t ready for it as a kid. I also know that the Web 2.0 tools, like blogs, have a much greater affordance for the type of “collaborative forms of knowledge construction” that I prefer. i.e. I don’t particularly like synchronous, group-based, warm and fuzzy co-operation. I prefer to be on my own, considering what lots of others have said and done and working through my own ideas.

On the basis of the above, it looks like, at least for me, that a Web 2.0-based PLE is a tremendous improvement over a traditional non-Web 2.0 based PLE. Too many of the tasks which Graham Atwell suggests you want to do in a PLE are much easier, more effective with the assistance of Web 2.0 technology. If it is better, should we look at helping people use it.

Question: Is this part of the difficulty we face with PLEs? A Web 2.0/social media enabled PLE is, because of the affordances of the technology, a completely different kettle of fish. Think of the difference between written, personal communication implemented in the 17th century and implemented now in the 21st century. It’s a completely different ball game. Perhaps the whole PLE thing is getting too bogged down with the “yea, we’ve always done it stuff”. Perhaps we haven’t always done it, perhaps it so different that relying on the old patterns of thought is preventing innovation?

I’m still thinking about this myself.

Back to the original point I was thinking of making. If you decide that students have always made use of a PLE using traditional approaches, just like I did back in the 80s, then what more can we do to support students in using the traditional form of PLEs? If you assume that in some institutions, like CQUniversity, that more and more of the learning experience will be moving online, then are is there anything we can do?

I’ve always believed that it’s not the task of the university to build or specify a PLE for students. Whether it be “traditional” or Web 2.0. The services a university could perform to help students use PLEs, seem to me, to be:

  • Open up its learning activities, resources and services so the student can use the tools they select to perform the tasks Atwell points out.
  • Because this idea is somewhat novel, scaffold and aid the development of individual PLEs, in whatever form, to learn some lessons and see where things go.
  • Learn from what worked and from what didn’t and continue.

PLEs and university courses

In her comment Jocene makes the following point

Conceptually, there is no reason why my PLE needs to service, or make me accountable to a set course (in which I may be enrolled) if my way of knowing (principle 2) does not match that of the course designer. Conceptually, I will learn when I am ready to learn, and I will select the evidence I need from seemingly infinite data, to bring me to the realisation that I know something.

I agree entirely with this perspective. I believe that the amount of learning an individual will go through with a formal learning organisation (like a university) pales almost into insignificance against the amount of informal learning.

The “services” I listed at the end of the previous section seem to allow for this. The emphasis is on opening up the university’s courses to allow students to use the PLEs they chose. Eventually the assumption being that this is the same PLE students use to service the broader array of learning experiences they have. In addition, the “opening up” of university courses may also include developing and helping academics use course designs that allow for more freedom and diversity in how a student travels through a course.

Back to watching the Super Bowl.

4 thoughts on “What is a PLE? More than a suite of tools? More than social media?

  1. jocene

    Much to think about now. Thank you. And now I am just thinking about this (without being too sure)…
    It sounds to me that the working definition of a PLE is still often just the sum of material tools – be they online or “traditional”, recyclicable stuff.
    Maybe it’s because I have a strong bias towards the importance of the unconscious and psychoanalysis (Jungian psychology specifically) in learning that I ‘feel’ a PLE is more than just rational manipulation of learning tools. Sometimes we just know more than we can say (Polyani). I know that part of my PLE is dreamstate. Through dream I discover what I need to know. My uncionscious, so much smarter than I am, presents it to my consciousness as a complete metaphor – an image.

  2. Pingback: Web 2.0 no meu Delicious - Semana 6 « Web 2.0 PT

  3. Certainly the amount of informal learning tremendously exceeds that of formal learning. At the same time, the formal learning may have a tremendously disproportionate effect on learning as it directs the paths of informal learning. With that in mind, perhaps the significance of formal learning might be reconsidered.

    1. G’day Charles,

      As someone working in higher ed/formal education most of what I do has to start with consideration of formal learning. The balance between informal/formal is something I don’t think I’ve decided about and in my current position I don’t think I’m the one to decide. My current role is to help others reach that decision within their teaching.

      That said, I think perhaps formal learning does need to consider informal learning more and especially the effect formal has on the informal.

      So, I tend to agree.


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