The following is my attempt to think about how the “marriage” of the PLE concept and educational institutions can be handled. It arises from reading some of the material that has arisen out of the PLE conference held in Barcelona a few weeks ago and some subsequent posts, most notable this one on the anatomy of a PLE from Steve Wheeler.
The following is informed by a paper some colleagues and I wrote back in 2009 around this topic. That paper, aimed to map the landscape for a project we were involved with that was attempting to implement/experiment with just such a marriage. By the time the paper was presented (end 2009) the project was essentially dead in the water – at least in terms of its original conceptualisation – due to organisational restructures.
The paper and this post attempts to use the Ps framework as one way to map this landscape.
In summary, people (students and staff) already have PLEs, the question is how to effectively create a marriage between each person’s PLE and the institution that is effective, open, and responds to contextual and personal needs.
Product – what is a PLE
The assumption is that the definition of what a PLE is, is both uncertain and likely to change and emerge as the “marriage” is consumated (taking the metaphor too far?). I like the following quotes to summarise the emergence aspect
Broader conceptualisations see technology as one of a number of components of an emergent process of change where the outcomes are indeterminate because they are situationally and dynamically contingent (Markus & Robey, 1988). Ongoing change is not solely “technology led” or solely “organisational/agency driven”, instead change arises from a complex interaction among technology, people and the organization (Marshall & Gregor, 2002)
But we found some value in defining what a PLE is not:
- a single tool;
- specified, owned or hosted by the university;
- be common across all students;
- necessarily involve the use of information and communication technologies;
- be a replacement or duplication of the institutional learning management system.
Picking up on the last point, we position the PLE as a counterpoint to the LMS
The PLEs@CQUni project emphasises the role of PLEs as a counterpoint (in the musical sense where two or more very different sounding tunes harmonise when played together) to the institutional LMS
The design guidelines we generated from this were
- The "PLE product" is not owned, specified or provided by the university.
- Each learner makes their own decisions about the collection of services and tools that will form their "PLE Product".
- The University needs to focus on enabling learners to make informed choices between services and tools and on allowing for integration of institutional services with learners’ chosen services and tools.
- The PLE work will act as a counterpoint to existing and new investments in enterprise systems, by combining them with the students’ customised environment in order to provide previously unavailable services.
- The final nature of the PLE product and its relationship with the institution will emerge from the complex interaction between technology, people and the organization.
When looking at the people involved, we developed these guidelines:
- The PLE project will fail if learners (both staff and students) do not engage with this concept.
- People are not rational decision makers. They make decisions based on pattern matching of their personal or collective experiences.
- There is little value in asking people who have limited experience with a new paradigm or technology what they would like to see or do with the technology.
- The project focus should be on understanding, working with and extending the expectations of the participants within the specific conditions of the local context.
- A particular emphasis must be on providing the scaffolding necessary to prepare learners for the significant changes that may arise from the PLE concept.
It’s long been a bug bear of mine that universities are so project centric, that they believe that big up front design/traditional IT development processes actually works for projects involving innovation and change. This is evident in the guidelines around process we developed:
- Classic, structured project management practices are completely inappropriate for the PLEs@CQUni project.
- An approach based on ateleological or naturalistic design is likely to be more appropriate.
- Project aims should be based on broad strategic aims and place emphasis on organisational learning.
A project has to have a purpose doesn’t it? At the very least, for political reasons, the project has to be seen to have a purpose. The guidelines for purpose were:
- The project will cultivate an emergent methodology.
- The project will focus on responding to local contextual needs.
- The overall purpose of the project is to support the institution’s new brand.
The last point is likely to bring shudders to most folk. Branding! Are you owned by “the man”? This was partly political, however, the “branding” really does gel with the concept of the PLE. The tag line is “Be what you want to be” and one of the “messages” on the corporate website was
CQUniversity interacts in a customized way to your individual requirements. Not all universities can say that and few can say it with confidence. We can.
For me, there is a connection with PLEs.
To some extent, the discussions from the PLE conference that I have seen seem to assume that all universities are the same. I disagree. I think there are unique differences between institutions that can and should be harnessed. What works at the OU, will not work at my current institution. So the guidelines for place we developed are:
- The project must engage with broader societal issues without sacrificing local contextual issues.
- It must aim to engage and work with the different cultures that make up the institution.
- It should use a number of safe-fail projects, reinforcing those with positive outcomes and eliminating others.
There are other aspects of the Ps framework not considered in the paper or above – Pedagogy, and Past Experience. However, the above suggests how these would be handled. i.e. connecting with current practice within the specific place and trying to extend it to better fit with the ideas underpinning a PLE. Such extension would be done in diverse ways, with different disciplines and different individuals within those disciplines trying different things, talking to each other and working out new stuff.
What would it look like?
There were two concrete changes the project implemented before it was canned:
Provide LMS-based method for staff to manage/aggregate and use individual student blogs (PLE).
- Generating RSS feeds from Blackboard 6.3 discussion forums.
The institutional LMS at the time was the ancient Blackboard 6.3. We implemented an intermediary system that generated an RSS feed of posts. A way for students/staff using newsreaders (PLE) to track what was happening within the LMS and at the same time saving them time. They didn’t need to login to the LMS, go to each course, check each discussion forum for new posts….
These two bits only really touched the surface. In fact, these interventions were intended as easy ways to scaffold and encourage the greater use and integration of “PLE” like concepts into the daily practice of learning and teaching within a university. The start of a journey, and valuable because of the journey to come, more so than the destination they represented. A journey we we’re never able to carry through for an interesting distance. Here’s hoping that someone can start it again.