Constructing a Personal Learning Environment the Free and Easy Way

Derek Harding University of Teesside Introduction
Having been involved in the implementation of a commercial Virtual Learning Environment and the staff development activities associated with it, I can say with some confidence that this approach has problems as well as advantages. Blackboard for example, is essentially an expensive American product and it shows. Moodle is free and more versatile but can still be used to impose particular ways of working. Also students often use technologies in ways that lecturers may not. Because of the plethora of tools and technologies available to us and the power of the 'semantic' web to present and represent them to their publics we can now construct a personal resource quickly and easily. In this paper I will illustrate how it is possible to simply construct a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) using these tools and technologies and in doing so will argue that these more flexible approaches will be more appropriate for the modern learner in the future.

What is a PLE?
The search for a definition of a Personal Learning Environment proved to be somewhat disappointing. For example Graham Attwell says: “There is a buzz at events bringing together educational technologists. That buzz is called Personal Learning Environments… there is little agreement on what a Personal Learning Environment is,… There is not even agreement as to whether a PLE should be an application or if it is just a collection of userconfigured tools. The best guess at the moment is the JISC view that “student control over their learning environment using tools that they are already familiar with” [check this on the JISC site] is at least a reasonable summary of what the projects are trying to achieve.”1 George Siemens says: “is every instance of using a suite of web tools a PLE? In that case, my definition of a PLE is the Internet. And what does that get us?"2 The issue is essentially identified by the JISC and is mainly concerned with control and familiarity, and therefore useability rather than functionality. The basic problem with the PLE idea is that we tend to get locked into institutional approaches to elearning rather than more eclectic and broad based ones which are already there in crude form at least. That is we tend to make students and staff use ‘corporately acceptable’ tools such as the officially adopted VLE rather than accepting that ‘free range’ activities will take place. The
1 2 Also see Ron Lubensky

PLE idea is in essence a valiant (and laudable?) attempt to shrug off this approach.

Approaches to building a PLE
Projects to construct PLEs have looked at producing holding software. That is software which acts as a container for a range of tools. PLEX for example does this by allowing users to organise their resources such as local files, web links, RSS feeds, people and so on.

FLOCK is similar in that it is intended to act as a container for resources, etc., but it is a browser rather than a software package. The Elgg Personal Learning Environment map below provides a good illustration of the scope of PLE projects. However, when one begins to explore the practicalities of PLEs two aspects become apparent very quickly. The first is the complexity of the given PLE and the second is the problem that early the prototypes have in that they typically require local installation unless they are portal based. Local installation means that each machine used would need the software installed. The portal option is better but may be susceptible to corporate branding and control activities.

Mapping a PLE
Whatever we might think about the definition of a PLE what we can say with some confidence is that they are potentially very complex. Ray Sim's3 mapped his learning Environment using mind mapping software in order to get a view of its structure.

A colleague at Teesside, Emma, mapped her 'learning environment' for me too and interestingly also included a lot of 'wetware' (wetware = people ).

I concluded my examination of these maps by constructing one of my own. However, in my case the map is different. The rationale for the difference/s is founded in the realisation that i) Personal Learning Environments are really Personal Working Environments which contain pointers to sources of information and tools to manipulate them. Of course we could include social activities and tools which have non work roles but do we really want to start blurring the distinction between work and leisure? ii) the PLE needs to be constructed in such a way that the user can be machine independent. Plex for example needs to be installed on the users machines and given that many of us use many machines ranging from the desktop, the home machine and/or laptop, lab based computers and machines in teaching rooms this would be an unsatisfactory solution. In practice PLE projects seem to be moving towards solutions that would be implemented as web services rather than installable modules.

My map is constructed from data sources and tools that I routinely use. These include:

The main aim is to contain as much as possible of what I routinely do in a place that I can access from any computer using a browser. But in doing this I am also attempting to enable myself to do my work from anywhere. This necessarily involves moving the focus of my work activity from my computer desktop to the internet. This is in fact a fundamental shift in the way of working because if it were to work the software on my computer would become largely redundant.

A Potential Solution?
Rather than attempting to create new software or tools I decided to explore the potential to enable me to migrate my PLE to the internet using existing technology. The solution I used was Google. I navigated my browser to and created an account. I then set this URI as my homepage in my browser. I was then able to add tabs and add items to tabs to construct my PLE.

The contents are as follows: The Home Tab News Calendar Local Weather Date & Time Bookmarks

BBC News feed Can be edited for diary events and so on The default is set to local but it can be used to check other locations Today’s date and the current time Important links are listed others are in the background and can be accessed by following the ‘bookmarks’ link where they are organised by categories

Mail & Docs Tab Google Docs & Spreadsheets Gmail To do list

This tool allows me to produce, store and publish wordprocessed documents and spreadsheets. These can also be shared by other editors. A good mail tool which can also read my other mail accounts. Editable list of things to do

Personal More bookmarks Flickr Daily Horoscope A crude quiz tool

These are more social bookmarks Photographs In case you are into that kind of thing Too crude really and in the wrong place

Searches Google Scholar Search tool for Google Scholar Custom search for aspects of Cornwall and its history Cornwall SCs and CETLs Custom Search which only searches the HE Academy Subject Centres and CETLs and also strips out advertisng RSS & Discussion RSS Feed Collects my feeds from various sources My Google Group collaboration area which allows the group to share documents, Groups edit pages and have asynchronous discussions. It can be used in a similar way to a wiki too Database Databse tool

A simple database for collecting data

As well as the above the links allow me access to Blogs, two different VLEs, wicki tools, web sites and ZOHO which provides database, spreadsheets, a chat tool, a wordprocessor, a presentation tool and a wiki tool.

Issues & Conclusions
As we can see from the above the issue of defining a PLE in broad terms is still the subject of some debate but if we focus on the personal aspects of the term we an see that we can usefully map individual PLEs. We can do this contextually as well as personally so that Ray Sim’s map reflects both work and social activities focussing on his interests and concerns. Emma’s map is clearly focussed on her research activity and the perceived need for a support network to help her when she needs them. My map on the other hand is specifically work oriented.

If we can map an individual PLE we can also build it to a large extent using tools available through Google and possibly from other sources too but this capability is limited in that the range of tools is not great yet. I did not find for example a good web page editor that could be used online. Though the Netscape browser does offer it on many machines. One is also still reliant on local tools for FTP and the like. Also the functionality of tools available on the web tends to be limited. Having said the above it is clear that a lot can be done now in terms of replicating the software tools available on a standard desktop computer and the main tools available in a VLE such that it is possible to use alternatives to them in a crude PLE context. In time the range and functionality of the tools available should increase to the extent that more free range approaches to online learning and working should be possible.

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