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Constructing a Personal Learning Environment the

Free and Easy Way


Derek Harding

University of Teesside Derek.Harding@tees.ac.uk

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 user-
configured 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
http://www.knownet.com/writing/weblogs/Graham_Attwell/entries/6521819364
2
http://www.elearnspace.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1664 Also see Ron Lubensky
http://members.optusnet.com.au/rlubensky/2006/12/present-and-future-of-personal-
learning.html#towards-a-definition
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 ).
3
http://simslearningconnections.com/ple/ray_ple.html
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 http://www.google.com/ig 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 BBC News feed
Calendar Can be edited for diary events and so on
Local Weather The default is set to local but it can be used to check other locations
Date & Time Today’s date and the current time
Bookmarks 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 & This tool allows me to produce, store and publish wordprocessed
Spreadsheets documents and spreadsheets. These can also be shared by other
Gmail editors.
To do list A good mail tool which can also read my other mail accounts.
Editable list of things to do

Personal
More bookmarks These are more social bookmarks
Flickr Photographs
Daily Horoscope In case you are into that kind of thing
A crude quiz tool Too crude really and in the wrong place

Searches
Google Scholar Search tool for Google Scholar
Cornwall Custom search for aspects of Cornwall and its history
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.