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Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010).

Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A


First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A First Prototype

Martin Ebner
Computing and Information Services / Division of Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
martin.ebner@tugraz.at

Behnam Taraghi
Computing and Information Services / Division of Social Learning
Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
b.taraghi@tugraz.at

Abstract: It is obvious that in the future the World Wide Web as a whole together with the many
distributed online applications, tools and services play a very significant role in Technology
Enhanced Learning. The integration of all these possibilities on the web in a Personal Learning
Environment (PLE) in a way that the learners can select, individualize and customize the learning
resources and services according to their needs and interests can support learners and teachers and
enhance learning in general. For this purpose Graz University of Technology has developed a
PLE that bases on mashup of widgets. In this paper the PLE architecture in general is described.
The widget-based approach that follows the W3C standard is pointed out and the first widget
prototypes as well as some student projects for widget development are illustrated.

Introduction
In the last years Technology Enhanced Learning, shortly often called e-learning is switching from content-oriented
learning to a more collaborative-communicative approach. Beginning with the introduction of web 2.0 technologies,
first named by Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly 2005), for teaching and learning purposed, named e-learning 2.0 (Downes
2005), learners get a more active role. The use of weblogs (Luca & McLoughlin 2005), wikis (Augar et al. 2004),
podcasts (Evans 2007) or microblogging platforms (Ebner & Maurer 2009) dominated the recent research on
Technology Enhanced Learning.
Nowadays it can be summarized that all these activities lead not only to strengthen collaboration but also flexibility
and individuality. Learners of tomorrow will be able to choose the application of their choice as well as the content
they prefer for learning. Furthermore an amazing increase of mobile availability of the World Wide Web (WWW)
through mobile devices let users interact on demand. Nielsen (Nielsen 2009) compared the mobile web 2009 with
the desktop web 1998 and named the visible trend towards mobility expected in next years.
Bearing in mind that there are huge amount of different tools and applications, a huge amount of available content
and a huge amount of devices which have access to the Internet, it must be asked how can we deal will this
abundance of information. Regarding this circumstances e-learning is extended by nearly endless possibilities. This
phenomenon is named Ubiquitous Learning (u-learning) and defined by Zhan & Jin as following (Zhan & Jin 2005):

u-Learning = {u-Environment, u-Contents, u-Behaviour, u-Interface, u-Service}

This equation shows that beside of didactical aspects learning depends on lots of different variables and the question
arises “how a future learning environment has to look like?”. Moreover if a future learning environment should be a
physical environment or simply be a space or arrangement of different measurements supported by a Cloud
Computing concept. Downes (Downes 2005) describes it as “an environment, which becomes not an institutional or
corporate application, but also a learning center, where content is reused and remixed according to the student’s own
needs and interests. It becomes, indeed, not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications – and
environment rather than a system.” This leads to comprehend a future learning behaviour as a MashUp
(Kulathuramaiyer & Maurer 2007) of different resources, as a combination of different social networks for
Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
communication and as a recommendation from a large pool of information (Drachsler et al 2009) – highly flexible,
highly individual and personal.
This change from a traditional Learning Management System (LMS) to a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is
both – a technological as well as a pedagogical switch. According to Schaffert & Hilzensauer (Schaffert &
Hilzensauer 2008) seven crucial aspects are describing what must be taken into account:
• Role of the Learner
• Personalization
• Content
• Social involvement
• Ownership
• Educational & organization culture
• Technological aspects
In this publication we like to address the research questions, how can a Personal Learning Environment for Higher
Education look like? Especially if the MashUp principle will be an appropriate possibility to enhance learning and
teaching.

Personal Learning Environment – an overview


Aside from the high number of services and tools, which are provided by different institutes and faculties within the
university, there are many online services and applications that are applied in technology enhanced learning. Due to
the enormous and fast growth of such applications in WWW it is really sophisticated for the end users (learners and
teachers) to manage or even come across these resources. On the other hand almost all services on the web rely on
general user requirements. They are not customized to the actual needs of the learners and may only provide them a
poor customizable interface. The services and applications that are applied by students should be customized
according to the personal needs of the individual learners to enhance the learning performance and at the same time
to meet users’ individual requirements. Otherwise the end users would rarely be willing to use the tools, because
ultimately they will bring no benefit. To overcome the challenge of various distributed resources and the
customization of the services the idea of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) comes up (Schaffert 2009).
Contrary to the LMS Systems, which are mainly developed to support the teaching stuff such as course management
etc, the PLE concept takes the individual needs of the users in to consideration. (Wilson 2005) expressed the user-
centered philosophy of PLEs as the future Virtual Learning Environments (Wilson 2005).
PLE is an environment where the distributed resources, tools and applications are all integrated in one platform and
customized by the individual learners according to their actual needs. As (Wild 2008) describes, in this learning
environment the users can arrange and configure the mashup of learning resources and applications in a way that
they achieve the best outcome for their personal learning goals and knowledge management.
To realize the integration of the mashup of different (in) dependent applications in a PLE the widget-based approach
is applied that is described in the next sections.

Widgets
Widgets are small single applications that run on a client machine. In other words widgets are little windows as a
container for a client side application. This application can either involve pure client side functionality or can act as
a tool to deploy a distributed service or resource. In our case the PLE acts as the widget container and the resources
and application on the web are brought up in to the PLE through widgets.
The widgets can be implemented in any language, which is executable on the client side. The web-based widgets are
normally developed in HTML and JavaScript, but other client side languages such as Flash, Java Applets etc. can
also be applied. There are other types of widgets too: Desktop widgets run only on the desktops. Mobile widgets are
called to the ones that run on the mobile clients. The most common type of widgets is web-based widgets. They run
in a web platform as a widget container and can be viewed by any simple browser.
There are several widgets and widget containers in WWW. iGoogle1, Netvibes2, Protopage3 and Pageflakes4 are

[1] http://www.google.com/ig (last visited: 14.11.2009)


[2] http://www.netvibes.com/ (last visited: 14.11.2009)
[3] http://www.protopage.com/ (last visited: 14.11.2009)
Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
some examples of such personalized widget containers. Konfabulator of yahoo widgets, Dashboard of apple project,
Desktop widgets of Opera and Google gadgets are the most famous projects which also provide developers with
some tools to implement widgets. They have no common widget standard. The widgets act according to the rules of
their container, which makes the interoperability of widgets within different containers impossible.
The W3C tries to make some standardization in this regard. The W3C Widgets 1.0 Packaging and
Configuration (Widgets 1.0 P&C 2009), for instance, introduces a zip-packaging format, containing the widget
source files. It specifies the folder structure, the XML-based manifest file and the mandatory as well as none
mandatory elements. The W3C Widgets 1.0 APIs and the Events Specification (Widgets 1.0 A&E 2009) deals with
the functionality of widgets. It defines some APIs to access the Meta data in widget configuration file and events
related to the view state of widgets.
The goal of these specifications is to achieve a standard for the widget developers. Relying on W3C standard
widgets, there would be no interoperability problem at all and widgets can be deployed in any W3C compatible
container on different platforms, desktops and mobile clients.

PLE: mashup of widgets


The PLE at Graz University of Technology acts a widget container to integrate the distributed resources, services
and applications into the learning environment. (Hoyer 2008) introduces some existing mashup tools with different
emphasis such as Yahoo Pipes and Microsoft Popfly. The PLE is implemented as a web-based mashup tool to
deploy W3C compatible widgets. It means that widgets can then be installed and applied in other W3C compatible
containers without any great effort.
Aumueller and Thor (Aumueller & Thor 2008) describe three main components of a mashup application: Data
extraction from external resources and web services, data flow between widgets and the widget container
respectively and the presentation layer that deals with the graphical user interface. In the case of the PLE the data
extraction is carried out on the server side. The widget engine on the client side handles the presentation components
and the data flow.
The goal of the PLE is to provide users with a mashup of widgets containing all kind of university services and
information resources that are required personally by them. Furthermore the many services and applications
distributed on WWW are centralized and offered in one environment, a mashup of widgets. These widgets can be
customized and used by students according to their actual learning needs.
In the next section the integration of PLE and its structure are described briefly.

The integration of a PLE

Figure 1: Personal Learning Environment concept

[4] http://www.pageflakes.com/ (last visited: 14.11.2009)


Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Fig. 1 shows the concept how a PLE can be integrated into an educational institute. Regarding all existing services,
like administration systems, LMS System, Blogosphere, library system and others the PLE provides a view to each
system through a widget. Furthermore each web-based application can be integrated if there is a widget available.
With other words the PLE is only an aggregation of different services used by the learners but without any
restrictions. It is important to note that the PLE will not replace any of the existing services it provides only a new
possibility to interact with them.
The concept is rather simple – if a web-based service should be available, a widget must be provided. Following the
W3C widget specifications widgets are exchangeable, can directly interact with other widgets and are customizable
through preferences or resizable. Widgets are organized according to topics or categories. Each widget category has
its own widget screen, which is called “WidgetZone”. The users can customize their WidgetZones by adding,
removing and positioning the widgets, representing a user-centered arrangement according to their needs.
The PLE consists of a widget-based User Interface (UI), which is indeed a challenge and requires a process of re-
adjustment by the end users. In a pure widget-based UI there would be no navigation tool. There is merely a pool of
widgets where the user can search for interesting widgets, open them and close them at the end if they are no more
desired. The UI concept that is applied in PLE is a combination of a sidebar element as a traditional UI and the
“WidgetZones” as the widget-based UI.
The sidebar at PLE has also an informative role in the platform. It contains the main widget categories, which
include sets of widgets for university services and distributed applications in WWW i.e.
• “My CommunicationCenter” for emails, chatting, news groups, etc.
• “My TeachCenter” for services related to the LMS system such as course materials, podcasts, etc.
• “My TUGLL” for services related to the blogosphere system, social bookmarking, file sharing, etc.
• “Help and Support” for help desk, FAQ and guide tours in PLE
The categories are easily extendable if he number of widgets grows up.
The sidebar also updates the user on the status of these services by means of color and numerical indicators. It
supports the user’s way of thinking, as it is already familiar to the users. The sidebar can be switched off in favor of
the unfamiliar widget-based part and be replaced by another navigation element, which resembles the Mac Dock
menu on the bottom part of WidgetZone.
The WidgetZone contains the widgets and is structured by columns. Each widget category has its own WidgetZone.
The user can switch between the WidgetZones, add (open), close, customize, position and arrange the widgets in
different columns according to his personal learning needs. Furthermore the user is able to create a mashup of the
most used interesting widgets from different WidgetZones in a special interface called “Personal Desktop”. The
personal desktop is always available to the user and can be activated at any time (Fig. 2 top right corner). The user
can add or remove widgets from all WidgetZones to his personal desktop and arrange these in columns according to
his personal needs.
Fig. 2 shows a screen shot of the PLE on the development system, in which the user has switched on the
“Miscellaneous” WidgetZone.

Figure 2: PLE on the development system. WidgetZone “Miscellaneous” is switched on


Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

After deploying the Framework and the general integration within the university systems, the next step is to allow
the development of widgets. In winter term 2009/2010 some projects as well as exercises are offered to students of
informatics to bring in their experience as programmers as well as learners. In the following chapter the first
prototypes are described and shown, which are built to enhance the PLE.

Widget prototypes
The implementation of the first PLE prototype is almost over. There are still some tiny performance issues to be
carried out. The development of widgets for the distributed applications is still in progress and would most probably
not end in the near future. Widgets can be categorized to two classes: widgets for the university wide applications
and services that can enhance the formal learning and widgets for the various distributed applications on WWW to
foster informal learning scenarios. Following we describe some examples which are carried out:

University wide widgets:

• LMS widgets: This widget presents a view to the existing LMS system. The student opens the widget
representing the list of courses he is already booked. Selecting a course would display the e-learning
materials and the eventual podcasts related to that course. If wanted, some supplementary widgets, such as
a time table and a location widget can be auto-synchronized in the background to provide the user with
information regarding the place and the time schedules of the course. An alert widget can inform the
student as soon as a course is canceled or a new notification is received.
• LO widgets: Another case could be the Learning Objects (LO) for different courses, i.e. a widget for the
course “operating systems” that demonstrates the order of tasks and the deadlock possibility for a specific
scheduling algorithm in embedded operating systems. The students can easily set some widget
configurations such as the task periods, task start times, etc and then try out different scheduling algorithms
for better understanding.
• Blog widget: The first prototype of the blog widget is already implemented. The blog widget let the users
read the weblogs from the university wide blogosphere. They can customize the widget to their own blogs,
a specific community or to all items from the blog sphere. Fig. 3 shows the weblogs according to the user’s
settings.

Distributed applications on WWW:

• Twitter widget: The development is still in progress. Fig. 4 and Fig. 5 demonstrate the first prototype
respectively. The first version shows a list of user’s last tweets. It is planned to extend the widget in the
next version so that the user can customize the widget to be able to follow the tweets of every other user. It
is also planed to build a tag-based search module in the public stream of twitter. Fig. 4 shows the
customization screen of the widget.
• RSS Feed Reader widget: This widget is a simple possibility to let users subscribe and follow any RSS feeds
(Fig. 6).
• USTREAM widget: This widget gives the chance to connect to a live broadcast or recorded podcast channel
on the USTREAM5 platform. The user can play a recorded podcast or enjoy a live broadcast (Fig. 7).
• Google Maps widget: This widget brings Google Maps to the learning environment of the user and therefore
any place can be shown or searched for (Fig. 8).

Student projects (work in progress)

Within the subject “Multimedia Information Systems” for master-students some students are programming widgets
for the forthcoming PLE. Therefore a short introduction about the general development of widgets was given and
asked about which kind of widgets are from high interest for learners. The following list gives an overview about the
widgets that are currently developed by our students:

[5] http://www.ustream.tv/ (last visited: 14.11.2009)


Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
• LO widget for “Scan-line Principle”: Scan line Principle is often used for visible surface determination in
computer graphics. This widget calculates and illustrates the Scan line algorithm with four different
methods to enhance the learning process and better comprehension of algorithmic design. This widget can
be used as a Learning Object in computer graphics.
• YouTube widget: This widget integrates YouTube videos in PLE. It would be also possible to search for
videos at YouTube platform.
• Search widget: This widget provides the search possibility through the most famous search engines and
Wikipedia. The user can customize the widget to use his favorite search engine.
• Function plotter widget: This widget plots the 2D and 3D mathematical functions within a given domain. It
will be also possible to select a function from a predefined list of interesting mathematical functions, set the
function parameters and plot it.
• Google calendar widget: A simple possibility to connect to Google calendar in PLE. The user can manage
his Google calendar, add, edit and delete items.
• FlickrPicasa widget: This widget integrates the photos from the two famous photo-sharing platforms Flickr
and Picasa in PLE.
• ChineseFlashCard widget: A possibility to translate Chinese characters to German.
• PBS widget: PBS stands for the German word “Pruefungsbeispielsammlung”, which means the collection of
samples of the final exams. It is a service that offers many various exam samples for different courses at the
university. The widget brings the final exam samples at PBS service into the PLE and can be combined
with LMS widgets to offer exam samples for each course. The students can use it as a means of self-
assessment while they prepare themselves for an exam.
• Translation widget: A widget, which provides the integration of the web service “dict.cc”6. It is a dictionary
to translate many languages to English and German and vice versa.
• Cafeteria widget: This is an informative widget that displays the list of meals in the campus student cafeteria
for the corresponding day.
• Hangman widget: A widget, which will perform the famous game “Hangman” in different game-based
learning scenarios. The user should guess the answer of a question by playing the game.
• TODO widget: This widget manages the TODO lists of the users with various features such as deadlines,
priority and different TODO types. Furthermore the TODOS can be assigned to a group of students i.e. for
some team works or collaborative activities.

Figure 3: Blog widget Figure 4: Twitter widget, customization screen

[6] http://www.dict.cc/ (last visited: 14.11.2009)


Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Figure 5: Twitter widget Figure 6: RSS feed widget

Figure 7: USTREAM widget Figure 8: Google maps widget

Conclusion
Due to the fact that the WWW became ubiquitous and influences our daily life it is obvious that also education
reaches a new stage. Learning and teaching of tomorrow should foster individuality, flexibility and personality. A
first step will be to develop environments, which allow the learners to choose the content of their interests and
needs. Graz University of Technology began to develop a PLE following the W3C specifications, a standard that can
be used as basis for all PLE and e-learning applications. Thereby the problem of interoperability would be solved
and a worldwide exchange of widgets will be possible.
It must be pointed out that the current state of the PLE is that a first prototype is running which can be seen as a
framework for widgets that have to be programmed. In this publication first widgets have been shown and described.
The next step is to launch the environment university-wide and to program further widgets to integrate all services
provided by the university as well as further web applications. It is also planed to extend the web-based widgets in a
way that they can also be applied as desktop widgets on the desktop and mobile widgets on the mobile clients. From
a research point of view the next steps are to think about didactical scenarios and to answer questions like how can a
PLE be used in a subject for teaching? Furthermore data of practical experiences must be gathered to see whether
the MahsUp principle lead to a new learning process or not. In the meanwhile a recommendation system should be
implemented in the background to support the users arranging their widgets and contents. It is easily imaginable to
suggest learners learning objects, subjects or further contents because of their study progress.
It must be stated that PLEs have a huge potential to support learners in a meaningful way or to support teachers to
use different applications within their subjects. Learning in future will be much more flexible and learning content
independent from the form how it is presented. The task of tomorrow is to find the appropriate information, which
Originally published in: Ebner, M. & Taraghi, B. (2010). Personal Learning Environment for Higher Education – A
First Prototype. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
Telecommunications 2010 (pp. 1158-1166). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
fits best to the personal needs.

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