Feasibility of Personal Learning Environments

Usually when I try to convince people to look into PLEs, I get the same general questions/concerns. These are usually along the lines of “how will the separate systems ever communicate with each other?”, or “how will this scale?”, or “how would you do assessment in this model?” These are all very good questions, but potential also ones that are barking up the wrong tree so to say.

I get it that someone might wonder how one learner will use WordPress, another Drupal, another Twitter, another Instagram, etc – and somehow these will magically come together and no one will get lost. People had the same questions about setting up an LMS, a registration system, an email server, and a whole host of other separate programs at Universities in the 1990s. It didn’t seem like those systems would ever work together, but people figured out how and now people barely have to consider things like “how does this integrate with our student tracking system?” In other words, we created the system that we wanted, and the technology came to us as needed. There are many projects out there that are creating the integration needed to create PLEs, so we are part of the way there and getting all the way there fast.

And to be honest, if some websites don’t want to to be open – like, say Facebook continues down a path of containing your information rather than liberating it – then they just won’t get to play in the PLE sandbox of the future. That’s why you don’t see Wikimedia being installed on too many campuses – they didn’t want to play the “systems integration game,” so they were mostly left out.

Questions about scalability and assessment really dig more into course design than tool integration. These are still good topics to consider, because you do want the tools to be there. But, you have to answer these questions with a huge caveat. PLEs are not LMSs, and LMSs tend to push instruction towards certain epistemologies/ontologies that are very different from the basic epistemology/ontology behind PLEs. LMSs are really based on behaviorist/objectivist viewpoints: stimulus and response. You broadcast the correct content and reward the students for correctly spitting it back at you. Occasionally LMS tools can also dip into cognitivism, where learning is an internal process and you can tell learning is happening based on the papers that learners write to prove it.

PLEs are social constructivist/connectivist in nature. Learning is constructed by connecting with other learners and creating new shared knowledge. So when asking about scalability or assessment, you have to make sure that you are not trying to force PLEs into an LMSs mold. Sure, it is possible to create a PLE-based lesson that still ends with a multiple choice standardized test, but what you essentially did is re-arrange the elements of an LMS to look more like a PLE without really embracing the PLE mindset.

So, yes questions about assessment and scalability are important, but only if you are looking at them from a social constructivist/connectivist view point. Examining questions from a behviorist/objectivist or even cognitivist viewpoint will never give you satisfactory answers, because the entire idea does not really support the paradigm you are coming from. Asking “how will this scale when I have to teach 120 students” is objectivist in nature. Asking “how will I grade 120 papers?” is cognitivist in nature. Asking “how does this support connections between all of the groups that will be created when we bring 120 students together?” is a social constructivist question, and a good one to ask of any PLE system that you try to set up.

Building Your Own Personal Learning Network

Although this has been up for a bit, I finally got a chance to read Tedd Curran’s guide to creating your own personal learning network.  This is a great guide for beginners – I highly recommend it if you are new to PLNs or are just not sure if you are doing everything you need to cultivate yours. I was reminded to set-up Google Reader folders by reading this – something I always mean to do but keep forgetting.

Hopefully in the near future, we will see more classes that have a guide like this for a huge chunk of the syllabus. Maybe there will be a few required items, blogs, etc to add to each student’s PLN, but a large part of it will be left up to them to find their own.  Class discussions and assignments could then be based on dynamic content online rather every student trying to figure out how to re-write the same information over and over again without plagiarizing what has been said a million times already.

Someday we may even see entire departments or schools that would have a PLN guide like this for their orientation.  Just like we now make all new students go through and set-up a school email account, some day they might also set-up a PLN.  Each course they enroll in would then have a set of resources to add as a folder to their PLN (or maybe it will be added for them).

The missing link that I see is the software – there needs to be something that makes it easy for instructors to share relevant parts of their PLN with students, as well as students to share good resources with each other. Well, something a bit more advanced than emailing links to everyone. Maybe Google Reader already does this and I need to explore it more?