I’ve been trying to get my head around the viability of moving educational programming from institutionally centered Learning Management Systems (LMS) systems, or even institutionally owned and controlled educational social systems like Elgg or Barnraiser, to a distributed and likely syndicated set of tools often referred to as Personal Learning Environments (PLE). The recent postings by Leigh Blackall, response by Dave Cormier and the work of Paul Trafford and his RAMBLE project at Oxford got me thinking. James Farmer’s pioneering 2004 work applying our Community of inquiry to blogging and Michael Hotrum’s comments on that work are also incorporated in the ideas below.

First what is a PLE? Will Richardson developed an interesting scenario that describes the life of a teacher using a PLE. Scott Wilson recreates the scenario with more specific reference to two fundamental components of a PLE:

Sources: shared content, serving as resources coming in

Conduits: posting, communications – shared postings out

The PLE is a unique interface into the owners digital environment. It integrates their personal and professional interests (including their formal and informal learning), connecting these via a series of syndicated and distributed feeds. The PLE is also a portfolio system allowing the user to maintain their repository of content and selectively share that content as needed. It is also a profile system, exposing the users interests in a variety of ways allowing automated, but selective search of the individual and their digital contributions. Of course, the PLE is a social as well as an information environment, connecting the user to individuals and cooperative events and activities throughout the Net.

Moving towards a PLE from the current model in which formal learning is very thoroughly entrenched in Learning Management systems will require considerable evolution of ideas and technologies and adoption of innovation. Innovation guru Everett Rogers noted that relative advantage is the largest factor in the adoption of innovations. Of course the relative advantage is contextualized and dependent upon the perspective and need of individual users (learners, teachers, technical support, administrators etc). Thus, the listing of advantages and disadvantages below needs to be contextualized from these and other particular viewpoints.

Nonetheless, I attempt to overview the major advantages and disadvantages of an educational system based on the familiar LMS versus an emergent one based on a PLE

Advantages of PLE’s

  • Identity:
  • Learners have existences beyond formal school, that can be used to both help learners contextualize their own understanding and for others to understand their epistemological legacy. The PLE tools integrate this outside life with formal study.
  • Persistence: The reflective posting of a blog are a digital record of the learning process. They can be an integral part of the lifelong learning accomplishment and e-portfolio of the learner. They should not disappear at the end of a course.
  • Ease of Use:

  • PLE environments can be customized and personalized allowing education to flow into the learners’ other net applications
  • The learning curve associated with forced immersion in multiple LMS systems is eliminated
  • A PLE can be infinitely customized by both teachers and learners and is not confined to the monolithic tool set included by the commercial LMS package or the tools supported by a customized Open Source institutional LMS.
  • Blogging is rapidly becoming easier and more accessible with mobile (PDA) and email entry allowing off line activity (see Trafford)
  • Ownership:
  • Control and responsibility: The PLE centers the learning within the context created and sustained by the learner – not one owned by the institution. This leads to sense of and practical application of educational self direction.
  • Copyright and re-use: The old saying that possession is 9/10 of ownership doesn’t really mean much in the electronic era, but there is a sense that contributions on an institutional site are owned (or at least access is controlled to them) by the institution. Contributions to a PLE are very definitely owned by the learner and thus can be used and re-used as that owner sees fit.
  • Social Presence:
  • Our work on social presence (see communityofinquiry.com) alerted us to the need for systems and a supportive online culture to allow learners to project themselves socially and emotionally. Posting to an external class from within one’s own system, with which the user is comfortable and has customized to their own requirements, likely ensures higher levels of efficacy, comfort and greater capacity to create social presence.
  • Capacity and Speed of Innovation:
  • PLEs and their component pieces of social and networked information management tools are VERY rapidly evolving (see for example Judith Meskill’s list of over 380 social software applications. Although, it is unfair to categorize all LMS by the glacial speed of change of some of the larger examples, the inheeent plug and play environment of the PLE insures that new applications can be developed and integrated quickly and by the individual owner.
  • The PLE is a second generation network application in that unlike the LMS that was designed to enact the classroom on the Network, the PLE is designed primarily as a personal lifelong learning environment. It extends learning beyond classroom and teacher centered model.
  • Advantages of LMS

  • Purposefully designed
  • The capacity and functionality of tools designed to facilitate a net enabled class are now commonly understood by both learners and teachers and fit well with a cohort model of formal teaching and learning.
  • Institutional, teacher and student concerns over IP, privacy and support have been largely been addressed in current LMS systems.
  • Mature
  • LMS systems have been around for about ten years and the primary interaction tools – threaded discussion groups for an additional 20 years, They are reliable, well supported by both vendors, development communities and typically institutional IT staff
  • Universal – Adapative technologies are often available within LMS with little configuration required by learners or teachers.
  • Safe and Secure
  • Educational institutions have long developed traditions of being safe places for the pursuit of learning and scholarship. One can reasonably expect to be treated fairly (or at least openly) and there are formal and informal norms adopted and enforced within contexts controlled by the institution. Such security is not provided on the open Net.
  • Learning at its best is personal and transformational. To accomplish this may require a sense of security whereby ideas, tones and emotions can be developed and shared. Learners have expectations that their comments, images and ideas are created and shared within this protected environment and are not available on the Open web, nor capable of being archived for decades and brought back to haunt the future.
  • Ease of Use
  • While developments in syndication technologies are rapidly improving, the challenge for a teacher or a learner to read through postings and their responses, in threaded or time stamped formats remains a challenge. Modern LMS systems default to easily support search, sort and organize postings in multiple formats.
  • Providing support to students for a single LMS system is relatively easy for learning services support staff. Such service can often be outsourced to 7*24 help desks if required.
  • Categories for postings are easily made, edited and expanded by teachers (for example typical LMS systems allow creation of informal coffee-room chats and threaded discussion areas, workspaces for teams and theme or chronological ordering of discourse. Categorization of blog posting even for those designed for a particular class are problematic, but become greater when a single PLE is used to contribute to personal, educational and vocational entries.
  • Storing, uploading, archiving, editing and retrieval of course content is relatively easy in full featured LMS systems and usually undertaken by someone else – a prime requirement for effective backup!
  • LMS are the educational tools of today. The busy teacher or learner needs to invest little personal time and energy, but can ‘fall into” the supportive routines provided by educational support systems and expend their innovation energy in other directions
  • Summary: Although there is something quite compelling about the vision of a lifelong learning environment that is centered upon and perpetually belongs to the learner, I think we are some distance from being able to operationalize that vision. I am reminded of the resistance from early net adopters and innovators, when LMS systems were first introduced. At the time (and still today) they offer little that can’t be built with off the shelf HTML, scripting tools and Open Source databases. Yet LMS systems have afforded teachers the capacity to create their own web courses with minimal programming expertise or even instructional design support. Thus, they have become essential and very popular tools for early and late majority users – something that never would have occurred with ‘roll your own’ tools of 10 years ago.

    Similarly, PLEs are nowhere near as easy to use to facilitate and support many of the educational functions that are trivial in modern LMS systems. I eagerly await the day when both formal and informal connected learning opportunities are a natural and spontaneous outgrowth of our personal computing environment – but I don’t think it is time to throw away the LMS just yet.

    Nonetheless, the PLE future seems to be more secure than that of any monolithic LMS. I suspect the LMS systems that survive will do so by opening themselves to standards based enhancements, service requests and the strong evolutionary move towards real learner centric educational applications.