Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, June 15, 2007

Personal Learning Environments: What They Are And How To Implement Them

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"Personal Learning Environments are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for learners to
  • set their own learning goals

  • manage their learning; managing both content and process

  • communicate with others in the process of learning

and thereby achieve learning goals."
(Source: Wikipedia)

Photo credit: Yuri Arcurs

The concept of "personal learning environment" represents the most recent evolutionary step in a learner-centered approach to education.

"A PLE may be composed of one or more subsystems: As such it may be a desktop application, or composed of one or more web-based services."

Personal Learning Environments integrate both formal and informal learning approaches into a single experience.

The PLE concept can trace its origins to early systems such as Colloquia (the first peer-to-peer learning system) and in more recent products such as the Elgg system. This alternative approach has been developed in parallel to that of Learning Management Systems, which unlike the PLE take an institution-centric (or course-centric) view of learning.

The academic paper I am introducing today has been written by Ron Lubensky, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sydney who is focusing on new learning systems. The article attempts to provide an in-depth definition of a "personal learning environment", as well as speculating personal learning environments possible developments and likely future.

The present and future of Personal Learning Environments (PLE)

by Ron Lubensky

A definition for the term Personal Learning Environment (PLE), remains elusive. Conception about what should constitute a PLE depends on the perspective of the commentator. For example, the priorities for a PLE are different for a tertiary student, a university administrator, an instructor, a working professional, or an adult who persues an eclectic path of lifelong learning.

Metaphorically, an individual may engage in a learning process that is either more acquisitional or participatory (Sfard, 1998). There are inconsistencies across these positions about what a PLE should do. But whether constructively and defensively, interest in PLE appears to be growing.

At the time of writing this introduction (August 2006), no particular product or service exists that can definitively be categorised as a PLE, although some prototypical work is in progress. An inclusive, authoritative account about PLEs does not yet exist. Only a handful of articles have appeared in the academic and public press about PLEs since the term gained currency in 2004. This article has been compiled after tracking recent conversations in the blogosphere and following social bookmarks.

Towards a Definition


The following definition is intended to introduce the general nature of PLEs:

"a Personal Learning Environment is a facility for an individual to access, aggregate, configure and manipulate digital artefacts of their ongoing learning experiences."

This definition captures the following salient aspects, which seem to be common across all current viewpoints:

  1. PLEs are effectively controlled by the individual, thus decoupled from institutional portals like university Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) or workplace Learning Management Systems (LMS) for which the design goals are in response to institutional requirements.
  2. The artefacts operated upon through PLEs include the digital resources and references with which individuals wish to engage presently and perhaps recall in the future. Resources include not only static text and media but also dynamic services and their artefacts, such as instant messaging, online forum and weblog conversations. Whereas an ePortfolio contains actual assets for the purpose of reflection, assessment or self-promotion, the PLE includes a broader repository that also includes links and commentary for all three purposes.
  3. The primary goal of a PLE for an individual is to bring all the disparate artefacts of interest for learning under a single operating roof. The presumption is that there are many artefacts, organising them is time-consuming and it's easy to forget about or lose them. PLEs are meant to simplify managing these artefacts, creating meaning through aggregation, linking and metadata tagging (eg comments, keywords).
  4. A PLE integrates with the digital services to which the individual currently subscribes. These could be the university VLE, the workplace LMS or a collection of so-called Web 2.0 services like social bookmarking or photo sharing.
  5. A PLE spans the various learning experiences to which an individual subscribes throughout life. High school students may begin to operate their own PLE, hooking it into their school's VLE. Upon university entrance, it could be connected to the university VLE. If entering professional practice, the individual could then link the PLE to workplace learning and professional development facilities. All the while, the individual may wish to link selectively to an evolving parade of Web 2.0 services which are found to be useful for enabling personal growth and learning.

Driving Forces


How a PLE might ultimately be deployed is bracketed by the forces driving its evolution and the barriers to acceptance.

The structure, features and policies of most VLE implementations tend to perpetuate the traditional instructivist models of education. The primary purpose of the systems is to organise course content for transmission to enrolled students.

Only some VLEs provide shared file areas and collaborative facilities like chat and discussion forums. In universities, VLEs often act as secure gateways to digital indexes and research journals. Unless students manually copy materials out of the VLE walled garden, all traces of their learning experience through the VLE are lost once they complete their studies.

The notion of a PLE arose in response to the technical and policy constraints imposed by institutionalised VLEs and LMSs in both educational and workplace settings, which are perceived to impede personal learning choices. University administrators view access to external web services as a risk to the institution rather than an affordance for learners and faculty.

Hence, they prefer the more limited view of PLEs as a configurable extension to a VLE, especially when they continue to see themselves as the monopoly technology service providers for their learning community (eg online enrolment, email addresses).

In North America the commercial vendors of VLEs dominate. There are unconfirmed media reports that the VLEs supplied by Blackboard Inc. serve over two thirds of all universities in Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, in Europe more sites use inhouse and open source implementations (Vuorikari, 2003).

In January 2006, Blackboard Inc., the leading commercial vendor of academic VLEs, was granted US patent 6,988,138 on "Internet-based education support system and methods", even though there is evidently a long history of virtual learning environments. It does not appear that the patent, if enforced, has any direct bearing on the emergence of PLEs, although the patent action may foster a backlash against VLEs.

Interestingly, some faculties have implemented and manage their own VLEs which are more dynamic, more concerned with learning experiences and are publicly-licensed products (eg .LRN, Moodle, Plone, Drupal, Sakai). These allow custom extensions, which may pave the way for the development of open APIs for connection by PLEs.

Enlightened educational practice has increasingly embraced student-centred learning. This includes the assignment of tasks with an open, constructivist foundation, where students push learning forward through active collaboration, problem-solving, investigation and discovery, creating meaning on their own terms. Where the Web serves as an avenue of inquiry, it seems natural that part of the student-centredness should be in the choice and configuration of tools for action. This is the space for a PLE.

So far, discussion about PLEs has emanated primarily from academic circles, who recognise that there are learning opportunities with some Web 2.0 services.

The use of ePortfolio (electronic portfolio) software and services is well established in many higher education jurisdictions, with administrators having set policies for their use (primarily for assessment). If PLEs are viewed simply as an extension of ePortfolios, then acceptance of them may be more assured.

Adults who engage in relatively unstructured inquiry or informal learning, for reasons of professional or skills development or general interest, could benefit from tools and techniques to organise their endeavours. At this stage, there is little anecdotal evidence of interest in this area. However, the possibilities may simply not be widely known yet.

For each online service, an individual's identity must be provided for each session. On one's regular personal computer, identity retention alleviates the problem by availing cookies and field prefills, including passwords. But this advantage is lost when using multiple computers. So organising one's personal learning through a variety of web-based services involves managing multiple login names and passwords.

A PLE could alleviate the daily problem of login identification by storing and safeguarding the data for automatic application. This problem could also be eased by developments in Identity 2.0, an evolving standards-based scheme in which an individual's single, unique, verifiable web identity claim could be applied to securely grant access to multiple web services.

Software development companies are keen to make their product or service a nexus of attention. Whilst some learners may persist with the DIY approach to organising the scattered pieces of their learning environment, companies would rather see a PLE promoted as a particular product or service which solve the problem of that messiness. This applies not just to software for personal computers, but also for mobile PDAs.

Developments to Date


A WebTop is a new class of web-served applications enabling single-screen one-click preconfigured access to other web services which can be nominated by the user, for example photo sharing (eg FlickR), online calendar, weblogs, integrated feed aggregator, online word processor (eg Google Docs), shared spreadsheet (eg Google Spreadsheet), shared whiteboard (eg GE Imagination Cubed), social bookmarking (eg, Furl) and consolidated productivity services (eg Zoho). So far they are primarily aimed at business users, but many of their features match what is prescribed for a PLE. Examples include YouOS, 30Boxes and NetVibes.

A Mashup is like a WebTop, but the web services are combined much more tightly so that data from one is used to access information in another. A simple example is the integration of weblog with an embedded online calendar. In a more advanced, customised example, data from a particular Google Spreadsheet could be fed into Google Earth. A PLE could be implemented as a mashup.

The open source Mozilla FireFox browser has been extended by Flock to create a WebTop which integrates your browser with your weblog and other web services.

Some edubloggers have expressed the view that PLEs exist already in an ad hoc manner. Through their weblogs, they reflect on their own work and experiences and link to others. Through mashing into their weblog templates, they can directly open their own social bookmarks, images and other web services to which they subscribe. They use publicly-accessible server space to store and share files.

If an individual has enough server space available, with the right software facilities in place, Plone or Drupal could be installed and employed as a PLE. These are content management systems (CMS) which handle many types of content including a wiki. Third-party modules may be added (eg KNotes weblog). This wiki entry about Personal Learning Environments is presented by a customised implementation of plone.

From late 2005 at Bolton University in the UK, A JISC-funded and CETIS-sponsored team are designing a reference model for a PLE. Through the project they will define the scope, review the theory, come up with scenarios (use cases), look for and document patterns, and define some specifications. All the while, the programming part of the team build some prototype software to see if it all makes sense. This prototype is called PLEX. Their project wiki offers the most comprehensive consideration about PLEs currently available. (Milligan, 2005)

The concept of an ePortfolio emerged from the paper-based folio used by design students for over half a century. By the mid-1990s, students began uploading examples of their work and linking them statically to their home pages, creating webfolios. Database-driven server-side applications (and the tools to build them) matured by the end of the millennium.

By 2002, there was feverish activity to create ePortfolios as personalised learning content management systems. (Batson, 2002) Whether developed in-house or by software vendors, many higher education institutions began to implement them. Most ePortfolios are intended for document management, retrieval and presentation. (EduTools, 2006). Products offer various features for organisation, annotation, document linking, reflection, collaboration, formatting, goal setting, reporting, import/export and communication.

Some are components of VLEs (eg Blackboard ePortfolio). Importantly, almost all ePortfolio products are licensed by institutions rather than individuals. Therefore, they are neither portable nor interoperable.



In the absence of a new product or service, only those who are tech-savvey with a willingness to tinker will consider integrating their learning world through a wiki or a weblog. Whilst this is much easier than it used to be, thanks to templated software, it is unlikely that a large percentage of people will take this up.

For PLE software and services to be useful for students who must deal with a VLE, VLEs must provide the capability to interoperate. This requires that VLEs make secure software gateways (eg. APIs) available. It is unlikely that commercial VLEs are willing to distribute their control of the learning environment and provide flexibility, preferring instead to keep users within their proprietary range.

In March 2006, Blackboard Inc. announced plans (Blackboard Beyond Initiative) to create network to connect users and alumni of their worldwide implementations, including proprietary social networking, personalisation, file sharing and ePortfolio presentation. It is in their commercial interest to cast their proprietary net as far and wide as possible.

On the other hand, such gateways for open source VLEs could appear and be implemented subject to institutional approval. But standardisation (aside from RSS feeds from within the VLE environment) is improbable, with each VLE having its own processing and storage idiosyncrasies. So the market will rely on developers providing separate plug-ins for each VLE, to mash into the learner's PLE. The prospect of a lot of moving parts seems unassailable.

The issue of intellectual property and the management of digital rights looms large. Copies of research papers from subscribed journals may be located in a walled VLE for access by a particular cohort. But does subsequently peeling them into or referencing them from a PLE stretch the licence too far? These issues need to be addressed.

People fear putting all their eggs in one basket. Users must be able to export their PLE repository in some generic format for safekeeping, especially if the PLE is a web service.

PLEs may be seen as an extension of ePortfolios, but the latter are rarely used beyond school. The perception of ePortfolios as merely a presentation layer for stored digital assets must be stretched if PLEs are to be seen as their natural successor.

Future Potential


Because developments about PLEs are at such an embryonic stage, it would not be prudent to predict with too much conviction what will happen. Many published forecasts of technology adoption draw a line from current work as if the technology is determined to succeed (eg EDUCAUSE & New Media Consortium, 2006). But the barriers are significant, not least due to the lack of a clear vision of what a PLE should do.

The success of PLEs (those which are independent of commercial VLEs) will depend on:

  1. the ease with which they can be implemented and used by learners

  2. interoperability

  3. the confidence that learners and institutional administrators have with them.

While some prescribe a vision for learning which promotes pedagogies consistent with social constructivism (Dalsgaard 2006), getting there is quite another matter. As with any paradigm shift, the biggest barrier to technological revolution lies in the political and commercial inertia of the status quo. Many commentators believe it can only occur through grass-roots effort which will bootstrap a new market. (This is what occurred with ePortfolios.)

In the next year we should see a consolidation of views about what constitutes a PLE. There are benefits to both web-served (ie. like webtops) and desktop solutions, so surely hybrids will appear.

It is probable that within the next year pilot PLE projects will appear which will mash configurable access to Web 2.0 services into online ePortfolio-type environments. The next hurdle will be for higher education teachers to recommend that students obtain individual licences for these first-generation PLEs in conjuction with or as replacements to institutional ePortfolios. This shift will not be tivial, as there will be resistance to institutional policy change regarding the use of ePortfolios. Publicly-funded PLE projects will be more readily accepted.

This should kick-start efforts to create gateway APIs and plug-ins into open source VLEs, which can then be mashed in too. This development will be difficult and take considerable time. The success of this integration will be a determining factor in the viability of PLEs as a widely-used product. It will probably take at least three years for a PLE platform to become stable and a critical mass to have the confidence to take advantage of the technology.

Original article written by Ron Lubensky with the title "The present and future of Personal Learning Environments (PLE)" and published on eLearning Moments on December 18th, 2006. This article was republished with the permission of the author and is protected by a Creative Commons Licence.

About the author


Ron Lubensky is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sydney, Australia. Ron has been a corporate elearning specialist, instructional designer and software developer. His current interests include community learning, participatory methods and deliberative democracy. Ron can be contacted via rlubensky [at]

The article published here has been adapted from a submission to a Masters degree education course entitled Innovative Practice and Emerging ICT. It was based on various weblogs and other Web 2.0 services scanned in August 2006.

Photo credits
Magnifying glass on white: James Steidl
Hands: Andres Rodriguez
Young plant: cookelma
Wall: pmtavares
Man future: Suprijono Suharjoto

Ron Lubensky -
Reference: [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2007-09-26 19:51:33


Robin, I just posted a link to your blog post about PLEs. You can read my post here - If you feel so inclined I would appreciate you reading my post and leaving a comment.


posted by on Friday, June 15 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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