Personal learning environments: what are they, and what should they do?

The below is an edited version of one of my PGCHE assignments.  I’ve removed institution-specific data and some of the ‘answering-the-question’ signposting.  I hope the joins don’t show too much!

The term ‘personal learning environment’ has been a significant presence in education theory for fewer than ten years (see Fiedler and Väljataga 2011 for a useful overview of the literature).  If we ask what a personal learning environment is and seek to answer that question in terms of the ‘content’ of a PLE, then our answer will be outdated by the time what we have written is a few weeks old.  An internet image search will reveal that the most popular (and the most elementary) way of visually conceptualising a PLE is as a thing that comprises a series of radial elements.  Sometimes these elements are conceptual, but just as often they are web-hosted applications (Twitter, YouTube, Skype…).  These observations might already begin to suggest a few important things about how the relationships between a student, the student’s personal learning environment, the student’s higher education institution, and the student’s module support might best be configured.  Universities probably need to provide both less (at the institutional level, in terms of expensive infrastructure projects) and more (at the module level, in terms of support and ‘scaffolding’ – see below) in order to work towards optimising students’ uses of their personal learning environments.

What the University should provide

[At the Association of Learning Technology’s 2006 conference,] there was a buzz around the idea of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). […]  Yet for all the talk there was no consensus on what a [PLE] might be.  The only thing most people seemed to agree on was that it was not a software application. (Attwell 2007: 1)

A powerful personal learning environment is not only driven by the innovativeness and quality of the software applications that help to constitute it.  Its power can also be measured according to the degree to which it promotes ‘connectivism’ (Siemens 2004).  As such, PLEs relate to the at least slightly longer history of ‘networked learning’ (see, for example, Steeples and Jones 2002, Siemens 2008, Drexler 2010).

In his discussion of ‘Learning networks in practice’, Stephen Downes (2007: 26-7) lists four factors that a good learning network ought to possess: diversity, autonomy, connectedness and openness.  Downes notes that ‘openness is what makes interactivity possible; barriers that make it difficult or impossible to communicate within the network limit the network’s capacity to learn’ (ibid).  Many university VLEs include significant barriers – most obviously, password-protected access, but equally importantly, barriers between module pages.  If a university curriculum ought to be designed to encourage students to think deeply and broadly across and beyond their subject, not to think in terms of discrete modules offering chunks of knowledge, and if the university experience ought to foster authentic and lifelong learning, then students’ PLEs should also facilitate these things.

In the introduction to an article based on their involvement in e-learning policy and implementation at the University of Southampton, ‘Making it Rich and Personal: Crafting an Institutional Personal Learning Environment’, White and Davis (2011: 24) observe:

While individuals can be agile in their response to technology changes, organisations are typically more constrained by the heritage of past decisions and previous investment. […] In a time of rapid technological development and adoption the gap between everyday practice and organisational provision tends to increase.

One of the diagrams in White and Davis’s paper (ibid: 35) displays the components of a ‘rich learning environment’.  The segment labelled ‘institutional space’ is conceptualised as providing ‘mainly admin and information’.  The ‘personal space’, on the other hand, is tagged ‘I choose, I use it’.

Clearly, there are some online services that a university will have to continue to provide by and for itself.  A secure database of students’ personal and registration data is perhaps the most obvious example.  It also makes sense for there to be a secure repository for the digital learning resources which the tutor chooses to share with the students.  However, this latter interface should not be confused or conflated with the VLE/PLE tout court, which, if it is to be rich and powerful, needs to be a much larger, diverse, open and connected entity.  Another thing that a university must also provide is excellent infrastructure: reliable, fast, wireless connection to the internet via whichever devices students choose to employ.  It is coming to look increasingly like a disastrous waste of resources, though, for universities to invest heavily in infrastructure projects designed to produce less good and more quickly outdated version of online learning environments than the ones that already exist ‘out there’ and which students actually use.

If the university’s facilitating role ended with the provision of technological infrastructure, then there would be little difference between an institute of higher education and an internet service provider.  However, there is a difference, and it is to be found in support and pedagogy.

Facilitating networked learning: the role of the subject tutor

Web 2.0 and all that goes with it is a threat to higher education if higher education is conceptualised as the transmission of bodies of knowledge to students.  If that is what education is, then it is just as effective, if not more so, to acquire the necessary information online as it is to attend lectures and so on.  (Siemens (2004) takes this argument one step further, arguing that Web 2.0 can act as a virtual and prosthetic memory, thus making the personal storehouse of knowledge of the expert less valuable, if ‘static’ knowledge is all that is offered.) Even using this limited, ‘transmission’ conceptualisation, there would still probably be a role for the university.  Of all the information out there, how would the student know which information was ‘necessary’?  Some training in digital/information literacy would still be required.  But what this immediately reveals is the broader point that learning is more than receiving information, and that students need to be helped to learn how to learn.

Before proceeding to the level of philosophies of pedagogy and the learning environments that best match them, it will be instructive to start at a smaller level, with a brief summary of an illuminating piece of research into the use of ‘wikis’ (websites or pages which can be easily edited by large numbers of people) in an undergraduate curriculum.  Judd et al (2010) tracked the behaviour of students who were set a task involving a wiki.  The intention was to develop skills of collaboration.  However, the result was rather different:

The timing and distribution of students’ contributions […] revealed a great deal about their capacity and willingness to cooperate and collaborate with other members of their group.  The two major findings from our analysis in this area were that (i) the majority of contributions were made late in the activity, which is not surprising given many students’ tendency toward last minute study […], and (ii) most students contributed to the wiki on a single day.  Both findings suggest that students would have had limited opportunities to interact, via the wiki, with other members or [sic] their groups. (Ibid: 350)

Technology is not a magic bullet.  Spector (2002: xiii), in the foreword to an anthology addressing networked learning, describes ‘the history of educational technology’ as one ‘filled with broken promises’.  ‘Many have implicit faith that technology will make education better’, Spector writes (ibid: xiv): ‘Such faith is ill-founded.’  What he means here is technology alone.  ‘While wikis include features that are designed to facilitate collaboration’, Judd et al (2010: 341) reflect in their abstract, ‘it does not necessarily follow that their use will ensure or even encourage collaborative learning behaviour.’  What is missing from the learning environment that might further encourage such behaviour?

In a subsequent piece of research addressing student use of wikis, Manion and Selfe (2012: 25) stress the importance of supplementing the technological with the disciplinary and the social.  They stipulate that tasks using wikis need to be ‘grounded in habits of thought appropriate for the field’, and also that ‘assessment should be distributed among a range of stakeholders and should be contextualized to give value to students’ work beyond the classroom.’

Writing in more general terms about networked learning and PLEs, Drexler (2010: 369) speaks of the need to strike a balance between ‘teacher control and student autonomy’.  She seeks to explain ‘how a teacher can scaffold a networked learning approach while providing a foundation on which students take more control of the learning process.’  By placing ‘the networked student’ at the centre of her approach, Drexler avoids the risk of abstracting or fetishising technology, of seeing it as an end rather than a means.  Drexler’s (ibid: 372) model of ‘the networked student’ offers an image of a smiling student sitting at a desktop computer, but the nodes that radiate from this student are not exclusively pieces of software (although there are these: blogs, podcasts, wikis, etc), but also human contacts (running from friends and family to classmates, teachers and experts).  As we have already seen Downes argue, a learning environment is powerful to the extent that it permits connections and communication – not only with static knowledge, but also with others one can enter into dialogue with.  Indeed, such is the basis of ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998).

Drexler’s reference to ‘scaffolding’ points in the direction of ideas developed more thoroughly by Van B. Weigel.  Weigel (2002: 9), adopting a constructivist perspective, argues that ‘cognitive apprenticeship is the learning methodology best suited to achieve the aims of deep learning’.  He highlights ‘six teaching methods that facilitate cognitive apprenticeship: modeling, coaching, scaffolding [cf. Drexler], articulating, reflecting, and exploring’ (ibid: 10-11).  These activities, which involve a constant stream of mutual feedback between tutor and student(s), cannot be delivered as effectively or as fully by any piece of software yet developed as they can be by a human (with the requisite expertise). (These reflections also chime with a fascinating article by Johnson and Liber (2008), who in support of their arguments about ‘The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition’ adduce philosophy running from ancient Greece (Socrates) through to the twentieth century (chiefly, phenomenology and existentialism), and demonstrate that alongside ‘technological interventions’ there will continue to be ‘a deep need for teaching and learning’ (ibid: 10) provided by humans.)

Weigel’s ideal of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ leads him to propose that classrooms ought to be reconceptualised as ‘knowledge rooms’.  He offers five models (2002: 18-23): ‘The Research Center’; ‘The Skill Workplace’; ‘The Conference Center’; ‘The Debate Hall’ and ‘The Portfolio Gallery’.  There is not the space here to describe each set-up; the names are evocative enough for my purposes.  What these names should make clear is that the environments Weigel envisages do not much resemble VLEs used as repositories for powerpoint presentations.  Nor do they resemble a search engine, or a piece of software.  (A contemporary parenthesis: It is worth pondering the extent to which the still-shifting idea of a ‘MOOC’ fits any of Weigel’s models.)  What the names should also make clear is that is that in each case, what is being placed front and centre is the exchange of ideas (often, also, with a community of practice).  This can take us back to Downes, and his prescriptions for powerful PLEs, whose words can serve as a fitting conclusion.

The knowledge produced by a network should be the product of an interaction between the members, not a mere aggregation of the members’ perspectives.  A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other.  Comparing two points of view, for example, allows us to see what they have in common, while merely counting or aggregating views forces us to pick one or the other.  Web 2.0 software is about much more than listing connections or tallying memberships.  It is about the conversation that happens between individuals.  And so, too, the personal learning environment supports not just content consumption but interaction and communication. (2007: 26, original emphasis)


Attwell, Graham (2007), ‘Personal Learning Environments – the future of eLearning?’, eLearning Papers 2: 1, pp. 1-8. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Downes, Stephen (2007), ‘Learning networks in practice’, Emerging Technologies for Learning 2. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Drexler, Wendy (2010), ‘The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26: 3, pp. 369-85.

Fiedler, Sebastian H. D. and Terje Väljataga (2011), ‘Personal Learning Environments: Concept or Technology?’, International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 2: 4, pp. 1-11.

Johnson, Mark and Oleg Liber (2008), ‘The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition: from theory to teaching practice’, Interactive Learning Environments 16: 1, pp. 3-15.

Judd, Terry, Gregor Kennedy and Simon Cropper (2010), ‘Using wikis for collaborative learning: Assessing collaboration through contribution’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26: 3, pp. 341-54.

Manion, Christopher E. and Richard ‘Dickie’ Selfe (2012), ‘Sharing an Assessment Ecology: Digital Media, Wikis, and the Social Work of Knowledge’, Technical Communication Quarterly 21: pp. 25-45.

Siemens, George (2004), ‘Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age’, elearnspace. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Siemens, George (2008), ‘A brief history of networked learning’, elearnspace. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Spector, J. Michael (2002), ‘Foreword’, in Steeples and Jones (2002), pp. xiii-xvii.

Steeples, Christine and Chris Jones (2002), eds., Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues, London: Springer.

Weigel, Van B. (2002), Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wenger, Etienne (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, Su and Hugh Davis (2011), ‘Making it Rich and Personal: Crafting an Institutional Personal Learning Environment’, International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 2: 4, pp. 23-39.


2 thoughts on “Personal learning environments: what are they, and what should they do?

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this well-researched, thought-provoking paper! I hope you don’t mind if I cite it–and your blog–in a post I plan to write on designing collaborative web-based assignments for class participation & discussion?

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