This report details the findings of the investigation into Personal Learning Environments conducted by CETIS between March 2005 and July 2006 and commissioned by JISC. In our work we considered the phenomenon of the PLE from a number of different aspects. Firstly, we considered the PLE from the perspective of its emerging representation in the e-learning discourse. Here a number of representations of the PLE can be found both in informal discussions on weblogs, and in the design specifications of new educational technology projects - with varying approaches to its technical architecture and to its social and educational implications.
Secondly, we considered current user behaviour with existing technologies – particularly those technologies which surround the concept of Web2.0, to which the PLE is related. Using the pattern methodology developed by Christopher Alexander, we identified those patterns of behaviour which linked user behaviour with the technologies they used. Such patterns must be reproducible within the PLE if it is to be effective. As a result of the identification of these patterns, we were able to specify the parts of the PLE in the form of a 'reference model'. This identification work has also enabled us to construct two prototypes which have embodied many of the facilities.
However, as with many technologies in e-learning, this new development begs fundamental questions. Most importantly, if the PLE is seen as a response to criticisms of existing learning technology, to what extent does the PLE meet these concerns? Is it another 'flash in the pan' or a fundamental and enduring change in learning technology? But it is in the nature of such questioning that a genuinely critical approach to learning leads from one question to another. It is for this reason that we have sought a deeper philosophical basis for our characterisation of the PLE and the technological transformations that have surrounded it. This philosophical representation allows us to describe the technological transformations which are implicated in the PLE in a broader context. Using the tools of cybernetics and the philosophy of technology, we identify the longer-tern processes in the developments of technology and situate the current developments of the PLE within this process.
Beyond this stratified level of description, we might consider why such a report is needed. After all, the PLE is a development which is ongoing, which has acquired its own momentum, and even within the time-scale of this study, significant technological advances have been made in the realising of technologies which embrace its principles. Furthermore, in this time, the perception of what comprises a PLE is ever-more emerging. Therefore, what is the need for a deeper analysis?
To answer this question, we should consider first the requirements for those organisations whose responsibility it is to coordinate the infrastructure of learning technology. This includes educational institutions, who must coordinate their learning technology, and national bodies which should provide the technological infrastructure for effective provision of technology to institutions and learners. The provisions of national infrastructure have been centred around institutions, and have adopted a model of education where the institution coordinates the technology for the use by learners.
The essence of our characterisation of the PLE highlights its change in the locus of control of technology from institution to learner, and therefore this centralised coordination of technology by institutions should be re-examined in the light of the arguments we put forward for the PLE. We examine this question in some depth drawing on a cybernetic characterisation of the current organisation of education, and considering the implications of the intervention of the PLE.
Within those national bodies which seek to establish an effective coordination of learning technology, there have been attempts to embrace some of the implications of the changes in technological infrastructure. Amongst these developments, the most significant is the embracing of service-oriented architecture as a means of removing functional redundancy in technology provision through the creation of a structured framework of services for e-learning. JISC's e-framework has formed the basis of a coordination of projects in a number of areas of e-learning since its launch. In theory, such service developments should establish a body of services which are repurposable and scaleable in different contexts. Considerable evidence is suggesting that this indeed is happening, as teachers seek to exploit and deploy the power of individual services in different contexts.
The personal learning environment, in embracing the principles of service oriented architecture, builds on this work. Yet the PLE maintains a different emphasis with regard to the exploitation of services for learning. With the e-Framework, emphasis has been placed on institutions to create new technologies out of existing services which meet their individual needs, the PLE envisages learners similarly being able to exploit existing services in the cause of their learning and personal organisation.
To this end, we point to emerging patterns of user behaviour where this is already the case. Many services within the sphere of 'Web2.0' are being used in precisely this manner. Whilst these services may not necessarily be regarded as explicitly 'educational', they present a potential for an effective personal organisation which is at the very least beneficial to institutionalised learning, and in some cases of direct benefit to it. Given this, we seek to uncover the boundaries between this 'effective personal organisation' and 'effective learning', and to consider the enhancements and contributions which educational institutions and coordinating bodies might bring to the body of services which are already in existence, to enhance the direct benefits to learning of such technological coordination.
To this end, there are significant issues to be raised concerning the provision of technology by institutions. For if the current direction of technology has the impact on institutionalised learning that we anticipate, then major reorganisational opportunities present themselves to institutions. Foremost amongst these is the ways in which institutions provide services for learners, and the extent to which institutions should not provide technological services which duplicate those services outside the institution.
To seek effective answers to these organisational problems is to assess the direction of technological developments. With regard to this, a number of key issues are important. Firstly, access to powerful personal technology is becoming increasingly widespread. At one point, computers were sited at institutions because issues of cost, scale and resourcing meant that this was the only effective way to provide access to them. This situation has been and is continuing to be transformed. Many learners carry in their pockets devices with performance that exceeds that of mainframe computers of only 20 years ago. Many learners have access to portable computers with even greater performance.
Furthermore, the opportunities for using personal technology are increasing rapidly – and faster than the rate at which institutions can adopt provision for their manageable deployment on centralised computer networks. Thus, learners find that their personal dispositions to use technology are often frustrated by restrictions within the institution. This combined with often unfavourable comparisons between the relative performance speed of personal technology and institutionally maintained technology can create barriers for learners within the very tools that were designed to eliminate barriers.
However, a further and more subtle barrier remains – and one which lies at the heart of the PLE philosophy. This is a barrier which relates to the way in which human beings use tools. For in an environment where new computer systems, upgrades and enhancements emerge at a rapid rate to meet the needs of different communities of practice, users must engage in a constant process of adapting to new technology. They must learn how to access these new systems (a problem made easier with the introduction of web-based interfaces), and once they have access, they must learn how to operate the various instruments they are presented with, and they must learn how to effectively deploy the tools they are presented with. And with upgrades and enhancements, these things must often be re-learnt. And all of this “learning how to use the tools” precedes any learning that might be done with the tools.
But every new system contributes another element to the things that the user must remember about their use of technology. But how much is too much – and might the introduction of 'yet another system' prove to be a new system too far (whatever the advantages of its functionality)? In this sense, then, we get a picture of new technology not as something which is purely a means by which something can get done, but as something which is situated within far more complex social and psychological mechanisms, the interactions within which may amount to subtle emerging problems from the introduction of new technology which might not be immediately obvious from first inspection of the technology alone.
Therefore, we turn to these complex social and psychological mechanisms to try to understand these processes in ascertaining that the intervention we propose will be truly efficacious, rather than it being seen as 'just another system'. Indeed, in our characterization, the PLE is not a system at all – it is rather an intervention in that social and psychological mechanism. We therefore situate our characterisation of the technology within an conceptualisation of these mechanisms, showing how in the first instance, our characterisation reflects the reality of education today, and the extent of the effect of the PLE on the environment of education.
This section considers the emerging theme of the PLE as it appears in the current discourse. By the very nature of this discourse, there is no single definition of a PLE. But commonalities between different views can be identified. Broadly speaking, there are three aspects to the identification of these commonalities: 1. a critique of current learning technology; 2. explanatory frameworks for social and technological change within which the PLE is situated; 3. advocacy for the transformation of technology, institutions and pedagogy through the PLE. In this section of the report, we examine these three strands, considering the different aspects which can be taken (especially with regard to explaining technical change), and consider the advocacy for the PLE transformation.
We consider a ‘theme’ in this context as a narrative strand which either critiques a situation, explains it, or advocates a transformed situation and which is based around certain assumptions about fundamental processes which structure that situation. It is, by its nature, broad and sweeping, possibly containing inaccuracies and misinterpretations. Yet, ‘themes’ of this nature are, we contend, important in that they can have an effect on the emerging discourse – particularly as the opportunities for expounding such themes through new technology are increasing all the time.
The thematisation of the PLE has largely (to this point) been conducted on weblogs. Key issues have been raised through this medium, which is often tightly connected with the technological development community, and so can often play an important role in determining future patterns of technological development. Amongst these themes, there is general consensus, and some disagreement. Some, for example, see the PLE as having a significant effect in empowering users of informal learning resources, away from institutions (Attwell, 2006). A related view is to see the PLE as an extension to e-portfolio, helping users to record achievement and set new personal goals (Heibert, 2006; Nicol, 2004). There is also a view that the PLE (and for that matter, other LMS technology) is a superfluous accessory to the technologies of the desktop operating system and the world wide web (Blackall, 2005).
In order to understand the nature of this thematic discourse, we group the following themes of the PLE. Within this body of themes there are:
There is a considerable body of discourse which identifies the weaknesses of current e-learning provision. Whilst this stems both from within the e-learning community, and outside it within the body of practitioners who may be wholeheartedly opposed to the very concept of e-learning, there are some common features which unite the criticisms that are made.
There is a body of discourse stemming from the literature on educational management which examines and critiques the organization of the institution. Within this, there are technological issues to which the PLE discourse is closely related.
The discourse which examines the learner’s experience within an institutional setting is considerable, and some of this considers the nature of the relationship between the learner, the institution and technology. Moreover, within this discourse, there are recognized ‘views’ on the nature of the relationship between the learner and the institution, and these views are examined here.
Any critique of current technology carries within it, either explicitly or implicitly, a suggestion for transformation. Yet, at the same time, the foundation of both the critique and the transformation is a particular view of ‘how technologies develop’, and there are a number of possible outlooks for explaining technical change, ranging from technological determinism to social constructivism. We examine these different outlooks in the light of the PLE discourse.
It is this theme, implicit within the critique of current technology, that those projects which consider themselves to be PLE-related articulate the essential characteristics of the PLE, and its implications. Here we summarise the essential nature of the PLE transformation.
The PLE transformation entails an organizational transformation as well. In this section we summarise the nature of the organizational transformation and the implications for the institution.
The interlinking of technology, organization and pedagogy means that an organizational transformation also entails a pedagogical transformation. Here we consider some of the views concerning pedagogical transformation, and the views of those who have concerns about the PLE with regard to the support for learners.
The themes which criticise learning technology ground their criticism on perceived shortcomings of current learning technology. Whilst thorough methodical investigation of such issues doesn’t always lie behind these, such criticisms nevertheless reflect the result of ‘lived experience’ with the technologies of the VLE, Portfolio, the Web, etc. But the criticism is often borne out of comparison with either some ideal state, or with some past educational method or environment. Whatever perspective that is taken, we might loosely detect certain ‘moral principles’ for education in general to which most critics of current technology would subscribe. We might list these as:
And with regard to these issues, current learning technology and the education system is seen to fail with regard to:
· Accessibility has only partially been achieved by moving the medium of dissemination onto the web. However, barriers to accessibility remain in the form of institutional procedures and usability.
· The institutionalisation of learning technology presents a further barrier, because with institutional ownership of technology comes the requirement for students to re-learn the technologies of access to learning at each education provider.
· Current pedagogical practice is still teacher-centric. The promise of e-learning in enabling effective management of a diverse student population has only seldom been realised. At its worst, the VLE can be characterised as a giant photocopier!
· The process of education is primarily institution-centric, rather than learner-centric.
The ‘risks and promises’ that Burbules identifies in learning technology in general mirror some of these concerns, and these are reflected in the more specific work on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) by Kearsley (1998), and Barajas et al (2000). The VLE, whilst succeeding to deliver some sort of distance learning facility, is primarily designed for institutions, and does not directly meet the needs of learners. The weight of functionality is geared towards coordination of content, students and assessment. For student activity, a small number of tools are provided (chat, email) which tend to be rarely used within the context of learning. This lack of take-up may reflect the fact that the communication services provided mirror more effective provision of the same service elsewhere.
As regards the critical themes which emerge from those generally antagonistic towards computer technology for learning in general, the accusation that the computer has compromised the learning experience through plagiarism, or producing a shallowness to learning engagement, or fundamentally undermining the depth of students’ commitments to their learning activities are concerns which are rarely heard in the e-learning literature, but nevertheless have a solid foundation within the discourse on technology at large. Complaints of the potentially alienating aspects of technology find strong echoes in the work of Ellul when he remarks: “Enclosed within his artificial creation, man finds that there is "no exit"; that he cannot pierce the shell of technology to find again the ancient milieu to which he was adapted for hundreds of thousands of years”. This too echoes the analysis of Marcuse, Baudrillard, and Lewis whose concern that a process of the abolition of deep human values, to which technology appears complicit, is leading to the creation of a heartless society: “a hard heart is no substitute for a soft head”, Lewis warns. Some resonance with this idea is also to be found in the later thought of Heidegger, who as the pre-eminent theorist of technology in the 20th century, we return to later in this report.
At the very least, this body of opinion represents a constituency for whom technology may have an alienating effect (for both teachers and learners), not helped by the sales-pitch and (sometimes) hubris of learning technologists and where there is fear that the deficiencies of computer technology in comparison to traditional methods (the loss of face-to-face teaching, the loss of book learning, etc) will be overlooked.
Thus the themes of critique, therefore, are very broad-ranging, and to some extent contradictory - but they provides a territory upon which arguments for the personal learning environment and the prioritization of personal organization can be situated. The PLE has something to say on all these issues, from the day-to-day practical deficiencies of the VLE, to the deeper concerns of the nature of human existence and our relationship with technology. This is not to say that it has an answer to these different problems (since, bearing in mind the contradictory nature of some of them, that would be impossible), but it at least may provide a unified framework for situating issues at all levels of engagement with learning technology.
If many of the themes of critique of learning technology are fundamentally pedagogical in character, such pedagogical matters are nevertheless linked to the organizational issues of the educational institution. For to change the organization of an educational institution (for example, to change the timetable, or the number of teachers, or the curriculum) is inevitably to change ‘what is taught’ and ‘how it’s taught’. Here there are related themes which look specifically at the organization of the educational institution, considering its efficacy as an organizational entity for the provision of learning. Learning technology, whatever its pedagogical merits, has potentially an organizational effect on the institution. The theme of critique of institutional organisation examines the current institutional organisation from the perspective of efficiency with regard to its internal structure and external effectiveness. Such ‘effectiveness’ is often, as Cameron has identified, hard to define (1978) and the current discourse on institutional effectiveness tends to focus on one or two issues. Within the technology community, one key issue is the efficiency of institutional systems and the redundancy of data.
As with any large organisation, computer technology is key to the self-maintenance of educational institutions (Bernbom, 1999). The requirement to manage a large variety of information from student data, assessment data, resources, staff, buildings, funding, etc has meant that typically a variety of separate systems have emerged within institutions as individual departments seek to maintain their own area of work. We can list these systems as:
The variety of systems has produced significant redundancy of data between systems - a problem which recent moves to increase inter-operability are attempting to remedy (IMS) or the adoption of new web-based strategies (Gabriel, 2003).
The costs to the institution of maintaining these systems is significant, and the management of overheads a difficult problem to solve (Doost, 1997;Teece, 1977). In each subsystem efforts have been made to make them more cost effective (for example, the introduction of online library journals (see Montgomery, 2002)). These efforts themselves are subject to what Birnbaum calls ‘management fads’ (Birnbaum, 2000). This is exacerbated by the wide variety of technical skills required for systems engineers to move across different systems. (cost of maintenance of references)
As Redwine et al identified (1987) each system exists in its own life-cycle, and upgrades may have knock-on effects on inter-operability, training, etc. For most of these systems, the user-base is relatively small. The exception to this is the Learning system. This has a large user-base, and the maintenance of this system can have a significant effect on the training requirements for both students and teachers. This is coupled with the fact that the usage of and demands on learning systems varies from course to course, and this can create greater problems for the learners.
Thus the critique of current institutional organization has many aspects, many of which are not resolved, and in common with the other critiques, some of which are contradictory. Solutions to the problems of effective institutional management of technology suffer from the fundamental problems of finding effective intervention in any complex management situation.
With the joint themes of critique of learning technology and institutional organization, a relationship can be perceived between the provision of technology for learning and possibilities for reorganising the institution. We have already suggested the link between issues of learning technology and pedagogy and their implied relationship with the organization of the institution, by within the theme of ‘learner experience with the institution’, there are issues which extend beyond issues of teaching and learning, to those which examine the nature of the relationship a learner has with an institution. This relationship is not straight-forward and there are many ways of characterising it, with each characterization containing its own implicit critique of the current situation (Kalyuga, 2001). In terms of the functional engagements with the institution, however, we can identify a number of different relationships that might be said to exist. Amongst the different characterizations available to us, we might cite Bowden (2004), who identifies the student within the ‘University of Learning’, or Hoffman (2004) who seeks to identify a new metaphor: ‘the student as partial employee’. In our analysis, we will consider four generally-recognised characterisations (Shanker, 1992)
To consider the student as product, we might argue that universities produce products in the form of students with certified skills. The implication of certification is that (for example) "this student can do ...". There is increasing criticism from employers that some students cannot do what their certification indicates. But the student product is different from many other products, where "fitness for purpose" would be a criteria. Quality control of the product within the Universities themselves is achieved with a system of internal and external verification. But again, there is evidence that the consistency of the quality of the product has declined with the expansion of HE.
The student can be seen as a customer (for example, Baldwin, 1994) of the University insofar as they purchase services from institutions. These services give access to the resources of the institution. We might list them:
As a member of an institution, a student is its representative and from the institution’s perspective, the student forms part of a ‘body of students’ which can represent a degree of capital for the institution. Indeed the student’s membership of the institution may also be characterised as work. Boland (2005), for example, has examined the role that students might play in the governance of institutions, and Neave (2005) has further examined the area.
In addition to the capital of a large group of students being the measure of funding regimes, a significant body of students can also bring benefits in terms of external sponsorship and directed marketing. For the student the benefits of membership may entail the acquisition of a particular social status, and the economic and social benefits that may follow from this.
Finally, the student can be seen as worker in the sense that it is (ultimately) the student who does the work of their own learning. But if it is the student who does the work of their own learning, why is it that so much attention is paid to the work of the institution in the learning process?
Schlecty (REF) has examined the nature of the teacher-student and institution-student relationship in particular focussing on the nature of the work of each. The work of the institution is seen as facilitating the work of the student, by making available resources, guidance, etc. This (inevitably) makes the work of the student a bit more straightforward (it removes aspects of the labour of seeking out resources that would otherwise be entailed).
Increasingly, technology does the work of making resources available, although the institution plays a role in financially gathering together relevant resources for the learner. This essential role of technology of ‘labour saving’ has extended in the form of pedagogy into taking some of the labour out of learning itself. Therefore, material can be presented in ways which make it more ‘easily learnable’.
The theme of ‘critique of learner experience with the institution’, like the themes of critique of learning technology, has many aspects to it, many of which are contradictory in their implications. It is useful, therefore, to highlight these contradictions so as to arrive at a more fundamental description of the essence of the student’s relationship with the institution. The activities of learners within the education system at any particular point may be characterised in these different ways. And yet, these different perspectives offer highly contrasting world-views on the nature of education itself, creating a set of institutional practices which are often inconsistent.
As Halbesleben (2003) has pointed out, it is inevitably the student who does the learning. Therefore, considering the student’s fundamental role in their success, what is it that the institution does to justify seeing the student as a product?
The student appears to ‘shop around’ for the services of institutions as a customer – in itself, an aspect of the students own work of learning. And part of the appeal of individual brands of institutional services would appear to be the extent to which the label of ‘membership’ of a particular institution is considered a valuable sign in itself, rather than the particular measure of the value of that institution to the learners own work of learning.
The value of membership of an institution, and the ensuing value of becoming a successful product of an institution (through certification) appears to be a significant driver for the student’s own role as worker in their own learning. This would then suggest that the purpose of the learning is as much about maintenance of a social position in terms of recognition by an institution as it is about the acquisition of skills or knowledge in response to the needs of an environment.
The nature of the relationship between a student and an institution in this context is characterised by commitment. But the commitment may be more to certification than to actual learning, and result in learning actions which are geared towards maintaining a commitment to the institution rather than maintaining a commitment to learning. It is in this space that certain behaviours regarding a particular lack of engagement with the learning content, a lack of commitment with learning itself within the institution can be explained. If the primary commitment is with the institution itself, and the maintenance of the learner’s position in that setting, then the minimal engagement with the learning content will suffice as the labour of the learner.
But such a view is predicated on the esteem that institutions continue to be held in. If the esteem dissipates, then the importance of the actual learning will become more significant. But if the importance of the learning (in terms of ability and skill in managing the complexity of the world) becomes more significant, the driver for this learning must become the student, not an institution, for it is the student that must decide to what learning goals they wish to commit. It is therefore, for the learner to decide on what they commit themselves to with regard to their learning. It is for institutions to provide services to learners which make the learner’s job more manageable in this endeavour.
The three major thematic areas considered so far have explored the territory between learning technology, institutional organization, pedagogy, and the fundamental nature of the relationship between the learner and the institution. Within these critiques, we have identified some implicit views about the way the world is, and in uncovering some of those views behind different critiques, we can see the inherent contradictions between them. As a component of any view about the way the world is, we have to consider the view on ‘what causes technological change’. Clearly, from the perspective of educational technology, this is an important aspect, but here too, there are a number of different approaches that can be taken.
Elster identified three primary ways of explaining technological evolution. They are:
The recognition of the fact that there are many ways of analysing the ways technologies develop is important because, for each of the different types of explanation that might be adopted, the manner of the explanation is at least a factor in determining a proposed outcome – either in the form of a particular explanatory framework, or in the suggestion of a new technology.
The PLE situates itself as a ‘logical development’ in technology seen from the perspective of a theoretical analysis of previous technology and social structure. Yet the nature of these explanations across the discourse ranges from direct causal explanation to intentional explanation, and each of these explanatory frameworks presents a slightly different (and often incompatible) views of society and technology. Therefore, before considering the PLE positions articulated, we should consider the full implications of the different ways of characterising technological change.
Causal explanations for technological emergence sit most comfortably with the general hypothesis of technological determinism. And despite the apparent shortcomings of the determinist position, causal structures remain useful in describing the social impact of technologies (for example, see Philipson, 2003; Mokyr, 1993), or the emergence of new technologies (Woodward, 2003).
Direct causal claims for the emergence of technology are not hard to find. For example, Marshall McLuhan’s comment that 'such inventions as the horse collar quickly led to the development of the modern world' (McLuhan & Watson 1970, p. 121) or Marx’s comment that “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist' (Marx, 1847).
As Chandler (2003) points out, technological determinism is really a form of sociological reduction whereby the complexity of social structures is reduced to a few causal relationships. In education too, this tendency can be evidenced. For example, the sequence of “language à writing à printing à internet” which is commonly (see Ehrman) cited in e-learning circles is typical of the sort of reductionism of technological determinism. The pervasiveness of the idea of ‘technological impacts on society’ as discussed by Pannabecker (1991) is also testament to the hold of technological determinism.
The intentional approach is an approach which relies on the significance of the interpretation of technologies as the prime mover in the consideration of new technological developments. This new view on technological change is perhaps summed up by Lawson’s (2005) comment “what would a 35mm camera be if it were transported to a medieval village?”, and it is a view which McKenzie and Wacjman (1998) have considered at some depth.
The intentional view of technology owes much to the work on user experience and usability. Within this community, it was clear that the function of a technology was less important than the way it was perceived as a motivator for its success.
Within this view, the perception of ‘the web’ (for example) as a powerful educational tool might well have been a more significant factor in its large-scale deployment in education. One might, for example, ask why computer games consoles, or television sets have not proliferated in the same way.
The intentional view of technological development owes its theoretical grounding to social constructivism. It is the discourse, intentionalists argue, which is the key determining factor in the acceptance and take-up of new technologies, rather than the material or functional constitution of any particular technology.
The functional approach seeks to identify the key variables which contribute to technological emergence, and sees these variables as static in the process of the production of new technologies. Rather than there being one particular driver for change (as in a causal relationship), there are identifiable networks of drivers. One of the key ingredients in this functional make-up has been the reproduction of social structure, as discussed by Bourdieu and Parsons. Technological emergence is seen from the context of these social reproductions.
An allied neo-functionalist explanation for technology is to talk of the emerging network of ‘wants’ which drive the creation of new technologies, which in turn create new networks of wants as Geschunny (2001) has discussed.
Functionalist explanations however can suffer from a rather one-dimension view of the functions they describe and the actors involved in them. As Elster (1982) points out for example that the statement “capitalists fear the working class” cannot be reduced to the feelings of capitalists about individual workers.
As far as technology is concerned, functionalist explanation seeks to establish the nature of ‘innovation systems’, drawing on the work of Schumpeter and the ‘Cyclic Model of Technological Change’ of Anderson and Tushman (1990) – although even in this work the charge of an insufficient attention to the nature of individual agency can be raised.
With all three of these explanatory frameworks, holes can be found: none is entirely satisfactory. And this sense of dissatisfaction finds its way into the way the PLE is situated by various viewpoints. For example, a causal explanation may lead to the characterisation of the web from Web1.0 to Web2.0; from the read-only web to the read-write web. It is on one level informative, but there’s much that it does not say about the changing nature of the user relationship with internet-based technology (which might perhaps require an intentional explanation), or the factors involved in the reproduction of social systems as a factor in shaping the take-up of the technology (a functionalist approach).
But within the technological community, such causal inference is common: TCP/IP was, for example, a major building block of the world-wide-web and this in turn has been a significant factor in the recent emergent phenomena of e-learning. Is this the same as saying “there would be no internet without TCP/IP?”
But neither would intentional factors alone tell us about the world-wide web. They would, for example, be blind to the infrastructural ground upon which such developments were based (causal) or the network of institutional and governmental support in the years leading up to the web’s emergence. The same may be said of e-learning: for example, the VLE – whilst much criticised for its material and functional constitution, has nevertheless led something of a ‘cultural shift’ within educational institutions which has pushed e-learning and (more importantly) learning systems to the top of the institutional agenda. Who would be the institution to turn its back on it now?
And an understanding of the institutional context, and the ways institutions work – particularly the ways that they maintain themselves, that indeed they do appear to ‘reproduce’ (and in some cases, the curricula are tools for this as Bourdieu argues) is important if we are to situate the PLE within an institutional setting. But again, the functionalist view alone would only tell us about socialisation processes, and ignore individual agency. Particularly for the PLE, this would be an ineffective characterisation, since the technology situates itself around the learner, not an institution: but they are learners who through technological action engage with institutions.
Therefore we may argue that what is required in terms of the PLE discourse is an argument that situates the PLE from many different perspectives since each of these levels and ways of explaining shed some light on different aspects, but that no single framework seems to be able to do everything.
Within the discourse on technological evolution, therefore, we can determine processes which may be understood as being at once causal, intentional and functional. Such an approach can be adopted towards socio-technical processes which may be directly related to the PLE. Amongst these, the processes of ‘decentralisation and personalisation’ have a fundamental resonance with the general thrust of the PLE argument, and therefore deserve some attention.
Decentralisation has been an increasingly popular government strategy, and many have identified this process with the related process of personalisation. As Caldwell argues (CALDWELL), centralised management is increasingly seen as an ineffective method of organisation. This affects many aspects of daily life, as centralised complexity is disseminated amongst the population, who are increasingly asked to organise their own resources, rather than those resources be allocated from the centre.
This process can be seen in a number of areas in current everyday life:
Each of these instances is a socio-technical process which embodies causal, intentional and functional elements. Causally, the emergence of new technologies creates an environment wherein structural reorganization becomes possibility. Intentionally, the issues of personal autonomy, partly resulting from the introduction of new technologies, have a key role to play in the support and uptake of those technologies, as well as the development of new organizational strategies which build themselves around those technologies. Functionally, social reorganization situates itself around the recreation of existing social structures and power relations in finding new ways for creating those social structures in a different context.
Yet, decentralization and personalization are agendas which have not always met with success. Whilst they achieve a reduction in complexity at the centre, they often result in an increase in complexity on the individual. The individual, hampered by ineffective tools for dealing with this new complexity, can find that complexity to be overwhelming. It is therefore at this point that the PLE, whilst acknowledging the decentralization and personalization agendas, also has a key focus on the efficacy of tools and usage, for without this component, the redistribution of complexity cannot be balanced.
Given an understanding of the many-layers of the thematic approaches to the PLE, ranging from different views on technology, pedagogy, organization, and the ways in which technological change can be explained, we can now consider the ways in which an argument is made for the transformation of the current situation into one where the PLE is a major component. Here, the PLE is characterised at once as a relatively simple technological intervention with profound organizational and pedagogical implications.
The principle driver of the themes of transformation is the shifting of control from the institution to the learner. In common with the discourse on personalization and decentralization, this process of shifting the Locus of Control is in common with many other movements in the social domain (Lefcourt , 1982). With the PLE intervention, it is the learner who coordinates their access to learning through manipulation of technologies. It is the learner who takes control of the instrumentation that is made available to them.
The change in the Locus of Control represents a shift from the centralized organization of technology to personalized organization of technology – a shift which finds common ground in the discourse on decentralisation and personalisation. And growing out of this discourse is the argument that such a shift is effected on the grounds of efficient organization in a diverse environment.
Therefore, the PLE argument situates itself as a technological intervention to aid a decentralised and personalised transformation of educational institutions. But this argument not only is used to characterise the impact on institutions. Most importantly for the PLE, the argument is used to characterise the impact on learners. The role of the learner having the locus of control has long been acknowledged as a key factor in their success with learning technology (Lawless, 1997). Personal ownership of technology will overcome problems of accessibility, usability, learner mobility, pedagogical integration that currently plague learners as users of institutionally-based systems.
Therefore, the theme of the shift in the locus of control is a theme which seeks to establish greater institutional efficiency and restructuring through the technological empowerment of learners. It seeks to be to the core benefit of both learners and the institution.
It has long been acknowledged that computer technology is increasing the number and range of learning opportunities (Songer, 1997). Such opportunities, once almost exclusively in the domain of content provision, are now increasingly in the domain of social networking.
This new element of social networking, reinforced by the opportunities of the ‘read-write’ web excite some in the educational community who now see a genuine possibility for ‘learning conversations’ (Augstien, 1993) to take place on a large-scale using technology, and being largely independent of the institution.
For the institution itself, it is argued that such opportunities represent a challenge to its hegemony and that competition to the services of educational institutions may arise not just from other institutions, but from non-institutional learning opportunities. This, it is argued, will entail a transformation of the institutional services that are provided. In particular, a transformation is advocated in the provision of technology within the institution which duplicates technology provision outside the institution, and which is not core to the main educational business. Therefore, a need presents itself to:
· to eliminate redundancy of functionality of systems (so we no longer have e-mail in a VLE which doesn’t inter-operate with normal e-mail)
· Eliminate the burden of maintaining the instrumentation of services
· Produce new software which harnesses the power of the desktop computer, balancing it with centralised services
In particular, institutions should look at the ways in which they can divest themselves of ubiquitous technological services like:
· Data persistence
· On-site computers
· Centrally-installed software
· ISP services (for example, the VLE)
Institutional pedagogical practice situates itself around technology provision and institutional organisation. With the PLE, and the ensuing impacts both on technology and institutional organisation, it is natural that significant changes may also be seen within pedagogical practice.
With current institutional structures, we can identify different categories of student. These categories relate to:
· the setting in which the students learn
· the balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
· the ways students are funded
· the mobility of students
· the expectations of their educational engagement.
Broadly speaking, we might list the following as having distinct relations to the above criteria.
· Undergraduate full-time students
· Post-graduate students
· Part-time students
· Informal learners
· Overseas students
· Life-long learners
· Workers engaged in Continuing Professional Development
· Technologically capable students
Home undergraduate Full-time students
Students in this category are what we might term ‘traditional learners’. Typically entering an HE institution at 18, the educational experience involves enrolling at and becoming a member of an institution, moving away from home, becoming financially independent and making new friends in their new environment.
The setting in which the students learn
Students in this category learn in a conventional university setting, often living away from home, attending lectures and doing practical work within university facilities.
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
Students in this category face increasing pressure to supplement their income through part-time work. This aspect makes them look more like ‘part-time’ students, and many of the issues that relate to part-time students are becoming increasingly relevant to full-time students.
The ways students are funded
Home undergraduate full-time students receive state support for their education in the form of loans and (occasionally) grants.
The mobility of students
Home undergraduate full-time students live close to the college campus, often away from home, although there is an increasing trend for such students to stay living with their parents and attend a local university.
the expectations of their educational engagement
Apart from the expectation of certification after about 3 years, university is portrayed to this group as a key social opportunity and this aspect is often a key driver in their choice of institution.
Students expect to be taught, usually in lectures, and many come to the institution with expectations for technological resources and learning content provision.
Students expect, upon graduation, to have increased life-chances.
The PLE Perspective
· The financial demands of the traditional ‘home undergraduate experience’ are likely to become increasingly stringent, therefore this group of students is likely to become more like the part-time group, with the definition of ‘full-time’ only an indication of the method of funding.
· Barriers are likely to emerge which affect students’ abilities to be in particular places at particular times dictated by the university, and therefore greater flexibility in provision will be required.
· Both work and learning commitments will entail the use of technology, and learners will seek ways of coordinating these different commitments through a process of technological integration.
· The demands for opportunities for technological integration may well act as a driver for institutional change in the provision of learning technology.
Post-graduate Full-time Students
The setting in which the students learn
Many post-graduate students share characteristics of undergraduate full-time students, and are subject to the same pressures. Whilst attendance at lectures may not be a major component of the postgraduate experience, personal tutoring and access to university facilities will remain an important aspect of the student’s experience.
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
Post-graduate students, by their nature, display a high degree of commitment to their domain of study – one that is generally greater than that associated with undergraduate students. Learning therefore maintains a high priority in the organization of their lives, although students in this category are subject to the same financial pressures are undergraduate. However, it is not unusual for such students to find teaching work within institutions, which enables them to have a more integrated balance between work and study.
The ways students are funded
There is a very diverse array of funding for post-graduate students, from relatively generous grants which allow such students to fund their studies and live without recourse to extra work, to self-financing students who may well have to engage in many other unrelated activities in order to sustain themselves.
The mobility of students
Many post-graduate students live near campus and make use of university facilities. Some distance-learning courses at this level are emerging, and the commitment to learning would appear to over-ride the loss of some aspects of the experience like being on campus.
The expectations of their educational engagement
Post-graduate students expect to be supervised in their work by an expert in the field of their study.
They may regard the certification of a Phd to be useful in their future life-chances
They will often seek recognition within the wider academic community within their chosen discipline.
The PLE perspective
· Like undergraduate students, the demands of full-time postgraduate provision may mean that an increasing part-time model emerges.
· Community recognition is a key aspect of post-graduate expectation, and the engagement with these communities is increasingly mediated through technology. Thus the post-graduate student will make effective use of technology for coordinating their engagements with the communities they wish to engage with – tracking journals and developments in the field.
· The specialized resource that a university supplies for its post-graduate population will become increasingly available online (for example, the journal holdings).
The setting in which the students learn
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
Part-time students must balance commitments between work, home and study. An over-riding commitment to learning (as may be the case with post-graduate students, and sometimes the case with undergraduates) will adversely affect other personal commitments. Therefore, the part-time learner must reach compromises: recognizing the value of their learning, but balancing this with the effort involved and the implications this has on other aspects of their lives.
The ways students are funded
Part-time students are generally self-financing. Conditions apply on the speed at which they may complete their studies.
The mobility of students
Part-time students may live locally to a university. They will rarely move away from home to attend a university. They may live at great distance from the university, either studying at a distance through technology, or traveling only rarely to the university.
The expectations of their educational engagement
The expectation of part-time students is of increased life-chances.
Whilst they may expect be taught, the practicalities of lecture attendance may make other methods of content delivery preferable.
The social aspect of study may be less of a concern for part-time students, since it can add even greater complexity to lives which are already complicated by the learning. This aspect can adversely affect the progress of part-time students by making them feel alienated.
The PLE perspective
· The coordination of different practices and aspects of life all have a technological component. The provision of learning technology may add to a technological complexity that must be managed by part-time students.
· However, the provision of services which can be integrated through a PLE may be of considerable benefit to part-time learners, since the opportunity to coordinate the technologies associated with different areas of practice may enable a richer coordination of learning and other activities.
· Furthermore, the opportunity to coordinate engagements with different communities of practice may enable part-time learners to engage in a richer way with the social aspects of learning.
The setting in which the students learn
Overseas learners may either move to the university where they study, or they may study in their home country. Often the motivation for study is different depending on which they choose to do. In the former case, they may be treated as ordinary undergraduate or postgraduate students. In the latter case, they are distance learners.
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
Students from overseas often have extra challenges they must face with regard to their learning – particularly if they move to the university. Foremost amongst these are the challenge to learn a foreign language (if necessary).
the ways students are funded
Overseas students are usually self-financing. They are particularly ‘lucrative’ for institutions, since they entail the full tuition fee.
The mobility of students
Overseas students, either living on campus at the university where they study, or on campus in their own country behave much like home full-time undergraduate students.
The expectations of their educational engagement.
The expectation of overseas students is much like that of home undergraduate students. They expect better life-chances, not just from the qualification, but also from the fact that the qualification was gained overseas, and that they have linguistic ability,
One of the aspects of overseas students is the expectation of ‘cultural immersion’
The PLE perspective
· Particular technologies may be useful to overseas students (notably translation services), and these technologies must be coordinated with other technologies supplied for them by the university.
· The communities of practice that overseas students belong will necessarily be different form those typically engaged with by home students. Again, the coordination of these different communities of practice may be enriched through the PLE.
· ‘cultural immersion’ through the PLE may well be enriched, since a personal coordination of different aspects of learning (from subject domain learning, to language and cultural learning) may all be coordinated from a single environment.
The setting in which the students learn
Life-long learners are characterised by the ongoing experience of their education. The context within which they engage with education is one where they already carry previous educational experience. But naturally, this is the case for most learners. What characterizes the life-long learner in particular is their explicit practice of integrating new learning into old practices and knowledge.
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
The lifelong learner not only manages a balance of learning engagement with the other aspects of life (and life-long learners may be full or part time) but they also coordinate a balance between previous learning episodes and their current one.
The life-long learner is adept at balancing life requirements, and regards learning as a continual necessity, although we may characterize the commitment that the lifelong learner makes as being to ‘personal change’ rather than the object of study per se.
The ways students are funded
Lifelong learners may be funded in a variety of ways, although it is unusual for state support to be involved. Where employer funds are accessed, the life-long learner is very similar to the CPD learner.
The mobility of students
The lifelong learner has the restricted mobility of the part-time learner. The use of technologies to overcome this will be commonplace.
The expectations of their educational engagement
The lifelong learner is aware of their ‘learning journey’ and their expectations are tied to the extent to which a learning engagement will move them on in their learning journey. This move forwards may be tied to new employment opportunities, or possibly just to personal satisfaction.
The PLE perspective
· For the life-long learner, the coordination of past experience and present learning experience will, with existing technology, be hampered by the institutional coordination of that technology. With the PLE, the use of non-institutional services to record progress of learning episodes in the past means that these episodes remain available after the learner has moved on.
· From this perspective, then, the PLE offers a chance to coordination longitudinal engagement with many learning opportunities for the benefit of self and career opportunities.
The setting in which the students learn
The CPD learner is a variety of life-long learner, whose learning engagements are driven by the requirement to acquire new skills that directly relate to their work. The focus of professional practice is something that distinguishes the CPD learner from other types of learner. The context of the study of the CPD learner may either be in an institution, or in the workplace, or be conducted through online resources.
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
The CPD learner seeks to acquire new skills relating to their employment, usually at the same time as continuing to practice in that field of employment. This dual aspect means that the CPD learner will have many opportunities to ‘try out’ new ideas and techniques within their study as they go along. The reflection on the efficacy of these experiments will form an important part of an effective learning process for the CPD learner.
The ways students are funded
CPD learners will generally be funded by employers, although some may be self-financing.
The mobility of students
CPD learners may study in different ways, and employers may make allowances in their time to enable learners to attend classes, or to conduct self-study at home. However, CPD learner are far less mobile than full-time students.
The expectations of their educational engagement.
The expectations of CPD learners is that they will gain useful skills which will help them perform their jobs better.
The PLE perspective
· Technology mediates the professional day-to-day activity of the CPD learner as it does the actual learning engagements of the learner. The need to integrate day-to-day practice with learning engagement, together with the possible desire to reflect on experiences means that the PLE can offer the CPD learner a platform where all these different aspects can be coordinated.
The setting in which the students learn
Technologically able student may fall into any of the above categories. Yet the technologically able student is equipped with skills to make the most of the technology that is available to them in the cause of their learning.
The balance that each student strikes between their learning and their lives
The balance the technologically able student must make is the balance between the use of technology and the effective fulfillment of tasks. Often the technologically able student themselves ‘seduced’ by a particular innovative technological approach to performing a task (say, an assignment) only to find it inadequate, and that a simpler method would have sufficed.
Having said this, many of the coordination problems faced by other learners may be more effectively met by the technologically able learner.
Also, the technologically able learner will be more open to other learning opportunities on the web than their non-technologically able peers, and these learners will have the skills to coordinate these other learning opportunities.
The ways students are funded
Technologically able students may fall into any category of student list above.
The mobility of students
The technologically able student will prefer technological solutions over the practicalities of being present at lectures. They may well find themselves frustrated by a lack of opportunities to access learning material in electronic ways.
The expectations of their educational engagement.
Technologically able students share the hopes of other types of student with regard to what the PLE can do for them.
The PLE perspective
· The greatest danger facing the technologically able learner is the danger of being seduced by technology at the expense of deep learning engagement.
· The PLE, whilst it is itself technological, seeks to afford the coordination of all aspects of life, whilst at the same time simplifying the act of using and accessing technology.
· The ‘seduction’ is often a process involving the requirement to learn complex instrumentation to perform what are sometimes relatively simple tasks.
· The PLE, through the simplification of technology, will make such seduction less likely, and also ensure that other aspects of life are also brought to the fore so that not to coordinate all these aspects will become increasingly difficult.
The PLE is not directly concerned with teaching and learning: its prime function is the learner-driven coordination of technology. Yet, through this the PLE has an organizational impact both on the learner and on educational institutions. On the institution in particular, that impact is likely to be dramatic, involving the institutional divestment of technology. In order to understand the implications for pedagogy, we have to understand the nature of the relationship between institutional organization and pedagogical practice.
Pedagogical practice within institutions situates itself around the organization infrastructure that teaching and learning take place in. For example, in schools, the ‘class’ determines the nature of a lot of pedagogical involvement, from the use of blackboards, to a clearly delineated timetable and a somewhat ‘regimented’ approach to delivering content. Such regimentation serves to manage the ‘class’ in an effective way, and the institution is capable of managing classes and the timetable, and the resources that classes need.
With e-learning in general, a radically different organizing principle is suggested, which relies less on synchronous co-present communication and relies more on flexible individual access. This creates pedagogical opportunities for teachers to communicate with students in different ways. Yet barriers remain to the use of this technology, as we have already highlighted in this report.
The PLE affords the opening-up of new channels of coordination between life and learning. These particular channels of coordination, which have been the object of study for the e-portfolio community in recent years, have in the PLE been set free from their institution-bound cage. This amounts to a freedom of action for teachers who may start to break free from the restrictions of subject boundaries and seek to encourage activities in their students which draw on a far richer coordination of life experience than has to this point been possible.
Whatever ‘pedagogy’ means (and opinion is divided), it ultimately involves acts on the part of teachers, with reciprocal acts on the part of learners. The effectiveness of those teaching acts depends on the freedom that the teachers have to act in ways that they think best. If constrained by classroom, or curriculum, teachers can only operate in a relatively restricted domain (compare it, for example, with the freer domain that a parent operates in). If restrictions can be removed, the domain of ‘effective teaching actions’ becomes enriched. As to what those ‘effective teaching actions’ might be, we cannot possibly say at this stage - but they are likely to be quite different from those teaching acts associated with the classroom.
However, the other aspect of action with regard to learning is the body of actions which are associated with learning and are performed by the learners themselves. The PLE offers a way of characterizing these acts which are not bound by institutionally determined boundaries of ‘the course’ or ‘the subject’. Instead, in prioritizing personal organization and coordination of technology, we can see the acts of learners in a much broader context in the light of their everyday lives. Looked at in this way, we can discriminate between two fundamentally different sorts of organizational activity:
Within (2), we can see conventional learning activities as being something which are undertaken by the learner to uphold a commitment to the institution, or to a teacher, or to a course. More importantly however, the maintenance of those commitments entails organizational skill in presenting work of an acceptable standard, which will itself rest on the effectiveness of the personal organization achieved in (1). Furthermore, the achievement of effective personal organization in (1) will depend on the successful maintenance of personal commitments entailed by (2).
It is in exploring the deepest implications of the
inter-relationships of learner actions, and the nature of the relationship
between personal organization and the maintenance of personal commitment that
we turn to in the final section of this report. However, having established a
broad overview of the discourse that surrounds the PLE, we can now turn to a
more grounded and methodical explication of its features with a view to
constructing a reference model which characterizes it.
This section of the report identifies the components of the PLE through an examination of current user behaviour. In a pattern analysis, drawing on the work of Alexander, we identify a network of 77 patterns relating to current user behaviour, and through the identification of common services behind these patterns, we specify the necessary service layer of the PLE sufficient to satisfy all identified patterns. These services are described in detail at the end of the section, along with the service bindings (where they exist) that are associated with them. We argue that this methodological approach is useful within the remit of establishing current user behaviour, although we begin with a short discussion situating ‘pattern analysis’ within the context of other methodological approaches.
The themes identified can be characterized as informal narratives. They follow chains of possible consequences within a loosely-defined vision of practice. As such, whilst they are interesting, they are hardly reliable sources of data. Because of this, we seek extra dimensions to our enquiry. The most fundamental one is naturally an examination of current practice with technology.
This activity has been performed independently of thematic discourse and seeks to emerge categories of essential patterns implicit in the use of technology. As a methodological approach, the emerging of patterns through observation of phenomena is a common technique in social science research having its roots in phenomenology, and with methods like Glaser and Strauss’s Grounded Theory as a popular technique in educational research. However, unlike pure phenomenology, where the observer’s prior knowledge is bracketed-out, our approach has been to capture as much of the authentic situated experience of technology users. In this there is a fundamentally ethnographic dimension to the work we have conducted. This construction of patterns of behaviour out of the reports of individual experience therefore is resolutely pragmatic: its purpose is to establish with greater clarity than we can do through looking at discursive themes, the nature of individual experience with the emerging tools and technologies which are associated with the Personal Learning Environment.
To this end, Alexander’s pattern methodology presents a useful technique to approach the construction of categories of patterns of behaviour, as well as presenting a ready-made formula for presenting the data and organizing it effectively through technologies (much recent pattern work has made extensive use of wikis). For the purpose that we require of it here, this pragmatic use of pattern methodology outweighs any potential and well-recognised philosophical problems that a deeper engagement with Alexander’s approach might bring. Given this, however, key issues must be addressed. First of all, if we are to establish such common patterns, how do we define the domain we observe? Secondly, in the establishment of emerged categories and mechanisms, how can we ensure that the categories are in a form that is useful to a general understanding of technology?
In answer to the first question, the domain we have chosen to observe relates to the technologies surrounding the concept of Web2.0. These technologies are of direct relevance to the PLE, and therefore an understanding of their use is crucial to being able to define the functionality of the PLE. In answer to the second question, the purpose of the pattern analysis is a pragmatic structured elucidation of patterns of behaviour, from which we can establish some core criteria for the functionality of the PLE. We recognize the need to ground this work in a deeper philosophical context, and this we do in a later section of this report.
The essence of our use of Alexander’s method is to compartmentalize the experience of tool usage into a series of ‘problem situations’ to which technologies present a solution. To this end, for each situation we identify:
Within the pattern language, this descriptive schema is recursively used to identify nested problem situations to which solutions in actual practice are found. Given sufficiently rich descriptive schema for problems, new solutions which organise the satisfaction of patterns effectively may be generated.
In line with the need to select a series of Web2.0 tools for the study of current technological practice, a series of tools have been chosen. These include:
For example, an instant messaging tool is a solution to a particular problem of communication. That problem might be characterised as a ‘private conversation’. Within this categorisation of the problem, obviously an instant messaging tool is not the only tool that could suffice: e-mail too would fit the pattern. However, the particular pattern of instant messaging might be characterised as ‘require instant feedback’. But in addition to this, the pattern ‘identify online presence’ is also a pattern whose solution might be typified through the use of instant messaging. In this way, we can begin to uncover the essential problematic structure that underpins the technologies of web2.0 that we have surveyed.
The 77 patterns that have been uncovered relate to all activities pertaining to the use of Web2.0 technologies. In line with the methodology, our task in defining the reference model is to ensure that these patterns of behaviour (themselves in response to problems) can be satisfactorily met with the new design of a personal learning environment. In some cases, this simply means that the functionality of existing tools must be met in the new design.
The patterns are organised into a set of categories:
Context involves the general setting-up (and destruction) of relationships – either between a tutor and a student, or a student and other students in a learning relationship. This may take the form of technologies to establish online presence, for example. Patterns within the Context Pattern group include:
Mechanisms for maintaining conversations in learning, including support for moderation and collaboration.
Conversation patterns include:
A network pattern involves the mechanics of communication between an end-user tool and a service. Within this category of activities we consider the general manifestations of uploading and downloading of data, an activity we distinguish as conduit services and feed services. A number of emerging protocols (like ATOM) address this issue.
Network patterns include:
Resource patterns concern the actual content of the data that is transferred and its categorisation into particular forms, and the services which relate to its acquisition, like search. Into this area, we might find concepts like ‘smart folders’ which can be programmed by users to display content dependent on search criteria.
These patterns relate to the management of personal profiles together with the management of other social contacts and contexts.
We make a distinction between the management of individuals (in the above category) and the management of groups which may be formed from the sharing of practices. Here services allow for (for example) invitation to groups, and distributed communication.
This group of patterns relate to the management of personal time through calendaring services, alarms, etc.
The organisation of the sequenced activities, which may include technologies to support the management of commitments made by both student and teacher (eg. conversation for action), but which may also include specialised pedagogical sequences as we might find expressed in a Learning Design.
The nature of the activities which people undertake when learning. Some of these activities have been identified by the recent LADIE project (Conole et al, 2005). Others might include services to facilitate the shared exploration of resources (‘reading together’), or common views on documents (‘shared display’).
There was a strong sense of overlap with other reference models at many points in the pattern language, and so the areas of assessment and learning activities were deliberately not elaborated.
In order to meet the requirement of the above patterns, the personal learning environment needs to provide the essence of functionality provided by the patterns. To ensure the consistency of our approach to the understanding of current user practice, we must ensure that the patterns identified may be satisfied through the intervention of the personal learning environment. However, the patterns we observed reflected the usage of particular tools. The personal learning environment, however, will afford the functionality of these tools through the provision of services. It is therefore necessary to identify the services which pertain to the tools that underlie the patterns and to deploy these within the context of the personal learning environment.
There are some important issues which relate directly to the task of mapping the patterns identified within the pattern language to the service descriptions. Most significant amongst these is the fact that within the tools observed through the pattern language there is considerable redundancy of functionality. This means that a one-to-many mapping exists between a particular service and a number of tools.
As a result of this one-to-many mapping, we need to identify those distinct services contained in the various tools that we have used and then show how a distinct mapping of services to tools can then be reflected back to a relationship between those services and the original pattern language.
As a result of analysis of services provided by tools, we have identified 8 key services which embody the behaviour of the tools studied. They are:
Activity management provides coordination between disparate resources and people and relating these resources and people to particular learning activities and events. Activity management services form part of the provision to fulfil the requirements of the Context pattern. The other essential element to this pattern is…
Those learning activities and events are coordinated by a workflow service through which the sequencing of events is coordinated. Through the workflow services commitments can be established, monitored and maintained in a similar way as is currently afforded by the VLE.
The primary mechanism of learning content delivery is through syndication and posting services which fulfil the requirements of the Resource Brokering patterns. It is through these services that content may be accessed directly (through the subscription to feeds, etc), or indirectly (through the interaction with Activity Management and Workflow services in the course of a learning engagement). Syndication and Posting service play an important role both in publishing (ie. To wikis, blogs, etc) and in resource management.
Group services afford the management of people and social networks. This functionality plays a central role in the coordination of learning activities, the sharing of resources, collaborative working, etc.
Rating, annotation and recommendation services perform a central role within the Resource Management patterns. All of these services can feed back into the mechanism to manage resources and feed them to other participants.
Services relating to presence are contained in the Comm Tool Provider which also provides facilities for chat. Through these services, the patterns relating to the use of Instant Messaging services may be satisfied.
The PLE facilitates working across the boundaries of conventional communities of practice. With each of the different communities a learner engages with, the learner will present themselves in a different way. It is through the action of the profile broker that different personas may be managed, and the cross-community relationships of those profiles may be established. In a sense, the action of this body of services may be likened to the current activity of using two VLE systems in different institutions.
The exploration and trails service fulfils the patterns relating to opportunity exploration. Within these patterns the activity currently associated with search engines, and general browsing for information are subsumed into a body of services which integrate with social services, profiling, rating and annotation, etc.
This diagram represents the patterns identified in the pattern language, and within each pattern the services are shown. As can be seen, some services are duplicated amongst different patterns (for example, syndication is shared between resource brokering and publishing)
We have described the PLE as being able to exploit services within the information environment. However, the means by which these services are used and coordinated has not yet been mentioned. Services themselves are invisible to the user. It is through a particular instrument that users can make use of them. This instrument we call the ‘Personal Learning Toolkit’ (PLT), and in essence it is the PLT which is the physical ‘application’ manifestation of the PLE from the user’s perspective.
In the diagram connections are made between a ‘Personal Learning Toolkit’ and the services it affords access to by furnishing the PLT with the relevant URLs of the services accessed. Once set up, these services can be accessed from the main personal learning toolkit in a seemless way through the protocols indicated way: the user only needs to deal with the instrumentation provided by the toolkit.
The <<bind>> settings indicate the mechanisms of exchange between services. For example, the <<bind>> relationship between a blog and a bookmarking service (like del.icio.us) will carry the URL of the blog to the bookmarking service as an input parameter so that the blog may be added to the bookmark. Similar relationships exist between other services other aspects of inter-service operation.
Here a resource management view (such as a tree or table view) has actions attached to it that invoke services, to collect resources from a Publisher via a Syndication Feed, to share a resource to a Publisher via a Post Conduit, and to rate a resource at a Resource Broker via a Rate Conduit.
Another deployment scenario involves a group of applications working together to fulfill the "Personal Learning Application" role:
In this scenario, some services are accessed via their HTML GUI rather than via web services, otherwise the deployment is almost identical. A variation on this model would be to provide a web application that intermediates to remove the need to access the HTML GUI of individual services.
Having described a pattern language of Web2.0 usage, and specified the service layers that support those patterns, we are now in a position to articulate in a detailed manner the composition of the services which comprise the service environment of the PLE.
For each service listed below we give a brief description of the service itself and the interface standards upon which the service is based.
An activity management service coordinates activity amongst a group of people. In particular, the service allows an agent to publish activities, join activities others have created, and to contribute and access resources for activities.
The diagram shows the Activity service in the middle. As is indicated its operation is closely related to that of the Workflow service. The specific job of the activity service is to coordinate the relationship between people, activities and resources.
The actions which pertain to those activities will change the state of an activity. This change of state is processed by the workflow service.
This service description is referenced by a wide range of patterns in the reference model, including the Bell, Invitation and Team Exit patterns for managing team membership, and the Context, Context Feed and Context Conduit patterns for context management.
The activity management/workflow services effectively break up the functionality of many existing workflow solutions which all attempt both to manage people and manage the state change of activities. In splitting this up, we argue that we avoid an element of redundancy of functionality and provide greater flexibility in the possible deployment of activity services unrelated to workflow (or indeed state change services unrelated to activity).
A workflow service coordinates the state of a resource, such as a learning activity, processing events from participants and returning state information. In short, a workflow service provides remote access to a state model. This model is initialized using a workflow process definition, using a workflow description language such as BPEL, XPDL, or IMS Learning Design.
In the context of the PLE reference model, workflow services may typically only be interacted with indirectly by an agent through an Activity Management Service. In terms of interactions with workflows, the only real requirement of a client is to get the current state, and to send events, which are only of two types:
Do a named action; for example "complete" or "reject"
Set a value; for example, "answer=3", "viewed=true"
We argue that the implementation of this sort of state change service is far simpler than the full implementation of a typical workflow solution involving the elements of activity management as well.
This implies that there are two interfaces for workflow - one for interaction with a running process, and one for process management - and that an agent may support just the interaction API, or it may support both. However, in general it would be most likely that the Activity Management Service would act as an intermediary for both these sets of functions, presented a simplified API.
In terms of specifications, a number have been proposed, including SWAP, ASAP, as well as BPEL and XPDL. These are often too heavyweight for a typical light client, so the Activity Management Service may well expose something simpler.
Within the PLE reference model, the discovery and contextualization of resources may be needed, and accomplished by referencing one or more instances of a Syndication Service from within an Activity obtained from an Activity Management Service. For example, a learning activity may have feeds for news, forums, events and so on.
The e-Learning Framework needs to address the somewhat confusing picture currently presented, and make it clear what services a provider should offer. We recommend Syndicate be adopted for web collections, and Harvest be adopted for other collection types, and Resource List be deprecated.
In the PLE context, a Syndication Service may be used in two different ways:
In the first case, the Syndication Service is accessed by an agent directly, by aggregating the feed from a target conversation (see the list above), and by setting up a conduit to post new entries using a related Posting Service. This model is appropriate for using the Distributed Conversation pattern.
In the second case, the Syndication Service is accessed indirectly, as the collection is an Attached Conversation belonging to a learning activity. In this case, the agent uses the Activity Management Service to post entries and obtain feeds.
This latter case can be implemented in two ways, too. In the first method, the Activity Management Service additionally performs the function of a Syndication Service and a Posting Service. This may be the preferred approach if the intention is to implement a Conversation For Action pattern, which uses entries as the basis of workflow events needed by a Workflow Service. In the second method, the Activity Management Service instead refers the agent to the Syndication Service and Posting Service, simply by providing the location of the services in the activity metadata.
The prototype uses the syndication approach exclusively, and this seems to be the main mechanism for sharing resources using web technologies, and is simple to implement.
Submit, edit and retract entries to a collection. There is more discussion of this service within the PLE context under Syndication Service.
The e-Learning Framework should provide a Post service definition for this capability, and deprecate Forum.
The prototype implements conduits for a range of posting services; the Atom Publishing Protocol is implemented, as is the API for del.icio.us.
A Group Service is a service that provides information about membership of a group. This information is typically quite limited, as it doesn't encompass the resource and potential workflow aspects of the group as provided by an Activity Management Service. However, this is the type of service typically provided by a Student Records System for course membership information.
Group Service is defined in the e-learning framework. IMS Enterprise is the recommended specification to use.
In one possible configuration, an Activity Management Service uses a Group Service as the means of obtaining a participant list to provide to the requesting agent.
In the PLE prototype, we implemented a Group Service client functionality using IMS Enterprise. However, we expect that mostly agents will use an Activity Management Service rather than read groups directly from a student records system using Group Service.
A Rating Service enables ratings of resources to be shared. While it is common for resource-management applications to enable the rating of resources through the use of a Star Rating pattern, there is no common mechanism for propagating and aggregating user ratings to provide collaborative filtering support.
The Rating Service may simply be a clearing-house of ratings, as in an agent simply posts an assertion along the lines of:
ratings (value 5)
This could be represented using the PICS rating specification. PICS should be considered a candidate specification for this service.
The service aggregates these ratings and then supports requests along the lines of:
The service responds with the collection of rating statements for the resource indicated with the resource-uri. This could use the PICS information model
In this scenario the Rating Service is acting as a "ratings bureau" as described in PICS. This very generic service also has notable similarities with the marking process for student work, where a marker asserts a point on a scale for a student's piece of work (e.g. B- on a letter scale, or 62% on a percentage scale, and so on.)
Alternatively, the provider of a Syndication Service could also offer a corresponding Rating Service, whereby the same POST above will result in the aggregated rating information appearing in the feed provided by the Syndication Service.
Instead of working with ratings, users can also work with recommendations through a Recommending Service or provide annotations through an Annotation Service. Annotations, while similar to ratings, are broader in scope, and require introspection of the resource, as they tend to be applied to regions or points within resources rather than to the label handle alone. They also have a wider range of possible structures. See Annotation Service for more details.
Again, in an educational context, typically a teacher will provide both a mark (rating) and also comments (annotation) and suggestions for improvement. We did not implement shared ratings within the prototype, however local rating of resources was supported.
Annotations are useful within an educational context where a teacher or peer reviewer may want to indicate or to propose a correction to a problematic word, paragraph or figure within a piece of work, or to highlight areas for further elaboration.
Sharing annotations can be envisaged as being implemented in a similar manner as a Rating Service, and so the e-learning framework defines a single Rating/Annotation Service that combines the capabilities of ratings and annotations.
However, there are some differences. Firstly, an annotation may be attached to a specific part of the resource - potentially linked at the tag level within HTML or XML resources, whereas a rating tends to be attached simply to the handle of the object (i.e. its URL). Second, annotations may also take a number of forms, including links, images, and rollover text, and unlike ratings, their contents are unlikely to be restricted to values on a predefined scale such as a letter grade or a percentage.
For these reasons it would be more useful to split the e-Learning Framework definition into three complementary services: Rate, Annotate, and Recommend.
Instead of working with a Rating Service, users can also work with recommendations, which are another form of output from a service that manages ratings.
An example of this would be the Taste recommendation system, which implements a simple API for requesting recommended resources for a user, or for similar items to a specified item, in the form:
howMany (the number of recommendations to return)
This returns a set of Items up to the number specified by howMany that are good matches based on the preferences of the user
However, the architecture of Taste assumes that the recommender system has a history of activity with the user as a basis on which to make recommendations. The mechanism by which user profiles and ratings of resources (called a Preference in Taste's implementation - the Person's strength of Preference for an Item) are added to the recommender model is not expressed as a machine API, so a service mechanism would need to be developed for this.
A useful service, especially when augmented into a Context Service, for indicating the availability of collaborators.
Personal Profile Service
The e-Learning Framework provides several services related to identity:
The requirement within a PLE is for an agent to be able to publish one or more "personas" - self-assertions of personal attributes - that may be used for various purposes, including arranging collaboration and forming social networks, and self-identifying for the purposes of low-stakes registration. This falls within several of the service areas above.
Person is defined in terms of the organisational view of a person, and so its appropriate to keep a personal profile distinct. Authentication describes an interface onto the process of validating an identity assertion, and so is not directly relevant. This leaves ePortfolio and User Preferences. ePortfolio is defined primarily in terms of management of user-created artifacts, while User Preferences is defined in terms of accessibility and usability preferences. There seems to be no space directly relevant to self-identification (and self-promotion for that matter).
For these reasons we propose this service. Its implementation should be FOAF, using existing protocols such as HTTP to publish (POST) and retrieve (GET) a profile. It may be integrated into an Authentication process via SXIP, Liberty, Shibboleth, MidM, Identity Commons, LID, InfoCard, or whatever seems sensible.
The Exploration service is implied by the Match Maker pattern, which is concerned with learners wanting to discover new learning opportunities based on a match for their current profile, consisting of their goals, interests, and prior activities.
This matching is a form of search, but is specific to the discovery of opportunities, and is therefore related to the Curriculum service.
This service is implied by the Trail Finder pattern, which describes how a learner might want to identify a weighted set of paths leading from their current situation to new opportunities based on the experiences of others.
For example, a learner completing an activity may want to know which follow-on activities were completed by previous learners who went on to successfully graduate.
A Trails service is used to record activity choices made by learners in the form of a graph weighted by final outcome, and provides an API to enable selections from this graph to be made based on the current position of the learner.
In some ways this resembles the combination of rating and recommender services.
Given the identification of Patterns, and the establishment of the principle of service oriented archictecture as the core ingredient within the PLE, we can construct a model of a general Personal Learning Environment as a combination of an environment of services and a ‘Personal Learning Toolkit’ (PLT) for accessing them.
This model is useful in many ways. Firstly, it provides a ‘lens’ through which to view and situate current and emerging technology. Secondly, it can provide a guide for the design or evolution of new or existing technologies to a PLE-compliant perspective. Thirdly, it can provide a focus for discourse on the PLE in establishing common deeply grounded categories for discussion. In presenting the basic model, we consider its use in these three areas.
The basic architectural representation of a Personal Learning Environment is shown in Fig 1.
This diagram shows the constituents of the Personal Learning Environment Reference Model. From this aspect, three primary elements are distinguishable and which help define the identity of a PLE. They are:
These represent the body of services identified through patterns. Complete service descriptions can be found in Section 2.
Personal Learning Toolkit
The toolkit represents the instruments presented to the user which are designed to allow the user to create further instrumentation in the course of accessing services.
The relationships show the possible linkages between services and the toolkit, and between services and each other.
The personal learning environment is the whole picture of services and toolkit. In a personal learning environment, many users utilize their own toolkits for managing an environment of services. The relationships employ protocols of communication embodied in the Feeds and Conduits patterns from section 2.
The PLE reference model proposes a learning environment of interoperable services which may be accessed and organised through a variety of toolkits, where both tools and services may be selected by the learner without prejudice. To facilitate this, there are technical conditions to be met in terms of standards for interoperability and the eventual total separation of services from instruments.
In our review of current and emerging technologies, clearly some technologies are more PLE-compliant than others. In addition, some technologies serve as ‘supporting services’ within a PLE (like delicious, 43things), whilst others attempt to provide a PLE-like ‘organisational environment’ (eg. Chandler).
LMOS and ELGG are two technological initiatives which are closely associated with the aspirations of the model. In the design and implementation of both these projects, the issue of ‘personal control’ is central. As the LMOS ‘mission statement’ puts it:
To deal with this, LMOS advocates a network of interoperable services which can be accessed flexibly by the learner – clearly a sentiment close to the PLE model. A similar position is articulated by the Boddington III PLE project (Table 1, 14). ELGG presents itself as an online organisation tool for reflective practice and social networking. However, it achieves this through providing mechanisms of interoperation with existing services (for example social networking through FOAF). Again, this is in line with the basic architecture of the model.
Some technologies remain more aloof to the principals of the reference model, although subscribing to a service-driven paradigm. Into this category we may see such developments as Google ig, Yahoo 360! and their Widget Engine (previously Konfabulator), OpenLazlo and Chandler. These technologies offer facilities for social networking, and organisation and integration of e-mail and RSS, but the emphasis is on an integrated environment with some open and some ‘closed’ services which are tied up with the user interface. In some cases (OpenLazlo, Konfabulator) the possibilities for inter-service integration are limited to the simple facility to display them together. Here the model provides an indication of a PLE migration strategy. This strategy would involve the opening-up of closed standards, the incorporation of the facility to use a variety of protocols, and the exposure of the user’s organisation data for other (competing) toolkits to use.
For those technologies which are most removed from the reference model (for example, EyeOS – and to a large extent the conventional institutional LMS) the model also provides a migration strategy. The critique of these technologies is that the boundary between service and instrument is insufficiently marked, meaning that the performance of particular activities entails the use of particular tools. The solution is to expose organisational data to other organising tools, to facilitate the integration of services within the tool with those from other tools, etc. Perhaps most importantly from the point of view of institutional migration to a PLE is the opening-up of content services from existing institutional VLEs.
The process of building the PLE reference model has been a process which has had a software development component within it. The building of prototypes within the project was considered an important stage in verifying the principles of the model itself, as well as exploring the practical issues relating to a real-life implementation of a PLE. This software development has in itself been a proof of the use of the model as a guide for design. Furthermore, in the sense that two prototypes have been built, it reflects the nature of the flexibility of the model in allowing for differences of interpretation.
The PLE reference model specifies a discrete set of functionality which is to be met by the provision of services to which a toolkit may provide access. These services have been specified through an analysis of patterns with existing technologies.
Our approach to the design of our prototypes has been to use a combination of pattern analysis, technology choices based on an understanding of current trends, as well as our understanding of what a PLE should be.
The PLE prototype needs to exist in an ecology of services and applications that is extremely heterogeneous, and we could not rely on creating our own network effect through hyper-adoption of the prototype software, or of being able to create and deploy the complete range of web services ourselves. Instead, we needed to ensure that the PLE prototype could leverage existing services and existing applications wherever possible.
Many of the services which the PLE access already exist within the emerging set of technologies collectively termed "web 2.0" (O’Reilly, 2005) Amongst these services, the core technologies adopted includes RSS, Atom, del.icio.us, and FOAF. These technologies satisfy many of the needs of the network patterns (feeds, conduits) and some of the social patterns (social bookmarking).
There are two fundamental ways in which these technologies could be integrated into a toolkit framework: web-based framework and a rich-client. We have developed examples of both of these, using Eclipse Rich Client platform and LifeRay respectively. An emerging array of other technologies which might have the potential for addressing the toolkit issues include NetVibes, Konfabulator, etc.
The pattern language, in addition to helping to define the basic services the PLE should support, also helps to define three basic areas of activity relating to the use of a PLE. Firstly, there are those activities which relate to the organisation and discovery of learning content. Secondly, there are those activities which relate to the organisation and discovery of social networks. Finally, there are those activities which serve to maintain commitments and relationships with other agencies.
These different categorisations of activity are represented within our prototypes as three "perspectives": Resources, People, and Activities. Around these perspectives we can organise the ways in which our PLE implementations meet the services and pattern specifications of the model.
The general patterns of Resource Group and Smart Group we considered to be the best ones for enabling a flexible management of resources, rather than the more concrete Folder and Filter Rule combination. Therefore, the prototype uses this pattern set for organising resources, supplemented with Star Rating, Unread Count and Attention Flag to facilitate sorting and filtering using a Sortable Column View. We implemented Shared Bookmark using the Resource Conduit pattern, so that users can share resources with others in a flexible fashion using existing shared bookmarking services ([del.icio.us] and [simpy]) and also weblog services using Atom (e.g. Blogger, LiveJournal).
To facilitate users getting started using the prototype, we implemented an OPML? import capability (Source Feed) and also a default set of feeds (Channel Guide).
The People aspect of the prototype deals with the management of groups of contacts (using the Buddy List pattern), but also the discovery of people using FOAF. An import feature enables the user to discover friends-of-friends to expand their social network. The People management aspect also implements the Graphical Avatar pattern to assist recognition and navigation.
As well as organising people into groups defined by the user (for example, as "friends" or "family"), we also implemented a Feed for obtaining groups of people that used the IMS Enterprise Web Services? specification, which is concerned with the supply of student information to e-learning applications.
The Activities aspect builds upon the management of resources and activities, and implements a Context pattern with a Team List (participants) and a set of resources (implementing both Recommended Resource and Shared Bookmark). Activities can be subscribed to and refreshed using a Context Feed from an Activity Management Service, and published using a Context Conduit.
As there are currently no good candidate implementations for an Activity Management Service we implemented feeds and conduits using RDF, based on the FOAF and Dublin Core vocabularies, as described in Wilson (2005).
Connecting together the resources and people within the context we used the Distributed Conversation pattern, primarily as there was no identifiable mechanism for providing an Attached Conversation without requiring all participants to be using the same PLE application. Hopefully the work on the Atom API and format will eventually enable this capability.
We also identified patterns for implementing workflows, however, there was insufficient time in the prototype development to properly investigate and implement this aspect of activities.
Our contention in section 1 was that whilst the PLE is an emerging theme in the discourse, disagreement still rages about its precise characteristics. One of the purposes of the reference model is to create clear categories and characteristics for what is (and what is not) a PLE. In this sense, we would argue that a system which did not map onto the basic architectural plan of the reference model would not be compatible with the PLE conception.
An operating system, we contend, such an instance of a mis-mapping, and can not be, therefore, a PLE. An operating system (as we characterised it as an ‘environmental system’) is a system which gives access to tools which are (usually) of an intertwined service/instrument variety. Therefore, the mapping of the characteristics of the operating system do not map on to the clear division in the PLE reference model between toolkits and services. The operating system, whilst having some of the characteristics of a toolkit, does not provide direct access to services: it provides direct access to tools, which mediate access to services through their instrumentation. This means that the ‘hub of interoperability’ model of the PLE (and personal systems in general) cannot map onto a model with the operating system as the ‘hub’.
This clarity is useful, since it also sheds light on other controversial areas of current thinking about systems, accessibility and usability. To this end, we offer the following explanatory critique for the current emergence and the position of the operating system. The operating system serves to remove a barrier to the effective use of tools. This barrier is the barrier of ‘accessibility’. From within a single environment, access is afforded to a variety of tools, and these tools can be concentrated and organized within a single interface. To see the impact of this barrier removal, we might imagine, for example, that the conventional tools of the ‘desktop’ are arranged higgledy-piggledy in a somewhat chaotic office. The use of a particular tool entails a disposition to locate it, and moreover, have a grasp of each object’s history in terms of where it was last placed. The complexity of managing search strategies, and histories, is defeating for the best of users. The operating system, by co-locating tools within a framework where simple dispositions can access a wide range of tools, solves this problem.
The development of graphical interfaces simplified the management of dispositions, not just with the finding of resources, but also with the use of tools when they were discovered. The extension of accessibility to the web browser, and the ensuing simplicity in management and dissemination of tools has however bred the conditions for the barrier which we address with the PLE. For, once we can create a common environment to give easy access to tools, so the range of those tools increases. With this increase, comes the increasing need to manage dispositions – as we discusses in the theoretical part of the report. At the same time, however, the dramatic increase in tools also raises more fundamental questions about what tools (and particularly e-tools) actually do. As with all tools, their purpose may not be easily defined: whilst specifically designed for one task, they hold the possibility of being put to use in many different ways. It is here that Heidegger’s characterization of tools reordering a ‘standing reserve’ is most useful, for whatever purpose the tool is applied, and whatever the results of its usage are, we can agree that something within the world has changed – usually in such a way that aspects of the world present to us new possibilities for action.
The fundamental question then becomes one about the flexibility of control the user has over these re-orderings of the world. With the conventional e-tools provided by the operating system, a sequence of re-orderings is structured in such a way that the user can only do certain things with them. In usability terms, this restriction on the ways that a user might use a tool is conceived to be inherent in the principles of ‘good design’. To say that it guides the user into ‘correct action’ means that it guides the user into ‘expected action’, which surrounding systems can be programmed to deal with. The essence of the PLE characterization is however that ‘correct action’ is an aspect of centralized control, which is increasingly unsustainable within the sphere of emerging personal technology. The PLE charges the learner to find their own telos in their use of tools, not to have it dictated by a particular pre-programmed structure.
But here, of course, lies a key objection to such freedom: some learners may simply not be able to take advantage of this freedom. Some mechanism for controlling learners, and indeed guiding them through ‘correct action’ is necessary. On this point, we agree, but argue that it is not an argument for the design of computer systems. It is an argument for mechanisms to maintain a relationship through control and monitoring. Such mechanisms we have argued for in the form of workflow and activity management subsystems within the PLE. Indeed, the interface between workflow-driven services and the PLE would be very much like the interface between a user and a rich learning tool. But the workflow/PLE solution has advantages in the rationalization of its components, and the affordance of much greater flexibility for both teacher and learner.
Within e-learning many concepts have become ‘referentially detached’ from the contexts within which they arose, and many such concepts have at the very least ‘fuzzy’ boundaries, or even downright contradictions between them (one might think of the distinctions to be made between ‘learning activities’, ‘resources’ and ‘tools’). We argue that the PLE presents an opportunity to re-examine many of these concepts within a more unified and coherent structure.
The empirical validity of the model rests on the extent to which the phenomena it predicts resonate with the picture of emerging technological usage and learning. Clearly, this is something which cannot be established with any certainty at such an early stage in the project. However, at the point when such judgements can be made (possibly through using the model to generate and test hypotheses), the ‘reasonableness’ of the predictions of the model with observed technological behaviour will be judged. At this early stage, we argue that an appeal to ‘reasonableness’ may be made through an exploration of the hypothetical implications of the model through the construction of use-case scenarios, and in using the model to situate current technology. The extent to which these studies reflect a reasonable, attainable picture of user behaviour and technological transformation is a useful initial indicator of the robustness of the model.
When examining current technologies, the PLE ‘lens’ affords us two key actions. On the one hand, it allows us to critique current technologies, situating them in terms of what might be characterised as their ‘PLE compliance’. Secondly, it generates a ‘migration path’ to move a current technology from a position of partial PLE-ness to full compliance. These strategies, affecting both existing ‘PLE-like’ technological initiatives and current LMS technology can also be assessed for their ‘reasonableness’ as attainable scenarios.
A scenario is a hypothetical narrative which draws on a conceptual framework in an effort to explicate that framework with a more ‘fleshed-out’ example. The reasonableness of such a scenario may be a useful indicator of the validity of the originating conceptual framework.
This process may be seen as the reverse of the embodying of narrative themes within the reference model, in that it then uses the reference model to generate new narratives.
Any learning event (period of study) is essentially an instance of a contract between a learner and an institution. It occurs in an environment (or environments) and is dependent on a variety of attributes, preferences and constraints introduced both by the learner and institution.
The situating of current technologies and the construction of ‘migration strategies’ are two aspects of the reference model where hypothetical work can reveal an indication of the model’s robustness. A further aspect of this ‘hypothetical testing’ involves the creation of learner use-case scenarios. Here we can show how the construction of a use-case scenario can relate to the actual embodiment of the model created in the PLEX PLE toolkit as part of the CETIS reference model project. This toolkit embodies many of the principles of the model, allowing for the coordination and integration of a wide range of services.
Bearing the theoretical capabilities as represented by the model of a PLE in mind, we consider three hypothetical learners. These learners reflect some of the characteristics of the learner characterizations set out in section 1. They differ with regard to the situating of their learning activity within the context of their daily lives, the levels of commitment they show towards their learning, their mobility and their expectations. The three scenarios we present are:
Each of these scenarios effectively presents a model of how commitments which span many communities of practice are maintained through effective action supported by the PLE technology. The case studies differ in the range of the communities of practice engaged by a particular learner, and the overall level of commitment to each of the communities of practice that each learner has.
Liam is a ‘traditional leaner’, equipped with his own laptop computer, who makes the most of Web2.0 services (for e-mail, instant messaging, web-storage, bookmarking, portfolio, etc) coordinated via his PLE. This allows him to integrate all aspects of daily communication including calendaring, RSS aggregation as well as interacting with external services for bookmarking (e.g. ‘delicious’). As a student at University his course information, including resources, assignments, tutor feedback, etc is made available to him via services provided by the institution which interoperate with his PLE. In addition, he has access to further services which support reflective activity and provide a repository for interesting items. Many of these services are provided outside the institution. All of these elements can be integrated and organised in whichever Liam finds useful. Finally, his environment allows him to set up collaborative social groups, and to coordinate activity within these groups with other groups to which he is a member.
Within Liam’s daily practice, we find him:
To perform all of these activities, Liam has had to master the effective utilisation of his Personal Learning Environment. This was initially a bit tricky, but having got the hang of it, he finds that with a relatively small set of skills (for hooking up with new services, for organising data as he wishes, for creating a few effective ‘smart searches’) his learning environment allows him to negotiate and coordinate a large range of different activity. He is mindful of the fact that the performance of such a range of tasks without his PLE would present considerable obstacles for him – not least in simply remembering how to use all the different tools he would have to negotiate. In fact, Liam might go so far to say that his PLE is very much his ‘tool for dealing with life’.
Liam’s hypothetical example provides a useful starting point to examine the experience of using the PLEX Personal Learning Environment. As an embodiment of the principals of the reference model we find that much of the practice listed in Liam’s case-study is possible within PLEX. Liam’s experiences (albeit hypothetical) can be judged against the real experience of using this software. Whilst a deep examination of this user experience is still some way off, we can at this stage comment on the fact that the rich integration of many different areas of practice, together with the circumventing of the numerous ‘instrumental barriers’ are all things which are afforded by the PLEX. Further evaluation of these experiences and their relationship to learning activity will strengthen our grasp on the nature of the relationship between actualized ‘personal learning’ and the reference model
Victoria is a second year student at University studying hotel and tourism management. Due to lack of provision of a particular module she is interested in with regard to her future career development, Victoria finds herself enrolled and studying at two institutions simultaneously. The institutional systems both operate a VLE, but the content is made available in many ways: Victoria can either log-in to the VLE through the traditional web-page, or she can point her PLE to the VLE services for each institution.
Within Victoria’s daily practice are:
Despite these being different VLE systems, they both conform to a common VLE web service standard for the delivery of content. Victoria can see the course requirements, content, assessments, students on each course within her PLE. She may submit content to each course (assignments). She organizes these different courses to suit herself best, identifying the common requirements from each course, to ensure that she does not duplicate effort. For example, each course has an e-portfolio requirement. Victoria maintains a personal portfolio and organizes how this information is represented for each of the two institutions. This is achieved from her PLE through the use of different personas. Victoria feels very aware of the need to ‘appear different’ to the different communities she deals with, and finds that the tools provided for her within the PLE facilitate this.
Victoria’s experience is fundamentally one of crossing communities of practice, and this is a common theme in the scenarios we cover. But a reasonable question might be “what drives the considerable technical acquisition of skills for use of the personal learning environment?”
A clue to the answer for this lies in the cross community work in the first place. Technology changes our environment to a point where the crossing of community barriers is becoming essential to personal living. This crossing of barriers will create technological barriers which must be broken – and can only be broken through the agency of the PLE.
Carla is a molecular biologist working as a post-doc researcher in a busy laboratory. Although much of her work is bench-based, she must both plan and interpret her work using a computer. Carla's main source of information is published research literature. Carla can keep abreast of current research by searching the e-journals held by her institution, through a search interface which she has been able to customise to reflect her research interests. Once relevant articles are identified, Carla retrieves full papers for storage in her personal repository. She also makes notes and tags them using the CiteULike service. Informally, Carla belongs to a community of life science researchers who discuss the latest research in their field and share their thoughts via blogs and discussions. By following discussions and posts in the research areas she is interested in, Carla discovers research published in Journals not held by her institution, and also hears about new and unpublished research in her field, allowing her to identify and engage with potential future collaborators. Carla maintains her own molecular biology blog where she provides a link to her CiteULike library, and posts longer entries on specific papers and research she hears about.
Part of the work undertaken by Carla's and other members of her lab involves a collaboration with a lab in Australia. Whilst time differences mean that it is difficult to work synchronously, the Internet facilitates effective asynchronous working through a shared wiki which allows the various lab members to share results and plans for further experiments. Each lab member has responsibility for the pages they maintain (documenting their experiments) whilst senior members of the lab (including Carla) coordinate the work and plan future work based on current findings. In addition, there is a communal section of the wiki in which ideas for conference proposals, journal papers, and research grants are collected. Once ideas have been collected together, a link is placed to the Writely collaborative word processor and those charged with writing the paper/proposal take over and collaborate there, updating the Wiki as necessary when drafts are produced (the RSS feed from the wiki let everyone know when new content is added and serves as a smart news service focused on the work of the lab).
Carla organises her own personal learning/research environment through a Netvibes page (http://www.netvibes.com). Netvibes allows Carla to track her Gmail email and RSS feeds (from relevant web sites). In addition, it provides quick links to her calendar (iCal), content she is writing (Writely), and frequently used bookmarks (a delicious RSS feed of specially tagged items (del.icio.us provides a 'private' tag which means that she can use this generic mechanism to organise resources that she does not want to be publicly accessible)). The use of tabs in her Netvibes start page allows Carla to separate her different interests/strands of work and to keep her own informal to-do lists and notes which are easy to maintain. Maintaining a 'personal research environment' online is essential for Carla as she rarely uses the same computer: Carla spends most of her online time in the lab where she shares use of a number of Apple Macs. At home, she owns her own PC, but uses it only occasionally for work. Because of this, Carla rarely keeps files locally at work or on her home computer, but instead uses her box.net online space to store any documents she is likely to need access to. This online storage is also easily accessed through her Netvibes page. Carla also keeps content which changes regularly on a USB drive which she carries around with her at all times.
One tab on Carla's Netvibes page is entitled 'Photography'. Away from work, Carla is a keen photographer and wishes to improve her photography skills. On her photography tab, Carla keeps a link to a number of photography related sites which she reads regularly. She also displays an RSS feed of images from her flickr contacts. Carla maintains a personal photoblog to showcase her own photography and provide a space for her to reflect on this personal goal. Carla has found like minded individuals through her membership of the personal goals community 43things.com and her participation in photography challenges through dpchallenge.com
Carla’s case-study is of a highly committed learner who crosses many communities of practice, which are nevertheless related. The level of Carla’s commitment to learning means that she recognizes the importance of tapping into all available sources of information and putting them to use in a way that is beneficial to her work and learning.: indeed, with Carla, her learning is her work. Carla adopts the same philosophy with her hobby of photography, and the integration of activities in this field Carla feels is beneficial to the overall viability of her functioning both as a molecular biologist and as a photographer. Carla’s PLE, perhaps more than for the other two case-studies, is her personal tool: she has created something which creates a meaningful structure of connections between the different communities of practice she engages with. It allows her to act effectively with each of these communities of practice, to maintain the commitments she has to her work, her overseas collaborators and her hobbies, whilst at the same time ensuring that not one of these actions, despite the different power-relations which lie behind them, is allowed to become so dominant that other commitments are compromised. Indeed, the coordination that she has created in her personal tool facilitates the job of acting in each of the communities; moreover, she finds that the inter-connections she has made within her tool reveal new possibilities for action which she would have been hitherto unaware of. Carla, therefore, feels that her PLE has in a real sense ‘liberated’ her, allowing her to cope with a complexity of engagement, and to find new opportunities which she would otherwise not be able to do.
We argue that the PLE (unlike the VLE) is not a system, and it is not possible to characterise it as such - it is an intervention within the current educational system, with implications for the broader social systems that surround it. We therefore use the tools of social cybernetics and the phenomenology of technology to present a model of how the current education system operates with regard to the issues of managing technologies in all their forms (from learning technology to management systems). Within this model, we situate the PLE intervention and we show the transformations that ensue, drawing comparisons with the broader thematic themes set out in chapter 1.
To characterise the PLE as an intervention relies on the fact that we can define what it is we are intervening in, and that we can state with some precision the nature of the mechanisms that are set in motion through the introduction of the PLE. Unlike other institutional learning systems (for example, the VLE) the PLE, whilst it may meet an institutional need, is not bounded by the institution: it is fundamentally extra-institutional. The PLE situates itself around the ‘learner’ and its emphasis is on the learner acting as the coordinator of their own technology for both interaction with institutional systems, and other systems which relate to the learner’s life. The efficacy of the PLE rests on it being an ‘effective systemic intervention’ rather than an architected whole-system solution. It is in the characterisation of the PLE as intervention in a system which already exists that has necessitated a radical approach in characterising its operation: the challenge is to describe that ‘existing system’ in a consistent way, and to situate the PLE intervention within it. It is for this reason that we have sought a cybernetic and philosophical representation of social ontology.
If we re-examine the critique of current learning technology, then some basic questions present themselves:
1. The barriers to lifelong learning
Can we be more precise about the specific nature of these ‘barriers’ rather than simply saying that ‘the need to know many systems is a problem’. Is it? How? Indeed, what of the view that technologies often present more ‘barriers’ than they attempt to solve?
2. The barriers to life-wide learning
We might similarly consider the assumption of the need of learners to integrate many different practices with their learning activity. Again, we talk of the institution-centric system as not facilitating this. But at what point does such an integration have to be technological? Why cannot a coordination of different areas of practice simply be coordinated by the learner in many different ways – not all of them from the computer?
3. To what extent is the teacher-centredness of current learning technology a problem?
Does it really make any difference as to whether the teacher or the learner is in control of the technology? If so, what is the nature of this difference?
4. How does technology relate to the ‘labour of learning’ and what are the differences between a PLE approach to any other?
If (as many hold) technologies are essentially about labour-saving, what is the labour that is saved through the use of learning technology? To what extent is the labour of learning necessary, or to what extent do the technologies of learning contribute to a certain ‘shallowness’ in the learner experience? This strand of questioning concerns the nature of the relationship between learners and the tools which they use for their learning.
In dealing with the issues that are raised by these questions, we will build towards a systemic description of our current educational system and its relationship with technology. Within this model, we will situate the PLE intervention. But the building of this systemic description entails a process of specific definition of things which pertain directly to our model. These definitions are the ‘categories’ of the PLE, and the exposure of these categories reveals the inter-relationships between these four key areas of concern.
Let us begin with the issue of the barrier of the system. Any new system makes demands upon us. We are confronted by, in the first instance, a new set of instruments. Indeed, this user experience is common to any experience of a new tool or gadget. It is a curious feature of software systems (particularly within institutions) that this user experience with software is often talked of as being an experience of ‘the system’, whereas an experience with some new gadget will rarely be categorised as a ‘system’ but rather as ‘a tool’. We might say that whatever the system we are talking about, the user experience is, in the first instance, of tools.
The experience with tools and the separation between service and instrument
However the most immediate aspect of this experience is the physical presence of tools which allow the user the ability to perform tasks. This physical aspect is apparent to the user before the user knows what the tool might do. Upon engaging with the instruments, the user must reconfigure particular biological dispositions such that their physical movements coincide with the demands of the instruments (with software, these physical movements may be slight, but the demand remains the same).
Upon engaging with instruments, the user may perceive through some change within the environment they are working the effect of the tool. Clearly, if the tool is a spade, and engagement with the instruments entailed the physical act of digging, then the change in the ground is immediately apparent. Effects with software tools are not always so apparent, although one might involve some sort of re-ordering of data, or changes in the location of data through transmission, or some sort of storage, etc. This we might characterise as the service of the tool. Therefore we can say that two aspects of the tool are its instrumentation and its service and this gives us the first categorisation against which the PLE intervention can be shown to make a difference.
Many tools present complexity both in terms of instrumentation and services. A tool user must both be master of the appropriate biological disposition to use each tool, and have knowledge of the services that are performed by that tool. Each new tool represents what might be compared to a new ‘grammatical rule’ to learn; a new set of biological dispositions. Therefore a multiplicity of tools represents an increase in complexity on the user. This complexity must be managed by the user in some way, but the more tools a user has to manage the more difficult the management of this complexity becomes. However, with service oriented architecture, the instrument and the service become separable.
Service Oriented Architecture and the realisation of the separation between instrument and service
With conventional tools, the service and the instrument are inseparable. To use a spade, for example, is to have no choice over the particular instrumentation that is presented to the user, although of course the manner in which the instrumentation is deployed, or even the purpose to which the spade is put is for the user to decide. However, should the spade not present instrumentation which is convenient to the purpose which is intended by the user (the shovel is too small, or it is too heavy), then an alternative spade may be chosen. However, this alternative spade offers its own service as a complex mechanism linking its own individual physical properties and its relationship with the user. A light spade (for example) offers a different service (in Gibsonian terms, the word ‘affordance’ is appropriate here).
To see this more clearly, we can consider an example of where the same service may be accessed in different ways. With Service Oriented Architecture, a search service may be accessed through a number of different instrumental presentations. This means the user has choice over the instrumentation they use (like choosing another spade), but the service they access through that instrumentation is the same (unlike using ‘another spade’). In essence, the affordance of the service is unaffected by the manner in which it is accessed. As a further example, we might consider a ‘mechanical spade’ as being attached to a computer which responds to XML messages to perform its operations. Those operations are determined by the messages that can be passed to it, but these messages may be sent in many different ways, using different sorts of instruments. From the perspective of the spade, it makes no difference as to where the messages come from: the service is the same.
The PLE exploits the separability of the service from the instrumentation afforded by Service Oriented Architecture. In recognition of the fact that the need to maintain and use a wide variety of different instruments creates complexity, the PLE seeks to reduce the instrumental complexity on the user, by allowing a simplified range of instruments to access a wide range of services. Therefore, from the need to manage a large amount of complexity in terms of the biological dispositions to use instruments, the user may manage a much smaller set of biological dispositions which give access to an increased range of services.
To deal with the second question of ‘why does a life-wide coordination of practices and learning have to be technological?’ we now need to look at the changing role that technology plays in the working and learning lives of people. The key to this argument is in the increasing ubiquity of technology in daily practice. The fact that it is increasingly rare to find an area of practice which does not at some level involve the use of computer technology is an indication of the computer’s pervasive effect on human life.
This ubiquity situates computer-related technological dispositions and mediated actions at the root of most activities of modern life. The significance of this fact becomes more apparent when we consider the conditions for the essential viability of any organizational enterprise. It is not unreasonable to argue, as Beer does (1975) that the primary condition for viability is the effective coordination of components. Whether those components are the components of the body (heart, lungs, digestive system, etc), or whether they are the components of an educational institution (students, teachers, courses, etc) an effective coordination entails a management of those components such that each one is itself viable, but at the same time, its condition does not threaten any other component within the system. For viability in this sense can be threatened by the failure of any single component. In education, if teachers go on strike, the institution cannot function; if the accounts department fails to keep a control on the budget, then the business will go under; if a learner fails to get enough sleep or feed themselves, they are destined to fail in their learning too.
This view on the coordination of components is enlightening when we consider that the actions that any one of those components must perform to maintain their own viability, together with the actions that must be performed by the coordinators of those components themselves is increasingly mediated by the same computer-based technology. This means that at all levels, the effective management of that technology is a fundamental pre-requisite to a viable organization. It is against this backdrop that the PLE situates itself. The ubiquity of computer technology in all aspects of human activity entails a reprioritization of personal organization, where technological organization plays a central role. We can illustrate this by looking at an example of an educational institution.
The institution as a coordination of components
Any institution or business – and certainly an educational institution – may be characterised as a coordination of different components. These components are the various communities of practice that are involved in the day-to-day running of the institution. Within the educational institution, for example, we might identify some of there components as:</p>
This coordination of components may be characterized through the graphical device of Beer’s Viable System Model, which has been previously used in the context of the VLE (Liber and Brittain, 2004)
The effective management of an educational institution will require that all the components of the system are kept in check. If, for example, the management of students is ineffective, the students may leave (dissatisfied), and this will threaten the funding regime and esteem of the institution. If the management of teachers is ineffective, teachers may become disillusioned and this disillusionment threatens overall viability through its effects on students and compliance with other institutional regulations.
The coordination of components and the ubiquity of computer technology
Technology is increasingly an essential component of institutional viability (just as it is for most modern organisations). Technological systems are required for the effective coordination of finance systems, students (through student records), funding (through the production of auditing and reporting data to higher authorities), timetable (through the coordination of teaching resources to student demand and available teaching resources). The collapse of technology within any of these domains will threaten the viability of the coordination of the elements that the technology is applied to.
The ubiquity of computer technology in all aspects of modern human life means that the coordination of components must be considered against the background first of an effective technological coordination. And here, we see that technological infrastructure has grown up organically within the different communities of practice within the institution. The result is that in many educational institutions, interoperability between systems, and the elimination of redundancy of data and functionality has been something of an afterthought. Recent efforts to address this through the establishment of XML-based interoperability standards like the IMS Enterprise specification testify both to the very real need for interoperability and to the serious challenges involved.
The essence of the problem of technological diversity is that for each community of practice arising within the educational enterprise, a new technology is often introduced. One recent example of this is the rising profile of the e-learning community within the institution, and the emergence of the Learning Management System (LMS). From its beginnings in small-scale, course-centred initiatives, e-learning has grown to be seen as a key part of the enterprise activity of the institution. With the rise of the institutional VLE, and increasingly e-portfolio systems, e-learning is contributing a new element of complexity to the technological fabric of the institution.
If it is possible to talk of a ‘user experience’ of engagement with an educational institution, we would talk of the presence of a number of communities of practice, each with their own technological practice. A key element to the engagement with each of these communities of practice is the use of particular instrumentation on the computer screen. An effective coordination of these components entails an effective coordination of their technologies, and (naturally) an effective coordination of cultural practices. However, the technological aspect of this coordination can be seen from two distinct aspects: on the one hand, there are the data services that the technologies perform; on the other, there are the instruments which are used to control those services. Both the control of instrumentation and the effective management of services have their own complexities, and one possibility for simplifying technological complexities is to deal with these issues separately
The teacher-centredness of learning technology and the current trend for the institution to control technology from the centre are challenged by the ubiquity of technology. Teacher coordination of learners has been the traditional model of education, and perhaps it is no surprise that the VLE sought to build itself around this coordination. Therefore, we find within the technology many facilities and new functionality for teachers to monitor student participation, submit work, etc and yet few facilities for the learner.
To understand why learner-centred technology is necessary, we need to revisit the institutional model of the university shown above, and expand to introduce the VSM diagram of the learner experience.
The Learner Experience of the institution
With the ‘learner’ the distinction between instrument and service becomes a more important consideration. The learner, like the institution, is characterised as coordinating components. These components, however, are all the components of the learner’s life, not just those that relate to their learning. Again, at a rough guess, we might identify:
· Personal relationships
· Financial relationships
· Work commitments
· Learning commitments
· Learning relationships
· Transport arrangements
With the learner, as with the institution, failure of any one of these components threatens the viability of the whole system. In this sense we might see this as an explanatory framework for viewing learner failure within an institution in response to unrelated circumstances that affect the learner’s ability to perform.
With the learner, as with the institution, the ubiquity of technology means that for most of the components of the learner there is a technological aspect – whether telephone, email, blogs, calendaring, etc. Each of these technologies has both an instrumental and a service aspect. The learner must manage the complexities of multiple instruments and understand the nature and purpose of different services. In this respect, engagement with educational institutions may actually significantly increase the technological burden on the learner. For not only have they to manage the ‘technologies of everyday life’ (learning how to use different instrument, understanding different services), but also a raft of technologies which relate to the institution. For learners who move from one institution to another in their educational lives, or (increasingly) those who find themselves dealing with two or more institutions simultaneously, this complexity is further increased.
Institutions manage the technologies pertaining to the various communities of practice existing within them. Within this coordination of technologies, both the services provided and the instrumentation must be coordinated. The lack of separation between services and instrument means that often duplicate functionality exists between different technologies. This produces further problems for interoperability. This central control also creates:
· A large overhead in the administration, support and upkeep of technological systems
· A consequent steady stream of new technologies and the problems of integration, interoperability, etc.
· A continual training need to teach staff how to use new systems
· A continual programme of rolling-out new hardware
· A continual need to monitor appropriate usage from legal requirements, and the consequent investment in technologies to counter threats from inappropriate access
This institutional overhead reflects on a learner experience of the systems of the institution which is also in a state of constant change. The learner’s perspective, as a coordination of technical dispositions, must:
· Coordinate access to the various systems provided to them
· Update their training needs to use new systems
· Coordinate the integration of different technological initiatives (for example, e-Portfolio)
· (Increasingly) coordinate multi-institutional educational engagements, with a coordination of the above elements with different instrumental presentations in different institutional contexts.
But in addition to these ever-changing system requirements put upon the learner from the institution, the learner must also:
Adapt to the changing technological environment to accommodate new technologies of:
· Instant messaging
· Coordination of social email and learning email
· Coordination with other aspects of the needs of the learner relating to everyday life
· Coordination of other social technologies (mobile phone, etc) with institutional technologies.
The most significant aspect of this perspective is that a scaling-up in the amount of technology that learners engage with outside the institution will have a knock-on effect on the range of technologies provided by the institution, and an ever-increasing demand to manage complexity. The demands of complexity are also made on the institution forcing it to manage ever-increasing variety with ever-lessening impact. Fundamentally, therefore, the personalisation of learning is systemically necessary both for the learner and for the viability of the institution. And with the model that we have so far uncovered, we can begin to describe the effect of the PLE intervention.
The PLE intervention
The PLE intervention situates technology with the learner, not with the institution. It is the learner who should be responsible for coordinating all the different technologies they have to deal with for their learning. But how is this coordination to be achieved, and does the learner not already coordinate the technologies they are surrounded by?
In the last 10 years, considerable steps have been taken to eliminate barriers of accessibility to computer systems by making them available through a web-browser. However, each of these systems stills entails the learning of particular instruments for their coordination. This instrumental engagement begins with the requirement to remember/coordinate a host of different web addresses, or ways of navigating to particular facilities. Once found, a particular system will present further barriers in terms of the need to know how to negotiate the instruments provided on the web browser, the memory of passwords, etc.
The learner’s coordination of instrumental dispositions
For the PLE, the question of the learner’s coordination of technology becomes one of the learner’s ownership and control of the instrumental aspect of technology. This is achieved through the emerging phenomenon of ‘web services’, whereby the functionality of a particular system may be exposed independently of any particular instrument. The upshot of the web service development is that any particular functionality may be accessed in a variety of ways. The PLE characterises this as the separation between instrument and service. With this separation, the learner may create their own instruments to access whichever services they wish. This self-driven instrument creation lies at the heart of the PLE intervention.
With learner-driven instrument-creation, the need to manage many different dispositions to access many different instruments disappears. Now a single body of ‘technique’ for the creation of tools will suffice to enable the learner to access a wide range of different services.
The advantage of this learner-driven coordination is that the learner can now operate in their technological universe to manage all the aspects of their lives which have a technological aspect. The dispositions they use to control their access to learning technology can be applied to their control of technologies for other social activities, or for learning in other institutions, etc. In short, a single disposition to create tools which access services may provide a mechanism for a holistic coordination of all the aspects of practical life.
The transformation of the institution through the divestment of technology
But a learner-driven coordination may raise questions regarding the role of the institution. Its role in this setup is also transformed. From once coordinating all technologies and their instruments, the institution must become a service provider, providing services to the student who will consume them in their own technological coordination. Those services, for the learner, will co-exist with all the other services the learner produces instrumentation for and coordinates.
The key upshot of this, however, is the fact that the transformation of the institution from instrumentation/service provider to the pure service provider leads to significant reorganisation of the institutional technology provision. The services provided by the institution which are tied to its instrumentation must be closely examined, for many of these functional services duplicate services which are available to the learner outside the institution. For example, email services are readily available to everybody, as is data storage and facilities for web-page hosting. Why should the institution provide these, particularly when it is the learner who is responsible for managing their own technology? Therefore, the principle objective of the reorganisation of the institution is the divestment of technology. Those services which are core to the institution’s functioning (educational services for students, services for the access to key resources, facilities, staff, etc) are maintained, whilst those which are effectively redundant, are dropped.
Within the social ontology model, the result of this is to reduce the complexity at the institutional level. This reduction in complexity has knock-on effects, in that it reduces the drive for constant re-engagement with technological infrastructure, and starts to address the discursive drivers for institutional change.
Having considered the question of the learner’s control over the technology, we must now pursue the difficult questions of the learner’s experience with technology and in particular whether a change in technology amounts to a change in the ‘labour of learning’, and what the nature of this change is. Whatever the systemic benefits for the educational institution, or the technological benefits for learners trying to access learning content, there are real educational issues that relate to the nature of learning, and the relationship learning has with technology. A deep consideration of these issues will necessitate in due course a re-evaluation of the VSM characterisation we have just drawn up.
The characterisation of the ‘student as worker’ makes it clear that it is the student who does the work of learning. This work of learning is an activity the student undertakes within the technological environment they find themselves. In a pre-computer setting, it would involve reading books, writing essays, attending lectures, equipping themselves with skills to use particular instruments, and acquiring the skills, practices and discourse of the particular domain within which they engage their learning.
The post e-learning setting means that many of these activities of learning now reside within the general environment of the computer. Through this single medium, reading material, lecture material, writing tools, and sometimes even simulation environments for the practice of skills can be found. The dispositions necessary for the work of learning – once a disparate and unconnected range of activities – has become reliant on a single ‘access technology’.
The Environmental System vs. the ‘Personal System’
The concept of a single ‘environment’ which gives access to tools is one of the most significant aspects of the computer. With mobile technology and advances in the world-wide web, the reaches of this technology stretch further into the domain of everyday life. Where once there may have been significant physical barriers to coordinating a set of practices (barriers which necessitated that the effective coordination of the practices associated with ‘study’ entailed the total immersion within an ‘academic community’ for a period of time), we are at least able to overcome many of those physical barriers through the use of the computer (and in particular the web browser).
But the increased efficiency with which access can be afforded to tools in this new environment, together with the emerging expectation that such access can be provided, has been responsible for introducing new barriers of complexity - particularly the barrier of instrumentation. Service oriented architecture provides an opportunity to address this ‘barrier of instrumentation’ by separating off the service from the instruments. Furthermore, we can contrast the indiscriminate access to ‘tools’ of the environmental system with the discrete access to services afforded by a personal system.
But we have an opportunity for looking further still. It may well be that part of the critique of current e-learning had within it an element of the ‘barrier of instrumentation’ (and certainly the usability movement has attached itself very much to this issue) – and we can now say with some certainty that we have deeper understanding of this instrumental barrier and what we might do about it. But we should now also look at the nature of the ‘services’ that are provided in the cause of a student’s ‘work of learning’.
The Nature of Services as ‘Reordering’ and the concept of the ‘Standing Reserve’
The nature of a service provided by a learning tool can be seen in the same way as the nature of the service provided by any other sort of tool. Whilst we might talk of a chat tool ‘affording chat’ or of a chair ‘affording sitting’, these characterisations are too specifically enframed by the social settings within which they tend to be used – effectively mistaking the material properties of a tool with its telos. A chair, in a different setting, may be an effective weapon, or a chat tool a mechanism for file transfer. Therefore, we need a way of talking about the ‘service’ that a tool provides in a way which encompasses any possible usage to which it might be put, but which maintains the essential aspect of tool usage which is of a user engaging with an instrument for some purpose.
It is here that Heidegger’s phenomenology of tools is perhaps most useful. Most relevant here is the characterisation Heidegger gives of the use of tools in effecting a ‘reordering of a standing reserve’. So what is this ‘standing reserve’? It is the world revealed as potential for exploitation through tool usage. For Heidegger, an engagement with a tool reveals a world for that tool to act upon – this is the standing reserve. It is the nature of this standing reserve which often drives the creation of new tools, for exploiting it in different ways – a process which may reveal new ‘standing reserves’.
Therefore, when we use a web search tool, we effect a reordering of the standing reserve of web resources which is useful to us. Through the knowledge we gain from such a search, we find new ‘mining districts’ within the body of discourse and resources on the web. This process is one of the fluctuations between concealing and revealing. As we engage in our learning, we reveal opportunities for action – perhaps new learning opportunities or even job opportunities. Indeed, the idea of education for employability entails a process of revealing of the possibilities for exploiting job opportunities. But with this revealing goes a concealing of the world. Our drive to learn French (for example) derives from our perception of a ‘French’ which (we might suppose) conceals something from us which would be useful/pleasurable to us and which if only we could equip ourselves with the necessary skills could be revealed to us. The learning domain, in this sense, is in Heidegger’s language ‘present at hand’, with us aspiring to make it ‘ready to hand’. But what happens when, as we embark on our learning, we get stuck – hit by apparently insurmountable barriers. Our whole way of thinking up to that point which had been driven towards the quest, is challenged. The ways forward that we had set for ourselves become void. We are left having to reassess our position, the viability of the challenge, the purpose and cost of our quest. This is a moment all learners recognise. It is a moment of breakdown, and from it we may ‘make or break’ with regard to our learning: we may fundamentally reassess our approach and make adjustments but maintain our commitment to the challenge; or we may decide that the challenge is not worth the cost and we give up and try something different.
The learning process and tool usage characterised as a fluctuation between ‘breakdown’ and ‘falling’
Such moments of ‘breakdown’ are fundamental to Heidegger’s thinking about human existence, and it is a notion which acquired particular focus with regard to his thinking about tools. The experience of tool usage is one, where once a disposition to use a particular tool is acquired, the use of the tool becomes assimilated into the practice of daily life (a process very similar to the assimilation mechanism described by Piaget in human learning). We see the world through the eyes of ‘tool users’, and the world that we see is not necessarily the world ‘as it is’, but rather the world as standing reserve, as it appears to users of tools. For example, car drivers when at the wheel see a world of roads, motorway junctions, signposts, other traffic and instructions. When engaged in driving, this world fills the stream of their experience: routines are established, life is reorganised around the tools. So what happens when the tool suddenly stops working?
It is at this moment of breakdown that we are shaken out of our tool-enframed vision of the world. Without the tool, we are faced with an alien world (still with roads and signposts, but with no tool to exploit them). We are forced to re-confront reality, to reconsider our actions in the light of a world that we had forgotten: for this moment of breakdown is actually the moment when the real world reveals itself to us.
This example is of course one of many which we could draw on where technologies we rely on, which we build our lives around, cease to operate. In the world of e-learning, we could talk about the nature of our relationship with the internet. What happens when the broadband goes down, or the system is off-line? Again these moments of breakdown are also moments of revealing. What is particularly useful for our purposes is Heidegger’s naming of these distinct aspects of human experience. Apart from ‘breakdown’ (which is self explanatory), he names as ‘falling’ the experience of unthinking usage of tools which gives no thought to their artifice. Breakdown is an interruption to falling; breakdown reveals the world concealed by falling.
But we have now described an experience of ‘learning french’ and an experience of ‘driving a car’ using precisely the same sort of language: a balance between revealing and concealing; periods of falling interrupted by breakdown. Therefore, it is logical to enquire after the nature of the relationship between ‘usage’ and ‘learning’.
Breakdown and the maintenance of commitments in the learning process and tool usage
In the learning example, we argued that at the ‘make or break’ moment of reappraisal, the learner may choose to change their approach to their learning but maintain their commitment. This maintenance of commitment within the VSM characterisation of the learner’s coordination amounts to the will of learner to reorganise the coordination of aspects of their activity such that the essential goal of ‘learning french’ is upheld. The alternative is to break the commitment to learning French altogether. In the example of the broken-down car, again a similar ‘make-or-break’ moment arrives: do we ditch the car and all other cars and travel by public transport; do we call in a mechanic; do we buy a new car; do we decide that we don’t want to travel anywhere, anyway? Here there are is a nested network of commitments between ourselves and the car, between ourselves and the reasons why we need a car. At a moment of breakdown, any of these commitments may be broken in a large scale reorganisation of priorities.
The importance of these moments in human life cannot be understated. Winograd and Flores, for example, highlight the fact that language appears to spring from moments of breakdown, and that the reason why Eskimos have so many words for snow is because phenomena related to snow feature in so many breakdowns in the daily life of an Eskimo. But for e-learning, the acknowledgement of the importance of breakdown is particularly significant.
Deep and shallow learning, fallen-ness and breakdown
If we return to some of the initial critiques of e-learning, and in particular focus on the nature of ‘shallow learning’, we see some of the steps taken to deepen the learner’s engagement – in particular the increasing drive to encourage learners to ‘reflect’. But a demand to reflect, to articulate an honest assessment of their own abilities, is an attempt to break down the students ‘fallen’ flow of experience with their learning. Indeed, the instinct of teachers has always been to do this. Why, for example, do we try to set exam questions that in obliquely referencing the material the student was taught, seek to determine if the students’ understanding was sufficiently deep that they are able to answer the question correctly? More importantly, why do we worry when so much examination particularly at GCSE seems to require little more than regurgitation of facts?
The ‘oblique’ exam question aims to break down the student. It aims to reveal a world they might not have been familiar with. But if the necessary and appropriate restructuring has taken place with the student’s learning, they will be equipped with the necessary tools to re-establish an effective engagement with this world, maintaining a commitment to what they have studied – and their very ability to do this will be an indication of what they have learned.
Personal coordination of technology and learning processes
But where does this leave the PLE? Well, the PLE is not directly concerned with learning. It is concerned with the management of technology – in particular the management of instrumentation to access services. Some of those services, however, will be educational: workflows, for example, guiding a learner in a step-by-step manner through a particular topic, or an informal group of resources and a discussion group related to a topic. But given this mode of operation, what is the manner in which learning takes place?
We might begin to answer this by suggesting the ways, bearing in mind previous arguments, that the learner cannot learn effectively within the emerging technological environment. The learner cannot learn through immersion in a single community of practice because the pressures of technology and real life will increasingly make this sort of single-minded focus impossible: ultimately, the learner will no longer be able to achieve an effective coordination. Neither can the learner learn through a tightly teacher-coordinated electronic medium because this will increasingly add to the emerging technological complexity that the learner will be faced with in other aspects of their life.
Therefore, we are left with the option that the only way the learner may negotiate their learning in a diverse technological environment is if they coordinate it themselves. This does not mean that strong teacher-driven coordination is not possible, but it needs to be enabled in a way which does not preclude the other technological coordinations that the learner must make. Through workflow services in particular, this strong teacher-coordinated engagement can be achieved. The learner can maintain their commitment with such an engagement and at the same time coordinate it with the other aspects of their learning.
Learner-driven coordination of technology and pedagogical possibilities
More significantly from an educational point of view, the fact that coordination with other aspects of life is a distinct possibility, the pedagogical actions of a teacher engaged in such a process can become more flexible: seeking ways to challenge learners which were not available before in the ‘course mentality’ of ‘fallen’ learning engagements. Now teachers can seek to create breakdowns for their learners, encouraging them to step outside the domain of their direct learning, and to apply the skills they have acquired in new domains, with new communities, etc. At its most radical, such a position would seek to establish a harmony between skills learnt in a particular curriculum area, and the embodiment of those skills in an approach to the overall technological coordinations of the PLE.
Bearing in mind the coordinations that are effected in a learning engagement with the PLE and the pedagogical possibilities which are entailed by this, we can now consider the nature of the learner’s engagement with different communities of practice, and the implications of having a single skillset and toolkit for engaging in all these different communities of practice.
The fragmentation of the learner
With conventional education, the learner that is on the course is only part of the whole person. It is the part of the person, or a fragment of the person, which is coordinated by the whole to engage in the learning. With our cybernetic characterisation of the learner, we have identified that the whole learner is a coordination of components. A threat to the viability of any of those components is a threat to any other. Thus we often see examples of ‘learner failure’ whose causes are unconnected with the actual learning process itself, and we have used this phenomenon as an argument for greater coordination. At this point, however, we wish to enquire more deeply about the nature of the relationship between these components: between the ‘component that is on an institutional course’ and the ‘component that is trying to balance the finances’ and to understand better how these components relate to each other, and how each component may contribute to the overall environment within which the learner, the institution and the teacher sits.
The management of ‘persona’ and its relationship to the learner’s ‘identity’
The learner, in engaging with many different communities appears to be a ‘different person’ to each of the communities they engage with. These ‘personas’ are another aspect which must be managed by the learner, and they are managed increasingly through the agency of technology. Flores, for example, talks of the ‘institution of identity’ and the fact that the management of identity in a online world where people are constantly reinventing themselves is now of fundamental importance. With access to an ever-increasing array of communities of practice, the learner must have equal access to ways of managing the way they appear to those different communities. But more importantly, the maintenance of one persona in one community of practice will affect another persona in another community of practice, or the learning of a new skill in one area, or the acquisition of a new idea, will have effects elsewhere.
This ongoing process of community engagement, and the knock-on effects of new skills, learning and community engagement requires us to enrich the cybernetic model we have so far elucidated and add to it those dimensions which are out of the immediate control of any institution or teacher, but which contribute to the environment within which institutionalised education resides.
An enriched VSM model of educational processes
We have thus far described two levels of a social ontology surrounding education: the institution and the learner. In both cases, we have used the VSM model and characterised the coordination of components, arguing that this coordination has a technological aspect, the intervention with which can have more general benefits in the wider management situation. In order to articulate the nature of the PLE intervention and to gain as effective as possible an understanding of its possible effects, a few more details need to be considered with regard to the nature of the relationship between the individual viable systems of ‘educational institution’ or ‘learner’ and the environment within which they exist. In other words, we aim to ensure that the model can reproduce patterns of authentic social mechanisms, for without these the predictions of the PLE intervention with the model will be compromised. To this end, we have sought to produce a model which embodies Bhaskar’s principle of the ‘Transformational Model of Social Activity’ (TMSA). TMSA articulates a mechanism whereby social structures are reproduced and transformed through the action of social agents. From our perspective with the PLE, those actions are mediated through technology.
Therefore a mechanism is required within the VSM whereby the actions of components who are managed reproduces and transforms the structures within which they exist. This we achieve through articulating more clearly the nature of the relationship between the ‘environment’ and the component in Figure 3.
In this diagram, we consider the ‘standard’ VSM model (in dark type) of the teacher-student relationship, whereby components of the learner are managed. However, these ‘learner components’ are only part of the ‘person’ of the learner: they are those parts of the learner which directly relate to fulfilling the resource bargain set up by the teacher. At the same time, however, those components (which the teacher sees) may also be part of other viable systems related to other communities of practice outside the domain of the teacher’s management (in light type). The maintenance of components by the teacher results in action by the learner which also impacts on those other communities of practice. Thus through learning action, ideas are changed which in turn affect other activities: one may begin to characterise a network of dialectical processes which spin-off as a result of learner engagement. These external social processes will ultimately contribute to an environment to which the teacher, institution and other agencies will eventually have to respond. It is through this mechanism that we can talk of the reproduction of social structures (through the participation in existing viable systems and the establishment of particular ways of organisation as ‘effective’ within the wider discourse), but we can also talk of transformation through the dialectical processes that emerge unwittingly in response to learner engagement.
This gives us an enriched view of the coordinations of the learner within the personal learning environment. Not only do they manage their dispositions towards the use of instruments, creating their own instrumentation, but the instruments they create and the services they use help them to define themselves as personas within the various communities they engage. Each community makes demands in terms of the discourse and the practices that are used to engage with them. It is in these different discourses and practices that the essence of what a ‘persona’ is resides. A persona is a particular way of being with a particular community.
The construction and management of personas and the organization and manipulation of ‘information’
Now we can consider the relationship between the various personas, the various ‘ways of being’ of the learner with the ‘whole person’ of the learner, or rather the learner’s true ‘identity’. In order to ‘be’ with a particular community, the learner must learn the appropriate ways of behaving. These ways of being are deduced by the learner by observing the behaviour of members of a community. What they identify through this process is certain ‘information’: certain ‘patterns of exchanges’ which occur between members of that group. The learner therefore has to mimic these ‘patterns of exchanges’ by translating aspects of their own identity into the informational patterns which are accepted by the communities they engage with.
This translation process is one of re-organisation. For the learner possesses a ‘personal coordination’ of all the different aspects that pertain to their lives: the coordinations of different communities of practice through the coordination of technology. But this coordination is necessarily personal. If the learner wishes to communicate something of themselves to another community, they must find a way of restructuring that personal organisation into a form of information which they know will be recognised.
Information, communication and organisation
It is this balance between the information that the learner presents to a community about themselves and the personal organisation which lies at the heart of their identity which is the final area for elucidation with regard to the PLE. Information is something that is perceived by an observer, and is the product of an act of organisation. For example, a CV presents information about a learner which is intended to communicate with a particular community of practice. The learner has identified the appropriate informational presentation for their CV and has mapped their own identity onto this informational presentation through an act of reorganisation or their personal organisation. An essay is also an informational presentation for a particular community of practice which is the result of a reorganisation of a personal organisation which includes the material covered in the essay.
From these examples we argue that a personal organisation as a coordination of technology is the fount of countless acts of reorganisation in different informational forms as learners engage with different communities of practice with different personas. It is instructive to contrast this with an institution-centric control of technology. Here personal organisation is only achieved through overcoming significant barriers. The failure to overcome these barriers may manifest in different ways, but one way is well known to those who complain of the shallowness of student engagement with learning. For one of the most straightforward methods to maintain a personal organisation and to maintain learning engagements is to keep personal organisation of life and learning separate. Here there is no incentive for the learning within the institution to affect other aspects of personal organisation – for it would create unmanageable complexity if it did. Instead it would appear more sensible if learning remained shallow: mimicking the informational standards of ‘what is expected’ (whilst at the same time, institutions reduce the standards of ‘what is expected’) without seriously challenging other aspects of their daily lives by the deeper implications of what they are learning. If, for this reason only, we would argue that the personal coordination of technology is a moral imperative.
The purpose of this report has been to bring some clarity to the issue of the personal learning environments in order to appreciate the potential impact of the emerging technologies that surround the concept, and for the future provision of learning technology and for the likely impact on institutional organisation. In summary of the key and distinguishing features of the PLE, we have summarised that, in order of importance:
By way of conclusion we will address these three areas in the light of the work that has been done. We need to assess the extent of the validity of our methods, and the extent to which we can draw conclusions. This should leads us to a recommendation for the steps necessary to ensure an effective deployment of personal learning environments.
The evidence for the implications of the separation of service and instrument within service oriented architecture, and its implications have been drawn from a cybernetic analysis coupled with evidence from the philosophy of technology. The elimination of redundancy of functionality is already having significant impacts in the business world, which is one the one hand, removing the need for the creation of monolithic systems which duplicate functionality, and on the other hand, leading to the creation of new systems as interconnections of existing services which present entirely new possibilities for action by users. Our argument that this separation entails a divestment of technology by the institution rests on two main factors. On the one hand, we have analysed the inherent difficulties in maintaining highly diverse but centralised computing structure which meet ever-increasing levels of user expectation against a backdrop of increasing access to highly advanced personal technology. On the other hand, we have considered the increasing failure to meet users’ needs in this way. However, whilst the PLE intervention in the context of our deep social model entails a reduction in overall complexity both for the learner and for the institution, we recognise that significant restructuring must take place for that intervention to occur.
Our argument that such an intervention remains a possibility rests on the emergence of a 'tipping point' where the costs of maintenance if technology together with its deficiency in meeting user need present a threat to overall institutional viability that such a transformation is necessitated. However, our deep model recognises that this is not the only possible outcome. Taking into account the inertia for change within both institutional structures and personal technological habits and expectations, we might see a softer and less radical transformation which is pedagogically-driven, and which seeks to harness the potential for a greater flexibility of teacher action. This would still entail the deployment of services and their personal coordination, but it may exist alongside other institutional systems which are not within the PLE fold. This would of course increase overall complexity, and the question must be asked whether it would lead to a more complete adoption of PLE technology.
This may rest on the effectiveness of those pedagogical interventions and their dissemination which would lead to wider adoption of PLE dispositions, which would entail greater expectation for PLE-compliance of other institutional services, and a gradual move away from centralised coordination of technology.
Yet centralised coordination of technology has perceived advantages from a teaching and learning perspective, in that it allows for the monitoring and maintenance of learner commitment to their learning, which in turn may lead to specific teacher interventions. The extent to which such monitoring learner commitment through a PLE (through workflow services, and liaison between centralised services) is effective, and indeed may even be shown to exceed the capabilities of existing centralised technology (through embracing a much wider range of action to be monitored) may well be an important factor in the transitioning to the PLE.
The characterisation of the barrier of complexity of new systems rests on our cybernetic separation between the complexity of managing physical dispositions and the complexity of managing what we do with tools. The PLE, we have argued, seeks to simplify the former. There are a number of issues to bear in mind here. Firstly, if this separation is correct, then there may remain a barrier, untouched by the PLE, which continues to increase with the number of tools available. This is the barrier associated with the cognitive burden to manage the 'meaning' of different services. It is fair to say that issues as 'usability' do at least try to address the problem of 'guiding users to correct action' (Norman) and thus attempt to manage the complexity of user engagement.
This issue, however, at the very least, we argue is secondary to the simple matter of the material engagement with buttons, navigation, screens, etc. It is in this domain, where the user takes ownership of the instrumentation that the PLE situates itself. What might this do to the problem of 'correct action'? But here we might say that the chacterisation of 'correct action' as following 'effective paths through a procedure' is one which entails within it an implicit inseparable instrument-service conception of a tool. For the PLE, however, the action of a service employed by a user is simply a 'reordering, storing' of a 'standing reserve': that standing reserve of learning opportunities. As to the use, purpose, or even correctness of the conduct of the action of deploying the service, this we argue is a matter of 'personal organisation', and that universal characterisations of the teleology of services is a. ontologically unsound and b. utterly impractical in such an environment.
Given this, however, the guidance to correct action may be seen as a fundamental component of the teaching engagement: particularly with students less capable of performing that coordination themselves. Within the PLE, it is here that we have argued for particular service that act to help maintain and coordinate the commitments of learners. Through workflow services, teachers can control the flow of content, attempt to manage cognitive complexity and thus scaffold the educational experience – in a similar manner to current workflow deployments in e-learning (learning design). However, it may be argued that in addition to this teachers may wish for greater monitoring powers of learner activity in order to devise effective personalised interventions. Such monitoring is apparent within current institutionalised e-portfolio systems, and the transfer of such monitoring remains a possibility within the PLE. Indeed the embrace of a wider range of services means that the monitoring capabilities of the PLE exceed those of centralised systems – presence indicators, instant messaging, and even activity monitors becoming a realistic possibility. But this teacher-driven monitoring raises significant questions about our argument for the transfer of technological control to the learner, and the efficacy of institutional divestment of technology.
The extent to which the significant re-situating of learning technology coordination by learners is a likely outcome will depend on the interaction of many social mechanisms at many levels. We have situated learning as an inseparable component of the maintenance of personal viability. In doing so, we argue that institutionalised learning was always merely a fragment of the overall learning picture – a situation acknowledged now through the agendas of life-long and life-wide learning. And yet we argue that those agendas are impeded through the institutional centralisation of technologies for learning. The PLE would therefore create an opportunity for the effective coordination of a variety of different learning engagements, whether institutional, informal or work-related. This coupled with the increasing amount of learning opportunity, couple further with the capability of learners to create their own toolsets for coordinating those learning opportunities and toolsets for the maintenance of their own personal viability may well lead to a re-balancing of education around the learning, and a de-privileging of the institution.
And yet, whilst the centralised control of instrumentation, and the divestment of services which are duplicated by services outside the institution, there is still an important argument to be made for the retaining of some control and monitoring of learner engagement so as to facilitate effective intervention on the part of teachers. Therefore a total 'divestment of control' is something of a misrepresentation of the position. Whilst we argue that the total control of the institution currently amounts to the assertion of a particular power relation which is in some cases pathological, and a barrier to effective learning, at the same time we recognise the importance of a personalised technological coordination which embraces a diversity of power relations. Indeed, this embrace of diverse power relations is fundamental to the effective functioning of the PLE, and indeed is where we believe to articulate a technological coordination of real lives, rather than what might be characterised as 'convenient system-enframed lives'.
We recognise that the demands of family and loved ones for learner action supercede the demands of educational institutions if they conflict; or the demands of employers similarly are given higher priority. At the same time, many actions that are entailed through meeting such demands contain a technological component, and if that technological component may be coordinated with other technological components of action within other power relationships, communities of practice or commitments, then this lessens the chance of any single power relationship obliterating other areas of personal commitment. Indeed, effective coordination within a technological context may in fact ease the task of managing different levels of commitment in different sorts of relationship.
The work we have completed in this project has sought to uncover a theoretical perspective on the PLE. Whilst through our methodological approach this work has grounded itself on practical reality, there remains significant scope for divergence from any ‘ideal path’ which might be gleaned from our description. The reality of the technology, and its impact as it unfolds will no doubt cause a deeper critical reading of our analysis. And yet, at the same time, this analysis itself contributes to the discursive environment from which the practical reality evolves. We hope to have achieved an effective explanatory and predictive framework for the future direction of this technology: one that will on the one hand be a beneficent intervention in the design and development of new technology; on the other hand, one that will have the power to predict (at least in the short-term) the impact of such new developments, and to explain emergent social and technological issues as they arise. If we achieve this much, then this work is indeed an aid to effective technological coordination.
However, the concept of a PLE is still new and although the work in preparing a Reference Model has sought to clarify the concepts which surround it, it is important that the core ideas contained within the model are investigated and debated with a wider community. Similarly, it is vital that the services defined in the model are tested (on a small scale) in real world situations such that their validity can be tested. By testing the ideas and services of the reference model it will be possible to refine and evolve it to better reflect the PLE space.
Future work on Personal Learning Environments should address technical, pedagogic and organisational issues. These are listed separately below, although it is important to remember that all effort should attempt to situate itself in the wider For instance, technical projects should include an educational component and consider the organisational implications of large scale adoption of any tools and services produced.
Development of Toolkits.
One of the features of the increasing emphasis of service oriented architecture is a renewed impetus for small-scale ‘amateur’ service interventions. This is a liberating field of activity that is a useful counter-balance to the professionalisation of web content and development that has been seen in recent years. The dominance of ‘stylish’ professionally produce web sites which are controlled centrally is being increasingly challenged by the emergence of the read-write web and other technologies surrounding the Web2.0 concept which are contributing to a privileging of user-owned content over ‘style’. One of the reasons for this is that with the increasing use of aggregating tools, the ‘style’ of individual websites becomes subsumed within the ‘style’ of particular aggregating tools.
But from this perspective, the issues of usability of those aggregating tools remains an important issue. The PLE Reference Model project has produced prototype PLE implementations in order to test the validity and robustness of the PLE reference model. One of these, PLEX, is a desktop implementation, written for the Eclipse platform and easily extensible through the use of Eclipse plugins. Work remains to be done on the composition and functionality of such tools, for these aspects may be crucial for an effective PLE intervention to be made.
Both PLEX and PLEX/W have adopted a bottom-up approach to the development of a front-end toolkit from a generic software platform (Eclipse). Yet, the purpose of these prototypes was illustrative, not functional. Whilst both prototypes could be extended, other platforms designed specifically for the purpose of web-service integration and coordination have also advanced significantly in recent months. Therefore, with regard to the development of toolkits, two main options present themselves.
· The extension/development of complete ‘bottom-up’ toolkits (whether rich-client or web-based) in the manner of PLEX or PLE-Web.
· The extension of existing web oriented platforms to effect PLE-like coordination within an existing context. Tools within this group include the Mozilla Firefox-based tools (particularly Flock), where a plug-in architecture allows for significant customization of functionality, or widget-based toolkits that also allow for some coordination (although this may be more restricted).
Furthermore, web-based implementations generally have online data-persistence built-in. Whilst there is no reason why rich-client solutions should not have the same, current rich client tools (including PLEX and Flock) have a persistence model which is local to the machine. Local persistence has its advantages, however, including the possibility of off-line working. However, the persistence issue may become less important with the increasing take-up of resource grouping standards like OPML, and the possibility for a user’s organization of resources, contacts, etc being exported and imported to many different sorts of tool.
Investigation of alternative access platforms (ranging from mobile devices to USB drives) is another key technical issue which would benefit from further work. A flexible persistence model would allow for interoperability between PLE-like systems on many different sorts of devices from mobile phones and PDAs to web-based operating systems. Even if access is primarily by PC, mobile phones and other devices may be used to record or playback content, whilst USB drives may hold personal resources in a repository.
In summary of the work to be done on toolkits, we would argue for a heterogeneous approach, with many platforms being explored (with a possible emphasis on the use of existing projects). At the same time, attention to issues of interoperability between toolkits, data persistence and off-line working are fundamental to the future development of the PLE.
Development of Services
The PLE situates itself as a hub of interoperability. In this report, we have considered those services which are useful to the PLE (like social bookmarking, workflow, etc) and considered the issues for integrating them. The possibilities of personalized coordination however reach far beyond services already in existence. Therefore, a considerable amount of work is required in the field of investigation into the creation of new sorts of services – some specifically for learning, others maybe not. In addition to this, the efficacious use of new and emerging services for educational purposes is an enquiry which will continue to be ongoing as pedagogical innovation and technological innovation go hand-in-hand.
Some of the services described in the reference mode have already been implemented, others exist only as service descriptions. implementing these services tests the validity of the Reference Model
· Coordination functionality of PLE systems require the development of Workflow and Activity Management services to support educational engagement.
· Development of services to support monitoring of student competency achievement would assist in aligning of the functionality of the PLE with ePortfolio and PDP tools and would permit coordination of progression .
· Development and integration of trails services to support recommending of learning opportunities would facilitate investigation of new ways in which learners can discover learning opportunities.
Investigation of Pedagogic Issues
We have argued that the PLE affords transformed opportunities for the actions of both teachers and learners. We have determined three sorts of learner action:
· those which relate to the organization of learning content
· those which relate to the organization of personal relationships
· those which relate to the performance of actions to maintain commitments whereby further access to learning content, and maintenance of social commitments is upheld.
Conventional educational technologies (and indeed, conventional education), regards all of these three activities of the learner, but offers no support to many of the issues in the life of the learner which pertain to these actions. For example, it is assumed that learners will organize their resources – but is blind to causal factors behind the school bag full of old sandwiches, torn paper and soggy homework! There is no mechanism within the current system for dealing with organizational issues beyond the domain of the subject involved.
The PLE, we have argued, does allow this, and this is an area where considerable research is required. There is an enormous body of potential enquiry here, but we might start by raising:
· The nature of the role of ‘learning activities’ in the maintenance of social relationships within a learning context, and the extent to which those learning activities are efficacious in the engendering new skills in the learner.
· The balance to be struck between informal and formal learning
· The uncovering of mechanisms which link formal learning with the praxis of daily life.
· The extent to which expanded social connectivity may be of benefit to overall personal organization, and the emergence of new skills to maintain personal commitments.
These issues in particular all reflect the new expanded ‘domain of possible actions’ which are afforded by the PLE.
Investigating the links with other e-learning domains
· The PLE addresses itself directly to the issues of life-long and life-wide learning, and addresses what it perceives to be the deficiency of the e-portfolio model in its institutional-focus by situation technology with the learner, not with the institution.
· There are fundamental differences between the PLE perspective and the portfolio perspective. The latter argues for interoperability between institutional systems, the former argues against the need for institutions to own the data at all. However, e-portfolio systems have strengths with regard to the coordination and monitoring of portfolio construction. These are important patterns of use with portfolio tools which need to be addressed by the PLE if it is to offer an effective substitute.
· Personal Repositories
· The PLE presents new challenges to IPR, persistence etc. and new research work here would be useful, involving other agencies to see how far they are prepared to evolve current practices in the areas of licensing, peer-to-peer communication, access permission, etc. Similarly, work is needed on online/offline (caching/storing) due to emerging ownership issues. Other developments could include investigation of the efficacy of interventions in the 'resources' space: for example, an examination of ‘ratings’ services, or learner progression profiling.
· Design for Learning.
· Work looking at new patterns of teaching, learning and assessment that may be facilitated/supported by PLEs is needed, and this would complement (for instance) current work being done under Design for Learning. This work would look at the emerging structures of action that are afforded by the PLE – in particular, those structures of action which relate directly to ‘learning activity’. However, within the PLE context, there is scope for expanding the definition of action in this context to look at organizational actions, and those actions which maintain commitments. Research into specialised services to manage workflow of asessments (e.g. the collection of annotations as they pass back and forth between tutor and students/peers) or rich learning content would all fit in this space.
· Learner Profiles.
· The management of personas afforded by the PLE creates an opportunity to explore the space within the Life Long Learning discourse where learning environments and learning opportunities may be selected and customized according to the needs of individual learners.
Investigation of Organisational Issues
The issue of institutional transformation through the PLE is represented within this report as a speculative narrative generated by the characterization we have presented for the educational system’s interaction with the PLE. We have sought to qualify this by not excluding the possibility of mechanisms within institutions which seek to maintain control of technology despite the forces which drive towards the PLE.
Work needs to be done to establish the true efficacy of institutional divestment of technology, and the balance in control that is struck between the institution coordinating formal learning through monitoring and maintaining of student commitment, and the learner’s ultimate control of their personal technology. This work, we believe, will ultimately amount to a fine-tuning of the social ontological model that we produced, and will help in determining the relative influences of the various mechanisms depicted. Will emerging technological practice lead to learner demand for flexible service-based learning content access? Will economic considerations and overwhelming complexity contribute to an argument for divestment within the institution? Only a deep organizational analysis of the institution in the light of these real problems will reveal the answers to these questions.
Linked to such research, we have gone some way in this report to produce a roadmap for the future of e-learning. Armed with the tools that we have produced here, we would seek to establish the key variables that pertain to the processes that lead to the uptake of the PLE. At this point, we can broadly point to a few of them:
· Social issues (changing role of the student)
· Complex impetus for change (e.g. retention)
· Persuasion of learners to take control of technology and the enhancement of the student experience
· Persuasion of teachers to use PLEs
These issues ultimately reveal the true and essential nature of future PLE research. It lies in a highly inter-disciplinary area where the social sciences meet organizational and philosophical endeavours to uncover the core mechanisms which link these areas. Uncomfortably, we do not have at this point in time many effective techniques for bringing these areas of research together. But the PLE, more than any other development in learning technology, makes it clear that the discovery of effective inter-disciplinary structures to reveal the complex mechanisms that lie behind the PLE is an urgent search, and one which will reveal more about educational engagements in the technological environment, and more deeply, the transformed ways in which learners and teacher will live their lives within this environment.
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