The role for institutions with PLEs

There’s an increasing rhetoric raising in the ranks of university-based education folk about the importance of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). There are any number of good resources on the web that mention PLEs.

My interest in PLEs are being driven mostly by the likelihood that CQU will be starting a major project looking at encouraging the adoption of PLEs within CQU courses. A draft of the proposal is available

So my question is, given that the aim of PLEs is to give the learner control, to remove the institutional focus, to make PLEs support multiple institutions, then what role does an institution play in developing PLEs?

Perhaps a better question is, what does an institution have to do to its policies, processes, pedagogy and systems to enable students to more effectively use PLEs?

My current answers include

  • Helping discover what is actually PLEs will be.
  • Helping change policy, practice, pedagogy and systems to better support PLEs.

Though, I do always have at the back of my mind, that the idea of a institution being involved in PLEs is just a little silly.

Discover

The notion of a PLE is still very much open to discussion, disagreement and definition. In fact, the “personal” bit may just mean that there is no agreed definition. Each person, because of the unique background and requirements, will end up with a PLE which works very different. For example, I come from a UNIX background, wrote a web development framework/system and use a Mac laptop as my only computer. So my PLE combines aspects of vi, perl, Webfuse, some Web 2.0 apps and mostly reside on my laptop.

An institution attempting to encourage broad scale adoption of PLEs amongst its students, courses and academics should offer an opportunity to discover a lot of things about PLEs and how people do (or don’t) use them.

Why change

The general trend in all the current definitions of PLEs indicate that any institution that would wish to encourage their use amongst their students would require some significant changes in a range of attributes. So, why would an institution consider a change. I can think of at least two broad reasons

  1. The change required of PLEs can contribute towards learners who are more in charge, more responsible for their own learning. Learners who are actively taking a hand. Supported well this should, in line with a lot of literature around the knowledge society (Puni, 2007), lifelong learning etc.
  2. The changes of institutional attributes (policies, processes, systems and pedagogies) will to some extent be inherently good. They will result in a more flexible, better focused institution.

What change

So what changes in institutional attributes will be required and just how can you claim that they will be inherently good – which is somewhat questionable?

Systems. One of the first steps I would take in supporting adoption of a PLE at an organisation would be the opening up of existing, closed learning management systems so that they could integrate with the PLE. Essentially, wrap the existing LMS with feeds for various aspects.

The aim being that academic staff wouldn’t immediately need to change practice. They could keep using the LMS. But the PLE, initially in the form of a glorified feed reader, could provide the student with some advantage. i.e. not having to check each of the course LMS websites for new stuff. It comes to them.

A potential next step would be to enable the PLE to be used by staff to “put material into” the LMS. Posting content, discussion, messages could be done via the PLE and in keeping with the notion of a PLE breaking down the distinction between staff and students, between the producer and consumers, this capability could be made available to students as well.

As well as providing this functionality in an easier to use form than currently available in most LMS. This approach could provide an additional benefit to the institution, particularly at CQU. It could enable the institution and its elearning to become independent, to some extent, on the existing LMS. If staff and students are used to using their PLE to create and interact with content etc then they don’t really care which LMS is being used.

Potentially other institutional systems would need a similar treatment. This could be a good thing because most of CQU’s information systems are not focused on the learner. The systems are focused on supporting the organisational unit that owns the service and/or the IT developers who implemented the system.

Change of these systems will likely more difficult than changing the LMS. The LMS and PLE sit within the same organisational responsibility, very broadly the L&T unit/division. The other systems, student portal/enrolment/timetable etc, are the responsibility of other organisational units and hence intra-organisational politics and ownership will serve to muddy the waters.

Pedagogies. The vast majority of pedagogy at universities, particularly CQU, are not exactly what you could call student-centered. The whole notion of a PLE is based around a focus on being student-centered. Of encouraging active, construction of knowledge. Of perhaps even moving to a move connectivist type pedagogy.

Personally, I think this is the most difficult change. It represents a radical mindshift in the conceptualisation of learning held by most academics. Most institutions do not reward academic staff for making this type of mindshift, research still brings greater reward.

Policies and processes…and expectations

Many of the assumptions and characteristics of a PLE bring into question some of the existing institutional policies and processes. Some of these, like copyright and intellectual property, are already being brought into question. If an institution does move considerably to using PLEs and associated, appropriate pedagogies then some fundamental questions, such as how they allocated workload, need to be addressed.

Currently, much workload calculation is based on the number of students and how many lectures and tutorials are required to service those students. Which raises another very interesting question. The majority of staff and students have an in-built expectation that a university education involved lectures and tutorials (depending on discipline and country). A move to PLEs and associated, appropriate pedagogies is a move away from those expectations. Students and staff can both get very stroppy around change and breaking of expectations.

Which perhaps is the biggest thing that has to change at universities, the permission to fail, to make mistakes, to try things which don’t quite work. To much of the prevailing wind, at least at the Australian universities with which I’m familiar, is focused on CYA, avoiding the appearance of failure to avoid the subsequent pain and agony.

How we’ll do it, if we do

Given that,

  • The concept of a PLE is still under negotiation.
  • That it represents a considerable change for institutions, staff and students.
  • You can never be sure of the outcome of such change, especially when it challenges very strongly intra-organisational boundaries.

any move we make to looking at PLEs will have to be exploratory.

Aimed just as much, if not more, at discovering more information about PLEs and how people and institutions can engage with them than with implementing some pre-conceived idea.

References

Puni, Y. (2007). Learning spaces: an ICT-enabled model of future learning in the knowledge-based society. European Journal of Education. 42(2): 185-199

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