David Jones, PLEs: Framing one future for lifelong learning, e-learning and universities, to appear in the proceedings of the Lifelong Learning Conference 2008 – One of three best papers


Personal Learning Environments are a new conceptualisation of how technology might support lifelong learning, one that questions many of the assumptions of existing institutional practice. This paper develops a series of enablers that can aid a university to better frame its future use of PLEs.


E-learning has been defined as the use of information and communications technology to support and enhance learning and teaching (OECD, 2005). Much current practice of elearning within universities fits into Dron’s (2006) industrial age of e-learning which typically includes the implementation of enterprise course management systems with an emphasis on scalability, consistency and cost savings. Even with significant institutional investments the growth of e-learning through this industrial age has been incremental and has not fundamentally challenged the face-to-face classroom (OECD, 2005). The worldview embedded in the design of course management systems is that of the course offering and the institution (Dron, 2006), a view that is not particularly supportive of lifelong learning.

Over recent years, factors such as the knowledge-based economy, learning society and the rise of information technology has given rise to a consensus that lifelong learning is not only a norm, but also a culture and attitude (Grace 2006). One view of lifelong learning suggests that learning does not end with formal higher education, instead universities must help in the development of lifelong learners and in the provisioning of lifelong learning opportunities (Grace, 2006). This paper aims to help universities better perform this dual role through the adoption of an approach to e-learning better suited to lifelong learning. It is recognised, however, that as the historical context has changed, the meaning of lifelong learning has shifted in response (Luzeckyj, 2006) and that recently it has been guided by far narrower discourses (Atwell, 2007).

The limitations of e-learning version 1.0, Dron’s (2006) industrial e-learning age, the subsequent negative experiences of students and academic staff, and the development of alternate technologies has contributed to the nature of e-learning changing enough to deserve a new name e-learning v2.0 (Downes, 2005). The concept of a personal learning environment (PLE) is one of a number of emerging approaches strongly associated with e-learning 2.0. E-learning 2.0 also questions the role of the course as the main abstraction, places greater emphasis on informal learning, on placing control of learning into the hands of the learners, a collapse of the distinction between teacher and student and somewhat more prosaically the use of social networking software such as blogs and wikis. E-learning 2.0 can be seen as a change in paradigm or discourse around e-learning as it questions many of the assumptions that underpin e-learning 1.0.

Different discourses may contain a distinctive set of rules and procedures which govern what counts as meaningful or senseless, true or false, normal or abnormal (Davis & Sumara, 2006). Consequently, a change in paradigm, especially for an organization, is typically not a simple process. The complexity and limited success of e-learning 1.0 suggests that a paradigm change to e-learning 2.0 may be even more difficult. As is suggested by the slow uptake of e-learning 2.0 and the almost non-existent support from traditional institutions (Downes, 2005). Salmon (2005), talking primarily of e-learning 1.0, identifies a clear need for research that includes the development of theories and models of change related to human intervention and sustainability of e-learning within universities. It is suggested that there is a similar, if not greater, need around e-learning 2.0.

Gregor (2006) identifies five types of theory including design theory, a type of theory aimed at making a contribution of “how to do something”. Design theory is part of an approach to research also known as constructive research, design science or design-based research (Gregor, 2006) that appears in a number of disciplines including education (Reigeluth, 1999). Gregor and Jones (2007) identify eight separate components of a design theory including constructs, justificatory knowledge and principles of implementation. This paper is the first step in design-based research project that seeks to develop a design theory to support the adoption and use of PLEs within a university setting.

This paper begins by defining the key construct of such a design theory through a brief discussion of how a PLE might be conceptualised. It then draws on the Ps framework to examine major factors associated with the implementation of e-learning in universities. This justificatory knowledge informs the development of a series of enablers that are proposed as principles of implementation that will help encourage the effective adoption and use of PLEs within a university setting. In addition to forming a component of a design theory, these enablers also highlight just how much of a paradigm change PLEs represent from existing institutional e-learning practice.

What is a PLE?

It has, for quite sometime, been recognised that if universities were to genuinely promote lifelong learning opportunities then it would be essential for them to provide systems that support learner autonomy and self-regulation (Knowles 1978; Candy 1991). The PLE concept recognises that learning is an on-going process, will not be provided by a single learning provider, and that the individual has a role in organising their learning (Atwell, 2007). There remains a diversity of interpretations of what a PLE may actually encompass (Johnson & Liber, 2008). However, there is general agreement that a PLE is distributed, social and learner-centred.

PLEs can be seen as systems of technologies that help learners take control of and manage their own learning by supporting them to: set their own learning goals; manage their learning; manage both content and process; communicate with others in the process of learning; and thereby achieve learning goals. A PLE is generally not seen as a particular technology, system or product, nor is it likely that any two PLEs will be similar. The personal nature of a PLE implies that each learner’s PLE will be made up of their own unique collection of practices and technologies. A PLE does not have to necessarily make use of information and communications technology. However, the PLE label is typically associated with the application of Web 2.0 and related technologies (Johnson & Liber, 2008).

Rather than focus on the PLE as a product or collection of technologies, Johnson & Liber (2008) position PLEs as an intervention strategy into the relationship between technology, learner engagement and institutional function within an increasingly complex organisational setting. PLEs are not an application of, instead they represent a new approach to the use of, technologies for learning (Atwell, 2007). PLEs can be seen as an approach that questions many of the existing institutional assumptions around learning. This includes: the separation of formal and informal learning, that learning occurs within a single institution, the requirement on the institution to provide and support all technologies and the nature of the distinction between teacher and student.

How might a university adopt and adapt PLEs?

Having briefly examined what a PLE might be, the remainder of this paper seeks to develop a series of enablers that can aid a university to encourage widespread adoption of PLEs within its practice of learning and teaching. These enablers are developed through the use of the Ps Framework (Jones, 2007). The Ps framework is an example of type 1 theory, an analysis theory, as identified by Gregor (2006) and, as such, seeks to provide a description of the factors to be considered when making decisions around the implementation of e-learning. Due to space limitations this paper will consider a subset of the P factors including: purpose, product, place, people, pedagogy and process. Each of the following sections covers one or more of the Ps, briefly discusses one perspective of the issues surrounding those Ps in the context of adopting PLEs within a university and uses this discussion to identify enablers to that may aid a university adopting PLEs.


When considering how to implement e-learning to achieve a given purpose a common institutional response is to invest time in the evaluation and selection of a particular product. Most universities commenced their industrial age of e-learning with the selection of a particular learning management system. The influence and widespread use of this approach is seen in the number of evaluation guidelines and system comparisons available on the Internet and the research literature. The appropriateness of this approach for industrial e-learning within a university is not without question (Jones & Muldoon, 2007). The nature of e-learning 2.0 and PLEs further decreases the appropriateness of this approach.

A PLE is a collection of tools and systems, not a single monolithic system. It is a collection of tools and systems chosen by each individual learner, rather than the university. More often than not these tools and systems will not be owned or maintained by the university. Instead PLEs rely heavily on recognised standards and web services (Atwell, 2007). This is, in part, driven by the view that in recent years the technology available to individuals has been outstripping the functionality and usability of the centralised provision of technology by institutions (Johnson & Liber, 2008).

Enabler 1. An emphasis on using recognised standards to support the broadest selection of user selected tools, systems and services rather than an institutional focus on supporting only those products selected by the institution.


The societal and institutional context within which a project takes place is an essential consideration of any project. Organisational culture, particularly in the form of promotion and tenure policies which recognise the significance of teaching developments, is one of the key factors that may distinguish between successful and unsuccessful innovation projects (Cummings, Phillips, Tilbrook, & Lowe, 2005). The laws, legislation and educational policy within a particular place have to assist inclusive lifelong learning, if it is to be a reality. Top-down support for projects involving significant change is a known critical success factor. The use of PLEs entail a paradigm shift in the locus of control of technology and responsibility for learning away from the institution to the learner.

Enabler 2. Strong support and active participation of senior management in creating an
appropriate context for the adoption of PLEs.

Development and support for PLEs entail a radical shift in how educational technology is used, how an organisation operates and its underlying ethos of education (Atwell, 2007). This adds further complexity to the already complex institutional context created by universities continuing to respond to a diversity of external forces including funding cuts, massification of higher education, changing student demographics and many others (Cummings et al., 2005). This complexity, impatience with results and a range of other factors can lead to leadership who attempt to impose order on a complex problem before any meaningful, useful patterns emerge (Snowden & Boone, 2007).

Enabler 3. Leadership that adopt a more experimental mode of management. A management approach that recognises the importance of safe-fail (as opposed to fail-safe) design and whom allow useful patterns of PLE usage and practice to emerge over a period of time.

The introduction of innovations to a university is disruptive to the existing system. The complexity of innovation compels change at multiple levels that is culturally situated within the context of the institution, and brings considerable consequences to the organisation’s operation (Samarawickrema & Stacey, 2007). It is possible, perhaps likely, that two institutions using the same specific diffusion strategies might achieve very different results (Nichols, to appear). No two universities are exactly the same, nor will the usage of PLEs by its staff and students result in exactly similar outcomes.

Enabler 4. A diffusion strategy that recognises that the unique problems and desires of the host institution are more important than any theoretical ideal, best practice or latest fad (which does raise some questions about using PLEs in the first place).

A fundamental aspect of effective learning in higher education is understanding the conception of knowledge in one’s discipline (Wingate, 2007). Learning and teaching within disciplines is influenced by each discipline having their own culture, language and practices (Harpe & Radloff, 2006). Successful efforts to support learning and teaching will acknowledge these differences in culture and engage the disciplines and individual academics in their own unique ways of knowing (Harpe & Radloff, 2006). The schools within an institution, often the organisational home of the disciplines, are a significant power within an institution (Nichols, to appear).

Enabler 5. Active support for different disciplinary cultures to develop applications of PLEs which best recognise and engage with that cultures conceptualisation of learning and teaching.


The type of independent, lifelong learning typically embodied in a move towards the use of PLEs requires a range of significant and complex changes on the part of students and staff. The nature and capabilities of the people within a university will play a pivotal role in the emergence of interesting, useful and successful applications of PLEs. The adoption of PLEs and lifelong or student centred learning approaches theoretically best suited to PLEs expect students to switch from their previous learning experience where learning was planned, monitored and evaluated for them by their teachers to an approach in which they take on this role for large portions of their learning. There are concerns that many students may struggle to make this change without external assistance (Longworth, 2002).

Enabler 6. Special attention needs to be paid to providing scaffolding that aids in the transition expected of students in using PLEs without creating too many constraints.

While students may require more support to make this transition, they may not get this support from teaching staff who are often reluctant to teach more than subject knowledge (Wingate, 2007). Teaching staff are often suspicious of any changes to traditional pedagogies and are often expected to adopt innovations whilst under significant workload. Workload issues, time-commitment, IT self-efficacy, lack of effective staff development and drawn-out implementation are some general barriers to e-learning adoption by staff (Nichols, to appear).


Industrial e-learning practice, in the form of learning management systems, has had a much greater impact on administrative services than it has on pedagogy (OECD, 2005). Too much of what passes for staff development and other organisational activities intended to encourage innovation around learning and teaching takes a developer focus. This type of approach fails due to a simplistic understanding of innovation diffusion. It expects an objectively better approach will automatically replace existing practice. In contrast, adopter-based approaches focus on the social context in which the innovation will be used, on the potential adopters and the human, social and interpersonal aspects of innovation diffusion (Surry & Farquhar, 1997).

An approach that recognises that there is no single solution that applies for every teacher, course or view of teaching. Instead, there is recognition that innovative and quality teaching can only be achieved through the use of a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content and pedagogy to develop appropriate context specific strategies (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). An approach which takes a pro-innovation bias towards the sorts of pedagogy and use of PLEs that are deemed to be “good” runs the risk of separating members of the social system into a superior innovators group and the inferior recalcitrants group (McMaster & Wastell, 2005). Such an outcome limits adoption and is a symptom of a failure to engage with and respond appropriately to the local context. Learning to teach in new ways requires more than applying new theoretical knowledge disseminated using formal modes, it requires a culture in which innovative teaching is expected and rewarded, where teams or departments replace isolated individuals as the unit of change, strategies which involve collaboration and reflection and support through encouragement, recognition and resources (Johnston, 1996).

Enabler 7. A diffusion process that follows an on-going, dynamic process aimed at encouraging strategies that are appropriate and specific to the institutional context and its needs. A process that aims to help create a more appropriate environment in which to encourage pedagogical innovation.

Purpose and Process

Many, if not most, universities follow, or at least profess to follow, a purpose driven approach to setting strategic directions. In such an approach a small group of people, typically senior management, identify the purpose a specific project intends to achieve. Subsequently, the design process employed by the organization is targeted at achieving that purpose. Any approach or strategy that is not seen to achieve that purpose is seen as inefficient and removed. It has been argued that this approach applied to e-learning within universities significantly limits flexibility and choice for learners and learning (Jones & Muldoon, 2007).

The adoption of PLEs entails a radical shift in how educational technology is used, in organisational function and in the ethos of education (Atwell, 2007). A move towards lifelong learning represents a significant paradigm shift (Longworth, 2002). There is a need for further exploration of the changing discourses around lifelong and student-centred learning to enable a more critical understanding of the possible futures and provide greater agency for staff and students in determining their directions (Luzeckyj, 2006).

As an alternative to the traditional, top-down, purpose driven approach Cummings et al (2005) suggest a middle-out process based on a problem solving approach with a problem-oriented focus and using a collaborative and negotiated culture that places emphasis on functional and operational support. It has been suggested by others that modifying the attributes of a typical top-down approach with insights from alternate world views offers significant benefits and solutions to the problems of traditional purpose-driven design (Jones & Muldoon, 2007).

Enabler 8. A process that replaces or supplements many of the attributes of traditional topdown, purpose driven design towards one with a greater focus on being driven by the collaboratively, negotiated needs and issues of the participants in the local context.


The adoption and use of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) within universities embodies a paradigm shift that rejects much of the current institutional practice of elearning. The introduction of PLEs is a complex intervention into an already complex context and consequently is not a context where familiar top-down, command and control management practices are likely to be effective (Snowden & Boone, 2007). The enablers proposed in this paper represent an initial, but still incomplete, set of suggestions to assist an institution make this change. Taken together this initial set of enablers offers something greater than the sum of its parts. These enablers will be tested, modified and expanded upon over the next few years through an on-going process of design-based research that seeks to better understand this complex intervention.


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