Personal Learning Environments

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At CELC 2009 I was part of a panel of students that tried to answer the question: Personal Learning Environments. What do students think? The other students on the panel were Angeli and Zack. Cindy Underhill was the mastermind that brought us all together and did a superb job of directing things.

So what did us, the students have to say about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)? I don’t know how much I can speak for Zack and Angeli (although we did agree on the majority of things), but here are my (heavily supplemented) answers to the core questions that Cindy asked:

1) What do we know about how students define personal learning environments?

For this question I avoided the (arguably defunct) definition of PLEs as an environment that educational technologists create for students to learn in (nobody even brought it up in the session). Instead, I defined it as “the environment in which I learn” (I think a lot of people are starting to agree with this definition as well). This includes a bunch of distributed technologies (a topic that I regularly blog about), but it also includes other things, like my classmates, my roommates and very big pieces of paper. This is important, so everybody in ed-tech listen up: you cannot create an entire PERSONAL learning environment for students! It is impossible. Every student has their own way of learning, every student evolves their environment continuously (look at how my tools have changed) and any one tool will be obsolete as quickly as any other piece of technology. Don’t despair though… there is still plenty of work for you to do. What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn. The process should be as follows:

  1. Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
  2. Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
  3. Let them know it exists and show them how to use it (the part, in my opinion, that professors and educational technologists are worst at).

I didn’t get a chance in the session to really flesh that out… but there you have it. Give me the tools and let me use them to build my own environment.

2) How do PLEs contribute to the development of learning competencies?

With my definition above, this question doesn’t make too much sense. The reality is, that a PLE only really contributes to the development of a student’s “learning competencies” when they know what the hell that means. Or when they care. Students don’t often take the time to think about how their current study techniques are actually helping them to learn. They just study and pray that they pass the exams… which brings me to the next question…

3) Are PLEs effective without educational reform?

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The answer is… only a tiny bit. My PLE is helping me to get good grades… not to learn. In fact, because of how education works, most students don’t have PLEs… they have “PGGEs” (Personal Grade Getting Environments)! At the end of the day, that is what most students really care about. Why shouldn’t they? As Cindy said in her follow-up post “We’ve structured the education system this way, it’s not their fault”. I am often way too busy memorizing things to actually learn them.  Learning takes time and effort… it also takes practice and conversation, it is much more efficient to get good grades by memorizing the textbook. This is not only a curriculum problem, it also has to do with the whole way degrees are structured. A Small anecdote for a recent event in my life:

After speaking to someone in Science advising I realized that I will not graduate from University if I do not take the second introductory (1st year) Physics course. I took the honours version of the first course and scored 87%.  I would dearly love to take a 4th year Psychology course on human behaviour instead… but if I do take it, I won’t graduate. The irony is that for me, the Physics course will be a breeze, I will ace it easily.  I find it so easy that it doesn’t interest me at all. If I took the Psychology course I would enjoy it a lot more. It would also be a lot more difficult and I would actually learn something new. It would contribute far more to my plans for the future than the Physics course.

Seems wrong doesn’t it? That same story is being told by countless times hundreds of thousands of students all around the world.  Then professors complain that the students are not interested in the stuff they teach. If you give students the freedom to choose what they will learn and emphasize through proper assessment that they are there to learn and not just there to get good grades, then students will be interested. I would bet my life on it.

Conclusion to that long-winded rant: Without educational reform students don’t care about learning, therefore their “learning environment” is severely neglected, making it ineffective.

4) What’s your role in supporting the development of personal learning environments?

This was kind of a double-edged question… one for us to throw back at the audience. My comment that I threw back out to the audience was this:

You cannot expect students to think about and improve on their learning if you are not modeling the behavior and seeing what works and what does not.

They may all have finished formal education, but in this information age we all have to continually learn and the better we are at it, the more successful we will be. My challenge then, to anyone who reads this post is:

Think about your own personal learning environment. Really dig deep and figure out what contributes most to how you learn. What distracts from that learning? Now, patch, build and experiment with your own environment to try and improve it. You will find yourself much better off for doing it.

If you are involved in education at any level and you cannot do what I have asked above… then you are really incapable of helping students do it as well.

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9 thoughts on “Personal Learning Environments

  1. Hey Andre,

    Nicely articulated! I have some questions for you though. You said:

    “What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn.”

    While I agree that tools can be very useful to support learning – I don’t think this is the place to start. I still think the most valuable thing a learner can do is take some time to reflect on our own learning goals – not the goals of the course or the institution. Sometimes these will be in sync with our personal goals – sometimes not. My point is that until we know what we want to learn – it will be difficult to make good choices about the tools that might be useful to us supporting that learning. For example, if I want to learn how to collaborate more effectively, I need to think about what that means to me, who can help, what I need to do and (finally) what tools and approaches might support those activities. And, I agree, those of us who support students, need to be continuously reflecting on our own learning, our own goals and sharing what we’ve learned about the tools and approaches we’ve found useful along the way.

    Thanks for your contribution to my personal learning environment!

  2. I agree completely Cindy. When I said “What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn.” it was as a replacement activity for those trying to build big enterprise PLE systems.

    I also agree that the most important thing that a learner can do is focus on is reflection over their learning. I learned that the hard way after writing “Get Teched Up” for LEAP. In my second year I focused on the tools and the results were not as good as I had hoped. These days I do it as you suggest, figure out what I want to learn, then how best to do it, then finally I find a tool. I’m still not good at continually reassessing my tools to ensure that they still meet my goals, but that is my priority going forward in my learning.

  3. You make interesting and relevant points really gained form the student perspective. Sure a personalised learning space is just the ‘Personal’ and needs to be developed and adapted by each of us. Your post seems to ask where Higher Education is or should be headed. Technology has an impact on this, but so to does the changing nature of the sector. Doing an Open degree, where you choose your course is fine and many institutions do just this and have done for some time. But if you are in Higher Education for vocational reasons the surely you need to ‘jump through all the hoops’. After all I would d not like to have a Doctor who never studied much to do with the heart because he found the nervous system more of a challenge. The whole debate really moves around purpose and power. Why have universities? Who determines this?

  4. @Les I agree wholeheartedly that there are hoops that students have to jump through, especially for vocational degrees. My argument though, is that the hoops need to be chosen very well and they need to be transparently justified. There also needs to be a bypass method is a sufficient counter-justification is offered. There are also different levels of requirements as I argue here:

    These systems have been put in place with good intentions, hopefully starting with the question “what should person Z graduating with X degree from university Y know?” However, there are often way too many assumptions made about person Z and there is very little flexibility when person A comes along.

    Which… in a round-about way brings me back to the central thesis of this post: Don’t design systems (whether they be technological, administrative or otherwise) for the masses, design them instead for individuals, with the flexibility that the diverse complexity of humanity requires.

  5. Strongly agree with you, Students and educators can gain from the use of personal learning environments. Students still need to be motivated and want to learn in order for this to work.

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