Open complimenting closed?

Interesting panel discussion over at Edition 13 of Austrailia’s The Knowledge Tree. It’s described as "Ewan MacIntosh, James Farmer, Brad Beach, Clint Smith, Peter Higgs, Frankie Forsyth and editor Jo Murray bring together a range of perspectives on the use of personal learning environments (PLEs) and learning management systems (LMS) to facilitate learning." Although I’m not entirely convinced that the panelists have a shared understanding of what PLE might actually be.

To my mind, Web2 tools and applications are currently being used to supplement the limitations of Learning Management Systems (LMS, or Virtual Learning Environments as we in the UK are used to calling them), rather than compliment them.

I’m sticking in my diagram here, because I think it’s crucial to work forward from an idea of what personalisation might be:


LMS’s, as they currently stand, can deliver two elements of personalisation – they deal well with delivering. monitoring and recording institutional provision and proceedure, although you’d have to argue out on the ground how well they cope with customisation. Web2 apps offer a quick solution to the far more difficult issue of how institutions might engage with and support student-led participation. Just asking teachers to use both doesn’t give you anything like a PLE – it gives you a centralized, official and institutionally controlled and determined environment running alongside web-based, mainly commercial sites which support social media. Brad Breach characterizes a PLE in this way – as something distinct from and separate to a CMS.

Ewan MacIntosh confuses me a bit – he says in his opening that Scotland doesn’t use LMS and therefore is bypassing “centrally controlled hierarchical ways of dispensing information to students outside the classroom”. Later on in the interview he mention’s Glow – a Scotland wide commercial intranet (it’s an RM product) “this means that every school from primary, early years right up through secondary, will have the same virtual learning environment as every other school in the country and they will have the same collaborative tools.” To me – this seems like the very weird way of facilitating personalisation, let alone bypassing centralisation, unless the Glow VLE has secret abilities to intergrate with other systems I’m currently unaware of.

His definition of a PLE is also slightly odd – locating its ownership and responsibility entirely with the learner, rather than within a network of formal and informal relationships. I’m not sure what role he then sees for education in supporting PLE’s, or how learners would make use of PLE’s in terms of evaluation, assessment and accreditation.

James raises some really excellent points, and he also importantly draws attention to the role of identity and ownership in young peoples online presence, which is otherwise missing from a largely teacher-centered debate.

I was slightly alarmed that Peter Higgs doesn’t think that vocational education students would need a PLE, although it’s kind of interesting that he perceives a PLE to be fundamentally about reading and writing, rather than including learner selected elements which might include audio and visual.

9 thoughts on “Open complimenting closed?

  1. Hi Josie,
    I’ll need to come back to the second of the points you raised and listen again to what I said. The one thing that is clear is that PLEs mean many different things to many different people. I’ll be honest: I dislike the term, the pigeon-holing, but understand why it’s useful when trying to make distinctions.
    However, you’ve also touched on something that is confusing for me, too. In Scotland we have not used VLEs or LMSs widely and, yet, in August, every institution and individual in Scottish education will be getting Glow.
    The work I do in LTS is often along lines which could be seen to be directly opposing the aims of Glow, as I strive to get more educationists here into what I see as real personalisation and decentralised learning offered by social tools. I don’t see Glow as personalised to any great degree, although I think RM and the Glow team would disagree, of course. I also fear that Glow might end up being centralised no matter how much localised facilitation there is.
    I just can’t say yet, and look forward to seeing how things develop and playing my role in getting more social tools into Glow.
    As for my understanding of PLEs, am I allowed to have a think and maybe blog it later on? 😉

  2. I think the concept of a PLE is an increasingly important one, and while the value of any concept is always going to partly lie in its contestability, I think Ron Lubensky and Graham Attwell have both presented a good overview of where we are.
    It’s a bit alarming that you see the releation of the work you do with web2 as oppositional to the Glow project (which I thought you’d been involved in at the consultational stage?) – and I’d love to hear about your plans for social tool intergration.
    There was a presentation by Blackboard about their adoption of web2 tools in order to provide collaboration and ‘community’ amongst blackweb customers at the Jisc Next Generation Learning Environments Conference this month, and that could probably provide Scotland with some great pointers in how not to approach the support of life-long/life-wide learning.

  3. I certainly wasn’t involved in Glow at the ‘constitutional’ stage and now my work is very much based around what might happen in the next iteration of it. Given that not all schools will have the ‘basic’ v.1.0 until the end of maybe 18 mths from now, technology and what we can do with it will have changed significantly. My challenge then, along with my colleagues, is to work with the structure we’ve been given to introduce more flexible connective tissue to the thing.
    I’m trying to develop different working practices that allow not just LTS but anyone out there to innovate for Glow with the kind of community tools and features Web 2.0-ers would expect.
    Most of this innovation, however, is not around tools but around pedagogies. That’s why most of my work is in classrooms in East Lothian, using some simple collaborative tools around the site (particularly our choice of WPMU as the starting point for people) and the increased discussion about pedagogy that this has brought around in the past six months. We’ve now got over a quarter of our teachers discussing their teaching and the kids’ learning every week.
    Again, I think I need to maybe dedicate a post to where I stand in this connection between LTS, Glow and the exciting things we are developing in East Lothian. I think that Glow and what we are doing *could* end up in opposition if we in LTS were narrow-minded enough to think that what we’ve got is ‘it’. However, I know no-one who doesn’t see the importance of trying to harness this more informal learning environment which is proving incredibly effective in our corner of the country.
    The trick is explaining that liaison between informal and formal learning in terms of technology (for the beancounters, programmers and geeks), accountability (for the decision-makers and qualifications people), while remembering that it’s about something far more difficult to express in one or two catchy paras: pedagogy (and that’s one that the teachers on the ground get quicker than any of the above 😉

  4. Sorry Ewan – I thought you were involved with the pilot. You do advise RM on future Glow development though? I’ll look forard to the couple of posts I seem to be getting out of you!

  5. Hi Josie,
    Yes, there is generally a massive confusion about VLEs, PLEs and the like – not helped by today’s article in the Herald on-line: “Checking up on school work is set to go online”.
    For some time now I have argued that we should consider a VLE as just a generic ‘pipe’ that is capable of porting data back and forth from on location to another. (See my website for further details.) However, I doubt whether all the scores of suppliers of different systems will ever agree to a common definition – even if issues of portability are aver agreed!
    A more important point is that of the definition of the PLE. Yes, again a dozen or so suppliers of ‘Learning Platforms over a VLE’ claim that theirs is a PLE – but not by my understanding. Essentially a PLE is PERSONAL and we must look at what personal means in all its connotations.
    1. Firstly it must meet the personal needs of the individual in terms of accessibility – skins, font-sizes, inverse text/backgrounds, text readers for the visually impaired, touch-screen, concept keyboard or even pneumatic device inputs etc.
    2. Secondly, through appropriate daiagnostic tests the PLE should be capable of determining the abilities and prefered learning styles of the pupil.
    3. This data then becomes the driver of differentiated learning tasks and test-on-demand tools.
    4. An e-learning portfolio, however designed, should record progress and through various validations (too complex for this note) should be capable of displaying actual real-time results to the pupil, his parents and other appropriate educationists.
    5. (This is only half way through the solution!) Next comes the really personal bit – where the sum total of all learning is used to advise the pupil on further courses of study/revision and also possible career directions, recognising learning styles etc.
    And so I could go on…
    I am presently putting together a major dissertation on this approach and would welcome further comments, suggestions etc.
    Ray T

  6. For me the key for useful portfolios of all kinds is that they should be independent of any particular qualification or institution, and this goes without saying for PLEs.
    The feature set that make up your wish list seem to me to stop short of what I’ve described as dynamic or deep personalisation – while I’d regard some of them as extremely useful others I’m not sure about. I’m really not convinced about learning style theories, and your last point brings back horrible memories of careers advice questionnaires, which always seem to think I would make a good police woman, or, since I didn’t mind animals, vivisectionist…
    Thanks for the comment and look forward to reading your work around this area!

  7. Yes, Josie, I agree with you on several points:
    1. In looking at the data-flow aspects of the PLE I had not so-far included reference to the web.2 tools that generate the input to the ePortfolio etc – that was taken as read!
    2. Having taught for many years I have come to the conclusion that, like it or not, children do learn in different ways – I know that I do! But more importantly, we are EXPECTED to deliver lessons covering ALL learning styles!
    3. I know what you mean about Careers Advice questionnaires and even the software versions of the previous century. However, surely it is not beyond the realms of possibility to devise a diagnostic tool based on recorded learning outcomes and the Profiler?
    4. The ePortfolio must surely be a secure ‘legal’ and intact document which is an accurate un-doctored record of a child’s progress. Not, as one contributor put it, ‘Splattered all around the Internet.’ Otherwise what is the ePortfolio for? Why all the fuss about portability and Interoperability? – The real question is, are FE or HE prepared to take any notice of this electronic document? Will it be of any value in APL for instance?
    What do people think?

  8. (In relation to Ray’s comments)
    Sure, it can be done. I’m working on a project with the OUNL that uses “navigation” and “positioning” within learning networks using stigmergic principles.
    Of course, its not always going to give good advice – see Winograd and Flores’ classic discussion of expert systems for a good analysis of all the potential pitfalls of this kind of thing.
    I also don’t buy into this as being fundamentally a requirement for a PLE, its more like a CRM tool for an organisation. Especially as it can only operate within a single network, and the personal tools of a user are designed to operate within many networks at the same time.
    Portfolios and interoperability:
    Indeed, any fuss around portability and interoperabiltiy is IMHO uneccessary. Portfolios are not and should not be trusted legal documents, they are the history of the personal and professional practices of individuals, at all levels and ages, encapsulated in a wide range of media. Once you make that a formal, tightly-specified document, we really have been imprisoned in the global classroom. There really is nothing wrong with having it ‘splattered around the internet’, just as there is nothing wrong with having it in a ring binder in your attic. What IS wrong in my view is having it in a system managed by government agencies and subjected to their intra-organisational specifications. What I think often happens in this discussion is a conflation of portfolio as a document used within a discrete and well-defined process (e.g. applying for a job or to university admissions) and the development and management of a personal portfolio. The former is where interoperability and so on are necessary; for the latter its really down to personal taste.
    (Disclaimer: I am one of the authors of the IMS ePortfolio interoperability specification, and possibly its most persistently harsh critic.)
    Overall I think what you have been describing is an adaptive teaching system, not a personal learning environment. The concepts of using diagnostics to select appropriate models and content and then organise delivery within an assessment framework have been quite common in eLearning for many years, reaching their zenith (or possibly their nadir) in the discourse on Intelligent Tutoring Systems.
    For me, the PLE is almost its exact opposite, and has to be reconciled with this opposing view, common as it is in the education system, for this ‘open complimenting closed’ position to be tenable. Personaly I’m still thinking about that one.
    Good discussion, keep it coming…

  9. In response to Scott,
    I’d really like to explore these ideas further and expand upon some of mine – possibly off-line?
    Perhaps some of my statements above were somewhat provocative but I need to extract all thinking on this topic in terms of ‘territory-mapping’ for my Naace Research project.
    Kind Regards,
    Ray T
    If so, could you please contact me at:

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