The Workings of a Personal Learning Environment (III): the institutional fit

This is a three-part article whose aim is to serve as an update to my work on the personal research portal, as long as to explain yet another practical example of a PLE, something that many found useful at the PLE Conference as a means to embody theoretical ramblings.

The first part deals with infrastructures and how my PLE is built in the sense of which applications shape it. The second one deals with the information management workflow. The third one puts the personal learning environment in relationship with the university.

If in the two previous parts we have seen what can the infrastructure of a PLE be like and what can the workflow be, we here will see how the personal fits into the institutional. I agree that PLEs are not just tools but ways to understand learning on the Net, hence the debate around institutional or non-institutional PLEs may seem void. Still, I think this question is indeed relevant because, beyond their learning specificities, I believe in PLEs as a driver of change in formal learning en educational institutions, as a wedge that breaks through the interstices that have opened in the education system.

An introduction to the (new) UOC Campus, a virtual open campus

In the last years, my colleagues at the Office of Learning Technologies (OLT) at the Open University of Catalonia have been doing a terrific job in preparing our virtual campus for openness.

Being part of the faculty and not part of the OLT team, I’m not fully knowledgeable of all the work that has been done there, but I can speak of perceptions, which is most of the times what in the end matters. And the perceptions are that our campus has undergone (at least) two drastic transformations in the recent years from the standpoint of view of the user:

  • The Campus project, a multi-stakeholder initiative, changed our virtual campus from a closed legacy system into a service-oriented architecture that now can interact or incorporate most services and applications existing around, from modules from other LMSs (e.g. a Moodle classroom) to the most common web 2.0 applications (e.g. a WordPress blog). These services can be selected (with the required profile permissions) and set up into a classroom at will. New services and apps take from one to two semesters to be added to the current pool of options, depending on complexity.
  • The MyUOC project provided each and every university member with an “i-Homepage” inside the Campus, the flavour of Netvibes or iGoogle thus allowing for a brand new path towards personalization and external information self-integration (i.e. DIY integration of external information, not top-down led).

Fitting the personal into the institutional

So, what have these changes meant? And, especially, how is that new virtual campus coping with my own PLE?

The following image re-visits the infrastructure of a Personal Learning Environment, simplifies it and puts it in relationship with the infrastructure of UOC’s virtual campus (also greatly simplified).

Of the virtual campus (painted in green), I listed several web 2.0 applications currently in use. These are the usual suspects: on-site installations of blogs, wikis, fora, repositories, question tools, etc. Of course you do not always (for several reasons) can or want to install something in the campus. Then, you always have the option to install it in your own web server (i.e. your own personal learning environment or, in this case, your personal teaching environment) and either call it with a link from the virtual classroom. But there are better ways to cross the line that separates the walled garden of the virtual campus from the rest of the cyberworld:

  • The MyUOC i-homepage, which now can hold information from third parties. Some of this information is retrieved by using widgets especially adapted to the campus. But potentially all kinds of information, apps and services can be embedded by means of iframes. Simple (and not elegant) as this solution may be, it definitely works and lets any user (i.e. me) to add information without bothering or requiring anyone to code anything. I’m currently using this page to collect in there my academic schedule on a Google Calendar, the dropbox account I use(d) to share huge MSc thesis documents and datasets with an student of mine living in Panama, Google Docs with a collectively edited and authored ongoing book, or the teaching blogs that I installed in my own site but for teaching purposes and to be used by campus students..
  • The Wikispaces wiki: unlike your typical Mediawiki or PmWiki installation, which resides in your LMS (we use these too), you can now use a wikispace which lives outside the campus (i.e. at Wikispaces), though it has been wired to the campus so that the user is automatically kept logged in so they do not have to bother whether they are in or outside. Again, simple as this might sound, it does not only enables installing external applications to your campus, but use external services that may not be available for custom install.
  • Third, the nanoblogging project (being implemented in the next two semesters in different phases) will bring StatusNet to the classroom in a first phase. So long, no big news: there is, of course, technical stuff to be done, but it is “only” a matter of installing and wiring tools and classrooms. I’m not trivializing this part, but “conceptually”, there’s no big difference with setting up the first blog. Hopefully, though, in a second and third phase, the idea is to bring the nanoblogging timeline to the MyUOC i-homepage and to make possible an interaction with Twitter. If everything goes well (time, resources, etc.), it should very much look like what was described in The Hybrid Institutional-Personal Learning Environment (HIPLE) into practice: an example with Twitter , where the boundaries of the virtual campus are totally overridden.

Back to the Hybrid Institutional-Personal Learning Environment

At this point, it is necessary to pay back a visit to the concept of the The Hybrid Institutional-Personal Learning Environment (HIPLE). Even if still at a very low level and with a lot of effort invested, the LMS I’ve been mainly using for almost 11 years and the PLE I started almost 7 years ago now speak one to each other. They sometimes speak in smoke signals, they sometimes speak like Italians and Spaniards do (each one in their own language, but more or less understanding each other), but speak they do.

Why is this so important?

It took years to journalists and, especially, to news businessmen to understand that the monopoly of news distribution was over, and that there were news streams outside mass media. Part of the crisis media are living today comes from the late understanding (and negation) of that fact, with consequences in job losses, decreased quantity of quality information, negative effects on democracy… you name it.

While journalism is important, I believe that education is even more important… and much more complex. As it happened with news, learning is increasingly happening “out there”. And if blogs were the main tools of “citizen journalism”, PLEs are becoming the tools of out-there-education.

It is my opinion that all the forecasts about the emergence of life-long-learning, informal learning, social learning, etc. are coming true, but are taking place outside of formal education and its walled institutions. And while educational institutions — and their components, including assessment, accreditation and educators — definitely need a dire transformation, they still play a core role in our society.

And it is precisely here, in bridging what is happening in out-there-education with the important socioeconomic role of educational institutions that PLEs can come to the rescue. As we have just shown, PLEs can permeate the waterproof membranes of educational institutions, the brick walls of classrooms. PLEs as personal research portals (PRP) can turn the academic ivory towers into crystal, enabling peeping the inside… and bringing some external light to its dark matters too.

That is why, in my opinion, PLEs are not only learning tools, not only ways to understand learning on the Net or to understand informal learning. In my opinion, PLEs are transforming drivers with an extraordinary potential for change.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “The Workings of a Personal Learning Environment (III): the institutional fit” In ICTlogy, #83, August 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=3450

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2 Comments to “The Workings of a Personal Learning Environment (III): the institutional fit” »

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-08-06 | Glenn Friesen

  2. Hi Ismael;
    I agree with your vision and I love your infrastructure ideas. You inspire me to make the extra effort to better organize my own PLE.
    I believe that activity should be the primary focus of learning, knowledge and capability (based on a pragmatic philosophy, not empiricism or behaviorism.) PLEs are great for supporting people’s capabilities in socially relevant activity and would do good things if they were adopted by the academy.

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