Personal Learning Environments as conscious learning strategies

Digitalingua, the International Conference on Digital Environments and Language Learning, took place last week and I was interviewed by one of the organizers, Lola Torres on the topic of Personal Learning Environments (PLE).

Below you can find the original text of the interview in Spanish, and a quick translation into English.

logo of PDF file
Interview (by Lola Torres):
Peña-López, I. (2012). Personal Learning Environments. Interview for Digitalingua 2012.

What do you mean by PLE?

Although certainly not the best way to define a thing, I like to
think on the Personal Learning Environment as opposed to two aspects of learning, which are, still today, the orthodox and hegemonic form to understand education (and note the change of “learning” to “education” is fully conscious).

When we think of learning we tend to circumscribe it into a formal and institutional environment. Formal in the sense that one “sets” oneself to learn, at a specific time and place, at a stage of life intended for it, and with a more or less defined plan (goals, methodology, schedule). Institutional in the sense that all this is provided in an exogenous way, by an institution (teacher, school, university, academia) that is who determines all aspects of formal learning, which is why we have to move from learning to being taught or educated.

The Personal Learning Environment is rethinking the whole process of learning from the informal and the endogenous or non-institutional, everyone becoming responsible for their own learning plan. And this is largely possible by the digital revolution: the knowledge contained in people and objects is
now available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. So, I understand the PLE as a set of conscious strategies to use technological tools to access the knowledge contained in objects and people and thereby achieve certain learning goals.

Could you explain your PLE as a teacher and as a researcher?

For me it is essential to consider research and teaching as two
sides of the same coin, the coin of knowledge. In this sense, research is but learning, and teaching is but learning
backwards. Thus, there is not a PLE for teaching and another one for research, but there is a PLE that sometimes works in one direction and sometimes in the other one.

And the very same consideration applies, in my opinion, for the PLE of a student. In the same train of thought of considering the PLE as a learning strategy in an open environment enabled by technology, I think is increasingly difficult to argue that the student must always be placed at the end where one only receives knowledge: the PLE puts the person, the learner, in the centre of a mesh whose purpose is that knowledge flows from one node to another one.

In this sense, I do not think there are different PLEs for teachers/researchers or students, but all of them are nodes of the same mesh. It will just happen that in some topics some nodes in that mesh will be denser than others, or that knowledge flows more fluently in some directions than others, but it will be a matter of
flows (thus temporary) rather than of architectures (or structural).

That said, my PLE responds to a simple conceptual framework:

  • What sources of knowledge do I feed from.
  • Who do I say that I am, although the sources that one feed from also make up much of the public person that sits in the centre of my PLE.
  • What I create, which is merely the result of certain knowledge sources transiting through me, producing a new point of view, a gathering of knowledges previously isolated or, at best, a small addition to the original set of knowledges.

What challenge is education-teachers, universities, institutions
education, compared to PLE?

From the moment that we are talking about teachers vs. students, about institutions vs. individuals, about learning vs. leisure, we are creating a series of dichotomies which necessarily place those terms in opposition. But the PLE, if we stick to its definition as a mesh of people and objects oriented towards learning, cannot be conceived as a set of dichotomies or elements placed in opposition.

To consider that the PLE is a good learning tool is to assume,
implicitly, that there has been a radical change in the sociocultural and economic context and that this makes the PLE possible. So, the biggest challenge of Education is to carry on an extraordinary reflection about many things that we now take for granted and, if we end up assuming that the context has changed, it is also possible that the very same foundations of that we call education may also have changed.

Thus, PLEs do not present a challenge in themselves: I believe that PLEs are a symptom of a deep systemic change that goes beyond education. And that systemic change is the real challenge. Digitization challenges basic concepts in Education. Digital content — reproducible, storable and transferable at lowest cost — make irrelevant many of the functions of documentation centres as silos of books. Telecommunications — fast, cheap and ubiquitous — make also irrelevant schools as hubs of talent. And the concentration of content and talent is the foundation of schools, universities, research centres and libraries.

PLEs are proof that some features of the current institutions can be carried on ​​by other “institutions”, and that there is a need to rethink what new role in society should have the former ones.

What advice would you give to a language teacher to start your PLE?

Although this reflection is ex-post, it has helped me — and still does — to identify four stages in the use of a methodology or a technology in setting up my own PLE.

In a first stage, appropriation, one has to know what methods or what technologies exist, what skills should be apprehended to get the best of them, and what are their pros and cons. In this respect, staying up to date of what exists and how people use it is to me a first elemental approach. All in all, it is about initiating the learning process beginning with methods and tools, the same way we know how to locate the nearest library or instruct ourselves in the use of files for our working notes.

The second step is to adapt the methodology or the technology. This step consists in replacing a methodology or technology in a task that we already performed, with the only purpose of replacement of one technology by another one. Even if it might seem absurd to have invested resources to end up remaining in the same place, this phase will help us in answering the following question: to identify “why” or “what for” will I use the PLE, a crucial question that cannot have a void answer. Some people will then begin to manage the sources of information with an RSS feed reader, something that one quickly gets used to by the utility that
it provides. Others will start to sort their bibliographic resources. Others will replace paper notes with a blog or a wiki, always handy, sorted and enabling queries. Others will publish digital files that they had already produced, in various Internet services to increase their outreach.

Once the first the phases of appropriation and adaptation are over, it is then time to improve our learning processes, to make it more effective and/or more efficient. This is often the most rewarding part, as it is when the investment we made in time and effort starts to make sense. If we start with something
easy and something where the impact will be greater, the relative returns will be higher. Following the previous examples, reading information sources can be accompanied by storing what may seem more relevant to us or sharing it on social networking sites to enrich the debate and help in building a network. Or if we publish our notes in a blog we can try and embed our slides, using the most relevant tags, accompanying the slides in our blog with references that we retrieved from our bibliographic manager.

Finally, beyond the improvement of processes, the last phase consists in radically transform these processes. A transformation — if notthe transformation — is to “think digital”. That is, for instance, other than taking notes and copying them to the blog, taking instead the laptop to a talk and liveblog the talk while, at the same time, tweeting the event. What once was an individual and private act becomes now a collective and public act.

And it is in this transformation of the private sphere where we transform the whole system, breaking the personal dichotomies to be able to rethink education as a whole.

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

Peña-López, I. (2012) “Personal Learning Environments as conscious learning strategies” In ICTlogy, #104, May 2012. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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