Mapping the PLE-sphere

At the PLE Conference and, especially, during the days before it (the pre-conference) an interesting debate rose on whether there was one kind of PLE or there were many, and if many, what were all the differences that the multiple existing acronyms and definitions seem to be representing. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Carlos Santos and Luis Pedro from Sapo Campus about the institutional PLE (iPLE).

Indeed, I think the core of the debate was not on the different conceptions of the PLE, but on the role of institutions and the educational system as a whole, and not in providing educational spaces through technology, but on their very same essence: do we need institutions and, if yes, of what kind and doing what.

While we get rid or not of institutions, they are still there, PLEs exist too and it would not be such a bad idea to try and build bridges amongst them. The iPLE is a very interesting approach, and I very much liked the communication SAPO Campus. Plataforma integrada de serviços web 2.0 para educação that Carlos Santos and Luis Pedro made at the VI Conferência Internacional de TIC na Educação. I came up with the HIPLE concept with Introducing the Hybrid Institutional-Personal Learning Environment (HIPLE), and now Steve Wheeler proposes a more generic term, Cloud Learning Environment, in his Anatomy of a PLE.

The complexity we’re putting ourselves into makes me feel the urge to somehow map all the concepts and approaches I’ve been seeing around in the last years. This is a gathering, not a taxonomy, and the definitions and sets will be purely personal.


Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), Online Learning Environments and Managed Learning Environments (MLE — sometimes also iMLE for Institutionally Managed Learning Environment) are the institutional ways to provide a platform for virtual learning (or to support the online part of blended learning). They stand for what some have called Virtual Campus or Online Campus.

As a platform, VLEs mainly have four big categories of applications and services:

  • The applications that manage records, registrations and all the administrative staff. Most people call them Learning Management Systems (LMS).
  • A place where to store learning materials, a Content Management System (CMS). LCMS is usually understood as LMS + CMS.
  • A social layer, that is, directories, or virtual classrooms where students can interact. Let’s call this in-campus social layer Institutional Personal Learning Network (iPLN).
  • A device where all the “production” of the student is stored and assessed. For the sake of clarity let’s call this just ePortfolio.


The personal side is more chaotic. Under the concept of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) we find everything (literally: everything) that a person is using to learn. In general terms, this is:

  • Web 2.0 services, offered by third parties, that help them to blog, to share documents, to monitor people and content, etc.
  • Sometimes, these services are not offered by third parties, but hosted and managed by the individual himself in his own domain. We talk then about Web 2.0 tools. The distinction, while technically not very relevant, it certainly is at the conceptual level.
  • A social layer can also happen outside of campuses. If provided by a third party as a service, we’re facing the Social Learning Network (SLN) and it usually includes Web 2.0 tools.
  • If self-built, we are talking about the Personal Learning Network (PLN). The difference between the SLN and the PLN is certainly blurry and maybe even arbitrary. I like to see them as SLN = PLN + Web 2.0 tools/services.

The institution-individual bridge

  • If we add some Web 2.0 tools inside the institution (i.e. inside the VLE) and we link them with the social layer, we come up with an Institutional Personal Learning Environment (iPLE). We can even bring some content from the “outside” within the VLE by retrieving the information from external Web 2.0 services through the RSS pipeline.
  • An alternative to the iPLE is the Hybrid Institutional Personal Learning Environment (HIPLE). The logic is very similar than the iPLE, but instead of retrieving content, the idea is that platforms speak one to each other by means of APIs. The difference with iPLEs is that HIPLEs allow for inside-outside interaction (not only reading or retrieving) in both senses while keeping both spheres (institutional and personal) separate; another difference is that the HIPLE allows the individual to use Web 2.0 tools provided by the institution and/or third parties, while the iPLE requires choosing either institutional tools or third parties’ (see, for instance, the HIPLE into practice with Twitter). It is very likely, though, that the iPLE and the HIPLE will end up merging as technology advances (though the conceptual differences will remain).

I tried to map all of these in the figure above. Colours have a meaning: greys refer to the institution and, especially, to the administration of learning; orange pictures the personal (believe or not, the ePortfolio is orange beneath those blue and grey layers); pink (or dark orange: the ambiguity is intended) make reference to the social; green are Web 2.0 tools and services; lastly, blue paints the bridging devices.


PLEs and Workplace

During the PLE Conference I was asked to chair a paralell session on PLEs and Workplace. Just like it happened with the “unkeynote” that Jordi Adell and I organized, the organization asked the chairmen to avoid the usual dynamics and be… creative.

The communications were:

I noticed that the common denominator of the session was support, in the sense of “let’s tell our ‘supportees’ what does work so they can put it into practice”. With this in mind, I suggested to have the presentations not in a horizontal manner (i.e. projects are fully explained one after the other one) but in a vertical manner: we identify the main and common topics addressed by the three projects and the topics are covered one by one, that is: we choose a topic and all the presenters explain how they faced it.

The topics we identified were:

  • 1.- There are some problems in my learning process that need being addressed.
  • 2.- We (or someone else) have tried several solutions to fix these problems and found that they did not work: which were these (non-)solutions?
  • 3.- We (in our projects) have found some solutions that do work which ones are them?
  • 4.- How have these solutions that work been evaluated and the outcomes assessed?
  • 4a. How sere the solutions put into practice?
  • 4b. How was their performance evaluated?

What follows is the personal notes that I took on the fly (slightly edited for the sake of clarity), both from the speakers and the audience. The notes were taken on a blank presentation that was projected in the room, so anyone could see them and, as it happened, comment on them.

Problems that need being addressed:

  • Career advisors that handle huge amounts of knowledge. How to develop knowledge and share it? How to manage knowledge and make knowledge sharing work?
  • Physicians with low competence on e-tutoring: How to train trainers in the use of digital artifacts for training? How to make, thus, e-tutoring more efficient?
  • How to unclose the classroom?
  • How to avoid the deviations of meaning added by technological mediation?
  • How to fight certain attitudes that represent a barrier that prevent evolution/progress?

Solutions that did not work:

  • Traditional e-learning is not an answer.
  • Traditional training is nor an answer.
  • There are no training programmes or learning materials for specialists.
  • There is a deep ditch between knowledge management and e-learning.
  • Traditional educational systems require “full dedication”.
  • There are no “quick learning” programmes/methodologies, you always have to take the long path (but your needs/goals are in the short run).

Solutions that work (or not…):

  • Stating strategies, defining paths.
  • Designing and sharing models.
  • The PLME: personal learning maturing environment, a place where to test things.
  • Learning from the process itself and the context it is framed in.
  • Process + context = way to fit training into everyone’s needs.
  • Shareing not content but “people” by tagging the experts. Make the experts emerge: expert sharing (i.e. everyone is an expert). Indeed it is more about tagging people’s expertise than the experts themselves.
  • Assessment indicators are (a) relative to everyone’s goals/needs (b) qualitative and related to own path.
  • Assessment is yet another learning tool: feedback as feedback that really feeds the process back.

How were the solutions put into practice:

  • Providing useful tips: starting your own blog, starting following someone you find interesting,
  • Replicating.
  • 1 learner, 1 PLE.

Note: this part was, of course, richer, but got diffused or covered by the other questions.

How was performance assessed:

  • Checking whether the personal benefited the community.
  • A virtual desktop enhances not only sharing but monitoring and co-design.
  • Co-design leads to a certain degree of co-assessment.
  • Co-design is needs-based, not externally based.
  • e-Portfolios.
  • Recursive design, recursive assessment.
  • Extensive and intensive documentation while keeping hot tips simple.

I am aware that this dynamic penalizes knowing more about the projects themselves, so I encourage the reader to get in touch with the speakers or to visit their websites to get a deeper understanding on what they are working on (the how’s and the why’s, covered here ;)


PLE Conference (2010)

PLE Conference 2010 – Ismael Peña-López Interview

Here comes the “official” interview that Joyce Seitzinger and Jordi Carrasco did to me on Friday, 9th July 2010, during the PLE Conference.

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Other videos in the set:

Other videos of mine related to the PLE Conference


PLE Conference (2010)

The Dichotomies in Personal Learning Environments and Institutions

Jordi Adell and I were invited to impart a keynote at the PLE Conference, taking place on July 9th, 2010. It became clear from the start that the organization did not actually want a keynote at all, but “something different”. A “something different” that looked very much like a “pros & cons” or a “good cop, bad cop” dialogue. The problem was that Jordi and I had very similar opinions on the topic that we had quickly chosen and which has produced a heated conversation when talking about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs): their relationships with institutions.

Ticked off the list a keynote and a dialogue, we came up with a game. We would present five pairs of dichotomies and will make the participants in the session to vote with their feet (à la Charles Tiebout). As some participants complained, the world is not black or white, but a richest range of grays, so to make people choose either or that option would be unfair. Yes it was, but (a) the exercise was about simplification, (b) highlighting the top values and (c) we had no room — space and time — for a continuous (vs. discrete) approach.

So, we draw a 2×2 matrix on the floor and projected the five pairs of dichotomies on a screen. People had then to physically move and place themselves in the quadrant of their choice according to their beliefs. We picture below the results of this voting with your feet. The numbers in the quadrants are just approximate, as no one even tried to really count the people in each quadrant, though they give a fair idea of the magnitudes at stake (there were circa 100 people in the room). I add to the screenshots some comments based on what I remember that Jordi and I said on the fly: they should so be attributed to both, as they were made indistinctly by one of us and I never had the sensation that we disagreed (I apologize in advance if, in the transcription, I put too much of myself in it).

1. PLEs and Institutions
  • Do PLEs have a place in formal education?
  • Shoud PLEs be procured institutionally or be placed outside institutions?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

The first thing that is evident from the chart is that there is no agreement on whether institutions will be replaced by user-generated learning environments or, on the contrary, institutions will instead prevail but be leveraging the power of PLEs and other devices.

It is interesting to see that, despite the EduPunk momentum, the majority still believes on the power or need for institutions. Some commented that the participants were split in two: the Anglo-Saxon approach and the Latin one, being the former more pro-EduPunk and the latter more pro-institutions.

2. Openness
  • The student’s digital identity must be isolated from the rest or be identified as a whole (the student has a single identity, regardless of their context)?
  • The university must be an open or a closed environment?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

While the previous point was definitely not about consensus, openness certainly was: no one doubted that the walls of formal education had to be torn down and that it increasingly made no sense to have an environment devoted only to learning and the rest where learning “did not happen”.

Notwithstanding, if learning happens anywhere, it does not necessarily follow that it happens anytime: though an overwhelming majority advocated also for tearing down the walls of the learner vs. professional, some voted for keeping the possibility to play a different role when you are actively learning than where you are not (at least in “active” terms).

3. The curriculum
  • Who decides how the curriculum is designed: the system or the “apprentice”?
  • Credit must be provided institutionally or socially (P2P)?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

Unlike point 1, where institutions kept a good amount of power in providing and managing learning environments, when it comes to credit proportions swap: most people thought that the apprentice should be sovereign of their instructional design and how it will be measured and assessed.

This is definitely in line with a tacit agreement that students should lead their learning process, while teachers should accompany them through it, but walking side by side, never in front of it.

4. Barriers (I)
  • The main barriers for change are institutional or individual?
  • The main barriers for change are technological or pedagogical?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

Concerning a first set of barriers — the usual dichotomy of education or technology — the majority pointed at the system: the problem is institutional and pedagogical.

Notwithstanding, and as it happened with EduPunk or institutionalism, the participants were mostly split between pedagogists and technologists, so it is likely that the latter were not as optimistic about technological barriers (digital divide, digital competence) than the former were.

5. Barriers (II)
  • The main barriers for change are standardization (inflexibility) or atomization (chaos)?
  • The main barriers for change are organizational or economical?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

To reinforce the previous point, when looking at flexibility vs. resources and organization, the choices again are clear, even clearer than before, putting the educational system in the eye of the hurricane.


Taken as a whole and not pair by pair, we noted that we could group the five dichotomies in two sets. On the one hand, we could take PLEs (1) and the Curriculum (3). As we have already set, these seem to show (show in the sense of the participants’ perceptions, of course!) that the trend is an increasing movement from institutions towards the student, a shift of the responsibility of one’s learning from schools to students that have not only to learn, but to learn what they have to learn, to learn to learn.

To help them in this endeavour, institutions have an important role as guides (not leaders) that have to trespass their own walls and enter the environments (in plural) where learning actually takes place, which increasingly is outside of the framework of formality.

In fact, this seems to be answering at the WHAT question: what is learning in the digital era?

The rest of pairs (Openness and the Barriers) seem to be pointing at the HOW question: how should learning be carried on in the digital era?. The answer seems to be open and flexible institutions, new educational systems and methodologies and a dire organizational change.

It is a little bit worrying that a hundred educators, deeply committed with the evolution of education and knowledgeable on instructional technology, despite their different and personal approaches, they all got together at pointing at the educational system — read: educational policies — as the problem of education. Any politician in da haus?


After the exercise we went on with a lively debate amongst all the attendants. Here come some random notes that I took on the fly and that were being beamed as I took them:

  • Cyberinfrastructures should be used to leverage change, a change that should not only be in technology but also and especially inn attitudes.
  • Are there enough resources to PLE-ize your discipline? Is everything PLE-izable? That is, is the PLE something that can be universally used in any discipline and environment?
  • Teamwork as a pre-condition to PLE-ing: there is no (useful) PLE if it is not based in a framework of sharing and working as a community with a common goal.
  • PLEs are bottom-up strategies: they originate in the bottom, but should target the upper spheres (i.e. Institutions). In this sense PLEs are not only a working tool, but a tool for change.
  • PLEs are personal devices: we need to embed institutions, institutional aspects, and participation within our PLEs. In other words, institutions have to step into PLEs and these have their share of institutions. To do so, notwithstanding, institutions must be PLE-able, they have to rethink themselves, be more flexible, more open, and adapt to the new learning realities.
  • PLEs as personal constructs vs. commodities: in our bridging institutions and individual learners through PLEs, do we incur in the risk of commoditizing personal learning environments and making of them extensions or tentacles of the all-eating institution?
  • PLEs not to de-school society, but for un-schooled people. Or, better said, the stress the inclusion factor of PLEs as a way to bring education at reach of everyone: where institutions cannot reach, PLEs will.
  • Institutions build the walls of libraries, PLEs fill them with books. PLEs have to go hand in hand with the structure, surround it, fill in the voids, enrich the always cold but needed concrete columns where a society lies upon.

Slides of the presentation

(just translated and put nicely)


PLE Conference (2010)

#talkingabout: Jordi Adell and Ismael Peña-López on Personal Learning Environments

Gemma Urgell and Ricard Espelt are the thinking minds behind #talkingabout, a tapestry of experiences, stories and projects with the Web 2.0 as a background.

They attended the PLE Conference and took some time to interview and tape some footage of Jordi Adell and I on the crossroads of Personal Learning Environments and institutions.

The video is in Catalan, one of Jordi and I’s mother tongues:

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PLE Conference (2010)

6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (VIII). Citizen Participation in the Cloud

Notes from the 6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference: Cloud Computing: Law and Politics in the Cloud, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on July 7th and 8th, 2010. More notes on this event: idp2010.

Citizen Participation in the Cloud
Chairs: Ismael Peña-López

Citizen participation in the Cloud: risk of storm
Albert Batlle, Open University of Catalonia.

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The situation we are in is a context of crisis of political legitimacy. This means much less political participation in general and, more specifically, protest voting, young people voting less, decreasing levels of affiliation to parties or other civic organizations, etc.

On the other hand, we see the explosion of the Information Society and of the Web 2.0, “participative” by definition. ICTs are adopted by political organizations in the fields of eGovernment — to provide public services for the citizen — and eDemocracy — to enhance and foster participation.

Two different perspectives in the crossroads between political disaffection and the Information Society:

  • Cyberoptimism: ICTs will lead to a mobilization effect. More people will participate because participation costs are lower, there is much more information than before, etc.
  • Cyberpessimism: ICTs will lead to new elites because of the digital divide. The existing differences between the ones that participated and the ones that didn’t are broadened.
  • Realists: we need more empirical studies (and to avoid technological determinism).

We have new technologies for citizen participation but, what tools for what uses? A research for the Barcelona county council.

After a survey within the Barcelona municipalities, we can state:

  • There are different participation activities depending on whether the communication is horizontal or vertical.
  • There are topics more prone to intensively use ICTs: urban planning, youngsters, education and equality, elder people, sustainability.
  • Not organized citizens, resources, transversal coordination are variables that are usually identified as barriers not overcome; while training, innovation, agenda, associations or political agreement are usually identified as goals reached through ICT-enhanced participation.

The study then goes on to analyze tools and applications and how they fit in the participation process:

  • Directionality, qualitative: unidirectional, bidirectional, hybrid
  • Directionality, quantitative: one-to-one, one-to-many, many to many.
  • Competences: basic, advanced, expert.
  • Applications: type of tool, cost, hosting, “mashability”.

Participation moments:

  • Mobilization: information about the participation process and the goals to be achieved.
  • Development: putting into practice the participation project.
  • Closing: stating the decision being made.
  • Follow up: monitoring and assessment of the decision reached.

A first analysis of 19 international cases, we see that most tools have a one-to-many directionality, are bidirectional, and are mainly used in the mobilization moment. User registration and the data they have to provide is an important issue and must be decided in advance, as happens with deciding the goals and functioning of the process, which includes defining and identifying the role of the online facilitator. Free software is usually the option chosen, and accessibility (in a broad sense) is normally taken into account.

We find two different models. Even if models are not “pure”, we can see opposite approaches: Initiatives aimed at community building, characterized by being open, relational, fostering engagement, using free tools and aiming at a networked participation, with a facilitator that engages in a bidirectional conversation. And policy oriented initiatives, characterized by being more formal (or formalized), focussing at decision-taking and representation, using own platforms and more “traditional” participation means, with a facilitator that guides and information that flows asymmetrically and unidirectionally.

Cloud computing is both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, there are legal hazards that need being solved, but that also disclose some interesting spaces. Indeed, the new a-institutional logic is disruptive but also provides new ways of learning, as the public and private spheres intersect one to each other and get confused (want it or not) one with each other. It is a response to the de-legitimation of political institutions, but it is also a reassurance that citizens do care about public affairs: the crisis is in the institutions, not in participation itself.

Bernard Woolley: “Well, yes, Sir…I mean, it [open government] is the Minister’s policy after all.”
Sir Arnold: “My dear boy, it is a contradiction in terms: you can be open or you can have government.”

(from Yes Minister, 1980)

Evgeny Morozov, Georgetown University’s E. A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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Decisions made at the technological level in Western economies/businesses will affect how cyberactivism takes place… all over the world. What Google, Twitter or Facebook decides impacts citizen action everywhere.

There is much effort on building social capital online, uploading content, gathering people in a group, and this effort relies on a potential arbitrary decision by the owner of the online platform, who serves who knows whose will. Groups in social networking sites disappear every day without previous notice and most times without an explicit and clear reason for it.

But regulating these corporations is often seen as a barrier to democratize more quickly less democratic countries. You don’t want to “spoil” a Web 2.0 application if it is seldom used to raise protests against non-democratic regimes, or used on human emergencies, etc.

But outside of Western countries, most applications are owned and run by local companies that have less freedom of choice than in other places of the World. If the Chinese or Russian or Iranian governments ask for user personal data to these companies, they have little chances not to deliver them. This makes datamining by governments very easy and very effective to locate and identify dissidents.

Besides direct extortion to companies, governments can directly monitor and put up several kinds of citizen surveillance, including entering an individual’s computer because the government infiltrated the computer with a trojan or any other kind of spy-software. Of all, the major problem is not even being aware of that manipulation. Same applies to web servers, of course.

On the legal side, governments or several lobbies have the power to manipulate content online, by crowding out conversations. If this is a trivial debate, then the influence of the strong part has no major impact. But if that is a pre-election debate, it can lead to indirect tampering and not-really-legitimate democratic participation.

And doing all that is not very difficult: custom police can (actually do) google people and see what comes up in the search results, scan their Facebook profiles, see who a specific person is related to and, according to that, decide to decline a visa request.

Besides governments, authors that we would not consider very “democratic” (e.g. fascist movements) are doing impressive things online in social networking sites, mashups, etc. So, Web 2.0 and cloud computing tools are double-edged swords and both serve noble and evil purposes and goals, like e.g. mapping where ethnics minorities are mashing up rich public data with map applications either to avoid or to attack them.

There is a dynamic that the Internet brings and that might makes us stop and think whether we like it or not: is a shift towards full openness a good thing? is a shift towards direct democracy a good thing too?


Ana Sofía Cardenal: can you provide more information about the survey you talked about? Batlle: the survey was made in 112 cities (more than 10,000h less Barcelona). 81% answered the survey explaining use of ICT in participation initiatives.

Ana Sofía Cardenal: why nationalist movements are more present online than liberal ones? Morozov: the short answer is that hate travels more faster than hope online. But it might be more about phobia rather than nationalism. On the other hand, the Internet has no borders and allows for birds of the same flock to cluster around online spaces rather than having to stick to their artificial national myths.

Ismael Peña-López: data havens yes or no? protection or impunity? Morozov: One the one hand, governments should not support law circumvention tools (like TOR), basically because they are massively used by criminals, or by people whose purpose is not very clear and its justification varies depends on your approach. Regarding Wikileaks, the problem is that once a hot file is out, it is difficult to block, and the more you try to block it, the more it is disseminated (the Streisand effect). Something should be done, yes, but it is not clear what.

Ronald Leenes: It is also true that governments also use tools that activists use for security reasons, so they should at least allow for these tools to develop and even be funded. Morozov: right, but you cannot be pushing for the rule of law and with the other hand allowing the proliferation of tools that are clearly used to break the rule of law. Leenes: this apply to many technologies!

Jordi Vilanova: We’re talking about social networking sites as being run by corporations, but it is likely that in the future we find SNS being ruled by foundations or non-governmental organizations. So, there still is some room for Web 2.0 applications being “safely” used by individuals. A second comment is that we are looking at non-democratic regimes but, in the meanwhile, so-called liberal democracies are trimming citizen rights with the excuse of security and so. So we should be more concerned about these hypocrite countries. Morozov: it is true that foundations can run their own SNS, but the thing is that most times is not about the tool, but about audience and critical mass, and this audience is in private corporations’ platforms, and this will be difficult to change. And regarding transparency, transparency has to come with footnotes to avoid misleads.

See also


6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2010)