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.


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

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Mapping the PLE-sphere” In ICTlogy, #82, July 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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