The Workings of a Personal Learning Environment (I): the infrastructure

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.

A PLE digression

During the Spring of 2007 I wrote an article, The personal research portal: web 2.0 driven individual commitment with open access for development in which I proposed the concept of the Personal Research Portal as a means to create a digital identity for the researcher — tied to his digital public notebook and personal repository — and a virtual network of colleagues working in the same field.

Later that year, in summer, I attended the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. It was for me — and for most in there — the first truly web 2.0 enhanced event (as I put it in OII SDP 2007 (Epilogue): Last thoughts about Web Science and Academic Blogging or Why did not Academia came up with Wikipedia), as it was a fantastic exercise to stress the potential of blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, open bibliographic managers or photo and video sharing websites for knowledge sharing and building; and the (personal) discovery of then emerging tools like Twitter, Facebook and Dopplr.

The academic course ended up with the publication of Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems, where, finally, Scott Wilson et al. formally put together what they had been working on in the previous couple of years, but whose origin could at least be traced back to Olivier’s Lifelong Learning: The Need for Portable Personal Learning Environments and Supporting Interoperability Standards.

Summer of 2007 was, I believe, the actual taking off of the PLE. Though many had contributed to its conception (Oleg Liber, Scott Wilson, Graham Attwell, Mark Van Harmelen or Stephen Downes, to name just a few), I personally consider the publication of Wilson’s article the coming of age of the concept, and most especially because many interesting things would happen since in an explosive way, from the “massive” adoption of the concept to the “massive” adoption of Web 2.0 tools in formal and informal learning (as “massive” as we consider ourselves and our reflections on ICT and education “mainstream”, of course).

Managing the complex

Since 2003 — when this blog was born — and especially since mid 2007, things have changed a lot. Mainly three things have radically changed the information-sharing landscape:

  • More people sharing information on the Net, boosted by the popularization of nanoblogging and social networking sites;
  • more ways to share information on the Net, boosted by the “cloud” alternatives to desktop applications;
  • a likely improvement in everyone’s (including me) digital skills, cause and consequence (make a virtue of necessity) of the former two.

According to that, my personal learning environment more or less looks now like this:

I used to rather call it personal research portal, as it had an explicit goal in (scientific) outreach and communication that most PLE do not. I’ll here stick to PLE for the sake of clarity and consensus.

Instead of wiring all the services I use between them, I chose to present it in a more sequential way (more on this in the second part on information management): information acquisition (input, what I get, in red), storage and processing (own self, in gray), diffusion and communication (output, what I create, in blue). Of course we cannot sequence information management this way: many tools are used for several purposes, processing is also a part of diffusion, etc. But I think it puts things in a clearer way.

The personal website — — is, of course, the core of the whole thing. I wrote back in December 2009 that:

What we do, what we are must be centralized. It is the image of what we do and become the one that has to be decentralized, not the essence.

I plead for the construction of the portfolio, for a return to the personal or institutional website, using social media as a game of mirrors that reflects us where we should also be present.

If anything, my vision of this statement has strengthened. I am, for instance, seriously considering shifting from Slideshare to iSpring. Or, at least, doing both: be present in Slideshare but upload and share in my site my own presentations in flash format.

This explains not only why the personal website (the areas shadowed in gray) is not only a huge hub where everything at least passes through, but why most information is embedded in there, especially all my own production. The blogs, the wiki, the bibliographic manager and the repository all are personal installations that surround my digital persona (here pictured as “about me”). Even the e-mail accounts, though managed with G-Mail, are my own domain’s. Moreover, the site also hosts a lifestream that works as Friendfeed collecting most my activity, but storing it on my own site.

Some reflections

First of all, it is important to note how relevant RSS has become as a vehicle to exchange information, but how embedding still is the option to present information, leaving APIs just a marginal role in the whole picture.

Linked to this, it is becoming increasingly industrious to keep record of your own production (whatever its quality). The result of this is that your digital persona and even your e-portfolio is scattered all over the Internet. This has consequences on the perception people have on you, thus consequences in how you are evaluated (knowledge, competences, behaviour). The forces that drive you to being present in the relevant places are opposite to the forces you have to apply to keep your things straightened up and under control. RSS feeds, open APIs and embedding help, and a personal website (including domain) is, in my opinion, becoming mandatory for every knowledge worker.

On the other hand, I would also like to stress the role of web analytics tools. If used for something more than quantitative measuring (pointless in my case, as visitors to my site come one by one and never in herds), these tools provide precious information if monitored carefully. Among others:

  • Discover kindred souls that visited you and you hadn’t heard of. Of course, this fact deeply depends of you keeping in topic.
  • Discover comments on your opinions and work.
  • Discover works that have been listed besides your own, and that you hadn’t heard of.
  • By construction, discover others’ ongoing work and projects and, sometimes, even be able to take part in them.

Keep reading: The Workings of a Personal Learning Environment (II): the information workflow.


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 (I): the infrastructure” In ICTlogy, #83, August 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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5 Comments to “The Workings of a Personal Learning Environment (I): the infrastructure” »

  1. Hi Ismael, great piece, would love to hear your thoughts on Symbaloo for use as a PLE. We are working to add many new features including the embed as you mentioned and would love any insights you have on using Symbaloo to share and manage resources. Please feel free to contact me via twitter @danielabolzmann or email at Here is a video of a 7th grader using Symbaloo as a PLE in her science class:

    Daniela Bolzmann
    Team Symbaloo

  2. Pingback: Entornos Personales de Aprendizaje (PLE) | RECURSOS SOCIO-EDUCATIVOS

  3. Pingback: Ejemplos de diagramas de entornos personales de aprendizaje (PLE) | bokepasa50

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