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Supporting Personal Learning Environments--A Definition of a PLE


As part of answering Reader Questions this week, I'm going back to something that Glenn Ross asked me awhile ago:

If I'm responsible for L&D in my organization, how can I help my employees identify their PLEs (personal learning environments) and what resources do I need to provide for them?

Apparently Glenn likes to ask the tough questions. But I'm feeling brave, so I'm going to try for an answer here.  It actually will take two posts to do this, so let's start with my definition of  a PLE.



The Elements of a Personal Learning Environment
There is a lot of discussion about what exactly constitutes a personal learning environment. To write about how to support PLEs, I want to first make sure we're on the same page as far as what I mean by a PLE.

It's Personal
Personal means two things to me.

A personal learning environment is personal in the sense that WHAT is learned has to be based on what interests the learner. We're hoping, of course, that learning about work-related things is going to be part of what interests people, but we also have to accept that people are more than their cubes, so a personal learning environment has to start with embracing the personal aspect. People simply won't learn if they aren't interested in the topic. 

A PLE also has to be personal in terms of the tools. That is, the learner should have some ability to select the tools that work best for his/her learning style and needs. The learner should also have maximum flexibility in how he/she uses those tools. If the tools of a PLE are imposed on the learner, then in my book, you've lost one of the key benefits of personal learning. People will simply balk at using them.

It's About Self-Directed Learning
I'm sorry to report that most people don't really know how to learn. School and training programs have taught them that "learning" is simply the passive transfer of knowledge from an "expert" into their waiting brains. Unfortunately, this is not a particularly successful strategy for learning.

For a PLE to be successful, a person needs to know how to learn. This means that he/she needs to have some key skills, such as an ability to do research, process information, etc. I started to do some brainstorming on these skills based on a presentation by Stephen Downes. If an organization is going to seriously work to implement PLEs with their staff, I think that they need to consider ways to boost some of these key skills as part of that process.

It's About the Environment
Again, this means two things to me. First, there has to be an organizational culture of learning, not a culture of training. Without a learning culture, you might as well forget about implementing something as radical as a PLE. People have to feel supported and nurtured as they try out new tools and ways of doing things and this doesn't happen in organizations that don't think carefully about creating a culture of learning.

The second aspect of the environment is, of course, having access to the tools of PLEs. Typically we're talking here about online tools, such as blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, etc., although a PLE isn't strictly about online learning. It also includes face-to-face interaction, reading real-world books and magazines, going to conferences, engaging in activities, writing in journals, etc.

An important point here--I'm of the "small pieces, loosely joined" school of thought on tools, so when I'm talking about an environment that provides the tools, I'm talking about people having access to a wide range of options that they can pull together as they see fit.

One final note on my approach--I'm with Tom Haskins that PLEs should be regarded as power tools. I see PLEs as a strategy of empowerment that allows staff to become more self-directed in their learning. I personally believe that most organizations benefit from knowledge workers who roam far and wide in the learning landscape and that PLEs should be used as a way to support both personal and professional development, not as a sort of organizationally-driven way to control learners. That's what LMS systems are for.

So that's how I define a PLE. Next time, I'll write about how I think we can support staff in developing and using their own PLEs.


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Great definition for PLE`s.

One of the things that make the use of PLE a bit hard for some people is the focus. When we deal with web resources like blogs, it`s very easy to get out of track.

Thanks Allan--your observation that PLEs are hard for people because of the focus is interesting. I'd like to learn more about what you mean. Is it that because it's not a specific tool it's more difficult for people to get a handle on things?

Hi Michele,

What I mean is that, sometimes it`s hard for people to focus at only one subject. I can say that by the experience with my students, if you try to teach Art, and let them create their own PLE. They will collect RSS feeds not only from art related websites, blogs or Wikis.
That`s why I recommend form them to split their PLE into subjects. Like a PLE for work, one for hobbies, office stuff, math and others.

OK, Allan--I see what you're saying. That's interesting. All of my topics are mixed up--I have several different tabs in Netvibes, I have tags that cover a wide range of things in del.icio.us. It would actually be hard for me to separate everything--it would make it more difficult to deal with everything. I also find that it's helpful to mix things up because I get cross-pollination between different ideas that way. But this is another example of the "personal" in a PLE--each person needs to find the strategies that work best for him or her. Thanks for clarifying.

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