Personal Learning Environments

Why Personalized Learning Environments?

As education moves well into the 21st century, the ways in which we learn and the things we use to learn with, including technology, are constantly changing and evolving. One of the most far-reaching changes is the easy and increasingly inexpensive access to information technology. Brown and Long claim that due to the “increasing proliferation of information technology, the need for basic access is not as acute as a decade ago, allowing the focus to shift from the provision of basic access to that of integrated services to aid learning…[and that] learning spaces in the 21st century need to foster discovery, innovation, and scholarship, not simply contain them.” They also believe that the three trends in education are “design based on learning principles, human-centered design, and personal devices that enrich learning” (Brown and Long, Trends in Learning).
However, as the importance of standardized tests continues to increase mandated curriculum is becoming more monolithic, less differentiated, and increasingly individual. As Freen et al (2005) assert, the logic of education should instead “be reversed so that it is the system that conforms to the learner, rather than the learner to the system.” One of the easiest ways to make the system come to the learner is through the use of digital technologies to create personalized learning environments. Green et al identify the personalization of learning as “enabling learners to make informed educational choices; diversifying and acknowledging different forms of skills and knowledge; the creation of diverse learning environments; and the development of learner focused forms of assessment and feedback” Freen et al, p. 2-3). As learner customization and personalization becomes the norm “learner excitement will heighten when learning style options can be juxtaposed so that students can simultaneously see, hear, feel, and perhaps even taste the learning…[with] any resulting learning will be captured in individual learning portfolios” (Bonk, 2009, p.2-3).

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The “personal web” is described as “a collection of technologies that confer the ability to reorganize, configure, and manage online content rather than just view it; but part of the personal web is the underlying idea that web content can be sorted, displayed, and even built upon according to an individual’s personal needs and interests” (Drexler, 2011, p.1). A student’s building of these spaces to support their learning is referred to as a personalized learning environment (PLE). While there is little agreement among scholars as to what exactly PLE is, most scholars agree that it is “not a software application per se, but is rather a characterization of an approach to e-learning” and that “for the user, this personal learning environment is not a separate space on the internet; hence, it is an essential part of the users’ workspace. It should be highly integrated with the user’s framework of tools for his/her personal use of the internet” (Fiedler, 2011, pg. 3-4). Web 2.0 and the easy access it allows for information, user generated, edited and created products has made personalized learning spaces possible while also pushing is towards their creation.

Below is a graph showing what a personal learning environment might look like, highlighting how students interact with and learn from PLEs, and some of the technologies that make up PLEs.

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Image taken from:

Personalized Learning Environments and Technology

There are many advantages of using PLEs in teaching but two of the most important are students gaining the ability to use Web 2.0 technologies and the using of personalized learning environments to peak student interest. Arnone et al (2011) assert that curiosity is a great motivator in learning and explain that although “students may be curious, the relevant resources may not be available to satisfy that curiosity” (p.182). Technology has the ability to effectively provide students with information while also stimulating their curiosity. Arnone et al explain that students born after 1980 have “major aspects of their lives—social interactions, friendships, civic activities—… mediated by digital technologies’’ and that in these “new media contexts, children have seemingly unlimited opportunities to invoke and exercise their curiosity” (p. 184 – 185). However, if students are not equipped with the right skills to sift through and access the information furnished by new media contexts, they will become frustrated and lose interest.
A study done by Wendy Drexler in which 15 high school aged students created their own PLE demonstrates how students can be taught to take control of their learning. A high school teacher designed a unit which has the goal of introducing a “model for student construction of personal learning environments that balanced teacher control with increased student autonomy” (Drexler, 2011, p. 370). The unit adopted a model designed by Couros which was made relevant to a K-12 student and included four primary categories. Below is a picture of the model, taken from Wendy Drexler's article The Networked Student Model for Construction of Personal Learning Environments: Balancing Teacher Control and Student Autonomy, which shows what a student's PLE might look like. The picture might also work as a way to get students thinking about exactly what their personal learning environment looks like.

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Since students had never before made a PLE significant, “amount of time was allotted at the beginning of the project to address digital literacy as well as task and organizational skills that would be required in the online environment” (Drexler, 2011, p.376). The students were taught a new tool every day for the first two weeks of the nine week unit. Below is a chart showing the tools taught in the order they were taught.
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Chart taken from Drexler p. 327
Next, students used a personal web page aggregator to bring all of their separate tools together. Below is an instructor's example of a personal page which includes the reader, email, personal blog, not taking program, and social bookmarking on one page.

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Graphic taken from Drexler pg. 378

The benefits of using this sort of teaching style are many. While undertaking the project, Drexler describes how students used a constructivist approach to learning by constructing "knowledge based on experiences and social interactions" and how the approach uses technology a "collection of tools that promote knowledge constructions an information vehicle for exploring knowledge, an active learning tool, a social medium to promote conversing, and an intellectual partner to facilitate reflection" (Drexler, 2011, p. 372). Another advantage described by Drexler to teaching using PLEs is students practicing networked learning. This type of learning takes control of the content away from the teacher by allowing students to “connect with subject matter experts in virtually any field” and by teaching students how to “compare conflicting viable points of view [which] is essential in an ever expanding information age.” Instead of having students simply learn content, PLEs are allowing them to take an interactive role in their education by developing 21st century skills they will use once the class is over, create content that others can use, and construct the nodes in the PLE “that must be revisited and built upon to facilitate further learning.” While Drexler does acknowledge that creating a PLE does not guarantee “comprehension or deep understanding” he argues that the greatest learning potential exists in what the student does “with the compilation of content and how it is synthesized” and hopes that students used the skills they acquired while building a PLE to “locate expertise beyond the classroom” (Drexler, 2011, p. 372- 374).

Below are a couple of videos demonstrating why using the internet and Web 2.0 tools to help students to create PLEs is advantageous to both the teacher and student.


Personalized Learning Environment without Technology
Despite the fact that much of the research on PLEs and how they are often used in education today, centers around the heavy use of technology, the ideas behind them can still exist in low-technology economically disadvantaged environments. Fielder et al (2011) assert that ‘from an educational intervention perspective, we need to make an attempt to re-configure teaching activities so that the individual personal learners can actualize and execute control and responsibility…[over] their own (personal) learning activity and its specific (personal learning) environment” and that “digitalization and networking” have become the “dominant medium” in education (p. 7-8). Even without fancy graphically stunning programs and high speed internet connections, PLEs can still be designed to allow student's control over what they learn while also ‘actualizing and executing control and responsibility’ over what they are learning. Students can access many of the texts and images available on the internet, which will allow them to personalize learning, using satellite internet. In addition teachers can find books, videos, and resources around the school which will also help students personalize their learning. While learning environments designed this way are not as interactive and engaging as those using Web 2.0 and the latest learning technologies, they still will require computers and internet access, they can instill students with a love for learning and skills that will help them be successful in the 21st century.

Wilson et al (2011) describe another major benefit of PLEs as being their ability to “enable a wide range of contexts to be coordinated to support the goals of the user” and their ability to “integrate learning experiences in a range of environments, including education, work, and leisure activity” (p. 5). Designing PLEs around these two goals will be much more difficult in low-technology and economically challenged areas because the access to information and the internet, smart phones, and laptops which facilitate ubiquitous learning is difficult. However, it is still possible to introduce students to the ideas and dialogues that learning in multiple contexts enables while also showing them how to access information using the resources they do have available to them. Students can also still participate in live online discussions, blogs, and message boards, allowing them to engage multiple contexts while learning, even if the access is not as instant and easy as in high-technology environments. Lastly, as technologies and learning technologies become cheaper students will need to have the skills, knowledge, and practice necessary to learn and interact productively with them.

International Teaching and Personalized Learning Environments

Using PLE's when teaching is perfectly designed for international teaching. Wilson et al explain (2007) that when using PLEs learners will encounter very large contexts which will present a "usability challenge" because it will "not be possible to absorb all the information within the context...nor is it feasible to present users with flat representations of contexts when they contain thousands of resources (p.8). While synthesizing and evaluating the large amounts of information that skilled teachers must teach, it allows for students to interact with knowledge and ideas from around the world, gain perspectives that would otherwise be hidden to them, and interact with students from around the globe. Bonk (2009) describes how "these learning partners will be connected in ways never before imagined" and that as these connections become standard practice "there will be chances to dramatically change how we deliver courses, programs, and education in general."

Another advantage to using PLEs when teaching internationally is that by allowing students to take control of their learning, they can also help students take control of the content. Many international schools adhere to a curriculum that uses U.S. created materials, for example history, economic, and math texts, to teach content. This content is often difficult to teach to students who have not grown up in America, have not been exposed to American values, and don’t necessarily agree with ideas perpetuated through America’s education system. Fielder et al (2011) discuss how “early stages of fundamental media transformation seem to be dominated by the replication of old patterns within the new medium” and how learning activities often reproduce “traditional patterns of control and responsibility” (p. 7). PLEs solve this problem by allowing students to research topics using Web 2.0 tools in order to discover information which facilitates their ability to critique the dominate systems of control they encounter when learning. Bonk (2009) describes how “already learners give presentations or write books and papers with those in other parts of the world” and how this ability should lead to changes which “dramatically change how we deliver courses, programs, and education in general.” Bonk describes further how “the sharing of educational resources [might] lead to new forms of trust and collaboration among the people of this planet” and how this open education could “lead to forms of human kindness and empathy never previously witnessed” (Big Picture).

Next: Augmented & Virtual Realities