The PLE as a Single Tool and the Issue of Institutional Lock-in

I had a very enjoyable evening listening/watching the livestream of the opening unkeynote address at The PLE Conference facilitated by @courosa and @grahamattwell. The format was great, particularly for the tight buggers who didn’t pay the conference fees but were attending remotely from all over the world. Basically they presented a series of questions about the PLE on a series of interactive web based white boards that allowed ideas to be posted and, even, some short debates to be engaged in. This was complimented by crowdsourced presentation slides, twitter questions and questions from the audience. I gather that there were some technical problems but I have to say that these were barely noticeable to the remote observer (apart from when the stream stopped for a short time but that was no problem really). Both Alec and Graham carried a very interesting discussion seamlessly.

Now there were a couple of things that came out of the discussion that I was reflecting on afterwards. These were stimulated my replies made to me on my Twitter stream and on the interactive post it boards. Now I love Twitter for sharing ideas and a bit of banter but it’s not ideal for explaining some, often, complex ideas so I thought I’d write this post instead.

Something that struck me was the tendency of some commentators to see the PLE as a single tool when, for me, it clearly isn’t a tool but rather a set of tools. Furthermore a PLE is a set of tools that should be chosen by the user. It concerns me that software vendors like PebblePad and others seek to market their products as a personal learning environment. Of course universities like to think that they can purchase/implement a single tool as a panacea to their issues with educational technology when really the focus should be on openness and not on application lock in for the institution and institution lock in for the student. Related to this is the statement  that I made on the interactive white board that essentially said that learning organisations shouldn’t be in the business of providing personal learning environments for their students. I’ll back track from that slightly and say that my statement was in the context of higher education. It may well be the case that K-12 schools should in fact provide such environments.

Furthermore, in higher education it may well be the case that a university, for example, would provide the tools that are typical of a PLE as a starting point for their students but I do believe that this should not be obligatory for the student to use an organisationally owned set of tools. If we go down that path we will end up with institutional lock-in for the student which may be desirable for the university but it’s no good for the student who wants a life long set of tools that they control. I tried to set this idea out the PLE diagram that I developed last year and wrote about in a post from September. Now I know that there are proposals for portability standards for eportfolios but that gets back to thinking of a PLE as a single tool and such portability standards rarely seem to work.

PLE Portfolio

The other questions I got was “What about assessment?” and “How do we integrate with other university systems?”.

In future, assessment artefacts may be placed anywhere on the internet by students, either within closed or open systems. What the student needs to do is tell the institution where their assessment item is and how it can be accessed. Assessment artefacts that need to be archived for evidence of achievement can be copied to the university archive. This is exactly the idea behind the ‘Loosely Coupled Gradebook’ being developed at Brigham Young University. The system allows students to say where their assessable artefact is and the application does the rest. Solving this problem means tight integration between the tools in a PLE with other university systems is no longer necessary. In fact I would say that tight integration is fundamentally undesirable. The space(s) belong to the student. They choose who, how or what integrates with them and what, who and when gets information form their spaces. At the end of the day what does a university admin system need to? In the current credentialist model of higher education it needs to say that student x has passed course y that run at a specific time and place. What other systems do students need from the university? File storage? They get 25GB for free from Windows Live and various other places. Email? they get that from Google or Microsoft or others? I’m sure there are others but let’s face it, university IT systems are largely being de-institutionalised and teaching and learning may well follow. But I digress and these ideas will come up again.

No doubt these thoughts will raise some further discussions and that is a good thing. In the meantime I would like to take the opportunity to thank the organisers of The PLE Conference for generously allowing us remote users to contribute so fully to the debate and to Graham and Alec for facilitating the excellent unkeynote.

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