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PLEs and VLEs

July 13, 2010

What does your personal learning environment look like? It’s a useful exercise – one we’ve been doing this week – to picture your own day-to-day engagement with digital devices, networks and services and then to look at that picture as a set of bespoke educational tools: a Personal Learning Environment. My PLE looks something like this:

Click image for larger version

I didn’t include purely leisure or social activities, although in retrospect one or two of them ( for example) absolutely do support learning. The point about a PLE schematic like this is to demonstrate just how much of the functionality built into the VLEs provided by educational institutions to support eLearning can be replicated by a personal mix of free online applications and services – replicated or even bettered. So why would we bother paying for institutional systems?

The OU’s Martin Weller among others argues that we probably shouldn’t. Weller’s thesis is that institutional VLEs express a centralised, controlled, inflexible model of learning – “the embodiment in code of the [traditional] physical structures of learning” – which, when imposed upon students who are used to ordering their non-academic life around their own personal toolbox of flexible, customisable applications and services, are inevitably experienced as overcomplex and substandard. Institutions would be better off adapting students’ pre-existing digital toolsets, encouraging them to assemble them into personal learning environments tailored to their individual learning preferences and needs. (Weller, 2009.)

The counter argument is well deployed by Niall Sclater in an ECAR research bulletin on PLEs and the future of learning management systems (Sclater, 2008). Institutions have responsibilities to their students, for example around accessibility, data privacy and technical support, which it’s hard for them to fulfil without controlling core learning support services. Moreover, as long as an online environment is delivering formal learning with its concomitant assessment and accreditation, there needs to be a single point at which activities and outputs stop so they can be compared and evaluated, which would seem to absolutely require control of the environment by the assessing institution. Last but not least there’s the need for a group of learners to have a common experience and a single social space for knowledge-sharing and discussion – something which again is hard to guarantee to all students without a core institutional environment.

My own view is that institutions and students can have the best of both worlds. A common core environment is needed to support equality of access, quality assurance, comparability and a single locus of CMC; but students should then be encouraged to build out from this core functionality, plugging in their personal toolset of networks and applications in order to supplement and enrich their learning. In fact, this model is not so far from what’s happening on the ground in H800, where much of the learning and support takes place outside the official VLE/course conferences within free web services like Delicious, Google Reader, WordPress or Blogger blogs, and the Twitter #H800 tweetstream.

One final point. Two open-source learning platform projects now in development may help to enable distance learners to plug their personal toolsets into their learning provider’s management system in precisely the way suggested above. Both the Eduglu concept pioneered by D’Arcy Norman and based on RSS and Drupal, and the SocialLearn environment now being developed at the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute and based on Google Apps/Gadgets, are both designed to support exactly this kind of structured self-assembly of personal learning toolsets.


Weller, M (2009) Using learning environments as a metaphor for educational change. On the Horizon, vol.17, no.3, pp.181–9; also available online at

Sclater, N (2008) Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems. Educause Center for Applied Research, Research Bulletin, vol. 2008, no.13. Available online at

From → H800

  1. Sarah Dawson permalink

    I agree John that a good system would be a VLE with the flexibility to allow students to expand and mould it to suit their own learning style. This should also allow those less confident users to stay within the supported confines of the VLE and still complete the work if they choose to do so.

  2. Caroline Leung permalink

    My thoughts on PLEs as an adjunct to VLEs were similar to yours, John. Thanks for your useful links to EduGlu and SocialLearn as these help me to see what it might look like in practice.

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