Itâ€™s already four weeks from the PLE conference in Barcelona. The summer has been so nice that it took me a while to write down my thoughts on the conference. I am interested in the personal learning environments mostly from the design perspective. I went to the conference to receive feedback for our latest project LeContract and to learn about other software projects in the field.
Actually most of the presentations and discussions were more on the conceptual level. From the presentations I really liked Sebastian Fiedlerâ€™s presentation “Personal learning environments: concept or technology?” (pdf). Sebastian and Terje analyzed how personal learning environments have been conceptualized in the literature so far. They saw a clear division between two understandings: PLE as a concept vs PLE as a collection of tools. I tend to fall into the second category. Tools and resources have a major role in every learning environment. Currently people are using a lot of generic tools (such as blogs) in their personal learning environments. I think that in near future we will have more tools that are designed specifically for personal learning environments. With these tools the designers will build the bridge between the concept and the technology.
I am not sure if personalization is the most important characteristic of these new learning environments. For me it is more important that the learning environments are open. In the context of learning environments openness has several meanings: (1) environments where learning activities take place openly in the web; (2) environments that are based on free and open source tools; (3) creating and using open educational resources; and (4) free and open enrollment to online courses. Of course learners are also open to decide which tools they will use in their learning environment. In my own teaching I try to follow all these principles. I think that there is room for a lot of collaboration between the PLE and the open education community. The Open Education conference will also take place in Barcelona this year.
From the design perspective the most interesting presentation came from Andrea Mangiatordi who analyzed the OLPC XO laptop as a PLE (pdf). I have never looked at XO from this angle but there are really big similarities between XO laptop and PLEâ€™s. Another interesting (or should I write controversial?) session was a workshop about Google Wave. I understand that from the technical perspective it is one of the most advanced Web 2.0 environments, but the user experience was far from good. The system was not intuitive at all for new users and it looked really busy on a standard laptop screen. I feel that Google has tried to consolidate too many features into one system. In that sense it looked like a learning management system. I would prefer several smaller tools that do a specific task well. UPDATE: when this post was almost completed I found out that Google decided to stop the development of Google Wave.
There was also quite a lot discussion about institutional PLEâ€™s. I donâ€™t see any reason to provide tools that are already freely available (blogs, image and video hosting platforms, etc.). However, there are learning situations where open and distributed PLEâ€™s are not very good. For example it is better to discuss sensitive topics in a closed discussion room. Also, it is often easier to follow learning activities that take place in a centralized system. I think that closed and centralized learning management systems are gaining more Web 2.0 features but we shouldnâ€™t start calling them “institutional PLEâ€™s”.
Our own presentation about the conceptual design of LeContract (pdf) went OK. We had only 7 minutes to introduce the concept and therefore we prepared a short video instead of a presentation. LeContract is a web community for creating, reviewing and sharing learning contracts. Learners write learning contracts to specify their goals and ways to accomplish them. The project is still in the design phase and you are welcome to give feedback to our scenarios.
Finally I must say that the conference was quite well organized. There was a lot of space for discussions and an active backchannel in Twitter. I really liked small details like personalized name badges. And I had a chance to meet a few people whom I knew only online before. Unfortunately I didnâ€™t have much time to look around in Barcelona, but I will have two more conferences there this year.