I’m wondering why the idea of personal learning environments (PLEs) has captured the attention of so many. Surely PLEs have always existed. I have been thinking about my father who died aged 79 and was born in 1914. He helped to install the first computer in his company and as I remember, it was the size of whole room – a large room. My father did not know computers as we have them today, but nevertheless he had a personal learning environment. I can remember it clearly. It was a roll top desk in a tiny room in the attic of our house, where he did not like to be disturbed. He had a fountain pen and a bottle of ink on the leather top of the desk (which became visible once the wooden lid had been rolled back) and meticulously kept documents in the small wooden pigeon holes that lined the back of the desk. My father also had a public learning environment – a rather grand office in a modern building in a nearby town. And he had both a personal and public learning network. Networking was very important, even in those days, and for my father consisted of entertaining the right people (my mother achieved this wonderfully well). Those pictures in films of small children looking through the banisters at dinner guests arriving, was more than just fiction for some of us.
So what is the fuss about PLEs and PLNs? It is not that they exist. They have always existed in one form or another, for people of all ages.
We might think from this PLENK2010 that the fuss is about technology. There is no doubt that there are now a wealth of technological tools at our disposal which we can use on a personal private level, i.e. just for ourselves, or on a personal public level, i.e. we can use them for connecting to others, sharing information and resources, discussion and knowledge creation. But perhaps to get too hooked up on the tools we use in today’s PLEs and PLNs is to miss the point – and that is that the tools change the L in PLE or PLN, i.e. they change the learning or at the very least the approach to learning.
How do they do this? One overwhelming change is in the amount of autonomy they afford us. There are now so many open source tools that we don’t have to wait for an institution to provide them for us – we can go out there, get the tool we want/need and just get on with it. We can also circumvent traditional ways of going about things in education, if we so wish, and can even subvert them if we feel so inclined. We can learn what, where, when, how and with whom we wish. PLE now means something different to what it meant in my father’s day. I suspect I have more choices and more power/control over my learning than he ever did. But I am also probably exposed to far more information than he ever was.
So for today’s learners, a PLE involves using a wide range of tools to connect with a widely dispersed network of people and resources. Navigating this network is a key skill. Managing vast amounts of information is a key skill. Filtering, critical evaluation and selecting information and deciding with whom to connect are all key skills. Knowing how to aggregate selected information is also a key skill. The autonomy afforded by today’s PLEs and PLNs brings with it many implications for the learner. I think it may be a while before we fully understand what these are.