This is the PLE project at Bolton University, working towards defining the tools for personal learning. The project is being funded by JISC and carried out by CETIS

The project is part of the e-Learning Reference Models programme for the e-Framework. Read a very short project summary.

the personal learning environments blog

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August 15, 2007

Organisational perspectives on the PLE

Last month I presented a paper at Ed-Media titled Preparing for disruption: developing institutional capability for decentralized education technologies. This month, Michele Martin has a great post called Seven Strategies for Supporting Personal Learning Environments at Work.

I think what we are starting to see emerging is the sheer practicality of the PLE as both an individual and organisational response to the challenges and opportunities of networked learning. While some concentrate on the key empowering aspects and learner perspective, there is also a complementary organisational perspective, which sees the PLE as a key opportunity to gain the benefits of e-learning in the organisation without the substantial capital cost and management overhead of centralised learning provision.

The next stage is where we start to see the services that provide the complementary coordination for PLE-enabled learners operating in organisations. This month I posted on the CircleUp message coordination service, for example. I think we'll see more of these kinds of services emerge to support the type of coordination needed to support course groups and work teams but operating in a very different way to traditional groupware and VLE/LMS solutions.


April 16, 2007

PLE as conceptual intervention

A worthwhile observation by George Siemens on the nature of PLE: PLE is a concept, not a product. Its an unfortunate tendency especially in our sector to take a concept (PLE, e-Portfolio) and attempt to reify it as a product.

In my own view, the PLE is different for each individual, but can make use of common tools and conventions. One of the aspects of PLE that hasn't been elaborated on much is the establishment of conventions - as it is these that make 'interoperability' even worth considering. For example, it is the conventions of 'blogging' (the process) that makes the interoperability of blog content via Atom and RSS meaningful.

The scope and nature of the interoperability we can provide to connect different PLEs is in one sense determined by the conventions that emerge in the practices of personal learning. (In another sense we make new practices and conventions possible by offering new tools and interoperability features)

What has been emerging in the past year or so has been more about conventions than technology as such - the educational use of blogs, use of bookmarks, and use of tagging and filtering. These conventions are emerging from the use made of the technologies by pioneering teachers and learners.

What are far less developed are the conventions of association and rendezvous - the conventions and patterns for coordinated activity such as community-forming and collaborative work using distributed technologies. Distributed identity (e.g. OpenID) provides one of the important building blocks for the technology base that would allow such conventions to emerge, but there is a lot more work to do.


April 16, 2007

McLuhan and the PLE

Some of my major influences when working on the PLE project were McLuhan, Stafford Beer, and Ivan Illich, so its interesting to see an application of the Tetrad to the PLE concept.

There is a commentary on this by George Siemens, however I'd like to add a comment of my own regarding reversal; perhaps a simple way of expressing reversal is to say that a PLE, when pushed beyond its limits becomes impersonal. (For example, this would be like the mandating of ePortfolios that turns them from personal into institutional artifacts.)

However, I'm not sure the tetrad is the right way to look at the PLE, but a way of looking at media that might be incorporated within an individuals' PLE, or perhaps a mechanism that a PLE might employ as a tool for helping its owner understand media.


March 23, 2007

Map of a PLE

Ray Sims has produced a fascinating mind map of his PLE.

It reminds me of Katharine Harmon's book You Are Here with its maps of personal geographies.

Ray has blogged more recently about the need to separate out the learning aspects of the PLE from aspects of 'doing'. This fits with a model of PLE as being more closely aligned with strategic rather than operational activity, with a different scope.


August 14, 2006

Flock to add "People" view

Its great watching Flock evolve, especially as some of the things we started working on in Plex seem to be being implemented (usually very well) in Flock, which is getting some good reviews and is already pretty usable.

The latest news on the next milestone of Flock is the addition of a people view. In Plex we effectively had a completely different UI perspective for working with people as opposed to working with content-type resources. It'll be interesting to see how Flock tackle the HCI issues, not to mention the question of how to relate identities to people.

and ... will it support FOAF?


June 23, 2006

PLE workshop papers online

You can now find all the papers submitted by attendees of the PLE workshop online at

There are also a lot of other interesting resources also on using the PLE tag.


June 16, 2006

Another look at Flock

Prompted by Derek's recent post I downloaded the latest version of Flock to have a play with. Its come a long way since I first looked at it, at the start of the PLE project, and its interesting to see how both the prototype work on Plex has followed a similar approach to Flock - perhaps a validation of our using a pattern-based approach?

In this Flickr photoset (or use this tag instead) I've compared some of the ways Flock and Plex handle the management of web services using a very similar model. (I've written comments on each screenshot)

Not all patterns are implemented in both applications: for example, Plex has no notion of notifications (nor a photo manager), while Flock has no concept of rating resources. However, its easy I think to see how these could operate in both applications.

Flock has done an excellent job in some places of "hiding the plumbing", whereas Plex has been keeping everything more or less exposed (its not, after all, really intended to be a tool for typical users, but a testbed and demonstrator for people interested in this topic). In particular they've done well at implementing service discovery - something we knew was an obstacle to users was locating API endpoints and Flock has made a decent stab at this, whereas Plex's "exposed wiring" approach requires a fair knowledge of where to locate things like REL tags, for example.

I think the separation of "bookmarks" and "blog posts" as distinct types of resource has pragmatic value at the UI level, although within the prototype development work it became very clear very quickly that at a deeper level there is no real distinction. Perhaps under the chrome, Flock does the same?

Of course where Flock is currently lacking is the other kinds of instruments relating to people and activity (community?) - essentially Flock mostly contains the capabilities found in the "resources" perspective of Plex. However, I think it would be interesting to see if and how these other dimensions fit into the application as it progresses.

For more information on Flock, visit


June 04, 2006

Mike's PLE

Mike Seyfang's PLE is his mp3 player, his camera, a bike, and a fair amount of riesling...

Mike has blogged his learning journey with his PLE here.

Mike's blog entry made me smile, but I think the point is well made - it really is about personal technology for personal learning, right?


May 02, 2006

Presenting Plex at the ELF Developers Forum

A presentation Scott made on the architecture of Plex, one of the prototypes developed in the PLE project.

Download the powerpoint slides. Note that the download address for Plex is actually


April 11, 2006

Firefox Scholar

Scott Leslie drew this to my attention - an adaptation of Firefox to enable the direct use of scholarly materials such as journals and citation indexes.

As Scott mentioned in an email to me earlier, one option for the PLE is to enhance the browser into a complete personal learning toolkit using plugins and other technologies such as Mozilla's XUL. Something we've seen recently with Flock.


March 31, 2006

Plex beta available

The Plex beta is available for download.

From now on, we'll publish the latest beta version of "Plex", the PLE desktop client that we've been developing. We have versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. You'll need to ensure that you have Java installed on your machine.

At this stage, there's no documentation or help for the App, so just "hunt and peck"!

You can download Plex at


March 13, 2006

Guardian: Elgg and the Personal Learning Space

"The idea is simple but powerful: give students a personal space online to pose questions, publish work in progress and link to and comment on relevant resources. It also gives them a way to find and link up with other learners with similar interests to create an ad-hoc learning community." So begins this article in the Guardian.

Good news for Elgg, which receives some well-deserved publicity. The article also provides this nice quote from a deputy headteacher at a school using Elgg:

the real strength of the software compared with more traditional VLEs is that "much of the control is handed to the pupils themselves", as they get to choose what they write about and whether to share their work with the rest of the class, "giving them a far stronger sense of ownership".

That sense of ownership is the unique property of a personal learning tool, and its interesting to see this coming through within a school context, where based on recent trends we might expect a desire for more control over students rather than less.


March 07, 2006

UCISA workshop slides

The slides and the audio for a talk I gave recently entitled "Challenges for Institutions in Adapting to the Global Information Infrastructure" at the joint ULKON/UCISA/CETIS workshop "Initiatives & Innovation: Managing Disruptive Technologies" are linked from this page.

I talk a bit about what the education system was designed for, and its central design problem of needing to manage the complexity of learners desires with limited resources. Traditionally this has been achieved through the hierarchical structural design of institutional departments to courses to lesssons, with the resulting fragmentation of individual learning. So far learning technologies like VLEs have sought to make the existing design work more efficiently, but technologies can be recruited to support a radical restructuring of the whole educational edifice. This is not a trivial undertaking, and we need to have a deep understanding of the role of organisations as a mechanisms for handling complexity to be able to design the use of technology to rebalance the complexity equation. This will necessarily involve identifying where institutional inertia is is located. I suggest that IS departments (the audience in this case should look at redesigning their role to become enablers of change, and stop being just providers of technical systems. It may be time to give up offering technical systems when much better ones are becoming available on the web that can be exploited for learning and teaching, and to start finding ways in which we can exploit what learners bring to their learning.


February 17, 2006


D'Arcy Norman has posted a shot of the whiteboard for EduGlu. EduGlu is an example of the sort of middleware proposed for intelligently gathering and filtering items from a wide range of services, creating as its output a contextualized feed.

This example shows a query-based approach to contextualization, using tagging. Other examples such as SuprGlu have adopted the approach of selective inclusion at the source level.

This type of middleware may become an essential part of the toolkit for teachers, facilitating the production of customized resource sets to support common activities, such as reviewing students' conversations about a particular topic or assignment, gathering submissions for marking, and tracking usage on recommended sources.

For learners too, having "packaged" feeds filtered from a wide range of primary sources can be very useful, in this case the "glu" is being used as an instrument with a similar purpose to the traditional reading list.

There is also the potential role for feed middleware in the contextualization of resources through conversation-building: generating a feed containing posts that contribute to the development of an idea. This could replace the traditional hosted forum with a more flexible distributed architecture.

Of course, there is a great deal more flexibility in this type of processing technology, and could lead to some interesting innovations.


January 27, 2006

Portable and personal

One of the key factors in a personal learning system is portability - it moves with the learner. One solution is the personal device (laptop, pda, phone), another is the personal hosted service accessed from anywhere, while another that sits somewhere between is a portable toolkit that can be plugged into other infrastructure.

This third option comes under the general heading of "portable applications" - systems that can be loaded onto small, largely passive devices such as portable USB drives, iPods, and the like, and then used from any computer that will mount the drive space.

There is a good overview of what makes an application portable in this sense at

Generally, the types of solutions fall into the category of either using spare capacity in the portable device for storage and those that simply act as tools on networked services with limited local storage requirements. The former need to prevent the host infrastructure from innapropriately using their information, so this typically involves the use of encryption software for storing sensitive information such as passwords.

A limitation of the approach is the need for OS-level compatibility between the portable device and the host. This can be overcome to an extent by using cross-platform applications or multiple versions, however other issues relating to system configuration (e.g. required system libraries such as Java or Python platform libraries) are problematic.

A potential solution lies in making portable devices that boot a complete system, such as the read-only Linux distribution, Knoppix. However, this may cause problems for the host infrastructure, as it bypasses any security or other restrictions on the host system, and would enable a range of "antisocial" activities to take place such as spamming and DDOS from the "hijacked" machine.

An alternative is to enable the portable device greater autonomy, and essentially only use host infrastructure for I/O purposes - for example, the graphics support and screen, audio support and speakers, keyboard and mouse, network connection, and so on - without requiring one device to "boot" the other. However, I'm not currently aware of any devices being offered that behave in this fashion. There are, however, many solutions for enabling devices such as PDAs and laptops to take advantage of local infrastructure such as the network (Wi-Fi), and various display and input devices, largely through an array of cables, but also through Bluetooth.

An alternative solution is to transform most of the bulky hardware infrastructure itself to make it more portable. For example, Projection Keyboards can be used instead of plastic keyboards; and we have also seen portable screens (for example, as found in the Sony PSP) increasing in clarity while at the same time getting smaller in terms of their non-displaying components. Perhaps also the trend for ever smaller projectors using LEDs will eventually yield something smaller and more convenient to carry around than a laptop or slate screen.

Related item: USB study stick.


January 18, 2006

Ultimate Productivity App

There are a lot of ideas here, especially in the comments, about what would make a superb productivity application. I missed this post first time around, and its nice reading it now in the context of thinking about PLE functionality.


December 04, 2005

The Learner's Charter for a personalised learning environment

The Learner's Charter for a personalised learning environment has been published by NESTA Futurelab, and begins with "The logic of education systems should be reversed so that the system conforms to the learner, rather than the learner to the system."


November 17, 2005

PLE Reference Model Presentation

Fresh from the CETIS Conference yesterday where our Reference Model presentation sparked off a lively debate. Thanks to all those who contributed and helped take these ideas on. Several people asked for the slides so here they are.

The presentation is available to download: Reference Model presentation as a PPT file (926k). Please email me ( ) if you require another format. Please send comments to the address above too; we shall try and set up a discussion forum or enable comments in the next few days.


November 04, 2005

PLE project at CETIS conference

The PLE project will be presenting its work at the CETIS conference on November 15/16 in Edinburgh.

The PLE strand will be elaborating on the different workpackages involved:

The aim is to establish a development agenda for PLEs for the next year.


November 03, 2005

iTunes as PLE: iStanford

Stanford has created its own iTunes Music Store for distributing recordings of lectures, sports coverage and campus events.

This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the acknowledgement that a non-institutional instrument (iTunes, iPod) is the most appropriate one for distributing and using learning resources.

So, it could be argued that Stanford are acknowledging part of the PLE argument - that its an effective strategy to delegate the management of learning resources to learner-contributed technologies.

For more info, check out Stanford iTunes.


November 03, 2005

Building an expert list

Gardner Campbell makes an interesting point about the social aspect of the educational experience in creating a set of "trusted and inspiring experts".

I think the other side of the coin is the network of 'inspiring peers' that we create as part of the education experience.

This is something interesting in the context of a Personal Learning Environment, and brings FOAF deeper into the core of what a learning tool needs to do - it has to help us to forge and manage connections with others.

via Weblogg-ed


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