Some Observations on PLE Diagrams

One of the perennial favourite pages on my edtechpost wikispace has been the collection of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) diagrams I started back in 2008. A couple of years back I wrote a call to folks asking for feedback on what I might do to improve it.

I didn’t get a lot of feedback, but one comment, from Ismael Peña-López really stuck with me – that what I should be doing was some analysis of my own on the collection, which indeed had in fact been the actual goal all along in creating the collection of diagrams.

I know it’s taken a while, but with some time on my hands, here are some reflections on what this collection of PLE Diagrams might tell us.

Caveat Emptor – Skewed Sample

There are currently 79 diagrams in the collection. With the exception of a very few, these were all produced by educators themselves or else people I think we should consider relatively advanced, self-directed learners. This is not surprising given that I started harvesting the images from my own network, typically comprised of educational technologists and educators, and then others were added from people also a part of these types of professional networks my work typically reaches.

But I think this is important to note up front – while some of these diagrams are simply a list of a few tools the person uses, many of them exhibit a HIGH degree of self-reflection, meta-cognition and technological adeptness. This is not to discount them as depictions of “what might become” for network learners in general, but I would caution to assert that they were reflective of how all network learners currently learn (or currently conceptualize their personal learning networks, as first and foremostly that’s what these diagrams are, conceptualizations rather than the things themselves.)

Diagram ‘Orientations’

The first thing that struck me looking at the collection of diagrams is that there are some distinct “orientations” that jump out – diagrams that I describe as tool, use, resource, flow people, or hybrid oriented.

Tool Oriented

By far the most prominent is what I called “Tool-Oriented” diagrams. Likely an obvious enough name, these are diagrams that by and large depict PLEs as simply a collection of tools. These make up the vast majority of the diagrams in the collection, 62 out of 79 (though as I note below, many of these also exhibit additional orientations and there are fewer that are solely tool oriented diagrams.)

For me these are the least interesting of the diagrams. While it is useful to see which tools people typically conceive of in their PLEs (additional analysis of which is done below), these fail to reflect any of the dynamism I typically associate with network learning. Still, the MAJORITY of diagrams take this tact, which raises the question (taken up below) of whether a PLE is best understood simply as a collection of (albeit networked & loosely coupled) tools that stand in contrast with earlier monolithic approaches to learning environments, or if its that AND something more.

Use Oriented

Numbering 32 of the 79 diagrams, “use orientation” was the next most common orientation in the collection, by which I mean diagrams that explicitly list the aims of a personal learning environment. Often, though not always, these are accompanied by the tools used to fulfill these uses (making these into “hybrid” diagrams, see below). These are far more useful in contrasting how people conceptualize learning within a PLE compared to more traditional teaching and learning approaches. As I’ll discuss below, while there are many similarities, there are some key different uses and practices developed by PLE users that differentiate the way they are learning (and what) from their predecessors.

Resource Oriented

While there are no diagrams that are solely “resource oriented,” many of the diagrams do list educational resources, both formal and informal, as part of the PLE. These seems important to note; while many earlier conceptualizations and practices of education, both online and off, have been accused of focusing too closely on content as the mechanism for learning, the critics pendulum has often swung too far in the opposite direction, seemingly content as having little or no role at all in learning. To me, neither of these extremes are correct, and the presence of various resources in the PLE diagrams offers a happy medium – resources, both consumed and created, shared and personal, digital and physical, do have a place in how networked learners conceive their learning and environments. Especially in conjunction with the other orientations.

People Oriented

In some sense, ALL of the diagrams that depicted networked tools or resources were “people oriented.” But I chose this term to describe diagrams that explicitly mentioned or depicted people or groups of people as part of the PLE. As in the case of “resource oriented” diagrams, there are almost none that are solely “people oriented.” But it was surprising to me that only 15 of the 79 diagrams seemed to explicitly depict or mention people as part of the PLE.

Flow Oriented

Flow Orientation” was also a characteristic that rarely appeared on its own, but 20 of the diagrams made real efforts to show how information and connections flowed between tools and people in their networks.


Finally, as I’ve alluded to, 32 of these diagrams reflected more than one of these orientations, and these I have termed “hybrid.” For me these are typically the richest diagrams in that they depict PLEs as dynamic processes in which tools and resource have uses and flow into and out of systems and conversations. This reflects my own experience of being a network learner.

Dominance of Certain Tools

It seems unsurprising, especially given the popularity of certain services and the relative homogeneity of the sample, that the diagrams which identified specific tools (or types of tools) were dominated by a select few. Blogs (59) dominated, but twitter (33), social bookmarking (43), flickr (28), and youtube (21) were also consistently listed. In addition, while I did not tag the diagrams as such, synchronous tools like skype and Elluminate, as well as email and eportfolios were all regularly listed.

Social networking sites were also listed as common elements of PLEs – Facebook was listed in 25 diagrams, and (shocking to me) linkedin in 15. (Shocking because clearly these folks have figured out a use for linkedin that elludes me.)

Given how often they are mentioned in the same breath as blogs, wikis (25) seemed relatively underrepresented in the tools people singled out in their PLEs. Even more surprising to me was how little wikipedia (9) was mentioned to me, given its dominance in search rankings and internet traffic.


In addition to these orientations, I was struck by the use (and sometimes lack thereof) of metaphors to depict PLEs. The main one (and I am not completely convinced that this was not in part an artefact of the digital drawing tools employed by many to create these diagrams, more below) was of a “network.” So commonplace was this that I did not officially code for it in the new collection’s tags.

Interestingly (and again, I suspect an artefact of the tools used to create the diagrams) most of these “networks” were mind-map type drawings most closely resembling hub-and-spoke networks. While they capture the individual user’s perspective of being at the “centre” of THEIR network, these are not actually accurate representations of how internet networks as a whole look. This issue, that “individual” networks are emergent phenomenon that differ depending on the location of the observer/participant is, I believe, a hugely rich avenue of exploration and challenge for network learning and networked society in general, but grist for some future post, not this one.

In addition to the standard “network” depictions were more abstract diagrams. These struck me as worthy of note because they are less easily reducible and for me capture some of the human elements of network learning that is so often overlooked, whether it be “love,” “growth” or simply the ephemeral nature of networks.

Finally, though not exactly “metaphors,” it seemed important to note the number of PLE diagrams that were in essence screenshots. Paradoxically, these were both, in my opinion, the least successful representations of PLEs, and yet some of the most valuable for new comers to PLEs (especially those that were screencasts or presentations) in that they gave specificity to a concept that can be ellusive.

PLEs and Informal/Formal Learning

The concept of PLEs originated both as a contrast to existing (e.g. LMS) models of online education and also out of a new set of affordances offered new Web 2.0 tools and practices. As explicitly PERSONAL learning environments, they start from the perspective of the individual learner. Yet many of the people interested in exploring PLEs and their potential have done so from within existing institutions, educational business models and practices (e.g. courses, cohorts,certification.)

Some of the diagrams reflect this attempt to conceptualize a relationship between PLEs and institutions (and their MLE/VLE) which I tagged as “institution oriented.” In addition, at least 13 diagrams explicitly reference the LMS as a component of the PLE.

Whilst a slightly different issues, it seemed worthy to note in this section the number of diagrams that explicitly noted a difference between private activities and public interactions, signalling, as in the case of the formal/informal distinction above, that in some conceptions PLEs are very much about accomodating and permitting flow between both.

The Effects of Digital Drawing Tools

I had a suspicion that the diagrams are greatly influenced by the tools people chose to use to draw them; that their tendency towards a certain type of depiciton (networks, entities & flows, venn diagrams) were because that is what those tools do well.

To see if this might be true, I coded those diagrams created with a digital drawing tool to contrast them with hand drawn diagrams (of which there were far fewer.)

The results seem inconclusive – if anything, the hand-drawn ones in the collection seem even more dominated by “network-like” drawings.


We know what PLEs are…

So given all of these observations, I’m wondering if there are any conclusions to be drawn. (N.B. in what follows I will refer regularly to wikipedia’s definiton of PLEs. Not because it is the only or best one, but as one developed on an openly editable platform with public standards for acceptability, so hopefully reflecting some sort of rough consensus.)

With the dominance of “tool oriented” diagrams, and the fact that the tools listed are well-known “Web 2.0” tools, Wikipedia’s description of PLEs as “Technically, the PLE represents the integration of a number of “Web 2.0″ technologies like blogs, Wikis, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, etc.” seems spot on. Given also the prevelance in the diagrams of flows and networks, Downes description that PLEs “become[s]…not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications—an environment rather than a system” seems supported too.

Given also the general lack of references to LMS and institutional systems (though there are some), the notions that PLEs “put[s] the individual learner at the center” and are about “the independent learner” seem generally reflected in the diagrams.

…but must constantly find this out for ourselves

However, there is one assertion about what PLEs are and how people use them that is generally not reflected in the diagrams – that PLEs “provid[e] support for learners to set their own learning goals.” A very few of the diagrams do make mention of keeping track of goals, whether this be explicitly as a “use” or in the form of tools like ToDo lists or sites like 43things. But by and large this idea of  “learning goals” seems absent from the diagrams.

I believe this gets at the heart of some of the tensions that exist between existing institutional models of education and emerging visions of network learning. The absence of “goal setting” (and its corollary, learning paths AKA curriculum) on the diagrams is in part by design, but also in part a short coming of the current conceptualizations. By design because, in a truly personal learning environment, the goals and paths one follows aren’t necessarily the predefined ones of the past but instead are constantly emerging based on where one finds oneself and what one needs at the time, or as Downes writes “according to the student’s own needs and interests.”

But this absence is also a shortcoming because it throws the baby out with the bathwater, reflecting a somewhat all-or-nothing attitude towards pre-existing curriculum, practices like instructional design (which attempt to anticipate the sequence and instructional interventions through which something can be taught or learned) as (more importantly to me) towards meta-cognitive skills, practices and tools to support the learners own definition of goals and paths.

Clearly, the appropriateness of pre-existing, curricular-based means of learning depends quite a lot on both what is being learned and the learner themselves. But there are times when it seems beyond question that simply following a set of instructions or looking something up is both the easiest and most common way to learn a fact or concept. Yet the relative lack (only 12 out of 79) of explicit reference to pre-existing learning resources does seem to support a pendulum-swing away from this older content-centric vision of learning. That may not be an entirely bad thing, as it has perhaps dominated for far too long, but in an effort to contrast it I do fear we sometimes overstate the lack of importance of content. I am NOT arguing that curriculum or content-focused education and learning is best or the only way, but that it does still have a place.

More importantly to me though, the absence in the diagrams of methods or tools to set goals and identify learning paths doesn’t speak to their originators’ lack of insight or understanding (these come from some of the smartest people I know) but instead that as a whole we are still grappling with how to reconcile the network age of seemingly infinite content, people, connections and activities, with our limited lifespans, limited abilities to pay attention, and limited energies to expend on any one thing.

This is what I was trying to get at in the revised version of my Becoming a Network Learner talk which I gave at the TLT conference in 2010 in Saskatchewan. That it is great to swim in this vast ocean we call the Internet, but if we do so without reference points, without some direction, we run the risk of finding ourselves miles from shore, out of breath, unable to tread water any longer. The constant lament of information overload, internet distractedness, etc, seem very real to me.

The trouble in actually depicting this on a diagram is that it’s not particularly a tool that is needed (though I do think things like social filters and constrained search, recommendation engines, etc can help.) It’s more about constantly re-embedding (or remembering that they are already, or trying not to extract them from) these tools, these networks, these connections in our lives, in our goals, our dreams, our aims, which themselves WILL NOT magically emerge from the network.

This is also why I consistently resist what I see as the reification of an active process in the term “personal learning environment” in favour of simply talking about “network learning.” For whatever reason, as soon as we start using nouns, we then want to categorize and enumerate every aspect of them, but in doing so too often lose sight that each of them is unique, that the common characteristics are emergent phenomena, and that as much as you can try to describe it for someone else, as much as you want to help them, it is only when we each do it for ourselves, as lived experience, that it becomes real. And for some reason, describing this using a verb/gerund like “network learning” seems to me to resist, ever so slightly, this tendency to try and abstract what needs to be a personal process into a general “thing.”

All of which is to say, finally – the PLE is dead! Long live the PLE!



New Home for PLE Diagrams

I am in the midst of writing a rather long post reflecting on what the collection of PLE diagrams I started back in 2008 can tell us about both PLEs and how people conceptualize them.

But as I started it, I realized that looking at the diagrams on the wiki page was a bit frustrating, as there was no simple way to tag them and categorize them. So this weekend I experimented with moving the collection into an actual image gallery database. You can see it at

I would love some feedback from you all – is this a better solution than the original wikispaces page? Worse? I tried to preserve the ability for people to upload their own diagrams to the server, and this new solution also adds the ability to tag the images and leave comments on them. Please do tell me what you think in the comments below.

I will leave both up for a while and if I decide to move this permanently to this new gallery site will redirect traffic from the old wikispace here.

Becoming a Network Learner Redux – Cultivating Attention and Other Network Literacies

The folks at SIAST kindly asked me to do the opening keynote for this year’s Tlt ’10 conference. Whenever someone asks me to keynote I really want to give them something new, partly out of a sense that they deserve it but also because for me, doing talks is one of my main forms of intellectual expression, where I get to work out new ideas and try to figure out new ways to communicate old ones. But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t this time; I am just too zoo’d with stuff at work etc.

So I dusted off my “Becoming a Network Learner: Towards a Practice of Freedom” talk that I originally delivered in December 2008 during my trip to Colombia.

Still, I did try to introduce some new material, which you can see in slides 53-59. The first two new slides simply tried to explain my “Open Educator as DJ” as another form of PLE workflow, but one which sees teaching others as one of the goals of learning on the network.

The other new stuff, which is more important, but MUCH more raw, has been prompted by concerns that have been niggling me for years. I am not sure if these are “essential” effects of using the net, but I have experienced, and others have noted, that the net can lead us to pay possibly too much attention to the immediate, and not enough reflecting on what has happened or where we want to go. I take the emergence of the GTD movement to be very much an early reaction to this by people deeply immersed in learning/working with technology. I also worry about the phenomenon of the “echo chamber,” that diversity in our networks doesn’t just magically “happen.”

So I tried to suggest that “on top” or “alongside” or “as part of” our PLE we need to incorporate techniques, practices (and tools) to help counterbalance the tyranny of “now” and “me”, to help learners realize that part of learning is looking at where you’ve been which helps with pattern recognition, reflection, and building an awareness of how we learn (meta-cognition.) And similarly, that we need to adopt practices to help us focus, build attention, stay on track amidst the the myriad distractions whose existence is part of the value of the network! (I think this is similar, though maybe not identical, to what Pat Parslow is getting at in this post on “Navigating your personal learning seascape.”) The solutions I seek aren’t about closing your laptops or turning off your cellphones, but instead are ways of inserting some meta- activities or tools into your regular activities in the hope of improving attention, reflection, pattern recognition, diversity.

So, “examining where we’ve already been” might take the form of a plug-in like Wikipedia Diver that records and visualizes your wikipedia sessions, to simple suggestions like one Mike Caulfield made a few weeks back to make reviewing your browser history a regular activity. Using your blog as a constrained search engine, or even just searching your “outboard brain” are other examples of  simple practices we can insert into our existing network flows that I think will increase reflection, help us learn what we know, know what we’ve learned.

And what about moving forward – how to do this in a way that doesn’t fall prey to either the tyranny of the now (helps us know and follow through on our intent) but also isn’t just an echo chamber. I have few answers here – I DO think the whole GTD-type movements, Inbox Zero, etc, are speaking to this and skills we can help network learners adopt. Similarly the idea that people need to become personal project managers. Counter-balancing the “echo chamber”? I am leery to suggest that this is solely a network problem – we see this in many aspects of life. And just like there, I think there is no substitute for choosing to engage The Other, to listen to those you don’t agree with or identify with, in order to build understanding and empathy. Can we technologize such a thing. I don’t know.

As I said, very raw, but I put them out here, raw as they are, in case they resonate with others and they can start to build on them. So what do you think – are their techniques, practices or technologies that you can suggest to insert into a network learner’s workflow that will help counterbalance these effects and help cultivate attention, meta-cognition, reflection, intent? Is this even a problem, or if so, is it perhaps not specific to network learning but just learning in general? Please help me clarify my own thoughts on this. I am a slow learner, and am intuiting more than I can effectively communicate or prove here. – SWL

Sharing your PLE just got a little bit easier

Big hat tip to Gerry Paille for knowing me well enough to realize that the huge Firefox Add-On nut that I am would be extremely excited to learn about a new feature/service for Firefox called “Collections.

Basically, the Collection part of the site (and the related Add-On Collector Add-On – ha!) allow people to create collections of add-ons, annotate each of the add-ons with commentary, share these with other users who can subscribe to these collections!

So, for instance, if you are interested in some of the key add-ons to help yourself become an Open Educational DJ (ahem) you may want to check out my “Open Educator as DJ” collection which I just published, and better yet, subscribe to it, so that as new tools get added they are pushed to you.

Clearly, the PLE is more than just one tool, more than just the browser, and definitely more than MY use of either of these. But for me, the browser, and the various ways I can pimp it out, are a big component of my workflow as both an educational DJ and network learner, but one which has always been really challenging to share with people. With Firefox Collections, that just got a lot easier. – SWL

The Open Educator as DJ / TTIX reflections

So I definitely slowed down posting here, committed to only posting when I had something significant to say, but then I don’t seem to be even able to do that? Anyways, I haven’t passed away or anything, indeed I am just back from the fantastic gathering in Utah that was the TTIX conference. Put on by good friends Jared Stein and John Krutsch (amongst other talented folks) this annual FREE conference has much to offer both K-12 and post-secondary educators, and this year included keynotes from myself, Chris Lott and Brian Lamb.

Well, Brian urged us to “Go hard or go home” and I think each of us did in our own ways. Brian delivered another of his great talks on the “Urgency of Open Education,”  a ‘must see.’ And Chris…well Chris nearly brought me to tears with his talk on “The Idea of the Idea.” Far from being the dry talk the title might imply, this was a romp through the history of ideas which ended in a heartfelt plea for a return to deep humanistic teaching, not as a luxury but as an imperative. I strongly urge you to spend the time and effort this talk demands.

And me? Well cowed as I was by these stellar co-speakers, I did my best not to throw up and gesticulated wildly through “The Open Educator as DJ.” I am reasonably happy how it came off, and pleased that I will get at least a second chance at it this fall at the ADL Academic Fest in Madison, Wisconsin. I really did try to show, not just tell (you can see a demo of each of the steps in the workflow here) but ultimately I do think there was too much telling, so I plan to rework that.

I was especially excited to do this talk not only because some good friends had asked me to do a keynote (which always brings up your game) but because for me this talk represents the synthesis of a number of different strands of my work from the past years, bringing together stuff from “Mashups for Non-Programmers,” (2007) “Augmenting OER with Client-Side Tools: A Demonstration” (2007) “The Pros and Cons of Loosely Coupled Teaching,” (2007) “How I learned to stop worrying and love Web 2.0,” (2007) “Weaving your own Personal Learning Network,” (2008) “Becoming a Network Learner – Towards a Practice of Freedom,” (2008) and finally “Pimp your Browser” (2009). I’m not citing all of these to show off, but instead because for me this last talk on “the Open Educator as DJ” represents the synthesis of thinking on how OER, PLEs and network learning/loosely-coupled-teaching are initimately related, a synthesis which I did not start with but which I have been groping towards in each new presentation. I keep telling you, I am a SLOW LEARNER!

There was a lot for people to take in; if you don’t want to spend the time going through the talk, you may at least find the resources useful. Ultimately, if there were only 3 things to take away from the talk, I would highlight:

  1. clipmarks (and as a critical new method to add to your arsenal which lets you sample and feed individual chunks of the web in a way that still preserves linkability and attribution
  2. As I tried to demonstrate with the example of the resources page, the myriad methods available to aggregate and syndicate content wherever you want it to appear
  3. the very idea of a network enabled workflow inspired by a metaphor from an existing discipline – as I tried to emphasize in the conclusion, even if the metaphor of “DJ” doesn’t resonate for you, find the one that does, because whether you know it or not, you are already using one, and hopefully by becoming conscious of it, it can become one that helps you to swim in the ever-deepening sea of information that surrounds us.

I think there are lots of holes in this talk, and I am always learning, so please, let me know what you think, what parts don’t resonate for you, and how I can make it better? – SWL

Creating a Distributed Network Learning FAQ

If you have presented (or heck, if you have even simply thought about) PLE/PLN/Network Learning, especially to existing educators within formal education, I am sure you have noticed the same sets of questions keep coming up. I know I get the same or similar ones over and over again; so much so that my answers sometimes feel a bit canned, and not always as subtle as they could be. Questions about the new role of the teacher, the changing conception of knowledge; questions on how to make PLEs less complex, whether Network Learning is as effective as ‘conventional’ methods.

On my recent trip to Colombia this seemed especially the case, but maybe I just noticed it because I delivered a similar talk on Network Learning 3 times in 3 days. But the same set of questions kept popping up. So much so that I thought “wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of Network Learning FAQ where some of these common questions were addressed?

It didn’t take me long (5 minutes I think) to jump from this to realizing that the best answers to these questions (and indeed the best questions) weren’t to be found in any one place, but instead that most of them had already been asked and answered in a myriad places around the net, in the distributed and ongoing conversation about Network Learning. So the logical step (at least in my addled mind) seemed to be a wiki to collect all of the questions that advocates of Network Learning were repeatedly ask. But instead of short snappy answers, point to some of the best pieces in the blogosphere that have attempted to answer this question. When I put this out in twitter, at least one person also thought it a good idea (and you know what, sometimes one other person is all it takes!)

So, with that small encouragement, I set out to find a place to do this. Wikieducator seemed like a good bet; it’s not affiliated with any single person or institution and yet dedicated to OER, which this will hopefully be. Indeed, a quick search revealed that none other than the inimitable Leigh Blackall already had a page going on ‘Network Learning.’ After a quick check with Leigh that this might be a good place for such a project (and indeed another reality check from a trusted colleague that this wasn’t the worst idea they’d ever heard) I set up a page.

So, what do you think? Is this a dumb idea? Or would you like instead to add to it? Please feel free, that’s kind of the whole idea! It’s just a beginning, but I do hope it will grow. I know there are many, many questions, and well thought out answers (and even better, working code and executions!) out there. Even if you don’t have a link to an answer, please consider adding the question that always occurs to you (or is alwasy asked of you) when discussing Network Learning (or “Connected Learning,” “Connective Knowledge,” “Connectivism,” pick your trope – you’ll notice I rarely use “Connectivism.” I just can’t seem to bring myself to, must have some sort of “anti-ism” gene 😉

Am I re-inventing the wheel here? Please, point me to somewhere else that is doing this. I LOVE using existing materials! Is this not distributed enough? Comments on that and more also appreciated. For me, this is just a selfish exercise to gather together all the good answers I already know are out there, so the next time someone says “You know, this Network Learning sounds interesting, but how do you assess it?” I’ll be able to say, “Hmm, glad you asked, why don’t we take a look over here…” – SWL

educamp Colombia & Becoming a Network Learner

Last week it was my immense honor and privilege to speak with 3 groups of post-secondary educators in Colombia as part of their educamp sessions. Diego Leal invited me to come and do something on “personal learning environments” based on the workshop I had just co-lead a few weeks previously in Phoenix.

The result was this talk (I think there is video of the last version I gave which I will link to when I get it) in which I tried as best I could to capture some of my own struggle to accept that the future is no longer best understood by looking to the past, and my own take on how my relationships with people (and the context we share) informs how I learn with and from them in various tools that make up my PLE.

But, in the spirit of a ‘camp,’ this was not a one-way exchange (hindered though I was by my absolute lack of Spanish, something I very much regret.) I truly learned much from the experience, both about the amazing country of Colombia, but also about how we should be running professional development workshops. The educamps were very inspiring. Every attention to detail had been paid to create the enabling conditions for learner-supported and learner-directed learning to occur.

Each of the three sessions I attended were held in a Conference Centre, and as I understood it, this was both to provide a space with a reliable simulatenous internet connection for sometimes over 100 people, but also to find a space large enough for their camp model.

You see, in these educamps, space design was an integral part. The Ministry of Education (and Cintel, their partner in delivering these camps) had gone to the trouble of purchasing very comfortable (and stylish, I might add) furniture that was trucked

around to each event. This might seem like an indulgence until you experienced how this created an informal room setup, allowing learners to sit near each other, easily form small groups, and move around the room, leading to the kind of self-organizing behaviour one expects in a ‘camp’ session.

Similarly, throughout most of the day, there was a soundsystem playing music in the background. This was not simply ‘filler’ though the presence of background music certainly added to the sense of informality and helped people relax. Instead, the music actually became a ‘cue’ to help prompt people in not too directive a way to consider moving along; every so often the volume level of the music would go up, and over time people started to use this as the cue to perhaps look for a new conversation.

There were many other seemingly “small” details which I think had a profoundly positive impact on the experience for these learners. All learners received a white ‘camp’ shirt at the start, creating a bit of an equal playing field. One of the first acitivites was asking the participants to ‘tag’ themselves with which of the classes of tools (they did not focus on single specific tools but instead general classes, like ‘Readers’ or ‘social bookmarking tools’) with which they had experience. In doing this, partly they were making a promise to other learners that if someone came up and asked them about one of their tags, they would talk to them about it.

The morning was then given over to the learners exploring (along with some ‘expert’ help, students with some more experience with specific tools, all wearing red shirts) specific tools or groups of tools that they themselves identified as being of interest to them. The idea was not to master the entire array of technologies (there being at least 12 classes of tools that had been identified) nor master them in any prescribed way or order, but instead to explore ones own need in a hands on way, side-by-side with other learners. It is difficult to describe, but I have NEVER seen this kind of buzz or energy happen in ANY of the dozens of North American “pro D” workshops I have led or been subjected to. Indeed, as I told my hosts, I think the great testament to the success of these events is that, despite the fact that they were already scheduled to run from 8am until 5:30pm, we had to kick people out at 5:30!
You can see more photos from the workshop in this flickr collection. They are not great photos, and to some they might look simply like masses of people milling about. To me, they look like masses of people learning together, from each other and not simply mastering prescribed material but actually forming social networks at the same time as they are learning what they wanted and needed to learn. This was a model which truly understood that while studying may be boring, Learning can be fun (and always personal!) A model I hope I can learn to replicate in the years to come. So thank you, Diego, for letting me experience this, it truly was a great learning experience for me. – SWL

PLE Workshop/Mashing up your PLE session

Yesterday it was my IMMENSE privilege to co-facilitate a pre-conference workshop with Jared Stein and Chris Lott on “Weaving your own PLE.” I think for all three of us it was an experiment, developed at a distance through Google docs, wikispaces and a couple of Skype calls. Ultimately, it is up to the participants to judge if it was a success, and the proof will be in how many of them continue on with what they started over that day, but it felt like it went pretty well.

My contribution was a 2 hour session on “Mashing up your PLE.” We had decided to split it into 2 streams, and the (suggested self-)selelction criteria was prior experience reading and writing blogs (and, sort of as an obvious corollary, awareness of RSS.)

(As an aside – we are WELL aware of the issues that surround this approach. We made every effort to emphasize: personal choice; that PLEs involve people and resources not on the network; the PEOPLE are critical, and that they need to grow their OWN networks, not adopt someone else’s; etc. But our goal was to get people who were not swimming in the flow, but who will increasingly be met by students and colleagues who ARE, to start, somewhere, anywhere. To take the plunge, with as many supports as we could muster, in the context of a pre-conference f2f workshop, to sustain it long term.)

I picked 4 “mashup” skills or techniques that I think can help people who already partly immersed in networked learning to be more effective networked learners:

It was a lot to get through in under 2 hours. I know I blew through a lot of stuff and that I often speak too quickly when I present, partly out of nerves, partly for the same reason that I am an exuberant gesticulator – this stuff gets me excited! But I did see lots of eyes lighting up: feed2js always blows people away, you can see the wheels turning of how they can use it; the google spreadsheet “importHTML=” trick works like magic, and while people don’t immediately grok how this is SO much more powerful than importing a page in Excel, when you show them the “More Options” publishing options suddenly you can see the penny drop; I think I sold a few people on “constrained search engines” but it’s Google Coop On-the-Fly that really gets the jaws dropping; and finally, both OER Recommender and the WorldCat/Amazon greasemonkey script provide pretty vivid examples of how you can bring educational resources directly INTO your everyday web experience with NO EXTRA EFFORT!

My only regret is that in my current position (and in my current practice) I typically only get to do these kind of sessions once before I move on. Which is a shame, because in this particular case I have a ton of ideas of how to improve it. For instance, taking a leave out of Alan (and many others’) book, I realized that if I had connected there 4 pieces in more of a story, it would make it more compelling. And in terms of making it educationally more effective, I think that forming the room into small groups, showing them a number of different techniques in each of these areas, and then setting them a problem to solve together (e.g. “figure out how to scrape this site. Feel free to use Google spreadsheets, Yahoo pipes, Dapper, or any other method you think will work”) would make this way more memorable and effective. But ultimately require more time.

Anyways, this was a ton of fun to work on if only to once again get a chance to work through some ideas and practice of my own, which is ultimately what keeps driving me to do new presentations each time, they are one of my only “teaching” opportunities I have right now and allow me to work out stuff that I’d otherwise not get a chance to dig into. – SWL 

Planet WCET’08…is a lifeless asteroid

Partly as an exercise in personal autonomy (we’re doing a workshop on “Personal Learning Environments” so what better way than to walk the talk) and partly just in a fit of pique that the conference itself wasn’t already doing something, I created this netvibes page to aggregate the activity from the on-going WCET conference in Phoenix. It took about 30 minutes to put it together (except for the scraping of the conference schedule, which took 3 minutes once Tony Hirst showed me how to do it with the =importHtml function in Google spreadsheets – thanks Tony!)

I sent it round WCET and everyone seemed impressed, and we showed it in our PLE Workshop yesterday, but alas I fear I have given birth to a non-life supporting planet. You see – there is NO CONFERENCE WIFI. I am sitting in a session right now on “Disruptive Innovations” with about 30 people in it, and mine is the only laptop out (N.B. I was ‘permitted’ to use the secret back-door account, which despite my desire to protest in solidarity, I cannot help but make use of.) So the lingr backchannel that Chris set up is likely not going to see a lot of action, nor don’t expect a whole lot of tweets on the #wcet08 channel (despite the fact that there are at least 8 active twitter users here that I know of, plus many whom I don’t know yet). Sigh. Anyways, for those at the conference who do get online through the overpriced connections in their room, here you go, Planet WCET’08. Feels a bit like Pluto… – SWL

By the time I get to Phoenix…

…I’ll hopefully have the materials finished for the pre-conference workshop on Personal Learning Environments I am leading along with Chris Lott and Jared Stein at this years’ WCET Conference. If not, I figure I’m always good for a bit of song and dance (though I must admit I’ve always been more fond of Isaac Hayes’ version):


The day is shaping up, though, to be a good one. We are going to try two streams. The first, mainly led by Chris, is for people new to blogging, RSS and syndication techniques (as these seem fundamental to many people’s notion of a PLE). The second, which Jared and I will share, is split between “Growing Your Network by Moving Your Office Online” and my session on Mashing up your PLE.The sessions will be very hands on, the hope being that people walk away with their PLE tuned up and more able to accomodate this method of network learning in both their own practice and with their students.

If you are planning on attending the WCET conference, consider joining us for this full day session on the Wednesday, November 5th. If the past is any indicator, it will be a funky good time in Phoenix that day. – SWL