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March 04, 2008

P vs. P in a user-centric world

I'm currently doing some thinking around the 3 or 4 themes that I want to pull together for a talk at the UCISA 2008 Conference in Glasgow next week.  (Brian Kelly recently blogged about the same talk - it is a joint effort - under the title "IT Services Are Dead – Long Live IT Services 2.0!").

One of the themes I want to touch on is our general move towards user-centricity (is that a word?) and in particular the use of the word 'personal' in both Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and Personal Research Environment (PRE).  I've been laboring under what turns out to be a misapprehension that the P in PLE is used differently than the P in PRE.  Why did I think this?  Well, when I first read the PLE article by Scott Wilson et al, Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems I must have particularly picked up on this paragraph:

While we have discussed the PLE design as if it were a category of technology in the same sense as the VLE design, in fact we envisage situations where the PLE is not a single piece of software, but instead the collection of tools used by a user to meet their needs as part of their personal working and learning routine. So, the characteristics of the PLE design may be achieved using a combination of existing devices (laptops, mobile phones, portable media devices), applications (newsreaders, instant messaging clients, browsers, calendars) and services (social bookmark services, weblogs, wikis) within what may be thought of as the practice of personal learning using technology.

At the same time I conveniently ignored the following paragraph:

However, for the design to reach equivalent or superior levels of efficiency to the VLE, as well as broader applicability, requires the further development of technologies and techniques to support improved coordination. Some initial investigations include the work of projects such as TenCompetence and the Personal Learning Environments work at the University of Bolton cited previously.

I really like the first of these two paragraphs, it sums up my view of the PLE as a way in which the learner can pick and mix from the wide range of [Web 2.0] services out there on the Web in order to get whatever task is at hand done most efficiently.

I tend to dislike the second, only because it puts one in mind of a portal-like approach, i.e. where the learner uses some kind of institutional or desktop tool as an access point to the range of external  services in which they are interested.  I'm afraid that I have a somewhat unjustified hatred of the 'portal' word/concept ever since I used it in the early days of the JISC Information Environment work and then had to spend 4 or 5 years explaining that I didn't really mean what people thought I meant!

Anyway... it seems to me that the P in PRE does tend to be used very much in the sense of 'research portal' - a single point of activity that brings together whatever combination of things it is that a researcher needs to do in order to undertake their research.

A couple of days ago, I asked my Twitter followers a question: is a PLE an approach or a bit of software?

To his credit, Scott replied, summing up the PLE concept rather nicely in 140 characters or less as follows:

@andypowe11: environment (web,society,family)+tools(sw, hw, process, technique)+disposition = PLE

I used to have a (regularly broken) rule of thumb that if you can't write something in one side of A4 or less then you haven't thought about it hard enough.  Seeing Scott's reply made me wonder whether that should be downsized to 140 characters - i.e. if you can't tweet it, don't bother!

I remain slightly disappointed that the notion of a PLE has to include some aspect of a tool to aggregate things together (and typically an institutional tool at that) though I suppose I have to grudgingly concede that such a thing is necessary, at least in as much as one needs to tie together assessment-related information based on the learning being undertaken in the PLE.

In terms of the talk, the theme remains pertinent I think.  We are now quite used to using the term 'user-centric' in the context of identity management (particularly OpenID).  But, of course, this trend is more pervasive, covering all kinds of activities and including both learning and research.  Whether there is an in-house aggregation layer (a portal, or PLE, or PRE, or whatever one chooses to call it) to bring the outputs of distributed learning and research activities back together is largely a moot point.  The point is that those activities are increasingly likely to be carried out using services outside the institution and where the institution has varying degrees of control over service level agreements, data protection, and the like.

And despite my negativity, one of the advantages of having that in-house aggregation layer is that it gives the institution some way of pulling external content created by its members back inside the institution where it can be retained as part of the scholarly record or for QAA type purposes, or whatever.


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Hi Andy,

The trick is to not confuse coordination with provision. A university has to have some coordination because students outnumber teachers - they have to manage resources. So while the PLE involves a personal collection of tools, the university needs its own tools and services to operate in this new way. The distributed, PLE landscape cannot compete with the centralized VLE provision if it can't answer basic things like marking, depositing assignments, sending reminders, and broadcasting content.

The obvious -and IMHO wrong - way to think about this, as you rightly point out is the portal or single-tool idea. But there are other ways to look at this; see http://zope.cetis.ac.uk/members/scott/blogview?entry=20071113120959

I think there are really only three ideas here about the institutional tools - Widgets, Feeds, and Aggregators. But there are so many good ways to combine these into a really rich toolkit that I think it will eventually kick the arse of any portal or VLE functionality. The tracking is actually meaningful, you can facilitate discourse in richer ways, you get more targeted management information, etc.

Note that the "course coordination space" isn't necessarily a portal you go to, but the place you may initially source things like a combined feed from all your peers, for example.

There is a policy angle on this, too, but its a bit big to go into for a comment.

I'm not really up on the whole PLE conversation, but as far as course co-ordination goes, is not just "small pieces, loosely coupled" vs. "monolithic tool" again?

It seems like the problem is 'I vs I' rather than P vs P (that's Individual vs Institutional).

I think the question is whether the Institutional bit is 'necessary' or an option for those who want to use it. Although many are happy to use various services out on the web, there are those who want everything provided in a nice package and this is what (well conceived and delivered) Institutional services should be able to provide above the pick and mix approach.

That is to say that I don't see any harm in providing an institutional portal through which you access stuff, but I don't think this should be the exclusive route - and at an individual level in theory the 'aggregated view' could be an institutional 'portal' (or VLE, VRE etc.), a 3rd party 'portal' (Netvibes, iGoogle etc.) or a personal environment (such as 'this is my laptop, it is my PLE, I use NetNewsWire for this, and Apple Mail for that, etc.)

I suspect that this is where we are going, although security issues are going to be a challenge is my guess (I see institutions getting more restrictive in some areas as they tighten up security to industry 'good practice')

Well ... if it's only a portal, you're right! But ... a portal can be "useful" imho in aggregating and presenting a shop-window for services, applications and information and just like the latter it can inspire the window shopper to go elsewhere.

Personal it has to be, and of course this brings with it the need for directories, identity management and the like backed-up with SSO to make it usable and friendly.

Value is what will drive a PLE in whatever form it takes. If it has no value, if it has no resonance with the user, it will whither and fail. It also has to have currency (in a value sense) that extends beyond the current learning environment into one that is truly lifelong. That means the PLE has to be a lifelong one and one that the user takes with them. Something of far greater value than an email account for life or a Blackboard account for life.

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