Stéphane B. Bazan, Directeur de l’Unité des nouvelles technologies éducatives – FSEDU/USJ (December 2012)



The read/write Web brought major changes in the way users interact with online platforms. If, as Tim Berners Lee said, the Web evolves at a faster speed than our ability to observe it, impact on learning technologies and practices brings new challenges to educational institutions. As a social machine, the Web creates content communities by building new links and interactions between information, data and knowledge. Universities have tried since the 80’s to catch-up with the available technologies to harness the power of online delivery of content for improving education. They have tried to articulate positive outcomes of rich learning environment with institutional strategies. This lead to the development of virtual learning environment, organized around learning management systems and open Internet access for students and teachers.

Learning today is permanent, ongoing, takes place in different contexts and uses numerous devices. The latest tendency in education technology is the development of personal learning environments (PLE), a web 2.0 extension of the concept of e-portofolio. This virtual network of integrated tools to access, share and produce electronic content for education is a real challenge for universities: if technological change can be followed by investment and infrastructure change, PLE represent a different kind of problem: they’re a new approach, a new concept, that goes back to the very basic core of educational institutions functions.

We start by giving the fundamentals reasons of this new paradigm change, around the concept of digital literacy. Then we’ll look at why VLE are no solution anymore to answer this shift.

The Digital Shift

O’Reilly describes the Web 2.0 as a set of new conception rules for business models following a set of six powerful ideas that are changing the way some people interact with information. It’s a (direct or indirect) reflection of the power of the network: the strange effects and topologies at the micro and macro level that a billion Internet users produce. The read/write web was a core competency of the original design of the WWW by Berners-Lee. But in 1991, interaction with servers was not an easy task. Complex programing languages, slow connections and small storage spaces prevented users to “participate” in content production and publication. But even if the core technologies at the heart of the Web have not deeply evolved, the delivery of content by Web servers witnessed a powerful shift with the introduction of high speed connections, 3G and the democratization of Wi-Fi access in schools and universities. Storage spaces online and cloud computing, brought, at the same time, new opportunities for developing interaction, collective production of content and community building. Large and permanently improved sets of tools emerge from these ideas: blogging and microblogging platforms, social networks, aggregators, wikis, semantic search engines, etc. These tools, in turn, allow users to develop new competencies and new practices: tagging, bookmarking, online collaborating, sharing, liking, etc.

Ubiquitous computing

This change brought not only new tools or new practices: the deepest nature of the relation with information and knowledge has changed: First of all, the user has become ubiquitous, through the variety of available devices and the global access to networks. Ubiquitous computing allows the reunion of two previously distinct processes of learning: theory and knowledge now join practice in context which it is to be applied (Attwell). The part of Informal learning in an acquired knowledge has dramatically increased with the use of ubiquitous technologies to go up to 80% in certain professions. Another major transformation comes from the distance with knowledge and understanding of information. For centuries, knowledge was produced and access-controlled by authority: Parents, Priests, Teachers, Journalists and Scientists used to format information to reinforce their positions of power and control the docile minds of the crowds. Access to information was hierarchical and distributed vertically and exclusively. With the Web and the Web 2.0 models, formatted information is still at the base of knowledge construction and validation, but we’re moving toward a new kind of “ knowledge hierarchy”, a more open and democratic distributed access. This observation has huge consequences for the educational system.

The Digital Native Mindset

One of the main characteristic of the Web as a social machine is its recursive ability to transform society, but also to be impacted by these transformation: this co-constitution process is a core explanation of Web 2.0. The software doesn’t define usage anymore: software evolution is the result of feedback, of user-defined needs and requisites. In the “Information Age Mindset”, Jason Frand lists the new rules of the digital native generation: Computers are not technology; they’re just innovative answers to everyday-life needs. Internet is better than TV; Reality is no longer real; Doing rather than knowing; Nintendo over logic; Multitasking; Typing rather than handwriting; Staying connected; Zero tolerance for delays; Consumer/Creator blurring (Davis). These new rules set new standards for the educational world. Learning becomes networked and fast, knowledge is free and shared, wisdom comes from the crowd and lessons-learned benefit all (Sierra).

The limits of the LMS and VLE

The 90’s technological answer to the introduction of the information society in universities were the Learning management systems. LMS were designed to reproduce online most of the classroom activities. But it’s one of the worst errors that technology can make: trying to reproduce a situation by “digitalizing” the reality and transform human interaction into digital interfaces. According to Hugh Davies, the VLE were wrong, for they embody outdated views of teaching as “push”, they put the teacher at the centre rather than the student or the network, they do not integrate with the tools and environments students or lecturers use. They’re also fundamentally closed; they do not have any understanding of network learning and don’t encourage learners to take responsibility for their own learning, tools or digital literacy. Attwell goes even further: Courses based on bulletin boards can be very lonely.

Tools like Moodle or Blackboard, to certain extend, were the first victims of the Web 2.0 revolution: students suddenly became more interested in using the technology than just being driven to it. They discover the ability to create groups, build content collaboratively, publish information created by them and develop their “online learning identities” on wikis, Facebook groups or Youtube Channels. LMS have become “remains of the old order”, locked-in “authoritative” online spaces, where learning stays in the restricted area of the simple interaction between a student and a teacher. Of course, LMS and VLE were a teacher’s dream in a way: as they reproduce the basic functionalities of the classroom, teachers are comfortable on LMS. The LMS is a structured place, under institutional control, where the hierarchy between teachers and students is respected. Davies goes even further and states that “monolithic VLE are for digital immigrants who don’t have their original toolset”.

The Personal Learning Environments

The literature proposed on the subject agrees on one point: PLE are not applications. It is comprised of the different tools we use every day to communicate, get informed, share knowledge or just learn. PLE are organized around 3 layers: The Services, the Networks and the Users. Where the LMS were Web 1.0, the PLE are Web 2.0, social software oriented. Systems, formats and compatibility are no problem for PLE; contents travel from one service to another through open formats like RSS or ATOM. With the recent development of applications for mobile devices, APIs connect content and services for a universal transmission of multimedia information on PLE. A definition given by the ELI describes the PLE as “tools, communities and services that constitute the individual platforms learners use to direct their own learning and pursue education goals”.

But PLE have a real downside: even if content can move from service to device to user without restrictions, the number of tools and the frequency at which their services go obsolete makes it almost impossible to produce a stabilized shape or structure for the PLE. Even the borders or sections of the personal learning landscape are very difficult to draw. And they can be very different from one student to another according to their personal experience with the Web, with the devices they use, the place they live, the discipline of study, etc. It’s then easy to understand why institutions will have a hard time trying to figure out what is a PLE and what needs to be done to orientate the university’s strategy toward such a “virtual” concept.

Oskar Casquero (2010) sets the reasons why PLE should follow a strategic and institutionally driven implementation in universities: institutions should guide a part of the learning process to compensate individual failure. Institutions also create an important social capital that must be combined with personal networks of users. They should gather individual knowledge and return them with added value to its members and to society.


Short bibliography

  • Graham Attwell, Personal Learning Environments – The Future of E-Learning?, in E-Learning Papers, Vol.2, N.1, January 2007.
  • Oscar Casquero, Towards an eLearning 2.0 provisioning strategy for universities, Oskar Casquero ( University of the Basque Country, PLE conference 2010
  • Hugh Davis, The Development of Institutional Personal Rich Learning Environments, Learning Societies Lab, ECS, University of Southampton, 2010.
  • Jason Frand, The Information Age Mindset: Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education. EDUCAUSE Review 35:5, 2000
  • Kathy Sierra,
  • Mark Van Harmelen, Personal Learning Environments, School of Computer Science, University of Manchester, UK, 2005


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