PLE vs. LMS – disaggregate power, not people.

As PLENK2010 moves into week two we are taking on the debate between Personal Learning Environments and Learning management systems. My next post will address the differences between the two, but there is a major point that I’d like to address that digs into my distaste for the use of the word ‘personal’ in education.

The PLE/LMS debate is not about autodidacticism, it’s about the decentralization of power

It is easy to see the transition to PLE as the ‘rebel yell’ of education. The splitter leaving the fold to strike out on their own to a place where they can make their own decisions, commune with knowledge on their own terms, thank you very much, and not be under the evil yoke of a power mongering educator and not have to suffer the ignominy of working in groups with other classmates. The lone learning warrior, learning on their own, without guidance. It is an easy vision to have as the discussion around PLEs is often put in opposition to LMSs and this often degenerates to “institution bad, learn on your own”. While this is a very interesting debate, it is not the same as the debate around learners managing their own learning content.

I see learning as a social activity. I don’t care if you’re engaging with dead white men in a book, it’s still a conversation. (albeit one sided in that case) The problem with the PLE (when contrasted with the LMS) is that it can easily move the focus to THE LEARNER and not THE LEARNERS. In this way the move from LMS to PLE can be seen as a move from with people, to without people. We don’t learn much alone. We need to keep the focus of the discussion on the disaggregation of power, not the disaggregation of people.

My own PLE (if i were to call it that) is very much about the aggregation of people. It is about me having the choice of which people I aggregate. It is a plurality. This kind of plurality, the kind of engagement with the network of knowledge on your own terms is about choice. The traditions of education are not so much about the student having choice but about the institution of education having choice (the LMS). This, in my mind, is the central distinction between PLE and LMS.

When we disaggregate the power in education, we empower individual learners. It can encourage them to learn more than is presented in the curriculum. It can encourage lifelong learning. PLEs provide an excellent venue for this to happen. This does not mean that the role of the educator, the guide or the facilitator has evaporated. The great thing about MOOCs is that it brings focus to the many different things that we are all interested in learning, it provides a community of learning, a community curriculum for us to engage with. This, to me, is what the PLE is all about.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

35 thoughts on “PLE vs. LMS – disaggregate power, not people.”

  1. This is interesting, and it brings up a rather subtle point about affordances. It seems to me that aggregation of people is not the same thing as facilitation of conversation. So, for example, is an interesting way to bring in a diversity of points of view to one place where you can read and absorb it all, but it’s still essentially one-way.

    Affording different types of educational conversation (small group, large group, one-on-one, intimate/private, public, etc.) is a much more challenging task. And to me, this is where the supposed PLEs that I’ve seen in the wild tend to break down. Either they are essentially aggregators and thus inadequate, or they end up blurring into the LMS space. I don’t think the latter is bad, by the way.

    1. Hi Michael I agree… I think what I”m suggesting is the place of the course is to provide that very difficult facilitation. I don’t really know how to do it well at this point… it’s something I”ve struggled with and gotten right, sometimes by plan sometimes by accident in many different attempts. But aggregators (of the automagic variety) are inadequate… I’m speaking of human aggregation…

  2. I am nodding in agreement to the emphasis on people, but am missing the leap of assumption that a PLE indicates someone working on their lonesome prairie.

    Most people who write about it start with either the use of different tools OR the connections to their network (falling into the other acronym).

    And along with the words of dead white men, why can’t my PLE include using an LMS? Yes, what you say is true about institutions making choices for individuals by the boundaries of an LMS, but nothing prevents learnings from going outside the LMS for learning and they can also bring ideas, links from the outside in.

    I’m not defending the LMS but am feeling the THIS vs THAT approach is missing the grey in the middle.

    1. Hi Alan, note the reply from Jennifer and Derek. This idea of PLEs being alone is a strong theme that many people ascribe to. I agree with you entirely… not alone.

      Your PLE ‘can’ use an LMS. You can break an LMS in order to make it student controlled and allow them to control their content outside of the context of courses. But it’s not designed to do that.

  3. Maybe we are “arguing” lately because this PLE / PLN topic hits on some fundamental differences in our conceptions of learning, networks, community, knowledge, etc. and the role / influence of others on same. We have kicked around these conceptions and definitions before, but maybe next week we should pick up on your sentence from above, “We don’t learn much alone.” I guess I see a PLE as an external representation / snapshot (curation?) of the learning going on (alone) in my head (expressions of my reflections, my understanding, my interpretations, my feelings, etc.) and the PLN as what I tap into to share what is in my head and to get new perspectives, information, feedback, etc. from others to fuel my learning (and .. with hope .. to fuel the learning of others). However, I am guessing my perception of the role of others (as fuel for an internal process of learning) does not overlap with how your view learning … hence the lack of overlap in our views on the definition and function of PLEs, PLNs 🙂

    p.s. I hope you don’t kick me out of your PLN because we don’t share the same conceptions (oh, she can be a be-atch) ..

    1. HI Jennifer, much like with Derek, we’re mostly disagreeing on what we call ‘alone’. I don’t think that mixing up all the ideas that are forming there from things you’ve read, discussions you’ve had and passed interactions as particularly ‘alone’. We are all part of a network… even if you do the organizing of those thoughts at a specific time when there doesn’t happen to be anyone else around, you’re still very much part of a broader discussion.

  4. Alan, one question that I’ve been asking lately is the degree to which “institutions making choices for individuals by the boundaries of an LMS” is an intrinsic feature of an LMS, as opposed to being an accident of the history of the software product category and the pedagogical models that existed at the time of its creation. There are a few defining features of the LMS that are driven by universities’ institutional obligation to certify students’ progress, but those features have to do with grading and not necessarily boundaries. Most of the aspects of the LMS that I hear people object to are not characteristics that I think of as essential to the definition of an LMS.

  5. This is an interesting post on a topic of interest to me; I have written a bit about the idea of PLE, and have developed two applications that would be considered LMSs in one of their guises. One of the uses I have for the LMS software is to help create my PLE. Of course, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SlideShare, Google, Collecta and a variety of other technologies also help make up my PLE, but they also are woven into the LMS. The reason I can do my PLE using LMS-like technology is because the LMS is a technology, while the PLE is a way of thinking. Lots of technologies can serve as a PLE, including a text editor or a few sheets of paper. I can see students in formal learning situations making use of a variety of technologies to create their own learning opportunities, including their institution’s so-called LMS (a 20th Century concept if ever there was one). You can learn from a network of people (I found this blog from my Twitter network) in formal situations, and you can learn from them in informal situations (like this). When is it a PLE and when is it a LMS? Seems to me to be an artificial distinction, or a distinction drawn between unlike categories.

    The issue about power relations… So if I am in a course (institutional and teacher power) and do exactly the same thing as I would do in a purely personal learning situation, then it is not a PLE? Otherwise it is? I am confused, and babbling, but it would be interesting to see how you distinguish these unrelated things!

    regards, derek

  6. I’m not convinced by the line that we don’t learn much alone. As a teacher I seem to spend most of my time alone researching material for classes, doing the reflective thing to see how I can improve my game etc. It would be my contention that apart from limited CPD most professional learning is carried out by individuals charting their own course towards what they need to know.

    1. Hi Laurence. I think you may have missed the part where i said “even if you are reading about dead white men you are still in a conversation”. Those materials that you are researching were written by someone… they are someone’s work. They are representative of communications had. We’ve used print for years and think of it as something outside of the realm of the personal, but, really, its just another form of collaboration.

  7. Because of pressure of work, I am not yet fully connected with #PLENK10 but I did want to chip in to this interesting thread.
    To me PLE suggests how a learner connecta to their network of people and material resources. I envisage the learner poised and ready for action. What is really interesting is what they then do i.e. their agency within their network. I really like your point about the disaggregation of power not the disaggregation of people but that’s not easy. Moving from joining a class on an LMS with a bounded set of learners and a named teacher to constructing your PLE view of your PLN is a bit like me removing my glasses – the distant becomes fuzzy. First, the issue of scale (very relevant in a MOOC) – we can respond with homophily, feeling safe around those who think like us. Second, the issue of reciprocity. It’s quite obvious to spot the power difference between teacher and student (teachers spending more time speaking than listening) but it’s just as present in our use of social media e.g. when those with largish numbers of Twitter followers choose to follow a subset of them. I like Michael’s point about – Stephen Fry who did follow back the majority has now resorted to this broadcast mode. Asymmetry of reciprocity is bound to exist as scale increases – it’s what we do and what we are aware of that matters. So if you are an ‘attractive’ node in lots of people’s PLNs then it’s extra challenging to listen and amplify quiet views, probably more challenging even than for a teacher in a traditional classroom. At least we can develop tools to help visualise our networks

  8. A learning community is a reflection of any other community. Think diversity. We can all agree that tolerance and acceptance of diversity within community can only enhance society. The problem with this thinking of course is that it assumes that everyone has the same or similar agenda or worldview (or is at least close enough for compatibility). Likewise in learning/education, if the diversity is based on very different worldviews then the contribution of various participants may be incompatible or difficult to communicate. Even more so the reasons for learning. It may be that the institution may become the linchpin for establishing common goals, values and purpose to a particular learning environment.

  9. I think it was the “you dont learn much alone” comment which I was reacting to in my previous comment, as it seemed to imply that my PLE was not going to be very efective, because it dicounted other people who were engaged in simmilar activity. If we phrase the PLE as a PLN it makes it much clearer that this is a network of like minded individuals, facets of whose activities overlap, and who can aid each other like fellow travelers where this ocurs. For me the primary purpose of my PLE/PLN is to leverage on the experience of others and avoid re-inventing the wheel.

  10. By defining the act of reading as a form of conversation is attractive but it distorts the definition to the point of meaninglessness. If reading a book is a social act then what isn’t? It is also a useful trick for supporting the idea that learning is a social phenomenon – because there is no act that is not social. So things get tautological and meaningless.

    I do see how a PLE is a solo act by definition though (defining alone as not being told what to read or when to read it or where). It does have islands of social learning though. As an individual I could spend my days just reading blogs and never commenting. By Dave’s definition this is still social learning. That’s a big difference though between writing a comment and then receiving a comment about my comment. I write comments all the time and yet, I rarely get replies and often I never go back to see if there is a reply. It feels very lonely even though I am engaging in a hypothetical audience. This feels a bit alienating to me. Perhaps with practice I will learn to get more consistent engagement but until then it would seem that an LMS would provide good training wheels so-to-speak.

    I wonder if the people running this course are so engaged and embedded in the online world that they have forgotten how hard it is to get heard here. How many of us write comments without getting replies? What happens when we give up? Do people give up? Has there been research?

    1. Hi peter. first yes. Almost all things done by humans are social acts. Maybe sleeping isn’t… but yes, that is what i mean. It’s not tautological, its a claim about the human condition.

      Lots of comments are written without replies. That is very tiresome I agree. I myself am often guilty of not writing replies. That does not mean, however, that it does not have impact. Yes, I’m sure some people give up. I don’t know if there’s been any research on this, nor do i know how you would do it.

      My point in this blog post was to neither praise nor bury the LMS. Rather, I was trying to complexify a discussion that often degenerates to “institution bad, personal good”. My point is that even if you leave the LMS, you are not leaving the social behind, really, in the sense that you are still connected to other people.

      The advantages of the LMS are EXACTLY as you describe them – training wheels, provide a centralized location, make it easy for forced interaction. The disadvantages are that most people’s work doesn’t continue from an LMS going forward, they don’t tend to create network connections that persist passed a course’s ending nor do they normally impel a given student to push beyond the limits of a professor.

      Not better, or worse. different.

  11. @frances for a more detailed look at how we might start to explore the structure of out personal twitter netwroks, see:

    A cluster analysis of my twitter personal network identifies several different clusters/distonct groupings within the folk I follow – ed techies, open data/gov folk, journalists, OU folk and JISC/Museums/Library folk


    1. shakes fist at Tony Hirst. I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out how you did that. Only to find, among other things, that you appear to own the internet for all the links that return me back to your blog 🙂 i found that very interesting… funny that I find you commenting here today 🙂

  12. Important that you raise the issue of power, Dave, and that Frances links this to agency. I am interested in how we develop open curriculua, and how we see tech as subservient to a view of the student becoming herself in her life-world. This is in and beyond the University.

    One concern I have is that edtechies/educational developers risk losing sight of their ability to encourage humanity through technology, rather than fetishising technology on its own. In this context, and linked to power/co-governance, I wrote some things here, including some questions on the PLE/LMS, informal learning and OERs:

    I am also taken by the need to critique issues of power and control within education, and that the process of disaggregating it, is co-governed by both educators and students. In this, I am taken with the work of the English child psychologist, Donald Winnicott, on ‘the continuation of reliable holding in terms of the ever-widening circle of family and school and social life’. So how do we, as educators, friends, peers, humane actors, provide an environment that holds others as they make sense of the world and their selves?

    Be good!

  13. I had been a bit puzzled by your objection to the adjective “personal” in learning. Now you’ve explained it clearly enough that I can appreciate your concern. My impression from others’ comments is that most of us see the PLE/N as affording additional connections (going beyond the LMS), not chosing to disconnect.

    For myself, working in an isolated geographical location, the institutional LMS provided a welcome interaction in the courses I took on-line. I supplemented it with my limited skype and email contacts, as well as web resources. The idea of a PLE and this MOOC are challenging me to continue moving beyond the learning-by-myself model (Googling dead white guys) to a richer two-way exchange.

  14. I noticed that people are finding themselves using the terms PLE and PLN interchangably. I would suggest that the distinction is between technology and activity.

    PLE: The technological infrastructure that allows a learner to choose their own learning systems and topics.

    PLN: The connections that learners make between one another using the PLE technology and the activity of interaction between learners.

  15. I’m late to this thread – missed it originally and just came to it via Keith’s posting. But would just like to reiterate what Laurence said. Isn’t the concern about PLEs being isolating dealt with by emphasizing the need for them to have a PLN component?

    But I should also add that I agree with you and others who have said that looking at PLE(N) vs LMS as a dichotomy creates a false one for two reasons. Firstly, there is no reason that an LMS may not from time to time be part of my PLE, and secondly, even for instructors in an institution which mandates an LMS for administrative purposes (like access control and grade submission) it is easy to “escape” the LMS in any particular course by sending the students off to explore other networks and just using the LMS to collect back the reports of their travels.

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