Personal (or Collaborative) Learning Environments

I’m really intrigued by the PLE concept.  Although I’m interested in the ways I might share work and learn more effectively using internet tools, I’m even more interested in the ways I might use them to allow for more active and collaborative learning in my courses.

My grumpy side, however, reads “personal learning environment” and imagines something self-indulgent and -important.  As a social scientist I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to “personal” and “individual” because our society (and as a result we and our students) takes the individual as the basic unit of life.  This, combined with a certain economic system and anti-intellectualism, provides the basis for the consumer approach to education that educators often lament.  Of course we are dealing with individual students, but to me the real virtue of the web and the tools I’m beginning to learn about — and this is actually clear from the discussion of PLEs — is the degree to which they can facilitate and make visible the “networked” nature of learning and knowledge, their social character.

So, for my own purposes I plan to think of these tools as collaborative learning environments (CLEs).  In addition to facilitating the kind of learning I noted above, I can imagine that one could use these tools — and frame students’ use of them — to encourage not just metacognition, but a stronger appreciation of how knowledge is produced in general.

Imagining the Internet

My first thought in beginning this post is that, although this is not the explicit intention of the assignment, being asked to respond to a reading on a blog is a healthy instance of turnabout.  I ask all of my upper level students to post reading responses, so it’s both fair and instructive that I should do so as well!

Reading the piece by Bush took me back to the card catalog and indexes that were still in place when I started graduate school in 1992 — although I also recall spending time there and at other libraries locating interesting sources simply by browsing a section of the stacks.  I suppose there can be some serendipity or chance in internet searches as well, although I wonder sometimes whether students expect too much of search engines — or are not fully aware of their limitations.

That said, imagining Bush’s prescient imagining of these possibilities (now realities) for sharing scholarly work and information easily and quickly underscores how much of a difference the internet makes — something I’ve come to take for granted but upon reflection benefit from a great deal.

Although the problems are not new, reflecting on these benefits immediately brings me back to some of the downsides that one might see embodied in pay-to-publish online journals and the proliferation of sites offering “information.”  I just recently discussed with students in one of my classes an instance in which a history textbook adopted in VA was recalled after someone called attention to a line in it claiming that thousands of African-Ameicans fought for the Confederacy.  The author defended the statement as something she found on the internet — more precisely, the web site of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  I suppose this is leading back to the somewhat obvious but in my view crucial point that critical thinking and research skills are even more important in an age in which information is so readily available — and publishable.