I spent some time in a session on Personal Learning Environments recently. The issue of PLEs aside, what intrigued me was that most of the talk focused on the development of rich, desktop clients.
In fashion they say if you stay still long enough, trends will come back around to where you are. This is true with educational trends also I guess, so for some it seems that clients, like flares, have come around again. Some of you will remember the early e-learning days where you had a plethora of different clients for each functions – email, discussion forums, online simulations, etc. Then the web came along and the web browser became the ubiquitous interface. This was a significant step forward and was partly responsible for the phenomenal growth of internet usage in the nineties. Now you could use any browser to access most of the functions you wanted to perform online. This is very useful if you log in from different locations, as you don’t need to rely on multiple versions of different software clients being available. It also means you can integrate different tools as they are operating within the same browser framework. However, there is often a loss of richness and speed in using a web version of a system compared to the dedicated software client.
With PLEs the fashion seems to have come full circle again, and the talk is now of rich, desktop clients once again. Two reasons are put forward as the main advantages of this approach, one of which I feel is valid, and the other less so. The first, more powerful argument is the ability for the user to create a rich environment with complex functionality, which would be difficult to achieve through a web browser. The software is housed on the user’s machine, and not located remotely on a server, which means that the transactions are quicker and the level of control greater.
The second argument put forward is that a client allows the user to work offline, since the connection with the server is not required. While this is important for users sometimes, it is something of a red herring. Most users can easily arrange tasks for periods when they know they will be offline, for example downloading documents for reading. It runs counter to the trend in society for almost ubiquitous connectivity. There may be times when you want to take your mobile device to the top of a mountain to study, but these are not so frequent as to necessitate the massive development and cultural effort that a PLE-oriented system requires.
If I had to back a winner here I’d go for ubiquitous connectivity and browser interface (maybe with some thin clients), over the rich desktop client.