Institution vs individual environments

Have just completed writing for a course on eportfolios. I remain a bit sceptical on these, at times they seem little more than a set of prepared fields for web publishing. In terms of academic practice they can be seen as part of a general shift from the institution to the individual. Along with blogs, social bookmarks, individual portals, etc the emphasis is less on providing students with all their ICT requirements and rather on incorporating their existing tool set into the institution. This viewpoint sees its apotheosis with the Personal Learning Environment (CETIS PLE Project). Now if I had doubts about eportfolios, they are nothing compared to the ones I have regarding PLEs.

The not inconsiderable problems a PLE would need to address are:

  1. Support. The support issues for an institution and educators would be extremely complex if each user had a different set of tools, and so would most likely be passed on to the individual. One of the reasons why current VLEs have been successful is that they allow universities to centralize support and thus ensure a certain level of competence and quality of experience.
  2. Quality assurance. Increasingly universities need to ensure a certain quality of provision. This would be difficult to maintain and predict if everyone is using different tools.
  3. Suitability. While the learner-centric notion has much about it which is admirable, we should also be aware that sometimes the student is not the best judge of what is the best approach. In this context this could mean they continue to use a tool when a different one is better suited to the purpose, or they are not exposed to new technologies.
  4. Negotiation of activity. Although the choice and flexibility in this approach is a strength, it could also create a significant overhead in negotiation. For example group activities would be difficult to achieve if everyone used their own tools. While there may be some standardization and compatibility between systems (e.g. different IM clients may be able to communicate), this is difficult to envisage between different categories of systems e.g. IM and asynchronous tools. Therefore there would need to be negotiation between students as to which tools to use.
  5. Technological complexity. Although the service oriented approaches and standardization will help, it would still be an enormously complex task to enable the range of different tools to integrate with those systems required by an institution, and even more problematic if one has to assume a novice user

What the PLE work reveals and acknowledges is the growing use of technologies by learners. VLEs are often operating on an assumption of zero experience and competence (which is the safest thing to do, and for some students, valid). Higher education has not really begun to address the implications of Prensky’s ‘digital natives’ coming in to the higher education context with familiarity and loyalty to a number of different technologies.

The tension here is between institutional and individual technologies. VLEs are an institutional response to the opportunities of the internet. Most of the newer tools are based around the individual. The eportfolio is a good example of this tension. Many universities are beginning to develop or buy institutional eportfolio systems, so that they provide all students with this tool and use it in specific courses and for institutional aims, e.g. as a means of assessment. However, the eportfolio is an individual tool and one of the main drivers behind them is their ability to collate information and learning across institutions. So, should an eportfolio be a tool that a user brings to an institution or one that an institution provides for everyone? Of course, interoperability goes some way to solving the dilemma, since it means data can be ported between applications, but it is unlikely to be the complete solution, and many of the problems with the PLE outlined above, such as support and guaranteed level of provision will remain.

Some of the implicit and explicit criticism of current VLEs that is found in the PLE work is valid, but this does not necessarily mean that the PLE is the solution. Some of the complaints, for example the ‘one size does not fit all’ claim could be addressed by making VLEs better, either in terms of pedagogy or customization. One could envisage a rich set of tools being offered to students via VLEs, with customizable and personalized feeds, interfaces and tool selection, which would go some way to achieving the aims set out for PLEs.

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