Why don’t we talk about PLEs anymore

I know some people will immediately respond to this title by declaring “I do! And look at all these other people who do”. And yes, there is a PLE conference. But my sense is that we don’t use the term, or more significantly, discuss the concept of Personal Learning Environments, like we did in 2010 say.

This is not to disparage the term or work on it, I think it was very useful to frame the difference in the way¬†we began to operate when all these new, easy to use tools suddenly became available. I’m interested from an educational technology perspective in what the decline in its usage tells us. Google trends backs my impression up that we don’t talk about it as much, and given that terms tend to linger, I would suggest that it shows it definitely isn’t a hot topic amongst ed tech people:

If you accept for now the premise that it isn’t discussed as much, then what does this tell us? There are a number of possible reasons:

  1. It’s become commonplace, so drawing the distinction between your set of tools and an institutional learning environment isn’t necessary. It’s a bit like saying “my phone is mobile!”
  2. It’s become absorbed, so it is seen as an extension of the LMS, or rather the LMS is just one other part of it. We don’t differentiate between tools for different settings because the boundaries between personal and professional have been blurred.
  3. There has been a shakedown in the market, so actually we’ve all settled on the same few tools: Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Slideshare, plus some other specific ones. My PLE looks pretty much like your PLE, so it’s not really a Personal one anymore. Just like with the early days of search engines, we don’t talk about whether you prefer Lycos or Webcrawler now, we just Google it.
  4. It wasn’t a useful term or approach. There were projects that attempted to get data passed between LMSs and PLE tools, or to set these up for people, and in the end people just opted for some tools they found useful, and didn’t feel the need to go further.

For some of these reasons you could argue that the PLE was a success, it made itself redundant as a term, which illustrates it reached penetration. For others you could argue it was maybe a case of academics inventing something that wasn’t really there. For me, I found it a useful way to think about these new tools and moving away from pre-packaged solutions, but that’s become second nature now. Anyway, it’s useful to revisit terms and see what they tell us about the current situation. I shall now go into hiding from the pitchfork (some hand-crafted, some mass produced) wielding PLE mob.


    • admin

      it peaked in 2011, but you’re right it’s kind of plateaued. my point is if it was still a happening term it would be increasing. Terms tend to hang around for a bit, but this doesn’t suggest it’s a phrase on the increase, and some people are late to the party so will be discussing it after it has passed its popularity.

  • Rita Kop

    I would say that research in PLE is still very much alive, but a new cycle of research funding has arrived and a new name for the phenomenon invented, or is that too cynical?

    • admin

      Hi Rita, I don’t think one can be too cynical about research funding, but even so, outside of this, I don’t see it discussed as much amongst my peers, or on blogs. Some have continued with it, and I wasn’t disparaging the term, just wondering if it’s relative decline in use was a sign of something?

  • nessman

    Would add to your list “We realized as nifty as the Web 2.0 tools were that in part prompted interest in this approach, many people came to understand the surveilled commercial space in which they were ushering students into, and implementing these kinds of tools oneself or at smaller scales is a lot harder than using free cloud ones, and the budget was already allocated institutionally to the ‘enterprise-y’ LMS, so…”

    • admin

      Hi Scott (and welcome to my new home) – I think that’s a good point, but I wonder how many people do understand that, or are bothered? Maybe there is something about mistrust of the services though – whether it’s surveillance, or their longevity, or terms and conditions, that leads to a retreat to safer ground. And as you point out (and Brian and Jim did in an excellent article recently), the LMS has sucked everything in financially, resource wise and conceptually, so that’s all you’re left with.

  • Peter Reed (@reedyreedles)

    Hi Martin,

    Interesting discussion. In my experience formal PLEs haven’t really taken off in the sense that a HEI provides a personalised environment for students. I remember UCLAN toyed with a system (can’t remember what it was called), but not sure how successful it was.
    IMO, I don’t think an institution can provide a personalised system as learners have to use the tools they want, when they want. Otherwise it’s not very personal. In that sense you could consider the term has been replaced by formal/informal learning which recognises this distinction.

    I’ve actually been meaning to blog about personalised learning since reading posts from Audrey Watters ( and David Wiley, who uses the metaphor of Netflix to a personalised experience –

    Just a few thoughts anyway.

    • Natalie Lafferty

      Hi Peter & Martin
      I wonder if it’s also dropped off the radar slightly because personalised learning is talked about much more rather than personal learning. Much of this is perhaps being driven by the attention on learning analytics and how this can be used to support personalised learning. Along with MOOCs and the flipped classroom, learning analytics seems to be one of the big buzzes (hypes?) in education. I do wonder whether this is a good thing and whether we should actually be focusing more on personal learning so that students develop the skills to become lifelong and wide learners.

      • admin

        Good point Natalie, and perhaps relates to Rita’s point – there are fashions in ed tech and learning analytics is the new trend so that view tends to dominate things. The PLE student centred approach doesn’t have much in common with the more data-centric view.

        • Rita Kop

          Another issue is that I know several research groups that are working on PLE-type features, but there is IP related to developing such technology, which means it might not be possible to disclose too much at this stage.

    • admin

      Hi Peter, I agree completely, I think university attempts to create their own versions of such things are nearly always disasters. Much better versions exist elsewhere, and I always thought there was a fundamental paradox in the way PLE projects wanted to create a PLE for students. Surely the point of it is that it accrues over time, for each individual, as they see fit.

  • Charles Severance

    Martin, I agree with your observation of the trend. I think that PLE was in particular a technology that was less about “Something that gives different learning resources to different people” (i.e. Personalized Learning”) and more about being a “Personal Learning Repository” where students gather use, share, and exchange learning resources. I think that where this “Personal Learning Repository running on my big computer with large hard drive and nearly always connected” missed the notion that almost no users wanted to be a system administrator and install, configure, update, and backup such software on their personal hardware platforms. With the rush to mobile – folks just want to be able to re-find their old learning resources stored on the web regardless of which of their many devices they own or borrow. PLEs kind of fell victim to peer-to-peer efforts like LionShare from Penn State where the thought was that folks wanted to own their stuff and carry it around with them all the time. Which is simply not the case for the average user. It does not mean that some kind of Evernote like learning thing might be valuable to users – but it needs to be in the cloud – not on your hardware. I think that a lot of energy was lost when the early PLE folks tried to build laptop/desktop repositories without really thinking through what users wanted. They spent the research money so we can’t ask for the same money again using the same code word now that we have a better sense of what might actually work.

    • admin

      Hi Chuck, yes that’s a very good point about spending research money. Perhaps we’ll be on to personalised MOOCs in a couple of years and then we can ask for the money again

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