PLE, e-p, or what?

The concept of the personal learning environment could helpfully be more related to the e-portfolio (e-p), as both can help informal learning of skills, competence, etc., whether these abilities are formally defined or not.

Several people at CETIS/IEC here in Bolton had a wide-ranging discussion this Thursday morning (2010-02-18), focused around the concept of the “personal learning environment” or PLE. It’s a concept that CETIS people helped develop, from the Colloquia system, around 1996, and Bill Olivier and Oleg Liber formulated in a paper in 2001 — see . The idea is definitely related to an e-portfolio, in that an e-p can store information related to this personal learning, and the idea is generally to have portfolio information continue “life-long” across different episodes of learning.

As Scott Wilson pointed out, it may be that the PLE concept overreached itself. Even to conceive of “a” system that supports personal learning in general is hazardous, as it invites people to design a “big” system in their own mind. Inevitably, such a “big” system is impractical, and the work on PLEs that was done between, say, 2000 and 2005 has now been taken forward in different ways — Scott’s work on widgets is a good example of enabling tools with a more limited scope, but which can be joined together as needed.

We’ve seen parallel developments in the e-portfolio world. I think back to LUSID, from 1997, where the emphasis was on individuals auditing and developing their transferable / employability skills. Then increasingly we saw the emergence of portfolio tools that included more functionality: presentation to others (through the web); “social” communication and collaboration tools. Just as widgets can be seen as the dethroning of the concept of monolithic learning technology in general, so the “thin portfolio” concept (borrowing from the prior “personal information aggregation and distribution service” concept) represents the idea that you don’t need that portfolio information in one server; but that it is very helpful to have one place where one can access all “your” information, and set permissions for others to view it. This concept is only beginning to be implemented. The current PIOP 3 work plans to lay down more of the web services groundwork for this, but perhaps we should be looking over at the widgets work.

Skills and competences have long been connected with portfolio tools. Back in 1997 LUSID had a framework structure for employability skills. But what is new is the recent greatly enlarged extent of interest in learning outcomes, abilities, skills and competencies. Recent reading for eCOTOOL has revealed that the ECVET approach, as well as being firmly based on “outcomes” (which ICOPER also focuses), also recognises non-formal and informal learning as central. Thus ECVET credit is not attached only to vocational courses, but also to the accreditation of prior learning by institutions that are prepared to validate the outcomes involved. Can we, perhaps, connect with this European policy, and develop tools that are aimed at helping to implement it? It takes far sighted institutions to give up the short term gain of students enrolled on courses and instead to assess their prior learning and validate their existing abilities. But surely it makes sense in the long run, as long as standards are maintained?

If we are to have learning technology — and it really doesn’t matter if you call them PLEs, e-portfolios or whatever — that supports the acquisition or improvement of skills and competence by individuals in their own diverse ways, then surely a central organising principle within those tools needs to be the skills, competencies or whatever that the individual wants to acquire or improve. Can we draw, perhaps on the insights of PLE and related work, put them together with e-portfolio work, and focus on tools to manage the components of competence? In the IEC, we have all our experience on the TENCompetence project that has finished, as well as ICOPER that is underway and eCOTOOL that is starting. Then we expect there will be work associated with PIOP 3 that brings in frameworks of skill and competence. Few people can be in a better position to do this work that we are in CETIS/IEC.

In part, I would formulate this as providing technology and tools to help people recognise their existing (uncertificated) skills, evidence them (the portfolio part) and then help them, and the institutions they attend, to assess this “prior learning” (APL) and bring it in to the world of formal recognition, and qualifications.

But I think there is another very important aspect to the technology connected with the PLE concept, and that is to provide the guidance that learners need to ensure they get on the “right” course. At the meeting, we discussed how employers often do not want the very graduates whose studies have titles that seem to related directly to the job. What has gone wrong? It’s all very well treating students like customers — “the customer is always right” — but what happens when a learner wants to take a course aimed at something one believes they are not going to be successful at? Perhaps the right intervention is to start earlier, helping learners clarify their values before their goals, understand who they are before deciding what they should do. This would be “personal learning” in the sense of learning about oneself. Perhaps the PDP part of the e-portfolio community, and those who come from careers guidance, know more about this, but even they sometimes seem not to know what to do for the best. To me, this self-knowledge requires a social dimension (with the related existing tools), and is something that needs to be able to draw on many aspects of a learner’s life (“lifewide” portfolio perhaps).

So, to reconstruct PLE ideas, not as monolithic systems, but as parts, there are two key parts in my view.

The first would be a tool for bringing together evidence residing in different systems, and organising it to provide material for reflection on, and evidence of, skills and competence across different areas of life, and integrating with institutional systems for recognising what has already been learned, as well as slotting people in to suitable learning opportunities. This would play a natural part in continuous professional development, and in the relatively short term learning education and training needs we have, which we can see we need from an existing working perspective, and thus, in the kind of workplace learning that many are predicting will need to grow.

The second may perhaps be not a tool but several tools to help people understand themselves, their values, their motives, their real goals, and the activities and employment that they would actually find satisfying, rather than what they might falsely imagine. Without this function, any learning education or training risks being wasted. Doing this seems much more challenging, but also much more deeply interesting to me.

ICOPER and outcomes

The other European project I’m involved in for CETIS is called ICOPER. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been doing some work improving the deliverable D2.2, mainly working with Jad Najjar. I flag it here because it uses some of the conceptual modelling work I’ve been involved in. My main direct contribution is Section 2. This starts with part of an adaptation of my diagram in a recent post here. It is adapted by removing the part on the right, for recognition, as that is of relatively minor importance to ICOPER. As ICOPER is focused on outcomes, the “desired pattern” is relabelled as “intended learning outcome or other objective”. I thought this time it would be clearer without the groupings of learning opportunity or assessment. And ICOPER is not really concerned with reflection by individuals, so that is omitted as well.

In explaining the diagram, I explain what the different colours represent. I’m still waiting for critique (or reasoned support, for that matter) of the types of thing I find so helpful in conceptual modelling (again, see previous post on this).

As I find so often, detailed thinking for any particular purpose has clarified one part of the diagram. I have introduced (and will bring back into the mainstream of my modelling) an “assessment result pattern”. I recognise that logically you cannot specify actual results as pre-requisites for opportunities, but rather patterns, such as “pass” or “at least 80%” for particular assessments. It takes a selection process (which I haven’t represented explicitly anywhere yet) to compare actual results with the required result pattern.

Overall, this section 2 of the deliverable explains quite a lot about a part of the overall conceptual model intended to be at least approximately from the point of view of ICOPER. The title of this deliverable, “Model for describing learning needs and learning opportunities taking context ontology modelling into account” was perhaps not what would have been chosen at the time of writing, but we needed to write to satisfy that title. Here, “learning needs” is understood as intended learning outcomes, which is not difficult to cover as it is central to ICOPER.

The deliverable as a whole continues with a review of MLO, the prospective European Standard on Metadata for Learning Opportunities (Advertising), to get in the “learning opportunities” aspect. Then it goes on to suggests an information model for “Learning Outcome Definitions”. This is a tricky one, as one cannot really avoid IMS RDCEO and IEEE RCD. As I’ve argued in the past, I don’t think these are really substantially more helpful than just using Dublin Core, and in a way the ICOPER work here implicitly recognises this, in that even though they still doff a cap to those two specs, most of RDCEO is “profiled” away, and instead a “knowledge / skill / competence” category is added, to square with the concepts as described in the EQF.

Perhaps the other really interesting part of the deliverable was one we put in quite a lot of joint thinking to. Jad came up with the title “Personal Achieved Learning Outcomes” (PALO), which is fine for what is intended to be covered here. What we have come up with (provisionally, it must be emphasised) is a very interesting mixture of bits that correspond to the overall conceptual model, with the addition of the kind of detail needed to turn a conceptual model into an information or data model. Again, not surprisingly, this raises some interesting questions for the overall conceptual model. How does the concept of achievement (in this deliverable) relate to the overall model’s “personal claim expression”? This “PALO” model is a good effort towards something that I haven’t personally written much about – how do you represent context in a helpful way for intended learning outcomes or competences? If you’re interested, see what you think. For most skills and competences, one can imagine several aspects of context that are really meaningful, and without which describing things would definitely lose something. Can you do it better?

I hope I’ve written enough to stimulate a few people at least to skim through that deliverable D2.2.