As I look towards the new school year, one of the trends that I see becoming more apparent is student use of personal learning environments (PLEs). Essentially, a PLE is the collection of go to tools that learners can access to help them with whatever task they are working on as part of their learning. It may not receive the same air time in education technology circles as virtual reality or 3D printing, but a well-designed PLE has the potential to improve the workflow, effectiveness and academic results of all students.
I first started considering the importance of this idea a few years ago. Back in 2010, I was given some grant money by Independent Schools Queensland to run a project that looked at how effective the iPod touch was as a device to aid learning in middle years science.
I had a class of 25 students and gave each of them an iPod to use both in class and at home for the year. After a fair bit of research, I came up with a list of about 20 apps that I wanted the students to use on their devices throughout the year. As well as these apps, I told them that they could download any other apps that they thought would be useful in their learning.
After a few weeks, there was a huge variety of applications that students had chosen to use on top of the ones that I had recommended. I had listed a particular app for studying the periodic table. Between the students in the class, they had downloaded six or seven different versions, all convinced that their version was superior for one reason or another. I did not mind – they all had the same information that I needed them to access for the year 9 chemistry unit. The differences were in the colour, the detail, the use of images, the linking to further information and so on. Multiply this by the variety of apps across the other concepts that we were studying as well as more general tools like calculators, organisers, stop watches and notepads and I had a class set of devices that had become very personal to the learning style and workflow of each user.
Fast forward to 2017 and the possibilities for PLEs are much broader. Easily accessible content has changed the dynamic in many classrooms. Students can look up facts in seconds and are becoming very good at doing so. The focus has in many cases shifted to tasks of inquiry, analysis and evaluation of information. Students are asked to interact with concepts in a variety of ways that are now possible due to the technology that they have at their fingertips. How successful students are in terms of this interaction with information often correlates to how well they will understand the underlying concepts. This is where an effective PLE can be so valuable.
For example, a student is working on a research assignment. As he is visiting a large number of websites, he might choose to use a bookmarking tool such as Diigo, which uses tags to help him efficiently retrieve particular pieces of information. He might use the audio recorder on his phone or tablet to quickly record ideas that come to him throughout the day. He might use OneNote Learning Tools to read his assignment back to himself to make sure that he has used correct grammar and the paragraphs flow.
A student that is revising for a test might use a particular app to help him create flash cards, or use a concept mapping tool like Bubbl.us to help him piece parts of a concept together. Depending on the task, students may use a large variety of tools as part of their PLE. Having their own system and a stock of tools that work for them will make their PLE successful.
As well as teaching my own chemistry classes, I am fortunate to be able to visit a wide variety of other classes in my school as part of my role as Director of Digital Pedagogy. Many of the better students have managed (often without realising it) to develop PLEs that suit the way that they work. Many students that are not so successful have not really invested much time into developing a PLE.
A couple of months ago, a student was showing me the YouTube channels that she subscribes to. There were the various music and reality TV channels, but she also subscribed to a variety of science and humanities channels that she said had helped her understanding of the subjects that she was studying. Her YouTube subscriptions formed part of her PLE.
One of the challenges from a teacher’s point of view is that a PLE is personalised. The collection of tools that work best for one student might not be suited at all to another student. This means that it can be quite difficult for a teacher to provide the most useful set of tools to the students that they teach. Teachers do have a role in encouraging the use of PLEs though. It is more important that a student develops a system than uses any particular tool. They may be using a great image editing tool now that suits all of their image editing needs. Next week, however, they may come across something even more efficient and the old tool is replaced. Knowing that they need to use that type of tool for a particular purpose and knowing that they have one in their tool box is what is important.
In many schools, teachers guide students by providing them with particular tools by default. This may be because they are a one-to-one that supplies all students with a particular device. The software and apps on that device are easily accessible and will often be used. A bring your own device (BYOD) school will have a greater variety in terms of the hardware and potentially allow students to bring devices that are more suited to their learning. (There are a variety of reasons why this does not always happen.)
Schools that are using Office 365 or G Suite for Education are providing easily accessible tools for a variety of uses. Students in maths classes at our school were very impressed with the amount of time that they saved this year by using Office 365 Forms for data collection. Many will use this for future assignments when they need to collect primary data. Forms has now become a valuable tool in their PLEs.
The Learning Management System that schools choose will also provide default tools for a variety of tasks. Students will use this for accessing class content, out-of-class discussions, group collaborations and more. These tools will be common in the PLEs of students across the school.
The number and type of tools that a student might need in their PLE is dependent on many factors, such as age, subjects studied and preferred learning styles. Teachers can get their students thinking about the way that they learn and the types of tools that will help them in their learning. Teachers should encourage students to collect a set of tools and become efficient at using them. They will continually update their PLE to suit where they are on their learning journey, but becoming effective at using their tools will give them a better chance of achieving the skills that will be needed to be successful at school and beyond.
James Jenkins is the Coordinator of Digital Pedagogy at Canterbury College in Brisbane.