The Personal Learning Environment. Moving beyond the VLE and SharePoint Learning Platform.

Over the last decade we have seen an enormous growth in use of technology within education. From the use of laptops and digital projectors to smartboards and VLE’s all of which have been aimed at improving learning. As a relatively new teacher I was shown my first ever VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) in early 2004, a moodle system which we began to use at my second school. We often joked that as teachers we sat spellbound by a flash animation as the presenter seemed to promise us that the system would cure all educational problems and perhaps world famine at the same time. Previous blog posts have covered the features of a VLE and if you are unfamiliar with them you can catch up here and see the diagram below.

Since this time I have moved on to a third school and was involved in the original development of the SharePoint Learning Platform which has developed a significant reputation at Twynham School. You will notice the change in terminology and Tony Parkin once commented to me that over a number of years from 2007 the term VLE fell off the ICT Register tag cloud as the term Learning Platform rose to the top. Why did the idea of the VLE lose popularity? The original vision of a system which could assign track and grade assessment has proven largely elusive beyond predominantly simple ‘multiple choice’ and’true/false’ style questions to identify understanding. As a result educators have created a vision for a Learning Platform which contains a VLE but at the same time carries a wider range of other learning attributes which centre around the platform. The diagram showing a SharePoint Learning Platform can be seen below and has more detail about it is in the blog post here.

Amidst all this development and millions of pounds of investment within schools a key question is increasingly being asked. What has the impact been on learning? In the case of Twynham School we have certainly seen a positive impact through the Learning Platform. Students describe the availability of resources in an ‘anytime, anywhere’ environment as a real benefit to learning and especially revision. Our SharePoint 2010 Learning Platform also contains a rich range of features from streaming media and podcasting to rewards systems, performance tracking and integrated learning modules. Our work with the Learning Platform over the last 4 years has undoubtedly added value to our school community and supported learners with resources, input and guidance. Despite this over the last 18 months there has been an increasing view that it is time for us to move beyond this current work and begin a new adaptation of our online learning model with a renewed focus.

Having spent considerable time on this line of thinking a blog post popped up on the radar late last week which helped clarify our thinking. The post from big think reflected on the 2011 K-12 Horizon report and challenged the level of percieved progress we have made with our use of technology and its impact on learning. In the second half of the post it identifies something we know to be true: most of the investment in technology made in education has been in the area of ‘replicative technologies’. These are commonly technology tools which are teacher centric and replace traditional educational practice. The list of replicative technologies in the blog post is worth repeating here as it does bring the context into stark focus:

Replicative Technologies: from 'Big Think'

In the case of our Learning Platform we can certainly see elements of replicative behaviour as paper resources move to the file share and then to the subject gateways of the SharePoint Learning Platform. So is this all doom and gloom? As the post goes on to say the move to replicative technologies is an understandable first step for educators who move educational practice to technology in a way which is most familiar to them. The key challenge for us all at this moment is best summed up at the end of the post. In it the author rightly asserts that, ‘ The question is whether educator adoption of replicative technologies eventually will lead to more transformative, student-centered uses of digital learning tools or whether the current wave of educator tool usage simply will be replaced by whatever is the next generation of replicative technologies’.

Refelcting on these ideas it is clear to see that the best practive we currently identify by those at the cutting edge of technology use within education has one key attribute in common: it is student centric. It is for this reason that we should all ensure our VLE’s, MLE’s Learning Platforms, Learning Gateways and whatever it is we want to call them increasingly become one thing. A personal learning environment where students can add, edit, tag, comment, search, share and review their learning. This is surely the reason behind our use of technology within education: to promote independance and interdependance amongst learners and instant interaction and feedback with students and teachers to ensure we are engaging in meaningful learning.


7 Responses to “The Personal Learning Environment. Moving beyond the VLE and SharePoint Learning Platform.”
  1. Steve Bunce says:

    Dear Mike,

    Yes it should be about focusing on the students to enable their learning. I was struck recently by a website ‘’ where you can ‘microvolunteer’ for different challenges. Are we preparing our students to have the ability to meet these challenges. Does the technology we use in school enable this learning? Will we have a future where we may not have a main job, but many micro jobs using our skills?

    Take care,

  2. Susan Banister says:

    I completely agree with you, Mike. Learning platforms/VLE’s (whatever you want to call them) have a wealth of tools to enable student-led learning or responsibility-led learning (a term used by my colleague Fiona Aubrey-Smith). Unfortunately they are not used to their full potential in most schools. However using technology in a replicative way, identified by the Big Think, is understandable. It is how we have always taught. And by doing so, the teacher can see the immediate benefits to doing it with paper; ergo they are using the learning platform. If we want to encourage student centric learning, part of the challenge is changing teachers’ behaviour but also making the technology relevant for the student. It cannot be old technology. It should replicate what they are using on the web. What’s more learning should really be anywhere and on any device. Mobile technology is moving very quickly. Schools would be foolish not to start looking at how to reap the rewards of the device in the student’s pocket. Technology is a changing space, the future is in mobile, personal & cloud. The challenge for us who work with this technology is to lead the way and show how it could be done and let the results do the talking.

  3. Dughall McCormick says:

    Interesting post, Mike. I agree with the general direction you appear to be taking and will watch with interest as you endeavour to get the technology to support a truly ‘P’LE.

    The points made by ‘Big Think’ are so true about replicative technologies! Sometimes I despair at the dichotomy between a transformation agenda and a belligerent adherence to the old (comfortable?) ways of doing things. BSF (for all its controversy) had the potential to truly transform things. However, from my limited experience of BSF schools and new-builds, many a trick has been missed in these one-off opportunities as architects and school leaders merely replicated Victorian learning spaces but with a bit of added ‘glossiness’. This was obviously not *always* the case but I believe it happened.

    I, too, am interested to see whether replicative is merely a phase on the journey to ‘transformed’ or whether it is holding things back.

    Keep us posted!

  4. I have a slightly biased view on VLEs / MLEs / LPs … as I still believe that the technology is not the problem. For a professional geek, I prefer to see technology chosen and used well, rather than used for the sake of using it.

    There is nothing wrong with using technology to replace existing tools, or to complement existing tools … as long as it is done with the understanding that there will be benefits. Those benefits might not be directly to do with learning. By moving to the use of technology for accessing worksheets, quizzes, etc you might simply be creating a little bit of efficiency, freeing up teachers and other staff to do other things. As long as you can justify the cost behind this then it is beneficial.

    This will only ever be a stop gap though, until a school makes a move from a digitised curriculum to a digital curriculum and a digital community. So many others have said before (and will say again) that a Learning Platform is only used to the fullest when learners are not just seen as users, but contributors, producers, controllers and leaders. This is the same with most communities, not just communities of learners.

    If the tools which have been replaced (eg a teacher stood in front of a chalkboard) have been part of barriers to building communities in the past then this needs to be addressed rather than just throwing new tech at it.

    As with all communities, there needs to be some social order … and this social group can help shape the community as it moves to the next version.

    One thing is certain though, no matter what we may think about replicative technologies … all technologies will eventually be replaced … change is inevitable.

  5. vilsrip says:

    I’ve made a collage of my personal learning environment as a teacher:
    My PLE.
    I’m trying to get this idea across to my students, by letting them use blogs, wikis, and twitter for their projects and homework, always hoping that some of them may realize that this is more than a switch from paper to screen, from pen to keyboard (I keep telling them, too …).

  6. Lucy Bunce says:

    I’ve had a recent success on a European Comenius project where we got students from the 6 countries to share their work ( videos) on a closed Facebook group. We’d previously used the German school’s Moodle but the students didn’t engage with it at all. Planning to use similar Facebook groups again.

  7. Steve Gillott says:

    Hi Mike,
    That’s a great post.
    We’ve always said ‘content is king’, and I’m sure this is the issue with why VLEs never really took hold. In the scramble for e-Learning credits, a lot of content providers (not all admittedly) rushed out content for VLEs that weren’t in any way transformative for learning – merely replicative – and fairly limited at that. It was easy to make that stuff. Since then, there really hasn’t been anything that has progressed Learning Environments past mutiple choice or cloze assessments. There have been some simulations and models, but for the most part, this VLE content has been responsible for keeping learning technologies rooted in the replicative.
    Like Susan says, the real key to take learning to the next level would be to embrace student mobile devices and Web 2.0 technologies in order to communicate and collaborate further. This is the world our students live in, and there is now such a disconnect between the classroom experience and that of the outside world that it’s no wonder some of them say they ‘power down’ when they come to school. And it’s not just the teachers who would need to step outside their comfort zone – students would need to communicate beyond their Facebook circle of friends, shifting their mindsets from local to global. We’re doing work with other schools across the world in both Science lessons and Genocide education – videoconferences, communication and international collaboration using wikis – this global, collaborative learning brings experiences that would not be possible without this kind of technology.
    I was reflecting on our SharePoint 2010 portal the other day, and whilst it has really developed – the leap in usability from SharePoint 2007 and 2010 was huge – it’s still not quite there yet for schools. Blogs and discussion boards in particular are still very clunky. It’s not easy for children to collaborate, edit, rate, tag, share and reflect on their learning using the out-of-box tools within SharePoint, and we’re still stuck with disperate systems within school in order to provide tools for students to use. Here’s hoping SharePoint v.Next improves those tools!

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