It’s clear that more and more schools are aiming to prepare students for a global marketplace that requires networked learning experiences, an understanding of digital citizenship, and a way to navigate and organize a stream of information and resources from a variety of different sources—all characteristics emphasized in a “personal learning environment,” an educational approach the New Media Consortium’s 2012 K-12 Horizon report listed as a key ed-tech trend to watch.
What’s less clear is what exactly a personal learning environment is. Its relatively new and flexible structure can make what’s known as a PLE hard to pin down for many people, even though the use of the term, and approaches associated with it, are being embraced by a growing number of schools.
While PLEs are commonly created using specific technologies and tools, such as online-resource organizers like Symbaloo or EverNote, the model is not wedded to a specific technology but rather to a process that aims to visualize and organize the influx of information and resources that students are confronted with daily. It is essentially an educational response to the overload of information in the digital age.
PLEs consist of a wide range of connections with both digital and nondigital resources. They blur the lines between formal and informal learning. And precisely because they are individualized to the needs and interests of the learner, each one can look completely different.
“It’s really about melding together your own personal learning space with all these different resources,” said Wendy Drexler, the director of online development in the office of continuing education at Brown University.
But this approach can be a tough sell in schools, where the concept isn’t likely to be seen in its full-fledged form, said Ms. Drexler. “What I see more of happening is people taking bits and pieces ... and integrating it,” she said.
Ms. Drexler conducted research on PLEs with a group of 7th graders at the 1,150-student P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Fla. in 2010 using Symbaloo with the help of the students’ science teacher Randy Hollinger.
Symbaloo is a free service that allows users to bookmark Web pages, videos, and other resources and digital tools onto one page where each tile represents a different link. The company, which was founded in the Netherlands but has offices in California, has created SymbalooEDU to cater to the needs of educators—one of the service’s biggest user bases. In addition, Symbaloo provides certification programs for teachers to learn how to incorporate personal learning environments and technology into their classrooms.
At the school where the pilot took place, students created their own Symbaloo pages with links to websites they used regularly, such as their email accounts, links to their own blogs, and their school’s website.
Next, Ms. Drexler and Mr. Hollinger taught students how to use the PLEs to enhance their research strategies during a six-week unit on venomous creatures.
Students used their Symbaloo pages to bookmark information, keep track of sources, and save links to experts in science who would later review their projects.
Ms. Drexler and Mr. Hollinger used that opportunity to teach students how to determine the legitimacy of different Internet resources and how to tell if the information they found was accurate and unbiased.
“This sort of learning actually helps students organize themselves in a very busy world,” Mr. Hollinger said. “Before, when students were working, they would get lost in the hubbub of everything that happens online. We found it was essential for them to be able to create a space [for those resources].” During the pilot study at the Florida school, Mr. Hollinger and Ms. Drexler found that the biggest challenges were logistical—struggling with slow Internet connections and with Web filters that blocked sites students wanted to use, such as YouTube.
To comply with student safety regulations and keep track of what students were doing, Mr. Hollinger installed a program on his computer that allowed him to see what students were doing on their computers—essentially, he had a window into how each student approached his or her schoolwork.
Striking a Balance
Striking that balance between allowing students to explore the Internet’s full potential and keeping them safe and on task can be challenging, he pointed out, but Mr. Hollinger has noticed that when students are allowed more freedom, they are likely to take on more responsibility as well.
Since the pilot two years ago, Mr. Hollinger has moved to an independent school—the Technology Engineering Science Leadership Academy, or TESLA, in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.— that is entirely structured around PLEs, he said, and in the three years that he has used the approach in his classes, only a small number of disciplinary problems have occurred. “What we found was that students are enjoying the process of learning with a personal learning environment so much that they really didn’t want to ruin it,” he said. “They took responsibility for their own learning and took personal responsibility for the overall culture and environment in the classroom.”
At his new school, students begin their day by logging into their Symbaloo pages, which provide links to websites for each of their classes. Students can then see the resources their teachers have posted, complete assignments, and turn in their schoolwork.
The school, which operates on a project-based learning model, uses Symbaloo as its backbone, Mr. Hollinger said.
One particular challenge for many schools that want to use the approach is a lack of technology tools to help students take ownership of their PLEs, said Ms. Drexler. What’s ideal for fostering a strong PLE initiative, she said, is a 1-to-1 school model, in which each student has access to his or her own digital device—a laptop, a netbook, a tablet, or a smartphone.
Throughout the pilot, Ms. Drexler and Mr. Hollinger helped students learn how to vet resources and determine whether they contained legitimate information. They also required students to expand their PLEs by reaching out to experts to ask them for help or advice on their research projects.
“One of the things that’s important is making sure [students] actually know how to do a good search beyond Google,” Ms. Drexler said. While students may be tech-savvy, they need to be taught how to use those skills in an educational and professional setting, she said.
Shannon Miller is a teacher-librarian in the 600-student Van Meter school district outside Des Moines, Iowa, which serves students in grades K-12.
In her district, 6th through 12th graders receive their own laptops under a program that started two years ago. While elementary pupils do not have their own devices, they also learn in technology-rich environments using tablets and other computers, Ms. Miller said.
Teachers may need to create PLEs for younger students, but as students get older, they can take on the aggregation of resources on their own and customize their PLEs based on how they use them, said Ms. Miller.
For example, older students could customize a PLE by adding links to non-school-related resources, such as social-networking sites, blogs they are interested in, or videos they have found. They can also rearrange the way the tiles are organized on their pages, such as by grouping school-related links and putting non-school-related ones in a different area.
Ms. Miller began using Symbaloo several years ago as a way to organize information for students as well as connect to the outside community.
“It’s a great way for [students] to share with their parents,” she said. “All those things coming together in one spot makes what we’re doing in school more transparent [for our parents].”
Being in a 1-to-1 computing environment has helped connect students from the small rural district to teachers, experts, and authors far beyond Iowa, Ms. Miller said. “It has opened us up to the world.”
Shelley Breivogel, a 2nd grade teacher at the 750-student Scott Elementary School in Evansville, Ind., discovered PLEs when teachers at her school began a curriculum-mapping project. They needed a way to organize the curricular resources they found, and printing materials out and filing them seemed cumbersome and even ridiculous in the digital age.
Since then, Ms. Breivogel has embraced PLEs as a way to share information with her students as well. She organizes units through Web mixes she creates in Symbaloo and shares them with her classes. For example, a Web mix may include links to resources that explain each of the standards the class will cover that month.
In light of the Common Core State Standards, and the related online assessments that are scheduled to be integrated into schools during the 2014-15 school year, Ms. Breivogel sees PLEs as a way to help better prepare students.
"[Students] are going to have to be able to search for information online, make connections, analyze data, move from one source to another, and compare and contrast. That’s a lot of higher-order thinking skills,” she said. “That [use of PLEs] lends itself to enabling students to be more prepared for those types of assessments.”
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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Customized Spaces Widening