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From Textbook to PLE communities

I’m old enough to remember taking a textbook from a shelf in a university library, thumbing through it to find the chapters or pages that referred to the subject of my essay, walking to the photocopier and copying the pages to take away, read avidly and construct my award-winning prose. It was unthinkable back then that it would be possible to find the content of thousands of libraries at the touch of a button or the swipe of a finger. We’ve come a very long way. But does it end there?

Getting online and consuming knowledge is one thing, but building communities online is something totally different. It’s easy for today’s learner to access everything they need individually, but does technology erode the ‘chat’ about what you should put in your essay, or the debate about the essay subject that you may ordinarily have had face-to-face back in the day? Well, it doesn’t have to - but universities must be mindful as they begin to build digital communities that they must be just that – a community: a place where like-minded students come together and share, not simply access information. 

PLE’s or Personalised Learning Environments do what they say on the tin – they represent a shift away from the model of consuming information through a library and textbook and instead to a model where students draw connections from a growing matrix of resources that they select and organise. The PLE puts an emphasis on building relationships and can promote authentic learning by incorporating expert feedback into learning activities and resources as well as allowing the students to work collaboratively relying on their network of contacts for information and feedback.

Some institutions see the value in creating campus wide PLE’s – such as portals or dashboards, but these should not erode the personalisation of the learning environment or the ability for the student to control their own education experience. They should instead present the tools, resources and gateways that learners use on a regular basis so they are available instantly. Of course, this will represent a shift in the role that resources play in teaching and learning. In an environment where information is ubiquitous and needs only to be located, there is a greater premium on skills that support fast and accurate access to information and on the ability to assess it. Teaching becomes a collaborative exercise in collection, orchestration, remixing, and integration of data into knowledge building.

The challenge for our students moves from a need to simply collect information to a need to draw connections from it—to acquire it, disseminate it, and collaborate in its use. It also means that students consider and reflect upon the resources that are of most use to them, which can lead to deeper engagement with the university and more efficient building of communities both in the university and external to it.

Now, you couldn’t do that with a textbook and a photocopier.

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