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The sharing of links online

An example of the creation of a personal learning environment

I was reading an article the other day about the competences needed to learn in complex, unpredictable situations (1). It had me thinking about what we bring to situations that helps or hinders learning. The prospect of considering both what helps and what hinders learning struck me as a promising and refreshing opening. A considerable part of the ‘baggage’ we lug around with us is not at all conducive to learning, but how often do we stop and examine those barriers?

The personal learning environment

One of the complex entities we bring to a situation with a view to learning or working better is the personal learning environment. A personal learning environment (PLE) according to the literature (2) is a configuration of tools and platforms (many of them web-based, but not exclusively so) that individuals ‘assemble’ for their learning. They don’t, of course, physically assemble tools and platforms, rather they make use of combinations of them. I find it interesting to extend that seemingly techno-centred notion in a number ways to make what I call a P(L)E. First of all, I suggest we include not just the ‘tools’ but also the practices, that is to say, the way people perceive and organise the use of these tools and artefacts in their daily life. As learning is increasingly understood as a social activity, such practices are liable to be partially developed in agreement (at least tacitly) with others. One of the main reasons for suggesting the inclusion of practices is that the ‘configurations’ can vary immensely and they only make sense if considered in terms of how they are used in a particular situation. The great variety of configurations is the second way in which I suggest the notion of PLE be extended to the P(L)E. My hypothesis is that there is no such thing as a fixed configuration for any one person although most people will create those multiple configurations on the basis of a limited set of such tools. I suspect people continually modulate the choice and combination of tools they use and the ways they use them in terms of the tasks to be achieved and the situation they find themselves in. One of consequences of such a perspective is that P(L)Es are re-created for each new situation or context implying that the learner (if he or she sees himself/herself as such) needs to develop the ability to make appropriate combinations and develop suitable strategies and practices that are conducive to learning. One might argue that the better they are at doing so, the more flexible and responsive they are and the more likely they are to ‘learn’. A third extension required is to go beyond the narrower notion of learning as reflected by practices in institutions of learning to include informal learning and peer exchange as well as handling change and innovation and making decisions.

In this article I plan to examine how I personally use the DIIGO platform along with other tools and artefacts to illustrate some of the ways such an extended notion of a personal learning environment might work. In doing so, I’m not trying to make generalisations about the way P(L)E’s are used, but rather I seek to make explicit for myself and for others a series of personal practices, many of which grew naturally and were not necessarily intentionally designed as such.

A platform for sharing and tagging links

DIIGO is a platform for the social tagging and exchanging of links. I first used DIIGO because of a project in which I was involved called P2V. We needed an online tool that enabled us to create a closed group within which we could share annotated links in preparation for a three day working seminar on innovation in education to take place in Barcelona. I had previously used a similar platform called Delicious but it was unable to provide closed groups at the time. Switching platforms was made easier by the authors of DIIGO because it allowed me not only to import all my existing links from Delicious, but also to maintain my Delicious account by forwarding all my new links on DIIGO without any additional work. In terms of posting links to DIIGO on the part of most of the participants in that project, the experiment was not very successful because many of the people involved were not in the habit of sharing links online. They did however consult the links. At the end of the project, I continued using DIIGO. Partly because once you start to accumulate assets in one place and develop ways of working it becomes more difficult to shift and partly because we had also begun new DIIGO groups amongst colleagues at Fribourg University.

A toolbar in the browser

One of the things that facilitated the use of DIIGO was the additional toolbar in the Firefox browser that made it possible to save, tag and annotate links directly within the browser without having to visit the DIIGO website. Using the toolbar requires logging in to the DIIGO platform, which I do not systematically do. I log in first whenever I want to post a link. One of the effects of using the toolbar is that I rarely go to the DIIGO platform online. In a way there is no need, as part of the DIIGO add-on to Firefox is a sidebar giving me access not only to all my own links and lists and groups but also to the links of my ‘friends’, that’s to say, those people who have signed up as such on DIIGO. It also gives me access to the links and comments made on the current page.

Finding links

To be honest, until recently I rarely used the DIIGO sidebar. This may be because my main way of using DIIGO is more concerned with collecting and publishing links than searching for links or discussing them with others. These things I do elsewhere. For example, my major source of links is RSS feeds. I have configured my mail programme (Mail on the Mac) to provide me with feeds in the form of emails. If I’m interested I read the summary in the mail. If I find that interesting I either consult the site from which the RSS feed originated or I consult a link in the feed. Then I decide whether or not I will post the link on DIIGO. My choice depends both on the interest of the article and also on whether it fits somewhere in the list of themes I am currently covering. I do also sometimes add lone links but I imagine they get lost in the mass, even when tagged. Having decided I will post a link, I use the toolbar which produces a pop-up window in which I can add tags and comments. It is at this moment that I decide if I additionally want to post the link to Twitter. Some people post a great many links to Twitter, using it more like a store place for links. I personally find that too many links from one person on Twitter is distracting and difficult to follow. For me, it is not the place to extensively post links. So I try to limit the number of links I post, trying to choose what I consider to be the most significant or striking. As I mentioned elsewhere here, I have also set up DIIGO to post my links automatically to Delicious but I never go there to consult them. I repost to Delicious so as to extend the audience for the links I post, but I don’t otherwise capitalise on those links on Delicious. The other way round, Twitter is sometimes a source of links that I might add to my collection on DIIGO. Facebook is another potential source of links for me, as is the use of Google Search. I am liable to use the latter when looking for information on a particular subject. In such cases, especially when I am out to build a limited set of specific links related to a given research topic, I am more likely to save them as bookmarks on the browser. It is more probable that I will re-use these links than those deposited on DIIGO (see below). By adding links on DIIGO and on one of several navigators I use, however, leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling of ‘split-attention’.

A schematic representation of the current state of my P(L)E
related to tagging and sharing links

Configuration 1

Click on the above to see a discussion of the diagram and its implications.


The notion of “friends” and developing links with friends is a more central activity for me on Facebook and, to a lesser degree, on Twitter or Linkedin. Making ‘friends’ was not something I had sought to develop much on DIIGO. The concept of friend or colleague (and sharing links and comments with them) would have more sense for me within the thematic or working groups I belong to on DIIGO. There is a possible reason for this: I currently do not develop relationships specifically around the sharing of links outside work-related groups and projects. Although I do consult links suggested by friends and colleagues, I am not in the habit of checking all their lists of links or those of others. I hastened to add that this is not because I think it is a useless activity but simply that I haven’t developed such a practice. The writing of this text has focussed my attention on this question and I have subsequently gone out and sought to increase the number of friends on DIIGO, deliberately looking for activities which would make sense to “friends”. One in particular is commenting using “sticky” notes that you can use to comment on a specific part of a page. In looking at the ‘friends’ aspect of this personal environment I realise that there is much repetition necessary in setting up lists of friends on the various platforms I use, despite tools that enable the import of appropriate information about friends. It might be interesting to give some thought to a platform that would enable the creation of a set of friends (a bit like an address book) in which it is possible to choose which platforms one wants to be friends with these people on and in so doing those friendships are seamlessly created on the respective platforms.

The use and reuse of links

I rarely go back over my own links. Those that I need to use regularly to access websites are scattered as bookmarks in both Safari and Firefox either in the links bar of the browser or on the start up page of Safari that automatically displays a number of sites I regularly visit. Since I began writing this article I have set up a short list of regularly visited links as a private list on DIIGO which I can click on at any moment. Time will tell if I prefer to use that list or those displayed directly above the browser window. My first impression is that the various steps necessary to access such a list in DIIGO (logon, open sidebar, open list,…) are too much of a barrier where quick access is necessary. Coming back to the use and reuse of links, I ask myself why I capitalise on them so little. I am more likely to reuse documents that I have downloaded from the web in PDF format. I handle those PDFs via software called Yep. My most common way of re-working a document is to annotate it. As PDFs are not easily annotated (the Adobe Acrobat Pro has a poor annotation system) I generally annotate paper versions, adding to the complexity of the situation when I need to find a particular paper that I have made an important comment on. The fact that DIIGO enables the annotation of web pages both as a page as a whole but also to specific words on the page, might lead me to use that platform more for the development and exchange of such comments. The perspective of conversations around a webpage in the form of ‘stickies’ you add to it at strategic places seems promising. For the moment, the major obstacle I perceive is a strong feeling of intangibility and unpredictability of such a support. Will it always be there for me to refer to?

After thoughts

One of the outstanding things I perceive in writing about this example of a personal learning environment is that the writing itself can substantially help to improve the use of such environments. Practices that were tacitly carried out before suddenly take on another light when examined more closely in a wider framework. Existing services which were not used are reconsidered and the palette of services that go to make up the environment can end up extended and enriched because of it.

This overview of a personal practice in a particular domain illustrates the complex interconnectedness of the tools and practices that go to make up a personal (learning) environment. It also hints at the usefulness of developing a deeper understanding of ones own platforms as a key to understanding the uses of others and their interactions with us (just think of the variety of uses to which Twitter is put and how these coexist together – or not).

One could hazard a guess that most P(L)Es are not the fruit of deliberate planning or design. However, as my experience in exploring an aspect of my PLE for this article turned out to be helpful in improving my ways of working, it might be useful to periodically carry out such a reflection.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

For a subsequent elaboration of the characteristics and implications of such a P(L)E see: Configurations for learning and change.


(1) Leicester G., Policy Learning. Can Government Discover the treasure Within?, International Futures Forum, 2006.
(2) See the definition given by the Learning Technologies Centre (LTC) http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/wiki/index.php?title=Ple

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Created: May 6th, 2009 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 2009