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Configurations for learning and change

With the increasing availability of a wide-range of cheap or free, easy-to-use, modular apps and services to assist all manner of activities and a parallel trend in which people pick and chose the elements of their own online working (and/or playing) environment rather than submitting to closed, monolithic solutions that seek to cater for all needs in one offer, users intuitively develop experience in combining these ‘apps’ according to the circumstances and in integrating the use of those in their ways of working.

P(L)E is the name I suggest for this way in which apps are chosen and combined in context-determined configurations by users to carry out activities that include learning or change in a process in which those configurations and the users’ practices (ways of doing things) mutually influence and modify each other.

In using this acronym, I borrow and ‘tweak’ the existing term Personal Learning Environment, called PLE for short, distinguishing my use of the term from that of others, by the ‘L’ in parenthesis, implying that it is always about learning, but not only. I will spend little time discussing the relative merits and failings of existing definitions of PLEs, but rather I will use the acronym P(L)E as a marker or a flag for the exploration of the phenomenon described above. The purpose of doing so is to create an ‘image’ of the P(L)E to help depict, understand and come to grips with this evolution. For a description of a P(L)E see The sharing of links online and see Tracing out learning experiences for an exploration of how thinking about P(L)Es can be a learning experience in itself.

Applications and tools

One of the basic building blocks of a P(L)E is a wide range of small, easy-to-use, modular applications readily at the disposal of users along with other tools, some of which will necessarily be off-line. The way these apps are used requires that they are able to communicate with each other, exchanging essential data securely and seamlessly. They also need to be open in the sense that they can interact and work with other such apps beyond their own platform. Just think of the way social networking sites use each others data. The use of these apps implies that their adoption requires shorter learning curves, as smaller modular tools and subsequent upgrades are easier to manage and necessarily less complicated.


Another key building block of a P(L)E is a set of practices, that is to say the ways a person or a group repeatedly goes about a particular activity. These practices range from formal and explicit ways of doing things (like the check list of a pilot in the cockpit before he starts up the jet engines) to the informal and tacit ways of doing things (like intuitively developed activities that have never been discussed or deliberately thought out).


The richness of the P(L)E lies not so much in the applications or the practices themselves but rather in the way individual users and groups tacitly or explicitly assemble configurations of applications and have those interact with their ways of working. These combinations of applications and practices are the very heart of a P(L)E. Compared with preset manufacturer-decided configurations, such multiple combinations offer a much wider variety of possible solutions, many of them unforeseen by those who conceived of and built the tools.

The more this capacity to combine and configure is developed, the better the response to challenges and changes in the environment. The appropriate metaphor here is the living organism and not the machine. Saying so has fundamental implications about the nature of future applications but also about approaches to change and learning. Applications need to respond to the complex evolutions in ways of doing things by growing and developing in an almost organic way. And work on learning and change needs to concentrate on the processes of choice and combination and creativity potentially inherent in the P(L)E rather than trying to pre-determine ‘ideal’ paths.


The P(L)E is a user-centred vision in which efficiency of activities in a complex, fast-changing world depends on the freedom of the user to choose from a large palette of tools and his or her capacity to develop and evolve appropriate configurations of practices and applications. The best way to empower users is to encourage the availability of such modular applications and foster the development of competences in creating configurations of apps and practices.


The configurations people develop may well vary from one activity to another or from one context to another. So a P(L)E cannot usefully be seen as a fixed configuration, because that doesn’t fit how people are increasingly using their freedom to combine things for their own purposes. Attempts to describe, to constrain or to ‘build’ PLEs as fixed configurations (of software), however much they can be ‘personalised’, are affiliated, intentionally or not, to a out-dated model that seeks to control the way users/learners employ technology rather than encouraging them to develop their own solutions and fails to consider the essential role of people’s practices in the way such tools are used with the resulting inefficiency and inappropriateness.


The P(L)E is inherently about learning even if it is not seen as being used to learn. Why? Because creating and using multiple P(L)Es with the need to develop configurations and new ways of doing things involves developing competences that are continually evolving. The P(L)E is also necessarily about change because it represents the interface between the changing world and how we respond to it in our ways of working.


The nature of the P(L)E inherently entails a creative process the strength of which lies in creating new possibilities through relationships both in terms of those between the apps chosen and how they are combined as well as those between those combinations of apps and people’s ways of doing things.

Having said that, the combination and re-combination of apps and practices and the way use and practices mutually shape each other, as characterised by the P(L)E, is largely informal and tacit. Most people do not reflect at length or write about how they do such things, not even when new ways of working evolve in a group context. Seen in this light, the concept of the P(L)E is an instrument for reflective practice, in that it focuses attention on activities that otherwise go unnoticed and, as a result, possibly leads to users thinking about how and why they combine a multitude of apps with their ways of doing things. Studies have shown that such reflective practices are conducive to learning.

The challenges

The technical challenge of P(L)Es entails making available modular, interconnectable, interchangeable apps that are intuitive and easy to use and that can interact with and respond to emerging practices.

The pedagogical challenge involves understanding the combination of configurations of apps in relationship to the development of practices and how they contribute to learning and change.

The methodological challenges are two fold: 1) finding ways of working on practices without destroying the flexibility and pertinence due to their tacitness and informalness and 2) bringing together multiple perspectives (technical, pedagogical, user) in collaborative work.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: June 20th, 2009 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 2009