Personal Learning Environment

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Information Fluency provides a model for educational activities; the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is the place where those activities happen. Just as learning activities and their products map to the three areas that comprise Information Fluency, those activities and their products can be mapped to different tools and resources.

About the “PLE”


The PLE is personal because the people, applications, tools, resources, and services are chosen to match our individual, idiosyncratic needs. Each is adopted and discarded according to our needs and whims. While the social and collaborative aspects of the PLE are often (over) emphasized, some of the most important pieces may not be connected to anything or anyone else at all. Additionally, the personal aspects of the PLE encompass (and embrace) self-reflection, self-improvement, productivity (trusted systems), and motivation. Through the PLE, and its attendant network effects, we augment our capabilities and tap into a vast collective intelligence.


Many have given up on the call to rename the PLE to the Personal Living Environment. The emphasis on the way our personal environment relates to learning is an arbitrary one. Arguably, to live is to learn, and the problems of attempting to abstract and delineate learning from life are many (not to mention the constant lip-service our institutions pay to the idea of “lifelong learning”). That being said, we are particularly interested here in the ways our PLE can contribute to the activities, actions and products of Information Fluency.


In practice, the PLE is an environment, not a network. An environment is more complex– and more holistic– than a network. The pathways in which communication, messaging, conversations, and other interactions can happen run in practically every possible direction and between every possible person, application, tool, service, and resource. Attempting to portray the mechanism and processes of the PLE accurately would result in a hopelessly complex, confusing– and ultimately not-representative– mess. In the same way we visualize the atom in a simplistic manner, so too we tend to visualize the PLE as a spoke-and-wheel model or network diagram rather than a cloud.

Visualizing the PLE

Visualizing the PLE has become something of a pastime for education technology geeks. Like most subsequent illustrations, Alec Couros’ classic example of the genre puts the teacher at the center of a constellation of tools and services:

Similarly, Martin Weller clusters tools and services around himself, clustered by (primary) function:

Even this kind of visualization can grow complicated rather quickly, such as this example by Jared Stein:

And there are other, radically different ways to visualize the PLE, such as this example by Scott Leslie, in which he visualizes his PLE in terms of trust:

Parts of the PLE (for me)

In practice, the functions of the PLE overlap as do the parts that facilitate those functions. In this model, PLE involves four primary areas that occur in various patterns and orders (essentially, this thinking is a greatly simplified version of a model proposed by Jeremy Hiebert):


The PLE connects oneself to people (friends, colleagues, peers, luminaries, fellow travelers) and resources (information repositories, databases, “content” of all kinds). The primary connections to people happen through email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Diigo, and good old fashioned snail mail. Learning to build this network– taking advantage of systems that promote important information, aggregate and quantify reputation, and allow us to navigate the connected friend-of-a-friend network is critical to building productive connections.


Collecting “stuff,” is a key component of the PLE. You collect for various reasons: for an immediate need or project, for future use in key areas of interest, and to share with other people. Key collection points are: Diigo, RSS Reader (starred and shared items), Instapaper, Flickr, Evernote, personal wikis/Google sites, and Dropbox. Given the dynamic nature– and amount– of information available to us, key skills to make the collection process more productive include filtering and pattern recognition.


Reflection may be private or public. For public reflection and inquiry, blogs serve as both a central place for reflection and a portal to more. Other key reflection sites and tools: WriteMonkey (distraction-free editing), paper notebooks (don’t be without one!), and Evernote.


The term “sharing” may be preferred over the more common “publishing,” because sharing implies both the act of putting information and thoughts out and providing a way for others to use and re-use it. An important part of sharing is allowing your thoughts to become a point of conversation, available for feedback and criticsm. Sharing should be a generative activity… for both the sharer and the audience.

The PLE is People!

For the most part, the power of the PLE rests with the people that are part of it. Tools and services and applications aren’t enough to reach a point of information fluency. D’Arcy Norman’s tongue-in-cheek diagram of the PLE is spot-on:



Last modified: October 28, 2013