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Social Software, Personal Learning Environments and Lifelong

Competence Development

Graham Attwell

The industrial revolution and the challenge to education

Industrial revolutions are epoch forming events, leading to fundamental
changes in the way society is organised. Traditional industries and
occupations disappear, new industries and occupational profiles are born,
large scale population movements take place and there are profound
changes in the way in which we manage our everyday lives. We are at
present undergoing a deep and prolonged industrial revolution based on
digital technologies on which the development of the World Wide Web and
digital communication devices are only two of the more dramatic signs.
The reform and reshaping of social systems and institutions has tended to
lag behind in periods of rapid technological change and education is no
exception. It is arguable that in the UK the response to the first industrial
revolution of the 1840s was not seen at least at policy level until the 1903
education Act which legislated for free universal primary education.
Of course the new technologies have impacted on education with various
phases on innovation, culminating in the present wide scale adoption of
Virtual Learning Environments. It is another feature of industrial revolutions
that profound innovations in technology tend to be reflected in older
paradigms. thus the motor car was first entitled a horseless carriage and in
the UK early adapters were forced to employ a person to walk in front of the
car carrying a red flag! Similarly in education we have attempted to adapt
the technology to the existing paradigm of schooling with the resulting
virtual classroom and virtual college.
But it is not the development of technology per se which poses such a
challenge to education systems and educational institutions. It is the
changing ways in which people are using technologies to communicate and
to learn and the accompanying social effect of such use. Whilst
educationalists struggle to develop popular, functional and compelling
educational technologies, young people are in their thousands signing up to
social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo, writing and maintaining
weblogs using Open Source Software and hosted services, sharing
photographs through Flickr, participating in 3D immersive worlds like Second
Life and above all forming social communities using different on-line
messaging services such as MSN. It goes without saying that none of these
have been designed as educational software. Of course it can be organised
that these are just trends, in one years time MySpace will no longer be cool
and the kids will be somewhere else. That is probably true but misses the
point. Even if MySpace is no longer a cool place to be seen, the young people
will still be using social networking and social software for communication
and for organising their lives.
The reaction of education systems and institutions to the rise of social
networking has been at best bewilderment, at worst downright hostility. In
the USA an act in going through congress banning access to social
networking sites form publicly funded education systems. In most schools
students are banned from using mobile telephones for communication in
school. Of course, their are many problems - some connected to the so called
‘duty of care’ entrusted to schools - as well as many issues related to
security and to the longevity and ownership of data. But a refusal to engage
in these issues risks school becoming increasingly irrelevant to the everyday
lives of many young people and particularly irrelevant to the ways in which
they communicate and share knowledge. Web 2.0 and social software are
particularly important in this respect. Whilst Web 1.0 was essentially a push
medium and therefore an extension of more traditional means of
communication like books or television Web 2.0 allows young people (or
learners of any age) not only to consume information and knowledge but to
be active co-creators of knowledge. Thus young people are turning away
form television - a medium for passive consumption - towards video sharing
sites such as YouTube and GoogleVideo which allows them to themselves
make and share their own content and to rate and discuss that content.
The potential impact of such changes in social forms of communication can
also be seen in the furore in the UK over the (US based) web site
RateMyTeacher. Whilst previously quality of education in the UK has been
through external inspection by Government (indirectly) appointed ‘experts’ -
Her Majesties Inspectors - students are now able to themselves rate their
teachers on-line. O(f course there are questions over the validity reliability
of such ratings (but the validity of previous inspections could also be
challenged). But ignoring such developments and hoping they will go away -
or it will just be a craze kids are going through - will not help. The changing
ways in which technologies are being used for (informal) learning and
knowledge sharing requires a fundamental review of our entire approach t o
education and learning including the industrial schooling model itself, the
organisation of institutions and pedagogy and curriculum. Given that deep
lying reforms can take time, such a review needs to be started now.
But it is not just young people who are using social software for learning. A
seven country study of the use of ICT for learning in Small and Medium
Enterprises, carried out over the last three years, found a number of
surprising results
There was little use of ICT for formal learning in the SMEs (in fact there was
little formal learning taking place at all). In contrast to the paucity of formal
learning provision in the SMEs studied, there was a great deal of informal
learning taking place. From the study most informal learning appeared be
learner driven, rather than planned in conjunction with others in the
enterprise, and was problem motivated, although some learners were
motivated by their own interest rather than in response to any specific
problem. In many cases ICT was being used as part of this informal learning.
The main means of ICT based learning was Google key word searches.
Managers were often unaware of this learning, although they were frequently
aware of the problem which inspired it.
There were considerable differences in the use of ICT for informal learning
between different enterprises. It would be tempting to ascribe these
differences to age, sector, size or occupation but it is hard to discern such
causal factors from the case studies undertaken.

None of the employees in the enterprises studied had attempted to claim

recognition or accreditation for the skills and knowledge gained through
informal learning. It is not clear if this is because they are not interested in
pursuing further formal qualifications or if it is because they are unaware of
any opportunities of claiming accreditation for informal learning.

The use of the Google search engine as the major tool for learning is
interesting. It raises the question of how people are framing their search
terms, how they are refining search strings, how they are selecting from the
results of search queries and how they are following hyperlinked texts. For a
search result to be useful it needs to both produce materials, ideas and
concepts which can connect with the learner’s existing knowledge base of
the one hand and approach the issue or problem being addressed on the
other. The ideas of legitimate peripheral participation and proximinal
development may be helpful for explaining this process and of
understanding how people are making sense of knowledge.

Lave and Wenger (1991) propose that the initial participation in a culture of
practice can be observation from the periphery or legitimate peripheral
participation. The participant moves from the role of observer, as learning
and observation in the culture increase, to a fully functioning member. The
progressive movement towards full participation enables the learner to piece
together the culture of the group and establish their identity.

“Knowing is inherent in the growth and transformation of identities and it is

located in relations among practitioners, their practice, the artefacts of that
practice, and the social organization…of communities of practice.”(Lave and
Wenger, 1991, p 122).

Especially in micro enterprises, SME employees have tended to be isolated

from communities of practice. This may be a greater barrier to learning than
the lack of time to attend training courses. One of the most powerful uses of
ICT for learning in SMEs is the ability to connect to distributed communities
of practice. There has been much comment on the phenomenon of ‘lurkers’
on discussion sites, lists servers and bulletin board. Lurking is very much a
process of legitimate peripheral participation. Watching, listening and trying
to make sense of a series of posts and discussions without being forced to
reveal oneself or to actively participate allows the development of
knowledge ‘about knowledge’ within a community and about the practices of
the on-line community.

Similar to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation is Vygotsky’s (1990)

“Zone of Proximinal Development”. This theoretical construct states that
learning occurs best when an expert guides a novice from the novice's
current level of knowledge to the expert's level of knowledge. Bridging the
zone of proximinal development construct with legitimate peripheral
participation construct may be accomplished if one thinks of a zone in which
the expert or mentor takes the learner from the peripheral status of knowing
to a deeper status. This may be accomplished with or without intention as
Lave and Wegner (1991) state:

“Legitimate peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much

less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytic
viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning. We hope to make it
clear that learning through legitimate peripheral participation takes place no
matter which educational form provides a context for learning, or whether
there is any intentional educational form at all. Indeed, this viewpoint makes
a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction (1991,
p. 40).”

However, the expert scaffolds the environment to the extent in which the
learner is engaged with the discourse and participants within the zone and is
drawn from a peripheral status to a more engaged status. The peripheral
learner interacts with the mentor, expert learners and peers within this zone.
More able learners (peers) or the mentor will work with the less able learner
potentially allowing for socially constructed knowledge.

Within the SMEs studies there were few instances of mentoring or continuous
contact with an expert. The use of ICT was allowing distributed access to
expertise – albeit mediated through bulletin boards, forums and web pages.
This leaves open the question as to the process of scaffolding which
essentially becomes an internalised process. However the process of less
able learners working with more able peers is a common process in seeking
new knowledge through the use of ICT.

Essentially workers are using search engines to seek out potential forums
and contexts for learning. Selection depends on closeness of interest and the
level of discourse in the community. There is little point in following a
discourse of too low a level, of knowledge already gained, neither is their an
attraction to a discourse clearly on an level which cannot be understood.
Learners wills eek a community with knowledge at a higher level than their
own but which can connect with their prior learning, learning and practice.
Typically they will lurk in order to understand the workings of the community
and to gain some basic knowledge. After a period of time they might
contribute in the form of a question and later again might themselves
contribute to the hared knowledge pool. In this ways they move from the
periphery through lurking to full bound participants in a community. It should
be noted that communities are frequently overlapping and that the use of
hyper-links and more recently standards like track-back allow the
communities to be dynamic with the emergence of new groups and

This study is important not only in showing how people are using computers
for learning but in their use of learning materials. Few of those we surveyed
used formal learning materials. they were using materials they found on the
web for learning. In education, we have tended to focus on the development
of formal learning materials and have ignored the vast potential of freely
available ‘objects’ of all kinds (not formal learning objects!) freely available
for learning purposes.

It is also important to note that changes in the way in which we learn and
develop new competences is a challenge to our traditional subject
organisation, based on a disciplinary taxonomy emerging from the
Enlightenment period. There is an increasing danger that we are failing not
only in how we teach competence development (if indeed competence
development can be taught but in the relevance of what we teach. This is
most obvious in considering the fats changing competences required for
basic (digital) literacy. Although most countries have adopted a rhetoric of
lifelong learning, there is little sign that education systems have sufficiently
changed to facilitate such a movement.
Thus there is a major challenge to our education and training institutions and
systems, especially when considering lifelong competence development.
Perhaps the most promising development, certainly in the filed of
educational technology is the growing understanding of the potential of
Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). PLEs go beyond calls for the
personalisation of learning, to placing learners in control of their own
learning and recognising that learning may take place in multiple contexts.
PLEs are important in this debate in that they are not another substantiation
of educational technology but a new approach to learning in response to the
present challenges to the educational systems especially in the context of
lifelong competence development.
In the next section of the paper I will outline the ideas behind the PLE. I will
conclude by considering some of the changes in policy and practice required
to develop on the potential of the use of social software and Personal
Learning Environments for lifelong competence development.
Personal Learning Environments
What is a Personal Learning Environment? Mark Van Harmelen (2006a) says
“Personal Learning Environments are systems that help
learners take control of and manage their own learning.
This includes providing support for learners to
• set their own learning goals
• manage their learning; managing both content and process
• communicate with others in the process of learning
and thereby achieve learning goals.
A PLE may be composed of one or more sub-systems: As such it may be a
desktop application, or composed of one or more web-based services. ”
Mark says (2006b) the development of PLEs is motivated by:
“The needs of life-long learners for a system that provides a
standard interface to different institutions’ e-learning
systems, and that allows portfolio information to be
maintained across institutions.
� A response to pedagogic approaches which require that
learner’s e-learning systems need to be under the control
of the learners themselves.
� The needs of learners who sometimes perform learning
activities offline e.g. via mobile system in a wireless-free
hospital, or on a remote mountainside..
As such, a PLE is a single user’s e-learning system that
provides access to a variety of learning resources, and that
may provide access to learners and teachers who use other
PLEs and/or VLEs.”
In a position paper I wrote earlier this year on PLEs (Attwell, 2006) I saw the
background to PLEs as a response to the idea of learninga s being lifelong.
Learning is now seen as multi episodic, with individuals spending occasional
periods of formal education and training throughout their working life. The
idea of a Personal Learning Environment recognises that learning is
continuing and seeks to provide tools to support that learning. It also
recognises the role of the individual in organising their own learning.
Moreover, the pressures for a PLE are based on the idea that learning will
take place in different contexts and situations and will not be provided by a
single learning provider. Linked to this is an increasing recognition of the
importance of informal learning. Ubiquitous computing and social software
are changing the way in which we learn.
Scot Wilson provoked much of the present debate over PLEs with the
following drawing (which he called a ‘Future VLE’; in February 2006 the term
PLE was still not in widespread use!):
The most important change is such a view is to see the learner at the centre
and to provide the learner with the opportunity (and responsibility) for
managing their own learning. Furthermore it recognised the multiple
contexts in which learning took place and the tow way nature of the
interactions between the PLE and other web services.
It is important to note that the PLE is not a software application as such but
rather a ‘mash up’ of different applications and services although of course,
it is possible to develop applications such as ELGG which bring together
much of this functionality. and allow ease of access to different services. As
such PLEs develop on the potential of services oriented architectures for
dispersed and networked forms of learning and knowledge development.
Why is the idea of the PLE so important? Stephen Downes (2006) says “the
heart of the concept of the PLE is that it is a tool that allows a learner (or
anyone) to engage in a distributed environment consisting of a network of
people, services and resources. It is not just Web 2.0, but it is certainly Web
2.0 in the sense that it is (in the broadest sense possible) a read-write
The promise of Personal Learning Environments could be to extend access to
educational technology to everyone who wishes to organise their own
learning. Furthermore the idea of the PLE purports to include and bring
together all learning, including informal learning, workplace learning,
learning from the home, learning driven by problem solving and learning
motivated by personal interest as well as learning through engagement in
formal educational programmes.”
The ‘pedagogy’ behind the PLE – if it could be still called that – is that it
offers a portal to the world, through which learners can explore and create,
according to their own interests and directions, interacting at all times with
their friends and community. New forms of learning are based on trying
things and action, rather than on more abstract knowledge. “Learning
becomes as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract, and
becomes intertwined with judgement and exploration.” (Seely Brown, 1999)
And as Stephen Downs (ibid) says “– crucially – teaching becomes the same
thing as well. As I wrote in 2002, “Educators play the same sort of role in
society as journalists. They are aggregators, assimilators, analysts and
advisors. They are middle links in an ecosystem, or as John Hiler puts it,
parasites on information produced by others. And they are being impacted
by alternative forms of learning in much the same way, for much the same
However whilst PLEs may offer a radical new vision for the development of
pedagogy and learning it is becoming apparent that the introduction of the
PLE will challenge the existing education systems and institutions. But,
critically, the challenge of introducing PLEs is one and the same with the
issues described in the first section of this paper. In the final section of the
paper I suggest some activities and policies that could facilitate the
development of social software and Personal Learning Environments for
lifelong competence development.

Supporting lifelong competence development through social

software and Personal Learning Environments
I have stressed that the development of Personal Learning Environments is
not just another substantiation of learning software. Rather, the use of social
software and prototype PLE environment such as ELGG show how the
introduction of how Services Oriented Approaches could support lifelong
competence development. But it provide a profound challenge to what I
would characterise as the industrial model of schooling and threatens what
Jeremy Herbert calls “the absurd split between learning and knowledge
development”. What sort of actions and policies are needed if we are to build
on such a potential?
During the ICT and SMEs study we looked at the nature of learning taking
place in small enterprises:

• Learning takes place in response to problems or issues or is driven by

the interests of the learner

• Learning is sequenced by the learner

• Learning is episodic

• Learning is controlled by the learner in terms of pace and time

• Learning is heavily contextual in terms of time, place and use

• Learning is cross disciplinary or cross subject

• Learning is interactive with practice

• Learning builds on often idiosyncratic and personal knowledge bases

• Learning takes place in communities of practice

There has been an upsurge of interest in informal learning in the recent

period, However this has mainly focused on establishing equivalency with
formal qualifications and it has proved difficult to establish tools and
mechanisms for accrediting informal learning. A more productive course may
be to recognise that learning takes place in multiple contexts and from
multiple sources. Although the study showed the use of computers for
informal learning in the workplace it also revealed the importance of
previous formal learning for the development and scaffolding of knowledge.
Workers in SMEs had also gained new skills and knowledge from non formal
learning contexts including evening classes attended outside work time and
driven largely by self interest. The provision of portfolios - as an extension of
the Europass CV - could be an important form for recognised in the different
contexts for learning. e-Portfolios are fast being introduced in schools and
universities but had made limited headway for vocational or work-based
learning. If e-portfolios were to be of more widespread relevance it is
important that they recognise the importance of communities of practice and
that they record all learning including informal learning. Present e-Portfolio
applications tend to be constrained by the requirements of formal
qualifications. The development and use of e-portfolios would require some
considerable support. It is naive to expect workers to adopt and develop e-
Portfolios without mentoring and guidance of some form.
Perhaps the most important finding of our previous research is that learning
takes place through engagement in communities of practice. I suspect this is
nothing new - however, the use of ICT has enabled the development of
dispersed communities of practice. This is particularly important for SMEs
where there may be few opportunities for face to face engagement with
colleagues engaged in similar practices and with similar problems. From a
policy point of view this also poses some issues. It is easy to propose that
policies should be focused on supporting the development of communities if
practice but this begs the question of how. It is notable that there are very
different business structures in the Member States of the European Union. In
particular Chambers of Commerce and Trade Associations play very different
roles. In some countries they are regulatory bodies and membership is
compulsory. In other countries, such as the UK, they act more as social
organisations and many SMEs are not members. Similarly there are very big
differences between industry sectors. In some industries there are close
contact between enterprises, in other industries far less contacts. Clusters of
enterprises collaborate on regional basis in some sectors, other enterprises
may be part of national or international supply chains. The development of
incubator units has been important in Wales as a source of networking and
informal learning. Suppliers of machinery and technology may be an
important source of information. One size policies will not fit all. A policy of
encouraging and supporting the development of communities of practice and
engagement in those communities will need to be implemented on a sector
by sector and region by region basis, in order to nurture lifelong competence
development through informal learning. This tends to imply that within such
a broad policy decisions over funding and support need to be taken as close
to practice as possible and that such policy implementation needs to be
enabling rather than restrictive.

In many countries occupational profiles are formally stipulated by regulatory

bodies, often involving social partners. Occupational profiles historically
arose out of the craft trades and tended to be narrowly defined. The
development of broader occupational profiles could be of importance in
providing the initial knowledge base for future informal learning, even if that
broader based learning was not required for immediate employment

Similarly a broader understanding of digital literacy and its integration within

the curriculum at all levels is important in allowing workers to use ICT for
learning in the workplace and lifelong competence development.

Supporting informal learning should not be seen as in opposition to formal

training. Within a lifelong learning scenario it is likely that workers will
engage in periods of formal training and periods when most learning will be
informal and work based. Supporting informal learning through communities
of practice may well result in an increased awareness of the importance of
learning for SMEs and hence to increased involvement in formal training.

In terms of the development of ICt for supporting lifelong competence

development there is the need for a fundamental policy revue. Past models
have focused on the extension of the largely consumer driven model of
developing standardised learning materials and component qualifications to
be delivered through a Learning Management System or Virtual Learning
Environment and of targeted marketing campaigns towards enterprises. This
model is not only costly but has made little impact and is unsustainable. If
learning is best developed through communities of practice then the focus
for programmes and projects seeking to provide e-learning for SMEs should
be refocused on the provision of applications and support for distributed
communities of practice for SMEs.

In terms of software applications this requires the use of social software

rather than more traditional e-learning programmes and applications. Rather
than subsidise the development of professional learning materials the
emphasis could be on the sharing of peer group learning materials through
networks. Aggregator applications allow advanced searching and the
bringing together of materials from different sources. The refocusing of
programmes and projects in this way allow the vision of an ecology of
learning materials, rather than the present unsustainable pilot applications.

Thus the development and implementation of Personal Learning

Environments for lifelong competence development requires not just a new
approach to learning software and architectures, welcome though the
Services Oriented Approach is, but the shaping of technology and the co-
development of enterprises and business development policies, new
pedagogies as well as educational services to facilitate learning and
knowledge development.


Attwell, G. (2006), Next Generation Learning and Personal Learning

Environments, paper presneted at Alt C conference, Edinburgh, September
Downes S. (2006), Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge,
Hiler J. (2002), Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem,
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral
participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Scot Wilson (2006) Future VLE, the visual version,
Seely Brown J. (1999) Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age:
Creating Learning Ecologies, Transcription of a talk by Brown at the 1999
Conference on Higher Education of the American Association for Higher
Education. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/seelybrown/, accessed 25
July, 2004
Van Harmelen M. (2006a), Personal Learning Environments,
Van Harmelen M.(2006b), Personal Learning Environments, Proceedings of
the Sixth International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies
(ICALT'06), http://octette.cs.man.ac.uk/~mark/docs/MvH_PLEs_ICALT.pdf
Vygotsky, LS, (1978), “Mind in Society - The Development of Higher
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Scribner, and Ellen Souberman, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts,