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The future Learning Environments

1. Introduction

Considerable effort and finance has been expended on developing and implementing information
and communication technologies in education. Despite this, there remains an issue as to the
effectiveness and attractiveness of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). Although the history of
TEL, or e-learning, can be seen as having progressed through a series of different stages - at least in
technology terms - it can be argued that it has been dominated by the aim of managing learning.
Learning Management Systems and Virtual Learning Environments have sought both to manage
administrative and business processes associated with education and to model existing learning
environments through online applications. Despite the far ranging changes in the economy, in
production and in social life through the widespread adoption of digital technologies, educational
institutions and curricula remain remarkably unaffected.

However, one of the main arguments of this paper is that technologies are having a major impact in
the way we learn and develop and share knowledge and that the failure of educational systems and
institutions to engage with these changes is leading to an increasing tension between the way young
people use technology for socialising and learning outside the institutions and the pedagogic and
curricula processes within schools and universities. To overcome this contradiction will take more
than the mere implementation or incorporation of technology within institutions. It will require a
fundamental review of institutional arrangements, of curricula and pedagogy. Furthermore, the
future of learning with technology may not rest with educational technology but rather through a
process of the appropriation of business and social software for learning.

This first section of the paper will examine the challenges the education systems face. The next
section looks at how young people are using technology and particularly web 2.0 and social
software in their everyday lives. The final section of the paper looks at Personal Learning Networks
and Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and considers the implications of the development of
PLEs for educational organisation and institutions.

2. The Challenges to the Education Systems

2.1 The social challenge of technology

Firstly it should be said that it is not technology per se that poses the challenge to education systems
and institutions. It is rather the way technology is being used in procedural and social terms for
communication and for everyday learning within the wider society.

Whilst institutions have largely maintained their monopoly and prestige as bodies awarding
certification, one major impact of internet technologies has been to move access to learning and
knowledge outside of institutional boundaries. The internet provides ready and often free access to a
wealth of books, papers, videos, blogs, scientific research, news and opinion. It also provides access
to expertise in the form of networks of people. Conferences, seminars and workshops can
increasingly be accessed online. Virtual worlds offer opportunities for simulations and

Of course this begs the question of support for learning, although there are increasing numbers of
free online courses and communities and bulletin boards for help with problem solving. Schools and
universities can no longer claim a monopoly as seats of learning or of knowledge. Such learning
and knowledge now resides in distributed networks. Learning can take place in the home, in work
or in the community as easily as within schools. Mobile devices also mean that learning can take
place anywhere without access to a computer. Whilst previously learning was largely structured
through a curriculum, context is now becoming an important aspect of learning.

Technology is also challenging traditional expert contributed disciplinary knowledge as embodied

in school curricula. Dave Cormier (2008) says that the present speed of information based on new
technologies has undermined traditional expert driven processes of knowledge development and
dissemination. The explosion of freely available sources of information has helped drive rapid
expansion in the accessibility of the canon and in the range of knowledge available to learners. We
are being forced to re-examine what constitutes knowledge and are moving from expert developed
and sanctioned knowledge to collaborative forms of knowledge construction. The English language
version of the Wikipedia website, a collaboratively developed knowledge base, had 3,264,557 pages
in April, 2010 and over 12 million registered users.

2.2 The evolution of schooling systems

The present north European schooling systems evolved from the needs of the industrial revolutions
for a literate and numerate workforce (Barnard, 1947 ; McLuhan and Leonard, 1967). Schools were
themselves modelled on the factory system with fixed starting and finishing times with standardised
work tasks and quality systems. Students followed relatively rigid group learning programmes,
often based on age and banded into groups based on tests or examinations. Besides the acquisition
of knowledge and skills needed by the economy, schools also acted as a means of selection, to
determine those who might progress to higher levels of learning or employment requiring more
complex skills and knowledge.

It is arguable whether such a schooling system meets the present day needs of the economy. In
many countries there is publicly expressed concern that schools are failing to deliver the skills and
knowledge needed for employment, resulting in many countries in different reform measures. There
is also a trend towards increasing the length of schooling (Peck, 1995) and, in some countries, at
attempting to increase the percentages of young people attending university.

However the schooling system has been developed above all on homogeneity. Indeed, in countries
like the UK, reforms have attempted in increase that homogeneity through the imposition of a
standardised national curriculum and regular Standardised Attainment Tests (SATs). Such a
movement might be seen as in contradiction to the supposed needs for greater creativity, team work,
problem solving, communication and self motivated continuous learning within enterprises today.

Furthermore, the homogeneity of schooling systems and curricula is in stark contrast to the wealth
of different learning pathways available through the internet. Whilst the UK government has called
for greater personalisation of learning, this is seen generally as different forms of access to a
standardised curriculum. The internet offers the promise of Personal Learning Pathways, of
personal and collaborative knowledge construction and meaning making through distributed

2.3 Schooling systems and media

The evolution of the school system can also be seen in terms of dominant media. Frieson and Hug
(2009) argue that “the practices and institutions of education need to be understood in a frame of
reference that is mediatic: “as a part of a media-ecological configuration of technologies specific to
a particular age or era.” This configuration, they say, is one in which print has been dominant.
Frieson quotes McLuhan who has described the role of the school specifically as the “custodian of
print culture” (McLuhan, 1962). It provides, he says, a socially sanctioned “civil defense against
media fallout” (McLuhan,1964) - against threatening changes in the mediatic environs.

Neil Postman (1982) says that “school was an invention of the printing press and must stand or fall
on the issue of how much importance the printed word will have in the future”. Schooling and
education, by extension, appear as the formal setting that is the necessary institutional correlative to
this conception of development. In discussing Postman’s work Friesen and Hug say: “As the
‘custodian of print culture’, it is the task of education to provide students with a structured,
controlled environment that is conducive to the quiet repose that print media demand of their
audiences. This further positions the school as a kind of separate, reflective, critical pedagogical
‘space’, isolated from the multiple sources of informational ‘noise’ in an otherwise media-saturated

Thus, schooling systems have become isolated from the changing forms of learning and knowledge
exchange facilitated by the internet.

In this first section I have argued that the schooling system is based on outdated forms of
organisation and on an expert derived and standardised canon of knowledge. As such it is
increasingly dysfunctional in a society where knowledge is collaboratively developed through
distributed networks. Such criticism is not new. As early as 1971, Ivan Illich said:

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were
attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new
attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software
(in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it
engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”

In the next section we will look in more depth of how we are using technology and the internet for
learning and examine Levi Strauss's idea of bricolage.

3. How we are using technology and the internet for learning

3.1 Web 2.0 and bricolage

Web 2.0 applications and social software mark a change in our use of computers from consumption
to creation. A series of studies and reports have provided rich evidence of the ways young people
are using technology and the internet for socialising, communicating and for learning. Young people
are increasingly using technology for creating and sharing multi media objects and for social
networking. A Pew Research study (Lenhart and Madden, 2005) found that 56 per cent of young
people in America were using computers for ‘creative activities, writing and posting of the internet,
mixing and constructing multimedia and developing their own content. Twelve to 17-year-olds look
to web tools to share what they think and do online. One in five who use the net said they used
other people’s images, audio or text to help make their own creations. According to Raine (BBC,
2005), “These teens were born into a digital world where they expect to be able to create, consume,
remix, and share material with each other and lots of strangers.”

Such a process of creation, remixing and sharing is similar to Levi Struass's idea of bricolage as a
functioning of the logic of the concrete. In their book 'Introducing Levi Strauus and Structural
Anthropology', Boris Wiseman and Judy Groves explain the work of the bricoleur:

“Unlike the engineer who creates specialised tools and materials for each new project
that he embarks upon, the bricoleur work with materials that are always second hand.

In as much as he must make do with whatever is at hand, an element of chance always

enters into the work of the bricoleur......

The bricoleur is in possession of a stock of objects (a “treasure”). These possess

“meaning” in as much as they are bound together by a set of possible relationships, one
of which is concretized by the bricoleur’s choice”.

Young people today are collecting their treasure to make their own meanings of objects they
discover on the web. In contrast our education systems are based on specialised tools and

3.2 Social networking

It iis not only young people who are using social networks for communication, content sharing and
learning. A further survey by Pew Internet (Lenhart, 2009) on adults use of social networking sites

• 79% of American adults used the internet in 2009, up from 67% in Feb. 2005

• 46% of online American adults 18 and older use a social networking site like
MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, up from 8% in February 2005.

• 65% of teens 12-17 use online social networks as of Feb 2008, up from 58% in
2007 and 55% in 2006.

• As of August 2009, Facebook was the most popular online social network for
American adults 18 and older.

• 10-12% are on “other” sites like Bebo, Last.FM, Digg, Blackplanet, Orkut, Hi5
and Match.com?

Lest this be thought to be a north American phenomena, a survey by Nielsen (2010) and
reported by the BBC showed 24.2 million Facebook users in the UK and 28.7 million
subscriptions to the Orkut social networking site in Brazil.

3.3 Using the Internet for learning

Ewan McIntosh (2008) has provided a summary of a series of studies undertaken in the UK
(Ofcom Social Networking Research, the Oxford Internet Institute’s Internet Surveys, Ofcom
Media Literacy Audit).

The main use of the internet by young people, by far, is for learning: 57% use the net for
homework, saying it provides more information than books. 15% use it for learning that is not
’school’. 40% use it to stay in touch with friends, 9% for entertainment such as YouTube

Most users of the net are using it at home (94%), then at work (34%), another person’s house (30%)
or at school (16%). Only 12% use public libraries and 9% internet cafés. Most people’s first
exposure to the web is at home.

A further survey into the use of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises found
few instances of the use of formal educational technologies (Attwell, 2007). But the study found the
widespread everyday use of internet technologies for informal learning, utilizing a wide range of
business and social software applications. This finding is confirmed by a recent study on the
adoption of social networking in the workplace and Enterprise 2.0 (Oliver Young, 2009). The study
found almost two-thirds of those responding (65%) said that social networks had increased either
their efficiency at work, or the efficiency of their colleagues. 63% of respondents said that using
them had enabled them to do something that they hadn’t been able to do before.

3.4 Using social software for informal learning

Of course such studies beg the question of the nature and purpose of the use of social software in
the workplace. The findings of the ICT and SME project, which was based on 106 case studies in
six European countries (Attwell, 2007) focused on the use of technologies for informal learning.
The study suggested that although social software was used for information seeking and for social
and communication purposes it was also being widely used for informal learning. In such a context:

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

• 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

3.5 Mobile devices and participatory culture

It is also worth considering the growing use of mobile devices. A recent Pew Internet survey
(Lenhart et al, 2010) found that of the 75% of teens who own cell phones in the USA, 87% use text
messaging at least occasionally. Of those who owned mobile phones:

• 83% use their phones to take pictures.

• 64% share pictures with others.

• 60% play music on their phones.

• 46% play games on their phones.

• 32% exchange videos on their phones.

• 31% exchange instant messages on their phones.

• 27% go online for general purposes on their phones.

• 23% access social network sites on their phones.

• 21% use email on their phones.

• 11% purchase things via their phones.

It is not just the material and functional character of the technologies which is important but the
potential of the use of mobile devices to contribute to a new “participatory culture” (Jenkins at al,
2006). Jenkins at al define such a culture as one “with relatively low barriers to artistic expression
and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of
informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices…
Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media
technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and
recirculate media content in powerful new ways.”

Thus we can see the ways in which technology and the internet is being used for constructing
knowledge and meaning through bricolage and through developing and sharing content. This takes
place through extended social networks which both serve for staying in touch with friends but also
for seeking information and for learning in a participatory culture.

In the next section we will return to the issue of how schooling systems have attempted to use
educational technology and propose an alternative approach based on Personal Learning
Environments. We will then look at how Vykotsky's ideas on pedagogy can assist us in developing
the idea of a Personal Learning Environment.

4. Personal Learning Environments

4.1 The Failure of Technology Enhanced Learning

Dave Wiley, in a paper entitled ‘Open for learning: the CMS and the Open Learning Network‘ and
co-written with Jon Mott, explains the failure of Technology Enhanced Education as being due to
the way technology has been used to maintain existing practices:

“by perpetuating the Industrial Era-inspired, assembly line notion that the semester-
bound course is the naturally appropriate unit of instruction (Reigeluth, 1999).”

The paper quotes Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver (2005) who argue that course management
software leads universities to “think they are in the information industry”. In contrast to ”the
authentic learning environments prompted by advances in cognitive and constructivist learning

“the industrial, course management model has its center of gravity in teachers
generating content, teachers gathering resources, teachers grouping and sequencing
information, and teachers giving the information to students.”

In contrast, socio-cultural theories of knowledge acquisition stress the importance of collaborative

learning and ‘learning communities’. Agostini et al. (2003) complain about the lack of support
offered by many virtual learning environments (VLEs) for emerging communities of interest and
the need to link with official organisational structures within which individuals are working. Ideally,
VLEs should link knowledge assets with people, communities and informal knowledge (Agostini et
al, 2003) and support the development of social networks for learning (Fischer, 1995). The idea of a
personal learning space is taken further by Razavi and Iverson (2006) who suggest integrating
weblogs, ePortfolios, and social networking functionality in this environment both for enhanced e-
learning and knowledge management, and for developing communities of practice.

4.2 PLEs – the spaces in which people interact, communicate and learn

Based on these ideas of collaborative learning and social networks within communities of practice,
the notion of Personal Learning Environments is being put forward as a new approach to the
development of e-learning tools (Wilson et al, 2006) that are no longer focused on integrated
learning platforms such as VLEs or course management systems. In contrast, these PLEs are made-
up of a collection of loosely coupled tools, including Web 2.0 technologies, used for working,
learning, reflection and collaboration with others. PLEs can be seen as the spaces in which people
interact and communicate and whose ultimate result is learning and the development of collective
know-how. A PLE can use social software for informal learning which is learner driven, problem-
based and motivated by interest – not as a process triggered by a single learning provider, but as a
continuing activity.

PLEs are by definition individual. However it is possible to provide tools and services to support
individuals in developing their own environment. In looking at the needs of careers guidance
advisors for learning, Attwell, Barnes, Bimrose and Brown (2008) say a PLE should be based on a
set of tools to allow personal access to resources from multiple sources, and to support knowledge
creation and communication. Based on an initial scoping of knowledge development needs, a list of
possible functions for a PLE have been suggested, including: access/search for information and
knowledge; aggregate and scaffold by combining information and knowledge; manipulate,
rearrange and repurpose knowledge artefacts; analyse information to develop knowledge; reflect,
question, challenge, seek clarification, form and defend opinions; present ideas, learning and
knowledge in different ways and for different purposes; represent the underpinning knowledge
structures of different artefacts and support the dynamic re-rendering of such structures; share by
supporting individuals in their learning and knowledge; networking by creating a collaborative
learning environment.

Steve Wheeler (2010) has published a presentation looking at how current thinking on how the web
might be extended beyond social tools into a more smart and responsive personal environment for
learning. In a response to Wheeler’s presentation, George Siemens (2010) wrote "The development
of the semantic web, linked data, and open data, coupled with location-awareness, recommender
systems, augmented reality, data overlays, and similar developments is having a dramatic impact on
how people interact with information and each other". The increasing adoption of standards and
interoperability between different platforms and devices, linked to the emergence of the semantic
web, can overcome previous concerns about data interoperability and the transition of knowledge
sources form one PLE to another. PLEs can increasingly be seen as operating within the web.

Whilst PLEs may be represented as technology, including applications and services, more important
is the idea of supporting individual and group based learning in multiple contexts and of promoting
learner autonomy and control. Conole (2008) suggests a personal working environment and mixture
of institutional and self selected tools are increasingly becoming the norm. She says: “Research
looking at how students are appropriating technologies points to similar changes in practice:
students are mixing and matching different tools to meet their personal needs and preferences, not
just relying on institutionally provided tools and indeed in some instances shunning them in favour
of their own personal tools.”

5. Vygotsky and Personal Learning Environments

5.1 PLEs as culturally situated artefacts

A Personal Learning Environment is developed from tools or artefacts. Vygotsky (1978) considered
that all artefacts are culturally, historically and institutionally situated. “In a sense, then, there is no
way not to be socioculturally situated when carrying out an action. Conversely there is no tool that
is adequate to all tasks, and there is no universally appropriate form of cultural mediation. Even
language, the 'tool of tools' is no exception to this rule” (Cole and Wertsch, 2006). Social
networking tools are culturally situated artefacts. Jyri Engestrom (2005) says “the term 'social
networking' makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people.
Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just
anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date
will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included
in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social
network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social
networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

Vygotsky's research focused on school based learning. He developed the idea of the Zone of
Proximal Development (ZPD) which is the gap between "actual developmental level" which
children can accomplish independently and the "potential developmental level" which children can
accomplish when they are interacting with others who are more capable peers or adults.

In Vygotsky's view, interactions with the social environment, including peer interaction and/or
scaffolding, are important ways to facilitate individual cognitive growth and knowledge acquisition.
Therefore, learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into
the intellectual life of those around them. Vygotsky said that learning awakens a variety of internal
developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in
his (sic) environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalized, they
become part of the child's independent developmental achievement (Vygotsky, 1978).

Vygotsky also emphasized the importance of the social nature of imagination play for development.
He saw the imaginary situations created in play as zones of proximal development that operate as
mental support system (Fleer, 2008).

5.2 The More Knowledgeable Other

Vykotsky called teachers - or peers - who supported learning in the ZDP as the More
Knowledgeable Other (MKO). “The MKO is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher
ability level than the leaner particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process.
Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher, an older adult or a peer” (Dahms et al, 2007). But
the MKO can also be viewed as a learning object or social software which embodies and mediates
learning at higher levels of knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner presently

The role of a PLE may be not only that of a tool to provide access to ‘More Knowledgeable Others’
but as part of a system to allow learners to link learning to performance in practice, though work
processes. And taking a wider view of artefacts as including information or knowledge accessed
through a PLE, reflection on action or performance may in turn generate new artefacts for others to
use within a ZPD.

5.3 Scaffolding Learning

Dahms et all (2007) say that Vygotsky's findings suggest methodological procedures for the
classroom. "In Vygotskian perspective, the ideal role of the teacher is that of providing scaffolding
(collaborative dialogue) to assist students on tasks within their zones of proximal
development”(Hamilton and Ghatala, 1994). ”During scaffolding the first step is to build interest
and engage the learner. Once the learner is actively participating, the given task should be
simplified by breaking it into smaller sub-tasks. During this task, the teacher needs to keep the
learner focused, while concentrating on the most important ideas of the assignment. One of the most
integral steps in scaffolding consists of keeping the learner from becoming frustrated. The final task
associated with scaffolding involves the teacher modelling possible ways of completing tasks,
which the learner can then imitate and eventually internalise” (Dahms et al., 2007).

Social media and particularly video present rich opportunities for the modelling of ways of
completing a task, especially given the ability of using social networking software to support
communities of practice. However, imitation alone may not be sufficient in the context of advanced
knowledge work. Rather, refection is required both to understand more abstract models and at the
same time to reapply models to particular contexts and instances of application in practice. Thus
PLE tools need to be able to support the visualisation or representation of models and to promote
reflection on their relevance and meaning in context. Although Vygotsky saw a process whereby
children could learn to solve novel problems "on the basis of a model he [sic] has been shown in
class”, in this case the model is embodied in technological artefacts (although still provided by a
'teacher' through the creation of the artefact).

Within this perspective a PLE could be seen as allowing the representation of knowledge, skills and
prior learning and a set of tools for interaction with peers to accomplish further tasks. The PLE
would be dynamic in that it would allow reflection on those task and further assist in the
representation of prior knowledge, skills and experiences. In this context experiences are seen as
representing performance or practice. Through access to external symbol systems (Clark, 1997)
such as metadata, ontologies and taxonomies the internal learning can be transformed into
externalised knowledge and become part of the scaffolding for others as a representation of a MKO
within a Zone of Proximal Development. Such an approach to the design of a PLE can bring
together the everyday evolving uses of social networks and social media with pedagogic theories to

6. The Future of Learning Environments

In this paper we have argued that the present 'industrial' schooling system is fast becoming
dysfunctional, neither providing the skills and competences required in our economies nor
corresponding to the ways in which we are using the procedural and social aspects of technology for
learning and developing and sharing knowledge.

We have gone on to propose that the development and use of Personal Learning Networks and
Personal Learning Environments can support and mediate individual and group based learning in
multiple contexts and promote learner autonomy and control. The role of teachers in such an
environment would be to support, model and scaffold learning.

Such an approach will allow the development and exploration of Personal Learning Pathways,
based on the interests and needs of the learners and participation in culturally rich collaborative
forms of knowledge construction. Such approaches to learning recognise the role of informal
learning and the role of context.

Schools can only form one part of such collaborative and networked knowledge constellation.
Indeed the focus moves from schools as institutional embodiments of learning to focus on the
process and forms of learning. Hence institutions must rethink and recast their role as part of
community and distributed networks supporting learning and collaborative knowledge
development. Indeed, the major impact of the uses of new technologies and social networking for
learning is to move learning out of the institutions and into wider society. For schools to continue to
play a role in that learning, they too have to reposition themselves within wider social networks and
communities. This is a two way process, not only schools reaching outwards, but also opening up to
the community, distributed or otherwise, to join in collaborative learning processes.

The future development of technology looks likely to increase pressures for such change. Social
networks and social networking practice is continuing to grow and is increasingly integrated in
different areas of society and economy. At the same time new interfaces to computers and networks
are likely to render the keyboard obsolescent, allowing the integration of computers and learning in
everyday life and activity. Personal Learning Pathways will guide and mediate progression through
this expanded learning environment.

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