Sunday, 26 February 2012

PLEs and Information Systems: an epiphany.

I have had an epiphany. A very late one. Something that must have been screaming at me from the back of my brain for at least 3 years, but for some reason I had chosen not to listen. Here it goes:

PLEs are Information Systems.

Don't give me THAT look. I didn't say it was a huge breakthrough. But this, for me, is A Big Deal. Let's go back a few years.

In 2003 I was offered a job as a teacher in a Business Administration programme. They needed someone to teach e-Business, and I was a professor, could sort of speak English and was a geeky fellow, being a student in a Multimedia Engineering PhD programme. So it kinda made sense. For the next five years, I taught not only that, but also Mathematics, Calculus, Introduction to Information Systems, Business Information Systems, e-Learning systems, and a few other subjects. Someone recommended me to another Uni, and by 2008 I was teaching 20+ hours a week. A bit too much, as the Universe would promptly made clear, by having me faint midway through a lunch with my parents and partner. It was time to cut back on the hours.

Which I did almost immediately, mainly for other reasons that are the subject of a different post. So let's just say that I went from 22 to 6 hours a week. The mathematically inclined will immediately spot a hole in my finances. The Universe managed to fix this by having another job be offered to me right away. It was a challenge, so I took it. It involved heading the e-learning research department for a foundation.

All this happened just before the summer; a summer that I spent in the UK, working with a research group, and which made me, in the end, change my dissertation topic. I had discovered the wonderful world of learning technologies and PLEs. Again, another post.

So when I started my job at the foundation as e-learning projects coordinator, the first project I came up with was based on PLEs and secondary school teachers. And for the next 3 years, I would focus mostly on that project, a few bids, some collaborations, a lot of conferences and events, and PLEs. With some teaching on the side. I did manage to combine my teaching with my research, and had a couple of groups that were very interested in learning about PLEs and Web 2.0. They helped me a lot with my research, and I will be forever thankful to them. But I digress.

The point is, if there is one constant through my teaching post-2003 (before that, the constant was Chemistry) is Information Systems. I have discussed them with my students a million times, tried to come up with our own definitions, talked about computer-based IS as opposed to any IS, and so on.

Research-wise, I had been working on a proposed framework for building PLEs based on Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education, adapting that for secondary school teachers, then for entrepeneurs, and in the end designing training modules that would help anyone put together a PLE by actually learning and choosing the tools. In the meantime, I would get together from time to time with an ever-growing network of colleagues and friends, and discuss PLEs approaches and definitions until the cows came home.

I hope you can see where I'm going with this.

I clearly remember this one time, when Graham Attwell asked a bunch of us, wide-eyed, innocent researchers-to-be, what was a definition of PLE. All I could produce was: "it empowers the learner". Which is clearly NOT a definition. Graham didn't think so, I can tell you that.

The following year, I helped organise the first face-to-face PLE conference, which we appropriately and originally named "The PLE Conference", and one of the sessions was devoted to trying to come up with a definition of PLEs. I can't tell you what happened, on account of having spent most of those 3 days running up and down the building making sure everything was working as expected, but I'm told no working definition came out of it.

Gear by mag3737
Gear, a photo by mag3737 on Flickr.
  And now I've realised that, even though it is not THE definition, that is what a PLE is: an Information System. Or, if you prefer, an information system.

So now I'm thinking I could have said, "An information system that helps empower the learner". That sounds much better. Oh, well. It took me just 3 years.

I'll finish this here (because if not I could continue rambling for ages), with the definition of IS we use in one of my classes. It says:

"Information Systems are the means by which people interact with hardware and software in order to process data that is important to them." (Not really sure what's the exact source. Will try and find it, if there actually is one.)
And, more specifically:
"An information system is a work system whose internal functions are limited to  processing information by performing six types of operations: capturing, transmitting, storing, retrieving, manipulating, and displaying information." (A general, yet useful theory of Information Systems, S. Alter, 1999)

Sort of what we do with a PLE ;)

I have seen PLEs and Open Information Systems mentioned together, but I have never read anything that proposes that a PLE is actually an Information System, using those words. Of course, I may have missed it, or it might be out there and I haven't read it yet, but just wanted to get this off my chest. Done.


  1. Hi.

    Newer definition of Alter (2008) posits an IS as a work system whose processes and activities are devoted to processing information. Fundamental elements would be the 1technologies, the 2information, the 3participants, the 4processes & activities, 5products & services & 6customers. The first four elements are relevant to PLE. So by baseline definition, can PLE be considered an IS? Yes, I think so. But another definition states that PLE is the "personal aggregation of the various tools, media, individuals and resources used by the learner as she participates and engages in a situated social learning milieu" (Buchem, Attwell, & Torres, 2011) It brings PLE now in a more specific context-- social situation or an interplay of formal and informal learning situations.

    The processes (capturing, transmitting..etc) you mentioned in your IS definition are all performed in PLE. So again, it conforms to an IS. But an impt process missing is the self-learning process. And this self-learning process permits a learner and her peers to prudently co-create or co-construct knowledge. So in my humble opinion, I think PLE is more than an information system. It is an intelligent information system. My two cents. :)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment on this! I agree with you: a PLE is essentially an information system in terms of structure and components, or maybe an aggregation of individual information systems. What gives it value is the human component, what we do with it, the "intelligent" element. Which is something that no IS can provide on its own.
      I used to make it very clear, when I presented my research at events and conferences, that when I was talking about a PLE, I was really referring to the PLE digital support tools. I don't think that the tools alone create a PLE; there are many elements that are not just tools, or even digital. The learner, for starters, but also other users, books, physical environments and so on. Lately I have stopped explaining that, as I think that more and more the use of the term PLE implies components beyond the digital ones.
      Thanks for the update on Alter, will track it down.

  2. Dear Ricardo

    Since we met about two years ago, I have always enjoyed listening to you. Now that I have just discovered your blog, I’m really glad that I don’t have to wait until the next conference to be able to know what you are thinking about…. It isn’t necessary that you write every week, it’s enough if you do it when you have something to say… no doubt it’s going to be very interesting ;-)) . I’m sure I will learn a lot from you!
    There are lots of definitions of PLEs, some of them too complex and some of them interesting as they are descriptive and try to explain how PLEs work. And I like your definition because it tackles its essence, the concept in itself. Short and powerful, simply great ;-))

    Thanks for blogging and please, keep blogging from now on and I’ll keep reading you too

    Gemma- Ibiza

    1. Thanks a lot, Gemma. Blogging can be a very lonely experience at the beginning (I hope it's JUST at the beginning). But it's true, this is yet another channel that will allow us to be in touch between conferences ;)

      I'm currently writing a chapter for my thesis about concepts and definitions of PLEs, and I was in the middle of preparing one of my lessons about information systems when it hit me. So I had to write it down; I will probably use it in that chapter, so the feedback always help polish it up. Thanks again!