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1. Leading Learning Applications

by Sheila Hancock


"And there's the rub: We love learning. We hate school."

According to Michael Wesch (2008), "Last year’s U.S. Professor of the Year, Chris Sorensen, began his acceptance speech by announcing, 'I hate school.' And yet he went on to speak with passionate conviction about his love of learning and the desire to spread that love. And there’s the rub. We love learning. We hate school. What’s worse is that many of us hate school because we love learning." [[1]]

Personal learning environments are simply a way of exploiting technology to organize the informal learning that all of us do, every day, outside of the learning required by school or our jobs. Since personal learning environments are created and shaped by individual learners, current leading learning applications are as varied as the learners who use them. One individual’s PLE could be a desktop application, and another’s might be a web-based service or series of such, still another’s might be a combination of applications and services. We will outline examples of each of these below. E-learning researcher, Mohamed A. Chatti (2007) notes that PLEs are “characterized by the freeform use of a set of lightweight services and tools that belong to and are controlled by individual learners. Rather than integrating different services into a centralized system, the idea is to provide the learner with a myriad of services and hand over control to her to select and use the services the way she deems fit. A PLE driven approach does not only provide personal spaces, which belong to and are controlled by the user, but also requires a social context by offering means to connect with other personal spaces for effective knowledge sharing and collaborative knowledge creation.”[[2]]

Thus, dedicated PLE applications have yet to be developed; however, researcher Rob Lubensky (2008) (who defines PLEs as “a facility for an individual to access, aggregate, configure and manipulate digital artifacts of their ongoing learning experiences”) indicates that “software development companies are keen to make their product or service a nexus of attention. Whilst some learners may persist with the DIY approach to organising the scattered pieces of their learning environment, companies would rather see a PLE promoted as a particular product or service which solves the problem of that messiness. This applies not just to software for personal computers, but also for mobile PDAs.” Consolidated productivity services, such as Zoho and Gleanr, do come close to alleviating the problem of “messiness,” but at present, learners still tend to rely on what Lubensky (2008) calls the “DIY approach.” Lubensky (2008) further suggests that a barrier to the use of PLEs is “a lack of clear vision about what a PLE should do.” He continues, "The success of PLEs will depend on:

  1. the ease with which they can be implemented and used by learners
  2. interoperability
  3. the confidence that learners and institutional administrators have with them.[[3]]

Below we offer an overview of three applications and services that lend themselves to use as PLEs: Google Apps (a desktop application and web-based service), ELGG (a web-based service), Mendeley (another web-based service--this one more dedicated in terms of research). Finally, we suggest a do-it-yourself (DIY)approach and refer you to a site called "PLN Yourself," which explains in a highly simplified way how to create a PLE with a combination of applications and services.


Google Apps

Google Apps is a free Google service that allows subscribers access to a series of customizable tools that "enable faculty, staff, and students to work together and learn more effectively." With a multitude of researching, collaboration, networking and aggregating tools, Google Apps could easily be used to create a PLE.[4]

The following is a quick video tour of Google Apps:




An open-source networking program, ELGG offers most of the necessary components for individuals who want to create a personal learning environment. With ELGG, individuals can, among other things, blog, microblog, create files, create groups, collect news, share, and network. Elgg is free to users and the latest version ELGG 1.7.1 is easier to use and more intuitive than past versions.[[5]]

Individuals interested in creating a personal learning environment with ELGG can either go through a community service provider [[6]] or install and host ELGG themselves. [[7]] You can visit an ELGG version of a PLE at the following link: [8].

While ELGG contains the essential "interoperability" component to which Lubinsky refers, the service does require a high degree of technical skill for implementation and use. To illustrate, take a look at the following video, which explains how to install ELGG to begin creating your own PLE:



A free, proprietary desktop and web program, Mendeley allows subscribers to discover, manage, and share, and collaborate on research online. While Mendeley, which describes itself as "like iTunes for research," initially appears to be a dedicated research management site and would likely be used more for formal scholarship than informal learning, it could easily be used to create a personal learning environment since it allows for informal learning, social networking,newsfeeds, etc. [[9]]





Until one tool is created that accommodates all the needs of the informal learner, creating a personal learning environment with a do-it-yourself method may be the best approach of all. The purpose of Sue Waters's site, "PLN Yourself," is to simplify the process of creating your own personal learning environment (or network). She suggests that the easiest way to begin is:

  1. "Set up your own Twitter account;
  2. Start your own blog;
  3. Start using a social bookmarking tool;
  4. Join the Ning community."

She gives the following advice to individuals setting up PLEs:

  1. "Start slowly and find mentor(s) to help you;
  2. Use the same username across tools;
  3. Share as much as you take;
  4. Ask as much as you answer;
  5. Try new tools before you decide they're not worth the time;
  6. Comment on other people's blogs;
  7. Lifelong learning is the key."

Report Card

As mentioned above, Lubensky (2008) states that "the success of PLEs will depend on: 1. the ease with which they can be implemented and used by learners 2. interoperability 3. the confidence that learners and institutional administrators have with them."

Google Apps:


Google Apps is both a desktop application and a web service, and though it has many very good features, the tools within the application are limited and more appropriate for communication, collaboration, and organization and less appropriate for aggregation, blogging, and information gathering. Further, apparently any content belongs to Google. Google Apps is a great service, but not particularly appropriate or broad enough for a PLE. Further, though the Google name would inspire confidence in learners and institutional administrators, and the product is easy to implement and use, it lacks the essential interoperability.

Grade: C



Like Google Apps, Mendeley is both a desktop service and a web service. Its tools, including its social networking tool, are more appropriate for formal research than informal research: the service is more appropriate for aggregation, information gathering, and connecting with other researchers, but less appropriate for general communication, organization, blogging, and collaboration. Like Google Apps, Mendeley’s limitations outweigh its advantages, and it’s not broad enough for use as a PLE. Further, while Mendeley is clearly easy to implement and use, it not only lacks interoperability, but also the brand recognition of Google, so the service may not inspire confidence in learners and institutional administrators.

Grade: C

ELGG: <flash>file=reportcardC+.swf|width=200|height=230|quality=best</flash>

As a single tool, ELGG combines most of the features necessary for creating a PLE, but like Google Apps and Mendeley, ELGG also has limitations since its primary purpose is as a social networking engine, so it may not be the best choice for aggregation, information gathering, etc. Further, you do need to have a fairly high degree of technical knowledge to run ELGG, not to mention your own (or access to an institution's) web server. Thus, while ELGG is interoperable, it lacks the key features of ease of implementation and use to which Lubensky refers. Like Mendeley, it also lacks Google's brand recognition, so learners and administrators may steer clear.

Grade: C+

DIY Method: <flash>file=reportcardB.swf|width=200|height=230|quality=best</flash>

Until one tool is created that accommodates all the needs of the informal learner, a do-it-yourself approach to personal learning environment creation may be the most appropriate approach of all. PLN Yourself is neither an application nor a service, but rather a method of setting up a PLE in a piecemeal manner—a set of instructions meant to describe and simplify a do-it-yourself approach to creating a PLE. Because the instructions recommend using a variety of tools, each appropriate to the learner in its own way, and because it recommends an individualized approach, it is a method appropriate to creating a PLE. While the DIY method is, by its nature, interoperable and each product can be selected for ease of implementation and use, this approach fails to “solve the problem of messiness” referred to by Lubensky.

Grade: B


Chatti, Mohamedamine. Personal Environments Loosely Joined. Retrieved from

Lubensky, R. (2006, December 18). The present and future of Personal Learning Environments (PLE). Retrieved from

Tosh, D., and Werdmuller, B. (2004). Personal learning landscape diagram. Retrieved from

Waters, Sue (2010). PLN Yourself. Retrieved from

Wesch, Michael (2008). A vision of students today: what teachers must do. Britannica Blog: Where Ideas Matter. Retrieved from


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