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2. Stability and Usability

In this vector, we'll discuss PLE's in the context of usability and stability.




Usability is a very broad subject but incorporates many facets of human computer interaction. As PLE's are made up of tools which people choose themselves and are to their own liking, a PLE is almost a custom tailored application for every person who uses one. If one tool is no longer useful or a new application comes along, the user can simply remove that tool and incorporate the new, better tool into their PLE.

It's difficult to talk about usability without mentioning Donal Norman. Professor Norman's area of expertise is that of cognitive science. Below is a short video of Professor Norman at the 2003 TED Conference talking about what attracts us to good design.


Google's usability lab:


The Tools - A Comparison

In the tools department for PLE's, there are a lot to choose from and the list keeps growing as new innovations and structures emerge. Structures like social networking sites are a relatively new tool which has gained a lot of user adoption over the past few years with both broad and specific use of tools. Social networks like Twitter have evolved out of other social networks like wikis and especially blogs. While blogs provide a venue for lengthy and complex postings, a Twitter post is restricted to 140 characters. From a usability perspective, Twitter can help get information out quickly and efficiently and has also started to incorporate mixed media such as photos, video, and location.

Let's compare the various tools:

Tool Positives Negatives
Google Apps
  • All encompassing
  • Many different tools: Docs, Wave, Sites, Gmail, YouTube, etc.
  • Number of tools growing
  • All encompassing
  • limited interaction with tools outside of Google
  • Many different blogging tools to choose from
  • Greater interaction with other tools with the ability to embed content or software from a variety of sources
  • Generally created and run by a single person
  • Interaction is between the owner of the site readers
  • Interaction is between the owner of the site readers
  • Generally no single owner
  • Updated and maintained by many people
  • Information is more organically created
  • Generally no single owner
  • Updated and maintained by many people
Online Storage
  • Enables people to store any type of file online so that it's accessible anywhere with a web browser
  • Files can be shared amongst a group of people or open to the entire public
  • Some tools allow meta tags to be added to files creating a more robust search and classification method
  • Amount of space is generally limited for free accounts
  • File types available for upload may be limited in some cases
  • File ownership can be somewhat limiting based on license agreements between users and providers

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Online digital Learning Management Systems (LMS's) have been prevalent in education over the past 12 years or so. They were a natural step for the beginning of the web: a fully self contained web site that offered tools and structure to a somewhat chaotic and quickly expanding world wide web. While initially this was an advantage, it is now becoming apparent that students would rather create their own environments using their own tools.


Just as Twitter was an evolution of blogging, Personal Learning Environments (PLE's) have become the evolution of the LMS. While the LMS is an all encompassing yet limiting tool, PLE's allow students to select and use the tools they like. They can also make changes when ever they see fit. The learning environment itself can go through evolutions as well with the student as tools are changed and they move through their education:

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Let's take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages:

Tool Advantages Disadvantages
  • Easy to maintain when hosted externally
  • Centrally located tools
  • Data not publicly available
  • Tools are generally limited by what is available within the system
  • It is difficult if not impossible to bring in other web based tools
  • Can be very costly for an institution to support and annual licenses are often quite high
  • Little innovation has been achieved over the past 5 years
  • Data not publicly available
  • Easily customizable by the student
  • Many tools comply with open standards
  • With such a wide variety of tools, flexibility and functionality are opened up
  • People can design their own environments to their own liking
  • Generally, tools are web-based and can be accessed anywhere internet is available
  • lack of centrality (e.g. Blackboard)
  • People can design their own environments to their own liking
  • Many tools are web based and require an internet connection in order to function



PLE's are extremely vulnerable to the whims of the internet. Those tools that are available today may not, and more than likely will not, be available 10 years down the road. Many tools get upgraded without user consent which can mean that the functionality that the user expects may no longer be available or worse, a great free application suddenly starts charging a fee. Conversely, a free tool may no longer be able to support itself and simply stops being updated or available at all. Large companies like Google, however, are less susceptible to these issues but nonetheless will stop supporting non-popular applications.

Interoperability between tools is another major issue. The ability to move between various tools and bring your data with you is very limited and when it is available, importing data from one source to another is often complicated and messy. There have also been issues whereby very good tools are suddenly purchased by a very large company like Google, to be integrated into their current suite of tools. When this happens, the tool itself generally remains functional during the transition, but is limited in terms of functionality or adding content or data is removed.

For the majority of web based tools, only a web browser and internet connection is required. For some applications, bandwidth can be an issue, e.g. YouTube, Skype or video conferencing tools.

Report Card


While there is a lot of potential for many of the tools which are currently available for use in a PLE, their stability is quite questionable. Tools which are here today, may be gone tomorrow. Conversely, as new better tools emerge, people will change what they're using creating a disconnect in their environment. It may be impossible to build a cohesive PLE which students can use throughout their learning careers.

Online tools however seem to be the best for PLE use. They are always accessible so long as the student has access to the internet and are often free or have little cost associated with them. PLE's are in their early stages of use and development. It will be interesting to see how these tools play out in the coming years.

Due to the strong future potential and ease of use of many of these tools, a B has been granted.


Google Apps for Education

Blackboard Inc.


Dix, A., & Cowen, L. (2007). HCI 2.0?: Usability meets web 2.0. Proceedings of the 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference on HCI 2008: People and Computers XXI: HCI... but Not as we Know it-Volume 2, 185-186.

Sclater, N. (2008). Web 2.0, personal learning environments, and the future of learning management systems. Research Bulletin, 13, 2008-2009.

Wilson, S., Liber, O., Johnson, M., Beauvoir, P., Sharples, P., & Milligan, C. (2007). Personal learning environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, 2


Next: Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)
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