PLE or PLN or LMS or OLN?

So many acronyms! Before I begin:

PLE = Personal Learning Environment
PLN = Personal / Professional Learning Network
LMS = Learning Management System
OLN= Open Learning Network

What these all mean is the subject of some debate, but my (current) interpretations of these terms will become clear in the blog post below!

This post was prompted by my enrolment in an online MOOC, Open Network Learning. This course is being run for the third time, out of Karolinska Institutet, Lund University and Linnaeus University  based in Sweden, as well as Varsity College (an educational brand of The Independent Institute of Education) in South Africa. They have decided to move the course from a traditional LMS to an OLN, so that others from all over the world can participate. Currently the course group includes people from Australia (myself included here!), Japan, Guyana, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, England, Greece, Malta…and more! With a focus on open network learning, this MOOC very neatly fits into the very area I am researching, and so I am interested to meet and work with many new members of my PLN, making connections and developing new understandings.

This is an overview of the topics being addressed by the ONL MOOC.
This is an overview of the topics being addressed by the ONL MOOC. Click the image to go to a more detailed overview on the course site.

My research is beginning to centre more closely on PLNs (professional learning networks) and their role in supporting the development of  ‘connected educators’. The characteristics of a ‘connected educator’, and the journey to becoming one will also be part of my research. Therefore I need to get a strong and clear understanding of what terms like the above (PLE, PLN, LMS, OLN) mean for me.

At the moment, the PLE for me is the context within which one undertakes their informal professional learning. It is an ecology because it is not just an empty space, like an empty classroom. It is the pattern of connections between tools, people and the online (and sometimes offline) environments within which these exist. A great description was drawn by John Mott, who cites the words of David Weinberger: the PLE is the educational manifestation of the web’s “small pieces loosely joined,” a “world of pure connection, free of the arbitrary constraints of matter, distance, and time.” (2010).

A PLE can include a wide range of different tools and sources; my attempt at ‘capturing’ my PLE is below:

My attempt at capturing the moving feast that is my PLE. Many of these tools move around the axis as I use them in different ways; this is a static rendition!
My attempt at capturing the moving feast that is my PLE. Many of these tools move around the axis as I use them in different ways; this is a static rendition!

A wide range of others can be viewed on the excellent EdTechPost Wiki.

Within the PLE, exists the PLN. The PLN (for me at this moment) is the personal, professional learning network. I haven’t so far been able to decide whether it is personal or professional, as in so many cases it appears to be both; professional in nature, personalised to the learner. I may need to begin referring to it as the PPLN (!). The PLN are the ‘nodes’ within the network. These vertices where lines of connection meet are usually people – ‘knowledge holders’ – who in turn connect you to other learners. The nodes may not always be people; sometimes they are a repository of information, such as a book, or a website, or a curated list; but somewhere, behind this, generally still remains a person or group of people.

Learning happens when a connection is made between these nodes; when we access the flow of knowledge and apply it to the situation at hand. Having access to a rich PLN means that the learner is able to quickly and efficiently access the knowledge they need at the time they require it; or draw on several nodes of knowledge to create a new understanding. I’ve long been a fan of PLNs; here is a slideshow I created last year to introduce others to the concept.

An LMS is exactly that – a Learning Management System. It is a platform created by a vendor which seeks to provide tools to manage learning. In my recent (and I will admit limited) experience, these systems  incorporate interactive tools (such as wikis, forums and sychronous chat/webinar facilities) yet in the main they are used to provide access to content (which for copyright or intellectual property (IP) reasons must remain secured), for managing groups and securely distributing grades. While LMS vendors seek to create an environment that provides an all-encompassing PLE, the fact that they are closed networks and that they are platforms built to meet the needs of entire institutions means that they usually are not personalised enough to meet the needs of a connected learner, who is (most often) already used to the flexibility and ownership web 2.0 tools provide. In my personal experience I have noted a real tension between the expectations of the institution to use the LMS, and the desire of teachers and students to build their own PLE, to access a range of different, open tools which more closely meet their needs.

Unbelievably, 6 years ago (which may as well be 100 years in tech evolution terms) this same tension was discussed by John Mott in his excellent Educause article, Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network. In this article Mott spends quite a bit of time explaining the tension between the LMS and the PLE, and makes the suggestion for an OLN, the last of my acronyms.

He suggests that an OLN could be a middle ground between the institution owned LMS, which provides security, stability and administrative functions, and a PLE, which is flexible, personalised and (dare I say), usually includes more creative and attractive tools.  Many of us in 2016 work within a private version of this, as we combine the enforced usage of the LMS with a range of other ‘open’ tools to support and complement. Some LMS systems are allowing social media tools such as Twitter to be embedded within their system, but ultimately the closed nature of these platforms is their achilles heel.

Mott compiled two excellent tables, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of PLEs and LMSs to support his argument for the OLN, a ‘mashup’ of the two:

lms strengths weaknesses

PLE strengths weaknesses
Tables reproduced with permission © 2010 Jonathan Mott. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.

So where does this leave us? The Open Network Learning Mooc has a focus on using open platforms and Open Education Resources; except for the Adobe Connect Pro software being used for webinars. This model of openness signifies a significant move forward in making education accessible and flexible for all participants. However there is still a long way to go before the huge amounts of knowledge and information locked down in courses and databases is made more available. In Primary schools, with the majority of students under 13, an LMS seems logical because of privacy issues. However for older students, university students in particular, and all of the life-long learners out there who can’t access/afford/etc formal learning, open learning makes far more sense. A brilliant debate, carried out over a series of blog posts is a must read for anyone interested in this area. It begins with a polemic by Leigh Blackall, stating there is no need for any type of learning environment at all…and is responded to by Dave Cormier who points out some salient arguments for the PLE. Harold Jarache and Miguel Guhlin join in the debate (see the comments) with responses of their own (sadly the links to these are now dead :-(). These great minds were debating over 5 years ago a topic that is still developing today.

My studies in this area will hopefully contribute to more understanding of the potential of open learning networks, PLNs and PLEs for learning; and I will continue to blog and share everything I learn along the way.

I’d love to hear your experiences with PLNs, PLEs, LMSs or OLNs – drop a comment below or send me a tweet!

10 thoughts on “PLE or PLN or LMS or OLN?”

  1. Hi!! What an interesting blog post – perfect for my morning coffee! When I think about about PLE and PLN I have not always made the distinction between Personal and Professional. The meaning of personal for me is more about ownership than about roles – but I of course it can mean both. Thank you for sharing!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! So much of this is up to personal interpretation, which makes for a strength but also sometimes adds to confusion over language!

  2. The ONL course is all about developing participants’ PLE and PLN even if we don’t always specifically refer to those terms (great risk in drowning in acronyms otherwise). Good overview of the issues here and I agree there has been much heated discussion about whether the LMS has a role to play in the future or not. I think that we should not see this as an either/or choice but that we can still use the LMS as a core to ensure security, a safe archive for examination material and assessment etc. I see the LMS as a white dwarf rather then a red giant; a secure core on to which you can then attach other tools and arenas for the discussions and collaboration that takes place in the public space.
    Look forward to reading your thoughts on how the course develops.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! The star analogy is terrific; and I agree, taking the best of each system seems the way to go.

  3. Hi Kay!

    Excellent article that led me to reflect on what I am doing today, building these hybrid environments, the Saturn’s moons (continuing the astronomy metaphor), where the academic part is under a VLE (another acronym! 😉 ) and the interaction, support is done via social media (g+, google drive, twitter, whatsapp, etc.) adapted to the use of apps by the users 🙂

    1. Thank you! The astronomy metaphor is really working for me, thanks for adding another layer, and also for including the fascinating read 🙂

  4. Hi Kay
    Interesting axes on which you plot your PLE – I like the accessing/curating/creating/sharing of knowledge view.
    Of course there has been much written and shared on the PLE vs VLE debate over the past 5-6 years in particular by Downes, Weller, Wheeler and Conole. Grainne Conole shares her (un)keynote at the 2012 PLE Conference here: in which she documents some interesting views on the debate.
    Steve Wheeler’s Anatomy and Physiology of the PLE offers a variation on your axes that includes formal and informal learning :
    I adapted Alec Couros’ The Networked Teacher Diagram some years back to create an interactive diagram “The Connected Teacher’s Learning Network” – need to update it again!
    Am keen to read more of your reflections over the duration of the ONL161.
    Well done and thanks
    Anne Whaits

    1. Thank you so much Anne, I really appreciate the links and information you shared, as well as your feedback! It is really difficult to display the constantly changing and dynamic nature of a PLE in a static image – I love your idea of an interactive diagram! Thinglink is such a flexible tool, it is a really great one for layering information; your diagram has inspired me!

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