Stephen Downes made a great comment about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) in his keynote video to Finnish educators that I commented on in my last post.  He compared the social networks that facilitate our personal learning networks (PLNs) to neural networks.  The folks in our PLNs help us to build neural pathways.  Well, today has resulted in some major neural connections being made in terms of the way that I think of PLEs.  When enough connections are made simultaneously, is it possible to actually feel the pathways fall into place?

With Downes’ video still resonating, I started reading the chapter on Personal Learning Environments in David Loertscher’s book, The New Learning Commons: Where Learners Win!  I don’t know why I have put these together before, but there is a direct connection between the virtual representation of PLEs and the physical space that most of us build in some corner of our houses.  We often have a desk or table that contains space for our computer, probably some paper, pens and pencils and sticky notes, glue sticks, index cards and whatever other tools we commonly use to build knowledge.  Within arms reach, there’s probably at least one dictionary and perhaps a handful of other reference books dictated by the field we work/study in.  There might also be a coffee maker and a music player of some sort to make our work more pleasurable.  This is our physical PLE!

It seems so bloody obvious now, but it didn’t went I was first introduced to the concept.  A PLE is a digital thing that exists in virtual space and is constructed of Web 2.0 tools, social networks and any other online tools that allow us to do what we do in a physical space, in a virtual space.  There is one major difference between physical and digital PLEs however.  The online version is much more public.  You physical space may never be visited by another person… ever.  It’s private.  This allows you freedom to do anything you wish without being judged, but it also eliminates freedom to roam and connect with others.  You can build something – write a paper, draw a diagram – look at it, obsess about it and then throw it out, without anyone ever knowing, in your physical space.  In your virtual space, you don’t have that luxury.  But in a virtual space you have the possibility that someone will come along and tell you what a wonderful creation you are about to delete.  They could tell you how it taught them something important or changed them in some way.  In your physical space, it would be going out in tomorrows trash.

The Learning Commons is simply an extension of the physical and virtual PLE.  It contains the same basic components: it has a portal to the outside world that brings in ideas and information to help shape your thinking; it can link you to others who can become mentors or inspirations as they form your personal learning network; and it can be part of your portfolio where you exhibit your newly built knowledge as you become part of someone else’s PLN.  Of course a Learning Commons is a shared space.  To make it personal, it needs to be flexible and easily manipulated so that it can, temporarily become your PLE.  When you leave, someone else comes along and moves things around to fit their PLE.

Maybe this is something that is obvious to all but me.  Maybe this is one of those things that a decade ago I would have scribbled on a piece of paper and then thrown out.  But instead, it becomes a small, but important part of my PLE.  Thanks for listening!

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