Personal learning environment (PLE) for deep, blended language learning

Online instructional material can serve to cre-ate personal learning environment (PLE) to learn a foreign language. Digital PLEs can be used in tandem with more formal learning strategies. Blended learning defines a situation in the classroom setting in which the learners use both online materials and team, peer or instructor guided learning. Hybrid learning defines an al-ternation of in class and out of class online activities. PLEs can be used both for blended and for hybrid learning. Instructors who propose self-regulated language learning using personal learning environments report increased growth in proficiency and increased accuracy in linguistic and cultural learning, as well as language acquisition in a rich format. Keywords: Personal learning environments, Self-regulated learning, Second language learning, Less-commonly-taught language, Postsecondary education
1. Introduction

Personal Learning Environments open the boundaries of the classroom. Students can use PLEs whe-rever they are (Attwell, 2007): A PLE integrates lifelong informal learning and technologies developed to support self-regulated learning. It allows personalized peer work and collaborations. Thus PLEs are complex knowledge systems helping students to take ownership of their own learning by organizing it freely. “This includes providing support for learners to set their own learning goals, manage their learning; managing both content and process, communicate with others in the process of learning, and thereby achieve learning goals” (Van Harmelen, 2006, p.3).

2. Concept

PLEs play a role in deep language learning and support deep project-based learning (Beckett & Miller, 2006). Let us briefly review the concept of Personal Learning Environment (PLE), and how it differs f-rom Personal Learning Networks (PLNs).

2.1 Personal Learning Environments for Deep, Self-Regulated Learning
Universities have cre-ated virtual environments for their courses but they are now perceived as limitative: “VLE (Virtual Learning Environments) are rapidly falling short to meet the demands of a networked society. Web 2.0 and social networks are proving to offer a more personalized, open environment for students to learn formally as they are already doing informally” (Camacho & Guilana, 2011, p.24). The need to deinstitutionalize learning was a reaction to VLEs such as Moodle and Blackboard which were institutional. Students could not keep their data once they left the institution, and there was a need to cre-ate more personal environments (Mazzoni & Gaffuri, 2009). Instructional design offers procedures and guidance to help people learn and develop instructional materials (Reigeluth, 1999). It is now more and more directed towards how learners can determine their own learning environments in a way that is in large part self-determined (Syed Khuzzan, Goulding & Underwood, 2008).

Studies in higher education are exploring deeper ways for learning (Entwistle, 2000). Surface learning focuses on forms and signs while deep learning focuses on meaning (Ramsden, 1992). Deep learning links new knowledge to prior knowledge across fields while surface learning memorizes unrelated parts without reflection. Deep learning is internal, holistic, and most often self-regulated. It requires personalized environments.

The concept of PLE posits that learning is ongoing and autonomous. An environment is proposed to support such learning. It acknowledges the role of the human person in organizing his or her own learning and curriculum. PLE then becomes a way of integrating formal and informal learning using social media and supporting student self-regulated learning. It is compatible with deep learning and allows learning on demand (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012). Learning takes place in various contexts and situations and is not provided by a single instructor, resource, or provider. Informal, self-determined learning becomes of utmost importance in the approach: “it is not just the appeal of communication which is drawing young people to these technologies. It is the ability to cre-ate, to share ideas, to join groups, to publish - to cre-ate their own identities which constitute the power and the attraction of the Internet for young people” (ibid p.4). Along this line of thought, Schaffert & Hilzensauer (2008) have identified the most important aspects of personal learning environments (PLE):
  • The learners are active, self-directed creators of content;
  • The learners have ownership of their data, they are socially engaged;
  • Contents are personalized with the support and data of community members;
  • The learning resources are authentic and almost infinite like an open “bazaar”;
  • Self-organized learning has priority in contrast to the culture of most educational institutions; and
  • The use of software tools is social and aggregates multiple sources.
A PLE basically is a set of instruments loosely joined that work for the person, as it can be adapted to each one[1]. In addition, networking is key in supporting the individual’s growth and learning (Rajagopal et al. 2012). Thus PLEs easily become subsets of Personal Learning Networks (PLN - Camacho & Guilana, 2011). They complement each other and are in a relation of inclusion (figure 1). Formal learning associated to such informal and personalized environments has a significant positive impact on overall achievement (Choi & Jacobs, 2011). Incentives for informal learning empower students to design, act and evaluate their own learning. In contract, practices with an exclusive focus on formal learning may inhibit students’ engagement in effective informal learning (Cseh & Manikoth, 2011).


Students can first start partnering informally with a peer and “co-construct their learning environment using recommendations about people, content, and tools” (Corneli & Mikroyannidis, 2011, p.14). The crucial element is not about the environment, it is about the people one connects to that enable learning to occur. Thus networking is key, which leads to the idea of PLN- proposed by David Warlick[2]. “Instructions should prepare online learners to become network or open network learners…this is the personal engagement and rapport that counts, not the tools” (Tu et al., 2012). PLE is a highly motivating approach that requires scaffolding: “building and using a PLE is a challenging task which requires specific teacher and pedagogical support” (Valtonen et al., 2012, p.732). Neither teachers nor students are used to autonomous networked learning environments; both must learn the new approach.

2.2 Issues with Self-Regulated Learning and Autonomy in Teacher Education

The way language programs are shaped is puzzling f-rom the perspective of the need for more autonomy to increase motivation and program effectiveness (Tochon, 2013). Instructors may have to re-examine their preconceptions and accept the challenge of opening new and unconventional routes. The concept of PLE engages the teacher towards pedagogy of autonomy. There is a relation between teacher autonomy and learner autonomy, which has been highlighted by Little (2007) and Jimenez Raya, Lamb & Vieira (2007): while the lack of autonomy is highly de-motivating for humans and goes against the educative grain, it is only possible to enact a pedagogy of autonomy locally if there is degree of freedom at all levels.

Deep learning is only possible with some form of autonomy for the teacher educator, the teacher, and the learner (Tochon, 2013). Pedagogy for autonomy embarks language instructors on a journey of self-discovery and innovation to promote learners’ reflectivity and self-regulation (Jimenez Raya, 2011). Jiménez Raya, Lamb, and Viera (2007, p.1) defined both teacher and learner autonomy as the "competence to develop as a self-determined, socially responsible and critically aware participant in (and beyond) educational environments, within a vision of education as (inter)personal empowerment and social transformation." To sum up, the whole concept of teacher effectiveness must be reviewed in the light of the need for autonomy.

2.3 Online Materials for Autonomous language Learners: Integrating the PLE Concept

To encourage deep learning, the curriculum designer should cre-ate complex, open, flexible and holistic approaches to the subject-matter along with integrative overviews focusing on the big and important issues. They should identify the threshold concepts with examples and clarify the learning strategies through templates. As well they should analyze the congruence between these principles for deep learning and the way teaching and learning is actually organized, to see if the environments proposed might interfere with students’ access to a deeper understanding (Entwistle, 2008, p. 23). Thus there should be a necessary congruence between deep learning as a target and the learning environments cre-ated, this including the course materials, a link that this article explores through the language teachers’ perceptions.

Obviously, the risk is that technology can drive pedagogy, rather than the opposite (Mukundan, 2008; Tochon & Black, 2007). Furthermore, there is a great need for authentic and humanizing materials in the language arena: "Commercially published course books (are) insufficiently humanistic" (Tomlinson, 2012, p.163): "as revealed in the research literature, whether Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) materials facilitate learning depends on how the technology is implemented (p. 165). CALL can be a resource to free instructors and learners f-rom the constraints of the textbook (Maley, 2011). These questions of technology resources and humanism coupled with an emphasis on pedagogy for autonomy may lead to drastic revisions of the programs of foreign language departments.

“Designing a PLE demands both Information and Communication Technology skills and an awareness of one’s own learning methods” (Valtonen et al., 2012, p.732). The teachers must know the resources well, and have a clear overview of the modules available to help students scaffold their PLEs. For example, teachers often ask their students to do a webquest, which requires adapting the linguistic environment and possibly interacting with native speaker on social networks. Teachers actually need to be trained for that purpose (Karaman, Ökten & Tochon, 2012). Projects need to be well scaffolded (Brito & Baía, 2007). “A PLE can be entirely controlled or adapted by a student according to his or her formal and informal learning needs, however not all students possess the knowledge management and the self-regulatory skills to effectively use social media in order to customize a PLE to provide the learning experience they desire” (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012, p.7). Therefore one role of the instructor is to propose strategies of interaction between peers or among students that help assimilate the principles that underlie the use of the various authentic resources and instruments proposed.

Learning a new language is understood as a process of cultural accommodation and abstraction, which connects to a variety of subtle meanings and situational elements that need to be related to catch the whole. Such intrinsically motivating and active learning environment supports deep re-interpretations of reality as being partly shaped by cultural complexes present in the e-learning environment. When projects target interpersonal and social situations in the other language, situated modeling, scaffolding, collaboration and coaching stimulate various forms of socialization that enhances knowledge, skills and experiences (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Ding, 2008); it becomes a form of apprenticeship. For many instructors, organizing autonomous apprenticeship around personal learning environments represents a paradigmatic shift. Contacts with colleagues are crucial to resolve issues that may pop up. In-service instructors are proposed to share experiences in the form of video study groups (Tochon, 1999 and 2008).

3. Teacher Development in the Use of PLEs

The big challenge is for the instructor to become a facilitator rather than a purveyor of knowledge. The turn toward favoring deep learning is not an easy one for language instructors who sometimes feel compelled to teach grammar rather than helping students express themselves in an online environment such as a blog website, a twitter conversation, a Facebook group with native speakers, or a synchronous or asynchronous forum. In what way do instructors adapt to such flexible material and personalize their approach? How do they feel about the new environment and the specific needs for an open and local pedagogy of autonomy? What are the practices that are developed? These are among the questions that orient research in this area. Tochon, Karaman and Ökten (2014) report an evolution between various stages of teacher professional development with a new approach to world languages and cultures associated with blended learning and PLEs:

At Stage 1, the instructor tends to perceive only that they are offered a mine of thematic resources to support their teaching, they see the researchers as bugging them with a new theoretical approach but they believe it possible to simply use the instructional material as they normally would and not listen to the boring theory.

At Stage 2, language instructors start noticing how much interest is stimulated by the online material among many students who continue using it at home beyond classroom assignments. Instructors start thinking there might be some ground to the advice provided towards deep learning, and pay more attention to the theoretical information. Yet, autonomy for the learner is in many contexts unconceivable, and instructors are themselves in a field of constraints and evaluations. Thus a sense of crisis emerges f-rom this new understanding: how far will they dare to go in the approach?

At Stage 3, f-rom a stage whe-re the instructor is using the modules to a stage whe-re the learners choose the modules in which they want to work, there is a gap that comes f-rom a sense of empowerment among instructors who had enough in-depth, reflective teacher education to feel that they can be allowed to emancipate themselves f-rom some of the institutional constraints. This empowerment comes at the time they grasp that the theory is about their own life as a professional as well as the lives of their students: the transdisciplinary perspective starts to take over the disciplinary narrowness and they start reflecting on their role as social agents.

When the class takes control of instruction, the instructor is often amazed with the achievements. It is as if foreign language learning was taking off: students start to do homework they are not supposed to do, cre-ate their own Reading Club besides class, cre-ate their own movies. For some instructors, it was just an unbelievable experience. Students are intrigued by what they discover in authentic videos and want to know more, and start exploring on their own... if they are not kept busy with vocabulary drills. They learn about culture, start reading the news or watching TV. They cre-ate projects their instructor would not have thought of. However this only happens when they are given the freedom. The instructor must learn to go with the grain rather than against. When things take off, instructors realize the Deep Approach (Tochon, 2014) is not about instructional material. The thematic resources are a pretext, a threshold. It is all about the learners being in c-harge of their own learning.

4. In Conclusion

PLEs may cre-ate a positive socio-affective environment: fun, playful, and entertaining- which makes learning memorable and students both enthusiastic and proud. Personal learning improvements can be noted in the way learners take c-harge and personalize their learning, give feedback to each other, cre-ate successful projects with peaks in quality learning. This immersion-like experience improves linguistic accuracy, pronunciation, vocabulary retention, cultural knowledge; and helps scaffold communication, as reported by instructors. PLEs cre-ate a positive dynamic between deep learning, deep culture and agency. The dynamic is provided by the online resources as forms given to multiliteracies in an immersion-like experience. Improvements in language proficiency seem to derive f-rom these deep texts—aural, visual and written discourses-embedded in the proposed pedagogy, which transcend language forms and transform learning into an active engagement through large projects that involve interpersonal communication and contacts with native speakers.

The PLE topic needs to be studied more and the language-learning context provides an interesting area for the PLE research. "Very little of the existing literature on materials development tells us much about the actual effect of different types of materials on language acquisition" (Tomlinson 2012, p.170).

The Crucial Role of Teacher Training

An important effort must be made to make sure teacher training is sufficient in terms of both resources and time allocated to professional development; otherwise programs may encounter the contradictions witnessed in other world language programs (Tochon, 2011). The lack of teacher training could be compensated for with video study groups in which participants could share their practice and reflect on future activities (Tochon, 2007). Indeed video feedback has revealed an outstanding lever of professional development.

The instructors’ experiences attest the value of personalized learning opportunities provided by diversified online content. The challenging nature of the project work is also perceived as a factor that promotes students’ autonomous learning. The incorporation of scaffolded multimedia content in modules for presenting authentic language uses in various contexts enables students to have more interactive discussions and projects in the language classroom. Pedagogy takes the lead, not technology. This defines Pedagogically Appropriate Technology Integration (PATI – Tochon & Black, 2007), with curriculum design principles such as analyzing the language learning situation and setting instructional processes before considering technological choices.

* About the author
Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction (Laval) and Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (Ottawa), François Victor Tochon is Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, whe-re he has headed World Language Education in 2001-2007. With twenty-five books and 150+ articles and book chapters, he has been Visiting Professor in several universities.

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Người đăng:François Victor Tochon (University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA)