In the project to educate our students to be digitally savvy and empower them to use the resources of the web to best pursue their own passions in learning as well as to research, evaluate, and use information in their coursework, we could stand to be more intentional in helping them shape their online environment than we have been thus far.

Truth be told, I could stand to be more savvy in my own organizing of online learning and networking: I’ve been slow to use tools and develop skills for managing online resource, such as the use of vehicles like Symbaloo, Evernote, or Diigo, and I want to take inspiration from the 7th grade student in the video above to move forward in this way and learn and practive better these skills and with these tools.

In a valuable, but not web-posted (as far as I can see), article in the recent Independent School magazine, Wendy Drexler, a former independent school educator who is now directing online learning at Brown University, offers advice on facilitating students in shaping their personal learning environments.

A PLE is the method students use to organize their self-directed online learning, including the tools they employ to gather information, conduct research, and present their findings.    As the name implies, PLEs give learners a high degree of control over their work by allowing them to customize the learning experience and connect to others, including experts in the field.

Drexler explains the use of Symbaloo to arrange these web aplications for their PLEs and to host their blogs.

In accepting responsibility for the learning process, students had to subscribe to news feeds and blogs, discern the value of social bookmarks, and set up the aggregator to manage all the Internet resources.

As web technologies evolve and personal learning management becomes easier, students will no doubt gain even greater access to information and opportunities to turn that content into knowledge.  The construction of PLEs has great potential in individualizing and thus deepening learning.

The most interesting part of Drexler’s essay steps away from the particular technological tools and techniques which PLE’s entail and focuses instead on what this means for teaching and learning.    Teachers, she explains, are no longer the primary or even the best source of information available to students, and our work must increasingly attend to supporting students in developing their skills and motivations for becoming themselves networked and sophisticated online learners.  Consider as an example the way the student in the video above consults experts around the world on her subjects of inquiry.

Students engaging in networked learning have to learn to be more self-directed than in the typical classroom… they are required to take a more active role in the learning process. Teachers are challenged to provide the appropriate balance between structured lessons and learner autonomy in order to facilitate self-directed learning.

Long have educators, from Aristotle to Dewey to Sizer, called for “learning by doing” and “student as worker,” modes that worked in long-ago ages when practical skills were paramount and information volume still narrowly bounded.   When information grew in volume, but access to it remained sharply limited (textbooks and teachers’ minds), and professional careers entailed a great deal of internalized knowledge, we had a short interval, a century or so, of education primarily via lecture, textbook reading, and test-taking.   But as Drexler points out, we are in a new era where information is abundantly available and professionalism is far more about the effective manipulation– access, evaluation, & application– it only makes sense to reorient learning toward facilitation of students’ “active role in the learning process” and teachers’ provision of the right balance between structured lessons and autonomy; let’s never forget it is an ongoing balancing act. 

The notion of a PLE for students, grounding them intentionally in an environment of information tools and productive applications, is a great way to seek, develop, and structure that balanced approach.   Be sure to watch the video above to see this PLE approach in action.

Wendy Drexler is to be commended for her work in this field, and I am eager to learn more from her in the future.  It is exciting to see someone grounded in the independent school culture, from her years at Shorecrest, stepping up to the Ivy League, pioneering new initiatives in blended and online learning at that level, but still informing and influencing us in K-12 education.