Personal Learning Environments: Making Sense and Keeping it All Under Control


I’d like to thank our guest poster, Thomas DeVere Wolsey, for a great blog on Personal Learning Environments! Dana

Guest post by Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Meet Dionisio

What? Another digital technology I need to learn? What is a personal learning environment, anyway? To answer that, I want you to meet Dionisio.  He is one very interesting 10th-grade student, much like those you know in 10th grade, 5th grade, and many other grade levels.  There are sides to Dionisio that are not readily apparent at school most of the time.  He plays guitar and records music using a Korg synthesizer app for his iPhone® and iPad® which he then shares with others at SoundCloud. SoundCloud is his favorite sharing site for music because he can sell digital recordings of his work there, and it is always rewarding when someone buys his songs.  Sometimes he posts his work to his YouTube channel, as well.   When he posts work on SoundCloud or YouTube, he often Tweets the URL to his followers and his Facebook friends see the new link, too.

Dionisio really likes music and sharing his creations with friends, but what most people don’t know about him is his interest in the United States Civil War. His interest in the lives of soldiers far exceeds anything his state social studies standards requires.  He subscribes to many Civil War blogs using an RSS feed to keep him updated on new posts.  In his social bookmarking account on Delicious, he has bookmarked almost every website for important Civil War battlefields in order to make them easily accessible.

In addition to his interests that sometimes match school curriculum and sometimes do not, he also maintains a Diigo page and several of his teachers use Edmodo.  A few of his friends use EverNote to keep track of readings assigned by teachers, collaborate with Dionisio on class projects, and catalog information they found on their own. Some of his school presentations appear on Prezi, and some he posted on YouTube.  Many of his teachers ask him to submit work on the school’s course management system (such as Moodle or eCollege).  PowerPoint® projects he created with others in his classes are often uploaded to as they collaborate over the Internet to be ready for class.  Dionisio kept most of the tools and websites bookmarked on his laptop, and then he met a teacher who changed his thinking.

View the YouTube video on the 21st Century student to understand a little more about Dionisio and students like him.

Dionisio’s Personal Learning Environment

You might wonder how Dionisio keeps track of all those online sources. At first, it wasn’t easy; Dionisio found it all a bit overwhelming.  However, one of Dionisio’s teachers recognized that literacy in the 21st century involved more than just reading paper pages and answering questions.  Much more is involved in new literacies (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Cammack, 2004). Organizing, synthesizing and constructing meaning from online and traditional resources are critical cognitive skills made even more important as students navigate the digital environments they choose and in which they are asked to participate.  Dionisio’s teacher suggested to him and to his classmates that one way to make sense of all the information they create and that they gather is through the online tool, Symbaloo.  With Symbaloo, Dionisio created a personal learning network with a matrix that included the blogs he followed, the websites he found useful, the classroom management systems his teachers used, and many social and collaborative networking environments.

Because Dionisio realized that some of his learning was associated with specific classes at school, some was his own learning that overlapped with school sometimes, and some was related to personal interests that rarely overlapped with school, he set up his personal learning environment to keep some elements private, some shared with his network outside of school, and some shared with his teachers and classmates.  These networks often overlapped, but Dionisio decided which elements to share and with whom.

In the YouTube video, notice how a 7th-grade student created a personal learning environment in Symbaloo

Welcome to my PLE

How do Students Organize the Personal Learning Environment?

Wouldn’t it be nice to just tell students how their personal learning environments (PLE) should be organized? Include elements A, B, and C, and you’re done! But that would not be very personal, would it? Personal learning environments are organized in a way that makes sense to the person doing the organizing.  Michelle Martin (2007), an adult blogger, organized hers according to the information she gathered, the information she processed, and the actions she takes based on her learning.  Two things are worth noting in her approach: 1. She changed the tools she used to organize her PLE after awhile, and 2. She included traditional paper-based text in her PLE.

The EdTechPost wiki includes many diagrams that illustrate how personal learning environments might be constructed. On the wiki, the diagrams are organized toward orientation: tools, use/action/ people, and hybrid/action/other.  Every personal learning environment is different because each reflects the way the person who created the environment perceives and organizes their learning and the worlds it represents.  Dionisio quickly realized that Symbaloo was a great tool, but he needed multiple entry points for his PLE representing the way he organized his own learning.  He created an account to provide a more public access point for his music and interests in the Civil War.  The page did include links to his Symbaloo and other pages, but some were password protected, and not all his school pages were linked to his page.

What are the Elements of a Personal Learning Environment?
The Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba includes several elements of a personal learning environment. These include production tools, collaboration tools, aggregation tools, and so on (for the full list, click the link).  EDUCAUSE (2009) points out that a key attribute of the personal learning network is that it is learner centered.  Attwell (2006, pdf file) further explores the learner-centered feature of the personal learning environment. He suggests that they are characteristics of life-long learners and that they are informal in nature.  Another key element is the aspect of community (e.g., Grisham & Wolsey, 2006), the idea that much of our creative and intellectual work is part of a larger group, as well.

Why do Personal Learning Environments Matter?

A characteristic of humans is that they try to make sense of the contexts of their lives. The tools they use and the purposes they establish for learning may be the defining features of learning in the coming decades.  How will you encourage your students to create and maintain personal learning environments the promote mastery of appropriate standards and foster lifelong learning as well? Dionisio relied on his teacher to help him learn to organize and make sense of the many online tools he used. Like him, many K-12 students and adults create environments that serve their own purposes that include formal and informal contexts.

At the beginning of the post, we asked what a personal learning environment is.  Simply, it is the approach that users take to individual aggregate content, organize it, and lend context to it. Content may be created by the owner of the PLE or gathered from the Internet and other sources. PLEs are informal mashups, elements of which may be shared with others in the user’s network and learning communities. Finally, educators sometimes provide a basic framework or tool that students might use to start building their own PLEs.

More to Learn:

To continue your own exploration of personal learning environments, visit  Also, read more about the related concepts of personal learning networks (which overlap with personal learning environments), social bookmarking, and content curation.


Attwell, G. (2006). Personal learning environments—The future of elearning? eLearning Papers. Retrieved from

EDUCAUSE. (2009). Seven things you should know about personal learning environments. Retrieved from

Grisham, D. L. & Wolsey, T.D. (2006). Recentering the middle school classroom as a vibrant learning community: Students, literacy, and technology intersect. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy, 49(8), 648-660. DOI: 10.1598/JAAL.49.8.2

Leu, D.J., Jr., Kinzer, C.K., Coiro, J., & Cammack, D.W. (2004). Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the Internet and other information and communication technologies. In R.B. Ruddell, & N. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 1570-1613). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Available:

Martin, M. (2007, April 11). My personal learning envirornment [blog post]. The bamboo project. Retrieved from


Shrek and Big Bang Theory: Using Popular Culture to Develop Vocabulary

A post from Bridget

I have been on a vocabulary roll lately. Everywhere I go, I find myself intrigued by vocabulary instruction possibilities inherent in our everyday experiences, enmeshed as they are in technology and media.

Idea #1: Driving home listening to an NPR radio show on new words from 2010, I found myself singing “I’m a belieber” to the tune of the Beatles song.  No, that is not a typo —  a belieber is someone who is a fan of Justin Bieber!  It would be fun and productive to have students nominate, advertise, and vote on “new” words or phrases, drawing on popular culture and current events, as well as local words that are part of their school, family, or community scene.

For example, my sisters and I know what it means when we say “donkey”, especially if accompanied by a raised eyebrow and gaze at the person of interest.  We’re referring to the Shrek movie scene where the donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy), is about to lose it and yells, All right, nobody move! I’ve got a dragon and I’m not afraid to use it! I’m a donkey on the edge! “

image of donkey from the movie Shrek

My sisters and I  know to back off and give the “donkey” some space, or to gently offer help (for memorable Shrek quotes, see ).

Students could post their written or multimodal nominations for new words to a class or school-wide vocabulary blog and construct a voting poll using a free tool like Survey Monkey (  1 minute podcasts for the ‘New word of the Week’ could become a regular feature of your class!

Idea #2. While we often bemoan the low level of vocabulary heard on TV, inspiration can be found in unlikely places.   “The Big Bang Theory”, a sitcom about a group of nerdy academics, makes me laugh out loud at the way language is used. The show presents multiple opportunities to engage students in exploring advanced vocabulary in a humorous social context. Students could watch video excerpts (there are a slew of them on ) or read quotes (again, just Google ‘Big Bang Theory’ and you will find lists).  They would work with words in different ways, depending on the quote.

For example, the following Big Bang Theory quote offers a comical contrast of expert and novice:

The guys are playing the Halo video game and Peggy joins in…

Sheldon: This is a complex battle simulation with a steep learning curve. There are a myriad of weapons, vehicles, and strategies to master, and not to mention an extremely intricate back story.
[Explosion on the video screen.]
Penny: Oh, cool! Whose head did I just blow off?
Sheldon: Mine.

Big Bang Theory scene, playing Halo

The youtube scene is 2.49 minutes and includes several great examples of vocabulary and figurative language;

Students could begin by delving into Sheldon’s vocabulary (e.g., complex, myriad, intricate, back story, steep learning curve) and then discuss why Penny’s response and the outcome are both ironic and funny.  Would it be so humorous if Sheldon had merely said “Halo is an awesome video game that I play all the time”?   What if Penny had failed at the game? To extend the activity, have students create their own conversational exchanges contrasting “expert” and “novice” ways of talking so as to poke fun at the expert (or perhaps the reverse).

Sheldon often has difficulty understanding the social nuances of language. Here’s another quote from the show that invites a discussion of the differences between literal and abstract meanings,  and the fun that can be had when we intentionally (or unintentionally) confuse the two.

Leonard: For God’s sake, Sheldon, do I have to hold up a sarcasm sign every time I open my mouth?
Sheldon (intrigued): You have a sarcasm sign?

And, finally, here is an example of Sheldon’s use of hyperbole (i.e.,  exaggerated language that is “used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally, Wikipedia).

Sheldon:  When I try to deceive, I, myself, have more nervous tics than a Lyme Disease research facility.

In addition to interpreting and critiquing “Big Bang Theory” language use, students could be challenged to find examples in current events, TV, songs, billboards,  and overheard conversations.

Here is one from the Simpsons:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.”
(Kent Brockman, The Simpsons)

Another way to approach hyperbole is to start with an image as a stimulus. Consider this photo of a fish feeding frenzy.  Figuratively speaking, when do people go after something (other than food) with a voracious appetite – mobbing a celebrity for an autograph? devouring books?

fish feeding frenzy

Check out Worsely Middle School’s website featuring students’ use of hyperbole.

All too often, students think learning vocabulary is boring (especially when it involves looking up definitions and writing sentences).  Media and technology offer a fruitful playground for vocabulary learning, appreciation, and expression.  Try it and see!  And, please post a comment to share your insights and experience.  I can say without hyperbole that I would be over the moon!

NOTE. Photo acknowledgement:  Creative Commons license.  fish feeding frenzy by devan.laney.  Shrek movie image of donkey retreived from Google Image.  Image from Big Bang Theory taken from youtube.

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