Personal Learning Environments – measuring the impact

Just recently a Tweet by @mkalz appeared in the #PLECONF Twitter stream:

The PLE idea will die without impact studies. #pleconf

As much as I agree that we need impact studies, we all know that measuring impact in general is all but straightforward: How do measure the impact of PLEs? And the impact on what/who – the learner? the learning process? the learning outcomes? the peers? the teachers? the system the learner operates in? What dimensions and criteria are appropriate? Certainly, we have to start with the goals we want to reach when designing and implementing PLEs or supporting others in doing so in our roles as educators.

A framework that may be useful when designing an impact study, especially when defining and interrelating various dimensions and possible impacts, may be the activity theory triangle that we proposed here:

Buchem, Ilona; Attwell, Graham; Torres, Ricardo (2011). Understanding Personal Learning Environments: Literature review and synthesis through the Activity Theory lens. pp. 1-33. Proceedings of the The PLE Conference 2011, 10th – 12th July 2011, Southampton, UK

The triangle defines the main dimensions of a PLE (subject, object, tools, rules, community and division of labour) and the core attributes of elements in each dimension, which can be contrasted with attributes of other activity systems to reveal potential points for conflicts and clashes.

PLE triangle

In an impact study we can focus on all or selected dimensions and apply research methods in order to collect empirical evidence about the attributes of the learning environments as object of our study. For example we could ask questions like:

  • Does the learning environment we study promote the feeling of ownership and grants control over its various elements (subject)?
  • Does the learning environment promote learning that is based on interest and participation (object)?
  • Does the learning environment utilize tools that can be customised by learners to facilitate their individual learning  (tools)?
  • Does the learning environment employ principles of openness and decentralised distribution of resources (rules)?
  • Does the learning environment enable boundary crossing and social support (community)?
  • Does the learning environment enable learners to pursue self-directed learning and teachers to facilitate this process (division of labour)?

If we could empirically prove in a study, that a learning environment we are researching does just that, we would have some evidence on possible impact.

Another idea may be to start from the point of view of a “perfect” personal learning environment and take all these attributes from the triangle for granted and so focus on collecting empirical evidence on learning processes and outcomes in such an environment. Maybe we could contrast it with learning in other settings, e.g. in a learning environment, which has different attributes in all or some of the six dimensions in the triangle.

In a research study me and colleagues from different countries are recently preparing and which we are submitting for the PLE Conference 2013:  (BTW: Call for Abstracts is running until 25th March), we combine both perspectives. Based on the survey on the role of ownership and control in context of PLEs which was conducted in 2012 at two universities in Germany (see reference below), we collect empirical evidence on the impact of ownership and control as one of the key elements of a Personal Learning Environment on learning. The original study:

Buchem, Ilona (2012). Psychological Ownership and Personal Learning Environments. Do possession and control really matter? Proceedings of the PLE Conference 2012, 12 July 2012, Aveiro, Portugal. LINK

was rooted in the theory of psychological ownership by Pierce et al. (2001, 2003).  The results indicated that control of intangible ePortfolio elements, such as control of content or personal data, is strongly related to the feeling of ownership of one’s own ePortfolio as opposed to the control of tangible elements, such as technical tools. This may mean that learners feel that a learning environment is their own (belongs to them), even if they do not have the full control over technical tools and do not in fact own them. With ownership and control being critical issues in PLEs, the new study will focus on the following question:

What are the effects of the feeling of ownership and control of a learning environment on learning, such as time invested in creating an own PLE, creative uses of media, applying a PLE beyond the boundaries of the original context in which it was created/used. At this time we are collecting survey items with which we could collect evidence on learning effects. We are open to collaboration, so if you would like to join us in this, just let me know!