personal learning environments and autopoiesis

In case you don't know, the personal learning environment (or PLE) is the latest conceptual iteration of online learning, a replacement for the LMS or CMS (Learning or Course Management System). The notion of a "personal environment" is a little strange, is it not? In this context, personal would seem to mean individualized or customized and perhaps private. An environment is clearly customizable, like when I turn up the thermostat in my house or turn on the lights at night. Yet that is not entirely private, right? The actions we take in an environment affect others, at least we usually think in those terms. Even in the computer sense, an environment is a shared experience. Being in the same environment allows for communication. However, I suppose an environ could be so small as to encircle only one person and hence be that person's environment.

In that context, we might conceive of the PLE in relation to autopoiesis and operational closure. In that sense we are all already PLE's. In autopoietic terms, each person/object perceives its environment in relation to its own operation, so in that sense we could say that an autopoietic system IS a personal learning environment to begin with. We are unavoidably within a PLE. But if we think in those terms, than what does the thing we now call a PLE do?

Basically, the PLE movement is about leveraging the capacities of social media and related technologies for pedagogical purposes. It is closely connected to the DIY/Edupunk movement which pursues learning outside conventional institutional contexts. It is personal in the sense that users select which applications they wish to use, customize them, build their own social networks, etc. But the PLE is fundamentally about relation. One does not learn in a vacuum (well, maybe one learns that one can't breathe in a vacuum, but that's about it). An early-modern PLE might be a bookshelf, a commonplace book, and letter correspondence. The point is that the PLE is not about operational closure (though if we are presupposing autopoiesis that's already there). It is about distributed cognition and building smart environments. I don't want a PLE because it always points back to me. I want a PLE because it operates as a set of tools that helps me to process data and communicate with others. In fact, that's what I have one. As my example of the early-modern PLE suggests, in a sense, PLE's are an always-already element of the intrinsic, distributed condition of thought and agency.

From this view, the recent PLE movement is a conscious effort to develop digital tools to support learning. I think that's great, at least in theory. However it is also important that PLEs operate out of a theoretical understanding of cognition and learning that recognizes the role of networks. Otherwise, the PLE can easily fall in the direction of their potential negative effects. They can become disciplinary extensions of the classroom, blandly gamified textbooks, and a kind cybernetic feedback loop trying to normalize learning behaviors. In other words they can become digital replications of industrial age learning models. Such models have assumed that cognition is internal to the subject, that learning is a kind of transparent communication (i.e. banking model), and the knowledge is somehow generic and easily translated from one context to another. Instead, a PLE informed by an autopoietic/distributed cognition model would recognize that tools participate in the production of thought and knowledge and facilitate our capacities for knowledge transfer and application.

In other words, the underlying revolutionary promise of PLE's does not lie in their digital nature or even their inclination to move beyond the traditional classroom. The real potential revolution of the PLE rests in our capacity to design such environments to allow for the invention of new pedagogies of distributed cognition.