[insert interesting title here] my PhD studentship proposal

So today I handed this in along with my application form and two embarrassingly glowing references (which I honestly wish I could frame over my workstation to buck me up on THOSE days when I’m struggling to do a task I’ve set myself and am staring at the screen thinking “I’m so shit at EVERYTHING!”)

…But I digress.

Most of you will have no interest in the topic which has had me scouring google scholar for papers I could access (and to the delightful love who loaned me his athens details for the last few days I shall be eternally grateful as without that this proposal would likely never have been finished on time!)

But.. for those of you who ARE interested in VLE’s and PLE’s and actually know what they are – here’s my research proposal: (I know, the title could use a little help but if I actually do get the studentship I’ll have 3 years to work on it)

Developing PLE 3.0: a look at web 2.0 and the HCI considerations for use in an integrated composite based system

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the field of electronic learning (E-learning), prompted in no small part by the changes in our global economy and the different methods and technologies now freely available for educational resourcing. A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or in the case of large institutions a Managed Learning Environment (MLE) is arguably the most important component in the commercial E-learning delivery system.

Despite its long success, the commercial VLE has a number of problems in use as outlined in this observation from Vance Stevens in the electronic journal ‘On the internet’ (2012) who states:

“Even worse are the pedagogical implications of reliance on one-stop LMS. To varying degrees, both Bb and Moodle put course developers into a straitjacket when they call into play the same features over and over. This is not to say that neither program allows imaginative development, but it’s difficult for lay teachers to break away from templates that look alike and do exactly what they purport to do, manage learning. The problem is that too often, it’s the LMS that manages the learning and not the teacher as course designer…“

Seven years ago Siemens (2004) accurately described how the pre-packaged LMS ‘straitjacket’ approach is at odds with the rapidly changing demands on learners and those words are as true today as they were then:

“It appears that our real-life manner of learning is at odds with the design and implementations of most LMS. Strongly structured tools, with limited extensibility, face short life cycles in rapidly changing environments. Modularized approaches give the instructor or learner (not the administrator or organization) the control to follow the meandering paths of rich learning. Selecting specialized tools to achieve specific tasks – and being able to add them to the learning environment quickly – are critical to rich learning ecologies.”

Debate still continues about the best strategies for the management of online learning resources and the student experience resulting in newer technologies and a slow rise in educators breaking away from their institutional MLE’s to create a more personalised learning environment (PLE).

This occurs even in cases where the institutional MLE allows the use of in-house versions of the desired web 2.0 tools, as we discovered during the CABLE 3.0 ‘To build a virtual learning community across the Hertfordshire HE consortium’ project in 2008 (which first piqued my interest in the field of E-learning and VLE’s in particular).

We also learned while presenting at various conferences (University of Hertfordshire International Blended Learning conference 2009, 2010 and 2011 and University of Greenwich ‘Future Learningscapes’ 2010) that, due to their ease of use, blogging platforms such as WordPress or blogger are increasingly being chosen for use as e-portfolios across different disciplines.

The supposition of this proposal is that the main reason for such a migration is that there are Human Computer Interaction (HCI) issues within the use of the institutional offerings which make migration a more attractive solution to educators than simply learning how to use the in house options. This theory is based primarily upon findings made during my involvement in the CABLE 3.0 project, and observations shared whilst part of the ESCAPE and the HEA Inclusive cultures projects. Conversations with members of my extensive personal learning network on twitter, specifically regarding the use of blogs and wikis, alongside a recent in depth literature review on VLE design characteristics support the theory that it is indeed HCI considerations which are leading to PLE uptake:

“…For example, interface, respectively, screen design is found to show an impact on users’ perceived functionality of a VLE (Cho et al., 2009). That is, the better the visual appeal of the VLE’s graphical user interface is, the more users perceive the VLE to exhibit appropriate system functionalities.”

Mueller, Daniel and Strohmeier, Stefan (2011) p2511

The definition of a PLE as given at a conference in 2011 would suggest adaptation of a large legacy system to allow for such integration may be more time cost effective than attempting to change the institutional offering to attempt to match user expectations and the more specialised web 2.0 tools.

“From a technological point of view PLE can be defined as an integration framework that incorporates 2.0 technologies, supports interaction with other learning contexts, facilitates interoperability with other existing systems (such as learning content and resource repositories and VLE) and provides monitoring systems for learner’s activity.”

Conde et al (2011)

As this conference paper shows, work has already been undertaken to allow such integration to occur in LMS platforms such as Moodle and Blackboard, but from my observations of conference presentations over the last 4 years it seems WordPress is steadily gaining ground as the chosen content management system (CMS) at the heart of these PLE’s; purely because of the gentle learning curve for new users and its flexibility with regards integration with web 2.0 tools.

To add a pertinent example; my Bachelor of Science final year project was to build a website for a peripatetic music teacher that allowed some VLE functionality and her request was specifically for a WordPress installation for the perceived ease of use.

Therefore it seems reasonable to extend and develop this work and look at the ways in which a managed learning environment could integrate with this type of WordPress based PLE; perhaps by using an industry standard such as Basic LTI in a similar manner to the work on Moodle as highlighted at the 2009 CETIS conference. The beauty of such an approach is that there would be no reason for the institution to change the VLE, this would just allow the incorporation of web 2.0 tools to allow more flexibility for its users.

However, before this could occur there needs to be a PLE which reflects the reasons for migration from the institutional MLE and to discover which web 2.0 tools are currently being used in such a manner and for what purposes.

It is not the intention to suggest any company or institution need replace their current VLE in favour of the proposed PLE model, the final aim of the proposed PhD research is to provide a clear indication of the areas where integration with readily available web 2.0 tools is more favourable than further development of standalone ‘plugins’ thereby reducing the time cost of VLE design and maintenance in line with the Agile principle of eliminating waste.

To this end, the main questions this PhD research proposal seeks to answer are:

  1. What are the staff and students reasons for migration to PLE from MLE?
  2. What are the preferred web 2.0 tools?
  3. Why were they chosen?
  4. Of the most popular, which tools are best suited for inclusion in a ‘one-stop’ PLE model with a view to allowing MLE integration?

At a global level, this data would enable a component based system to be modelled that allows for an adaptable web based ‘PLE 3.0’. Having a PLE model would give educators the ability to ‘plug in’ the most suitable web 2.0 components for the course needs without having to do a lengthy search and suitability evaluation process themselves. In effect, this would give them the advantage of a commercial VLE without the lock-in of a template driven course design.

Having such data available would also be of use to the open source community who are responsible for the design and maintenance of many of the web 2.0 tools in use by educators. This would hopefully lead to improvements in such products and possibly even an interest in making such interoperability for VLE integration a priority in future versions.

A web 2.0 PLE model would also likely be of value to the commercial sector as it would mean small businesses could set up training packages using such tools in this manner with minimal cost and effort. At a corporate level, this would likely be an attractive alternative to current commercial VLE offerings as it would mean using tools already utilised in their every day workflow thereby cutting down on training overheads.

Future study would seek to answer the question of how such integration could take place and which would be the best method to use.



Stevens, Vance (2012) “Learner-centered Do-it-yourself Learning Management Systems” The electronic journal for English as a second language: On the Internet 15(4) p 2. Available [online] at http://tesl-ej.org/pdf/ej60/int.pdf accessed 15th June 2012

Siemens, George (2004) “Learning Management Systems; the wrong place to start learning” Available at http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/lms.htm accessed 15/06/2012 accessed 15th June 2012

Cho, V., Cheng, E. T. C., & Lai, J. W. M. (2009). The role of perceived user-interface design in continued usage intention of self-paced e-learning tools. Computers & Education, 53(2), pp216–227 Cited in: Mueller, Daniel and Strohmeier, Stefan (2011) Design characteristics of virtual learning environments: state of research Computers & Education 57(4) pp2505-2516 available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131511001461  accessed 20th June 2012

Personal Learning Environment conference (2011) Merging Learning Management Systems and Personal Learning Environments. Proceedings of the PLE Conference. Conde, Miguel A. and García, Francisco J. and Alier, Marc and Casany, María J (authors) 10th – 12th July 2011. Southampton, UK. available at http://journal.webscience.org/559/  accessed 17th June 2012

JISC CETIS (2009) Composing your learning environment: new models. Proceedings of the JISC CETIS conference; A Brave New World. Kraan, Wilbert and MacNeill, Sheila 10th -11th November 2009. Aston available at http://wiki.cetis.ac.uk/index.php?title=Composing_your_Learning_Environment%3B_new_models&oldid=18201 accessed 14th June 2012


So, if you got this far you either REALLY like this field or you’re in complete procrastination mode at work – if the latter then SHAME ON YOU *cracks whip* get back to work! …If the former – whaddaya think? I obviously think of this as an interesting topic for research and I’m dying to get the lowdown on what web 2.0 tools people use in their course delivery – I’m even more interested in learning WHY those specific tools were chosen, how they’re being used and what the opinion is of them in use.

Somehow 3 years doesn’t seem long enough for this project when you look at it like that.