In the July 2016 issue of TechTrends, Ryan Haworth outlines some criteria for Personalized Learning Envrionments (PLEs) that can be effective tools for self-directed learning (SDL). The main component of SDL is that the student has control and responsibility for their own learning, with minimal guidance from an instructor – or without any instructor at all. The definition of PLEs varies, depending on who you ask, but a few of the most important features are that the PLE must be portable (not locked into an educational institution or software package), dynamic (able to be structured and adapted to meet the needs of individual learners), and have some features of collaboration that the learner can control.
With these criteria in mind, Haworth points out that there are many current PLEs freely available online. In fact, most people are probably already using one or more of them. The suite of Google applications, from Chrome to Gmail to Drive to Google+, provide users with the ability to communication, collaborate, and organize content from the Web in almost any way that they can imagine. There are blogging tools and video (YouTube) tools available, all of this through a single Google account. The level of sharing that we desire is customizable, and the organizational possibilities are almost limitless. Twitter and Tumblr allow us to tag and share content in a variety of formats. Facebook and Instagram are outlets for communicating with and following friends, family, and organizations who have similar interests. All of these tools allow us to identify, organize, share, and increase our sphere of knowledge on any topic that we care to explore.
For most people, these applications function primarily as a way to connect with others socially, or to store our own information (photos, documents, favorite websites) in the cloud for access from anywhere on any device. These features are what make them all useful as PLEs, if we choose to use them that way. Whether they are a part of an organized learning effort, such as a traditional or distance learning class, or simply a manifestation of our own desire for life-long learning, the key factor for all of these PLEs is that they offer the freedom to explore and organize content in whatever way best suits the individual learner. This is the hallmark of self-directed learning.
The networks of people and content that we build online is, in essence, a PLE for SDL. True, some of the content may not have direct educational benefit. However, we discover new interests, or broaden our existing knowledge constantly, whether we are deliberately engaging in SDL or not.