Prior to the 1990s, online learning was virtually non-existent. There were experiments and pilot programs, going all the way back to PLATO in 1960, but they were scattered and isolated. Systems were locally built and maintained and there was little interchangeability. But by the mid- to late-nineties, that was beginning to change.

1997 was a pivotal year in online education. In one 12-month period, WebCT 1.0 was released and Blackboard (the company that would eventually acquire WebCT) was founded. It was the beginning of the era of the monolithic Course Management System (CMS). But now, 12 years later, it seems ready for evolution. As we understand more and more about how people learn, and as the information we have access to grows at a dizzying pace, we are discovering the limits of the current state of Course Management Systems.

Today's higher-education students have vastly different experiences and expectations than those of just a few years ago. They are accustomed to 24/7 access to information. They take technology and technological infrastructure for granted. And, perhaps most importantly, they are team-oriented. They value personal networks and rely on them for information and validation.

It is a lack of easy access to these types of teams that is a deficiency of most CMS's. Any networking that takes place is generally restricted to artificial groups created within the confines of the CMS. There is little, if any, opportunity for students to leverage their existing networks and resources during the formal learning process.

In some ways, this is not surprising. For one thing, the CMS paradigm was developed largely before the advent of most personal networking systems. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Ning, and dozens of other communication channels were not available when the primary functions of Course Management Systems were being codified. For another, the role of a CMS is to manage courses. It is designed to identify and verify students, handle grading, and provide for class structure. These are important management roles, but they do little to directly address learning, itself.

One possible solution to this dilemma is the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). It postulates a flexible and extensible online learning space where students are free to utilize their existing social networks, newsfeeds, tag clouds, and other resources to facilitate learning and discover knowledge. Built on a foundation of Constructivist theory, a PLE is designed to put students in control of their education by allowing them to build their personal knowledge base and individually create a work environment that suits their needs. Tools are added as they are found, and dropped if they are thought to be unreliable.

This is a relatively new concept and details and ideas are still emerging as researchers, faculty, support staff, and students come to grips with implementations that are deliberately amorphous. Problems, such as effective rubrics and assessment, are yet to be dealt with effectively.

In reality, there is a need for both the CMS and the PLE. They serve complementary purposes and the differences between the two need to be bridged. Providing a robust and flexible plug-in architecture within the CMS may be one way to bring the two together. Or perhaps the CMS functions will be spun off as standalone tools that can be added to a PLE as needed. In either case, the possibility for each student in an online course to bring his or her own tools to bear on the learning objectives while, at the same time, enjoying the benefits of security and consistent class structure is an attractive and intriguing one.

The key point in this discussion is that we should not think that we have reached some sort of a "stable point" in online learning where any changes will be incremental enhancements to a mature system. On the contrary, new ideas, new tools, and new insights into learning require us to constantly reassess our systems to ensure that we meet our students' needs both now, and in the future.

To that end, ITS will be exploring this trend through a variety of actions.

  • A white paper on the subject of PLEs will come out in early February 2010.
  • ITS is deeply involved in a campus needs assessment being conducted by the ComETS group during the spring 2010 semester. Both faculty and students will be asked about their needs and expectations, and the responses will help us better understand what PLE functionality may be needed at ISU.
  • The ComETS group will play a significant role in shaping the PLE and CMS dialog, and building community consensus to help define a direction for the campus.
  • Pilot projects have started with Moodle, an open source CMS, and we will assess our own ability to integrate other learning tools.
  • In another pilot, ITS is at the core of a faculty-led effort to develop a system to better build students' problem-solving skills. This pilot effort, called Thinkspace, utilizes open source architecture, and has some PLE-like capabilities. Thinkspace development is led by Dr. Craig Ogilvie, Physics, and a team of cross-disciplinary faculty members. Pete Boyson in ITS leads the technology development for Thinkspace, which will be beta-tested in the spring 2010 semester.
  • The next version of WebCT, called Blackboard 9, provides better tools for integration, and promises their own version of a PLE. Blackboard 9's functionality will be tested over the course of the spring semester, although no date has yet been identified for a transition from WebCT to Blackboard 9.

The Personal Learning Environment trend may take a few years to evolve, and could be influenced by a wide variety of factors, including something as simple as personalized changes to one's own computer operating system. ITS continues to monitor national trends, and plans to further engage faculty and students alike to assess campus needs.