Monday, 1 July 2013

What Price Personal Learning Environments?

What exactly is a Personal Learning Environment? Most of what has been written about them has been shallow and rather naive - as I have argued before (see In the light of the revelations about the darker side of 'big data' and social software, I am beginning to think that the discussion around the PLE needs to situate itself with the understanding of personal risk.

In the beginning much was written about the 'locus of control' (some of it by me) - about big bad institutions controlling technology that would be better coordinated by learners themselves. What apparently presented itself as 'personal control' of tools and data has gradually emerged as anything but: the user-friendly enticements to freely submit data that can  be 'invested' by giant global concerns and turned into huge profits through analytic services. Free storage is cheap incentive to having your data harvested. But why do I use Blogger to host this blog??

Why indeed do I use Blogger... I got used to it; it works well, is well organised, easily searchable, etc. My career has clearly benefited from this unholy alliance (a number of opportunities have emerged through the blog). But am I in control of it? Do I know what others will do with it? Do I really know how the big data harvesting reveals about me to the corporate suits and (heaven knows) government spooks?

All I can think is that at some point I will have to get my stuff off Blogger (and YouTube). An archive on my own disk will have to be created. But increasingly, that is a big job - and I don't have time. With the current round of redundancies at work, maybe I'll get the opportunity!!

But the value to Blogger of my blog is not just what it tells Google about me, but what it tells Google about others who access my stuff. The network intelligence is a bit scary.

So, given that I am giving so much to forces that I can't control, what price is a Personal Learning Environment?

We can't really talk of a 'trade-off' because we don't know what is being traded. The only reason why online engagement has become professionally important is because the internet corporations have made it that way. "All academics should have blogs" I read the other day... Well, I used to think it was important too. But why? Because we don't trust publishers? But are publishers more evil than Blogger? (Blogger isn't self-publishing - it's just ordinary publishing with no editorial controls).

Equality is what is at stake. And it is the distribution of risk which is the issue. The means of production of risks are determined by:

  • the power of legal teams behind a corporation
  • the access a corporation has to the means to harvest huge amounts of data meaning it can assess risks accurately
  • the userbase and tools which the corporation can (at will) change overnight
How can individuals challenge this hegemony? 

Personal Learning and Personal Learning Environments are not about individualised learning journeys, digital storytelling, personalised inquiry, etc. They are about the fight for autonomy. 

It may be that the fight for autonomy from "big bad institutions" (by comparison to Google, how big or bad are they?) was just the first phase. The real battle will be for autonomy from the internet giants. Taking that as the mission, the PLE starts to look interesting again.

Maybe we need a "whole web catalog"!


Scott said...

The fight over RSS may be one early indicator of the coming conflicts with large internet companies. The big four have turned off RSS whilst hoping no-one particular noticed or cared that this old-fashioned way of personally curating connections (without providing any tracking data or logging in!) was gone.

But people are noticing, and taking action. Not enough to really change anything, but its a valuable signal.

At least more people also know now what it signals when a service turns off RSS - you're no longer the customer, you're the product.

Scott said...

Hmm, and here's another thing thats come up on more or less the same sort of topic: