In our first workshop meeting I wondered if we might build a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) for ourselves using only web-based components, i.e servers out there. I spent a bit of time yesterday and today doing just that, and provided an integration mechanism to act across different sites by hacking up a tool to harvest and reuse tags. This may be the world's first integrated PLE that is based on a browser and diverse web severs.
The idea of a PLE built using a browser and web servers is not new: There are plenty of posts out there in the Blogosphere about this. Here is one:
"Why do we need a PLE when we already have the Internet? The Internet is my PLE, ePortfolio, VLE what ever. Thanks to blogger, bloglines, flickr, delicious, wikispaces, ourmedia, creative commons, and what ever comes next in this new Internet age, I have a strong online ID and very extensive and personalised learning environment."
Leigh Blackall here
I'll start building up further information on this idea here.
Our focus on tagging started me thinking about how tags might glue together the diverse services and create a browser based PLE that utilises diverse we sites out there on the web. My own experiences with tags had already led me to the wish for some kind of tag server which served up my favorite and possibly 'somewhat standardised' tags. 'Somewhat standardised' means, as you can guess, my own personal collection of tags I would like to use. A way of harvesting tags off web sites would also be useful, so as to build up my collection of tags I like.
We might also call this the half-hour PLE, because it could be implemented in just a half hour. In truth I had to be a bit round about and do a few techie things which made the task a bit longer — add two hours to load up easyPHP and learn enough PHP (a web programming language) and mySQL (a database system) to implement my glue, the web site which appears in sidebar.
All of this is hung together using the FireFox Browser, which had a handy tool bar for favorite links. I started by getting rid of most of my collection of toolbar links; many of them had just gathered there for historical reasons and were largely unused — how often do I go to the ordinance survey site to find a free topographic map segment?
I set up the toolbar to look like this (click on the image to see it larger)
In the lower toolbar, there are a bunch of vertical bars which respectively group together different resources on the web, from left to right:
- My own resources for email, blogging, using elgg, my own wiki (which runs on my laptop and is only for my own use), and my own entries in bibsonomy
- Resources for one of my spheres of interest, the LKL Knowledge and Social Software workshop series
- Resources for another sphere of interest, the VLE I use when I teach a course on Interactive System Design Methods.
- Resources that are useful to me. The RSS folder provides a drop down menu of RSS feeds I find useful, in this first version the feeds are for the LKL KSS blog, wiki and bibsonomy. This feature is useful, I can easily check, in one place, what recent changes have happened on sites that I find interesting. The second folder drops down bookmarks which are not central to my PLE, but are somewhat useful to me, so for example I parked the Ordinance Survey bookmark here.
- Finally there is a bookmark entitled tags; clicking on this enables me to generate the left hand sidebar you can see in the Firefox window.
Gluing the constituent sites together
The only reason why I call this an integrated system for dealing with diverse learning related sites is that I provide myself with a mechanism for easy collection and (re-)use of tags. Because of the centrality of tags in the kinds of sites I want to use in my PLE, I want a quick and easy way of dealing with them. All I have here is a little website (for now hosted on the laptop running my browser), where I can enter a tag in the text input field, hit submit, and have that tab stored in a database. Typically, I won't even bother to type in a tag, rather just copy it off an existing page using cut and paste. (In fact, in the screen grab, I had just 'harvested' the tags folksonomy, learning, lkl-kss, PLE from the main lkl-kss BibSonomy page.) Then in tagging something new, if tags are entered via text, I can just copy and paste tags from my 'tagster' sidebar to the requisite tag text field on the page that I am using for tagging.
Tagster sidebar variants are possible, one could have a multiple users system that includes groups, each user and group having their own favoured tag sets. One could then display in the sidebar, for example, one's own favoured tag-set, augmented/merged with a tag-set for another user or group when dealing with things of interest beyond ones normal spheres of interest.
This configuration has only been together for a few hours, so its clearly experimental. Already I find myself using the toolbar bookmarks quite heavily, together with multiple tabs in Firefox's page display area.
The tagster sidebar seems as though it will have applications when adding new entries elsewhere, I'll leave a comment as to how I am getting on with it.
Simple though the ideas may be, I feel as though this is an integrated environment.
- Resources which are important to me are grouped together (which is also important) in the toolbar, and I can reach them easily. My middle mouse button opens them in new tabs in the browser so that I can easily juxtapose and switch between information in different tags.
- I can have different spheres of interest represented in the toolbar and reach them. One concern is that my toolbar may overflow with spheres of interest, and this might have to be dealt with by providing FireFox with a special toolbar that switches context between different spheres of interest.
- Having RSS feeds in one place seems more convenient that the mechanism we were using of showing them in the wiki.
- There is a place to hang other resources, under resources in the toolbar.
- The tagster sidebar gets over many of my 'oh what did I start calling this' problem with tagging. I think that this facility will grow over time: I like the idea of having my own tags augmented by others' tags, including those of special interest groups like ourselves. I could imagine a tagster tool being able to interrogate sites like bibsonomy and delicious as to potential tags, filtering them, and so on…
- Much of this is a testament toFirefox's flexibility. particularly, I make the tagster sidebar appear from clicking on the toolbar icon by pre-configuring the bookmark via its properties to display in the sidebar, creating that sidebar if it is not already there. The action is easily reversible, I can close the sidebar at will.
It's surprisingly easy to build a PLE like this. In comparison, I was part of a team which spent about two person years doing complex and intricate hacking in order to part-implement a PLE (I wasn't doing the intricate hacking though, just keeping the project working). CETIS are involved, again with a lot of hacking, in implementing a PLE, called PLEX, on top of the Eclipse framework. Both projects have their merits, I particularly like PLEX's ideas for handling friends-of-friends and activities.
But somehow I feel that I am spot-on in constructing this assemblage of sites with its tagster glue mechanism, the system is very much under my own control, and it is highly personal, adapted to my needs. Both of these, I feel are essential attributes of PLEs. Time will tell how good this system is, but certainly the basis (bar a public tagster) is out there for anyone wanting a quick customised PLE.
However, there are some limitations. For example, if I want to use a wiki provide a lengthy book review of a book whose reference I make available in bibsonomy, then I would have to manually embed a URL to the review in the descriptive text that accompanies the bibsonomy reference. At the moment I have no idea of how limiting this is in general; if I was a student using this PLE I would have to know a bit about what I could do with URLs — how to copy the URL for the review page, the fact that I could insert it in text elswhree, and that I or someone else might have to copy and paste that URL into the URL field for a browser in order to find the review from the bibsonomy entry.
If there is interest, I may implement a tagster for us all on a publicly available server. Certainly, if you use some less customisable browser, I can get you started with setting up your FireFox toolbar bookmarks.