Manchester PLE demos during ALT-C 2009

Hedtek Ltd demonstrated the Manchester Personal Learning Environment at two fringe events during ALT-C 2009.


The Manchester PLE was first conceived of a response to a perceived lack of usable open source software to support communities and learning in those communities.

Informed by social constructivist and constructionist perspectives, the Manchester PLE is designed to support individual and group learning activities. The intent is for the PLE to be used by self-directed and peer-assisting groups of learners (possibly teacher-led, but without any special status for teachers in the PLE). In order to support this vision of learning, the Manchester PLE combines a social software layer with advanced multi-user multi-media spaces where learners can meet and collaboratively perform learning activities in real time.

The Manchester PLE is close to the start of a release cycle, and will be released open source. The PLE is intended to be hosted either by an educational institution, a community group, or a less formal group of individuals. To facilitate easy hosting, one of the distribution media will be virtual machines for SUN’s free VirtualBox, making for a particularly easy install on Windows and Linux machines.

Social software layer

The social software layer in the PLE is an example of a social network service (or integrated, as opposed to mashup, PLE). It has the usual kinds of ingredients that appear in social network services (users, friendship, groups, activity feeds, tags, tag search, other search facilities, user and group blogs, fora for groups, user controlled visibility controls, external search engine indexability for www-visible content, and so on).

Unusually for a system of this nature, close Skype integration (coming very soon) will augment the more public PLE communications channels with private video and voice channels that help facilitate the formation of strong links between learners.

The use of an integrated environment (like our social software layer) is common knowledge and is not addressed here.

It may be well to provide brief riposte to potential criticism

  • “I can do that with my own Web 2.0 mashup” But can your less web-skilled learners do that, or do all of your learners want to do that?
  • “I’d rather set-up a Ning site than than host a system” Fine, a valid choice in many situations.
  • “Why not Elgg?” We add spaces into the mix, and believe we may offer some navigability advantages and provide a better sense of location in the PLE.


Multi-user multi-media spaces, simply called spaces, are integrated into the social software layer, and are also themselves examples of social software. However the spaces are so different to the social software layer that we tend to think of them as a separate kind of PLE component.

Spaces are in the Manchester PLE to support real-time distributed collaboration and asynchronous distributed collaboration between learners who need to create multi-media artefacts as part of learning activities. The spaces support a bricolage approach as part of a constructionist approach to learning.  We are tuning the design to make the spaces appeal strongly to web users who have grown used to creating, finding, remixing, repurposing and publishing information. We are also thinking about in-space animated instructional help for those who are less web-skilled.  Notably, the design of the spaces is an example of an approach called incorporporated subversion, where a system is deliberately designed to enable its use to be subverted by learners who adapt the use of the system to meet their own learning needs.

Some examples of space use follow. We hope to see many more of these emerge when users subvert the use of spaces.

  • To support the construction of concept and mind-maps with rich links to resources on the web, and with learner-generated content in the maps
  • To support co-located and distributed atelier/studio practice in the design disciplines
  • To enable users to take a pre-prepared learning plan and incrementally transform it into a multi-media statement of learned knowledge; an artefact that can then be re-used as a resource by other learners, either as is, or by transforming and repurposing it.
  • To support learners in constructing their own learning plans in spaces and in subsequently modifying those learning plans; this in response to changing goals and increased subject knowledge
  • Simply to have fun, say, collecting things like videos on something of interest

Currently the spaces support text chat between learners in a space, and allow the assembly and organisation of web-based resources (pictures, videos, bookmarks). They also have some line and arrow drawing and note making facilities. We will integrate collaboratively editable documents by mashing up spaces with Zoho’s collaborative document editor (we’ve done this in an earlier version of the spaces). All objects in the spaces may be tagged, commented on, and discussed in the comments.

Back in the social software layer users can click on any tag, and that will instigate a search for, among other things, spaces that contain objects with that tag. This reveals one raison d’etre for our PLE; providing an integrated environment allows for a closeness of connection between different parts of the system. This ultimately this can lead to a rich environment for the exploration and development of representations of knowledge.

A forthcoming feature will be the ability to embed spaces in other spaces, and, with this, have the ability to reuse existing spaces and the knowledge that they contain. The idea of a growing web of knowledge like this makes a computer scientist wonder about the feasibility of dong this on a global scale, across a network of interworking PLEs. In fact, this can already be done in a somewhat less than elegant, but still workable way – by using our in-space bookmark mechanism.

What’s here, now?

What have we got now? A demo-able system that you can try. In fact, we want you to try it because we are looking for feedback from educationalists and learning technologists.  We’ll release details at the first demo, and have a competition running in an attempt to get feedback from you.

We believe the system will accommodate a sudden load at ALT-C, and that anyone familiar with social software will be able to use it, perhaps with some UI hiccups.  If we get egg on our faces the  team is ready to try in-conference fixes.

At ALT-C and for a while afterwards the system will be running on a low-end server. This is unfortunate, but at least that means that we can assess what it runs like on £600 worth of kit. We are moving to a larger server, and will, in the next year, have built a load and stress test rig so we can tune performance and provide reliable server sizing information for different numbers of users, based on observations of how users make use the PLE.

We are fully committed to making the Manchester PLE free to use, and open sourcing the entire code base (in two batches, now and in a year’s time).

This means have to use a less than fully developed open source media server to support inter-space collaboration. This server, Red 5, is still in development, and our team members are busy working on the Red 5 source to make our real-time collaboration mechanisms totally reliable. For now you may notice, in very unusual circumstances, a slight glitch in space reliability. Also, in-space user interaction is currently not as good as we would like it to be, we are working on making it much smoother. The first of these should be resolved in a week or two, the second within two months.

Releases and trials

We anticipate a complete system release before the year-end, with incremental releases for experimental purposes sooner.

We will be trialling the system in Manchester Computer Science in the next semester, and are interested in talking to people who might be want to trial our PLE in their own institution.

This is only a small fragment of the whole picture

There are many different areas we want to pursue in the larger Manchester PLE Project. These range from improvements to the system itself to improvements to our educational systems. Some mentions follow below

  • We want to radically increase learner awareness of others’ learning activities in the PLE. We also want to increase navigability to applicable knowledge and knowledge-creation activities. Currently we are looking at a redesign of spaces that will greatly increase findability and  change notification in large spaces.
  • The project is also looking at bringing library catalogue resources to the spaces for rating, comment and discussion. I’ll talk about this in the demo and show off our marvellous Mosiac Search Engine, together with a treatment of library catalogue records as social objects, a la Flickr.
  • The big missing thing is extensibility via widgets, we’ve planned to implement an OpenSocial API, but some of the engineering problems we’ve had to overcome have precluded this. This is why you see no Twitter feeds in the PLE; they were always to be supplied by an OpenSocial plugin. More recently we have also become interested in Wookie. These topics are on our radar.
  • Google Wave is exciting. I’d like to see waves used prolifically in mPLE one day.
  • The future is mobile (of course). Doop is the Hedtek and Spotlight Kid demo of an augmented reality application that mashes up iPhone video with Twitter and Google’s myMaps. The two companies are developing doop in a short time frame specifically for ALT-C 2009. You’ll only see doop in its full form if you can find someone with it on a new iPhone (and if we finish it in time). Obviously we’d like to have similar kinds of things in mPLE, particularly if they are subvertible. This requires a little thought. But in this line we are currently talking to two mobile projects about mobile extensions to mPLE.
  • Institutional adoption is a subject close to our hearts, and we have plans for a release that contains the authentication mechanisms needed for easy integration into most institutional frameworks.

Of course, coming from the broad PLE movement, this institutional adoption has a sub-text; making it possible for students to work together more easily and effectively. In this context we’d start to get into  talking about learning metacognitive skills, best left for another post – except to mention that we very much concerned with learning-to-learn and the creation of learning-to-learn learning materials in the PLE. Ultimately, of course, the goal is transform our society so that life long learning is seen as an enjoyable and life-enriching activity, but will that ever be achieved? Not easily, even by concerted group effort – but it’s always worth thinking about as a better model of being, and thus a target to aim for.

A brief history, and credits

As mentioned, the genesis of the Manchester PLE was a dearth of what I considered to be usable open source systems to support communities and learning in communities. I subsequently ran a course in Interactive Systems Design where the students on the course designed, using participatory design, and constructed a simple prototype social software layer. Five MSc students then spent six months implementing and improving real-time version with basic collaborative spaces.

Subsequently collaborators Inovia re-implemented the system according to Hedtek’s specifications. Sefol has recently joined the project to develop the spaces further, applying some specialist Red 5 knowledge.

The project’s connection with Manchester’s School of Computer Science continues to be strong; people working on our team include Dave Workman (Hedtek) and Eric Raffin (Inovia). They both participated in the interactive system design course mentioned above. Ben Senior (Sefol) is one of the School’s PhD graduates. I lectured in the school in an earlier life, and am now an honorary academic; teaching postgraduates interactive system design, and trialling the use of the PLE in the School. Recently the School has kindly agreed to host some external use to further research around the system.

The JISC has funded the development of teh Manchester PLE through the Emerge Project’s Benefits Realisation Programme, and subsequently as part of the Extensions to the Information Environment Project.

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  1. Paul Seiler
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    I would like to read some more about mPLE (what it is made up of, the design/architecture, user data, etc) to inform our related discussions for NZ schools.

  2. admin
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi Paul,
    Probably a week before I can get back to you on this, in demo- and conference-land right now.
    Regards Mark

  3. Rita Kop
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark

    It would be good to have a chat about your mPLE. The National Research Council of Canada has just started a PLE project and it would be useful to keep in touch.

    Best Wishes

  4. Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Do you have a link to the demo site? I would like to give it a try.

  5. Danny De Witte
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Interesting project, so I’m hungry for more and detailed information on this.


  6. Posted September 19, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    If anyone wants a login (condition please, you should do a few simple activities and provide feedback), then please email me, see the contact page for this site for my address.

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