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Personal Learning Environments and Medicine’s Postgraduate Portal


Most of us involved in medical education have had some hands on experience of e-learning using WebCT for lessons, videos, assignments and MCQs.  But two factors are transforming this familiar landscape: the availability  of the Internet and computing power virtually everywhere.  Being able to connect to the internet anytime and anywhere using almost any device has bread a new generation of learners called the “Net Generation”.  These learners now tend to:

  • Absorb information quickly from multiple sources
  • Expect immediate response and feedback, and
  • Prefer on-demand access to media


In the UK the average download speeds are 450KB/s and 238KB/s in the USA.  In SA we typically experience download speeds of less than 50KB/s. But the arrival of undersea cables is increasing speeds and reducing costs. During 2009 the number of ADSL users increased by 21% , while wireless broadband users increased by 88 percent. More than 5 million users are now connected or about 11% of the SA population.[1]   Over the next few years growing internet use and relatively cheap computing will influence our own learners.   They are likely to expect their learning to be delivered quickly on demand and using a variety of rich media. 

The internet makes it easy for educators to create e-learning material.  Many tools are freely available for us to download (I will mention some of these later).  And there are major medical repositories online that freely allow anyone to download and use excellent content (mostly under Creative Commons Licensing).  Some examples:


With such powerful forces influencing our students, how can we prepare for the coming change in educational emphasis? (Easy internet access, increasingly cheap technology, powerful tools freely available, excellent content freely available)

Personal Learning Environments

Instead of centralised, instructor-controlled learning, a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) enables each learner to take control of their own learning.  A PLE could be a single desktop program or a selection of software tools to integrate information on the personal computer with web resources.  Just as each student’s approach to learning differs, so their set of tools will differ.  PLEs place the emphasis on the learner and not the teacher. 

The driving forces behind the adoption of PLEs are the realisation that:

  • Each learner has a unique learning style
  • Learning is a lifelong experience
  • Learning takes place in different contexts
  • Many institutions will contribute to learning along the way
  • e-Learning will play an increasingly prominent role[2]   


There are two broad approaches to PLEs: institutional and individual. 

Institutional PLEs

On the institutional front, various efforts are underway to provide a comprehensive approach e.g. Jafari/Epsilen, Chatti, FLEF, PLEX, ELGG.[3] 

The Jafari/Epsilen model focuses on: lifelong learning; outsourcing, globalisation, centralisation and smart agents that learn what you want and get it for you automatically.

The Personal Learning Environment Framework (PLEF and PLEX),  supports the learners in managing their learning by aggregating, tagging, commenting, and sharing their favourite resources e.g. feeds, widgets, and different media,  within a personalized space.

ELGG is an open source social networking platform which encompasses blogging, file storage, RSS aggregation, personal profiles and Friend of a Friend functionality (FOAF). [4], [5]

Time will tell if institutional PLEs will become as widely accepted as current Learning Management Systems (such as Blackboard or Moodle).

Individual PLEs

Using the individual approach to PLEs, the teacher’s responsibility becomes one of knowing what tools are available and exposing our learners to them.  In seeking to lead by example, educators need to develop their own PLE and be familiar with a wide range of tools such as: blogs, instant messaging, file sharing, feed aggregators, podcasts and social networks. One teacher who created her own PLE is Michelle Martin.[6]  She highlights a different set of tools on her blog from the ones I have listed below. Waters also has instructions on how you can build your own PLE.[7]

Time restrictions do not allow a discussion of the many PLE tools available, so I have placed this article along with two tables of tools on the website at:

I would like to tell you about how our Registrars are using one of the best PLE tools available and how this is integrated on the Medicine Department’s Postgraduate Portal.

Table 1 – Free Personal Learning Tools

PLE Tool


Download URL


A feed reader for keeping up to date with fast changing information published on various websites.


For recording and editing sounds and podcasting.


Creates concept maps that promote meaningful learning. Concept maps can also be used in teaching.  The maps can be linked to any kind of electronic resource graphics, sound, video, websites, PDFs, etc., . Concept maps are easy to create and change or update.


A web browser that integrates social networking and media services including MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Blogger, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.


HubMed searches PubMed but provides: date- or relevance-ranked results; web feeds for regular updates; clustering and graphical display of related articles; expansion of query terms; export of citation metadata in many formats; linking of keywords to external sources of information; manual tagging and storage of interesting articles.

JabRef and Bibtex4Word

A bibliography reference manager that can: integrate with Word using an add-in called Bibtex4Word, ; search various databases; automatically add found articles to your database; and weed out duplicates.


Software for organising, editing and printing photos or placing them online.

Windows Live Writer

Offline blog editor. This provides easier editing than many editors embedded in online blog sites.


Firefox extension that helps you collect, manage and share the resources you find on the internet. It also has a Word add-in for inserting references.


Blooms’s Revised Taxonomy in the Digital Age

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy isn't about the tools or technologies rather it is about using these to facilitate learning.[8]

Table 2 – PLE Tools Classified Using Bloom's Revised Taxonomy of Learning

Higher Order Thinking Skills HOTS,



Blogging, Vlogging & Screen Casting


Game Development

Graphics & Painting




Presentation & Digital Story Telling

Project Management

Adobe Creative Suite, Animoto, Audacity, Blender, Blogger, Bloglines, BlogMeister, CmapTools, Corel, DTP, Empressr, Finale NotePad, Flash, Freemind, Gamemaker, Ganttproject, GIMP, Gimpshop, Google present, Impress, Inkscape, Looplabs, Maya, Movie Maker, Netvibes, Openproj, Pageflakes,, Photostory, Picnic, Pinnacle Studio, Podcasting, Podomatic, PowerPoint, Protopage, RPGmaker, Sketchup, Skype, Slideshare, Sound recorder, VideoSpin, Voicethread, WordPress, WP, Zoho, ZWcad


Collaborating & Networking

Comment, Moderate, Review & Post

Debate & Panel Discussions

Investigation, Verdict & Conclusion

Persuasive speech

Reporting & Evaluation

Blog, Bulletin Boards, Chatrooms, CmapTools in presentation mode, Concept Mapping, Discussion Boards, Dtp, Email, Forums, Gis, Instant Messaging, Internet, Mind Mapping, Podcasting, Presentation, Sound Recorder, Threaded Discussions, Twitter, Video And Phone Conferencing, Wiki's, WP




Graphing & Spreadsheets




6 Questions, Access, Calc, CmapTools, discussion boards, DTP, Excel, Freemind, GIS, Gliffy, Herring or fish bone mind maps, Mindmapper, Mindmeister, MySQL, PMI, presentation, spreadsheet, SurveyMonkey, SWOT Analysis, Venn, wikis, WP








Sculpture Demonstration


Audacity, Audio Recording, Corel, Elluminate, Film, GIMP, Google Presentation, Google Sketchup, Graphic Tools, Impress, Inkscape, Mind Mapper, Podcast, Online Games, Online presentation tools, Paint, Podcast, PowerPoint, Screen Capture, Simulations, Sound Recorder, Speech, Video And Sound Tools, Vodcast, Voicethread, Wp, Zoho


Advanced and boolean searches

Blogging, Diary & Journal

Categorising and tagging








Show and tell




Adobe Acrobat Reader, Aggregators, Audio Tools, Bing, Blog readers, Blogger, Bloglines,, Discussion boards, Firefox, Flowchart Tools, Google, Graphics, Internet, Mind Map, Myspace, Notice Boards, Time line tools, Presentation tools, Spreadsheet, Video tools, Wiki, WP, Yahoo, Zotero


Basic Searches









Social Networking


Bebo, Bing, Chatrooms, Cue Sheets, Discussion boards, Email, Facebook, Google, Graphics Tools, Internet, Mind Map, Mind Map, Moodle, Myspaces, Web, Wiki, WP, Yahoo


Lower Order Thinking Skills LOTS,


Concept Mapping and Medicine’s Postgraduate Portal

CmapTools[9] is a free concept mapping tool that installs on your desktop PC.  It connects to the internet as well as concept maps hosted on thousands of computers across the globe.  Concept maps are graphical representations of knowledge that are comprised of concepts and the relationships between them.  Concept maps have a strong psychological and theoretical foundation, based on Ausubel's Assimilation Theory (Ausubel, 1968, 2000) and Novak's Theory of Learning.  Concept mapping is primarily used is to facilitate meaningful learning.  CmapTools is easy enough for primary school children to use and powerful enough for NASA to capture the knowledge of their retiring rocket scientists.  Registrars in the Department of Medicine are taught to use CmapTools and then create their own concept maps.  They present these to their peers for formative assessment and then submit them for publication on our website, where they are indexed and made freely available on the internet.  The Postgraduate Portal also houses videos on how to use CmapTools and some articles on how you can use concept maps for delivering lessons and presentations.

Besides facilitating meaningful learning, CmapTools can form the backbone of a PLE.  It can function as a desktop or web-based application or both. It has security features that allow you to specify who can view and change your concept maps. It can link to any electronic resource on your PC or on the internet.  It can launch videos or PowerPoint slideshows and display pictures.  Most of all, it is easy to use and update.  Students can also collaborate on constructing the same concept map simultaneously from different sites.  There is a feature built into CmapTools that will analyse your concept map and suggest topics you might not have thought about.

The Future

Medical education will increasingly be delivered as e-learning. 

“The curious thing about technology is the way it resolves complexity into simplicity” Kevin Kelly[10]

Tutors and students both need to master new skills and tools in order to be effective life-long learners.  Whether you are a teacher or student, having a program like CmapTools as part of your personal learning environment can enhance both your effectiveness as a teacher and your ability to learn.


[1]  Broadband Speeding Ahead at Visited on 2010/06/20.

[2]  Atwell G. Personal Learning Environments – the future of eLearning? eLearning Papers, Vol 2, No 1, January 2007


[4]  The Friend of a Friend Project. Foaf project at Visited on 2010/06/21.


[6] Martin M. The Bamboo Project at Visited on 2010/06/21.


[7]  Waters S. PLN Yourself at Visited on 2010/06/21.


[8]  Bloom's Digital Taxonomy on Educational Origami at’s+Digital+Taxonomy . Visited on 2010/07/03.


[9]  CmapTools. The Instutute for Human and Machine Cognition at Visited on 2010/06/21.


[10]  Kevin Kelly. Rethinking the Future (1997), pp 253.


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