Chris posted a question on Twitter today asking for people to send him images representing our PLE (Personal Learning Environment). I sent back a flip, sarcastic response pointing to this photo set, saying that is what my PLE is. I didn't think much more about it, but then I read later that Chris was taken aback by my (and others') response. That surprised me, but caused me to take a step back to think about what my PLE really is, and what it would look like if I were to describe it to someone else.
My PLE is in a constant state of flux. My previous response to Chris was that my "PLE is people" (alluding to Soylent Green) - it's a sarcastic shorthand that I use to mean that the exact technologies that are in use at any particular point in time don't matter as much as the fact that it is people being connected through them. Tools come and go constantly, and the only constant is that the people are the important part of the equation. At that level, my PLE looks like this:
I admit that the image is way oversimplified, but the exact incantations of magic varies dramatically over time. For me, it began as BBS over 300 BAUD modems, extending over FidoNet to let me reach people in other cities. When I started my undergrad program, my PLE was listservs and gopher sites. Eventually, my PLE was listservs and community websites. It has occasionally included intense periods of instant messaging and video conferencing (with full screen video conferences combined with VNC screen sharing). This eventually evolved to what my current PLE looks like today:
Even this diagram is quite oversimplified. The "communities" item is a shorthand for things like project websites, open source project sites, wikis, BaseCamp, etc...
One of the things that I've had trouble with is defining what is in my PLE and what isn't - it varies so rapidly based on context. Even within something like Twitter, there are people whom I consider part of a learning environment, and others are there for social value. They are both valid, but does that make Twitter a PLE tool or something else? Same with blogs. I follow a whole bunch of blogs - many I consider critical to my personal learning environment, but many are there for entertainment, distraction, or social value. Defining "blogs" as PLE or not-PLE isn't a clean distinction. Even the core PLE blogs vary in content from day to day, so I can't even provide a list of blog URLs to say "this is my definitive set of PLE-enable blogs that I follow".
In the end, I sincerely do not mean to belittle or de-emphasize the genuine questions about PLEs - I just struggle to provide a concrete description of something that is by its very nature organic, dynamic, responsive, and intensely, individually unique.
I think the more important question involves the philosophy and strategies that make various tools effective (or not) as part of the "magic happens" cloud that helps connect people. I'm not sure what the concise definition would be, but I believe that it is strongly based on real, meaningful discussions as opposed to static publishing. I believe that it involves community and real involvement and interaction between members of the community. Tools that enable these kinds of interactions are viable candidates for inclusion in a PLE - but even that definition is so vague as to be essentially meaningless.
Update: I generated a new diagram with TouchGraph.com to show how my blog (which is my digital identity) fits into the context of my PLE.