INTRODUCING SELF ORGANIZED LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
IN HIGHER EDUCATION AS A TOOL FOR LIFELONG
Prudencia Gutiérrez Esteban and Mark Thomas Peart
University of Extremadura (UEx), Spain.
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
The profound changes that our society faces require continuous and thoughtful adaptations of the
education system to the emerging demands of learning. Higher education is not immune to this
reality. This article raises the need to lead a methodological change, renewing the traditional
teaching-learning process. Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) is one of the
innovative teaching proposals to encourage learning in the society of Information requiring
Lifelong Learning. Below, is a detailed methodological approach integrating the use of ICT with
problem-based learning orientated towards the use of Personal Learning Environments (PLE)
and SOLE according to the current social and educational demands.
Keywords: Higher Education, Personal Learning Environments, Problem Based Learning,
CHANGING PARADIGMS: NEW WAYS OF LEARNING
In the XXI century, we can say that technologies have changed the way we live, our customs and
social habits. Converting the stage of humanity in a society of technology and information. For
every society to develop, new members must be trained and taught to meet with social demand.
While school is the institution that collects the desires and the social demand for building their
future taxpayers, in theory it should evolve with society. However, the mere integration of ICT
does not imply an evolutionary changes as the teaching methodology of many teachers remains
similar to that of the twentieth or even the nineteenth century.
According to this new social, economic and cultural scenario, the development and infrastructure
improvement led to emergence of a new set of technologies used in distance learning specifically
in Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), primarily through the so-called virtual platforms or
LMS (Learning Management Systems), with the inclusion of particular online methods for
training (b-learning, e-learning and m-learning), where classroom teaching was complemented by
virtual spaces for training offered by educational institutions (Mikropoulos and Natsis, 2011).
However, with years learning trends have been growing when the learning possibilities have
increased. Outside school walls students develop new ways of learning and using knowledge; in
fact, a new learning culture arises breaking classic boundaries of teaching within formal
education. Thus we could affirm exist new ways and kinds of learning merging technological
(new devices and tools, hardware and software) and teaching innovation (new learning methods,
new ways of using devices and tools for teaching and learning). So we are attending to the birth
of new learning approaches as stated Beetham, McGill and Littlejohn (2009) in Adell &
· “Learning 2.0” (Downes, Anderson, Alexander, Walton),
· Counterevidence about 2.0. Learning (Redecker)
· Conectivisim (Siemens)
· Enquiry communities/learning communities (Wenger, Garrison & Anderson)
· Academic apprenticeship (Holme)
· E-learning & e-pedagogy (Mayes & Fowler, Cronje)
· Invisible learning (Moravec & Cobo)
· TPACK (Judi Harris, Koehler & Mishra)
· Creativity (Richard Gerver)
· Learning by doing (Roger Schank)
· Customized Education (David Albury)
· Rhizomatic Learning (Cormier)
Moreover formal, informal, online and lifelong learning and the lately born: edupunk, edupop,
incidental learning, ubiquitous learning… where the key idea is that with the introduction of ICT
and mainly Internet in our lives, we could learn at any place and at any time
(everywhere&everytime learning: EEL), what made that we moved from Formal Schooling
Paradigm to Do It Yourself (DIY) (Gutiérrez and Mikiewicz, 2013).
At the same time, if we look at Spain's national legislation, we can observe that the necessity to
renew teaching practise is underline on it. In the Organic Law for the Improvement of the Quality
of Education passed in 2013. We can find statements in the General Dispositions that confirm
that the profound changes that our society faces requires continuous and thoughtful adaptation of
the education system to the emerging demands of learning (chapter III, Gral. Dispositions). We
need to create conditions that allow timely methodological change, so that the student is an active
element in the learning process. Future and current students have changed radically in relation to
those of a generation ago. The impact of globalization and new technologies make the way they
learn, communicate, focus their attention or even approach a task (Chapter IV, Gral
Dispositions), different from that of their predecessors.
In 2006 the European Parliament and Council provides a definition of digital literacy that says,
"Digital competence involves the confidents and critical use of Information Society Technology
(IST) for work, leisure and communication. It is underpinned by basic skills in ICT: the use of
computers to retrieve, assess, store, produce, present and exchange information, and to
communicate and participate in collaborative networks via the Internet”. Furthermore, as argued
by the Common Frame of Digital Competence (2013) digital competence can also be described as
the creative, critical and safe use of information and communication technologies to achieve the
goals related to work, employability, learning, time, inclusion and participation in society.
Taking into account, these frameworks in which all teaching practices must comply to, we find
the sufficient justification to seek a new teaching proposal incorporating ICT as informational and
productive elements of the teaching-learning process. In which the student is the master of his or
her knowledge and architect to their learning. With the philosophy of Mitra (2010) and Self-
Organized Learning Environments that are revolutionizing primary education, we have decided to
take it one step further into Higher Education, entwine ICT policies and Piagetian Psychology
Theory in order to favour Lifelong Learning.
1. LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
1.1 Personal Learning Environments to Self-Organized Learning Environments
In recent years, the wealth of literature on personal learning environments has not left indifferent
to those who work in initial teacher training, as they have emerged as the most influential training
environment and facilitating the acquisition of new learning. This is mainly due to a confluence
of factors such as the emergence of Web 2.0, the "democratization" of the Internet. The profusion
in the use of social networks and interest, interaction with others, media, activities and tools,
involvement in the learning objectives, the interaction between people that enables the creation
and exchange of information and knowledge as well as the generation and transformation of that
information into knowledge.
The PLEs (Personal Learning Environments) is a new approach to learning that facilitate the
acquisition of digital competence and recognizing the existence of a personal Lifelong Learning
environment (Atwell, 2007; Adell and Castañeda, 2010), “built and shared by other people who
are part of our personal, professional and social environment of open, interoperable, low learner
control (not the teacher or the institution" (Area and Adell, 2009, p. 419)). For Rodrigues and
Lobato (2013) it is a personal learning space mediated by technological artefacts externalizing
and related knowledge with other peers, connected to the same Web 2.0 space, run by personal
rules that form and where multifaceted provides information intended to be shared, improved and
established as a common good. Although the implementation of educational processes from and
for a PLE is not produced by, the action of the tools used and activities carried out but of the
teaching strategies used to achieve new learning (Urbina et. Al., 2013).
So to enable a collaborative networked learning and strengthen PLEs through the Personal
Learning Networks (PLN) and the development of digital competence, the proposed work must
necessarily pass PLEs transform virtual communities of learning practice (Rebollo et. al., 2012),
establishing new training routes that will bring together the formal learning to informal (Palmero
and Sánchez, 2013).
On that note, in continuum let us introduce Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLE).
SOLE refers to the adaptation of a school space to facilitate Problem-Based Learning. A teacher
encourages their class to work as a community to answer questions using computers with internet
access. SOLE’s are created when educators encourage children to work in groups in order to
answer motivational and curious questions. To do this there are certain parameters that should be
met in order to create a SOLE in accordance with Mitra et. al. (2010):
● Students should choose their own groups.
● Students can look to see what other groups are doing and take that information back to
their own groups.
● They can move around freely.
● They can change groups at any time.
● They can talk with each other and discuss with other groups.
● Participants have the opportunity to tell their friends what they learned after the
In order to successfully undertake a SOLE activity, educators or monitors will:
● Get better at asking questions.
● Become more in tune with what children are most interested in.
● Feel connected on a more equal level.
● Expand their own understanding of what children can learn on their own.
In a school, or in this case higher education groups, such as seminars or workshops. They must:
● Encourage them to learn independent thinking and learning skills earlier
● Create a culture of curiosity and self-driven learning
● Experience more invigorated and interesting classroom activities.
● Offer more opportunities for both independent and collaborative thinking
● As well as, have fun.
With this mind-set, we hope to achieve a learning environment in which learners can pursue
curiosities and learn either individually or collaboratively. Implementing a SOLE in the teaching-
learning process should create a positive ambience in which learners are given the tools and the
opportunity for Lifelong Learning. Negroponte & Mitra (2012) point out that:
“much of the world is discoverable, which is how we all learned from the time we were born
until around age 5, when our formal education began. We interacted with our environments to
acquire language and common sense. We acquired so much knowledge during those years that
we learned many things about manipulating the world and even some about manipulating our
parents. Suddenly, at age 5, our learning was assumed to be different and was delivered to us,
almost solely through being told by people and soon after by books”.
2. METHODOLOGICAL PROPOSAL
As we have highlighted in previous paragraphs education today is in dire need of renovation and
modernization. Education needs to be able to contend with the eventuality that if a child wants to
know something they can simply take out their mobile phone and find it out within minutes or
seconds. However, they need to learn more than mere concepts. Students need to learn how to
learn and how to solve problems (procedures and attitudes) but they do not have to learn them sat
in a classroom listening to the teacher, or looking at the chalkboard. We maintain that SOLE
primarily rely on teamwork, where learning is an emergent phenomenon in the self-organization
of the system.
One of the subjects in the Primary Education School Teachers Bachelor Degree from the
University of Extremadura is IT Resources for Teaching and Research (from here on referred to
as, the subject) which specialises in providing students digital skills as university students as well
as its application to Education. With the SOLE implementation in the subject of the degree, the
primary aim, as is collected in the study plan, is to help students "maintain an attitude of
innovation and creativity in the exercise of their profession". Also, knowing and applying
innovative experiences in primary education. Besides knowing and apply methods and techniques
of educational research and be able to design innovative projects identifying evaluation
Overall acquiring skills of using ICT as a tool and as an essential way to learn. With the
implementation of SOLE, it turns out to be something more than a simple element to learn to
learn, it becomes an epicentre of learning that connects the student with the world, propelled by
the need to answer big questions.
2.1. METHODOLOGICAL DESIGN
As we mentioned in previous sections the SOLE is attractive for its logistical and pedagogical
principles. Our methodological approach would be a pilot program in Teaching, Research and IT
Resources subject. It will be implemented as a methodology of the current agenda.
The teacher should guide the subject content to “big questions” that encourages and invites
students to solve. The questions must provoke curiosity and initiate long conversations. Due to
the pragmatic nature of the question, each group could answer involving any disciplinary field for
reference. After they have worked in groups, there will be a period of conclusions where each
group should present their evidence to the others. So the groups in their computation, have built
between them several content perspectives engaging with all of them and thus building their
knowledge and using efficiently a set of resources, techniques and strategies of learning to ensure
an autonomous, responsible and continuous learning throughout life.
The aims of this teaching experience are to:
● Design an intervention project in the classroom to introduce elements of the PBL methodology.
● Visualize other types of training (SOLE) that departs from the prevailing models today.
● Know the different methods and modalities that can be found when implementing a SOLE.
● Deepen the importance of PBL and SOLE in Higher Education.
The development of this methodological approach is carried out in three phases, which are:
1) Preparation Stage
We must find a suitable space to conduct a SOLE session. It should be an open space that gives
the possibility for free movement as well as have sufficient Internet connection for ten computers
for groups of three. We must also prepare the question to ask the learners, and try to predict
where it will take them.
2) Stage Intervention
The stage includes the development of intervention of the SOLE Session. SOLE sessions, as
states Mitra (2010) last approximately sixty minutes. Meanwhile, it is subdivided into three
a) Introduce the Question
At this stage teacher has to explain the process of SOLE and distribute the roles of management
and control (as in a SOLE session, student self-organize and regulate). Small groups self-
organize in which they should appoint Manager to control and lead the group. Once the groups
are ready, the teacher submits the big problem in order to arouse the curiosity of the students and
ignite their desire to discover. This phase should not last more than five minutes (With groups
and roles established, the process of teaching and learning begins with the question, an example
of a IT Resources for Teaching and Research subject question could be: How would life be
In this phase, the students have to start the academic adventure. In small groups, they begin the
research phase. Students must locate, analyse and gather the information they consider necessary
to resolve the problem. They have approximately 30 minutes. In the above example, students now
seek the influences of technology in modern life, its functions, etc. In order to respond adequately
to the question they would have to come up with their justified conclusions about what life would
be without technology. This question can be pursued by various discipline branches (When we
have more groups or the more flexible the question, we more likely to have a variety of
This should take place in a big group area, in which each group presents their findings
summarizing what they have learned and their own conclusions. This phase could generate a
debate on the subject or the information collected. At the end of the session, the students should
reflect on what they have done in the SOLE and what to improve (both learning and behaviour).
This phase should last about fifteen minutes.
3) Evaluation Stage
The last stage of any learning design is the evaluation. This is where we must evaluate whether
the SOLE are effective in Higher Education. This will make various evaluation tests:
1) Diagnostic assessment.
2) Co-evaluation and self-assessment activities with rubrics.
3) And finally, a SWOT analysis in which we can collect opinions and assess the teaching-
learning process from a students’ perspective.
As it has been stated all these new learning scenarios help to configure and describe (at the same
time) how the New Millennium Learners learn, think, use and apply to their lives and ways to
interchange virtual and real life. Underpinning the issue of relation between formal education and
learning, informal education and learning and online education and Lifelong Learning, as the
concepts that are being presented by young people.
In order to achieve the millennium objectives for education, we need to take action. By using
SOLE and these web 2.0. integrated activities, students are developing their research skills and
their problem solving abilities. They are also indirectly learning to collect data and use IT tools to
express it in many different ways, as well as digitally alphabetizing themselves, working in
groups and most importantly, being the centre and main actors of their learning process. With
this, we hope to contribute to Lifelong Learning in digital environments. As well as training
future teachers on how they can renew education practices using ICT as an ally in the teaching-
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