Adam Smith remarked that individuals inside a free market were self-interested, but that an “invisible hand” existed that regulated the market despite that self-interest. It works great as a theory, but in community settings, there is need for services that cannot be performed by individuals operating solely out of self-interest. Take for example interstate highways, which require creation and maintenance so that everyone can use them. In present-day mixed economies, within which range most countries operate, the government provides those services.

This economic example came to mind as I was reading Attwell (Att) and Schaffert/Hilzensauer (SH). The use of PLEs and social software to promote self-directed learning seems balanced on the regulation of an “invisible hand” of education. While the notion of a PLE is not without some benefits, ATTs argument that the new tools require completely new methods of teaching and learning seems extreme – though this isn’t the first time I have heard/read it.

There seems to be a general notion that the prior practiced and tested methods of learning no longer apply with these new and improved tools. For that reason, I think some of the arguments in ATTs paper are possible only in a perfectly functioning “free market-type” learning world.

There is merit to the notion that through developing ubiquitous computing capabilities, combining vocational and occupational learning through a PLE will help bring the two together within the work process. But that depends, I think, on the type of work and the associated work environment. If both are suitable for this type of combined, self-directed learning, the situation would need to be ideal for the application to work.

I find it interesting too that implementing a PLE for the purpose of supporting informal, self-directed learning will require a shift in the “ethos and organization of education.“ Perhaps in certain circumstances providing more independence and responsibility to the learner is appropriate and will yield better results, but not all learners are interested in and capable of such self-directed study. It seems there are several unexplored implications of this fact that render the notion of a complete paradigm shift in education to self-directed learning, made possible by the use of PLEs, risky and insincere.

The SH article highlighted both possible benefits and possible drawbacks of PLEs, which I appreciated. This article seems a bit more realistic in what it was proposing, though there were several points I still question – namely, (and I always have trouble with this one) the democratization of knowledge. This is a term that people apply as they feel it fits – does this mean get rid of the experts or does it mean equal opportunity learning (very different to me)? I believe that both have already occurred in certain fields (the film industry for one).

However, the notion that all people can become experts through connectivism and social software is a stretch for me.

Maybe it’s true in some cases that what information there is available to me and what collaboration social networking provides can increase my understanding and knowledge of a specific topic to what might be considered expert status. However, (again) expertise in all fields through these mediums is not really possible. It is the difference between a hobby and a trained and honed skill. I wouldn’t let Joe perform open heart surgery on my loved one because he conducted a self-directed study via social software and a PLE.

There seems to be a trend in blanket statements when discussing technology and education – fix-all solution/theories. Which I think is why I appreciated Couros’s article. First of all, he neatly distinguished the differences between PLEs and PLNs – I always come back to defining the terms, but really, how can true discussion and understanding occur if the interested parties understand the terms to mean different things (unless that is what the actual discussion is about).

What I found interesting about the pilot class was that it seemed to incorporate elements from both practiced methods of teaching/learning with newer theories. His blend was obviously successful – although I am curious about the range of student experience and how class exercises were graded. I find it interesting that despite this push to move away from the elite “experts” to more general discussion and knowledge building, the people that were brought in for discussion were “leader” (experts) in their fields.

(By the way, if the education world is moving towards self-directed, informal learning that equals and surpasses formal learning, then please explain to me why I am spending so much money on this UT education?)

Overall, I feel there are benefits of both PLNs and PLEs that require further research and exploration. Couros’s example proves that parts of these theories, separate or blended, can work in specifically designed circumstances.