It’s nothing personal: Identity, learning environments and covert curricula

Dave Cormier appears to be arguing for a particularly strong form of cultural determinism in his post, “Does the PLE make sense in a connectivist context?” and in his reply to comments. He is troubled by the use of the word “personal”:

… why call it personal? That’s the thing that i keep coming back to… in what sense is it [a PLE] personal? It tends to sound more like a desperate attempt to keep our enlightenment sense of the individual and not open ourselves to the fact that the things that we know are indelibly connected to everything else and are not, in fact, personal at all. In the sense that there are ‘no new ideas’ what we think of as personal are in fact just brand choices.

I couldn’t agree more that most assertions of my-personal-whatever do amount to “brand choices”, or rather, non choices. We are largely unsure of what our positions are in respect to most issues of the day. Positions most strongly held are often the least “personal”: the most influenced by ideologies, for example climate change denial, immigration, one’s position with respect to the European Union, sex roles in society and so on.

While, I do not want to be positioned as a defender of the term “personal learning environment”, much less its reification as a TLA: PLE,  it is important to note that we are not simply automata for the purpose of replicating language or culture. The genotype v. phenotype argument has been explored by many more able than me.

Pinker (1994) does a good job at refuting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a particularly strong form of linguistic determinism. An apposite metaphor might be: while all birds of a species build similar nests, the birds do not exist for the purpose of replicating nests. We may very well be machines for the replication of our genotype, but the biological and cultural strategies that we take for that replication – expressed as our phenotype – are, particularly it appears for humans, hugely complex: the human phenotype has tremendous variability. While the things we know are “indelibly connected to everything” each individual’s subset of everything is, I suggest, quite uniquely framed.

Which leads me to the question of identity: the who-am-I? question. Our identity can be considered in a number of ways. There is the question of authentication and access to services and the extent to which the authenticated identity is linked to a single biological substrate by some sort of biometric (photo, signature, retina scan, DNA sample) such as is the case with passports, drivers licences library cards and so on. In the cases where identities are economic actors there is the possibility of identity theft of various degrees. But, more important for this discussion is the question of psychological identity. Psychological identity consists of many parts and there is incomplete agreement as to its nature. It may be composed of: gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, social class, trade/profession, musical taste, sexuality, politics, domestic circumstances, even our preference for Windows or Macs. It may be fixed or under continuous development; it may be in crisis. It is sometimes suggested that we may have multiple identities. It is certain that we are only partly conscious of our identity management strategies. We deploy different parts of our identities in different circumstances: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. So, while not wanting to fall into a neo-enlightenment trap of mythologising the individual or make any sort of Thatcherite assertion that there is no such thing as society, there are individuals who experience their life personally, who express individual preferences that are subtly different from the individual preferences of people very like them and very different from those of people very unlike them.

I consciously exercise my identity through learning. Learning and all its trappings are part of my habitus. I struggle, in Freire’s term to consciencize learning, to make my learning explicit to myself and to others. A big part of my identity is exercised through what might be called learning environments. Several years ago (Roberts 2007) I suggested that there was a new post-industrial covert curriculum emerging to replace that of the industrial era. The new curriculum was flexibility, community and personalisation. Each of these had an overt aspect that could be viewed as both an individual and social good. But, each was matched by a covert aspect that served hegemonic elites: the dark side, if you will. The dark side of flexibility was precarity and a return to piecework; the dark side of community was normalisation of behaviour; and the dark side of personalisation – it appeared to me at the time – was surveillance. I’ll need to revisit this theorisation, but it strikes me as holding up rather well in respect to personalisation. The extent to which we exercise our “personal” identity through social media of all sorts exposes us to all manner of commercial and state surveillance.

So what does this have to do with the PLE? It is nothing personal except to the extent that the personal is political and it is all political, so it is all personal. It is fair to say that the PLE was conceptualised as an antithesis to the institutional VLE, MLE or LMS. There was/is a political aim to the personal learning agenda. It had/has two sides. There are those who view personal learning as emancipatory and anti-hegemonic. And, there are those who see personalisation as a means of more effectively directing, hegemonising, the learning of others. Personalised learning is a big policy theme with a lot of funding following it (see for example, the JISC PLE project). Tools have been built that from time to time are refered to by their builders as PLEs or personal learning landscapes and so on. When bread is thrown on the water fish rise.

  • Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct : the new science of language and mind. London: Allen Lane.
  • Roberts, G. (2007). The New Covert Curriculum: a Critical, Actor-Network Approach to Learning Technology Policy. In S. Banks, P. Goodyear, V. Hodgson, C. Jones, V. Lally, D. McConnell, et al. (Eds.), Networked Learning 2004: proceedings of the 4th international conference held at the University of Lancaster, 5 – 7 April 2004. University of Sheffield and University of Lancaster. Retrieved from

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