Participatory learning environment

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(Note: References within our citations of Barab et al .can be found in the article, which is open access ...)


The Participatory learning environment can refer:

  • to any sort of environment where users can co-construct or at least communicate through some form of computer-mediated communication. This definition includes most modern educational technologies and we will not further elaborate here.
  • to specific forms of advanced learning environments that are based on both situated and constructionist principles. Networked and situated microworlds might be an appropriate description for these.

See also Personal learning environment, another use of the PLE accronym.

Barab et al.'s definition

Barab et al. (2001) define a kind of networked and situated microworld that implements situated learning principles.

The constructionist connection

Barab et al. (2001) define participatory learning environments (PLEs) as systems that “engage students in the construction of products requiring practices that embody complex concepts, necessitate collaboration, and contextualize learning within contexts in which problem solving and inquiry are fundamental aspects of the learning process (Barab, Hay, Barnett,&Keating, 2000; Barab, Hay, Squire, et al., 2000).” (Barab et al. 2001:48)

“Consistent with Papert's (1991) constructionist pedagogical framework, PLEs frequently involve learners building understanding through the collaborative construction of an artifact or shareable product. Rather than presenting instructional treatments, the goal from this perspective is to establish rich environments that encourage explanation and discovery, nurture reflection, and support students in the carrying out of practices that embody personally meaningful and practically functional representations.” (Barab et al. 2001:48)

The situated learning connection

“The focal point of PLE s is the learners' emergent practices in relation to the need at hand; it is a move from a 'teacher curriculum' to a 'learner curriculum' (Lave & Wenger, 1991), or from an acquisition metaphor to a participatory metaphor (Sfard, 1998). Such an emphasis shifts the focus from the individual as a 'person to be changed' to how to facilitate the emergent practices of learners working collaboratively, with particular emphasis on the learners' reasons for carrying out the activities and the context in which they are nested (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Roth, 1996, 1998). Learning is conceived of as a 'social process in which meaning is negotiated, goals emerge from social processes, and success is taken within context' (Young, Barab, & Garrett, 2000, p. 160). Learning, from this perspective, is not the acquisition of facts and skills, but an activity involving the appropriation and construction of socially negotiated practices, understanding, and meanings through participation in a trajectory of experience.”(Barab et al. 2001:48)

Activity groups

In the design described in Barab et al. (2001), learners work in activity groups, a temporary coming together of people around a particular task (Barab & Duffy, 2000). When working as part of activity groups, learners are frequently given a general description of a task (e.g., construct a virtual reality [VR] play or solar system) and expected to work collaboratively in determining how to best complete the shared task. From a class perpsective, this setup can be described as collective learning. “Various activity groups might share a common goal and even participate under a common pedagogical framework but construct different final products, as well as procedures for getting there, and, reciprocally, have different group dynamics.” (Barab et al. 2001:49)

Learning environments

According to (Barab et al. 2001:50), PLE environments:

  • Are technology-rich-integrating technology as a tool for facilitating inquiry, other forms of authentic practice, or both.
  • Provide opportunities for students to inquire into the phenomena they are learning and not simply receive information about the phenomena.
  • Support students in participating in, not didactically hearing about, domain-related practices.
  • Are designed to support the process of learning.
  • Establish rich environments (studios, workshops, and construction spaces) where students work collaboratively.
  • Immerse students in a context that grounds their understanding to local environmental particulars.

The authors also provide a description that typically could be be found in the microworld literature. PLEs are “emerging technologies that function less like books, films, journals, and broadcasts and more like laboratories, workshops, offices, and studios in which students immerse themselves within contexts that challenge and extend their understanding”




  • Barab, Sasha A. ,Kenneth E. Hay, Michael Barnett and Kurt Squire (2001). Constructing Virtual Worlds: Tracing the Historical Development of Learner Practices, Cognition And Instruction, 19(1), 47-94. PDF
  • Barab,S.A. K. E. Hay & T.M. Duffy (2000), Grounded Constructions and How Technology Can Help, CRLT Technical Report No. 12-00, The Center for Research on Learning and Technologyn, Indiana University.