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Monday, March 20, 2006

Personal Learning for Learning Professionals - Using Web 2.0 Tools to Make Reading & Research More Effective

In my previous posts and through discussions on TrDev and Com-Prac, it is clear that we need to look for better ways to take responsibility for our own learning, especially as Learning Professionals.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a little information that really helps us understand how we can take control of our personal learning more effectively. There is some stuff coming out around "Personal Learning Environments" for example, take a look at: ePortfolio Model and the Concept Diagram for Personal Learning Landscape.

I'm going to try to provide a few different posts that look at this topic. This first post looks at how we can take advantage of some of the relatively recent Web 2.0 tools to do a better job reading and researching topics.

Reading & Researching Rough Definition of Use Cases

First, let me start with what I roughly mean when I say reading and researching:

Reading - I sometimes call this scanning. Basically, I don't have a specific question in mind. I'm just trying to find out "what's new" or "give me some interesting ideas." Mostly, this is just trying to stay abreast of what is going on. I do this normally by skimming lots of magazines, newsgroups and blogs. Sometimes, I'm in this mode when I'm attending local presentations, online presentations or conference sessions. Normally, what I find are farily random pieces of information. All I will do with that information is remember the high level concepts and then, if I'm doing a good job, I'll make sure that I can get back to the details again later.

Researching - In this case, I'm trying to find the answer to a question. Sometimes it's fairly broad like "What are the things I should do before and after a professional conference to get more from the conference?" or sometimes specific like "What simulation tool best meets this requirement?" I may research this by searching the web, talking to people or asking questions in newsgroups. I will use the information I find to do what I need to do, I'll probably remember roughly what I found, and then, if I'm doing a good job, I'll make sure that I can get back to the details again later.

Hopefully, you recognize these two high-level use cases to some degree. It would seem that they match pretty will with how other's view this. For example, if you look at the diagram from the post I cited above:


Jeremy has a good model of the likely elements along the bottom. For my Reading and Researching use cases, I'm focused primarily on Collecting, Reflecting, Connecting (somewhat) and Publishing (somewhat - although I would call it sharing). Alternatively, take a look at the use cases in: Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them.

Using Web 2.0 Tools to Tag and "Get Back to Details Later"

In both the reading and research use cases, one of the keys to long-term success is to be able to "get back to the details" later. Web 2.0 tools help us in doing a better job of this.

But, there's also great intrinsic value in tagging. From a posts A Cognitive Analysis of Tagging and Why People Tag:

The beauty of tagging is that it taps into an existing cognitive process without adding add much cognitive cost. At the cognitive level, people already make local, conceptual observations. Tagging decouples these conceptual observations from concerns about the overall categorical scheme.

Tagging provides immediate self and social feedback. Each tag tells you a little about what you are interested in. And you find out the social context for that bit of self-knowledge. How do others view that item? Together this piecemeal feedback creates a cycle of positive reinforcement, so that you are motivated to tag even more. This might not make tagging easier, but it does make it more fun.

Now, I'm assuming that we will be disciplined enough during our use cases to roughly do the following:

  • Articles in Print Magazines - No matter how you do it (I personally rip out the articles as I read), get the article in front of the computer. Find it online. (BTW, what ever happened to that mouse that would find the online copy for you?) Bookmark and tag it.
  • Presentations at conferences - Find a link to the presentation later. Bookmark and tag it.
  • Online materials - Bookmark and tag it.

Bookmarking / Tagging Tool

I've just recently switched to Yahoo's MyWeb 2.0 from del.icio.us. While I like the del.icio.us interface a lot more, it doesn't support a few features that I wanted (page caching, searching within linked pages, control on link sharing). Also, since Yahoo acquired del.icio.us, my guess is that MyWeb is the way Yahoo will be going since it is already integrated with other aspects of their social bookmarking. Also, I don't expect Yahoo to go away soon, where I'm a bit concerned about some of the other social bookmarking, tagging tools.

Now you might say, "but, I already bookmark using my browser?" Here's what you are missing that you get with Yahoo's MyWeb 2.0:

  1. You can access your bookmarks from anywhere via a browser (i.e., they get shared between home, work and on the road)
  2. You can share your bookmarks and get bookmarks from other people
  3. You can control who has access to your links (private, group of friends, co-workers, CoP group, public)
  4. You can search within the content of your bookmarks for tags, contents of the pages you've link, what other people have linked
  5. The system can save copies of the pages (cache them) so they don't rot (give you "not found" messages later)
  6. Tagging beats bookmark categories because you don't have to rearrange your categories nor do you need to figure out your categories ahead of time
  7. You can use the bookmarks to create a "link roll" that you can post to your intranet, your blog, or wherever to be able to share with people who aren't using the same service

Some Remaining Issues:

  • Pages on sites like the eLearningCentre that contain long lists of good links cannot today be easily included in your links. However, going forward, these list pages will be dynamic based on link rolls, so this will go away over time.
  • Appears that the system does not cache PDF pages or Docs - which is a drag. So these may get lost over time as people remove the documents.
  • Tagging and searching is still across web resources. I also use a desktop search tool which has radically changed how I handle email and directories. I find that there is little need for email folders and a lot less need for directories. I'll just find it via search anyhow. I would really love it if the Web 2.0 tools I'm describing extended down to my desktop so that I could search across all of it at once.

Effective Tagging

When you save a bookmark, you will be asked to provide tags. To get the greatest value from these systems, it is best if you provide reasonably good tags. However, I find that I will sometimes need to go back and tag things again as I find that other people are using different tags and/or I find myself using different tags.

The articles Folksonomies: Tags Strengths, Weaknesses And How To Make Them Work and Tag Literacy provides some good background. Some common mistakes:

  • Misspelt tags (e.g., libary, libray) - avoid this by almost always selecting an existing tag. Some will be suggested, others come up based on the first few words. Generally, try to use an existing tag and make a conscious decision to use a new tag.
  • Group compound terms together - for example personalLearning is a tag I use. Also openSource would be a good idea.
  • Use plurals to define categories. When appropriate, instead of blog or tree, use blogs and trees. Tags signify a category which can encompass various resources, so the plural is generally more appropriate. This will avoid having to check both the singular and plural version of a tags. However, sometimes having both a singular and a plural tag is necessary. For example, I would expect to find very different resources under the tags apple(as in the electronics manufacturer) and apples(as in the fruits).
  • Don't use symbols in tags with the exception of a tag like eLearning2.0 where the "." is okay. Don't use # or _

The good news is that most of this is not as important until you start to share your bookmarks and tags. But it is a good idea to have a consist pattern to your tags to make life easier when you look things up.

Finding Bookmarked and Tagged Items

In most cases, I can quickly find any page via tags. Even if I have 500 pages, I will have relatively few pages maybe 30 pages with "personalLearning" as the tag. Even then, sometimes, I'll want to subselect with another tag like "Web2.0" to find the particular pages (now down to 5 pages).

Probably the nicest feature of Yahoo My Web 2.0 is that I can search the contents of the pages. So, even if I've not done a good job tagging my pages or can't figure out what tag I used for a particular page, I can generally search the contents of my pages to find the page anyone. Normally, I start with a tag search and then use a full-text search as a back-up. Oh, and then I tag the page with whatever tag it should have had. :)

Additional Recommended Activities

Okay, up to this point, I'm just suggesting something that is pretty simple and I would venture to say that this is the minimum you should do. But, there are a couple of more things that I would recommend you also try:

Move Towards Reading Online and Expand Your Sources

While, I still read paper publications, I've found a very interesting trend. As I've shifted towards reading a more diverse set of resources (primarily blogs and discussion groups), I've come to realize that I get more relevant diverse and deeper information from these sources. People are able to write about things in more detail that a magazine can possibly do. I still skim the magazines, but I find myself consciously spending more time with alternative sources.

At Training 2006, I was SHOCKED to see only 5 hands go up out of an audience of 200 who said they read blogs to find out what's happening.

If you are among the other 195 people, the first step is to get an RSS reader. If you don't know about these, probably the easiest way to get one and get moving quickly is to go to a previous post: Quick Way to Find and Sign-up for Blogs (it uses BlogLines).

And here are a couple of articles on how to incorporate your blog reading: Ten Tips for Effective Blog Reading - Part 1 & Effective Blog Reading - Part 2.

Once you start reading blogs, you will pretty soon realize that there's lots of other stuff that you can subscribe to. For example:

  • Magazines publish their contents as RSS feeds or see my post about RSS Feeds from Static Magazines. Pretty soon you'll subscribe to those so you can more easily link the articles.
  • Subscribe to particular searches, e.g., "eLearning 2.0", so that as new information comes up in blogs or get tagged by people, you can get notified of that.

This can quickly pile up, but it also can be much more focused than just reading the same old articles in Training Magazine. And, since you are reading online, its simple to bookmark and tag the items that you want to be able to get back to at a later time.

Pivot

One of the interesting aspects of the social side of tagging and Bloglines is that you can use these tools to Pivot from one resource to another. Some examples:

  • If you find a blog you like, use BlogLines to find related blogs and/or go to users who subscribe and see what else they are reading. When you do this, always put this new blog in a "quarantine" so that you give it a certain amount of time before you ignore it. I would suggest making a quarantine based on months. Any new blog that hasn't produced anything of use in a month is going to get the boot from me. But, if it has something good, then I'll move it out of quarantine.
  • Also, many blogs have "blog rolls" and "link rolls" ... if their content is good, chances are they are pointing at good stuff.
  • Using tags, you can see what other resources are that people have tagged with it.
  • Use http://similicio.us/ to put in the URL of a site and find sites that are linked by other people (based on del.icio.us). You can even pivot from those, to find more.

Because of tagging and social aspects, pivoting is quite useful both for research and reading.

Share

Up to this point, I've been suggesting things that will only marginally add to the effort of doing what you should already be doing today (reading and researching). Now, let me suggest something that will take possibly a little more work, but that will actually help your learning tremendously. And, yes, its sharing your reading and research.

Let me give an example. Let's say that you've been asked to look at software simulation tools for an upcoming project. You will definitely do some research. If you follow my advice above, you will probably search for pre-existing lists of simulation tools (and hopefully some commentary). (Link + Tag those). You will visit the sites of those tools. (Link + Tag those). And, you will do some analysis yourself where you make notes on the tools, select the tool that you think fits the best, make notes on why.

At an absolute minimum, I would say that you should make your Links + Tags + Notes available publicly through your social bookmarking service, e.g., del.icio.us or MyWeb.

Preferrably, you would create a blog post or a wiki page with your analysis. Do you not have a blog? Then go to Blogger and sign-up (it takes less than 5 minutes). Create a post that describes what your requirements were and provides a link roll or tags that people can get to your Links + Tags + Notes. This can be done either by exporting or by embedding a badge or link roll directly into your post. Blogger will generally give you a warning that you can ignore when you do this. <>

Alternatively, you can accomplish the same thing with a Wiki. Again, this is incredibly easy and I'd recommend checking out PBWiki (it also takes less than 5 minutes).

Why would I suggest doing this as a blog or wiki? If you have a team working on this, its a no-brainer. It is a great way to share the information. But what if you are solo? And why make this public?

First - there's value provided to the community. We can collectively gain value from this kind of information. If there was more of it, you would have had an easier time in your selection process.

Second - this forces you to codify what you've done and makes sure that you have your research available to you (and others on your team) at a later time. There is lots of research showing that doing exactly this kind of activity codifies your learning. One such article, Promoting Durable Knowledge Construction through Online Discussion, points out:

Knowledge construction is best accomplished through collaboration. In general, students learn through the give-and-take among classmates. That is, as students write contributions to discussions, they learn what it is that they are trying to say. The replies that they receive from their classmates further this learning.

Okay, what if I'm just reading? Well, even better. Then create a post with notes on something interesting that you just found. Or, just put notes in your My Web link. (One thing about notes is that they are specific to the link - so you don't have notes on a group of links. That's when you have to go to a blog post or a wiki page.)

Yes, I understand this represents more work than you do today, but it really is worth it. I think you must try it before you will really know the value.

Furthermore, as learning professionals, I think we have a responsibility to try these kinds of things to understand how we can be better learners so we can help others become better learners.

More Soon

The good news is that the tools we are talking about here are going to get much better quickly, I'll talk about other aspects of these tools in later posts.

I also plan to talk about more of the social aspects and how to take advantage of that.

And, finally, I hope to start to discuss some of the conversation coming out of Do Learning Professionals Make the Worst Learners?


Keywords: eLearning Trends, eLearning 2.0, Web 2.0, Personal Learning

8 comments:

Joost Robben said...

Hi Tony,
Thanx for your extensive writing on the use of the web and it's valuable tools for reading and researching. I'm currently doing my masters thesis at the University of Twente in the Netherlands on the learning of the net generation and it's implacations for the field of HRD. One thing that striked me that the web is providing us such a powerfull tool for learning, but that it's not yet recognized as a formal research method (at least not by my prof!). I hope your posting can contribute to a change in thinking about the use of web resources for scientific research.

Regards,
Joost

Jennifer Oakes said...

Hi Tony,
Your post has been valuable in discovering the ways in which to make web tools more effective. As a novice to web tools, I look forward to experiencing first hand how these tools will promote the collaborative learning experience. My post references your advice as well as an article on the correlation between collaborative learning and critical thinking.

Thanks Tony!

Harold Jarche said...

Excellent reference post, Tony. I'll be recommending it.

Mike Yared said...

Great post. Thanks for the insight

Ravi Karandeekar said...

Yes! Even now when i was reading about tagging and making it public my 'yoono' tool bar was showing me relevant sites tagged and bookmarked by others on the same subject. It helps a lot to learn fast and when you realize this you go on making your tags public.

Renata S. S. Guizzardi said...

Hello Tony,

Your arguments are very convincing, and I share many of your ideas as, for example, the need for us (learning and knowledge management professionals) to try out these types of technology, and the usefulness of making our work explicit and available for others as a means of learning. Thanks for your post! For personal reasons, I have been out of the web for a while but this gives me new motivation and inspiration to get back online.

Regards,
Renata

Anne said...

Hey Tony,

This is a great overview. Was curious if you've ever tried Diigo for organizing your bookmarks and tags. A shared bookmark was how I found you.

Thanks.
Anne

Tony Karrer said...

I have played around with diigo. Not sure I get enough additional value to warrant switching. Is there something in particular that you see that makes it the better answer?