What tools should we learn?

The LCB question this month is, What Tools Should we Learn, or:

The question is really about the specific tools that would make sense to learn today in order to be a valuable eLearning professional in 2015?

I’m going to start with a broad definition of tools, in the spirit of  The Educated Mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding, an excellent read and highly recommended. I believe it is important for everyone, especially those in teaching or training roles, to develop critical thinking skills. My post on critical thinking in the organization, explains this in more detail.

As this image shows (click to expand), there are many web tools that can help develop critical thinking.

I would suggest that a cognitive web toolbox should be comprised of at least one tool from each category. There are many tools not listed, so explore and ask others for recommendations. Find and master tools that allow you to observe and study your field, participate in conversations that  push your understanding, challenge your assumptions, evaluate others’ arguments, and make tentative opinions that in turn will be challenged. The key is to be engaged in your learning and in your profession and web tools are all about connecting.

Tony also asked that suggested resources be provided, so here are some, copied from our Work Literacy Ning site (2008), that is in danger of getting bumped off the Net due to Ning’s new pricing policy. Thanks to Michele Martin for writing a significant portion of this.

Social Bookmarks

Perhaps the simplest way to start sharing organisational knowledge is with social bookmarks. Many people still have their list of Bookmarks/Favourites in their web browser, but when they’re not at their computer these links aren’t accessible. Enter the social bookmark.

Social bookmarks are web sites that let you create an account in order to save web pages. They differ from those on your browser in that 1) they’re accessible from anywhere; 2) you can clip a piece of the page for reference; 3) you can add categories (a.k.a. tags); 4) you can search your bookmarks; and 5) you can share your bookmarks with others.

The most widely used social bookmarking service is Delicious, which we will focus on this week.

One advantage of social bookmarks is that they don’t require the IT department’s permission to use. You can start sharing what you find interesting/important with your team or section without any new technology other than a web browser and access to the Internet. You’ll also find that you will be sending a lot fewer e-mails saying, “hey, check this out”. By creating your own “tag” you can have everyone finding information about competitors or new trends. A tag such as “ABC123? can be used by everyone to identify something for a specific project, and then you can search for that tag and the system will show you what everyone has found.

As you continue to use social bookmarks you will also see others who have bookmarked similar items and then follow their links to show even more interesting stuff in your field of interest. The more you share, the more you learn.

Harold uses social bookmarks for everything except some password-protected sites, like his bank. He also will set up a new category for a client if it can help communicate better.

If you want to keep your bookmarks away from prying eyes, you’ll have to mark all your posts as private. Another option, if you want to share within your organisation, would be to use an open source social bookmarking system and bring it inside your company’s firewall, but that would take some cooperation from the IT department. An example of an OS social bookmarking application is Ma.gnolia.

Tags, Tagging and Folksonomies

Dave Weinberger says that in a digital world, “everything is miscellaneous” in the book of the same name . A key difference between physical and digital objects is that digital objects can be in more than one place. For example, in a digital catalogue, you can find a sink in the hardware section or the kitchen section. The real object can only be in one location but the digital object can be linked in many areas at once.

Many computers still use file folders for classifying and storing digital files. The object can only be in one folder, and probably not the one you think it is in. However, that isn’t really necessary, and anyone who uses GMail knows that you can add as many tags as you want to an e-mail. All you e-mail are stored in one big “miscellaneous” bin, but you sort your correspondence by adding descriptive tags like – work, client A, jan08 or whatever you want.

Tags are labels that are used to describe things. Sometimes we use tags that are controlled by someone else, like the “wlning” tag that we’ve decided to use here. If all tags are controlled then we’re probably using a taxonomy. If each person uses their own self-defined tag, then the aggregated results that emerge are called folksonomies. Delicious is one big folksonomy. There’s more information about taxonomies, ontologies, folksonomies and thesauri at SmartLogic. Incidentally, Harold found this page in August and had bookmarked it on Delicious. To find it again, he just searched for the word “taxonomy” in his bookmarks and found this page, which was tagged – Library2.0; Learning; and student_resources. You may also want to check out this article, Tags and Folksonomies, Why Should You Care?.  An excellent screencast to watch on this topic is Knowledge Sharing with Tags, which describes some of the benefits of social bookmarking and tagging.

Blogs

Jay Cross, CEO of Internet Time Group and author of Informal Learning, likens a blog to a camera. It puts the world in a new perspective. Everything that the user encounters becomes a potential picture, or in the case of a blog, a potential post.

Bloggers continually search for interesting information they can post. When they post information, they must synthesize that information, formulate additional questions, contrast and make sense of differing viewpoints, and identify patterns and trends. Karyn Romeis, a learning solutions designer at Capita, a British professional services company, has been blogging for two years and finds that she gets tremendous value from it. “I’ve learned more from blogging in the past year than I learned in several years using other approaches,” she says.

Tracy Hamilton, an education assistant of organizational development at Southlake Regional Center in Newmarket, Canada, started blogging as the result of a conference a few months ago. She has a similar perspective. “Blogging is my main source of learning,” she says.

Part of the impact comes from the fact that a blog is public.  It raises the stakes much like having to do a presentation at a meeting or teaching in a classroom.  In fact, many of the same attributes of preparing and giving a classroom presentation apply to blogging.  Mark Oehlert, a well-known blogger who recently became the emerging technologies lead for Defense Acquisition University, “There is something that happens to a person when they hit that ‘publish’ button – you cross a threshold – you move from consumer to producer – you put your intellectual neck on the line and I really think that you aren’t the same person after that.”

Blogging is Networking

Blogs also act as a type of social networking tool.  Most people are familiar with social networking tools such as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn.  These tools aim to help people to connect and interact in a variety of ways, often based on a profile and personal communication.

Blogging also causes interaction and connection, but in a different and possibly more natural way.  Each time a blogger leaves a comment or links to another blogger’s post, they are having a conversation.  Over time, as the conversations continue, this leads to recognition and deeper relationships between the bloggers.  This is similar to content-based social networking that occurs in del.icio.us and Flickr, but blogging is based on a more open, fluid type of content and conversations.  Generally blogs also provide a more robust picture of the blogger through their continuous posts and conversation.  Using emerging tools such as MyBlogLog, bloggers can get to know who is visiting their blogs and who is in their community.

Once bloggers become connected, they often reach out to get help on a particular topic.  Karyn Romeis tells us, “It is amazing how unselfish bloggers are with what they know.  I am so convinced of the value of social networking that I am writing a dissertation on how it has transformed my professional practice.  Social networking has blurred the boundaries between work, play and learning, between corporate and academic, between formal and informal.”

This kind of help from a social network is invaluable.  Many workplace learning professionals find that building this network and having this sustained discussion allows them to discuss significant issues they face at their work in a way that’s not easy to duplicate through other avenues including face-to-face interaction.  Wendy Wickham, a medical applications trainer at George Washington University and a blogger since September 2006, started her blog because of several important projects, including an LMS implementation and some application upgrades.  Wendy says, “The folks in the learning blog space, including highly respected eLearning specialists and educators, have been incredibly supportive and provide valuable feedback.  When you are in the thick of the day-to-day – tight deadlines, resource constraints, and unsupportive environments – you can feel very isolated from what is happening with others.  Being involved with folks grappling with the same issues you are helps ease that isolation.”  Because of her blogging, Wendy was recently been invited to speak at a major conference.

It takes time to build up a social network using a blog, but it occurs naturally as part of the conversation.  Tracy Hamilton tells us, “You have to work at communicating with other people, asking questions, and responding to questions, but it is very much worth the effort.  The one thing I have really noticed and experienced about the blogging community is that everyone is extremely friendly, open and willing to share ideas and be mentors to one another.”  The process of connecting can be sped up by posting interesting questions, linking to other blogger’s posts, participating in activities such as the Learning Circuit Blog’s Big Question.  Of course, it’s also a good idea to get together with other bloggers at industry events.  There are rumors that bloggers like beer.

More Reading

I have my personal favorites on this topic such as (October 2006 Big Question – Should All Learning Professionals Be Blogging – (summary post) Top Ten Reasons to Blog and Not to Blog), but a great source is going to what people in this course have collected via social bookmarking:

How to become part of a blogging ecosystem (Lilia Efimova)

Twitter

Learning & micro-blogging (Twitter)

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