Personal Learning Systems?

At a recent Everything Unplugged session (the Wednesday morning London meetup I went to), we discussed what systems and processes we use for learning. This struck me as being a bit too structured for me: I am not sure that my learning works like that. When I need to know something – a specific piece of knowledge for a bit of work, for example – I will either Google it (and start a trail of links, maybe making paper or digital notes as I go along) or ask someone (either face to face, on the phone, by email, Twitter or text message – indeed, whatever medium is the most appropriate for the person or the information).

Most of my learning, though, is adventitious and informal – accidental or serendipitous: things I come across in conversation or on the web, via Twitter or one of the many blogs I read. I may or more likely not record this learning: I don’t keep a record of what I read, although I do keep a pile of links I want to follow up on Twitter by favouriting (is that a verb? ‘Tis now…) others’ tweets. I also use Diigo for links I come across (and its mobile app, PowerNote) – and one can add tags and notes to Diigo (a real limit for Twitter, I think).

(Some definitions of learning require the setting of learning goals – most common in formal education and training. I don’t that on my own account: it is much more informal than that.)

I also use Evernote to write down ideas and lists of books and other things I want to follow up. (Evernote has distinct advantages to Diigo, I think – it is usable when one is not connected to the internet, and has much better text handling capabilities, I think – but Diigo is much better at bookmarking and tagging.)

I go to formal talks and lectures (the RSA has been a boon for this whilst I have been in London – I will be taking advantage of their live streaming and video channels in my new home) and have informal conversations at, say, Tuttle or Everything Unplugged which are nevertheless full of learning (and frequently more challenging than formal talks, since there is more feedback and exploration through questionning). I often blog about lectures, talks and conversations – one way I record and explore what what I have have learned – like this!

And then there are filed emails, my calendar, my (paper) diary and notebooks. (Paper has a lot of advantages for me over digital note taking: it helps me make connections and remember things better. I often make mindmaps, and those only work for me on paper; and in a lecture or a talk, using a device more sophisticated than a pen and paper distracts me from the talk itself! I can see that tablet devices – without a screen to get in between me and the speaker – might solve this; but pen and paper works just fine! I am not one of those people who can type faster than they write…)

So, not so much a system, more a random group of methods that seem to work for me in an unstructured, somewhat haphazard fashion.

Others in the Everything Unplugged group had a much more rigorous approach – indeed, Neil had come along to try out some of his ideas for developing a personal learning portfolio on us, which got us into the conversation. Using online and offline resources, for instance, one of the group has a structured workflow to manage his learning, including using Delicious as a bookmarking tool (similar to Diigo – I started to use bookmarking when the future of Delicious looked in doubt, though it now seems assured; someone mentioned a specific bookmarking service for learning, XTlearn, though I’ve not explored it) and TiddlyWiki as a note-taking tool. (TiddlyWiki looks great but I have failed to get it working properly on any of my devices – though I’m pretty sure that’s me and not the programme! Maybe I should give it another go.)

Creating a learning portfolio means that one would have a record of all relevant learning; someone reckoned that this – a summary of our learning – could be used in place of a standard CV – the summary of our experiences. Neil feels it will be able to identify matches for new roles and to examine knowledge, learning or skills gaps, which one could then plan to fill.

My main criticism was that such a record of learning shows neither the impact that something has had nor what we think of it. One may learn things which have absolutely no influence at all; other ideas may be highly influential and change the way one behaves. Simply recording what we’ve read, watched – learned – doesn’t differentiate. Maybe that is why people use CVs instead of a learning portfolio.

There are clearly some benefits to having a more structured approach to learning – not least being able to retrieve what one has learned. For long form research – writing a book, say – one would need to record all the references. But for every day, informal learning, an unstructured approach works for me: trying to codify it might make it more like work and less like fun.


7 thoughts on “Personal Learning Systems?

  1. VanessaVaile

    Reblogged this on Vanessa's Blogueria and commented:
    a good post on personal learning systems (a clear, self-explanatory term I may come to prefer over the ubiquitous acronyms). For some reason (maybe because one too many person told me that I had to have one), I never warmed up to “portfolios” and, despite having been told that my aggregation sites and home portal qualify, am still not entirely clear as to what they are or include. Instead, I have a system of sorts, messy and similar to the one described here. Besides, I am retired, my own person albeit on limited resources, doing my own thing(s), not applying for others or subjecting myself to reviews and evaluations.

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      I too have no need now for accreditation or validation, but sometimes I worry my magpie approach may be less than optimal. Sometimes externally imposed discipline can be useful!

  2. Olaug N Gardener (@olliegardener)

    Hi Patrick.
    Enjoyed reading this and recognise myself in the “somewhat haphazard fashion” that you describe. I dont think we can ever truly capture (or indeed are aware of) everything that influence us and helps us learn. But I hope that doesn’t stop anyone organising and reflecting the more defining steps of their learning curve!
    But I do thing there is some method to the madness and that our exploration in methods is part of the learning curve itself – it helps us explore and organise our thoughts, but also the structure that helps put meaning to those thoughts. (if that makes any sense at all).
    Another point is the value that others might get from joining you on that journey.. I’ll share a couple of my defining steps to do with this topic ;)
    Joris Luyendijk’s Tedx talk entitled “share your learning journey”

    John Stepper’s blog post on “Working out loud”: Your personal content strategy”.

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      Thank, Ollie – I’ve not seen that TEDtalk. It sounds interesting! I’ve just moved to Edinburgh – look me up if you’re up this way!

  3. Pamela_McLean (@Pamela_McLean)

    Oh Patrick – Edinburgh! And we still haven’t managed that meeting we had to postpone.. hmm… “a while back”. I’m extremely interested in your approach to learning – much of it is like my own – but yours seems better in your choice of particular tools for particular tasks. Magpie learners of the world unite say I. Will you be back in London any time soon, or can we fix a skype chat sometime?


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