Pick the right tool for the job

July 23, 2006

Ways of learning in a wired world

The hammer is a great tool, but hammers are not very useful for cutting wood. If only learning situations were like pounding in nails. However…

  1. Learners differ: novices or pro’s, nerds or tech neophytes, outgoing or lurkers, daring or conservative, impatient or reflective, volunteers or conscripts.
  2. Cultures differ: value-driven or rule-driven, trusting or controlling, dazzled by innovation or bound by tradition, breaking new ground or fine-tuning, collegial or selfish.
  3. Learning requirements differ: large group or small, firewalled or open, big budget or shoestring, prototype or infrastructure, flexible or rigid, transient or lasting, self-organizing or directed, immediate need or continuous growth.
  4. Learning objectives differ: exposure or how-to, stable or in flux, one-time or recurring, group outcome or individual, emotional or cognitive.

Corollary to Murphy’s Law: you can never do just one thing. Builders rarely use a single tool for a complete project. More often, they use a hammer and a screwdriver and a power drill and a ladder etc. Likewise, an informal learning environment could contain…

  1. Blogs + Aggregator
  2. Wiki + List serv
  3. Email + Instant messenger + Collaboration
  4. Blog + Tags + Wiki + Conference calls + Chat + meeting F2F

We can describe the pieces of the environment but must keep in mind that its value outweighs the sum of its parts.

As in a cubist painting, we must address the tools issue from numeous angles. At the most basic level, we will need:

  • a glossary that defines the basic technologies
  • a sorting by application in learning
  • frequent combinations (plus, where possible, cases where they are being used)

Other breakdowns:

Design Patterns of Social Computing uses name, problem, example, context, solution, implementation, variance, and consequences for patterns such as collaboration, mentoring, tutoring, apprenticeship and the democratization of ideas.

Fit with informal learning, which rests on a foundation of self-motivated learners, discovery, small pieces loosely joined, collaborative learning, communities of practice, self-organization, visualization, prototyping, personal knowledge management, social network analysis, conversation, story, dialogue, and spontaneity. Jay thinks of what’s being learned as flowing, with meaning defined by the learner; control is a delusion; the world is on Moore’s Law; transparency works.
How-to lessons and hints, e.g. how to Skypecast

Coming of Age, an Introduction to the New World Wide Web classifies educational tools as:

Email and SMS Texts
Instant messaging
Some games software
Static content web sites
Dynamic content web sites
Folksonomies (or social tags)
Content management systems (CMS)
News servers
Forums Discussion
Version control systems

Why do they leave out simulation, gaming, job aids, social software, RSS?

FormThis material will be changing continuously. If managed with wiki and tags, it can be a resource that improves with time. Imagine the value of embedding case examples for the major technologies.

It will be challenging to come up with a good indexing & tagging scheme. Novices need a quick hit; experimenters need more depth; do-ers need the how-to. This may end up as a big, clickable cookbook.

potential glossary items from new WWW

Glossary of terms used
Alpha release
The very first release of a program, ready for in-house testing. See
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency:
Beta release
The version of the software ready for testing by “real” users. See
Short for web log, or online journal.
The “universe” of blogs as a whole.
A collection of links to other people’s blogs.
In education, the idea that knowledge is created through an active process on
the part of the learner. (Social constructivism is similar, but involves
collaboration and exploration with others. Hence, the blogosphere and,
especially, the edublogosphere are excellent examples of social constructivism
in practice – or ought to be!
Short for “Curriculum Vitae”, this is what the Brits call a resumé.
Department for Education & Skills – the UK’s education arm of government:
The same as blogosphere, but applied to education blogs.
Open source software
Software which is distributed free of charge with its source code, enabling
others to take part in developing it. See:
org.uk/artman/uploads/computers_in_classrooms_15.pdf for a special
edition of the Computers in Classrooms newsletter focusing on open source
This is an audio recording that you can subscribe to via RSS and listen to on a
computer or (usually) an mp3 player at a time of your choosing. It takes its
name from the iPod – but you don’t actually need an iPod to either make or
listen to a podcast.
This is the American term for CV.
Coming Of Age: An Introduction To The NEW Worldwide Web
Usually taken to stand for Really Simple Syndication, RSS is what makes it
possible to subscribe to podcasts and blogs. See the chapter by John Evans,
What Are RSS Feeds and Why Haven’t I Heard About It?(RSS Feeds from an
Educator’s Perspective) on page 11 for a fuller explanation.
Semantic web
The semantic web is an extension of the web that will allow people to find,
share, and combine information more easily. It works by using machinereadable
This is a “universal” method of website log-in being explored and piloted by
Becta in the UK. See
http://www.becta.org.uk/corporate/display.cfm?section=22&id=4665 for fuller
A video blog. This is a relatively new development. A vlog is similar to an
ordinary blog, but uses video rather than text. See Video blogging: Terry
Freedman interviews Paul Knight, on page 48, for more details.
Virtual learning environment: software which allows teachers to track students’
progress, manage course content, and so on. See
http://ferl.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?page=248 for a fuller explanation.
A great proponent of social constructivism, Vygotsky introduced the concept of
the zone of proximal development. This is the area of knowledge that is just out
of reach of a learner, but which can be brought within his or her reach through
working with a peer.

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