Lifelong Learning or Lifelong Research?
Recently a colleague challenged us to do a diagram or concept map of our own PLE in the Learning Design Hub. OK...but what is a PLE? It's a Personal Learning Environment, which I'm interpreting as what tools users are using to manage their own learning (thank you Google). This is an important topic, because as a keybote speaker recently pointed out, the goal of education at the university level isn't just learning a set of facts, but being able to develop a system for learning more AFTER you graduate.
I decided to diagram my system, but I realized that I don't usually conceptualize this as learning, but rather as research. So the diagram below is my Personal Research Environment or the tools I use to gather input or research different topics.
About the Diagram
As a mental stretching exercise, I decided to do a process-oreiented or task driven system. I decided to classify my learning/research into three type - Random Browsing or things I learn while cruising around my environment (e.g. the Web, TV or people watching), Experiments and Focused Learning - which normally leads to a formal process such as a paper, Web site or Powerpoint Presentation.
As you can see I use different tools for the different stages. I use "push" communication tools like e-Mail, RSS and television for the browsing, but combine search with "pull" communication tools when I am actively researching a focused topic. Experimentation is sort of a catch all - this is there I play around with different tools and see what happens. This is an important strategy for technologists and creative professionals. However, it's nice when some of those experiments are documented and published so other people can learn from them.
One Tool or Many?
Traditionally, a PLE is supposed to be a unified tool which integrates other tools together, but oddly enough I'm not sure this is what I would want. I'm happy to tweak with cutting and paste or export tools to get everything to play together.
Having said that though, I do know that I want to be able to STORE everything in one location. So far that has been primarily Penn State PASS and other server space. Anything up on a service such as Flickr usually has a local backup somewhere. Isn't paranoia great?
I'm using the term "research" because I think it captures an important aspect of lifelong learning - namely that in most cases what you need to learn often has no instructor. Unlike school where almost all "required" learning is guided by an instructor or mentor, the percentage of mentorship will drop rapidly after school, especially as you need to learn more specialized topics.
At some point, you will have to be able to learn new information on your own. If you are the "designated" expert in your department, you may need to read updated information before it ever comes out in seminar form. Or...you may even need to design a seminar on the topic. And sometimes when the topic is really new, you get to be the person who experiments. Fun but scary.
I'm not saying that formal instruction completely disappears, but it definitely becomes more fuzzy over time. While you could generally trust what you were told in 100 level class as "established" fact, by the time you get to a 400 level class, you likely enter the realm of "interpretation" - either because the data is too new or it's not available at all and the scholars are speculating on what they already know. At this point, you have to learn to filter what is being said and form your own conclusion (hence the importance of multiple sources).
I still attend seminars, but they are no longer the primary way I learn. Often I can find a helpful tutorial online, but this is one-way. Colleagues are also helpful, but alas their time is not as open as my instructors (3 hours a week is still more than what a colleague usually has). In the end, it's up to me to filter my input and turn it into something helpful for me.
So what about our undergrads? I think most educators feel that this is the stage that educated adults must reach. The interesting question is how short we can make this process. The Internet is exposing students to more alternate points of view, but it looks like we still have to teach information literacy. Clearly the instructor still has a lot on his or her plate.