The great Renaissance thinkers had an interesting habit called “commonplacing.” They would carry around notebooks to enter ideas from their conversations or readings. This practice was critical to their work because the significance of an idea is often not known until much later. They would consult their notebooks years down the road when working on a problem to find help. The notebooks served as repositories of their intellectual growth, which was one of the engines that drove the flourishing of knowledge at the time.
We expect students to write down in notebooks what they hear in class, but those notebooks are generally lost after graduation. Could you find your undergraduate notebooks today? More important, most of our information is received through outside sources—articles, books, blogs, websites, videos, etc. But we don't expect our students to preserve that information the way we expect them to preserve class information.
The personal learning environment
The most important lesson we can teach our students is that college is just part of their lifelong learning journey, and most of their intellectual growth will happen after college. This means forming a “personal learning environment” (PLE) that will preserve, organize, and harness the most important information they encounter from a variety of sources so that they can use it to grow just like the great Renaissance thinkers did.
Today we have technology that will organize the information needed to form a PLE. Plus, we have ways to learn from others around the world and get the feedback on our ideas that will help us grow. Teachers and institutions need to provide students with a PLE that they will carry with them after graduation to become lifelong learners. Here are some ways we can do it.
By all appearances, you would guess that my son Alex is an ordinary college senior without many outside interests other than video games. But you would be wrong. Alex is actually very interested in the conflict between science and religion. He reads books, goes to talks, watches documentaries, and talks about the topic with us at the dinner table.
Wouldn't it be nice if Alex's university provided each student with a blog to devote to whatever interests him or her? Alex would write about religion and science, as well as post interesting articles, books, and documentaries that he encountered.
The mere fact that he would be winding out his thoughts in public would help him develop them. But others would be able to read and comment on his posts as well. He would start networking with people both inside and outside the university who share his interests, thus supplementing the work he is doing in class.
Teachers can get the process started by setting their students up with free WordPress (http://wordpress.org
) accounts and requiring them to blog their thoughts on class topics—rather than inside the closed LMS—as well as comment on each other's posts. The students would be able to continue their blogs after the course ends, even discussing ideas with future students of the class.
Back in the Dark Ages (pre-2010), we saved our bookmarks on our browsers. This meant that we had a long list of unorganized bookmarks that were available only on the computer on which we found them. How did we manage this hodgepodge of sources? Simple: We just didn't save much.
But social bookmarking changed everything. Now we can bookmark interesting articles, websites, videos, etc., to the cloud using systems such as Diigo (www.diigo.com
) and Delicious. Since they are online rather than tethered to a particular computer, they can be accessed from any computer in the world.
More important, these systems use tags, rather than folders, to organize bookmarks. Folders are a holdover from paper files and a bad way to manage information, because a particular piece of information can logically be placed in any one of a number of folders. A directory structure for organizing information rapidly becomes unmanageable.
Tagging solved the problem by making bookmark and file discovery similar to a Google search. When I find an online article or website I like, I save it to my Diigo account and assign all the tags that I might later use to try to find it. I can also highlight parts of the page and include comments, all of which will be there when I return later.
Social bookmarking allows me to save everything I come across that I find at all interesting. I currently have more than 2,200 bookmarks. If I want to find information on social media in disaster response, I simply type those tags into Diigo and every site I have found comes up.
A teacher can set up students with a Diigo account and require them to capture a certain number of resources related to their research or assignments. This will get them in the habit of saving the best sources that they come across.
Diigo and Delicious also allow people to share bookmarks, so students recommend good sources to one another. A teacher can set up a Diigo account for a class and require students to share the best bookmarks to create a growing resource that can be used across classes.
My own PLE is a wiki because that was the only technology available when I created it years ago. But if I were to create one today, I would use a cloud-based note-taking system such as Evernote (http://evernote.com
). Evernote operates on a principle similar to that of social bookmarking systems—allowing users to capture and annotate outside resources. But it also allows you to create your own notes as well as upload files such as documents or photos. This provides one spot to organize all your valuable information.
Evernote recently added a number of powerful features. For instance, it uses an optical reader to recognize text in a Web page, PDF, or photo, allowing you to find that information through a simple search—almost like doing a Google search of your own resources. It also allows you to create searchable voice notes and to share your notebook with others.
Evernote also integrates with Twitter, Google+, Dropbox, and other systems to easily capture and organize information from a variety of sources. Its iPad app allows you to circle important parts of a Web page with your finger or even make handwritten notes on the page.
If I were a college president, I would have my school assign each student, organization, and team a blog. I would also adopt one of the “social shells” such as Going-On (www.goingon.com/team
), Learning Objects (www.learningobjects.com
), or Elgg (www.elgg.org
) that attach to an LMS to allow students to communicate with one another outside the classroom. Both initiatives would get students started on the social networking element of a PLE.
But if you don't carry that kind of clout at your institution, you can start by having students build a PLE for use in your class. This will hopefully plant the seed of an ongoing PLE. I tell my students that they should become “intellectual hoarders,” saving everything that strikes them as interesting. They should think of their lives as a trajectory of intellectual growth, which is the most powerful lesson I can teach them.
Good places to learn more
John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and has written more 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of Training at Northcentral University, serves on the
Online Classroom editorial advisory board and is a regular contributor to
Online Classroom and