Where, exactly, does a learning environment go? It seems an odd question, doesn’t it? I’ve been considering the question sincemy presentation on curating a learning environment at last week’s Training 2013 conference (see Learning Environments by Design). The people who attended my session asked a couple of great questions along these lines, and I have wanted to have a better answer for it.
To reiterate, the “learning environment” I am talking about here is a collection of resources and activities for learning, deliberately curated with a specific learning need in mind. While each of us creates our own learning environment, I also believe that learning leaders can help scaffold learners by performing the curating functions of finding, filtering, organizing, contextualizing, highlighting, making connections, and providing space for collaboration.
Imagine you have done your research and gathered some helpful internet links, database links, and articles, identified the thought leaders on the topic, vetted conference options, identified courses that might be useful, devised some on-the-job practices that will be helpful, strategized a discussion forum and learner-generated content approach, and more – you have all this curated stuff – where does it go? How do you provide access to these resources and activities?
As an individual curator of my own learning resources, I have “stuff” in lots of different places on my desktop and in my office. I collect articles by topic in a Dropbox folder, I manage my people contacts through LinkedIn and Outlook contacts; I summarize my thinking on topics in blogs and presentations (for courses and conferences); I organize my blog reading and Twitter feeds by category in Netvibes and Tweetdeck, and my internet links using Diigo; I have “favorited” formal learning options and professional organizations. My desktop, physical files, and bookshelves are all organized by my preferences and I can usually get quick access to what I am looking for.
All well and good for me – but how do I provide access to a group of learners inside an organizational firewall? The answer, I think, however imperfect, lies in an electronic portal of some kind. The trick is to design a portal that is intuitive and flexible. There are a number of tools that promise that capability, including SharePoint, Ning, Yammer, and more. All have their limits in terms of ease of use, customizability, and capacities, but – unless you have the capability of designing your own portal – I think they provide the starting point for collating resources and providing a front door to curated content.
Whatever you create, you would want to be able to check that you’ve met ease-of-use criteria; your portal needs to be:
- easily accessed in the normal flow of work
- tagable – learners can tag or save their own favorite resources
- intuitively categorized – by type of resource, by author, by sub-topic, etc.
- up-to-date – institute practices to cull out outdated materials
- annotated – provide a sentence or two of description so learners know what they will find when they click to open
- rateable – help learners share what they find most useful, and use ratings to cull out materials that prove unhelpful
- open – find ways to allow others to contribute content so that the learning environment continues to grow
- visually appealing
A portal makes good sense when we are talking about links, resources, and discussion boards – less so when we talk about accessing people, development practices, and learning by doing. Still, an expert directory, articles or resources for establishing development practices, and advice on improving your on-the-job learning can be useful. Even resources on learning to learn can be highly valued.
Anyone who has ever opened up a portal for contributions from all members can tell you how quickly the thing can become very messy. With many contributors, each with his or her own way of thinking about the subject – it’s easy to grow your “curated” materials into a mountain of resources in which it is impossible to find what you are looking for. This, again, is where the curator role comes in. In some ways, a curator must be a tough critic and a ruthless pruner – making some materials unavailable in order that the best can stand out. Very little actually gets thrown away, but learners who want history or more obscure resources may need to go into an archives section to find what they are looking for. Don’t underestimate how important this part of the curating role is; your intent is to provide a narrower set of options that has been well vetted, not to duplicate what can be found through a search engine.
I have asked the students in my e-collaboration course to design a collaborative learning environment with curated resources for their final projects, and I am anxious to see how these come together. I imagine their projects will teach me a thing or two about the practicalities of this process. If you have experience you’d be willing to share with me, please contact me at clombardozzi@L4LP.com and we can arrange to talk. I’m continuing to think through where the learning environment goes to thrive.