My Top 10 Tools for Learning 2013

Jane Hart has been compiling a list of top 100 tools for learning for over six years now. This is one of the many reasons why she received an award for her contribution to Learning.

A learning tool from the perspective of this list is:

Any tool that you could use to create or deliver learning content solutions for others, or a tool you use for your own personal learning.

You can view the 2012 top 100 results below (or here if SlideShare isn’t embedded for you):

I have participated in her list in the past. My previous top 10 lists are available here for 2008, 2009 and 2010. Voting for 2013 has recently openened. Below my votes (in alphabetical order):

  1. Books
    I read a lot of books, and (will) look back every year on what I’ve read. See my overview of 2012 books for example. If I would have to pick one technology only, it would be books.
  2. DoggCatcher
    This is probably the best podcasting app for Android. It will automatically pull in the shows that I like, sort them in the order of my preference and play them (remembering where I was) in that order. I use podcasts mainly to catch up on technology and am currently subscribed to the following shows: This American Life, 99% Invisible, Radiolab, This Week in Tech, Security Now!, Guardian Tech Weekly, Guardian Science Weekly, Triangulation, EconTalk and FLOSS Weekly.
  3. DuckDuckGo
    I’ve recently moved away from Google and now use DuckDuckGo for all my searches (and thus much of my learning). My initial reason was to get back some of my privacy and break out of the filter bubble a little. I’ve now found out it actually delivers a far superior user experience which can be ad-free if you’d like. The bang syntax allows me to directly search at the source rather than use Google as the middle man and DuckDuckGo has endless nice tricks up its sleeve. Instructions on how to make the switch are available for your browser here.
  4. Evernote
    Evernote is the single place where I put all my notes and do all my bookmarking. I like how ever-present it is and the way it syncs to my phone. I dislike the fact that there is no official Linux client (and that there won’t be one any time soon). Evernote also has some severe limitations as a tool for Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), so (inspired by Stephen Downes) I’ve decided I will program my own alternative.
  5. Firefox
    After a long stint with Chrome I’ve recently returned to Firefox. The performance of the latest version actually beats Chrome, they’ve seemed to have fixed most of the memory leaks and Mozilla has no sly commercial interests and truly cares for the open Internet.
  6. GoogleDocs
    I like writing collaboratively and in real time. It is a great way to build concensus and a shared vision. I will likely host my own etherpad installation very soon, but know that I will miss GoogleDocs’ ability to have people comment on particular aspects of the text.
  7. Libreoffice
    Occasionally I learn by giving presentations. Even though I like using Pinpoint, I keep coming back to a simple Impress template that I’ve created in LibreOffice. I export the presentation as a PDF as bring that along to the presentation on a USB stick. This means I can use any PC or Mac to present and never have to worry about my fonts or layout changing.
  8. Twitter
    There are a few use cases for Twitter for me. When I visit a conference I use it to find out what is happening around me and which people I should try and meet. I use it as a way to publicize my own writings and it has completely taken over the role that Google Reader used to fulfill previously: my source of news. The daily digest that I get for my account gives me two or three interesting reads every single day. I’ve documented how you can use Twitter to find expertise on any topic here.
  9. WordPress
    A lot of my learning comes through writing. The prime tool for this is my blog and WordPress has been my host of choice since the beginning. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, is very interesting.
  10. Yammer
    Inside my company we use Yammer. There are over 30,000 people in the network making it the go-to place whenever I need to know something about our internal workings and don’t even know where to start.

Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.

Learning from the Outside, How External Focus Can Help Learning and Development

This presentation delivered on April 19 for the Irish Centre for Business Excellence Network tries to address why things are not changing fast enough in the (corporate) learning world by pointing out that we often fail to look to the outside. We rely on benchmarking without realising that this will never get us ahead of the game. We try to implement best practices rather than focus on emergent practice. Changing this requires finding our edge and trying to see what you can learn from there. For corporations and organisations the edge can be found in things like the consumerisation of IT, open source, experimental academia and the startup world.

You can download the presentation as a PDF or watch in on SlideShare:

I’ve used many sources to create the presentation. Here are all the relevant links in context.

In the past I have thought a bit about seredendipity and have written a few blogposts about the topic.

Bert De Coutere describes how Learning and Development is stuck in his blog post Learning got stuck in itself…. Steve Wheeler writes about the differences between upstairs (where the Learning Technologies conference was held) and downstairs (where the learning vendors could tout their wares) in his post titled Upstairs downstairs.

If you are interested to learn more about Omphaloskepsis, check out this Wikipedia article.

The following three companies (among many others) offer benchmarking in the learning space: Corporate University Exchange, BrandonHall and Bersin (their benchmarking data for 2011 is available here).

Youngme Moon has written a book titled Different in which she explains why products in a category all become alike. Harold Jarche reviews the book in a blog post titled Different – Review. In that review he refers to Tim Kastelle who lifts stwo diagrams out of Moon’s book in Be Great at One Thing. I remade the diagrams using the excellent Inkscape.

The Wikipedia page about the Cynefin Framework isn’t bad. Dave Snowden’s Harvard Business Review article about his framework and how it can help with leadership is titled Leader’s Framework for Decision Making (and maybe I should credit Mary E. Boone for once).

Automattic is an amazing company. They create and host the wordpress.com platform (more information). The Automattic creed is available on Matt Mullenweg’s website. Matt gets interviewed here. This map shows where all the “Automatticians” are located. Check out this page if you want to know more about Automattic or are interested in working for them.

If you want to know more about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) you should start here and then quickly move on to what Stephen Downes writes in his piece What a MOOC Does. The MOOC example I decided to reference in the presentation is Digital Storytelling also known as DS106.

The term Edupunk was coined in Jim Groom’s post The Glass Bees and quickly got its own Wikipedia article. Stephen Downes tied together a few good posts about the topic here and this article on BlogHer could also be a good start.

The big open online courses that are now fashionable and are starting to get a commercial face (Coursera and Udacity) owe their debts to MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU).

If you want to be kept up to date about learning technology “on the edge” then your best bet is likely to pay close attention to Audrey Watters’ blog Hack Education (not mentioned in my presentation).

Mozilla‘s mission page is here and it is worthwile reading their whole manifesto. Their Open Badges program is getting a lot of deserved attention and could always use more participants. You can read about all their learning plans on their Learning Wiki, this is also the place to go to if you want to get involved.

If you are interested in becoming more entrepreneurial and innovative, regardless of whether you have your own business or are working in a company/organisation, you can’t do better than read The Lean Startup.

Welcome to the Chaos: The Distributed Workspace

Automattic

Automattic

I am a heavy WordPress.com user (this blog, learningscenarios.org, Gamechanger 3.0 and have been impressed with way that Automattic has organized itself. Two of their staff talked about how they can hire the most talented people and let them work from where they are already located.

Lori McLeese is the HR lead of Automattic (she is the only HR person at the company of about hundred people now). Nikolay Bachiyski is a developer. The company is 100% distributed and has been like that from day one. They are located in 24 countries and 79 cities. In only 7 cities do they have more than one “Automatician” living and working. They do not have offices and no set working time. Most people work on a single big project: wordpress.com

One thing that they’ve found is that it is hard to build personal relationships. They test new staff in a trial project to see if they are a fit for the culture of the company. The trial can last for a few weeks or even a few months. Once you finish it successfully you are “welcomed to the chaos” and will have to do your first three weeks working in “happiness” which is their customer support team. This helps you learn in a safe environment and teaches you to respect the happiness engineers. You are also learning that it is always ok to ask questions, to bug people and to over-communicate.

Not a lot of technical people are used to this type of communication, so they give new people a mentor (or a buddy). This can sometimes lead to some negative feedback. They have done three things to manage this well:

  • Hire the nicest people.
  • Just communicate more.
  • Face-to-face time is still important, so they have a grand meetup once a year where they all get together for a week and mostly work in temporary teams. Each individual has to prepare a 5-min flashtalk about themselves or about something they are interested (they really can be about anything). They also use this time to get to know eachother. They are now with 100 people so they can’t really have quality time together anymore. So each team comes together 1-4 times a year and do mini-projects and brainstorming (which is hard online).

P2 [pi tu:] is their main form of communicating with each other. It is just a WordPress theme geared for collaboration. It helps make things transparent: all P2s are public inside the company and many decisions have started in some form at a P2. Another advantage is that they are permanent and searchable. There is a culture of oversharing in which P2s very often get personal (there are a lot of “water cooler” P2s). This has led to a lot of company memes. The official company meme is “blank in a blank” in which people photograph themselves inside something small. More examples: an AFK P2 on which you can find out if somebody is away from their keyboard for a while and why. Next to P2s they also use a lot of voice and video chats and hangouts.

They also encourage Automaticians to attend their local WordCamp so that they can really get involved with their open source community. They also often meet at conferences were all staff is encouraged to speak. People are also encouraged to visit each other.

In Automattic’s company creed it says: “I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.”.

They would say that their productivity as a company is dependent on how well they communicate. There is also the aspect of personal productivity: there are many examples of how liberating it can be to be able to really make your own schedule and be flexible. It can also be challenging to get to focus sometimes. In their employee-edited employee fieldbook they have collated a set of advice on how find focus for your work. The best way to help people focus is to have them work on something that is challenging and meaningful.

If you like how all this sounds, then maybe you will want to apply for a job with Automattic.