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.

Four Questions (and Answers) about Learning in 2012

In a post about Learning Technologies 2012, I’ve asked four questions to a set of learning (technology) experts. In reaction, some people have asked me how I would have answered the questions myself. Here goes:

1. What will be the most exciting (professional) thing you are planning to do in 2012?**

From April 1st my role in the company I work for will slightly shift: instead of solely focusing on learning-related technology the scope of my innovation work will be enlarged to encompass all HR related technologies. This will include renumeration and benefits, talent, recruitment, health and more. It will be a challenge to try and replicate the innovation methodology that I used in learning inside these other domains. I very much look forward to engrossing myself in completely new problems with completely new solutions.

Another exciting thing is the work I am doing inside the Gamechanger team. Gamechanger is a very successful organization and is on a journey to see how the recently emerged hyper-connectedness of this world could influence the way it works. There will be more public information about that project on gc30.com very soon.

In 2011 I have given a lot of attention to serious games for learning and I am hoping to make a next step with that in 2012 by trying out a safety-related 3D immersive game in the field and measure its impact.

Finally, this year I have been given the opportunity to visit a big set of very stimulating gatherings. I will be present (and occasionally present) at Emerge 2012 (Phoenix, US), SxSW Edu (Austin, US), SxSW Interactive (Austin, US), e-Learning Event 2012 (Den Bosch, NL), ICBE Conferenc (Dublin, IE) and Masie’s Learning 2012 (Orlando, US).

2. Which corporate learning trend will “break through” this year?

Here are two predictions and one thing that is imminent to happen, but will likely not make it for 2012.

  • 2012 will mark the start of a slow but sure shift away from courses towards resources and networks. This means that learning organizations will have to start creating new business models for themselves as the way that their value proposition, benefits and costs align is going out of whack. If your budgetary unit is a course, if you separate design from development from delivery, if your recovery model is based on course fees, how can you ever move into more of a performance support or community management role?
  • Even though there is a crisis all around us, we will see a revival of classroom and face-to-face training. It will be driven by people who are getting tired of the hyperconnected world and are trying to create “reflective retreats” away from the daily business pressures. Yes, I understand this is contrary to the point above, but we are not looking at a homogenous world!.
  • “Social Contextualization of Content” is a trend that will become ever more noticable in the consumer space (“How do I know whether to buy something if don’t know what my network thinks about it?”). At some point smart companies will start stepping into the opportunity space for this type of technology in the enterprise market. They do this by delivering two things: a flexible way to capture and represent the social graph of employees (preferably one that also works from an outside-in perspective), and a platform for capturing, managing and displaying meta information about all available content (because everything is starting to become URL addressable it will likely be the browser that is the point where this technology meets the end-user). I would like to develop this argument a bit further in some of my speeches this year. Get in touch if you want to help push my thinking forward.

3. Which company (other than your own) is doing interesting things in the learning space?

I could have named others, but I would like to name three (unlikely) companies here:

  • Mozilla, creators of the Firefox browser and shepherds of an open and free Internet are becoming more and more active in the education space. Initially driven by their mission to skill up people on all things Internet and (web)development, they are slowly increasing their scope and reach and are even proposing an alternative architecture for certifications: open badges. Not only is what they do remarkable, the way (or how) they do it is inspirational too. Imagine working for a company in which everything that you do would default to open. Mozilla applies this to their source code, but also for example to their meetings. When they come together to talk about learning, the telcon details, the agenda, the ability to join the conversation and the minutes are all openly available. Refreshing right?
  • StackExchange is step by step creating the ultimately way to do Question and Answer sites for one particular set of questions: the ones that could actually have a perfect answer. Their platform is contineously improving and makes use of the latest understanding of how we tick (gamification anyone?) to entice people to keep coming back, ask more questions and give more answers. If you haven’t used it already I’d urge you to go to a community that interests you and try it out. It is a real shame that they have stopped delivering te technology in a “white label” fashion, but I do appreciate their somewhat noble reasons (they only want to have successful communities).
  • XTeam Training is based in Israel. They are one of the many companies who have jumped on the Unity 3D bandwagon to start delivering games with a purpose that is external to the game. They are the first however that I have seen to productize their game (rather than offering their services for bespoke development to solve particular problems). Their team development/assessment game is rooted in practical experience working with teams in outdoor sports and they have come up with a few clever concepts that make sure that the people playing the multiplayer game learn certain lessons about their behaviour and the behaviour of others.
Mission Island from XTeam Training

Mission Island from XTeam Training

Finally I want mention (again) the person who has given me the most insight in the last few months and somebody who I believe isn’t appreciated enough in our community of practice: Stephen Downes. If you haven’t signed up for his newsletter yet, then please do it here. Try reading it every day for at least a week. If you aren’t intellectually tickled by this particular blend of learning- (actually “living”-)related mix of philosophy and technology with free sharp commentary, then I’d rather not sit next to you at our next dinner party (and you would probably not enjoy sitting next to me either).

4. What was the best book you have read in 2011?

I read in public (although my friends at Bits of Freedom are probably right when they tell me that out of principle one should not give over your reading habits to some foreign company. To see the books I have read that I have rated with five stars, go here

One more thing

Let me finish by asking you a question: Which four questions would you like to ask learning professionals when you meet them?

My Top 10 Tools for Learning 2010

CC-licensed photo by Flickr user yoppy

CC-licensed photo by Flickr user yoppy

For this year’s edition of the Top 100 Tools for Learning (a continuing series started, hosted and curated by JaneDuracell BunnyHart of the Internet Time Alliance) I decided to really reflect on my own Learning Process. I am a knowledge worker and need to learn every single day to be effective in my job. I have agreed with my manager to only do very company-specific formal training. Things like our Leadership development programs or the courses around our project delivery framework are so deeply embedded in our company’s discourse that you miss out if you don’t allow yourself to learn the same vocabulary. All other organised training is unnecessary: I can manage myself and that is the only way in which I can make sure that what I learn is actually relevant for my job.

So what tools do I use to learn?

1. Goodreads in combination with Book Depository
The number one way for me personally to learn is by reading a book. When I started as an Innovation Manager in January I wanted to learn more about innovation as a topic and how you could manage an innovation funnel. I embarked on a mission to find relevant books. Nowadays I usually start at Goodreads, a social network for readers. I like the reviews there more than the ones on Amazon and I love the fact that I can get real recommendations from my friends. Goodreads has an excellent iPhone app making it very easy to keep a tab on your reading habits. I found a bunch of excellent books on innovation (they will get a separate post in a couple of weeks).
My favourite book store to buy these books is Book Depository (please note that this is an affiliate link). They have worldwide free shipping, are about half the price of the book stores in the Netherlands and ship out single books very rapidly.

2. Twitter and its “local” version Yammer
Ever since I got an iPhone I have been a much keener Twitter user (see here and guess when I got the iPhone). I have come to realise that it is a great knowledge management tool. In recent months I have used it to ask direct questions to my followers, I have used it to follow live news events as they unfold, I have searched to get an idea of the Zeitgeist, I have used it to have a dialogue around a book, and I have used it as a note taking tool (e.g. see my notes on the Business-IT fusion book, still available thanks to Twapperkeeper).
Yammer is an enterprise version of Twitter that is slowly taking off in my company. The most compelling thing about it is how it cuts across all organizational boundaries and connects people that can help each other.

3. Google
Google does not need any introduction. It is still my favourite search tool and still many searches start at Google. I have to admit that those searches are often very general (i.e. focused on buying something or on finding a review or a location). If I need structured information I usually default to Wikipedia or Youtube.

4. Google Reader
I have about 300 feeds in Google Reader of which about 50 are in my “first read” category, meaning I follow them religiously. This is the way I keep up with (educational) technology news. What I love about Google Reader is how Google has made a very mature API available allowing people to write their own front-end for it. This means I can access my feeds from a native iPhone app or from the web or from my desktop while keeping the read counts synchronised. Another wonderful thing is that Google indexes and keeps all the feed items once you have added the feeds. This means that you can use it to archive all the tweets with a particular hash tag (Twitter only finds hash tags from the last two weeks or so when you use their search engine). Finally, I have also used Google Reader as a feed aggregator. This Feedburner feed, for example, was created by putting three different feeds in a single Google Reader folder (more about how to do that in a later post).

5. Wikipedia (and Mediawiki)
The scale of Wikipedia is stupefying and the project still does not seem to run out of steam. The Wikimedia organization has just rolled out some enhancements to their Mediawiki software allowing for easier editing. The openness of the project allows for people to build interesting services on top of the project. I love Wikipanion on my iPhone and I have enthusiastically used Pediapress a couple of times to create books from Wikipedia articles. I find Wikipedia very often (not always!) offers a very solid first introduction to a topic and usually has good links to the original articles or official websites.

6. Firefox
Even though I have written earlier that I was a Google Chrome user, I have now switched back and let Mozilla’s Firefox be the “window” through which I access the web. This is mainly due to two reasons. The first being that I am incredibly impressed with the ambitions of Mozilla as an organization. Their strategy for making the web a better place really resonates with me. The other reason is Firefox Sync, allowing me to use my aliased bookmarks and my passwords on multiple computers. I love Sync for its functionality but also for its philosophy: you can also run your own Sync server and do not need to use Mozilla’s and all the sync data is encrypted on the server side, needing a passphrase on the client to get to it.

7. LinkedIn
It took a while before I started to see the true benefits of LinkedIn. A couple of weeks ago I had a couple of questions to ask to people who have experience with implementing SAP Enterprise Learning in large organizations. LinkedIn allowed me to search for and then contact people who have SAP Enterprise Learning in their profile in some way. The very first person that I contacted forwarded me on to a SAP Enterprise Learning discussion group on LinkedIn. I asked a few questions in that forum and had some very good public and private answers to those questions within days. In the past I would only have access to that kind of market information if SAP would have been the broker of this dialogue or if I would buy from analysts like Bersin. LinkedIn creates a lot of transparency in the market place and transparency is a good thing (especially for customers).

8. WordPress (including the WordPress.com network) and FocusWriter
Writing is probably one of the best learning processes out there and writing for other people is even better. WordPress is used to publish this post, while I use a simple cross-platform tool called FocusWriter to give me a completely uncluttered screen with just the words (no menus, window edges or status bars!). WordPress is completely free to use. You can either opt for a free (as in beer) hosted version that you can set up within seconds on http://www.wordpress.com or you can go the free (as in speech) version where you download the application, modify it to your needs and host it where you want. If I was still a teacher now, this would be the one tool that I would let all of my students use as much as possible.

9. Youtube
The quantity of videos posted on Youtube is not comprehensible. It was Rob Hubbard who first showed me how you could use the large amount of great tutorials to great effect. He rightfully thought: Why would I put a lot of effort into developing a course on how to shoot a great video if I can just link to a couple of excellent, well produced, short, free videos that explain all the most important concepts? The most obvious topics to learn about are music (listening to music and learning how to play music) and games (walkthroughs and cheat codes) , but there are already lots of great videos on other topics too.

10. Moodle and the community on Moodle.org
Moodle is slowly slipping to the bottom of my list. In the last few years a lot of my professional development was centred around Moodle and I still owe many of the things I know about educational technology, open source and programming/systems administration to my interactions in the forums at Moodle.org. Two things are the cause for Moodle being less important to my own learning:
1. I now have a job in which I am tasked to try and look ahead and see what is coming in the world of enterprise learning technology. That is a broad field to survey and I have been forced to generalise my knowledge on the topic.
2. I have become increasingly frustrated with the teacher led pedagogical model that all Virtual Learning Environments use. I do believe that VLEs “are dead”: they don’t fully leverage the potential of the net as a connection machine, instead they are usually silos that see themselves as the centre of the learning technology experience and lack capabilities to support a more distributed experience.

Previous versions of my Top 10 list can be found here for 2008 and here for 2009. A big thank you again to Jane for aggregating and freely sharing this hugely valuable resource!

Mozilla and the Open Internet

The Mozilla Foundation

The Mozilla Foundation

For some reason I have recently equated the Mozilla foundation to Firefox. Sitting in the Mozilla room at Fosdem for a couple of hours has cured me of that.

Mitchell Baker, chairperson of the Mozilla foundation, talked about the right for self-determination on the Internet. She explained that having a completely open (meaning free as in freedom)  stack to access the Internet does not necessarily mean that you have ownership over your digital self. There is a tendency for web services on the net to be free as in free beer (think Facebook), without giving users true ownership of their data. Mozilla has started a couple of projects to try and move the open spectrum away from the internet accessing device to the net. Trying to make sure that at least one slice of the net is open. Mozilla Weave is an example project that aligns with this goal. I really like the fact that Weave does client side encryption of all data and that it is offered as a service by Mozilla but can also be installed locally.

Tristan Nitot then talked about “hackability”. He actually doesn’t like to use that word because it has negative connotations for the media. What he means with it is “generativity” (see The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It), but that word is even harder to understand. His argument was relatively simple though: vendors aren’t always creative imagining what their products can be used for. The telephone, for example, was thought to be used mainly for listening to opera music. It is important that people are allowed to play with technology, because that is where innovation comes from. Tristan finished his talk with a slide with the following text: “Hackability is getting the future we want, not the one they are selling us.”

Paul Rouget then demoed a couple of very interesting hacks using Firefox with Stylish, Greasemonkey and some HTML5 functionality. A lot of his work can be found at on the Mozilla Hacks site. An example is this HTML5 image uploader:

Finally we had Robert Nyman introduce HTML5 to us. I thought it was interesting to see that it was Mozilla, Apple and Opera that started the WHATWG and got the work on creating the HTML spec started. Their work will be very important (for example, it might mean the end for Flash) and should make a lot of web designer’s lives less miserable. Robert’s presentation is on Slideshare:

Some things will be much easier in HTML5: what caught my eye were some new elements (allowing more semantic richness, e.g. elements like <header> or <aside>), the new input types which can include client-side validation and the new <video> and <canvas> elements.

Finally I would like to point you towards the Mozilla Manifesto. This is the introduction to the document which is available in many languages:

The Mozilla project is a global community of people who believe that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet. We have worked together since 1998 to ensure that the Internet is developed in a way that benefits everyone. As a result of the community’s efforts, we have distilled a set of principles that we believe are critical for the Internet to continue to benefit the public good. These principles are contained in the Mozilla Manifesto.

Mozilla has endeared me again. Cool people, great projects, an important cause.

Why Chromium is Now My Primary Browser

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to include our personal browser histories in the post. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Chromium Logo

Chromium Logo

If you are not interested in Browsers and/or usability, I would suggest you don’t bother to read this post.

I cannot exactly remember the first time I used the Internet. It probably was in 1996 in the library at the Universiteit Utrecht. I wasn’t particularly aware of the browser I was using, but I am quite sure that is was Netscape Navigator with which I did the Altavista searches. I used Netscape throughout my education, only to switch to Internet Explorer 5 when I got my own computer with Windows 98 and a dial-up Internet connection. I then used nothing but IE until I read about Mozilla Firefox in a magazine in 2004. Through Moodle I had started appreciating open source software and I liked working with Firefox and its tabs. I stuck with Firefox for a year or so, feeling quite the rebel whenever a site would only load in IE. At some point I noticed how much faster IE was than Firefox. That is when I switched to Avant Browser, a freeware skin around the IE browser engine which included tabs and some other advanced features. A little while later (somewhere in late 2005 or early 2006) I learnt about Opera. Opera had a lot of appeal to me. I liked how their developers pushed so many innovations in the browser space: tabbed browsing, advanced security features and mouse gestures were all inventions of Opera. I loved how fast it was and how many features they managed to cram in so little megabytes. Its cross platform nature allowed me to stay with Opera when I permanently switched to Ubuntu in the summer of 2006. I switched back to Firefox in early 2007 because of my slightly more hardcore open source attitude and because of its wonderful extensions. The latter allowed me to keep all the functionality that I loved about Opera and more.

About two weeks ago I switched to Chromium. This is Google’s relatively new open source offering in the browser market. I am able to automatically download new builds every day through the PPA for Ubuntu Chromium Daily Builds. Even though it is still beta alpha software, it is highly usable.

So why did I switch? I think there are three reasons:

1. Performance
Since a couple of months my private computing is done with a Samsung NC10. This Intel Atom based netbook is slightly underpowered. You really notice this when you are doing things like recoding a video or doing some CPU intensive image editing. I also noticed it terribly in Firefox. Things like Google Reader, DabbleDB (watch that 8 minute demo!) and the WordPress admin interface were nearly unusable. A cold start of Firefox (the 2.x version that comes with Ubuntu 9.04) takes nearly a minute. Chromium on the other hand starts up in a couple of seconds and is very spiffy with Javascript-heavy web-apps.

I tried to quantify my unmistakable feelings with some benchmarking. I used Peacekeeper, but Firefox could not finish the benchmark and would crash! I then used the Sunspider Javascript benchmark and got a total score of 3488.8ms for Chromium and a total score of 18809.6ms for Firefox. This means that in certain cases Chromium would load something in less than one fifth of the time that Firefox 2.x will load it.

While writing this post I decided to try installing Firefox 3.5 (without add-ons) and see how that would perform. After a sudo apt-get install firefox-3.5 I could start Firefox by selecting “Shiretoko Web Browser” in the “Internet” menu. The total score was 5781.2ms, a major improvement, but still more than one and half times slower than Chromium. Its interface is also still less responsive than I would like it to be.

Another nice aspect about Chromium’s performance is that each tab is its own process. This so called Multi Process Architecture isolates problem webpages so that one Flash page crashing does not affect the other browser tabs, something that happened very often to me with Firefox.

2. Screen Real Estate
Another thing that a netbook lacks is pixels. My screen is 1024 pixels wide and 600 pixels high. Especially the lack of height is sometimes taxing. I have done a lot of things in Ubuntu to mitigate this problem (if you are interested I could write a post about that) and I had to do the same with Firefox.

In Firefox I used Tiny Menu, chose small icons, used no bookmarks and combined many toolbars into one to make sure that I have more content and less browser. To my surprise I had to do nothing with Chromium and still got a bigger canvas with a bigger font in the address bar! Compare the screenshots below to see the differences: 

 

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

 

Chromium shows more of the page and accomplishes this by doing a couple of smart things:

  • There is no status bar. I could have turned the status bar off in Firefox, but I need to see where a link is pointing to before I click on it. Chromium shows this information dynamically as soon as you hover over a link. When you don’t hover it shows nothing.
  • The tabs are moved into the title bar. It looks a bit weird for a while, but it uses some very valuable space.
  • Some things only appear when you need them. The bookmark bar, for example, only shows up when you open a new tab.

3. It is a fresh look at what a browser should/could be
Most of my time behind my computer is spent using a browser. More and more of the applications I use daily have moved into the cloud (e.g. mail and RSS reading). It is thus important to have a browser that is made to do exactly those functions.

The developers of Chromium have looked at all aspects of a traditional browser and have rethought how they work. A couple of examples:

  • The address bar is actually a tool with four functions. It contains your web history, typing some terms will execute a search in your default search engine (saving me two characters compared to how I search in Firefox), you can type a normal web address and you can use keywords to search. If I type w chromium in the address bar it will search for chromium in Wikipedia. The keyword search also works in Firefox, but Chromium has a prettier and more clear implementation.
  • When you open a new tab, you see a Dashboard of sites you use often (a variant of another Opera invention). That page also conveniently displays recently closed tabs with a link to your browsing history. The history page has excellent search (it is Google after all!) and has that simple Google look.
  • The downloads work in a particular way. They automatically save in a default location unless you tick a box confirming that you always like to open that type of file from now on. This takes a little getting used to (I like saving my downloads in different folders), but once again the download history is searchable and looks clean.

In conclusion: Chromium is a browser in which some hard choices were made. No compromises. That means that I, as a user, have to worry about less choices and settings and can focus on being more productive. Making tough interface design choices can be a very successful strategy: witness Apple’s iPod.

For now I will be using Chromium as my primary browser and will use Firefox when I need certain functionalities that only Firefox add-ons can provide.

I am looking forward to what the browser future holds!