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.

How to Use Twitter to Become an Expert on Any Topic


Sometimes you need to quickly immerse yourself in a new field. You might want to gain expertise or quickly gauge what the current issues are around a particular topic. One way of doing this is by creating a dedicated Twitter account to follow a topic. Below some instructions on how you could do this.

Setting up a Twitter account with the right settings

Twitter sign up page

Twitter sign up page

  1. Go to
  2. Create a new account by filling in a name, password and email address. Unfortunately the email address needs to be unique. If you have an gmail account, then this limitation is easy enough to get around.
  3. In the next step you get to pick a Twitter username, this is the name that will be displayed in front of the @ sign.
  4. Twitter will now ask you to go through a set of steps designed to give you a good first user experience. You can ignore most of these steps. Probably the quickest way to continue is just navigate out of the welcome screen by going to the Twitter main page. Twitter will also send you an email with a confirmation link that you will have to click on.
  5. After getting your account sorted, click on the “settings wheel” in the top right corner and click on “Settings”. In the left menu click on “Email notifications” (or just click here when logged in).
  6. If you don’t want to receive a lot of emails from Twitter, then turn most of these notifications off.
  7. Make sure that “Email me with Top Tweets and Stories” is turned on and that you have picked “Sent as a daily digest” in the dropdown menu.
  8. Since we are doing research it makes sense to tick the box to receive “Suggestions based on my recent follows”.
  9. Press the “Save changes” button at the bottom if you have changed anything in these notification settings.

Finding the right Twitter accounts to follow

  1. Start by typing your topic in the Twitter search field.
  2. Find a tweet that interests you.
  3. Click on the user name of the account that tweeted this tweet.
  4. See if the biography of the user and their other tweets also are interesting to you. Also check if they have at least some followership (although very interesting sources could still have very few followers). If they are interesting click on their username once more.
  5. Click on “Follow” to follow the user.
  6. Twitter will suggest some users that might be interesting too, you can follow up on these later.
  7. In the left menu click on “Lists”, then select “Member of” (find the link in the center of the page). See if there is a title of a list that speaks to your topic. Now you can start at step 2 again or you can select “List members” in the menu on the left and restart at step 3.
  8. Continue with this loop (and occasionally backtrack) until you have at least 50 sources.
  9. Keep adding sources as you find them, make sure to revisit this process once in while.
Click to see a full example of the digest (PDF)

Click to see a full example of the digest (PDF)

Final step: getting the most out of it

Here is some advices on getting the most out of your dedicated Twitter account:

  • Don’t be too picky at the outset. Include any Twitter account that is remotely interesting. You don’t have to be precise. The time deliberating on whether you should include an account is probably better spent finding other interesting account: just follow them.
  • Pay attention. The daily digest is full of the links that the network of people you are following found most interesting (things that have been retweeted a lot for example). Follow the links, see if they lead to new websites you’ve never heard of (sign up if they are interesting) or new people you don’t know. You should spend quality time on reading and processing the digest.
  • Cull accounts with high influence and low relevance. Some Twitter accounts have a lot of influence: links that they share show up on most days in your digest. Ask yourself if you like those links. If you don’t, then unfollow that Twitter account. This might enrich and diversify your digest.
  • Ask the Twitter accounts that have helped you the most for more help. Something like: “@usefultwitteraccount I have really appreciated your tweets over the last couple of weeks. Any suggestions of who else I should follow?” will usually get a helpful response.

Let me know how you get on!

Learning. Who is responsible?

A hero: Ivan Illich

A hero: Ivan Illich

Just now I delivered a keynote at the 20th Annual Israeli Learning Conference. I was there at the kind invitation of HR Israel and Amir Elion.

My talk was pitched as follows:

Over the next few years the role of the learning organization will shift, moving away from the current focus on course and curriculum design. Two new responsibilities will appear: 1. Supporting individuals with their self-directed learning and 2. Creating behavioral change interventions for smaller and larger teams. Hans de Zwart will take a fresh perspective on the underlying causes of this shift (like the increasing percentage of knowledge workers or the easy availability of global virtual collaboration tools), he wil give a wide and historical range of examples of existing “do-it-yourself” learning and he will share his thoughts on what this means for you as an HR professional.

I have come to believe that SlideShare is fundamentally broken, so while is hopefully working on providing the ability to show PDF files inline in my posts I’ve decided to just post a PDF version of my slides online.

The slides can be downloaded here (or here for a Dutch version)

The talk was divided into three parts:

Why is DIY Learning relevant?

Firstly I showed that the accelerating change of pace is not just a cliché, but that technology actually does progress exponentially. I showed some of Kurzweil’s graphs to back this up.

This means that we are increasingly living in a complex world. According to the Cynefin framework the sensible approach to problems in the complex domain is to first probe, then sense and finally respond. This aligns nicely with Peter Drucker’s definition of the knowledge worker who necessarily is solely responsible for their own productivity: they are the only ones who can understand their own job. For me a logical consequence of this is that you cannot create a learning curriculum for a knowledge worker. With the increasing mobility of labour, you could even argue that businesses will not want to invest in training a knowledge worker but that they will just assume competence.

Next I talked about Ivan Illich and his book Deschooling Society. We are institutionalizing students through the school system. We mistake teaching for learning and diplomas/certificates for competence. Illich’ solution is radical: to replace school with what he calls “learning webs”. He had some very practical ideas about this, that have become easier now that we have the web.

Another reason for DIY learning to come to the forefront is the ubiquity of free (mostly in beer, but also in speech) tools that enable us to connect with each other and organize ourselves. It is simple to set up your own website with something like and tools like Google+ (hangouts!), Facebook and Twitter are amazing in enabling people to take charge of their learning.

Examples of DIY Learning

I shared a set of examples of existing DIY learning efforts from a wide variety of fields.

The first example was from the European Juggling Convention in Lublin. People organized workshops there by using a simple central board and a set of activity templates.

Sugatra Mitra realizes that there aren’t enough good teachers to teach all the children in the world. He is therefore looking for a minimally invasive pedagogy. He has found a simple method: give groups of children a computer with access to the web, ask them an interesting question, leave them alone (maybe give them a bit of “granny pedagogy” support) and come back to find that the children have learned something. Do check out his wiki on Self Organising Learning Environments (SOLEs).

The original Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs (as first run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and others, now known as cMOOCs) are great examples of learning in a decentralized fashion.

Open Space technology (with its four principles and a law) is another example of how people can learn in a completely self-organized way.

Yammer groups are a great way for communities of practice to construct knowledge together. Anybody can start a group and these are often on topics that are relevant, but don’t get addressed top-down (an example I know of is a group of Apple users in a Microsoft-only company sharing knowledge with each other on how to use Apple products in that situation).

Dale Stephens has shown that there are alternatives to a formal college education with his Uncollege platform.

The reading group I organized in 2010 was the final example I used of a group of people getting together to learn something.

What should you (= HR) do?

All of this means the role of the HR Learning department will need to change. I see three imperatives:

  1. It is crucial to devolve the responsibility for learning to the learner. Stop accepting their “learned helplessness” and stimulate everybody to become truly reflective practitioners.
  2. Make sure to provide scaffolding. You should build things that will make it easier for the learners to build their own things. This only works if your approach is very open. Both for the learning materials (think Creative Commons and OER Commons) and for who can join. Efforts should be across organizations and across businesses. Don’t accept the naive (layman’s) idea which always seems to equate learning with content. Instead focus on designing learning experiences. Nurture any communities of practice and invest time in moderation.
  3. Finally, change the unit of intervention. You should never focus on the individual anymore. The unit of change is now the team (at minimum).


I’ve used the fabulous Pinpoint to create this presentation. This allows me to just get a set of image files and write the presentation in a very simple text based format. The PDF output doesn’t quite look like I’d want it to. Does anybody know whether it is possible to set the width/height ratio of the PDF export (4:3 rather than 16:9)?

I started collecting the licenses for each of the images in the slidepack so that I could attribute them correctly (find my incomplete list here). At some point I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. My blog is just too insignificant and I really do believe I can have more positive impact on this world by doing something (anything!) different with my time. If your picture is used and you are very disgruntled then I would be more than happy to make amends.

Lak11 Week 1: Introduction to Learning and Knowledge Analytics

Every week I will try and write down some reflections on the Open Online Course: Learning and Knowledge Analytics. These will by written for myself as much as for anybody else, so I have to apologise in advance about the fact that there will be nearly no narrative and a mix between thoughts on the contents of the course and on the process of the course.

So what do I have to write about this week?

My tooling for the course

There is a lot of stuff happening in these distributed courses and keeping up with the course required some setup and preparation on my side (I like to call that my “tooling”). So what tools do I use?

A lot of new materials to read are created every day: Tweets with the #lak11 hashtag, posts in all the different Moodle forums, Google groups and messages from George Siemens and Diigo/Delicious bookmarks. Thankfully all of these information resources create RSS feeds and I have been able to add them all to special-made Lak11 folder in my Google Reader (RSS feed). That folder sorts its messages based on time (oldest first) allowing me some understanding of the temporal aspects of the course and making sure I read a reply after the original message. A couple of times a day I use the excellent MobileRSS reader on my iPad to read through all the messages.

There is quite a lot of reading to do. At the beginning of the week I read through the syllabus and make sure that I download all the PDF files to GoodReader on the iPad. All web articles are stored for later reading using the Instapaper service. I have given both GoodReader and Instapaper Lak11 folders. I do most of the reading of these articles on the train. GoodReader allows me to highlight passages and store bookmarks in the PDF file itself. With Instapaper thus is a bit more difficult: when I read a very interesting paragraph I have to highlight it and email it to myself for later processing.

Each and every resource that I touch for the course gets its own bookmark on Diigo. Next to the relevant tags for the resource I also tag them with lak11 and weekx (where x is the number of the week) and share them to the Learning Analytics group on Diigo. These will provide me with a history of the interesting things I have seen during the course and should help me in writing a weekly reflective post.

So far the “consumer” side of things. As a “producer” I participate in the Moodle forums. I can easily find back all my own posts through my Moodle profile and I hope to use some form of screen-scraper at the end of the course to pull a copy of everything that I have written. I use this hosted blog to write and reflect on the course materials and tag my course-related post with “lak11” so that show up on their own page (and have their own feed in case you are interested). On Twitter I occasionally tweet with #lak11, mostly to refer to a Moodle- or blog post that I have written or to try and ask the group a direct question.

What is missing? The one thing that I don’t use yet is something like a mind mapping or a concept mapping tool. The syllabus recommends VUE and CMAP and one of the assignments each week is to keep updating a map for the course. These tools don’t seem to have an iPad equivalent. There is some good mind mapping tools for the iPad (my favourite is probably iThoughtsHD, watch this space for a mind mapping comparison of iPad apps), but I don’t seem to be able to add using it into my workflow for the course. Maybe I should just try a little harder.

My inability to “skim and dive”

This week I reconfirmed my inability to “skim and dive”. For these things I seem to be an all or nothing guy. There are magazines that I read completely from the first page to the last page (e.g. Wired). This course seems to be one of these things too. I read every single thing. It is a bit much currently, but I expect the volume of Moodle and Twitter messages to go down quite significantly as the course progresses. So if I can just about manage now, it should become relatively easy later on.

The readings of this week

There were quite a few academic papers in the readings of this week. Most of them provided an overview of education datamining or academic/learning analytics. Many of the discussions in these papers seemed quite nominal to me. They probably are good references to keep and have a wealth of bibliographical materials that I could look at at some point in the future. For now, they lacked any true new insights for me and appeared to be pretty basic.

Live sessions

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend any of the Elluminate sessions and I haven’t listened to them yet either. I hope to catch up this week with the recordings and maybe even attend the guest speaker live tomorrow evening.


It has been a while since I last actively participated in a Moodle facilitated course. Moodle has again proven to be a very effective host for forum based discussions. One interesting Moodle add-on that I had not seen before is Marginalia a way to annotate forum posts in Moodle itself which can be private or public. Look at the following Youtube video to see it in action.

I wonder if I will use it extensively in the next few weeks.


One thing that we were asked to try out as an activity was Hunch. For me it was interesting to see all the different interpretations that people in the course had about how to pick up this task and what the question (What are the educational uses of a Hunch-like tool for learning?) actually meant. A distributed course like this creates a lot of redundancy in the answers. I also noted that people kept repeating a falsehood (needing to use Twitter/Facebook to log in). My explanation of how Hunch could be used by the weary was not really picked up. It is good to be reminded at times that most people in the world do not share my perspective on computers and my literacy with the medium. Thinking otherwise is a hard to escape consequence of living in a techno-bubble with the other “digerati”.

I wrote the following on the topic (in the Moodle forum for week 1):

Indeed the complete US-centricness of the service was the first thing that I noticed. I believe it asked me at some point on what continent I am living. How come it still asks me questions to which I would never have an answer? Are these questions crowdsourced too? Do we get them randomly or do we get certain questions based on our answers? It feels like the former to me.

The recommendations that it gave me seemed to be pretty random too. The occasional hit and then a lot of misses. I had the ambition to try out the top 5 music albums it would recommend me, but couldn’t bear the thought of listening to all that rock. This did sneak a little thought into my head: could it be that I am very special? Am I so eclectic that I can defeat all data mining effort. Am I the Napoleon Dynamite of people? Of course I am not, but the question remains: does this work better for some people than for others.

One other thing that I noticed how the site seemed to use some of the tricks of an astrologer: who wouldn’t like “Insalata Caprese”, seems like a safe recommendation to me.

In the learning domain I could see an application as an Electronic Performance Support System. It would know what I need in my work and could recommend the right website to order business cards (when it sees I go to a conference) or an interesting resource relating to the work that I am doing. Kind of like a new version of Clippy, but one that works.

BTW, In an earlier blogpost I have written about how recommendation systems could turn us all into mussels (although I don’t really believe that).

Corporate represent!

Because of a very good intervention by George Siemens, the main facilitator of the course, we are now starting to have a good discussion about analytics in corporate situations here. The corporate world has learning as a secondary process (very much as a means to a goal) and that creates a slightly different viewpoint. I assume the corporate people will form their own subgroup in some way in this course. Before the end of next week I will attempt to flesh out some more use cases following Bert De Coutere’s examples here.

Bersin/KnowledgeAdvisors Lunch and Learn

At the end of January I will be attending a free Bersin/KnowledgeAdvisors lunch and learn titled Innovation in Learning Measurement – High Impact Measurement Framework in London (this is one day before the Learning Technologies 2011 exhibit/conference). I would love to meet other Lak11 participants there. Will that happen?

My participation in numbers

Every week I will try and give a numerical update about my course participation. This week I bookmarked 33 items on Diigo, wrote 10 Lak11 related tweets, wrote 25 Moodle forums post and 2 blog posts.

Workflow Driven Apps Versus App Driven Workflow

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. This month we write about how the constant flux of new apps and platforms influences your workflow. We do this by (re-)viewing our workflow from different perspectives. After a general introduction we write a paragraph of 200 words each from the perspective of 1. apps, 2. platform and 3. workflow itself. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Instapaper on my iPhone

Instapaper on my iPhone

To me a workflow is about two things mainly: the ability to capture things and the ability to time-shift. Both of these need to be done effectively and efficiently. So let’s take a look at three separate processes and see how they currently work for me: task/todo management, sharing with others and reading news and interesting articles (not books). So how do I work nowadays for each of these three things?

I use Toodledo for my task/todo management. Whenever I “take an action” or think of something that I need to do at some point in the future I fire up Toodledo and jot it down. Each item is put in a folder (private, work, etc.), gets a due date (sometimes with a timed reminder to email if I really cannot forget to do it) and is given a priority (which I usually ignore). At the beginning and end of every day I run through all the tasks and decide in my head what will get done.

For me it important to share what I encounter on the web and my thoughts about that with the rest of the world. I do this in a couple of different ways: explicitly through Twitter, through Twitter by using a sidebar in my Browser, in Yammer if it is purely for work, on this blog, through public bookmarks on Diigo, by sending a direct email or by clicking the share button in Google Reader.

I have subscribed to 300+ RSS feeds and often when I am scanning them and find something interesting and I don’t have the opportunity to read it at that time. I use Instapaper to capture these articles and make them available for easy reading later on. Instapaper doesn’t work with PDF based articles so I send those to a special email address so that I can pick them up with my iPad and save them to GoodReader when it is convenient.

“Platform” can have multiple meanings. The operating system was often called a platform. When you heavily invested into one platform it would become difficult to do any of your workflows with a different platform (at my employer this has been the case for many years with Microsoft and Exchange: hard to use anything else). Rich web applications have now turned the Internet itself into a workflow platform. This makes the choice for an operating system nearly, if not totally, irrelevant. I regularly use Ubuntu (10.04, too lazy to upgrade so far), Windows Vista (at work) and iOS (both on the iPhone and the iPad). All of the products and services mentioned either have specialised applications for the platform or are usable through any modern web browser. The model I prefer right now is one where there is transparent two-way synching between a central server/service and the different local apps, allowing me access to my latest information even if I am not online (Dropbox for example uses this model and is wonderful).

What I have noticed though, is that I have strong preferences for using a particular platform (actually a particular device) for doing certain tasks. The iPad is my preference for any reading of news or of articles: the “paginate” option on Instapaper is beautiful. Sharing is best done with something that has a decent keyboard and Toodledo is probably used the most with my iPhone because that is usually closest at hand.

Sharing is a good example of something where the app drives my behaviour very much: the app where I initially encounter the thing I want to share needs to support the sharing means of choice. This isn’t optimal at all: if I read something interesting in MobileRSS on the iPad that I want to share on Yammer, then I usually email the link from MobileRSS to my work email address, once at work I copy it from my mail client into the Browser version of Yammer and add my comments. This is mainly because Yammer (necessarily) has to be a closed off to the rest of the world with its APIs.

Services that create the least hickups in my workflow are those that have a large separation between the content/data of the service and the interface. Google Reader and Toodledo both provide very complete APIs that allow anybody to create an app that accesses the data and displays it in a smart way. The disadvantage of these services is that I am usually dependent on a single provider for the data. In the long term this is probably not sustainable. Things like Unhosted are already pointing to the future: an even stricter separation between data and app. Maybe in that future, the workflow can start driving the app instead of the other way around.