In my first post for Learning Circuits, I explored how I use Twitter as a professional development tool. Over the past two weeks, we've looked at Filtering: A Challenge and Responsibility for Learning Professionals, and Curation: A Core Competency for Learning Professionals. In this closing post in my Learning Circuits series, I want to dig into curation in greater detail, describing what role technology plays in the curation workflow, and what  it looks like for learning.

Who Qualifies as a Curator?

Part of the reason curation is such a popular term right now is that the definition of curation has been changed by technology.  Years ago 'curation' was a specialized field that was found only in places like museums, performed by individuals who have studied their field and the techniques of curation for years.

The definition of curator has expanded in recent years, largely in line with the expansion of social media technologies. The fact is, if you're reading this post on the Learning Circuits Blog, chances are you already are a curator, whether your realize it or not.

This fact was proven to me in the most unlikely of places: my mother's dining room table. My family was visiting, and my mother was telling me that I don't post enough pictures of my kids on facebook. It was a little confusing; after all, my mother lives only a few miles away and sees my kids often. When I explained that, she replied "But my friends don't". 

What I didn't realize was that my mother often saw pictures of her grandchildren on facebook and clicked the SHARE button to share it on her wall.  She was curating a story that was essentially titled "My Grandkids", and sharing it with all her friends.

In the age of facebook shares/likes, Twitter retweets, and other social media sharing tools... anyone can be a curator.

Let's back up a second though; perhaps saying the definition of curator has expanded isn't accurate, as it implies expanding a single definition to include a broader group. I do believe what a curator does for a museum is different than what a my mother does for her facebook wall.  Perhaps it's two levels of curation, professional and amatuer, similar to the differences between a professional and amatuer photographer. Digital camera technology has advanced so much that even an amatuer can take high quality photos... but that doesn't make someone a professional photographer.

Social media technologies have had a similar impact on curation, allowing anyone with an internet connection to become an amatuer curator. In fact, some would argue that technology has advanced far enough that the technology itself can curate.

Automated Curation: Can a Computer be a Curator?

Technology definitely aids in the curation process. Search engine optimization and filtering tools make it much easier for a curator to find resources he or she wants to share. But can a computer do the job so well that a human curator is no longer needed?

To answer this, I think we need to revisit the different examples of curation we discussed in my last post:

  • Aggregation: Gathering and sharing relevant content. It releases the individual worker from needing to seek out the content.
  • Filtering: Instead of simply aggregating content, filtering shares only those resources that are most relevant and valuable.
  • Elevation: Recognizing a larger trend in the sea of seemingly less important content.
  • Mashups: Merging two or more unrelated pieces of content to form a new message.
  • Timelines: Organizing random pieces of content in chronological order to show the evolution of an idea.

I think technology does a very good job of automating aggregation. In fact, I don't think a human is required at all for aggregation, unless the human is adding content from a source outside the data source being aggregated. Once you go beyond aggregation though, I believe the human is still required.

Some would argue that computers can filter, and from a technical standpoint they can; I just don't think computers can do enough to filter in the context of curation.

I often curate the resources from conference backchannels on my blog. What I do there is - by design - a very light-level of curation. My goal in curating backchannel resources is not to to provide a personally recommended list of resources. I could do that, but it would be a different post, with a different focus.

After all, what I find valuable may be different than what you do. My goal in curating the backchannel is to collect the resources that most people likely missed, and to have them as an ongoing point of reference.  I share all of the resources that could have value to someone that is interested.

In that sense, a large percentage of what I do with conferences is aggregation, and a computer can do that. However, I also provide filtering and elevation in my curated resource lists that most automated curation tools would miss. For example:

  • I group resources into categories, such as official conference resources, session specific resources, conference recaps, keynotes, etc.
  • I seek out resources from outside the backchannel stream that have not yet been shared that I believe will add value.
  • If a shared link is mostly self-promotional marketing - with little pass-along value - I filter it out. I do this with SPAM messages as well.
  • I recognize themes in seemingly unrelated posts within the backchannel stream and link them.
These are simple examples of things that a human curator adds that computers currently can not replace, at least not in most cases.  For more advanced forms of curation like mashups and timelines, the need for human interpretation is even more critical.

In short, I think the human is still a required part of the curation equation.  That may change at some point though; the gap between what a human does and what a computer can automate continues to shrink.

A Glimpse into the Future

So what does this all mean to a learning and performance professional? How will what we do look differently when we add curation to our skill sets?  Consider these examples:
  • Social media usage continues to rise as a means for supporting social learning. Learning and performance professionals will need to be a part of the communities that emerge, possibly even serving as community managers. Technology could be used to analyze the sharing going on and spot potential trends (as a simplified example, consider a word cloud). As a curator, learning and performance professionals would seek out these themes and trends and elevate them to higher visibility across the entire organization.
  • In a world where anyone can create content, our need to create content to address a learning and performance need is  dramatically reduced.  Learning and performance professionals would function as curators of content, connecting workers with existing resources both internally and externally that support performance. 
  • The definition of 'course' will likely change in the future.  Currently course content is constrained and controlled, usually behind an LMS portal login.  Courses are becoming increasingly open, allowing learners and workers to find and reference their own resources. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC) are a step in this direction. In this open format, learning professionals can help curate the shared resources, highlighting those that resonate best with the objectives of the program.
Curation is here, and it's already having an impact on the learning and performance profession. The technology is readily available to bring curation into organizations, and many forward-thinking organizations are already using it to their advantage. If you aren't already enhancing your learning and performance strategies via curation, you should be enhancing your awareness and skill sets in this area.  It isn't so much a matter of 'If' your learning and performance programs will be impacted by curation; it's a matter of 'When'.  

The only question is: Will you be ready to support it?