Using Web 2.0 tools to make reading and research more effective.
It is clear that learning professionals need to look for better ways to take responsibility for our own learning. Here's a look at how we can take advantage of some of the relatively recent Web 2.0 tools to do a better job reading and researching topics.
Reading . I sometimes call this scanning. Basically, I don't have a specific question in mind. I'm just trying to find out what's new or some interesting ideas. In other words, I'm trying to stay abreast of what is going on in the field. I typically skim magazines, newsgroups, and blogs, in which I find fairly random pieces of information. I try to remember the high level concepts and then, if I'm doing a good job, I'll make sure that I can get back to the details later.
Researching. In this case, I'm trying to find the answer to a question. Sometimes it's a rather broad question like "What are the things I should do before and after a professional conference to get more from the conference?" Other times, the question is more specific: "What simulation tool best meets this requirement?" I may search the web, talk to people, or asking questions in newsgroups. Again, I'll use any information I need right away, and make a note to return for details in the future.
Using Web 2.0 tools to tag
In both the reading and research cases, one of the keys to long-term success is the ability to access the details at a later time. Web 2.0 tools help us in doing a better job of this.
But, there's also great intrinsic value in tagging. According to blog posts by Rashmi Sinha (A Cognitive Analysis of Tagging):
The beauty of tagging is that it taps into an existing cognitive process without adding much cognitive cost. At the cognitive level, people already make local, conceptual observations. Tagging decouples these conceptual observations from concerns about the overall categorical scheme.
Sinha also writes in Why People Tag:
Tagging provides immediate self and social feedback. Each tag tells you a little about what you are interested in. And you find out the social context for that bit of self-knowledge. How do others view that item? Together this piecemeal feedback creates a cycle of positive reinforcement, so that you are motivated to tag even more. This might not make tagging easier, but it does make it more fun.
Here's how I tag information for future use.
- Print publications. No matter how you do it (I personally rip out the articles as I read), get the article in front of the computer. Then, find it online. Bookmark and tag it.
- Presentations at conferences. Find a link to the presentation later. Bookmark and tag it.
- Online materials. Bookmark and tag it.
I've just recently switched to Yahoo's MyWeb 2.0 from del.icio.us. While I like the del.icio.us interface more, it doesn't support a few features that I wanted (page caching, searching within linked pages, and control on link sharing). Also, since Yahoo acquired del.icio.us, I assume that Yahoo will use MyWeb because it's already integrated with other aspects of its social bookmarking. Finally, I expect Yahoo to stay on the market, but I'm a bit concerned about some of the other social bookmarking, tagging tools from lesser known developers.
Now you might say, "But I already bookmark using my browser?" Here's what you are missing:
- You can access your bookmarks from anywhere via a browser (bookmarks are shared between home, work, and mobile devices).
- You can share your bookmarks and get bookmarks from other people.
- You can control who has access to your links (private, group of friends, co-workers, CoP group, and public).
- You can search within the content of your bookmarks for tags, contents of the pages you've linked to, what other people have linked to, and so on.
- The system can save copies of the pages (cache them) so they don't rot (return "not found" messages later).
- Tagging beats bookmark categories because you don't have to rearrange your categories or determine your categories before saving links.
- You can use the bookmarks to create a "link roll" that you can post to your intranet, blog, or other website to be able to share with people who aren't using the same service.
Some remaining issues:
- Pages on sites like the eLearningCentre that contain long lists of good links cannot be easily added to your links. However, going forward, these list pages will be dynamic based on link rolls, so this will go away over time.
- It appears that the system does not cache PDF pages or Docs; such documents may get lost over time as people remove them.
- Tagging and searching is still across web resources. I also use a desktop search tool that has radically changed how I handle email and directories. I simply find what I need via search.
When you save a bookmark, you will be asked to provide tags. To get the greatest value from these systems, it's best to provide reasonably good tags. However, I find that I sometimes need to tag things again if I find that other people are using different tags or if I start to use new tags.
The articles Folksonomies: Tags Strengths, Weaknesses and How To Make Them Work and Tag Literacy provide some good background. Some common mistakes:
- Misspelling tags (library vs. library). Avoid misspellings by selecting an existing tag. Some will be suggested; others come up based on the first few words. Generally, try to use an existing tag and make a conscious decision to use a new tag.
- Group compound terms together. For example, I frequently use the tag "personalLearning."
- Use plural tense to define categories. When appropriate, replace blog or tree with blogs and trees. Tags signify a category that can encompass various resources, so the plural tense is typically more appropriate. This will help you avoid having to check both the singular and plural versions of a tag. However, sometimes having both a singular and a plural tag is necessary. For example, I would expect to find very different resources under the tags "apple" (as in the electronics manufacturer) and "apples" (as in the fruit).
- Don't use symbols in tags with the exception of a tag like eLearning2., "where the "." is okay. Don't use # or _.
The good news is that most of this is not as important until you start to share your bookmarks and tags. But it is a good idea to have a consist pattern to your tags to make life easier when you look things up.
Finding bookmarked and tagged items
In most cases, I can quickly find any page via tags. Even if I have 500 pages, I will have relatively few pages, maybe 30 pages with "personalLearning" as the tag. Even then, I may want to subselect with another tag, such as "Web2.0" to find the particular pages. In that case, my search may return only five pages.
Probably the most useful feature of Yahoo My Web 2.0 is that I can search the contents of the pages. So, even if I've done a poor job tagging my pages, I can search the contents of my pages to find the page. Normally, I start with a tag search and then use a full-text search as a back-up.
Additional recommended activities
So far, I've suggested tools that are relatively simple. This is the minimum you should do. However, there are more ways to expand your resources.
Read publications online, and online-only publications.
Although I still read paper publications, I've shifted towards reading a more diverse set of resources (primarily blogs and discussion groups). In doing so, I've come to realize that I get more relevant and diverse information from these sources. People are able to write about things in more detail than most magazines.
For example, at a recent conference, I was SHOCKED to see only five hands go up (out of an audience of 200) when asked how many read blogs. If you're among the other 195 people, the first step is to get an RSS reader. If you don't know about these, read Quick Way to Find and Sign-up for Blogs (it uses BlogLines).
In addition, here are two articles on how to incorporate your blog reading: Ten Tips for Effective Blog Reading.
Once you start reading blogs, you will soon realize that there are plenty of new resources you can subscribe to. For example, many magazines publish their contents as RSS feeds (see RSS Feeds from Static Magazines). Also, subscribe to particular searches, such as "eLearning 2.0," so that as new information comes up in blogs, the source will notify you.
One of the interesting aspects of the social side of tagging and Bloglines is that you can use these tools to pivot from one resource to another. Some examples:
- If you find a blog you like, use BlogLines to find related blogs and/or go to users who subscribe and see what else they're reading. When you do this, always put this new blog in "quarantine" so that you give it a certain amount of time before you ignore it. I would suggest making a quarantine based on months. Any new blog that hasn't produced anything of use in a month is going to be turned off. But, if it has something good, then I'll move it out of quarantine.
- Also, many blogs have "blog rolls" and "link rolls." If their content is good, chances are that they are pointing at good stuff.
- Use http://similicio.us to put in the URL of a site and find sites that are linked by other people (based on del.icio.us). You can even pivot from those, to find more.
Because of tagging and social aspects, pivoting is quite useful both for research and reading.
I understand that taking advantage of these tools probably represents more work than you already do. I promise you that it really is worth it. You must try them before you really understand the value.
More important, as learning professionals, I think we have a responsibility to try these kinds of things to understand how we can be better learners so we can help others become better learners.