Organizing To Be a Lifelong Learner

The Museum Director’s Desk

R. Barry Lewis, my dissertation advisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pushed his students to stay focused on completing their degrees so they could start their own educational path.  I have always enjoyed this understanding of self-directed lifelong learning.  Perhaps this approach is what ultimately led me to museum studies.

Nearly three years ago I posted about webinars and podcasts that functioned in this lifelong learning network. Since then, information exchange along with the methods and structure of lifelong learning have evolved.  Today, besides webinars, there are MOOCs, increased open access, a universe of social media enhancements, and more.  I am thinking more about my participation in these networks as a lifelong learner, a museum professional, anthropologist, and university educator.

First, I contextualize this discussion directly from Debbie Morrison’s recent posts on Personal Learning Environments (PLE) and Personal Learning Networks (PLN) at her online learning insights blog.  To get the terms out-of-the-way, PLEs  “are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning.  This includes providing support for learners to: set their own learning goals; manage their learning, both content and process; communicate with others in the process of learning” (reference).  A PLN “is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person connects with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection” (reference).  Check Debbie’s posts for a more detailed discussion of these concepts and links to further discussion.  Simplistically, I view a PLE as the tool and a PLN as the interaction that results in using those tools.  Some of tools I use to interact include the following:

  • Blogs – My first post on this blog was a little over three years ago.  Today I subscribe to about 90 blogs.  Of those, I regularly read 10, scan another 10, and look at the headlines of another 10.  Most of the sixty remaining post very erratically – perhaps once every 60 days or even less often.   As I posted before,  the information and interaction especially from the 10 I read regularly along with my own blogging are integral to my professional development.  Perhaps most critical is the mutual sharing of expertise with individuals I have known exclusively or primarily through blogs.   
  • MOOCs – Last fall I completed and posted about my first MOOC course experience.  I am currently registered for courses that include E-Learning and Digital Cultures, Aboriginal Worldviews and Education, and Introduction to Sustainability.  I have completed about half of the MOOC courses I started solely because of the time commitment involved.  That is, all the MOOC courses I have registered for are quality higher education level courses on a topical area – but often a bit more than I can handle.  I also benefit from folks I interact with in my PLN who post summaries and resources available from MOOCs they attend.
  • Listservs – The dreaded email Listservs are integral to my information gathering, even though I delete at least 9 out of 10 messages unread.  Besides topical discussions, Listservs are a primary tool for disseminating information about conferences, publications, calls for papers, and employment opportunities.  (I have mixed feelings about the fact that I routinely forward job announcements to folks seeking employment who are unaware of the openings because they do not subscribe to basic Listservs of their industry.)
  • Social Media in its many forms are excellent learning tools.  I posted a couple of weeks ago about Pearltrees, my big find of the year (which I learned about through a blog post.)  Besides creating the environment, like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the plethora of social media sites, I am finding that Pearltrees is also an excellent means for networking.
  • Wikipedia as a distinct network form is becoming increasingly relevant to me.  I have posted before about the Galleries, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) with Wikipedia.  GLAM is an environment that draws on other environments (blog, Listserv, social media) to form a distinct tool unto itself.

In working through the above tools and networks over the past few months, I have come to appreciate the need to create both a learning environment and network that suit my lifelong learning needs.  If the system is created intentionally and is not just an accumulation of stuff and business cards, the results will be effective learning.  A few of my takeaways on creating a PLE and PLN include:

  • I like the understanding that formally structuring a PLE and PLN brings order to what otherwise can be completely out-of-control.  The creation of structure also entails a my commitment of both time and resources.   
  • The organization of a PLE and PLN recognizes the indispensible role that personal learning plays in both my professional career and avocational interests.  Whereas on the one hand, there is a plethora of resources on every conceivable subject available today, the need to winnow through and fine-tune the search of that material becomes more crucial than ever before.  If I am after lesson plans to explain radiocarbon dating to 4-5th graders, I can either Google the concept, or turn to my PLE that through Listservs, Pearltree bookmarks, and more, I may interact with a network who very likely have expertise in this area.  The same logic holds true for disseminating information.  Through time, because a learning environment and network will grow, the different branches will reach deeper into specialized areas.
  • Personal learning networks and environments can be as fluid, specialized, or expansive as the individual needs.  Although the social nature of the environment can lead to interaction between members of a network, in fact, individuals in my network do not necessarily know they are in my network, any more than an author knows if a well-worn copy of their book is on my shelf as a standard go-to source on a particular topic.
  • Organizing personal learning within an environment and network is a logical method for remaining current in a field of study.  Today, reliance on typical peer-review journal searches is insufficient.  For example, a search of the social science journal archive, JSTOR produced 1 hit for “Massive Open Online Courses.”  A Google search for the same term produced in excess of 3 million.  A PLN can provide a functional resource between the two extremes.  For example, I can go to the Pearltree of someone in my PLN who I know remains current on MOOCs and find about 75 recent discussions on the subject from sources such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education.
  • Perhaps my greatest takeaway is simply the excitement of finding a means to coordinate and organize my own lifelong learning process in a way that is productive, manageable, and engaging!

How do you envision Personal Learning Environments and Networks?

Published by


Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

2 thoughts on “Organizing To Be a Lifelong Learner”

  1. Robert, Thanks for your references to my posts about PLE and PLN. This posts describes beautifully a PLE and PLN in action, I particularly like this observation you make, “…through time, because a learning environment and network will grow, the different branches will reach deeper into specialized areas.” This is so true. I am currently delving deeper into PLE’s and working on a model for Personal Learning Portfolios for students that will serve as a record of life long learning, AND act as a springboard for students to develop their own learning environments and networks. It is through my reading and commenting (on blog posts) within my network that I came to this idea for this concept.

    I am also taking the class through Coursera, E-Learning and Digital Cultures. I look forward to your thoughts and observations on this class as well. Debbie

  2. Debbie, I am anxious to see what you develop on the portfolios for students. This clearly is a very cutting edge venture. I think of how I have one entire file drawer filled with half completed projects from my “formal” academic coursework – because by and large, that coursework did not flow, there was no synthesis to tie these projects together. That to me is one of the powers of personal learning environment is the ability tie these loose ends together. Seemingly, the learning environment as you discuss it will provide the intentional structure to not just end up with a drawer full of course papers, listed alphabetically because that is the organization that makes as much sense as any other. Very exciting directions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s