My Network Probability Cloud … PLEase

I owe Chris Lott this blog post, having watched him this week grow tired of the PLE flak, bust out a brawl at the twitter bar, and then for me, state clearly what his interest was (he probably said it much earlier, but I miss things).

So I get it, now, he wants to have a sense of what people do, use for tools in the network, how we go about doing it. A Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is not a thing, so I cannot keep railing about it only being diagrams. Good. But I wont even tray to sketch it out, because for me, it is n-dimensional and defies mapping in 2-D.

But I still groan over the name. The environment I learn from, exist in, is not per se a “Learning Environment” – it has no such boundaries- it is my network I do learn from, but the same that I work from, play in, create in. I think Chris would say it’s the pieces that might pertain to an application in learning, but to me it is not a “learning environment”. I dont know why this nomenclature bugs me, maybe its an allergy.

And yes, Chris, while I am really into visual communication (more so with images and metaphor), I am not excited about the stick and node network diagrams. I have trouble with the visual simplicity and the complexity I sense is where we operate.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ethan Hein

I think of the way we learn about atomic and molecular structure being these simple models of balls and sticks, and is the same mode of drawing our network maps. Nice neat lines.

Yet, and bear with me as I am not an atomic scientist, from what I understand, there are not little balls of electrons circling like moons around a planet, that atoms are really some sort of cloud where locations of the electrons are based on probability. So to, these node and stick diagrams we create for networks are a too simple abstraction.

A cloud of probability is then my model- so my “environment” is in flux and not always the same at a give moment, but as a whole some things ought to emerge.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Neo Chen

So Chris is asking me whats in my cloud. And I have dwelled on this a while and find it hard to encapsulate, but will try to do (since he asked, and I’ve tossed him way too much snark) in Plain Old Text format.

Core: Feeds

Inside the cloud is a core of tools I use on a frequent basis. Before January 2007, this would have started with my RSS reader. It is about the one technology that I can confidently admit saves time. I tell my audiences that every time some techno geek gets up and talks about “technology saving time” that those are code words for “I am lying” — except when they are talking about RSS.

I have noticed an important difference in the way I read feeds. A year or so ago, I would click through each source at a time, and scan what first D’Arcy Norman wrote as a list, then move on to another blog feed. But once I started using Google Reader, where you can “tag” feeds, I know scan an aggregated view of new stories from multiple sources, so its more of that river of news approach. The different may be subtle, but to me it is significant. Using the shortcuts, I can plow through feeds very fast. That would be “j” key. I love the keyboard shortcuts!

I have maybe 145 feeds and my “tags” or groups are just a few. There are “Aussies” which are blogs I was subscribed to in prep for my trip in October. I keep them because I get news items, resources that dont bubble up in my North American sources. Next group is “big picture” general high level blogs like Many to Many,TED, Joi Ito. Then, is my “ed-tech” group for all those blogs and “info-visual design”, general emerging tech news in “techie” and a “virtual worlds” group. So I read feeds en masse, not blog per blog.

There is a private “dogs-only” set of feeds, like comments to my flickr photos (so I can reply) and a tweet-scan search on my twitter handle so I don’t miss tweets directed my way from people that I dont follow. There is a feed there from a 2nd year student in Australia I am “mentoring” by adding comments to his blog.

Another set of feeds monitor Technorati searches of NMC projects and publications. I also have feeds for recent changes from my MediaWiki sites so I can eyeball spam activity. I also mark feeds with the Share flag, so I have a selected set of items that also appears on the sidebar of this blog.

I probably scan the feeds 2-3 times per day. On some infrequent basis (2-3 months) I look at which feeds I might prune. I don’t worry about “missing” things by not having more feeds, I feel the feeds I read cover ground I am not doing myself directly.

The feature I wish Google would spit out is the ability to generate a public list of my feed sources that could be a blog widget. So what I do is to export my feeds from Google Reader as OPML, then use a Bloglines account to import that file, and use Bloglines as just a place to store my “blogroll” which then can be displayed back on my site. Follow that?

Core: Twitter

But it’s Twitter that has become the center of the core (don’t tell the Chronicle) because I honestly, among that chit chat and cat updates, get a lot of just in time resources, ideas, etc. But a crucial difference for me is that with tools like RSS, I am consuming content, but in Twitter, I can easily put a call for participating in a demo, or ask for a book reference, and get a near immediate response.

Yes its messy, but a key element is that the power of Twitter is not in the inane ability to publish what kind of pizza you ate, but in who you select to follow. If Twitter is full of crap, well, you maybe are not following good sources? And I for one, enjoy the silliness of it, and use it as a periodic release from doing intense work. Often, I hit it several times a day, but also go for days stretches without looking.

Pretty much I use twitter via the web, I think Twitterific is a very cool app, but I really don’t want it blinking at me all the time (easily distracted) so I choose when I want my doses.

I’m pretty selective on followers- i ignore most requests unless I know the person, so maybe 100 some people I follow. I prune off ones that dont update much or just get on my nerves (ones where they tweet 12 times in a row, jeez). I track people I dont follow by using Tweetscan to search on my @cogdog handle and put that feed in my reader.

A small but important I use with Twitter is the TinyURL link creator in Firefox– can turn any page in view or hyperlink into a TinyURL (see my description), and not rely in Twitter to do this (often URLs are mangled).

Twitter is one that you cannot really convince the value of w/o diving in. I keep accounts on the twitter wanna bes, Jaiku, Pownce, etc, but rarely use.

Core: del.icio.us

If my blog is my outboard brain, than del.icio.us is the part of my cortex that stores my web memory. I tag and bookmark several times on a daily basis- using the extension in Firefox. My tagging scheme has some method to it, though folksonimic as it is.

The ways I use it are long, of course, at the basic level I track tech resources I want to be able to locate. I am also tagging resources to get syndicate into other project pages, such as the Second Life links or tagged resources for the Horizon Project. This is to, me, almost the best way to use del.icio.us, as with but 3 clicks in about 60 seconds, you can update a resource which dynamically updates on other web pages.

The most subtle feature of del.icio.us is using the for:xxxxxx tag to share a site with someone else. I don;t send to a lot of people, but regularly tag stuff I think would be of interest to several of my colleagues. Again, there is almost overhead to do it (if you use the Firefox del.icio.us extension, they appear as tag choices).

Core: Google Apps

I use Google tools so much I forget how much they are essential. I’ve had iGoogle has my home page for so long I cannot remember- and use the Google Browser Sync tools to keep my Google experience the same across my 2 computers or should I use someone else’s.

My main use includes Gmail (my cogdogblog account is the one I use for 90% of my web registrations), Reader (see above), and Calendar. When I joined NMC I got them to move from a single shared Yahoo calendar to a collection of individual shared calendars (so our principles can schedule their appointments, travel, etc), and common NMC staff, event calendars, probably about 10 in total. We run a public calendar of our Second Life events which we can syndicate to our NMC Campus Observer.

To a lesser degree I use Docs for collaborative writing. We have a few internal spreadhseets at NMC to track our Virtual Worlds projects.

Heartbeat: Blog Commenting

I write every year on my week off from blogging to only post by commenting in other people’s sites; I do this on a regular basis (daily?) but the week off makes it a focused activity. I maintain it is an essential of blogging; its not only about what I publish but how I participate, connect, provide feedback to others.

If you need any incentive, just connect to that blood rush when you get a (non-spam) comment that connects to your work, even if it is critical, but also when they share related information. But the real rush, is getting a comment from someone you do not know… and of course, the reaction is to follow a link to their blog, and thus, more connections are built.

Nervous System: IM, Synchronous Communication

I regularly use AIM or Skype to have direct contact with colleagues and friends and consider it part of the nerves that permeate the cloud.

It is the most effective way to get an answer or share something with a specific person, and my chat windows are open all day long. I don’t have a long buddy list. Skype is profoundly amazing when you consider what it is doing, and I also use the conference call features and ecamm call recorder software to record our interviews for NMC Conversations.

Old Bones: Email

Even with spam and ridiculous exchanges that are more efficient in other platforms, email is of course essential for being part of my cloud. I am only on 1 or 2 listservs.

A curious habit I engage in sometimes is exploring links people choose to put in their footer. They are often sites I have not heard of, and it tells me something about a person I may not know well, to see what is so important they would put in their footer. At one time I was keeping track of the best sites I found via this accidental exploration, but alas, tis not there.

Appendage: Second Life

Here is a thing about Second Life- I cannot build a thing beyond plywood cubes (I had the hardest time convincing Bryan Alexander of this)- what I do in SL is interact with people, run NMC events, publish our blog. And the biggest payoff in SL was expanding my professional network with colleagues all over the world, and those sometimes spin back out to the web or even real world (got to meet many SL “avatars” in RL in Australia last October).

So for now, it is in my cloud, but not a core of what I do or like to explore. But there is something there there. Sometimes I think it is the ultimate place to be a snarky smart-ass- I can do this in chat, in voice, by my choice of appearance (I am a dog, doh), by animations, etc.

In The End

I’m looking back on my list and nor seeing anything really startling or that far out there, and there are all kinds of nuances and small bits in the cloud not here. And I think Chris has moved on to other blog topics, so I am going to shrug my dog shoulders and click publish.

This is my cloud, and have no idea or care whether it is a TLA.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. First, just so you don’t react as D’Arcy did, I really do thank you for– and value– this post. I think people who are too “into” things forget what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, feeling lost, and having no hook to hold onto that makes it even feel possible to join in. Your non-diagram text-diagram and physics metaphor are a fine way of making some sense of things that others can understand.

    Having said that, let me say a lot of something else (and if you are inclined to take it the wrong way, then just skip it– it’s not mean to be denigrating and I think you’ve done a real service sharing your PLE, your cloud, your whatever term makes you happy. The rest is just my rambling.)

    You pride yourself very strongly on wanting nothing to do with theory. That’s great. But it might also explain why it seemed so strange to me that in my call for something very non-theoretical, you appeared put out. And I have to admit that I find it hard to fathom how a non-theory, let’s be practical, kind of person could think that the answer to someone who has little or no experience with being part of the education or ed tech community who asks, essentially, “what do I use? Where do I go” would be to say “Use the whole internet. Go anywhere. It’s all learning.” Regardless of the ultimate truth in that, it’s also a highly abstract and theoretical position.

    I find it instructive that some people interpret the words “personal” and “learning” and “environment” so differently from me. I have no understanding why the term bothers you so much. But here’s the thing– I don’t give a fig about the term. I simply would like people like you who are way, WAY ahead of most educators, to share some of the things you do and the way you work in this networked world.

    The fact that there is a vast sea doesn’t mean nothing can be understood other than the whole of it. The ocean is deep, but we can still learn to swim; the ocean is wide, but we can still learn to sail. The internet is huge and learning is everything and networks are people, but you know what? People have to start somewhere. The insularity inherent in saying it can’t be taught belittles and demeans the people who are starting out and need help. It creates a priesthood that protects itself by creating an elaborate mythology where none properly exists. That burns me. More importantly, it hampers a lot of people and leaves even more behind who finally just give up. *Most* importantly, I don’t believe you to be that kind of person… you couldn’t be and still have given so much.

    You like to play the guitar. If someone who has never played, but was interested, heard you play and asked “how did you learn to play? How do you learn now?” I doubt you would be offended by the request and I doubt you would refuse to share any specifics that work for you because there is essentially an unlimited number of resources and musicians out there.

    At any rate, I don’t see the problem with the term.

    I see personal as an adjective not a limitation. It isn’t putting bounds on something, it is indicating a personal, idiosyncratic selection– at any given time– from a vast pool. You are amazing, Alan, but even you don’t use the whole internet at once. I, like many others, like to learn from people who are doing things I am not.

    Second, learning is a descriptor of emphasis. There are things you use more for activities you would associate with learning– or that would be more fruitful for others– than others. This in no way means that I am asking for, seeking, or implicitly or explicitly positing a limit… I am simply providing an emphasis so that you have a way to respond other than by saying “everything.”

    Third, environment is chosen precisely because I have (and have blogged about, though you dismissed it all as boring theory) the problem *I* have with the limitation inherent in the word network and all the baggage it carries with it when people mistake the metaphor for the real thing.

    You’re a person, you are a lifelong learner, you have carved out a space in a much larger world and created an environment. Call it whatever you want, it makes no difference to me. But you might note that the people who NEED this kind of information most have been uniformly positive in their response to my blogging about the PLE… that tells me I’m on the right track trying to help them (or have been when I’ve helped them before).

    Later, people will make it their own or drift away. They’ll discover the art that the craft they have learned must be in service of. They too will reach the privileged level of being able to say that their cloud is everything and everyone and defies all expectation. That’ll be a great day for each of them. Until, I will continue to help them in my own limited, practical, uncool, non-philosophical, modeling way. I will help them with the craft like I will help a poet with forms and structures or a musician with scales knowing full well that the art is much greater and grander than those things. It’s the only way I know and it’s the only way I’ve seen work. I appreciate your contribution to that effort.

  2. One smaller note– while you don’t like various terms because they don’t reflect the complexity in which you/I/we operate, the truth of the matter is (and this is hard, again, for those who are new to all of this to understand) most of the behaviors are very, very simple. We pride ourselves on our complex and subtle natures, but in the end much of what we do is simple and can be captured and shared. The network metaphor loses a lot of subtlety. I couldn’t agree more. The stick and ball diagrams are missing much of the complexity. Couldn’t agree more with that either.

    But 80% of what we do every day is actually captured quite well in those diagrams. That’s why when people get beyond that roadblock and actually share their PLE or cloud or whatever, it seems simple. Too simple. We share the simple, coarse pieces and note (as you did, as D’arcy did, as I do) that there is a lot of nuance and such lost. Of course!

    But I/we/they/you forget that for many people those things aren’t simple at all… it is exactly what they need to know to “scaffold” to another level where those complex behaviors can happen. For that matter, it’s what *I* need to know… I still learn of new resources, people, tools, and methods for interacting with them every day. And they are all pretty darn simple.

  3. This is one of the best exchanges I’ve read in a while. I am one of those newbies–relatively so. I’m shocked that I’m using the same tools (except for Second Life–don’t have the bandwidth and Tweeter–perhaps I followed the wrong crowd in my first attempt!) that you are. That’s empowering–knowing that me, the non-techy English teacher who still struggles to write simple HTML at the bottom of a comment to link back to my blog–can use a few FREE, simple tools to connect and learn from people around the globe, people who know a gazillion times more than I do.

    Whatever the nomenclature, it is important to make the tools and strategies for using them transparent.

    I teach a few workshops in my state. In my first attempts, a couple years ago, I felt inadequate to teach others about technology. I’ve realized that facilitating workshops is merely sharing what I’ve learned, making the tools and strategies I use transparent. In every session I lead, there’s always some that have never heard of Google Reader or Del.icio.us or wikis. Some who are intimated, thinking these tools are only for the techy. I love their excitement when they see how simple it is to publish to the Internet, to connect with other educators.

    Thanks for sharing. You don’t have to wait a year to drop me a comment–I’d love a bit of that adrenaline rush!

    <my blog: JustRead!

  4. A question I forgot to ask:
    How long, on average, does it take you to write a post like this one?

    My biggest hurdle in blogging has been TIME. The frequent posting by “expert bloggers” as yourself is another element that intimidates me, makes me feel inferior.

    I teach AP English Language and English 11. It seems I ALWAYS (screammmm!) have papers to grade, student blogs to read, lesson plans to create. In fact, as I sit here typing this comment, I really need to be grading and commenting on the remaining 26 blog posts and humpteen eCircles (literature circles discussing a text on their blogs) I must assess before Wednesday–the deadline for grades this quarter.

    This issue of time seems to always rear its ugly head at the workshops I teach. When I explain that the best way to learn is to read other bloggers and then write–reflecting, connecting, evaluating, synthesizing–teachers complain they don’t have time. Some are just not committed or willing to devote the time, but some are like me: struggling to stay afloat, drowning more often than not.

    I notice some of your posts seem to be long and polished (the metaphors in this one are superb) while others are quick bursts–in English-teacher-land what we’d call rough drafts. Perhaps, that’s my problem–I’m trying to publish only finished, polished pieces, which, of course, takes time. In fact, my last couple posts have taken me over two hours to compose, add hyperlinks, and publish.

    Any recommendations?

  5. Hey Chris- I’ve learned so much from this exchange with you and am ready to drop my knee-jerk response to the term PLE, which really was from reading things a year or so ago which really tried to pin it down as a “thing” – your perspective became more clear via your blog posts. So while I may have snapped something akin to “the net is your PLE” I never really expect to cast people in to the ocean and expect them to swim. Its my own response to other areas of our field where “If You Name it, It Exists” happens a lot.

    So now it’s more like “Your PLE is some sub set of this giant net ocean, here’s a bit of my own cloud.” And in terms of your wish, to flesh out the tools, methods we use, then, I consider my blog a quasi map of my “PLE” because those are the things I have written about all along (with lots of other crap tossed in).

    But I will drop my snark about it “just being diagrams” 😉

    For lhuff, I have no special guru insight to this stuff, and most of what I know is what I filter from others (aha, via my PLE!) A key for me when working with the doubtful, the worried, is jut to try and overwhelm them with all that’s out the, but aim for some small tool, resource, that is meaningful to them- “hit ’em in their discipline” or for personal use (hence flickr- there is so much appeal for easily doing things with photos)… my variation of Curly’s Law (form City Slickers) to “find that ONE thing” which in this case opens the door to finding many more.

    As far as the writing, I usually do one off shoot form the him, Ready Fire Aim posts. But there are times, like this one, that I actually worked on over a few days. I still write mostly draft and dont re-edit most. But its a personal decision on what your “blog voice” is– I seek to be conversational, casual, snarky, and not polished on purpose.

    The time issue is something I cannot fix. Nothing “saves” time- time is en ever fix flowing thing, so its a matter of what we choose and what we make important. So I give up some sleep 😉 because for some reason, I feel *wrong* or out of sorts if I am not regularly posting something. So for me, I keep it going by mixing it up between quickies and longies. I do a lot of posts now via flickr’s Post to Blog feature.

    Its a matter of finding what is your own style than trying to model someone else’s. And there is nothing wrong with infrequent thought pieces. And… its not going to be the appealing thing for everyone.

  6. I will be doing a brown-bag lunch session for our faculty on PLEs in a month, and this posting and the comments have been extremely helpful in helping me conceptualize this (thing) (cloud) (environment) (mental image) (etc.). Seriously, I really appreciate the thought that both Alan and Chris gave to this subject. And as an aside to IHuff, I lurked for years before starting my own blogging this past January, and now see that it has really helped me grow professionally and personally (and I have made some amazing new friends). I never had the time…but you make the time for the things that are important, and blogging has risen to that level. Jump in and try it!

  7. I add my “thanks” to Chris and Alan and others for this exchange. It has cheered me-that my cloud resembles, however vaguely, a superstar’s-and has provided fresh ideas, too.

    The dangers inherent in naming appear in ancient stories; we are not the first to struggle with it. I find “PLE” much closer than “social networking” to describing what I am doing, which makes me grateful for the term.

  8. @Alan,
    I was upset not to see WordPress mentioned in this post once. I officially take umbrage with this, for the record 🙂

    One other thing, did I miss any mention of Flickr besides feed for comments? Is that not a core app? Given the amazing stuff with the 366 project, I figured that would be a perennial.

    @Chris: you are officially out of your mind, I am becoming a bit scared of how smart you are.

  9. jim -watch out for tying yourself completely to one train. WP is an underlying part of the cloud- I am not mentioning cisco routers either. Yes I thought about how to include flickr as it is in my cloud and honestly felt it was time to publish, so it was laziness.

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