cc licensed flickr photo shared by Leo Reynolds

In preparation for the startup of the PLENK2010 open course that starts tomorrow… well shoot, if my patterns are consistent, what am I talking about being prepared? I’ll start week one with good intentions and let it drop off the edge of the table. But don’t let me put my self pessimism before the horse.

I’ve been thinking about a notion I hope to play out in at least two presentations in the next 5 months. One bit is some of us talk about a binary fork in the diagram of learning, splitting either into Formal (stuff we pay for, register for, go to trusted authorities for), and Informal (stuff we do on our own, for our own interests).

Yet this is arbitrary to some degree, and the open course model that has been played out a few times in the recent past by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier, and others — seems to muddy up this neat little fork. In a most simple sense, does it matter where or how the learning happened, compared to if it happened at all?

But that is the back drop, not the notion. The two upcoming talks I have in mind are around some metaphors I will stretch from photography, and what I have learned from learning to be a better photographer.

I’ve not taken classes or read books, but have participated at least two years in an unstructured place of doing the Post a Photo a Day type projects (of which there are many, the one I’ve been in is a flickr group On its own, this group now numbers over 500 people, there is no one in charge, no syllabus, no iron clad rules.. just people who take on the challenge.

The other activity I have done, that may be more influential, is Dailyshoot – where each day the leaders send via twitter an assignment (a topic or subject) I should try to do that day. Whereas with the 2010/365 photo group I’m left to my own to pick my best or selected daily photo, in dailyshoot, I might have to force myself to try something new, or not what I planned on.

So while I am not saying this approach works for every subject, the key aspects of learning I see here are:

  • I can become a better photographer simply by the sheer act of continually doing photography… heading towards the idea of 10,000 hours at doing something can get you near the “Welcome to Expertise” sign. This seems simple- I get better at something by doing it.
  • There is no central authority, no entity that is approving what I do. If I skip a day or more, there is no punishment. It is not based on attendance. I get out what I put into it. I’m really on my own. That’s is as Personal as the Learning Environment can be, eh?
  • But I am not completely on my own… and what I think is a key ingredient here is the feedback I get by being in a network of peers doing the same thing. It is the comments, suggestions, and even small reinforcements that others doing the same activity as me that increase or reinforce my learning, not a teacher’s.

This is just a rough outline if what I am thinking, but to me, there is a lot of power in what I have felt to happen in such an unstructured space.

It can be hard learning this way.. or fun

cc licensed flickr photo shared by kwerfeldein

On a parallel, I came across recently a curious short article in an unlikely place… I was trying out the Magcloud on demand magazine service, and on my iPad, all the titles are free. Just on a curious whim, I downloaded the first issue (June 2010) of Hacker Monthly, where i came along this article on 7 Tips for Successful Self-Learning:

This article by Bradford Cross and Hamilton Ulmer originally appeared in the Measuring Measures blog. While aimed towards self-learning in terms of learning program, there are some useful generalizations to glean here.

1. The longest path is the shortest and the shortest path is the longest Essentially, if you are looking for shortcuts to learning , your end path will take more time and effort. At first the path of learning all of the basic concepts seems like a long route, but in the end, the authors argue will be shorter in the long run.

2. Avoid isolation. This not only means find online communities, but also people you can talk to or bounce ideas off of. It’s the “Learning is social” concept —“As a self-learner, you do not have the convenience of scheduled class time and required problem sets. You must be aggressive about finding people to help you.”

3. Avoid multitasking It does not mean you cannot study with music playing (I am listening to a blues show as I type) but it is important to focus solely on trying to learn a task or complete a project.

4. You don’t read textbooks, you work through them It ain’t a novel and need not be read cover to cover, or even chapter start to end- “Successful self-learners don’t read, they toil. If there are proofs, walk them through, and try proving results on your own. Work through exercises, and make up your own examples.” It’s more like exercising than reading.

5. Build Eigencourses I cannot define “eigencourse” but to me it says leverage the open content that is out there. The “eigen” part seems to mean its not all in one place, you will need to pick and choose, mix and mashup. Don;t expect a single course pack.

6. What to do when you don’t understand. This point was a bit more vague to me and aimed more at learning to code, but the idea of a “logic tree” tells me there are patterns of ways to figure out how to step back and sort out what you need to learn something you don’t get at first. Maybe it should read, “DON’T PANIC”?

7. There is nothing so practical as a good theory. The authors here suggest to not be a “theoretician” or a “practitioner” but both. “Not all textbooks can be read with application in mind, despite that they serve as the theoretical foundation for applied work. This is why you must have a deep sense of patience and commitment – which is why a prolonged curiosity and passion for a topic are so valuable… Avoid the dualistic mistakes of technical execution without intuition, and intuition without technical execution.”

Now this might be all obvious and evoke a “duh” response, but then again, it seems to go in the flow of what people have in mind when talking of “personal learning environments/networks”.

I hope to be able to chew on some more of this in the next weeks of the course.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at 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. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. According to Google The prefix eigen is the German word for innate, distinct, self ( In this context, the latter meaning might be most appropriate: an eigencourse is the presumably a “self course” or possibly an autodidactic course. It could also mean a self-tailored course as well I suppose.

    A fellow PLENK2010 participant, and one-time 365 a day photographer … although I must have done it wrong because I didn’t get any feedback 🙂

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