Personal learning net(WORKS)



A personal learning environment is defined as including:

“… tools, communities, and services that constitute individual educational platforms that learners use to direct their own learning and pursue their educational goals.”

The personal learning environment includes obvious things like books, papers as well as social media, library resources, people and so on. In the undergraduate space the idea of a student being an active agent in creating a personal learning environment is a bit radical; it oversets conventional ideas about learning where the teacher is assumed to be the ‘center of knowing’. In the PhD space the concept of a personal learning environment is a new way of describing and old practice.

One of the key opportunities a PhD gives you is the chance to fine tune your own ability to learn; putting a name to this supporting practice is useful because it allows you to think about it more consciously . I like to think about creating a personal learning environment as a process of foraging. Just like animals in the forest, PhD students search for and exploit online and offline resources in order to get stuff done and learn new skills.

Your personal learning environment will include all kinds of things besides conventional academic materials like books and papers. You are reading this, so you are already working with blogs. You may also be using social media services like Twitter and Facebook to connect with colleagues and friends. No doubt you are making good use of the services of librarians and, hopefully, some kind of study space on campus.

I’m not as interested in what a personal learning environment contains as I am in the kind of work it takes to put a personal learning environment together – and hold it together.

Conventional ideas of work involve physcial movement and sweating; this kind of work is visible because of its effects. I sweat as I dig a hole and end up with an effect: well – a hole. But intellecutal labour is different. Thesiswhisperer Jnr often answers the phone when I am working at home. He will always tell the caller that I am not busy, which drives me crazy, but it’s a logical assumption for him to make. All he sees is me staring at my computer screen; he doesn’t realise I am thinking and thinking is my work.

This clip from the Big Bang Theory always gets a laugh when I show it in my workshops because it captures this idea: that knowledge work is work, but it doesn’t always look like it:

The late, great anthropologist Susan Leigh Starr would call thinking a form of ‘invisible work’. Starr claimed there was a special form of invisible work called ‘articulation work’. Articulation work may well be physical and have effects, but it still becomes invisible. If work is invisible, Starr argues, it can come to be de-valued.

My friend @bjkraal once described articulation work as “the work you do in order to do the work you do”. Good examples of articulation work are shopping for food, washing dishes or reading a recipe: it’s likely you have to do this kind of work in order to cook a meal, but we can easily forget about all this effort in the act of eating of the meal itself (feminist scholars argue that it’s no accident that women tend to do a lot of articulation work, but that’s a blog post for another time).

Holding together a personal learning environment to support your PhD takes a lot of articulation work. Just as animals can spend all day foraging to find enough food to sustain themselves, so too the process of information foraging for a PhD. It takes time to find, read and sort through information and even more time to organise it in such a way that it is useful, even if you use sophisticated reference software like Endnote or Zotero.

I find myself resenting the amount of time I spend on these kinds of activities because all this articulation work, although laborious, doesn’t really feel like legitimate work. I find myself feeling anxious and fretting as I do it. I have to resist the urge to skip it and just get to the writing. I like writing because it feels and looks more like ‘proper work’ to me. My fingers are moving on the page (physical effort) and words are being produced (effects). But I have to constantly remind myself that writing, like cooking, is just the place where all that articulation work becomes visible.

Recognising and valuing invisible work is a political act. The concept of articulation work is powerful because, by being able to give it a name, we recognise all kinds of work which might otherwise remain invisible – or not be seen as a legitimate use of time.

Let’s take Twitter as an example. Can hanging out on Twitter be seen as work?

This is an issue close to my heart because a lot of people tell me they don’t have time for Twitter. Most are too polite to tell me they think I am wasting my time, but I can read the subtext. This negative attitude towards Twitter always mystifies me because I have come to depend on it so much. I use it constantly to discover cool new things and people. If I have an intractable problem in my work I will often ask Twitter; it’s amazing how often and how quickly I get exactly the answer I need.

This Twitter network took a lot of invisible work to build. I have done this work without necessarily knowing there will be a reward at the end just because, well – I enjoy it. I now have a large follower base who are willing to answer my questions and lend me ideas because I have spent time ‘feeding’ this audience with links I think they will find interesting and useful. I answer any questions I am asked to the best of my ability and engage in chit chat. Even the chit chat can be valued as work if it builds a sense of community and connection. Therefore I never feel guilty when I am on Twitter in work time, but I have needed to learn how to balance it with gettting things done!

So if you are in Melbourne and interested in hearing more of what I – and others – have to say about personal learning environments and how to cultivate them, come along to PLE2012. I think there are still tickets available and it’s relatively cheap, at least, for an academic conference.

But I’m interested in what you think about these ideas of work. Can you identify the kinds of articulation work you have to do in order to do your PhD? Does doing articulation work sometimes make you feel guilty?