How to improve my own learning? (part 1)

Over the past few months, I have grown fairly obsessed with the idea of improving and structuring the way I process, store and make use of information found both online and offline.

There are two main reasons for this. First, although I spend a fair amount of time every day trying to learn about things, out of a sense of curiosity, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my capacity to retain information. Second, I just enrolled in a PhD program, focusing on how people learn… So it has now become urgent to get my own house in order!


In spite of accessing heaps of info on a regular basis, mostly through books, articles or podcasts, and trying to save traces of the more interesting items, I have often had the feeling of remembering only vague fragments of even rather important stuff I bumped into. Although I tend to be extremely selective of what I read, the web — and more specifically, the sources I consult regularly [JUMP LINK] — puts such a wealth of fascinating, high-quality content at my fingertips that I never lack food for thought… And yet, much of this food doesn’t seem to leave a significant trace in me.

In a conversation with a friend, for example, I would get the sense that something I read some time ago could possibly be worthy of being mentioned… but I would actually recall more easily where I stored the file or book containing this information than the contents of that file itself. So instead of being able to bring an interesting fact immediately into our conversation, I would fall prey to a strong urge of fetching my laptop to open a PDF file. Very frustrating.

I strongly suspect that this unsatisfactory ability to remember what I read has to do with the fact that I predominantly use screens (on my laptop, smartphone, and ebook reader) to learn about the world.

First of all, cognitive scientists have actually shown that ever since Internet started to play such a central role in our lives,

“when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”


So while it is extremely convenient to use electronic devices to “externalise” our own memory — what Matthew Crawford or Andy Clark might call “extending” or “embedding” cognition in our environment — this can come at a cost: our Googling powers have collectively turned us into much better librarians than scholars.

On top of that, I have a very visual memory. Consequently, it is far easier for me to remember something when I can place it within a certain visual context — for example, a certain graph, in the top-right corner of that page in that particular book, which I know has a certain size, thickness, and weight; and I remember how this page is located in that chapter, roughly one-third into the book, etc. But screens are flat, of course, and collapse all content into a similar bi-dimensional format, be it a huge Oxford dictionary or a short news article. This is particularly the case with ebook readers, which have to present the text in as clear and standardized way as possible, to ensure readability. (Due to my semi-nomadic lifestyle, my ebook reader has become my most crucial reading device over the years, by far.)

So when most of what I read has been squeezed onto a uniform surface, my visual-spatial memory simply has nothing to hang onto, which I suppose makes remembering things more difficult.

How then should I proceed, in order to reduce these impacts, and learn more effectively? For one thing, it now seems to me I should rethink and rebuild from the ground up my “personal learning environment.”


A few months ago, I started immersing myself into the theory and practice of Connectivism. As I did so, I chanced upon the notion of “Personal Learning Environment” (PLE) in Stephen Downes’s writings, and it immediately resonated with me.

There seem to be two main ways of defining this notion, as pointed out in this article:

Some define the PLE as a conceptual way of working to accomplish (usually informal) learning goals. In this case, the PLE is a collaborative ad hoc set of procedures learners use to interact and share resources that further the expertise and competence of the individual (and group, in some cases). Conversely, some define the PLE as a specific tool or set of tools (usually soſtware) that a learner employs to interact with and manipulate online learning environments and resources.

So a PLE can be a set of procedures designed for one’s personal use, or a set of tools; often, though, it is discussed as being both at the same time. I will do so, too.

Why do I see the PLE as such an interesting concept?

First, because it acknowledges the need for people who learn “informally” (i.e. outside of an established curriculum and without an appointed tutor), especially by relying on electronic devices and the Internet, to do so in a structured, rational way. To design the PLE that suits you best, you have to take a good, hard look at the tools you already use (or should use) to learn stuff, and how to use them better; and you also must find out about the processes most suited to your learning style, schedule, personality, etc.

So it invites the learner to be more deliberate and conscious about their learning practice, in a deep and holistic way. Some habits should be broken, and new skills should be acquired.

Second, because the notion of PLE also integrates the need to connect with other learners as a key functionality or activity. As Mohamed A. Chatti points out,

A PLE driven approach does not only provide personal spaces, which belong to and are controlled by the user, but also requires a social context by offering means to connect with other personal spaces for effective knowledge sharing and collaborative knowledge creation.

In other words, a PLE is “the gateway to the web where learners evaluate resources and make meaning of content”. It embodies an approach that takes online networking as a fundamental way to learn in our day and age. This goes beyond merely sharing existing resources with others, important as it may be: a PLE should also allow one to “aggregate, configure, and manipulate digital artifacts of their ongoing learning experience,” and to communicate with others by synthesising these artifacts into new content — be it Tweets, blog posts, YouTube videos, etc.

This article by Dr. Terry Anderson neatly sums up the whole approach as follows:

1. PLEs are designed by individuals to establish and support their learning goals. Thus, for example, a central tool in almost everyone’s PLE is a word processor to create text documents.

2. PLEs are used to communicate with others, beyond those enrolled in a particular course. These begin with e-mail, but often expand to tools for video and audioconferencing, text chatting, blogging, and micro-blogging and many more tools to support one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many interactions.

3. PLEs are used to store, organize, select, and retrieve the digital tools and the documents that are created.

Finally, as Anderson points out, integrating the various tools forming one’s personal “network ecology” in a way most conducive to learning, communicating, and creating, also helps one to build a positive online presence and therefore to build “personal and professional social capital.”

See the article by Martindale and Dowdy referenced above for a more in-depth review of the definitions and types of tools included by people in their PLE. Scott Leslie’s page referencing various people’s PLE diagrams is also quite fun, and seems to have acquired a quasi-legendary status over the years — perhaps all the more so since it is now only viewable through the Wayback Machine?


With all that in mind… I decided to take that good, hard look mentioned above. What exactly is my PLE? And how can I redesign it, in order to learn better, and avoid (or at least alleviate) that disheartening feeling of forgetfulness?

More on this in my next post.


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