Personal learning net(WORKS)

Next week I will not be blogging; instead I will be keynoting at the PLE (personal learning environments) 2012 conference at Deakin University. I’ve been looking forward to this gig for months. Besides being a nice opportunity to wear my keynote dress, I am excited about the ideas behind this conference.

The organisers describe a personal learning environment 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 Star 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, Star 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?

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28 thoughts on “Personal learning net(WORKS)

  1. Thank you Inger. This post really speaks to me today.

    One thing that occurs to me, is that there are periods of time in which we engage much more in this sort of articulation work than others. The start of a PhD is one of those times for sure! I know that it took me a long time to get to the point where I felt I was doing ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ PhD work. In fact, I may have been 2-3 years into the process before I felt that way.

    At the end of my PhD journey, and the start of an academic job search, I find myself once again ‘investing’ a lot of time in tasks–including information foraging and relationship building–for which I can never be sure there will be a tangible reward.

    So pleased to now have a word for what I’m doing. And thanks for the reminder that this work may feel less legitimate but is nonetheless important.

  2. Well firstly, the PLE2012 session is about 2 weeks too early for me – I will be in Melbourne in a couple of weeks and I’d love to be able to justify my “weekend off” by doing something PhD-related, but on this occasion unfortunately the timing is out of whack.

    Yes absolutely all that invisible work is actual work. It’s part of what makes the PhD more efficient in other ways. 30 years ago when PhD study did not have the advantages of EndNote and online journals all that work was done manually (think – paper or microfiche journals!!!), maybe with the benefit of a typewriter (woo-hoo) and it was absolutely, definitely part of the “work.” So these days, when we have all these online and labour-saving advantages, organising ourselves to take advantage of those tools should also be considered “work.”

    I have two major tools. One is Endnote. The other is a concordance that I’m developing – a summary of every piece of literature that I read (336 far, but who’s counting?). All that summarising is invaluable. When I need to know about “trust” (as an example) or “motivation” all I have to do is search my concordance on the key word and I find summary after summary – I can choose which ones I want to read in more detail and go to EndNote to locate the actual full journal articles, some of which I read 12 months ago and have forgotten about. Some summaries don’t refer to journal articles – they are book chapters – but I can go to EndNote and find the library reference/call number. This saves so much time – and so setting it up and maintaining it is part of my “work”. It’s part of the 40 hours a week that my university says I’m supposed to spend on my PhD studies.

    I had a raging row with my husband this morning. He is resenting how much time I’m spending on my PhD because he doesn’t see that it is “work.” He sees me on Twitter and thinks I’m wasting my time – not working. He resents that I have time to “waste” on Twitter while he’s working 16 hour days earning a living to support the family. I didn’t mention that for him to “see” me on Twitter he must have been on Twitter himself . . .ahem. It really wasn’t the right time to mention that. Truly I had no energy for this argument – I don’t feel that I need to justify to him how I spend my time. We both signed up for this PhD – he’s under a lot of pressure and I’m an easy target . . . enough said.

    But it is important to know where to draw the line on social media. There are wonderful resources and links coming through on #phdchat, but we all have to limit ourselves to a certain amount of time on Twitter, facebook and blogging so that it doesn’t take over. We all have to build a sense of how much time we are investing in social media to get benefit, and when we’ve crossed that line and we’re spending more time than we should.

    It’s worth all of us remembering that those out there in business are working long hours too. It seems that corporates expect people to work their standard 8 hours, plus an additional “professional” 2-3 hours, and NONE of that includes time spent responding to email – which can come in at the rate of 100+ per day. That’s the standard life of a middle-to-senior executive, so don’t imagine that we’re hard done by as PhD students if we’re spending time on social media AND writing AND researching and it takes more than an 8 hour day.

    • Hi,
      I’m a novice researcher & finding that literature review is too much too handle. I’m interested to know more about tool that you mentioned to summarized all the literature? What kind of software/application that you use, how do you manage it etc. Hope you can share more on this.

      Thanks.

      • I’m just using Word. My supervisor suggested a one page summary of everything I read. So at the top of the page I have a little table with Author name/date – Name of item – Reference details including DOI – and an assessment (score out of 10) showing how useful I think it will be for my research.

        Then my summary is organised under four headings:

        Aims/Significance
        Literature (what have they referenced and discussed)
        Method – very brief description of how they did the research
        Result – paragraph or two on their findings.

        This is enough because it generally contains all the important words – theories they’ve used to justify their method, key topic areas. I can then use those words to search my Word document, which now has hundreds of these one-page summaries in it.

        It’s basic, it’s not a database, but it works well. I can search on author names, topic areas, important words, journal names (important if you want to get published because you have to cite refs from the journal you’re targeting).

        When I’m reading I read with my journal article open in one window and my big word document in another, and I make notes in the word document while I read. I also annotate the journal PDF at the same time (I use a mac and Preview is the online reader – and it has an annotating tool – not sure if Adobe has the same feature).

        I have a folder in which I store all my online articles and other reports. In EndNote, when I enter a reference (which I do as soon as I’ve read it) I use File Attachment to point to where that article is stored. That way if I want to find it and re-read it I only have to go to EndNote to locate it quickly.

        So here’s how it works. Yesterday I found an article on google scholar that looked like something I wanted to read. Author is Grabner. I thought that name sounded familiar and didn’t want to download something I’d already read. So I went to the concordance (word document) and searched on Grabner. Found the one-page summary and realised it was an article relevant to what I was doing, but something I read over a year ago and had forgotten. Went to EndNote and found the reference, clicked on the File Attachment and found the article and re-read it.

        I hope that helps. It’s working for me but I think we all have to find something that we can use. If you are keeping a log of your literature remember to back up – every day!

    • My husband and I have had the same fight which is why I get up so early in the morning to do my thinking. I do it before anyone gets up. I can twitter, look for articles, or just stare into space (which means some deep thinking). I loved the comment from Inger about answering the phone “she’s not busy.” I’ll be in the midst of a breakthrough and have to stop to answer the phone, help my kids with THEIR work, or be distracted by some household problem that has come up. It’s hard to explain that you can’t stop just then since it looks like you aren’t really doing something.

    • I’ve been doing the same thing for about three months now where every time I read a paper, I write about one or two pages summarizing the key points and tying them back into my own research. I tend to write mine more as ‘extended annotations’ to the papers in my Zotero portfolio, but the idea is the same – search for a keyword, find a summary that’s written in your own words that triggers the thoughts of the original article.

      Makes it pretty easy to pull together the “related works” section of any paper. :)

  3. Thanks for the post and for helping me to start crystallizing these ideas into some sort of framework.

    Two thoughts came to mind:

    1) I attended a lecture on research study habits during the first week of my PhD. The lecturer cautioned us against getting caught up in the “interesting, useful distractions” that often come alongside research. He spoke, for example, of managing the lab group network (only engineers would find this “interesting”). While this may be important and even satisfying work, it also can be an escape or a means of evading a more difficult problem in core research activities.

    I certainly found in my own studies that this was a tenuous balance to manage. Sometimes it’s worth leaning into the hard stuff and pressing through. Other times, having a little “articulation work” was just the trick. Even if I hadn’t done explicit work on the task at hand, I’d at least put my ducks in a row. More often than not, this process of organizing helped me to regather my thoughts and regain a bit of the context of my problem.

    2) Clichés are pithy but true. We used to say “a day in the lab saves an hour in the library.” In engineering, the prevailing mindset is to tinker first and ask questions later. How many wheels have been reinvented this way?

    For me, I’ve always found the “activation energy” of doing a literature search to be disproportionately high relative to the actual exertion of just doing it. Once I’ve managed to kick myself into Google Scholar Mode, I never really spend any more than an hour at any given sitting looking at papers. But those hours are so so very profitable.

    Ah, to be in Melbourne. I’ll content myself with Northern Hemisphere summer. Have a good conference. I look forward to the inspiration wave that follows!

    • This sounds very familiar to me. I know that twitter is valuable but I also know that I spend too much time on it with diminishing returns (this is not intended as a judgement on anyone else, as many others will have found a better balance than me).

      Similarly I know that time spent in undirected thinking or reading is valuable – but again it’s tempting to indulge in this beyond the point where the returns shrink.

      This is a distinct point from much of the articulation work in the original post but maybe a little closer to what was said in the last comment.

      A final thought – I just saw an interesting talk by @kengilhooly about incubation time in problem solving – the idea of walking away from a problem for a few minutes or hours so that when you come back, inspiration has somehow struck. Again – experiments show that this works, for some kinds of tasks at least – but I don’t think anyone’s attempted to measure where the optimal point is. A certain degree of incubation must help, but not an infinite amount.

      • Mmm! Excellent reflection, Leigh!

        I need to think about EXACTLY what you articulated: Finding that balance. And the use here of the notion of “diminishing returns” is important and useful, I think! Yes . . . thanks for taking the time to share your reflection!

  4. Nice post Inger.

    I’m wondering if the ‘political act’ here is not so much in recognising invisible work, but in contributing to how it is culturally legitimated and, where necessary, formally accredited.

    A lot of articulation work we carry out is aligned with the cultural norms of academic practice – not least spending endless hours; in a library, or reading formal publications, or dealing with e-mails. Similar engagement in social media spaces and related activities continue to be largely trivialised and perceived as ineffective, despite the claims (mainly anecdotal) from an increasing number of practitioners who engage in them.

  5. I love this post, Inger. I’ve recently taken to describing the hour I spend reading and following up on twitter before getting up as ‘work’. Yes, it includes some play too, but what I get from twitter is invaluable for my PhD. I’ll be using the term articulation work to describe all those other activities that surround and are part of study but are not actually writing an article or chapter, yet are essential to its ultimate formation and quality. Thank you.

  6. Does it make me feel guilty? Well, yes.
    But so do most things.
    The most tangible impact on my life of doing a PhD is that I feel guilty. All the time. About everything.

    • Oh, I so related to your post, goccediacqua!

      Glad it’s not just me!

      I have GOT to fix that: No matter WHAT I’m doing . . . guilt CAN BE HAD about it. If your thesis-ing: Guilt! If your not thesis-ing: Guilt!

      I think the remedy is super important and must lie in taking the time AHEAD OF TIME to think out and plot on a 24 x 7 grid the BEST (flexibly-viewed, though) use of the 168 hours available for the week.

      SOME HELP:
      The book the NOW HABIT has a great method for this called “The Unschedule.” It is one of the ONLY things that has afforded me some measure of peace about how I allot my time right now.

      Best wishes!

  7. Perfect timing, Ingrid!

    I JUST, JUST read a scary (a little, to me) related discussion in the book “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research.” This discussion was in chapter one (I can’t give you the page number because I have it on Kindle only [it's Kindle location 349]).

    The discussion differentiated “instrumental behaviour” from “expressive behaviour,” arguing that most PhD students are good at one kind to the neglect of the other. Both are important, according authors Petre and Rugg.

    Instrumental behavior, basically, is behavior that gets the stuff DONE that manifests as DONENESS. I refer to this type of stuff “deliverables.” “Expressive behaviour, on the other hand, consists of actions demonstrating to other people what sort of person you are; for instance, sitting in the front of a lecture theatre and taking copious notes in a very visible manner to show that you take your studies very seriously” (Petre, Marian; Rugg, Gordon (2011-03-28). The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research (Open Up Study Skills) (Kindle Locations 368-370). McGraw Hill International. Kindle Edition).

    Why did I find this discussion on instrumental versus expressive behavior “scary,” and why is your post perfect timing? Well, turns out I engage in a LOT of expressive behavior. I do a lot of stuff that renders me “educated” as a graduate student . . . stuff that would be considered to be a part of my PLE but that is NOT VISIBLE to many . . . or when visible viewable/perceivable as distraction. :-(

    (ASIDE: I really started engaging in expressive behavior once I got stuck. But that’s another story.)

    Anyhow, much of my expressive behavior time would be LESS viewable/perceivable as distraction if I were more productive writing wise. (Probably no one would really care HOW much “extra” stuff I did if I were more PRODUCTIVE writing-wise. I’m hoping I “get there” sooner than later and that this is a symptom of being a newbie to some degree!) My main issue is that a near downing in the literature nearly took me out. And while I have learned the reasons why, and learned why and how I could have avoided the near-drowning, and vow to value and use the experience to help the future graduate students I teach . . . it’s scary recovering, being “behind,” and engaging in even the SMALLEST bit of expressive behavior now.

    I am learning from Phinished.org techniques and tools and ways to balance things out and spend MORE time engaging in instrumental behaviors. BUT ONE CAN IMMEDIATELY SEE THE IRONY HERE: I’m learning to be more productive of “deliverables” by spending time at an online community for academic writers. Yep, uh huh (smile and head-shake all wrapped into one).

    So, your post is perfect timing for me: I can balance the concept of PLE against the concept of expressive behavior and try to proceed “chillaxed but effective,” as some of my students would say!

    Thanks, and good stuff as usual, ma’am!

    Blessings!

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  10. Thanks for this post Inger. Your comments about ‘articulation work’ not feeling like ‘legitimate work’ really resonated with me. I struggled during my first year of PhD candidature (I am just starting my sixth semester now) because I felt that by reading secondary literature for 40 hours a week, taking notes and ‘foraging’ for useful archival material, I was really not doing proper, useful work. I actually felt like a real fraud. I think part of the problem was that I’d come from being a school teacher for 4 years where I was constantly engaged in very ‘visible’ work- I delivered 20+ lessons per week, was constantly marking or organising events. In short, I was always ticking off jobs as ‘done’ and getting that sense of achievement. It took me a good year – until I started writing – that I started to understand the value of the invisible work I’d been doing.

    As an aside, writing early was a really positive thing for me. Getting ‘runs on the board’ so to speak was great for morale and helped me to see where I needed to do further research or work harder on an idea.

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  17. Hey Ingar
    Thanks for the language to describe this important element of study. I have just realised the wise advice my supervisor gave me, even before I officially began my PhD, to just think, and read. She repeated it to me often in my first year and she was expressing this very same notion of the value of invisible work, or articulation work, as you describe it. I didn’t believe my supervisor at first and thought it was a tremendous luxury to simply think and read. But I took her advice and I remind myself every now and then that the invisible articulation work IS WORK, and it is OK to stare into space for however long it takes, or reading a book for a day is OK. (My thesis is in fiction)

    • Ah! I didn’t realize you were from Chicago! Go Bears! (But learn the name Brandon Marshall ASAP!) I reemebmr watching the 2008 Chicago Marathon literally from my bed (i lived at Sheridan and Diversey) as an athlete who had never considered road racing. My how things have changed! Love your posts!

  18. Hello Dave Angel you have been a great gift to me. I have a 12 year old boy. Who hasstruggled with his dtbisiliay of aspergers and adhd sence he was in pre school where he was beatin in the bathroom by the teacher and while playing on the floor he also told me she would hit him on the head with woodenblocks glue bottles. Wooden sticks. I tried to do somthing about but I was a mom al alnoe and had no money and thay told me not to fight the system I’ll loose. My son made through second grade where thay wanted to send him to a socalled special needs school in side of another school. This surely was hell where thay had a time out room and they had ropes {so called restraints} if needed. Never in my dreams did believe that thay would use them on my child. If he started to have a melt down thay would put him in this 4by 8 ft room with a door with a long slender window for viewing thay would not. Let my son out till he calmed down.which usually went to him wetting his pants .there were a lot of so called accidents happenening. Till thay asked to,,have some extra clothes at school.After that the predator finally made her move .My son wet pants after a melt down and the para molested him,putting his penis inher mouth and fondeling him. I donKt know how many times or how many other children she did this to.I called the police and a full investigation began and then suddedly she dissapeared not to be found.My son then went into another special needs school that was developed by a lady who devoted her life to special needs kids my son did well there for a while and soon was attacked by another student and choked in lunch line. Then he was head butted by another in the face and was knocked out. We moved my son to yet another school in a school where he was verbally abused by the teachers ,telling him that thay were going to get him sent to a foster home if he didn’t behave. We took him out oot f ther and we had to send. Him back to the previous school which had been cleaned up a lot. He spend half year ther and we found a IBAC school and basiclly had his own teacher he did very well there .this year he was put in another IBAC school and was doing okay until that replaced the administator with one that was going to so straiten this place up .I the hasting down everyday. Thay try to get my son to do thing by keeping his breakfast or lunch from him called the police on the children and has caused so much anxeity there the kids are melting down everyday.the day thay called the police on my son. He was tring to hide which is somthing he dose when he has a lot of anxeity. Thay are suppose to give him his space when he is having the happen but the new person dosent believe in this and dosent allow the others to do the things thay need to do. Like spinning or rolling ,rocking etc. My son dosent need a record for something he can’t control. I can’t take the abuse any longer. I an now going to home school my son. With a virtual learning school I think this is a great gift and I know my son will be safe. Thank You all very much and sorry for any booboos I typed this on my phone. I,Tn this and thaym tdome not to fight t she .24

  19. acfI have been homeschooling my gsradnon who has high-functioning autism and superior range intelligence since K, after a disastrous six weeks in kindergarten. He had survived two years in a Head Start preschool, was receiving speech therapy and occupational therapy from the school system, but the daily bullying while he was trying so hard to fit in was not tolerable, and the teachers did not know what to do with him. He wasn’t eating or sleeping well, he kept saying 50 times a day I’m died, and Is it going to be all right? He has a strong aversion to restraint, and in this state and school district if a student, even a disabled student, hits or kicks a teacher (never mind if the teacher is assaulting him) they are charged with a felony. We discovered later that another student turned over a bookcase onto him. His hair was pulled, he was hit, taunted, head-butted, and we were told that the other students are becoming hostile, so we are referring him to a self-contained special ed. class. That’s when I started to educate him at home. After he got over most of the PTSD from his public school experience, he was a voracious student. He is in fifth grade now, has been studying algebra and chemistry, was recently elected Community Service/Educational Outreach Coordinator for a Junior Master’s Gardener’s group, and played on a mainstream YMCA Youth Soccer team. He plays the piano, has participated in drama (lead in a Peter Pan class musical), and he loves to learn. He participates in activities and weekly Co-op classes with the local homeschool association, which has well over 300 children active in it.Keeping this child in these schools would only have led to the addition of severe traumatization to his developmental disorder. Nobody needs that. It is common here to put autism spectrum children into unsupervised padded rooms, to restrain them, and only last summer did the school board decide to stop the practice of corporal punishment (paddling) by principals. Their reasoning was that it was a liability; someone might sue them. We expect that Ben will go to graduate school as his primary interests are in science. He has handwriting difficulties but is good at keyboarding. If we had kept him in the local schools here, they would have thought they had done an exceptionally good job if he was able to bag groceries at the local supermarket when he grows up. That would not have been a good fit for his abilities.I have no need to defend homeschooling. I personally think that the public schools here are so bad, I wouldn’t subject my dogs to the kind of treatment that the children get. It would make them vicious. Sorry.24

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