My Top Personal Learning Tools 2020

Jane Hart has issued her annual call for our top ten e-learning tools, and here's mine. I've named my list 'personal learning tools' because I think of learning as an activity that blends my own activities as a 'student' with those as a 'teacher'. It's a practice that thinks of learning as immersive and ongoing; I work, teach and learn all in the same sweep of the quill. It's helpful to refer to my diagram from my previous post, describing the process.

Without further ado, here is my list:

  1. Firefox - the web browser has become so ubiquitous many people are simply dropping it from the list, but for me it is central, and more to the point, it is a conscious choice. I don't use Chrome or other Chromium-based browsers (which includes Edge) because I value the ability to block advertisements. I also prefer a privacy-focused browser, but it's the advertising that is the deal-breaker for me. I pay thousands of dollars for computing equipment, software and connectivity, and see no reason why I should suffer advertising on top of that. Firefox is free but I donate from time to time.

  2. Feedly - yes, I've written my own RSS reader, but who wants the overhead of all that data being input, sorted, stored, etc? So I use Feedly quite a lot; it's the primary source for most of my daily links and keeps me up-to-date on a daily basis. The list of sources, and categories I collect, could make another post in itself (I might do that one of these days). I pay for a Pro+ Feedly subscription, which has just recently added an AI  research assistant called Leo that I haven't tried yet.

  3. Pocket - this is another Firefox product. It allows me to store links for future retrieval. I use it as a staging area; I use IFTTT to auto-forward links I 'save for later' to Pocket, as well as a browser plug-in to store links I might find using email or Twitter or LinkedIn. For those who are curious to see what's at the wide end of my funnel, I've used IFTTT to auto-post Pocket posts to a Tumblr blog, which can be found here. Not everything goes into Pocket - sometimes I'll jump to writing a post directly - but most of it does.

  4. Email - pretty much all of my work activities are being conducted by email these days, as are most of my personal activities. Email is often the first thing I open in a day. I use three tools (because despite it being The Oldest Technology we still can't make it work seamlessly). So I'll classify email (specifically, SMTP and IMAP) as my technology choice. I use Google mail as a personal inbox, Thunderbird to actually read and write email, and Outlook at work, which used to work with Thunderbird, but is now so locked-down it barely works with itself. I also send my newsletter using email, using MailChimp, which I've set up to automatically formal and mail my RSS feed.

  5. Reclaim Hosting - normally I'd put gRSShopper in here, and to be sure I use it every day, but I want to capture the idea of having my own web server in general, and so I'm listing my hosting provider, which is Reclaim. Basically what I have here is static content (including all my posts, slide shows, and publications), a database engine (MySQL), a web server (Apache) and the various functions gRSShopper performs for me (including things like creating my newsletter and hosting MOOCs). I also have a barely used instance of Ghost on Reclaim, and am looking at using their brand new cloud services.

  6. PowerPoint - while I've experimented with other services (especially Google Slides) I always find myself returning to PowerPoint because it's an exceptional authoring environment. For me, it's not just a place where I author presentations (though I do, a lot) it's also the place where I create most of my graphics; the 'insert shapes' tool allows me to create pretty much anything I need, without the need for a separate application. The diagram from my previous post was authored on PowerPoint. The finished work, meanwhile, is stored both on my website and on SlideShare (though that may change, as it will be operated by Scribd starting in September).

  7. Google Search - this is another service that is often overlooked by others but with is an essential part of my online learning. While I do a lot of day-to-day content aggregation, and usually search my own stuff when I need to refer back, it's Google search that I turn to first when I'm doing deeper research. Also noteworthy here are Google's image search and Google Scholar for academic papers (even though it really should have an 'open content only' button).

  8. Google Docs - I was going to put MS Word in here, and I do use it a lot, but over the last year I've found Docs to be a lot more useful, if for no other reason than that I can easily share documents in progress. As a result, I've put a lot of my research activities up on Docs and you can see as I putter away at various projects over time. I also do a fair amount of my writing on Blogger (which is where this post was written) and WordPress.

  9. Mastodon - again, I could have included any number of microcontent tools here, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Imgur, TikTok, Flickr, Slack and SMS, but I'm listing Mastodon because there's more behind Mastodon that plays a role in my learning, not the least of which is the concept of federated services, and specifications such as ActivityPub. 

  10. Zoom - again, the list could include Meet, Skype, Jitsi, BigBlueButton or even Shindig (though as a guest only, as I'm not wealthy), but Zoom is the video conferencing service I've been using most over the last year. And I've been using videoconferencing a lot, a lot more than in previous years. Just to be clear, though, my list does not include WebEx or Adobe Connect - these are the reason it took so long for videoconferencing to become popular, and the reason people took to an upstart like Zoom as soon as it was offered.


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