Into the weeds

a shovel in soil

The internet is a whole world in a digital format. Continents, countries, cities, and communities all interconnected within one enormous space. There are places we visit and many more that we don’t. Some we want to have a peek into and some we definitely prefer to avoid. To a large extent, we can control what we see, how we are seen, and what impact our presence has on any online space we choose to access.

Like a physical space, there are places we can access and some that we can’t without permission, whether paid or just controlled. In some spaces, we leave ourselves open to unwarranted attention, in other spaces, we are safer and more protected. But we have control, should we wish to take it.

As with many things, it’s our personal choice that counts; a deliberate, intentional choice to determine our actions and behaviours, and perhaps those of others. When reflecting on the people we interact with and the spaces we interact in, it seems clear to me that there’s a potentially significant benefit from taking greater control of your environment.

Our digital environments and the way we interact with them and within them is something we can pay conscious attention to, to get the best results, assuming the end game is to gain something from this activity.

Back in the early days of web 2.0, the heady days of “blogospheres” and the nascent “Twitterverse”, many people were forming or joining communities, whether organic, structured or somewhere in between. We explored and got lost among the rapidly expanding range of new tools and apps that could be used to get organised online. And it became clear that the spaces you access, the tools you use and the people you interact with create this environment in which you exist, digitally speaking.

Several things are related to this that, from a learning perspective, I’ve always been interested in.

  • Personal Learning Environment (PLE) – “a suite of tools” that are connected to form an environment that supports a learner to achieve their goals. Downes
  • Personal Learning Network (PLN) – “An informal system of connectivity to other people, through social and technological means, designed and curated for the purposes of learning and sharing information.” Cressey
  • Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) – the “process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities” Wikipedia

Notice that all these things start off with one significant concept. And embedded in these 3 things, deep within their purpose, is the concept of self-directed learning, as well as elements of the learning theories social constructivism and connectivism.

If you were to browse back through my sporadic blogging, you’d find something related to these things cropping up now and again, before life and work get the better of my attempts to write and interrupt my desire to make more sense of this and spend more time doing something with my knowledge of this area. And here I am again, prompted to scribble this.

Recently, I’ve been exploring a concept related to all these things above and that is the idea of a “digital garden”. This post is me putting together some thoughts connecting what I already know about digital environments and networks and adding gardening into the mix.

Here’s an example of a digital garden: Mike Tannenbaum’s “The Refined Mind”.

The concept of a “Personal Learning Environment” is something I’ve been fascinated about for a long time. I’ve studied it as an idea, researched some people’s experiences related to the idea of developing one and I’ve experienced the trials and tribulations of tending to such an environment. A garden, of course, is a metaphor for the kind of environment we might create, grow and look after. So, I think these things are very much connected.

Early references to a digital garden appear to have identified the relationship with the weeding, pruning, and the general, ongoing maintenance associated with gardening. But a digital garden has come to mean something more focused on tending one’s thoughts, through a series of connected notes forming an environment that reflects one’s knowledge in a particular area, and by extension, one’s learning, as the environment grows and evolves.

Confusingly, in a metaphorical sense, much digital gardening relates to the linking of thoughts and ideas as a form of networked thinking. This relates to the neural networks of the brain and, therefore, seems to come from a note-taking strategy called “Zettelkasten” which is supposedly more akin to how our brains work on a neurological level, i.e. the neural connections that grow to biologically capture our knowledge.

It seems to me that such a garden could form a particular space within a PLE. Perhaps it’s the vegetable patch, but I don’t think we need to get too specific about the details – although there’s something related to this further down!

The PLE, to me, has always been a way of thinking about the digital space that we create for learning by using particular platforms and tools. Then the system we develop that controls the inputs, processes and outputs necessary for learning and information management is the PKM bit.

PKM can be seen as Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Mastery – Seek > Sense > Share – framework, or Tiago Forte’s C.O.D.E

  • Capture
  • Organise
  • Distil
  • Express

But both of them, in a general sense, cover the same ground:

  1. Find and control incoming information/knowledge
  2. Make sense of the new knowledge by organising and processing it
  3. Share the information in a way that supports your learning and also produces value for others

So, to me, the digital gardening piece seems to fit neatly into the Sensing part of Jarche’s model and into the Organise and Distil of Forte’s. If that digital gardening is also done publicly, online, then it also fits into the Share/Express part of the picture.

It definitely feels to me as if digital gardening would be a useful way of making sense of things and something I’d like to get started, to help me organise my thoughts a bit more effectively. At the moment, I tend to capture thoughts and ideas in Evernote and frequently extend these into longer-form pieces that sometimes reach my blog. I think that’s probably true of a lot of people, having been involved in many conversations about blogposts that never “make it” for one reason or another.

In blogging, there’s definitely a strong barrier between writing for reflective thinking and actually making those thoughts public. There’s a force making you consider your words that is stronger if you’re thinking about sharing them. It’s this barrier that provides learning feedback, in the sense that you challenge your own ideas, which makes blogging a powerful learning strategy. If you can’t express it or explain it, or if you doubt the truth of your words, then you probably don’t know it well, so perhaps better not post anything until you do.

The next level is that you may not be able to critique the words and you may be wrong, but when you post publicly and get feedback, you might (hopefully) receive some new information that makes you reconsider your understanding or your position.

If all this happens in a digital garden, then there’s potentially a similar feedback effect. But it does still seem to me as if blogging is more set up to generate feedback, particular if posts are shared on social media. Digital garden notes don’t always have options for adding feedback and, since they are a less structured artefact, or at least less like the kind of thing we normally read, they may also be less like something people will actually read.

So my thoughts are wandering up the garden path thinking about allotments.

Allotments are common all over the UK and have become increasingly popular recently. If you aren’t familiar with these things, they are allotted spaces of land that people can rent to (usually) grow fruit and vegetables. From what I understand, people will help each other, share, and give advice to their allotment neighbours and I’m wondering if what the digital gardens need to be truly effective for learning is this kind of support. Then we might be getting into the realm of Communities of Practice, or something similar.

So maybe if there’s a community group of gardeners, that’s where the fun starts.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got any thoughts on this post, I’d love to read them. Let me know below.

Featured image by Goumbik from Pixabay

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