Monday, January 29, 2018

Learning through social media - becoming part of a learning community

In an effort to attain better work / study / life balance, I have started to bring some organisation into one aspect of my informal learning, which is of New Zealand flora and fauna. Having tramped (hiked) around most of the South Island for almost forty years, I learnt, through a process of osmosis, some of the common plants, birds, insects and lizards/skinks commonly encountered in NZ's diverse natural landscapes. As I near retirement, I am in need of an intellectually challenging hobby and my long standing forays into ‘naming things’ may become an avenue to take up time released through retirement from work.

My initial attempts to bring structure my botanical instruction began by collating photos of plants taken on various tramps / walks. To date, after 2 years, almost 300 plants archived on Picasa, now Google photos, with identification sought through references to a range of books on my shelves, library books and then an increasing array of digital resources found through Google. Of which botany has extensive resources, with this site a good one archiving the myriad links.

All the above makes use of my current research skills, albeit in a more visual medium. I also sought out botanically trained, or inclined walking companions, many of whom patiently explained the nuances of identifying the rather large corpus of plants in NZ. Including a wide range of small leaved shrubs - with this book by Hugh Wilson and Tim Galloway an essential reference.

Several months ago, on advice from one of these ‘teachers’, I subscribed to Naturewatch. The contribution of networked learning has increased my learning several fold. I have also been able to observe how the on-line community on Naturewatch interact and support kindred spirits. So now, I try to upload photos a day or so after I have recorded the specimens. I usually attempt to identity the plant/s as I upload them, so would have made an effort to find the plant in my ‘hard-copy’ or digital resources first or use the nifty visual matching facility on the site. Then, usually within ½ a day, my sample would either be confirmed, or alternative identification would be offered. Through this process, I have learnt to be more careful with my initial identifications and to especially take note of seminal identification features and regional aspects.

Remembering the names of these plants is a major challenge. However, I have found associating the plant to the place where the photo was taken, provides a good initial anchor into my neural framework. Then, repeating the plant name when I encounter another sample, helps to reinforce the memory and lead to better recall on following occasions. Plants which have been contentious and have led to a discussion on Naturewatch have also been helpful. The experience of interacting with others and discussing the rationale for identification, again assists with future recollection.

All in, a good foray into the realm of possibilities opened up by the internet. When I shared the above with a good amateur botanist friend of mine, who is in her eighties, she was impressed by the ease of information sharing. Replacing the time honoured method of snail mail correspondence and asynchronous interaction. So, my learning is work in progress. 

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