There are many different types of tools to construct a Personal Learning Network (PLN). The purpose of this section is to make you aware that common commercial tools are not the only option. In order to show you the diversity of options, we have come up with a couple of different perspectives to think about tools: format, licensing, function and application. These categories are not mutually exclusive so you may find the same tool listed under both. The categories in our PLN Tool Browser match the categories explained below, so if you have doubts about how to use the PLN Tool Browser, you may want to take a closer look at this section.
If we think of tools according to the format in which they are available, they can be classified into two categories: applications and add-ons. The main difference between these categories is that applications can stand alone whereas add-ons supplement, enhance or expand what an application can do. For example, applications such as web browsers (Firefox, Opera, Safari, Google Chrome, etc.) can stand alone while add-ons (Flash plugin) would need an application.
Applications can be further classified into: desktop-based, portable, mobile and web-based. Desktop applications are basically programs that you install in a computer and that you can only access from that particular computer. On the other hand, portable applications can be installed in a storage device, such as a USB flash drive, and can be run in any computer that lets you access that drive. For example, the Firefox browser you install in a computer also has a portable version. So if you wanted to use your portable Firefox in a computer that does not have it installed, all you would need is plug in the USB flash drive and click on the Firefox icon. Portable applications are very handy because you can run them in computers that do not have those applications installed.
Some applications may exist only in mobile form, such as the apps you would install in a mobile device or in a browser. For example, there are scientific calculators that are only available as an app. In some cases, desktop or web-based applications may have a mobile version.
Web-based applications are probably the easiest ones to access anywhere since all you need is a computer or device that has an internet connectivity. That, however, may also be a problem. You would not be able to use them without being connected to the internet. But there is always ways to get around that problem. Take Google Docs, for example. Google Docs is only available as a web-based application but it is possible for you to download a document you started in a Google Doc and open it in a desktop application.
Tools are all around you, no matter what device you’re using. Thinking of tools according to these categories will help you find what you need. For example, we are used to thinking about digital drawing as something done on a desktop-based application such as Adobe PhotoShop(TM). If you think about applications in the way we classify them here, you may want to find out if something like PhotoShop(TM) exists in mobile or web-based form. For example, SumoPaint is a web-based application that allows you to do many of the basic PhotoShop(TM) functions online. However, it also has a collaboration function that allows you to invite people to work on the same document and then share the end product with a community.
Licensing is another aspect that may impact your choice when it comes to choosing tools. In this section we distinguish between two main types of license: commercial and open-source. Sometimes you have a choice between commercial and open-source and choosing one or the other will depend on many factors. A simplified distinction between commercial and open source lies in the way the products are created and made available to the public. Commercial products are created by for-profit companies and you have to purchase the product to use it. Open source products are created by a community of motivated programmers who allow you to use, modify and redistribute the product.
Another way to think about tools is from the perspective of their function, that is, how you use a particular tool. Common functions include collaboration, syndication, aggregation, extension, search and production. Always keep in mind that there may be different options in terms of cost, licensing, privacy, etc. For example, Twitter is probably the best known tool for microblogging (short posts). However, there are many other tools used for microblogging, such as Identi.ca. Both tools are free but what you post in either is licensed in different ways. If you post in Identi.ca, the post is licensed through CreativeCommons. They also handle privacy in different ways. For example, Twitter has mechanisms to prevent spammers (you may report people who follow you) while Identi.ca has much more lenient policies.
Collaboration tools allow you to share work with other people. Collaboration tools have become more popular with the growth of the internet. Many collaboration tools now even allow real-time collaboration, so that more than one person can contribute to the same project or product at the same time. Many of these tools are web-based. Google Docs is probably the best known example of a collaboration tool.
Syndication tools allow you to broadcast and collect information from multiple sources. Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn can be used as syndication tools because you can broadcast your postings to an audience and also “follow” or “subscribe” to other people’s posts.
Syndication tools come in different flavors. The choice depends on many factors. For example, there are blogging platforms such as Blogger and Twitter. The choice between one or the other would probably depend on content and audience. For example, Twitter is a microblogging tool because the postings are limited to a small number of characters while Blogger allows you to construct much longer and detailed posts. So in situations such as having a question about an assignment, a quick tweet would better serve the purpose than a full-fledged blog.
Aggregation tools allow you to collect or compile information from multiple sources, for your own personal collection (PLE) or to share with others (PLN). Tools that allow you to aggregate content include: Google Sites, Wikis, Blogs, Forums, etc. For example, a wiki allows users to create a common site. They can can add, edit, or delete content. In a class situation, a group can create a wiki and pull in various websites, images, photos, etc. to create their own “working website” around a group project.
Extension tools allow you to amplify the functionality of an existing tool by adding ancillary software (often Web-based) known as “apps,” “extensions,” or “plug-ins.” For example, Google Drive allows you to extend its functionality beyond the basic tools of Documents, Presentations, Spreadsheets, Forms, and Drawings by choosing under the Create menu to “Connect more apps.” Dozens of available apps extend the functionality of Google Drive by allowing you to perform extended functions without leaving Drive. For example, various image editing extensions allow you to edit a photo inline in Documents, a function not included in Documents’ basic functionality.
Production tools enable the user to create content — anything from text (using a word processor) to videos (using a video editor) to games (using a game development platform such as Adventure Game Studio). Production tools may be collaborative (see above) or standalone; they may be installed on a local computer (network not necessary) or may reside in the cloud (network needed).
If you think about tools according to their application, that is, what you use them for, they can be classified into an extensive range of categories. Those categories include word processors, presentation builders, drawing and digital imaging tools, concept mapping tools, multimedia poster presenters, spreadsheet builders, equation editors and tools used to gather information, etc. This list is not exhaustive but it helps to narrow down the range of options.
When you think about tools from this perspective, keep in mind that all the choices for a given application might also have choices in terms of format and licensing. Getting the right option will depend on the context you need it for.