Polybook: A New App for Lifelong Learners and #LearningInPublic

Polybook: A New App for Lifelong Learners and #LearningInPublic February 27, 2021

It was great to have a Zoom conversation with Joe White yesterday. Joe is the creator of a new app called Polybook and I’m really excited about what it does, in particular its potential for use by students and educators in particular. Perhaps the best way to introduce Polybook is by way of Joe’s Twitter account. His Twitter user name is “Joes2ndBrain” and in our conversation he mentioned one of the many impetuses that led to the creation of Polybook that I could immediately relate to. Many of us Tweet things that we find interesting. They then get lost in the ever-increasing flow of tweets. I have more than once tried to find an article that I read, thought was interesting, and shared on social media at some subsequent point, thinking “I know I read something about this, and that I shared it.” Yet I couldn’t find it when I needed it. I often reduplicate my efforts, putting things that are interesting into a Word document related to an article I’m writing as well as out on Twitter. But so many things aren’t related to current projects, and I didn’t have a good way of keeping track of those things that are not only likely to be as interesting for my followers on Twitter and Facebook, but may prove important in the future. I trust (despite evidence to the contrary) that I’ll remember enough about them to find them again at some future point. Do you see the link with what Joe called his Twitter account? Our phones and other devices, our cloud storage, and other technology really is a cyborg-like addition to our brains, even if not literally hardwired together. We take notes and look things up, but we don’t do those things particularly well or efficiently at the moment. We still take notes in Word documents, perhaps organized into directories in Google Drive or Dropbox. That in itself is far less seamless a process than it could be. We have centralized homes for crowdsourced knowledge like Wikipedia, and we have our own personal devices and notepads for private notes. Some of us have blogs that we use to both take notes and share them. Nevertheless, there seems to definitely be a need for something in between that bridges these different yet related activities, that allows individual notetaking and crowdsourcing of the effort at knowledge-sharing and knowledge-acquisition to be more directly connected. That’s what Polybook is for. It is an individual yet connected way of taking notes, building your own personal encyclopedia, but also drawing on what others create as they do the same. It integrates timelines and maps so that one can interact with information in more than one way. For those of us concerned about providing equal access to information and opportunities to learn for diverse people, the fact that the traditionally dominant medium of printed text integrates directly with visual and aural ways of communicating is important. One wonderful feature is the visualization of things like the number of experts and kinds of websites that represent particular views on subjects like climate change. I try to convey to my students that academics never all agree on anything, because it is literally part of our job to try to say something different from what has been said before. We try out new ideas and explore new possibilities. Most of those don’t pan out. That is why the sensational science and archaeology headlines are so often later shown to be wrong. That isn’t a sign that academic methods don’t work, but the reporting of them for the public in that manner shows either a misunderstanding of how scientific and historical investigation work, or perhaps more likely, a willingness to ignore how they work in the interest of selling magazines and getting website traffic. We regularly emphasize that if 99.99% of scientists, historians, doctors, and other specialists agree, their conclusion must be based on strong evidence. But posed that way, some may simply wonder why we don’t all agree, and wonder what those who disagree might know that the rest of us could have missed. If that is the case, of course, it will normally come to light through the two-pronged approach of critiquing longstanding assumptions and critiquing new proposals. In the meantime, the fact that Polyapp will display in visual form a representation of the spectrum of opinion and what kinds of sources represent it may prove to be a major step forward in helping people grasp how knowledge-creation works, as well as how misinformation will mislead us if we aren’t careful. The pandemic has exposed or simply made us more cognizant of many ways that we do things in the realm of education that are, at the very least, sub-optimal. I am genuinely excited at the creativity that has emerged in the midst of these challenges. As we look ahead to the future of learning, I expect new tools like Polybook to revolutionize the way we do things in positive ways. In addition to academics taking a leading role in creating content summaries and linking to reliable things by ourselves and others that are on the internet, students can use the app in private, semi-private, and public ways to do some of the things we ask them to, such as reflect on assigned reading, research topics, create timelines, annotate maps, and so on. I invite those who are involved in education in some way to find out more and consider becoming early adopters. Find out more on the Polybook website. I for one am looking forward to exploring what the app can currently do and providing input and feedback to help it become something increasingly useful not only to me but to my students. Still want more information before looking into this further? Here is a video about the app: There’s also a brief review on Medium. Definitely follow Joe and Polybook on Twitter as well. In case you’re wondering, while Polybook will provide a more organized way of making note of things than Twitter, it will let you Tweet the things that you note so that you don’t have to choose one or the other. If you try out Polybook, please do let me know your thoughts on it!

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