How To Create a Personal Learning Environment to Stay Relevant

I have been looking at the terminology that describes what I do in the classroom with my students. Here are some of the things students will do in a typical course I teach:

  1. Get a twitter account, use tweet deck to follow different hashtags (#) as a way of doing research.
  2. Set up a wordpress blog, and post text, sketches and images to the blog.
  3. Join the class Facebook group and contribute (from the mobile).
  4. Use Tumbler to do research and post thoughts, images, drawings.
  5. Use Instagram, pinterest to do visual research/ visual ethnography.
  6. Use Delicious, citeulike, netnewswire to undertake textual research.
  7. Use RSS and StumbleUpon to read online journals/ diaries to do user research (Digital Enthnography).

Its ten years since I started using blogs and online tools as part of my design teaching. In recent years I have been using the smartphone/ with notifications as a component of the learning process.

NOW – In design studio projects the central learning happens through a process of visualisation and pin up reviews. So in class presentations and conversations are crucial. Within the discourse of/ terminology of PLE I am now referring to the class encounter as ESSENTIAL LEARNING. The learning that happens outside of class – through social media and digital ethnography – is OPTIONAL LEARNING. Though I wouldn’t do it so intensively if it were really Optional. Which means I need a new term for what PLE refers to as Optional-Learning. If you have a suggestion – for an alternative term – post me a suggestion in the comments section.

How To Create a Personal Learning Environment to Stay Relevant in 2013 | Online Learning Insights

“Our understanding of learning has expanded at a rate that has far outpaced our conceptions of teaching. A growing appreciation for the porous boundaries between the classroom and life experience…has created not only promising changes but also disruptive moments in teaching.” EDUCAUSE Review, 2012

This quote from Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education (Bass, 2012), gives a good a reason as any for educators to develop a Personal learning Environment [PLE]; a space where we can keep up with the experimental modes of learning, instruction, changing pedagogy and instructional methods that surfaced in 2012. In a previous post I introduced the concept of PLEs and touched on why educators may want to consider developing a PLE for 2013. In this post I’ll outline how educators can develop their own PLE, where to start, and I’ll provide specific action steps, and what tools to use. First though, I’ll share three convincing reasons why we should get serious about PLEs—why they aren’t just for students.

Three Reasons Why Educators Need a PLE

Education is in a phase of disruption (not news to anyone)—and it’s not just a blip or a bump, but is what Harvard professor and author Clayton Christenson describes as disruptive innovation. This concept describes what is happening in higher education now. We can see disruption in the new forms of course delivery  (i.e. Udacity, Cousera), teaching methods (i.e. flipped classrooms), and new learning models (i.e. competency based learning). These experimental forms of teaching (MOOCs) and assessing (peer review, assessment centers) are changing how educators teach, and impact the student/instructor relationship. Below are three [convincing] reasons why educators should consider creating a PLE:

  1. We need to disrupt ourselves: The model of higher education is at a turning point. PLEs provide a framework for us to expand our knowledge in our areas of expertise, and in teaching and instructional methods that are and will be appropriate and relevant for the digital era.
  2. The Instructor’s role has changed. The learner is moving to the center of the learning and teaching model, and relies upon a variety of sources for learning. PLEs will help instructors not only stay relevant in his or her field, but will provide an opportunity to learn how to use tools that will enhance instructional methods and adapt to the changing paradigm.
  3. Access to the Internet has changed how we teach and learn—forever. New tools devices, and applications are changing our culture and society. Education is not immune. We need to adapt and respond—PLEs will help us to do so appropriately by responding from a position of knowledge and understanding.

via How To Create a Personal Learning Environment to Stay Relevant in 2013 | Online Learning Insights.

Useful Links


While emphasizing the active role of a learner, the PLE approach implies thatlearning is not located in a specific time and place, but is an ongoing, ubiquitous and multi-episodic process. As PLEs allow the collocation of diverse learning activities, tools, and resources, contexts permeate and learning becomes connected. In this sense, PLEs challenge some dominant paradigms in education and in the traditional understanding of borders, be it in view of learning places, educational roles or institutional policies.


The Book Wallah Project

I worked on this project in 2012.

Say no to designing objects

Is that really possible?

First the chain of causality and unsustainability: you buy things, which then creates the system that caters to this consumption behaviour, which then needs the manufacturing system to make things, which then requires designers to imagine things, which then means you have designers who want to design (things).

The question that I faced entering university from commercial practice in 1994 was – will I continue just being involved in a thingiverse – and will I be able to sustain my interest in such a work life. I was going into university as a teacher, I didn’t need to work clients and indulge in producer-side-thinking. I had the option to be idealistic.

So I said in 1994 – I will no longer design things.

My first action was to document the design inherent in the works of non designers – people on the street/ hawkers and this I referred to as the public domain. Design in the Public Domain.

Four years later I was to embark simultaneously on two projects – in both “producer side thinking” would be absent. Both would impact upon peoples lives – a large number of people.

That kept me busy for 5 years.

These projects – one on Waste and one on Pedal powered vehicles – sustained and developed my desire to do Projects as Campaigns. Thus was born the idea of Campaign Projects.

I have now been doing campaign projects for 17 years. Two projects were prototyped.

On Form and Design

I have now been teaching form and design for the better part of two decades. In this period I have had occasion to try various methods, exercises and theories of form development. So I went in to teach today and spoke of the background, the pitfalls of the ‘trade’ mindset in design, and of the pure-design in the project. I then connected the Japanese calligrapher, Zaha Hadid, the chef, the film maker (John Woo). I attempted to give the students a language to function in a world of form – genre, kitsch, … TBC. More on this in time.

On Hot and Cold Design

Cold doesn’t do anything, hot bother you(Stellarc). Cold is a focus upon a goal, hot is a capture of a dynamic creative process.

On the Transverse and Longitudinal in the Design Project

Transverse: 1:100, exploration, risk, unexpected, recall value, Buck, modelling

Longitudinal: Rendering, CAD, model making, prototype making, engineering

On Design by Drawing and the Table:

Discusses the context of the table (Saffer) as the location that has defined the aspects of the practices of design: stylized object drawing, CAD, model making. Then talks about how these three have replaced form and the space for the exploration of the visual and the aesthetic.

On letting Material Speak

I said that I was seeing a ‘laboured’ drawing, a contrived sketch and pretty much evidence of design done with a heavy heart. No joy in this. The answer is for the material to speak – to prove the point that they were being domineering and controlling with the design I contrasted two things: one, the need to get permits to travel to Arnhem Land and the clash of cultures in the Indians hurst incidents.

  1. Bamboo
  2. Lycra
  3. Beach
  4. Plasticine, Dough
  5. Paper, Card

Understanding hi-design versus kitsch

  1. The analogy of food: KFC drum stick versus french cuisine.
  2. Talking about cinema: John Woo, Ozu, Brother Bear versus Harvey Crumpet
  3. Crown versus Hyundai Excel

My 2009 writings

For all of you who attended the Writing workshop. Here are some of my writings and my whole 2009 plan of writings.

You can click on the highlighted and read the texts. The italics denote work in progress.

Book Chapter

Varadarajan, S. (2009). Teaching Industrial Design Students Sustainability. Educating for Sustainability: philosophy, practice, praxis. I. Thomas and K. Hegarty, Green Leaf (TBC).

Journal Papers

Varadarajan, S. (2009). “Service design for India: The thinking behind the design of a local curriculum.” Re-Public: Reimaging Democracy.

Varadarajan, S. (2009). “Theory of the Social Object.” ASIA DESIGN JOURNAL 2009: Creative Convergence.

Varadarajan, S., L. Fennessy, et al. (2009). “Product and service design for patient centered diabetes care.

Varadarajan, S. (2009). “Design and the Sacred.” Design Philosophy Papers. Submitted.

Varadarajan, S. and E. J. Sandvik (2009). “Social design for India: The proposal for a new school of design in India“. Submitted.

Varadarajan, S. and H, McLean (2009). “Design for Diabetes at the periphery”. In progress

Conference Papers



Fennessy, L., S. Varadarajan, et al. (2009). Trans-national Experiences: India and China in Australian Industrial Design Education. CUMULUS. Melbourne, Australia.

Whiting, M. and S. Varadarajan (2009). Early Exploration of Cloud Computing for Design Practice and Education. IASDR. Seoul, South Korea.

On the Design of a BGL Data Management System (2009). Ben Elston, Soumitri Varadarajan, Paul Beckett, Senior Member, IEEE.

Service design for India

Soumitri Varadarajan – Service design for India: The thinking behind the design of a local curriculum | Re-public: re-imagining democracy – english version

It was in the 1970s, a full ten years after the new design schools had been set up in India, that you see a lot of activity on the contextual discourse of design for India. The imported curriculum from the west needed to be realigned to suit a developing country. Two events are significant for us in understanding how this realignment was discussed. One event hosted in London titled Design for Need (Bicknell and McQuiston 1977) has designers from India and Brazil where the focus was upon (a) seeking an agreement that design needs to focus upon ‘need’ (basic necessities) and not wants (consumption), and (b) showcasing projects and experiences in product design in a developing country context. The group is in agreement that design can make a contribution to the less privileged in society by designing new objects. Such ideas of change through technical innovation were at that time also being made popular by the Intermediate Technology movement. The second event happens in India and is a special ICSID-UNDP event that is similarly situated and emerges with a declaration, the Ahmedabad Declaration (NID 1979), that has a more ambitious agenda of transforming society by design. The focus of the declaration is upon the poor, which at that time is more that three quarters of the population of India, as needing design intervention.


Personality of my Blog

I saw this personality test for the blog post in Jamin and headed off to try my blog out. I (the blog) came out as an INTJ. And here is the description of the personality. You can go off and try the test for your blog too.


INTJ – The Scientists

The long-range thinking and individualistic type. They are especially good at looking at almost anything and figuring out a way of improving it – often with a highly creative and imaginative touch. They are intellectually curious and daring, but might be physically hesitant to try new things.

The Scientists enjoy theoretical work that allows them to use their strong minds and bold creativity. Since they tend to be so abstract and theoretical in their communication they often have a problem communicating their visions to other people and need to learn patience and use concrete examples. Since they are extremely good at concentrating they often have no trouble working alone.

Back Soon

I am taking off for Christmas. And have promised myself I will not blog over the break. I will spend all my time with my family and be available for the kids. In a non distracted fashion. So this blog is on ‘away’ mode for two weeks (atleast).

Meanwhile – go on take a look around

(Iceberg image ©Ralph A. Clevenger.  Any additional usage must be licensed)

I leave you with an image of the iceberg – not as a reminder of global warming. But as a nudge – that the bit that we see of society is just not very relevant. That the hidden stuff – the faint and marginal – is huge and powerful.

Merry Christmas.

Going Slow for a bit

I am away from my desk – at a retreat – so not posting as much. Not browsing as much.

So all my alerts are mounting – and all the feeds are adding up. I scanned today – before going in to the discussions – and found some really exciting stuff there. So you will have to wait for all that.

Re our discussions – we are discussin g the ultimate purpose of design on this planet – and how this translates into a design curriculum. Which means we are talking about sketching and drawing.

Also take a look at the other blog I contribute to.
Renounce Network

Another year comes to an end

Its November – and I have finished my teaching for the year. So I am not thinking of my students – but am focussing upon the world of ideas. Typically in this period I reconnect with the core of by practice. I was asked yesterday – what my dreams these days are. I said I haven’t got dreams of the flash big house, that possession, that car (maybe a cruiser HD bike on the side would be nice) – if anything I would like to see my Diabetes company take off. The business plan of the company is in this blog – hidden away making it difficult for you to find. But seriously it is open source – as it should be.

I used this blog to keep pace with my explorations in Social Innovation. When November came I found myself working on a vision-strategy document for a new design school in New Delhi. A school with an affirmative action slant – which dovetails into my ‘social’ focus in design – as against the technological. So I read on the net, got google alerts happening, got lots of RSS feeds on Netnewswire – and the best of this stuff found its way into the blog. This was a lot – so Mark said ‘thats a lot’.

This point of the shift was also the still point of the turning world – it was the week Obama made it to the White house. I could safely delete all the ‘real clear politics’ feed and other such alerts. That was over – or so I thought. I have kept the Atlantic Monthly blogs – and discovered Megan McArdle – after her blast about bailouts.

So this post is in a new category called Faint Voice News – where I plan to reflect and give the reader (I seem to be acquiring a neat little following) advance warning about the shifts in my preoccupations.

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Social Entrepreneurshp for Designers?

And I thought I was on to something new – when I propose to go full tilt into involving students in the sort of work I have been doing since 1994.

Grain News: Sami Nerenberg to teach new RISD studio: Design for Social Entrepreneurship!

The Rhode Island School of Design has asked our Sami Nerenberg to develop and teach a new course in RISD’s industrial design department! Her answer? An innovative new senior studio: Design for Social Entrepreneurship. Reading the course description (below) it sounds like it will be an amazing and inspirational experience for the lucky RISD students who get to take her class. Makes me want to go back to school! We’ll keep you posted as the course developes.

Are Bloggers non-professional?

Stehen Cohen in his blog comments:

The false dichotomy of the schism between the professional journalists, journalism educators and academics and the world of new media, particularly as embodied by bloggers prevails. It seems largely perpetuated by a somewhat chauvinistic attitude on the part of some professional journalists who cling to the notion that a blogger, no matter how good a writer and reporter of information that they might be, is still something to be looked down upon as a non-professional by large parts of the profession of journalism.

This attitude was brought home particularly strongly by The Australian’s Jane Schulze who evidenced a particularly disdainful attitude towards bloggers, and Deakin University’s Stephen Quinn, who was surprised when I exploded from the audience with a vehement “yes” to his question whether, if an “amateur”, doing the same work and equipped with the tools of a journalist, ought to be considered to be doing journalism without having been properly trained, authorised and edited.

It is true that the functional discourse – you work for money – struggles to comprehend bloggers.

Innovation with a Social Face

That is something I believe in – innovation and sociality ofcourse.

But I also disagree with the dominant discourse in design – which I feel is elitist and marginal.

I’m Soumitri Varadarajan, designer, blogger, occassional photographer and full-time daydreamer. I live in Melbourne, Australia with my two excitable children, my soul-mate and Moshu, a medium haired moggie. From 1998 to 2002 I obsessively worked to define, set-up and launch two service design initiatives (The Campus Recycling Programme and the Rickshaw Project) which became two service NGOs and a micro-service-enterprise. In 2003 I submitted my PhD (the Life Cycle of the Object) and soon after moved to Melbourne, Australia straight into the Learner Centered Project which I did for three years. In 2006 I pulled back to focus upon social innovation – and my work in service design in diabetes care. Next term I am re-entering the undergraduate space to teach social innovation to school leavers – by getting them to work on three ‘authentic projects’. And as all this happens I will record and vent on this blog

Contact: You can contact Soumitri to know more about the projects, or to join in the Campaign Work. You can also see more information about his work here.

Content:The focus of all the courses and projects is ‘social innovation‘: as text from the wikipedia says it – “Social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds – from working conditions and education to community development and health – and that extend and strengthen civil society. Over the years, the term has developed several overlapping meanings. It can be used to refer to social processes of innovation, such as open source methods. Alternatively it can be used to innovations which have a social purpose – like microcredit or distance learning. The concept can also be related to social entrepreneurship (entrepreneurship isn’t always or even usually innovative, but it can be a means of innovation) and it also overlaps with innovation in public policy and governance. Social innovation can take place within government, within companies, or within the nonprofit sector (also known as the third sector), but is increasingly seen to happen most effectively in the space between the three sectors.”

Design Practice: Soumitri has worked from 1986, when he finished from design school, with non-profits. From 1998 he began pushing his projects to become ventures – such as the Campus Recycling Programme (1998-2003) becoming two non-profit ventures employing the workforce of the project. In recent years he has focussed his work on two areas – one (the artificial pancreas) deals with design of products and services for people with diabetes, and the other deals with the transformation of consumption practices (Renounce, Spending Habits and Locavore Project). Additionally he has restarted projects in the area of sustainable transportation – Project Icarus.


You can see images of his projects in his flikr site and his image archive.

Old Bio Text

Soumitri Varadarajan has a keen interest in marginal and neglected discourses. This has led him to construct projects dealing with marginalised communities (Waste workers), the rescuing of the ignored artefact (object culture of the poor) and the amplification of the marginal voices (Diabetes). His approach amplifies the social discourse surrounding objects and systems, and provides a location where the faint voices can be heard. His theoretical writings, rather than take issue with the dominant discourse of material constructions, talk about his projects and demonstrate a practice of collective action. Soumitri Varadarajan is Associate Professor in Industrial Design Program at RMIT University, Melbourne (Australia). He also holds the position of Adjunct Professor at Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, PRC) and Research Fellow at the National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad, India).

The focus of his undergraduate teaching has often been upon sustainability and the community orientated practice of design. In his master’s and PhD supervisions students’ focus upon marginal discourses and the privileging of the other, such as research in the area of sustainability, material culture, ethics, tsunami in Aceh and Iraq. He has an active interest in community work and people’s ways of learning. His current projects are in the areas of Diabetes and capacity building in RMIT students and staff to work on design projects in China and India.

Soumitri has a Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Mysore University (India), and studied Design at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad (India). He then went on to do a PhD at Indian Institute of Technology ( Delhi) on the construction of a design theory that included the account of marginal and neglected objects.

You can write to him at: