How did you learn that?

by Bruce Kasanoff on October 13, 2009

Zonebee is the information literacy equivalent of a math teacher who says, “Be sure to show all your work.” It’s a web-based tool that lets you preserve a record of how you research a subject, and along the way helps you challenge and refine your assumptions.

With such a tool, you could teach an entire generation of kids how to explore, research and learn.

Even better, you could help them understand how differently people think, and thus gain an appreciation of diverse viewpoints.

Even better still, you could help them understand the danger of not thinking clearly.

I’ve had two fascinating conversations with Giovanni Battistini, the “chief” over at Zonebee, a spinoff of the University of Arizona. It took me deep into the second one before I began to see just how valuable their tool could be.

Zonebee, currently available as a free download for Internet Explorer, incorporates a number of best practices with regards to learning and research. But you don’t need to worry about these; you use them just by using Zonebee.

For example, when you start a Search, you have the option to get “Buzz” about the search terms you entered. Doing so brings up a tag cloud of your term and related terms. You then can choose to deliberately include or exclude any of them. In essence, you are deciding – then explaining – precisely what you mean.

This and other steps serves to reveal and challenge your assumptions. Imagine that you are learning about “gardens.” Do you mean “starting a garden,” “landscape gardens,” “vegetable gardens,” or “famous gardens”? Perhaps you wish to include “organic” in your search?

All along the way, you can choose to record your search process, an option that sets Zonebee apart from search engines. Doing so preserves a record of your learning process. Imagine if a high school teacher assigned her class a piece of research and asked each student to preserve a Zonebee record of their research process. This opens up all sorts of opportunities for teaching kids how to learn.

Battistini says the organization will soon start to offer customized services to vertical niches such as the legal professional. He sees other high potential niche users such as financial analysts, journalists and educators.

I can tell you from experience, it is very hard to understand the potential of this tool through a verbal description. You are far better off downloading the free Zonebee toolbar than depending on this or any other article to give you a full picture of the tool’s potential.

When you try it, keep in mind these three potentially killer apps that a Zonebee-like tool could become:

1.) An educational tool to teach both kids and adults information literacy. This is a must-have skill for the months and years ahead, and my wild-eyed guess is that most people are sorely lacking in this regard

2.) A tool to analyze how each of us thinks about information, which I bet will reveal startling insights about the nature of our organizations and interactions.

3.) A tool to challenge your thinking, revealing faulty assumptions and new opportunities.

Zonebee takes on what Battistini describes as the knowledge gap. The amount of human knowledge is growing far faster than the human ability to absorb knowledge. In such a world, there’s no room for fuzzy thinking or just plain forgetfulness. You need to be able to find the right answers, again and again.

Zonebee has much work yet to do – an Apple version is still months away – but this is an innovation worth trying and watching.

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