Curation in Learning – Ben Betts

I’m getting very excited about the possibilities of using more digital curation in learning. The trouble with curation is that I’m seeing it everywhere.

As such I wanted to come up with a short framework that I could use to talk about how I see curation in learning being used, both at the organisation level and for individuals. So, go easy on me; here’s what I’m proposing…

We can think of digital curation as being useful to us in four broad roles that I’m calling Inspiration, Aggregation, Integration and Application. Inspiration is how I term curation that is done by other people on your behalf, outside of a formal learning environment. Aggregation is the same thing, but done within a formal learning context. Integration is a more personal curation process; how individuals blend new learning experiences with existing thoughts. And finally Application is how individuals apply new insights in the real world; how we individually manage knowledge on a day-to-day basis. I capture this flow in a simple matrix that demonstrates how the four types of curation can flow into each other in a continuous learning cycle:



With the proliferation of content on the Web, it should come as no surprise that we are in increasing need of systems to sort, maintain and re-purpose content in a systematic manner. For a while now we’ve been making do with search as a primary means of sifting through the pile. But increasingly we are turning to named experts to act as our filter to content. Where these experts spend time storing, transforming and sharing resources with the world, they are in fact playing the role of the curator on our behalf. These experts have appeared in every industry. In our own industry content curators are plentiful and many have become well known for their curation efforts. Chances are that if you’ve attended a conference in the last 3 years, you’ve benefitted from the backchannel curation skills of David ‘LnDDave’ Kelly. Kelly stores an event’s tweets, blogs and presentations and brings them together on one webpage for easy reference. By following curators like Kelly we can draw inspiration from a set of content that we know is going to be relevant to our work. It’s like being hand-delivered the best insights into an industry, straight to your mailbox.

Organizations can of course benefit from this approach. Here, the role of the digital curator is that of a guardian of resources; someone who stores, transforms and shares within the context of the strategic needs of the company. Some companies do this internally; curating insights onto social intranet pages or moderating communities of practice for the best thoughts. Others do it externally, for the benefit of their customers. Companies like Spiceworks, the IT support company, base their business model around their community, from which they curate the best questions and answers to help promote a collaborative and consistently helpful service.


Increasingly we are being challenged to deliver ‘more with less’ in the learning department. Curation potentially holds an interesting answer to some of the constraints we’re facing in time and cost. Why build new content, when you can curate?

In the context of a formal learning intervention, organizations can use curation to aggregate content as part of the learning design process. This can mean using insights gathered from both inside and outside the organization as a baseline of content from which to develop new courses. Sometimes these resources will be re-written and transformed; other times it is enough to use the resources in their original form. With the increasing quality of online educational content, it is becoming somewhat redundant to always make new material. You aren’t going to make a ‘better’ TED video than the real deal. It is no longer necessary to create new learning content each time a demand passes down the line. Blending resources from the outside world with a selection of resources from within the firewall can increase your speed to delivery and cut costs dramatically for the L&D department.

Taking this further, some organizations are beginning to advocate a ‘resources not courses’ strategy. Here L&D looks beyond providing highly structured courses and towards individual resources. BP adopts this approach. Lead by Nick Shackleton-Jones, Director of Online and Informal Learning, BP focuses on producing high quality performance support tools, videos and infographics, delivered through simple but effective portal-type websites. They do not develop traditional courses at all; the aggregation and presentation of resources has proven to be far more successful than any previous course ever was.


Curation can and should be used as a tool of teaching and learning itself.. It is not enough for us to simply present content and imagine that it will be so compelling that our audience will instantly change their behavior. The learning process is a complex one that, especially in experienced learners, requires a process of integration between new and old experiences. In many ways when we seek to ‘teach’ people, what we are really seeking to achieve is ‘integration’ between old and new experiences. For most individuals, this will be a process of curation; storing ideas, transforming them to fit with existing experiences and mental models, and, at some point in the future, sharing them through behavior. Thought of in this light, we can suggest that curation is a key part of the learning process, a key digital literacy that will be required for all current and future knowledge workers. It is not enough to be told; that’s grade school stuff. In the current working landscape it is constantly necessary to problem solve and innovate. That requires critical thought.

Taking this approach, we can seek to produce pedagogical frameworks in our formal learning activities that encourage individuals to cast a critical eye over knowledge, and to be more reflective in their approach to learning. In these circumstances, learners articulate their grasp of a subject area by storing, transforming and sharing their understanding. If we don’t allow for these processes, we are short-changing learners. Static, anti-social online learning activities are repeat offenders here; presenting an experienced learner with an online PowerPoint presentation and expecting them to have a meaningful, lasting learning experience simply isn’t going to cut it. Learners have to be able to curate formal learning to integrate new insights with existing experiences, and to demonstrate back to you, the teacher, how they are going to change.


Moving beyond the classroom and into the world of day-to-day work we can envisage curation as a tool of continuous personal learning. Here curation helps individuals to capture information that is important to them and to wrap it in a context that gives more meaning than the message alone would impart. Many of us do this in blogs, in tweets and in other collections of knowledge that we share with the world. Increasingly we are seeing the rise of this concept in the form of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM; see Harold Jarche’s website for more information). According to Jarche individuals seek, sense and share as they seek to explicitly state their understanding of the world. This process could be seen as the fundamental driver to user generated content — more and more people are willing to share content to inspire others. This process is more than just bookmarking or collection building. For many individuals, their curated insights represent a ‘learning locker‘ which allows for reflection as well as a demonstration of what they know. It is these individuals that seed the world of content that organizations often seek to curate. And so as we encourage the adoption of PKM tools and techniques, so we see a rise in the overall amount of content available for curation. The cycle begins again.

Summing up

Curation comes in many forms, even within a small niche like learning and development. We can use it an organizational level to help inspire our employees and our customers, or to help us design and deliver more formal learning experiences using a wide range of content. We can use curation at a personal level too; to help us develop our understanding in a formal learning process and to help us demonstrate our knowledge and insight from our day-to-day work. Truth be told, it is early days for curation in our world. Whilst the practices are old, the technologies are often new and as we get to grips with the possibilities that new technologies bring us, it’s easy to see that more opportunities for storing, transforming and sharing resources will become apparent. Curation, as a skill, is on the verge of becoming a key differentiator for employees; knowledge workers could well be expected to bring their curated insights with them to their next job role. People are making names for themselves as industry experts by the ways in which they curate other people’s work. Telling a story like those I find so interesting at the Natural History Museum is most certainly a skill, but increasingly, it is becoming easier for each of us to become the curator.

Extracts of this article are included in the forthcoming ASTD Handbook (2nd edition); “Curation of Content”.

Follow Ben on twitter @bbetts

About the author:

Ben is an entrepreneur, technologist and social learning expert. The world’s most innovative learning organisations use Ben and his team to develop products and services for online learning. He has worked with the likes of City & Guilds, Google, Pearson Education, Oxford University, Cambridge University, Duke Corporate Education, Warwick Business School, BP, Barclays, Shell, Tesco, Xerox and many more.

Ben writes and speaks on the topics of social and peer-to-peer learning around the world, including making an appearance at TEDxWarwickED. He has written for four books in the last two years, published peer-reviewed academic papers and many magazine articles. He holds an MBA, is a Doctor of Engineering and is a Fellow of the Learning & Performance Institute.

1 Comment
  1. Stephanie Morgan 4 years ago

    Thanks for this, I found it really useful and love the framework.

    I like to encourage new managers and leaders to consider their social reputation as a way of building credibility within their profession. I agree with you that Curation could even be a key differentiator moving forward enabling anyone with a great opportunity to leverage their careers.

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