Thursday, December 27, 2007

Just in case you thought I was exaggerating: Internet connections in South Africa

I have mentioned on several occasions the lack of access many people have to this space. Living as you almost certainly do in a broadband world, you probably don't even realise the extent to which you have become dependent on services that other people don't even know they lack. And it's not only the third world, either - I can't remember which of the Daves it is (Warlick or Snowden) who often bemoans the cost of Internet access in New Zealand. So, if I may:

This morning our post included the annual University of Cape Town alumni news magazine (UCT News 2007). In an article by one Chris McEvoy, called "Wireless technology makes Internet affordable" the opening paragraph runs as follows:

It's a well known fact that Internet access in South Africa is among the most expensive in the world. In fact, it is said that the average American teenager has access to more bandwidth than a medium-sized business in South Africa.
Sadly, the article neglects to mention who it is who says this, but it seems that someone has decided to do something about it.

An award-winning young startup called Skyrove, the brainchild of a computer engineer called Henk Kleynhans, has come up with an approach which allows providers to "install their own wifi hotspots to share the Internet with others" and then charge users per megabyte rather than the usual approach of being charged for time spent online.

In a country with unspeakably high unemployment rates, entrepeneurship is the most important source of job creation, and this company's approach appears to foster that in spades - according to the article: "anyone with IT experience can become a provider, set up as many hotspots as they want and earn ongoing income from it" using a router supplied by Skyrove which the provider connects to the ISP of their choice. Users then connect wirelessly to the Internet via the router using credits purchased online.

So there is hope! Who knows, perhaps my family will soon be able to see the pictures I send and Animoto videos I post for their benefit.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's only words...

In the past few months, I've developed an addiction for Scrabulous, which is an online version of Scrabble played via Facebook. I have been a fan of word games of various sorts since my mother taught me Scrabble shortly after her divorce as a way to fill the newly empty evenings.

One thing that took me by surprise was the passionate battle raging on Facebook between those who feel that profanities should be disallowed and those who resist such a move. I guess, having grown up playing word games, I have been able to distinguish between the concept of words per se and that of words for communication.

If a word is in the agreed dictionary for a game of Scrabble, it is allowed on the board during the game. This includes words I would only use under extreme duress and words I would never use at all. My culture, my faith, my (for want of a better term) station in life, my backgound, my upbringing, my age and even my gender have an influence over the words I will use to express myself, but I cannot deny that they are real words.

Time and fashion render some words profane that used to be an integral part of the language. In certain dialects, words will be considered rude that in other dialects don't even warrant a raised eyebrow. Some groups apply euphemistic nicknames to genetalia, while others simply opt for their proper names. Americans freshen up in the bathroom (which often doesn't contain a bath at all), while in the UK we go to the loo for a wee. The American term for one's rear is the same as the nickname given to female genitalia in the UK, while the term used for one's rear in the UK means a tramp or hobo in the US. Xhosa speakers in South Africa, when speaking English tend to use the term f***-all freely in all situations, blissfully unaware that it offends native English speakers. When these cultures bump up against each other, we have a choice: we either take offence or we recognise that words are weighted differently. Where do we draw the profanity line?

We also have the ability to adapt our language to our circumstance. I don't often refer to behaviourist pedagogies at home with my children. Many people I know who turn the air blue at work, utter nothing stronger than "flipping" around their children.

As a student of English, I have studied texts containing some very explicit language. This doesn't mean I consider it appropriate for every day use. I encouraged my children to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, even though I wouldn't tolerate for a moment their use of some of the language it contains.

If I were writing a play or a narrative, I might put words into the mouths of one of my characters that I wouldn't dream of using myself, simply because the character isn't me, and doesn't speak like me (I had this argument with one of my sons' teachers years ago, when she objected to the use of the word "yuck!" in the dialogue of a piece of creative writing).

And if I'm playing Scrabble/Scrabulous and trying to win, I'd be hard pressed to turn down the opportunity to play the f-word on a triple word score. After all, that would net me a minimum of 39 points... and it's in the dictionary.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Indulge a proud mother as I brag....

Yesterday my sons (aged 16 and 14) got an Xbox 360. "So what?" I hear you say. I'm glad you asked!

They had had a PS2 for some time, but decided between them that they wanted the Xbox instead (I raised my voice for a Wii, but got shouted down... sigh). Between them, they planned what they could sell (the PS2 and all the associated games for a start), how much that would net and how they would raise the balance. They shopped around for the best price they could get for the various items they wanted to sell and negotiated deals. They lived frugally so that they could contribute as much as possible from their allowance. They scrimped and saved the earnings from their paper rounds. My younger son even went without topping up the airtime for his phone, and has spent at least a month on an "incoming calls only" basis. They decided that they could make this their Christmas gift to each other, and added the money saved that way to the pot as well.

For several years (at least five), my elder son has been plying his trade as the family masseur (he has a natural skill that he has been honing over the years). The income from this enterprise has also been diverted to the Xbox fund over the past few months.

One particularly clever thing they did (in my - ahem - unbiased view) was to check the deals on the console at each of the shops in the centre, and to offset those against what each of those shops would give them for the pre-owned games that they hadn't already sold to friends. This was because the stores would give them vouchers for their games, rather than cash, so they would pretty much be tied in to performing both transactions at the same store.

Never once did they argue about it, in spite of the fact that they discussed it often and earnestly, at great length, over a period of several weeks. The fact that they were contributing unequal amounts was never an issue (since my elder son has a bigger paper round than my younger son, he earns more). Never once did they ask us for money. They didn't even ask us for advice, although they proudly kept us up to date with their progress and the mounting total in the tupperware container.

Yesterday, they finally reached the magic number. They went straight from school to the centre under their own steam. From there, they went home and set up the console. When I arrived home, they were hard at play (Halo 3, in case you're interested). Neither of them had done their chores, but I was so proud of them I left them to play. They had earned their reward and then some!

Every time I think about it, I think of yet another learning outcome from the whole exercise.

Tell me I don't have reason to be proud of my enterprising young men!

An apPEAling story

To counterbalance Friday silliness with a little gravitas...

I came across this today, courtesy of Drew Buddie. It focuses on breast cancer, which is an issue particularly close to my heart, since all three of my Dad's sisters had breast cancer... only one survived.

I had not encountered Susan Reynolds before, but it's a fascinating story in which frozen peas (of all things) loom large.

The strapline? We will not apPEAse cancer.

Edit: Doh! It would help if I included the link. Fixed now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More Friday silliness - a little ahead of schedule

Apparently this comes from the Washington Post, which runs an annual neologism competition, in which contestants suggest alternative meanings for existing words. At the risk of being labelled a coward, I shall err on the side of caution and cull the more risque ones from the list, but this post nevertheless carries a political incorrectness warning.

  • Coffee (n) The person upon whom one coughs
  • Flabbergasted (adj) Appalled at how much weight you have gained
  • Abdicate (v) To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach
  • Esplanade (v) To attempt an explanation while drunk
  • Negligent (adj) Describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown
  • Lymph (v) To walk with a lisp
  • Gargoyle (n) Olive favoured mouthwash
  • Flatulence (n) The emergency vehicle that picks you up after you have been run over by a steamroller
  • Balderdash (n) A rapidly receding hairline
  • Rectitude (adj) The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists
  • Pokemon (n) A Rastafarian proctologist
  • Oyster (n) A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms
  • Frisbeetarianism (n) The belief that, when you die, your spirit flies up onto the the roof and gets stuck there

I have to say that my favourite is "esplanade". As a person who never, under any circumstances, gets drunk (long story), I have been subjected to many earnest "esplanations" in my time that - tragically for "splaner" - I am able to remember the next day! If I'm ever down on my luck, I might start to charge for my silence!

A close second has got to be a tie between negligent (Cherie Blair, anyone?) and flatulence.

I invite you to come up with a few of your own - perhaps it will relieve the stress of the frantic pre-Christmas rush to "get it all done in time".

A little something I learned... that might save a life

I recently mentioned that my elder son had had something of a close shave with the heater in his room. I have subsequently learned something about the situation that will certainly change the way I manage heaters in the future and may serve to alert someone else out there.

First off, I discovered (after returning the heater to the store and declaring it faulty) that the problem was with the extension cable rather than the heater.

What you need to know about this cable is that it was one of those very long ones rolled around a reel - usually used outdoors. In fact, ours used to be used for our lawnmower. Since we no longer have a lawnmower (or a lawn, for that matter), we had begun to utilise it elsewhere, expecting that it would be particularly robust, having been intended for outdoor use.

Because the space in which it was being used required nowhere near the full 10 metre length most of the cable was wrapped around the reel, which was stowed away under a chest of drawers and this is apparently where the problem lay.

I have discovered from my stepfather that heaters draw a lot of current and should always be connected to uncoiled, untwisted cables. If not, you could wind up with the situation we had, in that the coiled cable becomes a heat coil, much like a rheostat, which then begins to melt the insulation and can cause a fire.

By the time I discovered the situation, the insulation had melted through, generating a great deal of toxic smoke, and the wires had begun to make contact. Fortunately, this shorted out the whole system, and I discovered it in time to prevent the situation from getting any worse.

If you're using any electric heaters in your home, office or classroom, please do a quick safety check, courtesy of my stepdad.

Quick tribute: My stepdad is one of those wonderful, salt of the earth, unschooled, blue collar people who has become a source of all sorts of wonderful, practical knowledge over the course of a lifetime. It was he who taught me how to service my first car so that I didn't get ripped off by unscrupulous mechanics who (research showed) thought female=ignorant and therefore charged more for their services. It used to cause much hilarity in our street, and it is one of my "claims to fame" that I was even the cause of an accident as a man was so stunned at the sight of working on her car on the front lawn that he drove into a tree. I never did develop the upper body strength to loosen the sump nut for oil changes, though!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

There goes the neighbourhood

Jacob Zuma has just won the race for leadership of the ANC in South Africa. To be honest, it was a bit of a devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea choice, but I think this victory represents a bit of a death blow for the country's future prospects. You can see his party political profile, or you can read up on some of the issues that have dogged him.

Oh dear. This is one of those situations where my greatest wish is to be proved wrong!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Formative assessment... BEFORE it's too late!

I was going to call this post RIP old friend. The reason will become clear in due course.

Imagine that you are a child in school. You think you are doing very well thank you at your favourite subject - for the sake of argument, let's say physics. No-one ever mentions that your performance is below par. And then comes the exam. You fail miserably and the teacher who is giving you your feedback tells you that there has been a general consensus among the staff that there have been cracks in your work for some time. They did ask the physics teacher to address the issue with you, but he never got that far. How do you feel?

Imagine that you are an employee in a workplace. You think you are doing your job very well thank you. No-one every mentions that your performance is below par. And then comes your appraisal. You are advised that there has been concern among management for some time that there have been cracks in your performance. They did ask your line manager to address the issue with you, but he never got that far. How do you feel?

Have you ever been in the situation where you have found out by chance that someone you cared for deeply died some time ago, but no-one thought to tell you. How do you feel?

Last night I was compelled to come to terms with the loss of a very dear friend. No-one died, though.

As I have said in many spaces, I have always been able to sing, and sing well. I have independent witness to this fact. I have been recorded, I have sung on television, I have performed live. For the past several years I have done little more than use my singing in service of my local church as a member and occasional leader of the worship team.

Last night I discovered, quite by chance, that there has been consensus among the leaders for some time that I have not only lost my ability to hold a tune, I have also lost the ability to tell when I am off key - something which is happening more and more often, apprently. They asked the team leader to address the issue with me, but he never got that far. How do I feel?

The word gutted comes to mind. I have lost something extremely precious to me - something I have always simply relied upon to be there (I cannot begin to describe the utter joy that singing has brought me throughout my life. As my mother always said: if Karyn's breathing, she's singing). Worse, no-one saw fit to tell me. I cringe to think of the torture that I have been inflicting on people week after week as I stepped confidently up to the microphone and spewed forth discord.

One way or another, we are all formative assessors. If you are aware of something in someone's life that needs addressing, whether it be professional, personal or educational, please, PLEASE discuss it with them. Today. Don't wait for someone else to do it. And especially, don't wait until the revelation is going to be utterly gutwrenching and humiliating. The longer you leave it, the worse it will be.

And especially avoid dumping the bad news in their lap on their birthday!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Zoom, you chase the day away

(With apologies to Fat Larry)

I'd be interested to hear if anyone else out there has experience of ZoomInfo. I stumbled across it while trying to track down an old colleague. The service claims to help one "be found on the web". Since the information it contained about me was scanty and outdated, I thought I'd sign up (it's free) and get it updated. Not that I feel I need help being found online!

I completed all the required details and then reached the sticking point: verification. The last screen asked me to select my preferred method of verfication from the list in order to prevent identity fraud. The "list" displayed one single possibility: my credit card details... together with assurances that they would not be abused. My response? Yeah right!

I have been the victim of credit card fraud/identity theft before, and I'm a little skittish about handing out my details - especially in a situation where no money is supposed to change hands.

I emailed them asking for an alternative method of verification. The reply, from a member of their technical support team, advised me that this was the only method of verification available:

To ensure that people are who they say they are, we must verify their identity, and an online credit card transaction is the safest and most effective method for us to minimize the possibility of mischief.
Once again they assured me that my details would not be used for any nefarious purposes (my words, not theirs) and (and this is the kicker) boasted that there was "no charge for this service".

My reply started as follows:
I don't intend to be difficult, but I don't see how you think that your insistence that you have no plans to misuse my credit card details should reassure me. After all, if you were planning to misuse my credit card details, you would hardly be likely to say so.
Am I being unreasonable?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday silliness

Okay - it's Friday. I went in for a minor "procedure" this morning, which I have decided means that they inflict enormous pain on you without the benefit of aneasthetic. So I in no mood to be sensible. Hence the following. Apologies to all you less "sad" people and/or more deprived mortals for whom Star Trek and/or Monty Python are unknown quantities.

As for myself, every word spoken and every visual image used is comfortably familiar. Trust me - it adds to the humour!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More perspective

Last night, I participated in a phone interview with Kristina Schneider for her Master's dissertation on blogging. Before the interview, she sent me her list of questions to help me focus my thinking.

During the course of the interview, I mentioned my ongoing concern for the fact that some people's voices are excluded from this space. I fear we are sometimes in danger of being somewhat self-congratulatory when we gather together in our electronic spaces and tackle the challenges that commonly face us. I wonder if we aren't just a little "holy huddle-ish" - choosing to ignore the challenges facing those who don't have the means to join us in this space (the video clip I included in yesterday's post reminds us how few people actually have internet access). I have niggling doubts at the wisdom of pushing the leading edge further and further forward while leaving the trailing edge ever further behind - especially since most of those with whom I come into contact are vocally opposed to the same model in relation to material wealth. Why then, does it make sense to adopt this model in terms of knowledge wealth? Are we/am I being hypocritical? Speaking in gravely sympathetic tones about those who endure deprivation, only to take every opportunity use the tools at our/my disposal to widen the gap between them and us/me?

Last night, I very nearly lost my elder son as the fan heater in his room burnt out and filled his room with noxious smoke. It just "so happened" that I opened his door to look in on him and discovered this situation. Since my husband is abroad, I had to battle alone to wake him and get him out of the room and then go back into the room to unplug everything and ensure that there was no further danger of the house burning down around my ears. Even that short period of exposure brought on an asthma attack for me, and I had no idea how long he had been breathing in that toxic smoke.

I took him outdoors to breathe the clean, cold air and, as he sat there, looking in sleepy confusion at me as I wrapped a second duvet around him, it dawned on me what had just very nearly happened and what might have been. It was as if his life flashed before my eyes, and I began to shake almost uncontrollably.

Talk about a dose of perspective! It could all have burnt for all I cared. My boys were safe. Of course, spending several hours in the A&E department (with both my boys, just in case) of the local hospital gave me plenty of time to stocktake, analyse and assimilate.

Anyone who knows me well will tell you what a learning geek I am. How rampantly and passionately I pursue learning and knowledge. How I grind my teeth in frustration when I lack the capacity to understand some new concept. But it takes something like this to remind us, as trite as it may sound that, in the final analysis, it's about people.

I told Kristina last night how I recently discovered that I have developed a bit of a reputation for being one who vociferously champions the cause of the learner in every project with which I am involved. When I finally got to my desk today, it was to find that last night's erm... little shake-up has served to renew my commitment to this perspective. So, to all those who find themselves working with me on one or the other project... you have been warned ;-)

Kristina asked me if my tendency to leap onto my ever-handy soapbox about the plight of the so-called third worlders was an extension of this attitude and I was forced to admit that it was not. I have been a learner. I am still a learner. I have empathy with the learner's perspective. I have lived in the third world. I have lived side-by-side with deprivation, but I have never been deprived... not in any real sense. My experience has for the most part been purely vicarious. In that context, I was one of the privileged few who had access to very sophisticated services (which I have since come to appreciate were superior to those on offer in much of the first world). So the best I can hope to do is to shine a spotlight of awareness onto the situation when the opportunity arises. To be the one who says "ahem" from time to time. I acknowledge in advance that I am likely to continue to do this - so my apologies (or maybe not) to those for whom this stance has worn a little thin.

I have a lot to be grateful for today!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A little perspective

Occasionally, I raise my ineffectual voice in this space for the third world.

Having spent the first 36 years of my life in Africa, I am deeply conscious of the plight of those who don't even have a frame of reference to understand let alone the means to participate in the conversations we have about learning.

Today someone posted this on my Facebook page. you may have seen it before, but at this particularly materialist, acquisitive time of the year, it is perhaps a timely reminder.

Beyond ROI

This is a subject I have touched on during the discussions around the recent Corporate Learning Trends and Innovations (CLTI2007) conference.

My mail at the office today included the December issue of inside learning technologies, which I gather is not yet available on line (have you signed up for the LT2008 exhibition and/or conference, yet?). The lead article by Donald H Taylor addresses the issue of the value of learning and ROI.

My gut feel on the subject of ROI is that it is just too difficult to quantify. There are just too many other variables that may impact the situation - the learner may read a book in his leisure time that profoundly influences his behaviour, or he might attend a life enrichment seminar , or hear a powerful sermon at church. He might meet a new love interest, or become a parent. All these things happen outside the workplace, but have the potential to impact profoundly on his workplace performance.

And the move towards performance support will do nothing to firm up those blurred lines, as we see learning becoming more and more seamlessly integrated with the day job.

To use an expression I have probably already turned into a cliche: how do you know where to position your ROI chisel so that you can hit it with the budget hammer?

Donald's article draws this rather wonderful comparison:

Does the IT manager ever feel obliged to justify their department through a ROI analysis of the value of each PC and the time spent maintaining it? Of course not.

The message from IT is simple: "If you want to run the business, you have to invest in IT. No IT, no infrastructure, no business. Of course, we can discuss costs and other details, but the role of the department is non-negotiable."
As I keep saying: you either believe in the value of L&D for your staff or you don't. End of. Either way, you'll find a way to make the numbers support your argument.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Edublog awards

The winners of the 2007 "eddies" have been announced. I would have liked to attend the online ceremony in Second Life, but it clashed with what little family time I have these days, so I had to wait to get the news.

I enjoy the fact that the nominations alert me to some blogs I had not previously encountered. I also enjoy the fact that at least one of the blogs I vote for usually comes through. This year one of my nominees won a category, too.

Not everyone likes the idea of adding an element of competition to the whole social media scene, and I respect that. There has got to space in the blogosphere for all shapes, sizes and persuasions. At the time of the conversation, I stated that I had no problem with it.

What I can safely say now that the whole thing is behind us is that I realised that I was speaking as one not in the running.

It's a really odd thing that I love competition... if I can win by my own efforts: sports, board games, quizzes. But I hate being at the mercy of other people's votes. Always have. I take it all far too personally. When I was 11, I was nominated for the position of house captain at my primary school, but I stood down, because the vote was by a show of hands and I couldn't face the possibility of no hands being raised for me.

Later, in my first year at college, I was asked to participate in the annual beauty contest. Quite apart from my instinctive objection to the whole concept of beauty pageants, I was afraid of being humiliated, so I refused.

Talk about your average insecurity!

You would think I had outgrown that by now. But I went through the same agonies when I was nominated for school governor (that time I was persuaded to stand and I was elected). I imagine that I would be the same if my blog were nominated. I am also fairly sure that I wouldn't feel free to write this post, if I were nominated but didn't garner any votes.

By what do we measure the success of a blog?

My dissertation (which I mention often, but have yet to start writing) focuses on how my use of social media has transformed my professional practice. When I read back over some of my early posts, just a little over two years ago, I am amazed at the extent to which many of my views have changed. To me, this is the measure of the impact of my entrance into the blogosphere. However, this is very subjective and qualitative. It would be nice to include an element of quantitative evidence, but I'm at a loss as to how to do that. Having identified my life as my PLE, I have made my learning journey so personal, so subjective that it can't realistically be measured by anyone other than me, and I'm not sure my own measure is an entirely reliable one!

Friday, December 07, 2007


I can't even imagine what went into acquiring this level of skill so young, but this has just made my Friday.

Thanks to Chris Sloan via Dean Shareski on Twitter. Some comments on Chris's post express doubt at the genuine-ness of this clip. It looks real enough to my inexpert eyes, and that'll do for me today. If you happen to know that it was faked, don't tell me about it, okay - it's not important enough to warrant bursting my little bubble!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Unexpected thumbs up

Today was "curriculum progress" day at our sons' school. My younger son and I attended meetings with four of his teachers to discuss his progress against expectations so far this academic year. These days are usually pretty fraught as one dashes from room to room, sometimes in different buildings, in order to make each appointment on time. If you have more than one child, it's even worse.

I got off fairly lightly today. When my sons brought the forms home, my older son said he didn't want to meet with any of his teachers. He said that he was in his final year of compulsory education, already in the countdown to exams. He knew what needed to be done to achieve his grades and he didn't think that a meeting with me and his teachers would have any impact on that.

I wrote as much on the form and returned it to the school, adding that I supported him in his recognition that it was his learning journey and that it was now up to him to "do the work (or not)". His teacher was apparently so impressed with this attitude that she read it to the class, declaring me a "legend" (don't be too impressed, the word is freely used these days!).

In respect of my younger son, however, there are still some mountains to climb and some battles to fight (such as two teachers blemishing the record of this over-diligent lad by writing in his report that his homework is "causing concern" when none has been set... and I know this, because the planner is online), hence the four meetings. On our rounds, we encountered several of my older son's friends, who asked where he was. When I explained that we had decided that he was now shouldering the responsibility himself, one child declared, "Wow! My Mom forces me to come to these things." I wasn't sure whether he meant it as praise or criticism.

Time will tell whether it was the right decision or not, but I was pleasantly surprised to have earned the teacher's support for it.

What's with all the extras?

With our elder son coming up to his GCSEs, we're turning our attention to 6th form options. Of course, he could stay at his current school, but he is underachieving fairly spectacularly there. Since the university he plans to attend is one of the most selective in the country, he is probably going to need a change of plan to attract their attention.

Last night we attended the open evening of a specialist science school in a nearby town. Unlike his current school, which is a comprehensive (no entry criteria), this school has a selection policy and kids have to qualify to get in. There are only 40 places available to those who wish to transfer in from other schools.

Judging by the attendance last night, competition is going to be fierce!

According to the information we were given last night, this school is one of the "top 50 schools in the country".

Today, I've been thinking about what that means. Are their students the happiest? The best educated? The most well-balanced? The best equipped to deal with life-after-school? I suspect it is based purely on their results and, since I question the validity of the assessment process, this places a question mark over the relevance of this achievement.

Sadly, though, the system is what it is and it is within the constraints of this system that my son is going to have to prove his worth to the university of his choice if he is to have the chance to follow a career in forensics (this is the legacy of CSI and its ilk - every second child now wants to study forensics, whereas 10 years ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of it).

He is too young to see how tough the adjustment to this school will be, should he be accepted. At his current school (unusually for the UK), there is no official uniform. At this school, the sixth form boys must wear suits to school every day. Last night, he was blissfully unaware of the fact that he stuck out like a sore thumb. There were many other kids in civvies, but none of the others was wearing his trousers below his butt, with his underwear on display. Nor did they wear T-shirts that informed the reader that the only reason the wearer had not yet made a pass at them was because "You ugly!"

At his current school, the teachers are known by their first names. At this school, it's Mr this and Dr that (I doubt there is a single PhD on the staff of his current school, but I saw at least one last night and am trying to decide whether this is a sign of anything in particular). At his current school, the stated ethos is one of equality for all (I have my doubts as the successful implementation of this approach, as I have mentioned before on this blog). At this school, the teachers are without question exalted beings. They expect the students to stand aside for them. My son complained to me that one of the teachers had shoulder-barged him. In fact, what had happened was a conflict of expectations: the teacher had expected my son to step aside to let him through, while my son was making his way from point A to point B via the shortest route.

None of the other kids left their parents in their wake and interviewed the teachers for themselves.

Standing back and watching this whole interplay, I realised that my son was not making a good impression. That he was coming across as brash and yobbish. In a one-to-one interview (which will form part of the selection process), he will fare very well, but he has clearly been influenced by the culture of his current school, and it hasn't all been to his benefit!

Listening to the feedback from teachers and students, it certainly seems that they promote a culture of independent learning and diligence. All the students emphasised the need for "further reading" and "reading around the topic". In amongst all the other bumpf, this was what I wanted to know about. It is this that my son does not do. He sails along on the bare minumum of effort. We were chatting to the mother of a boy who transferred to this school from my son's current school. He and my son have similar interests and similar strengths and weaknesses. She assured me that my son would become motivated to work very hard in the new environment. She told me about daytrips to Switzerland for significant events. About opportunities to assist in scientific research. About trips to universities to attend lectures.

So why is it that schools that impose such seemingly irrelevant and outdated constraints such as formalwear, formal forms of address, etc. produce such good results? And why is it that schools with a more liberal approach have such a high incidence of crime and poor performance? Where is the link and why does it exist at all? Surely these factors shouldn't have an impact on learning, and yet in the UK education system, it seems they do. Or is this a case of the Forer effect?

As we drove away, I asked him if he wanted to apply for a place. Unhesitatingly, he said he did. When I hinted at the difficulty he would have in adjusting to the restrictive environment, he said he thought it would be exactly what he needed. I felt as if a huge wave had just loomed up, and I was paddling my surfboard like mad. I realise we are either, by dint of enormous effort, going to ride this one to the shore, or we are going to get unceremoniously dumped and churned (if you've every surfed you know exactly what I'm talking about!). I don't feel as if I have enough left in me to put in the effort to ride that wave, but I also don't relish the thought of the buffeting that is the alternative.

... and we will have to go through this all over again in two years' time with our other son. Oy vey!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

What did you learn about learning in 2007?

This is the big question over at LCB this month. Originally, I had thought I'd give it a miss, since I couldn't name one specific thing that I had learnt about learning - it's all been fairly intangible.

Then I realised that, in fact, that's the whole point. That encapsulates what I keep trying to say about learning, so I thought I'd give it a go - but I doubt that it will be very coherent.

I can't pick out one thing that I have learned and put hard edges on it. Does this mean that I have learned nothing of significance? Far from it!

I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with hordes of people. Some of them have become, well... friends, I guess. Those relationships were already in place - they just moved forward this year. These interactions have contributed to my own personal development.

I have bumped up against people with opposing views to my own. Debating with them has firmed up some of the boundaries of my knowledge set, while moving others. I have even had the unenviable experience of being vilified in the discussion forum of an online publication.

I have encountered opposition at work, and had to defend my position. I have drawn pictures, waved my hands about and foamed at the mouth. I have champed at the bit. I have used every moment of downtime (and, for a while there, there was a lot of it) to learning about this business. I have given thought to my professional future. I have thought about where the learning industry is going and where I want to be.

I have attended lectures at university. I have researched assignments. I have spoken to people I might never otherwise have encountered. I have read material I almost certainly would not otherwise have read. All these things have added to the sum of my knowledge, and impacted on pre-existing knowledge.

I have attended conferences. I have sat through sessions which have set me a light and others where I wanted to stand up and shout, "What a load of claptrap!" (and still others which bored me silly). Both of the extremes stretched me (while the boring ones afforded me time to reflect, I guess).

I have tried innumerable times to explain to people what it is that I do. I'm getting better at it, but it still needs work. In explaining, I find that I think about learning and what I understand it to be.

Some of these situations have taken place online, some face to face. Some in a group, and some one-to-one. Sometimes the situation has been a specific learning event, other times the learning has been so embedded into a situation as to be indistinguishable from it.

I have been a learning professional of one sort or another for close to two decades now, and one thing that has become increasingly clear over this past year is that I don't deserve the title. I'm not sure anyone does. The more I learn, the more I realise what a learning amateur I am. Perhaps that is my "one thing," although even that realisation didn't spring into existence fully formed during the space between 1 January 2007 and now.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Note to Samaritans: the rules are changing

Last night, the police (finally) came around to get a statement from my son regarding Tuesday's incident. At the end of the interview, the policeman advised my son to refrain from offering or giving help to people in the street - "no good deed goes unpunished."

Ugh. When I think how hard we have worked to teach our children to be neighbourly!

When I was in my teens, my mother encountered a man staggering down the high street of the city with a knife protruding from his back, bleeding copiously. He was pleading for help from passersby, but people were giving him a wide berth. My mother drove him to the hospital.

Shortly after we were married, my husband and I were awakened by loud banging on the door of our flat. At the door stood a bleeding man who said he had been stabbed. My husband drove him to the hospital.

If my children take to heart the advice they are now being given, such people will just bleed to death. What worries me most is the thought: what if it isn't one of my children who encounters such a person? What if the person is one of my children?

When I contrast the willingness of my online communities to help one another academically, emotionally, spiritually, informationally, with this sad state of affairs in respect of physical or material help within our physical communities... well, it breaks my heart.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Playing the numbers game... from the wrong end

For those who don't know, South Africa recently won the rugby world cup. So, while other coaches were being axed left and right, South Africa's coach was welcomed home like a conquering hero with a secure future.


He was advised that he would have to reapply for his job on his return home. And the conditions under which he would be re-awarded it included the immediate introduction of a quota system which would see 10 black players to 5 white in the team (a rugby team has 15 players: 8 forwards: two props, a hooker, two locks, two flanks, an eighth man, and seven backs: a scrum half, a fly half, two centres, two wings and a full back).

This a ticklish issue in any country, but especially in South Africa, which is still in its early post-apartheid days. I can understand why the sports minister, wants to see more black players running out onto the rugby field. After all, the South African population is about 90% black. The problem is that, like so many unsatisfactory situations, this one is being tackled from the wrong end.

Traditionally, rugby has primarily been the sport of choice among the white people of the country, while soccer has primarily been the sport of choice among the black people (see this picture of the national side). The way in which this came about has not been entirely without blemish, but this doesn't change the bald statistics of the situation.

Of course, there have always been black South Africans who have played rugby, just as there have always been white ones who have played soccer . But, in the past, these represented a very slight blurring of a rather definite line. Since the downfall of apartheid and the desegregation of sports clubs, the number of black people playing rugby has increased. With improved facilities and coaching at their disposal, many are playing a vastly improved game, with the result that the number of them able to play at international level has also increased.

But it is a slow process. People tend to stick with what they're used to. Just because a person can now play rugby, doesn't mean that they suddenly will develop a desire to do so. The situation is not a million miles from the English tendency to see rugby as the game of privileged, private school educated men, whereas soccer (called football, in the UK) is seen as Everyman's game.

Selecting a team on the basis of their skin colour and sending them out against some of the biggest, toughest, most competitive men on the planet would be irresponsible. They are likely to get hurt. They are also almost certain to get severely beaten which, for a chip-on-the-shoulder-competitive nation, will stick in the craw like a fishbone.

The way to get to a place where 90% of the South African national rugby team is black is to get in at the grassroots level:

  • market the game into the schools
  • provide rugby fields at schools which currently do not have them
  • establish junior rugby clubs in areas where there are none
  • run coaching clinics in areas where rugby is still largely unknown
  • provide bursaries to rugby academies
  • seek out and develop talent among the youngsters
  • etc. etc.
Then at the world cup competition in 2015 (or maybe 2019) the South African team that runs out onto the pitch will boast more black players than white. They will have been selected on merit and they will be a national side the whole country can be proud of, a side that stands a chance of lifting the trophy yet again. Worthy of the golden springbok on a green field, worthy of the passionate support and loyalty that South African fans give their team. Worthy of the throaty cry "Amabokkebokke!!!!!!"

We tend to see the same approach being taken far too often in education, in corporate training. That's the wrong end. We need to lay the foundation while they're still young.

Or so I think, anyway.

One little mugging can ruin your whole week!

I have been on leave for a few days, during which I attended a non-work-related conference. In the back of my mind, there was a nice little post bubbling relating to non-work related formal learning. Then, last night, just as I arrived in Oxford for lectures, my elder son called me to tell me that my younger son had been mugged.

I can't for the life of me tell you what I had been planning to say about non-work related formal learning.

I can tell you how traumatised a 14 year old boy gets when someone approaches him to ask the time and for directions to the city centre, only to relieve him of his phone when he is kind enough to give his help.

I can also tell you how frustrating it is when the police don't keep their 9:30 appointment (they've rescheduled for 6pm tonight).

I can tell you how heartbreaking it is watching a boy trying to keep a brave face on things and pretending to be asleep when you stop by his room on your way to bed at midnight.

On the plus side, I can also tell you about the sense of relief one feels to realise that, had we still been in South Africa, my son might have been killed. By the time we left the country, a human life had become worth less than a mobile phone. Many is the person who has been killed for theirs, including the 25 year old son of a colleague - just 10 days before he was due to be married.

So apologies if I don't share the insights I gained into learning from a different angle. My mind is elsewhere, right now.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving thanks...

Since I have a lot of virtual contact with US citizens these days, the subject of Thanksgiving has loomed larger on my radar than has been the case in the past. So I decided to find out what it was about. I won't go into the back story, because you can get a better picture from wikipedia.

I have found that, whether or not you are an adherent of any faith, it provides a good sense of perspective if you occasionally count your blessings... and today seems as good a day as any.

So I challenge you to name one thing you're thankful for today - even if you're not a US citizen, even if you're a cynic. Put it on your blog, add it to your status on your facebook/myspace page, twitter it, tell someone at work, school or home, send someone a text message or an email. I'm leading a discussion group tonight, and will start by asking each person there to do the same. Whyever not?

As for me, I'm thankful for you.

Even if you've never heard of Karyn Romeis before. Even if this is the first time you've ever read anything of mine and you're so underwhelmed by it you're not going to bother coming back. You're here now, and I'm thankful for that. If you're a regular reader, I'm thankful for you, too. If you're a commenter, I'm especially thankful for you - for the contribution you make to my erratic learning journey.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The whole touch thing

In the past few days, a couple of things have happened that have made me wonder (not for the first time) if haven't gone a bit overboard in our attitude toward touch.

This was sparked off by a tongue-in-cheek email comparing school in 2007 (unfavourably) with school in 1957. While it (probably deliberately) overlooks such things as the utter mismanagement of learning difficulties/disabilities in 1957, it does... erm... touch on the issue of physical contact.

There is reference to the matter of corporal punishment, but those worms are staying in that can - I am not even going to go there.

That aside, there is this little gem:

Scenario: Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher, Mary. Mary hugs him to comfort him.

1957 - In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing.

2007 - Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She faces 3 years in State Prison. Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy

I remember arguing with my classmates over whose turn it was to sit in the teacher's lap during story time. I remember being held in my teacher's arms as I was rushed to the doctor after I had fallen and split my lip clean through.

In 2000, I started a chess club at my children's primary school. On our very first afternoon, a thunderstorm coincided with the session. At the very first clap of thunder, one 5 year old girl squealed and dived at me. She thrust her head up under my jumper and would not move. She was quivering like a plucked guitar string. I supervised most of that session with a child-appendage. Towards the end of the session, the storm abated and my child-appendage detached itself and played a game of chess, just as another child in the group lost his third game in quick succession. He roared and turned the table over, narrowly avoiding injuring his opponent. I ordered him to sit quietly to one side for a moment. Once he appeared to have regained his equilibrium, I sat down in front of him, took his hands in mine and talked to him about self control and consideration for others. I wiped his copious nose on a tissue and set him a chess puzzle to solve.

After the session was over, the head teacher told me that I was never again to make this kind of physical contact with the children for fear of reprisals from parents. I was astonished.

At around the same time, I started a new job teaching basic IT skills to new users, most of whom were getting to, or well into, their silver years. Using the mouse was a new concept to them, and they made all the mistakes that crop up in stereotypical jokes... I mean ALL of them. We had a little game they could play to develop mouse control, but for one lady, it was just too alien. She was almost in tears as she turned to me and wailed "I just can't get it!" I did exactly what I would have done in my far-more-tactile homeland: I placed my hand over hers on the mouse so that she could learn the association between the movement of the mouse on the pad and the movement of the pointer on screen. She snatched her hand away as if she had been stung and shot me a look that could have split a diamond.

I have since learnt to accommodate the British reserve and now keep myself well and truly to myself, even though I sometimes have to sit on my hands to do so. Recently when a colleague was in floods of tears, I ached just to give her a hug and let her cry it out on my shoulder. Instead I found myself feeding her tea and platitudes. Bleagh!

Surely no touch at all is as harmful to the healthy development of the psyche as inappropriate touch?

A couple I once knew sponsored an ex-street child from a residential project called Highway Home in Cape Town. Edward had been alone on the street since the age of 5. The back of his head was bald. Christine and Mike used to take him to their home for one weekend a month, to accustom him to the concept of home and family. Early on, they realised that Edward was bald because of a peculiar habit of rolling his head from side to side repeatedly when he lay down to sleep. He was assessed for autism. Negative. A child psychologist decided that this was Edward's substitute for physical contact and affection, since he had never been cuddled. Fortunately, Mike and Christine were very demonstrative people. Whenever Edward came to stay, they lavished affection on him. They brought him with them to church and he would spend the whole meeting on their laps with their arms around him. Not only that, but association with their family and friends meant that he became accustomed to incidental touch, too.

He stopped rolling his head from side to side and his hair grew back. He finished high school. I lost contact with them after that, so I can't tell you what became of Edward. I know that one member of that first group went on to study law at university, but whether it was Edward or not, I can't say for sure.

I know that we're trying to protect children from predators, but are we not depriving them of a very real need? Is it just a cultural thing that makes me ache for a time when people... well, I dare not say "touched each other" because that has come to have unseemly connotations.

How sad.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What's in a name?

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame)'s post about the extent to which your name determines your fate in life. Okay, so it's probably not wise to take anything that Adams says seriously (I can't believe how many people do - his comments are littered with people who seriously need to get out more), but it got me thinking anyway.

A long time ago I was going to be famous. And I was going to need a suitable name to go with that fame. While I was at drama school, I gave serious thought to what that name should be - I was a bit concerned about the possible impact of my indisputably Afrikaans surname.

Then I decided not to be famous anymore, so my name became a non-issue. Oddly, almost as soon as I decided not to be famous anymore, I was asked to present a series on national television. I was caught off-guard without a catchy name, so I went with the default: my own. Fortunately, my Afrikaans surname was not beyond the skill of my audience to pronouce since the programme was in Afrikaans!

However, I discovered that I had a hidden talent for being a dreadful television presenter, so decided to carry on not being famous. For many years, I succeeded at this. This was fortunate, because I went and traded in my Afrikaans surname for a German one courtesy of my Swedish husband (yeah, I know!). The problem is that my German surname is dangerously close to the Afrikaans word for ice cream. As a consequence, our business contacts (and even our friends) didn't bother trying to pronounce it correctly, they just opted for the convenient and familiar approximation. In fact, our friends usually referred to us as "the ice-creams". But this was okay, because I wasn't famous.

Then I started blogging.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still doing very well at the not-being-famous thing, but I find that my name is being spoken by a growing group of people with a variety of accents and mother tongues, and it's causing some problems. Even people who have heard me say it out loud for years and years don't get it right, so what chance is there for those who have only ever seen it in print? BTW - If you're interested in the correct pronunciation, I will add a piece on at the end of this post. In this space, I encounter names like Vicki Davis, Cammy Bean, Wendy Wickham, Doug Belshaw, Clark Quinn. No problem. Excellent names. Easy to pronounce - no surprises.

But I'm not the only one with problems. I used to have trouble with Mark Oehlert's surname, but had the opportunity to ask him during an online session, so now I've got that one sussed (it's A-lert, by the way). But I confess that I have no idea how to pronounce the surname of someone I've come to regard as a friend: how the heck do you say Jarche, anyway? Zhahsh? Zhah-shee? Jarr-chee? How do say Guhlin? Is Wegner pronounced Germanically as Vegner or is it anglicised with a W sound. Fortunately, I have the inside track on Eylan (EE-lan) Ezekiel, since I met him in person before I ever saw his name written down!

So, in case you care, my name is Karyn Romeis. CAR- inn row-MACE.

If I ever decide to stop not-being-famous, you have the definitive version!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

If you can read this, you've been to elementary school

Thanks to Jeff Utecht (whose blog rates the same readability level as mine) for the pointer.

It seems that, in order to read this blog, you need at least an elementary school education. What the algorithm measures is not mentioned (the embedded link text comes complete with spam, which I have removed - cheap trick).

So let's suppose for a moment that this is an accurate reflection of this blog's readability. How do I feel about it?

Part of me is tickled pink that even a primary school child would be able to read and understand my posts. I like the mental image of an independent-minded 10 year old wanting to find out more about learning and coming across Karyn's erratic learning journey. I quite fancy encountering on my comment moderation page a contribution from a pre-teen. I suspect I would hit publish in a heartbeat and write a whole new post about how this kid has engaged with the conversation, and please will everybody make him/her feel welcome.

And yet...

Part of me is miffed at the poor estimation of my erudition (bite on that, you imaginary elementary school whipper snapper!). How am I ever supposed to engage with the likes of Downes, Cross, Snowden, Karrer, Siemens, etc. etc. when my writing aspires to no greater heights than can be scaled by a child barely past the learning-to-read stage?

As Mongkut (allegedly) said: Is a puzzlement...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Seamless networking

Last night, my son asked me to help him with his maths homework. He had to solve some simultaneous equations, and was struggling (his assertion in this post notwithstanding).

The first few had to be solved using the elimination method. Neither my husband nor I were familiar with this method, so the three of us looked it up in the Internet, then we sat together and applied the new knowledge to the problems. Note: we did not do his homework for him, but alternated between the roles of cheerleader and sideline coach.

The next few had to be solved using visualisation. I had never heard of this method, so was preparing to try the same site we had encountered before, when my son turned to his laptop which was beside him on the table. Via msn, he contacted a friend who could be relied upon to know all about it. I had to grin as the IMs from the friend took the form of xy graphs (charts) drawn using a mouse. Could you draw an x and a y axis complete with numbers using just a mouse... and keep it legible? Not only is there a new literacy, there's a new dexterity.

These two lads discussed the problems using the usual IM shorthand (interspersed with questions about girlfriends and such) and soon the penny dropped. At this point, my son dropped the msn conversation and began to use us as random number generators so that he could solve the remaining problems. It was just as well that nothing more demanding was required at this stage, since CSI Miami was on telly, and we had adopted the slack-jawed pose required to suspend credulity enough to be entertained by Horatio and his sunglasses-of-justice.

One of the elimination approach problems just would not resolve, however, and my son chose to leave it and discuss it with his teacher in class today. Ha! Long after he had gone to bed, several sheets of paper were passed back and forth as my husband and I tried to figure out where the mistake was. I hate not having the answer! Today, when he gets home from school, my son will be expected to explain the problem to me, so that I can put it to rest.

I summarised this incident on Dave Warlick's Social Networking for Teachers wiki, in response to his question about how learners use social networking today, compared with the way their teachers might.

Just think for a minute about the ebb and flow of networks and communities (both on and offline) who have been involved in, exposed to or influenced by this one single incident in the learning journey of a 14 year old boy.

Doesn't it just rock?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Is it possible to self-diagnose a brain condition?

I am so excited as to be almost incoherent. I finally got around to watching Vilayanur Ramachandran's presentation to TED. It's been sitting on my computer desktop waiting for me to get around to it for weeks on end.

His talk is fascinating, engaging and accessible enough for a numpty like me to be able to keep pace. I was riveted from the outset.

Then he started talking about synaesthesia and a light went on in my head. Now I know that we are essentially self-involved beings - some of us more so than others. I know that there is a real danger of psychosomatically diagnosing ourselves with every condition we learn about. Student doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are often warned against this as they embark on the diagnostics sections of their study programmes.

And yet...

I know that taste is as much about the olfactory sense as about taste buds, we learned that much at school. So when I say I don't like goat's cheese because it tastes like the smell of goat, don't look at me like that - there's a good anatomical explanation for it.

But the first time I tasted beansprouts, I announced that they tasted like green. This provoked much hilarity. I was informed that I was daft. My case was not helped when I retorted, "Well, what colour do you think it tastes like, then?" I was in my late teens/early twenties at the time, and it was my first inkling that other people didn't associate tastes and smells with colours.

In his talk Ramachandran doesn't refer to tastes and smells being cross-linked with sight. He mentions numbers and musical notes, and the tendency of some people to see these in terms of colours. So perhaps the areas of the brain involved in processing tastes/smells and colours are too far from each other for cross-wiring and perhaps I am just daft.

However, he did indicate that synaesthetes have enormous proclivity for metaphorical/allegorical thought. All my life I have thought in analogies and talked in allegories. And that's not just my take on it - it has been remarked upon by countless people at various points along the way - most recently by one of my lecturers on Monday. It has always been the strongest tool in my teaching toolkit and the factor from which my writing has benefited most. Read back through my past few posts and see for yourself if I'm wrong!

So maybe I'm just falling victim to a self inflicted instance of the Forer effect here, but without fuss or fanfare, it felt as if a piece of the puzzle of my anomalous brain function slipped quietly into place, so (needless to say) I hope not.

When it goes right

I don't usually pick my children up from school. After all, I work full time and they are teenagers. However, yesterday I was working at home and, at around about the end of the school day, the wind suddenly began to blow a gale and the rain came down in stinging torrents. I took pity and went to collect my younger son (the older one had a catch up class). Just as well, because, when I got there, one of his current tormentors was circling like a shark (how does a child get to have such empty eyes at only thirteen?)

In the car on the short journey home, we were chatting about bullies and what makes them become bullies when, suddenly my son volunteered, "Maths was so cool today!" When I asked him why, he said, "I learnt something."

He then launched into an impassioned explanation about the three different ways he knew to solve simultaneous equations (elimination, transposition and a third one I now can't remember). He said that, of the three, two were dead easy but he couldn't figure out transposition. Since that was my preferred method of solving them when I was at school, there followed a discussion about the merits or otherwise of each method. It was brief, but we really connected.

When your daily questions about how school was are met with variations of "meh," it can become a little wearing. To get anything more detailed than that I have to ask targeted questions about certain pieces of homework or specific issues. So this was like a breath of fresh air. For once, my son could see what it is about learning that lights my fire.

It was just a small hiatus before we each delved back into the things we had to do, and I don't think he even begins to know how profoundly it touched me, but I could have walked on air.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Dissertation other colours

Apologies for the title - its a rather trite reference to my post called Dissertation blues, and it serves as a sequel/rebuttal. To be honest, this post belongs more on my Ardent Student blog, but the edublogs server seems to be out to lunch today and I need to get this done so that I can move on with other stuff, so here goes:

I attended my first meeting with my dissertation supervisor on Monday. We had two items to discuss, since he is also my tutor for an independent studies module. The first discussion went fairly seamlessly - especially since he advised me not to get too hung up on the whole peer-reviewed reference thing, that professional journals would do just as well (terms and conditions apply).

Having got the independent studies module out of the way, we turned our attention to the dissertation. I explained what I was hoping to cover, we discussed the question that would form the title of the work and then I dropped my bombshell. I mentioned that I was hoping to submit the dissertation in the form of a wiki.

His initial response was a head-in-hands "Gordon Bennett!" (which, for those outside the UK, is a substitute expletive/blasphemy along the lines of "jumpin' Jehosaphat"). His recovery was pretty immediate, to give him his due. He explained, holding a up a beautifully hardbound A4 book with gold lettering, that "this" was what the university tended to want.

I opened my mouth, but he stalled me with, "However..."

I had been thinking about this for some time and had all my reasons, arguments and justifications backed up in an assembly line, ready to be trotted out. As it turned out, most of them were unnecessary, he was tasting the idea and developing a liking for it.

His thinking out loud went something like this:

You're going to be writing about the use of social media, so it makes sense to use social media. After all, if you were getting an MA in art, you might present a sculpture, or in music, you might perform an original composition. Why should everything always be vanilla? No. We are aiming to accommodate a wider range of student submissions. Why shouldn't you be allowed to submit something that works for you? This makes sense.

Since he would be one of the people marking it, we knew that the skills existed in-house and we could think of another person with the skills to be the second marker.

We discussed the fact that a wiki is by definition a community project and an MA dissertation is most decidedly an individual effort. Potentially, what I will have to do is submit as the dissertation what would be the straw man for a wiki. Who knows, once it's submitted, I might throw it open and make it a proper wiki...

Anyhoo, I left the meeting feeling far more positive than I had expected. Of course, because it represents such a break with tradition for the university, he is going to have to seek advice/approval on the matter, but, by the end, he seemed as positive about the idea as he had initially been negative. At least he didn't turn me down out of hand, and I feel confident that he will fight my corner.

One thing I know: if I am to be the guinea pig, I had better submit a kick-*ss dissertation or the naysayers in the faculty will have grist for the "I told you so" mill and poor John's butt will be in a sling.

And I have to work out the hows, wheres and whys of hosting. Public domain is a must, but the university needs to have unfettered access. And what do I do to guarantee against the host server crashing or the piece getting corrupted?

What have I let myself in for? My brain hurts!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Make it worth the effort!

Warning: this is another analogous ramble.

On Saturday morning, my post included a slip saying that there was an item waiting for me at the post office depot. It couldn't be delivered because postage hadn't been paid and an amount of £1.20 was owing.

There were various things I could do. I could go to the post office during the listed hours and collect the item. I could phone and make arrangements for redelivery. I could affix the required stamps to the notification post card and pop it in the mail, and the item would be duly delivered.

I was expecting one or two things I'd bought off eBay and two of Ricardo Semler's books bought through Amazon. Hmm. Which could it be and why would the seller not pay the postage?

I decided to phone and see if the depot could help me narrow it down so that I could decide how to handle the matter.

They didn't answer their phone. I tried several times during the course of my very busy Saturday and Monday.

Resignedly, I made the trip to the depot yesterday (Monday) evening. By this time I had received all my eBay purchases, so that left only the Semler books. I was prepared to cough up £1.20 to get one of those, but would certainly give the seller a piece of my mind!

The clerk duly produced a rather fat looking A4 envelope from a shelf.

Okay, so it wasn't a book. What could it be?

The clerk laid the envelope down on the counter. It was addressed to The Occupier.

The Occupier? Someone who can't even be bothered to find out my name has posted something to me, and I'm expected to cough up for the postage?

I asked the clerk if I could just refuse.

I could. I did.

As I drove home, muttering at the wasted time and expense, it occurred to me that I ought to guard against the same thing in my learning provision.

  • Do I make my learning resources easy to get to, or are there hoops that my poor learners have to jump through to get at them?
  • Do all the means of access actually work, or are some them dead ends?
  • When they get at the material, is it relevant to them or is it bland and impersonal?
  • Do they get what they came for or go away empty-handed?
  • Will they feel that it was worth the time they spent on it or will they be resentfully thinking about all the other things they might have been doing?
As I've said before - terminally analogous, that's me!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

With no further ado...

This video speaks entirely for itself.

There's a great, gaping hole!

There's a hole in the market, dear Liza, dear Liza.

As those of you who follow me on Facebook will have noticed from my recent status updates, we are househunting. We have outgrown our current house to the extent that our older son is currently occupying the conservatory. The conservatory is single-glazed glass, including the roof. It is autumn and he already has to have a heater on in there full time. I shudder to think what it's doing to our carbon footprint. Come midwinter, the conservatory will get colder than the inside of our fridge. We will have to get a more powerful heater and an electric blanket and will probably push our carbon footprint into the stratosphere! They may even name a hole in the ozone layer after us.

But I digress.

Property in England in expensive - especially in some key areas, one of them being the "commuter belt" - the area within an hour's train ride to London. Since my husband works in London (for an organisation that does not countenance telecommuting), we are compelled to live in this zone.

My search has revealed that it is possible to get a small 3 bedroomed house for around £160K about 20 miles away (closer to home, it looks more like £180K). I don't want a small 3-bedroomed house. I want a house with three decent sized bedrooms and a space to serve as a study/home office. I also insist on a garage so that my husband's ice hockey kit need never venture indoors (trust me - the area within smelling distance of an ice hockey player's extensive protective wear is not fit for human - or any - habitation!)

It seems these don't exist.

I tracked down a new development boasting 2, 3, 4 and 5 bedroomed houses. The two bedroomed houses go for £140K. The 3 bedroomed houses go for £160K. The 4 bedroom option for £260K. The...

Pause. Rewind.


You're kidding me, right? £160K to £260K in a single bound? What happened to all the perfectly useful numbers inbetween? Numbers like £180,756.24 or £201,743.68.

£100K for one bedroom?

Ah. But it's not just one bedroom. The 3-bedroomed house has a combined lounge/diner, only one bathroom and no additional space to have a study. And the bedrooms are small - especially the 3rd one, which will never house a teenage boy, his computer and three guitars. When you have two sons, you don't feel right about putting one into a bedroom that is half the size of the other's.

The 4-bedroomed house has a separate dining room. It may even have a utility room. It has three double sized bedrooms, two bathrooms (plus the downstairs loo), and a small room you can use as a study. At £260K, one would also hope that it has the capacity to clean itself and cook your dinner, but alas...

So instead of making a gradual climb up the property ladder, we find ourself faced with a monumental leap past what appears to be several missing rungs.

With my terminally allegorical, analogous bent, I find myself wondering whether I do this to my learners. I certainly see teenagers grappling with this kind of leap as they face the gear change from GCSEs to A levels. Am I guilty of the same? Do I design resources that make the switch from facile to PhD with an airy wave of the mouse?

I shall have to look into this! If my own reaction to the housing situation is anything to go by, I could be responsible for severe stress, insomnia and potential heart failure in my learners.

We can't have that!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The beta generation

When we are developing learning solutions for clients, we have a process that we follow. Once a project has been scoped and the contracts signed, we draw up architecture and design documents and start to mock up the solution. We do this in stages with sign-off at the end of every stage. Alpha. Beta. Gold.

While the process is restrictive, it is also necessary to prevent "scope creep". We will have quoted our clients on the delivery of a specific product, and entered into a contract to that effect. As the project progresses, there is a very strong chance that one of the stakeholders (or one of us) will have a brilliant idea that has the potential to transform the solution. Or the client will suddenly realise that a particular issue wasn't mentioned at the time of scoping, but is critical to the issue at hand. Unless the client-side sponsor is prepared to completely re-evaluate the budget for the project, it may be impossible to implement said brilliant idea, and there will almost certainly be an additional cost involved in expanding the brief to include the overlooked issue.

I totally understand the drivers behind this. We can't work to an ever shifting brief off a fixed budget. That's what the scoping document and change control process are there for.

Sadly, we now live in a different world, where it is not just the epiphany that has the potential to upset the apple cart. Allow me to elaborate.

I have been working with a client on and off for about two years on a transformation project. My role is to design the learning solution to support the client side staff members through the transformation process. The problem is that the transformation process keeps, well, transforming. We never seem to reach a point where the processes are robust enough to warrant spending money developing a learning solution to support it. We seem to be burning budget just keeping up with the changing process, without ever getting as far as building the solution. Every now and then, the client will call us in, thinking that the time has come to start developing the learning solution. Then, in the course of the discussion, it will become evident that this or that area of the process has yet to be finalised, or an issue comes to light that no-one had even considered before, so we will be put on hold while these matters are addressed.

And while all these changes are going on, the staff members are speculating and no-one is quite certain where everything is going and what the medium-to-long term implications are for them as individuals. This has happened more than once, with different clients. On a previous occasion, the project simply fizzled out.

It puts me in mind of all those analogies we use about life being what happens while we're waiting for something else, or about children learning as much from their parents' unguarded moments as they do from those that are intended to be informative. It seems to me the time has come to develop a business model for a permanently beta learning solution for a permanently beta transformation process, because these seem to be increasingly the norm.

If we wait for the processes to be firmed up before we deliver a learning solution, we may never deliver the solution and, in the meantime, the staff are wondering what the heck is going on and why no-one ever tells them anything. In extreme situations, they may even get the impression they are deliberately being kept in the dark.

So how will this model look? Maybe it will have to look more like an SLA and less like a fixed contract. Or perhaps there needs to be less initial solutioneering and more on-the-fly stuff developed on a time-and-materials basis.

Looking ahead, (I think) I see an increased need for fleetness of foot and handbrake turns. And my opinion is that, not only will/should this influence the nature of the learning solutions put in place for staff. It should also influence management styles. Keeping everything close to your chest until you have "something definite" to tell your staff may see you never speaking to your staff again!

Those with more commercial nous than I have tend to groan at my naievete on this point, but I can't see how we are going to successfully navigate our way through the murky waters of permanent beta unless we are open, honest and transparent about it.

So that was me, thinking aloud. What do you reckon?

Edublog 2007 Awards

Josie Fraser has been letting us know via Facebook, her blog and Twitter - to name but a few ;-) - that it is once again that time of year. In an exciting development, the award ceremony will take place in Second Life this year (on Saturday 8 December), so if you're planning to attend, you will need to create an SL account.

Head on over to the nominations page and make your views known about the edublogs you read. There is a whole raft of new categories this year, as well as the old faithfuls, so get your thinking cap on about who you might nominate for:

1. Best individual blog
2. Best group blog
3. Best new blog
4. Best resource sharing blog
5. Best designed blog
6. Most influential blog post
7. Best blogged research paper or project
8. Best teacher blog

9. Best higher-education student blog
10. Best librarian / library blog

11 .Best educational tech support blog
12. Best elearning / corporate education blog
13. Best educational use of audio
14. Best educational use of video / visual
15. Best educational wiki
16. Best educational use of a social networking service
17. Best educational use of a virtual world
18. Best educational use of open source
19. Digizen’s 13-19 competition
20. Conveners award

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cry yet again the beloved country!

If you're a reggae music fan, you will already know the name of Lucky Dube (pronounced DOO-beh). If you're not, let me explain that this is a South African reggae musician whose name has often been mentioned in the same breath as Bob Marley. See here for a sample of his music.

Last night he was murdered in Johannesburg.

Was he murdered by someone with a score to settle? Was he targetted by someone with an axe to grind? Was it a political thing? Was it motivated by the same sort of factors as Lennon's murder?

No, this icon was shot dead by three would be hijackers as he was dropping off his children in one of the southern suburbs of the city. He was younger than I am, and his children - who witnessed the incident - were roughly the same ages as mine. Somehow the fact that the attack was impersonal makes it even worse, although I would be hard pressed to explain why.

When I heard the news report on the radio, I groaned in wordless anguish from deep in my gut. And my grief was for more than just the loss of a great musician, an icon and a human being. I wish I could put into words the emotions that are swirling in my innards right now.

I so desperately want to be proved wrong about South Africa. I so long for the reasons we left to be be proved groundless.

But things like this keep happening.

And the beloved country keeps crying.

So much so, that Anne Paton the widow of Alan Paton (author of Cry, the Beloved Country) has chosen to leave, holding out no hope for the future of a country so desperately in need of hope.

Tomorrow the South African rugby team faces England in the final of the world cup tournament taking place in France. It will be more than just my love of the game and my abiding loyalty to the 'boks that will see me longing with every fibre of my being for a South African victory.

I apologise if I'm being a bit obscure and somewhat inarticulate. Forgive me if I resort to cheesiness for a moment and thank you for being there for me to unload my incoherent jumble of thoughts on today. I promise to be in better form soon!

Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika;
Malupakam'upondo lwayo;
Yiva imitandazo yetu

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Facebook - couldn't resist!

How DOES she do it?

I get a lot of questions about how I do what I do during the course of a day. The most recent of these is inferred in this post from Doug Belshaw, which also includes a challenge to me to do a "life in the day" (no - that's not a typo) type video of the same sort as he has done. I'll get around to that eventually, although I would like to warn readers that I'm nowhere near as technically skilled as Doug is.

I won't steal my own thunder by laying out my daily timetable here, but I thought I would reveal some of the timesaving devices I have in place.

Email alerts and aggregators
I seldom go looking for the material I read. It comes to me. A combination of my aggregator and email alerts keeps me in the loop whenever there has been an addition to any of the myriad conversations I follow.

Internet shopping
I buy the groceries (and a whole lot else besides) online. It takes me less than half an hour to do the week's grocery shopping and then a wonderful person comes and delivers it to my door within a two hour slot of my choosing. Thanks to my nagging, the delivery is (almost) carrier bag free, btu such carrier bags as they are get whisked away the following week by said wonderful person. The online service I use keeps track of everything I buy in their store or online, and stores it in a list of "my favourites", making it even more convenient. I am also notified if there is a special offer on any of the products I usually buy. There is a small cost for the delivery service, but I calculate that it is far less than the cumulative costs of my time, my fuel and the extras I would buy while strolling the aisles.

Cleaning service
At enormous expense, I have a weekly cleaning service for the house. When I worked freelance, I made sure I always kept the workload light enough to allow time for my children and the housework. When the kids were well established at school and I went back to work full time, the load of housework got spread across the family - all four of us pitching in. Gradually, as they got older and I took on extra activities, my sons were taking on more and more of the load around the house (and not with any great skill or enthusiasm, it has to be said). Then their own lives became too full: guitar lessons, sport, paper rounds, and we found ourselves spending our precious weekends doing the housework. We decided to splurge on a cleaning service. I'm too embarrassed to tell you what a dent it makes in the family coffers, but it frees up th
eir weekends to spend socialising and ours to do run other errands. Occasionally we might even get to do something together as a family ;-)


I keep Twitter open in the background all the time I am working and take mental breaks from my work to catch up every hour or so. I might do the same with a blog post I'm working on (such as this one) - adding to it every now and again when I need to come up from under on a task. I never just watch TV. I do so while doing the ironing or working online.

I have all the depth of a pondskater, and am usually moving on to the next thing before I've finished this one. I am incapable of tranquility unless I am halfway up a mountain far from civilisation with nothing but nature filling up my every sense. I tend to skim read the posts in my aggregator. If they delve too deeply or get too technical, I either abandon them or mark them for later consumption when I am able to focus my scant attention on them.

What's that? In Doug's video, we see him rising at 6am and back in bed by 10pm. I wish. I get very little sleep. I'm seldom in bed before midnight. I make up for it by getting up at 11am on Saturdays.

I used to exercise 4 times a week, including training with the local masters' swimming club. Since starting my Masters' degree, masters' swimming has gone by the board and my thrice weekly workout sessions are no more than a pipe dream. I promise myself that I will return to it the moment I have submitted my dissertation.

Convenience food
I hate ready meals and I am very suspicious of what they contain. Usually I cook proper meals from scratch. However, on Tuesday nights I have lectures and no-one else has the time to cook, so that's what's on offer. On Friday nights we might grab a takeaway. The kids call it chip night, since it's the only night of the week they ever get to eat genuine junk food. Once my Masters' is behind me, Tuesday nights will once more see the my family eating home cooked food, but I don't think I will be able to wean my family off chip night!

Once or twice a week, I work from home, which saves me a total of over 3 hours of travel time per week.

Social life
I don't have one. Apart from my husband and sons, all my friendships are now conducted online. We have not formed any meaningful social relationships since moving to the UK eight years ago. There is no way I would ever have had the time to do what I do online if we were still living in South Africa where our lives were filled to overflowing with "people with skin on". Thankfully, the wonderful world of web 2.0 has enabled us to stay in touch with friends and family in the far flung places in the world or we would have withered away long since.

There are a few other minor things, but I will leave those for the video project.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

LOLCAT moment

Mark Oehlert has recently discovered lolcats and his delight has reawakened mine. So, with absolutely no pretence at relevance to learning, here's my favourite lolcat for today...
lolcat - traffik light cat iz on theƂ job.
more funny pictures

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What kind of fool, sorry BLOGGER am I?

Rats, now I've got Shirley Bassey going in my head! The link will take you to a page with a sampler of the song so you can have it stuck in your head, too ;-)

Thanks to Harold for the link to this widget:

What Kind of Blogger Are You?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Queensberry rules?

In the two-and-a-bit years that I've been blogging, I have had occasion to visit purely soapbox type blogs, where people have set forth their strongly held views on some or other topic, only to come in for a fair amount of vitriol from readers. It seems there is this whole sector of the blogosphere just spoiling for a fight, and it can get really ugly, petulant and personal.

I have always returned from these forays grateful for the civilised nature of the bloggers in my neck of the cyberwoods. We don't always agree, but it always seemed that we had our eye on the ball and our end goal was the quest for knowledge, for improved learning provision.

I have posted comments disagreeing with the views expressed by various bloggers and they have responded with their views. Similarly, there have been disagreeing comments posted on some of my posts, with the same result. We have continued to disagree, but it has all been polite and mutually respectful. Some of them have gone on to become Facebook friends, Twitter friends, LinkedIn connections and people I would like to meet in person, should the opportunity ever arise. I have found the whole experience enriching, empowering and informative.

But that seems to be changing. Either that, or my veil of illusion is being stripped away.

A while ago, Donald Taylor made an appeal for evenhandedness in our responses to a controversial issue. I thought it was a little odd at the time, since I hadn't seen much evidence of anything else. Since then, I have spotted an occasional foray into character assassination that has sat very uncomfortably. This weekend one post in particular seemed to generate a debate that involved personal insults from rather surprising quarters.

I feel led back to the point I was making in this post about "the gatekeepers of truth".

I would just like to point out, be it ever so humbly, that even the wisest and most learned among us are looking at the world through the skewed perspective of what (we think) we know. There is just so much information out there that we don't have or that we haven't taken into account because we didn't realise it was relevant. No one person has the complete picture - omniscience has thus far eluded mankind (as far as I know!). So how can any one person categorically state one thing and resort to namecalling against those who dare to disagree?

For those who are hoping to find links to the "offending" posts or individuals - sorry, I don't work like that. But I would like to raise my ineffectual little voice in feeble protest... as either Dean Shareski or Darren Kuropatwa recently pleaded on Twitter: why can't we all just get along?

Please, please, my highly respected, valued community... can we be gentlemanly about this?