Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Academic writing blues

I am experiencing enormous frustrations with the constraints of academic writing. See my Ardent Student post on this. I would love to hear from others as to how you've coped with this. Doug? Stephen? George? You guys are so much further down the road than me, how did you get there without being stifled?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My academic heritage

Stephen Downes and Wendy Wickham have both written posts about the way in which their childhood homes influenced their attitudes to learning. I thought this would make a good meme, so I'm going to do one too, but I have to warn you - it isn't going to be a pleasant read. If you're reading this, consider yourself tagged!

I am the product of a typically dysfunctional background. My parents divorced when I was 6, and fought about money from that moment until I was an adult. I spent the next four years living in some rather unseemly places, witnessing events that I only came to understand very much later. My parents were very young when I made an unexpected (and, in my father's case, unwelcome) appearance in their lives, and had no idea how to engage with a child. I remember being very confused around the issue of days of the week. Such a simple thing, but no-one had ever taken the time to explain to me that there was a pattern to these things. I thought my parents decided each day whether they would go to work and I would go to school. I can remember everyone laughing at me in class when I asked a child (presumably on a Monday) if he had been to school the previous day and, when he said he hadn't, I replied, "Nor did I"

The sorry area we lived in after my parents' separation boasted a school with a gifted and talented stream. Fortunately, I was bright enough to be included in this, and for four years, was exposed to some of the best teaching I have ever encountered, until we moved to a happier socio-economic environment in an area with no G&T stream.

As a child, I never had any sense that I mattered to anyone. I realise now that I must have done, but adulthood is not the time to realise that your parents love/loved you. It was only when I was well into my adult years that I realised that I had had an unhappy childhood and, while it was nowhere near the order of some children, I can state categorically that misery is a corrosive force that eats into every aspect of a child's life.

The most significant periods of my childhood were spent in my maternal grandparents' home, in the company of my mother's siblings and their respective families.

Language was a recurring theme in my childhood. My maternal grandmother was an English and History teacher. She sighed over our lack of respect for grammar, and gently taught us when to say "you and me" and when to say "you and I". To this day it sets my teeth on edge when newsreaders and television/radio presenters get this one wrong. She also encouraged the use of one entirely apt word, rather than three approximations.

Most of the adults in my extended family did cryptic crossword puzzles, and clues would be discussed during the course of the day. There must have been a way to avoid being sucked in, because my sister doesn't give a fig for such things, but I didn't spot that escape hatch, and I now buy some newspapers purely for the crossword puzzle. England is a great place for a crossword addict. During the time I spent in the US, I was frustrated not to be able to find "proper" cryptic crossword puzzles.

My grandfather was a colonialist and a tyrant. During Sunday lunch, we would be forced to sit in utter silence as he listened to the BBC World newscast, which seemed an hour long - although it was probably less than a quarter of that. Should we dare to speak, he would turn on us and roar, "Ssh! Absolutely ssh!" I grew up associating current affairs with repression.

Politics were a feature, too, but a thorny one. My grandfather vocally supported a poor excuse of a party called the New Republic Party. He simply assumed that everyone else in family supported the same party, and no-one had the courage to tell him otherwise. We would listen to him fulminating, and I just felt in my heart that something was wrong with his reasoning. Since none of the adults took issue with him, I was confused. My mother was pretty liberal for a white South African in the 60s and 70s, believing in equal rights for all. Although I came to realise years later that she was personally rather racist, she didn't allow that to inform her politics, and she certainly raised us not to judge a person on the colour of their skin. In the typical last bastion attack of a groundless racist, someone once asked my mother, "What will you do when your daughter brings home a black husband one day?" to which my mother replied, "I have absolutely no idea what I will do when my daughter brings home a husband of any description." (As it turned out, the husband I eventually took home was white-but-foreign. My mother welcomed him with open arms and delighted tears.)

I was packed off to boarding school at the age of 11. This effectively meant that my mother was no longer a factor in my formal education. I had to take ownership of everything myself. No-one checked my homework, no-one nagged me to study for tests, no-one helped me establish boundaries and priorities. When the day scholars' parents were having parents' evenings, the boarders were either ignored or called in to account for themselves to the head teacher in person. Boy, oh boy, did I develop a chip on my shoulder and learn to stand up for myself! And for anyone else I thought was being subjected to injustice. On a school trip, I once saw a middle-aged white shopowner lay into a black teenaged shoplifter with a wooden pole, and my teacher had to bodily drag me away as I screamed hysterical abuse at the man. I was so affected by what I had seen that I was physically ill. Remembering the incident now, my bile rises again - all the more so, because I was the only one, the ONLY ONE who was upset by the incident. Everyone else felt that justice was being served. I was labelled as having an overdeveloped sense of justice. I assume that must have come from my mother, even though she never had the courage to reveal it to her father.

I felt abandoned in my schooling, and, looking back now, I think it was justified. I was left to fight many battles alone that should have been either fought for me, or fought as a joint effort. My mother was crippled by the load of single parenthood and had no idea how to cope with the issues that arose. So she abdicated.

My passion for learning was something that grew out of the fact that I stumbled upon the field of training way back in 1989, and discovered that I had a knack for it.

Contrasting my experience with those of Stephen and Wendy, I am ever more convinced that parents play the key role in establishing a culture for learning. Hence the abundance of National Geographics and Time magazines in our home today. Hence the open channels of communication with teachers. Hence the subscription to history channels, nature channels, science channels. Hence the visits to museums. Hence the overflowing bookshelves. The links to online resources that appear in my children's Inboxes. The hiring of movies that relate to topics being covered at school. The daily dinner times at the table, TV off. The frank and open discussions about anything and everything.

And, above all, hence the frequency with which our children are told/shown that they matter, that they are loved, that their ambitions will be taken seriously and that every effort will be made to help realise them.

I know this hasn't been a happy or a comfortable story to read, but I think it provides a suitable contrast with the very positive accounts I've linked to. If anything, the very negativity of my experience reinforces the importance of creating a home environment in which our children can flourish. It is also vital to realise that we can rise above our circumstances. We don't have to adopt a victim mentality and regard our lives as having been done to us.

So what is your story? What was your formative experience of learning?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mobile learning

A colleague gave me a leaflet recently relating to an initiative called Learning2Go. This is a project launched by the Wolverhampton Local Education Authority. It looks wonderfull exciting and challenging and seems to have been well received by the children. However, I can't help wondering about the viability of the project from a cost perspective. Teachers keep reminding me that many British children have no computer at home. It seems even less likely, then, that they would have a PDA. So is the school, the LEA, the government going to supply these? Hmm.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Consciousness of knowledge

A few recent events and exchanges have got me thinking about levels of consciousness associated with knowledge (I've probably misused semantics in some places, so forgive me):

Knowing that you know - conscious knowledge
When you have gone through a specific learning experience to gain knowledge, you know you have that knowledge. I know that the orders of operation associated with algebra can be summarised in the acronym BODMAS (or any of several variations on that theme). I remember learning it. I remember arguing with my son's Year 5 maths teacher when she said "We don't use that system, here" - as if it were an optional extra. I have taught it countless times when reaching the point of formulas in spreadsheet training. I use it myself whenever I create a formula in a spreadsheet package. I know BODMAS. I know that I know it, I know why I know it, and I know when to use it.

Not knowing that you know - unconscious knowledge
I have never had one of those real eye-opening moments like Geena Davis in Long Kiss Goodnight when she discovers to her horror that she knows how to assemble a sniper rifle. But on a smaller scale, there are moments when we put our knowledge into practise, surprising ourselves that we possessed the knowledge in the first place. A friend's Dalmatian bitch recently produced 8 puppies. They were her first litter, yet she ate their faeces (I know, I know) as she would in the wild to hide their existence from predators. Although we are no longer so reliant on our instincts, we have reserves of knowledge we don't even know about until they are needed.

Knowing that you don't know - conscious ignorance, part 1 - the foundation for learning
It is when you know that you don't know that you ask questions - and hopefully pay attention to the answers. Unless of course, you "don't know, don't care" - which is another matter again. I know that I don't know enough about html. I am having vocabulary-expanding trouble trying to use the new Blogger feature to upgrade my blog template while retaining my hard-won widgets. I am pestering everyone who might be able to help with a myriad questions, but have so far made precious little progress! I know that I am still learning about connectivism, so I ask questions of people like George and Stephen and will my brain to understand their responses. I read the exchange on the Connectivism Conference Moodle and form views on the messages posted there, filtering the new information through what (I think) the experts are saying.

Don't know, don't care - conscious ignorance, part 2 - the nursery of bigotry and prejudice
Someone once told me she had won a trip to South Africa. Congratulating her, I asked her where she was going, so that I could recommend a few sights to take in. "Uganda," she replied. When I told her that Uganda was not only not in South Africa, it was a long distance away, she shrugged and said airily, "It's all Africa isn't it?" Don't know, don't care. My husband calls this "I've made up my mind, don't confuse me with facts!"

Don't know that you don't know - unconscious ignorance
I'm probably as guilty of this as anyone I might point a finger at. I don't know what I don't know. Not realising what great holes there are in my knowledge, I might make confident, categorical statements about situations/events/whatever that are patently untrue. I notice this particularly in my teenage sons - they are in that fortunate stage of their lives when they still know everything ;-) When someone points out the flaw in my statement, or draws my attention to some information that contradicts what I think, I have a choice: either I can move into knowing that I don't know, or I can go to don't know, don't care.

I'm sure there are other categories, too, and it's useful to know where your user audience is when you're designing a learning solution, since this will impact the solution on many levels.

Friday, February 23, 2007

How do I get my blog to Explode?

Thanks to Stephen Downes, I found Explode. I thought it looked like an interesting way to encounter like-minded people. So I duly created my profile, and I've made a few friends - some of whom have befriended me in return. Since then I've noticed that some people are Exploding onto their blogs - that there is either a widget or a container on the blog linking to Explode. The good folks behind Explode (and Elgg) have created the means to do this.

If you have "MySpace, Livejournal,, Vox, or similar" you go for one option. If you own your own blog, use Movable Type, Wordpress, an account on an Elgg system, or run your own custom site, you go for the other. So I have a Blogger blog - which kind is that? I've tried both options, adding the code to the sidebar of my template, but nothing changes.

Aargh! The frustrations of tech-ignorance!

W H Auden

Wednesday was WH Auden's birthday. I know this because it says so on the poetry calendar my husband gave me for Christmas. I have been out of the office since Monday, so I only turned that page over today. Much of my poetry of choice is American in origin (Frost, Auden, Dickinson, Whitman, Pound and my all time favourites cummings and Jeffers), and I would reproduce the Auden poem used on the calendar, only it would seem to be against copyright, so instead I will link to it on someone else's site, and let them worry about copright!

The little shpiel commemorating the day relates the following story:

Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York and did much to soldier against poverty with slim resources. Unfortunately, her compassion for others didn't win any sympathy from the government. She was once fined $250 because one of her hostels was "not up to code." Leaving the courthouse disheartened - for she had no ready means to cover the fine - she passed a sorry group of men looking for handouts. One man, as scruffy as the rest, emerged from amid the group and pressed a piece of paper into her hand. Explaining that he heard what had happened, he said, "I want to help out a little. Here's two-fifty." Day beamed as she thanked him, much cheered by this small act of selflessness. It wasn't until she was on the subway home that she looked at the check. It was a check for two hundred and fifty dollars, not two dollars and fifty cents - and it was signed by WH Auden. The poet once quipped, "We are here on earth to good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."
I have related this today for no other reason than that it touched a chord with me. I didn't need a reason to like Auden's poetry, but this story certainly did the man no harm in my eyes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Obscure musings: cats and learning

So here I am, sitting at my dining room table (I'm working from home today), grinding my teeth in frustration. "Why?" I hear you ask (well, not really, but I'm going to tell you anyway!)

I have two cats: Molly and Daisy. They are litter sisters who have never been apart one day in their lives. Molly is the athlete, Daisy is the poser. Molly is independent and a take control girl. Daisy is a helpless whinger.

Since we are fresh air addicts, even in the depths of winter, the fanlights in the upper storey are open. Molly uses these to get in and out of the house, and she spends a great deal of time outdoors in any weather. Daisy is convinced that "outdoors" is a place that appears when the weather is good and the downstairs windows are open.

Molly negotiates her way behind the heavy wooden louvre blind in our bedroom, hauls herself up and through the fanlight, makes her way along the slatted wooden platform thing (said she articulately. I wish my camera battery wasn't flat!), down onto the garage, the shed, the fence and then to the ground. She comes back the same way. If the downstairs windows are open, even better. Out through the lounge windows and back the same way. Great. She figured all of that out all by herself.

Then there's Daisy. She has not ever ventured behind the wooden blind - I'm not even sure she is aware that the upstairs windows exist. Even if she figured that out, there is little chance that she would be able to follow her sister's example. Daisy doesn't "do" jumping or clambering - so unladylike, you understand. When the weather is fine (like today) and the downstairs windows are open, she heaves her (somewhat overweight) body up and out, and that's when the trouble starts. Within moments, she is yelling on the top of her voice, informing me (and the whole neighbourhood) that there is no way back into the house. That she's lost. Abandoned. Forlorn. Destitute. Alone. So I get up and open the front door for her. Haranguing me roundly, she comes back indoors, only to head straight back to the window and out again. I have tried ignoring her. I have tried sticking my head through the window and calling her, so that she can see how to get back in. I have tried making her favourite sound with the food container to entice her to find a way in. No dice. Occasionally, instead of yowling, she will "knock" on the front door. This involves hooking and releasing the rubber insulation, which genuinely makes a knocking sound... and totally destroys the rubber.

They make me think of the two extremes of learners. One gets on with it, figures it out for herself and makes independent progress. The other whines and whinges until someone does it for them out of pity or the quest for a moment's peace.

She's out there, right now, yelling her head off again. Last time I let her in (about 2 minutes ago), I groaned, "Why can't you learn how to let yourself in, you stupid moggy?" And then I thought about it. She has. Her method works just as well as her sister's. Better maybe.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm trying hard not to learn it!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Visiting? About this blog...

From time to time, posts appear that encourage us (bloggers, that is) to provide newcomers with an introduction to our blogs. I have tended not to do this, because my view was that the handful of readers already knew their way around.

Then recently, I received a message from someone via via via, to the effect that they were unsure how to go about subscribing to my blog. So I decided to rethink things.

First off, I have added a widget just below the blog title for easy subscription via a selection of aggregators. Since I have a Bloglines account, I have a "Sub with Bloglines" button on my browser toolbar, and this is the way I subscribe to any blog that sustains my interest. I recognise that not everyone (a) uses Bloglines as their aggregator and (b) knows how to do this! Apologies for a lack of inclusiveness in my approach.

I tend to be a bit of an end user blogger. I don't know how to add a widget to my blog that tells you how many readers I have had, nor would I know where to start to customise my template. I had to have help from Mark Berthelemy in adding that widget, for example. Mark is a total whizzkid, who fortunately belongs to the same team as I do for his day job. I wouldn't ever have believed that I would meet anyone more passionate about learning than me... and then I met Mark!

Another invaluable source of help has been Vicki Davis, who occasionally posts on "how to" do this, that or the other thing associated with blogging. I think that Vicki is slightly newer to blogging than I am (I started on 13 July 2005), but she has taken the bull by the horns and become a blogger of note in a very short space of time. She is also a very unselfish person and a born teacher who is willing to share what she knows with anyone who's interested.

My blog posts tend to centre around issues associated with learning: learning in general, my own learning experience and my reflections on the experiences of others (often my two sons). My field is the corporate environment, so my focus is on the workplace learner. This is my passion - post-compulsory learning under circumstance which are usually a long way from conducive.

Obviously there is some overlap with the fields of formal education, and my own current journey through a master's degree, coupled with my sons' adventures in a high school system that is alien to me (since I was educated in a different country), mean that I have an interest in this sector as well.

Since we are human and not very easily compartmentalised, I don't stick purely to my own fields of endeavour, but have been known to post about unrelated matters which have touched my life in some way.

Since blogging is in large part a conversation, I am a fairly prolific commenter, and you are likely to come across my name in the comments of many of the blogs listed in my Bloglines. I keep track of these conversation using CoComment, which has been proving increasingly unreliable of late - several conversations going completely unrecorded. I also welcome comments on my own posts, although I recognise that I seldom produce content that is of sufficiently stirring significance to attract a lot of traffic. This doesn't lose me any sleep. Like many other bloggers, my posts are a way of thinking out loud, of getting things of my chest, of committing my thoughts to a space where I can come back to them. If a post serves all these purposes and still strikes a chord for a reader, then that is a double bonus!

If you are new to this blog, I hope that this has been of help to you in some way.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Calling all learning designers: what do you do?

Here is a thought-provoking post from Patrick Dunn of Networked Learning Design about our mysterious job! I recognise myself and my colleagues in some sections, find myself rejecting parts, congratulating myself occasionally and emphatically saying "I wish!" now and again. How about you?

The flat world... NOT!

Thanks to George Siemens for this link (via his newsletter) - as he says:

"While "the world is flat" is a wonderful ideal, it's not reality. It's not reality globally...and it's not reality within Canada (or US, Europe, Middle East, Africa, or where ever). Consider this animation of global economic activity (via Creativity Exchange)"
'Swhat I've been saying all along. Look at all those spikes! And just take a look at my home continent (Africa) and play spot-the-spike for a moment. It breaks my heart!

Introducing the new technology

Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for the pointer to this funny-but-true look at coming to grips with new technologies (via YouTube). Some of us have been in the position of both the helper and the helpee before, and this scenario will ring a few bells!

Where is your mind?

During the recent Connectivism Conference, Bill Kerr posed the following question:

“What is the mind, where is it and how does it work?”
This question formed part of his challenge to connectivism as a learning theory. However, it struck a chord with me last night when my husband read me a report called The Power of Hope in Time magazine of 12 February.

The report is largely based on an anecdote from the author, Scott Haig, MD. He was treating a patient with terminal lung cancer that had metasticised. The patient's brain tissue had been completely replaced by brain tumours, and he had entered the final moments of his life. He had been unconscious and completely incapacitated for some time. Then, suddenly, in the last moments of his life, this man regained consciousness and made very lucid farewells to his family.

As Dr Haig says:
"it wasn't David's brain that woke him up to say goodbye that Friday. His brain had already been destroyed. Tumor metastases don't simply occupy space and press on things, leaving a whole brain. The metastases actually replace tissue. Where that gray stuff grows, the brain is just not there. What woke my patient that Friday was simply his mind, forcing its way through a broken brain"
All our advanced, sophisticated understanding of the brain has still left us a long way short of finding, let alone understanding the mind. If a man with effectively no brain still has a mind, still has a will, where does that leave us? Will our on-going study of the physical brain really tell us what we need to know about that which makes us essentially who we are?

There are so many sciences associated with the brain. Haig summarises:
"Neuroanatomy is largely concerned with which spots in the brain do what; which chemicals have which effects at those spots is neurophysiology. Plan on feeding those chemicals to a real person's brain, and you're doing neuropharmacology. Although they are concerned with myriad, complex, amazing things, none of these disciplines seem to find the mind. Somehow it's "smaller" than the tracts, ganglia and nuclei of the brain's gross anatomy--but "bigger" than the cells and molecules of the brain's physiology. We really should have bumped into it on the way down. Yet we have not. Like our own image in still water, however sharp, when we reach to grasp it, it just dissolves."
Haig is not the first doctor to be amazed at the power of the mind over the brain. Extensive research identifies that a specific part of the brain deals with such-and-such a skill, then along comes a girl with half a brain or a young man with no brain to speak of ("Is Your Brain Really Necessary," Science Dec. 12, 1980, p. 1232.) and defies all that we think we know. People constantly learn new skills and/or rehabilitate from the loss of physical and neurological functions - the mind forcing the brain into new pathways by dint of will. As Haig says elsewhere in the article, "a mind or will, clearly separate, hovers under the machinery, forcing it toward a goal."

I know it sounds cheesy, but Haig's article made my heart sing - we truly are wonderfully made, and we are a long way from unravelling the mysteries of how it all works! I will quote his final paragrph in its entirety to end this post:
"But many think the mind is only in there--existing somehow in the physical relationship of the brain's physical elements. The physical, say these materialists, is all there is. I fix bones with hardware. As physical as this might be, I cannot be a materialist. I cannot ignore the internal evidence of my own mind. It would be hypocritical. And worse, it would be cowardly to ignore those occasional appearances of the spirits of others--of minds uncloaked, in naked virtue, like David's goodbye."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mark Berthelemy on Will Richardson on "unlearning"

Mark usually uses his blog to point at a resource/asset/post and say: this is interesting, this is new, this is something to watch. He doesn't often share his world view at any length. This post, however, is an exception. He has unpacked Will's post on the steep "unlearning curve" and added his own perspective on some of the issue raised.

In a bizarre reversal of roles, today it is my turn to point at a post and say: this is interesting, this is something to watch. It will be interesting to follow any further exchange of views that grows out of this.

February's big question

The big question for February is "What questions should we be asking". Of course the responses to this will vary widely depending on each individual's field of interest and endeavour. As usual, I will make no pretence at having an objective, global view, but will seek only to speak from my own persepctive.

As a learning designer, I find that the people who requisition learning are often out of touch with the ultimate user audience: namely the learner. In fact, on a current project, I had to explain to one of the client reps what a learner was. This is the person I care most about. I wish the only question ever needed on a learning solutions project was: What will work best for the learner? In the absence of this idyll, I would like to ask:

  • How do we bridge the divide between he-who-signs-the-cheques and he-who-will-use-the-resource?
How do we overcome the fact that he-who-signs-the-cheques (hwstc) often couldn't care a fig for all this newfangled learning theory stuff: just build me something that I am familiar with, but make sure that it is 100% effective (what do you mean the two things are mutually exclusive?).

I'm sure I'm going to kick myself as I later think of a far more relevant question, but this is where my head is at today.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Elluminate rocks!

I've been attending the Online Connectivism Conference. This has been the first time that I have encountered Elluminate and I'm smitten. The real time presentations (audio plus slides), the concurrent chat, the option for an open mike, the opportunity to occupy on a synchronous basis the same virtual space as people I have only encountered asynchrnously before. It's all too cool for words.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Tagged: how do I blog?

I've been tagged by Vicki Davis who wants to know how I blog. Vicki herself has published a very insightful and articulate post on the matter. She is a woman with her ducks very much in a row. Mine (ducks, that is) are somewhat less disciplined. So how do I blog?

  1. First thing every morning, I check my emails. Next thing, I catch up on my bloglines. Next, I check my CoComment. In one of those places, I am likely to come across something that sets off sparks in my brain. If they are small sparks, I will answer the email or comment on the blog post. If there is a major electrical short, I will write a post of my own. My thoughts often take shape as I write. These posts may be a bit rambling, and are likely to include a soapboax moment.
  2. Life is full of learning experiences, and I often think in allegories. If something has happened that has made a strong impression on me, or taught me a valuable life lesson. I will record the experience and what I learnt from it. In these cases, I tend to record the story chronologically and let it unfold for the reader as it did for me.
  3. If I have attended a lecture, a seminar, a conference. I will record my reflections on the event. Drawing out the highlights and lowlights. This style of posting is more common in my Ardent Student blog, where I am journalling my way through my MA course.
  4. My husband and two sons are all the family I have in the UK. Everyone else is ranged from Wellington, New Zealand in the east to Portland, Oregon in the west and Stockholm in the north, to Perth in the south. These people are not interested in my musings about the various aspects of my job, or what I think about learning, thinking, knowledge, etc. They care about me. About my boys. About my husband. They want to know that we're happy and healthy, and they want to share in our lives as much as the enormous distances allow. For these people, I have a family blog, where I record humorous anecdotes, achievements, events, milestones, news updates. Inconsequentialities to the rest of the world, but life blood to us and of vital interest to grannies and aunties who haven't seen us for years. These are usually related in such a way as to have maximum impact - building up to the punchline, or emphasising the ridiculous. Inform and entertain.
  5. Like Vicki, I seek to be honest in my blog. To be me. I have no patience with or stomach for subterfuge. Some people are quite critical of blogs that draw heavily on personal experience. I guess that's why they don't read mine. I can only provide my own perspective with any accuracy, which is what I do. That perspective may change tomorrow, but what you read in my blog today is a picture of me as I am today.

Where does real end and virtual begin?

This is very much a thinking-out-loud post, and I welcome any thoughts, rebuttals and contributions you might have!

A colleague and I were having this conversation yesterday on the train after Learning Technologies 2007. The conversation was sparked off when my colleague asked if I had ever ventured into the world of Second Life (I hadn't). I mentioned that fact that Sweden was opening an SL embassy. I also touched on some of the other matters I covered in my post on that topic.

I discovered that this is a point that has been exercising him for some time, too. If you can buy properties in SL on eBay, are they virtual? If a thing has sufficient value to a person to warrant them spending hard currency on it, doesn't that make it "real"? And from there, a natural segue to money itself. Even hard currency isn't real. Notes are in fact promisory notes - they aren't money, at all. They're a phyiscal manifestation of a virtual commodity. As I understand it, there is even an exchange rate between SL money (I really must find out what it's called!) and $ or £ or € or whatever. If this is the case, does that not lend weight to the argument that realness and virtuality are no more true of one than the other?

Then we moved on to the things we pay hard currency for. For example, you pay to go to the movies, to a rock concert, to the theatre, to ride a scrambler, drive a tank, ride a roller coaster, adopt a monkey in the zoo, to stay overnight in a 5 star hotel. What are you actually getting for your money? You don't actually own anything afterwards that you didn't own before, and you're broker in fiscal terms. So what is it? An experience? Entertainment? Well, is this real or virtual? How is it any more real than the experience you have online? Than the plot of land you buy in SL? Than the house/family you create in the Sims? Than interacting with your tamagotchi? And on that point, since a tamagotchi is a physical object that you must keep with you, that you must interact with by means of direct touch to meet its many and varied needs, that has a lifespan, how is that a "virtual" pet? Electronic, yes. Virtual, no.

And simulations have been used as valid learning environments for ages. Especially when real world mistakes could lead to loss of assets, money and lives. So is that learning "virtual" or "real"? I would have to say that the learning was real, even if the environment was virtual. But hang on a minute! How virtual is the environment? The learner pilot (for argument's sake) is really a learner pilot. The cockpit is really a cockpit, even though it isn't attached to an aeroplane. The controls really are controls and the pilot will use them exactly as he/she would if there were a plane attached to the cockpit several thousand metres above the earth. The scenario is virtual. True, but the pilot must respond to them exactly as if it were real or his flying career will end before it has gotten off the ground.

Ooh, it's a proper can of worms this! Once you get the lid off, there's no way of knowing where those little blighters might end up!

Reflections on Learning Technologies 2007

Yesterday I spent the day at the Learing Technologies 2007 exhibition. I would have loved to attend the conference, but at close to £900, my line manager was unconvinced of the ROI to the team (to be honest, at that price, I wasn't so sure myself!), and I certainly didn't have the readies to sponsor myself. So if you're looking for info about that aspect of the event, I apologise.

The exhibition aspect was interesting, with all the usual suspects present and correct.

I have to devote a brief moment to the take-aways and freebies that were on offer, since these always fascinate me. Some people seem to go to conferences and come away with carrier bags of souvenirs. I, on the other hand, usually come away empty-handed. Perhaps I don't the right "look". One exhibitor was dishing out cameras, another was handing out radios (astonishingly, I was given two of these - neither of which works). There was the usual supply of chocolate and pens of varying qualities. One stand had sticks of rock with their company logo in them - ingenious, I thought. One had large, brightly coloured fabric flowers, but these weren't strictly free - one had to sign up for their IT courses to qualify.

Inherent in the exhibition format is the open seminar. These run for half an hour with a 15 minute break between them. I had highlighted a selection of these that I wanted to attend. As is increasingly the case, I was disappointed by most of the presentations. The speakers were usually suffciently engaging, with slick visual aids, but they mostly didn't tell me anything new. I know for a fact that I'm not at the leading edge of knowledge and understanding about learning, so it bothers me that providers seem to be lagging behind even me.

One speaker, whose product impressed me more than most, did himself no favours in my eyes by stating early on (and reiterating at regular intervals) that learning was the process of getting information into your head. The implication being that, unless you had committed a piece of information to memory, you hadn't learnt it. I am very worried about the integrity of a product developed by people who miss the point of the nature of learning in the early 21st century.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the "great balloon debate". The premise was that there were 9 people in a hot air balloon on their way to the mythical kingdom of Elernia. Sadly, I can't name all 9 from memory, but I have a handy list: analyst; learning designer; change management expert; hardware specialist; software specialist; evaluation specialist graphic/interface designer; marketing consultant; project manager. The balloon is sinking fast and three people must be thrown overboard to save the rest. Each person got three minutes to explain to the audience (inlcuding the king and queen of Elernia) why they deserved to keep their place, and the audience voted. The first people to go were: hardware specialist; evaluation expert; graphic/interface designer.

Alas, the balloon continued to sink. Each person got a further two minutes. The next three out were: analyst; change management expert; marketing consultant, leaving the learning designer; software specialist and project manager. Of these, the learning designer scored the highest. Clive Shepherd suspected (as did I, to be honest) that the room was well stocked with learning designers who had voted nepotistically. However, a show of hands revealed just two or three of us.

Immediately after that came the final open seminar of the day which, contrary to expectations, was pretty packed. The subject was m-learning and it proved to the most interesting session of the day. The presenting company, LINE Communications talked us through a case study of a recent project of theirs: they had created an m-learning solution for a driving academy catering largely to young adults. I was pretty impressed to learn that, even before this, the driving academy had equipment to record a learner driver's performance during the lesson and upload it to the LMS back at base. If I tried to describe all the bits and bobs of the solution, I would do it an injustice, so, if you are interested, I suggest a visit to this page on their website. They get my vote for best solution. Usually, when I am getting stressed about deadlines etc., project managers will try to restore perspective by pointing out that this learning: no-one is going to lose their job or their life if we miss a deadline. However, in teaching people to drive safely, in identifying the hot issues for young drivers and addressing them head on (urk - uncomfortable phrase), if it is effective, this learning is in fact going to save lives. What a thing to be able to put on your resume!

My other (purely subjective) impressions are that:

Adobe probably had the highest attendance figures to the demos that they did at their stand on a rolling basis - and people seemed pretty impressed with their offering.
Atlantic Link is the company I would most like to own, being small, passionate, fleet of foot and accommodating of client needs.
Happy Computers Ltd wins the award for sheer gung-ho out there-ness (they were the distributors of the flowers I mentioned). They seem to be the kind of IT trainers that I aimed to be myself, and their stand was a happy, chaotic contrast to all the sleek, muted conformity around them.
Saffron Interactive takes the award for the most original attention grabbing methods with their barman-and-waitress mimes.
The best freebies must be the camera, but I can't give the company a plug, since I don't know who they were.