Monday, July 30, 2007

Twitter: another look

A while back, I posted on Twitter and how I didn't "get" it. In short order, I got several comments advising me to stick with it and telling me that the secret lay in the matter of friends. So I have stuck with it and I have made some friends (only now the terminology has changed, so I'm following people and little over half of them follow me in return).

I began to see a few benefits and encouraged my colleague Mark Berthelemy to sign up. His immediate reaction was about as negative as mine had been. Reading his post, I realised that I have warmed somewhat to the medium, but I still have some issues.

I have been reflecting on these because I will need to write about my Twitter experiences for my dissertation. Here are some of my thoughts:

Picking up useful pointers
Many of the twits will include links to interesting things they have seen or read online. This can be very helpful. Also, they are inclined to publicise their hot-off-the-press blog posts, which is also helpful - especially if the twit isn't someone whose blog features in my aggregator.

Getting me thinking
Some of the conversations that take place stimulate my thought processes, resulting in material added to my MA submissions or this blog.

Choosing whom to follow
Some of the folks I have encountered follow literally thousands of people. I don't get that. How can you possibly keep track of that many conversations in any meaningful way? On the other hand, because you generally only see the tweets of the people you follow, if one of them follows someone else and engages in an exchange with that person, you only get to see half the conversation. So, you are then faced with the choice of ignoring those tweets (which can sometimes seem very interesting) or adding the person on the other end of the conversation to your list of people you follow. Before you know it, you could end up with thousands.

I have decided to restrict the people I follow to learning professionals and related types. Although the conversation is often about things far removed from work, keeping those channels open makes for a more personal relationship. You really begin to feel that you know some of these people.

Following and being followed
Related to my previous point is the issue of imbalance between followers and followees. I guess it's a sad reflection of my online popularity that I follow 34 people, but only 21 people follow me. I can cite a specific example of where this has been a problem: recently Dave Warlick tweeted something that interested me. Because I follow him, his message showed up on my screen. I immediately responded with a question or observation, forgetting in my eagerness, that Dave doesn't follow me. While my tweet, having been directed at him (by means of the @ symbol before his user name) will automatically appear in his replies folder, very few twits bother with this folder. In fact, there was an exchange just today where two people were complaining about the inconvenience of messages that appear in their replies folders from people they don't follow. They were on the opposite end of the inconvenience.

Time zones
One night, when I went to bed, I left my mobile phone on the dining room table, which is directly below my bedroom, with a lot of open plan and no closed doors in between. Well into the night, I could hear the gentle buzz of my phone receiving tweet after tweet. This was very symbolic of the way it goes. Every morning I wake to find well over 30 messages in my inbox. Then, all through the day, the tumbleweeds blow across the space. I follow a few Aussies, a few in the UK, a scattering from elsewhere and a much larger number of North Americans. They're all tweeting when I'm asleep, and the Aussies are sleeping when I tweet. Funnily enough, the Aussies seem to have more overlap with the North Americans than I do. Because of the synchronous nature of the exchanges, there's little point in going back over the stuff that went on while I was snoring, and it's really frustrating when I spot that one of the messages was directed specifically at me, which means I have missed out on the chance to see how an exchange can develop.

So, while I have discovered some value from Twitter, I still feel somewhat on the outside of things. I have yet to identify whether it's just a case of everyone else being satisfied with the status quo, or whether other people's experience differs from mine - hence their higher measure of satisfaction.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Who do I read?

Like many inhabitants of this space, I have an aggregator that dishes up to my virtual doorstep new posts that appear in all the blogs to which I subscribe. Over the past two years, that list has changed and will no doubt continue to do so. I try to keep it small enough so that I can actually assimilate all the new material to some degree. There are several other blogs that I read on an ad hoc basis, but these are the ones I read every day.

On the list are a few sites totally unrelated to my job or studies, just because they inspire me. Among these are:
Urban Army. Gordon Cotterill is an officer in the Salvation Army who encounters some very interesting characters and handles situations with grace.
Creating Passionate Users. It has been almost four months since the zany, whacky, articulate Kathy Sierra was hounded out of the blogosphere by cyberbullies. I remain subscribed to her feed in the hope that one day she'll feel able to venture out into the open again.
Calvin and Hobbes. This is an unofficial site and I have no idea if Bill Watterson has sanctioned the use of his material in this way. Having read biographies I think it highly unlikely, and I admit to occasional pangs of guilt that I might be contributing to an offence against someone I greatly admire. Nevertheless, a daily dose of this gobby 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger starts my day off on the right note.
The Dilbert blog. I used to subscribe to the Dilbert cartoon, but that feed broke and, in trying to restore it, I discovered Scott Adams's blog. His irreverance, his complete disregard for political correctness and his off-beat ability to see the ridiculous in everything makes a valuable contribution to my reading.

I also read a few blogs associated with the formal education within what Americans refer to as the K-12 (kindergarten to 12th grade) range. Although my learners are all adults, I suspect that there is more commonality between the way adults and children learn that many corporate learning professionals realise. These include:
Cool Cat Teacher Blog. Vicki Davis is like a dynamo. She seems to have so much on the go at once and seems to maange to do it all with unflagging zeal and passion. She very quickly became an edublogging force to be reckoned with. Vicki is someone I would love to meet f2f. Ewan McIntosh is based in Scotland and what I read in his blog about the strides the education system is making there, makes me wish I could find an excuse to move my family north of the border... the dreadful weather notwithstanding their dreadful weather! Doug is one of the youngest bloggers on my list: a mere stripling of 26, busy with a doctorate and passionate about the way history is taught in the UK.
The Thinking Stick. Jeff Utecht works at an international school in Shanghai, and faces a whole different set of challenges, among them the Chinese censorship. Like me, he feels that teachers need two different support mechanisms in including ICT in their pedagogical toolkit: technical support and maintenance and pedagogical support and mentoring.
Artichoke. I don't know Artichoke's real name. She is the newest addition to my aggregator. She is erudite, well-read and articulate and has a way of piecing things together that one didn't realise belonged together until she expounded on them. Often way over my head, but that's the point - to get around people who are smarter than you are and grow as a consequence.

The largest section of my aggregator is given over to a section I call "learning and related". These include:
2¢ worth. This is Dave Warlick's blog. Dave is a popular speaker (with good reason, I understand). He doesn't have a very high opinion of his reading and writing skills and his blog does show occasional signs of dyslexic tendencies. I mention this only because I am a nitpicking pedant who is normally irked by spelling errors. However, what Dave has to say so vastly overshadows any irritation I may feel. Not only has he taught me a great deal about learning, he has taught me to get over myself!
bgblogging. Barbara Ganley works in higher ed. Although her posts are thin on the ground, they are well waiting for.
Brandon Hall Analyst Blog. Janet Clarey is a fairly recent addition to my aggregator, largely because she is a fairly recent entrant to the blogosphere. Much of her material has direct bearing on my day job. Added to that, she is the mother of sons, so we have that synergy, too. She is someone else I'd like to meet f2f.
Christopher D. Sessums :: Blog. Chris Sessums sometimes blogs as if he is handing in an academic paper, often complete with references at the end of a post. Other times, he is all passion and informality. He is well informed and well-read, and makes for an interesting read.
Cognitive Edge. I haven't been reading this blog for long, but thus far, my view of Dave Snowden is that he is irascible. Occasionally controversial, which is what we like, after all.
Connectivism blog. It's probably not too much of a stretch to call George Siemens one of my de facto learning gurus. I like the way he thinks, the way he explains things and his humility towards both his growing fame and his detractors. I really recommend his online conferences.
Dave's Educational Blog. Dave Cormier is, well, Dave Cormier. He doesn't blog that often, but when he does, you get the impression that he writes as he speaks and speaks as he thinks. I can relate to that.
Donald Clark Plan B. Donald is a dyed in the wool iconoclast. Sometimes I get the impression that he sits down and wonders, "Hmm, which sacred cow can I desecrate today?" Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don't, and sometimes I get downright annoyed, but it all makes for interesting debate.
e-Cippings (Learning as Art). Mark Oehlert is very into his games and simulations, a field I have had little insight into. Nevertheless, his views on learner engagement gel with me.
EdTech Roundup. This is another Doug Belshaw blog, where Doug highlights stuff that has stood out for him recently.
EdTechUK. Josie Fraser is altogether too quiet nowadays!
eLearning Technology. Tony Karrer's focus is on corporate learning and he has insight into the drivers of this world. This means that we often face similar issues and challenges, although he is a CEO and I'm just a li'l ol' learning designer. Tony's photo on his blog looks a bit like George Clooney - check it out for yourself and tell me I'm wrong!
Harold Jarche. Harold went solo some time ago and deals with a whole different set of challenges. However, many of the issues on which he advises his clients are very similar to those my own clients face. Not only that, but Harold has sons, too, so there's that synergy thing again. To be honest, I just plain like the guy and would add him to the list of people I would like to meet f2f.
In the Middle of the Curve. Wendy Wickham is about the most transparent blogger I have ever encountered. You always know exactly what she is working on, what her challenges are, how she feels about them, what she's learning or has learned. I'm not sure how she gets away with it, to be honest (my employer would have a conniption), but I'm glad she does!
Informal Learning Blog. Well duh! Is there a learning professional in the blogosphere who doesn't read Jay Cross?
Learning Conversations. This is the blog of my friend and colleague Mark Berthelemy, who introduced me to blogging (yup - it's all his fault!). Mark often deals with things that make me go huh? He tends to use his blog to point at stuff he's found interesting or useful, or as a reminder of how to do something he's just learned. Occasionally he gets up onto his soapbox and vents his spleen, and those are my favourite posts on his blog, because they give a small peep into his passion.
Occasional rants. Patrick Dunn seems to see the world much as I do, so I probably look like Noddy as I read his posts. I suspect we all like to reassure ourselves by attaching to like-minded individuals. No? Just me then!
OLDaily. As with Jay Cross is there a learning professional in the blogosphere who doesn't read Downes? This blog tends to be almost like an aggregator, full of points and brief opinions or reactions. He has another one called Half an Hour, where he calls it like he sees it, and at far greater length.

And that's yer lot, except for a few online journals that I might cover another time.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Things we assume that children know

This post is largely aimed at primary school teachers and the parents of small children.

When I was a kid, there were things I didn't know. I asked questions, of course, but, because they didn't realise why I was asking, my parents' answers didn't fully address the issue. Of course, I'm not saying for a moment that every child has the same blank spots, but perhaps mine might set you thinking about those of the children in your class.

Days of the week
. There was no TV in South Africa when I was a child, and we were not a church-going family so the different days of the week had no discernable distinguishing characteristics. The only difference was that some days my parents went to work and some they didn't. Later it was a case of some days I went to school and some I didn't. I didn't realise that there was a fixed pattern to this, and would ask my parents each morning whether it was a school day or not. I'm sure my parents would say things like, "Yes, it's Monday" or "No, it's Saturday" Even so, I had no way of knowing that those names were not simply made up by my parents. I honestly believed that they made the choice each morning as to whether or not they would go to work and I would go to school. When your kids ask you questions that pertain to the passage of time, don't assume that they've got it sussed. Take the time to talk it through with visual aids.

Funnily enough, this one cropped up again recently when I popped into our little local post office (which is at the back of the local pharmacy) and found the counter closed. I asked the pharmacy assistant whether the post office was closed for lunch and she said irritably, "It's Wednesday afternoon!" Apparently "everyone" knows that the local post office closes on Wednesday afternoons. How silly of me!

People's names.
We spent an enormous amount of time on the beach during my childhood. This was the days before concerns about skin cancer and the beach was free. I would spend hours playing with some new friend and, when I returned to my mother for lunch, she would ask, "What's his/her name?" Every time. I didn't know. I didn't care. It wasn't important. You didn't have to know a person's name to be able to build a sandcastle together. If the situation cropped up where one of you needed to know the other person's name, you asked.

There was another aspect to this. In those days, it wasn't the done thing for teachers' given names to be known to the children (I understand that this is still the case in Australia), and it was the cause of much giggling if the children found out that Mrs Greene was actually called Heather. This culture kind of followed me home. Because my parents had split up when I was quite young, I didn't have exposure to two adults calling each other by their given names around the house. As a consequence, I wasn't quite sure whether it was okay that I knew that my Mom was called Barbara. I used to ask her repeatedly what her name was. I reasoned that if she said her name out loud, that would mean she had given her permission. However, my mother thought I was just being silly, so she hedged the question, answering "Methuselah" or some such. Years later, when I explained the situation to her, she realised that if she had just answered the question honestly, she would have relieved herself of a lot of irritation!

Sometimes all you need to do is take the question at face value and answer it. There is, after all, no such thing as a stupid question!

Doing wrong v committing a crime. What gave rise to this whole post was my 15 year old son asking me if adultery was a criminal offence. It reminded me of my dread as a child that my mother would get sent to prison, leaving me to fend for my much younger sister all alone. I would plead with her not to let the police take her away to prison and she would assure me that people only got sent to prison when they had committed a crime, which she defined in answer to my question as "doing something very wrong".

Well, this was in the bad old days of apartheid and I saw how my Zulu nanny lived in dread of the police. If one of their vans appeared, she would hide. I had also seen how the neighbourhood drunk - an elderly Zulu woman who gloried in the name Bababa - regularly got carted off to prison in the paddy wagon when she had been singing loudly in the street outside.

I also knew that my mother did some very wrong things. She swore sometimes and she shouted when she was cross. Once she threw her hairbrush against the wall and it snapped. These must surely be crimes and, if the police only knew about them, she would be right there with Bababa the next time they came by.

Sometimes fears need to be tackled head on. Find out why kids are afraid of whatever it is and see if a reality check doesn't help.

That they are loved. My mother came from a very tightly buttoned family and has never been able to put her feelings into words. As a consequence she never told us that we were loved. I used to hear other parents telling their children that they loved them, and wondered whether there was something wrong with me. Once I even asked my mother if she loved me. She was irritated. One simply did not discuss such things, and she told me not to be so silly. What she meant was that I should not be so silly as to ask, not that I should not be so silly as to imagine that she might love me. However, this was how I interpreted her answer.

Of course, I have erred to the other extreme and tell my children I love them countless times a day. My younger son asked me about this when he was about four. I explained that I had never heard those words from my mother. As it happened, we were driving to visit my Mom at the time, and the first words out of his mouth when he climbed out of the car were, "Granny, why haven't you ever told my Mommy that you love her?" My mother said "I assumed she knew." To this day, my mother has been unable to frame those words. The closest she came was after a recent crisis when it came out that I had felt unloved as a child and she emailed me to say that she did love me and always had.

For goodness sake, tell your kids you love them! Three monosyllabic words... you can do it!

That parents break the rules, too. When I was a kid, no adult would ever dream of apologising to a child, even if the child had been grievously wronged. However, were I to try the same thing, I would be in for serious punishment, and reminded how wrong such behaviour was. Often adults would say that something was wrong, even though they themselves did whatever it was (smoking, or swearing for example). I found this confusing. Rules never seemed to stand still, and I always seemed to be breaking them. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, it would change again.

With our own children, we have decided to keep short accounts. When we wrong them we apologise. What's slightly more difficult is to remember to explain the situation when they have witnessed an infraction, but were not directly affected by it. When they were too little to figure it out for themselves, we would explain that the rule hadn't changed, just that we had broken it this time. We made it very clear to them that we tried to "behave" but that, just like them, we blew it from time to time.

When an adult breaks the rules in a child's presence, and the child is later seen to imitate the action, don't assume they know they are doing wrong - they may think the rule has changed.

There are several more, but it's time I got down off my soapbox, now. Please don't think I'm implying that I've got all the answers or that I'm the perfect parent (I wish), but we learn from each other in this space...

George Siemens discusses peer review

George Siemens has a post on his Connectivism Blog about peer review. So much of it echoes my own views and experience. He starts off his post by citing a situation in which a Masters' student in Lisbon related to him the skepticism of her assessors of the theory of connectivism and of Knowing Knowledge because of the lack of peer review. Expect for the location, that student might well have been me. As I stated in my Ardent Student blog in February:

"I struggled to get approval to submit a paper on Connectivism recently, because there is little or no peer reviewed writing on it in any of the recognised journals. I’m obviously not built for this world, because my immediate response is “So what?” I don’t understand why someone else needs to have written about something before I can write about it!"
It is worth noting, however, that I finally did gain approval for the assignment and I was delighted by the feedback that my lecturer's curiosity had been aroused by my submission and that she was set to explore the matter further out of personal interest. Score one for the rebels!

As a Masters' degree student, I find that there is this requirement always to reference peer reviewed work in my assignments. One of my profs tells me that it can take two years from the time an article is accepted by a publication to the time it appears in print. Two years?! By that time, things will have moved on, the thing you're writing about will be passe and something else will be flavour of the month. As a consequence, I find myself making tenuous links to material that is peer reviewed. So, if I'm writing about connectivism, I will dig out peer reviewed material about behaviourism, constructivism and cognitivism. I might even include a reference to the gestalt theory, which shares with connectivism an emphasis on pattern recognition. But I still feel as if I'm window dressing.

It's bad enough for the shorter 3000 word assignments, but it is really going to be a problem for my dissertation, which must be 20000 words long and must include a hefty amount of literature review. The project will dominate my life for a period, so it must be something of consuming interest to me, but as I noted, "How can I possibly write about something that matters to me if I’m restricted to a topic with an adequacy of been-there-done-that from recognised luminaries?" Ron Lubensky commented that he was experiencing the same frustrations.

Like George, I kick against the air of elitism that seems to go with the concept of peer review in academia. As he says: "Peer review is based on the assumption that a handful of experts are capable of validating ideas." There is a clear line between professional journals and peer reviewed journals, and it seems to me that the attitude of academia towards the former is one of faint distaste, in much the same way that broadsheet readers feel about tabloids. I can't help wondering whether the term hasn't been hijacked, like so many other learning terms, to serve one agenda. George touches on this in relation to the ongoing fragmented online conversation about connectivism. I tend to agree with him, after all - should "peer reviewed" not mean reviewed by one's peers? I would imagine that a few peers, handpicked by a publication as being tuned in to that publication's ethos, are less objective and therefore less reliable than a plethora of self-appointed peers who happen upon the material in the pursuit of their own informal , lifelong, lifewide learning journey. Coincidentally, in a recent paper, I touched on this point in respect of George's book Knowing Knowledge, saying:
"On the flip side, as mentioned before, not much of the material I read is peer reviewed in the academic sense of the phrase – most of it has, however, passed the acid test of the online community which is ever willing to make its criticisms known.

An excellent example of this is the book Knowing Knowledge by George Siemens..."
There is so much more I could say on this subject, but most of it would simply be a repeat of what George has said in his post. I will say that it's nice to find that I am not alone in my wilderness, but this doesn't change the fact that I am going to have to toe the line, at least until October next year if I evere want to write the letters MA after my name. And, shallow as it may seem to confess it, after all the work I'm putting in, I am determined that I will come away with at least that much to show for it!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Career decisions - winners or losers?

Scott Adams has posted today about people making ego-driven decisions that damage their careers. He starts with a personal anecdote of the painful experience type, and ends with the post with the question "Has your ego ever driven you off a cliff?"

I've been toying with the idea. Of course, I have made many ego-driven decisions in my personal life, and the best decisions I have made are not among them. However, if I think purely of my career...

I made the decision to go freelance when my children were small so that I could work around them. Some people may see that as a self-sacrificial choice, and I think I saw it so myself. But perhaps it was my ego that told me my children would be better off with me than at a nursery or childcare centre.

I have had a few opportunities along the way to move into management. In every instance, the move would have meant moving away from direct contact with learners, so I refused. Would ego have dictated that I take the opportunity to become a boss? Or was it ego that kept me in the classroom where I had unshakable belief in my skill?

Two years ago, I made the move from the classroom into my current role as a learning designer. I wanted to increase my exposure to e-learning, and my previous job afforded only such opportunities under this description as I had forged for myself in an almost underhanded fashion. Was it ego that once again directed me away from management towards the opportunity to gain more skills?

Recently, working through some content resources on a quest for some material for a client, I found a publication on "managing the maverick" and found myself fairly accurately described. Is that what I have become? A maverick? Or is it merely my ego that attempts to attach a label that implies that my lack of progress up the hierarchical ladder is a Noble Thing?

Does this constitute having gone over a cliff? What a morbid thought!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why I'm not a schoolteacher

A recent Twitter exchange between Lisa Durff and myself made me think that perhaps I should explain this. I was bewailing the fact that my sons are now on their summer break, but that neither my husband nor I are able to take leave to spend time with them. Lisa's response was simple: become a teacher! So why don't I do/haven't I done just that? Well, it's like this:

Years ago, having been advised by my school guidance counsellor that I showed above average aptitude for most things and exceptional aptitude for nothing at all, I was taken to see a student psychologist at a university. He subjected me to a battery of tests and advised me that my scores showed a remarkable aptitude for teaching, but almost zero for working with children, which was what had probably skewed the scores in the tests taken at school. It confused the poor man, too. He had no idea what to make of them. He suggested I become a psychologist and take over his job when he retired. Looking back now, I can't see how he didn't make the connection that I should teach adults. At that stage, I didn't even realise adults received any teaching. I thought it was school, university, work, end of. It never occurred to me (or him, apparently) that university students were not children, and I knew nothing about personnel training (as it was known then). Fortunately I ended up there anyway.

I was born to teach, to impart, to enable, to empower. It gives me such a buzz to see that light come on. If you're a teacher in any guise, you know what I mean. Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work with people who volunteer to be there. There has usually been a waiting list for my sessions. To me, learning is a gift, a joy, a stepping stone, a door - I have no desire to try to teach people who don't see it that way, people who attend my sessions because the law says they have to. And increasingly in the UK, my impression is that high schools are full of disaffected kids who have completely and utterly fallen out of love with school. My sons regularly come home with stories of how some or other child has sworn at a teacher and/or completely disrupted a lesson but that the teacher was powerless to take action because of constraints upon them. It seems it is easier to suspend a good teacher than a bad student (note: I deliberately did not say bad child)

I struggle with the concept of the volumes of just-in-case material that gets dumped on kids without any explanation as to relevance or value. Where's the motivation to learn stuff that just seems to you to be useless. I can't help feeling that there has to be a better way to do things. I spent two years teaching in a FE college and the stringent curriculum and assessment requirements stifled me. I really believed in my own ability to identify a learner's needs and meet them, and suffocated under the dictum to teach them all the same material. I can't accept that a single curriculum that must be followed by every child in the country can possibly be appropriate (why for example do Y10 kids study Romeo and Juliet every single year - not only did Shakespeare write many other plays, some far superior to R&J, but there is a plethora of other English language playwrights to schoose from!). I might be an idealist, but, if a child loves snooker, say, why not use that to teach vectors, principles of motion, geometry, trigonometry?

Working conditions
My heart breaks as, with every passing year, I meet an increasing number of ex-teachers (some of them extraordinarily talented) who have left the field in their droves because the reality failed to live up to the dream. They are not a good advertisement for the profession, to say the least. From where I sit, teachers seem to be pretty disempowered as a group of people. For the two years I worked in FE, I found the attitude of management towards teaching staff was not terribly different from their attitude towards the students. It was very much a case of telling, rather than discussing. I have since gained some insight into the way in which CPD is conducted for teachers in the UK, and have noticed that this seems to be the approach there, too. Bring 'em from far and wide, pack 'em in to a room and then tell 'em at great length what they should be doing and how to do it. Tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em. Never mind the fact that, gathered in that room is a wealth of invaluable experience and anecdotal input that should be drawn out and shared. Mind you, having said that, Scotland seems to have the march on England, and their teachers appear to be far more empowered than south of the border.

One conversation that keeps coming up is "what is education for?" Until we can get that one sussed, I can't see myself on the inside of the formal education system. I don't advocate a system that teaches only work-related skills, but whatever else we teach them should still add value... and be enjoyable, if that isn't too tall an order.

I don't wish to give the impression that I will never teach in a school under any circumstances. What I will say is that the circumstances would have to be very different from the way they appear today. Mind you, having said all of that, I wouldn't mind having a go at the new schools in Merseyside!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Scrambled messages

You know how one of the challenges we face in the provision of learning is to ensure that the message doesn't get scrambled in transition? Well, here is a little anecdote to illustrate just how easily it happens.

Last night, over dinner, my husband mentioned something to do with Wyatt Earp. My elder son asked, "What's a wire turp?" My younger son asked - complete with hilarious mime - if a "wire twerp" was the guy who twists the barbs around barbed wire. It all took less time that it has taken me to type this paragraph and had me crying with laughter.

Even today I occasionally bump up against something I completely misunderstood somewhere along the way in both my formal and informal learning, and find myself wondering how I came to such a ludicrous conclusion and then managed to bury it where subsequent evidence to contrary failed to reach it. I wonder if a few well-placed questions might have identified my misconceptions in time to straighten them out before they became so well bedded down.

Just because a person thinks they have understood something is no guarantee that they have!

Your input requested

My friend and colleague, Mark Berthelemy is working on a dissertation in the home stretch towards an MEd degree. He is researching "the salient characteristics of those people or organisations whose websites form the hubs within a learning network".

Please consider swinging by his post for further explanation and to complete his survey.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Learn to live or live to learn?

There used to be a question that people asked about food: Do you live to eat, or eat to live?

I know people who eat to live. Food is fuel that keeps the body functioning. I'm not one of those, and I don't understand the mindset. I love food just for its own sake. The tastes, the smells, the textures. The companionship over a meal. Good food, good wine, good fellowship - only heaven can be better!

Sometimes, when I feel I would like to shed a few pounds, I wish I could be more like those with a utilitarian approach. Oh, and by the way: I am not a blob - never have been - and know many other "foodies" who are perfectly average in size.

So how does this relate to learning? Well, it's not a huge leap: do you live to learn or learn to live? Do you view learning as something that is a means to an employment end? A stepping stone? A neceesary evil that you escape the moment you turn 16? Or is it a pleasure, a delight, an ongoing process of enrichment, a door to new delights? Don't answer that - no-one from the former category is reading this post!

The issues raised in George Siemens's post We are not neutral gave shape to some of the more formless thoughts that have been milling around in my head for a while. Thoughts fed by discussions that keep cropping up in unrelated places, such as the recent FOE2007, which generated a discussion thread called "What's education FOR?".

While I do hope to see education becoming more relevant to the modern world, and better preparing people for life after school, I also believe that there is space for learning that serves no purpose other than to bring pleasure (see my comment on George's post), and I am saddened to see all those unaccredited programmes disappearing from adult ed centres.

A pea a knee verse hairy (belatedly)

You have to read it quickly... the title of this post, that is.

An email from Tony Karrer this morning alerted me to the fact that I have missed my second blogoversary earlier this month.

On 4 July 2005, I started this blog. Looking back over some of the early posts, I cringed. But it's a great sign of the effectiveness of this medium that in the space of two years my practice and views are so transformed as to be unrecognisable.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Winding down the academic year

After 8 years, I still find it weird dealing with an academic year that ends in July. Chatting to teachers about "next year" when they actually mean later this year. I can't get used to having two "next years" per year.

My own school years were spent in a place whose citizens are likely to be found on the beach on Christmas day, so the long summer holiday between academic years coincided with the end of the calendar year. And, since my birthday falls in December, this seemed to make it all even neater - although it did mean I wasn't able to birthday parties as a child (altogether now: aww!).

So here we are, in July and my children are in the final week of the school year. As I have posted before, it has been a stressful year for our younger son, and for us as his parents, but his first year of high school is behind him. It remains to be seen if things will improve for him next year. Since he will have increased opportunities to participate in performing arts, and the school is an accredited performing arts specialist college, we are cautiously hopeful. Our elder son has discovered that he needs to work harder in order to achieve the results his potential warrants. With his GCSEs next year, he really needs to make the effort sooner rather than later. He seems slowly to be figuring that out.

At their school, the last three days of each year are called activity days. The kids get a choice of activities in which to participate. These range from a very expensive trip to France, to recording your own single, to sporting and/or craft activities on the school premises which are free. My elder son's selection sees him at one theme park today, another tomorrow and the last day is spent bowling. My younger son has opted for three days of golf tuition at the local golf course.

The activity days seem like a great way to end off the year, but the selection process is quite stressful, since there are financial considerations. We placed an upper limit on what we were prepared to pay and suggested that our boys use their own savings if they wanted to go above that limit. Fortunately, there was a decent selection of activities within that price range. What it must be like in single- or no-income households when those forms come home, I can't begin to imagine.

Last week, my younger son received a special invitation to a pool party for those with excellent reports. This, shortly after we had received a very snotty letter from one teacher about his level of commitment, his attitude, the quality of his work. His report was indeed excellent, so we now have no idea what to make of the teacher's letter. Very confusing.

Of course, the academic year for my MA course has drawn to a close as well. Five modules effectively behind me. However, I have two assignments to write over the summer break, so the concept of a "break" is somewhat moot. Because the programme is modular, the emphasis is more on trimesters than on academic years, so the significance of the end of this trimester gets hardly any more notice than any others, and the two-year-ends-per-year issue is less noticeable.

Since I don't work in the education sector, I don't automatically have a six week break to look forward to now. From my subjective position, two assignments seems a far taller order for me when I have to continue with my day-job than for my classmates - although it does seem a shame to have to face writing assignments when you're supposed to be on holiday, I guess.

It's a strange thing, this, for a foreigner from the southern hemisphere. The chronologies of the various aspects of my life are out of synch with one another. The year has ended, yet it has not. The summer holiday is here, but there are no important public holidays to look forward to, no business closures, no pauses (not to mention the fact that the weather seems not to have got the memo that it is, in fact, summer!).

I wonder if people like Ron Lubensky felt similarly out of step when moving from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Catching up

I spent last week at a non-work-related conference, so I was somewhat out of the loop. I did check my aggregator every day, admittedly in skim mode, but I marked a few posts for later, more leisurely digestion.

I spent a little time today catching up on those. I also caught up with conversations to which I had previously contributed - I don't like to fire and forget my comments, since sometimes people come back with valid points I hadn't thought of.

In the process of this, I came across a thread I had all but forgotten in one of the communities to which I belong. The community is for training professionals, mainly in the corporate environment, and it includes fairly active discussion boards. The thread which jumped out at meagain today was started by someone who seemed a little miffed by the fact that some people in the community were asking questions without ever contributing answers to others'. Taking without giving, was how she saw it.

This generated a fairly interesting and slightly heated discussion which included a call to name and shame the culprits. I was quite surprised. I often contribute my 2p worth to the discussion threads, although I have yet to pose a question. But I had never noticed this. I have noticed familiar names cropping up repeatedly with suggestions in the threads to which I contribute. One new young trainer even expressed guilt that he was one of the takers and wondered whether he should leave the forum!

I can't claim to have been the only voice of (what I like to think of as) reason, but my contribution to the conversation was:

As a trainer, I was born to teach, to enable, to empower - I don't look on it as a debt that needs to be repaid, but simply as a function of who I am. I don't mean to sound holier than thou, but in my experience, it is only wise to keep score in competitions. This is not one of those.

Whoever it was ([name deleted], maybe?) who asked whether he should stop using the site because he had never contributed... you stick around, mate - there's room enough for all shapes and sizes here!
It occurs to me, that some of the people whose blogs I read regularly might see me in the role of [name deleted]. None of them have ever expressed any resentment. So are they just being polite, or do their views align with those I expressed in my response quoted above? Since I have no reason to believe these people read my blog as avidly as I do theirs, I am listing and linking to some of the key players below to attract their notice (note: I read many more blogs than this, but these are the ones from whom I seem to take without giving in return). If you're on the list, I'd love to hear your views. If you're not, I'd still like to know how you feel in respect of your own readers...

So, in alphabetical order of feedname:
David Warlick
Chris Sessums
Dave Snowden
George Siemens
Jay Cross
Stephen Downes

July's big question: selecting tools

I've been away from work for a week at a conference, so I'm coming a little late to the party for the big question for July, which focuses on the selection of tools.

I guess the way you tackle this one depends on your situation. If you are the in-house provider, you are less likely to rise up the popularity stakes if you keep changing tools. However, I work for an organisation which scopes, designs, develops and implements learning solutions for client organisations. In our situation, I would consider it unwise to go into a project with a pre-conceived idea of what tools you're going to use.

The selection of tools must be dependent upon the learning requirements of the client, the characteristics of the audience, the system constraints. Once we have a picture of what needs to be known and the people who need to know it, we can turn our attention to how they are going to come by that information.

We are privileged to have on our team, one person who dedicates his time to investigating new tools, as well as at least one person whose radar is permanently on full alert. So, when it comes to the discussion about the means by which to deliver the online components, they usually have a few good suggestions.

But (for me, at any rate) the decision is always most heavily influenced by the profiles of the sort of people who are going to make use of a resource. If it doesn't work for them, they won't use it. And if they don't use it, no amount of argument about the sophistication/whizziness/flexibility of the solution is going to change the fact that it has been a (sometimes monumental) waste of money.

In other words (with apologies to the makers of Field of Dreams), if you build it, and they don't come, you could lose the farm...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

When blogging doesn't work

I recently decided to stop keeping my family blog. In the days before the blog, I used to write what I called irregular periodic roundups, which went to family and friends ranging from New Zealand to the west coast of the USA and from Sweden to South Africa with several places in between. My tendency to write as I think with my tongue often jammed firmly in my cheek was apparently much appreciated by those with an interest in the family. As well as these, I used to keep up and ad hoc email communications with various members of this distribution list. My most prolific correspondent emailed me three times a week, the least prolific once or twice a year.

Shortly after I started this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to create a family blog, too. I posted news updates, pictures, and various bits and bobs that would be of interest to the readers of my emails. At first, it worked well. I sent out occasional reminder links to the members of the distribution list from the irregular periodic roundups. One family member with paranoid tendencies regarding the internet refused to visit the blog in case it harboured a noxious virus, so I covered that base by setting up a feedblitz feed and forwarding updates to their email address. For everyone else, the novelty value kept things ticking over nicely at first.

After a while I noticed one massive difference between blog posts and emails: people feel duty bound to reciprocate when they get news via email, they do not feel the same way about blog posts. Our inbox went from busy to deserted in a very short space of time. Not being very web 2.0 literate or proficient, few readers were brave enough to post comments, and the communication became one-way. Once that happened, they began to feel less involved and therefore less interested, and they gradually stopped reading altogether.

In an attempt to re-establish the lines of communication, I have decided to revert to email. It's harder work, but then relationships aren't about minimum effort at the end of the day. If they're worth maintaining, they're worth time and effort. I suspect that in some cases, things have gone beyond the point of no return and before any more follow suit, I'm going back to 1.0. When 2.0 comes in the way of relationships it ceases to be a Good Thing.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Today Scott Adams made me cry!

I read the Dilbert blog every day. According to Scott Adams, this means I am open-minded, intelligent and possessed of a good sense of humour. Thanks, Scott!

Usually Scott's posts make me laugh. I don't always agree with his views (or the views he portrays - it's never 100% clear with professional jokers whether the views they are expressing are their own or a means to a funny end), but that's not the point. When someone lampoons the dearest principles of my heart, even I can laugh if it's well done, and in the case of the Dilbert blog, it almost always is.

But today, I didn't laugh. Today I cried. He describes his experience on the first day of a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking (the emphasis is mine):

One woman stood frozen in front of the group, unable to generate an intelligible word. Beads of sweat literally dripped off her chin. It was horrible to watch. She choked out a few words and returned to her seat, defeated. Our instructor came to the front of the room and said, “Wow. That was really brave.”

And it was. We all knew it was true. This woman had put her head in the lion’s mouth. Suddenly we all realized we had witnessed something important. We applauded. And it changed her. Each week, she managed a little bit more. And each week the instructor and the class recognized her achievement.
By the end of the course, apparently, this woman was a skilled public speaker, as was everyone else in the group. I love stories like this. Stories of triumph against the odds. Stories where the underdog pulls it together.

So often we focus on areas of where improvement is needed. We forget to applaud what people did right. We do it with our children, with our students, with our employees. Sometimes all it takes is a word of encouragement, and you see a person stand a little taller, walk a little prouder, believe a little more.

Years ago, I was asked to lead a worship band in our church in Cape Town. I was terrified. I have always sung - at one stage even semi-professionally - and I had been a part of the band for about 5 years, but I had never led before. The minister sat in the front row, gesticulating madly at me, trying to lead by proxy and it made a frightening situation even worse. After the meeting, he gave me a list of areas for improvement. A long list. I was a wreck. The next week, I was even more terrified than before, and the list of suggested improvements was even longer. After a few days, as an experienced trainer, I realised that I needed some positive input, so I proactively sought it. I phoned him and asked if there had been anything I had done that was right. His answer? "Well, your main problem is..." Needless to say, I stepped down forthwith. I returned to the comfort zone of vocalist for another leader, and there I stayed for years.

When we moved to the UK, I didn't push myself forward as a vocalist, but the minister of our current church heard me singing during one of our meetings and steered me in the direction of the worship leader. I happily slipped back into the comfortable role of vocalist. I am a skilled follower. I watch the leader like a hawk and have learnt to read body language to the point that I am a safe pair of hands backing up a leader who wants to try something new and creative on the spur of the moment.

Then, about a year ago, the leader asked me to take my turn leading a few meetings. My insides churned and I refused. I told him my tale of woe. He let it go, but not for long. Gently but firmly, he pushed me to challenge my beliefs about myself. Eventually I agreed to lead just to shut him up. Once he had seen me at it, he would let it go. In stark terror, I stood up on that Sunday morning while he, on the lead instrument, smiled encouragingly at me. The meeting passed in a blur. Afterwards he came to me and told that I was please to lead once a month from then on and so it has turned out. I still get really nervous before the meetings when I am leading, but once the music starts, all the nerves disappear and I can focus my attention on what it is that I am there to do. Never once has the current leader criticised me. Sometimes he will suggest that I do something a bit differently from the way I have planned. Sometimes he lets me figure out for myself that it isn't going to work. Sometimes I surprise everyone by making something work that shouldn't. I have become quite daring and experimental and often get the congregation doing things outside of their comfort zone.

And all because someone said he believed I could.


Okay this is a bit of showing off from me. Recently, Donald Clark (the eternal iconoclast) posted about Frumpy Netiquette. In this post he touched on the youth approach to spelling, grammar, et al. In the comments Clive Shepherd admitted to being a bit of a spelling and grammar pedant, and I have to confess that I am, too. I can't understand why correct spelling doesn't matter to the people, well... to whom it doesn't matter. I don't see this as being directly age related, either - one of my MA classmates is at least my age and couldn't give a hoot about spelling. She's not dyslexic, she just doesn't care. As long as the word can be read, as far as she's concerned, it's met its objective and she isn't going to waste time making sure it's correct.

Anyhoo (sic), as an extension of my earlier post, I found all sorts of other quizzes on Mingle2. Apparently, I know 71% about movies in the last 25 years and my dead body (should I die today) would be worth $3775. More importantly, for a nitpicker:

Film ratings for blogs

Via Dave Snowden - whose blog is incidentally rated PG-13 - this Mingle2 tool for rating your blog with a movie certificate. My blog rating is:

So does that give me the moral high ground over Dave, or does it make me more mealymouthed? Don't answer that!

Also via Dave, I tried to access Mingle2's blog-addiction indicator quiz thing, but it was offline for temporary repairs :-( Mind you, my colleagues would tell you I don't need a quiz - I am 100% beyond hope, help and redemption! Perhaps I'll have another go later when it comes back online...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Where is the line between common sense and excessive political correctness?

Also nothing to do with learning - it's one of those days!

Two things have contributed to my thoughts on this subject.

Firstly, on 1 July, a ban on smoking in public places and places of work was introduced right across Britain. That means, no smoking in pubs or restaurants and no huddling in the doorways of offices for a quick fag break. As an ex-smoker, and therefore more offended than most by secondhand smoke, I am delighted. However, one of the backlashes is that more people are now smoking as they walk along the road, which means I seem to be getting more frequently assailed.

On the other hand, one of the consequences of the ban is that shisha cafes are now having to close down. These are places where people go for the express purposes of smoking shisha through a hubble bubble pipe. Now I don't doubt that this practice is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes, but are we not removing people's freedom of choice (even stupid choices) if we ban these places. Tobacco is not illegal, smoking is not illegal. If a place exists purely for the practice of smoking a legal substance, surely everyone who goes there and who works there is aware of this (and probably a smoker themselves)? I wonder if this isn't taking it a bit far.

The second catalyst for this train of thought came from Artichoke's post today (I tried to comment, Arti - but it bombed me out several times, so I gave up). In it, she touches on the issue of preventable diseases, the treatment thereof and people's attitudes on the matter. This is a subject I've thought about before, too.

When George Best received a liver transplant, having destroyed his own through years of alcoholism, there was a general outcry. Doctors explained that he was selected on the basis of tissue compability, but I suspect that many remained convinced that other, less famous people on the list would have the same tissue type and would have made more worthy recipients. Certainly this view was expressed in my hearing on several occasions.

There are often references to the treatment of people suffering from self-inflicted conditions. With the NHS strapped for cash, I suppose the issue of prioritising is inevitably going to keep cropping up. But I wonder where the line is on self-inflicted conditions.

Years ago, I used to visit a young lad in hospital in Cape Town. He had been the South African junior trampolining champion and one day, he miscalculated, landed on his head and suffered a c2/3 fracture, resulting in paralysis from the neck down. Self-inflicted?

According to the staff there, statistically the most likely ward mates for this young man were young male rugby players aged between 18-24, playing forward positions. Newly endowed with the full body weight of an adult male and not yet possessed of the degree of self-preservation that came with age and maturity, these young men were at the greatest risk of suffering severe neck trauma. Self-inflicted?

If we were to get pedantic about it, aside from the ones that already rate a mention, such as obesity and smoking- and alcohol-related disorders, the following conditions are all avoidable and/or self-inflicted, too:

  • Injuries through accidents, negligence or recklessness
  • Sports injuries
  • Most cases of RSI
  • Pregnancy and childbirth
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
So where do we draw the line? And who gets to make the call? Often when I raise this subject, people say, "How would you feel if...?" And it's a line I have entertained myself. Make no mistake, I would be apoplectic if some overweight, alcoholic smoker got an organ transplant ahead of my husband or one of my sons. But surely that is not a reliable basis for a judgement in this situation? And if not, what is?

Oh, and just in the interests of full disclosure - my father was an alcoholic who climbed down the neck of a vodka bottle and never came back up, so I have some insight into the pain endured by the families of the "self-inflicters".

Alan Johnston is free

Nothing to do with learning.

I'm sure everyone who is interested already knows this, but I couldn't let today go by without making mention of it.

Alan Johnston, a BBC correspondent, was kidnapped 114 days ago in Gaza and finally freed today. His kidnap gave rise to unprecedented levels of protest and action from around the world, not least when Palestinian journalists tried to storm parliament.

His safe release is wonderful news, but as he said in an interview this morning - there are many journalists being held against their will the world over, right now, and their plight should not be overlooked.

Monday, July 02, 2007

School under scrutiny

There has been a lot of interest in the new schooling initiative in Knowsley, Merseyside recently. Several blogs (including this one) have referred to the the plans as described in the Independent. Predictably, the idea has a lot of support from the innovators and early adopters who abound in the edublogosphere. The people whose voices we tend not to hear in this environment, however, are the traditionalists, since they don't tend to occupy this space.

I have a fear about this, which (because of my mind's natural inclination towards analogies and allegories) reminds me of a situation in which I found myself almost 14 years ago. The practice at the hospital where I was to be confined for 4 days following the birth of my younger son, was to keep the babies in the nursery and only deliver them to the mothers at set times for feeding. I found this custom ludicrous (a) because I wanted to bond with my new baby and (b) because I planned to demand feed my son when he was hungry - not set him on a tight 4-hour schedule. So I insisted on having my son with me (known as "rooming in"). Since it was a private hospital, they were compelled to let me have my way, and with much tutting, moved me into a room on my own so that my unconventional approach did not disturb other mothers. Thereafter, the trouble began. My son had a very rough first night, most of which he spent demonstrating the capacity of his new lungs. When I requested help in identifying the problem, I got a sniffy "This is why we don't allow rooming in," instead of the help I had hoped for. The same thing happened when I dropped my son off at the nursery the next morning so that I could have a shower (this had been the standard practice at the far more liberal hospital where my elder son had been born). Every time there was a hiccup or a need of any sort, they triumphantly leapt upon it as evidence that this break with convention was a bad idea.

The fact that the staunchly observed practices in this hospital had been shown years previously to be less than ideal for either mother or child made no never mind to the staff, who sought to run their ward in a way that was organised, efficient and predictable... for the staff.

I worry that the same attitude is going to be adopted in respect of the Merseyside approach. That the vultures will be circling from the outset. Every new venture has teething problems, but I fear that every time this venture encounters a hiccup, there is going to be a chorus of "You see? You see? This is what you get for breaking with convention!" Any request for help or support will run the risk of being seized upon as a sign of failure, as will any changes to the original format. The pressure to get it exactly right straight out of the blocks is going to be huge, and I wonder how they will make the space to allow for mistakes and an evolution of the concept into a working realisation of the current vision. I wonder if, after the first few go-rounds, they might begin to think that the naysayers have a point, and start to compromise.

If this is going to work, it has to be based upon solid ground, but quite apart from that, it is going to take absolute conviction, determination, stubbornness, perseverance and a hide like a rhino.