Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Playing the numbers game... from the wrong end

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so I think, anyway.

One little mugging can ruin your whole week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving thanks...

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

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

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

As for me, I'm thankful for you.

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


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The whole touch thing

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

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

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

That aside, there is this little gem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How sad.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

Then I started blogging.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

And yet...

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Seamless networking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn't it just rock?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Is it possible to self-diagnose a brain condition?

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

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

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

And yet...

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

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

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

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

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

When it goes right

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Dissertation other colours

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

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

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

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

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

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

His thinking out loud went something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Make it worth the effort!

Warning: this is another analogous ramble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked the clerk if I could just refuse.

I could. I did.

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

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

With no further ado...

This video speaks entirely for itself.

There's a great, gaping hole!

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

It seems these don't exist.

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

Pause. Rewind.


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

£100K for one bedroom?

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

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

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

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

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

We can't have that!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The beta generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edublog 2007 Awards

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

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

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

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

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