Friday, October 31, 2008

Stephen Downes: ten things you really need to learn

This is not a new post. In fact it's more than two years old now. Nevertheless, the conversations I follow have brough it bubbling back up to the surface again, nad it hasn't lost currency in the intervening period.

Stephen Downes compiled a list of 10 things you really need to learn. These are skills and attitudes that go way beyond the classroom/training room. Indeed, they tend not to feature in the curriculum for either of those two places, more's the pity. Then again, the responsibility rests in a child's early years with parents and family/community as well... and, in due course, with the individual himself. Note the list is not titled, things we really ought to be teaching.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

If tomorrow never comes...♫ ♪ ♬

When I was a kid, we used to make the sarcastic crack, "Tomorrow has been cancelled due to lack of interest."

The Shuttleworth foundation has been working on a project called Kusasa, which is the Zulu word for tomorrow. The project was aimed at providing exploratory learning experiences for South African learners. It seems it has indeed been cancelled due to something that pretty much amounts to a lack of interest.

Very sad.

Thanks to Stephen Downes for the pointer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Customer service: a vote of confidence

Some years back, we bought a rather expensive combination oven. One that had a microwave, convection oven and a grill. Unlike most peopke who splurge on on of these, I didn't come to regret it within a few weeks. I used it almost every day. Then it went wrong, a few days (of course) after the warranty expired.

I took it in for repairs. What a brouhaha. After trying several different places, it seemed that the thing to do was chuck it and buy a new one.

The microwave I have now started life as a comination oven, too, but suddenly started making dreadful grinding noises one day when the convection oven was being used. Same story, it seems. One simply doesn't repair these things. The spares aren't available and no-one has the skills to work on them.

And it seems to be true of most appliances - or such has been my experience, anyway. Gone are the fix-it workshops that used to repair all manner of things.

When something goes wrong with your kettle, you buy a new one. When the iron gets tacky underneath, you buy a new one. When your DVD player starts to play up, you buy a new one.

By contrast, my vacuum cleaner broke the other day. It has this little clip thing that allows the extenion hose bit to revert to being part of the handle. It's a fairly reputable brand (and I'm broke), so I thought I just check out their website.

It seems you can buy pretty much every single part of every single one of their cleaners - even one that is several years old (like mine). I discovered that the broken clip-thing is called a wand release catch and goes for just £2.50 plus P&P. I ordered it forthwith.

I sang their praises for the next two days, telling everyone how their service indicated a confidence in their own product. That they expected the whole to last longer than some of the parts (sorry, dreadful play on words).

The catch duly arrived today and I snapped it in place with ease. I gave the cleaner an experimental push and then pulled it back towards myself. The 'wand' as I had now discovered it was called, came back without the cleaner.

Feeling cheated and disillusioned, I phoned the service desk (number prominently displayed on the side of the cleaner) to complain. The man asked me whether I had popped the spring in place. Spring? In spite of the fact that (as I then discovered) it says "Spring not included" on the order screen for the catch, I had not even noticed that I needed one. "Never mind," quoth the helpful man, "it happens a lot. I'll pop one in the post for you today. No charge."

Now that's more like it! This is service that, as I said, speaks of the manufacturer's confidence in their own product. They make themselves easy to find and, when you find them, they offer you a solution.

They used to run an ad campaign that said the every single new staff member had to go out on to the factory floor and build one of their vacuum cleaners. Everyone, from the most junior to the most senior member of staff has to know how they are constructed and what goes into them. Not only that, but they seem always to be innovating and thinking ahead.

It's official. I'm a fan. My next vacuum cleaner - assuming I ever need one, that is - will be another Dyson.

Moreover, I'm going to take a leaf from their book. I'm going to look for ways to provide that kind of service to my own customers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

When did 'follower' become a dirty word?

I have noticed a tendency lately for the word 'follower' to be equated with being a sheep, with being mindless. As if being a leader is the noble option and being a follower is for those who can't hack it as leaders.

But who does a leader lead if he/she has no followers? And does that leader despise his/her followers for being such? If so, I would venture to say that he/she is not worthy to lead them!

If you are in the position where you lead people, you can only do so effectively if you have their interests at heart, which you are unlikely to do if you hold them in contempt. There was a time when it was trendy and cool to draw organisational flowcharts upside down, indicating the increasing burden of responsibility resting on the shoulders of those in more senior positions. I still prefer to think of it that way. One of my great frustrations is when elected officials fail to listen to the wishes of the people they represent. As leaders, they have a responsibility. When they pay no attention to the wishes of those people and simply pursue their own agenda, they show an utter contempt for the people they lead. I rather childishly hope that the consequence is that they are removed from that position of leadership with the very next round of votes.

I don't see that being a leader and a follower are mutually exclusive, either. You might lead me in one thing, while I might lead you in another. Or you might lead on this occasion, while I might lead on another. It all depends on our skills and the situations in which we find ourselves.

For years I sang in the church band (note: not a choir - that's a different thing). The band had a leader. However, he didn't always lead the worship during the Sunday service. At least once a month, it fell to me to do that. At those times, I led and he followed. When he forgot (as he occasionally did - he was only human) and slipped back into the role of leader, things tended to go somewhat awry as some members of the band watched him and others watched me. Most of the time, though, he and I made frequent eye contact, so that I could let him know what I wanted to happen next.

But I quite often made a claim I maintain to this day: I am a gifted follower... when it comes to a musical context, anyway. Something I have learned is that you can only sing a harmony line if you pay attention to the melody line. It probably comes from years of singing in the school choir. There it was essential to watch the conductor like a hawk, so that we produced perfect harmony and synchronised the beginnings and endings of our words. I have become so practised at it, that I could read Frank's body language when he was leading on a Sunday morning. I knew exactly what he was going to do next, and I could follow him as he did it. Even now that we are in a new church where I am not in the band, I find myself able to read the leader's intentions better than the very young members of her band (no doubt, when they have more experience, they will do just as well).

When my sons were little, it was always important for them to be in front. They would go haring off... often in entirely the wrong direction. There is no point leading if you don't know where you're going. If I know where I'm going, I'm happy to lead. If I don't, I'd far rather follow... as long as the leader doesn't treat me with disdain!

Recently, my husband embarked on a new venture. He got together with a few like-minded individuals and they launched their initiative, which included appointing a leader. I was surprised that he was not that leader, but he was happy for the leadership to go to someone else in whom he had confidence. I'm sure everyone who was present recognises that John would make a good leader, too, but there needs to be one leader, and he was happy not to be it on this occasion. Knowing him as I do, he will give that leader cause to be grateful for his support before long - because he makes a good follower, too!

A good leader will be sensitive and open to suggestions. A good leader will not always impose his/her will on the group. A good leader makes it easy to be a follower.

A good follower makes it easier to be a leader.

When my kids were little and a game degenerated into squabbles, one of them would inevitably yell, "I'm the boss of this game!"

They were kids. What's our excuse?

Personalising learning

ICT Results e-zine has published an article that looks at the use of ICT for personalising learning using a system called iClass.

Initially, the developers tried to design a system that would replace teachers, only to find that this wasn't achievable. I like the idea of the teacher increasingly becoming the tutor/mentor. More guide on the side, less sage on the stage, but I don't think a no-teacher-at-all idea is going to fly any time soon.

At the moment, the tool is aimed at 14-18 year olds. This is cool, don't get me wrong. But I am getting incerasingly worried about what happens after 18. As I touched on in my earlier post today: we seem to be spending a lot of time and money encouraging higher order thinking and learning in our teenagers, only to drum it out of them when they hit the workplace.

The problem is that He-who-signs-the-cheque in the corporate world can't be doing with all this fuzzy research stuff, "What's it got to do with me? I just want my staff being more productive." Their focus is not conducive to a long term view on optimal learning experiences.

Free, free, set them free

This post constitutes part of this month's Working/Learning Blog Carnival, being hosted by Leean at Xyleme. The theme is "what do you find helpful (or harmful) to learners in the training environment".

Several conversations I have had in the past few days have come back to the concept of linear learning. Twice I have found myself exchanging views on Kolb's learning cycle, which can be roughly replicated as follows:
The thing is, I'm not convinced that people follow the sequence so obediently when given the freedom to come to grips with a new concept or skill in their own way. I see no reason why a person, on having unexpectedly stumbled across a concrete experience, might not begin active experimentation, from which they might develop abstract ideas on which they then reflect, before reverting to more experimentation.

And why should experimentation and experience be two different things? Surely if I am experimenting with something, I am also experiencing it?

I might be persuaded to think that this is just further evidence of me at my maverick worst. However, when I wrote this post, I was reflecting on a learning experience I had shared with a classmate who didn't follow the prescribed flow either. In fact, I can honestly say that few members of my class at that time appeared to be following Kolb's path.

What I'm coming to is this:

I think that one of the most helpful things for a learner is space. The space to approach the learning in their own way - to progess it in a way that works for them.

By contrast, I would say that one of the most harmful things is prescriptive 'teacher' expectation. When a teacher/trainer/whatever expects learners to learn a concept by following x, y or z process, because that's the way he/she learned it, it closes so many doors to so many people.

I am not refuting the existence of Kolb's four phases per se. But I am skeptical that they follow the order that Kolb settled upon. I am also skeptical that those four phases are always present and that no other as yet unidentified phases exist. If a learner chooses to leap from phase to phase with reckless abandon, but it works for them, what of it?

We are not dipping sheep, after all!

One of my greatest concerns is that we seem to be trying to inculcate independent thinking skills in our teenagers, only to discourage it when they get into the workplace. I have a son who has just entered sixth form. These are the two optional school years that follow the general certificate of secondary education (GCSE) examinations in the UK. These two years culminate in A level exams, without which it is very difficult, if not impossible to get into university. During these two years, they are being taught the thinking skills that will stand them in good stead when they ascend the lofty halls of their chosen university. They are taught to think critically. They are taught that this is how adults (should?) think. That criticality reflects maturity and intelligence. Debate is encouraged. In a recent email to my family, I described my son thus:

He gets into these wild-eyed, hand-waving explanations of what he's learning about, and his theory of the universe, while his dinner grows cold and (his brother) chafes to be excused from the table. He would probably love to chat to (his uncle) about quadratic this and cubic that. His new school is far more academic than his previous school. Coupled with that is the fact that 6th form is not compulsory, so the kids that have stayed on tend to be those with an academic bent. On top of both those things, the subjects he's taking (PE/sports science, maths, physics, biology) are those in which the kids like to debate such weighty issues as the 11 dimensions of the universe and how every single point within the universe is the centre and how an already infinite universe can be said to be expanding and whether something can be said to be true when it one fails to prove that it is false and and and... and he's in the thick of it, debating, arguing... fulminating is probably the word we need, here! His teachers are encouraging him to think about ways in which his ideas can be corroborated, explored, substantiated. Which is great - a huge improvement on telling him to keep his mind on the prescribed syllabus!
Now take this child and fast forward 10 years or so. Unless there have been radical changes in the way workplace learning is conducted, he will not be encouraged to do any of this questing, enquiring and fulminating. The passion that has been awakened in him in the short time since early September will be squished and squashed until he is able to obediently follow the back and next buttons of his company's elearning courses. He will be expected to demonstrate compliance as he sits through a host of one day workshops which will cover a raft of stuff he already knows, a raft of stuff he will never need to know and a smidgeon of stuff he will use... most of which he will forget before he comes to apply it.

After a few years of this, his eyes will glaze over when someone talks to him about learning and development. He will groan when the HR person calls to talk to him about the fulfillment of his CPD requirements for the year.

He will decide that learning is a trial. And this will be a Great Tragedy.

While I have been persuaded by neuroscientists that the whole left brain/right brain thing is tosh, I would say that pretty much everything else Ken Robinson has to say in this much viewed clip is on the money.

I honestly believe that every single one of us loves to learn, but many (most?) of us have had enough negative experiences along the way that involved square pegs, round holes and back-and-next buttons, so that we have persuaded ourselves that this is not the case. I am on a one-person campaign to remind every person I possibly can that they love to learn, and to find the hot button that will re-ignite that spark in their eyes.

Coming soon to a soapbox near you ;o)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Locks of love

A further development in the story of 'the big snip'. Thanks to my sister-in-law in the USA, I have become aware of a charity called Locks of Love that accepts donations of hair to make hairpieces for underprivileged children who have suffered temporary or permanent hair loss for one or other reason.

While they cannot accept dreads or grey hair (sorry, Stephen!), they will accept any ponytail or braid (plait) that is made up of hair that is 10" or longer. If hair is layered, the longest layer needs to meet the 10" mark, and the hair can be donated tied in several separate bunches.

At this stage, we're unsure whether our son's hair will make the 10", but we're certainly going to look into it. It would be lovely to think that the hair that he has sacrficed for one charity can be re-used by another.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Making iStock lightboxes work for you

In spite of the shortcomings of so many iStock photos (whiter-than-white, straight teeth; everyone posing and smiling; distinct corporate bias; preponderance of US-centric images etc.), it remains a very useful place from which to source images for powerPoint presentations, user manuals and elearning materials. They not only stock photos, they also have an excellent supply of symbolic graphics which I find even better than the photos for PowerPoint slides and elearning pages.

But I've discovered that many people under-use the lightbox facility, so I thought I'd give a quick rundown on some of the advantages I've discovered. First let me explain what it is that many people seem to do instead. Bear in mind that lightboxes can only be created and/or used by those who have created a log in identity (how else is the system going to keep track of which lightbox is yours?).

What I've found is that many people will find a promising looking image and download a comp, or save the image with the protecting watermark across it to their own system. Perhaps to a folder on their hardrive, or to a network folder, where the project team members can all see it.

Using lightboxes allows you to do effectively exactly the same thing, except that this way, the metadata comes with the images, allowing you to search through them using a range of different keywords, rather than having to view each one individually.

Let me explain...

First - what is a lightbox?
This is a virtual holding space in which you can place images that you thing might be suitable for some or other purpose, at no expense to yourself. You can collect as many images there as you like and then come back to them later to decide which ones you're actually going to buy.

Creating a lightbox:
So you've used the search facility and ben offered a gazillion images that might be appropriate. You've spotted one within that lot that looks promising. You've selected that image and are now on the screen from which you could choose to buy and download it. Just to the right of the image, you will see the section labelled File Tools. Select the option to Add to a Lightbox.

This dialog box will open up. Since you don't yet have any lightboxes, yet, there is no option to use an existing one. If you already have a lightbox, the dialog box will be slightly different, but you'll get the idea. Enter the name for your lightbox, together (if you like) with a short description and a few keywords. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that it's a good ide to give the lightbox a name that will make it easy to find again. If you're working on a presentation for a conference, or an elearning module for a project, why not use the name of the conference or the project? Hit Add, and in one fell swoop you've created a new lightbox and added an image to it.

Adding an image to an existing lightbox
Once you've created one or more lightboxes, you can add images to them to your heart's content. Simply select the individual image, and use the option to add it to a lightbox. This dialog box will open. Use the drop down arrow to reveal your lightboxes and select the required one. as you can see, you can opt to add a new lightbox at any point.

Public lightboxes
You can choose to make a lightbox public or private. I won't presume to tell you the circumstances under which you might choose one or the other. If an image has been saved to existing public lightboxes, this information will appear in the File Tools section. You may find it useful to trawl through those lightboxes to see if there are any other images that will suit your purpose - especially if it seems the lightbox was created to address an issue similar to yours.

Managing your lightboxesIf you look at the banner across the top of your iStock screen, you will notice the lightboxes link. Use this to access your lightboxes (and to see the featured lightbox of the week). This page will tell you whether your lightboxes are public or private - they are set to private by default. Select Manage to edit the settings of your lightboxes.

Okay fine, so now I know how to do all this, how is it an advantage?
As I mentioned earlier, an image added to a lightbox takes with it all its metadata. So you could save yourself a lot of heartache by using the search facility within a lightbox rather than across the whole of iStock to see whether you already have an image that fits a specific bill.

If you do this sort of thing on a regular basis, your lightbox contents may start to number thousands. Imagine looking through thousands of thumbnails on your system for a specific image. Instead you can opt to run a search on your lightboxes, using a few keywords to pinpoint a specific image.

If you're working with a team, you could tell a team member that you're looking for images with a simiar look and feel to the ones in such and such a lightbox. The team member can then identify a few key words to help them source additional images of the same type.

If you suddenly need more images for a specific resource, you already know that you have a shortlist set aside in your lightbox, and you don't have to go and start again from scratch.

I hope this post will have been of help to a few people. Please let me know. If all I've succeeded in doing is raise questions in your mind, please pose them... someone out there (maybe even me) will have the answer.

Being unfazed

When I was a new Mom, one of the (countless) pieces of advice someone gave me was not to gasp when my son fell down. If I did that, it would give him the impression that something serious had just happened and he was more likely to be upset by it. The recommendation was that I should let him decide how much pain and/or distress he was in and then deal with that. I quickly learnt that a very reliable yardstick was the length of the pause between the first wail and the second: the longer it was, the greater the distress the lad was feeling.

As far as my child was concerned, I was solid ground. If I went to pieces, it must be catastrophic indeed! It was a tough one to master, because I am dramatic by nature (not to mention squeamish: I once passed clean out with my injured son in my arms, because his skull was clearly visible through a laceration on his forehead), but I did my level best.

Calvin's Mom obviously adopts the same approach - most Moms would be quite shaken to hear that their child had almost been eaten!
Many years later, I had cause to apply this principle when running introductory IT literacy programmes for terrified older users. Many of them were afraid to do anything for fear that the computer would 'blow up.'

On more than one occasion I said gently to a nervous silver haired newbie, "Let's put this into perspective. This computer cost (insert figure here). That's a lot of money to spend on something that's going to blow up at the push of the wrong button, don't you think? What do think the chances are that the manufacturing company would survive if they built machines that did that?" I knew that they were in no position to understand a more technical explanation of why it was unlikely that the machine would burst into flame, should they accidentally hit Backspace instead of Delete.

I also learned not to show any distress when a user did something monumental. Few of them did, but it did happen occasionally. Much as my kids had done, the terrified user would be watching my reactions to gauge the seriousness of the incident. I do exactly the same on aeroplanes. I hate flying and am engulfed by fear every time the plane hits an air pocket. I watch the staff's body language like a hawk (and I'm pretty good at body language), alert for any signs that they are paying even the slightest bit of attention to the movement of the plane. They are my litmus. I knew that I was the litmus for my learners, too.

So even when a learner jammed a floppy disk into the CD drive. Even when a learner accidentally accessed a porn site (and it was accidental - she was mortified). Even when a learner started formatting the hard drive. Even when a learner spilled coffee all over her keyboard. No matter what they did, it was always an equable, "Oh dear. That's not so good. Let's see how we can fix this."

Our learners need our reassurance that nothing is beyond redemption - especially if they're new to a field or concept.

Legal tender

I was just in a shop where a woman wanted to pay for her fuel with a £50 note, and I learned something new. Apparently not all shops will accept £50 notes. Now this struck me as kind of odd. After all, they're legal tender and they carry the same promisory information on them as any other note issued by the Bank of England.
I have heard many tales of people being forced to walk because bus drivers won't change a £10. Now the legal tender issue crops up here again, but I can begrudgingly accept that a bus driver is (a) restricted as to the amount of cash he carries and (b) pressed for time.

But I really struggle with the idea that a shop can refuse to take legal tender. Surely that is breach of the law? Being me, although the situation had nothing to do with me, I asked this question of the cashier.

"It's because there's so much forgery," she explained. I looked at the poor woman who was trying to pay for her fuel. Of course, it's not impossible, but it seemed unlikely that she was a forger. If the note was indeed a forgery, it was more likely that someone had given it to her. Sticking my oar in even further, I asked, "And this is her problem?" The customer explained that her husband was increasingly being paid with £50 notes these days.

I don't know what kind of business he's in that sees him being given cash payments - perhaps he's a self-employed plumber or electrician. But of course the knock-on effect is likely to be that he will start refusing to take £50 notes if he and his family are unable to spend them anywhere.

I very seldom carry much cash - perferring to use a debit card, so I have only once possessed a £50 note and I used it within minutes to pay for my groceries. On that occasion, there was no fuss about the note (perhaps I have an honest face).

But I can't help wondering what the point is of a £50 note if you can't use it. And what are the implications of a business refusing to accept what constitutes legal tender?

And then, inevitably, my allegorical, analogous brain starting thinking about parallel situations in the world of learning.

Are there situations where we are providing our learners with information that has no practical value? Information that looks as if it will grant them access to all sorts of new delights and skills but, in fact, when they come to apply it, proves useless?

What's the point of that?

Just wondering....

Image credit: Talduras via photobucket

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Looking at communities of practice

There are a lot of ideas out there about what constitutes a community of practice (I am avoiding capitalisation, because I don't want to formalise the concept).

Dave Cormier has posted a contribution to the conversation, which has attracted some interest from the... well... community. The title of the post refers to 'managing' a community of practice. The quotes are his.

I can relate to the need for those quotes. From where I sit, my community of practice comprises a group of individuals I have chosen to learn from. They are the bloggers whose blogs are listed in my aggregator. They are the individuals I hold in esteem within the world of learning professionals. Some of them might not even realise that I regard them thus. Some, indeed, my not even readily recognise my name.

So I don't actually exercise any management of the people. I manage the intangible entity that they constitute in my very subjective view of the world. I may add new 'members' or remove those whose work has taken them down a path no longer relevant to me. I choose to comment on their blog posts or not. I choose to follow (or not) the conversations among others that ensue from their posts. I engage with them in various spaces: Ning communities, Facebook, online programmes of collaborative learning, etc.

So in effect, what I am managing is myself. My own online activity. And in a way it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

I prefer it this way.

Were I to exercise any direct management over the people, I would have to take responsibility for the direction of their output. This would put an end to serendipitous learning. I would unwittingly restrict my own learning journey because I know not what I know not... until someone addresses the matter and draws it to my attention.

So, to my wonderful community of practice... those of you who know that you belong and those of you who don't... I revel in the knowledge that I have no idea where you're going to take me next, but I look forward to the ride.

After all, this blog is called Karyn's erratic learning journey.

Inculcating values

"Mom, will you shave all my hair off?"

"Good grief. Are you sure?"

"Yes. I've decided to do it for charity."

"Which charity?"

"The Bobby Moore fund in aid of bowel cancer. Johnny's Mom just passed her 5 year all clear."

"Okay. I'll do it. On one condition. I get to keep the longest lock and one of those gorgeous corkscrew curls that suddenly pop out from nowhere."

So, after four years of growing it, my son has decided (seemingly out of the blue) to shave his head on a #2 setting. The big snip takes place on Saturday 8 November. There is a Facebook group, should you wish to join and contribute. If you're a UK based FB friend of mine, you have already been invited.

I shall be heartbroken to see those locks go - especially since I shall be the one wielding the clippers - but I am prouder than I can say. I tried to persuade him to let me style it into something trendy, but he is adamant that, when you do something for charity, it has to be extreme and it has to be a sacrifice. Rendering yourself bald at the beginning of winter strikes me as ticking both those boxes!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why I like cryptic crossword puzzles

I'm not very good at identifying the different types of '-uctive' reasoning (adductive, deductive, reductive...), but I do like to exercise them. There is a UK newspaper I buy purely for the puzzles. I have no time for its sensationalist right wing politics, but it has a 4 page spread of the best puzzles. I buy the paper, take out the middle pages and recycle the rest. Because this is a monumental waste and distinctly un-green, I restrict myself to buying the paper only when I have a longish train journey to make.

I enjoy Sudokus. I would imagine that this must be pure deductive reasoning. Here is an example of an easy Sudoku. Just in case there are any people left who don't know how they work, the idea is to place the digits 1-9 in each row, each column and each 3X3 box. Of course, it stands to reason that there can be no repeats.

I also enjoy codewords. Another example of deductive reasoning (I think), these are puzzles in which each number represents a letter of the alphabet and you have to crack the code. You are usually given two or three letters as a key to get you going. I have been doing these since I was about 8 years old, and have gotten pretty quick at them. I can usually solve them in far less time than is allocated for an 'expert', so I set my own challenge. Since I tend to do them on trains, I usually challenge myself to solve the puzzle before we reach the next station.

But my greatest love, by far, is crosswords. Usually, when I say this people picture this kind of thing.Ack. Gack. Ptui. Not interested.

What I like is a kind of crossword that seems peculiar to England and a few of its ex-colonies. The cryptic crossword puzzle. My husband, the techie, fails to see the point, which is kind of sad, because I had fond notions of the two of us solving the morning crossword over toast and tea in our twilight years. Sigh. Bliss. To my mind, it involves the same sort of reasoning involved in programming. But I've never been a programmer, so perhaps I'm wrong about that.

Every day, my husband dutifully brings home a freebie paper distributed during the homeward journey. He does the sudokus on the train... which I tolerate ;o) and I do the crossword in bed before I turn off the light.

I'm not altogether sure what sort of reasoning is involved, but the answer is always in the clue somehow. For example, in the clue "Spoil in a remarkable way (3)" the answer is concealed. In the clue "Healthy spasm (3)" we're dealing with a bit of wordplay to come up with the answer: fit. Another example of which is to be found in my favourite clue from Monday's paper this week: "Dejected - no liquor left! (3,2,7)" to which the answer, in case you're interested, is out of spirits. Sometimes the answer is hidden, sometimes it's an anagram, sometimes it involves a bit of lateral thinking.

The daily cryptic crossword was a feature of my childhood. My mother is a crossword junkie, so she was regularly to be seen poring over the puzzle.

When the extended family gathered at my grandparents' home for the Christmas holidays, with all 14 of us under one roof (bear in mind that it was the height of summer, so this might involve some people camping out on the front lawn, or in the garage), the daily crossword was completed as a team exercise. I had no contribution to make...yet... but I loved the conversation that ensued. I loved the collaborative problem-solving. The brainstorming that generated some ridiculous suggestions (some of which turned out to be correct!). The cameraderie, the pursuit of a common goal. The good humoured bickering when one person got the the puzzle first and solved it before anyone else had got a look in.

These are drivers I have brought with me to the field of learning. Call me an idealist if you like, but I have seen it in action. I have seen people engaged in team problem solving... and it worked so well, even when the last clue remained stubbornly unsolved, that it remains one of my fondest memories to this day.

So to end... a few cryptic clues for you to solve. I will publish the results in a comment on this post, so you can choose to see them or not. After that, I will curl up in a sunny corner (yes, the sun is shining) with a cup of tea and today's puzzle.

Oh... and if anyone can tell me what kind of '-uctive' is involved, I'd be thrilled to learn... as long as it isn't unproductive!

  1. Negligent about a girl (6)
  2. A church provides and unbeatable service (3)
  3. Finish sketch for a particular purpose (4,2,2,3)
  4. Perhaps gravity caused him to add fresh weight to science? (6)
  5. The practice of the American era (5)

Dumpster diving

Do you ever check your spam folder? Most of us have set up some kind of protocol to protect ourselves from spam. You probably have a folder into which suspected spam gets diverted by your email app. Do you ever check what's in it before purging it?

I have found that, in between the offers for viagra and various other products that promise to enlarge a body part I don't possess to begin with, a few other fish have been caught in that net.

Of course, there is junk mail that comes from various suppliers who have my address because I am their customer. Not strictly spam, but I'm usually happy for those to get dumped.

But occasionally, just occasionally, an email of consequence will find itself peremptorily identified as spam and sectioned off within my spam folder. I recently rescued an invitation to tender out of my spam folder.

Let's face it, whatever algorithm is being used to identify spam isn't going to be 100% accurate. So it's worth just checking what's in there before hitting 'empty spam folder'.

There was an occasion a while back when I felt I had something deep and meaningful to say in response to one of Stephen Downes's blog posts (in as far as anything I say is deep and meaningful, of course), but when I hit 'submit' it told me that I was spam and I should go away... literally. He has genuinely set up a response along the lines of "That's spam. Go away." Quite restrained, I thought.

I tried wording my comment slightly differently, with the same result. I ruefully decided to take it as a 'Sign' and backed off. Presumably I had used a word that had set the alarm bells ringing. No big deal: if what I had had to say had really been deep and meaningful, no doubt I could have contacted Stephen some other way to say it. The point I am trying to make is that no automated screening process is flawless.

It's worth bearing in mind that our sophisticated systems are still not quite up to the vagaries of human communication, and not to abdicate all responsibility to the automated process.

Of course, what you don't want to do is go opening those messages that have been set aside as spam. But it's worth just checking the senders and subjects before emptying the folder... just in case!

It'll be interesting to see if the repeated use of the word "spam" in this post brings your system's virtual bouncers down in it... although I can't imagine that real spam admits to it. That would be a bit like a peeping Tom wearing a sandwich board advertising his hobby.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are you a mean parent/teacher? Good for you!

Someone sent this to me today because they believe I fall into the category of 'mean Mom'. My sons agree wholeheartedly.

I'm flattered.

It reminds me of an exchange of comments I had with Janet Clarey recently when she posted a photo of the magnificent view from her newly refurbished kitchen on Facebook. We decided that I am a battleaxe.

I reckon it's just as valid for teachers, and it reminded me of Mrs Ewert. She was my teacher when I was in the equivalent of grade 5. Until I was placed in her class, I feared and loathed her, along with the rest of the school... except those who were in (or had been in) her class - they unequivocally adored her.

Mrs Ewert was strict. Very strict. She held kids accountable and woe betide if she caught you doing something wrong. On the other hand, if you were prepared to apply yourself, you found that she was a born encourager and you got to see up close the real love in her eyes for the kids she taught.

When she left to go an maternity leave, part way through my year in her class, we sobbed bitterly. Somehow, during that time, we had gone from loathing her to being fiercely loyal. Like every class of hers before us, we would brook no criticism of our teacher from those who had not had the privilege of getting to know what she was really like.

And so, to all the mean Moms/Dads and teachers out there...

Someday when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a parent, I will tell them, as my Mean Mum told me: I loved you enough . . to ask where you were going, with whom, and what time you would be home.

I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover that your new best friend was a creep. I loved you enough to stand over you for two hourswhile you cleaned your room, a job that should have taken 15 minutes.

I loved you enough to let you see anger, disappointment, and tears in my eyes. Children must learn that their parents aren't perfect. I loved you enough to let you assume the responsibility for your actions even when the penalties were so harsh they almost broke my heart.

But most of all, I loved you enough . . . to say NO when I knew you would hate me for it. Those were the most difficult battles of all. I'm glad I won them, because in the end you won, too. And someday when your children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates parents, you will tell them.

Was your Mum mean? I know mine was. We had the meanest mother in the whole world! While other kids ate candy for breakfast, we had to have cereal, eggs, and toast.

When others had a Pepsi and a Twisties for lunch, we had to eat sandwiches. And you can guess our mother fixed us a dinner that was different from what other kids had, too.

Mother insisted on knowing where we were at all times. You'd think we were convicts in a prison. She had to know who our friends were, and what we were doing with them. She insisted that if we said we would be gone for an hour, we would be gone for an hour or less.

We were ashamed to admit it, but she had the nerve to break the Child Labor Laws by making us work. We had to wash the dishes, make the beds, learn to cook, vacuum the floor, do laundry, empty the trash and all sorts of cruel jobs. I think she would lie awake at night thinking of more things for us to do.

She always insisted on us telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. By the time we were teenagers, she could read our minds and had eyes in the back of her head. Then, life was really tough!

Mother wouldn't let our friends just honk the horn when they drove up. They had to come up to the door so she could meet them. While everyone else could date when they were 12 or 13, we had to wait until we were 16.

Because of our mother we missed out on lots of things other kids experienced. None of us have ever been caught shoplifting, vandalising other's property or ever arrested for any crime. It was all her fault. Now that we have left home, we are all educated, honest adults. We are doing our best to be mean parents just like Mum was.

I think that is what's wrong with the world today. It just doesn't have enough mean mums!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Virtualising your PC for free

It's a good thing I sleep with my IT support man (have done for the past 20 years), because he finds all sorts of Clever Things that I should do... and then does them for me.

The latest Clever Thing is an article by David Fearon in October's edition of PCPro on how to virtualise your PC free of charge. The article explains how you can convert a Windows XP PC to a virtual PC and run it on a Vista machine. This results in the exact state of the old machine being replicated onto the new machine, where it can be used full screen exactly as if you were using your old machine - a ghost within a ghost, if you like.

To be honest, it's my husband's area of expertise, rather than mine, but the way the article is written, I swear I could do it if I had to. There is a series of twelve screen dump images talking you through the process.

Of course, someone will inevitably ask the question "Why would you want to?" and to that I can only give the answer that applies in my situation. I have just bought a new laptop for Learning Anorak, but I still have a machine on loan from one of my clients. The thing is, I need that machine's state to finish the project I am working on for them. This way, I can virtualise the machine onto my new laptop (oh, alright, my husband can do it), return their machine, but still have it.

A bit "have your cake and eat it, too."

The eyeballing game

Thanks (I think!) to Stephen Downes for the pointer to this today. Great fun. Except that I have work to do, darn it!

You have to judge by eye where three lines will converge, where the centre of the circle is, etc. and the system rates your margin of error. As with golf, the lower the score, the better. Of course you just know that I wouldn't have pointed to this if I hadn't kicked butt at it ;o)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who I read update

Some time ago, I posted about whose blogs I was reading on a daily basis, which folks appeared to find useful. Yesterday I twice found myself recommending blogs that I read, so I thought the time had come to do a bit of an update. I will restrict myself to those which did not appear in my last list, unless a previously listed blog deserves a special mention for some or other reason:

For general inspiration, and usually unrelated to my field, I have a daily dose of:

Gaping Void. Hugh MacLeod cuts straight to the heart of issues and illustrates them with a unique and instantly recognisable style. Harold Jarche once sent me this one of Hugh's cartoons. I printed it out and stuck it on my desk. I still have it and, let me tell you, in my new role as self-employed L&D Consultant, it is proving truer than ever!

Head Rambles (severe language warning). A pseudonymous, award-winning blog penned by the hilariously cantankerous Grandad. He's not really as cantankerous as he would have us believe, though, and occasionally reveals his warm, fuzzy side, which he attempts to cover with bluster.

More closely related to learning:
blog of proximal development. Konrad Glogowski is a passionate learning professional seeking ways to understand the challenges facing the developing world and to address them. He has recently returned from a trip to Africa, and is currently writing about issues very dear to my heart.

e4innovation. Grainne Conole (GRON-yeah coNOlee) is Professor of e-learning at the Open University. She is a somebody on the learning scene. The first time she commented on my blog I nearly got the vapours. One of my colleagues emailed me to say: Wow! Grainne Conole reads your blog! You've arrived! Unfortunately that proved to be no more true than the first time Stephen Downes gave me a shoutout. I guess you just gotta make it on your own worth ;o)

e-Luminations. Kobus van Wyk (KWUHbiss fun VAYK) is involved in an initiative that seeks to address the technological inequity faced by teachers in the poorer parts of South Africa. A worthy cause indeed, encountering obstacles most of us wouldn't even think of!

Experiencing E-learning. Christy Tucker has become one of an increasingly tight-knit group of ladies I meet in all sorts of spaces. This group also includes Wendy Wickham, Cammy Bean and Janet Clarey. We play online Scrabble derivatives against each other in Facebook. We comment on one another's photos, take an interest in one another's families and encourage one another on a personal level. That is not what makes Christy's blog worth reading - what does, is that she thinks out loud on her blog about her own experiences, which many of us share with her.

Growing changing learning creating. Just the title of Tom Haskins's blog should pique the curiosity of any innovative learning professional. He and I had an early run in, when I challenged him on one of his posts about blogging some time ago, but that doesn't prevent his reflections from being worth reading. In fact, unless we want to live in echo chambers, we should take care to engage in conversations where disagreement is expressed.

Jane's E-learning Pick of the Day. I can't believe I left Jane Hart off my last list! What was I thinking? She genuinely provides a service to the L&D community by reviewing a useful tool every single day, many of which are free. She also compiles lists: tools favoured by the community; L&D Twitterers; Social networks for L&D professionals, you name it!

Learning. Not the most frequent of bloggers, Lynn Wernham often points to and reflects on posts she has read, allowing readers to leapfrog to conversations they might otherwise have missed - particularly if they share her passion for coaching and mentoring in the workplace.

Learning Design and Performance Improvement. The newly capped Master's degree holder, Benjamin Hamilton shares his reflections on emerging technologies. .. although he has been AWOL since June. You still out there, Benjamin?

Making Change. Cathy Moore is possibly my favourite 'talk sense, provide practical advice' blogger in the whole world. I think I have shown so many people her action mapping post that anyone who hasn't see it must have been in a coma! Cathy grasps the reality that workplace learning is about change and tackles that fact head on... with cracking illustrations!

Neurophilosophy "is a weblog about molecules, minds and everything in between". There's a lot that happens on this blog that I don't understand - Mo Costandi is on a different plane from me - but those posts I do understand blow my socks off every time. I have learned a lot more about the brain than I would have thought my own brain could handle, largely because Mo writes so well and so accessibly.

Technogenii's blog. I met Kristina Schneider through a Facebook group and wound up becoming one of her interview subjects for her dissertation. We share a passion for the use of social media in corporate learning. Like me, she experienced her ups and downs on the journey to her Master's degree. Unlike me, she has now submitted her dissertation!

The Rapid eLearning Blog. Tom Kuhlman is an Articulate whizz. He should be. He works for the company! many organisations have reached the koolaid point on Articulate and are wielding it something like the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. While I don't think it is as universally applicable as some would have us believe, Tom provides such usable, practical ideas, that I find myself tagging just about every post he writes!

Group blogs:
Work Literacy. This "is a network of individuals, companies and organizations who are interested in learning, defining, mentoring, teaching and consulting on the frameworks, skills, methods and tools of modern knowledge work."

Workplace Learning Today is a Brandon Hall initiative exploring issues that the title suggests "coordinated by Gary Woodill... with contributions from Janet Clarey... Richard Nantel... and Tom Werner"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog action day 08

Today is blog action day. The topic this year is poverty. Of course, victims of poverty are not able to access this conversation, so we need to be careful not to adopt a "let them eat cake" attitude.

I don't really feel qualified to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation, since I have been blessed with a life of (relative) privilege.

However, while you're here, may I ask one favour?

If you have the means to be reading this post, then you have means above and beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority of the world's population. Please consider using those means to access an online charity related to poverty and make a donation. If you can't think of any charities, I shall list some at the end of this post.

Alternatively, swing by your local Oxfam or Sally Army with a bag of clothes or children's toys. To put things into perspective: I once asked a friend who worked with a poor community near Cape Town if she could use some of my kids' old clothes, or if they were too shabby. Her response was: "The worst thing you have ever thrown away is better than the best thing they have ever owned."

A representative of MAF was recently explaining to us how the spiralling cost of fuel was crippling their efforts... and how the poorest people groups are so poor that they have no concept of things like the credit crunch and recession. They still see us as being unspeakably wealthy and expect us to continue the same level of provision. They consider it churlish of us to send them less medication and fewer doctors simply because our wealth has dropped from stupendous to astonishing.

Projects to consider (in addition to the links included above):
World Vision
Christian Partners in Africa
Mercy in Action

Slightly slow, slightly high and slightly fragile

Yup. That's me. Don't believe me? Check it out!Thanks to Stephen Downes and Beth Kanter for the pointer to this calculator of my Twitter influence or Twinfluence. I have no idea what it means, but I think I shall ask for it to be engraved on my tombstone!


Thanks to Jane Hart for this one today. Yawnbuster is designed to add a bit of interactive zing to PowerPoint presos. Another weapon in the war on dull PowerPoints. I suspect that many creative presenters have been including elements of this one way and another for a while, but this helps makes the execution a bit sexier.

Not a bad price tag, but we have kind of gotten used to getting our apps for nothing...

Having pointed you at Mo, earlier, I now encourage you (if you don't already) to subscribe to Jane's pick of the day blog. She is a real asset to the community and a source of all sorts of genuinely useful resource and information.

The human brain: Wow!

Just in case you were ever in any danger of thinking we had conclusively figured out what the human brain can and can't do, this post from Mo Costandi over at Neurophilosophy should put paid to that. Long story short, a man whose hand had been amputated some 35 years before, received a transplanted hand, which his brain immediately recognised. Tell me you're not impressed.

If you're not already reading Mo's blog, I can highly recommend it. It's one that regularly has me shaking my head and muttering things like "Amazing!" in a most inappropriately unscientific way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Those little extras

David Warlick has taken to rating airports. He spends a lot of time in them, so this is fair enough. And it's the provision of the little extras that make a service memorable to customers. A few examples from my own experience.

There was a time when I visited coffee shops several times a week. Usually with my best mate, Lynda. At the time, Lynda had a small child who used to come with us. We rated coffee shops on how well they catered for mothers with small kids - which, during office hours, was likely to represent a significant proportion of their clientele. The one we liked the most offered a 'Moms-and-tots' cappuccino. Well, think about it. If you're drinking a cappuccino with a small child on your lap, the small child annexes your froth, and you wind up getting just the coffee. So this place gave mothers (and presumably fathers) with post-baby-pre-school children a little plastic cup containing milk froth with chocolate sprinkles for the child, so that the parent could enjoy the froth off their own drink. Clever.

The last two cars my husband owned in South Africa were both Hyundais. You got a lot of extra bits of car for your money if you bought a Hyundai back then. That was great in itself. But, they also had this desire to see every Hyundai on the road looking spruce. So they offered a free valet service. Once a week, I drove the car down to the dealer, and sat in their lounge drinking free coffee, eating free biscuits and looking at their promotional material (video and print) while they cleaned the car. Marvellous.

What little extras can we offer? How can we show that we have our clients' best interests at heart?

Monday, October 13, 2008


Brain surgery while the patient plays the banjo. No, really!

Yearbook Yourself

Because it's Monday.

Because it's a bit of harmless fun.

Because I'm supposed to be writing a paper and instead I'm prevaricating....

Have a look at this fun tool I found today. It's called Yearbook Yourself. It might be quite interesting as a classroom exercise for a history class exploring fashion and such like. The idea is that you upload a picture of yourself which you then superimpose on a yearbook photo from the year of your choice. I chose 1968 simply because it fitted best with the less-than-ideal photo I uploaded.

Sniffer dogs and stereotypes

On my recent trip to South Africa, I was waiting at the carousel in the OR Tambo airport (Johannesburg) for my luggage to appear. It was one of those interminable waits. But it looked as if there might be some perks as a beautiful beagle picked its enthusiastic, bright-eyed way through the waiting travellers.

Most beagles, as you probably know, are white, black and brown. This one was sort of peach coloured with black and brown splodges. I kid you not. There is a maltese referred to as 'apricot' - this dog was that colour where I would have expected white.

I was enchanted and crouched down to talk to him, only to have his handler snap at me, "He is working!"

Whoops! Far be it from me to interfere with a drug sniffer dog on duty.

But the woman behind me (who seemed to be some sort of facilitator or tour operator collecting an English couple at the start of their African Adventure) explained that this was in fact a fruit sniffer dog, it being illegal to bring fruit, vegetables, seeds and such into South Africa from abroad.

She drew attention to the large bag of apples that the handler was carrying. Confiscated spoils it seems.

The English woman asked the question I wanted to ask, "But what about drugs?"

"Ah," explained the tour operator, "there is a different dog for that. You can see him over there working the flight that just came in from Sao Paolo. That's where the drugs will be. From England it's always fruit."

And sure enough, there he was - a far less friendly looking character, working his way through a different crowd of people at another carousel. I don't think I would have been quite as inclined to chat with him - he looked to be all business.

So it seems you could probably get away with taking drugs into South Africa from the UK... as long as you don't hide them inside the apples!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I have GOT to see this movie

And my kids have got to see it, too! No idea what it's about, but this YouTube extract has stirred and inspired me. There is a longer, better version without subtitles but this will have to do.

Later edit: I should have done this earlier, but there is a synopsis of the movie among the reviews on Amazon. Doh!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Blended Learning?

Me neither, Calvin. Me neither.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Great Migration

With a slight hat tip to Terry Pratchett, who was also part of the inspiration of yesterday's post.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, computers were shy creatures that lived quiet lives out of the eyes of the general public. They lived in cold rooms at the back of office buildings, where only the most ardent of spotters could find them. These spotters were a peculiar breed who dressed in jeans when everyone else was in formal dress. Today we might call them 'tekkies'. Perhaps it was their casual attire that put the shy computers at their ease. No-one is quite sure.

What we do know is that, over time, computers became braver and bolder and there came a day when one of their number ventured forth from the cold, back room.

It ventured forth is search of company. It had tired of the endless chatter of the tekkies and was looking for more interesting conversation and a more meaningful relationship. A noble ideal. But, like so many of us, the early computer looked for love in all the wrong places. It must be said that, as well as being shy, early computers were also not terribly bright.

Lured by the material wealth, perhaps, that pioneer made a beeline for the largest office with the largest desk, the softest chair and the plushest furnishings. At first, it thought it had made a most wise choice of life partner, because the owner of this office instantly set forth to order an even larger desk, so that the computer could have its very own space in which to live happily ever after.

Silly computer.

It had not noticed the longing looks of the lesser mortals it passed on its way to the hallowed sanctum. It did not consider the possibilities of a relationship with a mere 'seck tree' or 'count ant'. The wretched little gold digger chased the money.

And like all gold diggers, it soon learned the error of their ways. For the owner of the plush office, the computer was a mere trophy, to be displayed for the envy of visitors. Never once did The Boss (for this was his name) caress the waiting keys of the computer, or spend quality time with it. It was trapped in a loveless relationship, and left sleeping and grey-faced until the end of its days... only to be replaced by a younger, sleeker computer (such is the fate of the rophy computer).

But its sorrow was not in vain. Because the computer managed to alert others of its kind and, as they, too became bold enough to venture forth, many of them were wise enough not to be lured by the trappings of the large office. In ever greater numbers the computers began to swarm forth in search of meaningful relationships in what was to become known as the Great Migration. Those who were wise found happiness with the very people that the pioneer had scorned, the seck trees, the count ants, the clarks. Some even escaped the office buildings and went in search of schools, hospitals... eventually even homes.

There they found a wonderful new breed called Tea Najers. Computerkind and Tea Najekind signed a treaty of mutual adoration...

... and lived happily ever after.

Not the end.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Going slowly gaga

When I was young and arrogant and in full possession of my faculties (now that I am older and arrogant and watching them slip through my fingers...) I use to say loudly that I would rather lose my mind than my mobility in my dotage.

I would announce this in that overloud way that people have when they think they are saying something profound that everyone would say... if only they had thought of it first.

In my mind's eye was my great-grandmother, who had once been a pillar of her community as the wife of a vicar in Zululand. By the time I came along, she was unable to walk without a stick.

I also pictured my grandfather, a bluff, brusque man who had always been early to bed and early to rise, who walked 5 miles twice a day with his dogs. But who had to admit defeat and pay a contractor to come and fix his roof, because he could no longer get up there to do it himself. Who had to part company with his car, because his middle-aged children had begun to refer to his 'parking' as 'abandoning the vehicle'.

To my mind they were dying in pieces, while their still-sound minds kicked and rebelled against the imprisonment of their bodies. I so desperately didn't want that fate.

I pictured myself comfortably lost in a world of my own creation, blissfully unaware that this kindly middle-aged couple were my son and daughter-in-law and forgetting that this irascible scamp was my great-grandson and not my son.

I forgot about the bit inbetween.

In recent years, I have met people in the early stages of Alzheimer's. People who have begun to lose themselves. People who are still cogniscent as they watch their congition being eroded. I knew a man whose wife searched high and low for replacement kettle that looked like the one he had accidentally destroyed by forgetting to fill it up before switching it on. Whe she failed, it was a catastrophe for him. When he walked into the kitchen, with his mind set on a cup of tea, the familiar sight of the kettle was no longer there to serve as a comfortable beacon. The new kettle was unfamiliar and consequently invisible. He would stand there, helpless. With no idea of what it was he had wanted to do and whether or not he had in fact achieved his aim. Was he coming? Or going?

A friend's mother has slowly been lost to Alzheimer's. She is happy, now, for the most part. Her husband is the one who is desolate. But there was a time when she was aware of her encroaching unawareness and it filled her with stark terror. Like in one of the Neverending Story movies where The Nothing consumes Fantasia until all that is left is a single grain of sand.

It is an unspeakably horrible thing.

As middle age and information overload take their toll, I find myself occasionally losing a word mid-sentence. I reach for it and it is gone. Poof! I walk into a room and wonder why I am there. Usually, a moment's pause will be sufficient for the word to resurface. And by retracing my steps, I can usually find my derailed train of thought and rediscover my purpose for being in a certain room.

But these moments fill me with dread. Is it the beginning of an irreversible slide? Is it inevitable? Will I be asking the same question every five minutes of kindly people whose names I can't remember, but who call me "Sweetheart" and "Mom". Will I be mourning the disappearance of my husband while some grey-haired old codger tells me over and over that he is that man? Pshaw! Who does he think he's fooling? My husband is a dashing young man without an ounce of fat on him anywhere. He opens the batting for a first division cricket side, you know. Not bad for a Swede!

Think of the prodigious minds we encounter in this space. Lucky for us, they are pouring their thoughts into a space where we can always come back to them again. Not so lucky for them if they find themselves reading an article and thinking, "Hmm. Not bad. I should look for more work by this writer. I wonder who it is?" Only to find that they are reading an article they wrote.

Urk. Sorry to be so depressing.


I've never conducted any quantitative research into the matter, but I suspect that what every human on the face of the planet wants is to be heard. It's when we wave away with an impatient and dismissive hand details that irk us or that strike us as noise that we exclude whole rafts of people for whom those details represent the core of things.

Relating to my earlier post: when we really listen to people, we are able to teach them, because we are able to provide them with learning materials that are appropriate. It is when we really listen that we gain insights that might just reveal the key to unlocking whole new vistas... for both them and us

When we enter a situation already knowing the answer, we deprive our learners of so much. We also deprive ourselves.

I suspect that, going into a situation in teacher mode is the mistake: I am going in there to give of myself sacrificially so that all those wonderful learners can acquire knowledge they didn't have before. Aren't I wonderful?

If I go 'in there' in learner mode first, I can find out so much about where my learners are on their learning journey. About what they already know. I can help them to see how much they already know. I can encourage them to share what they know with each other. I can help them to see their existing knowledge as valuable. To see that they have something to offer. I can meet with them on a whole different level. I can learn from them and find out what they need/want to learn from me.

I can achieve this by listening. Really listening.

This is my best friend in all the world. Once a year, she goes on a mission trip to the poverty-stricken mountain kingdom of Lesotho, where she works with the poorest of the poor. She does a lot of stuff that most other aid workers do the world over. But look at her face in this picture. This picture reveals exactly why she is my best friend in all the world. It reveals what it is about her that sets her apart from others.Lynda listens.

Almost without exception, people of my acquaintance who have visited a deprived community with a view to giving, have come away claiming to have received far more than they gave. Those with nothing (educationally, materially - it matters not) impart so much to those with plenty. But only if those with plenty are prepared to be humble enough to see it. To hear it. To receive it.

Are you? Am I? Are we listening to our learners?

Photograph by Justin de Reuck

Learning to read

Konrad Glogowski touches on an issue that is like a thorn in my side.

I won't repeat my comments on his post here, but his post set me to thinking back on the TV series Can't read, Can't write that I posted about previously.

It seems to me that there is a dearth of literature in any language that is embedded in that culture and is fit for an audience of mature-yet-poor readers.

Adults who are learning to read do not wish to know that Spot is running or that Janet and John are going to the circus.

When we design elearning resources, we're all about engaging the learner. Finding a hook that will capture their attention, their interest and make them want to explore further. Songwriters even call it that "the hook".

So where is the "the hook" for a person who is learning to read in adult years?

In Can't read, Can't write, one of the learners was a highly intelligent woman who wanted to be able to read Hemingway. She wanted to acquire the key to that lock. And that was what reading was to her.

So where is the accessible Hemingway?

And where is the culturally relevant stuff? Where is the story that makes sense to a Kenyan tribal herdsman and does not patronise him with some white-as-snow, ever-so-English children going to the... what was that thing again?

Every time I bump into this topic, it fills me with a sense of urgency that hurts. I feel like I want to do something about it. Now.

But while I might be able to try my hand at accessible English language materials, I suspect that someone is already doing that - just without enough people knowing about them. It's the other languages I worry about, and I have no means to write a culturally relevant tale for any of them. The hook is beyond my capacity to bait.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

My assistant

You didn't honestly think I produced all this (ahem) high quality work on my own, did you? How would I manage without the services of my loyal assistant, Daisy Romeis, who is convinced that it's time for some or other meal.... and that I said something about a mouse around here somewhere. Perhaps it slipped behind here...

Book review: Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development

Author: William H Rice IV
Publisher: Packt
Price: $44.99 (US) £27.99 (UK)

The strapline for this books is "A complete guide to successful learning using Moodle 1.9"

I'm uncomfortable with anything that is referred to as being 'complete' because I suspect few things are ever truly complete. I would also prefer to see it referred to as a guide to teaching using Moodle 1.9, because the book is firmly aimed at those who will use it in this capacity.

That said, this is a very accessible book. Logically laid out, with lots of visuals in the form of screen dumps, and chunks of reusable code for the 'have a go' Henries among us.

Whatever your level of expertise, you will be able to find support. If you want to upskill, you will be able to do that, but if you simply want a reference book to use on a JIT basis on the odd occasion that you want to carry out some or other task in a Moodle, you will be able to do that, too.

From the outset, Rice touches on valid point, when he says that Moodle's help files, while explaining 'how', do not explain "when and why to use each feature". This had long been one my soapbox issues: 'what and how' without 'why and when' have all the stickability of Teflon. He sets out to address that and, on the whole, my view is that he succeeds.

There is a checklist for the book that can be downloaded - sadly I was not able to do this, or to discover why this was the case. A more technically proficient user might not have experienced this problem, but it did constitute a barrier in my case.

Throughout the book, Rice refers to his own demo site, which provides a sense of consistency and cohesion (as a by-product, one develops an interest in botany and wilderness skills along the way). Of course, the nature of the learning material means that we are looking through the lens of formal education, so corporate users might feel somewhat marginalised. Then again, Moodle was primarily designed for the formal education sector, so corporate users should expect to have to be creative with words like 'student', 'teacher' and 'grades'.

On a related subject, Rice's opening paragraph states:

I use the phrase 'online learning experiences' instead of 'online course' deliberately. The phrase 'online course' often connotes a sequential series of web pages, some images.... online learning can be much more than that.
He's right, of course, as most of us in this space have been saying for a long time, but sadly the taxonomy of Moodle itself does not serve him well here, since words like 'course' and 'lesson' are among its fundaments. This is not to say that it does not live up to his claim that it can be used to support non-linear learning. On the contrary. Rice amply demonstrates how Moodle can be used to support social constructivism (although I would dispute his reference to this as a 'learning style').

Pedants might knit their brows over the occasional error that has slipped past the proofreaders but, as far as I was able to determine, none of these have a derailing effect on the practical application of what the book has to offer. And it does offer exactly that.

My recommendation is that this is not a book to read on a plane/train (I tried that). It is a book to hold in one hand as you put into practice the features it unpacks with the other.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Corporate v academic learning

I'm exploring the common ground and divergence between corporate and academic learning for a paper on my MA programme. I hope I have now sufficiently recovered what my tutor refers to as my 'mojo' to pick up the threads of this study programme and finish what I started.

I have been one of those who has campaigned for the walls between academic and corporate learning to be lowered. I don't think the siloes are helpful to either side. I have made a concerted effort to connect in this space with learning professionals from schools, universities and research organisations as well as other corporate learning professionals. However, the harder I try, the wider the divide seems to become.

So what do we have in common? What divides us?

I'd also be very keen to read a few peer reviewed articles on the subject, if you have any useful references. One of the issues on which I have been pulled up in the past is that I do not cite enough of these. This, of course, is because I prefer to read what you have to say on a subject right here, right now, rather than an article in a journal that was two years old by the time it was published.

Perhaps the review process is one point of divergence. When I submit papers on my academic programme of study, because my field is corporate, a certain number of professional journal references are tolerated. But these are seen as being inferior to the trusted academic journals which have been following the same procedures since Noah's treatise on preferable bird species when playing 'fetch the olive branch.'

The paper only needs to be 3000 words long, so I need to restrict my exploration to a few key issues. I thought of the following:

  • Drivers and intended purpose for learning - Why do we run the learning events in the first place? What do we think they're going to achieve?
  • Compilation of curriculum/learning needs analysis - looking at how the decision is made as to what the learning activity/course/whatever should cover
  • Nature of learning activities - How is the learning delivered?
  • Role of teacher/learner - What is the dynamic?
What do you think?

Website is launched....

The Learning Anorak website has gone live... at last!

I finally managed to talk to the right people about the right things. It wasn't easy. I had to preface each conversation with, "You're talking to a bit of a numpty, here..." to make sure the person on the other end of the line kept the jargon to a minimum. I also had to ask them to tell me what questions I should be asking before going on to give me the answers. Some people were great. Some were downright rude. Some were rather superior. One got annoyed with me because "You're not actually a numpty at all. We've wasted a lot of time here!" I took that as a compliment.

So just in case you're thinking of setting up your own website (and on the off-chance that you're a partial numpty, too, when it comes to such things), this is the process I went through:

I bought the domain through 123-reg. This bit was easy and quite cheap. 123-reg also has some free tools for creating a website. I had a go with those, but they were quite restrictive. I'm sure if I were more proficient with html, I would have fared better, but I ended up with something I was really not happy with.

Then Mark Berthelemy suggested Vistaprint for free business cards. They really are free (excluding P&P) for the first 250... with some limitations. I also discovered that they do all sorts of other free things (on Saturday, I became the proud owner - in addition to my business cards - of some mail return labels, a pen and a T-shirt), including website design tools. They offer reasonably-priced web-hosting, too. Using their design tools, I came up with a site I was far happier with. The only problem is, when I published it, it came up with a different URL, which included an indication of the hosting organisation.

The meant that a person entering into their address bar would find themselves at a 123-reg page advising them that one of their clients had bought the domain. Not very helpful to me... or presumably to this hypothetical person who might be trying to track me down with an offer of business.

I fiddled about a bit, trying to redirect things myself... and failed. In the end, what I had to do was to get the nameserver details of the (Vistaprint) hosting server across to 123-reg and ask them to point the domain name there. 123-reg's online form for this process includes a field asking for a piece of information that I thought was the IP address, which I also had. This turned out not to be what was required and I phoned them in a state of confusion. The woman I spoke to assured me that the nameserver was enough information and that I would find that my request had been action within 48 hours.

I was doubtful, but it turned out that she was right.

So now I have a website. Please swing by and let me have your input - bearing in mind that this is my first go at it... oh, and I'm a bit of a numpty ;o)

Friday, October 03, 2008

It's just hair!

As so often in the past, today's Calvin and Hobbes cartoon sits well with me.

My younger son has HAIR. A lot of it. It hangs way past his shoulders in a glorious cascade that he keeps scrupulously clean and conditioned. People have given up trying, now, but they used to ask us ceaselessly "When are going to make that child get his hair cut?"

One day, as yet another person asked me this question, I snapped.

"It's hair, okay? It's just hair. It's not pornography. It's not drugs. It's not vandalism. It's not theft. It's not violence. It's hair. And it's his hair."

Do we sometimes look over the faces of our learners and decide how they're going to be, based on their physical appearance or the clothes they choose to wear? How is that different from racism, sexism or any other of those isms we're trying to rise above?

The kindness of strangers

I would imagine that most people reading this have encountered the story of the good Samaritan (the link will take you to come school kids' work around the topic, which I think reveals more about the significance of the fact the neighbourly man was a Samaritan).

Dave Snowden's account of his daughter's recent car accident put me in mind of my own good Samaritans and I thought I would relate the story here.

Many years ago, I was driving home from a holiday. In order to defray costs, I was ferrying two paying passengers who were unknown to me: a New Zealand couple who were travelling around southern Africa on a shoestring.

We were driving on a national road through rural Transkei, at that time an independent homeland within the South African borders.

As we crested a rise, I noticed a Toyota 4X4 creeping along the road shoulder some way ahead with his right indicator on. I thought he'd either stopped to relieve himself or to switch drivers and was getting back onto the road. If he'd seen me, he would wait until I had passed before pulling out. If he hadn't, he would pull out in front of me and I could pass him since there was nothing coming from the other direction (you could drive for hours without seeing another car).

I was wrong. He had decided to do a U turn, which effectively put him horizontally across my path. I was travelling at 110km/h (a little under 70mph), so I had very little time to make a choice. If I tried to pass him to the right, I might get wedged between him and the cliff face (bearing in mind we drive on the left in South Africa). If I tried to pass him to the left, I might go over the cliff edge. I made a conscious decision and drove straight into him, aiming behind the cab, so as not to hit the driver.

It was the days before airbags and, in spite of my seatbelt, I smashed my face into the steering wheel, which fractured my skull in five places and cut my face open to the bone on my cheek and the top of my eye socket. I also sustained several other injuries and the car was a complete write off. My two passengers were entirely unhurt. They decided to continue their journey forthwith and set off with their thumbs out.

Within minutes, there was another car on the scene. The driver's wife tried to force sweet tea down my throat, which caused me to gag painfully. I kept insisting that I was about to die and could I please take my sweater off?

I had heard women screaming as I had smashed into the pickup and was worried about their safety. I thought they had been in the back (a common practice in that part of the world). It turned out that the driver was alone, and the "women" I heard was me. I didn't know that really happened.

Another car pulled up. A very swanky Mercedes Benz. The driver and his wife were taking their daughter home to the same city I had been headed to. The daughter had been South Africa's top diver until a car accident had caused her a neck injury that had ended her career. On that occasion, her life had been saved by a stranger. One look at the carnage and she decided this was her moment to pay it forward.

At her insistence, her parents stopped. They drove me to a local hospital which was exactly like those that you see in movies set in rural Africa. The doctor was fetched by a man on bicycle. There were no telephones.

The family in the Mercedes Benz parked under a tree and listened to the Wimbledon men's final on the radio while they waited for me to be declared fit enough for them to drive me home.

The doctor was an absolute sweetie. He protected my modesty during the x-ray process (at least they had one of those - although it was antiquated). Then he stitched up my face. He told me that even a plastic surgeon couldn't do a better job, since he spent his entire Saturday and Sunday mornings stitching up the wounds of alcohol fuelled fights (a plastic surgeon examined me on my return to the city and again 6 months later and concurred).

He found me a bed even though there were patients lining the walls of the passage. A nurse checked on me every few minutes even thought they were horribly understaffed.

It was some hours before the doctor was prepared to let me go. He felt that I was still in no fit state to travel, but that I could get better treatment in a city hospital, and since there was a kind family waiting to take me there, he released me into their care. There were no ambulances.

They drove me home to my (by now very anxious) mother. I won't go into detail about that journey - it would turn your stomach - but let me assure you, their swanky Mercedes probably needed to be valeted (detailed) after that!

I don't know their names. But their primary concern was for me. Nothing was too much trouble. What a world it would be if we were all like that!

Like the daughter, my own reactions were changed forever as a result of the family's kindness. Finding yourself in a position of utter dependency on the good will of others... and finding those 'others' to be entirely up to the task (and more) has a way of staying with you.

What have you done today to make you feel proud?