Saturday, November 29, 2008

Good grief - I'm rich!

So I don't know why I've been worried about this credit crunch. Just this week I received an email telling me that someone had kindly deposited £6million into my bank account because they didn't have anywhere else to put it. Aww. So glad to be able to help. Apparently, when they come and collect their money, I can keep the interest.


On a more serious note, I have noticed a massive increase in the number of these mails that are making it past my spam filter, and I worry about those naive souls who seem to be so easily taken in by things that arrive via the ether.

Isn't it amazing that when people are hurting most the vultures come out? Completely devoid of any shred of human decency. Perhaps it's because it's the festive season and this is some people's way of doing their Christmas shopping. Just this week, our local paper ran a story about someone who struck a deal to buy two 'hot' laptops from a pair of guys in a parking lot. After he had forked over £600 and the two had gone on their merry way, he opened the case to find it contained bottles of water.

It doesn't do to be looking for 'deals' in the current downturn. If you weren't able to beat the system when times were good, you're hardly likely to be able to do so now, are you?

Times are tough for everyone and the unscrupulous are becoming increasingly inventive.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Edublogs awards - late nomination

I have just learned of the new category in the Eddies, and couldn't miss the opportunity to make a nomination.

Category 16: lifetime achievement award: Jay Cross for Informal Learning Blog.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

On playing the exam game

I have just returned from a rather harrowing parents' evening with my elder son. I met with two biology teachers, two physics teachers, two maths teachers and three PE/sports science teachers. We started with biology. The news was not good... and it went down hill from there!

Every single teacher told me that he talks a good talk. That, in conversation, you think you're dealing with a remarkable child, but then you see his written work and you discover he's actually not all that. His predicted grades are shocking: Cs, Ds and Es. They all complained that his homework is poorly done, if at all (one teacher claims never to have received a single piece of homework back from him - my sons swears he has given him homework into his hands on several occasions).

My son has been speaking with easy confidence and obvious enjoyment about what he's learning at school. The teachers think he runs a good bluff, and is gifted at blagging, but then, when it comes down to 'what matters' he can't deliver the goods.

At one stage, I was quite literally in tears. I wasn't sure how much more of this I could take.

But, blessing of blessings, the PE teachers were the last we saw. First up was the sports science teacher who had just given the class a tough assessment in which my son had scored a solid-but-not-stellar result. He said the magic words: "This is one very bright child who doesn't play the exam game. BUT... if he wants to get the results out of this system that will serve his purposes going forward, he is going to have to play the system."

The last two PE teachers told me that my son is scoring stellar results on their assessments. They had been worried that he would prove unable to walk the talk. Unable to reproduce in a written environment what he can do in a spoken one. It seems that, in respect of PE, he has got this sussed. Why? Because he loves the subject. Because anatomy and muscles and training and all that malarkey pushes all his buttons in the way that learning and learners do mine. So he had inadvertently figured out how to take his verbal reasoning skills and put them down in writing. We talked about how he needed to find a way to transfer that magic to his other subjects.

So on the journey back from the school I confessed to my son how much I loathe the assessment process. How misguided and misdirected I consider it. Then I launched into an analogy... as I am wont to do:

When I go to South Africa, I enter the country with Sterling in my pocket. This helps me not at all in South Africa. Even though the Pound is a far stronger currency than the Rand. Even though the British economy is (even now) in far better shape than the South African economy. If I want to buy something in South Africa, I need Rands. So I go to the forex counter and I exchange some of my Pounds for Rands. I use the Rands for as long as they serve my purpose, and then I return home to the stronger economy where I earn and spend Pounds.

This is what my son is going to do going forward. He knows that his Verbal Reasoning currency is stronger than that of Test Scores. He also knows that in the land of Education, the currency is Test Scores. So when he enters the exam room, he will exchange some of his VR currency for TS. He will think about how he would make his case if someone were to ask him the exam question in real life, and he will provide a written version of his spoken answer. He will trade in TS for as long as he needs to. He will use TS to buy what he desires and then he will return home to the land of VR where he excels.

Mercenary, yes. But until they change the system to one which ceases to disadvantage my son and others like him, these are the cards we hold. This is the currency we need. I resent it with every fibre of my being, but I will can't stand by and see his career prospects being limited because 'the system' can't see how bright he is!


I'm always conflicted on the subject of assessments. I understand that they serve the purpose of identifying where the learner is strong and where work is required. But this is only true if the assessment mechanism is reliable. A series of yes/no or multiple guess choice questions has limited value, here.

  • For a work-based learner, surely the point is for them to know where they need to brush up?
  • For the university student, is the point for the university to establish whether allowing this person credit their institution with the letters behind his/her name going to bring the university honour or dishonour? Is it a worthiness thing?
  • In the case of a school child, I'm hoping the point is that the teacher will get an idea of where the child needs help.
But I still think that a reliable method of assessment must revolve around application. For example, ask my sons to spell 'conscience' and they will say out loud "Con. Science," and then write it down correctly. But let them decide to introduce that word into a piece of creative writing or, even worse, an email, or worst of all, a text/IM, and you'll get all manner of interesting variations. So, as far as the teacher is concerned: can they spell 'conscience' or can't they?

Yesterday my younger son took a Spanish test. Of all of us, he is the weakest at languages. I have always had an ear for languages, which my older son has inherited. My husband doesn't have a natural flair, but he developed his ability in order to be able to get by when he arrived in a bilingual English/Afrikaans community in South Africa as a child, able to speak only Swedish. He is the most trilingual of us.

My younger son was woeful at French and, as a consequence, was not permitted to continue with it this September because of an insufficiency of French language teachers at the school. Instead he was moved to Spanish, together with all the other poor achievers.

Yesterday he did a vocabulary test, for which he scored 22/20. I kid you not. The test was for 20 marks, and there was a bonus 4 mark question at the end. He lost 2 marks in the main body of the test, but scored all 4 bonus marks. He is delighted. I wonder at the validity of such a test.

He is also delighted (what teenage boy wouldn't be?) that he learned how to say "did you fart?" in Spanish. I can see how this is going to prove very useful next time we visit Spain on holiday! Mind you, it will probably be a lot more useful than being able to say "I don't have my homework."

I have tried very hard to persuade the child to consider Spanish pod, but he is not motivated to do anything over and above what is on offer at school. So it's fair to say that he is not motivated to learn Spanish. He is merely motivated to pass the assessments.

So I ask again: what is the purpose of assessments and how is it that kids come to view them as the point of the learning, rather than the achievement of a certain level of skill?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

He finally did it!

I wish I knew who to credit for this shot - please let me know, if you can - it arrived attached to an email from my sister.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On being an independent thinker

I recently attended as much of the CLTI08 conference as I could manage between family commitments (it's a bit tricky when the rather early morning start for the Pacific time zone bods, translates into school run, dinner-preparation-and-eating and getting-kids-to-athletics time in the UK).

I was rather surprised when one of the other delegates commented in her invitation to connect (rather like 'friend' invitations in Facebook) on my "independent thinking". Apparently she felt this was what my contributions to the backchannel chat demonstrated.

I have never thought of myself as an independent thinker. I acknowledge that I (usually) won't just swallow the party line, and that I am not afraid to challenge, to ask the difficult questions. But independent? Hmm. Surely I'm just reacting to what other people say, rather than coming up with ideas of my own?

Some time ago, Harold Jarche sent me this gapingvoid cartoon:I printed it out and stuck it on my desk in my last job, right next to the banner that declared me a workafrolic (check it out, you won't be sorry!) and the reminder to go home every day (follow the link - it's not as daft as it sounds!). I took it with me when I left and it now graces the desk of my home office. At the time, I responded to Harold that, while I certainly didn't want to be a sheep, I didn't think I had what it took to be a wolf, either. I 'asked permission' instead to be a wolf cub, romping along in the wake of the alpha wolves, learning from them, but never quite having to step into that role myself.

Since that time, I have found myself increasingly being labelled an 'early adopter', a 'maverick' and 'an independent thinker'. When I look at the people I think of as independent thinkers, thought leaders and so on, I balk at the idea of such labels being attached to me - I feel unworthy (ugh, get a grip!), unequal to the task.

Nevertheless, perhaps from where someone else is sitting, that's how I appear. How about you? Do you think of yourself as being a leader, an independent thinker? How do other people see you? Because your reputation is not really based on your view of yourself. It's based on other people's views of you... whether you like it or not, I guess.

The way people think

Just lately, I have been given practical examples of the different way in which people think and approach a project.

I have been up to my eyeballs in recipes. I am compiling a recipe book to capture a sampling of the wide-ranging cultural diversity of our church congregation: Nigerians, Koreans, Ghanaians, West Indians, Finns, Swedes, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Poles, Welsh... and of course, the occasional English person ;o).

The finished book is to be sold in aid of a scheme which provides food parcels to struggling families in our area. Right now, there are more families in that category than usual, and it looks set to get worse. Of course, I'm busting a gut to get the thing done in time to be used as Christmas gifts.

The people of the church were asked to send/give me their favourite recipes, concentrating on nutritious meals-on-a-budget rather than the endless range of sweet treats that usually result from these sorts of projects.

It has been an interesting exercise:

  • Some people's idea of a recipe does not start with a list of ingredients - these are revealed as one reads through the instructions; others start with a detailed list of ingredients, including the quantity of water
  • Some use rather imprecise terms like 'some butternut', 'a medium oven' or 'about a handful of pearl barley' - others are precise to the last detail: '950ml water', '375°F/180°C' or '165g frozen mixed vegetables'
  • Some indicate how many people a recipe will serve, others do not
  • Some use metric quantities, others use imperial, still others use cups and spoons
  • Interestingly, one Chinese woman uses colours for reference, rather than time - 'cook until mixture is purple then add stock to turn mixture red'
Since the book is intended to celebrate our diverse cultures, I have tried to be true to the way the recipes were given to me, without making it impossible for a less-than-confident cook - who is already out of his/her comfort zone in attempting a recipe from Japan, say - to produce something edible at the end of the experiment.

Since the contributor's name appears with each recipe, I have tried to accommodate that person's character and individuality as far as possible. This put me in a bit of a pickle when it came to spelling and grammar errors. Many of the people in our church don't have English as a first language. This has resulted in the most endearing turns of phrase. I decided pretty quickly that I would have to correct the spelling, but I ummed and ah-ed over the grammar. In the end I did correct it, since I recognise that there may be cause for embarrassment and/or ridicule (not to mention misunderstanding), but it was with a heavy heart.

I did, however, opt to leave in little editorial things like "Cheese soup - yes, really!" and "this is optional!!!!" beside an instruction to add an onion in a recipe from someone who abhors the things. This abhorrence is referenced elsewhere in the book, where one person included the instruction that "L***** may substitute a leek".

I'm not earning a penny from this exercise and it has been hard work, but it has been an absolute romp... and I have learnt so much along the way - about cooking, about people.

Children with imagination

I came across this video today - it was sent to me by a Facebook friend. Those of you who do not share my faith, please do not dismiss the clip because of its source - it really is worth watching. It's a bit of a pity that the subtitles and the branding occupy the same space on the screen, but does this child not have the most wonderful imagination?

How tragic it will be if her formal education does any harm to this wonderful gift.

It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Luke 17:2

Saturday, November 22, 2008

There is a crack in everything

Tonight I got to see half a Leonard Cohen live gig (when did he start to look so much like Tony Bennet?). Yeah, just half, and I've got the serious mutters with British Rail for robbing me of the other half, but that's for another time.

Leonard Cohen is, to my mind, a consummate lyricist, he can do with a few words what highly skilled visual artists can do with just a few lines or brushstrokes. Sublime. Tonight, as well as being surprised to discover that Leonard Cohen is actually both personable and funny, I heard a song that had somehow managed to escape me before, called Anthem from the Future, which contained some lyrics that struck a chord so deep in me as to be impossible to articulate.

It relates so much to the conversations we have in this space, but I feel as if I would make the whole thing rather trite by trying to explain how, so I will pay you the compliment of assuming you'll be able to make the connection for yourself, and insted just give you the lines:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
It reminds me of a badge my kids once gave me that says "Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light." I am very proud of that badge!

And here's the song in its entirety:

When designers don't consider the user's needs

No, I haven't forgotten the apostrophe rule! Perish the thought. I have deliberately used the singular, because each user is an individual.

As those of you who are my Facebook friends will know, I recently had to get new glasses. One of the (many) curses of middle age.

Because of the dramatic change to my eyes over the past two years, my needs have become more complex. Instead of just the reading specs you see me sporting in my profile photo, I now need three different prescriptions: one for close work like reading, knitting and so on, one for detail-in-the-middle-distance like working on my desktop computer screen and watching telly, and a third for distance vision, like driving - that last one came as a total surprise to me!

Initially I got two pairs of varifocals: one clear and one tinted for outdoor use. But varifocals didn't suit me. Everything kept moving. The abundance of striped shirts being sported by men these days had me almost reaching for the barf bucket as the stripes heaved and ho-ed and flatly refused to stand still. Any printed matter I tried to read changed shape continually. Driving was a nightmare, as nothing would come into focus quickly enough to allow for competent navigation of traffic. Working on my deskop was just as bad - I had a keyhole sized area of perfect vision, with a blur of motion around it. And, as some of you will know, the stairs refused to behave - resulting in a painful injury to my neck and both shoulders.

So back we went to try to find an alternative arrangement. This time I asked for a single vision pair of glasses with photoreactive lenses for distance. And a pair of 'office glasses' - graded to cover my near vision and middle distance requirements - also with photosensitive lenses.

Er no.

There is no problem with the first of those, but it seems that 'office glasses' don't come in photosenstive lenses. Whyever not? Well, because they are meant for indoor use, you see. Hence the name 'office glasses'.


So they presume to tell me I may not take my crossword puzzle out into the garden. I may not read a map in the car the next time my husband and I go on a roadtrip. Never again may I demonstrate my geekishness be reading Judith Bell on the beach in Spain. And I may certainly not decamp my office to my patio! These are not the behaviours of a bespectacled office worker, it seems.

Says who?

Who designed these lenses, anyway? And who was their target market? Thanks to their bright spark ideas, I will now have to wear two pairs of glasses when carrying out close work outdoors - one to correct my vision and one to deal with the glare.


Pretty poor market research, I'd say.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

There is this book...

... that has taken hold of me. And it doesn't even exist!

A few times in my life, I have felt inclined - compelled, even - to write a book. It's not a feeling I enjoy. Most times, I have been able to fob it off with a few chapters before succumbing gladly to writer's apathy.

I have written a few (passingly decent) short stories in my time, and a few dreadful poems, but a book is a different matter. A different matter entirely. And I don't have time to spend writing a whole book when I have to earn a living! And I certainly have neither the time nor the energy to try to find a publisher. I mean, kick a bush and two would-be authors fall out. I've seen the hassle some of my writer friends have had, and I want none of it. Hence the welcoming attitude towards aforesaid apathy.

This time it appears to be different. The book was birthed in my head, totally unexpectedly as I drove my son to school today. With astonishing speed, it took root in my chest, where it is threatening to explode if I don't let it out. And I now have unspeakable heartburn.

This time, it's not just the germ of an idea. This time the book has a title... and I know how it ends!

Just to explain... I have no pretensions to the next cluetrain manifesto, Naked Conversations, Knowing Knowledge or Informal Learning. Those books look for more skillful, more knowledgeable authors. The books that try to get me to write them are usually works of fiction. Flights of fancy. That kind of thing. Quite often they're appropriate for the age my children happen to be at the time, and are extensions of some or other tale I have been weaving for them. It's a dirty trick, trying to use emotional blackmail on a person, but it seems books have no shame.

This particular book is based on fact. On the life of a real person. Someone who died when I was a teenager and who was only peripherally known to me. Someone who was a no-one. Someone whose name leapt unbidden into my head, accompanied by a crystal clear mental snapshot and a motion picture of his very characteristic walk.

How do you persuade a book that you're not the right author and send it on its way to find another?

Instinct v presence of mind

A thinking-out-loud post.

This morning, thanks to my new glasses, I nearly fell down the stairs. Instinctively, I grabbed the banister and rescued myself... at the cost of my right shoulder, which is now killing me! The instinctive reaction probably saved me from a different injury, but if I were a professional violinist, I would probably have preferred the other injury.

I know a man who is possibly the finest osteopath/physio/sports injury therapist on the planet (okay, that's a huge overstatement, but I would recommend him unreservedly to anyone). He was hiking in the Swiss Alps with a bunch of teenagers who were working towards their Duke of Edinburgh awards. One of the kids above him dislodged a rock, which hit him on the head and sent him over the edge (literally, not metaphorically). As he fell, he had the presence of mind to protect the tools his trade: his hands. Where someone else would have wrapped their arms around their head, or used them to try to break their fall, John crossed his across his chest and tucked his hands into his armpits.

When he came to a halt, most of his scalp had been ripped away and his knee had been very seriously damaged. He applied first aid to himself and, when the first of the kids arrived on the scene, got them to call the air ambulance.

He was taken to a Swiss hospital, where the doctor who saw him was tickled at John's professional interest in his own injuries and their proposed treatment. After stitching his scalp back in place, he operated on John's knee, using an epidural instead of general anaesthetic, so that John could watch the surgery, and keeping up a running commentary - which he enjoyed enormously!

Instinct is focused on survival. Presence of mind, it seems, is focused on preservation of the things that are important to us on other levels. I excercised instinct. John exercised presence of mind.

Military training appears to impart to people the ability to override the instinct for personal preservation and to carry out actions that serve the purposes of the bigger picture.

I find myself musing on this today. Military drills are based on behaviourist principles... with good reason. Is there any other way to learn to override instinct? For example, how did John learn to do what he did?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Learning styles again... again

Just in case my arguments against the concept of learning styles don't carry enough weight - here's someone with a lot more credibility than me.

Good teacher, bad learners?

Today my elder son had to teach a lesson at school. It's part of their course on PE/sports science. His specialisation for the course is javelin and he was expected to teach his class how to throw a javelin within a single lesson. A tall order at the best of times.

When he got home from school today, I asked him how it had gone. "Not so good," he told me Apparently, the class hadn't paid attention or co-operated at all. His confidence, however, was unbowed.

"I still taught well, " he assured me, "Regardless of whether they learned anything or not."

Hmm. What it is to be seventeen!

I must remember that one if ever I run a workshop that doesn't go over well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Academicinfo - a new string to my bow

I have recently started blogging for Academicinfo, "an online education resource center with extensive subject guides and distance learning information." Their mission is "to provide free, independent and accurate information and resources for prospective and current students (and other researchers)."

The posts I write there are not a duplication of those that appear on this site. Currently, I am busy with a series of book reviews, which may expand to include must-read blogposts and ezine articles.

On the same site, you will also find a series of posts by Harold Jarche who is exploring social media and new understandings of literacy.

Please swing by and let us have your input.

Give them the truth!

I've just returned from the local service station. My car needed a new bulb in one of the headlights and Peugeots being what they are, it wasn't something I could easily do myself. I asked the man behind the counter how long it would take, since I have a lot to do today. "Oh, twenty minutes, if that," he assured me airily. Perfect.

Half an hour later, I asked for a progress check on the rather elastic 20 minutes. "Just a few more minutes," a different man told me.

A good 15 minutes or more later, the first man re-appeared to tell me that my car also needed a new wiper blade. I pointed out that I had already been there more than double the original estimate of 20 minutes. He explained that they have to do a health check on every car. "This is fine... and commendable, " I said, "but when a person asks you how long something is going to take, you should factor that in, so that they can plan accordingly." He sighed. "Look, do you want your wiper blade replacing (sic) or not?"

Not. Thanks. That much I can do for myself.

And next time my car needs work, I'll be going somewhere else.

We need to beware of this, too when we're trying desperately to sell someone on an idea/solution/whatever. If we boost their expectations and under-deliver, we will only alienate them even further. Our job is tough enough as it is.

CLTI08 starts today - will you be there?

The Corporate Learning Trends and Innovations conference starts today at 8am Canadian Pacific time, which is 4pm GMT.

George Siemens has become synonymous with collecting together movers and shakers in the world of learning and offering these free online conferences, using the very impressive Elluminate as his platform. I haven't missed one yet. I'm delighted to see that the word is spreading and we are seeing increasing enrolment from developing countries, including several of my compatriots (woohoo!).

Of course, the poor Aussies and Kiwis are going to have a rough old time of it with the time zone issue, but many of them have attended before, and seem to consider the loss of sleep a small price to pay ;o). I've got the mutters a bit myself, because I can't do Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evenings and will therefore miss several great sessions, including the one I most wanted to attend.

Eddies 2008 nominations

It's a bit scary having to put my nominations out in the open like this, but that's how the 2008 Edublog Award nomination process works. I also just know that, the minute I publish, my faulty memory is going to remind me of a post I should have nominated in at least one category, but what can you do? So here goes (numbered as per nomination categories on edublog site):

1. Best individual blog OLDaily

2. Best group blog Workplace learning today

4. Best resource sharing blog Jane's elearning pick of the day

5. Most influential blog post Cathy Moore's Be an elearning action hero

6. Best teacher blog Cool cat teacher blog

9. Best elearning / corporate education blog Making change

Deep breath. Hope not to upset anyone. Prepare to hit Publish... NOW!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

It could be worse!

I recently hypothesised about the risks of corporate blogging, but the woes that befall us in these situations are still a far cry from being jailed for 20 years for shedding light on atrocities. It's one thing to risk getting into trouble, or even getting canned at work. This is a whole different league of courage-of-your-convictions stuff.

Computer on a stick

The latest Good Idea to be shared with me by my live-in IT support man is I am trying to persuade said IT support man to blog about this himself, since I'm sure he'll do a much better job, but his blogging has thus far been a bit of a flash in the pan. Keep an eye out, though, I think he's weakening!

I previously shared about an article that explained how to virtualise one computer onto another. This takes things one step further. It allows you to create a computer-on-a-stick, so that you can carry your favourite apps with you and run them on any computer you happen to find handy. For example, if Firefox is one of the apps you choose, it comes complete with all your bookmarks when you come to use it on the PC of your choice.

As the blurb on the site says: Suite™ is a complete collection of portable apps including a web browser, email client, office suite, calendar/scheduler, instant messaging client, antivirus, audio player, sudoku game, password manager, PDF reader, minesweeper clone, backup utility and integrated menu, all preconfigured to work portably. Just drop it on your portable device and you're ready to go.
In spite of my title, you don't have to use a stick, either. You can use an iPod or a portable hard drive... presumably even a camera card, if you can find one with enough capacity. It comes, as John puts it, "in three initial flavours" to which you make additions as you see fit further down the line.

And it's free! Like Moodle, the developers request donations from the user community in order to fund further development.

Friday, November 14, 2008

No heads in the sand

I have deliberately subjected myself to a harrowing ordeal today. Am I some kind of masochist?

Not really, but there are times when has to put one's personal preferences aside. This is one of them.

I don't like reading about child abuse. I don't like watching movies that include child abuse, wife battering or rape scenes. I find no entertainment value in them. I usually groan or whimper audibly and leave the room. When the abuse is real, I find it very difficult not to resort to the same coping mechanism. I want to slap my hands over my ears and go "Lalala". I don't want to have to process that kind of information.

But I must.

In quick succession, the UK has been hit with news of Baby P and the Mulling-Sewell brothers. I feel quite traumatised by the reports, but I truly believe that it would be a heartless act to indulge myself and turn away. After everything these children have endured, the world needs to wake up and pay attention. "How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

I am outraged. I am grief-stricken. I am frustrated. I am squirming in my seat. I don't want to read about this. I don't want to know. I don't want this unseemliness infringing on my nice, neat life.


Our systems are failing our children.

Something needs to be done.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blogging - when the rope hits the rudder

One of the major risks for employees who blog is that of causing offence to clients and finding themselves in the dog box as a consequence.

Let's say, for example, you attend a meeting with a client in which the client expresses a view that you disagree with. This client is by no means the only one to express this view and it is something you have addressed in various spaces, including your blog, on more than one occasion. You try to reason with the client, to no avail.

So (you think) you exercise your right to free speech and you write about it on your blog. Again. You know this is an issue many members of your network encounter, too, and you wonder how they deal with it. You point out your objections to the client's line of reasoning. You carefully omit the client's name and any other indicators that might reveal their identity.

A few people stop by your post and submit comments. Some of these are not very tactfully couched. Quite rude, in fact. But you publish them, because (you think) they're exercising their right to free speech.

Then someone from the client side who was present at the meeting stumbles across your post and identifies their organisation as being the one being referred to. They take exception. They take even greater exception to the comments, for which they hold you accountable.

They tell your company that they never want you anywhere near their project again.

This puts your manager in a difficult position. Are you guilty of gross misconduct and therefore dismissable? Can you be quietly redeployed elsewhere? Are the powers that be higher up the food chain baying for your head on a pike? Can he/she get away with slapping you on the wrist and saying "Bad blogger! Don't ever do that again"? Would/should you comply? What action could he/she take if you didn't? Where is the line? Where is the black and the white and what the heck is all this grey stuff?

Many companies have avoided formalising a policy in respect of blogging because of the minefield it constitutes - particularly in respect of privately held, professional interest blogs. It's more straightforward if yours is a corporate blog on behalf of the organisation or if, at the other end of the spectrum, yours is a blog that centres on your leisure pastimes and does not address issues within the organisation's sphere of influence. It's that one in-between that's the blighter! how do they establish a defensible, enforceable policy that restricts what you may and may not say in a blog that is your private-but-very-public property without infringing your rights?

This provides the hapless manager with no guidelines to work from. There are no formal rules that have been broken, so it's difficult ot know what course of action to take. Is a disciplinary procedure in order? Dare he/she go that route, knowing that you might retaliate with an action of your own about freedom of expression and rights and stuff?

Your manager probably hopes that you'll go quietly. Do you?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Customer service in the shower

So Clark Quinn was taking a shower in his hotel room (I know this because he said so on Facebook), and he couldn't tell the difference between the shower gel and the shampoo. Why? Because they come in identical little bottles. Sure, they're labelled to tell you which is which, but that doesn't help Clark who can't read without his glasses and can't wear his glasses in the shower.

Those bottles are so cute, aren't they? We love to pop them in our bags to take home and clutter up our bathrooms. Mind you, they're great for decanting various lotions and potions into when you have to take a trip of a few days' duration. But Clark has identified a major flaw in their oh-so-cute design.

This puts me in mind of one of my all time favourite books, The Design of Everyday Things. Just the cover illustration cracks me up: it's a picture of a teapot with the spout and the handle on the same side.

Products should be designed primarily with the needs of the user in mind - it's one of those below-the-line customer service activities.

One of the products that I think of whenever I think product design is hearing aids. My mother-in-law wears one. It's a tiny little thing that disappears inside her ear. Very nice. Very discreet.

The thing is, she has to adjust it from time to time and, on a thing small enough to disappear inside your lughole, the control buttons are practically microscopic. When you're over 80, your eyesight is often about as bad as your hearing, and your hands can be none too dextrous, either.

So here's what I recommend (are you listening, all you inventor types? You can have this one for nothing!)

Someone should invent a remote control device for in-ear hearing aids. Something about the size of a mobile phone or a pocket calculator, which a decent sized screen and large text on the both the buttons and the screen.

All those in favour?

On ignorance

Yesterday, I was having a conversation with an American about how Americans are perceived by the world. Like most Americans of my acquaintance, he was both interested and well-informed regarding non-American matters. He was also well-travelled. However, this doesn't change the perception that exists that Americans are insular and ignorant of matters beyond (and sometimes even within) their vast borders, and that somewhere between 80-90% of them (depending on your reading material) don't even own a passport. Materials like this do nothing to help that perception.

Countless people have stories to tell of how, on a trip to the US, they encountered a version of the line, "You're from Africa? I have a friend in Nigeria, do you know her?" I had a few such experiences myself. Most people don't even hear the 'south' bit in South Africa - they just hear Africa, and visualise "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" (just in case anyone is interested, there are lions in Africa, but tigers and bears are not indigenous to the continent). Like many others, I have had to deal with a surprised and somewhat skeptical, "But you're white!" These situations cause much hilarity when related 'back home'.

The truth is, that we have a situation of the pot calling the kettle black. Right here in the UK, I hear regular references to Africa as a country. Just yesterday, in a coffee shop on St Pancras station, I overhead a group of American tourists laughing at how ignorant English people are about America, "I said I was from New York and he said, "Oh, I went to San Fransisco once, I stayed in XYZ hotel, do you know it?" I mean, can you believe it? He had no idea how far that is!" Others in his group were quick to respond with stories of their own.

But notice the pattern: my illustrations have focussed on an ignorance of Africa. The Americans were laughing because people were ignorant about America. We seem to have this perception that people should know what we know, and a failure in this arena constitutes laughable ignorance. This strikes me as a somewhat arrogant stance to take.

I would hope that in this space, at least, we don't see a reason to laugh but an opportunity to impart information. Of course, not everyone wants to learn - I have been waved away many times by people who don't want their clear waters muddied by inconvenient facts about some unimportant little place called Africa. And that's their choice... and I guess, their right.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sometimes you want to see the whites of their eyes

Many of you have been following the saga of my son's sponsored haircut. Now that the deed has been done, he has begun to collect the funds owed to him.

The more connected donors have been puzzled about one thing:

Why have I asked for the money to be sent to us, rather than being donated online? This is a very good question, and the answer is simply this: my son wants to take the money in his hot little hands and hand it over in person to someone who is involved with the foundation. I had originally expected to set up a fundraising page online and allow people to contribute that way, making out a single cheque to post in for those who preferred to give their cash to us.

But what do I know? Apparently I am a digital immigrant. The youngest member of the family - purportedly a digital native - did not want anything so impersonal. He wanted to have the pleasure of the physical gesture of giving. No doubt he also wants the pleasure of the physical gesture of a smile and expression of gratitude. Who can blame him? He just sacrificed his luxuriant mane!

So the Romeis family will shortly be making a trip to London so that our son can hand over in person the almost £300 he has raised. I suspect we'll call in at a few museums to make the trip cost effective.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The deed is done!

For those who have been following the saga, my younger son has now been shorn in aid of charity.

I have posted photos and a video on the Facebook group, where group members can see it.

He started off looking like Stephen Downes and ended up looking more like Doug Belshaw. Quite a transformation!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Ending the week with a smile

This has been a rough week for the Romeis family on many fronts and many levels, but I ended it on a belly laugh I'd like to share with you. I hope it comes off the page successfully.

It was just gone 4pm and we were collecting the kids from the railway station. As they slid into the back seat, the following conversation took place:

Son #1: If you could choose, which super-power would you have: the ability to turn invisible, to fly or to teleport?
Karyn (self-pityingly): Sometimes I feel as I am already invisible.
Son #2 (without missing a beat): Gasp! Who said that?

Gotta admit, I walked into that one. We laughed until the tears ran.

Finding that fine line

Apologies to those who have had their fill of this on Twitter - the 140 character limit was becoming an impediment!

My husband and I are in uncharted territory as parents. Our elder son is in post-compulsory education, but still attending a school, and we have yet to figure out the shift in balance.

Lately, there has been a flurry of communications from the school regarding his performance in Maths. It's not about his ability - that's not in doubt. It's about his work ethic. It started when he missed a lesson due to illness and didn't make enough effort to get caught up. But it has escalated to a feeding frenzy. Emails from teachers are CCed to all his maths teachers, who then seem to feel the need to leap aboard with their own input.

None of the other subject teachers have indicated any concerns, but it seems every move the child makes is now seen as further evidence of a poor work ethic and we get the impression that they are gunning for the school equivalent of a constructive dismissal.

He is 17 years old and trying to face down the wrath of 5 mutually supportive adults. He has been at the school for 2 months. He is becoming increasingly discouraged and rapidly reaching the point where is likely to say, in that time honoured, teenage way, "Sod it, then" and give up altogether. We are trying very hard to support him, and struggling to find the appropriate level for that support. Of course, we want him to put in the work that is expected of him, and where he has failed to do so, we expect him to man up. However, we have concerns that the teachers are armed with a collective hammer and, suddenly, everything looks remarkably like a nail.

Yesterday, there was a timetable conflict between a PE (sports theory) exam and the Maths Challenge. Teachers had unilaterally entered the class into the Maths Challenge, while the PE exam was a performance evaluation situation. He opted to take the PE exam. Immediately, the maths teacher emailed us to say that all the other students affected by the conflict had opted to attend the Maths Challenge and the PE teachers had been very understanding. She saw this as further evidence of his lack of commitment to the subject.

My response, then and now, is: SO WHAT? What is the relevance of what the other kids chose to do, and how the teachers reacted to it? He had a decision to make and he made it. There seems to be the view that any child who decides to take maths must regard it as their highest priority, with every other subject paling into insignificance. I reject this notion with every fibre of my being. Yes, maths is important. I would even go as far as to say for a child like my son, it is vital. But since he is showing an increasing interest in physiotherapy/sports science as a career option, surely PE is of equal, if not greater importance?

Sir Ken Robinson touched on this issue of over-emphasis on the traditional sciences in our education system (I have linked to this video before... more than once).

The challenge is trying to find a way to fight the system, without exonerating my child from his rightful blame, without emasculating him and without putting him in an untenable position. Those who have gotten to know me will appreciate how hard it is for me not to storm down to the school with all guns blazing.

Tightrope, anyone?

Image: Tight rope by homme de chevre (aka odetothebigsea)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Some moments are just too important to miss

Will Thalheimer's post about how he and his wife woke their very young daughter to hear Obama's victory speech a very touching and worthwhile read.

There are some moments that are just too important to miss. There are times when what usually constitutes good practice needs to be placed on a backburner. Perhaps the young Ms Thalheimer was grumpy the next day due to a broken night's sleep. So what? A day's grumpiness is surely a small price to pay.

On one of the rare occasions when it snowed in the south east of England, my husband burst through the door very late from work because the traffic had all come to a standstill and he had had to walk home from the station.

"Everybody out!" he shouted, "I have remembered that I am descended from the vikings!" Late as it was, he took our two young lads outside and had them making snowball pyramids into which they placed lit tealights to mark our pathway. They made snow angels long after they should have been in bed. They threw snowballs at each other long after we should have been in bed. It was a moment to grasp (although those who are bored with snow may disagree).

There have been other moments when we have woken our children to share with them a piece of news we have felt couldn't wait until morning.

None of these occasions have been anywhere near as significant as the election of a president who seems set to make history for reasons other than the colour of his skin - although that is, in itself a matter worthy of note. So I applaud the Thalheimers' decision.

I believe it is moments like this that serve as an antidote to the malaise that seems to be spreading across the younger generations in respect of politics: national, local or global.

When I told my own children the results of the US election, my younger son (aged 15) said "I'm glad, because he's cool... and less likely to die in office." I wondered why he should consider it important that the president of the USA should not die in office, but I had to share his relief. After all, if McCain had won and died in office, the next president of the USA would have been the woman who is said to have put the 'alas' in Alaska. Erm. Just no.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


With the news of the US election dominating the press, it seems an appropriate time to address the issue of enfranchisement. There is a learning connection, I promise!

As we were listening to the news last night, we heard that three thousand lawyers had been sent out across the US to ensure that noone suffered any 'disenfranchising circumstances' (we had heard earlier that there were 5000 lawyers doing this job in Florida alone... don't you wish that the media would get their stories straight?).

I was explaining to my sons what sort of circumstances these might be. I'm not sure that the term disenfranchising is quite appropriate, since that would imply to me that you are struck from the voters' roll. Missing out on the opportunity to vote in a single election, while temporarily disempowering, hardly amounts to the same thing.

Be all this as it may. We are now living in our third town in the UK, and are being told a third version of which of us may and may not vote in the various elections.

Any member of the family who is old enough may vote in the local elections for third tier representatives. Fine. This makes sense, and has remained constant from the off.

With regard to the election of MEPs, we have had a very on-again, off-again situation. My husband (and sons when they are old enough) are eligible to vote in these elections, being Swedish nationals. Fine. No argument there. However, for the first few years that we were in the UK, I was told that I (as a South African national) was not. In our last town, I was told that I was, and was registered as such.

The biggest circus, however, has been in respect of our eligility to vote in national elections. Initially, we were told that none of us had that right, since none of us were UK citizens. Fair enough... although as taxpayers and recipients of the various national services, you would wonder about the appropriateness of this.

In our last town, however, I was sent registration forms. My husband was not. I questioned this and the story even made the local papers as journalists leapt on the iconsistency of information being issued by the various electoral officers. They maintained that he was entitled to vote, whereas I was not. This makes sense. Since my husband requires no visas or permits to live in the UK, but I do, you would think that if only one of us were to be enfranchised, it would be him.

At one stage he was registered and I wasn't. Then we were both registered... and both voted in the last election.

Now we have reverted to the situation where I may vote in all elections, but he may only vote in local and European elections. I have just this minute got off the phone to my local electoral officer who assures me that this is the status quo and has been for a great many years.

Coming to the learning connection:

What training provision is being made for these officers that has resulted in their giving such widely conflicting information? What are the implications of an electoral officer illegally (albeit unwittingly) enfranchising a person... and how on earth does the system not flag this up? I'm even more worried about those who are wrongfully disenfranchised, as I was for the first few years we lived in the UK. There is no system that can flag up that it is lacking data, as far as I know. How many other people are missing out on their one opportunity to exercise their right to say who they want representing their interests to parliament? When you have people out there dealing with the crucial matter of the electoral process, how is it possible that some of them haven't got a clue?

This is a situation where successful training is vital... and it isn't happening!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Barking my shins on a few 'lofty' ideals

On a rare visit to the campus library, I learnt a few disturbing things about academia today. Things that were totally at odds with the principles I thought were inherent in the whole process of learning at this level. Things that sounded an utter discord with the stance taken by the faculty members during lectures.

I sincerely hope that it is only at my university that such experiences occur.

First off, it seems you're not supposed to write anything new. The librarian was tutting over my subject matter, since no past examples of dissertations could be found in the catalogue which covered the same area. In my naivete, I pointed out that someone has to be first, and it might as well be me. The response literally had me dropping my jaw: “Well, that's fine if you're researching for a PhD, but not for a Master's degree.” I said something along the lines that I had hoped that we had moved on from such academic elitism and snobbery, which won me no friends among the library staff within earshot, as you can imagine.

The second thing bothered me far more. It seemed that the only information on record in respect of a dissertation is its discipline, the author's name and its title. No metadata whatsoever. Moreover, they are all kept in an access denied area in the bowels of the library. I had known that they could not be removed from the premises. I had not known that they were stored in the holy of holies! I was not free to go and pick a few at random, read snatches, put them back, find a few others, and so on until I happened upon some that would provide me with usable precedent.

What I had to do was search the e-catalogue and give a list of titles and reference numbers to a librarian who would fetch them for me. This is tough going when you have no metadata to go on. Unless a student had chosen to call his dissertation “A First Person Narrative Exploring XYZ” I was looking for a needle in a haystack. To make things worse, I was looking vicariously, and I was only allowed two at a time.


As I was going through this painstaking process, further damaging my popularity rating with the staff who had to run up and down the stairs every time I wanted two new titles, it occurred to me how far removed this whole business was from everything I thought academic learning was about. Not only are these publications stored in the holy of holies, they can only be read by a student or faculty member of the university. While I could only view them two at a time on the premises, you cannot view them at all. Ever.

The thing is, I was told that academic research is a discourse. You do your research and add it to the sum of knowledge. I come along and poke holes in it, or use it to springboard to my own research. How can we do any of this, if the stuff is all kept under lock and key?

After a long and rather fruitless search, I happened upon a PhD thesis called Facilitating Improvements in Teaching and Learning through Self-directed Professional Development (2001) by one Gillian Ann Turner. I was delighted. Although it is set in an entirely different field, addressing a different issue, there was so much in there that set precedent for what I am doing. It's that “self-directed” bit, you see.

It being a PhD thesis, it is something over 400 pages long. Not the sort of thing one can read in an afternoon in the library. And when one lives a two-hour drive from said library, several afternoons in a row are not really a viable proposition. I feel as if I have found a new pair of really comfortable running shoes that do wonders for my stride, but I can only wear them in the shop.

How does all that blood, sweat and toil benefit the knowledge pool if it's light under a bushel?

Monday, November 03, 2008

November's Big Question: getting feedback

This month's big question on the Learning Circuits Blog addresses the issue of getting feedback.

If you need input from people, where's the best place to ask?

The way the question has been posed appears to imply that one is always looking for feedback from experts. I would contend that this is not always the case. First, an analogy:

Some years ago, when attending a 'school of eldership' within our church affiliation, my husband and I were taught that we should each seek to have in our lives a balance people in the roles of Paul, Barnabus and Timothy.

  • Paul was the mentor, the teacher, the one whose expertise you sought when you were out of your depth
  • Barnabus is often known in the Christian church as 'the encourager' - he was the one you approached when you were looking for someone who would be a sounding board, and who would be unafraid to ask you the difficult questions
  • Timothy was the one to whom you were, in your turn, a Paul.
I found this such valuable and universal advice that I have stored it within easy reach, and apply it in many secular situations.

Paul option 1
My very first port of call is likely to be someone I have identified as an expert - someone I know personally and can approach directly. I have a wide network which covers most bases. The advantage of this is that I can enter into discussion and/or debate with the person, posing questions such as "But what about...?" and "So if....?" in order to check my understanding and tailor the response to the unique constraints of the situation.

Paul option 2
Assuming option 1 has proved to be a no-go, I might post a question on the discussion board of one of my communities, such as LinkedIn or Ning. Some publications also boast a space for questions and community answers - Training Zone magazine has such a space and, although I have not yet posted a question there, I have chimed in with my 2p worth in answer to questions from other community members. The people who occupy this space are usually well-versed in my field and willing to share what they know simply because that's the way they are.

Quite often, I'd like to know what other people's experiences have been and what they have learned from them. In this sort of situation, I might post to a discussion forum, but I might equally publish my question as a post on this blog. I have adopted this approach in the past and received a wonderful range of responses.

But, let's say I'm looking into developing a learning resource on XYZ issue. My greatest frustration is that we so seldom have the opportunity to interface with members of the ultimate target audience. We're so busy talking to this stakeholder and that subject matter expert that the one person whose voice goes completely unheard until we have a taDAH! fait accompli packaged with a big pink bow, is the user. This person is NOT an expert. And to my mind, this makes their feedback the most valuable of all.

It is this person whose feedback we should often most actively be seeking. I like the idea of working with a focus group of users to develop a resource. However, in the process, they become familiar with the material and lose their status as naive subjects. I would contend that, when it comes to getting feedback as to the effectiveness of the learning materials/event/whatever, a pilot group of unitiated users should be asked to provide their feedback.

No matter what the experts say, if it doesn't meet the needs of the user, it is not an effective solution.

Why we need the 'when and why'

I have quite often ranted about the need for 'when and why' when delivering staff training, without which I maintain the 'what and how' don't amount to a heck of a lot.

So, let me give you an example.

In the UK, health and safety is a Big (and growing) Issue. Just about every industry has health and safety training. Quite often there are compliance issues involved in order for an organisation to be awarded some or other accreditation.

You can imagine that food preparation is 'right up there'.

So, let's say that in search of lunch, you betake yourself - as I have done countless times - to a little sandwich place that makes sandwiches to order, rather than some or other franchise with prepackaged goods on sale.

The lady who is going to make your sandwich is wearing a latex glove on her right hand. This is obviously for reasons of hygiene. You tell her you would like a coronation chicken sandwich on brown bread with cucumber slices. She proceeds to prepare your sandwich, touching the various components with both the gloved and un-gloved hand. Then she tells you that the sandwich and the banana you've selected will set you back £3.10. You hold out a £5 note, which she takes with her gloved hand. She then operates the till with both hands and passes you your change with her gloved hand, before moving on to the next customer. I ask you with tears in my eyes:


I once dared ask. The verbal response was, "It's for health and safety." The "Well duh!" written all over her face was not verbalised.

In the past 10 years, I have only encountered two sandwich shops that understand the purpose of the glove, and in both those places, the process went like this:

The lady making the sandwich uses only her gloved hand to come into contact with the food. The ungloved hand never touches it. That hand wields the knife and only touches the wax wrap when the sandwich has been duly covered by the gloved hand and the knife. She handles the money in her ungloved hand - the gloved hand never touches anything but the food. When necessary, she removes the glove to perform a task, washing her hands before replacing it.

In those two places, either the trainer explained the when and why of the matter, or the staff were able to figure it out. I suspect the training at other places went along the lines of "this is what you do..." without ever explaining why it is that you do it. Either the trainer (wrongly, it seems) assumed that the staff would figure that bit out for themselves... or perhaps the trainer didn't know either.

In both places where the hygienic process was followed, I thanked the staff for taking care to do so - I consider it important to commend good practice, rather than simply always highlighting bad practice.

Then there was the time that the man making my coffee opened the sachet with his teeth, but that's another story!