Friday, February 24, 2006

My vitual coffee table... as promised

It's been a while since I said I would take care of this, and I have done very little about it. So, nowhere near as well planned and constructed as Kathy's here goes:

Unlike Kathy, I am a fiction reader. I devour novels. On my virtual coffee table would be a vast collection of books meant for children, ranging from toddlers to teens. I have always found that having kids is wonderful excuse to reread old favourites and to become acquainted with new writers. One of my favourite stories was always The Happy Prince, and I remember being surprised to learn that it was written by Oscar Wilde. There would be the entire body of Martin Waddell's work for small children, with Once there were Giants holding pride of place. Stan and Jan Berenstain's The Bear's Picnic would be there, too. My elder son knew that book word for word before he was three and would bring it with him into our bed every morning, where he would recite it, demanding only that my husband turn the pages at the appropriate moment. I have always been a fan of Roald Dahl's children's works, particularly when illustrated by Quentin Blake so they would be there, too. Lately, I have come to enjoy Eragon and Eldest by Christopher Paolini, a very young author, and I'm waiting impatiently for the final part of the trilogy. I would have to give space to Michelle Paver's novels: Wolf Brother and Spirit Walker. Oh, and let's not forget the full set of Asterix books.

I guess I should have a few adult books, too. You would never know it, but I am always reading at least one of these at any time. My current favourite is the Alexander McCall Smith series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - I was raised by a series of women just like Mma Ramotswe and how a Scottish man managed to get so completely inside the head of a Motswana woman, I will never know! The Lord of the Rings trilogy (JRR Tolkien) would have to be there, as would a good sprinkling of books by Anne McCaffrey, of whom I am an ardent fan - I loved the early Pern books and have dipped in and out of several other series. I am also dead keen on Frank Peretti's work, particularly This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness and Tilly.

A few biographies, auto and otherwise, would have to appear: Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom first and foremost. This man is a hero of mine and a man I was proud to call my president. Just as I am, the Billy Graham autobiography would be there - what a man! I can't remember the name of the book, but I once read an awe-inspiring biography of Smith Wigglesworth, which would have to be included. In fact, you could probably grab an armful of books off the biography shelf and dump them down on my coffee table. As long as they're passably readable and written by someone who has lived long enough to actually have a story worth telling, chances are I'll hoover them up.

In the non-fiction line, I was fascinated by the The Cluetrain Manifesto by Chris Locke et al. I also found a lot of helpful information in The Experience Designer by Brian Alger. Most of all, my non-fiction coffee table would be covered in blogs: Creating Passionate Users, Cool Cat Teacher, Clive on Learning, Stephen Downes' OLDaily, George Siemens' Connectivism Blog.

I know it seems cheesy and possibly even unprofessional to some, but I would be untrue to my self and my faith if I didn't also mention that symbolically central to all of this would be the Bible, for preference the New International Version with Thompson's chain reference. My own well-thumbed copy with all the handwritten notes in the margins will do just fine.

And there you have it. I know I'm going to kick myself for leaving out half the books I've thought of over the past days, so this list is by no means complete, but it gives you an idea of what I read, what makes me tick.

Music and learning

Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users) has a post about the relationship between music and achievement.

She comments on the proliferation of iPods among the athletes at the winter Olympics in Turin, during practice, during warm-up, while waiting to compete - sometimes even during their events.

In our office, almost everyone has a set of headphones on at some point. The music helps to shut out the distractions of other people's phone calls and conversations, so that each individual can focus on the task at hand. However, since I love music so passionately, I often find it difficult not to focus on the music itself. I have even been known to burst into song to the distraction of my colleagues. I have to be careful to stick with musical wallpaper and avoid the sort of stuff that makes me want to sing along - that I save for the traffic jams on the way into and out of work!

Monday, February 20, 2006


Let me say that I love PowerPoint. I developed and ran training in the use of this software for many years. I also developed and ran public speaking/presentation training for 17 years. However, I believe there are many times when a slideshow is an unnecessary distraction. Guy Kawasaki's post on the matter is a good start, but I'd like to add a few points of my own:

Business is about relationships between people. PowerPoint is not people. The speaker is the main attraction. The audience should be focused on the you. The PowerPoint presentation should support you. Do not turn a human being into a voice-over for a slideshow.

Eye contact
Focus your attention on your audience, not your slides. The slides are there for the benefit of the audience - they are not your script. If you need help remembering what to say, use cards. A brief glance to ensure that the correct slide is displayed is all that should be needed. This goes back to the issue of people again.

Text should be used minimally in a PowerPoint presentation. If I had my way, bullet point slides would be banned. People think in pictures, not words. You would be better off using a representative graphic to provide the audience with a mental hook on which to hang the words you speak. However, if you must use text, ask yourself: what do you want your audience to do with it? If you want them to read it, shut up and let them do so. However, this places the presentation centre stage, and you will need to reclaim that spot. If you insist on using text, do not under any circumstances read it to your audience. If they can't read themelves, your text is a waste of time. If they can, your reading is a patronising insult.

Avoid tables of figures - they don't come over well on a slide. If possible, replace them with a chart which is visual and instantly interpretable. If you must use figures, it is better to insert a hyperlink to a spreadsheet, on which you can adjust the zoom, making the figures more legible. Spend as little time as possible on the spreadsheet, before returning to the PowerPoint.

Blank screen
It isn't necessary to have a slide to cover every single point. Some issues are best related anecdotally, as if the point has just occured to you, with no supporting visual aids. In these cases, use the B for a black screen or a W for a white screen. This ensures that the focus is on you, and saves latecomers from trying to figure out the relationship between the slide and what you're saying.

I could go on and on - this is a real soapbox issue for me. Whatever it takes, "Death by PowerPoint" is to be avoided - even if it means having no slideshow at all.

One of the best received presentations I attended resulted from the speaker forgetting to save his presentation to his hard drive and finding the link on the desktop broken at the last minute. He winged it, made eye contact with the audience and engaged them as a person talking to real people. The worst, by contrast, took place in a darkened room, with the speaker off in the corner, centre stage dominated by a huge plasma screen. Slide after slide of bullet points came and went until I couldn't concentrate any more, in spite of having a driving interest in the subject. I wanted to chat to the speaker afterwards, but couldn't identify him, not having had a good enough look at him before the house lights went down.

Of course, Guy has looked at this matter from a business perspective, and I've expanded on that. I understand that teachers have different objectives. However, in 17 years in the classroom, I never used PowerPoint once in training other than when I was teaching on the software itself.

Let me say again: I love PowerPoint. I love chocolate even more, but I don't eat it with every dish and at every meal.

Learning organisations

This article was forwarded to me by Mark Berthelemy, a colleague with an interest in researching learning organisations. I'm still a little blurred on what double-loop learning is, so I'll have to research that a bit further. I'm interested in the three definitions of a learning organisation which, while they have commonality, also disagree with one another in several respects:

  • Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Senge 1990: 3)
  • The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level. A Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (Pedler et. al. 1991: 1)
  • Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles. (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)
I am certainly no expert in this area, but Sandra Kerka's assertion that learning organisations seem to work on the assumption that ‘learning is valuable, continuous, and most effective when shared and that every experience is an opportunity to learn’ (Kerka 1995) seems to be common sense to me. In fact, a recent post on this blog bears testimony to this view.

It seems to me that this concept is only going to work if there is buy-in from everyone, from top to bottom. If members of a team who have acquired new learning get precious about it, or if other members of the team make no effort to share in such newly acquired learning, the whole concept is hamstrung. Management structures would also have to facilitate the sharing of learning between team members both formally and informally.

I can't see that an organisation's board could simply decide to transform it into a learning organisation and hey presto, job's done. A planned, well executed transformation process would have to be embarked upon and the bullet would have to be well and truly bitten. It is also unlikely to work if this is the vision of the most senior officers, foisted downwards. It seems, to one of my admittedly limited knowledge, more likely to succeed if the concept were sold upwards.

Friday, February 17, 2006

George Siemens: Rethinking Learning

Here is an articulāte presentation (slides+audio) from George Siemens about learning in the current age. I imagine that many educators out there would like to have George burned at the stake for heresy. For my money, he argues his case well.

The idea that the teacher is not the repository of all knowledge is one that would have appealed to me in the days when I was a teenage upstart who knew it all (some people would say that the only thing that has changed is that I am no longer a teenager!). I am willing to bet that the same is true of today's teenagers - for the same reasons. However, George's ideas have no basis in that sort of defiant truculence.

My 14 year old son recently regaled me with an unflattering, blow-by-blow account of his first textiles lesson in the design technology curriculum. Partly due to my son's talent for mimicry and partly due to the anachronistic didacticism of the teacher concerned, I was torn between howling with laughter and grinding my teeth in frustration. No allowance was made for prior knowledge. In fact, the learners were forbidden to demonstrate any existing knowledge - the teacher saw that as being strictly her province. If my son was any example, the learners were all seething with frustration by the end and champing at the bit, dreading the next lesson, and groaning at the thought that they have 12 more weeks of this type of lesson.

This is learning? Don't make me laugh!

The problem is that there is no learning conversation going on. The teacher is determined to teach, come hell or high water. These kids might think they know a thing or two about textiles, but she's going to start from point zero, because it's dangerous to assume anything else would work. I can see how she comes to that conclusion, but there are so many different ways of tackling this sort of situation, the most obvious of all would seem to me to be some sort of game-based assessment on day 1.

During my Cert Ed course, I attended a four hour session of instructor-led classes each week. The scheme of work for the course was not very promising. The delivery method was set to be very traditional. However, the two instructors were less precious than we had feared and singularly unterritorial about the material. The course leaders were well aware that a wealth of experience was represented in the room. They acknowledged that all of us were already practitioners in the field, simply securing a government required peace of paper; that many of those present might, in fact, be more skilfull practitioners than they themselves.

As a result, the sessions became something of a highlight of my week. I enjoyed the interaction with other learners. I enjoyed the small group work and caused disruption every week by changing seats to sit next to a different person each time (upsetting those who were territorial about "their" chair). This ensured a wealth of input from a variety of different backgrounds and mindsets, from the profoundly deaf teacher of British Sign Language to the extremely fit fitness instructor, from instructors in IT to photography, business studies to life skills for people with learning difficulties. The sessions were loud and lively, challenging and enjoyable. The conversations went on outside of the room. We learnt more from each other in 9 months than we could have done in several years from the course leaders. And naturally, the course leaders learnt from us, too.

When I contrast these two experiences which started from very similar platforms, I can only agree that real learning is as messy and as interconnected and multidirectional as George maintains. Not to mention fun!

Why British teachers don't blog

Here's an interesting post from Terry Freedman about why British teachers are so slow to catch on to the idea of blogging. Thanks to Mark Berthelemy for the pointer.

I have a few ideas of my own about the matter - some of which would probably get me into trouble, being somewhat unflattering to the British education system. I heartily agree with most of what Terry has to say, however, and it worries me even more as a parent than it does as a learning professional.

However, there are some of us who are expending a great deal of energy to change things. On a professional level, I am involved in developing a pilot workshop to address this very thing. On a personal level, I am inundating every teacher friend and acquaintance I have with links to blogs and sites about blogging in education. I haven't quite reached the stage where people have begun to cross the street when they see me coming, but it isn't for want of trying!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Learner driven learning

With apologies for the generic use of the pronoun "he" - I find "they" ungrammatical and "he/she" clumsy. Feel free to substitute the pronoun(s) of your choice.

The learner has realised that he is the customer. All those "customer is king" catchphrases apply to him. He can "vote with his feet", "take his business elsewhere"... pick your cliche. While there will always be learners who want prepackaged learning, an increasing number want to have a say in what they learn, when they learn it and how they learn it... even if they learn it, I suppose.

So we who earn our crust by meeting those needs are going to have to wake up our ideas. We need to re-evaluate the contents our toolkit. We need to buy in to the catchphrases ourselves, remember that the learner is our customer and make sure that he is getting what he wants.

The problem is that the learner, the end-user of the learning, is often not heard by the provider until the material goes live. Perhaps we ought to look at this part of the process. How do they gauge market requirements on the high street?

Hmm. I'm not pretending to know the answers, just reflecting.

How cynical are you?

Tom Peters was challenged to come up with quotes that could be printed on the side of a coffee cup. This is the result. I found some of them genuinely inspiring. Others somewhat less so. I guess if I saw any of them turned into one of those posters with pictures of whales/deserts/mountains, I would find it cheesy. For some people, the whole idea will prove cheesy. Then again, for some people life is one long cheese and whine. I don't want to fall into that category! I never want to be that cynical or that miserable about what I do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Five laws of product development for education in the 21st century

This post on Xplanazine came to my notice via Stephen Downes. For those of us in the business of developing learning materials, it makes for interesting reading!

Kathy Sierra's virtual coffee table

Kathy (Creating Passionate Users) has created an interesting post on this subject. It made me think about what would be on my virtual coffee table and what impression people would have of me as a consequence.

So I'm giving some thought to the matter and will post about it later.


Cool Cat Teacher has posted an article about tagging in blogs. She keeps it simple and accessible.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Everything is a learning opportunity

I listened to the podcast of Bill Clinton's eulogy for Coretta Scott King (thanks to Will Thalheimer for the pointer) and two quotes grabbed hold of me:

"The difficulty of success does not relieve one of the obligation to try." I think these were Clinton's own words. I guess we need to remember that sometimes when we feel we are up against it - professionally as well as personally.

"The inescapable web of mutuality" apparently a phrase coined by Martin Luther King. I like it. We all knew the man was a visionary, but I guess I didn't expect to discover that he had insight into the theory of connectivism... eh, George? :-)

The Most Popular Educational Technology Diagram, Ever

I'd like to hear the audio that went with this fascinating looking diagram. Sadly, there either wasn't one, or I missed it!

The presentation is credited to Kerry Blinco and Neil McLean. The rest remains to be discovered.

Is "push" here to stay?

Here is a link to an interesting post from Jay Cross about John Hagel's session on push and pull with the eLearning Forum:

I'm a big fan of pull. I think it's wonderful to be in the driving seat of my learning journey. I promote pull at every opportunity. I tell people it's the way forward and we should look to include an increasing measure of pull in all our blends. Yada yada yada. But there was a comment on the post from Will Thalheimer that gave me pause. It boiled down to people being lazy and opting for push as being easier. Ideally, I would have liked to leap up on my soapbox with some definitive argument against this, but...

I am trying to lose 5kgs. I am a busy woman. I don't have time to sit down and calculate how many calories each meal/drink/snack constitutes. So I downloaded a complete meal plan off the internet. Every meal, every snack, every day for the next 12 weeks. Even a shopping list so that I can buy the right stuff to be able to prepare said meals and snacks. How's that for push?

On the other hand, like so much push stuff, the one-size-fits-all approach is a problem: it doesn't fit me. The lunches are very elaborate and there is no way I could prepare them at work. Nor do I have the time to prepare them at home and bring them with me to work. I can't imagine who their target audience is. But instead of revising the lunches and rejigging the whole programme to suit me, I just looked for another, more suitable push-type programme.

I guess this pull-disciple just uncovered her own hypocrisy!


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Go on... be positive, I dare you

Passionate users again. Kathy Sierra has climbed up on her soapbox today! This time about performance reviews. An approach that could be applied to several areas of life, including teaching and/or parenting.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Is it worth it?

This link is definitely not for cynics. It's an uplifting post on the Cool Cat Teacher Blog about taking the road less travelled. Thanks to Stephen Downes for the pointer. Would that all teachers had this level of belief in what they do!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Censorship in learning

There's an interesting situation developing about the views of (of all unlikely pairings) North Korea and South Australia with regard to web-based learning. Bill Kerr (a new name to me) is someone at the coalface, and his post reveals some of the frustration he feels. This has led to responses from people as far apart (in many senses) as Leigh Blackhall and Stephen Downes.

It's an interesting debate, and one on which my views are in a state of flux. Just when I think I have a handle on what I think as a learning professional, I ask myself if I would be happy with that stance as a parent, which usually causes a rethink.

Hmm. This is one to revisit.

Not so stupid, after all!

Once again, Creating Passionate Users comes up trumps. This time, with a post about focusing on the customer/user. This post glories in the title It's the [?], Stupid! I'm sure everyone who reads this article will be able to think of at least one organisation whose board should have this message beamed at them until they "get it".