Friday, February 29, 2008

Not joining the dots

Sort of related to my earlier post today, I came across Jay Cross's post about the death of Hans Monderman. Jay has mentioned quite often recently that we should refrain from joining the dots for our learners/users, something he revisits in this post.

Oddly enough, I was thinking about this last night. Even more oddly, it was also as a result of a death that my thoughts were drifting in that direction.

We had just spent the evening with a recently bereaved family. The wife died on the operating table after a lengthy battle against diabetes, which had already cost her one leg, while the partial amputation of the other was the reason she was on the table on this occasion.

Life with Carol (not her real name) couldn't have been easy. She was enormously overweight and that, combined with the loss of her leg meant that it had been some years since she had been able to venture up the stairs, so she lived on the ground floor of the house and shouted when she wanted something brought to her. She was very demanding, and stubbornly undisciplined about her diet. Her husband's whole life seemed to revolve around caring for her, and if something didn't suit Carol, it didn't happen.

In the purely mercenary scheme of things, one might expect her death to be a relief to her family.

Not so.

Dean (not his real name, either) is entirely rudderless. He can't sleep, he can't cry. He didn't want an easy life, he wanted the life he had, and she constituted most of it.

There is a scene in the Matrix, where Agent Smith has taken Morpheus captive. He explains that the alpha version of the virtual reality designed for the human "batteries" was perfect... and it failed. People didn't want perfect, they wanted real, believable. They wanted to make choices for themselves.

As we see the tendrils of the nanny state extending further and further into our lives, far from improving things, we see them growing steadily worse. As both Jay and Hans Morderman seem to indicate - the more people are relieved of duty of taking the responsibility for their actions, the worse they behave. Start from a position of high expectations and they appear to rise to the challenge. The more we lock things down, blocking and banning everything we deem unsuitable, the more people seem to find a way to abuse the system. And yet, in organisations that operate on trust, they seldom seem to have reason to fire people for betraying that trust.

Perhaps it's time we put the spoon down and let our users pick up the knife and fork for themselves!

Understanding the brain

I recently wrote a paper for my masters' programme about whether corporate trainers needed to understand learning theories in order to be effective at their jobs. Those that I interviewed for the paper were sharply divided - trainers were fairly adamant that they did not, other learning professionals were mostly adamant that they did. I have yet to hear how I fared on the paper.

At the Learning Technologies conference at the end of January, Itiel Dror took it one step further, and told us that we needed to concern ourselves with the brain. He used a real live brain-in-a-bottle to make his point. Okay - it wasn't live, but it was real (oh, and that isn't Itiel in the picture, by the way, it's the chairman of Learning Technologies, Don Taylor).

He told us in no uncertain terms that, without an understanding of how the brain works, we can't possibly provide effective learning experiences, and he used a few party trick type exercises to demonstrate this assertion. I couldn't help wondering how that would go over with the people who had told me they didn't even need to know the theory behind learning to provide effective learning experiences!

The conversation around a recent post from Harold Jarche reminded me of some research I had done towards yet another paper, in which I had encountered the work of people like Gemma Calvert, Mairead MacSweeney and John Geake. These people tell us (and appear to have the quantitative data to back it up):
  • blind people map their environment using the same parts of the brain as sighted people

  • sign language is processed using the same brain processes as verbal speech (I'm not sure if this applies only to deaf people or to second-modality signers as well)

  • none of us is left- or right-brained. In fact, excluding abnormalities, we are all whole-brained - we need various bits of the brain to work in concert to complete just about any task. It seems that competency is more a product of this connectedness than any other factor. So the more connections there are between the bits of your brain engaged in a task, and the more quickly they interact, the more competently you will complete the task.

  • there seems to be some disagreement as to whether specific areas of the brain can be associated with specific functions. Some say no - that every function is the result of mulitple areas working together, and have the MRI images to prove it. Others say yes and cite cases of selective brain damage to prove this.

Itiel Dror also touched on the subject of multitasking. His assertion was that, if two tasks can be completed using different brain functions, in other words, they do not complete with one another for brian resources, they can be successfully completed simultaneously. However, if two tasks make demands on the same areas of the brain, attempting to complete them simultaneously will result in both being poorly executed.

The age-old stereotype is that woman can, men can't. I would argue that the more traditional female role required her to multitask and she became practised at it. It certainly seems that they are not genetically predisposed to superior skill in this area. Perhaps the tasks that women have traditionally carried out simultaneously have not competed for brain resources - maybe cooking the dinner and helping Johnny with his homework, or ironing and watching television require the engagement of two different areas of the brain. Perhaps, on the other hand, those that men have tried to complete simultaneously have made demands on the same brain functions.

Recently, a BBC Radio 4 programme explored this concept, citing research that indicated that women were in fact no better than men at multitasking. I wonder if this has anything to do with the move away from traditional homemaker roles into increased emphasis on cerebral engagement on multiple fronts.

It's fascinating stuff. Or at least I think so.

I wonder if this anorak comes in other colours.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wounded Nation (Sunday Herald)

This article in a recent issue of Scotland's Sunday Herald fills me with more anguish than I can find words to express. My gut is tied in a knot. I wish I could cry, but my grief goes even too deep for tears. I have tried several times to come up with an image, an analogy that reflects how I feel, but I have failed. Without meaning to be melodramatic, I can't devide whether I want to scream in wordless anguish or curl myself into a foetal ball, groan and rock.

I am filled with a sense of urgency that something needs to be done before it's too late. At the same time I feel a sense of powerlessness: nothing I do or can urge anyone else to do will make the blindest bit of difference.

Too many of the country's citizens are living in a state of denial, choosing to pretend that things aren't as bad as they are made out to be, and therefore failing to push for the remedial action that may already be too late.

There truly are none so blind as those that will not see.

There are so many parallels and lessons to learn about learning in this scenario, but I don't have the heart to tease them out. Besides, I'm sure you don't need my help with that!

Freedom of expression is dead. No, really.

Yesterday, BBC Radio 4 conducted an interview with a young man whose name I missed. The topic of conversation was copyright, and the extent to which this infringes on freedom of expression.

While at university in Iowa, this young man decided to see how far he could push the envelope on copyright. He started a 'zine called Freedom of Expression and, with a delicious sense of irony, applied for the copyright on the phrase.

For the princely sum of $300, he succeeded. No questions asked.

This meant that he was able to send cease and desist letters to large organisations who dared to use this phrase in their advertising.

One thing he didn't know was that, five years into a copyright's lifespan, the owner needs to submit documentation to keep it "live". Since he failed to do this, the US register of copyrights now includes the entry "Freedom of Expression", and declares it "dead".

So now you know.

It's official.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Flaming, bullying and pink

Don Taylor recently posted on a topic that has been an issue for me from time to time, namely that of flaming. I won't repeat his post, you can check that out for yourself, but I found today's Calvin & Hobbes strip particularly apposite!

It seems to me that sometimes we forget that there are real people on the other end of our bile: people with flesh and blood and feelings.

During the hassles we have repeatedly had with the bullying of our younger son, we have found this to be true of the perpetrators. So often they maintain that they were "just having a bit of a laugh" and didn't mean any harm.

As Harold (and many others) remind us, tomorrow is the day to wear pink in solidarity against bullying. Go on, I dare you. Janet, you can wear peach, salmon or coral!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Funday Monday - trying again!

Vicki Davis has thrown down her Funday Monday gauntlet again, and this time I'm determined not to make her cry!

So, this is my current "thing". I am currently smitten by the works of an amazing ventriloquist called Jeff Dunham. Or (to use a reference you will understand once you have viewed this clip) Jeffaffa Dun-HAM!

If you enjoy this clip, feel free to search for Jeff's name in YouTube - the delights are many and varied!

Tags. Can anyone remind me....?

I've recently had to take delivery of a replacement laptop. It's when this happens that you fully appreciate the number of widgets you have installed on your machine!

I'm gradually reinstalling them, but every now and again, I discover that I can't remember how to install one. For example: how on earth did I install the widget that allowed me to add tags to my posts previously?

Anyone remember where to find that one?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cardboard boxes, the ecology and business ethics

We are moving house. Anyone else who has ever moved house (which is just about anyone, I guess) will know that it usually entails a fair number of cardboard boxes.

Of course, I have been collecting some from work, and we had kept a few nice strong ones from the last move, but we have been forced to buy several.

One of the places we went to in our quest for the best deal was a stationery supplier. Everywhere you looked in the store, there were boxes of stock. Most of their products are delivered in boxes - most of them perfect sizes for packing and moving. Paper, binders, you name it. It all comes in boxes, which they then unpack onto their shelves and sell singly. In some sections of the store, there were moutains of sealed boxes, topped off by the contents of the few that had been opened. In top of the shelving, were unopened boxes containing new stock. Boxes. Everywhere. But you can't have those. You have to buy purpose-made boxes at £3 each, or in packs of 5... or 10.

So what are they going to do with all the hundreds (thousands?) of boxes in which their stock is packaged for delivery? They're going to take them out back, flatten them and bale them, so that they can be collected for recycling. Presumably by some large, diesel fume emitting vehicle which will take to some carbon-footpring producing recycling plant.

Why can't they let us have them instead?

Well because they sell boxes, you see, so it would interfere with their profits. Why should they give away something when they can sell it for a ridiculous sum of money?

Why can't they sell those ones for a nominal fee (or even better for a donation to some green organisation)?

Well, because, they're not set up for that, you see.

Why not?

Look lady, we just aren't. Do you want the boxes or don't you?

Well I don't, but I need them. Nevertheless, I am going to go and buy them somewhere else (a) because they're cheaper, (b) because that company doesn't have boxes standing around that they could give away and (c) because I've got the hump now and I'm blowed if you're getting a penny out of me. Have a nice day, won't you?

Okay. So what has this got to with learning?

Simply this:

If I know something that you need to know, I will gladly let you have it (free, gratis and for nothing). I have been on the receiving end of generosity of this sort for several years as a learning professional, and I have "grown up" with this attitude.

Not only is it generous, it makes sense. It keeps the knowledge economy flowing, it moves us all forward, and we all grow knowledge richer together. This in turn, makes good fiscal sense, since we can implement the new knowledge in the fulfillment of our day jobs.

How very "pay it forward", and how very much to my liking!

Friday, February 22, 2008

It comes to us all

I have a new favourite song, featured in this YouTube video. It's David Jordan's Sun goes Down.

I love the rhythm and the fusion of sounds - I can hear bits of Eastern Europe, bits of the middle east, bits of the Indian subcontinent, bits of Celt. It stirs my blood, and I can't keep my feet still. Mind you, being African, I am bound to be a sucker for something that is so strongly rhythm-driven.

I was showing this clip to my kids, because my ravings about the song were drawing blank looks. I told them that whenever this song comes on the radio while I'm in the car, I turn the volume way up and vibe along with the music.

Without missing a beat, my younger son said, "Oh, so you turn it up to about volume 2, then, Mom?"

Sigh. You know you're getting old when....

Thursday, February 21, 2008

When cultures collide

Every now and again, something happens that reminds me that we can't take for granted that the learning experiences (or anything else for that matter) we provide will make sense to everyone. We sometimes under-estimate the role that culture can play.

Even though I live as something of a cultural misfit in a country not my own, I guess I have grown accustomed to enough little quirks of the British psyche not to notice them. But today, I witnessed an incident that brought home with a thump how different cultures react in situations. Of course, I am generalising enormously - we are all individuals, but there remain certain cultural tendencies.

This afternoon, I boarded a rather full train in Birmingham, bound for home. Almost all the seats on the train were reserved. However, some people had taken a chance that the person might have sat somewhere else or might not show. Right next to where I was standing, a man and a woman were sitting in two seats within a cluster of four. An elegantly dressed woman trailing two offspring in their early 20s strode up and declared loudly in an American accent, "Right, someone doesn't belong here, because we have three seats booked and there are only two open." The man assured her that he had booked his seat. The woman, seated next to the man, and against the wall, said meekly in a local accent "Would you like me to move?" To which the owner of the seat replied, "No. I want you to get out. Those are our seats."

Still quietly, but dripping with the sort of sweetly understated irony that appears to be the exclusive province of a certain sector of English society, the woman said, as she collected her things, "Thank you for asking so nicely."

Realising that her barb had gone unnoticed by the American woman, she then said with just the merest hint of assertiveness, "You might have been more polite."

As the American woman, her son and daughter took their seats, and the English woman walked away they both said (one sotto voce and the other more volubly) "So rude!" The American woman added "What's the point of reserving seats if people are just going to help themselves to them?"

Of course, no-one else said a thing, but a few other passengers found a way to make it abundantly clear to the English woman that they were on her side.

I wondered which way the general support would have gone if the same incident had played out in the US.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

LT2008: Jay Cross tells us everything flows

A rather late reflection on Jay Cross's opening keynote at LT2008.

Jay started by expressing the view that the major challenges facing managers today were due to the transition from an industrial model to a more biological/organic one. He gave a potted history of the evolution of networks from isolated nodes with little or no communication between them, through kingdoms where knowledge is accumulated and imbues power, to an interconnected democracy. In this knowledge democracy, the boundaries between work, learning and leisure become blurred and there is no longer a traditional “clocking off” at a specific time of day. It becomes increasingly difficult to make predictions, as a wider circle of contributors have the power to influence outcomes and changes impact the whole community. Intangibles and services have an increased share of market value.He challenged us as to our readiness for this model. Whereas in the old model it was “the world as a machine”, whereas the new model is “the world as a biosphere” in which there is no “head tree”.He explored the concept of natural learning, as observed in small children who naturally seek to master their environment. Natural learning, as he saw it, consisted of

  • comprehension, borne out of observation, experimentation and mimicry (the last of which he considered undervalued in the corporate environment)
  • conversation
  • collaboration (team accomplishments and peer learning)
Jay then explored the impact of the Internet on corporate structures. He no longer saw this as an optional provision, since Internet access facilitates contact between different teams, suppliers and customers and even competitors. Tools such as instant messaging result in the penetration of silos, puncturing the hierarchical approach to the dissemination of information and cutting through red tape. He touched on the concept of the permanently beta environment, in which people are able to develop their own tools collaboratively. He pointed out that open source applications are more reputable than many appreciate, citing Apache and Firefox as examples. He reminded us of the extent to which the internet makes things, people and information “findable”, particularly since the advent of tagging. He also mentioned the affordances of podcasts and online meetings.

Jay then tackled the subject of learning-and-the-internet head on, using the three focus areas he had mentioned earlier:

Comprehension - “don't join the dots” he urged us “leave them something to do for themselves.” He spoke of the value of identified champions and urged us to empower them, to give them access to what they needed to know and the tools to communicate this to others. He emphasised the importance of moving from a push training model to a pull learning model in which it is easy for a learner to learn what they need to know when they want to know it.

Conversation – Jay urged us to encourage conversation, to move away from the cubicle model in which movement and conversation are restricted. He spoke of the value of blogs and vlogs, directing our attention to the blogs of Jonathan Schwartz (CEO and President of Sun Microsystems) and Doug Englebart (although for the life of me, I can't find a URL to link to!). He spoke out in favour of what he called “street wisdom” and the sharing of information at grass roots level and advised us not only to let it happen, but to put mechanisms in place to encourage and facilitate it.

Collaboration – Put simply this refers to working with others, thereby augmenting one's own intelligence. As Jay saw it, there were several web 2.0 tools which enabled the division of labour across dispersed teams, such as profiles, tagging, blogs and online communities. He suggested that we consider creating internal wikis by means of which communities could pool their knowledge, adding value to individual and to the organisation, thus pushing the business forward.


I have always had a bit of an issue with the "ethnic diversity" forms that one has to fill in so often these days. I struggle with the lack of parity in the terms used: a mix of countries, colours and continents. I mean, we might be black, white, yellow, red, brown or we might be African, American, Asian, etc. or we might be mongoloid, caucasian, negroid... but you can't cherry pick some terms from each group and chuck them together into the pot!

For myself, I don't see why this information is needed (apart - possibly - from a census, but even then I'm not always convinced). I'm in favour of people being taken on merit, which is blind to race, gender, etc.

Nevertheless, we are required to fill these forms in all over the place "for administrative purposes" when we apply for jobs, when we enrol our children at schools, when we sign up at a new medical practice.

I have long maintained that it is pretty close to impossible for many of us to state with any certainty what our ethnicity is. For example, there was a rumour doing the rounds many years ago that all Afrikaners had about 7% "black blood". You can imagine that this rumour was energetically quashed by the government of the day, many of whom were fans of the preposterous publications that claimed to prove that black people were not strictly human!

Well, last night I discovered that the originator (stamvader) of my family name in South Africa (my maiden name - Snyman - is a purely South African derivation) was the son of a Bengale slave. Okay, we are talking about the mid 17th century, here. I haven't got as far as the more recent history, but I suspect she is unlikely to have been the only one, since it was apparently common practice for landowners to live with slave women and later emancipate and marry them in order to legitimise their offspring - particularly the sons.

So it seems I am "not quite white". Sadly, none of the forms I have ever seen has a box that I can tick on the grounds of my new-found ethnicity.

And of course, this changes absolutely nothing. I'm still the same person I was yesterday morning before this piece of news came to light... except perhaps for the fact that I'm a little more smug today. I'd like to get hold of all those neo nazi white supremacists who were scandalised by my assertions that none of us could claim racial purity and say "Ek het jou gesĂȘ!" ("Told you so!").

Sadly, I think the only result would be that they would begin to treat me as pariah, too.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Personalised means more than slick

I have noticed that my children have a very different attitude towards work with which they feel some sense of connection. Well duh!

The thing is, though, that adult learners are expected to have acquired a measure of discipline that enables them to "just get on with it", regardless of whether the learning material engages them directly.

For years, I worked on sheepdip learning projects in which people were churned through training courses regardless of whether they had any direct bearing on them as individuals.

Recruitment processes focus on the individual: personalised CVs, individual interviews (possibly more than one), individualised package negotiations. Sometimes we might even headhunt an individual, having identified that this is someone our team needs, and targeting them specifically. Why is it, then, once we get the individual on board, we treat their professional development as faceless?

When I was a kid, my Dad always sent me money for birthdays and Christmas. To be honest, it was a guilt-laden, rather inappropirate amount of money. If you think I can remember one single thing I bought with that money...! On the other hand, one year, when I was about 9 years old, he sent me an 8mm projector. We never got it to work (the movies were always upside down, and my Mom wasn't techie enough to figure out what to do about that), but I remember it.

Then, when I was 17, this arrived. I was over the moon. The only time I have ever been without it is when it has been broken - which has been several times, to be honest. I have had it repaired and reinforced, and it is now several years since it last broke. On Saturday, on the way back from the squash courts, I noticed that it was missing. I was in some distress until I found it again. The funny thing is, my Dad never understood why it was so precious to me. When I phoned him to thank him for it, I was positively bubbling. He was non-plussed and slightly irked. He pointed out that he sent me a lot of money over the years, and that this had cost him nothing at all.

As it turned out, he was a bit strapped for cash that year, since an attempt (one of several he was to make over the years) to set up his own business had failed. Since he was something of a Lothario, he had received many gifts of silver jewellery from women over the years, and couldn't possibly ever wear it all (this was in the days before bling). So he had taken a couple of fistfuls to a friend who was a hobby silversmith and had the personalised torque bangles made up: one each for my sister and me.

He couldn't understand why the thought, the effort, the personalisation meant more to me than all the money put together. However, he obviously decided that this was a winning formula, because he later had one made for his new partner and my half-sister who made an unexpected arrival 14 years ago.

But there's a lesson in this for management. People like to be treated as individuals. They value time, thought and effort over money. And that doesn't change an awful lot as they grow older. The slickest learning resources in the world are unlikely to mean as much as an individualised, customised learning provision.

And it needn't cost an arm and a leg. It could something as simple as allowing them to create a space for their own learning. Little touches like prebriefings and debriefings around planned learning events. Affording them time and space to network with likeminded individuals (and not making a fuss when a networking lunch extends an hour into the afternoon). Encouraging them to feed back what they've learned to each other.

Let them know that their personal development matters to you, too.

After all - everything's personal when you're a person!

Friday, February 15, 2008

LT2008: Claire Line on choosing the right authoring tool

The final presentation on my training track at LT2008 was a case study from Claire Line of the international law firm Lovells, currently in the process of buying her third e-learning authoring tool. I had not heard Claire deliver a presentation before, but I knew her by reputation. After her presentation, some expressed the view that she had read her presentation, which they found disappointing.

However, I am of the view that the information she shared was potentially very useful to those members of the community at the early stages of adoption, which is why I'm sharing my reflections on her session today.

She openly shared the mistakes she had made when making her first purchase, and highlighted lessons learnt along the way. Claire's willingness to share her experience and hard-learned lessons typify this community and will have done much to signpost the way forward for those venturing out along this path.

She identified the key questions to ask as:

  1. What features do I need?
  2. What are my priorities?
  3. What is my budget?
  4. What are my resources (support, etc.)?

At Lovells, they undertook a rigorous selection process and would not be rushed into making a decision based on price or limited availability. The final selection had to be fit for purpose, which meant taking into consideration the nature of the content to be produced. Other considerations included:

  • nature of audience
  • culture
  • resources
  • IT strategy
In her experience it was vital to engage and involve the stakeholders, including elearning authors (globally), HR professionals, customers and a cross-section of users.

Her tips to those embarking on this journey were:

  • talk to people (vendors, other users, people in other firms)
  • see it in action and try it out for yourself
  • get independent advice - the vendor wants you to buy his product!
  • find out what resources you will need to make it work
  • engage a professional insturctional designer
  • don't confuse graphics design with instructional design
  • be prepared to make mistakes and keep learning
  • involve the learners as early as possible
  • don't rush into a decision

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Reflections on LT2008: Jane Hart

I'm finally getting my head above water enough to have put together my thoughts on the sessions I attended at Learning Technologies at the end of January. At the moment I'm restricting myself to the training track sessions, rather than the keynotes - I might get to those in due course.

I thought I'd start with the presentation I found most useful, namely Jane Hart's top 10 tools for learning in 2007.

Jane revealed the results of her survey of the community's top 10 tools for learning. She had received over 100 responses from 21 countries, the first of which came from Jay Cross. The responses had come from a wide range of people: geeks, specialists and coalface practitioners, and showed an even spread across the education and corporate sectors. Over 400 tools were mentioned in total, 100 of them three or more times and a further 50 got two mentions. The top product received 63 nominations.

There was mixed reaction to the news that Firefox took first place overall. The rest of the top 10 were:
#3 tie Google search and Skype
#5 PowerPoint
#6 Wordpress
#7 tie Googlereader and gMail
#9 Blogger
#10 Word

Jane expressed the view that this revealed that people are personal learners who no longer just look to "go on a course" but seek to create their own learning space. It indicated a move towards self-managed learning. Most delegates had only heard of 3 or 4 of the top 10, opening up many opportunities for them to explore new avenues after the conference.

Jane shared that the top scoring social media tool was Facebook, and that the productivity tools were dominated by Google applications, almost all of which were free. In fact, Jane revealed that free tools took 75% of the nominations overall. She also indicated that tools not specifically designed for learning were being used as such. It seemed the criteria for popularity were that a tool had to be good at its job, customisable, sharable, collaborative, preferably free... and loved by its users.

Jane gave honourable mentions to a few free tools that had scored high, but not made the top 10. These included:
#11 Audacity
#12 tie Moodle (corrected thanks to a pointer from Jane - well spotted!)
#15 Wikispaces
#26 tie SnagIt
#31 tie Ning

Some popular file sharing tools were:
#16 Flickr
#22 tie YouTube
#31 tie Slideshare
#50 tie Scribd
#57 tie Teachertube

Some popular producer tools which are not free included #17 Captivate and #22 tie Articulate.

It is likely that many will have left this session with a to-do list. Certainly the man sitting in front of me was taking frantic notes and made sure that he heard the names of the tools correctly so that he could learn more about them. He wasted no time getting started, either, because when he realised that I had some experience with some of them, he made notes of my recommendations, too. This is what I love about this business - the bit about seeing that light come on and watching a person move to a new place (I think that scrambled metaphor can be attributed to the fact that I am in the throes of moving house!).

Thanks, Mr Watterson

A recent post of mine, and the conversation that has resulted from it set me to thinking how many times Calvin & Hobbes cartoons have come up in posts on this blog. Turns out it's ten - or eleven, if you include this one. One thing I know - it could have been a lot more, only I guess I was afraid of becoming a one-trick pony.

Although Bill Watterson has retired from cartooning (and apparently now enjoys fishing with his Dad and waterolour painting) his cartoons are probably as popular as ever. I have a link in my aggregator that delivers me a daily dose of the precocious 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger/imaginary friend. It's a long time since the link delivered a strip I haven't already read, but I am no less amused by the reruns than I was by the originals, and, in fact, I see more depth in them now that I'm not just looking for a laugh.

There is so much about learning and teaching in the strip, that I once joked that I could write my dissertation on the subject, whereupon, somone immediately pointed me to the blog Learning and Teaching with Calvin and Hobbes. But here's an interesting exercise: go to Google and do a search on learning teaching "Calvin and Hobbes", but just make sure your jaw has something soft to land on when it drops. I kid you not, there is a book on the subject!

So just for auld lang syne, here is a list of my posts which reference Calvin & Hobbes, starting with the oldest. Sadly, some of the links don't work anymore, so the cartoon being referred to is unavailable. This is a sad reflection on the whole copyright issue. Not wanting to infringe copyright, I used links in the early posts, rather than lifting the strip itself. However, this meant that the link was at the mercy of the site hosting the strip. When they removed the target (which is surely bad netiquette?), there were repercussions all the way over here on my blog. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Do you post in your sleep?

It looks as if I might! My technorati search on my name returned this today:

Now, although the third one on the list is well out of date, it doesn't trouble me, because that was a genuine instance, and I know the deal.

I'm more interested in the first two. Interestingly, they both start in exactly the same way, namely "Karyn Romeis wrote an interesting post today on Here’s a quick excerpt" and both of them then go on to a post that has absolutely nothing to do with me.

So I naturally followed the breadcrumbs to see where the trail leads. The first item on the list brings me here. Hmm.

Following the trail further to "read the rest of this great post" I find myself here:

The second item on the list is much the same deal. Now, of course the spam alert alarm is going off in my head, but I can't quite figure this. Why would someone arbitrarily link my name to a post I didn't write and why does clicking on my name take you somewhere other than this blog? What on earth could they hope to achieve by this? And if I leave a comment on either "dotkash" or the final destination of the breadcrumb trail in each instance, will it do any good? On the other hand, could leaving a comment open the way for yet more abuse? In fact, am I overreacting to see this as abuse?

Answers on a postcard...

No, seriously, I could do with a little guidance, here!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

eBooks: what are your criteria?

So here's an article summing up what people want from an e-reader. It makes for interesting reading. I particularly sympathise with the view that "the technology has to be BETTER than paper, not just nearly as good." Totally.

Some promise is shown in the comments from a publisher who says "We have a definite need for an e-book reader that is very similar to a book, with large reading screens, but which allows bookmarking, note taking, and email…It should be thin, lightweight, open like a book with a screen on each side."

And I have a totally self-interested reason for applauding the view that "it should be comfortable to support with one hand and read from it in the traditional reading position." In 20 years of marriage, the standard question when my husband brings a book to bed is "Is that a one-handed book?" A book that can be handled with one hand leaves the other free to tickle my back as I drift off to blissful sleep, you see. There is no way I'm going to let him near a gadget that takes two hands to operate!

Oh - the "Kayrun" quoted is nothing to do with me (although I have seen my name erroneously spelt like that from time to time).

Organisational development - a bit like Calvinball?

Yesterday's post from Wendy Wickham (as you may see from my comment) got me to thinking.

Things change so fast at the moment, we can never be sure that anything is going to happen in exactly the same way twice running. While it may be tempting to say that this is like a game of (insert sport of choice here), the major difference is that, by and large, in sports the ground rules remain the same. And when they do change, there's a bit of a fanfare. The new rules are distributed to all clubs and associations. All refs/umpires have to bone up on them in order to be able to manage a game.

If we had to have that kind of fanfare every time things change in the environments for which we are designing learning and performance support resources, the poor trumpeter would never get a chance to draw breath!

While we're in the process of dealing with the rollout of a new system over here, HR comes out with a new requirement, based on the latest directive from the government. While we're busy making sure everybody knows how to comply with the new HR issue, the new system has to be tweaked and a new procedure introduced to deal with that tweak, so... You get the picture.

If you are a Calvin & Hobbes fan, you are no doubt familiar with Calvinball. If you are not familiar with this cartoon, it's high time you addressed this major hole in your life!

I would have said that it was impossible to list the rules of Calvinball, but someone has decided to give it a go, apparently with Bill Watterson's help and/or approval. I would like to suggest that the most important rule of the game can be found at 1.9. In fact, the whole game hinges on this one thing: the only permanent rule is that Calvinball can never be played the same way twice. It is also very important to note the caveat at the bottom of the list: This rulebook is not required, nor necessary to play Calvinball.

A bit like life, then.

There have been times when Watterson's insight has taken my breath away. Then there are other times when I take something he says in one place and apply it in another. I'd be hard pressed to say which this is.

One thing worth noting is the role of Rosalyn, Calvin's intrepid babysitter. She is the only one brave enough to take on the job more than once. She needs the money and Calvin's parents need an occasional break. The relationship between Calvin and Rosalyn is one of mutual loathing - not an approach I am recommending between learning professionals and the people we support! However, one evening, she agrees to play Calvinball with her young charge. After a moment, she figures out the lie of the land and they have a whale of a time together. She even manages to use the non-rules of the game to get Calvin to go to bed at decent hour!

Perhaps this is where we are going wrong. Instead of trying to impose control all over the place and redraft yet another set of rules whenever there's a change, perhaps we need to learn to go with the flow, making only occasional use of whatever our particular equivalent of the babysitter flag turns out to be.

After all, tomorrow it might all be different again.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Never give up, never surrender!

Warning: not suitable reading for cynics.

What stirs your blood? What is it that makes you want to stand up and cheer?

Vicki Davis's response to my somewhat misnamed Funday Monday post, got me to thinking about a piece of footage that I once saw on TV that inspired me no end. I have tried to find a trace of it on the web, but have failed miserably - perhaps the fact that I can't remember any of the important details needed for a successful search (like names and dates) has something to do with it!

Just in case any of it rings a bell with you, it was an Olympic sprint event. Hopes were high for one particular athlete (the name Redman comes to mind, but that might be way off base), who had missed out on selection the previous time around, bpmbed out during the heats the time before that and would almost certainly be too old next time. He had worked really hard to make it, and this was to be the year he came home with the gold. He took off out of the starting blocks like a bat out of hell, only to tear something halfway down the track. So determined was he not miss out on what would no doubt be his only opportunity to cross the finish line in an Olympic final, he began hobbling his way down the track. His father scrambled onto the track to help him. At first, aware that he would be disqualified, were he to accept assistance, the athlete waved his Dad away. But he had to accept that he wasn't going to make it alone and the two of them defiantly crossed that line arm in arm - the broken athlete and his proud Dad, both weeping openly.

Of course, as you will have noted from my recent post, I'm a sucker for sporting heroism, and somewhat lacking in the cycnicism gene.

Sometimes, both parents and teachers find themselves in the position of needing to encourage or motivate a child/student who feels like giving up. I have a son who is very easily discouraged, and I have found anecdotes like these very helpful. On one occasion, he and I wept through the scene in the book Goodbye Mr Chips, where the dying Mr Chips quietly calls the register of all "his" boys in response to disprove someone's remark that Mr Chips had never had any children. Ever tried reading aloud with a lump like a cricket ball in your throat?

Then there are stories like this one:

Or any of these stories (which are admittedly very US-centric). YouTube can be a very useful tool for getting a message across in 3 minutes that would take you half an hour to explain.

Do you know of someone who could do with a little inspiring today?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

National pride: the good, the bad and the ugly

I hate it when people treat me like dirt because I'm foreign. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told, "*&^% off back to wherever it is you came from!" often by "service" staff when I have challenged them on a point which, from my position as customer, I feel entitled to do... within reason. I hate the bandying of epithets and the denigrating attachment of stereotypical prejudice.

But I have just this minute sat through the anthems at the start of the Scotland v Wales game in the Six Nations rugby tournament, and the tears are ready to spill over. The camera zoomed in on one man who was punching the air at about waist height, singing his heart out (okay - he was Welsh, and they're a nation known for their love of and skill for singing). And during Scotland's anthem, Nathan Hines - all hairy 6'7" of him, was weeping openly. I love that. I'm always a wreck during anthems - the passion and pride get me just here... and as for the opening ceremonies of the olympics, wel don't even get me started!

So is national pride good or bad... or just plain ugly?

I reckon there is a line between national pride and nationalism. Sporting competitions tend towards the latter, but it's the former that gets my goat!

What I love about this community is the way we can express our national pride without getting nationalistic about it. Anyone who reads this blog regularly, will know that, even after a 9 year absence, my heart is still in South Africa - much as it has turned into a place I know I will never feel able to return to. In spite of the fact that he now speaks his mother tongue with less skill than he does English (and with a strong South African accent), my husband's national pride is for Sweden. We are never in any doubt that Dave Snowden is Welsh to his core - his posts make it abundantly clear, while Stephen Downes is a proud Canadian. - I mean, just check out that flag on his home page! I use those two as particularly strong examples, but there are others whose national pride comes through loud and clear.

And why not, I say? It's part of who we are.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Assessing special needs: isn't there a better way?

This is the threatened follow up to yesterday's post, but this one is more directly related to learning, you will be pleased to discover.

Once again, this is not hypothetical.

Once upon a time, there was a baby girl who, at the age of 10 months, was still not able to sit up on her own. Her parents were referred to specialists in Cape Town, where she was assessed for cerebral palsy. The tests came back negative, and it was decided that she was simply atonic (which certainly seems to be the case - today she is somewhat clumsy and inelegant, but not attention-grabbingly so). While she was undergoing tests, she developed an ear infection - something to which she was prone. Later evaluations would indicate that it was likely that the medication she was given for this infection caused her to go deaf, since (a) it was contra-indicated for a child with grommets and (b) she had responded normally to sound stimuli before that time.

The audiologist duly assigned to her case was adamant that she should not be taught sign language. He argued that her poor co-ordination was inadequate to the task and, furthermore, that this avenue would restrict her communication to only those who knew sign language. Since there was no school which taught the approach known as "total communication" in her home town, the child was packed off to boarding school at a specialist school for the deaf 1100kms/700 miles away at the age of 4. This experience was traumatic for the entire family, and she did not progress at all well. After all, what child can learn effectively if she is miserable? Her communication skills did not improve a great deal, so instead of being cut off from hearing people, she was cut off from everyone.

At the age of 7, she was given a cochlear implant. The school felt that this move put her outside of the closely defined demographic they chose to address. She was duly sent back home. Sadly, having spent her formative years in a silent world, she decided that sound was a dreadful thing, and very quickly learnt to turn off the receiver. This meant that the reality of her situation was no different than before, but her eligibility for specialist schools had changed because of the mere presence of the implant - none of the schools were qualified to deal with a situation such as hers, and she was shunted from pillar to post.

It was in selecting a school for her to attend at this stage that her parents found themselves dealing with the inadequacies of tests designed to assess a child's mental capacity and potential. None of the assessments available could be applied. Because of her poor reading age, it was decided that she was very probably dyslexic (I have since learnt that deaf people often have poor reading skills). It was further decided that she had learning difficulties of indeterminate nature. Helpful. She was placed in a specialist school for children lacking in the intellectual capacity to cope with the rigours of the standard curriculum.

Having now left school, she is not qualified to do anything very much and runs the risk of losing her (pitiful) disablity grant, should she ever land a job. Of course, it's too late to change things, but I have often wondered what might have been done.

One thing I noticed, when watching her at play with other deaf children (disclosure: this girl is my niece) is that deaf kids are rough... I mean really physical. For those who work with them routinely, this is par for the course, but imagine a teacher trying to deal with this level of roughness in a mainstream school, where hearing children are not likely to put up with being pushed and pulled, hugged and thumped. Also, when a small deaf child wants something, she takes it. She is not intuned to the idea of manners or asking for something - nor do the wails of dismay from the "victim" alert her to the fact that she has caused any unhappiness. I can't see any mainstream teacher being able to handle this, while trying to teach the curriculum to all 30 children in the class.

Will we ever know what her true potential is? She never acquired the literacy skills to complete a written assessment of her mental capacity, and she doesn't possess the communication skills to complete the verbal tests that are sometimes used as an alternative. How might she have been tested to see if she is, in fact, as intellectually handicapped as has been assumed?

I was very glad when the misery of boarding school was brought to an end, even though this threw her future education into a limbo from which it never recovered. During the time she was a boarder, she used to come to my home for a weekend every month, where it became apparent that the little things that parents do for their small children as a matter of course (I'll spare you the details) were simply going undone, and she spent the entire weekend sitting listlessly on the couch with tears rolling down her face - unable to tell me why she was so unhappy. Sadly, I think that she assumed she was being taken home whenever I came to collect her, which might have had something to do with it.

I apologise for the heartrending sadness of this story, but I wonder if you can suggest what might have been done differently.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A moral dilemma about special needs

Here's a situation for you to think about. I will probably post again about related matters, but let's stick to this issue today.

It's not hypothetical.

There is a young woman of 20. She is profoundly deaf with little knowledge of sign language. Her mental capacity is largely unknown (this will be the subject of the other post I threatened above). She has a boyfriend of roughly the same age. He has learning difficulties. Neither of them will ever be able to live independent lives as a consequence of their own limitations combined with the provisions of the country in which they live.

They want to have a baby. Her older sister recently became a single mother, and that got this young lady's broody hormones going. Her family has tried to point out that she is not in a position to raise a child, but she and her boyfriend don't have the ability to follow this line of reasoning. In the UK, they would probably be given all sorts of welfare support, but this is not a provision available to them. She argues that her sister is single and unemployed, so what's the difference?

Up to now, her mother has taken care of the contraception issue. Now that her daughter is starting to become adamant about having a baby, the dilemma arises: feeling fairly certain that her daughter does not have the ability to raise a child, and that the boyfriend is even less capable, does the mother infringe on her daughter's human rights and have her sterilised? What about the human rights of the hypothetical child, for whom no provision will be made by the state?

The reason I mentioned the woman's age at the beginning of this post is that, within very few months, she will be 21 and legally an adult, at which point the whole issue of her mother's power to impose her will becomes a thorny matter.

I was discussing this issue with a colleague whose girlfriend, a human rights lawyer, is writing a paper about the compulsory sterilisation of disabled people in Kenya. The case study for the paper involves a mentally competent, blind woman who was given a hysterectomy with neither her permission nor her knowledge after the birth of her fourth child. She only discovered that the surgery had taken place at all when she developed complications.

Where is the line between these two cases? Who makes the choices, and who gives that person the right to make those choices?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

How do you define "average"?

Several times in recent weeks, I have been taken to task over the fact that the "About me" section of this blog describes me as "just your average middle-aged woman". I have been advised that this is not an accurate reflection and that I should change or delete it. Oddly, this admonition has come from both professional and personal contacts.


Since I am unavoidably middle-aged, I would imagine that it's the bit about being average that galls. What I should point out, though is that the sentence continues " the early 21st century."

As I see it, the reality of the age we live in has an impact on what it means to be "average". The average woman of my age today is...

  • often a wife/partner
  • usually a mother
  • normally holding down a job or building a career
  • maybe studying (anything from flower arranging, to advanced thermodynamics)
  • possibly dieting
  • probably trying to adhere to an exercise programme of some sort
  • increasingly maintaining a presence in cyberspace
  • very likely pursuing a few hobbies and
  • almost certainly trying to keep in touch with friends and family all over the world.
All of these things are true of me.

Furthermore, my weight is about average, ditto my house and my car. My appearance is unremarkable (you know: neither drop dead gorgeous nor...erm... "unfortunate"). I'm taller than the UK average but not remarkably so. I'm fairly intelligent (I hope) but not in the prodigious leagues inhabited by the Downeses of this world. I am endowed with about the average number of talents and abilities, none of them stellar.

In fact, the most notable thing about me is probably the amount of noise I generate. People challenged to come up with a single word to describe me are far more likely to emulate my school teachers and opt for "talkative" or "loud" than anything else. I've been told I'm like a walking ear protection gear zone. And let's face it, that's not really something to brag about.

In fact, like almost the entire population, I only become unique when you get to know me - put me in a crowd, and I blend right in.

Like I said.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The value of a life

Today my husband was late for work. There were no trains running from our station in to London this morning, so he was advised to try again later. How inconvenient!

Today, my sons were driven to school. The fact that Dad had not been able to catch his train meant that he grabbed the opportunity to spend a few precious minutes with our boys by collecting them from home and driving them the short distance to the campus. Just as well, really - they were running horribly late. How fortuitous!

Today a person decided life was no longer worth living. Statistics tell us it was likely to have been a young man aged 18-24. He threw himself in front of a train. Which was why my husband was inconvenienced and my sons were lucky. Suddenly those things seem very small.

Someone lost his life today. Someone gave up hope. Someone hit bottom and saw no way out.

I think it was Nigel Paine in his closing keynote at Learning Technologies who touched on this very thing. How he was on a train that was brought to a halt, because someone had committed suicide in this manner. How no-one in the carriage said a thing when the announcement was made over the PA. How one man looked at his watch and tutted in annoyance - presumably because he was now going to be late for an appointment. After all, why can't these people be more considerate - don't they realise how busy we are?

Is this what we have come to? "A young man ended his life in misery and despair" "Tsk! That means I'll be late for my meeting!"

School of everything

I'd like to give a plug to the School of Everything. I met Mary Harrington a while ago at a Creative Coffee Club klatsch in London. I identify with her passion and wild-eyed enthusiasm.

If you have something to teach or something to learn, swing by. Apparently someone is about to run a lesson in how to draw monsters! Of course, if you prefer something a little more cerebral, those matters are covered, too!

Shrove Tuesday

Today is the day known as Shrove Tuesday in the church calendar. Lent begins tomorrow, which is known as Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, Lent was a period of self-imposed deprivation. Mirrors would be covered over and the pursuit of pleasure of any sort was avoided for the forty days leading up to Good Friday - the day of the crucifixion. These days, people (if they observe Lent at all) tend to choose to give up one thing, one "guilty pleasure" such as chocolate or TV.

In order to prepare one's home for this period, people would consume every sweet and pleasurable thing in the house on the Tuesday before the start of Lent. In England, this has come to mean making mountains of pancakes and spreading/filling them with all the nice goodies remaining in the house. I guess one can see a reflection of the Jewish tradition of ridding the house of all leaven in the build up to Pesach (Passover).

Even in homes where no other religious observance is kept, many families all over the country will be eating pancakes tonight. Since we're not great traditionalists, we usually forget about it until it's too late, only, now that I've thought of it, I think the Romeis family is likely to have pancakes tonight.

But shh! Don't tell my boys - it will be a pleasant surprise after all the serious-diet-imposed tedium of the past few weeks.

Monday, February 04, 2008

British people losing track of their own history

I can just imagine what Doug Belshaw thinks of this!

To be honest, I'm having a bit of a wry chuckle. It is a regular British pastime to make derogatory remarks about American intelligence and general knowledge. My own experience is that many English people are no better informed, and a recent survey would seem to bear this out.

It seems one in four British people think that Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale were fictitious characters, while about half think Sherlock Holmes was real. I can understand a measure of ignorance around the "lady of the lamp" - after all, she was around during the Crimean War, but Churchill's lifespan and mine overlapped, so an enormous number of Britons alive today must have heard and seen the man's state funeral. And, since he (and Ms Nightingale, for that matter) loomed large in my own history curriculum in far away, darkest (okay, so it was probably lightest, so sue me!) Africa, I simply cannot fathom how he escaped the notice of so many people in his homeland.

It may well be that Churchill featured so prominently in the South African history syllabus because of the time he spent there during the second Anglo-Boer war, but that wouldn't explain the inclusion of Florence Nightingale.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the survey was that of Charles Dickens who appears to have been a fictional character featuring in his own books!

Funday Monday

Vicki Davis has declared this Funday Monday. Her post on the subject includes several YouTube clips guaranteed to raise a smile. She has challenged her readers to make a contribution to the notion of Funday Monday.

While this isn't exactly funny... and most people have probably seen it by now, it gives me such a boost, so I thought I'd include it here.

Tag. You're it!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

What would you ask him?

As part of my research towards my dissertation, I am going to be interviewing the person responsible for blocking access to all forms of social from within our organisation. In the interests of evenhandedness, I need to make sure that I don't go in there with a one-eyed point of view and a list of questions that serve my own agenda.

What would you ask him?

My husband, who is a CIO himself, has started the ball rolling with the following questions:

  • What was the business case for blocking access to social media?
  • What is the impact of allowing free access to social media?
  • What is the impact of blocking access to social media?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Where have I disappeared to?

Navel gazing warning.

Recently, I was given a psychometric test. Yes, yes, I know! I'm not a fan of them either. I don't like the idea of pigeonholing people. I believe we are too complex and too able to change in response to the situation in which we find ourselves to be categorised. My own view is that there are about 6 billion personality styles, learning styles or whatever.

In this instance, the test involved ranking four statements: one as being least true of me, one as being most true of me and the remaining two on a scale of 1 to 5 of accuracy. However, it was not possible to give them the same rating. Based on Jungian theories, and not a million miles from Peter Urs Bender's model.

The problem is that in some cases the thing that was least true of me, was still very true of me and, in other cases, the thing that was most true of me wasn't very true of me at all. Sometimes more than one statement was equally un/true of me.

Be all that as it may, I was given a profile statement.

Much of what it contained was true. Some of what it said could be true of just about anybody. Some of what it said was totally inaccurate. This was my impression, which was echoed by my husband, who knows me as well as anyone.

Overall, the impression was of a confident, outgoing, bubbly person to whom others are drawn. Popular in the workplace, naturally endowed with leadership skills, happily followed by others.

I could have cried. I knew this girl. This was the girl who left South Africa nearly 9 years ago to come and live in England.

But she has disappeared, to be replaced by someone who is something of a cultural misfit, causing raised eyebrows and rolled eyes wherever she goes. Opening her mouth far too often for the liking of the English populace, only to say things they find difficult to deal with. Assailed by self-doubt, and permanently somewhat bewildered, like a person with no sense of rhythm desperately trying to clap in time with everyone else, but unable to crack the code and read the signs.

I miss her.

She made a brief appearance at Learning Technologies during the week, and she tends to emerge in online spaces, where there seems to a be a community more accepting of her.

Bless him, Jay Cross looked me in the eye as we parted company at the end of the conference and said with quiet (and, yes, Jay is a rather quieter man than one might expect) certainty, "You're in the wrong place."

It was sobering to realise the extent to which living in the UK has influenced me, and not all for the better.

Hmm. Off to the drawing board, methinks!

I learned to draw a marble!

Today, my team attended an Articulate workshop, run by my colleague, Mark Berthelemy. I've done some work with Articulate before, so, while I picked up all sorts of little bits and pieces, I didn't learn anything earth shatteringly new in that respect.

Ironically, I pushed the boundaries on my knowledge of an app that I know extremely well. An app on which I ran training courses for so long during my years as an IT trainer, that I can't even remember when it started. A little thing called PowerPoint, with which I have a love/hate relationship. I love what I can achieve with PowerPoint. I hate being subjected to what some people are pleased to call PowerPoint presentations. And if I never see another bullet point again it will be too soon!

But I digress.

One thing I learned today, which was totally incidental to the issue at hand, was how to use the "drawing" feature in PowerPoint (or Word, or any of a myriad other apps for that matter) to draw a very realistic looking 3-D marble. The lesson was being used as an example of passive learning that is still engaging. It certainly proved to be so because, when Mark felt that he had made his point and wanted to continue with the Articulate workshop, I wouldn't let him! I had to see it through.

Then I came home and showed off my new skill to my husband and taught my sons how to draw marbles.

So I may well have lost my marbles, but it seems I can just draw myself a whole bag of new ones.

Okay, so I'm never going to conquer the world with this new found skill, and it isn't going to move my career forward any time soon, but I'm having fun... and tell me you're not secretly impressed by my marbles!