Friday, May 28, 2010

Jumbled early reflections of eLearning Africa

I am shattered at this point, and unlikely to be coherent in my writing or organised in my thinking, but here are my early impressions of my first eLearning Africa conference. I will unpack some aspects in greater depth in due course.

Of course, everything runs on 'African time'. The shuttles are late, the dignitaries are late, the food is late. The queues are long and the sun is hot, oh, and impala stroll around the grounds of the conference centre. This is very definitely Africa.

There is a craft market on the grounds as well, but my only visit to it resulted in my being mobbed on all sides by insistent, wheedling vendors, each with a sob story about transport money or sick mothers/children. I struggle to cope with that kind of thing, so I fled empty-handed, to my deep disappointment.

Also, there have been displays of drumming and dancing every day. The costumes are charming and the skills demonstrated are impressive. The Europeans in attendance were entranced. But one bishop standing behind me in today's lunch queue labelled it an embarrassment. He considered it irrelevant both to elearning and progress in general. I guess he saw it as a perpetuation of the stereotype from which Africa is trying to escape. He was adamant that this tradition was unhelpful to the nation. I guess I can see his point.

The shuttles have been utterly haphazard. Each one is manned by a driver and a... well, I don't know what the other guy is, to be honest. I do know that the 'other guy' on our shuttle is about the most efficient man in Lusaka and his frustration is running high at the ineptitude. We often arrive at one hotel (having been sent there by the handlers back at whatever co-ordination centre exists) only to find another bus (or two) at the same place, while frantic phone calls from other delegates indicate that their hotels have not been visited by any buses at all.

The lunches have also proved tricky, due to the fact that hundreds and hundreds of people arrived unexpectedly to enrol for the conference, causing a major headache for the organisers.

This has proved by far the biggest eLearning Africa conference to date. The Zambian government is enormously proud of this fact, but I'm not sure that it is an unequivocally positive fact. African culture is one of natural deference to elders in society. As a consequence, many of the attendees are, well, venerable is the most polite term I can think of. It is evident that they have little or no connection with the subject matter under discussion and several of them seem to doze their way through the sessions.

At the other end of the spectrum, for some reason, the minister of education has seen fit to have hordes of children in attendance. For almost all these children, English is their second language and both the content and the language used in the presentations are highly unlikely to be engaging for them.

My biggest surprise has been the source of the most active and outspoken resistance to the concept of using elearning in education. It has been the intelligent, articulate, savvy early-20s crowd who have stood up and declared that Africa is not ready for elearning, or that the culture of elearning is not a good fit. I will unpack this in greater detail in a review of my own session at a later date.

I have also been surprised at the complete lack of understanding of the concept of 'workplace learning' or 'corporate learning' (pick your simile). Not just the term, but the 'thing' itself... even when you call it staff training. If it isn't formal education conducted by an accrediting institution, it isn't learning. More of that anon, too.

But everyone is incredibly friendly. Total strangers chat like old friends. The Zambians are astonishingly gracious and willing, but they are hamstrung by the fact that an awful lot of stuff just doesn't work... or doesn't work properly, from the Internet connection to the power supply to the roads (oh, and don't bother trying to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing, those white stripes appear to be no more than just a fashion choice!).

I have readily been accepted as an African, which took me by surprise. I call myself an African woman, which is unusual for a white South African (it also very unusual for people from the extreme north of Africa (Saharan and supra-Saharan Africa). For many, even in Africa, African = black, but when I introduce myself as and African girl living in England, this has been accepted without question and with a great deal of approval in some cases. Just today at lunch, I was chatting with two Zimbabwean women who were seated beside me, when a Kenyan man called out from the other side of the table, "You know, you are a very African woman!" He explained how, watching my body language and listening to my intonation, he was suddenly able to see beyond my fair skin. I assured him that I saw myself in the same light and that I took this as a huge compliment. The conversation at my table flowed fast, and in numerous directions simultaneously.

The food has been very much local fare, and no explanation is forthcoming as the ingredients of any of the dishes. I asked what was in a dish called chiwawa and was told, "Chiwawa". I was at a loss to explain that I already had this much information, and needed more (I have since learned that it is made of pumpkin leaves with onion and tomato).

I have made many new contacts, but I am doubtful as to whether it will lead to business opportunities.

C'est la vie.

It's been fun.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning from the British

There is much that is amiss with British culture, but there are times when things happen to make me deeply appreciate the things that are so very right with it.

I would like to relate a true incident to highlight this.

At a recent conference, a prominent American speaker had cause to summon a delegate onto the platform. In a largely white audience, this delegate was one of the few black people in attendance. The speaker explained that, in America, he would call this man African-American, but he didn't know what term to use in the UK. "What do I call you?" he asked the man. To resounding cheers from the by now very uncomfortable audience, the man answered, "I'm British."

I have always wondered how 'African American' is a less offensive term than 'black' because it amounts to pretty much the same thing. It is a term which serves to divide a society on the basis of skin colour. What's wrong with 'American'? Why does there have to be differentiation at all?

Oddly enough, the one person I can think of to whom the term can accurately be applied is President Obama, since he has one African parent, and one American parent.

But the 'African' bit is somewhat misleading, anyway. I play squash once a week with a friend. Let's say two people were watching us play and person A asked, "Who's winning?" If person B answered, "The African woman is behind by 6 points," person A would probably think I had opened a can of whup-ass on my friend. But under those circumstances, they would be dead wrong. You see, she's black-and-British, while I am white-and-African.

Some time back, I related how I had been hounded out of an online group for Africans on the basis of my skin colour. To add insult to injury, the ringleader of my virtual lynch party was an American woman who had never set foot on African soil.

It doesn't work.

In recent years, I have noticed increasingly racist tendencies on the part of friends and family back in South Africa, as the problems in the country fuel the racial tensions and give rise to all manner of blame-game tactics. I have heard the most pejorative terms coming from the mouths of people I love, people from whom I never expected to hear such talk.

And I want no part of it.

I far prefer a society in which a person of any skin colour whatsoever can say unequivocally, "I am British."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

National Learning at Work Day

Today has been National Learning at Work Day in the UK, when people are encouraged to learn a new skill in the workplace. It doesn't have to be work related, of course, although I'm sure most employers would prefer it if it were.

Since I am self employed and no longer really have an 'at work', I sent out an email to the team of 200 or so people who constitute a mailing group for one of my clients. I encouraged people to push the boat out and learn something new.

Fairly predictably for a UK audience, I had a very poor response.

One person was thoroughly enthused and suggested that we each offer a 60 second micro-lesson online to whomever was interested. But he was a lone voice. At the other extreme, one respondent claimed that, having read my email, he now needed to learn 'how to clean puke off my keyboard'. Charming.

But the third and final response, received just minutes ago made it all worthwhile. With the permission of the respondent, I reproduce it here verbatim:

Thanks for your message. When I worked at the University of Manchester a few years ago, they made a good effort for the National Learning at Work Day. Five years ago, they organised a day of unusual activities to stretch people’s minds, at the Manchester Museum which is on the university campus – this included things like circus skills (juggling etc). I asked my boss if I could go and was surprised that I was allowed (but for only half a day) – no one else in my department of about 100 people had even asked. The bit that I attended was an indoor planetarium, offered by the School of Astronomy; this consisted of a wonderful introduction to the stars and how things look different in the southern hemisphere and in different seasons etc, and also included lots about the mythology around the constellations (e.g. how Orion the hunter met Taurus the bull). I enjoyed it a lot and it stayed in my mind.

I have just completed a Certificate in Introductory Astronomy with the University of Manchester, via distance and e-learning, which I’ve been doing for the past two years. I know that that one day when my boss was good enough to let me ‘learn at work’, planted a seed for pursuing this hobby (a lifelong love of science fiction played a part too of course). Ironically, the course had very little to do with gazing at the stars – it covered the physics and maths behind ‘life, the universe and everything’. But now that I’m finished with the course and with possible clear nights ahead this summer, I have lots of star gazing ahead. So, the day worked for me anyway, five years ago today!
Isn't that an encouraging anecdote?

Oh... and I spent the day in teach mode rather than learn mode (but I reckon that counts, too), acquainting someone with the use of social media for business purposes. I have already posted a link to one outcome of the day.

Nancy Stevens says...

I'd like to give a plug to a brand new blogger.

No, she's not a learning guru. Or even a social media guru. She's not a teacher. Nor is she a techie.

She's an image guru. One of those people who looks at you and knows exactly what colours you should be wearing and what styles of clothes suit you and how to accessorise and all that stuff.

She's feeling very brave at having entered these scary social media waters, so ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Nancy Stevens.

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Organisations who choose to steer clear of social media spaces place themselves at risk of having their brand damaged by cybersquatters. Witness the example of Costa Coffee as featured in BusinessZone yesterday.

The Internet is not a 'policed' space... other than by us. You. Me. So people are pretty much free to do whatever they like. As these cybersquatters have amply demonstrated.

Time was once when a business could get by without a web presence. Then it became essential to have a website. We've moved on from that. Web presence needs to spread into the spaces inhabited by the 2.0 and 3.0 web users, otherwise someone might just do that for you!

Armed with rudimentary skills and sufficient malice, a cybersquatter could utterly ruin a business that chooses to remain periscope down in respect of social media. And the tragedy is, as they go into administration, they may still be utterly bemused as to how their once-thriving business hit the skids.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

100 ways to learn a language

Increasingly, it is beneficial to speak more than one language.

Online Degree Programs recently posted an article featuring 100 different resources aimed at helping people learn languages online. These include courses through specific schools; online dictionaries; phrase-based tools; translation services; online language communities; games and quizzes; and all manner of other resources.

Languages on offer range from the more common French, English and Spanish to the less widely known Kurdish, Marathi and Romanian.

They also list resources for Mandarin, a language that has been earmarked by many as one to master by those who wish to benefit from the increasing global participation of mainland China in corporate ventures.

On social media policies in the workplace

TrainingZone magazine is running an interesting article by Neil Davey, looking at the rise of social media in the workplace.

Of course, many organisations have a blanket ban on the use of such media... or at least, they think they do. A closer inspection will almost certainly reveal the presence of all manner of social tools in the workplace. This tells me a few things.

Firstly, the understanding among senior execs (and even the IT gatekeepers) of what constitutes social media is often as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, which results in inconsistent bans and rules. So there are often workarounds to access various social media.

Secondly, people are more resourceful than management gives them credit for. Where such bans are in place, many users are resorting to using their phones to access them. At a recent Twitter workshop, several attendees 'owned up' to using Twitter via their phones because of the ban at work.

Thirdly, the 'threat' aspect has been identified, but the 'potential benefit' aspect has been ignored. Davey's article picks up on one significant aspect of this and cites Ann Bevitt of Morrison Foerster:

"Although employers cannot control employees’ use of social networking sites outside the workplace, they can provide guidance where such use could be associated with employees’ employment. For example, if employees choose to identify themselves as employees in their personal social networking activities, they should be encouraged to make clear that any views expressed are their own and not those of their employer. Moreover, no links should be provided to employers’ websites."
This harks back to a topic I have touched on many times - that grey area. Let's look at a hypothesis:

Kate is a designer at ColourCoded, a clothing manufacturer whose lines are aimed at women who have been colour-coded and had their ideal palettes identified. In her spare time, she likes to go hiking.

When Kate engages in social media spaces about the various trails she has hiked, she is on safe territory. She can even develop a global reputation as the go-to person on the difficulty grading of the various hiking trails. No problem.

Kate's employer may have noted her skill with words and they may choose to include social media engagement among her official duties. Part of her job may be to look after ColourCoded's social media presence. This is also relatively safe territory, because the ground rules can be laid down. The dos and don'ts identified.

Where the ground gets shaky is when Kate starts to engage in her personal capacity in social media spaces on the topic of clothing: what styles to wear, what fabrics work for whom, what colours people should wear, etc. It is very tough to lay down the guidelines for her presence in this space, without encroaching on Kate's right to freedom of expression.

This is an area Davey has addressed in his article:
"Organisations – particularly those at the larger end of the spectrum – are faced with an enormous task when it comes to identifying and responding to all of the conversations, questions and posts taking place online about their brand. Businesses need the extra eyes that their employees provide. But by giving their staff carte blanche to respond to any and every post they find, they run a very serious risk of damaging the brand reputation, rather than improving. Any message by an employee that isn’t in line with the company message, or that is offensive or unprofessional, will reflect badly on the brand. The business either media trains every person on its payroll, or risks unleashing a firm’s load of loose cannons onto the web."
I'm not sure that the idea of training every person on the payroll has legs, and, as you know by now, I have an enormous fondness for loose cannons (being one myself). But most organisations have clauses in their employment contracts about damage to the organisation's reputation. Mouthing off down the pub has never really been looked upon with favour, and we're more or less in the same sort of waters, here, albeit with the potential for exponentially increased impact.

I would suggest that guidelines should be set in place - every organisation must consider its reputation, after all. I would further suggest that the organisation should have some form of online induction process, with a link to a range of tools that can provide guidance on company policy on a range of issues (including social media usage). Staff members should be able to access the organisation's policy documents on any subject at any point... and these should be easy to find (it's remarkable that I have any hair left, considering the experiences I have had trying to find policy documents in the past) and easy to read. Policy documents should also be reviewed and revised every now and again, and staff members should be involved in this process.

Staff members should be expected to consider the organisation's reputation, too, and be held to account when their actions are considered to have done damage.

However, the 'training every staff member' thing smacks to me just a little of the sort of butt-covering box-ticking compliance that makes me shudder. It runs the risk of, "Right, we mentioned once during your training course 2 years ago that this was not permitted, so you're fired."

I would like to see an approach that is more dynamic than that, and one which engages the staff members directly, rather than being handed down to them from on high.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Daring to recommend

It's getting so a person dare not recommend anything anymore. Let's consider a scenario:

  • Person A recommends product/approach X
  • Person B adopts that product/approach for a project
  • Project fails and person B slags person A off publicly for the bum steer
One of my new Twitter followers described how he was taking flak at his place of work for having recommended Ning, now that Ning has decided to start charging for its services.

How did that become his fault?

Based on the functionality of the space at the time, and the requirements within his place of work, no doubt it was a good fit. And while the space was free, I presume it served their purposes well, or they wouldn't have felt the wrench so keenly when Ning decided to start levying a charge.

The person in question is quite a young man and this experience could well have damaged his confidence so much that next time he will be reluctant to recommend anything before researching it exhaustively to see whether it will remain stable for the (un)foreseeable future, by which time the need may well have passed. So his recommendations will be slower in coming forward until he is caught up in a cycle of analysis-paralysis... and the organisation will turn to someone else to make recommendations that are more timely (perhaps starting the whole cycle again).

I sincerely hope that this approach does not start to extend to the likes of Jane Hart and her invaluable e-learning pick of the day. Any time I am faced with a challenge and need a new tool to meet it, I pay a visit to her site to see what she recommends. Sometimes the tools do the job for me, sometimes they don't. I am not about to start holding Jane liable every time it doesn't work out.

I sincerely trust that, when I feature something on this site, you're not expecting it to set the world alight for you, okay? I can do without that kind of pressure. ;o)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Web 3.0 - what's it all about?

In case you've been wondering, here is a video that explains the ins and outs, and the pros and cons...

Web 3.0 from Kate Ray on Vimeo.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Just because you can doesn't mean you should

Sometimes we are called upon to design things that we know just shouldn't be designed. Sometimes the client simply won't take no for an answer. Sometimes you want to throw the book at them... or at least lend it to them.

Increasingly, we need less design and more substance. Instead of an expensive elearning course, there are times when a free wiki containing a series of user generated screen capture videos is enough. There are times when we need a YouTube channel more than we need an LMS.

All of these thoughts came thumping home to me recently, when I picked up a few packs of microwave pizzas (as you do, when you have hulking great teenage boys in the house) and saw that they have a special offer give-away thing for a knork.

Now maybe you already know what that is. Heck, maybe you have a whole set of silver plated knorks in your cutlery drawer. But - pardon my ignorance - I had never heard of them before. I had heard of a spork: a hybrid of spoon and fork. I have even used one from time to time, since a few takeaway places issue them with their meals. To be honest, most of the time, I have thought a spoon would do, but the spork has been innocuous enough.

But a knork...? A hybrid of knife and fork...? What the...?

Let's think about this.

I know that cutlery usage can be a little different in the US, but in the UK, we use a knife and a fork simultaneously. One in each hand. The fork holds the food still, while the knife is used to cut it. How do you achieve that with a knork? How do you hold the food still and then cut it when you have only one utensil?

Then there is the little matter of sticking the knork into your mouth. If it has the characteristics of a knife, I presume this thing has a blade on it. In fact, if it caters to both lefties and righties, maybe it has two blades! Now I reckon Pippi Longstocking is right when she says that grownups are superstitious and think it's 'bad luck' to stick a knife into your mouth. I think it could be extremely bad luck indeed. On the other hand, if the blade isn't sharp enough to do you any harm, then I can't see it enjoying much success in the cutting stakes (or even steaks) either.

And so here we have a utensil that is both impractical and potentially harmful. It looks to me as if someone designed it because it could be done, without giving any thought to whether it should be done.

So, yes. We can design a whole series of 20 minute elearning tunnels and stick them into an LMS. We can make it all trackable so that, at any given moment, you can see who has used which materials. But should we?

Will they really add value to your organisation's learning experience? Will they improve performance? Or will they join the list of a long line of expensive things that seemed like a good idea at the time? Could something else do the job better? Maybe an elgg space will suit your purposes just as well. Maybe the solution already exists somewhere in someone's personal job aids, and is just waiting to be shared with the rest of the team.

So before you go out and spend a fortune designing and developing a knork, just check your cutlery drawer to see whether you haven't already got something that can do the trick.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

37 instructional design resources

Guide to Online Schools recently published a list of their top 37 instructional design resources, aimed primarily at teachers looking to improve their skills in this area.

Of course, this is not to say that those of us outside of the education system won't also find much of value in the list. For example, several of the blogs in their list are on my daily reading list. It has long been my wish to see the wall between workplace and academic learning come down, after all!

Send us your sample

This strikes me as being a really fun option for teachers of the sciences (among other things).

A company called ASPEX, which produces scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) and microanalysis software has kicked off a campaign called Send us your Sample, which invites anyone to send in an object of their choosing and have it scanned free of charge under one of their SEMs.

You can send in anything you like - a toy bunny, a dead bug or an old toothbrush. It's pretty cool. See their image gallery here.

They also have a rather fun thing called 'name that sample' where you have to guess from the 'after' picture what the object is. Could you have guessed that this was an image of Hall's cough drops? If so, you might have won yourself an Apple iPod Touch.