Friday, September 12, 2014

Living with depression: update

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience of living with depression.

It was the first time I had made a public, explicit statement about it. It wasn't really a secret before, but neither had it been something that I had owned publicly and unequivocally.

Since then, Robin Williams - a fellow sufferer - has taken his own life, and many more people have begun to speak very openly about depression. About their own experiences with it, or about watching someone they loved dealing with it.

I took that death hard. So hard that my line manager even commented on it. I don't know if I can explain it without sounding melodramatic, but I guess when yet another sufferer decides to call time, it increases that sense that (a) my future might well hold a period of darkness deeper and blacker than any I've known before, which is really, really daunting and (b) how can I be sure that I might not one day wind up putting my own family through the same wringer?

I'm not sure if that was the trigger, but around that time, I found myself battling yet another bout of depression. It seemed so unfair. I still hadn't completely recovered from the last one (last year), so this was kicking me while I was down. Also, my husband is due to go away for a couple of weeks this month, and it heightens his anxiety to know that he is leaving a depressed wife behind.

I opted to be very open about it.
  • I made an appointment with my GP.
  • I told my manager at work.
  • I made it known on Facebook.
And the level of support has been astonishing.

I discussed my concerns with my GP. He asked me the usual questions and didn't adopt that overly solicitous attitude that some GPs adopt when posing the scripted questions they are obliged to ask about suicidal thoughts and other deeply personal issues.

I told him about my reluctance to become reliant on chemical assistance, but acknowledged that, under the circumstances, I might need to accept that it was the best thing to do. He prescribed Citalopram, which I started immediately.

I am still struggling with the side-effects, but hopefully those will fade in time. I discovered that my sister is taking them, too (for different reasons) and she was able to give me some tips (which I'll happily share if anyone is interested).

My manager was open and sympathetic - totally unfazed. She spoke to HR and found out about support services available through the company I work for. She checks in with me from time to time and maintains an open line of communication. If I feel unable to handle my workload, I know that she's got my back and will make a plan to ensure that the projects don't fail as a result.

As a result of her enquiries, I had a phone consultation with a counselor, who arranged for me to have six sessions with a local counselor, the first within 5 days of our phone call.

Somehow word got out at the office and initially, people walked on eggshells around me. But one or two staff members adopted a very matter of fact approach and chatted easily to me - not in hushed tones. I guess that openness and easiness caught on, and everyone has more or less relaxed. People have a short attention span after all, and more interesting things demand their attention.

The biggest surprise has been the response on Facebook. There are those who demand that Facebook should be like Lala land - all happy and funny and lighthearted and skip to my lou my darling. Occasionally one of my contact will wail about being exposed to negativity on Facebook ("this is not what I signed up for!!"). Some of those have chosen not to respond to my openness. Some of those have opted to express their support privately, through my Inbox. But the most pleasant response of all has been from those who have publicly (well, sort of) responded with their own experiences and expressions of support and understanding.

Of course, there has been the inevitable 'chin up' and 'listen to some happy music' type of response from people who clearly haven't got the remotest idea how depression works, and I'm happy for them that this is the case. I wouldn't wish the darkness on anyone.

I have better days and worse days. On both kinds of day, getting out of bed is tough. As you can imagine, it's tougher on the worse days. I've discovered from interactions on Facebook that bed is the safe place for many sufferers.

There have been two very helpful pieces for me, which I come back to, time after time and which I hope will help other sufferers, too, as we plod through this dark valley. The first is this one called Black Dog.

The second is this TED talk by the inspirational Andrew Solomon, which for some reason, refuses to be embedded here.

Oddly enough, my experiment with boycotting the 'like' button has also had a role to play. The common thread through both the links above is that depression is not the opposite of joy. It is in fact the opposite of vitality. I find myself disengaged, going through the motions. And I see clicking the 'like' button as symptomatic of that. So, unless I actually have something to say, I don't engage with a post at all. If I want to engage, I take the trouble to put that into words. It has meant that my interactions online have become fewer, but deeper. And I can't help but see this as a good thing.

I sincerely trust that my journey will encourage others to become more open about their own battles. It's time to shake off the stigma. In fact, as a fellow sufferer (someone I've known for well over 30 years) pointed out, perhaps it's time to stop talking about depression as a mental illness. After all, it's physiological in nature, being caused as it is by a chemical imbalance. In that way at least, it is no different from diabetes.


Friday, August 15, 2014

On quitting the 'like' button

I came across this article recently, and it struck a chord with me. So I decided to quit the 'like' button myself for a while and see what happened. And not just on Facebook, but on my company's intranet social spaces, too.

This 'like' thing is rather weird isn't it? I bestow upon your post my approval with my mighty 'like' button. Wait. What?

This puts me in mind of earlier conversations I've had about blog comments. Stephen Downes once said in a blog post I now can't find (it was a long time ago), that he didn't think he needed to respond to every comment on his blog posts. That they were perfectly able to stand in their own right and he wasn't arrogant enough to believe they needed validation from him. That has stayed with me (obviously), and when I read the article about the 'like' button, it occurred to me that it was a similar thing. Quite apart from the fact that the bots at Facebook towers are probably building a profile of me based on the things I like.

It can be a bit fraught. If five people comment on a post of yours, and you've 'liked' the first four, do you feel pressured to 'like' the fifth even if you don't like it? If you follow me.

It reminded me a bit of my grandfather. Bear with me. When I was little, my grandfather had this little noise he would make. Somewhere between a grunt and a 'yeah'. It meant "I know that you've spoken. I don't know what you've said, and I'm not really interested. But I acknowledge that you have addressed me." Since I was (you'll be astonished to learn) a chatterbox, I heard that noise a lot. A lot.

Isn't the 'like' button a bit like that?

So this is what I'm doing instead:

I will either engage with something enough to take the time to post a proper comment on it. Or I will let the post/comment stand on its own merit. The 'like' button is off limits for a while. And several of my Facebook friends have decided to join me.

How about you? Shall we turn this into a growing social experiment?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

...and I want to be a mechanical engineer

Steve Wheeler's 'I want to be an astronaut' post today describes his encounter with an overstretched, unsympathetic school guidance/careers counsellor. Inevitably, that put me in mind of my own experience. My title is a continuation of his.

Steve and I are roughly of an age, and, although we were educated in two very different countries, it seems our school careers advisers were cut from much the same cloth. Perhaps it was more to do with the way they were equipped for the job than with the sort of people they were, but I'm not entirely sure.

First came the IQ test woes. Ordinarily, we'd be tested once in primary school and once in secondary school and that would be it. Like everyone else, I was tested in primary school, and presumably the results showed nothing alarming or surprising.

When it came time for the high school test, however, it seemed my first assessment was so far at odds with the primary school test, that I was called for a retest the following year. I guess the results of that test were equally surprising, because I was tested yet again the year thereafter.

Oddly enough, the results of these tests were never revealed to us. Apparently, our IQ was none of our business. But, during one of my many run-ins with the head teacher, mine was made known to me. She declared that I was more intelligent than either of my two closest friends, and both of them were A students, while I was a solid C. Of course, the fact that I played just about every sport going, participated in every school play, was a member of several clubs and societies, while they did/were not, was clearly beside the point.

What a dismal underachiever I was.

Then came the dreaded aptitude tests. On a scale of 1-9 I scored a solid 7 across the board. During my 1:1 with the school guidance counsellor, I discovered that I could do whatever I wanted and - as long as I applied myself - I'd be good at it. This didn't help me, because I didn't know what career options even existed out there. How could I want to do something if I didn't know about it?

I thought about what I enjoyed doing and what I was good at, and decided I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I wanted to design machinery that did stuff. Maybe cars, maybe production line equipment. The mechanics part of the physics syllabus was far and away my favourite bit, so I thought I might enjoy a career in which I got to do that all day.

Not so fast, kiddo!

My Mom couldn't afford university fees on her own, so I was going to need a student loan. Only it turned out banks in the late 70s were no way no how going to give a study loan to a girl who wanted to study such a manly subject as mechanical engineering. I'd never make it. The attrition rate was too high. Yadda yadda yadda. To give them their due, newspaper advertisements for mechanical engineering posts in South Africa at the time called for someone who was 'white, male, 25-35, with experience'. Through no achievement of my own, I was indeed white, but I was not and was never going to be male. At some point, I would presumably be 25-35, but how was I going to acquire experience if I was unemployable up to that age? No-one seemed to have the answers.

And thus began a round of the most interminable testing and visiting to student counsellors at universities and and and.

One such visit is indelibly imprinted on my memory. By now, I had figured out how to manipulate the tests to get the results I wanted. The student counsellor at the University of Port Elizabeth was perplexed by them: how could I test so high for teaching and so low for working with children? It simply didn't make sense!

This from a university staff member, mind you. A place where a fair amount of teaching took place day to day, and none of it to children. He failed to put two and two together, and instead advised me to get a PhD in psychology and take over from him when he retired. How I was supposed to reach the PhD level, he never quite explained. Perhaps he assumed it was obvious. It wasn't.

What he also failed to consider was workplace learning. I had never heard of it. I thought people went to school, then to university, then to work. I had no idea that the learning journey continued thereafter. In fact, loathing school as I did, I'd have been horrified to discover that companies had training rooms and people went to 'school' in them (which is how it was done back then).

So, of course, I did the obvious thing. If I couldn't do mechanical engineering, I'd go to drama school and be discovered by Hollywood.

How I did actually wind up in a job which involved teaching-but-not-to-children is perhaps a story for another day. I'm truly glad I stumbled across the field of workplace learning, but it was certainly no thanks to any of the hordes of guidance counsellors I saw during my high school years.

I sincerely hope that today's schoolkids are better served by theirs!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Corporate social media - something to remember in the exit interview

One of the services I provide is to assist organisations with their social media presence.

Managing the social media footprint of a business is in many ways similar to that for an individual, as I covered in a recent post. But there are some key differences and it's pretty vital to bear these in mind.

Most importantly, the account is a company asset. Sometimes senior management is all to willing to relinquish control of the account to a staff member and to disengage from it themselves. This sends a clear message about the (lack of) importance they impute to the social media campaign. I would venture to suggest that this is short-sighted. And, while it might work fine for a while for the account to be the sole province of a staff member, it is a risky path to take. An individual who has set up the account, managed it and nurtured it through the rough times might become a bit precious about it, and there may be consequences, more of which anon.

If you're the person who looks after a social media account for your organisation and it's taking up too much of your time for too little reward to either you or the organisation, it's time to re-evaluate the situation. Is this the right space for your organisation to have a presence? Would the organisation's strategic goals be better served by focusing its/your attentions elsewhere? I recommend a pro-active approach. Gather some metrics and approach your management team with a suggestion solution. Something like "Let's ditch the Facebook account, because it's not serving any purpose, as shown by my handy little graph. And let's instead focus on upping our presence on LinkedIn, because as you can see from these statistics, this would benefit us in X and Y way."

Important point for managers: when the person who manages a social media account on behalf of the company leaves, the admin rights for the page need to be passed on to someone else, and the leaver's admin rights revoked.
You expect them to hand over the company phone, the company laptop and the keys to company car, right? So why are you letting them walk out the door with (sometimes sole) access to intangible company assets related to brand and market presence?
I have encountered situations where the person who manages the account has left for pastures new, taking with them the only log in details and admin rights to the page. In one instance, when the organisation finally realised that this was the case, the person refused even to reveal their identity, placing the page (and the company's brand) at risk.

Clearly, it is unwise to have only one person with admin rights to any of the organisation's social media sites, and then to forget to do something about that when the person leaves. A person with access like that and an axe to grind can do a great deal of harm, and it could take a while before they can be stopped.

Monday, July 07, 2014

On the sex abuse scandal floodgates

If you live in the UK, you can't have escaped the torrent of cases involving historical sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people. Especially if you listen (as I do) to BBC Radio 4, which doesn't shy away from spotlighting the growing number of cases.

We had well-known individuals like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. We've had stories emerging from institutions such as St Paul's School, Broadmoor Hospital (related, but not restricted to Jimmy Savile's legacy), and immigration detention centre Yarl's Wood. There have been cases involving teachers, including William Vahey. There was an additional case of a school for boys from homes with difficult circumstances, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was called. It was featured on a BBC R4 programme a few weeks ago, and one of the victims was interviewed. He talked about being 'pimped out' by the staff to people from the town.

Most of this abuse happened between thirty and fifty years ago, although some of it persisted until fairly recently and in some cases, there are allegations that it may well be ongoing.

The expression 'it was a different time' is sometimes used to excuse behaviour of previous generations that later generations find perplexing. In this instance, it's absolutely no excuse, but it is also true: it was a different time, and this is how the perpetrators managed to carry on doing what they did to people who were in no position to fight back. A child who reported a teacher in the 50s and 60s was unlikely to be believed, and might well have brought down worse circumstances upon him/herself. A woman who reported a male colleague for inappropriate behaviour, likewise. And in both cases, the victim was expected to take responsibility for changing the situation.

Let me share two experiences from my own life for two reasons: to back up my assertions and to demonstrate that 'this sort of thing' can happen to anyone. Keeping it a secret only supports the agenda of the perpetrator.

When I was around 7 or 8 years old, there was a man who used to take up his station in the children's swimming pool at the beach near my home. He posed as a fun person, who cavorted with the children in the water. Most commonly he would push a child through the water at great speed. The sort of thing you do with kids - usually totally innocently, and usually to the great delight of the child. Only he would achieve this by placing one hand on the child's shoulder and the other between her legs, pushing her away from him through the water. There was always a long line of kids waiting their turn to play this game. I joined the line once at the suggestion of a friend. Our two families were visiting the beach together that day. She said the game was open to anyone and was great fun. Certainly, everyone did seem to be very happy. It happened so fast, it was over before I knew it, and I made a beeline for my mother, lying beside the pool. When I reported what had happened, my mother told me "Stay away from him, then." The other little girl's mother called her daughter over and - over her objections - told her to stay away from him, too. That was it. The sum total of the action taken. No-one called the police. No-one challenged the man on his behaviour.

It was up to his little victims, many of whom didn't even appear to notice what he was doing, to take responsibility for ensuring that it didn't happen again... to them, at any rate.

Sexual harassment
When I started my first 'proper' job at the age of 21, I was subjected to a sustained campaign of sexual harassment by one of the company directors. Mine was a very junior position, but the nature of my job meant that I was often present at meetings of senior staff members and client meetings. I was always the only female present. I was also at least 15 years younger than the next youngest person in the room. If I did something well, this guy knew of a suitable 'reward'. If I made mistake, he knew a suitable 'punishment'. Always suggested in the most unmistakably lascivious fashion. He would openly stare at my body and complain if I stood at an angle or in a position which obscured his view. He did this in the presence of other senior staff members and our customers (also all male and mostly middle-aged), most of whom would laugh uproariously. I had no idea what to do about it. I asked my Mom for advice, and she told me to try to avoid him. Again. My (male) boss told me to take it as a compliment. Other women on the staff shunned me as if I were somehow to blame for the man's behaviour. The MD warned me in private never to be alone anywhere with the man, especially at any event where alcohol was involved.

So, once again, the victim was expected to take ownership of the situation.

In the intervening years between those two incidents, I encountered a few 'dodgy' individuals - usually someone's uncle - whose own family members would warn me to avoid. Sometimes it seemed like almost every family had one, but no-one ever did anything about it, other than to ensure the people they cared about didn't become victims. Fortunately my own family didn't include any dodgy uncles, I'm pleased to say.

We see the same tacit attitude in legacy guidance to female university students or shift workers to avoid becoming a rape statistic by doing (or not doing) this or that thing.

What we're beginning to see now, is the backlash of all of those years of not taking action. It's like someone has lanced a boil. Decades worth of suppuration is coming tumbling out. I predict that for a while, we will continue to be deluged. Several more of our icons will prove to have feet of filth. Eventually the flood will slow down, but hopefully someone will then proactively clear rest of what is in that wound and it can then be disinfected.

In the meantime, we need to create an environment in which the shame attaches itself to the perpetrator, not the victim. In which the victim makes a beeline to a parent/teacher/manager. In which said parent/teacher/manager takes immediate and decisive action.

We need to change the language we use from apportioning responsibility to the victim for avoiding the crime, and direct ourselves toward teaching people not to be perpetrators of the crime. Every perpetrator once was a child.

By the same token, we need to take care that we don't create a society in which every vulnerable person is a victim and every person in a position of responsibility is automatically under suspicion. We have seen signs of that when several high profile children's authors refused to visit schools because of the requirement that they undergo CRB checks.

I'm not sure where the solution lies, but we need to start working towards one. There is no doubt that we have let people down. Often and badly. But throwing draconian legislation at it in a kneejerk reaction isn't going to be helpful, in my opinion

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sue Llewellyn (et al) on the psychology of social media

On Monday, as part of  at the FT digital learning week, Sue Llewellyn delivered a session about the psychology of social media. This is a topic that is of great interest to me. Much of what Llewellyn shared was pretty much common sense to those of us who have been active in the social media space for a while, but I've been ruminating over it for a while, because...

Attending the session were people from the FT and the wider Pearson group, looking at how to use social media to benefit the business. We're talking about large corporate endeavours here. And yet, most of what Llewellyn had to share seemed aimed at people who were looking to promote their personal brands. And this is what I found quite telling. Nearly 15 years after the publication of the cluetrain manifesto, and about eight years since the publication of naked conversations, this is the core message coming through. Many companies I've spoken to over the years have had a social media presence, but they haven't really set the world on fire. Largely because it has been seen as part of the traditional marketing/comms programme. Running a social media 'campaign' like a mailshot distribution just doesn't cut it. In this social age - and this has been one of the themes running through the whole week for me - people want to engage with people with skin on, not some faceless corporate monolith.

Social media have seen us move into a space where individuals have a voice, and aren't afraid to use it - for better or for worse. The digital era has shifted gear. We're no longer in a space where it's all about writing code and publishing stuff online. We've moved into the engagement space. So 'people people' can be tech-geeks too. In fact, they had better be! And they had better be well informed, too. Many is the brand that has suffered damage at the hands of someone delegated to do the job because they have the technical skills, but who have not done the brand any favours as they have revealed their own lack of insight or have been dragged into exchanges of personal insults and potential libel (one example: Gillian McKeith).

Which brings me back to Llewellyn's presentation. All the rules that apply to promoting your personal brand through social media, apply to building your business brand.

Turning the traditional 'what's in if for me?' question on its head, Llewellyn suggested considering what's in it for them (your followers)? She talked about finding the behavioural trigger than makes people want to engage with the content you put out there. She used the term 'psychographic' - don't just think about the demographic of your follower group, but their psychographic: what matters to them? What do they want to hear about?

She provided some useful guidelines as to what made people share your content with their own follower audience and talked about how to trigger those responses. I'm not going to go give away all her suggestions and observations free of charge, but - in addition to the practical suggestions she made - it boiled down to being 'neighbourly': if you ask people for feedback, thank them for it and put it to use, share the link love, give credit where it's due... all that stuff.

This was the biggest take-away for me. From a business perspective, it is important to track what works and what doesn't. Think about why that might be and what you can do to influence that. I suspect this is where a lot of corporate social media campaigns fall down.

You're allowed to be funny (and even silly)
One of the points Llewellyn made strongly was to show how much response there is to 'silly' posts. A picture of a bear in a hammock, shared by BBC News World Edition on their twitter account racked up scores or retweets. A corporate 'entity' is allowed to have a lighter side. In fact, it had better have a lighter side. It's part of the whole personable thing. We like to laugh. We like say 'awww'. So using emotive triggers is not only acceptable, it's advisable and possibly even imperative.

Areas for neutrality
While an individual can have a strong political/religious stance, a corporate image needs to keep neutral on these topics. So while it may be acceptable to share the news of the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls, it probably isn't wise to use that as a platform for religious prejudice.

Llewellyn summarised her advice as keeping content relevant, interesting, timely, engaging, and to ensure that it added value.

What she didn't explicitly mention, but it was the inherent thread throughout her presentation - and many of the others during the week - was that even a corporate twitter account needs to be personable and relatable.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

FT Digital Learning Week: Women in digital leadership

As part of the Financial Times digital learning week, I attended an early session today on women in digital leadership. Chaired by Megan Murphy head of Fast FT, the panel consisted of Molly Flatt from 1000 Heads (among other things), Anne Marie Imafidon from Deutschebank and Stemettes, Claire Koryczan from Decoded and Karla Geci from Facebook.
Molly Flatt, Anne Marie Imafidon, Megan Murphy, Claire Koryczan, Karla Geci
For me, it is a frustration that we even still have to have sessions like this. When they are no longer needed, we will have arrived. Maybe.

What came out of today's session is that the number of women in tech has actually declined over the last 30 years - in the US, at any rate. This saddens me. You see, when I was in high school in South Africa (far more than 30 years ago!), local industries were so desperate for computing staff (the term 'IT' wasn't being used, yet) that they were recruiting straight out of schools off the back of an aptitude test offered to kids with maths skills. Starting salaries were really good, and there was the promise of being able to work towards a degree while working. Right in the thick of the patriarchal, apartheid era it was the first profession in which gender and race were shoved aside and demand became the sole driver. So the declining numbers being reported today are disappointing - all more so since the skills around the field of tech have become more blurred. It's not just a case of writing code any more - there is a need for community management skills, social engagement skills... all those 'soft' skills have found their way into tech. And those are areas which have traditionally attracted a large percentage of women.

The question was asked  whether women have a problem with tech or the tech industry has a problem with women, and the general consensus was that it must be the latter, because the former was simply not true, based on the experience and research of the panel members.

So having these women as role models for women starting out in tech is important. Having organisations like Stemettes giving girls confidence to operate in the science/tech space perhaps even more so, since this addresses the matter at grass roots level (because, let's be real - few kids will have heard of these women, yet - they don't really blip on the average young person's radar).

I'm not sure that I came away with a fistful of answers, but I would suggest that perseverance in raising awareness is at the very least a start.

However, I would be loathe to see women pressured to move into senior management roles or risk being seen to be letting the side down. Leadership is not the same thing as management or seniority (for example, I would contend that Malala Yousafzai's achievements make her a leader), and we need to take care not to conflate the two concepts. I would also like to see women in the role of specialist practitioner, becoming leaders in their field by dint of the sheer quality of their work and the level of expertise they gain, and being afforded the same level of respect, support and mentoring as captains of industry.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Talking frankly about mental illness

For the past few years in the UK, there has been a campaign to try to de-stigmatise the concept of mental illness. I guess this is my contribution. I'm not an expert. I have no training in psychiatry. My understanding of psychology and the human mind is rudimentary at best - mostly acquired as a result of working in the field of learning and development. Marginally enhanced by a personal, strictly amateur interest in the subject.

When I was growing up, and even into my adulthood, terms like 'mental illness' were just euphemisms for other, less kind words, like 'mad' or 'insane'. I used terms like 'insane asylum' and 'mental hospital' without giving them a second thought. Mental illness was something that happened to other people. Abnormal people. Scary people.

Then, in the early 90s, the wife of one of my husband's colleagues had what is still usually referred to as a nervous breakdown. She was placed in a facility that we referred to in hushed tones as a mental hospital. I had no problems asking her husband after her health and progress and offering him help and support - all in that exaggeratedly self-congratulatory sympathetic way, with the slightly tilted head. But I was less brave when it came to speaking to her - it was the elephant in the room that we didn't talk about. So I sort of avoided her altogether, which was unspeakably cruel.

I knew that people like Spike Milligan had had what used to be called manic depression, and I saw the evidence of it in his brilliant work. I began to wonder about people like Mozart and van Gogh.

It took a long time before I was prepared to admit to myself that I, too, experience mental illness from time to time. And I don't mean in that "my kids drive me nuts" kind of way. Nor am I 'insane'. My battle is with depression.

I had always had a tendency to 'get a bit down' from time to time. Something which got no sympathy at boarding school. At other times, the smallest thing would send me off into a towering rage from which I struggled to return. The towering rages were shrugged off as PMS. I wonder how often women with mental illness are misdiagnosed with PMS.

For me, the 'getting a bit down' thing became a bit more problematic. I was eventually diagnosed as having depression and given anti-depressants. The first lot gave me the raging munchies and caused me to gain weight, which made me more depressed. So I was switched to that miracle drug of the 90s: Prozac.

I decided I didn't want to be dependent on chemicals to deal with the day-to-day reality that is my life, and I weaned myself off them - cold turkey is not advised.

I have had repeat bouts of depression over the years - some of them so deep and so dark that I have not expected - or even wanted - to emerge from the other side. Calm, rational (or so they seem to me) thoughts of suicide have been very much the order of the day at times. During my studies in 2007-2010, an unexpected setback pushed me over the edge, and I suspect I had a nervous breakdown. It was a year before I was able to return to my studies without having a full-blown panic attack. I really should have sought professional help. As it was, my poor dissertation supervisor had to deal with tears and tantrums befitting a child, even after I got back to my studies.

I have learned to distinguish between being unhappy and being depressed, for the most part. It took a while, and I still don't always get it right. I have managed to avoid drugs as a long-term solution, but I don't rule out the possibility that I might have to go that route at some point in the future. I know the view at the bottom of that dark pit, and it's not one I am keen to see again, but the odds are against me.

Everybody is different. Each person will have their own experience of what works and what doesn't work. For me, it's as follows:
  • Telling me 'I'm there for you' doesn't do it for me. I have no idea what that means. They're just words, as far as I'm concerned.
  • Any sentence that starts with "At least..." isn't going anywhere helpful.
  • Do not EVER ask "What have you got to be depressed about?" and then proceed to enumerate all the wonderful things in my life. I know I have a well-paid job. I know my husband adores me. I know I have a lovely home - which is a tip right now, because I'm wallowing. I know my kids are wonderful. And now I also feel guilty that that 'isn't enough for me', as some people perceive it, and I sink lower into the mire.
  • Some people know exactly what the solution is, and they declare it with great confidence. When my depression continues, they either (a) feel helpless because they don't know what else to suggest or (b) get impatient because I should be over this by now.
  • Being 'given space' is not helpful. People often politely step back and leave me to get on with it, on the understanding that I will contact them when I once again feel ready for human contact. All that happens is that I feel abandoned. Politeness is over-rated. When I do emerge, I will probably just continue to respect the space that you have created between us.
    I've made a nest
  • Other people ask me what they can do for me and then disappear when I say I don't know or that there isn't anything they can do. When I am in that pit, I just want to relieve people of the burden of my company, and I'm useless at making decisions. I'm not going to ask for anything.
  • Someone who pitches up, sits me down on the sofa with a chick flick and then sets about cleaning my kitchen or my bathroom will make more difference to me than someone who tries to dispense wisdom. Having a clean kitchen and bathrooms give me an enormous boost, but when I'm depressed I can't motivate myself to do it, which makes me feel worse.
  • When I'm depressed, I can't bring myself to spend money on myself. I try to take up as little space in the world as possible, so I look a fright, which also makes me feel worse. Taking me to have my hair cut or giving me a home-spun makeover will also give me a boost.
  • Bringing a home-cooked meal and relieving me of the anguish of watching my husband have to shoulder more than his fair share of the household chores would also help.
  • Coming over with the makings for a day of crafting-and-making would get me up and busy, and the fact that we're not making direct eye contact might even enable me to talk more easily about what I'm going through. Don't feel under pressure to have answers.
  • Coming over with your dog, and taking me and my dog out for a long and strenuous walk would get me out of the house and the endorphin flowing.
  • On the subject of endorphin - an exercise session would help, too. So bring along your Davina McCall fitness DVD and do a workout with me.
  • Popping over for a day of bad movies and worse snacks would help, too.
  • When I start to emerge from the pit, don't avoid talking to me about it. Don't adopt falsely cheerful tones and ignore the elephant.
  • Don't be astonished if there's a relapse. Recovery isn't linear.
  • Don't patronise me. I might be acting like a petulant child at times, but I'm still an intelligent adult.
  • Talk to me about your own experience. Ask me what I find helps me. Have a rational conversation with me. 
  • Don't treat me like a victim and steer me away from treating myself as such. 
For the most part, I don't want someone to 'fix' me. I'm not looking for a problem-solver. I need people who will demonstrate that they aren't going to be driven away by me at my unlovely worst.

I have shared a cartoon, as you can see. I wish I could track down the original and give credit to the person who created it. If you recognise it, please let me know. It resonates with me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The future of university education in the UK

Yesterday, from several quarters, I found myself listening to statistics, reports and predictions on the subject of university education in the UK (and a little about the global situation). I'm not a futurologist. In fact, my stomach twists into a knot when I am asked to make any predictions about the future of learning. However, I can't help wondering whether universities are going to start disappearing or being 're-imagined' pretty soon. I have provided links wherever I have them. Please feel free to follow those for further information.

First, some background.

Up to 1998, there were no tuition fees for first degrees in the UK. In 1998, universities were required to pay up to £1,000 per year for tuition. In 2004, that increased to £3,000 (in England - other fee structures apply elsewhere). In 2010 that trebled to £9,000 a year. From a personal perspective, this was right at the time my sons would be looking at starting a university education. Neither of them went that route, and one made the decision based on cost.

The average predicted debt on leaving university in England, for those who started in 2012 is over £59,000. Graduates 'only' have to start paying back their study debts once they start earning at least £21,000 per year. Outstanding debt will be written off after 30 years. 30 years! By this time, these people will be in their early fifties. My age. By which point in their lives most of them will also have wanted to have had a wedding (£15,000+), take out a mortgage (£30,000 deposit and  a mortgage of £120,000), buy cars, do some travelling and generally live their lives. They will have needed to look into educating their own children. Many of them may, in fact be grandparents by then. The thought of still having a study loan hanging over my head at this stage of my life is just beyond depressing.

61% of graduates find work within six months of leaving university, and will earn an average of £18,000-£24,000 in their first job. So there might not be a lot of time between graduation and the beginning of loan repayment for that group. What of the 39% who take longer? (rhetorical question)

Organisations are finding that graduates don't leave university with skills that can be applied on the job. This might be due to a disconnect between what academia considers important and current practice within the corporate world. Whatever the reason, large investments often need to be made into the development of graduates before they begin to play a useful part in the achievement of the organisation's strategic objectives.

Having paid a fortune for their university education, students are becoming more inclined to complain when their expectations aren't met. Universities are self-regulating, unlike schools. This, I learned yesterday, is a major issue for several graduates. There is no body they can go to, to escalate the situation when they are dissatisfied. And many of them are dissatisfied. More than 20,000 students complained to their universities in 2013. They have begun to see themselves as consumers and believe they have been sold a sub-standard product. According to a programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, students find that the reality of a module often doesn't match the description which formed the basis on which they chose it. They find that they are unable to enrol on the modules they want, and must accept less-preferred alternatives for the same price (you can't have this Porsche 911, but here is a Fiat Punto for the same price). One student's dissertation supervisor was unavailable to him for five months leading up to his submission date, and the poor grade he got for his dissertation pulled his overall degree down from a 2.1 to a 2.2. Students are finding that the degree they have paid so much for doesn't qualify them for anything in particular - one young lady I know has just left university with a degree in German and has discovered that it doesn't open any doors that weren't already open before she earned her degree.

When I was in my final year of school (a long time ago), the field of computing (IT wasn't a term yet) was exploding. It wasn't yet the time of the personal computer, but the computerisation of  organisations - both public and private - was rampant. In desperation, organisations approached schools. One day, some captains of local industry came into our  (higher grade) maths class and offered to test us all for the aptitude to work with computers. I declined, but that's another story. Those who showed aptitude were offered jobs straight out of school at decent starting salaries (more than my Mom was earning at the time) and the opportunity to gain a qualification on the job.

Might we be seeing a return to that?

We're certainly seeing an increase in apprenticeship programmes. Not just in number, but in disciplines. In my office alone, we have three apprentices: one in admin, one in HR and one in Finance.

Considering the cost of training up their graduates anyway, and they higher salary they can command. Organisations may start recruiting straight from school. Offering young people the opportunity to earn-while-you-learn and to obtain accredited qualifications on a personal portfolio basis which can eventually build up to the equivalent of a degree... and beyond.

Will universities become irrelevant and even disappear? Will they begin to partner with organisations and run programmes that meet the needs of the organisations, with a changed accreditation model?

I can see this approach being more feasible in some fields than others - the corporate world is one such example. Neuro-surgery, maybe not so much. But maybe over time, models can be developed for the most unexpected fields to be able to move to a learn-on-the-job approach.

I will be watching with interest.

To close, though - it is my observation that the recruitment industry is lagging behind. They're a little too wedded to the 'piece of paper' as an easy way to identify suitable candidates. The current situation must surely be a strong motivation for finding a different way. But perhaps that is a post for another day.

Monday, June 02, 2014

On becoming an instructional designer

A colleague of mine has identified that she would like to progress her career into instructional design, and I was called in to suggest ways in which she might achieve this goal. So I thought I'd turn it into a post.

Many companies are developing internal learning materials without recourse to an ID, with varying results. But if you're developing third party learning resources for someone else - particularly someone who's going to pay you for it, you'd probably be best advised to have some instructional design skill on your team.

I'm not going to reinvent the wheel, here. The subject has been covered by others, so I'm going to point at some of those.

There are formal qualifications out there that can be obtained: diplomasBachelor's degrees, Master's degrees and beyond.

But I'm not convinced that that's necessarily the best way to go. While I consider it more important to understand learning theories than some appear to do, and acquiring skills is always useful, I think the core of a good instructional designer is an ability to champion the learner/user. The one person who is seldom present in any of the conversations or planning meetings is the person who is going to use the resource after go-live. In my view, the ID's job is to represent that person. And this requires a level of empathy and insight which I don't think can be taught. A person who has this sort of empathy and insight will be able to learn the theory and acquire the skills as they go, and with a useful sense of context from the outset, in my opinion (with which you may differ, of course).

I would expect far more value out of a programme such as the one offered by the Ministry of Instructional Design. The contributors are genuine movers and shakers in the field. I'm not sure if they still run them, but it would be well worth finding out.

I would also suggest making yourself a virtual apprentice of some of the luminaries in the field. there are a few ways of doing this:
  • Participate in something like #lrnchat - a tweet chat for learning professionals
  • Read blog posts such as this one by Cathy Moore and this one by Christy Tucker. Both blog posts contain a fair amount of 'link love', so there's a wealth of information to be mined there.
  • Participate in MOOCs like this one
  • Attend conferences and choose seminars that will help you move towards your goal. There is such a long list of suitable ones, and I'm aware that you may live in a different part of the world from me, so I will resist the temptation to list all the ones that I try/would like to attend.
I hope you find this helpful. It's not meant to be exhaustive, but it should provide a useful 'starter for ten' as the saying goes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Keeping the main thing the main thing

Today is my wedding anniversary. Mr Namasi and I have ben married for 26 years - that's more than half my life. And I'm struck by how much there is in common between our marriage and our worklives - it's mainly about priorities and choices.

We chose to view our wedding as the first day of our marriage. The marriage was - and remains - the main thing. And has been a work in progress since its 'launch' 26 years ago today.

On our respective Facebook pages, we are receiving the usual barrage of congratulatory messages, some of which imply that the success of our marriage is due to the 'fact' that we never argue.


We argue a lot. I mean can you really believe that someone who writes this opinionated blog is going to have an argument-free marriage? My husband is a strong-willed man. But, as Kate Reynolds (Téa Leoni) says in The Family Man, "I choose us."

So let's just unpick this for a moment:
  • We got married on a shoe string budget. Neither of our parents had any money, so we paid for it ourselves.
  • The ceremony was brief and to the point. It took minutes.
  • It was held in my mother-in-law's granny flat above to my brother- and sister-in-law's house.
  • I made the lunch (coq au vin) that followed, which was held downstairs.
  • I made my own outfit out of fabric I bought from the designer I worked for (at staff discount) and it was something I could use again afterwards.
  • My MIL made the cake.
  • My SIL made the dessert (kiwi fruit pavlova) and took the photos. 
  • Bride and groom walked into the 'venue' together. We had no retinue (no bridesmaids or best men). 
  • We had no alcohol, due to the presence of one alcoholic and one recovering alcoholic. 
  • Just family and very close friends were in attendance - fewer than 30 people in all. 
  • To be honest, there are things I would do differently if I were to do it over again - it was one of the most stressful days of my life, because I took too much on myself.

By the end of the ceremony we were just as married as anyone who has spent £15000 (because that's apparently the current UK average according to figures cited on Radio 4 the other day) on the ceremony. Our 4-day honeymoon in a small-town hotel a couple of hours' drive from the city was lovely, too, in spite of the fact that we both got food poisoning on our last day!

Many of our friends and family have had magnificent productions on their wedding day. And I confess to occasional twinges of envy. But we started our married life without the massive debts that can result from the lavish event. We were stone broke, but we were stone broke together and everything we have today, we have acquired together.

Something else that I've noticed is that planning the wedding can become so much the focus of the relationship that, once the wedding is over, some couples can feel quite bereft. Everything happened so much faster for us, that we didn't have time to develop that level of attachment to the occasion. We had been planning to get married in December 1988. But we realised at one point in April that we had no reason to wait - there wasn't going to be additional budget or resource freed up during that time. So we gave ourselves six weeks to bring the whole thing together and got on with it.

So, much like a lot of projects, we had very little time. We had next to no money. We weren't in a position to produce anything shiny. We didn't have a big team of professionals, or an outsourced vendor. We faced a lot of opposition and naysayers who told us that it couldn't and/or shouldn't be done. We were a pair of amateurs who had never done this before, and were too naïve to realise how utterly ill-suited we were to the task at hand (or each other, come to that). We had a few (unpaid) helpers, some willing, some decidedly not so.

We have had better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness and health. We have had disasters, catastrophes, we have had slow-burning, insidious challenges. But we stubbornly resolve every time to release a patch, an update.

The project had a rather inauspicious start by average standards. But it is enduring, because the team is committed. :)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

'Over dependence' on technology

When the news is filled as it currently is with news of a data compromise at eBay, it is quite common to hear people say things like "this is what happens when we are over-dependent on technology."

They say the same things when the link to an online learning resource won't work, or people lose their connection to a webinar. Isn't it terrible? We're so dependent on technology, and everything grinds to a halt when it lets us down.

But let's just stop a moment before we all get hysterical about technology being to blame for all that goes wrong in the world. Our lives are filled with technology that we don't even refer to by that name any more. Your cooker is technology. Your pen is technology. Your car is technology. Your old manual typewriter (supposing you have one) is technology. They've just been around so long that you don't think of them as such any more.

When your cooker stops working, you don't curse your over-dependence on gas/electricity to provide food for your family. When your car breaks down, you don't make a blanket statement about how we should have stuck with horses.

Did you once use overhead projectors? Did the bulb sometimes go when you were right in the middle of a class/workshop/presentation? Should we have reverted back to the days before OHPs were invented? Nah, you just came up with an alternative and moved on. Because you're resourceful like that.

The thing that has happened at eBay is serious. It could be more serious than they're letting on. But the dust will probably settle and people will go back to business as usual.

Mistakes and challenges have always been a part of life and always will be. The technologies that we curse when things go wrong were developed in the first place to address some other problem. Before we had online learning, distance learning had to involve large quantities of printed materials being sent hither and yon, which was costly on so many levels. Before we had distance learning, people had to travel somewhere to participate in a learning event, which was ditto, and disruptive to boot.

So the next time you lose connection to your online learning event (which might happen to me within the next half an hour as I try to log in to a webinar with a splendiferous thunderstorm doing its thang overhead), take a breath and try again. The world hasn't come to an end, and it's probably no more of an inconvenience than when the assignment you submitted by mail didn't reach its destination by deadline date, or your car broke down on the way to a residential course.

And, just to keep your sense of humour intact, the next time the water is cut off to your home while they work on the pipes somewhere in your neighbourhood, say out loud to yourself, "This is what happens when we become too dependent on running water!" Because taps (faucets) are technology too.

Monday, May 19, 2014

In the run up to the UK elections

This week is election week in the UK. As a mixed nationality family, it took us a while and a few false starts to figure out who was allowed to vote in which election. This is what we have established:

My husband and sons, who are Swedish (and therefore EU) nationals are entitled to vote in local elections and European elections. So they have a say in who their local councillors are and who their MEPs are. But they may not vote in a national election. So they have no say in who their MP is.

I, as a South African (and therefore a Commonwealth) national, am allowed to vote in all elections: local, national and European (even though I'm a non-European).

It's kind of weird, really, because my husband and sons are allowed to live and work in the UK (or anywhere else in the EU) without having to apply for permits or visas or any of that malarkey. I am only allowed to live in the UK (or anywhere else in the EU) if I have a residence permit. But I get more of a voice than they do. Go figure.

If you've been wondering who in your family may and may not vote, I hope our experience is of some help to you. It was only after my husband had voted in at least one national election that we found out he wasn't entitled to do so. How his name was included on the electoral roll is anybody's guess. Our story was even included in our local newspaper a few years back, because of the mix ups, contradictions and misinformation we had experienced in our quest for a definitive position on our voting rights.

During our 15 years in the UK, we have encountered a few instances of racism* (see below). But these have been the exception. However, our subjective experience is that, in the run up to this election, there is more of it about. There seems to be a great deal of anger just below the surface, and we have found ourselves on the receiving end of more of it than usual. I find it unsettling, as I'm sure you understand.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the election, and the aftermath. Will it settle back down to life as usual, or will the tensions continue? For the first time in fifteen years, I'm actually nervous about going to the polls alone, in case of unpleasantness.

In spite of my enthusiastic involvement as a student, I don't think I was designed for politics. The anger and unpleasantness unsettles me.

*People outside the UK might be surprised to learn that the term 'racism' is used in these instances. I was too, the first time I encountered it, so just to provide some context: A teenaged neighbour had physically and verbally abused me on my own doorstep, and I had dialled the police to find out what I should do about it, if anything. I was asked if I wanted to lay a charge of racist abuse against her, and I was totally non-plussed. "But we're the same race!" I protested. But the police officer explained that that didn't matter. The term 'racism' in the UK is used more broadly than appears to be the case elsewhere, and can apply to abuse based on cultural or heritage differences, too.

Friday, May 16, 2014

On learning to dismount the high horse

As you (probably) know, I am a South African expat, living in the UK. If you're an expat, too, you will know that a conversation about your accent is something that takes place pretty much on a daily basis. Shopkeepers, people with whom you strike up conversations on the train, people on the other end of the phone, fellow attendees at business meetings... everywhere and anywhere seems to be the right place and any time seems to be the right time for "Where are you from?"

Some people like to guess. South Africans ('saffas'), New Zealanders (kiwis) and Australians (ozzies) often get mistaken for each other. At one stage, I worked with an Australian. We had a lot in common and we got on really well. His family and mine spent social time together on the weekends. This clearly showed in the way we interacted with each other at work, and many people assumed we were a couple, because we got on so well together and 'had the same accent.'

These are three very competitive sporting nations and in general, it doesn't go down too well with a national from one to be mistaken for another. I was no exception. I bristled when I was asked if (and sometimes told that) I was an ozzie or a kiwi. A facetious "g'day mate" brought out the worst in me.

But then I realised something. I can't tell accents apart, either. Yes, I can tell my ozzies from my kiwis (it's in the As and the Is), but I can't tell a Pole from a Latvian - and we have many of both in our town. I can't tell a Pakistani from an Indian, and there are many of both of those all over the UK. I have no idea how offended a Polish person is when asked if they're Latvian, or vice versa. I have no idea whether a cricket fan from Pakistan bristles at being asked if s/he is enjoying an England/India game being televised at the time.

So I decided to get down off that high horse before I got a nosebleed. It really isn't a big deal. And at least the person is showing some interest and making conversation about something other than the weather.

But I'm still ridiculously pleased when someone gets it right. Just this morning, I popped into a little shop on the Charing Cross station and the man behind the counter identified me as a South African. I asked how he could tell, and he said (a) that he was a fan of cricket in general and Kepler Wessels in particular and (b) that with the South African embassy being just across the road, hordes of saffas visited his shop on a daily basis. The man himself was from India...or Pakistan...or Bangladesh...or maybe even Sri Lanka. I couldn't tell. Something I am readier to admit from ground level than I ever was from my perch on that horse I mentioned.

Now if I can just learn to stop bristling when people try to 'do the accent' which I have never heard anyone do successfully...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Referencing outdated research

I recently had to attend a speed awareness course (I know, I know - you're all paragons of driving virtue).

The delivery method for the course was chalk-and-talk with endless PowerPoint slides, almost all of which contained a list of bullet points. The instructors did their level best to make it interesting, and - to be fair - there was some solid content. But I can't help feeling that it might be time to explore some alternative delivery approaches. Perhaps this is a post for another day, but right now, I digress.

If you know anything about me, especially if you've read my recent post, you'll know how my brain imploded when one instructor tried to explain the psychology behind speeding in terms of the whole left brain/right brain thing. You'll be proud of me, though, because I didn't immediately challenge him to a duel. :)

I know I've only recently touched on this point, but it really set me to thinking. When all's said and done, this was a course about road safety. Imagine how their credibility would be damaged if they cited traffic ordinance that was as outdated as the left brain/right brain concept. Why do we put so much effort into one and not make the slightest effort about the other?

The company I work for provides (among other things) training in various safety-critical fields: working at height, working with high voltage, working in confined spaces, hazardous agents in the workplace, for example (and those are just the ones that pop into my head - there are hordes of others). Imagine if we trotted out outdated safety equipment, or cited outdated safety precautions. The results could be devastating!

The people who work in these areas make it their business to keep up to date with the latest information and legislation. They wouldn't dream of doing otherwise.

Why is it then, that there isn't the same level of commitment to keeping up with the research about how learning itself works? Why is it okay to trot out research that is decades old and out of date? To cite pop-psychology as if it were solid fact? To quote urban legends as 'evidence' that 'prove' the point you're trying to make?

Why isn't the learning world beating a path to Itiel Dror's door (for example)? Or Mo Costandi's? Or (while he was alive) John Geake's? In his presentations, Itiel often mentions how learning providers will feature a picture of a brain in their materials at various exhibitions. And when he asks how the product they're selling relates to the brain, the vendors are stumped. They know little about the brain, other than that learning happens there somehow or another.

I have to question the ethics of this. In other fields, professionals keep up with emerging research on pain of dire consequence: structural engineers, microbiologists, burn specialists, aerospace engineers, surgeons... and the world holds them to account. Why are we being allowed to get away with it?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Cloud based email and distribution lists

The company I work for recently switched from an Outlook Exchange based email system to a cloud based system. This happened just before I joined the team, so the switch shouldn't really have affected me.
I have been using cloud based email on a personal basis for a while, now, so I didn't really expect to encounter any challenges. But distribution lists have got me (a bit) beat at the moment. I don't use those for my personal emails.
  • I have yet to figure out how to create a distribution list of my own - any help on this front would be welcomed.
  • The distribution lists from the Outlook system have either been carried over or recreated (I'm not sure which), so I can use those to send out group emails. Being fairly new to the company, I don't know who is included on the various distribution lists, and I have yet to find a way to expand an existing distribution list to find out who's on it. Once again, any help you can offer...
  • When I send out a meeting invitation to one of the distribution lists, the invitees are unable to respond. They receive an error message to the effect that the invitation has been sent to , whereas they're logged in as . So in fact, meeting invitations have to be sent to a list of individuals, rather than a named distribution list. If the distribution list is long and/or if you don't know who's on it, this can be problematic!
Have you had similar challenges? How have you resolved them?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Keeping it valid

Centuries ago, people believed the world was flat. They don't (or most don't) believe that any more. So, if you were to chuck in a casual reference to the flat earth during a presentation you were doing to a client, or a roomful of attendees, you would immediately lose credibility. Clearly here is someone who does not have his/her finger on the pulse.

But the flat earth is an extreme example. There are other, more recent ones. In recent meetings, I have heard people make casual reference to the whole left brain/right brain thing as if it were indeed, still a thing. We used to think so. But now, thanks to the work of people like Prof John Geake (among others), we know that is simply not the case.

Similarly, I have heard people cite the example of how the Americans spent millions researching a pen that could write in the zero gravity of space, while the Russians just used a pencil. That illustration gets used to demonstrate why it is important not to overthink things, and that sometimes, the simplest approach is the best. While that may be sound advice, the story of the pen/pencil thing is bogus. The graphite in pencils is problematic in zero gravity, too.

Every single one of us has seen a Facebook share that tells us that a million shares will get this kid his heart transplant, or that Bill Gates will donate a dollar to X charity for every 'like' the photo gets. Truth is, no amount of sharing is going to get that kid a heart, and Bill Gates already donates millions to charity, but to the charities of his own choosing. And by sharing these things, a person reveals a level of naivete and - it has to be said - laziness.

It is always possible to check whether a story is true. There are several sites online where you can verify (or otherwise) the latest viral sharing trend. Hoaxslayer, Snopes, etc. It takes a matter of minutes.

It is also possible to check whether the earth is flat, whether global warming is real, whether fracking is harmful, whether nuclear energy is really clean, whether the Russians really did just use a pencil while the American spent millions developing the space pen. (Please note: I am not for a moment saying that all of these are myths. But you can check for yourself which are true and which are not.)

...and to see what the current thinking is on how the brain works, whether learning styles actually exist.

I am a learning professional. I try to keep abreast of current thinking and research in my field so that I don't discredit myself or my company by casually dropping an absolute clanger into a conversation with a client.

Whatever your field is, I genuinely believe you owe it to yourself to do the same.

Things that were once unequivocally true (the earth is flat; eating fat makes you fat) are being shown by emerging research to be not so very true after all (the earth is round-ish; processed carbs make you fat).

Information is everywhere, and it is impossible to keep on top of it all, but keep your eyes and ears open in the fields that interest you. And, in the field that pays your salary, make a conscious effort to keep up.

That's my advice.

Not that you asked for it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Radical collaboration

Yesterday, I came across this TED talk by Ramona Pierson, CEO of Declara. Pierson was seriously injured in a car accident several years ago. In fact, that she survived is nothing short of astonishing.

Please don't get so lost in the sensational story of her injuries and the fact that she now looks so unscathed that you lose the message that this young woman was moved into an old age home, and that fact probably saved - if not her life - her ability to function and lead the life she has.

This was radical collaboration. A bunch of people came together and taught her some vital skills. Sometimes they were skills the bunch of people didn't have themselves, so they more or less made it up as they went along. Others were skills some members of the bunch had honed and flexed decades previously. This was outside the box/left field/pick your cliche thinking in action. Was this bunch a collection of young buck mavericks, known for flying off at a tangent? Not even a little bit. This was a bunch of senior citizens in an old age home. They didn't hold a thought shower. They didn't run a few ideas up the flagpole and see who saluted. They all just pitched in and did what they could. It was probably quite messy, because it was life and not corporate business. And just look at their results.

By and large, people in old age homes are considered to have done their bit for society. They are now being afforded the chance to put their feet up and take it easy in the final years of their lives. They can even be quite disempowered. They are as likely to be 'done to' as school children - not consulted about their schedules and preferences, but with activities planned and scheduled by well-meaning people who believe they know what's best for them. Old age homes aren't exactly sought after harvesting grounds for recruitment agencies. And yet, and yet.

I find this story inspiring on so many levels.

I am also inspired by Pierson's approach to recruitment (among other things). However, rather than diluting this particular slant by going down that rabbit hole, let me leave you with a link to an interview she did with Business Week, so that you can explore more on your own.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Can we stop with the age labels already?

At a recent meeting, one attendee made an observation about how, when it comes to learning solutions, young people are comfortable with the use of technology, while older people are not. I challenged this, pointing out that I (being north of my 50th birthday) fall into the 'older' category, and I am perfectly comfortable with digital solutions (just as well, since I design them!). The person responded with, "Yes, but you're the exception."

It wasn't an unfriendly exchange, that was simply her perception. One that I'm finding to be fairly widespread, and many late adopters are citing this as their reason for delaying the deployment of digital learning components in their learning solutions - they still have some older people on the staff.

But is time we put this perception to bed, now. For one thing, it's ageist.
Jane Hart and Harry get techie together
I think generational labels like digital immigrants/natives, millennials, GenY, etc are anything but helpful in this regard, because they carry with them implications which the reality simply doesn't bear out. In fact, many of the movers and shakers in this field are no longer in the first flush of youth by any stretch of the imagination.

Let's look at some case studies:
  • Today, I read a blog post by Tony Bates, announcing his retirement. Tony recently turned 75, and many commenters are skeptical that he will be able to stay retired, because he lives and breathes online learning.
  • Jay Cross is often credited with being the first person to use the term e-learning. Whether or not this is true isn't really the point. What is the point is that Jay is one of the movers and shakers in the field of digital learning, and - as far as I know - his 60th birthday is in the past. The link takes you to a website, but you'll find him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Diigo, Pinterest... 
  • Jay is the CEO of the Internet Time Alliance, a collective which helps organisations become more networked, collaborative, distributed and agile. The other members of this group are Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings (think 70:20:10), Clark Quinn and Jane Hart (of the annual 100 top tools list - see photo). I'm on hugging terms with all these people, so I hope they won't mind me telling you that none of them will ever see 50 again. On his Facebook page, Charles recently shared a video of himself playing the banjo (the man is a skilled musician, as so many learning geeks appear to be) on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Jane Hart's Facebook page is full of photos of her adored grandchildren.
  • Stephen Downes is a highly regarded "commentator in the fields of online learning and new media" (as his wikipedia page asserts). His OLDaily blog posts are varied and interesting - required reading for anyone who wants to keep up to date with developments in the field. He celebrated his 55th birthday earlier this month.
  • Together with Stephen Downes, George Siemens developed the Theory of Connectivism as a way of describing learning in the digital era. In his early 40s, George is probably going to be the baby of this group that I'm throwing together here today.  I just hope he doesn't mind being lumped together with all these oldies ;)
There are many other examples of luminaries in the field, and I could sit here all day, listing people - purely from memory - who are leading lights in the field and north of 50. But let's come down a notch to more everyday people:
  • My Facebook friends list includes at least two people in their 80s.
  • I keep in touch with my 74 year old Mom by means of WhatsApp and Skype. When a WhatsApp message arrives from her, my screen announces her as 'Barbara the Legend'. And that's what she is.
  • My doctors' surgery has an interactive screen by which patients of all ages make their arrival known. I've seen them do it.
  • Buying groceries online and having them delivered is a boon for elderly and/or infirm customers. I have no concrete examples, but I'm confident they exist, and that more people would use the facility if they just got a little help with the initial learning curve.
  • Autobanks are used by people of all ages. Next time you use one, take a look at the demographic of the other users.
  • eReaders are a great tool for bookworms with arthritis and/or grandchildren. Imagine being a grandparent with an entire library of books in your handbag/pocket! I'm not a granny yet, but I know all about how the pain of arthritis! There are some fabulous interactive ebooks to explore with grandchildren.
  • I've read Amazon book and product reviews by people of all ages.
  • And on and on and on
We have got to stop thinking of digital spaces as being the comfort zone of the 'young'. Jane Bozarth often refers to herself as 'the oldest millennial'. I think there are several others who might give her a run for her money (caveat: I have no idea how old Jane is).
Give your older staff members some credit. I'm pretty sure they'll surprise you.
Before I go, let me share this BBC article (with video) about 'cybergrannies'.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Running an Articulate Storyline module on a non-iOS mobile device

A lot of blood, sweat and swearing has gone into the back story behind today's post.
I am preparing to run a short internal workshop about the use of technology in learning. As part of that, I thought I might start with a brief, fun quiz, designed to demonstrate to my largely tech-shy colleagues that they are not as digitally illiterate as they think. Of course, it makes sense to deliver that quiz using technology in an intuitive enough form that it supports my message, right?
Devising the quiz
So I opted to use Articulate Storyline. I am fairly adept with Articulate Studio, having used it to build solutions for several of my clients when I had my own business, but I have only recently been coming to grips with Storyline. It's very handy for this sort of thing. So here we had learning experience 1. I made a few mistakes, and oversights, which revealed themselves in the test stages, but I managed to sort them out (I think).
The challenges
Creating the quiz proved to be the easy bit. The difficult bit comes when we start looking at the tech for the workshop. Here are the challenges I faced:
  • There isn't enough cabling in any of our meeting rooms for everyone to bring along their laptops and access the quiz on our shared drive.
  • There is only one, rather feeble, wifi network in our offices, which doesn't reach the meeting rooms.
  • We have no supported tablets in our offices. We do, however, have some unsupported ones. These are generic non-iOS devices.
  • The unsupported devices don't have access to our network drives.
  • I don't have a space suitable for hosting the quiz module in a workable format.
  • Normally speaking, in order to run an Articulate module on a tablet, you have to publish an html5 version and download the Articulate Mobile Player app from iTunes. That means it's only available to iOS devices.
With the help of my remarkably supportive husband for some bits, this is what I will be doing:

Creating a wifi hotspot
I will create a wifi hotspot in the meeting room by bridging the networks on my laptop as follows (I hope - this bit has yet to be tested!):

Hosting space
The tablets can then use that wifi to access the quiz. However, as I mentioned, there isn't a suitable space for me to host the quiz. So I'm hoping that I will be able to impose on the good graces of the people at Articulate to host the quiz on their tempshare space for the occasion. It is a little frustrating that I need to do this at all, but let's not go there for now.

Accessing the quiz
Of course, the resultant link from the tempshare space will be a long-ass string of letters and numbers and I don't have a way of storing that link on the tablets, so I will use Bitly to shorten it and then, rather clunkily, ask my attendees to enter it manually into the address bar of the browser.

This brings me to the matter of the browser. As I mentioned, these are non-iOS devices. In order to run an Articulate module on a mobile device, said device needs to have the appropriate app. This app is only available from iTunes, so applies only to iOS mobile devices. However, thanks to this post by Robert George on the Articulate forum, I discovered that the way forward on my cheap and cheerful tablets was a browser called Dolphin.

Having done that, I no longer needed the mobile player app. The tablet could run the quiz without it.

So, at about midnight last night, my husband and I high fived each other and dragged our exhausted butts to bed.

Now to see if I can replicate this in the office! It all hangs on that wifi connection!

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Learning about women's cricket

If you know anything about me, you'll know that I have many passions and hot button topics in life. I am passionate about learning, and am embarked on a lifelong, lifewide learning experience.

I am passionate about equality. Including - and perhaps especially - gender equality. I am hesitant to call myself a feminist, because the stereotypes associated with that term don't fit me comfortably as the happily married mother of sons, but I suspect I am often described as such. I will probably write more on that subject another day.

I am also passionate about sport. Like many South African women, I can happily join in a conversation about almost any sport, without feeling as if the conversation excludes me or goes over my head. Almost any sport. I'm not a fan of the sport known as football in the UK and soccer in most other parts of the English speaking world.

I do love cricket - pretty much in any format, 5-day tests, one day games, day/night games. I get a little tired of the endless T20 competitions, though, I confess. I only played cricket once, briefly, which 'epic fail' you can read more about here. My husband is even more passionate about cricket. He is possibly the only Swede ever to have opened the batting for a first division South African cricket team.

I has been a source of frustration in my life that sportswomen have endured the uphill struggles that they have. So, when my husband shared this link on my Facebook page today, it filled me delight, and I felt the need to share it with you.

Here's a potted history of women's cricket in England, from Enid Blakewell to Charlotte Edwards. I am thrilled that Blakewell's role in the women's game has finally been recognized by Wisden, if a little late in the day. I am also delighted that she's alive to see it. Too often these sorts of oversights are rectified posthumously.

Late adopters and that widening chasm

I believe it was David Lloyd George who said you can't cross a chasm in two small jumps. And for late adopters of digital technologies in learning and development, that chasm is becoming ever wider.

A chasm is a scary enough thing when it's narrow. The wider it gets, the scarier it gets. Fortunately, the technology exists to create stepping stones across the chasm.

One of the things I have noticed, talking to late adopters is that many of them are of the opinion that their target user audience isn't ready to use digital technologies as part of their working/learning day.

I'd like to address this from two angles.

First of all, digital tech is here to stay, and it's evolving all the time. At some point, the chasm will have to be crossed, and I reckon sooner is better than later. That much is pretty inevitable to both providers and consumers of learning solutions. In five or ten years' time, the learning landscape is going to look very different, and as for the learner profile..! There seems to be a general consensus that by that time, even our late adopters are going to have to be functioning in that space. One very positive aspect to being a late adopter is that you don't have to follow the path taken by the trailblazers - they made a lot of mistakes. Just check where they are now, and plot a path to join them there.

But I am seeing a tendency to postpone thinking about how they're going to get there. It is possible to introduce aspects of tech that set things in motion.
  • You could digitise your happy sheets, for example. Such a small thing. 
  • You could move assessments online.
  • You could introduce a tip/challenge of the week sent out to mobile phones.
  • User manuals/process documentation could be moved online (or if that's too scary, locally based on computers/tablets), leveraging the navigational advantages that that brings, and paving the way for a full blown point-of-need performance support tool.
Secondly, the user audience is seldom as digitally incompetent as the stakeholders seem to think. Many people, who are not regarded as being particularly digitally literate:
  • Search for information using a search engine such as Google
  • Have Facebook accounts
  • Can take a photo with their smart phone and upload it to Facebook or send it to someone
  • Can use a satnav, either a purpose-made one or on their smart phones
  • Find and watch clips on YouTube
  • Book flights/holidays online
  • Buy their groceries online
  • Buy goods from Amazon and/or eBay and pay for them via PayPal
  • Access their children's VLEs in the school portal
  • etc. etc.
So I think we can gently challenge the perception of the stakeholders on that score - their user audience can often do more than they're given credit for, and there's no reason why they can't start to do some of those things as part of their learning experience.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The importance of testing your design

Is it just me? Sometimes I write something - an email, a post for this blog, a journal article, a proposal, whatever - and then edit and re-edit, tweak and retweak before sending it off. Some time later, I will have reason to revisit the piece - perhaps because the reader has requested clarification - and my jaw will drop when I see what a scramble I submitted. Am I the only one?

Bear with me. We are going somewhere with this.

Our company's London offices are housed in a beautiful landmark building with great views of the Thames and some wonderful meeting rooms and function spaces.

But today I want to talk about the design of the cloakrooms on the 10th floor. They're unisex, which some people might struggle with, but that's not my beef. The stall I used today has a little hand basin inside, which is great. But then, with dripping hands, I looked around for the means to dry them. Nothing. Just the loo roll, which isn't ideal for the purpose for several reasons. With wet hands, I opened the door, and there was one of those whizzy air blade thingies on the wall outside. Outside.


It's just a little thing, but it puts me in mind of the basic principles of intuitive design.

When you put your first design proposal (no matter it is that you're designing) in front of the client, they will almost inevitably request changes. And that's fine - that's what the initial design proposal is for. But, once the discussions have been held, and the changes agreed upon, it's important to make sure that the impact of the tweaks and changes don't result in something that makes no sense or serves no purpose or becomes a genuine inconvenience to the user.

When you've been close to the piece from the outset, you're probably not best positioned to notice where the amendments have actually broken it. This is where things like user acceptance testing, or focus groups, or even just the bloke at the next desk become a useful sounding board to make sure that you're still designing something that works.

It's a little thing. But it matters.