Friday, 27 February 2009

.........and then three come along at once!

1. listening to Radio 4 on Weds afternoon (Thinking Allowed, Laurie Taylor) about ill health and redundancy. It made me realise how the fear of redundancy is so debilitating too. This is something that afflicts the flexible worker as much as anyone else. Ironically I spent 10 years working freelance in various aspects of teaching and consultancy and rejoined the salaried masses because I thought I would be more secure (lol*).... in the last 8 years I have been made redundant twice and on fixed term contracts for over 5 years.

Then this morning I was chatting to a colleague who, like me, has been facing the end of a "fixed term" contract for several gloomy and unsettling months. (Joyfully my colleague has just been offered a new post with the same employer! Yay!!) But this is about the third or fourth person I have spoken to recently facing such uncertainty and one has to question how this affects productivity and creativity.

For some it's a question of going into lockdown, hiding under the duvet or infecting everyone around with a slightly depressed and anxious air (me). For others it's about going into overdrive to impress your current or potential new employers that you are a good team player, reliable and productive (er, this is me too) .... either way, I don't think its a situation that is good for the soul. So I'll end this section with an uplifting Tweet from His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Oh yes, he's on Twitter too, you unbelievers!)

"Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck"

2. the power of the wiki is incredible: I am working on three simultaneously - using one as a personal learning portfolio to present my teaching log for a PGCE in Higher Education, a second as a staff development and networking site for academics new to e-learning and the third as an induction programme for new students on an e-learning programme. Interestingly, I am not deliberately using them to try to develop collaborative working or encourage any contribution from other members (other than discussion threads and member profiles) - simply as informal websites I can edit, add content too, and present in an attractive and interesting way (I am using by the way - not least because they will get rid of ads for free if its a site for educational purposes).

However, I was really struck by this use of a wiki in Australia to deal with the ongoing crisis caused by the recent fires. (Interesting aside too that the wiki's fame was spread further by use of Twitter...and, yes, I am virtually proselytizing now!)

3. Somebody (@Onenterframe) sent out a random tweet this week asking for one word that summed up the reason for your success in life. I couldn't do it in one word, but it is about passion for learning (as someone else - @dreig - noted to me in another Tweet today!)

So my personal learning this week - a tad on the geeky side - has been about creating video tutorials for e-learning students. I have discovered two exciting things recently: I can create a powerpoint preso, save all the slides as JPG files then drop them into Movie Maker so I can add audio, upload to YouTube. Yes I KNOW I could use Articulate, but at the moment I can't seem to make it work for me, I find the audio recording tedious and difficult to edit, and then I have to host it somewhere......

Second new thingummybob - Camstudio. I like Jing a lot for capturing what I am doing on screen, with a voice over, so I can show students how to do it (how to use a blog or a wiki, how to get to their student emails for the first time...). Its quick and free and looks great when its done. But I can't edit it in Movie Maker and I only get 5 mins recording time etc. So Yesterday I switched to Camstudio (also free) which creates avi files of indefinite length that are editable in MovieMaker, uploadable to Youtube and so can be cut, interspersed with slides, have music added... you name it.
I am of course hoping for an Oscar next year or at least some sort of geekgirl award.....
*(I only ever use "lol" for sardonic impact)

Saturday, 21 February 2009

10 c's of teleworking

Flickr image:neoporcupine

I don't get why some people don't get working from home. I have had various comments about the lack of socialisation, the fear of being ill-disciplined in their work habits and .....well, that's it mainly.

So why do I love working from home? And how do I overcome the discipline/socialisation thing? Here are the advantages for me:

1. Commute: 30 seconds from breakfast table to pc compared with 1hour minimum drive. No brainer.

2. Carbon footprint - see 1 above. Plus, as I work in a sunny, well insulated room in my house, with large south facing windows, I almost always don't have electric light or heating on. (OK - I gave in during the last couple of weeks of unusually harsh British Winter). My office at work is North facing and single glazed: dark and cold even in summer (its one advantage, I grant you).

3. Comfort. I have THE BEST office chair money can buy. I know the one in my "official" office is supposed to meet basic health and safety requirements but it sucks. Same goes for the cathode ray tube monitor I am supplied with, the migraine inducing overhead fluorescent lighting, the desk that's too high and the foot rest that's too low. At home I have a height adjustable desk, that really excellent chair, a footrest suitable for somebody shorter than 6', bags of natural daylight from my French windows, a flat screen monitor, wrist rests for the keyboard and my mouse hand. All of these were supplied many years ago by the company I worked for on an official "home working" contract. They took their responsibilities seriously, paid for the right equipment and let me buy it back when I left.

4. Company: yes, I do have company at home in the shape of my two lovely cats. They are never grumpy, depressed, jealous, competitive, bitchy, sarcastic or petty. (Except of course with one another, but that's cats for you!) They shower me with love, they are quiet, appreciative and hang on my every word & gesture with blatant adoration.

5. Community - ok, ok: even I know I need a little constructive criticism from time to time. My community consists of my online network. Twitter, Yammer, Skype, blogs, even the odd telephone call or email keep me in touch with a huge community of co-workers in my wider institution, my profession, right across the UK and beyond, who influence my work, provide feedback, ask intelligent questions, work in collaboration on projects, want advice, and yes, provide humour, support, sympathy and human warmth. Non social networkers don't get how it is possible to have real relationships mediated by technology. But it is. And if you doubt it - ask your kids if you can wrestle them away from their mobile phones, MSN or MyBeeboBook for two minutes.....

6. Concentration and creativity - these two go hand in hand for me: in order to research, write, plan, develop and design (even to mark assignments) I need space in my head and on my desk. In the office if I am not directly interrupted, I am constantly aware of people around me and in the corridor. My difficulty isn't in applying enough self discipline to focus on work when I am alone, it's applying too much. I have to remember to get up, stretch, turn away from the screen, have a short walk .....

image: author's own

7. Which brings me to countryside: I chose my house because of its location. A short walk to the rear of my house brings me to a classic English countryside of rolling hills, trees, and water populated by fluffy sheep, friendly cows and cute little squirrels. The birdsong provided by the thrushes and blackbirds is almost deafening....bluetits and robins flit through the branches.... the river is crowded with swans, geese and ducks, along with the odd heron....yes I know the City has Caffe Nero and John Lewis, but really, there is no competition.

8. Computer applications. Work systems are locked down and I don't have admin privileges on my own pc. I can't install anything. No Skype, no Jing, no Tweetdeck, no E-lluminate or Wimba Classroom. No webcam. No headset. Moving from home to office also affects continuity of work (I run around with multiple memory sticks containing whatever project I am currently working on as my work pc never has what I need). And the server is sooooo SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW even searching on the internet is painful. All of this of course restricts my productivity. I reserve office time for face to face meetings: I don't expect to be able to produce anything there.

9. Children (maybe that should be kids to keep the alliteration going): I have two. I like to see them occasionally. Its great to be here when they get out of school so we can chat over the day's tribulations and challenges (theirs and mine!) They are actually teenagers now and won't be around much longer, one way or the other, so this is important time we spend together.

10. last but not least Coffee: I don't really miss Caffe Nero or those other places: I make the best coffee, because its the coffee I like, and I can even do frothy milk now and call it cappuccino.....

If there is a disadvantage it is the occasional suspicious glances of those office-tied individuals who think I put WFH in my diary as a euphemism for watching daytime tv, shopping or private consultancy......

I am lucky in being supported by a boss who judges me on outcomes and not attendance, but to make it a successful and accepted alternative, homeworking does really need proper institutional support.

Teleworking isn't science fiction: it's happening now in millions of homes around the world. One day, as the recession deepens and global warming reality bites, home working will be the norm, and the suspicious glances will be directed at those demented individuals in cars passing each other on congested motorways as they travel in opposite directions to work. "Do you really NEED to do that?" we'll be asking...... "can't you work from home?"

Thursday, 19 February 2009

who is this woman?

sometimes when I put my blogger address into the address bar, this site appears . When I sign in I get to my own site......this is a very odd phenomenon. Not so much identity theft as identity confusion I suspect.

Anyway - if you see Valerie say hi!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Collaborative Learning

I want to stress right away that this is NOT my video: it is one I helped to make in a collaborative exercise with colleagues I have never met - some of them thousands of miles away and operating in different timezones, from different continents.

When I get students moaning to me about how hard it is to get together (on line) to produce a group presentation, I am going to show them this!!

Actually to be fair, it isn't just students: work colleagues too complain they can't find the time/space to work together or even to learn about the technology that would allow them to do it virtually.

This video emerged from a group of busy, professional people who were largely participating in the learning event in their own time. The woman who created the original movie was commuting between Melbourne and Brisbane for a conference and was, at the time, beside herself with worry about the devastation of Victoria by bush fires.

Those who took part wanted to "be there", wanted to contribute, to make a difference and to learn. The goal maybe meant different things to different people but whatever it was, as individuals we felt committed to completing it.

We made decisions by consensus (or at least by noone objecting if some people took a lead)and volunteers stepped up to the mark to get things done.

The saying goes, "where there's a will, there's a way" - my guess is with projects that fall by the wayside, or with groups that fall apart, there is just, somewhere, a lack of will for it to succeed .........

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Through the looking glass....

in a thoughtful exploration of learning and management @ffolliet caused me to wonder if it is possible to take "untrained" managers or students of leadership and management and support them learning "on the job" simply by providing a space for them to reflect on their practice.... or do we need in fact to provide initial "basic training" which is then honed by experience, supervision, coaching and reflection into "mastery"?

I mean, do we not at the very least have to provide "training" or induction into the process of reflection so that the learning process can begin?

This reminds me of some reflecting I have been doing elsewhere on the subject of.... reflection. Which comes first - knowing yourself or the ability to reflect? For me the answer is that we probably first learn to reflect in dialogue and through that process we start to know ourselves - and then we can go on to reflect by ourselves too. If we are lucky we learn this through talking with our parents and friends and then with great teachers. Then, more formally maybe with coaches, supervisors and managers....

When I was training to be a counsellor the question was how people make the first move from unawareness to wanting to become self aware. The answer then too seemed to be that relationship was the key - according to Rogers, people gradually learn through their relationships how to trust another's feedback as useful for their own development, and ultimately, how to provide that feedback for themselves.

So how do managers move from "doing" and practising according to skills and methodologies they have been taught ("programmed knowledge" as Revans called it) to reflecting, developing their own style, growing into "leaders"?

And how do students move from churning out assignments in response to teachers' questions, reproducing other people's thinking in academic essays, and into a deeper level of learning where they ask their own questions about the things that matter to them, and where they can both apply what they learn in the real world and reflect on that application and its effectiveness?

My "answer" is to try and develop processes that will get learners engaged in dialogue with one another, with me, and with themselves so that reflection becomes a habit.

This is not a new idea. Schön talked about this in the 70's. Coaching in the workplace, clinical supervision, action learning are all processes - indeed relationships - where reflection is taught, encouraged and supported.

In on line learning, spaces such as blogs and wikis can provide students, managers (or students of management!) with places to engage in reflection where they can receive feedback, engage in dialogue and reflect some more. Teachers (and other learners) have an incredibly important role to play in helping others to become more self reflective through dialogue of various kinds - through discussion boards and feedback on assignments for sure - in helping people to write, tell, sing or video their personal story....or as Winter calls it - the unfolding drama of gradual discovery.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

15 minute manager

one of the techniques for "virtual leadership" we discuss in the module is the coaching conversation. Most managers usually complain they have no time for such luxuries ..... and you can't possibly manage people effectively over the phone.......but I thought this short piece had some good practical suggestions for catching up with members of the team.

we don't always need long meetings or formal appraisals to let people know they are appreciated and check whether they need support.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Personal Learning Environments

A picture created by the children in the Hole in the Wall project Feb 15th 1999

A mish mash of thoughts this week sparked by a number of separate but converging discussions

@ffolliet, @weavermiles, @sfpeaky have all been asking the same question this week (in slightly different forms and for different reasons)- how do we get our learners and colleagues engaged in communicating and collaborating on line?

Students complain they don't see why they have to use wikis, colleagues complain they don't have time to learn about all this new-fangled web 2.0 stuff.
Age doesn't seem to be a common factor as the one group are in their 20's whilst others are 40+. Usage isn't mandatory in all these cases so that's its not just that they are being awkward or rebellious, and there are fabulous role models out there with everyone from Obama to Jonathan Ross (!) on Twitter - so its obviously trendy: does the reluctance then stem from apathy? fear? lack of technological skill?

I suspect that the key has to be in the title of this blog post: learning environments are highly personal - each individual will have their own story of previous technological failure, a fear of looking stupid, experience of being criticised for getting it wrong in a new social setting (I agonised for ages about how to "retweet", for example, or whether/when to request friendships in my Ning community....)

So it may be different in every case but most conversations I have had with those reluctant to dive in seem to start with: "I just don't see the point".

And that is the point, really: people will learn to use something if there is a point to it, if they have a reason for doing so. My technophobe partner, for example, who normally avoids the internet as though it were the work of the devil, downloaded and taught himself how to use iTunes, because he is passionate about collecting music.

So one way that has been put forward is a mixture of carrot and stick perhaps: award students points for on line engagement - to make collaboration on a wiki a central part of their programme (that'll get them interested!) or make certain key information available on-line only .

But this also has to be supported with thorough training, access to the technology and exemplary modelling from the top - don't expect people to get on board if you are just waving at them from the platform..... you need to be blogging, tweeting, wiki-ing right alongside them.

Isn't use of web 2.0 just a "leadership of change" problem like any other? People will always be reluctant to embrace change unless they see it is meaningful, feel themselves supported and have a leader who is modelling the required behaviour. At least that is the conventional wisdom.

What then do we make of the Hole in the Wall experiments carried out in India by Dr Sugata Mitra? PCs with Internet access were dropped into small Indian villages without training or context and groups of children taught themselves to use them...(the adults, interestingly, made no effort to engage with them).

Finally - my personal learning story of this week. I responded to a Twitter message from a "friend" (someone I met on line through the Ning Digifolios site) who wanted a buddy to learn Spanish with. I suggested another Ning friend who had expressed a similar wish. Over the space of a couple of days the three of us set up a date and time to "meet" in a free on line classroom , accessed an on line learning programme from BBC languages and had our first somewhat chaotic lesson.

One could question the wisdom of this as a learning experience: we are none of us Spanish speakers nor particularly expert at the language.
I am English and living in Nottingham: Maria is Portuguese, from Lisbon and Natasha is Russian and was speaking from St Petersburg.

With no teacher to guide us, how can we expect to improve our Spanish language skills?

I don't know yet how this is going to turn out but I know that I did manage to practice speaking and writing, that we each took it in turn to help and correct one another from our different knowledge/skills levels and that we are as a result eager to go on learning, speaking, supporting and preparing lessons: I personally can't wait for next Thursday.

And there was something else for me about the whole experience which I reflected on later: when I was a child growing up in the 60's, I could never have imagined that an event such as this could have happened. Not just that the internet would exist and give me the ability to speak simultaneously to people in different countries, but also that one of those people would be Russian! It is perhaps because the world is constantly changing, because the change to come is unimaginable now, and because I want to be the change I want to see that I am involved in education, in the education of leaders and in on line education.

So that is the point for me.