Die computer die

May 13, 2010

I’m having a love-hate relationship with technology I confess. I’m pleased I set forth on this mission and have had the chance to explore a few innovative ideas. And I know what I have come across is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m excited about the possibilities it has presented and would like to do more – but I also have some reticence – which I’ll explain.

As is obvious from my previous post, I’m in the midst of marking assignments. I thought I’d be super clever and use the Turn-it-in function on Blackboard, which enables students to upload an electronic copy of their assignment. It’s incredibly handy: I can instantly verify date of submission, check word length, I have a copy saved in a central place and I don’t have to manage files, it checks for plagiarism and it means students don’t have to take half a day off work just to drive in to uni and lodge an assignment.  It also allows you to mark online which the Greenie in me celebrates. Imagine a completely paperless process. We dreamed about such things. Previously I have had students email assignments in – but there’s always the inevitable “I swear I sent it”  excuse – or in my case the day lost hunting for my student essays among the gazillion of other emails I receive and don’t get to attend to. This turn-it-in thing seemed like the answer to my prayers.

So I did all the right things : I went to the training course, practiced in advance on fake essays, ran my marking criteria past TEDI for feedback, I set up rubrics for easy marking, and trialled the process on a smaller assessment piece. I thought I was being so clever. And students seemed to cope OK overall once I ironed out a few kinks in the process.

But when it came to marking a 3500 word assignment: it was DISASTROUS! It was a really clunky process, I couldn’t just flip pages – I had to keep scrolling – I seemed to forever be searching for items. I couldn’t approach marking the way I normally would: flip to the back to check out reference lists, see if there are any appendices or attachments, get a sense of the overall layout – instead it commands a very linear process. By the end of one day hunched over my keyboard, staring at a screen and tapping comments, I had managed to get through a mere seven assignments. My back hurt, my eyes stung and I was in a foul mood from being stuck in front of a computer. And I found it wouldn’t support my marking sheet anyway. It can only handle simple rubrics – I must have spent two hours trying to think up ways to get around the system. So that was a day wasted.

So I went to work and printed off all 50 assignments, one by one. Double checking I had them all – writing down word length and submission dates etc. So that was day 2.

Day 3 borrowed a flat from a friend up on the Sunshine Coast, I jumped in a car, marked the remaining essays in a much better frame of mind, sitting on a sunny balcony overlooking the sea. I managed 14 essays that day and found I provided twice as much feedback. Clearly I’m never going to be a true Geek-Girl. All of which leaves me unsure what to do in the future.

It’s not just Turn-it-in. I went to a presentation recently on alternative technologies – and I was originally going to a do a whole blog rave afterwards – I was so inspired by the possibilities. However in the meantime I’ve had a chance to try them out. I have spent hours trying to get them to work for me. They seem so very slow on my machine and I can’t get them to do what I want them to. I want a computer program that will let me do everything I can on a piece of butcher’s paper with some coloured pens and a bunch of post-it notes. Until I can do that I think I’ll remain unsatisfied. I can see the potential – I love the collaborative tools and I’m excited by the possibilities – but I don’t find the programs particularly intuitive or user-friendly. Maybe I’m impatient, but if I can’t get them up and running within an hour I’m not inclined to keep playing. Maybe it’s my old lap-top.

I think it was Mark Twain who once said to beware of enterprises requiring new clothes. I feel similarly about the IT world: beware of programs that require a whole new computer!

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmevans/399406599/ (creative commons license)

Making Connections

January 26, 2010

I’ve recently re-opened my Facebook account. It was prompted by the fact that a number of organisations I’m rather sweet on have begun interacting more and more through Facebook. I find it odd – but there it is! Of course not only does this open the floodgates to much wanted information, but I now find myself surfing through lists of people I know, as well as many I don’t know, and being prompted to accept or reject people as ‘friends’. What a horrid idea. Hundreds of photos blinking before me – it’s like being trapped in a Boxing Day sales crowd all over again!

Last time this happened I deleted my account and went and hid under the bed for two days…I’m not sure what I feared exactly – loss of anonymity and privacy? false friendship? a sense of obligation?

But this time, as I’ve been thinking it through, I am reminded of the systems readings I’ve been doing recently, which helps me to recast the experience in a new light. Whether it is the root system of a tree (Wheatley, 2006), the neural pathways of the brain (Doidge, 2009)  or entire organisations (Senge, 1990) what is abundantly clear is that the more connections that exist within a system the healthier that system becomes. Certainly Senge and Wheatley both advocate that if you want to improve the culture, effectiveness and even the efficiency of a group then the first thing to do is to start building connections all over the place.

I was also thinking about some of the people with profound disability that I’ve been privileged to meet over the years – and what set those who have a good life apart from those who did not. There is no question that it was about the number of relationships in people’s live. And this isn’t surprising, afterall, relationships in themselves are part of a good life. But relationships also enabled people to have other things in their lives: meaningful roles, a sense of identity, access to resources, safety, good health, love (Wolfensberger, 1998). It’s not that we need to have hundreds of close friends (à la the scary language of Facebook) – but rather that through knowing hundreds of people there is a greater chance of finding those precious individuals who WILL become part of one’s intimate circle. (And if anyone knows of any studies that have done the maths on that, I’d love to hear about them).

So it stands to reason that even introverts like me should be embracing, rather than flinching from connective technologies. Apparently it’s good for us.

Now, where did you say we know each other from?

 Zombie crowd scene from the movie Shaun of the Dead, 2004.

Through a Glass Lightly

January 19, 2010


Image:  ‘Kaleidescope’ © Jane Sherwin

I received some useful feedback from a friend via email, which I thought was worth reflecting upon further. She said:

“I’m not sure whether the purpose of the blog is to merely report on your learnings as to which teaching methods work and which don’t; or to actually use the blogging medium as part of the teaching process. In other words, is your audience fellow teachers or the students? Sorry to be so thick. But I’ve read it through a couple of times now and I’m still not sure. I see elements of both, so perhaps it’s designed to serve a dual purpose.”

My first reflection is how incredibly helpful it is to keep holding one’s ideas up to the light in search of clarity. I think I have crystal clear thinking – but with each gentle question I am reminded that my grubby fingerprints are still smudging the glass!

The second reflection is how complex it is to make one’s ideas public: who indeed is my audience?

I jumped on-line to look up some ideas on this subject and found some useful ideas on the purpose of a blog, see: http://www.myuniversalfacts.com/2006/08/definition-and-purpose-of-blog-what-is.html, and http://lorelle.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/a-clear-blog-purpose-will-make-or-break-your-blog/ . There’s a nice introduction to blogging on the WordPress site: http://codex.wordpress.org/Introduction_to_Blogging (I’ll add these links to the sidebar). I like the definition from the Blogger site http://www.blogger.com/tour_start.g which says:

“A blog is a personal diary. A daily pulpit. A collaborative space. A political soapbox. A breaking-news outlet. A collection of links. Your own private thoughts. Memos to the world. Your blog is whatever you want it to be. There are millions of them, in all shapes and sizes, and there are no real rules. In simple terms, a blog is a web site, where you write stuff on an ongoing basis. New stuff shows up at the top, so your visitors can read what’s new. Then they comment on it or link to it or email you. Or not…A blog gives you your own voice on the web. It’s a place to collect and share things that you find interesting— whether it’s your political commentary, a personal diary, or links to web sites you want to remember. Many people use a blog just to organize their own thoughts, while others command influential, worldwide audiences of thousands.”

In terms of my purpose, I’m clear what it is not.  It is not a site FOR students. There is an electronic site within the university called BlackBoard which is an internal site detailing course content, assessment, grades etc. It’s very formal and official and part of the UQ infrastructure. I’m not seeking to reproduce that. This blog is a reflective tool for my role as course coordinator of SWSP7123. If I start posting recipes or gardening tips or trying to convince people to save sea turtles then I know I’m way off track. I am deliberately keeping this narrowly focused upon a single teaching space for now. I often think of it as a trade-off between breadth and depth. I’m keen for deep learning.  

I think my purpose is fourfold:

1. The first and primary purpose is for myself. My intention is that this blog is a place for me to plan and then reflect on the usefulness of my teaching interventions.  I usually keep journals and reflective logs on the work I do. This is the first time I’ve tried making those reflections public and already I’ve proven to myself that it improves learning. So right away I know this is something I’ll be recommending to students. It will also probably influence the assessment items I set up for them. It is part of the plan-do-review cycle I will be using throughout my teaching. I’m inviting feedback from anyone to help me refine my ideas. I”m also conscious that working as a teacher in academia is an isolated and lonely experience. I haven’t been able to find a community of practice to share ideas. So this is my attempt to create a reflective space and to invite others to share their ideas. I’m not expecting to command a worldwide audience of thousands. But I welcome thoughts and ideas from friends, colleagues and students. I’m willing to bribe them with dessert if necessary.

2. The second use is for the benefit of my students. If I’m asking students to do things I need to be able to assure myself that I’m not asking for anything unrealistic. I want to know how difficult this is.  I figure if I can work it out without tears and tantrums then my students definitely will be fine. So, for example, I wanted to find out how time consuming it would be to set up a blog and then how long it takes to learn a few tools of the trade to improve layout (the answer is that it’s super easy to establish but then takes probably a day in total of mucking around and trying things if you want it to look pretty and then it’s a breeze – except for the Sticky Post application which I still haven’t found). I’ve uploaded photos to find out how challenging that is. I’m about to try a Quicktime movie – just using a little digital camera, to see if that will work. I’ve actually spent all morning setting up the BlackBoard site for this course and I find it MUCH harder than the open access technology on the web. I’ve had to ring the helpdesk twice and bother three other colleagues already.  Setting up a blog was a breeze by comparison.

3. Thirdly I’m hoping this will model to students the kind of behaviour and language that is useful: for example, weaving in theory, linking to other sites, testing ideas, taking on board comments and criticism etc.  I’m also trying to model good behaviour around copyright and permission seeking for images, avoidance of plagiarism etc. I’m trying to be transparent with my students: this is the process I’m using and this is why. I’m also modelling the notion of embracing things we aren’t comfortable with. People who know me well know I struggle to find – let alone use – my mobile phone (in all truth my use of a regular phone is pretty dodgy too). I don’t SMS, I don’t have a Facebook site, I have never used Skype, I have never blogged until now or used a video camera and don’t even own a digital stills camera. My understanding of RSS is purely theoretical at this stage and I think a Wiki sounds like some sort of tropical parasite.

4. Fourthly, at this stage this is a personal project, but as indicated in the attached pages my aim is to turn it into something more formal. If I am successful in this then this site potentially lends itself to support documentation and data collection. (For example, the “about the project” page may be the start of my project information page for the ethics application).

I can’t wait for the feedback on that!

Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Jane Sherwin: sherwinconsulting@gmail.com

Dead Lizards & IT

January 15, 2010


I walked into my loungeroom and knew immediately that something was very, very wrong. The all pervading scent of death was in the air. And I knew exactly where the body was buried. Under the world’s heaviest couch there is a small cemetery for geckoes. Usually, I simply spend more time at the office until the smell dissipates – but I could tell that this was no mere one-day gecko horror. This was something much, much bigger. And if I ever wanted to sleep again I would need to rectify the problem pronto. Problem is everyone I know capable of moving this couch is also an athlete. Which means they have bad backs, dodgy knees, shoulder spasms or have just had a hip replacement. So after much searching I found a mob called “Hire a hubby” – who can attend to all the jobs that bloke’s in one’s life are no longer fit for (not that they are old or anything I hasten to add). They happily supplied two burly blokes (who apparently had no sense of smell) to move the couch for me and enable me to conduct appropriate burial services for two putrid decomposing skinks.

Anyway, it had me thinking about the importance of having really basic services in one’s life. I didn’t need the house reconstructed – just a couch lifted.

A similar service would be terrific in the IT world. I’d wrestled with that couch for two hot smelly hours before admitting defeat. And I’ve spent the last precious four hours staring at help pages online for IT assistance.  I don’t need the hard drive rebuilt on my computer, or someone to undertake complex coding. And I certainly don’t need a home network created. All I need is someone to show me which programs on my computer I can remove to create a bit more room to stop the whole system collapsing, or how to make a blog sticky note stick without me needing to go near anything that looks like:  <h3><a href=”<?php the_permalink(); ?>”><?php the_title(); ?></a></h3>
Yet it seems such services come with a pretty hefty price tag and/or a fair degree of sniggering.

I’m thinking there is a definite business opportunity out there called “Hire a 9 Year Old”, although I have heard that they don’t get out of bed for less than $100 a day…



Down the Rabbit-Hole

January 13, 2010

Blog 1 – Day 1 of this Project 

© Cyril Helnwein.

I am a very conservative user of technology. I wish I knew more but I live in fear of it overtaking my life and being slave to one hundred different pings, buzzes, and rings that prevent me from connecting to the people I’m actually with. So I’ve entered this space with enormous reservation, whilst at the same time overwhelmingly curious about where this may lead. Like Alice down the rabbit hole this wonderland of technology has an il-logic I am yet to comprehend. However the aim of this project is to mirror what my students might be about to undertake so fall I must!

 My “fall”, like that of Alice, is taking some time. However I am relieved to see how easy it all is to set up and navigate.

 My initial journey into the blogging world has comprised the following steps:

  • Research. I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last few weeks looking at various sites and getting a sense of what was useful and what wasn’t, talking to people who actually tweet, twitter, blog and blah, as well as surfing for various tips and hints on what made a good blog and why one might blog. Whether it be tea-cosies (see: http://wildforteacosies.blogspot.com/) or just blogs that celebrate interesting things(http://www.darkroastedblend.com/) it’s about getting a sense of what’s useful and what’s a waste of a precious 3 seconds of life.
  • Then came the really hard stuff: finding a name.  (Check out the Background to the Project page if you’re actually interested in where this came from).
  • Setting up a blogsite is easy. WordPress http://wordpress.com/ and Blogger https://www.blogger.com/start were both very easy to navigate and use, and of course both are free. In fact, the hardest part is deciding a theme. Clinging to the idea of modelling appropriate behaviour to my students within this project, I chose professionalism over personality and clean lines over colour (albeit reluctantly).
  • I started with the “pages” to lead myself gently into the blogging experience and help focus my thoughts. As I did so I found I needed more research to learn to do those things I really needed to do – like wrapping text around images, and being able to work in full screen mode. The great thing about IT enthusiasts is that they LOVE to share their happiness. What’s a little harder is finding some that can share enthusiastically in English. (Sure you can wrap text – just learn how to write html code first…) Luckily they do exist and I will endeavour to put up some links to good information sites for others in a similar position. (Although if anyone can tell me how to manage sticky posts I will be very grateful – no helpful sites so far…)

Of course all this google searching, pasting and copying, searches for photos etc meant that my lap-top kept throwing tantrums and going into a deep freeze. So it’s taken me quite a few goes to actually get all this text up. Part of the problem is my enthusiasm. I want to type and post much faster than my laptop will let me. I want to have lots of programs open at once. I can see this will be a lesson in patience for me, and I’ll need to take up something useful (that crocheted tea-cosies site is starting to look good) whilst waiting for my machine to catch up.

There are fears as I enter this space. I’m terrified. What if I’ve misunderstood my new friends at CIET or presumed too much? What if I’ve under-estimated all my students and every one of them is secretly longing for a job at Microsoft and will faint if I tell them my real thoughts about mobile phones? (unlikely but possible) What if I’ve over-estimated the creativity of my students and they all refuse to participate? (even more unlikely but again, possible). What if I’ve overestimated my own capacity and made this semester much harder and more complicated that it needed to have been? (entirely likely – I’m good at that!)

But then, whilst rebooting my computer for what felt like the one hundredth time this morning I had a lovely experience: a snail decided to wander up the window in front of me. Now I love snails. In my mythology, they are little messengers from the Gods. They move in undulations and remind me to remember the micromovements alongside the big picture. There’s the whole slow and steady progress. Having one foot tells me to take only one step at a time. The spirals on their back remind me to trust the process. And their steady progress up the sheer vertical face of my window reminds me of an Estonian Proverb I take great comfort in:


So much calmer, slower and with renewed faith I will press “publish” and seal my fate.

Photo from Cyril Helnwein’s Myths and Fairytales series, reproduced with the kind permission of Cyril Helnwein. www.cyrilhelnwein.com