Reflecting on learning and seeing the world in exciting new ways.

Eating an elephant

How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.

We’ve all heard the quote and have probably all lived it at some stage in our lives. I’m currently in the process of eating an elephant, but this elephant is a sneaky one; just when I finish as many bites as I can possibly manage in a day (maybe more!), the elephant grows a little bigger. It doesn’t always wait until I turn my back before growing again, either. In fact, sometimes it grows right in front of my eyes!

While I was in the final two months of writing my masters dissertation, I had many sleepless nights wondering just how I was going to get through everything that needed doing in order to produce a worthwhile 25,000 word document in the ever decreasing amount of time I had left. It was then that I first stumbled across the elephant quote and it sustained me during those final months. Every night that I went to bed after studying well into in the wee small hours of the night, I told myself I had eaten some more of the elephant. It worked for me.

I was reminded of the elephant quote again earlier this week while talking to a student. Now, this is a part of my job that I absolutely love. Interacting with learners by distance is a little more difficult than in a face to face teaching environment but I find it extremely satisfying. Whether we are talking on the phone, via email or communicating in an online forum, interacting with learners is one of my favourite parts of the day.

This week, I had a call from a student who was panicking about his current study workload (which certainly was heavy). This was on top of holding down a full time job and being a dad to children aged six months and two years. Oh, and his partner had just gone back to work this week after finishing maternity leave. Sound familiar? Time was certainly running out for the courses he was enrolled in, but he assured me he was determined to complete them to a high standard.

We chatted for a bit then broke down the tasks he was facing.  What had he done so far? What could he get on to straight away? When could he send the first part of his work to me? When would he have access to the supporting materials and resources required for the other topics he needed to address? We set some time management goals, reassessed some of his learning programme, made an agreement to communicate regularly and then I followed up our discussion via email. As we said goodbye, I realised I’d helped him plan how to eat his elephant.

So back to ‘my’ elephant. It is not a breed that can be successfully eaten, but I’d be happy to just keep it at a manageable size without growing too much and causing indigestion. It’s going to take some serious bites and quick digesting to keep up with its rate of growth (I think we call that ‘evenings, late nights and weekends’) but I’m determined to not let it wreak havoc across the entire forest. Can someone please pass me a fork? 😉

How easy it is

… to make someone’s day. Two little words go a looooong way yet cost so little: thank you.

Yesterday, the inaugural Open Polytechnic Learning Conference took place. 250 of our staff had the opportunity to attend a day of professional learning where we could share ideas, expertise, strategies and examples of good practice that support, promote, enhance, enable and celebrate student success. And what a success the conference was! 😀

Events like this don’t just magically happen on their own. Although a very small number of people actually planned, organised and ran the conference, an army of helpers was enlisted to assist in every area imaginable, from IT help, catering, moving furniture, graphic design, printing and more.

Bucket imageEarlier this year, I blogged about bucket filling. The time and energy required to organise this conference had threatened to drain my bucket many times these past couple of months. However, the practical and emotional support willing given by a huge number of colleagues ensured it was never completely empty and now my bucket is starting to replenish. It has been truly humbling and now it’s my turn to start refilling the buckets of those who have kept mine awash.

When I think of the most memorable thank yous I have received over the years, two key points come to mind: they are personalised and they are sincere. I am currently in the process of handwriting a personalised thank you card for each presenter and helper, valuing their contribution to this wonderful event and showing our appreciation. I have found the process itself is incredibly rewarding as I reflect on what each individual has done and the reactions from people as they read their cards is worth every second spent writing. A little really does go a long way!

Excuse me while I go and fill some more buckets. 🙂

A changing alphabet

A colleague sent me these graphics this morning; I see they have been doing the rounds via Twitpic this week. They cleverly highlight the key differences between the traditional education most of us would have experienced and the kind of education children growing up in our digital world are experiencing now.

It got me wondering … what will these graphics look like in ten years’ time? Five? Or even next year?Alphabet most of us got to learn ...

Alphabet taught to kids today

Ask Twitter

Yesterday, I was marking a student’s assessment about the use of online tools to support e-learning. She was discussing the merits of social bookmarking and in particular delicious. Now, this is a topic dear to my heart. I have had a delicious account since 2004 and used it extensively over the years to access my favourite websites anywhere I had internet access. In recent times, I switched to Diigo and love the additional functionality it offers.

I followed the link to this particular student’s delicious account and noticed a few changes in the interface. Tags have now morphed into stacks, something which I’m not entirely convinced about and think bears more than a passing resemblance to Pinterest. However, logging in to my own delicious account, I was shocked to discover that my user name no longer existed, nor any of its variations!

Social media to the rescue

I decided to get to the heart of the matter and turned to Twitter. I found a Twitter account for delicious and within minutes of posting my query, I received the following reply from @Delicious_help:

Delicious help responseGosh! While I didn’t particularly like the response to my question, I was super impressed with the speed it arrived in my timeline. I relayed the news to my colleagues, both of whom were almost dumbfounded about how I had turned to social media rather than Google in the first instance and how quickly I’d used one social software tool to investigate another. One informed me that her 15 year old son would be impressed!

speeding bullet imageTo be honest, I didn’t give the process much thought at all. Yes, I could have searched for static information on the topic via a search engine, but what I really wanted was a quick response without all the guff. To me, that’s the beauty of Twitter; my professional learning network (PLN) is often my first port of call for issues relating to education and e-learning and today it proved faster and more effective than Superman himself!

Takeaway points

A couple of takeaway points from yesterday’s experience:

  • Google is not the first answer to every question. In fact, YouTube is continuously moving up the scale of search engine domination particularly in younger demographics and is even surpassing Yahoo.
  • Twitter in itself is not a learning tool but the professional learning network I have developed over the years via Twitter and other social media is one of the most valuable educational resources I have – and it’s all at my fingertips.
  • Don’t get left behind! Apparently the whole world knew about delicious’s plans to migrate to its new form. (Yes, I probably had several messages about it somewhere.) Some tools and services disappear altogether. Luckily, my eggs were also kept safely in another basket as a backup (Diigo).

The magic of storytelling

I have always loved books and stories. During my years as a primary teacher, I indulged my passion for children’s books and loved telling (and listening to) stories with my class.

Railway iconWe have two gorgeous nephews, Fionn (3 1/2) and Liam (2). They have never met as they are from each side of the family, but their interests resemble those of almost every little boy of that age. Being train mad (and particular Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiasts), we have had plans for some time to take them both on a steam train ride during a special day together.

Fionn is at the age where he asks constant questions and wants to know what is going on around him. What is happening? Who put that over there? How does this work? And, of course, why? More recently, he is wanting to know: What will happen next?

A magical story

Bedtime story imageOne of my favourite memories is of my father tucking me in bed at night when I was 4 and telling me the story of what was going to happen once I started school. I would get dressed in my school uniform and have some breakfast before Mum dropped me off at school. (She, of course, would go home straight away.) I would meet my friends and we would go into class and learn how to read books and write stories. We’d read our stories to each other, then have a little break when I could have a snack and a drink at playtime. (I already knew that the rest of my lunch box was to be saved for lunch time.) Then the bell would ring and we’d all go into class and learn how to count … and the story continued. Dad did a great job of getting all the details right and it was a story I loved, asking him for repeatedly and night after night. Of course, part of the appeal must have been that the story starred me!

In order to prepare Fionn for the upcoming event, we have talked at length about how we will come to get him in the car and go on a long ride to pick up Liam. We are going to go on a steam train ride – and the train might make a loud noise but that’s alright because you can just put your hands over your ears. Next, we’re going to feed the ducks some bread (not toast), then come back to our place for a picnic and to see our kitten – but she is shy and might be hiding (as she tends to do when visitors appear). Finally, we will drop Liam back at his grandparents’ then take Fionn home last.

It’s a story we’ve shared several times now and Fionn is already correcting me when I miss out a vital detail or inadvertently change the order of our plans. “Tell me the story again!” he asks me in delight. “And then what will we do?” he prompts me when he suspects I’m about to cut short the process by even a smidgeon. Liam, meanwhile, is blissfully ignorant of our plans and Fionn’s excitement.

Fingers crossed that the weather and every other variable will play nicely to allow our story to play out in real life sometime soon. Regardless of when we get to go on our adventure, I think the anticipation and the joy of telling (and retelling) the story will prolong the magic for Fionn – and leave us plenty mores stories to tell after the event.

Bookshelf imageI was interested to read this article yesterday morning about an archivist seeking to collect one of every book written. The bibliophile in me loves the idea; imagine a copy of every single book ever printed! The digital side of me questions the value of collecting a physical copy of information that could be held in a much more compact and enduring format, while the online educator wonders at the enormity of the task. How can he possibly do it? Is he seriously going to obtain and catalogue a copy of every soppy Mills & Boon or sickly teenage fiction title along with all the literary greats? The task is as admirable as it is epic.

I’m sure he will uncover many treasures during his quest and ‘rescue’ many wonderful artefacts that might have otherwise been lost. I also wonder what he will discover that he wishes in hindsight he hadn’t bothered with?

Digital repository

We are in the process of creating a digital repository for all our resources. It is a huge project and one I have embarked on in other institutions. After much discussion around platforms, functionality, formats and compatibility, the underlying questions remain remarkably similar:

  • What will we store? Photos, text, images, animations, graphics, videos, whole courses and programmes?
  • Why will we store it? What purpose or need might the item fulfil? (Is there one?)
  • How will we find what we have stored? How can we future-proof our systems and metadata?
  • How will we use what we have found? Or are we keeping it ‘just in case’ it might be useful in the future?

Nostalgia is a fine thing, but do we really need to keep every resource from a course or programme simply because we spent a lot of time working on it? Just because I think I have developed something worthwhile, that does not mean someone else will find it equally valuable. There is even less likelihood that they will be astounded by my act of brilliance which has, naturally, resulted in a reusable learning object of such high quality that it can be repurposed for any learning experience … yes, nostalgia certainly is a fine thing. As much as we can learn from what others before us might have already grappled with, it doesn’t mean we should hoard everything ‘just in case’.

So where is the fine line between babies and bath water? Other questions to consider when setting up a repository could include:

  • What is a reusable learning object? What is a reusable information object? Can the same item be both?
  • How do we measure quality? What criteria determines whether an item qualifies for archiving in the repository? Should value be measured by the number of times an object is used/reused or some other metrics?
  • When do we begin archiving materials from? Five years ago? Ten? Last year? From here on in, or from some point in the future?
  • Should we archive everything we create from now on or just some things? What would we include in these two categories? Why?
  • Who approves objects for archiving? Is this an automatic process, a job for one designated person or is a committee required? What policies and guidelines should they follow when making their decisions (and what measures are in place to support these decisions if challenged)?
  • When and how will we reassess the value of archived items to ensure they still meet our requirements in the future?

Backing up in the cloud

If there’s one thing the Christchurch earthquakes have taught us, it’s the importance of current backups for all digital data. When was the last time you backed up your desktop computer, laptop or phone? I recently bought a 1TB external hard drive for my laptop at home but am the first to admit that, other than serving as a really large holding space for my music files, I have little faith in its ability to restore everything up in a disaster. Firstly, I’m not as organised at systematically backing up files as I’d like to be and, secondly, there’s no guarantee that a falling object will crush my laptop but miraculously miss my external hard drive located somewhere else in the house.

Derek Wenmoth’s post earlier this year about clouds and silver linings highlighted the value of storing digital data offsite. There are a plethora of cloud-based synchronising services available, many with a substantial amount of free storage as well as options for professional subscriptions. The concept is great: back up important content by sending it into the cloud, or synchronise various digital devices (computers, laptops, mobiles) in one central location. It can also be a good way to share folders and files with others. But what about security and bandwidth issues? Is cloud syncing more of a short or long term solution?

I have been playing with a couple of online synching tools recently. I have long had a partially utilised Dropbox account and have recently come across SugarSync. Here are my general impressions of both.

Dropbox

Dropbox logoDropbox has been around since 2007 and this review gives you a quick glance at its services. The basic plan gives you 2GB of free storage with options to upgrade to pro versions. It works well for Windows, Mac and Linux but has limited mobile functionality, even though it has applications for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. The web interface is simple to use although it only allows you to sync one folder of content. Be aware that their privacy policy was modified in April 2011 to read: “We may disclose to parties outside Dropbox files stored in your Dropbox and information about you that we collect when we have a good faith believe that disclose is reasonably necessary.” That’s not to say that everything you store is automatically shared with the masses, but I’d take a cautious approach, as I would with any cloud-based storage system.

SugarSync

SugarSync logoI have only recently ‘discovered’ SugarSync. So far, it’s looking pretty good to me. The basic, personal service is free and allows around 5GB of storage but with a 25MB limit for public file sharing. That’s important if you’re wanting to share videos. It offers services across a range of platforms and its mobile applications seem more stable than Dropbox. There are multiple ways to increase the free storage limit, including various types of referrals allowing another 500MB each, but I found many of them to be quite gimmicky. It is easy to synchronise multiple folders and files via the Magic Briefcase icon on your desktop (which takes you to the web interface). Security appears to be similar to Dropbox; nothing in the cloud is ever 100% secure.

A more comprehensive comparison between Dropbox and SugarSync can be found here.