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A Week of Divesting: Software

N.B. If the makers of any of the software I mention are reading, this is a metaphorical post invoking artistic license…

Pirated softwareImage by ONT Design @ Flickr

I used to have an objection to people making money from non-physical things such as software programs. After all, they can be reproduced perfectly and cost virtually nothing to distribute – yet end users are often  charged a fortune. This objection vanished recently after a couple of things happened…

First, I secured my new position as Director of E-Learning. This means that my livelihood is dependent upon the work of others: no e-learning hardware and software equals no job for Doug! More than that, though, the producers of such things are dependent upon me. Without schools and academies buying their products, they would not have the money to employ staff. This got me thinking about the economy (especially because of the recession), and about whether the ‘free lunch’ we’ve been getting through Web 2.0 tools was sustainable.

Second, a couple of months ago I listened to a debate on the radio about huge pharmaceutical companies and the price they charge for drugs that treat Swine Flu. The debate included discussion about treatments for HIV and I came away realising that the pharmaceutical companies aren’t all bad. They invest literally billions of dollars into researching these treatments which, after all, greatly benefit the human race. They have to recoup these costs. Despite this, in Africa, most drugs are sold at cost price or slightly higher. That got me thinking about ‘hidden costs’ in general, and how companies that produce software also have costs that they need to recoup.

I’ve had dodgy versions of software ever since I can remember. In fact, I can remember as an 18-year-old pretty much everything on my Windows-powered computer being pirated. This has changed over the last 10 years, however: there’s only a couple of programs that I’ve refused to pay hundreds of pounds for yet enjoyed their functionality. None of the programs on the Linux-powered netbook upon which I’m writing this cost anything, so I’m alright there. However, on my Macbook Pro, I’ve substituted the following for Open Source Software:

The rest of the software I use, from CD/DVD burning (SimplyBurns) to FTP programs (Cyberduck/FileZilla) are free to use.

So really, this post is about ‘coming clean’, about getting rid of the last vestiges. As you can see, it’s not about the fact that I can now afford these programs. It’s about making a decision that it’s either worth the license or its not. And if its not, doing without the functionality. Well, at home at least – I’ll have access to more programs and licenses through the Academy… 🙂

What are YOUR thoughts on this?

If you tweet about this post, don’t forget to include a link back to it so that your tweet can be included under the comments section!

A Week of Divesting: ‘Analogue Time’

Snail clock
Image modified under CC license from an original by spike55151

I’ve started doing this over the past few months anyway, but it’s time to formalise it. In fact, some have taken the idea and applied it to a whole day (Analog Sundays). I’m not going to be that inflexible and  groundbreaking, but it’s a start.

A quick scan through my Delicious links bore no fruit, but I’ve read within the last year two posts that had an impact on me. The first said that using a mobile phone before bed can affect teenagers’ sleep patterns. I did a little more digging and it would seem that using any type of screen within an hour of falling asleep can be detrimental.

At the other end of the day, I read on one of the productivity blogs I subscribe to that checking email first thing is a bad idea. Why? You immediately start the day off on someone else’s terms. That made me think, and I now have a coffee/breakfast/spend time with Ben/go for a run before I check email these days. It makes for much more laid-back mornings and allows clarity of thought.

So there we go: no checking of email until an hour after waking, and no screens in the hour before sleeping. Simple! 😀

A Week of Divesting: Domains [incl. a competition!]

This blog post involves a competition to win the domain names http://edte.ch and http://elearnr.org. It’s free to enter, but you have to comment and make a promise! If you’re not interested in the story behind the competition, simply scroll down to the section in bold at the end for what to do.

Hot Air Balloons
Image by a4gpa @ Flickr

Introduction

Every now and then I decide to buy a domain name. It’s usually related to some project or other I’m thinking of undertaking. Sometimes the project doesn’t take off (e.g. tweetmeet.eu) whereas other times it does (e.g. edtechroundup.com). Unfortunately, the two domain names I’m proudest of coming up with are currently lying dormant. That’s causing me increasing angst as I wonder what to do so as not to squander them. I’ve decided, therefore, to donate them to a worthy cause. 🙂

The stories behind the domains

In 2007 I was growing frustrated at ‘only’ being a teacher of History and ICT. I wanted to do something like what I’ll be doing from this academic year onwards as Director of E-Learning. Unfortunately, such positions were still very much in their infancy and it wasn’t clear that schools in the state sector would create such positions. Consequently, I started creating a consultancy and training company. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much further than the business cards and website.

The domain name for this business, however, I thought was clever as it was based on what I consider to be quite a valuable domain: http://edte.ch. This is the first domain name that’s up for grabs. All you need to do is to add a comment to this post explaining what you would do with it. The other thing that you must promise is that it will be beneficial to the educational community in some way and not be for-profit.

The second domain name also has a backstory. In January 2008 I went to the Headteacher of the school where I was teaching History and ICT explaining that we needed a position akin to a Director of E-Learning. The Head agreed that we needed something like that, but that the position I was proposing was a little ahead of its time, shall we say, at that particular school. To cut a long story short, I became E-Learning Staff Tutor for the academic year 2008/09.

Reflecting on this position during the summer holiday of 2008 I realised that whilst a physical presence was necessary in terms of a noticeboard and things in staff pigeonholes, having a central digital place would also be important. I had a think, realised that for various reasons it should be separate from the staff website, and started a blog entitled ‘Elearnr’ (like Flickr – without the ‘e’) powered by Edublogs.

After a while, as it was used increasingly by staff, I realised that http://elearnr.org was available. This not only shortened the URL but solved some of the frustration I’d experienced with Edublogs introducing advertising. This, then, is the second domain that’s available. It’s currently got guides and useful links relating to e-learning on it. If you’re fortunate enough to secure the domain name, feel free to keep or dispose of this content!

What to do to enter the competition:

Want to enter the competition to win one or both domain names? Here’s what to do:

  1. Decide which domain name you’d like (or both!)

  2. Explain what you’d do with the domain in the comments section to this blog post.

  3. Add the following to the bottom of your comment: ‘I hereby promise that I shall use the domain in a way beneficial to the educational community and not for financial gain.’

Be as creative and detailed as you can and may the best entry win! Entries close on Sunday 6th September 2009 at 12pm British Summer Time* and the winners will be announced in a blog post on the same day. If you know someone who may be interested, why not tweet or blog about it, or send them an email? 😀

* Find out what time this is in your part of the world here.

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A Week of Divesting: Media

entroducing.

Image by dearsomeone @ Flickr

I read Dave Eggers’ book They Shall Know Our Velocity a few months back. In it, one of the main characters talks about the ‘slow suffocation of accumulation’ and seeks to give away a large amount of money. I’ve been feeling that suffocation recently, as I explained in the introduction to this week’s focus on ‘divesting’.

Way back in the sands of time (OK, less than 10 years ago) I was an undergraduate student in Sheffield I and I used to work part-time for HMV. I didn’t actually take home that much money as most of it was invested in DVDs and CDs. I even got 40% off the Sale stuff! I say ‘invested’ as I funded a large chunk of my living expenses whilst I was doing my MA at Durham University by selling part of my collection. Although not to the same extent, I did similar working at various bookshops both before and after university.

And therein lies the rub. I’ve been lulled into a belief that one should own a physical collection of DVDs, CDs and books. As though having a personal library somehow defines you, makes you look more intellectual, or even constitutes some kind of artistic statement. I’ve realised that’s not the case.

As I commented in my introduction to this series [link] I’ve been prompted recently into reflecting on my relationship to ‘stuff’. I’ve realised that, having moved house twice within 18 months, I’ve spent a great deal of time and physical labour moving things I will not watch, listen to or read for a very long time. Yet I’m responsible for it. I’d be upset if it were stolen or I lost it for some reason. Why?

So I’ve decided that it’s going. “What, all of it?” I hear you ask. As far as I see it, there are two approaches I could take:

  1. The over-the-top, ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ approach.
  2. The Pragmatic approach.

Pragmatism is a philosophical approach and method that I’m applying in my Ed.D. thesis. To summarise very briefly and in relation to what I’m talking about here, it holds that for something to make a difference, it has to make a difference in practice. For example, a book may have had a profound impact on my way of conceiving the world and my development as a person. That doesn’t mean it has to sit on my shelf. I may really, really, love a particular album. That doesn’t mean I have to own the physical CD as opposed to a digital version. The same goes for DVDs.

But I need to be careful or I could end up trading one problem for another. In divesting myself of physical clutter I could gain, as it were, ‘digital clutter.’ This is something I shall be discussing and wrestling with later in the week.

What’s my plan, then, to deal with physical media? It’s a fairly straightforward 4-step process:

  • Anything I can, and feel should, replace with a non-physical version (e.g. CDs, DVDs) I shall do.
  • Any book I haven’t yet read or DVD I haven’t watched stays until I have done so.
  • Those physical objects that are collectors items, worth more than a nominal value and fit into one box I shall keep as they are likely to gain in value. I can then sell these when Ben is older to add to his trust fund.
  • Everything else goes to Barter Books, is listed on Amazon Marketplace, sent to Music Magpie or donated to charity.

What are your thoughts on this? A good idea or not? :-p

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A Week of Divesting: an introduction

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, having a Zen moment at home in 1982

I can’t seem to find the exact clip I want online, but there’s an episode of the Simpsons where Homer eats a chilli pepper and hallucinates. He eats it at the Springfield fair where Otto has hippy-like booth encouraging people to “Simplify, man…”

It’s amusing because we’ve all come across the stereotype of the zealot who wants everyone else to live their lifestyle. They sing its praises and assume that as it’s a lifestyle they enjoy and value that it’s both more appropriate and morally superior to others. In the Simpsons clip it’s a lifestyle defined by the mantra ‘simplify.’ What I’m interested in this blog post – and, in fact, this week – is not merely the ambiguous call to simplify one’s lifestyle, although what I’m going to do could be seen to be a constituent part of that. I’m going to spend a week divesting.

The best definition of ‘divest’ that I’ve found comes from Wiktionary:

To strip, deprive or dispossess oneself of something (such as a right, passion, privilege or prejudice).

What prompted this?

I subscribe to a number of podcasts that I listen to whilst driving. One of these is a Radio 4 programme called Beyond Belief. I caught the end of it when it was broadcast live and then listened to the podcast on my way to the National Christian Football Festival the weekend before last. This particular programme was about poverty and whether or not, especially in this time of recession, it could be seen as a good thing. I was particularly struck by what the Jainist monk had to say.

As my wife will attest I have, at several times during our marriage, talked of ‘getting rid of everything’ as I felt it was weighing me down. The Jainist spoke about this directly, and mentioned a poem [find poem] about a prisoner locked in a cage. This prisoner pleaded to his captors now and again. However, his pleading was not to be released from the cage, but simply to have a newer and shinier one. The Jainist likened this to being in the thrall of collecting material objects and wealth.

After the programme, and unusually for me as I like my music, I spent the rest of the journey in silence, contemplating. I reflected upon my new job, my Dad being half-way across the world, and my wife’s accusative statement the other day that all my son sees me do is ‘go on the computer.’ I realised that there’s stuff getting in the way of that which is important. I need to get rid of that stuff.

Why are you telling me this?

It would, of course, be quite possible to ‘divest’ quietly and with only my immediate family knowing about it. After all, as Jesus said, we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Am I showing off or attempting to garner praise?

Not at all. There’s three reasons why I want to document my actions and the thoughts behind them:

  1. Sharing what I’m thinking and what I’m up to comes naturally to me.
  2. I’m human and therefore weak. I may not actually go through with it unless I’m accountable to someone or something.
  3. Perhaps you or someone you know wants to do something similar. This may give you ideas or lend support.

This week, therefore, I’ll be writing blog posts focusing on the following:

The final blog post of the week will be my reflections on whether it’s all gone to plan!

Are you weird?

I expect some of you reading this will assume that I’ve had some kind of re-religious conversion, especially given the references above. That’s not the case. This is purely a secular decision to reclaim some mental and physical space.

Some might think that I’ve turned into a Luddite. Far from it! It’s hardly likely given my new official job title is ‘Director of E-Learning.’ There’s a difference between recognising the appropriate use of technology and being the equivalent of a dog chasing shiny cars.

Others may consider that this is simply a fancy way of saying I’ve got too much stuff in my house and it’s time for a clear-out. Actually, the opposite is true, actually. We’ve moved house recently to a larger property. Compared to others, our house looks quite spartan.

Conclusion

Have you gone through or thought about something similar to this? If so, I’d like to hear about your experiences. Again, I’d like to point out that I’m not doing this for the back-slapping or to be praised. It, like many things I do, is an experiment. I hope it pays off!

Why I’m trying to make myself redundant.

cc-by-nc-sa Kaptain Kobold @ Flickr

(cc-by-nc-sa Kaptain Kobold @ Flickr)

A week tomorrow The Northumberland Church of England Academy opens its doors to students for the first time. As you’re probably aware by now, my role there is Director of E-Learning. I want to be in a position within three years whereby I’ve made myself redundant.

I’ve had the same conversation with a number of people. It usually centres around two basic questions:

  • What will you be doing as Director of E-Learning?
  • What’s the next step after this position?

The answer to the first should be easy, but it’s not. Whilst I’ve got a job description, things aren’t always as cut-and-dried as they appear on paper – as I’ve found out already! It’s also been written by someone who’s not an expert in the field, and therefore should be seen as a starting point to an evolving role. In the main, however, my priorities remain those I set out in my interview presentation:

  1. Attendance – providing for  ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning.
  2. Behaviour – ensuring accurate and up-to-date information flows freely between relevant parties to enable Academy spaces to be conducive to learning.
  3. Communication – allowing for every member of the Academy to be (potentially) accessible both synchronously and asynchronously at any time.
  4. Design – promoting best practices, workflows and – of course – Open Source Software.
  5. Engagement – making staff aware of the latest and greatest, as well as how older technologies can be fused with new ones in a pedagogically-sound way.

If I do my job properly, I should be akin to a Sherpa, guiding and leading the way for Academy staff and students. Communication is my main priority in the first instance, with Google Apps Education Edition and our Frog Learning Platform being the focus. Once these are being used adequately, the second stage is to promote best practices. In this respect, it’s all about the heuristics – something I’ve blogged about before.

The final stage is to ensure technologies are being used to engage students. You’d think I’d start there, wouldn’t you? But I reckon by getting staff enthusiastic about the tools I’m helping provide, this will rub off on the students and lead to engagement in any case. I’m of the opinion that we’re talking less than 5% of staff who will really need their hands holding. Peer learning and time-saving elements become valuable when you’ve got 400 members of staff to get around…

So in the meeting I’ve got next Wednesday where I’m to outline my vision for E-Learning at the Academy to the Teaching & Learning group, the above is pretty much what I’m going to say. I want to be redundant within three years. I want a culture of experimentation, collaboration and blending to take such hold that they don’t need a ‘Director of E-Learning’ any more. I see the role as being akin to that of the DVD recorder: it was a necessary step between VHS recorders and hard-disk based PVRs (like Sky+) but that’s all. I’d like to see aspects of the Director of E-Learning role to merge with those of the Director of Teaching & Learning and Director of Operations.

We come back, then, to the second question I’ve been asked several times – what will I do after this position? What will happen if I’m successful in making myself redundant? My answer: I don’t know. This position didn’t exist three years ago!

Are you trying to make yourself redundant? How/why? :-p

Join us for EdTechRoundUp 2009/10!

EdTechRoundUp logoAs regular readers will know, for the past couple of years I’ve been meeting up on a Sunday evening with like-minded educators to discuss all things relating to educational technology and e-learning. We’re far from being an exclusive group and, although we’re mostly from the UK, some do join us from further afield.

We’ve been on a summer break since the end of last academic year, but we start again tomorrow night, 30 August 2009 at 20.30 BST.

So make it your new (academic) year’s resolution to try and set aside an hour at 20.30 GMT/BST every Sunday evening to join us via FlashMeeting (meeting schedule here). More at edtechroundup.com!

Director of E-Learning: Doug Belshaw

I’ve just typed ‘Director of E-Learning’ (in quotes) into Google. The results left me surprised, pleased and dismayed all at once…

Google search results for 'Director of E-Learning'

I was surprised that Laura Walker’s blog post of her (successful) expression of interest in the ‘Director of E-Learning position at her school was in first place. I was pleased for her, and for Dan Stucke – another Director of E-Learning – whose blog post also featured on the front page.

But… where am I? It sounds a bit egotistical, I know, but I was kind of expecting to be there too. Where’s the link to my Director of E-Learning interview blog post? Some may construe this blog post as a blatant attempt to point out to Google that I’m a Director of E-Learning too, thank you very much and to get my name on that front page.

You’d be right. 😉

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A Tale of Two Guest Houses (or, what are you offering your students this academic year?)

I’ve been in Devon this past week. Driving back from Exeter to my inlaws’ house I passed the signs for two guest houses:

Guest house with hot tub and wi-fi

Guest house with 'central heating'!

It got me thinking about the differences in educational opportunities being offered at various schools not only in the same country, but around the world. No doubt, the reason why the guest house at the top in the pictures above is successful is because of the bells and whistles it offers. I should imagine they could get away with relatively poor customer service and offering a ’rounded’ experience as they offer the ‘wow’ factor.

The bottom guest house in the pictures above  is probably still in business due to the personality of the proprietors. The fact that they’re still advertising having central heating and a TV shows how behind the times they are, yet they must offer something the others don’t otherwise they would have gone out of business long ago.

Transferring the above into an educational context, it’s easy to see the parallels. The equivalent of the first guest house is the educator who jumps on every new bandwagon, wanting to test everything so they can say they’ve used the newest tools with their students. The equivalent of the second the educator that eschews completely such technologies and continues by force of personality.

I think our students deserve both: committed, personable teachers who are au fait with technology. I’m sick of the false dichotomy between the two.

I’ll be doing my best to promote educational technology in a way that enhances learning in my role as Director of E-Learning this academic year. What will you be doing? 🙂

Quit whinging and ‘use the difficulty’!

'All the world's a stage'

Image by Pedro Moura Pinheiro at Flickr

If minor celebrities and athletes can write their autobiographies whilst still in their 20s, then I feel justified in dispensing some wisdom. Here it is:

If you want to go far in life, don’t whinge.

Not whinging is your fastest and most direct route to success, in any area. People don’t like whingers. Note that I’m not saying don’t say anything negative, just be aware of the difference between that and whinging.

Whinging is when an individual says something negative without any interest or commitment to making what it is they’re whinging about better. Their utterances are worse than useless as they actually make everyone else around them feel worse. That’s why people avoid whingers.

But not whinging isn’t just about winning friends and influencing people, it’s about personal happiness. Not whinging makes you feel better about yourself. And if you make a commitment to make changes rather than moaning about them, then your confidence will increase. You are likely to also gain new skills and your personal productivity is likely to skyrocket. 😀

I’m reminded of a quotation from Michael Caine I read recently on Scott Berkun’s blog about how he learned to use difficult situations to his advantage:

I was rehearsing a play, and there was a scene that went on before me, then I had to come in the door. They rehearsed the scene, and one of the actors had thrown a chair at the other one. It landed right in front of the door where I came in. I opened the door and then rather lamely, I said to the producer who was sitting out in the stalls, “Well, look, I can’t get in. There’s a chair in my way.” He said, “Well, use the difficulty.” So I said “What do you mean, use the difficulty?” He said “Well, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it’s a comedy, fall over it.” This was a line for me for life: Always use the difficulty.

So be like Michael Caine. If you see a difficulty, don’t whinge; do something about it! 🙂

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