Category: Everything Else (page 1 of 39)

Eulogy for Dai Barnes

Today, Sunday 29th September 2019, I’m giving a eulogy for my good friend Dai Barnes, who passed away in early August. For those who can’t attend the memorial service at Oundle School, I’m sharing the text of it here along with the audio contributions I’m including from the last-ever episode of TIDE.

Thank you to everyone who had a hand in shaping this, and to Dai’s family for allowing me the honour of speaking at his memorial service.


Audio version of eulogy (in full)

I believe it was the author Terry Pratchett who said that “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.” My friend Dai Barnes certainly caused some ripples during the time he spent on this Earth.

Today, almost two months after Dai’s passing, all of us in this room are at different stages in the grieving process. Some of us here knew Dai, or David as he was known by his family, for most of his life. Some of us knew him for some brief parts of it. What we all have in common is a feeling that he went too soon.   

Dai was around a decade older than me, but it didn’t feel like that at all. He had such a youthful exuberance about him and I’ve never met anyone who had such an affinity with kids. It really was his mission in life to be the best educator he could possibly be. I’m sure you’ll hear a lot more about that from Bill when he talks about Dai’s professional life.

For me, Dai was one of the most straightforwardly complex people I’ve ever come across. He was a bit of an enigma. At the same time as there being layers and layers to him that you’d peel back as conversations unfolded, he also wore his heart on his sleeve. I’ve never known anyone like him. 

Most people here will have known Dai IRL (“in real life”), but I just want to take a moment to talk about the other half of his existence. Dai’s online life was just as important to him as his life offline, and the number of tweets, audio and video recordings, and other messages that have come in since his passing really is testament to the impact he had on other people – even at a distance. 

Dai joined a new online service called Twitter in 2007 and, in fact, that’s how we met. In those days we’d also see each other in person at TeachMeets and other events, and that eventually led to us to co-host a Sunday night online meeting for educators called EdTechRoundUp. I just want to play a short audio clip from Mary Cooch, who some of you may know as @moodlefairy on Twitter. She was also part of that group.

Mary Cooch remembering Dai Barnes

EdTechRoundUp was around a decade ago. After that ended, Dai and I maintained contact, and then, back in 2014, we met IRL in a cafe in Newcastle. We talked about how we missed the EdTechRoundUp days and decided to start a new podcast together. We must have talked for about two and a half hours before I noticed he wasn’t wearing any shoes.

Going barefoot was the thing that most people noticed about Dai. He claimed that shoes were the “devil’s work” but, actually, he had a more prosaic reason for unencumbering his feet. He had fallen arches, and so after years of doctors’ advice leading to ineffective insoles and various other attempted solutions, he looked online and found that barefoot running might be the answer. 

Dai went without shoes wherever and whenever he could. He even walked barefoot to the top of Dale Head in the Lake District with me once! But he was nevertheless a pragmatist – a point he made in the introduction to a blog post he wrote back in 2016 about his experience of going barefoot in the Samaria Gorge in Crete: 

Being barefoot brings burden. You have to set your own rules. Some are die-hard – never a shoe in sight of sole. Never compromise. But that’s not my way. I wear my naked feet when I feel it’s okay. By default my choice is to be shoeless. But some things require footwear: football, cricket, tennis, uniforms. It would be misrepresentative not to expose my wrestle with pushing to be footloose everywhere I go. But there are expectations to meet. I am not the type to live beyond the influence of social expectation.

Dai Barnes

To be fair, the barefoot approach did fit in well with Dai’s slightly hippie approach to life. His family tell me that, as a child, he claimed that when he grew up he wanted to be a “beach bum”. And then, when he left home, for a few years he had long hair that he didn’t wash very often! 

Dai certainly had a unique approach to life. He was reliable yet spontaneous. He was willing to uphold tradition and convention, but wasn’t afraid to jump up on a table during an observed lesson to emphasise a point. His private school students obtained amazing results, yet he sometimes taught them in quite unconventional ways. For example, occasionally, he would allow them to stay in their rooms on a Saturday morning and teach the class virtually using a chat app called Slack.

The other thing that everyone comments on when they remember Dai is THE VOICE. It was my privilege to be able to record that voice for the world to hear through the Today In Digital Education podcast. We recorded 119 episodes of TIDE, as it was known, with the 120th being a memorial episode to celebrate Dai’s life. We’ve already heard Mary’s contribution to that, and now here’s Kevin McLaughlin talking not only about Dai’s voice, but about his sheer gravitas:

Kevin McLaughlin remembering Dai Barnes

There are so many other things I could tell you about Dai. The short amount of time I have here just isn’t enough. I want to talk about his amazing musical ability; he said that “a song is an algorithm for a person”. I want to talk about his generosity, his leadership, how jealous I was that he was better than me at every PlayStation 4 game we played together. Oh, and the time he bought Eylan Ezekiel and me some bamboo underpants that he discovered in India. 

Not everyone who knew Dai can be here today. As I’ve already mentioned, the number of people who got in touch with Amy, Eylan, and me in the days and weeks after Dai’s passing became almost overwhelming. From those memories that flooded in, I’d like to share just one more. This came from Keith Brown, a former colleague of Dai’s:

Dai and me were the IT department at St Benedict’s for about 7 years from 2006-2013. The funny thing was that he was my boss as Head of Department and I was his boss as Deputy Head of 6th Form as he was one of my pastoral team. We also played in the staff band together. He taught me pretty much everything I know and have traded off since! I left St Benedict’s in 2013 and implemented what I’d learnt from Dai as Deputy Head. I am now doing the same as a Head in Wimbledon. I’ve been able to carve out a career in my latter years based on much of what Dai taught me…. He was a friend, but perhaps more importantly, just a thoroughly good man.

Keith Brown

So, in closing, those ripples that Terry Pratchett talked about? The ones that have an effect far beyond the life of an individual? Dai’s ripples are not going to stop for a LONG time yet. So thank you David Sutherland Barnes, it was our absolute privilege to share a part of life’s journey with you. Your impact on us, and on so many others, has helped to shape who we are. 


Photos taken from those shared on Twitter using the #RIPDai hashtag.

A 3-step guide to completing your thesis when you’re feeling utterly overwhelmed

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with quite a few people working on a Masters or Doctoral level thesis. Some of them are planning to continue into a career in academia, but most are not. While their questions to me are all slightly different, the tension feels similar: how can I reconcile all of this stuff?

Drop-out rates, especially at doctoral level, are pretty high. Even those who don’t do so are likely to experience a significant ‘dip’. There are many factors for this, but my hunch is that it’s not primarily because there’s too much work involved. I think that it’s more to do with the overwhelming number of possible areas of research. In other words, it’s all to do with scope.

So, I’d like to offer some help. My only experience is in the Humanities, so take this with a pinch of salt and in the spirit it’s intended. If you’re mid-way in your dissertation or thesis and you’re feeling a bit stuck, here’s what I suggest you do.

1. Stop

Go back to your proposal. What does it say? What did you and your thesis supervisor agree upon?

If it helps, put the different elements of what you’re studying into one of three buckets:

  • Thesis — areas within the scope of your thesis, as outlined in your proposal.
  • Follow-up — things that are slightly outside the scope of your thesis but which you could investigate once you’ve submitted your thesis (e.g. for post-doctoral research)
  • Out of scope — things that, while potentially fascinating, are not helping you earn this Masters degree or doctorate.

In other words, there are things that you have to do to complete the requirements of your postgraduate degree, and there are really interesting other things that get in the way. Make sure you know the difference between them.

2. Look

Whether or not you’ve used them before, mindmaps can be really handy when you’re feeling overwhelmed. They give you a visual overview of the territory you’re exploring, and can help you synthesise disparate ideas and concepts.

Doug's thesis mindmap

Somewhat incredibly, the mindmap I created a decade ago when I was in the midst of my doctoral work is still available online. It’s perhaps one of the most useful things I’ve ever done; not only was the output useful when talking with my thesis supervisor, but the process of creating it was helpful beyond words.

It can take days to create a large mindmap, and to begin with it can feel a bit like a waste of time. However, as you pull together notes from various systems (notebooks, online bookmarks, thoughts in your head, etc.) it starts to become a map of the territory of your thesis.

You could do this on paper, but the value of doing it digitally is that you can move things around and make connections between related ideas much more easily.

3. Listen

Whether learning a language or writing a thesis, difficult things are best approached little and often. Trying to cram them in to a single day per week (or the occasional weekend) doesn’t really work.

I found that getting up early and spending at least an hour on my thesis before work suited me best. Others might find this better late at night. Either way, if you work on your mindmap every day for a few days, I guarantee that it will begin to ‘speak’ back to you.

Things that previously seemed unrelated will become connected in your mind in new and interesting ways. You will start to understand where the boundaries of your work are. It’s at this point that you’re ready to take a chainsaw to the branches of your mindmap!

You have to be ruthless. If you want to complete your thesis, you need to kill your darlings. While it can feel a bit sad to say goodbye to things you’ve researched and found interesting, it’s actually quite liberating. After all, postgraduate study is hard enough without adding to your burden.

In addition, getting used to ruthlessly pruning your work at this stage is really good preparation. In the writing-up phase you will write many more words than you actually submit, and you will have to decide which ones don’t make it. For example, with a 100,000 word thesis you may end up writing at least 20-25% more than that, and then have to cut whole sections with which you were very pleased.

…and finally

Work openly and talk to other people about your experiences and struggles. You are not alone on this journey, and many have trod this path before you. Share what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re feeling. Good luck!

Experimenting with a Slack-based book club

TL;DR: I’ve started a channel called #book-club-1 in the We Are Open co-op Slack. Everyone adhering to our code of conduct is welcome. Reading this. Join here. Starts Monday.


I was discussing book clubs over email with Bryan Alexander recently. He’s been running ones via his blog since 2013, and finds them a valuable experience.

This was prompted by a few people both in We Are Open co-op‘s Slack and the Thought Shrapnel Patreon saying that they’d appreciate the opportunity to discuss new books like Paul Jarvis’ Company of One and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

I’ve never been a member of a book club, as I imagine the offline versions as being full of people drinking red wine and trying to prove some crazy theory that they’ve got about the intent behind someone else’s writing. However, an online version intrigued me, hence my discussion with Bryan Alexander.

After looking at different models, I decided to come up with my own. I also chose the Digital Minimalism as the book, as people seemed to be interested in reading it. I’m absolutely making it up as I go along, but there we go. Someone’s got to lead things.

Let me walk you through what I’ve done to set things up:

Slack Book Club - overview

Slack allows you to ‘pin’ discussions, but doesn’t let you moved these about after the fact. That means I’ve had to be very careful to pin these in the correct order. It’s also the reason the channel is called #book-club-1 as we’ll need to create a new channel and pin discussions for each new book.

(thanks to Adam Procter for helping me figure this out!)

Slack book club - setup

There’s a ‘meta thread’ giving an overview of the book being read, and this is the place where discussions about the book as a whole should go.

Slack book club - thread

For this book club to work, we need to use Slack’s functionality. This may look slightly confusing if you’re reading this and don’t use Slack, but it’s pretty standard stuff for those who do. It’s not hard, and there’s some useful help pages here.

As you can see from the screenshot above, clicking on ‘1 reply’ (or whatever it’s on by the time you get there) opens the thread and allows you to add your response. It’s even more intuitive on mobile, I find.

Slack book club - random chat

Underneath all the pinned discussions for each chapter (which show up as yellow) there’s a space for random book-related chat. This might be for asking questions such as “I take it audiobooks are accepted in this space? Asking for a friend” and anything else you doesn’t fit elsewhere.

I’ve no idea if this is all going to work, but I’m willing to give it a go. In my mind I’m going for a vibe somewhere between random pub conversation and postgraduate seminar — but with a more asynchronous, dip-in-and-out approach.

Grab the book and join us. You might like it!


FAQ

1. Do I have to know anything about anything?

Nope, I have no clue and I’m the one who set this thing up.

2. Do I have to read one chapter per week?

No, do what you like. Read it in one sitting and comment on all the things in a literary orgy. Read the introduction over a period of three weeks. Up to you.

3. Are you going to be asking questions as a prompt?

Maybe? If people want? I don’t know.

4. What if people are mean to me?

We have a Code of Conduct and I’ll warn them and then kick them out. We haven’t had to do that yet on our Slack, but we’re willing to. Don’t worry, though, it’s a nice crowd.

5. Is this really an FAQ, or have you just made up the questions as a sneaky way to shoehorn more information into your poorly-structured blog post?

Erm…

Weeknote 48/2018

Note: this is my last post on this blog for 2018. I’ll be back in January 👋


This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #326 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. It was entitled, for self-explanatory reasons, ‘Last issue of 2018’. It was, as ever, made possible via those who support me on Patreon.
  • Feeling ill. I took Monday and Friday off and limped through my other days. I’m on the mend, I think.
  • Working on the MoodleNet project (Tues-Thurs):
    • Writing about the work we did in Barcelona after user feedback on the sign-up process, and about writing a lengthy post about Emoji ID.
    • Collaborating with Outlandish on new screens for sign-up.
    • Working with Gry Stene on MoodleNet project resource requirements.
    • Interviewing for a potential UX designer and front-end developer position.
    • Completing 360-degree review questionnaires for my colleagues.
    • Replying to comments in various places about what MoodleNet will and won’t do.
  • Spending a half-day with my We Are Open Co-op colleagues planning for 2019. Give us a shout if we can help you!
  • Wrapping up Thought Shrapnel for this year.

Next week, I’m at home all week working on MoodleNet stuff from Monday to Thursday. I’ve potentially got some co-op work to get done on Friday.

World Mental Health Day: my story

Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post I made to the Moodle HQ forum earlier today as part of our Wellbeing Week.


According to Heads Up, an Australian organisation focused on mental health at work, there are nine attributes of a healthy workplace:

  1. Prioritising mental health
  2. Trusting, fair & respectful culture
  3. Open & honest leadership
  4. Good job
  5. Workload management
  6. Employee development
  7. Inclusion & influence
  8. Work/Life balance
  9. Mental health support

Just over a decade ago, I burned myself out while teaching, spending a few weeks signed off work and on antidepressants. It was undoubtedly the lowest point of my life. The experience has made me realise how fragile mental health can be, as other members of staff were struggling too. Ultimately, it was our workplace environment that was to blame, not individual human failings.

These days, I’m pleased to say that, most of the time everything is fine. Just like anyone who identifies strongly with the work they’re doing, it can be difficult to put into practice wisdom such as “prioritising family” and “putting health first”. Good places to work, however, encourage you to do this, which is part of what Wellbeing Week at Moodle is all about.

Currently, I work remotely for Moodle four days per week. I travel regularly, but have been based from home in various roles for the past six years. While others might find it lonely, boring, or too quiet, I find that, overall, it suits my temperament.

When I worked in offices and classrooms, I had an idea of remote working that was completely different from the reality of it. Being based in somewhere other than your colleagues can be stressful, as an article on Hacker Noon makes very clear. I haven’t experienced all of the following issues listed in the article, but I know people who have.

  • Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  • Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  • Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  • Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  • Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  • Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  • You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  • Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

Wherever you spend the majority of your time, the physical environment only goes so far. That’s why the work the Culture Champs are doing at Moodle HQ is so important. Feeling supported to do a manageable job in a trusting and respectful culture is something independent of where your chair happens to be located.

So, I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to open up about your mental health. Talk about it with your family and friends, of course, but also to your colleagues. How are you feeling?


Image by Johan Blomström used under a Creative Commons license

Where migraines end and I begin

I think I must have been about eighteen when I started getting migraines.

I’d applied and got through the first few stages for having the Royal Air Force sponsor me through university. In return, I would have to agree to ‘sign up’ for sixteen years after graduation. It’s a fact that I’m reminded of as it’s only now, as a 37 year-old, that I would be returning to civilian life.

After a successful interview with the Wing Commander at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, he asked if anything had changed with my application since filling it in some six months prior to our meeting. It was a routine question, but one I felt I had to answer honestly.

I disclosed that I’d just started suffering from migraines with visual disturbances (‘aura’). He raised an eyebrow, walked over to a cabinet and pulled out a large binder. Finding the relevant entry, he read it to me. I already knew that I couldn’t be an RAF pilot after needing corrective lenses from the age of seventeen. Now, he told me, because every type of migraine can be triggered by stress, a position in Fighter Control was now also out of reach.

Given my feelings about war and nationalism these days, I suppose that I ‘dodged a bullet’ there (so to speak). At the time, though, I was bitterly disappointed. So began my life as a migraineur.


In today’s Observer, Eva Wiseman writes about migraines after news that the American FDA has approved a  potential ‘cure‘ to migraines:

The newly-approved drugs follow a much more targeted approach [to previous efforts]. Back in the 1980s, researchers investigating migraines’ root causes zeroed in on the CGRP, a molecule that regulates nerve communication and helps control blood vessel dilation. Scientists found that those with migraines had markedly more CGRP molecules than those without. They also found that if they injected CGRP into people who were known to get migraines, that alone would trigger one. People without a history of migraines could get the same injection without experiencing a headache.

However, like Wiseman, I’m a little skeptical about all this; I’m not sure migraines can be fully separated out from the migraineur:

My personality is curled around the knowledge of a migraine, like the fruit of an avocado and its pit.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to have a migraine to someone who has never had one. They’re whole-body experiences and, although people often point to the crushing headaches, it’s actually impossible to separate them out as a distinct ‘event’. They come at you like waves, gentle at first, but increasing in ferocity.

It was quite by accident that I came across a book a few years ago that had a direct and lasting effect on my life. The late Oliver Sacks’ book Migraine made me realise that, for better or worse, migraines are just part of who I am. He draws on clues from history about migraines, as well as his own clinical experience:

 “You keep pressing me,” he said, “to say that the attacks start with this symptom or that symptom, this phenomenon or that phenomenon, but this is not the way I experience them. It doesn’t start with one symptom, it starts as a whole. You feel the whole thing, quite tiny at first, right from the start.… It’s like glimpsing a point, a familiar point, on the horizon, and gradually getting nearer, seeing it get larger and larger; or glimpsing your destination from far off, in a plane, having it get clearer and clearer as you descend through the clouds.” “The migraine looms,” he added, “but it’s just a change of scale—everything is already there from the start.”

Curiously, there are significant benefits to being a migraineur. These include mild synaesthesia, the ability to see more visually things like historical dates that others find more abstract, and being finely attuned to the weather. There’s also some evidence that migraineurs are less likely to have huge egos.

Sacks writes that:

Transient states of depersonalisation are appreciably commoner during migraine auras. Freud reminds us that “… the ego is first and foremost a body-ego … the mental projection of the surface of the body.” The sense of “self” appears to be based, fundamentally, on a continuous inference from the stability of body-image, the stability of outward perceptions, and the stability of time-perception. Feelings of ego-dissolution readily and promptly occur if there is serious disorder or instability of body-image, external perception, or time-perception, and all of these, as we have seen, may occur during the course of a migraine aura.

Yet these various upsides for the migraineur can’t be separated from the huge downsides: visual disturbances, the loss of muscle tone, crushing headaches, and an unshakeable feeling of anxiety and depression.

It took me years to pinpoint the triggers for my migraines. Can you imagine the process that I had to go through to discover that the natural food colouring Annatto is guaranteed to bring on an episode? No Coca-Cola, cheap custard, or Red Leicester cheese for me! One time, when I was working as a teacher, my wife had to pick me up and take me home after I confiscated a bag of sweets from a child, ate one, and within minutes started seeing huge jagged shapes in my peripheral vision.

Karma.

These days, I’m more clued-up on the small changes that happen to my mind and body in the 24-36 hours before my first visual disturbance: I notice my body losing muscle tone; I start biting my nails; I want to be alone. It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this blog post in a room by myself with chewed-off nails. I’m expecting the aura anytime soon.

Wiseman describes her visual disturbances as:

[A] flickering blind spot in the centre of my vision. It starts small, a spinning black penny in the middle of a page. I slump in my seat as it spreads darkly over my sight like jam, and I can’t see, or think, or entirely understand speech. It’s the film melting in my projector – it’s a bit like falling.

My migraines are nowhere near as frequent or intense as they used to be. I avoid triggers such as specific food and drink, stay away from fluorescent lighting, ensure I get enough sleep, and make sure I drink enough.

When I worked at a university, my migraines were bad enough to find myself on the disability register. These days, they’re much more manageable, for three reasons:

  1. Medication — after many failed experiments in my twenties with preventative medication, I’ve discovered Rizatriptan Benzoate. These wafers, so long as I take them within the first few minutes of aura, mean I can get on with my day.
  2. Working from home — this has had many other benefits, but from the point of view of my migraines, it means that they no longer force me to take a day off work. If I have a migraine in the morning I can, so long as I take my medication, get back to work in the afternoon.
  3. Exercise — while I have to ensure I don’t become dehydrated, running, swimming and going to the gym help me not only with migraines in particular, but mental health more generally.

However, as the RAF Wing Commander correctly noted, stress is always a trigger of migraines. So, in a sense, I’m quite glad that my body has a very obvious system to force me to rest. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that intense, high-stress environments aren’t places where I can thrive.

I want to finish with a quotation from Eva Wiseman’s article:

Half of me knows my life would be simpler if I concentrated harder on looking inwards, and took on the part-time job of doctors’ appointments and pills. But the other half, the one that enjoys the sleepy curiosity of life with a migraine and those three long days of magical thinking, is less willing to try and define what is migraine, and what is me.

We’re often told to listen to our bodies, but in a very real sense, I don’t have much option. I’m not sure where my migraines end, and I begin.

Image by Lizzie at Unsplash

Some utopian thoughts

In all the excitement of turning my weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter into a regular Patreon-supported blog, I’ve neglected this space. I’d like to rectify that.

While I still post my weeknotes here, they’re not ruminations on the state of the world as I see it. Using other people’s work as a provocation is great (and the basis of Thought Shrapnel) but, now that’s established, I’d like to return to thinking about the way things are and how they should be.

Last week, at a conference I attended, a woman from CUNY in Brooklyn stood up and introduced herself. In the process of doing so, she explained that her area was ‘utopian studies’, which got me thinking. I’ve been finding solace recently in describing things as they are, rather than how they ought to be. But, in order to live a life dedicated to the improvement of self and society, I’m not sure that’s enough.


So, what would utopia look like for me?

First, it’s important to note that there’s nothing like regular travel to different countries to disabuse you of the notion of there being simple solutions to human problems.

Second, for me at least, this question cannot be meaningfully answered at an abstract level until I’ve answered it at the local, specific level. In a nutshell, I’d like to live in a world that values human connections, respects the planet we inhabit, and uses technology to improve our mental and physical well-being.

Third, utopia is usually seen as unobtainable, with one definition being “an impractical, idealistic scheme for social and political reform“. Another definition, however, and one that I prefer, is “an ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects“. Just as we should all have an answer to the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” so we should be clear on the world towards which we’re striving.

Fourth, words are cheap. It costs nothing to promise to do something or to write a manifesto. The important work is putting your own words, or those with which you agree, into action.

Fifth, structures are more important than promises. It’s great that we live in a world where companies, both for-profit and non-profit, have mission statements. However, it’s structural issues than enable or prevent change.

Sixth, follow the money. This works on an individual, local, national, and global level. People spend money on things they deem important — either in an attempt to change things, or to shore up an established position. Any thoughts of utopia, therefore, need to balance up competing claims.

Seventh, and finally, as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle stated, “Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” Our focus as a society, or as a collection of societies, should be on human flourishing.


These were just some idle thoughts on a lazy Sunday morning. I’d love to read your (slow, considered) replies. Perhaps in your own blog? Or we could have a chat on Mastodon?

I’m going to be reading Utopia for Realists soon. We should start a book club.

Tools and spaces to create a positive architecture of participation

Earlier this year, in a post entitled How to build an architecture of participation, I explained how, in my experience, systems designed for user contribution require the following elements:

  1. A clear mission
  2. An invitation to participate
  3. Easy onboarding
  4. A modular approach
  5. Strong leadership
  6. Ways of working openly and transparently
  7. Backchannels and watercoolers
  8. Celebration of milestones

To build on that post, I’d like to explain the kinds of tools and spaces that can create a positive architecture of participation. Please note that, in and of themselves, merely using a tool or creating a space does not guarantee participation. Rather, the tools and spaces help as part of a more holistic approach to encouraging contribution.


When I run projects, as I am doing for Moodle as of this week (more specific details on that in a future post), the following are the kinds of tools I tend to use and the spaces I look to create. It’s worth pointing out that my guiding principle is always the ‘scaffolding’ of people’s attention, and that my mental model for this is influenced by the ‘alternative’ version of the RACI matrix:

Responsible
Those responsible for the performance of the task. There should be exactly one person with this assignment for each task.

Assists
Those who assist completion of the task

Consulted
Those whose opinions are sought; and with whom there is two-way communication.

Informed
Those who are kept up-to-date on progress; and with whom there is one-way communication.

 


A) Index

I’ve written before about why you need a single place to point people towards when discussing your project. Not only does it mean a single place for potentially-interested parties to bookmark and remember, but it ensures that the project team only have to perform the administrative duties of updating and curating links once.

Ideally, the URL you give out is a domain that you or your organisation owns, and which points to a server that you, or someone at your organisation, has direct control over. The specific software you choose to run that almost doesn’t matter, as it’s an index — a jumping off point to access spaces where things are actually happening.

Having a canonical URL for the project is useful to everyone in the RACI matrix, from the person responsible for its success, right through to those just being kept informed.

N.B. This is one of the points in Working openly on the web: a manifesto.


B) Documentation

Every project needs a flexible, easy-to-update space where the roadmap can be shared, decisions can be recorded, and an overall sense of the project can be gained.

Wikis are perfect for this task, although increasingly there are tools with wiki-like functionality (e.g. revision history, on-the-fly rearrangement of categories) that do the job, too. Ideally, you’re looking for something that allows your project to look good enough to encourage contribution in someone new, while you don’t have to spend ages making everything look pretty.

Again, documentation is useful for everyone involved in the project, whether responsible, assisting, consulted, or informed.


C) Tracker

One of the biggest things that people want to know about a project is the current status of its constituent parts. There are lots of ways of doing this, from a straightforward kanban approach, to a much more powerful (but potentially more confusing) ticket/issue-based system. The latter are favoured by those doing software development, as it helps avoid unhelpful ambiguity.

My time at Mozilla convinced me that there’s huge value of having everyone at an organisation, or at least on a particular project, using the same tool for tracking updates. The value of this is that you can see what is in progress, who’s working on it, what’s been completed, any questions/problems that have been raised, and so on.

While the tracker might only be used rarely by those being kept informed of the project, it’s invaluable for those responsible, assisting, or being consulted.


D) Asynchronous reports

Producing regular updates ensures that there is a regular flow of information to all parties. In my experience, it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it comes to digital projects. You have to keep reminding people that work is ongoing and that progress is being made on the project.

One way to do this is to blog about the project. Another way is to send out a newsletter. There are plenty of ways of doing this, and it’s worth experimenting with differing timescales as to the frequency of updates. While a bit of (appropriate) colour and humour is always appreciated, so is getting to the point as quickly as possible in these updates.

Reports are primarily for the benefit of those being kept informed about the project. It’s worth remembering that these people may, depending on changes in project direction (or their interest/free time), be in a position to assist or be consulted.

A word about social media. Sending out updates via Twitter, Facebook, and the like is great, but I find following the POSSE (Publish Once, Self-Syndicate Everywhere) approach works best. Use social networks for what they’re best at: surfacing and linking to information in a just-in-time fashion. I wouldn’t use them for the actualy content itself.


E) Synchronous meetings

Depending on the size of the project team and the nature of the project, you may decide to run synchronous meetings more or less regularly. You should certainly run some, however, as they afford a different kind of dynamic to asynchronous, text-based approaches.

There are plenty of tools that allow you to have multiple people on a synchronous audio (and/or video) call, ‘dialling-in’ from wherever they are in the world. It goes without saying that you should be mindful of the timezones of potential contributors when scheduling this. You should also all be looking at an agenda that can be updated as the meeting progresses. The project’s documentation area can be used for this, or something like Etherpad (one of my favourite tools!)


What have I missed? I’ve still lots to learn from those more experienced than me, so I’d welcome encouragement, pushback, and any other comments in the section below!


Image by Daniel Funes Fuentes and used under a CC0 license

Deciding what to write about in your blog post

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you think about what to discuss in your blog post.


Usually, when people ask me about blogging, they ask me about one of two things. They either wonder where I find time to write, or how I find things to write about.

Where do ideas come from?

I’m a bit like the novelist Henry James in thinking that ideas for writing surround us. They’re in the air,  sparked by conversations, things we read, and thoughts we have. Almost always these writing ideas are prompted, which means that if you want to improve the rate of your outputs, the easiest way to do so is to increase the rate of your inputs. Read more. Have more conversations. Spend time walking and thinking.

Ideas come from other ideas, as Steven Johnson notes:

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of writing, however, I came across some fantastic advice shared in a wonderful book by Anne Lamott entitled Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life. In it, the author, who runs writing classes as well as writing works of fiction and non-fiction, writes:

 “E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

Just start writing. Many blog posts I’ve started writing have morphed into something completely different. I often start with a title and the subject I want to write about. By the time I’ve finished my first draft, I have to completely change the title because what I’ve written bears no resemblance to what I set out to write. And that’s OK.

There’s nothing new under the sun, so it’s probable that someone’s written a blog post similar to the one you’re planning to put out into the world. That doesn’t matter. The world’s interested in your perspective. What have you noticed? How did that thing turn out when you applied it to your situation? Why did this idea remind you of something else you’ve experienced?

Contributing to the wider conversation

You never know what effect you’re going to have on a reader until you put your thoughts out there. I can remember being encouraged at church when I was younger by hearing that people need to be evangelised to six or seven times before they’re ready to engage. The same is true of brands trying to make a sale. You don’t know where people are on their journey, and you’ll never know (unless they tell you) what effect your writing will have on their life.

Think of your writing as part of a the wider tapestry of the web. You’re providing a thread that other will weave together into a more complex whole. It’s worth noting, to quote Anne Lamott again, that, at least until you’ve got into your blogging groove, your first drafts are likely to be terrible. Lamott suggests recognising and celebrating the fact that no-one will ever see these ‘shitty first drafts’:

“All good writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. . . I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”

The upside of this is that you’ll have an insight into the trials and tribulations that other writers, bloggers, and essayists go through in order to get just the right word or sentence formation to convey their meaning. You’ll be more likely to share and comment upon good writing. In turn, seeking out that quality writing will have an impact on your own.

Finally…

If you’re sitting there with the cursor blinking in front of you or a vast white expanse of emptiness to fill, then tighten the focus. I can’t find the exact quotation, but I think it’s in Bird by bird that Lamott talks about describing a particular scene in as much detail as possible.

While she’s talking about fiction-writing, Lamott’s advice is useful for any kind of writing. Focusing in on a particular aspect of the thing you want to talk about helps get you started, helps get you some of the way towards finishing that ‘shitty first draft’ that you can then build upon.

Again, just get started. If you feel like something’s on the tip of your tongue, literally write gibberish using your pen or keyboard until the words come. The brain is wonderful at self-correcting when it sees something that’s wrong. If what you see in front of you is different from what’s latent inside your mind, often the right words come tumbling out. Try it!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

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