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Weeknote 09/2019

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #334 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. It was entitled, ‘Being where the rubber meets the road is… tyring’ and was, as ever, made possible via those who support me on Patreon.
  • Recording, editing and releasing Episode 116 of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast with my co-host Dai Barnes. We entitled this episode ‘A Climate of Safety’ and discussed biohacking, games and learning mechanics, YouTube and suicide prevention, capitalism, climate change, SolarPunk, foldable displays, and more!
  • Working on the MoodleNet project:
  • Being invested as an Assistant Scout Leader and starting my Wood Badge training.
  • Getting our 12 year-old son ready for his first skiing trip with the school.
  • Discussing upcoming consultancy work with a potential client for the co-op.

Next week, I’m at home working on MoodleNet Mon/Tues and Thurs/Fri. I’ll be available on Wednesday morning (GMT) if you want to talk something through for half an hour. Book a slot here!


Photo taken by me of Morpeth Chantry on Friday

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!

Weeknote 08/2019

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #333 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. It was entitled, ‘Bad puns are how eye roll’ and was, as ever, made possible via those who support me on Patreon.
  • Taking Monday and Tuesday as holiday. As a family we visited Jorvik Viking Centre, Magna Science Adventure Centre, and Fountains Abbey, which were all great! In fact, I reckon visiting Jorvik as a nine year-old possibly kindled my interest in history.
  • Spending Wednesday doing half a day for Moodle and half as a consultancy day. I spoke to a couple of people via my new surgery slots and really enjoyed those conversations (community building and the history of networked scholarship!) Once again, I’m only available in the morning next Wednesday, so book your slot if you want to catch me!
  • Working on the MoodleNet project:
    • Sending out the final survey for the first initial testing period. We’ve had good feedback so far, and we’re looking forward to the second testing period starting next week.
    • Continuing to triage all the suggestions coming in from testers through Changemap.
    • Adding more details to our upcoming sprints towards the beta launch at the UK & Ireland MoodleMoot in April.
    • Spending Thursday and Friday in Barcelona with Gry Stene and Martin Dougiamas discussing strategy. I also discussed data protection with Carlo Polizzi, and hung out with other Moodle colleagues. There was a general strike on Thursday, which was interesting to experience.
  • Encouraged by the interactions within our new Slack-based book club. We were reading the second chapter of of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and it’s not too late to join us if you’re interested!
  • Putting together things for Thought Shrapnel:

Next week, I’m at home all week working on MoodleNet Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.


Photo taken by me in Barcelona just before sunset on Friday.

Weeknote 07/2019

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #332 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. It was entitled, ‘On social media’ and was, as ever, made possible via those who support me on Patreon.
  • Taking Wednesday again as my consultancy day, and talking to a three people via my new surgery slots. Two of the conversations were about Open Badges and the other one was about digital equity. I’m only available in the morning next Wednesday, so book your slot now!
  • Working on the MoodleNet project:
    • Pushing out an update which has received lots of thumbs-up from testers!
    • Sending out another MoodleNet survey, which led to some very interesting answers to the question of “how would you describe MoodleNet to a friend or colleague?”
    • Continuing to triage all the suggestions coming in from testers through Changemap
    • Getting to grips with Moodle Tracker for defining MoodleNet epics and releases. We’ve also been kicking out random people adding comments…
    • Sorting out pagination on the frontend as well as the backend.
    • Connecting to a live Q&A about MoodleNet as part of the national conference of the Swiss e-Learning Community of Higher Education Institutions.
    • Continuing to figure out MoodleNet security bounties.
    • Discussing approaches to MoodleNet’s integration with Moodle Core (thanks Sander!)
    • Preparing next week’s final survey for the first round of testers, and getting things ready for the 143 testers involved in the second round of testing.
  • Enjoying the experience of reading the introduction and first chapter of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism as part of our new Slack-based book club. There’s still time to join if you’re interested!
  • Writing about the demise of Digitalme and following that up by listing 10 platforms for issuing Open Badges.
  • Putting together things for Thought Shrapnel:

Next week, I’m going away for a couple of days with my family and taking Monday and Tuesday off work. Then on Wednesday, I’m doing half a day consultancy and half a day for Moodle. Thursday and Friday I’ll be spending in Barcelona for quick trip to the Moodle Spain office!


Photo taken by me at Druridge Bay on Wednesday.

So long Digitalme, and thanks for all the fish

Note: City & Guilds have asked me to clarify that Digitalme still exists and continues to offer badging services.


This announcement from Digitalme is a real shame:

Since we joined the City and Guilds Group in June 2016, we have continued to help all kinds of teams recognise learning with the Open Badge Standard.

At this point in our journey, it is time to say goodbye to the Open Badge Academy in order for us to focus on supporting the design, development, and implementation of quality programmes that leverage the Open Badge Standard powered by leading technology — Credly.

After leaving Mozilla in 2015, I consulted with City & Guilds up to the point at which they acquired Digitalme. I’d known the guys at Digitalme since before I started at Mozilla and was impressed with their dedication and effort. They’d built something people and organisations really wanted, so taking it to the next level with City & Guilds seemed to be their opportunity to scale-up.

The trouble was that City & Guilds didn’t really have much in-house technical capacity. They’re a 140 year-old credentialing organisation, who took a punt on a young start-up with the hopes that they could create a whole new business unit out of it. At the same time, to hedge their bets, they invested in Credly. Now, it seems, they’re scuttling Open Badge Academy (OBA) in favour of becoming a Credly reseller.

These things happen, especially as the Open Badges ecosystem matures. It’s been a few years since the demise of Achievery, which was a really forward-looking platform, but unfortunately a too early for the market. What I think is a particular shame with the way City & Guilds are handling the Digitalme situation is the way they are presenting existing customers with a lack of options:

We’re working on a simple way for existing users to download their information, including any badges they have earned so they can continue to share verifiable recognition of their skills.

[…]

To download your badge, go to your profile page and click on the Push icon under your awarded badge. Select the Download option to download this badge to your computer. This download will include data such as the issuer information stored within the image. We would recommend downloading the 2.0 version as this will still be verifiable after OBA closes.

One of the great things about Open Badges, of course, is that you can store them anywhere. Still, you would hope that existing users would, at the very least, be presented with a migration path from OBA to Credly. I would have thought that, given OBA isn’t closing until the end of August, City & Guilds could implement the upcoming Badge Connect API to allow users to make the migration.

The announcement focuses on the sunsetting of OBA, but in effect this is the end of Digitalme. My understanding is that there are very few of the original team left at City & Guilds, and the focus now is on reselling Credly’s products. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’m mistaken.)


A few people have been in touch with me since the announcement asking what they should do. There’s plenty of Open Badges-compliant issuers out there, but I usually recommend Badgr or Open Badge Factory to clients.

Full disclosure: these two platforms sponsor Badge News The Learning Fractal. We approached them for this sponsorship due to their long-term support of the Open Badges standard. Credly made the decision to end their sponsorship of the newsletter at the beginning of this year, and we would thank them for their initial support.


Image: Left high and dry (Explored) by hehaden used under a CC BY-ND license

Weeknote 06/2019

This week I’ve been:

Next week, I’m at home working on MoodleNet Mon/Tues and Thurs/Fri. So, just like this week, I’ll be available if you want to talk something through for half an hour. Book a slot here!

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 05/2019

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #330 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. It was entitled, ‘You’d BETT-er believe it, people’ and was, as ever, made possible via those who support me on Patreon.
  • Recording, editing and releasing Episode 115 of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast with my co-host Dai Barnes. We entitled this episode ‘Art, milk and parties’ and discussed our experiences at BETT, the history of art, veganism, criticism of Facebook, MoodleNet testing, smartphone-based party games, and more!
  • Working on the MoodleNet project:
    • Feverishly getting things ready for the 100-person initial testing period. We delayed it a bit and then finally went live on Thursday.
    • Publishing a new page at new.moodle.net
    • Rolling back our plans to take over the moodle.net domain after some HQ discussion.
    • Launching the test version of MoodleNet to HQ testers and then the rest of the testing community.
    • Scrambling after deploying an update caused something to fail that only an engineer (at that point asleep in Canada!) could fix.
    • Simultaneously high-fiving one another with one hand and biting our fists with the other.
    • Replying to testers who have been, on the whole, positive.
    • Going through suggestions from testers on Changemap.
    • Smiling at some of the collections that users have created.
    • Filing a bunch of UI issues in GitLab.
    • Getting ready surveys and emails to go to out to testers.
    • Creating a short overview video of what MoodleNet currently looks like – and what we’re looking to quickly improve.
    • Booking travel and accommodation to meet Gry Stene, Moodle’s Chief Product Officer, in Barcelona in late February
  • Telling the world about an idea I’ve got to run weekly surgery appointment slots. They’re free, and I’m happy to discuss pretty much anything!
  • Commenting on Laura’s draft of a post (subsequently published) about We Are Open Co-op raising our sights and being a bit more holistic in our thinking.
  • Putting together things for Thought Shrapnel:
  • Trudging through the snow. It’s been deep and crisp and even in Northumberland over the last couple of days! We’ve had some fun sledging and having snowball fights.
  • Helping my wife migrate from an iPhone (6S) to an Android smartphone (Google Pixel 3). The biggest hassle? WhatsApp chat history 🙄

Next week, I’m working on MoodleNet four days (Mon/Tues & Thurs/Fri) and diving into consultancy stuff on Wednesday. Remember, you can book a slot to have a chat if you think I can help with anything!

Dr. Doug’s Wednesday surgeries

TL;DR: I’m experimenting with 30-minute (free) ‘surgeries’ on Wednesdays. You can book me here: https://calendly.com/dougbelshaw


Every week I have one day devoted to consultancy or pro-bono work, and climbing mountains. In 2018, that day was usually a Friday, which was great for getting away and up mountains, but less good for my consultancy and pro-bono work.

That’s why I’ve decided to experiment with Wednesday as this day in 2019. It will split the work I do for Moodle into two (Mon/Tues and Thurs/Fri) and hopefully ensure that this day I’ve carved out doesn’t become just part of the weekend!

I’m available to talk through anything you think I might be able to help with. Free of charge. That may, of course, lead to paid consultancy work in the future, but I’m keen to spread my wings a bit after ploughing the same (productive, enjoyable) furrow for the last 12 months.

Either way, I’m here for you and happy to help. You can book a 30-minute slot using Calendly at the link below. If you could give me some advance notice of what you want to discuss that would be incredibly helpful.

>>> Book a slot <<<

Weeknote 04/2019

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #329 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. It was entitled, ‘All is fair in love and Brexit’ and was, as ever, made possible via those who support me on Patreon.
  • Working on the MoodleNet project (Mon-Weds):
    • Preparing for the first pilot test next week. We got 197 applications in English and Spanish, and everyone should now know which ‘list’ they’re on!
    • Collaborating on translations with Julia.
    • Catching up with Carlo, our DPO about data protection.
    • Talking with Bob about Moodle Educator Certificates and Open Badges.
    • Making decisions about what’s in and out of scope for next week. Yes, even at this stage.
  • Meeting with my co-op colleagues from Wednesday night to Friday morning in London.
  • Attending BETT for a few hours on Friday and catching up with various people.
  • Writing a couple of posts on this blog:
  • Catching the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library after I managed to snag a last-minute ticket.

Next week, I’m at home working on MoodleNet all week.

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