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Learning through frustration

There’s an interview with Derek Sivers somewhere in which he’s asked about the best way to get started with minimalism. His interviewer finds his response unexpected: go out and buy loads of stuff, he suggests, and feel the need to declutter. That’s the heart of minimalism.

I feel the same about learning. Somehow, I managed to spend 28 years of my life in formal education, from entering school as a four year-old, to graduating from an Ed.D. at the age of 32. I learned a lot, but I wouldn’t say that most of it suited the way I learn best.

No, I’m not talking about vacuous ‘learning styles’, I’m talking about the assumption that everything can be broken down into a sequence that should be learned by people in the same order. I just think, for me at least, learning doesn’t work like that.

Instead, I seem to learn best through frustration. So long as I’m motivated enough to care, when I find something annoying or confusing, something kicks in to make me want to figure it out. Thank goodness for the internet!

Sometimes there’s a perfect YouTube video to watch or article to read, but more often than not it’s a random post on a forum somewhere, or a Reddit comment, or social media post in the middle of a thread.

Is this ‘optimal’? Does it ‘scale’? Probably not. But, for me, people who package things up in ways that are too step-by-step are being a bit disingenuous. After all, I bet they didn’t learn this stuff that way themselves.


This post is Day 50 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com Posted in 100DaysToOffload

Strengths and schooling

In a recent short post Seth Godin talks about amplifying your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses:

People don’t hire you, buy from you or recommend you because you’re indifferently average and well rounded.

Seth Godin

He’s talking about things from a business standpoint, but as a parent and former teacher, I can’t help but think about developing strengths from a learning and developmental point of view.

These things seem obvious to me:

  1. There is a baseline that societies can and should expect most people to achieve.
  2. People are born with different innate interests and tendencies.
  3. The context and environment in which people are raised affects what they find interesting.

As a result, it appears to me that following a broad and balanced curriculum up to a certain baseline would seem like the best approach for educational institutions. Beyond that, it makes sense for people to specialise based on their interests.

People develop at varying rates in different areas due to the three points listed above. That’s why I think we should allow young people to mix between year groups for different subjects, using an approach some people call “stage, not age”.

Imagine if we truly allowed people to follow their interests? Wouldn’t the ability to do so motivate young people more than the current system? Right now, educational authorities’ focus on exam results leads to the narrowing of curricula and the limiting of options.

It’s fashionable to say that we have a industrial education system for a post-industrial economy. That’s confusing means with ends. My argument would instead be that we have an education system focused mainly on the priorities of politicians and employers. What would a more community-centered vision for education look like?

Writing in 1971, Ivan Illich discussed in Deschooling Society the importance of learners finding others who share their interests so they can learn together and solve problems:

Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Now that we have the internet, of course, the ability to find like-minded people is easier than ever before. Nevertheless, there is something immensely powerful about working within a shared geographical context.

This is why I return time and again to Chapter 8 of Keri Facer’s 2011 book Learning Futures, where she outlines what the ‘future-building school’ of the future might look like. I love the way that it manages to respect the specialist pedagogical skills available through schools, with the latent knowledge and talent available through communities:

Although half of the children’s time is scheduled in advance with master classes, tutorials or group learning programmes, one-fifth of their time, even from the youngest age, is dedicated to working on their own projects. The remainder is dedicated to collaborative and community projects where children seek out areas they want to work on together – whether this is exploring a new form of material that has just been developed in one of the labs upstairs, or in solving the problems of a particular group of local residents. Conversations with mentors at the beginning of each week allow the children to discuss their progress and their plans and to manage the different demands of projects and learning programmes. In these conversations, each child’s resource map comes into play. This rich map of their experiences, progress, interests and aspirations, as well as the resources that they have to draw upon at home, in the community and in their family, acts as a basis for identifying both where additional support might be needed and where the child and their family may have particular strengths and interests to share with collaborators or the wider school.

Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change

Given that the pandemic has put the lie to parents needing to travel to work every day, I think mass remote working in future could lead to this kind of situation happening in the next decade. We just need the will to change the system.


This post is Day 32 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

2019: arriving at myself

Every man rushes elsewhere into the future because no man has arrived at himself.

Michel de Montaigne

This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I’m not going to talk too much about my Moodle work, partly because I’ve written a lengthy retrospective about the (ongoing) project, and because I want to focus on more personal things here.

I’ve been to fewer places for work than in previous years, but that’s to be expected given how little time I’ve had for consultancy work. Outside the UK I’ve been to Barcelona (twice), Lisbon, and New York. With my family I’ve visited New England (summer) and Iceland (winter) on holiday.

Back in July I made a decision to take a back seat with We Are Open Co-op for a few months. That turned out to be a great decision as my colleagues flourished in my absence, re-configuring the co-op to be less dependent on me. I got back involved in early December and represented the co-op at the recent CoTech Winter Gathering in Newcastle. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to playing a much bigger part in 2020 now that I’m reducing my Moodle days.


Everything was put into perspective this year by my good friend Dai Barnes passing away unexpectedly at the start of August. While I’ve had to deal before with the death of older family members, I was so unprepared for the passing of someone who was only a decade older than me that it hit me really hard. He was such a great guy.

Eylan Ezekiel and I recorded a memorial episode of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast of which Dai and I had recorded so many episodes. It was also my honour and privilege to give a eulogy at the memorial service held at Oundle School.

The grief I experienced around Dai’s death made me realise that I needed to step down from my position as a Scout leader. I’d been thrown in at the deep end a few months before and, because I always appear (as Sarah Wilson puts it in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful) “high-functioning,” I was just left to get on with it.

The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.

Sarah Wilson

In actual fact, the Scout leader role triggered a whole lot of things from my teaching career that I hadn’t fully dealt with. For example, I’m plagued with perfectionism, and, it turns out overly-anxious about health and safety issues. Ultimately, I took too much on and, as ever when it comes to voluntary roles, others were all too happy for me to take things off their plate. I don’t blame them; everyone’s busy and I looked like I knew what I was doing.

It was actually a pretty big deal for me to step down from my position in Scouts citing mental health reasons, as it was an admission to myself that I couldn’t cope. There was something there that needed confronting, so I sought help through the NHS. When the waiting list was too long, I decided to start paying for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s been great so far.


So 2019 has been the year when I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am, despite my protestations, an anxious person. Some of this is to my benefit and keeps me on my toes, driving me forward. Some of it, however, can be pretty debilitating at times. I’m learning to manage it by first acknowledging it.

While I made the decision to seek some professional help, I’ve realised that (just like my migraines), to a great extent my anxiety just part of who I am. Yes, I take medication and seek therapy for the worst excesses of my mental health issues, but in many ways, my differences give me some ‘superpowers’. I do seem to have a bit of a spider sense for how things are likely to turn out.

Ultimately, I’ve realised that it’s OK to not be ‘OK’ — and to let other people know. I’ve learned to let go a little and draw more boundaries. It’s alright just to be me, and not some idealised version of me that either younger Doug, or the wider world, expects.


One material difference in my life as a result of these realisations, and also partly inspired by Morrissey, is that I’ve largely stopped watching, listening to, or reading the news:

Stop watching the news!
Because the news contrives to frighten you
To make you feel small and alone
To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own

Morrissey, ‘Spent The Day In Bed’

I succeeded in this venture to such an extent that my wife even had to tell me there was a General Election coming up! It’s remarkably freeing to disconnect from the news cycle, which, after all, is basically having your attention focused by someone else. People tell you about the really important stuff anyway.

It’s common for us all to complain about not having enough time, but when you strip away the inessentials, it’s remarkable how much time we really do have. No-one actually needs the 24-hour news cycle.


Something that’s counted as a real achievement for me this year is to complete a Mountain Leader course. This took place over a series of weekends this Autumn in the Peak District, Lake District, and Snowdonia. I was able to book a place after completing 20 Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) over the last three years.

Whether or not I go on to do the week-long Mountain Leader Assessment (which requires me doing at least another 20 QMDs beforehand) it’s been a fantastic experience. I feel so much more prepared to take friends and family on expeditions now, including wild camping!

Again, this is interesting when I reflect on what has been my default approach to life. A side-product of my upbringing was that I’m competitive in everything, so to do this just for my own benefit – without thinking about whether I’m the best person on the course, or how to ensure I get the assessment done as quickly as possible – is wonderfully liberating.


I think all you can do in life is aim to be better than the day before. That’s been tough this year; I’ve fallen out with family members, berated annoying tradesmen, been unduly harsh with my children, and generally acted like an entitled middle-aged white guy. But I am trying to be better, and find reading that the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Baltasar Gracián really helps. (And yes, I’m very aware that these are all dead white guys. I’m trying on that front, too…)

When the world around you appears to be going to hell in a handbasket, when political engagement seems pointless, mincing around with a sign on a Global Climate Strike seems… not enough. However, as Sun Tzu reminds us:

However critical the situation and circumstances in which you find yourself, despair of nothing; it is on the occasions in which everything is to be feared that it is necessary to fear nothing; it is when one is surrounded by all the dangers that it is not necessary to dread any; it is when one is without resources that it is necessary to count on all of them; it is when one is surprised that it is necessary to surprise the enemy himself.

Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War’

We can choose to be fearful, to allow others to dictate the narrative. Or we can choose to grab it and live our own lives. That starts with simple things like how we choose to live and work, what kind of food we put on our plate, our purchasing decisions, and the way we relate to one another.

For me, because many of my interactions with the wider role are mediated and I spend a lot of time in front of a screen, the choices I make around technology play an important role in reflecting my thinking and values. This year, once again, I’ve flip-flopped between trying to make my life easier and more seamless, and then retreating based on my investigations into surveillance capitalism.

There are no easy answers here and choosing to retreat from the world feels like giving up. So I’ll keep on keeping on, even if it seems like sometimes I’m inconsistent. What was it that Emerson said about a “foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds”? (and I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that “consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative”)


This year, I ended up getting into what I think is a good routine with Thought Shrapnel. After attempting to write an article a day in January and February, I took a break for Lent. During that period, I realised that what I was attempting was unsustainable, and so came up with a rhythm that has me posting three times per week (one article, one microcast, one link round-up). I then pull this all together into a newsletter to go out every Sunday.

In terms of the most read Thought Shrapnel posts this year, the list goes:

  1. The best place to be is somewhere else?
  2. Bullshit receptivity scale
  3. Let’s (not) let children get bored again
  4. Social internet vs social media
  5. On the death of Google/Apache Wave (and the lessons we can learn from it)

However, if I had to pick my top three, I’d go for:

I’ve been fortunate enough to be backed in this endeavour by my Patreon supporters, whom I appreciate greatly. Thank you all.


I’ve experimented with a range of things this year such as Wednesday surgeries and a Slack-based book club. I’d like to experiment much more next year, through both the co-op and Thought Shrapnel. I think it’s time to be a lot more radical in my thinking, or at least the way I choose to write and talk about my thinking.

One frustration for me this year has been that I don’t feel that I’ve given myself time to just ‘sit’ with the ideas from the things I’ve read and listened to. While Thought Shrapnel continues to be a fantastic outlet for initial processing, it takes time and reflection to synthesise these into new coherent structures.

One outlet for that might be a new e-book. I’m amazed that the book of my thesis, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, continues to be reasonably popular. After six years, though, it’s probably due an update – or a sequel!


I never used to understand why people would pay money to go and see where famous authors or artists cranked out or otherwise created their masterpieces. I remember being shown J.R.R. Tolkien’s desk at house of the friend of a friend. It was a nice desk, but so what?

These days, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the artefacts themselves that are of interest but the milieu in which the author or artist created their work. It’s led me to think about my own, much humbler work, and how our house and my home office is set up.

What kind of activities does the layout of our home prioritise? What’s the default thing to do in our shared spaces? Because I work from home, these things are important. One small step we took this year, which took a whole campaign of persuasion was reconfiguring our lounge. I bought, at a steep discount, a Samsung ‘The Frame’ television which genuinely looks like a piece of art when in standby mode. This means that our seating is not longer pointed at a screen but is more suited to reading and conversation.

This stuff matters and, since reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking about organising the various kindw of work I do into different, intentionally-created, spaces. At the moment I tend to spend about 70% of my working time in my home office, separate to the house. The rest of the time I spend at the kitchen table or in the lounge, while my kids or at school, or once or twice a week I venture to a local coffee shop.

‘Eudaimonia Machine’ mentioned in Deep Work

I admit it’s a bit of a digression from this retrospective but I can imagine working in a three-room home office based on the Eudaimonia Machine. Mine would combine gallery and salon, as well as library and office. The most important space, after all, is the chamber, which I would probably call my Fortress of Solitude


Other than the time spent with family and friends, there have been a lot of things I have greatly enjoyed this year. In particular, whole host of new music that was either been released 2019 or I’ve discovered this year has made my life better.

Here are a few examples:

  • Bat For Lashes – Lost Girls
  • The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
  • Hot Chip – A Bath Full of Ecstasy
  • Quantic – Atlantic Oscillations
  • Tycho – Weather

In addition, Bonobo and Disclosure dropped some tracks which makes me hopeful that they’ll both release albums in early 2020!

I listen to very different music when running and in the gym. In fact, when I’m not lifting weights I’m often listening to podcasts, with my favourites this year being:

  • THE ADAM BUXTON PODCAST by Adam Buxton
  • Akimbo by Seth Godin
  • Athletico Mince by Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson
  • Friday Night Comedy by BBC Radio 4
  • The Tim Ferriss Show by Tim Ferriss

I’m subscribed to a whole bunch of podcasts, so just to highlight some particular episodes from those not mentioned above:

  • How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash (The Guardian’s Audio Long Reads)
  • Lauryn Hill: An Education (Dissect)
  • Orlando Figes on Cultural Change in 19th Century Europe (Dan Snow’s History Hit)
  • The Rapture (In Our Time)
  • Victoria Coren Mitchell (Off Menu)

When I’m doing focused work, I use Brain.fm. This app, to which I have a lifetime subscription, is also really useful for sleeping on flights and strange hotel rooms.

I’ve read so many books this year that the following list leaves out many fantastic books that I enjoyed greatly. Nevertheless, of the books I read (and re-read) this year, here’s an eclectic top ten:

  1. Against Creativity by Oli Mould
  2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
  3. Being Numerous by Natasha Lennard
  4. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
  5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  6. Independent People by Halldór Laxness
  7. Maybe Zombies by Laura Hilliger
  8. Obfuscation: A User’s Guide For Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton & Helen Nissenbaum
  9. The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born by Nancy Fraser
  10. Psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han

I watch very few films and TV programmes by myself, which obviously has an impact on the kinds of things I end up viewing. On a flight earlier this year I did end up watching a documentary called Free Solo which was incredible. I’ve also enjoyed watching all of the series of Billions and La Casa de Papel with my wife (the latter is more prosaically translated as ‘Money Heist’ in English).

I’d rather spend my screen-based free time playing on our PlayStation 4 than watch television. This year was, I think, the 23rd or 24th year I’ve played a game in the FIFA series. We bought FIFA 20 when it came out and my son is now able to beat me on occasion. My daughter’s pretty good too…

Other than that, while Dai was still with us, I played a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with him. It’s an absolutely incredible game, and I used to love dramatic shoot-outs with the law, while drinking whisky and talking with Dai about life, the world, and everything.


I wrote this retrospective over the course of a couple of weeks, stealing time here and there to type words into the WordPress app on my phone.

Smartphones are, or can be, an existential threat to our peace of mind and individuality. While I love feeling connected to the world, I very much regret the thoughtless way organisations have adopted messaging apps to augment or replace email.

On top of this, social media apps are increasingly designed to be addictive, meaning that the amount of time we spend sharing stuff with one another, whether professionally or personally, is growing exponentially. I’d love to thing that all of this was contributing to the health and wealth of humanity, but I fear the opposite is probably true.

I’m being careful about the apps I put on my phone, reminding myself that replying instantly to family, friends, and work colleagues is a choice I can choose to make. Conversely, I can choose to prioritise what I’m doing right now, be it a thought I’m having or a conversation I’m engaged in. Some things can wait.

I’ll finish, then, with another quotation from Montaigne, one that I’ve read many times before, but truly come to understand this year:

The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.

Michel de Montaigne

Reframing the ‘Progressive’ vs. ‘Traditionalist’ Debate in Education [DML Central]

It’s been a while, but my 38th post for DML Central has just been published. It’s my attempt to get beyond the reductionist ‘traditional’ vs. ‘progressive’ debate that currently plagues educational discourse.

An excerpt:

Ultimately, I see a lot of educators as pragmatists and carrying out a role in accordance with a “Social Efficiency” curriculum ideology. Most of the “flamewars” and unhelpful debate I’ve seen takes place between Scholar Academics and Learner Centered educators arguing over the nature of knowledge, so I’m looking forward to the day when we each understand that not everyone becomes an educator for the same reason as us.

Click here to read the article in full.

(Note: I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to comment on the original article!)

Digital myths, digital pedagogy, and complexity

I’m currently doing some research with Sarah Horrocks from London CLC for their parent organisation, the Education Development Trust. As part of this work, I’m looking at all kinds of things related to technology-enhanced teacher professional development.

Happily, it’s given me an excuse to go through some of the work that Prof. Steve Higgins, my former thesis supervisor at Durham University, has published since I graduated from my Ed.D. in 2012. There’s some of his work in particular that really resonated with me and I wanted to share in a way that I could easily reference in future.


In a presentation to the British Council in 2013 entitled Technology trends for language teaching: looking back and to the future, Higgins presents six ‘myths’ relating to digital technologies and educational institutions:

  1. The ‘Future Facing’ Fallacy – “New technologies are being developed all the time, the past history of the impact of technology is irrelevant to what we have now or will be available tomorrow.
  2. The ‘Different Learners’ Myth – “Today’s children are digital natives and the ‘net generation –they learn differently from older people”.
  3. A Confusion of ‘Information’and ‘Knowledge’ – “Learning has changed now we have access to knowledge through the internet, today’s children don’t need to know stuff, they just need to know where to find it.”
  4. The ‘Motivation Mistake’ – “Students are motivated by technology so they must learn better when they use it.”
  5. The ‘Mount Everest’ Fallacy – “We must use technology because it is there!”
  6. The ‘More is Better’ Mythology – “If some technology is a good thing, then more must be better.

The insightful part, is I think, when Higgins applies Rogers’ (1995) work around the diffusion of innovations:

  • Innovators & early adopters choose digital technology to do something differently – as a solution to a problem.
  • When adopted by the majority, focus is on the technology, but not as a solution.
  • The laggards use the technology to replicate what they were already doing without ICT

In a 2014 presentation to The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills (TULOS) entitled Technology and learning: from the past to the future, Higgins expands on this:

It is rare for further studies to be conducted once a technology has become fully embedded in educational settings as interest tends to focus on the new and emerging, so the question of overall impact remains elusive.

If this is the situation, there may, of course, be different explanations. We know, for example, that it is difficult to scale-up innovation without a dilution of effect with expansion (Cronbach et al. 1980; Raudenbush, 2008). It may also be that early adopters (Rogers, 2003; Chan et al. 2006) tend to be tackling particular pedagogical issues in the early stages, but then the focus shifts to the adoption of the particular technology, without it being chosen as a solution to a specific teaching and learning issue (Rogers’‘early’ and ‘late majority’). At this point the technology may be the same, but the pedagogical aims and intentions are different, and this may explain a reduction in effectiveness.

The focus should be on pedagogy, not technology:

Overall, I think designing for effective use of digital technologies is complex. It is not just a case of trying a new piece of technology out and seeing what happens. We need to build on what is already know about effective teaching and learning… We also need to think about what the technology can do better than what already happens in schools. It is not as though there is a wealth of spare time for teachers and learners at any stage of education. In practice the introduction of technology will replace something that is already there for all kinds of reasons, the technology supported activity will squeeze some thing out of the existing ecology, so we should have good grounds for thinking that a new approach will be educationally better than what has gone before or we should design activities for situations where teachers and learners believe improvement is needed. Tackling such challenges will mean that technology will provide a solution to a problem and not just appear as an answer to a question that perhaps no-one has asked.

My gloss on this is that everything is ambiguous, and that attempts to completely remove this ambiguity and/or abstract away from a particular context are doomed to failure.

One approach that Higgins introduces in a presentation (no date), entitled SynergyNet: Exploring the potential of a multi-touch classroom for teaching and learning, is CSCL. I don’t think I’d heard of this before:

Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a pedagogical approach where in learning takes place via social interaction using a computer or through the Internet. This kind of learning is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary means of communication or as a common resource. CSCL can be implemented in online and classroom learning environments and can take place synchronously or asynchronously. (Wikipedia)

The particular image that grabbed me from Higgins’ presentation was this one:

CSCL

This reminds me of the TPACK approach, but more focused on the kind of work that I do from home most weeks:

One of the most common approaches to CSCL is collaborative writing. Though the final product can be anything from a research paper, a Wikipedia entry, or a short story, the process of planning and writing together encourages students to express their ideas and develop a group understanding of the subject matter. Tools like blogs, interactive whiteboards, and custom spaces that combine free writing with communication tools can be used to share work, form ideas, and write synchronously. (Wikipedia)

CSCL activities seem like exactly the kind of things we should be encouraging to prepare both teachers and young people for the future:

Technology-mediated discourse refers to debates, discussions, and other social learning techniques involving the examination of a theme using technology. For example, wikis are a way to encourage discussion among learners, but other common tools include mind maps, survey systems, and simple message boards. Like collaborative writing, technology-mediated discourse allows participants that may be separated by time and distance to engage in conversations and build knowledge together. (Wikipedia)

Going through Higgins’ work reminds me how much I miss doing this kind of research!


Note: I wrote an academic paper with Steve Higgins that was peer-reviewed via my social network rather than in a journal. It’s published on my website and Digital literacy, digital natives, and the continuum of ambiguity. I’ve also got a (very) occasional blog where I discuss this kind of stuff at ambiguiti.es.


Photo by Daniel von Appen

3 things I learned during my time at Mozilla

Introduction

On my to-do list for the last year has been ‘write up what I learned at Mozilla’. I didn’t want this anniversary week to go by without writing something, so despite this being nowhere near as comprehensive as what I’d like to write, it at least shifts that item from my to-do list!

The following are three (plus one bonus) personal learning points that I felt were some of my main takeaways from the three years I spent working for the Mozilla Foundation. After being a volunteer from 2011, I became a member of staff from 2012-15, working first as Badges & Skills Lead, and then transitioning to Web Literacy Lead.

1. Working openly by default is awesome

Mozilla is radically open. Most meetings are available via public URLs, notes and projects are open for public scrutiny, and work is shared by default on the open web.

There are many unexpected benefits through doing this, including it being a lot easier to find out what your colleagues are working on. It’s therefore easy to co-ordinate efforts between teams, and to bring people into projects.

In fact, I think that working openly is such an advantage, that I’ve been advocating it to every client I’ve worked with since setting up Dynamic Skillset. Thankfully, there’s now a fantastic book to help with that evangelism entitled The Open Organization by the CEO of Red Hat, a $2bn Open Source tech firm.

2. The mission is more important than individuals

This feels like an odd point to include and could, in fact, be seen as somewhat negative. However, for me, it was a positive, and one of the main reasons I decided to spend my time volunteering for Mozilla in the first place. When the mission and manifesto of an organisation are explicit and publicly-available, it’s immediately obvious whether what you’re working on is worthwhile in the eyes of your colleagues.

No organisation is without its politics, but working for Mozilla was the first time I’d experienced the peculiar politics of Open Source. Instead of the institutional politics of educational institutions, these were politics about the best way to further the mission of the organisation. Sometimes this led to people leaving the organisation. Sometimes it led to heated debates. But the great thing was that these discussions were all ultimately focused on achieving the same end goals.

3. Working remotely is hard

I do like working remotely, but it’s difficult — and for reasons you might not immediately expect. The upsides of remote working are pretty obvious: no commute, live wherever you like, and structure your day more flexibly than you could do if you were based in an office.

What I learned pretty quickly is that there can be a fairly large downside to every interaction with colleagues being somewhat transactional. What I mean by that is there’s no corridor conversations, no wandering over to someone else’s desk to see how they are, no watercooler conversations.

There are huge efficiency gains to be had by having remote workers all around the globe — the sun never sets on your workforce — but it’s imperative that they come together from time to time. Thankfully, Mozilla were pretty good at flying us out to San Francisco, Toronto, and other places (like Portland, Oregon) to work together and have high-bandwidth conversations.

Perhaps the hardest thing about working remotely is that lack of bandwidth. Yes, I had frequent video conversations with colleagues, but a lot of interaction was text-based. When there’s no way to read the intention of a potentially-ambiguous sentence, dwelling on these interactions in the solitude of remote working can be anxiety-inducing.

Since leaving Mozilla I’ve read some studies that suggest that successful long-term remote working is best done based in teams. I can see the logic in that. The blend I’ve got now with some work being done face-to-face with clients, and some from home, seems to suit me better.

(4. Technical skills are underrated)

This is a bonus point, but one that I thought I should include. As you’d expect, Mozilla was an environment with the most technology-savvy people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. There were some drawbacks to this, including an element of what Evgeny Morozov would call ‘technological solutionism’, but on the whole it was extremely positive.

There were three specific ways in which having tech-savvy colleagues was helpful. First, it meant that you could assume a baseline. Mozilla can use tools with its staff and volunteers that may be uncomfortable or confusing for the average office worker. There is a high cognitive load, for example, when participating in a meeting via etherpad, chat, and voice call simultaneously. But being able to use exactly the right tool for the job rather than just a generic tool catering to the lowest common denominator has its advantages.

Second, tech-savvy colleagues means that things you discuss in meetings and at work weeks get prototyped quickly. I can still remember how shocked I was when Atul Varma created a version of the WebLitMapper a few days after I’d mentioned that such a thing would be useful!

The third point is somewhat related to the first. When you have a majority of people with a high level of technical skills, the default is towards upskilling, rather than dumbing down. There were numerous spontaneous ways in which this type of skillsharing occurred, especially when Mozilla started using GitHub for everything — including planning!

Conclusion

Although I’m genuinely happier than I’ve ever been in my current position as a self-employed, independent consultant, I wouldn’t trade my experience working for Mozilla for anything. It was a privilege to work alongside such talented colleagues and do work that was truly making the web a better place.

One of the reasons for writing this post was that I’ve found that I tend to introduce myself as someone who “used to work for Mozilla”. This week, one year on, marks a time at which I reflect happily on the time I had there, but ensure that my eyes are on the future.

Like so many former members of staff, I’ve found it difficult to disentangle my own identity from that of Mozilla. I purposely took this past year as time completely away from any Mozilla projects so I could gain some critical distance — and so that people realised I’d actually moved on!

So who am I? I’m Dr. Doug Belshaw, an independent consultant focusing on the intersection of education, technology, and productivity. But I remain a Mozillian. You can find me at mozillans.org here.

Image CC BY Paul Clarke (bonus points if you can spot me!)

Radical participation: a smörgåsbord

Today and tomorrow I’m at Durham University’s eLearning conference. I’m talking on Radical Participation – inspired, in part, by Mark Surman’s presentation at the Mozilla coincidental workweek last month.

My slides should appear below. If not, click here!

I was very impressed by Abbi Flint’s keynote going into the detail of her co-authored Higher Education Academy report entitled Engagement Through Partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. In fact, I had to alter what I was going to say as she covered my critique! Marvellous.

After Abbi’s keynote I was involved in a panel session. I didn’t stick too closely to my notes, instead giving more of a preview to what I’m talking about in my keynote tomorrow. As ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to some hard questions!

Announcing Maker Party Newcastle 2014

I’m delighted to announce that we’ve confirmed the date for this year’s Maker Party Newcastle! Building on the success of previous ones held at the Centre for Life, this year we’ll be at Campus North, home of the Ignite100 startup accelerator on Saturday 13th September. Many thanks to Lyndsey Britton and Lauren Summers for their help in making this happen.

Sign up here: http://bit.ly/makerpartyncl14

Maker Party Newcastle 2014

Maker Parties are for everyone, but given Ignite100’s links with Code Club, we’ve decided to make it relevant to the new English primary school computing curriculum. Children of all ages will be welcome, but if you’re a teacher – or aged between 7 and 11 – it will be particularly relevant!

We’re looking for mentors to help out with this event. The most important qualities are enthusiasm and a willingness to be a co-learner. Some rudimentary HTML and CSS skills would be a bonus. Extra points for JavaScript!

If you’re based in the North East of England, please do share this widely with your networks. 🙂

Questions? Please direct them to doug@nullmozillafoundation.org.

Rethinking Literacy for the Web [Educating Modern Learners]

Educating Modern Learners, a new subscription site from Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, is now live. Excitingly, the editor of the site is none other than Audrey Watters, whose blog and newsletter I’m sure you already subscribe to.

They commissioned me to write one of the first articles to appear on the site, a process that meant I benefitted from the editorial eye of Audrey. The post is currently available via the free subscription tier for the site, so you’ll need to sign up to access it.

The article is entitled Rethinking Literacy for the Web. In it, I provide an introduction to what the web means for literate practices, the challenge for educators, and ways we can respond.

The time has come to move beyond discussions of whether the web, social networks, and mobile devices are inherently “good” or “bad.” Debates about whether such things can (or should) be used for learning drag on while the next generation cobble together their own understanding of an increasingly blended online/offline world. It’s time we as educators stepped up and taught more than just “e-safety.” It’s time we started facilitating learning experiences around reading, writing, and participation on the web.

Once you’ve had a read I’d be interested in your comments here (I don’t think they’re turned on over there!)

Image CC BY-SA Alberto Garcia

The Web Literacy Standard is dead (long live the Web Literacy Map!)

I spent a good chunk of 2013 working with colleagues and a community of stakeholders creating a Web Literacy Standard. The result is testament to the way Mozilla, as a global non-profit, can innovate on behalf of users. I’m delighted with what we created.

Until recently, the literature and language in the field of Web Literacy has been relatively undeveloped. This is important, because although it doesn’t always seem like it, words are hard:

This seems to be a problem for anyone trying to explain the unfamiliar. If you invent new words, few people will know what you’re talking about, but if you make analogies using existing words, you bring along all their context, whether you want to or not.

In early 2013 we wanted to avoid creating just another ‘framework’. Why? Although we wanted to be more descriptive than prescriptive, we still didn’t want people to just pick-and-choose the bits they liked. Instead, we wanted to co-create something more holistic. That’s we chose to call what we were creating a ‘Standard’. The idea was for the community to come together to build something they felt they could align with.

And that’s exactly what we did. We created something that, while not perfect, we can feel a justifiable pride about.

A problem we’ve encountered is that because words are hard and dependent upon context, ‘Standard’ can have negative connotations – especially in North America. So after announcing the first version of the Standard at MozFest we, as a community, started to have a discussion as to whether ‘Standard’ was a word we wanted to keep.

The result of that consultation is that we’ve decided to move away from ‘Standard’ to describe what we’re doing here. While we could fight a valiant crusade on behalf of the term, it doesn’t seem like a battle that’s worth our time and effort. It’s better to focus on winning the war. In this case, that’s ensuring the newly re-titled Web Literacy Map underpins the work we do around Mozilla Webmaker. After all, we want 2014 to be the year we move beyond the ‘learn to code’ movement and focus on a more holistic understanding of web literacy.

We decided on Web Literacy ‘Map’ because we found that most of the language we used to describe what we’re doing was cartographic in nature. Also, it means that our designers have a lot more scope around visual metaphors! It’s going to be (and, importantly, look) – amazing!

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