Tag: review (page 1 of 3)

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

Yearnote 2014

Introduction

Every week for the past couple of years I’ve written a ‘weeknote’. It’s a brief overview of what I’ve been up to – mostly in terms of paid work. This ‘yearnote’ post is effectively me using those weeknotes and other stuff I’ve done to help me write a brief overview of the year.

I did way more than just the stuff listed here as this isn’t meant to be comprehensive. I haven’t included recurring stuff and I’ve tried to surface the things that I found most interesting.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Conclusion

This has been an interesting year for lots of reasons. As ever with Mozilla it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, so I’m hoping for some interesting work but some increased stability in 2015! As you can see, I’ll also be doing a limited amount of consultancy with educational institutions, businesses and third-sector organisations in the coming year. Get in touch via hello@nulldynamicskillset.com if that intrigues you.

Image CC BY-NC-SA leanderthal

What I got up to during #BelshawBlackOps13 (and what 2014 has in store)

In case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t been around for the past couple of months. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • Not travelling. Apart from a presentation and workshop at the University of Lincoln, I was based at home for almost two whole months. That meant more time with my family.
  • Reading. See below where I list what I read.
  • Buying tech. I’ve given up trying to resist the Google juggernaut and purchased a Motorola Moto G, a Chromebox and a Chromebook for personal stuff.
  • Writing. I’ve nearly finished The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, I wrote a 20+ page book proposal, and I used 750words.com quite a bit.
  • Selling stuff. I used Fulfilled by Amazon to get things out of my house quickly while selling them at a decent price.
  • Putting on weight. I lost a few pounds to start with, but put it all back on (and more) over Christmas. <sigh>

Having done ‘Black Ops’ for the past few years, spending an additional month off this time around made a striking difference. I’ve only used my SAD light a couple of times, and I had virtually no migraines. Although it was noticeably warmer at the end of 2013 than previous years, I can’t help but think that stepping out of the stream a bit helped my mental health.

What I’ve been reading

What 2014 has in store

Excitingly, we’ve sold our house and we should be out by the end of January. In February we’re planning to head to Gozo for six months until August where I’ll continue to work for Mozilla. It’s just too good an opportunity to miss. I’m not entirely sure where we’ll go afterwards, although we’ll almost certainly be returning to the UK.

Other than that I’m looking forward to digging more into my role as Web Literacy Lead with the newly-formed #TeachTheWeb team. I’ll still be advocating Open Badges (in fact I’m speaking at BETT and Learning Technologies about them) but a combination of my new role and my new location means I’ll be travelling and speaking a whole lot less until September 2014.

What I really do want to focus on in 2014 is quality. While I’m proud of what I’ve achieved at Mozilla – and my career in general –  so far, I do have a tendency to focus on quantity. So fewer speaking engagements, a bit less time on social networks, and more time reading books instead of crappy tech articles. Of course, I said something similar last year…

What’s 2014 got in store for you?

A few brief thoughts on the Google Nexus 7. [REVIEW]

Google Nexus 7

I don’t know about you, but it’s the things I expect to be awesome with which I end up being most disappointed. Unrealistic expectations, I suppose.

A case in point would be the Asus Eee Pad Transformer that I bought last October ostensibly as my ‘conference device’. On paper, it’s got everything you would ever want: hi-res touchscreen, gargantuan battery life, relatively lightweight, lots of ports. But it didn’t quite cut it for me. I can’t quite explain why.

I’ve already bought its replacement, a Google Nexus 7. I was very tempted to buy another iPad (our family already has one, used mostly by our five year-old son for his blog) but former JISC colleague Zak Mensah showed me his Nexus 7 when we met up recently. I’d heard nothing but good things about it online, but was sceptical.

(It’s funny how I didn’t need a tablet device a couple of years ago whereas now I feel like I require something to read things from my Pocket account, etc.)

So I’ve had my Nexus 7 for about about three weeks now. I wish it had a rear-facing camera for sharing photos and videos on  Path. I wish it had 3G, or at least the ability to tether to ad-hoc networks like my phone. But other than that, I’ve no complaints. The screen is fantastic. And it’s fast. Really fast. Like, haven’t-yet-experienced-any-lag fast. Android apps make sense on it. And it was fairly cheap – the 16GB version is £199.

We’re in a post-technical specifications era, I reckon. Seriously, the toss I could not give as to which processor and how much memory this thing has. So long as it’s quick enough, can store enough of my stuff, and is ‘open’ enough for me, that’s fine. I’m interested in what I can do with it.

I’ve been using my Nexus 7 mainly for the following:

  • Email – it’s great for a heads-up on stuff or to fire off quick replies
  • Social networking – Twitter and Google+
  • Reading – usually the Pocket, Zite, Feedly and Kindle apps
  • Listening – audiobooks through Audible and music via Last.fm, Soma.fm and Spotify
  • PlayingFootball Manager 2012 (need I say more?), Minecraft  – and a few others
  • Messing about – the camera icon isn’t present by default, but you can activate it (complete with big nose / small eyes / other effects!)

In future I’ll be using additional apps on it such as Evernote and Astrid, but it’s still early days. The Nexus 7 is so small and light that it’s a no-brainer to take it with me almost everywhere I go. Android feels like a viable platform – which has made me re-think sticking with my Maemo-powered Nokia N9 mobile phone. To be honest, it could be going the way of my Eee Pad Transformer before long…

So overall, I’m pleasantly surprised with my Google Nexus 7. I had fairly middling expectations from it and it’s far surpassed them. It’s not perfect, but it’s meant that most days I don’t bother borrowing the family iPad!

And finally, given that some people will inevitably ask me about their use in schools, I think these kind of devices make much more sense than iPads for the classroom. Why? They use an operating system that isn’t device-specific. They’re cheaper. They don’t take up as much of the desk or other surface. And they’re less shiny.

Have YOU got a Google Nexus 7? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

JISC Mobile and Wireless Technologies Review

If you’re reading this via email, RSS or a non Flash-enabled device the embedded media probably won’t work. My presentation is on Slideshare and the mobile review is accessible at http://mobilereview.jiscpress.org. Alternatively click here to view this post on the blog. 🙂

Since starting at JISC infoNet in April 2010 I’ve worked on a OER infoKit and a learning and teaching upgrade to the Digital Repositories infoKit, both with the talented Lou McGill. Back in July I wrote a successful proposal to embark on a mobile and wireless technologies review for the JISC e-Learning programme. It grew to be a much larger piece of work than I envisaged, probably because I enjoyed researching and writing it so much! I’ve interviewed, met and read about wonderful people doing fantastic things in mobile learning.

I’ve now finished that review and it stands at about the same length as my MA dissertation. Wow. You can access various versions of the mobile and wireless technologies review via http://mobilereview.jiscpress.org or directly below (click to enlarge):

In addition, here’s a presentation I’m making to a JISC Review Board meeting today about my findings (you might want to view it on Slideshare with the notes on!)

I’d love to hear your feedback on the review, either here or at the JISCPress site. 😀

Dell Latitude 2110: a review.

Context: I’m looking at this netbook from a user outcomes point of view. Although currently working at JISC infoNet in the Further/Higher education sector, I was previously Director of E-Learning of a 3-19 Academy, and taught History and ICT for 6 years in secondary schools in England.

(if you’re on an iPad or non-Flash device click here for images)

Introduction

I’m sure schools exist in some kind of parallel dimension to the rest of the world. To be successful in them, whether you’re a member of staff or a student, you need to work much harder than the rest of the world to jump through hoops that others care about only in passing. Having been on both sides of the fence I’m aware of two things: that most teachers don’t understand the world of business and that, more importantly, business doesn’t really understand the world of education.

Let me explain. Practices (i.e. the everyday life of the classroom) are predicated upon the affordances of an objects, devices and other 3rd-party props:

An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action.

In my experience, affordances are usually the result of the confluence of two or more features. For example, stored maps + GPS + touchscreen + voice synthesiser = satnav. The affordance is the ability to get to your destination. Affordances, in turn, are predicated upon specifications.

Unfortunately, and I’ve expressed my frustration about this before, a focus on ‘functional specifications‘ therefore misses the point. It’s what the user does with an object, device or prop (towards a larger learning goal) rather than its specifications that is important. Most educators get this; most business people don’t. There’s been a lot of talk about the iPad this year, and for good reason. Apple have focused on the affordances of the device to such an extreme level that the average user has no idea about its specifications. As Jonathan Ive explains, this makes it feel, in a way, magical.

Review

I’m not particularly interested in the specifications of the Dell Latitude 2110; I’m interested in what it allows users to do and how it fits in with the classroom environment. I’ve had some success with the Asus Eee 1000H because of two main affordances: reliability (long battery life and well-built) and portability (lightweight and relatively small). I’m going to take the Asus Eee 1000H as my reference point for the rest of this review.

Is the Dell Latitude 2110 better than the Asus Eee 1000H? Yes. In fact, it would be my recommendation for any educational institution looking at rolling out portable devices with keyboards. Let me explain why from an affordances point of view; if you want a full technical run-down head over to Expert Reviews or (better still) Notebook Check.

First of all, the screen that came with my review sample was high resolution (1366×768) and glossy. Perhaps not great for outdoors work (because of the reflectiveness) but great for making things look fantastic indoors. That’s why Apple put glossy screens on their MacBooks, after all.

Secondly, the processor (1.83Ghz Intel Atom), coupled with 1Ghz RAM allows for quick browsing, especially when you swap out Internet Explorer for Google Chrome. Whilst I found that students are willing to be more forgiving of the relative performance drop when working with netbooks (a trade-off of convenience) there isn’t really likely to be a problem here. It’s nippy. Windows 7 is a much better operating system for netbooks than Windows XP (which, after all, is almost 10 years old). My review sample came with Windows 7 Professional but this comes at an additional cost. If you just need cloud-based wifi access I’d forgo this and use something like Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

Full HD video is 1080p. Attempting to play a 1080p preview of the film Kick-Ass downloaded from Filmous almost worked. That is to say that the audio was fine but the video stuttered with graphically-intensive scenes. Playing YouTube videos and embedded media, however, is no problem. Perhaps the ultimate test, though, for a netbook is Google Earth. It’s a tool used widely in schools – and not just in Geography lessons. It requires a decent machine for a smooth experience. How did the Dell Latitude 2110 fare? A similar story to the video clip, really: whilst you can certainly navigate your way around, it’s a little jerky and 3D buildings are a no-no.

Not all classrooms have speakers to couple with the obligatory interactive whiteboard. A daft omission, to be sure, but a fact of life. Many is the time I’ve been shunted into a classroom at the last moment only for the video clip I’ve prepared as part of the lesson be inaudible. Even without amplification the Dell Latitude 2110 is surprisingly loud. In fact, I was shocked how distortion-free and powerful the built-in speakers were. A definite plus point.

The inclusion of a 3G WWAN port is a curious decision. If this is an education-focused product, then a 3G connection presents somewhat of a security problem. Schools have internet filtering in place and, in some cases, this is rather restrictive – leading to students finding creative ways of bypassing it. I have no doubt that students would find a way to put a SIM card in the slot behind the battery, ‘necessity’ being the mother of invention. Whilst I think that mobile broadband, especially for field trips and the like, is of great value, network managers and IT technicians might beg to differ. It does, however, make it attractive to another market – business travellers.

One of the great things about early netbooks is that they almost all came with Solid State Devices (SSDs) instead of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs). The difference is that whilst the latter have moving parts, the former do not and, in fact, are a lot quicker. You get less storage space for your money but they’re much more robust. Bizarrely, perhaps because some people are opting to use netbooks as their primary devices (think teenagers with burgeoning music/video collections) SSDs are being slowly replaced by HDDs. The review sample I received came with a 160GB HDD which is a shame, really. The HDD of my father’s Asus Eee 1000H, bought last year on my recommendation, has just died. In a device like the Dell Latitude 2110, ostensibly built to be robust, not including an SSD by default is a mistake.

Whilst an upgrade to a SSD instead of a HDD is one I’d recommend, I’d advise against a touchscreen. Whilst my review sample did not come with one, I’ve used them on laptops and netbooks before. Touchscreens on devices with one-way hinges don’t really work: pressing with anything more with a glancing touch moves the whole screen (frustrating!).

My only misgiving, really, about the review sample I was sent is a degree of uncertainty about the battery life. The standard battery pack (an extended battery pack is available) is quoted at 4.5 hours which isn’t the 7 hours of the Asus Eee 1000H. I’d want to be able to rely on it lasting all the school day. Although I should imagine with strategic use it would be fine, it’s a niggling doubt.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how does it feel? It is something you find yourself just picking up and using? Well… yes, it is. The keyboard is as close to full-size as you’ll get with a netbook and, in fact, I touch-typed this whole review on it. It’s comfortable and rests on the knees or upon any nearby surface. Although I think the corners could be a little better protected, the ruggedized coating means, for example, I’ve had no problem in giving it to my 3 year-old to carry around an play CBeebies games on it.

Do I recommend the Dell Latitude 2110? Yes. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, if I was back in my role as Director of E-Learning I’d be using this as my new benchmark for portable devices with keyboards. I’d probably look at getting Ubuntu Netbook Edition on there and, with the money saved, plumping for the extended battery pack. I reckon 9.5 hours is enough for anybody!

Disclaimer: I was sent this unsolicited sample on behalf of Dell on the understanding that I was able to do a ‘full, frank’ review of it. No money has changed hands and I expect to have to return it eventually.

The Mobile Learning Edge: Tools and Technologies for Developing Your Teams [Review]

Introduction

The Mobile Learning EdgeWhen it arrived last Monday, my wife – in that way that only I would notice – looked at me semi-accusingly. “Another book, eh?” she seemed to say, “I thought got your books via your Kindle now?” I swear that the reason old people don’t tend to say much is because they know what the other person’s thinking.

The Mobile Learning Edge: Tools and Technologies for Developing Your Teams winged its way from Canada to the UK courtesy of my responding to a tweet from Gary calling for reviewers. As I’m currently writing a JISC Mobile and Wireless Technologies Review, it seemed rather serendipitous.

The Conclusion

In ancient times, people cut to the chase. Take St. Paul’s letters, for example. He states who he is first and only then greets the elders at the church to which he is writing. It’s always puzzled me that people only indicate who the letter is from at the very end; at least with emails you know who it’s from straight away by virtue of their email address.

So, my conclusion? The Mobile Learning Edge (hereafter MLE) is worth reading by those interested in mobile learning in a formal educational context. Whilst it (presumably due to encouragement by McGraw-Hill, the publisher) tries to be all things to all men, it nevertheless has value to those working in and with educational institutions. Woodill expertly collates and synthesizes information, presenting it in an engaging and convincing way.

Every book has its weaknesses. There is, for example, at times an uneasy glossing and assumed-similarity between the needs of those in formal learning situations and those within businesses. In addition the way in which the book is written seems to purposely align the author with initiatives in which he played no part.

But to overly-criticize MLE would be churlish. It is a readable, reasonably-comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the current state of play in the mobile learning arena. If it were available for the Kindle for £10 (as it should be) I’d recommend it without reservation. As it is, it comes recommended.

The Overview

I have to admit to chuckling a little when I read the opening pages of MLE. Only the day before I had commented about the paucity of metaphors that I come across in educational contexts. It was only after reading the whole of the introduction to MLE that I realised Woodill was setting up – quite cleverly, I thought – the rest of the book to call for a return to authentic learning. He indicates, and purports to show, that mobile learning is our natural way of learning: sitting in classrooms is something alien to us.

Figure 5.5 on page 184 of MLE features an engraving from eighteenth century Europe showing one of the most crowded, although admittedly neatest, classrooms you will ever see. Context is one of the strengths of the book: Woodill is a master at putting things in their historical place, charting the development of technologies and pointing out significances. Granted, in some cases such generalizations could be contested and rely on the tried-and-tested metaphors of hunter-gatherer communities and the industrial revolution, but they are, on the whole, sound.

Of the ten chapters that make up MLE, around seven will be of immediate interest and utility to educators not directly involved with the overall strategy of their organization. Those who do occupy such senior positions will find enlightening the chapter contributed by David Fell, interim CEO of a broadband corporation. In it, Fell discusses of the importance of ‘co-opetition’, a term that will become increasingly familiar to those in charge of schools, colleges and universities.

Easily the best part of Fell’s chapter, however, is his inclusion of and discussion around the following diagram from Ambient Insight:

"A Perfect Storm" Drives Adoption of Mobile Learning

Whilst usually skeptical of diagrams that look designed-for-Powerpoint this one nicely summarizes why now, in the current context, is a great time for institutions to be pursuing mobile learning initiatives.

The second contributed chapter comes from Sheryl Herle, a corporate learning consultant. This, unsurprisingly, deals with Return On Investment (ROI) and business-focused strategy. The chapter does, however, contain some gems that I’ve saved for future use, including the advice that you should be focusing on what you don’t want people to do rather than narrowly defining what you do want them to do; that IT Services/Support’s job is to deal with security threats and network stability – which is why they often oppose ‘innovation’; and that whilst it’s possible to come up with ROI figures for mobile learning initiatives they’re unlikely to be comprehensive or realistic.

Returning to the main author, Gary Woodill’s contribution to MLE, it is clear – and indeed he tells us – that he used to be a teacher. Not only that, but his doctorate (like mine) is an Ed.D. For all the discussion of ‘corporate learning’ and ’employees’, Woodill’s pedagogical background pervades MLE. Take, for example, the structure of the chapter ‘Learning by Communicating, Interacting, and Networking’:

  • Quotation
  • High-level overview setting the scene
  • Problem (disruption of mobile)
  • Some truths (we are social beings)
  • Examples
  • Case study
  • Theory supporting examples
  • Recommendations

The above, fleshed out, could form a lesson plan. This structure and method of presentation makes MLE a satisfying read.

This, as the author would admit, is a book of its time. It’s relevance in a few years’ time will be less powerful but, for now, the appendices, featuring links to relevant blogs and academic articles are a goldmine. Woodill indicates on his companion site to the book, mobilelearningedge.com that there will be a second edition of MLE and that he will use the related site to keep the content fresh.

I hope this is the case. 🙂

10 things I learned from ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’

Daniel Willingham is the guy who put learning styles firmly in their place. I greatly respected him for his outspoken, succinct and well put-together YouTube video on the subject and so it was with interest that I spotted Why Don’t Students Like School: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Thinking is slow

[T]hinking is slow. Your visual system instantly takes in a complex scene… Your thinking system does not instantly calculate the answer to a problem the way your visual system immiediately takes in a visual scene… [I]f we can get away with it, we don’t think. Instead we rely on memory. Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past. (p.5)

2. Curiosity is fragile (p.7-10)

Solving problems brings pleasure… There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking… It’s notable too that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating… Mental work appeals to us because it offers the opportunity for that pleasant feeling when it succeeds.

[W]hen does curiosity have staying power? The answer may lie in the difficulty of the problem. If we get a little burst of pleasure from solving a problem, then there’s no point in working on a problem that is too easy – there’ll be no pleasure when it’s solved because it didn’t feel like much of a problem in the first place. Then too, when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you’re unlikely to solve it, and are therefore unlikely to get the satisfaction that comes with the solution.

[C]uriosity prompts people to explore new ideas and problems, but when we do, we quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, we stop working on the problem if we can. (p.8-10)

3. Cognitive limits should be respected

When trying to develop effective mental challenges for your students, bear in mind [their] cognitive limitations… For example, suppose you began a history lesson with a question: “You’ve all heard of the Boston Tea Party; why do you suppose the colonists dressed as Indians and dumped tea into the Boston harbor?” Do your students have the necessary background knowledge in memory to consider this question? If students lack the background knowledge to engage with a problem, save it for another time when they have that knowledge. (p.15)

4. Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills

Not only does background knowledge make you a better reader, but it also is necessary to be a good thinker. The processes we most hope to engender in our students – thinking critically and logically – are not possible without background knowledge.

[P]eople draw on memory to solve problems more often than you might expect. For example, it appears that much of the difference among the world’s best chess players is not their ability to reason about the game or to plan the best move; rather, it is their memory for game positions.

Much of what experts tell us they do in the course of thinking about their field requires background knowledge, even if it’s not described that way… Unexpected outcomes indicate that their knowledge is incomplete and that this experiment contains hidden seeds of new knowledge. But for results to be unexpected, you must have an expectation! (p.28-32)

5. Memory is the residue of thought

Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought. Once stated, this conclusion seems impossibly obvious… Your brain lays its bets this way: If you don’t think about something very much, then you probably won’t want to think about it again, so it need not be store. If you do think about something, then it’s likely that you’ll want to think about it in the same way in the future.

The obvious implication for teachers is that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material.

Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work… [A]ny material has different aspects of meaning. If the instructor used a math problem with cell phone minutes, isn’t there some chance that my daughter would think about cell phones rather than about the problem? And that thoughts about cell phones would lead to thoughts about the text message she received earlier, which would remind her to change her picture on her Facebook profile, which would make her think about the zit she has on her nose…? (p.47-50)

Willingham goes on to explain that we tend to focus on the ‘personality’ aspects of what makes a good teacher, which is only half the story. The other half is meaning. One of the best ways to convey meaning is to use story structures.

6. Understanding is remembering in disguise

[Students] understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they do know).

[U]nderstanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas into working memory and then rearranging them – making comparison we hadn’t made before, or thinking about a feature we had previously ignored.

Now you can see why I claim that understanding is remembering in disguise. No one can pour new ideas into a student’s head directly. Every new idea must build on ideas that the student already knows. (p.68-71)

7. Practising is better than drilling

Doing a lot of studying right before a test is commonly known as cramming… If you pack lots of studying into a short period, you’ll do okay on an immediate test, but you will forget the material quickly. If, on the other hand, you study in several sessions with delays between them, you may not do quite as well on the immediate test but, unlike the crammer, you’ll remember the material longer after the test.

[Y]ou can get away with less practice if you space it out than if you bunch it together. Spacing practice has another benefit. Practice… means continuing to work at something that you’ve already mastered. By definition, that sounds kind of boring, even though it brings cognitive benefits. It will be somewhat easier for a teacher to make such tasks interesting if they are spaced out in time. (p.90-91)

8. Experts have abstract knowledge of problem types

Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.

We can generalize by saying that experts think abstractly… Experts don’t have trouble understanding abstract idas, because they see the deep structure of problems.

[E]xperts save room in working memory through acquiring extensive, functional background knowledge, and by making mental procedures automatic. What do they do with that extra space in working memory? Well, one thing they do is talk to themselves.

What’s interesting about this self-talk is that the expert can draw implications from it… [E]xperts do not just narrate what they are doing. They also generate hypotheses, and so test their own understanding and think through the implications of possible solutions in progress. (p.101-104)

9. Learning styles theory is subject to ‘confirmation bias’

[T]he visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory seems right [because of] a psychological phenomenon called the confirmation bias. Once we believe something, we unconsciously interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we already believe… The great novelist Tolstoy put it this way: “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life.” (p.121)

10. Beliefs about intelligence are important

In a classic study on the effect of praise, the experimenters asked fifth graders to work on some problems in which they were to find patterns. The first set of problems was fairly easy to that the students would solve most of them. The students were then praised for their success. All were told, “Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got [number of problems] right. That’s a really high score.” Some were then told, “You must be smart at these problems.” In other words, the were praised for their ability. Others were told, “You must have worked hard at these problems,” thus receiving praise for their effort. Each student was then interviewed by a different experimenter to learn what the students thought about intelligence. The results showed that those who had been praised for their ability (“you’re smart”) were more likely to describe a fixed view of intelligence than those who were praised for their effort (“you worked hard”), who were more likely to describe a malleable view of intelligence. Similar effects have been shown in many studies, including studies of children as young as four years old.

Conclusion

The two main things I took away were:

  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Get and give feedback. Observe others. Ask questions. Be curious.
  • Be careful with the language you use with students – both in terms of representing concepts and in terms of praise.

I’d recommend Willingham’s book wholeheartedly. The nine principles he puts in a table towards the end of the book are worth the price of the book alone. They should be jazzed-up and given to all teachers, everywhere!

Why Don’t Students Like School: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom

5 reasons to avoid seeing ‘The Expendables’

I’ve just returned from seeing The Expendables.

I knew it was an action movie. I knew there’d be violence, guns, explosions and perhaps even some wooden acting. But The Expendables is truly a film to avoid.

Why?

Let me explain.

1. Cameos

The trailer is basically a list of the name of the people who are in it. The trouble is that Arnold Schwarzenegger appears for about 30 seconds and Bruce Willis for about one minute. The main guys are Sylvester Stallone (also director/co-writer) and Jason Statham. Jet Li plays a smaller role; Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, et al. appear even less.

2. Not-quite-tongue-in-cheek violence

People’s heads are blown off. In some films this is funny and you’re meant to laugh. You’re not quite sure in this one and the fighting moves are somewhere between realistic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lame.

3. Two-dimensional characters

Fair enough, it’s an action film so I wouldn’t expect marvellous character development. Having said that, the characters’ motivations are weak and its portrayal of women takes us back about 30 years.

4. Lack of plot

  1. Former FBI man likes money
  2. Pays general of small country
  3. Daughter of general enlists help
  4. Action
  5. General ‘turns’ against FBI man
  6. Explosions
  7. Heroes win

5. It’s hypocritical

By going to see films like this we’re ostensibly against ‘The Man’. But are we? We’re sitting there, having paid £7 or so to watch explosions and actors who should perhaps be starring in different films, making way for newer talent. Communism (and by extension, given this is an American film, socialism) is given short shrift with faux-Cuban reference points and stereotypical posturing. We’re supposed to be on the side of the heroes, but even they struggle to find what they actually stand for.

Conclusion

Avoid. At 103 minutes, it’s mercifully short, but it’s part of your life you won’t get back. For an action movie, it’s lacking. And for any other type of movie it’s, quite frankly, laughable.

I usually concur with the average rating on IMDB. For example, 9.1 for Inception is spot-on. At the time of writing, it’s 8.5 for The Expendables. You could reverse those two numbers and I’d still say it was a bit generous.

Hands-on with the Dell Streak.

So yes, I bought it, took it back and bought it again. But I’m keeping my Dell Streak now. It’s great. And this is my last post on mobile phones – well, this month anyway… 😀

Usually new mobile phones are known about well in advance of their launch. Everything from specs to early reviews are made available in order to create a buzz around the product. For example, a couple of years ago I was sent an LG Shine and encouraged (although not instructed) to take photos of it and blog about it. With the Dell Streak, however, apart from a great video at jkkmobile I stumbled across on the night before it was released in the UK, I’d heard nothing about it!

Full specs of the device can be found here, but the highlights are that it’s an Android tablet/smartphone hybrid with a 5″ screen. Yes, five inch! :-p

Let’s just get past the two (related) questions I’ve been asked most frequently over the last couple of weeks:

  1. Is it too big?
  2. Don’t you feel a bit stupid putting it to your ear to, you know, make phone calls?

My responses:

  1. It’s certainly on the upper limit of what counts as a phone size wise. Some, undoubtedly, will find it too big. But given that I tended to use my iPhone more for Twitter and other internet based activities than for phone calls, I don’t!
  2. It’s not Dom Joly size and I don’t really suffer from self esteem issues anyway. As for people who think that phones should only be able to make phone calls, get back in your cave please… 😉

Things I really like:

  • The whole experience and speed of the device makes it über-slick
  • Spotify, Dropbox and other official apps are better (to my mind) than their iPhone counterparts
  • The size of the screen makes everything… just better
  • It’s really quite thin
  • Several virtual desktops means you can organize your stuff
  • I don’t have to jail break it to set it up the way I want it
  • Widgets provide real-time updates
  • The camera is legendary and the in-phone editing functions are actually useful
  • It’s got a ‘gorilla glass’ screen – check out this video showing it being torture-tested!

Things I’m not so keen on:

  • The placement of headphone socket
  • Volume buttons alter up or down depending on orientation (confusing!)
  • You can’t delete things (e.g. emails) by swiping
  • It’s not running the latest version of Android (v1.6)
  • Proprietary power/ sync cable
  • Current lack of third party support (eg cases, speakers, other add ons)
  • The quality of sound recording when shooting video isn’t gerat

Stuff other reviews might not tell you:

  • As with the iPhone, music stops playing when you remove the headphones
  • Sometimes tasks don’t shut by themselves and drain your battery (a force close app is pretty much essential)
  • It’s not really possible to use the Streak with one hand whilst walking for texting, etc.
  • With Android apps you’ve got 24 hours to get a refund if you don’t like it or it didn’t perform as you expected
  • The power cable is similar to the iPhone’s in that the USB end plugs into the power cable

10 apps that are awesome on the Streak:

  1. Dropbox
  2. Fring (for Skype & instant messaging apps)
  3. Google Listen (podcasts through Google Reader)
  4. Handcent SMS (iPhone-like text messages)
  5. Opera Mini (web browser)
  6. Profiles (change between ‘Normal’, ‘Night’, ‘Outdoor’, etc.)
  7. Quick Addroid (add stuff to your Google Calendar quickly)
  8. Realplayer
  9. SlideScreen (really classy home screen replacement)
  10. Spotify

I’m happy to answer any questions you’ve got – including making another video, so ask away! 🙂

css.php