Tuesday, July 29, 2008

NetSafe Conference 2008 - July 28 - 30

The NetSafe Conference 2008 got off to a fine start (Rydges Lakeland Resort) with a wide range of keynote speakers and presenters from all over the Globe. Now at the close of Day Two I have a clearer view of the issues.

All speakers certainly know their stuff and I am impressed with their commitment to the issues. Among the most energetic of them all was Jeffrey Cole with his keynote on general aspects of the development of the Internet, ' What Are We Really Talking About?'. Points from his presentation are:

Dial-up as a barrier to logging on to the Internet so the advent of Broadband was a major accelerator in the promotion of the use of the Internet.

Web 3.0 on the horizon and will be with us in 5 to 8 years - his vision of Web 3.0 is where there will be a truly free platform for the flow of information.

Newspapers (apart from their odious reputation for a large carbon footprint) will disappear in 20 - 25 years.

Teenage use of the web and related technologies were key players in changing the emphasis of the use of social networking service tools simply because of the age groups already using some of them.

Cole sees the film industry being diminished by TV (and is already suffering because of it) but that TV will be diminished through the preferential use of the Internet.

Other general themes I picked up from the Conference:
  • specific issues to do with cyber-safety are not widely reflected in the content of the education curriculums in western countries and in some are not even mentioned as such.

  • in one prominent university in New Zealand the topic of ICT (including issues to do with cyber- safety) was only an option in teacher education courses - a point that made me think of the implications of this for future teachers who will be educating our lifelong learners.

I haven't stopped thinking about both these last points for they seem to be cornerstones to an important means to assisting to address the issues from the teacher/school point of view. It was significant that when I raised the matter of the weight of these issues on two separate occasions, there was strong general agreement about the importance of them.

When I put a motion (and I put it on two separate occasions at different forums) that a recommendation should come from the Conference, there appeared to be a reluctance from the NetSafe facilitators to follow this through (nevertheless, I confirmed this morning 30/07/08 that NetSafe had approached representative from the Ministry of Education of New Zealand about the matter of curriculum content - good on them!)

I'm off to dinner. More to come tomorrow.

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Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Friday, July 25, 2008

Antics with Google Analytics on my 50th

My %0th Post

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all

I’ve been having fun with Google Analytics recently.
I have to say that at first sight the software all looks very impressive. Not being a statistician, however, I take everything with a chunk of salt. My head spins, not with the data so much as with the implications of the results. I suspect that much of what I’ve gathered isn’t too useful, considering GA has been running on my site for only 10 days, I’m new to blogging anyway and this is only my 50th post – but who knows?

Some numbers that may show a few home truths are visits according to locality. Of all the 140 visits since recording started on 16 July, 67 of them were from my home town of Middle-earth. Next is the whole of USA with 32 visitors.

I suspect that data to do with Middle-earth could we
ll be skewed for a raft of different reasons. I’m strongly tempted to discount those as useful indicators, at least for the time being. Ten days isn’t a long enough time to collect data that’s likely to be useful.

Firefox clearly ahead

What is probably more valid, but less useful to me as a blogger, is the Technical Profile on browsers, which shows clearly that Firefox is head and shoulders above its rivals. I suspect that this statistical ratio is similar to results gathered at other locations and is more or less universal rather than blog site specific.

Chart of Technical Profile
I’m off to Queenstown for three days (dig the scenery on the link!), to the NetSafe Conference with a view to genning up on all that’s new in the field of cyber-citizenship. I’ll try and keep you posted.

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Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

No Barriers to Elearning

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
Dolls in an arena
Barriers to learning are problems that have been in and out of the spotlight in education since before the beginning of this century. There's nothing new about these barriers. Frustrating reassessments of them are revisited regularly. In a selection of featured sites [1], [2], [3] on barriers to learning, there is a universal lack of reference to elearning. It is almost as if the nonappearance of any specific reference to that mode of learning is a silent acknowledgement that there are no barriers within it.

Any thought that elearning can provide a way through the charted and well known barriers to learning should be immediately applauded as showing insight and genuine vision. It's a wonderful way to look at things, it's the height of optimism and such confidence has to be admired. Anyone who suggests that elearning could be anything other than the true way to go about learning deserves the name Carmudgeon.

There are many barriers to elearning that appear to be ignored, however, often by the authorities purporting to address barriers to learning. Obvious and common barriers are to do with
lack of online capability, poor or lack of accessibility to a computer or the unavailability of necessary software. These very real situations often appear to be overlooked when programmes of learning are planned for distance-learners.

Add to cart

Elearning presents a whole range of new blocks that can be added to those barriers already in the cart. Most were previously identified as significant well before the advent of the present elearning drive. Barriers introduced by the hardware and software of the electronic interface between student and learning material have been acknowledged and recorded since online course delivery began. The advent of learning resources based exclusively on electronic means, or that require the use of electronic agencies, simply provide a new set of barriers to student learning.

If this is to be believed, then why is it that so many proponents of the method claim that elearning is the best thing to happen to education since sliced bread? Clearly there must be shades of grey. There must be learning topics that just seem to be made for elearning.

Animation a saviour

There is no doubt, and it has been proved, that animated diagrams are a saviour to learners in Biology, Physics, Chemical Thermodynamics and a whole raft of other heady topics where student access to understanding difficult concepts can be opened in ways that were not possible before. It has been shown that online communities really do work when it comes to putting learning through networking on the map. Do I believe there is a place for elearning? You bet I do, but . . .

Many learners who can write well are often at the seek-and-pick with one finger stage for a significant time during the initial stages when studying with a computer. Achieving proficiency in this often represents one necessary and extra step that must occur before topic learning begins. For many, unfortunately, it also represents a major barrier. It means that the aims associated with the programme of learning may not be achieved through that means. Digital participation that is free from significant obstacles relies so much on keyboard expertise, yet many students who frequently use the keyboard cannot touch-type.

Barrier to communication

The keyboard also presents a real barrier to student communication in special subject areas like Chemistry and Mathematics. Likewise in language learning, such as in Chinese and Japanese, as well as many other areas of learning, it is either impossible or extremely difficult to use the keyboard to write script or complex expressions and formulae. In many instances, one of the accompanying skills the student has to acquire is the use of a pen, for which the keyboard provides no easy substitute.

The interface and
required associated technical skills

Learning management systems require a level of technical competency that is not possessed by a significant proportion of learners. Depending on the requests from the teacher, a student may have to perform a range of technical activities, from
optimising an electronic file transferred from a digital camera or photo scanner, to depositing a data file in a 'digital drop box'. All of the individual tasks may seem simple enough. But it is rare that students can get through a day of learning without performing several combinations of technical tasks to do with the receipt, processing and return of their study assignments. Many students, especially the younger ones, are dependent on the competency and guidance of a parent, caregiver or supervisor to accomplish these.

Barriers in resource design

The design of elearning resources is extremely important, but it must be one that is suited to learning and not simply a design that's emerged from the craft of making the screen look good. Gina Minks has already highlighted the need for good design of Web 2.0 tools.

Many of the qualities of good page design
for educational print resources apply equally well to an elearning context. There is need for designers to discard the myth that text is a necessary evil, for the place of text in educational resources is as important today as it ever was. Relegating text to the background, a practice used by many Web 1.0 developers at the turn of the century, is simply not smart if the environment is to be of any use to learners. Paradigm shifts in elearning resource design should neither eschew the fundamental principles of good pedagogy, nor should they deny the need for necessary content, or iterative skills practice.

Barriers to assessment

While the move to elearning is undoubtedly innovative in what it affords the learner,
acquisition of elearning techniques are not necessarily helpful when it comes to assessment. Nearly all examinations require the student to read questions from the printed page and write their answers with a pen. The exclusive use of the screen and keyboard simply does not provide the necessary experience for a student to be adequately prepared for those assessments. What's more, skills that the student eventually acquires in using screen and keyboard are not universally useful for the entry of assessable material.

Clearly there's a long way to go for elearning to become the A B C of learning for many of our students.

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Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

Saturday, July 19, 2008

5 explanations of a Zen proverb

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
5 interpretations of a Zen proverb

I had a Mathematics teacher who could not control the behaviour of her year 10 class. Sometimes she despaired and was close to the brink of tears as we were so inattentive, noisy and often quite rude.

One day when my form teacher sent me on an errand, I happened to visit her classroom. I was struck by the participation of her senior class during the lesson. Her students were respectful and behaved in a way conducive to learning. I’ve never forgotten the experience of witnessing this. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I understood more fully that learning, as a class, was necessarily complicitous.

When I was next in her class, I sat quietly and listened as best I could through the noise of my classmates. She had been there all along, but only when I was ready to recognise her as my teacher was I able to learn. Some teachers “appear ordinary in every way, yet can turn out to be great teachers.” - Jean-Claude Gerard Koven


Many years ago I had an accident when driving to work on my newly acquired motor-scooter. I was two lanes out on the main road into Edinburgh when a van pulled away from a standing start right into my path. Not being too skilled with the scooter, I attempted to brake but the bike simply skidded from under me. Of course, I didn't realise emergency stops don't work on two wheels.

There I was, travelling in mid-air at 55 km/hr. I knew instinctively what to do. I walked away from that accident without a scratch, and there were several reasons for this.

One was that I was very lucky. Another that I was wearing a hard helmet, which incidentally was ruined in the accident. I also had on several layers of clothing including two pairs of trousers and leggings and two woollen jerseys. I wore boots, thick leather gloves, an overcoat as well as a thick vinyl garment, known as a Wimpy jacket. I needed the layers simply because I'd have frozen travelling in the icy winter air.

But I’d also remembered something that I’d learnt some five or more years before
in the gymnasium at school. It was to do with balance and body position. I was no gymnast, but rolling myself into a ball was something I'd found I could do, and particularly well.

“It seems that we learn lessons when we least expect them but always when we need them the most, and, the true gift in these lessons always lies in the learning process itself.” - Cathy Lee Crosby


Not long after I began teaching in Wellington, part of my job was to assist Science teachers who had difficulty with the subject matter they were asked to teach. There was a shortage of Science teachers then. Teachers who were skilled in other fields had been recruited to teach Science. A common difficulty they had was in teaching students how to balance chemical equations - a tricky topic even for a trained Science teacher.

It didn’t take me long to find the main cause of their problem. Lessons were being given without recourse to suitable scaffolding. Students need knowledge about chemical symbols, of valency and a sound understanding of how to write correct chemical formulae before they have any chance of understanding how to balance a chemical equation. It is the last step in a traditional learning unit in Chemistry. Even bright students can’t cope with that step unless they have been introduced to and practiced preliminary steps that are fundamental scaffolding.

When they were ready, most students found that the last step was not so difficult and some could balance chemical equations better than their teachers! It confirmed that, "whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps." - Saul Bellow.


While I was an undergraduate, one of my student friends came to me in distress. George had just learnt he was supposed to have taken a language - study that was usually completed prior to the final year. But he had omitted to enroll and had to take a language course in his final year while coping with the study of his honours subjects. George was beginning to panic.

I suggested that he should
visit the new language laboratory and choose a language that he liked listening to. He took my advice, but was again in despair when, having listened to several languages, he found he didn't like any. He approached the tutor and asked what to do. “Have you tried Russian?” was the reply. George hadn't, but he didn't like the idea of learning Russian, which was why he hadn't heard it. The tutor persuaded him to listen and George was astonished.

“Are you sure this is Russian?” he asked. “It sounds like Polish!” The tutor explained that the Russian language was very similar to Polish. Lucky for George, his parents were both Polish and spoke the language at home. George could speak fluent Polish. The examination required a written translation from Russian script into English. Being a language with sounds that adhered strictly to its phonetic alphabet, all George had to do was learn the alphabet. He was then able to read a Russian script and translate the sounds into Polish, then directly into English.

He passed his end of year language examination with top marks. He’d also discovered serendipitously that in learning, “you cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.” - Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.


Every good teacher thinks well of the student who asks a question. The role of tutoring, so often claimed to be the action of the teacher, is owned by the student who enquires. Asking the question from within – curiosity - followed by attempting to find its answer, sets in motion mechanisms important to learning.

It all depends on how fierce the student’s desire is to want to know. “You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.” - Clay P. Bedford.

And the proverb . . .

When the student is ready, the master appears.

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

Friday, July 18, 2008

Calling All Bloggers - When Do You Post?

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
When To Post

I’ve been blogging for a couple of months now. It’s still very new to me. I’ve looked at all the blurb. Read Sue Water's posts on the 'blog theme'.
Learnt about designing good blog headers. I've read about finding images for posts and understood all that about copyright. Learnt about Technorati. I've sorted out my comment settings. Set up my RSS feed and got my comment tracker working.

I've scoured the blogosphere for sites on what makes a good blog. Found out how to write good posts and how to improve those and become more effective at writing them.

I even set up and started using Google Analytics. That was a bit of an eye-opener. At least it was when I eventually learnt the basics
and got it to work!

One thing escapes me though, and I know this should seem a bit obvious. But I’ve never come across any advice on when to post.

But if you think about it, there is probably an optimum time to publish. There seems to be optimums for everything else. Perhaps there is some strategy behind publishing at just the right moment. Maybe the phases of the Moon have something to do with success.

I’ve noticed, for instance, that some reputable bloggers post two or more posts on the same day. I often wonder. . . is there some strategy behind this practice? Or have they just been saving them up to impress other bloggers by publishing three posts on different topics, all at once? Apparently Isaac Newton wrote his famous Principia and sat on it for twenty year before he published. Maybe he knew something about the strategy of publishing at the right time – who knows?

I usually publish a post when I’ve written the draft, edited it a few times and checked it in Preview. Though that doesn’t show me everything I want to see, at least it tells me something about where on the screen the text and images will appear. It also saves me having a fit if I post and then discover some awful faux pas has just hit the fan.

Okay, I’ve just finished writing my draft on this wonderful idea I had for a post – done all the checking and everything, including checking all the sites in my RSS and done a bit of searching elsewhere to see who’s posted a post on the same topic.

But . . .

. . . when do you post?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How do I know what I think till I see what I write?

Tēnā koutou katoa Greetings to you allFractal thought patterns.

A recent post by Ken Stewart, entitled Why Do You Write? prompted me to write my usual post-type comment.

Writing does three things for me:

1- It helps me organise my thoughts

When I think, I usually have two or three thought-threads running through my mind. Sometimes more. Sometimes they get mixed together, not so that I'm confused necessarily, for I can cope with that.

It is more of a prioritisation, for I find it difficult to prioritise competing thoughts that are nevertheless parallel on a topic. The thought-threads become less tangled when I write them and edit what I write.

2- Prioritising my thoughts sparks further thought

By prioritising my thoughts in a visual way I engage other ideas and thoughts that are in the background. Some are as if they were in the subconscious, others vague and indistinct come into sharper focus.

There are many parts of the brain that lie unused or that are used almost exclusively for specialist jobs, such as the visual cortex to do with sight and parts to do with processing hearing. Studies have shown that blind people use the visual cortex despite not being able to see.

Is it possible that sighted people can use this 'visionary' and sophisticated part of the brain for other purposes than processing visual responses from the retina? Perhaps the visual cortex is invoked, not necessarily in just processing visual responses, when a person sees their thoughts in a written, visual form. Who knows? But when my background thought-threads are written down, I can list them alongside more conscious thought-threads.

3- Writing puts to rest serendipitous thought-threads

There is an old saying “sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. I find it difficult to do the latter for thought processes take over when I try to just sit. Some of these go on in the background of my mind all the time. The psychologists tell us that this is normal.

When I become conscious of these thought-threads, I try to make sense of them. Writing helps me do this, for it does 1- and 2- above. When these are processed through exhaustive cycles of writing and editing, it is as if the thoughts are put to rest. I can sleep on them.

The famous and ancient poet John Donne wrote:

. . . he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

Could it be that the sentiment behind Donne's line is what this last point is all about?

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

Monday, July 14, 2008

Complexity Science and Social Media Learning

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
a fractalRather than march into the Infinite, explore the finite in all directions -
Johann Goethe

Complexity Science is a relatively new study. I was introduced to it early this year at a NZCER sponsored seminar in Wellington on Complexity and Education. Some of this post is written from the notes I took, with a focus on learning through social media.

What is Complexity Science about?
Complexity is difficult to define and there is no unified definition. Complexity research in education is a way of studying learning systems. The study of complexities is really about its objects of study rather than its modes of investigation. It’s to do with what's studied not how it's studied. Complexity Science is the study of complexity systems.

The presenters, Brent Davis and Denis Sumara, outlined in broad terms the properties of complexity systems with specific reference to education. They suggested that Complexity Science can and should be embraced by educators and educational researchers as a properly educational discourse.

Among important points emphasised were the distinctions between ‘complicated’ systems and ‘complex’ systems. When the properties of complicated entities and their complex counterparts are compared there are similarities and differences. I summarise some of those here:

data table
In a complexity system there is no centre to speak of, nor is there a periphery as such. Complex systems are decentrally networked and are said to be decentralised.

model of a network
If there exists anything identifiable that is like a centre in a complexity system it is wherever you happen to be within the system, either actually or metaphorically.

Social learning that develops through interaction between members of a community has qualities that categorise it as a complexity system. This relates to the learning that happens within the community in distinction to the learning achieved by an individual, though that too has properties that resemble those of a complexity system.

Learning systems:
A complexity system has two key qualities that can be used as identifiers, one of which is described as adaptive. Davis describes this quality as being more like Darwinian evolution than Newtonian mechanics. A system with this quality resembles a living system more than it does a mechanical system, for it has the ability to change its structure - it can transform.
The other key quality is described as emergent. What arises within a complex system is a synergy from the activity between and within its individual components so that the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the single effects from each of its parts.

Systems that exhibit these key qualities, adaptive and emergent, are described as ‘learning systems’.

We often read of how learners create their own version of knowledge through social interaction. In doing this, learners are creative in their own way. Creativity speaks through the spontaneity of emergence and through the power of self-organisation within a community. It invariably develops through evolving processes within a community.

Self-organising and self-governing:

Social learning activities tend to be emergent and self-organising. They also tend to be self-governing, in much the same manner as the movement of a shoal of fish. In this way, rational understandings can arise through social learning without the need for a central controller.

In studies of the way individuals integrate into a community, Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave report, “initially people have to join communities and learn at the 'periphery'. As they become more competent they move more to the ‘centre’ of the particular community. Learning is, thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation.”


Social learning activities can be self-transforming, so that the way learning responds to a situation is determined by the learning itself, not the situation. Learning does not respond mechanically to a situation. Instead its response depends on previous learning and can be unpredictable as a result.

A simple and metaphorical example of this is what happens when a bull confronts a group of people walking through a field. The response of the group will depend not only on the previous experiences of the individuals but also on the previous experiences of the group itself.

Social learning does not operate in static situations. If interactive activity stops, the learning also stops.

Studies on virtual communities:

Recent studies on different types of virtual communities are significant in that driven, assigned working groups show less of the qualities of a complexity system than do virtual communities of practice (CoP). These findings are important to the application of learning through social media where efficiency and effectiveness are critical to success.

Assigned work teams:

Studies on assigned virtual work teams showed the same variations that are found in studies on groups in education. Patricia Sobrero reports that some groups “sometimes failed to develop the social capital needed for trust and joint decision-making. This led to increased competition and failure. However, the successful virtual teams were found to be high performing, and they provided value to organizations for learning, research, product development, and cost-benefit to the organization. Research found that teams often disbanded after the task or product was developed, and the learning, social capital, and intellectual capital built, dissipated.”

Communities of practice:

On the other hand, virtual communities of practice, where groups of people share a concern or passion for something they do, show a greater degree of permanence. Sobrero reports that they tend to be self-organised, self-governing and develop “social learning that crosses structures, cultures, organisations, time, and space to learn from each other, develop new knowledge, and continuously improve know-how”.

( 5 ) ( 4 ) ( 3 ) << - related posts - >> ( 1 )

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Message from Middle-earth on ItCanSay

Kia ora tātou! - Hello everyone!
Picture of Ken

Michele Martin's
Web 2.0 Wednesday task was to select a Web 2.0 technology from a list of 100 useful technologies on a College@Home post, 100 Helpful Web Tools for Every Kind of Learner.

It was serendipitous and quite coincidental that Michele posted her Web 2.0 Wednesday task just as I had written a post on technowhelm citing the same web site.

I must admit that I got rather wrapped in some of the technologies. Many are quite technical. I spent a lot of time trying things out.

Facebook was one of the Web 2.0s listed. I already have a Facebook account, so I downloaded one of my zaney mug-shots I had on a Facebook photo-album and put it on this post.

ItCanSay is a technology that converts text into audible speech. It permits it to be saved as a wav or mp3 file. What I liked about the software was its simplicity and ease of use.

My plan was to write a message and upload it to my blog. But the plan had to be re-jigged! Blogger accepts only video files. Not to be outdone I recorded a video file while playing back the wav file and uploaded the resulting mpg to this post. The video is. . . em . . . of our black cat, Boots, stalking a black rat out the back garden - at midnight.

( 8 ) ( 7 ) ( 6 ) ( 5 ) < - other Web2.0Wednesday posts - >> ( 3 ) ( 2 ) ( 1 )

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

Friday, July 11, 2008

Participation in Social Media

Kia ora tātou – Hello Everyone
Growth of a treeRather than march into the Infinite, explore the finite in all directions -
Johann Goethe

What attributes in a post influences potential participants to contribute?

Skellie, in her recent post, Bloggers: Watch and Learn, identifies the ways and means through which she believes bloggers can learn to write great posts that attract huge numbers of comments. She advocates studying “those who are already highly accomplished in the skill”.

She emphasises the need for immersion in “content that is optimised for social media” and in studying the techniques and strategies used by world-class bloggers.
Her final words on the matter are “never stop watching and learning.”

Most bloggers have lots to learn

If Skellie is right, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then clearly I have a lot to learn about blogging from that point of view. So have most bloggers who write the posts I read.

In deference to potential participants, the most influencing factor in creating participation appears to be how the post is written. In the light of discussions recently taking place in the blogosphere relevant to encouraging participation in social media, can we afford to overlook the significance of this as a factor central to the effectiveness of such encouragement?

Why doesn’t everyone in an online group contribute?

What encourages participation in social media?
( 5 ) ( 4 ) ( 3 ) ( 2 ) << - related posts Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Kia ora tātou – Hello Everyone
The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision - Helen Keller

I’m usually forthright when I write a post. Today I’m going to be extremely forthright.

In this technological century there is an over-abundance of information, the so-called infowhelm that I read about every other day. Recent examples of laments about it can be found here, and here, and I have every sympathy with the lamenters John and Michele.

I first learnt the term at a conference in Wellington in, em . . . it’s been so long now I’ve forgotten when. Sometimes it’s written as info-whelm, sometimes as infoWhelm. They all mean the same thing: too much data
for anybody to cope with. You start off sifting and sieving and all you’ve got at the end of it is a headache.

In January 2006, Ian Jukes on Change said,

“I am optimistic that collaborative practices like blogs and wikis can help us filter InfoWhelm into a manageable understanding of the world we chose to live in.”

I was hopeful when I first read that. Just on 30 months later, I’m sad to announce that Ian’s optimism is eclipsed by a new phenomenon that’s set to cause more problems than Infowhelm.

Gina Minks' post "What Competencies do Knowledge Workers Need?” lists just 5 tools that she feels need mentioning:


RSS Feeds


Information Creation tools such as Youtube, SlideShare, Flickr


She aptly suggests as one of her goals “a lunch and learn on at least one of these topics - to help get my co-workers up to speed. Maybe I’ll call it: What is a wiki and why the heck do I care?” I couldn’t help but sense a wee bit of tension in Gina’s post, and I’m not surprised.

Add to those listed the podcast, tumblelog, Twitter with its tweets, pipes etc, del.icio.us, Ning, video-share, slide-share. The lists I post don’t do justice to the plethora of Web 2.0 technologies that abound.

But as I write this there will be another one or two born on the Net, so what does it matter? They all contribute to what I call technowhelm.

It has one benefit, however. Soon we will be so bound up in deciding which Web 2.0 technology to use, learning how to use it and wondering if it’s the right one to choose
by the time we’ve sorted all that out, there won’t be any time left to experience infowhelm.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Monday, July 7, 2008

What’s learning about?

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you allstudent
I often wonder what learning’s about. It seems strange that I’ve spent tens of years observing it happening in my students, or not as the case may be, and I should still think this way. But it’s true. . .

I often wonder what learning’s about

From the moment of birth a child starts to learn. Children are like vacuum cleaners. They are capable of picking up anything and everything that they can learn and make sense of and a whole lot more besides. It is impossible to stop a youngster from learning without an act that would be either physically or mentally injurious to the child.

Some say the human ability to learn developed through evolution as a survival trait and that it has been passed down through the generations. Much to the exasperation of their teachers, this amazing ability seems to be lost, at least in part, for some children when they go to school. So what is it that progresses this ability to learn in some children but seemingly not in others?


Arthur Lydiard was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1917. Late in 1978 I read his book ‘Run – the Lydiard Way’. His world-famous schedules helped me get my average marathon time close to 3 hours. The first few chapters of his book describe how his curiosity brought him to experiment on his own body, pummeling it with the most formidable vigorous athletic activities: running, sprinting, climbing and ultra-marathon running.

By experimenting on himself he learned how the body responds to physical activity, both beneficially and injuriously. Lydiard took the principles he developed to many countries where world-class athletes, coached by him, won Olympic medals by the handfuls. Lydiard had a drive to promote athletics. But the most significant thing he did for himself was to learn how his body reacted to physical activity. He learnt how to use physical activity to improve physical ability.

I often wonder what learning’s about

I was a hopeless case as a secondary school student. A snotty, skinny year 8, my only interest was Science, a subject that I’d an obsessive passion for. I progressed to year 9, dropping Latin, for my teachers were in despair that I could ever learn a single word of that language. Development in year 10 was not much different. The deputy principal warned me sternly that if no improvement happened in other subjects, especially English and Mathematics, I would not study Science the following year. That threat changed my life as a learner. The thought of not doing Science made me think of what I had to do.

With an average achievement in any assessment in Mathematics or English of no more than 25%, I decided to approach my teachers and ask for help. I got a falling-apart book from my Mathematics teacher. Though its pages fell at my feet on opening, it covered all the work for that year and had examples throughout with answers at the back. It was my first experience of what formative assessment could do for a learner. My English teacher got me into the school’s junior debating society. From then on I never looked back.

That year in Mathematics I achieved an end of year examination result that should have won a prize. But I was accused of cheating, though no real proof could be obtained as to how I did that. I also won a debating competition during that year when standing as the Scottish National candidate in a mock election. Even in Scotland at that time, Scottish Nationalists were thought of as walking jokes. Perhaps I assisted in some small way towards the eventual victory in 1999 when Scotland established its own Parliament. Who knows?

I can firmly attest that if it weren’t for my obsession with Science and the threat of having to leave that interest behind, I’d never have studied English or Mathematics the way I did - at least not at school. But it didn’t stop there. So much more had to be learnt about learning when I eventually earned a place at university.

I attended all the lectures, took notes, but my handwriting was abominable. Any attempt I made to study my scribblings came to nothing if I left it too long. I panicked at this, for I wondered how on earth I was ever going to learn from my hopeless note-taking.

I often wonder what learning’s about

I thought up a plan. By accident I’d found that I could remember enough of a lecture to make sense of even the most undecipherable writing in my notes, provided it was read the day I wrote it. What I’d to do was obvious. I’d to learn to write tidily. But there was no way I could write tidy notes quickly enough during a lecture. So every evening after lectures I transcribed my messy scribble into copper-plate handwriting, a style of my own design. I then had a tidy set of lecture notes that I could read and understand even weeks after I’d attended the lecture.

As well, I found that, through the process of transcribing, I learnt from the proximal thinking that I'd done. Writing comments from readings of relevant texts helped me further. This particular aspect of study practice was brought to mind most recently when reading Vivian Yonkers’ and Tony Karrer’s thoughts on “writing forces learning”.

Further ploys I developed were drawing on my interest in music - I’d played violin as a child. I found that this instrument was not the most relaxing one to play as a break from study. The guitar was better. Short 20 minute to half an hour intervals of studying with 5 to 10 minute musical sessions in between meant that a 2 to 3 hour study session was made easier and often seemed to speed past. So by having frequent breaks in my study, I was able to learn from published guitar tutors how to play folk-style and classical guitar - a bonus!

All the study methods I’ve summarised here, and more, I used through my undergraduate years. Erudite educators use the term metacognition to describe these tactical approaches, strategies learnt that help us learn, some of which we may hit upon by accident.

How do we entice our students to use their ability to learn how to help themselves to learn?

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later

How To Treat The Youth Of Today

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all

It is my daughter Hannah’s 18
th birthday today. We took her to lunch at The Hummingbird, Courtenay Place, Wellington, an award winning restaurant/cafe. The Hummingbird certainly has ambiance and it doesn’t need a jazz band for that. Being Monday, the first day of the school hols, there was no band. But the warm atmosphere, good menu and service certainly made a special day, one to remember.

My wife, Linda, suggested we bought a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. Catriona (14) had a ginger beer, which was her choice and Hannah got her first legal sips from a fine bottle of Morton Estate. She took two hours to sip her glass with the meal. There was no fuss. And she didn’t treat it as something-specially-over-the-top for she’d tasted sips at home from her mother’s wine glass from time to time over the years and sips from my cider glass (I don’t drink beer – gives me headaches).

Neither did Catriona feel that she was left out of it, though she didn’t get her usual sip, being in a restaurant would have made that illegal anyway and the proprietors would have been within their rights to throw us out on the street.


I couldn’t help but admire the mature attitude of our newly 18-year-old, while at the same time feeling some concern for the younger generation of New Zealand over matters of consumption of alcohol and moderation.

New Zealand has a youth-alcohol problem. It’s not helped by the rugby-beer-swilling culture that's so prevalent in that country, and it's exacerbated by a recent return to 18 from 20 as the legal drinking age.

Parental responsibility

As a parent and a teacher, should I feel guilty about introducing my daughter to the demon drink? Shouldn’t my wife and I have known better than to publicly allow Hannah to booze unashamedly in a restaurant? Shouldn’t I be extolling the virtues of abstinence in the face of a growing youth-alcohol problem in New Zealand?

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Saturday, July 5, 2008

In Defense of Occam’s (Ockham’s) Razor

Tēnā koutou katoa - Welcome to you all
There’s been a lot said about Occam’s Razor on the Net recently, though not always supportive of its application. Also known as the law of economy, or the law of parsimony, it derived its name from a principle held by the medieval scholar William of Ockham.

He is believed to have said non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem - entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. It is thought that this principle may have been broached before Ockham by a French Dominican theologian Durand de Saint-Pourcain (1270 - 1334).

A well used blade

It has been used in many disciplines. Science in particular has enjoyed its application over the centuries and it has been exploited a fair bit in philosophy – Nicole d’Oresme, Galileo, Newton and Einstein all drew on Occam’s Razor in some form in their studies. Einstein used it in his theory of special relativity that predicted that the lengths of objects shorten and watches slow down when they move. In considering the tangible, explicit aspects of a theory, Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, claims “it seems better to employ the principle known as Occam's razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”

Stroppy criticism

Lately the principle seems to have come under the knife, and it’s validity as a tool has recently been given the chop by several writers.

Is it condemned to the scrap-heap of pre-21st century gadgets?

Or is there life in the old blade yet?

These questions came to mind when I read Peter Turney’s post, Ockham’s Razor is Dull. He speaks disparagingly of its use in the theoretical context of machine-learning and cites Geoffrey Webb’s “Further Experimental Evidence against the Utility of Occam's Razor”. Webb criticises Occam’s Razor for it is found that it doesn’t always work when commonly applied to modern machine-learning.

While I’ve no doubt that Turney’s opinion has some merit, I feel that the original intention behind the principle of Occam’s Razor has been forgotten, or at least severely misunderstood in its application to machine-learning. I suspect the initial application of the principle in such a context was ill-advised, that it was assumed as a means to an end rather than a way of viewing things.

A useful cutter

Occam’s Razor is often applied in many acute and incisive ways. Approximations when quoting populations, expressed to the nearest thousand heads, have been shaved by it. The so-called rounding up of numbers involves its use in trimming away minor fractional odds and ends. But its willy-nilly application can cause sharp problems for the unwary, as any keen statistician or accountant can attest.

It is most fittingly used as a way of looking at abstractions. For some practical purposes it can be brought into play when a decision is to be made on what to select as best from an array of ideas, or processes and strategies that give rise to almost identical outcomes.

Phil Gibb’s useful statement of the principle for scientists is "when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better." In that regard it has application in efficient decision making.

It’s all to do with what is perceived to be significant. I suspect that the ability to discern keenly is a vital component of the capacity to use the device effectively. This talent, present almost subconsciously in some people, may be what puts human sensitivity to differentiate well, above that of a machine.

Gibbs’ delightfully brief “What is Occam’s Razor?” lists an array of statements that seem to have been derived from the principle:

If you have two theories which both explain the observed facts then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along.

The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.

If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, pick the simplest.

The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.

Keep it simple, otherwise known as the KIS approach.

A worthwhile tool

It is an excellent tool to apply when looking for a model or a metaphor to use in a learning context. Map makers use its principle when simplifying the features of a landscape in two dimensions. The famous colourful London Underground Tube maps, aside being now considered works of art, are splendid examples of the practical use of Occam’s Razor as a design tool.

Current concerns expressed by many bloggers about the glut of data, otherwise known as infowhelm, could well be emeliorated by the judicious and skillful wielding of the blade. A honing of the discerning abilities may help to carve away redundant or duplicated information. Methods for trimming and blood-letting the burgeoning plethora of knowledge on the Internet are ripe for reaping.

Simplification is its keenest feature. A slice or so could well put Occam’s Razor at the cutting-edge of 21st century knowledge management.

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later