Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Society is Broken... Can Education fix it??

I've also posted this on Medium

We have to actually ask ourselves, what is the purpose of school and education? If we answer that it is about preparing young people for entering society, the workforce and for further study, then we'd have to conclude that we currently miss out enormously on the opportunities that this gives us as a society.  It's not that surprising really, society as a whole is broken. Call it a first-world problem if you will, but it also explains why the majority of the third-world remains as such. Society is broken because we're getting it wrong on so many levels, both individually and collectively. We're raising generations to perpetuate what we already know isn't really right. Okay, let me rewind slightly before I dig into education, let's ask the fundamental question of what's wrong with society?

Firstly, we're all out for ourselves. We generally are taught from a young age that life's not fair and that you have to take and grab everything you can. We're highly materialistic and driven by the 'American Dream' of making lots of money so we can have a ridiculous amount of creature comforts we neither need or fully appreciate. The irony of the selfish desire to look after number one and then to expand slightly to close family and maybe even one or two friends (though obviously not at our own expense) is that we come together collectively to achieve and perpetuate this. This is where collectively we align. Not to save the world from poverty, not to make sure that it's a fair and equitable existence, not to stamp out preventable illness, to further the scientific discoveries or express our creative selves. No. We come together to put ourselves first.

If common sense is rare, then communal sense is all but mythical. It seem like rather than 'adding' individuals sense together, the more we crowd into a single purpose the dumber it gets. Mob thought has rarely produced anything of great value unfortunately. I really don't mean to criticise those that stand up for what they believe in and unite together to campaign peacefully. I think that's probably the one exception, but even then often the purity of the original message is lost in collective dumbness - perhaps that's why so many protests turn violent or result in behaviours as bad or sometimes worse than they were originally protesting about.

If I had to come up with the single biggest issue beyond selfishness it would be a lack of empathy in our society. Fitting in to a society that's broken is just plain daft. We not only waste an enormous amount of our time, love, money and efforts attempting to fit in with what our collective ignorance tells is normal, we actively strike out at those that don't measure up to it. Those around us that don't fit our broken model of normal we ostracise. We pick on those that are 'dirty' and those that live 'alternatively'. We pick on those that are weaker, those that think differently, any minorities that we find; heck we even pick on those that stand out by succeeding more than we feel they should. In New Zealand I've heard lots of people talk about Tall Poppy Syndrome where we put down those that make it in the belief that they make the rest of us look bad. In fact we're so intent on making everything and everyone normal we don't actually stop to ask if normal is right.

It's not. Right. Normal that is. What is lacking from the picture is empathy and understanding. The key quality that makes a society work and operate at the highest of levels is empathy. When we start to care about those around us at a more than superficial level everything changes. Now at this point you're probably wondering what type of nutter extremist I am. A communist? An idealist? A revolutionist? I don't think I'm any of those, I surely wouldn't define myself as any of the above, but I am an individual and I do want to change both personally and collectively. Ever since I was aware enough about what was going on around me I knew I was letting myself down much the same as everyone else around me was doing the same. I'm far from the human I think I could be just as this society is so far away from what it could be too. I've so often put myself first and often reaped the so called rewards of it. I've obtained a high level of education and earned good money, live in a nice home etc. But deep down the more I achieve the less I'm satisfied by achieving those things. I could quit my job, sell the home and go work for a charity or help starving kids in Africa (and maybe I should), but I actually don't think that's the answer either. The answer is as an individual to embrace empathy on a level that I haven't and perhaps we haven't before.

Society sets us goals. House, family, job, car, etc. We actually need to re-define those goals based around empathy. To be ultra successful should be something we measure by the value one adds to those around more than to the value one adds to themselves. And I don't mean by making lots of material wealth and then sharing it particularly either - all though that would be one way of achieving goals. The people we should hold up in highest esteem shouldn't be the ones that achieve the highest levels or earn the biggest salaries but the ones that are the best towards other people. That doesn't mean that traditionally successful people should be discriminated against either; you could make great pop music and be wealthy and be looked up to if you were the sort of person that looked after others. Can you imagine replacing our glossy magazines about pop culture with those about people who helped raise those around them? Uplifting stories of people who actually improved our society rather than just made things better for themselves.

If some of you are wondering if this is all coming to a religious type ending then you'll be disappointed. I'm not talking about religion at all actually. I think you can believe in one thing or another or not, but that really doesn't automatically mean that you achieve the levels of citizenship that I'm talking about here. There are great christians who look after those around them and hit those high levels and there are awful ones who are really only out for themselves, or other christians. I could say the same about muslims. I could say the same about the other religions that I can or can't name. It's no more about religion than it is about skin colour. Or sex. Or sexual orientation. Or political beliefs. Thing is, the levels of empathy I'm talking about are set around acceptance of others and all their beliefs and upbringing and actually just about everything about them. I don't know much about lots of these things but I do know that love is better than hate, in all its guises. I do know that if we look out for one another and less for ourselves we'll be better off for it, both collectively and individually. 

We treat other cultures so badly on the whole. It's no wonder they 'hate' us when the we display hate to them on so many levels. In fact we treat other religions this way as a collective. We do the same with anything different when we use our collective (lack of) intelligence. We perpetuate the very thing we hate in others. We fight hate with more hate. We fight discrimination with more discrimination. We do this in the name of all that is making a 'normal' that is based around self and hate of others. It's actually a collective madness that we'd all see if we could step back away from it.

So, I started by talking education and I want to now return there. Our curriculum is currently set the same as it was back in the 19th century around maths, science and language predominantly. We need to adjust that if we're going to change this place. We need to start thinking about empathy as the number one subject taught at every school on this planet. We then need to have a core curriculum that bases itself around the other things that our society needs to move forwards; communication skills, problem solving, creativity - the sort of things by which a society as a whole can come together.  That's it really, we can then add context to those key areas - maths is still important as a part of problem solving for certain issues. Language is an important part of communicating (but not the only one - body language, for example). Science is also a key part of problem solving and understanding our world. Our schools need to teach young people the values of others and the dangers of self - that's kind of the opposite to what we're currently doing.

Collectively we can change society, but it starts individually. For me an increase in my own empathy is the starting point, what about you?

Agree? Completely disagree? Interested in all opinions even if you just think I'm a bit loopy (and sometimes I'm inclined to agree with you). 

Friday, 23 September 2016

You are the problem... and the solution

All posts can be found on medium:

This one is here:

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Leadership and the technological acceleration

Leadership. What a great concept. Ever since the dawn of time, we've migrated to charismatic leaders; strong types that we can follow into battle. I'm tempted to say today is no different, but yet it is isn't it? The world of technology has turned so much of what we know on its head, how many years of driving your own car do you think are left? The average life expectancy has risen by around 10 years in the last 30... that's staggering, technology has changed everything and we're in the midst of a technological acceleration; we haven't seen anything yet. How do you be a great leader now if you don't at least recognise the effects of technology on today's (let alone tomorrow's) workforce?

A lot of people merge leadership and management of course. They're different beasts, we tend to over-manage and under-lead by my experiences at least. For the simple sake of this blog, let's take management as being the ability to organise a team - think of it as a scalar quantity - like speed.  Leadership we'll define as a vector quantity; by that I mean
that as well as providing a level of management the key thing is that the leader also provides or enables direction as well as just organisation.  So if management is speed, then leadership is velocity (this is where my old physics teacher stuff comes in, for those not aware look up the difference between speed and velocity and hopefully that will become clear). If you're still unsure think that if your team goes at speed X they're flying, but without knowing the direction of X how effective are they? The leader provides both X and the direction to take them there. Put another (and perhaps clearer) way, the ability to lead requires the leader to be an enabler but also to unite the team in working towards their objectives.

Maybe I should write one of those blogs that tells you the seven things that all effective leaders do... but truth is those are mostly just marketing ideas. Leaders are defined actually by the affect they have on others not their own personal qualities. My first leader was a hilarious comb-over flare-wearing little man who had leadership down pat - though I'm not sure anyone else could have carried off his style and made it work. There is no formula for leadership, but there are things that are desperately important.

First up is around change. Call this the technological acceleration factor, but it's always existed through the industrial revolution, technological revolution and whatever the correct term for the current intelligence revolution we're experiencing. As a great leader you don't need to be up on all the latest technologies, but what you do need to be is a leader that understands the way things are changing and be open to those changes and realise they
have an effect on your team. If you've got someone driving innovation and pushing the boundaries that you're essentially struggling to keep in check you need to appreciate that this is a good thing. I love it when my team come up with ideas that I hadn't thought of, I like it even better when they say we've done this that and found this... I don't need them to check with me before they do things believe it or not. Innovation, change and technology... this is our world and the ability to embrace these things is what will separate effective workers from the 'robots' that will replace them.

Leaders need to be stretched, they also need to stretch their teams. You have to challenge them to come up with solutions and ideas and not stagnate on doing what they've always done. My favourite question is 'how can we improve this?'. You're either continuously looking for improvement or you're accepting that this is as good as it gets. Actually it's worse. If you stay still and things move forwards you're actually going backwards. I've been shot some filthy looks in meetings when anyone mentions 'best practice' I automatically respond with 'no such thing'. There isn't you know. It may have been best for one specific function at one specific time, but with the rate of change the concept of best practice is literally ridiculous. Good practice I can go with, but remember it's good now, doesn't mean it will always be good, you need to evolve.

If continuous improvement, change and appreciation of technology are vital to being a good leader now, one of the others is the very human element, it's a perspective issue. If I had to sum it up in a single phrase it would be; 'this is the team I'm a part of, I work for them'. My job as the leader of a team is to be a part of that team - they're not 'my' team, it's 'our' team. That's not just politically correct it's a vital approach to being able to get the most out of a team. The second part of that is that I work for the team not the other way round. For the most part they're the ones that do the work, I provide the environment, make sure they have what they need, are under manageable pressures and reduce external stuff that can de-rail effective teamwork. If it sounds wishy-washy, just think about effective leaders you've worked for; they seem to really care about you, this happens when you put yourself in this position.

My last thing is all about the direction. Work for your team, be open to change, look for continuous improvement and then make sure that the direction is there.  Easy eh? I've spend years in middle-management sandwiched between team needs and drives from above, but the key is that we focus on direction together knowing what we're heading towards. You know all that vision, goals, mission statement? That's what we're trying to capture; what's at the heart of why you do what you do. I'm in education so for me if we don't equate it back to what we're really here for - students and learning - then you'd have to question why you do things. The team looks to me when they don't understand some pressures and I work with them to bring it back to teaching and learning and the effects on students. The whole thing works beautifully if the whole organisation worked under a flipped philosophy that we work for the people who sit organisationally under us. When it doesn't, you need to be able to provide direction using a step-back perspective approach when you can still see the overall goal. My take on most organisations is that we aim for overly complex 'strategy' with numerous goals, missions etc etc. If we boiled it down to something really simple that everyone believed in we'd have massive buy-in for leadership in the technological acceleration.

So there you have my take on leading for the next generation. Innovative, always looking for improvements, working for your team and providing clear direction.  There's one characteristic I think you need to make that happen (flares are optional) - courage. Courage to do the right thing, back your team when it's right, tackle them when it's not, make the tough decisions with the right frame of mind. Courage to put them before yourself and courage to challenge the status quo.

Of course I may not even be a good leader so why listen to me? Maybe because this is the same thing I want in my leader, what about you?

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Portfolios and ePortfolios; a better way to assess?

Portfolios aren't a new idea, for years people have gathered evidence and put it one place. Once upon a time this was all paper-based and you used a big folder (really big if you were an art student) and saved all the bits and pieces you collected and then, after the mandatory 'tarting up' process, you submitted it to be assessed upon. I remember my English assessment at (high) secondary school which was all based upon 'coursework' which was a portfolio by another name and that was, err... a while ago.  Of course my coursework was really just a group of summative assessments strung together, all well and good but not really a full portfolio of work.  We also now have the abilities to do this without cutting down the rain forest too, eportfolios (which are just porfolios of course) enable us to gather pieces of information and interaction as well as summative assessments (and formative!) to produce our portfolio.  Seems like an awesome solution to most of our assessment needs and yet, amazingly, we still seem to make the vast majority of our assessments test or exam based - even more amazingly there's still a plethora of assessments that seem to be closed-book knowledge based regurgitation.

Closed-book for those not down with edu lingo simply means under exam conditions; no access to the internet, no other reading material or previous notes (usually) and no communicating with anyone or anything. Cool. Just like real life? No, anything but for the majority of us. When we take away the opportunity to look things up or research during a summative assessment what we're actually saying is you must remember things yourself and only yourself - how many 'doing' applications does that accurately represent? And if the purpose of testing isn't to show you can 'do' something then we probably need to question what it is... It's not that closed-book scenarios are totally useless, there are times when they're appropriate, but that's just not the norm so our assessments should be closer to reality.

The beauty of a portfolio is that it doesn't have to be one thing or another either.  What I mean is that portfolios don't have to contain just summative type assessments, or just exams or trainer/teacher evaluated stuff, they can include self-assessed work peer-assessed and even non-assessed work.  Add to that the ability for the portfolio itself to be part of the collaborative nature, they can (and the best ones usually do) include the ability to record social interactions that contribute towards the learning.  You also have the opportunity to get away from purely written material too.  Students should be able to include video (so easy these days to make video with mobile phones and webcams), audio, links to work, blogs, forums, websites etc etc - in fact it's not just the student, recently I saw a presentation from a Google rep which included how teachers can provide audio feedback on student's work.  What about a student completing a task and taking a simple phone made video of it, with comments then added by some peers and a tutor - all done almost instantly and accessible anywhere, anytime on any device?

Portfolios are also built over time, it shouldn't be an onerous job at the end of a course to put one together, they should be built as they go with regular feedback and sharing.  One of the big problems for students is that we ask them to store and study for exams that once they take they almost instantly forget.  With an eportfolio not only do we build over time, but the portfolio itself becomes more than just a record of the learning, it's also a place to go back to for reference and, when done really well, something that builds beyond the time that it's assessed.

There's more great news too, you can put together an eportfolio without having to splash out on expensive systems.  Lots of educational providers use Moodle and it's cousin Mahara as an open source eportfolio base.  Mahara can work and doesn't cost anything for the code, but if you don't have the abilities or permissions to set up an instance it can still be costly to get implemented.  One of the great free tools for achieving this is the Google suite of apps.  Blogger (this tool!) provides a way of achieving this for some people, but actually the simple use of Google Drive provides an effective way to be able to build store and have collaborative interaction on your portfolio.  Anyone can get a free Google drive with 15 GB of shareable space, that's a pretty good instant solution that you can link directly to an LMS or website or however you want.  But actually the tool is really of far less importance than the content and the communication around the portfolio.  

Hey maybe the answer for you isn't building a portfolio... maybe you need knowledge check alone and the way you've been doing it is the only way.  But maybe not, and if you want to design better assessments, maybe looking at the world of portfolios is worth the investment in time?

Agree, disagree, or just want to help build my portfolio (and yours!) by commenting? Feel free....

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Teaching and Learning; brothers from different mothers

Teaching and learning are often used synonymously and sometimes even interchangeably, we often talk about what learners will learn, when what we mean is what students will be taught. Am I just being a bit picky here? After all, we set things like learning objectives, we talk about elearning, surely it's just a rose by another name right? No I don't think so, I think that teaching and learning are closely related, but they are different animals, think half-brothers, maybe step-brothers (and as a quick tip of the hat to the world of political correctness I apologise for using the male part of the definition; it was just that brother and mother rhyme and made for a better title). What is taught has always had a major influence on what is learnt, but to think they are one and the same is a key flaw with the way we often approach education and has major impact in the training world too.

Anyone who reads any of my previous ramblings will know that I have long-time held knowledge in a form of contempt, the search for knowledge is not a higher purpose, the search for learning is. Fact is I've had to reshape my own thinking a little on this with recent discussions too.  I've spent much of my time dissing knowledge and in particular the memory and recall as the lowest form of learning, but actually I'm beginning to think that it's more about focus and less about levels.  What I mean is that actually the memory process and the way we accumulate knowledge is a necessary part of learning, but it isn't learning. We learn by shaping what we know, have experienced, observed or conceive to change the picture.  Learning is somewhat akin to a chemical reaction; it can happen in a variety of ways but the outcome is a 'change' of state or substance.  What I mean is that when you learn something you change the shape (or state) of what you previously knew or you form a new concept (substance).  I've got to acknowledge that memory and the previous state is a combination of skills, experience and yes knowledge too. Damn it. But that's kind of my point, everything changes and there's a learning opportunity in everything.

So if we think chemical reaction, surely education is best set up like an experiment right? We control the variables and under a set of conditions we can guarantee the outcomes, after all if I want to change hydrogen and oxygen into water I can reproduce the result every time. The thing is that hydrogen and oxygen are elements, the simplest of substances that we can always predict the way they behave, could you describe people that way? Even at your own singular level, would you always react the same to learning new things or does it depend upon your mood, the time, how much money is in your account, the latest post on Facebook, the problems your friend is having etc etc?  So if it's an experiment it's not one we can completely control and herein lies the point, we can't isolate and control everything so learning isn't something we can completely prescript. So teaching is a bit different, we can set things we teach, we just can't guarantee the learning will be what we intended.

If this all sounds a bit desperate I really don't think it is.  Teaching doesn't equate to learning in a directly proportional arrangement but it sure as heck has a close relationship (otherwise we can all just pack up and go home).  What it might do is change the way we approach teaching; typically we've concentrated heavily on the transfer of knowledge and skills from teacher to student.  As a by the way here I have to say I don't understand the hate on the word student; it perfectly describes someone who is being taught something. The word learner may be the popular and politically correct version but if you've taken any notice yet on the above you'll know that someone is being taught X isn't necessarily learning X so sure, they're a learner, but it may not be a learner of X and under that definition everyone is a learner so it's a bit of a nothing term; let's roll with student you can be a student at any age and any stage of life. Back to my point, the teaching can't guarantee exact one for one learning for every student, this isn't a failing, just a scientific principle down to the inability to control all variables.  So teaching needs to change it's emphasis to stop trying to focus on the direct transfer of knowledge and skills and place a greater emphasis on in increasing the chances of success of our 'learning experiment' by setting the environment and behaviours.

Think about the best teachers you remember; what was it that made them stick in your memory and helped shape your early learning? I can bet that one of the biggest things was the way they made you feel about yourself and the way they inspired you.  Kicking that idea around a bit, we have the concept of inspiration; if someone inspires you it aligns some of those 'variables' and generates a desire for learning to take place that can override some of the other negatives that may otherwise act as inhibitors. The other half of that is the personal nature. When my high-school English teacher first inspired me, I really felt it was about me, not about one. We're all essentially linked to a singular perspective that is our own, personalising the teaching is a way to unlock potential in individuals.  Of course if you're teaching a class of 30 individuals how can you possibly achieve this? The answer is remarkably simple, 'you have to stop teaching and start enabling learning'. The shift needs to be off the teacher and on to the student and in recent years we've started to see a shift towards student-centred teaching. The teacher needs to provide the environment, the inspiration, the challenge and allow the student to personalise and take it further... read from page 59 and copy this off the board won't ever achieve that.

If you're involved in training in industry that's slightly different to the world of teaching and education as the outcome is usually task or skills based. Essentially you're looking at a competency based outcomes where students either can do what they need to do or they don't. Funny thing is that the exact same principles occur. You can measure whether or not they are able to do the 'thing' that they are supposed to under assessment conditions, but will they be able to do it tomorrow, in three weeks or nine months? The skills or abilities may fade or disappear altogether but it doesn't mean that nothing was learnt, it just means that was being learned may not have been exactly what was trained or more vitally that learning happens continuously and the formal training is just a small part of the learning (think along the lines of 70/20/10 here). With that in mind when you design training think the same way as for education; think about behaviours, environment and inspiring over and above the end result. It's the combination of training and the other pieces such as experience, watching others and the others we can't control that define what is learnt over time. Again, not a hopeless state it just means that the training isn't an isolated single hit that solves everything, it needs to inspire and facilitate learning rather than be the silver bullet cure.

So there you go in short, teaching and learning are related, but don't fall into the trap of thinking if you teach X then X is learnt. Instead if you teach an approach to finding out about X by inspiring and setting the environment, then the learner will have the skills to not only learn X but also to find out about Y and Z and keep up with X when it morphs into something completely different.

If you didn't learn something by reading that it's okay, I wasn't trying to teach you anything, but if you want to find out more or take it in a different direction then that's very cool and if you want to let me know about it I'm interested, but hey, that's not essential either :)

Friday, 15 April 2016

Is it time to base education around skills?

So if you, like me, have kids in education these days the likelihood is there’s some core subjects they cover and the likelihood is that these haven’t changed in the last 10, 20 or 50 years.  Maths, English, Science and then a combo of bits and pieces that make up the modern curriculum, but are we missing the point?  I’m not suggesting that the need for English or Maths has disappeared from modern life, but perhaps the emphasis has - or at least the context.  Before we get into the what, let’s start a little with the why.  Why do you need maths as a core skill for operating in today’s society - yes, money, yes bills, but beyond the very rudimentary side of maths, how much long-division do you need, let alone complex algebra or calculus.  So if I’m going to radically re-shape the education system and bring in a ‘new core’ of subjects, what are the key candidates? 

Investigation.  My key core subject that should fill every high-school curriculum front-page is investigation.  What I want from tomorrow’s workforce is the ability to move beyond face value and look, search, research and discover for themselves.  Such a skill isn’t above regurgitating anything but in finding things out.  It’s really more a skill than a subject I guess, but I want the next generation to be focussed less on knowledge and more on discovery.  This also means not just the what, but also the how and the why.  If we can get them to have enquiring minds then that’s an instantly employable trait.  You can also find some of your traditional subjects wrapped in here, this is what it really means to have a scientific approach.

Communication.  Seriously what skill could rate higher than the ability to effectively communicate with those around them.  This could take a large number of forms, from written, to electronic, face to face and through social media.  This isn’t your classical study of English literature through the ages but a key skill focussing on how to get the most from communications, how to express yourself clearly, how to speak and present to others. 

Empathy.  If there’s one thing that was definitely missing from my childhood education through a traditional European schooling system it was an almost total absence of empathy.  Empathy for those around you, family, friends, neighbours, distant relatives, local community, wider community, country, world and environment.  Maybe empathy isn’t the right word, maybe I’m trying to find the opposite of what I consider to be one of the hardest traits to reverse in the workforce today; apathy.  So take empathy as a sort of contraction of anti-apathy and you’ll get where I’m going with this I hope.  What I want from the next generation is a better ability to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others and walk around in them.  I nearly called this Politics believe it or not.  Not the kind of charade that the US politics has descended into, but the ability to be able to see things from more than one perspective - politics means the many faces or sides of an issue - a vital skill.

Teamwork.  I don’t care if it’s through sports or games, work groups or social groupings, but I want better working together as a direct output.  When we look for new employees we’re often after someone we think will fit in with the current group.  The ability to work as a part of a team is often an indirect output of schooling, but surely something so critical should be one of our primary concerns? 

Lifeskills.  This maybe a bit of cop-out on my side, but we need to teach kids how to be adults beyond communication and empathy.  How are you going to be able to pay your bills, work out money, ensure cloud systems remain in operation?  Who’s going to programme your ### system (insert relevant system here in the future once the ### is known).  This includes a level of digital fluency to keep up with the modern world, a view on what’s going on and a curriculum that moves as things change and is not set in a musty old text-book.  Maybe I should have called it ‘User skills’? The essence is so that you can do all the functions you need to exist in the modern world.

Creativity/Problem solving/Critical thinking - somewhere in here there's another area we need to focus on... is it critical thinking? Is it a problem solving skill or the use of creativity to solve issues?  I'm not sure, maybe it's an extension of 'Investigation' skill that I put right at the top.  Maybe that's the core and the rest are options...

What about those options now? You still want to go with religious education, food technology and French?  Not me, give me some options that I think will really be useful.

Leadership.  Sure, not everyone is going to excel at this one and that’s okay, but I want to know if they do, or at least if they have good potential in this area.  If you’re going to be a good leader then we should start you as young as possible with the why and how to lead so we don’t end up with the sort of managers that plague us today.

Engineering.  I don’t care what era you’re in there’s going to be a need for engineers of all shapes and kinds.  Maths is also a key part of this, not the core type maths you need to work out your bills and living, but the high-end maths required to really work out shizzle that’s important.

Science, maths, languages could all be here as advanced forms of investigation and communication and great options for those who really want to take things to the next level.

Creativity.  I'm not sure you can make everyone creative, but that doesn't mean creativity is limited to 'artistic types' either.  This type of skill would be a great complement to scientific subjects as much as artistic and could be used in the business world too.

I've not covered it all here, there's plenty missing and probably some of my ideas aren't right or at least not fully formed.  I think that the important thing is that we realise the core of education should be much more about skills and approaches than 'subjects'.  What do you think??

Thursday, 31 March 2016

What collaborative, online sharing tools do you use?

This isn't one of those posts where I try to claim I know the answers and you should read to become enlightened (hopefully I never really write like that at all).  This is about the way I work, want to work and look for ways to improve.  What I will do is mention two or three tools I like to use and why, then see if you can help me to come up with some more.  To put in context I love to work out loud, and I'm giving a presentation on the collaborative working and sharing and would like to spend part of that time on tools.  Part of being involved in collaboration and sharing is knowing you don't hold all the answers, so it would be great if someone out there would help a little with a comment or two to lead to some further investigation.  So, here's what I use and love, and where I need more help!

Google Apps
My Drive
If you're looking at collaborating then Google is a pretty damn good place to start. I'm always amazed still at the proportion of 'team' work that gets sent around on Excel or Word seeking input from others.  It seems like madness to me to deal with version control and shared drive spaces in an old-fashioned way, when great tools exist to enable us to work on the same spreadsheet or document at the same time from a variety of locations.  When you're in the apps, I love the way they show you who else is there (the anonymous animals are always good for a giggle too) and you can see live updates. My 13 year-old daughter does her homework in Google Docs and shares with me to help her edit!  Google Drive is enormously valuable too, with the huge amount of free storage offered even on a personal account it makes sharing of large files really easy.  Sites I find a bit clunky, but for a free service I can live with them too.  Of course you also get the most common email address and the way a large number of other apps allow you to sign-in with Google makes having a Google account a must in today's collaborative sharing world.  If you don't have a Google account I really don't understand why not.  I'm predominantly an Apple user and the account and apps play well in the Apple environment (I'm not a fan of Android as an OS but that's just me) and Windows - particularly if you use Chrome as your browser (if you're using IE still you've lost me again...). Yes there are limitations, things like Power View in Excel just don't have an equivalent in Sheets, but for 90% of what you're going to do, this suite is tops.

One of our Trello boards on development work
If there's been one go-to tool over the last few years for me it's been Trello.  This great little app/saas offering started out as a project management tool and is very good at that but is adaptable to so many other things.  When I describe it to people I say it's a bit like a big whiteboard, you put headings on it (lists) and then it's a post-it sticky system where you put as much or as little as you like on the 'cards' and can move them around.  It's collaborative in that other users can write on the cards, change the names of lists, add stickers, notes, attachments, links etc and everything updates real-time.  Chuck in there an audit record of everything that's going on and an active set of features that are regularly updated (and a good support community) it's a really versatile tool.  Log-in with Google of course and start building in a shared environment from the get go.  Great for teams, particularly where projects are involved or across organisation.

My Slack teams
Man I love Slack as a comms tool for teams, it's slick (which probably would have been a better name too!), can handle multiple teams and groups and is very very neat.  I love that you can tie it in with Trello boards and use it to communicate out changes and an easy way to track the changing picture on your Trello boards.  Slack isn't a way to engage the wider audience and reach the outside world - you have to know your teams first, but once set up it's a really powerful tool.  I do like the way you can have different emails, different domains etc and Slack is happy and doesn't care whether you're Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome or whatever - just good quick comms across the group with private and limited areas really easy to setup.  One of the good things is very simple, just adding a set of reactions to say you've seen things, and the reduction effect this has on unnecessary emails is more than welcome.

Much maligned but Twitter is another go-to collaborative tool for me.  I know people spend a lot of time setting up lists etc, but my favourite thing about Twitter is that it's a quick and easy way to get stuff out there.  If Slack is about teams and optimum work in exclusion, for me Twitter is the other end of the spectrum - inclusion to everyone.  Once you embrace that Twitter can be a really fun environment.  When I publish a blog like this, the first thing I'll do is pop a link to it up on Twitter to direct traffic here (okay, light traffic, but traffic all the same).  If you need help, where better to ask for it than in public? The use of hashtags means that your needle in a haystack request now has a beacon attached and the more you interact the more you get out of it.  When you think about avoiding silos this is where Twitter can really come in to its own and if you're like to learn things that you want to find out about (self-directed learner) then try searching and reading through this great little curation tool.  Yes, yes, I know Twitter isn't a curation tool per se, but if a great article has been written, it's usually been discussed or shared on Twitter too...

Yes Facebook and LinkedIn deserve a mention because like the rest of the world I use them, I particularly like the closed groups on Facebook (sports teams are a lot easier to run these days) and LinkedIn I use but often in a way I feel is a bit fake (I'm not sure what my professional persona is, but that's where you'll probably find it).  I think Zoom is a great tool for video (remember when Skype was our go-to tool?), Blab seemed a bit quirky but I didn't quite get on with it in the early days because it crashed a lot so I don't really do that much...

Every tool I've mentioned here also happen to be FREE.  I only mention it here so you can see that free tools aren't my priority as such, but the fact that they can work together without charging the end user is like the Swiss flag; a big plus :)

So there we go... this list definitely needs building and working on - want to help to achieve that? Add a comment to this blog or email me: or find me on Twitter @The_NthDegree

Oh, and if you hate the tools I like, cool, let me know what's better :)