Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Anyone who's followed my blog for any length of time knows that I have a sizeable commute into work each day. I live on Highway 215, a winding stretch of road that, for those familiar to Nova Scotia, runs essentially from Brooklyn (near Windsor) and ultimately terminates near Truro, snaking its way along the Minas Basin shoreline on its journey. A beautiful drive when the weather is good, a tricky one in the depths of winter.

In order for me to get to my job at the Nova Scotia Community College on Leeds Street in Halifax, I need to drive from my home about 25 minutes to the "St. Croix" exit of Highway 101 (Exit 4), then straight into and through Burnside, across the MacKay bridge, and a short hop up from the Windsor Street exchange to North End Halifax. I've tried various routes in and out of the city, and this one works best for me.

Many, many people ask why I commute so far each day. There are many reasons: I love my career, the company I work for and the people I work with. I love where my home is...we are surrounded by several acres of pristine woodland, the property backs onto the beach, and it's quiet. I love to drive...I don't find, after several years, the drive monotonous...mostly because I discovered some time ago the wonder that is the audio book. My primary reason, though, is for my wife and my girls...it's a safe, sleepy rural area of Nova Scotia. The schools are small, we know a lot of people here, and we have roots. In short: we're comfortable.

But this blog isn't about my good fortune...regardless of how I have settled into contentment as to my job, home, and commute, the price of gas is rising to unheard of levels, and if the speculators are to be believed, it's not come close to its peak yet. I, like so many others, am feeling the "pinch at the pumps". A few months ago, I became determined to do something about it.

As is my nature, I researched my options: smaller car (not much of an option, as I am a large man, and comfort for the daily commute is essential), specialized gas systems, electric power...the list goes on. Every solution cost money to implement...defeating the gains I was trying to make. No, whatever solution I was going to come up with, it needed to use my current car.

A few websites, television documentaries, and books later, and the answer was clear: keep the car well maintained...oil changes, tires, and so on...a necessity for a commuter anyway, and the clincher: slow down, and drive sensibly.

I could have as much advice as I wished for, but I needed some hard evidence...something to prove that it was actually working. Thanks to the digital systems in my car, I have a fuel economy indicator: for the longest time, it read "8.6 L/100 km". Let me break down the math:

My drive is 156.8 kilometres, round trip, every day, barring any detours or extra stops...door-to-door, as it were.

At 8.6 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres of travel, it takes me 13.48 litres to make the trip each day. At 136.9 cents per litre at the pump (the price as of this writing), it cost me $18.46 each day in fuel.

For a couple of months, I've made a couple of simple changes: I've worked diligently to ensure my decelerations and accelerations are smooth and slow...no rapid take-offs or hard stops. I've made sure I knew what conditions lay before me so I could anticipate how to calmly and evenly navigate through traffic. Above all (and the thing I credit with the greatest change), I reduced my speed on the 101 highway from 110 kilometres per hour to 100 km/hr.

The proof is in the results: after over a month of sensible and careful driving, my fuel economy has dropped to 7.2 L/100 km. That's 11.28 litres per day, and at 136.9, my daily cost of gas is $15.46...exactly $3.00 cheaper.

While that might not seem much on the surface, let me extrapolate some approximations for you...this won't hurt a bit:

$3.00 per day
=$15.00 per (five day) workweek
=$66.00 per month (assuming 22 workdays)
=$780.00 per year (assuming 260 workdays)

Many things are not taken into account...extra trips on the weekend; not all weekdays are workdays; I often travel to other locations in the province...but, the overall outcome is clear to me: if an individual has a reasonable amount of highway driving during a daily commute, driving just a bit slower and safer can save money.

And isn't that something we could all stand to do these days?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Touch Me: The Rise of the Tablet

As I pointed out in my other blog, I'm not going to go on about my hiatus from blogging...a break was needed and taken; my apologies to any who've been waiting. I feel that I'm edging into a writing phase, so I expect to be here more often.

So much to talk about (doubtless another reason for my return), but I'll start with something that's been on my mind a lot lately: tablet computing.

As a full disclaimer, I have a 64 GB iPad 2, following my first iPad, a 16 GB version my wife is now using; her iPod Touch is now residing in my car, providing audio book listening pleasure on my daily commute. I have returned to using a 17" MacBook Pro as my work laptop. Despite appearances, I don't consider myself an Apple fan boy. I like their stuff, make no mistake. The design is excellent, as is the quality, and I like their operating systems...but I don't worship at the feet of Jobs. The other computers in my home and most of the systems I interact with at work are Windows-based, and I still have a BlackBerry smart phone.

What I want to write about isn't a brand. For one moment, strip the labels off of your devices...that's it...all of them. Cell phones, laptops, home computers, portable and home gaming systems, everything. Put down that Brand Loyalty® Kool-Aid, just for a bit.

Awesome. Now: is your technology doing what you need it to? Could it be doing more, better? Does it need to be doing less than it is (how many times have you asked yourself that question)? How effective is it as a tool, resource, or source of entertainment for you?

Tablet computing is one of the areas I've been conducting some applied research in for a while. I've become convinced that I can replace my desktop and laptop computers with a tablet...we've reached the point where technology has caught up with our use-ology. I'm largely paper-free now, and most of my files exist in the "cloud" (I'll get to that bit of overused terminology in another blog post soon). I can consume and create media on a single, portable, and powerful device.

Are you still looking at the pile of labels on the floor?

Here's the thing: if you're considering purchasing a tablet, your device has to work for you...decide on the power, features, and form factor you want. Research the honest reviews. Talk to your open-minded friends. Handle the devices, in store or otherwise. If in doubt, wait...there will always be another new model around the corner.

Once you've decided to made a commitment (even not to commit), try to keep an open mind about the products. If anything has been found to be true about technology companies, it's that none of them are perfect. Apple, Samsung, Research in Motion, Google, Microsoft, Motorola, Sony, Nintendo...all of them have made product mistakes, and all of them have come out with some really cool products and ideas. I doubt that the one "ideal system" will ever surface...every time someone invents a great mousetrap, someone else comes up with a better mouse. It's been that way for a while.

And isn't it fantastic? That means that true innovation is still out there! Our inventions have always been limited to two things: our resources, and our imagination. Given the first, the second can rise to unprecedented achievement. It gives me great encouragement that I'm surprised nearly weekly with the Next Big Thing.

In regards to tablets, I've come to what I think are a few (obvious) givens:
  1. Cell phone/smart phone technology has been proven, as has wireless networking
  2. Capacitive touch screen technology has revolutionized the user interface in as great a manner as the computer mouse did in the 1970's
  3. There exists a space for a device somewhere between the laptop/net book and the smart phone
  4. Current devices are already excellent at being consumption devices, but still need to work toward being better creation devices
  5. It is becoming increasingly possible for us to move into a truly paperless society
Beyond this, we still have some discoveries to make about the way we "touch the machine" (literally and figuratively); we're just at the beginning of another massive culture change.

Whatever the origin of the proverb, it appears that we are going to be living in interesting times...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scavenging for Learning

“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” - Lloyd Alexander (children’s author, including the Black Cauldron)

Portfolio Learning is an ideology. It is a way of reflecting on your life, skills, strengths, and personality in such a way that you can form a construct of who you are. You do this in order to give others an idea of what makes you an individual. It can be purely representative, or used as a tool to enhance progression in your career. It is a never-ending, lifelong process.

Anyone can begin or maintain a portfolio at any point in their lives. A person can begin by thinking about all the things that have made them who they are, and collecting them in some way.

The new model of Portfolio Learning at the Nova Scotia Community College has adopted a contructivist methodology.

"Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own “rules” and “mental models,” which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences."

Source: http://www.funderstanding.com/content/constructivism

The NSCC's Mission Statement and Values can be found at http://www.nscc.ca/About_NSCC/Mission_Vision_And_Values.asp. Portfolio Learning connects to all of these principles in that a learning community who understand themselves more fully and can likewise demonstrate that understanding enhance the economy and quality of life throughout the province. Each of the values of the Nova Scotia Community College represent the portfolio of the College itself; it is a reflection of the inner self of the organization, and provides a direction for future growth.

In my opinion, a portfolio doesn’t need to belong to only a person…an organization can also consider its own skills, knowledge, and experience. An example of how that takes place at the Nova Scotia Community College is during our Faculty and Staff training – CCEDP (Community College Education Diploma Program). Employees new and old come together to share, learn, debate, and network in several courses, most often through the summer months. In doing so, the portfolio of the College itself grows and changes (and is frequently revised).

It’s easy to say that Facebook or other social networking sites are an example of an online portfolio (for each individual), but how many have thought in how it demonstrates who you are by the spaces between the sites? How we interact with others, the commentary they make of us, and the ebb and flow of our social network speaks volumes about our own portfolio learning.

If you're interested in learning more about portfolio, here are some resources for three different learning types:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Of Products and Processes

A recent conversation with a colleague re-ignited a passionate educational debate on the need for brand-specific training, particularly when it comes to computer software. I'm going to do my best to avoid naming names, but certain software companies seem to revel in the notion that they are the only "game in town", so I'll make no promises...

The idea is transferable, so I'll start with the example that sparked the conversation. Our College has several programs that utilize, in one form or other, graphic design software. The industry, we're told, uses a particular, and very expensive suite of software. This software has frequent, whole-product updates every couple of years. The site licensing for the product (even for a publicly-funded educational institution) is outrageously expensive, and even the maintenence fee, allowing us the bi-yearly upgrades runs into a quarter million dollars every four years or so.

To make matters worse, any conversation about negotiating the price down to a more reasonable level is met with a corporate arrogance I've seldom come across: "We have the product you have to use, because it is the standard, so you'll pay what we want, and like it".

I get the corporate machine. All businesses are out to make money. Any organization capable of cornering the market has enormous leverage, and would have no reason to divert themselves from pressing the monopoly for a sense of altruism (in which, apparently, there is little money to be made). I'm past the point of trying to convince them that providing the software for education at a resonable cost means more students get to use the product, and will then tend to gravitate towards it when they get into industry (Look ma! Low cost generational advertising!) What I am concerned with, however, is education...do the learners need to use the product, or learn the process?

Let me use a direct comparison: one of the earlier tasks a student of graphic design would learn to do with this product is to apply a filter to an already-existing image. For example, a Gaussian Blur is used to reduce "image noise". The expensive software is certainly capable of doing it...among thousands of other effects and manipulations in its repertoire. When I look around the software world, though, I've come across another program suite that is equally capable. This application is an open-source product, meaning that it costs nothing, and is regularly updated by a community of users. Funny enough, when I look at its feature set, it is capable of doing everything the commercial product is. Apparently, someone else thought the pricing was getting out of hand.

Here's the crux of my debate: is the understanding of what a filter is, what effect it has, when it would be used, and how it is applied to an image not about learning a process? Does the student of graphic design need to know how to do it in Product X, or do they simply need to know how to do it? Isn't the skill more valuable if it's transferable, particularly if a piece of software they are going to be using will change several times over the course of their career anyway?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

"I Want It All, I Want It Now, But Don't Want to Earn It"...The Cry of the Under-Entitled

I wonder about the solution to problems alot.

I think about things, how to make them better. In my secondment as a Project Manager, I do that very thing every day. Call it "project-based troubleshooting". Often, though, I begin to wonder if some of the problems don't need solutions. I look (or try to look) at where they come from, the issues they are causing, and wonder if a solution is really necessary...or does the establishment need to change?

What I'm wondering about now is Entitlement. Truthfully, I've been wondering about it for over nine years: this August marks my tenth year as a professional educator.

My perception, and that of my colleagues, is that our learners are demonstrating an increasing sense of entitlement. Each academic year, the new crop of learners seems to expect more than the year before them. Let me be clear: I'm not criticizing their capability...these are smart, fresh, young minds who can complete most any task set in front of them. They can be engaged...they've demonstrated interest in my own classes, witnessed first-hand by yours truly. They can be energetic...I've seen them engage in animated discussions with their peers about a topic of interest to them.

Where the issue begins is when they are being tasked with something they percieve as tedious or challenging, or, heaven forbid, they are criticized, particularly when they don't receive the mark they think they deserve.

Let me give you an extreme case: imagine your typical College student, starting their first year. For the purposes of gender neutrality, let's call him/her Sam. Sam comes to the orientation programs, dutifully collects all of the information pamphlets and attends the overwhelming number of sessions designed to safely bring them from their secondary school background to the new world of post-secondary education. Sam hears the proverb again and again: "those who don't try, don't succeed".

Sam gets a schedule of classes, a locker, a parking pass, and an armful of books (or, hopefully, a laptop/tablet and an ebook collection...more on this soon). They are all ready to begin, and attend classes in earnest, engaging themselves in their preliminary studies.

And then, they disappear.

Weeks drag on, without reply to email, or perhaps a string of (possibly legitimate) excuses. Finally, the end of the semester arrives. Without fail, in the last two weeks or so, Sam returns. The inevitable, "Can I have an appointment to see you?" (if that courtesy is extended) is followed by "I know I've missed a lot of time. What can I do to pass your course?". Attempting to maintain some sense of composure, as this is the tenth learner to ask the question within the past few days, the reply comes: "I'm sorry, you've missed too many assignments/tests/projects. There is no way to pass the course."

And then it happens...the look. The look that says "I don't think I understand. I'm here. You're supposed to make this all better. I've done nothing, but I want you to overlook that, and give me a passing mark."

Is there truly a precedent for this? A lot of my contemporaries believe that this is a social issue that comes from years of parents and elementary school sport coaches who rewarded everything their children did. I recall being on a soccer team in my formative years. I remember both victory and defeat. When we played a competition game, usually travelling to another school district, there were two outcomes: winning or losing. The winning team would be treated to a round of ice cream at the nearest fast food outlet or farmers market, and the losing team would enjoy a quiet van ride home, heads hung in defeat.

Now, both teams get ice cream (thanks for trying!) and at the regional tournament, everyone gets a medal. Make sure no one's trophy is larger than anyone elses...wouldn't want to cause any developmental scarring. You won! Award! You played! Award! You came (most of the time)! Award! You put no effort in, barely attended all year, and have learned nothing about the sport, teamwork, or fun! Award!!

Others think that this phenomenon isn't the result of Helicopter Parents and thier ilk, but rather from a culture where everything is accessible, instantly and conveniently. Technology is allowing us to not have to try to remember anything anymore. I've got more posts coming up on this, but have a look at Clive Thompson's blog on the same in the meantime: The Fate of Human Memory.

What do you think?

This seems to be a problem in search of a solution. Is it, or does it represent a change in culture? What does it mean for the future if it is a paradigm shift?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

You're (Such) a Tool

My little personal experiment has come to its conclusion. Unannounced, I’ve stayed away from the blogosphere for a year, and let life pass by, thinking of thoughts I’d like to share. I’ve stayed connected with my online community through Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. My hypothesis was that I would have a great deal more material for my blog if I were to step away for a while. In retrospect, it seems obvious what the conclusion would be, but I wanted to see it though to the end.

I give you: my return to the blogosphere (cue Also sprach Zarathustra). I doubt I’m wiser, more mature, or that I’ve learned very much…but, I have lots of things to ponder. So, rather than making this a post announcing that I’m back and letting another couple of weeks or months go by, let me dive right in!

In the past year, I’ve gone through a career transition, if only for a short time. In June of 2009, I took a secondment from my role as a Faculty member at the Nova Scotia Community College to work for two years as a Project Coordinator for the School of Applied Arts & New Media (at the NSCC). That transition deserves its own post, so I’ll leave it for another time. What makes it relevant to this post is in the fact that I’ve had a lot of time in the past year to think about tools…particularly those that involve (and hopefully enhance) learning.

The cultural shift is obvious enough, and I’ve commented on it here before: the boom in mobile technologies has not ended: our personal devices have brought our networks closer to us. As a personal example, I have both a BlackBerry and an iPod Touch (oh, we’ll get to the iPad, Apple…just you wait), my wife has a BlackBerry, and both of my daughters have cell phones (one of which is a QWERTY-keyboard text phone), and one of them has an HP net book. We all know how to SMS text, Instant Message, and tweet like the best of them, and consequently, we’re never out of touch with each other. I hardly think we’re unique in this…most of the families I speak with are similarly equipped. So, the technology has inundated our lives…fair enough.

I have a contention, and it’s one that I’ve spoken about in a couple of guest lectures I’ve been asked to give: the lowly pencil is a piece of technology. It allows thoughts to be easily conveyed onto a medium, such as paper. From the purest perspective, it functions no differently than the laptop I’m using to write this blog. I think, I type, and the thoughts take some physical (or digital) form. Our “pencils” have gotten more sophisticated, gained new features, and allow us to store and convey our ideas more efficiently, but ultimately, they are just the evolution of a tool…one that’s core function hasn’t changed.

A concern I have, in this consumer-driven society, is that we’re focusing more on the tools themselves, rather than how they are used. Have we perfected the concepts of conveying ideas to a degree where all that matters now is finding more and better ways of entering and transmitting them? I have my doubts.

Our education system is dealing with this issue firsthand: the digital native learners have grown up steeped in the technology, and it’s part of their lives…perhaps that defines “digital native”. Their social network is no further away than their device, and they can text, blog, tweet, Facebook (yes, the verb), take photos and videos, surf the web, read e-books, listen to music, and experience digital media with ease. The upgrading of devices and mobile networks will make this process easier and more accessible as time goes on. Many educational institutions (including mine) are looking at how they can use these already existing tools to bring the learning to the learner, in the world they live in.

Imagine, if you will, that all “textbooks” are digital, and loaded on the learners devices at the beginning of the year. Written tests could be taken right from the device. Teachers could be connected to their students at any time, and conduct lessons digitally. Chat programs could be used for in-class discussions, and group work could be conducted in virtual worlds.

Now, stop imagining. This is all happening, all over the world, right now. The tools are available, and they work. The rabbit-hole is a distant memory, and there’s no turning back now, Alice.

If we were having a conversation about this five centuries ago, I might express my concern about all of these new-fangled “pencils”…look at the students carrying them around: they can write down their own thoughts, and read things that just anyone has written! They can share their paper in their own social groups, and sometimes they think that’s more important than the information I’m giving them in class! The pencil-makers are making new and better kinds, and it seems like every week, one of my learners has a pencil that will do something new…and then, everyone has to have it! Why, just the other day, one of my learners corrected information I had provided in my lecture with something they had read on the World Wide Wallpaper!

Historical, world-changing ideas have come from ideas that have taken physical form. Are we moving into the digital world with the wisdom to use our “pencils”...our tools...in a way that will help new ideas make a difference?

Friday, February 13, 2009

We Feel Fine

Anyone who knows me at all knows my obsession over TED and the TEDTalks. Some of the most brilliant, creative, and insightful people in the world coming together to share themselves? Caught on video and posted on the web? Available as iTunes movies (or audio)? And free?

Yes, I'll have some more, please!

I was looking through the Talks in the Storytelling Theme this morning (for a class on Interactive Listening), and came across something so profound, it took me aback. I still haven't fully absorbed it yet.

Imagine for one second how amazing it would be to have access to a web application that captures the emotions of the Internet.

Then, imagine the amazement of realizing it already exists.

I won't say any more, but if this makes you gape in awe as if you've seen the northern lights for the first time, go right now to Jonathan Harris' TEDTalk, and then to We Feel Fine to actually use his application.

Let me know what you think, if you ever stop using it...