Beyond the School Bus

Imagine you could visit any place in the world. Where would you go? What would you like to see? What would you hope to experience?

Imagine you are learning about India. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the Taj Mahal and explore its wonders? What if your geography class is learning about coral reefs and could go diving in the Maldives or Hanauma Bay or the Great Barrier Reef to see what it’s like there. What would it be like to visit the South Pole, or Niagara Falls or the Palace of Versailles? There are so many amazing things to see and learn about in our world.

While we would love to take our students on excursions to learn about the things they can’t experience at school, there are obviously many places that are simply too far away, too expensive, too dangerous or too impractical to visit.

Meet Expeditions. Expeditions is a new tool in development from Google that uses the StreetView technology found in Google Maps to take students on virtual field trips to all sorts of exotic and interesting places, all without leaving the classroom. Using a simple and inexpensive viewer made of cardboard, paired with a smartphone and the free Expeditions app, teachers are able to share immersive 3-dimensional, 360-degree panoramic imagery with their students to let them experience some of the incredible places that a school bus simply cannot take them.

Although Expeditions is still in the beta testing stage, students from PLC Sydney were recently invited to take part in a special sneak preview of the technology. Two members of Google’s Australian Expeditions team visited us this week and spent a day sharing some of these amazing virtual field trips with our girls. Guided by the teachers, students in Years 3, 4, 6 and 11 were taken to the top of Mount Fuji in Japan, to Amundsen’s Hut in Antarctica, climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and feeding sharks off the coast of Miami, to name just a few. The excitement, engagement and enthusiasm of the girls was very obvious. Their reaction as they first looked through the cardboard viewer was one of utter amazement. As they excitedly looked around – up, down, behind them – taking in the full panoramic experience of the location they were virtually visiting, it quickly became apparent just how much impact this technology could have in education. As one of our teachers observed, the girls got to visit and learn about places that they would not have been able to actually go to in person. And as one of our students noted, it makes you realise just how many places there are in the world to learn about.

Google Expeditions 08

Looking at the world through a virtual viewer is obviously no replacement for the real thing, but it’s certainly a great option for immersively taking students to places that they may not otherwise get to experience for real, all without leaving the classroom. As a tool for learning, as a starting point for discussion, as a means of provoking conversation and questions, Expeditions is astonishing in its simplicity.

The intent of the Expeditions team is to develop a tool that not only offers an incredibly immersive educational experience, but can be used in schools at minimal cost. Many students already own a smartphone, so by adding a free app and a viewer costing just a few dollars the potential for exploring the world virtually becomes a very real option for schools everywhere.

PLC Sydney was very pleased to have been able to be part of the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program and to be able to offer feedback on its future direction. For more information about Expeditions you can visit https://www.google.com/edu/expeditions/

Twisted Pair

My friend and prolific blogger Steve Wheeler issued an interesting blogging challenge the other day called A Twisted Pair. He proposed taking two different people with no apparent connection and writing a post about learning that somehow connects the two, which I thought was an interesting idea. Steve proposed a few possible pairs of names on his post to get our ideas started, and although there were many pairings that intrigued me, two that really stood out were both people who have always inspired me – Pablo Picasso and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.  So here goes…

There are probably numerous ideas to explore in terms of how the concepts of learning are embodied by these two people. I’ll try to begin with the obvious and then see if we can find other connections.

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso – Image from Wikipedia

Let’s start with Picasso. Picasso was an incredibly prolific Spanish artist with a body of work that is profoundly extensive. Over the years his work moved through multiple phases where he would latch onto an idea, explore and delve deeply into it, allowing it to morph and change until he seemed to have wrung every possibility from it, then a completely new idea would emerge and the process would begin all over again. His early work of the Blue and Rose periods shows incredible artistic talent, and his later work deeply explored ideas of construction and deconstruction, leading to many of the Cubist works for which he is most famous. Picasso had an incredible ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, to find the core essence in complex things, and to simplify them down to their essentials. Despite never actually being a teacher himself, these traits have been present in every great teacher I’ve ever known.

It takes a true spirit of curiosity and invention to let your ideas drift and morph from one to another, and a brave indifference to failure when some of those ideas inevitably fail to bear fruit. Again, the parallels with learning are strong. The idea that all progress is ultimately reliant on trying new things and tolerating failure, rather than achieving total perfect execution. To learn you must be prepared to fail a lot. And to fail a lot you much be prepared to try a lot of new things. There are many important learning concepts embodied in this simple idea – that learning is a process of iteration, of trial and error, of feedback and feedforward, of allowing ideas to flow uninhibited from one insight to the next, all fed by childlike curiosity and endless wonder about “what if?”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee – Image from Wikipedia

The other person in this twisted pair is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. I read his biography, Weaving the Web, many years ago and found it to be a fascinating insight into his curious, creative spirit and his selfless approach to designing a system that was simply aimed at making the world a better place. The impact of the WWW on humanity has been absolutely seismic, and will probably be seen as the single most influential invention of all time. I think you could argue that the Web has redefined pretty much everything about the way modern society works, yet someone less altruistic than Berners-Lee could have easily tried to build in a system of monetisation to the very core of the way the web works. Berners-Lee invented the idea of a URL – a Universal Resource Locator – where every webpage, every image, every video, every online asset, has a unique location, and could be expressed in a way that every computer could understand. This was a revolutionary idea. But imagine a world in which the notion of a hyperlink was protected by a patent, and every click on the web would earn a small royalty payment for its inventor? With the “patent wars” played out by just about every big tech company these days, this is not hard to imagine. Had Berners-Lee maintained the intellectual property rights to the web he invented he could have been richer than Bill Gates and God combined. But he didn’t. He quite deliberately didn’t. He saw the web as something that was for the greater good of humanity, and placed that goal ahead of any desire to get rich from his idea.

There are a few learning principles that resonate with me about Sir Tim. Openness. Sharing. Altruism. A desire to build something simply to make the world a better place. As Eric Schmidt once observed, “If [computer networking] were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel Prize”.

When I think of the greatest teachers I know, and the most engaged learners I know, they seem to embody certain characteristics. I think that both Picasso and Berners-Lee show some of these characteristics in different ways.

First, from Picasso, is the ability to take information from multiple sources in a variety of ways and reinterpret them as your own. To “steal like an artist” if you will (a phrase often incorrectly attributed to Picasso). To allow yourself to absorb influences and ideas from all over the place, and have them percolate through your mind, being processed and critiqued and changed along the way, emerging as completely new ideas and understandings. There is no such thing as learning in a vacuum, much as there is no such thing as creativity in a vacuum. Everything is a remix. Every idea is borrowed from somewhere. When you immerse in this kind of creative learning process, the end results are often unrecognisable from the influences that formed them. This morphing process is, as Stephen Johnson says, where good ideas come from. And I will add, where good learning comes from. I can think of no better person to embody this idea of learning through the growth of ideas than Pablo Picasso.

The second important aspect of learning is the idea of learning for it’s own sake. Learning should be worth doing, not just to get a grade or pass a test or get a certificate, but because the simple act of learning is intrinsically valuable in and of itself. Curiosity and wonder should be their own rewards. Building and making and tinkering, be it with ideas or actual physical objects, does not need to be formalised with rewards. I think Berners-Lee embodies this idea, in the unselfish way he started out by trying to solve a fascinating problem just for his own personal benefit but quickly realised it had a much broader application, and he was willing to just give it away because it felt like it was the right thing to do, and that it would help many people. Like the invention of the Web, the best learning is usually done simply because it is worth doing, with or without a reward at the end.

These are my learning lessons from Pablo and Tim.

Wonder. Be curious. Make. Grow. Share.

Just because.

Header image from Wikipedia
https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Twisted_pair

Break the Cycle

During the month of October I’ll be riding my bike to help raise money to support childrens’ cancer research. It’s all part of the Great Cycle Challenge, raising funds for the Children’s Medical Research Institute, one of the major research bodies aimed at finding a cure for cancer. I think it’s a worthy cause.

So many people I know have been affected by cancer. We desperately need to find the solution to this awful disease and it can only be done with research, and research costs money.

I’ve committed to ride 250km this month to raise $1000 for CMRI. So far people have been very generous and the fundraising has gone pretty well so I might revise that goal. I think the 250km will be enough of a challenge, but it would be nice to raise more money.

If you’d like to support this great cause, you can head over to my fundraising page at https://greatcyclechallenge.com.au/Riders/ChrisBetcher and donate whatever you feel works for you.

GCC-FB-cover-2014-im-riding

And on behalf of the kids, thank you!

Dealing with Optus, Part 2

Just to finish the story I started in the last post, here’s what transpired (just in case you’re interested). The good news is that Optus finally found the reason for this blog being blocked on their network and have restored things to normal. You should now be able to access this site, even on the Optus network, but the nonsense I had to wade through to get things resolved was quite ridiculous.

After that last blog post describing the problem with my site being blocked by Optus for reasons unexplained, I posted it out on Twitter and Facebook. It’s amazing how quickly that gets a response. To their credit, I heard back from Optus’s Social Media Team very quickly offering to help resolve the issue. I’m not sure why tech support problems can’t just be resolved by calling Tech Support, and why it takes a very public skewering on social media to get any action these days, but apparently that the way it works now.

After a series of very promising back and forth tweets, I eventually got a call from a member of Optus’s Social Media Team, and her response was basically that this was not an Optus issue and there was nothing they could do about it, and that I needed to refer things back to my web host, GoDaddy.

Despite the fact that they admitted that Optus was blocking my blog on their network – in fact they were blocking an entire IP range, which just happened to include my blog – she insisted it was not something Optus could do anything about. She told me that I had to ask my webhost to deal with it, and get them to fix the “malicious behaviour” on their servers, even though she could not tell me what kind of malicious behaviour was causing the problem. She seemed unwilling to entertain the logic of my argument, that if Optus was the one blocking the site – and she admitted it was – and if Optus was the only ISP that was causing this problem, then asking my web host to fix a problem that was invisible to them was not likely to be very successful. We went around and around in circles, arguing about this for about 25 minutes with me trying to explain that this was a problem that only Optus could fix, and her insisting that this was a problem that Optus could not fix. She stayed on the script, robotically insisting that Optus could not manually remove the block and I needed to call my web host and get them to deal with it.

Eventually, I gave up trying to reason with her, since she had obviously made her mind up that Optus could do nothing to fix the problem, so I went home and called GoDaddy. They guy I spoke to there, Mark, was very helpful and spent over an hour on the phone with me troubleshooting, trying different things, searching the Optus website for a form that would let GoDaddy get in touch with Optus to talk about the problem, but eventually he came to the same conclusion that I was trying to tell the woman from Optus – GoDaddy cannot fix a problem they cannot see, and that they have no control over.

I got a followup tweet the next day from the Social Media Team at Optus, which led to another phone call from them. This time it was someone who actually sounded like they understood networks, and they simply told me to email a copy of the traceroute and a quick explanation of the problem to abuse@optusnet.com.au and they would try to deal with it, no promises.

Less than an hour later I got an email which said, in part…

“I have removed the IP address block that was on our systems. Please try again. Many apologies for the inconvenience this has caused and lack of coherent information on our side.”

I tried again and all was back to normal.

Suggesting that Optus provided a “lack of coherent information” is somewhat of an understatement. All up, I probably spent 5 hours on the phone to both Optus and GoDaddy trying to get this issue resolved. From Optus I was told several stories about why the problem existed, many of them contradictory. I had both a tech support supervisor and the social media team person tell me flat out that there was nothing that Optus could manually fix, or that they had any control over. I was told to speak with my web host and get them to sort it out. I was given this advice repeatedly, and even though I argued fairly strongly that I didn’t think this was very good advice, they were insistent that there was nothing else they could do on their end. Despite supplying them with all the information on my very first support call, including traceroutes and network information, they still insisted that it was out of their control.

And then one guy from Optus fixes it. Just like that.

It’s ridiculous that I had to make phone call after phone call to get this resolved. It’s crazy that an actual tech support line achieves almost nothing, even when you escalate the issue to a supervisor, and that you need to go all social media on them just to get attention. It’s ludicrous that someone from that team will then argue in circles with you, insisting that Optus can’t fix a problem they are so obviously in control of, and that it seemed like there was little will to explore any possibility of fixing it.  And it’s damn annoying that getting it resolved was as simple as sending an email with traceroute details, but it took many days and many phone calls to even be told that this option existing.

Glad to back online, glad to have avoided bring the telecommunications Ombudsman in on it, glad to finally find a competent person who resolved the issue…. but so totally over Optus as an ISP.

Less than Optimal

If you’ve tried to access this blog lately from the Optus network, I’m going to make an educated guess and say that you haven’t been able to.

I have an Optus Cable Internet service at home and about two weeks ago I started to be unable to access my blog. At first I put it down to a temporary network glitch and didn’t worry about it. But the problem presisted and I started be become a bit stumped as to what was happening. Every other website on the Net loaded ok, but my own blog was inaccessible. I could get to it from work, and from my phone over Telstra 4G and pretty much anywhere except from home on my Optus service.

Then last week I got an email from a reader who said that she also couldn’t access the blog and, surprise surprise, she is also on the Optus network. Nor could a friend of hers, who is, you guessed it, also on the Optus network. So I put a note out on Twitter to ask who could access the blog and which ISP they were using. 100% of Optus users could not access it. Everyone else could.

I don’t think you need to be a network engineer to figure out where to problem lies here.

So I called Optus Tech Support and spend several frustrating hours over several frustrating calls, during which I was asked to reset my cable modem (clearly not the problem) and numerous other diagnostics that were also clearly not the problem. The Traceroute told the story, terminating in a black hole of Optus servers.

Optus eventually told me that their system had flagged my blog as having “malicious content”, but were unable to tell me exactly what that meant or identify the algorithms that might be flagging it. Nor could they suggest how to fix it, other than just wait until something might change.

On my second call to Tech Support I escalated it to a supervisor who was rudely insistent that the problem was not with Optus, and denied that Optus was blocking anything, which completely contradicted the information I was given on the previous call. I think that’s a technique used to just get the customer off the line, called Making Shit Up.

The battle continues. It’s no wonder so many people dislike Optus.

Pay It Forward

tl;dr… just click here and do the right thing.

I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too.  You’re making some kind of digital product and you needed a digital asset of some sort to use with it. Maybe you were putting together a short video and needed some music for the soundtrack, or maybe you were working on some kind of poster and needed an image to include on it. Fortunately, we live in a world where we have access to amazing digital tools that make it easy to create, as long as you have some raw materials to work with.

While it’s technically quite simple to just find what you want online and use it, there are some ethical (and legal) questions about just taking anything you find on the web and using it as your raw material. Unless you have permission to use those resources you really shouldn’t use them. It’s effectively stealing.

Thankfully, that’s where Creative Commons comes in. Creative Commons provides a legal and ethical solution to this problem by allowing creators to licence their work using a simple and flexible set of permissions so that when others want to use or remix their work, those permissions and conditions are clearly stated up front. It’s a very good system, and the best attempt at copyright reform that we’ve seen succeed so far. I’m a huge fan of Creative Commons, and could not have produced most of the stuff I make without it. It’s also one of the reasons I publish most of what I make with a Creative Commons licence as well, so others can take, use and remix. It’s just good karma.

So, have YOU ever used Creative Commons material? Have you ever gone to Flickr or Jamendo or Wikimedia Commons or CC Mixter or Soundcloud or YouTube, or any of the many other sites that allow creators to provide their content freely for you to use?

I’ll bet you have. So here’s your chance to show your appreciation for what Creative Commons provides for you. The Creative Commons people are raising funds to produce an ebook about open business models. I want to encourage you to head over there right now and back them. For 10 bucks you’ll get a copy of the ebook when it’s released. And of course it’s on Kickstarter so more money gets you more stuff if you want to back them for more.

The book will no doubt be a really interesting read, so please make sure you get a copy. But seriously, even if you don’t need the book, consider it an opportunity to make a donation to Creative Commons as a way of saying thanks for what they’ve done for all of us over the last few years. They are helping keep our culture free and open and shareable.

Update: I just checked and they have just hit their 50k funding goal! That’s awesome news, but is no reason to stop backing them. Go show them that you appreciate what they’ve created for us all.

Header image by Kristina Alexanderson
https://www.flickr.com/photos/kalexanderson/6153035729/in/album-72157627559005689/

Why Is This Even A Debate?

On TV tonight I saw an ad from some group that calls themselves the “Marriage Alliance“. I looked at their website which seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to be open minded when really all they want to do is oppose same sex marriage and maintain the unfair status quo…

Their site poses a number of open questions about marriage, and while they purport to being just trying to encourage a healthy discussion about the value of marriage in general, it’s pretty obvious what their agenda is. They are clearly in opposition to same sex marriage.

So, since they asked, here are my answers to the questions on their website…

Should children have the right to know their biological history?

Yes. As an adopted child myself, I should have the right to know my history if I choose to. Some choose to and some do not. But what’s your point?  So what if a child of a same sex couple knows their biological history and where they came from?  You think that will be a problem? You think a child will not be able to deal with that information? I believe you’re 100% wrong about that. Children don’t need to be protected from the truth, they need to be protected against those that think they cannot handle the truth.

Do we know the impacts of raising our children in a changed society?

No. And neither do you. But this proposed change to same sex marriage laws are about respecting people’s rights to acknowledge who they are as people and to give them the same rights that the rest of society already enjoys. If that means that society needs to change a few things to accommodate that shift then so be it. It’s not the first thing that has ever caused a “changed society” and it won’t be the last. The fact that you are so concerned about a “changed society” shows your true colours… you just don’t want anything to change from the way it is now. Sorry, but I have bad news for you…

Are you happy to have your family redefined as a social unit?

Yes. Perfectly happy. And by the way, I’m not gay myself just in case you were wondering. I have two children that were raised to be tolerant, open minded and respectful of others. My children understand that people are all different. They also understand that society changes. And they can cope with that. I’m a man married to a woman and I’m happy to be who I am. But I have many friends who are same-sex attracted and I want them to be happy with who they are, and to have the same rights that I have. I cannot think of a single good reason why they should not have the same rights as me, and that includes marriage if they so wish.

Are we asking the right questions about the proposals to redefine marriage?

I’m not sure what question you’re asking, since you haven’t really asked any good ones so far… but here’s what I think is the right question. Is it fair to deny same sex couples the right to be married? I happen to believe that to deny that right to anyone just because it doesn’t fit your own world view is unfair and unjust. If two people feel strongly enough about each other that they want to be married, who are you to deny that right? What higher authority granted you the right to be so bold as to suggest that you know best about who can and cannot be married?