Is This Thing On?

Hello?  Is this thing on? Anyone?

That’s how it feels at the moment with my blogging. Or non-blogging. I can’t believe I have not written here since July! That’s 5 months, and the longest time I have gone without writing here since I started this blog just over 10 years ago. But August – my 10 year ‘blogaversary’ – came and went and I still just didn’t seem to get around to it. Not sure why. Partly being busy with my work with EdTechTeam. Partly being busy with other stuff. And partly, I think maybe just a little bit of a need to disconnect from this online space, and reconnect with the real world a little more.

I have good intentions of writing again. I enjoy writing, and as I’ve said on many occasions, writing is my way of thinking out loud, of throwing ideas around in my own head in a public space so I can be kept accountable for them. But lately I just haven’t felt motivated to do that.

I think it’s partly the impact of social media. It’s now so easy to just throw an idea out there, usually in a few sentences (or 140 characters), so that it feels pointless taking the time to express it here in a longer form.  It may be partly because I read other blogs that are full of ideas that seem so timely, so eloquent, so contemporary, that even when I’m thinking along the the same lines it feels kind of redundant and derivative to bother expressing it.

But I need to remind myself that I still have my own voice, and I can still make contributions to this ongoing global conversation in my own way. I forget that sometimes.

So I just wanted to assure you that I’m still here. Still alive. Still with a head full of ideas, thoughts and questions. And I plan to start writing here again. Honest. There, I said it. Now it has to happen.  Bring on 2017.

Oh, and a belated 10th birthday to Betchablog and to the many readers like yourself that have made the last 10 years such an amazing experience in learning together.  I appreciate you all.

Header image: Microphone by Alex Indigo
Creative Commons CC BY

A Place to Call Home

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, which got me thinking about why that might be.

I think the obvious answer is that it’s just too easy to contribute on other platforms. When I first started blogging I used to post almost every day, sometimes a couple of times a day. It was to share a video or a picture that I found, jot down an idea, or just share a thought.

These days, there are easier ways to do that than with a blog. For many, it’s Facebook. For me, for a long time, it was Twitter (and it still might be if I could sort out this stupid password issue!) More and more it’s becoming Google+, which really is emerging as THE social platform of the future. These services make it so easy to throw an idea out there quickly. And let’s face it, for most people the level of engagement you get back on these platforms is probably higher. It’s really no surprise that most of us are blogging less often.

But having said that, I’m incredibly glad that I started this blog back in 2006. Looking through the archives there have been only a few months where I didn’t write something here, and over time this blog has grown into a body of work that I look back at and feel proud of. It’s a collection of ideas and experiences that has become extremely defining for me, and in many ways have been a major contributor to where I am in life right now. I’ve found that blogging has been extremely powerful for me because it’s forced me to think in public.

Despite the fact that I write here less than I used to, and instead contribute to the conversation in other places with other tools, I understand the reasons for it. Given the rise of these other social platforms, it’s probably to be expected. But at the same time, I’m very glad that I own this WordPress space of mine. I’ve seen free tools come and go, I’ve seen Google discontinue “unpopular” products, and I’ve poured lots of time and energy into social spaces that I no longer have any permanent record of.

That’s the nice thing about a blog. You own it. It’s yours. You’re in control of it. The longer I live on the web, the more I appreciate that.

Being Visible Is Hard

VisibleI was talking to a couple of people today about the way we use blogs with our students.  At my school we have a number of students and classes blogging, and every one of these blogs is completely open and visible to the public web. These folk were asking, with an obvious degree of concern, how we deal with this public visibility of student blogs and what steps were we taking to prevent them being seen by “just anyone”.

I’ve tried to convince many people to try blogging over the years. Usually, their biggest objection is “why would anyone want to read what I write?”  Their concern is usually about the huge waste of effort that blogging will be because they don’t truly believe that anybody will ever read or take any interest in what they have to write. They imagine that their work will go into the black hole of the Internet where it never gets seen by anyone.

And yet, when we talk about getting students blogging on the open web, the usual concern is just the opposite. We worry more about how we can stop “all those people out there” from seeing the student blogs. We worry that our students will be endangered by throngs of strangers seeing their writing online.

Well, which is it? Are we worried that nobody will see the things we post online, or are we worried that everybody will see the things we post online? It’s an interesting contradiction.

The truth is that the vast majority of blogs have a readership of close to zero.  Getting people to find and read your blog is hard work. It takes a lot of promotion and campaigning to get people to find and connect with a blog. And as much as I hate to say it, it’s probably even harder when that blog belongs to a school student.  We worry a lot about ‘stranger danger’ but unless a teacher actively pursues an audience for their students’ blogs, I suspect most would be lucky to get a visit from anyone beside mum and dad and a few family friends.

Despite our concerns about the perils of putting our kids online, the biggest challenge of blogging with students is not exposure, but obscurity.

Creative Commons photo:

Gutless Comments

About 5 years ago, there was an incident in Adelaide where a classroom blog and the South Australian Department of Education and Children’s Services had a bit of a falling out.  It was well documented at the time, so I’m not going to rehash it here, suffice to say that it was a bunfight at the time and as a result there was significant tension between the educational blogging community and the Powers That Be in South Australia.

Like many other bloggers, I expressed my thoughts on it at the time. I spoke to the person who was directly affected by the dispute, as well as a number of other people in the know. Eventually, everyone involved tried to take what they could learn from the situation and we all just moved on.  Life is too short to be dragged down by that stuff.

However, over the last few weeks I’ve had some idiot posting abusive comments on this blog expressing (quite forcefully) their opinions on that situation from 2007. They have been abusive and rude to me personally, bluntly telling me that I’m an idiot and I don’t know what I’m talking about, and calling me all sorts of insulting and derogatory names. No need for details, suffice to say that they are just generally being an ignorant asshole.

What really pisses me off about this is that the person in question -who calls themselves “pav” or “pavalot” – is too gutless to use their real name, real email address or real website. They have the temerity to leave abusive comments on my blog, and possibly other blogs too, without having the courage to identify themselves or further engage in a debate about their point of view.

Naturally, I pick these comments up immediately and mark them as the spam trash they are. Nobody cares about the point of view of some ignorant nob who doesn’t even have the courage or common decency to use their real name.

So, whoever you are, I’ll tell you want. I’m happy to slug it out with you in private. You really want to have an argument with me about some incident that happened 5 years ago? I think you should grow up, but hey, bring it on. But do it as yourself, rather than hide behind a made-up email address and non-existent website. You have zero credibility when you do that and I will just keep removing your insulting, ignorant and libelous comments and putting them in the trash where they belong.

PS: I’ve reported your IP address to Internode as well, along with the full digital headers of your transactions. I hope they nail you to the wall.

The Connective Writing Project

I’ve been keen to get more of our staff blogging, since I know from first hand experience what a powerfully reflective process it can be. I’ve always found that taking the time to write causes me to think more deeply about what I do, it makes me more aware of the ideas and approaches that I’m using with those I teach, and it’s also made me a much better writer than I once was. I’d argue that blogging really helps improve your communication skills on many levels while building a stronger foundation for understanding your own beliefs and convictions. There is something both magical and affirming about putting your thoughts down in words, and even moreso when you decide to publicly share those words with others. As you can probably tell, I’m a bit of a fan of blogging (or connective writing, to borrow a phrase from Will Richardson)

During 2011, our school had the opportunity to apply for an AGQTP grant. This grant program is funded by the Australian government’s DEEWR as part of the NSW Quality Teaching Program and, in the case of our school, administered by the AIS. Its goal is to help teachers develop their own professional learning through the creation of action research projects. Our principal asked me to put a proposal together, which turned out to be about creating a blogging project for our Year 6 teachers and students.  It was quite successful, and as well as a complete written report, we also produced this 7 minute video to summarise what we learned.

I remember tweeting about the fact that we were applying for a grant to get our teachers blogging, and getting a reply back from my kiwi mate Allanah King asking why on earth you’d need a grant for that. Allanah, who is not just a fabulous blogger herself but a real pioneer in the ways she has used blogs and other social technologies with her students, found it difficult to understand why blogging had to be a complicated and beaurocratic process. She quite rightly pointed out that you don’t need a government grant to blog, you just need to open one of the many free blogging tools available and start writing!  And she is correct. But what the AGQTP grant process bought us was the time to do that. By providing the funding to get our Year 6 teachers released from class, we could set aside the time to learn this new skill in a far more focused and somewhat systematic and committed way. While it would be nice to think that teachers would just go and learn new skills in their own time for their own motivations, sometimes that just isn’t realistic, so getting some financial assistance to help build teacher capacity was seen as a very welcome thing.

As a follow up, I was also interviewed about this by Selena Woodward from CEGSA in Adelaide after she saw the video. Selena was intrigued by the deliberately open and public nature of our blogging project, a feature that I was insistent was critically important to the project. Blogging behind closed doors, without the potential for writing to an authentic audience, seems completely pointless to me. The South Australian DECS attitude to blogging is somewhat less open-minded. Some people refer to this reluctance as “the Upton effect” because of the shitstorm that DECS created a few years ago when they very publicly  showed their cyber-ignorance by closing down teacher Al Upton’s very popular class blog, the MiniLegends. The regrettable fallout from what happened to Al seems to have caused many South Australian teachers to be overly gun-shy of any online use that might be vaguely interpreted as “social”.  It’s such a shame.

Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the CEGSA conference, where my topic focused on how important it is to be a connected educator, to form PLNs, to get both ourselves and our students connected and functioning safely in this highly networked world we live in. I blogged my thoughts about that keynote at the time, and looking back at that post now, and hearing that so many educators  are still just as wary and frightened of the online world as they were in 2008, makes me sad and disappointed for the kids in their care. It is disappointing that in the last 3 years, during which I believe we are finally starting to see far more educators beginning to understand the really significant shifts in the way technology is affecting the process of education, that there are still such outdated attitudes to learning online.

Overall though, I’m happy with the progress we made with our own blogging this year. It was progress. It wasn’t perfect, and there is lots that I’d change next year, but it’s a good start.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam.

I’ve never understood why people send spam mail or leave spam comments on blog posts (in the same way I don’t understand why people scribble graffiti tags on trains and walls), but I know that for spammers who really take it seriously there is big money to be made. I suppose in that sense, I DO understand why people create spam if there is the opportunity to make money from it… I guess what I don’t understand is how there continues to be constant stream of people who are gullible enough to take action on the messages and, in doing so, continue to generate an income for the spammers.

Let’s face it, the thing that keeps spam propagating and growing (and therefore making it worthwhile for the spammers to keep sending it) is the fact that there are enough gullible, stupid people in the world who keep responding to it.  If we all were much better at identifying and recognising spam as soon as we saw it, then the spammers would eventually go away because the financial incentive to do so would also disappear. Fortunately for them – and unfortunately for the rest of us – human gullibility (or stupidity) will probably ensure them an income for a while yet.

Having said that, the spam filtering in Gmail is pretty darn good. I currently have a few hundred spam messages sitting in my Gmail’s spam folder which have thankfully been identified and filtered before they get to me, so I don’t ever need to see them. They just disappear from the system after 30 days. Thanks to Matt Cutts and his team at Google, Gmail does a great job keeping the spam away. Thanks Matt!

One of things that happens to any blog as it grows is a substantial increase in the amount of spam comments it receives. Most spam comments are just plain annoying, and many are quite laughable, but it’s a good idea to deal with them before they have a chance to be published.  For example, this blog receives many comments that are never published thanks to the powerful Akismet spam filter running on the backend.  This WordPress plugin tracks my spam statistics, and in the two years that this blog has been running on its current server, the Akismet spam filter has trapped almost 11,000 spam comments with an accuracy rate of 99.8%. That’s an awful lot of comments that never see the light of day!

I wanted to share some of the most recent spam comments because they are kind of insidious.  On the surface they look harmless, perhaps even positive. For example…

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A very impressive article. Well prepared. Very motivating!! Set off on to way

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I dont genuinely know what youre talking about here. This cant be the only method to believe about this can it? It seems like you know a whole lot about the subject, so why not explore it much more? Make it much more accessible to every person else who might not agree with you? Youd get a whole lot a lot more men and women behind this if you just stopped making general statements.

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On the surface it looks like people are leaving positive comments in response to something I’d written. However, aside from the extremely poor grammar, often a reliable indicator of spam, these comments are so generic as to be completely meaningless. By constructing comments in this way, spammers can spray them across thousands of posts on thousands of blogs in the hope that some will get posted. Unsuspecting bloggers, especially newer bloggers who are often keen to receive any sort of comments, sometimes fail to see these comments for what they are. Not surprising really, since the whole point is to trick you into publishing them.

I’m still not really sure what the point of these generic spam comments is. They don’t contain links to click, so they don’t appear to be able to lead you to an outright scam or scheme. They generally aren’t asking for money, or have any real call-to-action. They are just annoying. They gum up the Internet, clutter our email and clog up our blog feeds, but for no apparent purpose.

Let’s all be more vigilant about spam. If you don’t already, using Gmail is a good first step. Installing Akismet on your blog helps a great deal too. But mostly, stay aware of what spam looks like, and never, ever respond to it. Ever.

CC Photo by trustypics

Just Not My Type

I’ve been a but sporadic here on the blog lately.  I’ve got all this stuff in my head that I want to write about but to be honest, I guess I just haven’t felt much like the physical act of typing lately.  I’m actually a pretty lousy typist, despite the fact that I’ve tried, seriously tried, to develop a good typing technique over the years.  I’ve had typing lessons, I’ve used computer typing tutor software, and I’ve tried to force myself to use the right touch typing technique.  But all of that, and I still can’t really type all that well.

When I was at school as a student, I actually did a proper typing course.  In fact, I’ll digress for a moment and mention that my school offered something that I’ve not really seen in too many other schools since… every Thursday afternoon we did “activities”.  We all got to choose from a wide range of activities to do for a few hours every Thursday. Some students went off to play sport, running around the basketball field or ripping each others’ heads off playing football.  That was never really my scene.  I was one of those other more nerdy and anti-social children, who pretty much avoided sport wherever I could.

There aren’t all that many things I actually remember about school, but a couple of things stand out.  I remember going off to the AGL gas company in Hurstville where we did cooking lessons on Thursday afternoon.  I thought it was neat, being a 14 year old kid, jumping on a train to go the two stations up the line, finding the big AGL building, and having some other adult besides my regular teacher showing me how to cook a different meal each week.  At the time, learning to cook didn’t quite have the same prestige as being on the football team, but over the long haul I know which one has been most useful!

Back to the typing story… the other memorable Thursday activity (call me weird) was doing a typing class.  I remember being taught by our library assistant, Mrs Sobb.  She was a older lady and boy could she type!  I remember going through all the usual finger training activities – asd, asdf, asd;lk, dad, sad, fad, gad – and so on. I particularly remember that she had a set of large white mens hankerchiefs with long thin ribbons attached to each corner.  She’d tie two ribbons together behind our neck and the other two ribbons were tied to the typewriter (yes, you heard it, typewriter!)  The hankie would then be suspended like a square hammock between the typewriter and our bodies so we couldn’t see the keyboard.  We just had to place our hands on the home row, by feel, and bang out our lines of sad dads.

Anyway, enough wandering down memory lane. Suffice to say, sometimes as much as you try to learn the “right” way to do something it doesn’t always stick. But even as a “bad” typist, I’ve still written a book of 60,000 words, and a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that since I started this blog I’ve probably typed well over 300,000 words here as well.  Add in the other blogs, wikis, emails, discussion forums and various things I’ve written (typed) over the last few years and it’s interesting to consider that someone can be fairly average at something but still produce something relatively worthwhile.

I guess the lesson is that sometimes it’s more important to actually just DO something, rather than worry about doing it perfectly.