Not Opinions. Facts.

We all see the world through our own personal lens. Consequently, we all form our own opinions about the world and depending on the sorts of experiences you’ve had in the past, your view of the world and how it works can easily be coloured by those experiences.  Sometimes, we form opinions about things based on experiences that are limited or incomplete or biased one way or the other, and the interesting thing is that we still believe those opinions are correct, even when they can be completely wrong.

There’s a lot to be said for real expertise. One of my favourite examples of pitting a narrow opinion against broad expertise is from the movie Cool Runnings.  In one scene, the team coach Irving Blitzer (played by John Candy) is having an exchange with Sanka Coffie (played by Doug E Doug), where they are arguing about who should be the driver of the bobsled. Sanka is a Jamaican pushcart champion and sees himself as the obvious choice. But Jamaica is a small island and Irv has a slightly bigger perspective about it…

Sanka: I’m the driver.

Irv: You’re not. You’re the brakeman.

Sanka: You don’t understand, I am Sanka Coffie, I am the best pushcart driver in all of Jamaica! I must drive! Do you dig where I’m coming from?

Irv: Yeah, I dig where you’re coming from.

Sanka: Good.

Irv: Now dig where I’m coming from. I’m coming from two gold medals. I’m coming from nine world records in both the two- and four-man events. I’m coming from ten years of intense competition with the best athletes in the world.

Sanka: That’s a hell of a place to be coming from!

It happens in education too. There are a lot of people who have all sorts of opinions about what it takes to keep kids safe online. There are still many schools around the world who block, filter and prohibit access to parts of the web on the basis that it’s not safe for children to have access. Other schools take a very liberal approach to the web. Both these viewpoints are based on their own unique understandings and perceptions. If we could just step back a bit, and be a bit more objective, we’d realise that many of our beliefs about the world are rooted in fairly limited experiences, and yet we allow those beliefs to dictate many of the things we do. We think we are the best pushcart driver in all of Jamaica.

When I was in New Zealand last year for ULearn, I was seated at dinner next to a guy called Brett Lee. Brett had given a spotlight talk at the conference about cybersafety and online bullying. While I’ve heard many people talk about this topic in the past (and have even talked to students myself about it), what made Brett’s viewpoint different was the place he was coming from. Unlike most of the “experts” I’d heard talk about this topic, Brett had been a police officer in the Queensland Police Force for 22 years, 16 of those as a Detective predominantly in the field of Child Exploitation. In his last five years of service, he was a specialist in the field of undercover internet child exploitation investigations, and spend his days masquerading as underage children online.  One day he’d play the part of a 12 year old girl, the next a 15 year old boy, the next a 10 year old girl, and so on. For five years he’d go into chatrooms and hang out in all the places that young kids go online, and some of the stories he was telling were pretty chilling. Over the course of those five years, he was personally involved in the arrest of numerous child abusers and pedophiles.

To quote Sanka Coffie, “that’s a hell of a place to be coming from!

Since leaving the Police Force, Brett started his own company called INESS and goes around to schools all over Australia sharing his perspective with students.  He recently presented to our Year 9 and 10 students at PLC Sydney and the feedback from both students and staff was incredibly positive.

Now I think I know a fair bit about the Internet, and I have my own opinions on many aspects of it, but when it comes to this side of the Net there is nothing in my own personal experience that comes even remotely close to this sort of expertise. I daresay there’s not much in your personal experience that does either. While there are many Internet safety “experts” out there, few have this unique perspective that Brett is able to bring to the conversation.

What I like about his message is that it’s not about scare tactics and prohibition. Sure, there are some pretty chilling stories, but the underlying message is that the Internet is a wonderful place, with lots of incredible opportunities, but there are risks that can be managed with a bit of common sense and a few simple steps. It’s not a message of fear and scaremongering, but about understanding the risks and assuming some responsibility for your own online safety. When he spoke to our kids he used a number of examples that related directly to our students (it’s amazing just what you can find on Facebook when you look), which made it all the more powerful.

I hear people ask all the time for recommendations on someone to talk to their students about cybersafety and cyberbullying (both terms I don’t much like, by the way). I’d suggest you take a look at Brett’s website and see if maybe his message is what your kids need to hear.  I suspect that most students would get a great deal out of what he has to say.

Here’s a video clip of Brett from the Edtalks series that gets recorded each year at ULearn.


If you’re not blogging in this day and age, are you at a disadvantage?

I can see a day in the not too distant future (if it’s not already here) where your “digital footprint” will carry far more weight than anything you might include in a resume or CV.

It’s perhaps not so relevant (yet) in the public education sector where the criteria for employment is not always  based solely on a meritocracy, but in the independent sector there is a definite awareness of an individual’s digital footprint as a way to gauge their involvement, passion, engagement and understanding of their chosen field.

It may not yet be happening in the public sector because of unionisation and the existing promotional structures in place, but in the outside world where people are employed, promoted and recognised by their actual contributions and not just by the amount of time they have been in a given role, the notion of knowing about an individual because of the trail of ideas they leave behind them in their online networks will play a larger and larger role.

I’m certain that almost EVERY employer these days has Googled you before they call you for an interview. Many people in the private sector (and I’m not just talking about education) are being offered positions or getting headhunted because of the presence they have created in their online spaces.

Having a blog, a Twitter account, even a Facebook… these things are not just about giving you a place to talk about mundane and trivial stuff that no one else interested in… they are in fact building your “personal brand”, as the marketers would say.  You can say that’s pretentious and that you want no part of it, but the fact is that the online persona and online presence you develop by creating this digital footprint is playing an increasingly important role in defining who you are (or at least who you appear to be).

Unfortunately, NOT having an online presence says a lot about you too.  If I was staffing a school where a passion for education was valued, I would be very dubious about employing someone who could not show any evidence of an online presence.  If I couldn’t find any record of them being part of online communities, being involved in online projects, contributing to the global conversation about education, I’d be extremely doubtful about whether they were the right people for the kind of school I wanted to staff.

This is one of the reasons why we need to not block kids from accessing network resources… The question is not whether they will have a digital footprint…  they will.  The question is whether it will say positive things about them or whether it will portray them in a negative way.  We have a unique opportunity to provide our students with a digital footprint that says wonderful things about who they are, what they can do and where their passions lie, but unless we actively teach them how to make it positive it may not be the case.

And if we don’t actively understand and engage with that process ourselves, we will most likely do a pretty ordinary job of helping our students do it right.

The Buzz on Buzzword

Every so often I stumble across a new piece of software that just does its thing exceptionally well. In a world too full of very ordinary software products, its nice to find one occasionally that just does its job very well, with a feature set that has all the stuff you want and is not cluttered up with stuff you don’t, and perhaps most importantly, an interface that is intuitive and clean so that it can be used without any real learning curve. Voicethread is a great example of such an interface.

It’s really exciting to see so many of these well crafted apps starting to appear on the Internet as web apps, sometimes called Rich Internet Applications or RIAs. RIAs, when done well, can give the impression of behaving like a desktop app but with all the added advantages of being in the cloud… advantages such as ubiquitous access, remote storage of data and the ability to collaborate across time and place. Google Docs uses this model and is a fine way to create online documents that can be shared for collaborative purposes.

The problem with Google Docs (at least as far as word processing is concerned) is that from an interface point of view, it’s not the prettiest way to interact with your words. It’s certainly not a true WYSIWYG interface, so that when you add tables and graphics to the document you really have no idea what it will look like when printed. I find Google Docs a hugely convenient way to work with documents that need to be accessed from anywhere or need to be shared with others, but because it is essentially a HTML based writing space, I do sometimes lament the way it handles the niceties of layout and page design.

So I was super excited do discover Adobe’s Buzzword this week. Buzzword is an online word processor written in Flash that does nearly everything Google Docs’ word processor does but has a much nicer, much prettier and much more intuitive interface. You can sign up for a free account and try it out at no cost.

Buzzword comes from Adobe and really starts to show the enormous power of Flash as a development platform for the web. Obviously the combined brainpower and engineering that came about thanks to the merger between Adobe and Macromedia is starting to really show some results of how powerful their combined thinking can be. (You can see evidence of that in the latest Adobe CS3 Suite – some awesome new features in Photoshop for example)

Opening Buzzword gives you a regular pageview layout, with familiar dropdown menus and tools. Using it is a familiar experience if you know anything at all about Word. You get less of course, and you can’t make tables of contents, do mail merges, use document maps or change case options. There are many things that Buzzword won’t do. But most of those features are not used by the vast majority of word processor users, who are happy to be able to set font styles and typefaces, add tables and images, change font colours and make bullet lists. Buzzword has all of these common features (with some nice usability tweaks, making some features, such as bulleting and numbered lists, even easier to manage than in Microsoft Word). Buzzword is nice to use, with funky animations as documents open and close, document listings that get rearranged automatically, and so on. It just feels good to interact with.

Where it really comes into its own is in the way it enables shared collaboration. Just like Google Docs, Buzzword allows you to invite people to either view, review or co-author a document, Viewers can just read them, reviewers can leave comments on them, and co-authors can make changes. Google Docs can be quite laggy however, and there can be delays between when a user makes a change and when the other collaborators see that change… this makes it hard to use in real time. What I really like about the collaborative nature of Buzzword is that it clearly shows who are the collaborators, shows when they are online, when they are editing and it has a clever lockout system that makes it impossible for two co-authors to edit a document at the same exact instant. As soon as a change is saved however, it is instantly reflected on the other users screens. This works amazingly well for multiple people working on the same document at the same time, and ensures that people don’t inadvertently write over the top of other people’s changes, something that is easy to do in, say, a wiki. Buzzword makes you wait your turn until the previous user finishes with their changes.

Buzzwords can import and export text documents from .txt, .rtf, .doc, .docx and .xml. It has no spreadsheet or presentation tools, but as a word processor it’s very nice. It’s not a Word killer but nor is it designed to be.  For someone with basic word processing needs who wants the benefits an in-the-cloud service like this can offer, Buzzwords is worth a serious look.

In summary, I’m really impressed with the WYSIWYG look and feel of Buzzword. Although I have a lot of documents stored on Google Docs I can see myself migrating most of them over to Buzzword, not only for the improved collaborative environment but just because it’s so much darn nicer to use!