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

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

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.

155 Lessons in the Creative Process

Some of you might have seen that I’ve been working on a daily blogging project this year called My Daily Create. You can visit it at www.mydailycreate.com (or click the link in the menu bar above). The basic idea is that I’m attempting to create something every day of the year during 2014. It could be music, a video, a drawing, a photo or a poem. It could be something practical and usable, or something retinal and frivolous. It doesn’t matter what it is, I just plan to make something each day. So far it’s going pretty well and I haven’t missed a single day yet.

Earlier this week I presented a keynote at the EduTECH conference in Brisbane on the topic of creativity at the invitation of the organisers. I find creativity an interesting topic to talk about, but it’s usually one of those things that’s easy to talk about in general terms but much harder to talk about specifically. I felt even more challenged by it because several of the other speakers were also talking about creativity, including Sir Ken Robinson, who, as I’m sure most readers of this blog will know, is considered somewhat of a guru on the topic of creativity in education.

I do find that the general message of what most people say when talking about creativity in education boils down to “It’s important, you should do it”, with very little actual guidance on HOW to make it happen and I tend to think we probably need a little more information than that.

So the plan for my keynote was to be a bit more practical and specific about creativity and so I decided to share some of what I’ve learned from doing my daily create each day in the form of lessons I’ve learned about the creative process and how they might be used with students.

For the people who asked for a copy of the presentation, here are the slides (I’ve had to remove the video content as it was just too big a file with them included)

Despite a shaky start due to some dodgy AV, I was pretty happy with the way the keynote went. The talk was basically presented in three parts…

  • Exploring Creativity – showing examples of the sorts of creative projects I’ve been coming up with during the first 155 days of My Daily Create.
  • Learning from Creativity – sharing some of the lessons (or meta ideas) about creativity that I’ve found from forcing myself to make something every day.
  • Applying Creativity – showing a few examples of how some of my daily creates have turned into activities and tasks that I’ve been doing with my kids in the classroom.

The lessons that I offered about creativity were these…

  • Create is a Verb – you have to actually DO stuff in order to be creative, not just think about it or talk about it. Actually DO it. Seriously. It’s amazing how many people wish they were more creative and overlook this simple fact.
  • Wonder. A Lot – Most creativity springs from being curious about things. Wondering “what would happen if…” or “why do we do it like that?” are often the starting points for coming up with new creative ideas.
  • Curiosity + Action = Creativity – When you combine the wonder with the action, things happen. Take action on your ideas, no matter how silly or fleeting they might be. Anyone can have a good idea, but the people who take action on their ideas are the ones we deem creative.
  • Make time to Play – Yes, making stuff takes time. So if making stuff is important to you, then make time for it. Make time, not find time. None of us can find time, we each get only 24 hours in a day so you already have all the time you’re getting. It’s a matter of clearing space in your day to make time for creative acts.
  • Wander off the Path – Something that becomes incredibly obvious when you force yourself to make things every day is that you almost always make something different or unexpected to what you thought you might make. Be led by your curiosity, your mistakes and your hunches. If you go somewhere you didn’t anticipate, just keep going. Don’t try to undo your mistakes, just turn them into the end result,.
  • Your Ideas are not Original – Hardly anybody ever has original ideas. Everything is a remix of things we’ve seen and heard elsewhere, just repackaged and remixed in our own way. So copy ideas shamelessly. But remember that while copying one idea is plagiarism, copying lots of ideas and combining them all together in new ways is where real creativity comes from.
  • So Share – If you use other people’s ideas (and you do!) then don’t be precious about letting other people use yours. Share generously and give away your stuff freely. Don’t be an idea hoarder. You’re just a conduit for ideas, so pass them on to others.
  • Creating = Learning – You learn when you create (and isn’t that the goal in education?) You might learn the things you expected to learn, but more often you will probably learn things you didn’t expect to learn. Be open to ideas, follow them, be inquisitive, be generous, and you really cannot help but learn through being creative.

The “big idea” I wanted to communicate was that creativity is a process, an active thing you do, and should do it regularly. Borrow and share, be open and curious, and you WILL come up with creative ideas. Some people claim they aren’t creative,  but there is no such thing as a non creative person, just a person who has chosen not to see the world creatively.

Finally, I showed some simple examples of how my daily create has spilled over into my teaching and helped me bring these ideas into my classroom.

I finished the talk by getting the audience to help make Daily Create number 155, chanting the phrase “Creativity is  daily deliberate act”.

The response I got afterwards from people was really nice. Quite a few people came up to say they got a lot out of the talk, and Twitter had lots of positive feedback too. It’s really nice when that happens. When you give a keynote it’s always hard to know what you could possibly say that might be of any value to the audience, especially when so many other speakers seem to know so much more about it, and speak so much more eloquently. But all I can really do is speak from my heart and mind, sharing my own personal experiences, so I’m glad it resonated with others and they found it useful.

Here is a link to the slides in Google Drive, (without the videos) but if you’d like a copy of the actual slide deck in Keynote format just drop me a note and let me know.

Developing Deliberate Daily Discipline

CreativityAs December 2013 came to an end I was considering doing another one of those 365 Day Photo Project, where you take a photo every day for a year. I’ve done these before, one very successfully where I actually did take and post a new photo every day for a year, and two other attempts that started well but eventually ran out of steam.

Being disciplined is hard, at least, it is for me. These projects where you promise yourself that you will do something every day for a year are not easy. You miss a day here or there and then conclude that there’s no point carrying on with it.  In truth, even if you only took 150 photos out of the 365 you’re supposed to, you’d still have 150 photos! Not to mention a whole lot more practice as a photographer.

This year I wanted to do something, but was looking for something a bit different to just taking photos. So I asked for some suggestions on Twitter and got a bunch of interesting ideas back. Taking these suggestions as a whole, I thought it might be interesting to keep it a little bit open this year and just create something, anything, every day. So in 2014 I’m doing a project I’m calling The Daily Create. Every day I’ll be posting something – a video, a poem, a piece of writing, a song, a story, and yes, maybe even a photo or two.  To keep it organised I’m doing it on a different blog dedicated just to the purpose at http://mydailycreate.blogspot.com.au/

Why do these daily projects? What’s the point?

Aside from the idea that I think that we all have a basic need to create and share our ideas with others, forcing yourself to do something every day is a wonderful way to keep learning new things. In the eight days I’ve been doing this project so far I’ve learned to use apps that I had never really learned to use, discovered techniques that I didn’t know about, solidified ideas that had only been nebulous thoughts floating around in my brain, and even solved a couple of practical problems around the house. These simple little daily creations have already given me a number of project ideas that I can get my students to work on this year.

I think when you get into the swing of doing something every day your brain starts to see new opportunities to learn and create. We talk a lot about the value of iteration, and learning by doing, and just making lots and lots of stuff regardless of whether it’s any good or not, and daily projects are a good way to do that.  You WILL learn things along the way, I promise you that. Although some people don’t always associate the idea of having discipline with the idea of creativity, they are most definitely connected!

January is easy. We all have enough things floating through our heads that we can fill January up. By mid-February you’re starting to run out of ideas but if you’re committed to the project you just force yourself to keep coming up with them and that’s where it starts to get interesting. By June you’re clutching at straws, coming up with some wacky and unexpected things because, well, you promised yourself you would and have to come up with something! By September you’ll be looking back a body of work that will surprise you in its diversity and by the end of the year you’ll actually be sad that it’s coming to an end.

It’s these little daily deliberate actions that add up over time to produce the unexpected things that often become the work we are most proud of. And if you get to next December and you’ve stuck to it, I guarantee you’ll be even more proud of yourself just for sticking with it.

CC Image: http://zeitgeist-1984.deviantart.com/art/Employ-Creativity-321300663

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.