So You Are Real!

It seems so easy to make global connections these days.

Tools like Twitter, Skype, podcasts, blogs and even good old fashioned email make it easy to build connections with others.  But they also make it easy to overlook the fact that behind each tweet, IM or email there are real people.  Although the online world has made us the most connected we have ever been, at the same time the sometimes faceless, disembodied nature of it can also allow us to be quite disconnected if we let it.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing over the last couple of years is to take every opportunity to make real connections with the people behind the avatars.  I remember the first time I bumped into Judy O’Connell at a meeting in Sydney… although I knew of HeyJude and had read her blog for a while there was still this sense of “wow… so you ARE real!” when I finally met her.  Since then, I try to make a point of meeting other members of my online world in the real world whenever I can.  It’s great to finally meet up with people you feel like you somehow know through reading their blogs or hearing them on podcasts or seeing their endless streams of tweets.

This week I had the pleasant experience of meeting up with Colin Jagoe, a passionate young edutech in Ontario Canada, and the story of how that meeting came about is pretty typical of how our PLNs can so easily cross the boundary between the virtual and the real worlds.  Colin apparently follows my Twitter feed, so when I mentioned that I was coming to Canada over Christmas, he dm’ed me back to ask if I’d be interested in coming to a meeting of edutech leaders in his school district.  He suggested it might be good to share some stuff about what we’re doing in Australia as a way to provide some additional food for thought for his district team.  Naturally I jumped at the chance, so we emailed and Skyped back and forth to make the arrangements, and last Tuesday I headed out of Toronto and up to the Peterborough office of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board to join their meeting and share some of the stuff I’ve been doing with the students back at PLC.  We looked at some of the Year 3 Voicethreads, the Year 4 blogs, the Year 5 Podcasts and talked about the logistics and practicalities of running these sorts of projects. I shared the results of the recent PLC Mobile Phone Film Festival, an idea that also seemed to spark some possibilities for the Kawartha schools.  We talked about Creative Commons and cellphones for learning and a bunch of other topics that came up, and it was wonderful to be able to share some of this with real live people in a real live space.

I had to laugh when Colin’s first words to me as we met in the foyer were “So you ARE real!”, exactly the words I used when I met HeyJude the first time. It’s good to finally meet people and put a real face to their avatar, and this experience goes to show just how easy it is to create global links between people… here was I, a teacher from Australia, talking with a group of Canadian educators about ideas that were relevant to both of us.  It started as virtual (and there is certainly a great deal that can be done in a purely virtual environment, don’t get me wrong!) but it is amazing just how a few tweets, skypes and emails can take these virtual connections and make them real if that that’s what you want to do.

It got me thinking about some of the other real life connections I’ve been able to make over the last year or so, and it’s pretty amazing. I dug through my Flickr photostream and found quite a few snapshots that I’ve taken with other connected educators, so I made this little slideshow. (The new slideshow tool is Flickr is fabulous by the way!)  There are many other wonderful educators I’ve met that I couldn’t find photos for… I don’t want to list names as I’m sure to overlook someone inadvertently, but my apologies if I’ve left you out!

Next week, I’ll have the great pleasure of meeting Sharon Peters when I’m in Montreal, something I’m very much looking forward to.  Sharon and I have spent many hours over the last few years chatting over Skype and sharing ideas, and she has organised for her and I to present a 4 hour workshop on IWBs and Web 2.0 tools to school leaders in the Montreal independent school sector.  Should be good fun!

Sharon and I have been in touch all week with last minute organisational bits and pieces for the workshop, but I’m sure that when we finally meet in person next week I’ll still have that same overwhelming sense of “so you ARE real!”

You are the Search Engine

Geocaching is a great way to combine a bit of fun technological geekery with some good old fashioned go-outside-and-get-some-fresh-air action.

I spent an afternoon with another blogger using our GPSs, iPhones, Flip Videos and other techy toys and went geocaching around Sydney. If you’ve never tried it before, geocaching is essentially a treasure hunt where you go looking for a hidden treasure (more correctly known as a geocache) which someone plants and publishes on It’s a simple enough concept… once you sign up on the site, you enter your current position and it will tell you what caches are hidden nearby. You then just pick one that sounds interesting, enter the cache coordinates into your GPS and navigate to the hidden treasure.

It sounds simple enough, but once you start to allow for the real-world factor it does start to get a shade more complicated. GPS devices will tell you where you are but they have limits as to how accurately they are able to do so. Under perfect conditions – clear sky, no obstructions from trees or buildings, no atmospheric interference, etc – a GPS ought to be able to pinpoint your location to within about 2 metres. I reality, the tracking is often far more vague and the accuracy level only gets you within 5-15 metres of the target. Both caches we found today were quite small and well hidden… as you might imagine, trying to find a small object within a 15 metre radius can be a little difficult, especially when you have no real idea what you’re actually looking for!

The first cache was at North Sydney, called Woof’s Water. It was easy enough to get to the general location, but much harder to locate the cache itself. The small park to which we were directed had several garden beds and landscaped shrubbery surrounding it but because it was nestled between the Sydney Harbour Bridge rail line and some tall buildings across the road, the view of the sky was a little narrow. This makes it hard for the satellites to triangulate accurately and usually gives somewhat dodgy results. This is where geocaching gets interesting. The GPS can get you close, but once you find the general spot you often need to start thinking laterally, asking yourself where might be a logical place to hide a cache around here… (“if it were me, where would I hide a cache?”) We agreed that the garden bed along the railway line would be a good place to start, and we spent a good 15 minutes peering our way through the long grassy plants. I was just about to give up when I heard the call of “found it!” Sure enough, it was pulled from the long grass and the log book filled in.

To make life easier before we chose our next cache, we dropped into the Sydney Apple Store to look at on one of their 24 inch iMacs. While we were there, we also logged the first cache on the website and worked out our next target.

For cache number two, we decided on one called Imax, named presumably because it would lead us to the Imax cinema at Darling Harbour. As we strolled down King Street and along the pedestrian walkway, it did indeed lead towards the Imax, but also to huge throngs of people in Darling Harbour.

Cache 2 for the dayGeocaching is a pretty simple concept really… after you punch in the cache coordinates, your GPS will draw a line between you and the cache. Just keep walking towards the target until the line disappears and you should, theoretically anyway, be standing right on top of the cache. As we approached the spot where the line was about the vanish, the GPS started doing some very odd things. The target coords started jumping all over the place and the GPS was going haywire. I looked up to see the Western Distributor overpass going directly overhead and started cursing whoever was silly enough to plant a GPS cache somewhere that did not have a clear view of the sky. Fancy hiding a cache in a spot which did not get a direct line of sight to the satellites! The freeway was right in the way…. the freeway was, oh wait, I get it!

This was a classic example of a cache not being where you first expected to find it, and having that “aha!” moment when you realise how clever the cache owner has actually been.

We used the iPhone to browse the website when we needed to look for clues or read the comments of other geocachers. We used Qik on my Nokia N95 to live stream video to my blogsite of our searching. We took footage on our Flip video cameras. We used Twinkle on the iPhone to tweet the results of our searching out to our PLN community, along with photos. It was a good day for gadgets and to play around with their ability to keep the blogosphere in the loop while we did it.

If you’ve never tried geocaching before, I recommend you give it a go. It’s a great outdoor activity, allowing you to get out in the fresh air while also satisfying your inner geek. It often causes you to think, gives you some exercise, makes you laugh a bit, and teaches you things about yourself, your city and your world, all at the same time.

PS: I’ve since discovered a very cool app for my Nokia N95 called Geocache Navigator. It enables you to enter geocache coordinates in your Nokia phone and a mapping app appears, directing you to your cache target. Because it uses the N95’s built in GPS and also integrates directly with, it can tell you where the nearest cache point is, and let you update your status once you find it. Nice work! That class geocaching project could perhaps be closer than you think!

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Follow Me, Follow You

What’s the “right” number of followers/followees on Twitter? I’ve previously pondered what might be the ideal number to have in your network, but there is clearly no one right answer. The right number to have is whatever works for you. Some have suggested that Dunbar’s Number – around 150 – is about right, but my own Twitter network has been steadily growing to almost double that and it still seems to be worthwhile and working for me so, for now anyway, I’ll let it keep growing. Whenever someone follows me I’ve gradually developed a process to help me decide whether I follow back or not… basically I click the link to go to the new followers page, and look for a couple of key bits of information. Are they educators? Are they actively involved in ed-tech? How many do they follow? How many follow them? How often do they update? Who do they follow?  Taking everything into account, if it looks like this person can help add value to my network I’ll follow back. (I know that sounds one-sided, but they’ve already made the decision to follow me so from their point of view I can only assume they see some worth in doing so.)

For quite a while now I’ve been getting a steady stream of Twitter notifications saying “such-and-such is now following you on Twitter”, often several every day. It’s nice to think that people want to follow you because they feel you add value to their network, but what’s the deal with these people who just collect and follow anybody? Over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing that more and more of these follow notifications come from random people who appear to simply follow anyone.

Take a look at the screen grabs above. These three all arrived tonight and when you look at the following/followers ratio it’s pretty one-sided. For example, look at the person who is following 14,972, but only being followed by 699… that’s a ratio of over 21:1. For every person that follows them, they follow over 21 others. The other person following 1,814 has 52 people following them, that’s an even less balanced ratio of 34:1. (with only 8 updates… what’s the deal with that!?)

My own follow/follower ratio is currently 287/342, or .83:1, meaning I get followed by more than I follow. Although there is no right or wrong to this, to me it seems fairer when your ratio is relatively close to 1:1 (or at least not ridiculously unbalanced like 34:1!)

Why would anyone want to follow 14,000 people? What possible good could that do? You couldn’t possibly be getting any real signal out of all that noise could you? Perhaps if you follow a large number of people you might like to leave a comment about it.

I used to feel obligated to “keep up” with Twitter, but I’ve decided that I need to think about it like a river flowing past me… I don’t need to read every single tweet. When I had 50 or so people in my network I used to be able to do that, but as it’s grown I now use Twitter differently, just to give me a sense of the zeitgeist of what’s happening out there. I don’t bother reading every single post now – I just can’t, there’s too many – but I do scan through many of them as they pop up in Twitterific or Twhirl. I feel like I only need to find that occasional gem of a url, read an occasional worthwhile insight, contribute occasionally to a conversation going on, or catch the latest snippet of online gossip to make Twitter work for me.  With nearly 300 people on my follow list I definitely use Twitter differently now compared to how I used to use it when there were only 50 or so on my follow list, but it’s still worthwhile being part of it. I have just found I need to be more relaxed about it, less concerned with “keeping up”, and I’ve learned to be content with what I do get from Twitter rather than worrying about what I might be missing.

I’m sure this is all just part of an evolutionary process of how Twitter works for you depending on how many are in your network, but I still find it hard to imagine what use you’d get from having thousands on your follow list.