Saturday, October 31, 2009

What I got from elearn

What have I gained from this conference? Lots of things that still need to be articulated - things to do with online and blended learning mostly. A lot of thinking about informal learning. The insight that the dichotomy between informal and formal learning implies that students learn differently in the two situations, which I don't think is true. I've been chucking the idea back and forth with lizit for the last couple of days and if anything I'm more confused now than I was before.* But, wherever my thoughts are taking me I think it's worth probing a bit more. I'm concentrating on what the literature says people do when they learn (which is the context of the wildfire activities stuff, which is how I got interested in it). I want to look at how that relates to formal learning contexts and whether and how much we could change formal systems to make more effective use of that.

And I have the germ of an idea about how to blend informal and formal learning contexts, which will remain mysterious for the time being while I work on it.

*That's not to imply that lizit is a bad teacher, far from it ;-)

And I got to meet a beautiful city.


Local transport. I didn't have the opportunity to try one.


The Lost Lagoon


Elearn Friday

Oh dear, feeling crap today. Still haven't got over the jetlag. I wake at four every morning. I have survived well so far, but last night was awful. Now I am supposed to be presiding; which means paying attention. As it turns out I presided two really good performers.

James Helfrich - Leveraging Interactivity to Increase E-Learning Effectiveness.
It's about effectiveness - many definitions of interaction, two basic approaches computer centric, and user centric. User centric categorised as observe, choose, perform - each broken into sub categories. Technology centric - toggle select, many select, text, voice, immersion - also subcategorised. Under Observe, pace is much more effective than watch - students take much better notes, and notes result in better learning. Mayer 2003 observed that just having a continue button to press resulted in better performance, because it gave the student control.

Gagne taxonomy of learning objectives. Puzzling result "watch" is better for higher level problem solving than "do". Suggestion is that "do" allows people to skip important things. Students believe voice feedback more than written feedback. (I wonder if I could do assessment summaries that way.) Taxonomy is amalgamated from Schwier Sims Burgon.

M.R. (Ruth) de Villiers, University of South Africa, South Africa - Applying controlled usability-testing technology to investigate learning behaviours of users interacting with e-learning tutorials' UNISA sixth biggest university in the world. Question was what is added value of usability testing. Real enthusiasm about the process of finding out what students actually do. Some pie charts showing difference of time spent on different tasks; same marks. One was really haphazard, but it worked. The point is that, whatever the pattern, it works for them.

Part of testing was to get people to think aloud - this didn't work well, participants were inhibited. So got them to work in pairs or groups, and they talked to each other. Could still assess time on task for individuals. Student P5 was the real test - he just wasn't an elearner. No general conclusions yet about learning, but a promising method.

Ben Daniel, Virtual Learning Community Research Group, Canada; Richard Schwier, University of Saskatchewan, Canada - A Consideration of Learning Processes in Virtual Learning Communities. Two broadly defined learning variables, intentional and incidental. Really good presentation that I'm still digesting. I went to the conference site to download the paper, and the link pointed me to another of Ben Daniel's papers. A very interesting one but not the one I wanted. But it's available at vlcresearch which is a website worth bookmarking.

Valerie Greenberg, Darlene Carbajal, University of the Incarnate Word, USA - Using Convergent Media to Engage Graduate Students in a Digital and Electronic Writing class: Some Surprising Results - blogs twitter SecondLife - reshape how we exchange experience. Forces tutors to revisit instructive interaction. Study on 13 students, 8 male 5 female. Blogs anchored collaborative learning - shared perspectives, common goals and knowledge, and opinion and interpretations. Provocative assignment was around SecondLife - had very strong emotions about SL. Woznitsa on emotions. Why was she surprised that students didn't like SL? I asked her thatand she didn't answer (she answered a different question. Just like students do sometimes.)

It's the afternoon and I'm now stuck listening to two presentations I'm not interested in. I offered to preside, but the one I was interested in has cancelled and been replaced by another one.

Today's fact I didn't know before: Ebbinghaus proposed the curve of forgetting in 1885.

Kui Xie, Mississippi State University, USA; Fengfeng Ke, University of New Mexico, USA - Understanding Deep Learning in Asynchronous Online Discussions - does it occur and how do we know? Learning as acquisition; learning as participation. And how do you test it? Scardamalia - learning as knowledge construction. Table from p3263 of this presentation may be useful for marking scheme for collaboration. One to keep an eye on as they are just beginning antoher phase of their research.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Elearn Thursday

I have officially designated this the no show conference. The number of presenters not turning up to give their presentations is quite shocking. There was one session today, fortunately not one I wanted to go to, where three presenters were booked for the hour, and none of them turned up.

Martin Ebner, Graz University of Technology, Austria
OLPC (one laptop per child) primary school children using, e.g. ReckonPrimer for number learning - one aim to pilot for roll out in developing world - that struck me as instantly a very diffcult aim, especially when he went on to say that one of their biggest problems had been connectivity. If it's a big problem in Austria, what's it going to be like in the developing world. I dont' have any doubt about the OLPC model, but I have serious misgivings about the way some people think they can set about implementing it. It's the same problem as elsewhere, an assumption that we can unproblematically export western technological models to other places. To be fair to this speaker he made the problems of cultural export clear, but he did seem to be making easy assumptions about the technological model.

Reuben Dlamini, Ohio University transforming the walls of the classroom - the three paradigm change for FutureMinds Initiative. He described the fundamental ideas underlying the initiative (e.g., mindset change, invention process, broad stakeholder ownership, consensus-building process, and participatory leadership), and the strategy by which the FutureMinds Initiative operates. This seemed to me to be at least partly about recognising the fact of informal learning and its power; and about the massive changes needed within the school system in order to engage effectively with it. This pushes me further into thinking that "informal learning" is entirely the wrong phrase for what it refers to. It means what learners actually do regardless of the formality or informality of the situation. Interesting how you see things through your own lenses - I'm thinking a lot about informal learning at the moment, so I see it everywhere.

Zehra Akyol, Suleyman Demirel Universitesi - Design Tips for Online and Blended Learning to Develop an Effective Community of Inquiry. This was based on teh Garrison model - social presence, cognitive presence, teaching presence, back to Athabascaaaa. Research on how this all developed in online and blended learning context. The big issue taht came out is that every COI is different, therefore needs effective design before start

Michelle Scribner-MacLean, UMass Lowell Graduate School of Education, USA; Heather Miller, Walden University, USA - Online Team Teaching: Strategies for Success for Creating an Online Learning Community
Students demanding and needing immediate feedback. We're being paid to facilitate course content, but reality is students bring their admin needs. Team teaching helps here. I was hoping to compare this with my experience on AA100, but I rapidly realised I couldn't call it team teaching because we don't actually do that. It's cluster teaching in which a certain amount of co-operation goes on, but it's really three different groups in the same space, not a team approach at all. I expect some clusters will develop a team teaching approach but it's not mandated.
Elements of a successful team -
- open to the approach
- similar educational philosophies and styles
- strong technology background, esp within course platform
- instructors see benefit of suggestions to improve their teaching

Syllabus is online, instructions are online; dso it's all there for the students to get on with - but teaching is still active.

- if there is not clear communication between teachers (could do more of that)
- if one teacher is feeling more burdened and taking additional responsibilities for the course
- if students' assessments are being evaluated more quickly by one teacher. (This is apparently a big issue for the students.) Also need to keep interventions roughly equal.

- reach out by phone calls or emails, especially at the beginning
- provide a lot of initial support
- set up personal pages with resumes etc

Building assessment criteria together; with rubrics and checklists; is very important. That doesn't work because of the division of labour on AA100. The mods do it on T183 and TT280; can we blend that with tutoring responsibility? Of course we can - that's what they have done.

Dina Kurzweil, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, USA - A Missing Link - instructional design. Or I should say on instructional designers. It's all about relationships; workign *with*. Status issues, teamworking issues, etc. One designer in the audience is introduced to each new faculty, spends a whole day with them, and team teaches with them, so isn't seen as "the tech person" any more. If you consider yourself as a peer, people respond to that.

Renata Vincoletto and Hawa Sydique, Camfed International - empowering young women in rural area in Zambia - through education to university or to business. Introduced new technology a year ago. Goal to train 200 girls in skills like IT, business, etc. A very interesting facet was online mentoring - allowing the women to be mentored by successful entrepreneurs in the UK. There was no electricity supply. Entire system with 18 terminals, 2 servers, projector, printer, modem - less than 1500 watts - less than a kettle. They started with a generator, but are now moving to solar power. First alumnae are now managers in the centre.
Phase 1 introduces concept of entrepreneurship, leadership, lots of games; second phase putting skills into practice; phase three same as 1 but more advanced. They taught them how to use Twitter.
Goldman Sachs award "hungry to learn across the world".

Beverly Leeds: Demystifying Reusable Learning Objects - unpackaging objects to change for local context or to repurpose. Good example here of speaking to your audience. Objects intended for teachers so "Evolution" put them into lesson plan format - tasks with objects as drop in resources. Resources developed as mini presentations - enhance ppt using Adobe Presenter. Any block can inform - assess - apply. And any block can be exploratory, enquiry based, directive or diagnostic by moving the objects around.
Evolution materials depository at All zip files. All SCORM compliant.
glomaker - for creating multimedia learning objects that can be added to ppt files. She mentioned glo maker: but the site is not currently responding.

Hsin I Yung, National Taipei University of Technology - Integrating the pedagogical agent with eye tracking system to measure extraneous cognitive load - very important to track learners' attention - you can see what they're actually doing (referring back to the thread about informal learning). Key issue is to avoid extraneous cognitive load; split attention effect is negative impact. I wonder if there is a possible negative in terms of being so focussed that you detract from people's learning creativity. Interaction is crucial - the more you have the more you learn.
Yesterday's speakers were telling us Chinese people follow the master. Hsin calls her pedagogical agent tool Confucius, which adjusts instruction level to previous answers. They have another one called Socrates Dialog. Story telling activities.

Marvin LeNoue, Ronald Stammen, North Dakota State University - Building Online Learning Communities with Web 2.0 Tools - LeNoue, works from Knowles basis - andragogy etc. While saying that he thought learning was the same whatever people were doing it. I agree with him, which as far as I can see means I disagree with Knowles. Ho hum. Sociability aspects of web2.0 are so good; ideal for courses. Their work is centred on social network tools, especially ning. Quotes Boyd and Ellison 2007.
Students can customise their personal page (private to the class) - and are very quick to do this. They are ESL students, but they have no problem with basic functions even if not good at writing about it. They try to design pedagogy that takes advantage of this space.
Key issue here is this is flat network, not teacher or institution dominated.

Joan Thormann, Lesley University - Use of Synchronous Conferencing to Help Build Learning Communities - using Skype; has Skype Out ($3 per month) ready to use for any students who are unable to use Skype. Groups of 3 or 4. 1/3 of students reported technical difficulties - but she didn't report on how much this put them off.

Hasan Cakir (pronounced checker), Gazi University, Turkey; Omer Delialioglu, Middle East Technical University, Turkey - Factors Affecting Student Engagement in a Blended Learning Environment. Student engagement defined as effort on educationally purposeful activities. Elements of engagement - time on task, contact between student and faculty, co-operation among students, active learning (learning is not a spectator sport), giving prompt feedback, communicating high expectations, diverse talents and ways of learning.

Cisco's CCNA programme - Cisco provide all materials and assessment material. 40% ftf 60% online. 51 junior pre service teachers 33% female. There was a lot of discussion about the impact of gender on engagement. Turkish woman says they are directed towards things other than maths and science. Some research findings show girls engage less but get higher grades. Perhaps they are better at self directed work. The other speaker for the session did not turn up, so several of us used the spare time to stay around and have a general group discussion about gender and technology, and about learning and improvement.


Key issue for definition of informal learning is what is actually being described - are we describing the fact that everyone learns differently. If we looked at the different definitions offered, could we find common themes which afford a different definition e.g. will we find that they all say that students learn differently.

Richard N. Landers, Old Dominion University - Using Social Networking and Learner-Centered Measurement in Automated Social Mentoring Systems. He was motivated to look at inexpensive ways of delivering training to avoid cuts in hard times - I like it. Starts with automated assessment system; then adds mentoring system. Assesses students on 7 point scale from newbie to grand master, different permissions for different levels - grand masters can set up own tutorials. This is well thought out, provides for both collaboration and motivation. This is the kind of thing that really makes me feel I'm not being creative enough - a guy who is doing just the same job as me, and has created a complete environment to encourage his students to learna s well as they can.

Fumihiko Anma, Toshio Okamoto, The University of Electro Communications, Japan - Development of a Participatory Learning Support System based on Social Networking Service "University of Electro Communications" sounds really retro, and a touch goth. Something you might find in a Terry Gilliam film maybe. The speaker wasn't though. Problem: participation in learning communities is necessary but difficult. Many of the easterners here read their ppts. For some it may be better than trying to speak off the cuff in English, but others have good command of the language.This was about using a social networking model to assess cumulatively how well students learn by aggregating their interactions - I think - I'm not at all sure. It's very mathematical.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Elearn Wednesday

My presentation went well - small audience, but enthusiastic applause, and a bit of decent networking.

Joël Fisler, University of Zurich on eLML and OLAT open source tools for production of learning material; has aa demo server, which will be fun to play with if I ever get any time again.

Marius Dieperink, Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa - on failing to connect. How technology can be best used in S Africa to encourage learning. Black students often alienated in class. 80% not English mother tongue. Use of computers and English learning programme positive effect on unmotivated students. The key thing that came out was the big digital divide - should they continue at their own pace or should they try and import technology and ideas from elsewhere. He mentioend specificaly importing ideas from the developed world. I felt strongly and said so, that that would be a big mistake as Africa was developing so differently, e.g. the ascendancy of the mobile phone. He pointed out that many have low tech mobiles, but we discussed the use of texting for teaching. He is currently examining bulk sms as a possible vehicle.

...Another no show - I wonder how many people got the ticket to Vancouver paid and are now enjoying a week off....

Mark Salisbury, and David Olson, Western Oregon University, USA on innovative learning organisations - organisations need to find new and innovative ways to maintain old knowledge and create new knowledge, which means building into work processes a window for new and innovative ways of doing things.

We need to move tacit knowledge into the explicit zone
metacognitive (expert advice)
procedural (examples)
conceptual (instructions)
factual (documentation)

Technologies to support this innovative learning
moodle - only works on Linux
sharepoint - has to be paid for
dotnetnuke - this looks really good
Salisbury's book on ilearning probably worth a dip into.

They're presenting very basic things but in a persuasive sort of way. I don't think they said anything I wouldn't have thought of, but they have the experience of using the three platforms mentioned above. Much food for thought for my other job.

Panel session on cross cultural design
Today's travel tip: take off your shoes before entering a Malay household. A tweet in response to mine about this suggests you can geenralise that to most of Asia. Content: make sure you represent all races, and religions. Another speaker noted Canadian literature tends not to represent Canadian aboriginals.
Research on teaching and learning as uniting tribes of students and tribes of teachers by belnding cultures. Cultural connecting point will be key to open the connecting door. One finding so far for international students is trust is very important.
The 20 Rs
Wei - female and male culture. Also across colours. Cultural barriers intertwine.
Okhwa Lee - trained in western culture. frustrated when returned to Korea. Lot of Korean instructional content is video or media rich. Western is text oriented. In portraits western are face or upper body focussed not often full body. Oriental portraits usually full body with rich background material. Asian viewers focus on background as well as foreground; wetsern focus on central object and often ignore background. Space in west as series of individual objects; in east as inter-relationships between objects. That might blow a hole in the thinking I presented. Are wildfire activities as described by Engeström culturally specific: eastern cultures are taught to learn from the master? In the west speaking develops thinking; in east truth is out there, and speaking is means to express understand - if you know more you speak less. They don't respect people who speak a lot.

Ashraf of Sussex University - his students didn't ask questions in class, so one day he suggested they text him with questions - and they did. So eloquently that he used some of the texts as assignment questions.

Bjorn Pederson - Reflectii - web based video reflection for trainee teachers with friends etc

Joanna Muukkonen - networked model of action, using Activity Theory as a framework.
The aim of the project is to promote active citizenship through open learning environments. Several factors hindering the development of Sense of Community or at least "Sense of Network" have been identified... This is very interesting - it focusses precisely on one of the nodes of the AT triangle. And the project it comes from is about promoting more active and more effective citizenship.

Luke Lecheler - Confetti, online text annotation tool. Looks very nice. Creating a place rather than a space - space is the world, place is your home. My basic question is what does this do that diigo doesn't. - integrates with sources of free texts e.g. Gutenberg. And may integrate with Adobe buzzword. So it does have advantages. But do the advantages justify the extra cost ? Perhaps they do. As this tool develops, it will come to have a great deal of functionality that Diigo doesn't have - and if that functionality enables people to learn better (big "if"), then it will have been worth it. It's a gamble, as all software development is, but this looks like quite a good punt.

And that gives rise to a second question - is there a kind of hierarchy of usability, or maybe a progression. Teachers could try using tools like diigo - public andf freely available, and if they like them could move on to harder stuff, or put a case for developing a bespoke product (is there a market niche?)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Last night

After waking at four for the first two mornings, I thought maybe last night I would conquer the jetlag. But I was woken at four by a persistent tapping. I realised eventually that it was someone tapping at my door. I opened it to find a very good looking young Asian woman there who wanted to come in. Unfortunately it was the wrong room.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mixed bag

A very mixed bag so far. Slow start, perhaps conferences always are. Not helped by the first presenter not showing up. And two more that I wanted to hear didn't show up in the course of the day. There's been some comment on the conference twitter stream.

Mansour Aldojan from the University of Jordan talked about getting faculty to integrate technology into their teaching. He described various issues which all sounded familiar. Many faculty say they use internet fully, but searching questions show they are not using it in teaching. Faculty are used to being in control of the subject matter - I liked his way of putting that. The less innovative faculty demanded more user friendly levels of support. And then after all these and others, he said one faculty member identified biggest problem as lack of good internet access for staff and students. Which kind of leaves the other reasons behind - if the tool you have isn't up to the job, you're not going to be very in favour of it. We forget too easily the simple issue of how capable the internet connection is. Clearly an issue in Jordan; also an issue in the developed world. I was talking to a woman who lives on a farm in Quebec and says her university will not use Second Life because not enough students have enough bandwidth to support it. She herself, like many of her students' families, over a very large area, is on satellite broadband with low bandwidth.

Kaarina Pirilä on how much students' personal differences make to their learning online.
She said her research showed that epistemic styles made a difference; but teachers do not know what learning styles they have with them when they are teaching. I've always been sceptical about learning styles, far too prescriptive, but she says she has research finding that it makes a difference. Maybe I need to take more notice. She lectures groups of 100-150 students; difficult; but we should know them better, she says.

Wei-Ying Hsiao - WIMBA (video interactive classroom) used for online learning and interaction for trainee teachers. She made them do group presentations. The presentations enhanced group interaction - (thinks, of course it did), more so than a discussion board. But not everybody liked it; they found the group meetings intrusive on their own plans.

Robyn Hill on patterns of participation. Two types of participation - educational or cognitive, and social. This reinforces idea of learning as a collective endeavour. Greater participation is associated with better grades. (Tutor participation made no difference except at extremes of too little and too much.) these findings are very similar to my own, which suggests I'm on the right track. Or we're both on the wrong track.

Kari Liukkunen - from material distribution to VLEs. A splendidly laconic presentation of the move into digital learning, recounted mostly as a series of steps provoked by the availability of funding. First they had to distribute computers; then they discovered they needed to learn how to use them. Then they didn't know what to do with them. The advantages and disadvantages of progression by grant - you do what's wanted as long as they pay, but then they stop paying and expect you to continue. There's always another problem. He thinks companies and universities can learn from each other, but I didn't hear any cogent examples. Everything was going fine till mobile came along. (Why did it go that way? Finland has always been at the forefront of mobile phone usage.) Trial reporting was students thought it great; but in reality students did not have good enough phones and didn't want to pay for better phones to use them. Thus good ideas and good products don't substitute for knowing the market (my interpretation).

Then a key issue. He discovered that teachers did not listen to production staff e.g. on advice to use videos. So production staff stopped giving advice. The key is the relationship between academic staff and production team. A production worker in audience advocated having instructional designer as go between.


Meanwhile Spurs beat Everton 2-0 in the Carling Cup; it seemed a bit strange to be celebrating that in the middle of the afternoon.

Ye-Lim Su of South Korea
ICT literacy as essential. Ministry goals how to create, process, analyse and utilise information - interesting as a governmental goal.

She shouts into the microphone. It's quite painful. But she has to to drown out the sound of the guy next door who is also shouting into his microphone. Luckily she's just reading out what's written on the powerpoints so I can read what's on the screen while shutting out the noise.

The next guy is a much more practised presenter. He doesn't use the mike, walks about among the audience, gets reactions. But he keeps walking in front of the data projector, and actually stopping there when he makes a point. He draws too sharp a distinction between digital native and digital immigrant. His son tells him that learning has changed. "You were just in case learner, I'm a just in time learner." He says the question is not how smart are you but how are you smart? Digital natives work in 10-15 minute sprints, so do you and I (he omits to say that we always have). It's interesting how a presentation can have a fundamental flaw but still stimulate thinking. He presents as if he has found the rainbow pot, he's so excited he just has to tell people about it. But his content is about five years old I reckon. Not the sage on the stage but the guide on the side, that is so last year.

Intan Azura Mokhtar from Abu Dhabi - weblogs for non native English speakers. This electrified me. It didn't have a huge amount of substance - it was a case study of a group of seven female students. But its potential was huge. There are many more women in ME universities than men. (Why?)

It was about using blogs to learn English for students who were going to be English teachers themselves. Post course survey - positive response. Interesting reasons - able to type instead of handwriting, which was the norm in other classes. (How much of what they are saying is due to using computers and networking; not specific to blogs.) Female students tend not to open up in class, and found blogging liberating from this point of view. But good grief - everything was on blogger, and public. The women were aware of this and up for it.

One of those really provocative talks, mind's buzzing with ideas and issues - I want to know so much more - how much is it to do with gender; do women value their university education more; do men not bother because they know they'll get a job if they want one
do women see blogs as great because they're developing a subversive social network outside male control - if so what impact does the fact of the blogs being public have. how does this relate to patriarchy in the Middle East. Etc etc.

Reluctant learners - Patricia Shaw
Daloz effective teaching and mentoring - teaching about trust; looks interesting.
Mostly about AR students or those with specific difficulties.
Now they're getting excited about Learning Management Systems - yawn.
One woman in the audience hijacked the Q&A time by asking about D2L (Desire to learn) which the speaker is now rabbiting on about. Meanwhile the woman who asked the question has left.

I wonder how much you can tell about the orientation of universities by whether they call their systems Virtual Learning Environments or Learning Management Systems.

Another speaker fails to turn up; could be because he couldn't find the room. Not the easiest in the world to find by any means.

Kinney et al - web2 literature review
O'Reilly web2 as harnessing the power of collective intelligence. They restricted their search to conference proceedings 2007-08 higher education. Ruled out lower stages and business training.

blogs do nicely
wikis OK
students like podcasts, largely for controllability. Textbooks vs podcasts mixed results. Like mp3s but don't listen to lectures.
Second Life: 11 studies, inconclusive. Very different from other web2 stuff - kinaesthetic learning. does support standard content, but other tools do it better.

One audience member said in his experience of doing research, there is deeper learning online than ftf because of thinking time.

But the general conclusion from this session was that research into web2 tools is in its infancy, still at the describing and getting excited stage. There are more exacting and more useful stages to come.

A bit more Vancouver

View from the bedroom window. I like the reflections of buildings on buildings in this one.

And this is what it's like at night.

Oh, conferences...

I am amazed again at how much we are paying to this hotel chain that shall be nameless, and getting such unhelpful facilities. The conference wireless is flaky; it ought to be the biggest beefiest channel imaginable, but no, it falls over at the first sign of two people logging on together. To be fair it's been better today.

Most of the presentation rooms open out on to the public areas. The doors are open most of the time, and sometimes it's difficult to hear the presenter because of the noise outside. If people aren't talking, staff are rattling past with trolleys full of the next refreshment break. If the doors are closed, they rattle really loudly whenever anybody moves in and out.

For refreshment breaks, the hotel has eschewed caffeine. They are determined to ensure that we do not go hypoglycaemic. They provide freshly made pink lemonade, which is basically sugar with some lemon flavouring and pink colouring waved over it. And massive cookies, which many people here are wolfing down.

The employees are all dressed in black suits. They also have earwigs with flexi cords disappearing into the shoulders of their suits. They look like secret service agents; I expect to get jumped on whenever I take my camera out of my bag. But they're all pushing trolleys around with stuff on.

Sound proofing between many of the rooms is poor - they are ballrooms, divided into three or four smaller spaces, and what's going on next door interferes with here.

Presentation facilities have all worked so far. That's a blessing.

My abiding memory of this conference is going to be people sitting on the floor near where the few power sockets are. They have plenty of tables; none sited near the sockets. Whyyyyyyyy?

Update: I've just discovered why the soundproofing between the parts of divided rooms is so poor - the walls are not fixed, they sway when you lean against them, so the sound is leaking round all the edges.

Monday, October 26, 2009


The serious action starts tomorrow. Today so far has been for getting over jetlag (yuck) and seeing the city. Very nice place. Absolutely grim earlier this morning - cold, wet, dark, miserable. But it cleared up mid morning and I went out for a walk. I like the city scape very much. It's a kind of blended jumble. Many of the buildings seem to have been fitted in with no reference to other buildings around them, or at best only one of the other buildings around them, but it all works very nicely. Very difficult to get pictures of because there's always something in the way, usually trees or tram cables.

All those are a triumph of cropping with minimal tools.

All I've seen so far is beautifully flat, but there are mountains beyond.

The Sun Yat Sen classical Chinese garden in Chinatown.

Art gallery, advertising an exhibition, but it's not open. The steps are clearly useful though.

I can confidently say this is the best crepe maker in Vancouver.

And finally this shows what a tiny cog I am in a massive machine.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Informal learning and truffles

I was asked for a truffle recipe, and I was just going to post the recipe but there's a story behind so pull up your chair and settle down to read. I made some truffles yesterday and fed them to my work colleagues. None died. Some couldn't believe that I'd made them because they tasted so good. Some asked for the recipe. I was going to just give them the recipe but it's different from the written one I started with and that caused a moment's reflection on informal learning, which I have written about before.

This is the original recipe (don't follow it; the one I used is at the end):
250g butter
250g drinking chocolate powder
250g icing sugar
grated zest of half an orange
box of (insert brand name here) chocolate vermicelli

Combine and sieve chocolate powder and icing sugar
Put butter in a pan over a very low heat
Add combined chocolate powder and sugar
Add orange zest
Beat till fully mixed
Allow to cool
Roll into balls
Pour the vermicelli out on to a plate
Roll the balls around in the vermicelli till completely covered

Now that doesn't work for us for a variety of reasons. First of all, I have to cater for a family full of allergies. We don't do wheat, milk (in fact any cow product) or eggs. What fun is there left in life? So I know from experience that I have to adapt any recipe like this. I also know from experience what is likely to work and what is likely not to.

That's where the informal learning bit comes in. Where does the experience come from on which I was able to base the recipe for the unbelievable truffles? Well, it's all informal - I've never "been taught" any kind of cooking apart from a few recipes reluctantly learned from my mother (one of which I still use regularly). I've picked it all up from recipe books, recipes in magazines, watching TV, sampling things at other people's houses and generally experimenting. One of the key features, it strikes me, is having the confidence to try things, which, even in circumstances as minor as this, can be an issue. Try making something new to be greeted by the triple whammy of "it looks horrible", "will it be like the last thing you did?" and "has it got anything I'm allergic to in it? Did you wipe the entire kitchen surface down and thoroughly wash your hands? Did you make sure the pan was completely clean? Did you check the plates for breadcrumbs? Well, did you?????"

Two kinds of informal learning have come into play here. The first is a general knowledge about cooking, and knowing from experience that I don't have to follow recipes slavishly. Partly that has come from necessity: on occasion I have made something without having the right ingredient to hand. I can vaguely remember the slight anxiety I felt doing this as a young adult which very gradually turned into an understanding that I could be creative. (But not until well after I'd left my parents; being creative around them wasn't allowed. But that's a piece of personal history that will be different for everybody.)

Another feature of that general knowledge is that I have become alert over the years to adapting recipes in such a way as to use fewer implements. If I followed the recipe as above the kitchen would be littered with chocolate covered pans and implements, which is great if you're the one that gets to lick them, but which results in fewer truffles.

The second kind of informal learning has been specific to catering for allergies. Once we found we had allergies we obviously had to cater for them. Some of it was adaptation by trial and experimentation, some was adaptation by going and looking for specific recipes with non-wheat flour, non-milk margarine etc. It took me a while to realise that these recipes were just like all the original recipes that I'd tried - lots of unnecessary ingredients and lots of unnecessary work. So eventually I started to adapt these, and to be creative with my own ideas. It took some trial and error experience - you really need to experience the glutinosity of corn pasta if you are to work with it successfully.

So how did I adapt the truffle recipe? First of all, change the ingredients:

1 orange
250g soya margarine (wheat free, milk free etc)
250g cocoa (we use organic, apart from that just plain bog standard cocoa)
250g icing sugar
box chocolate vermicelli (carefully selected for ingredients - you wouldn't believe how many ingredients sugar strands have, including wheat starch)

and the method:
First of all, I didn't use the orange in yesterday's truffles. I forgot to get one. It does make a nice addition, but if you do use the zest you need to grate it really, really fine and that's a lot of work, so it's optional.

Second, I've never used the heating method. I think it's there just to make the job of combining a bit easier. I harbour a suspicion that it might have strange chemical effects on soya marge (though we use it a lot for sauces and so on), and it results in a sticky, sticky, sticky mix, so I just don't use it. Also avoids getting a pan dirty.

Third I don't do the sieving thing. Unnecessary. Also means no sieve to wash up. (I originally didn't do this because I couldn't be bothered. That's how I discovered it wasn't actually necessary.)

So what I did yesterday was:

Combine marge, cocoa and sugar in a bowl and mix with a fork. Start slowly otherwise icing sugar goes everywhere. And keep going for a while - takes some time and some elbow. But eventually and unexpectedly the mix goes smooth.

Pour the vermicelli out on a plate.

Ditch the fork. Pick small amounts of mix out with your fingers and roll in the palms of your hands. Some sticks to your hands. Don't lick your fingers yet.

Roll each ball around in the vermicelli till covered and put on a plate. Repeat until all the mix is used up.

At this stage even hand warmth has left them quite squashy. Put in the fridge to cool for a few hours. Control yourself.

Take them out after a few hours, let them warm up again to somewhere near room temperature. (You can have them straight from the fridge, but there's something about cold chocolate that doesn't appeal to me.)

Impress your friends.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Tao of word count

Students often take word counts far too seriously, and at the same time not seriously enough. The instant you see the phrase "word count" in the assignment book you start to worry about entirely the wrong things. You focus on the minutiae - does the title count, do the section headings count, does the bibliography count, the references in the text, are you sure?? are dates one word or three, what about hyphenated words, do footnotes count, do quotes count, if you put somebody's initials in do they count, what about appendices, how much can you go over without being penalised, how much can you go under without being penalised, what about words in diagrams, what about words in tables, and so on and on and on and on and on.

Instead of writing the assignment, you're worrying about the word count all the way through. I can tell this because often the first question that is asked is "How far can we go over without being penalised?" The answer is usually 10%. Then you set out to write to the word count + 10%, which is entirely the wrong way to do things. If I give you a 1000 word essay to write, I'm interested in you writing 1000 words, not 1100. The extra 100 is for you to stop dinning in my ear about diagrams, references, dates and hyphenations, because you have a whole hundred word buffer to deal with that stuff.

Assignments are exercises in conciseness. That's what we aim to teach all the time. The reason why is that conciseness aids learning. If you can explain something concisely, that means you've learned it well, and you can explain it well. If you can't explain something concisely, that means, nearly always, that you haven't yet learned it well enough, so you need to revisit it - or you need to revisit the way you've explained it.

So when you've written your 1000 word assignment, and it comes to 1105 words, you look at what you've written. And the question in your mind should not be "Is that part of the word count?", it should be "Which bits can I write more concisely?"

However, boundaries do need to be reasonably clear, so here is a handy and short three part guide to what to look for and what to do. I should note, by the way, that my students will get more detailed guidance than this before their first assignment.

1) Check up on, be familiar with, any guidance given for this course and this assignment in the course companion and the assignment book. Make sure that you're aware of them.

2) After that, when it comes to small things - the dates, the section headings, initials and so on - aim at the word count, and let the buffer (10% or whatever is stipulated) take care of the rest.

3) For the big things - quotes, tables, footnotes, diagrams - go on the following principle. What you've written is either there to gain you marks, or it isn't. If it's there to gain marks, then you should regard it as part of the word count. If, as some students have tried to argue from time to time, it's not, then what the heck is it doing there?????

Follow those basic principles and you won't need to worry about word count any more, so you can concentrate on writing the best assignment you can.