Thursday, 26 May 2011

Assumptions in a Virtual World

In one of my previous blogs, I talked about my daily commute to London. One morning recently, my train pulled in to City Thameslink station and the usual crowd got up and left the train. In the ensuing - and brief - silence which followed, a woman standing at the door of the carriage called out "Is this City Thameslink?" Without giving it any thought, nor looking over my shoulder to see, I made a very presumptive judgement about her. "The station name's written on the wall! It's just been announced by the driver! Stupid woman." I didn't say that obviously, but I most definitely thought it!

But then I had another thought, "Hang on, who's being stupid here? What assumptions have I just made without checking? Maybe she's blind; or deaf; or both! Maybe she has learning difficulties, or is Dyslexic! Did I hear a foreign accent? Is English not her first language?" You see where I'm going with this. Because I couldn't see her or be bothered to find out anything about her, I made a horrible, knee-jerk, inappropriate judgement about her because of that one heard question. There, I'm glad I got that off my chest - confession is good for the soul!

Then I got to thinking how similar that situation is to that in which I have found myself when running virtual classroom sessions or webinars. My guess is that the majority of us don't use webcam or video in these sessions (bandwidth, etc), so we rely on our participants' voices, their web chat, their interaction with mark-up tools, responses to questions or polls, for us to get any sense of who they really are and the circumstances in which they are participating in our session.

But what don't we know or can tell from this? Are they private? Are they in a shared office? Can they interact freely? Are they shy? Do they have difficulty in seeing the screen? Do they need glasses? Are they 'newbies' to this environment? Do they not like the sound of their own voice? Is English not their first language? Is this session engaging enough? Am I encouraging participation with my questions, my polls, my arguments?

In the classroom, we identify some of these issues because we can see the learner and actively flex to engage them as we go along. Do we pay enough attention to the quiet ones in our online sessions, without those clues?

We talk a lot about non-verbal communication and how we rely on it to contextualise our face-to-face or classroom sessions. As my team and I look to retool, revitalise and revive our Virtual Classroom sessions and uptake, maybe we need to pay even more - and urgent - attention to our virtual interpretation and communication skills.

Have you got any similar experiences and/or hints and tips to share?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Man on the Moon

Being something of an armchair astronomer (remember, I know a little about a lot…), I was recently asked to write a short, 300 word piece, on the subject of ‘The Moon’, for a local community newsletter. That was the extent of the brief; so I wrote and submitted the following:

TITLE: "There is no dark side of the Moon really..."

Towards the end of Pink Floyd's seminal 1973 album, Dark Side of The Moon, a character can be heard saying "There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact, it's all dark." Sounds deeply mystical and meaningful, doesn't it? But it's wrong.

We assume that, because we always see the same 'face' of the Moon turned towards us, the other side must be dark. However, we see the different phases of the Moon each month - New, 1st Quarter, Half, 3rd Quarter, New - when the sun illuminates it from different angles as it orbits the Earth every 29 days. And remember, when we have an eclipse, the Moon comes between us and the Sun and blocks it from view for a few magical moments. At that point 'our' side is the dark side and the Sun is shining fully onto the other side.

We also assume that the Moon doesn’t rotate like the Earth does (our 24hr day). But it actually rotates one full turn during those 29 days!

Don't believe me? Draw a Man in the Moon face onto a ping-pong ball (your ‘Moon’), turn it to face another larger, spherical object (your ‘Earth’), and then, WITHOUT TWISTING your hand, move it in a circle round your Earth. You'll see the 'face' eventually turns away from the 'Earth' until, half way round, it has turned its back and faces away from the Earth altogether! To keep the same 'face' towards the earth, you HAVE to twist your ‘Moon’ round so that by the time you return to the starting point, you have rotated it by one full turn. Our Earth Month is one Lunar Day!

The truth is there is no dark side of the Moon really. Full Stop. (End of article)

So why am I sharing this article with you in my blog? What has this got to do with my professional life and interests - or indeed, yours? Well, the clue is the last paragraph, where I suggest a practical exercise to explain the concept. It’s not a theoretical exercise. I wanted to make an out-of-this-world scientific fact into something tangible. Having read up the science bit (fttp://, I did it myself to be sure I fully understood the principle, and then I talked my son through doing the same thing with a grape and an orange, to check that it was an understandable - and do-able - practical exercise. He learned something he didn’t know about our Moon, without us getting bogged down in complex discussions about orbital dynamics and tidal locking.

You see, I’m not a book learner; I need to do and see things for myself for them to make sense. That’s how I developed as an IT trainer many years ago, by learning to use software for myself. For example, any time I had to write a new word processing course, I used the actual software itself to write the course materials – Word, WordPerfect, AmiPro etc. - so I could walk the talk when it came to sharing with my students. It's how I'm learning to blog!

My limited knowledge and understanding of astronomy came initially from buying a pair of binoculars 20 years ago and pointing them at the moon (I was really trying to see Halley's Comet - never did). I subscribed to an astronomy magazine, which really whetted my appetite to see more. So I bought a telescope and hunted down some of the planets - Mars, Venus, Jupiter - and I will never forget the thrill I experienced the first time I saw the Rings of Saturn for myself through that telescope. Theory became reality by translating it into action, discovery and by looking closer.

That’s how I learn, and I’ve used that approach with many others over the years in IT Learning & Development. Make it real, make it challenging, make it fun and they'll be with you all the way. Don’t, and they won’t.

What are your techniques for keeping your training alive for your learners?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Under the Commute

Another beautiful day in Sussex on Sunday, so @MandyRG and I hit the road to Ardingly Reservoir for a country walk - nothing as strenuous or as challenging as @BenedictBeau's recent South Downs walk ( mind you - and then I took myself off for another hour to walk down the Ouse to have a look at the Balcome Railway Viaduct and take some photos (see below).

There are a host of facts about this 1841, 37-arch viaduct, which I won't repeat here - you can find all that stuff easily on the Web.

So, why did I need to get up close and personal to this piece of our industrial architecture?  Well, apart from my natural geeky curiosity about all things 'trains', I actually pass over this viaduct on my daily rail commute to and from London, and have often admired the surrounding countryside as we sweep overhead at 75 mph.  I thought it would be cool to see both the viaduct and its setting from another perspective.

I was reminded of @StephanieDedhar's post last week "Looking at things the right way", where she discusses how seeing the same topic from different perspectives can add weight and understanding to a learning experience ( 

And talking of perspectives, I can't think of a better illustration of that than the second photo, looking through the piers of the viaduct, from one end to the other.  They were built with hollow centres (to save bricks?) and can only be seen in all their glory by being directly underneath the structure.

As this picture was being taken on autotimer, a train thundered by overhead and I smiled to myself that, come Tuesday, I'll be doing that again myself, with several hundred other regular commuters. But I'll never take that particular part of my journey for granted again - I've been under the commute.