Workshopping the workshop

It’s come to my attention that the way I deliver face to face development workshops is broken. Not badly; I’ve never been the type to do the stand-and-deliver here-is-my-wisdom-in-a-powerpoint type of workshop that you often see (everything I do is hands-on with lots of discussion, and well-reviewed), but I still feel like there’s quite a gap between the style of education I’m promoting and the actual delivery mode of workshops. However, I’m also very aware of the fact that there is a certain style of workshop that most academics expect and are comfortable with (there is a reason the aforementioned style of development is commonplace). My colleague and I are about to start drafting the workshop program next year, and my intention is to treat it as a small-scale project. I’d like to get to a stage where I think the content and delivery structure of our workshops is more authentic. I’ve outlined some thoughts on online training in a previous post, but face-to-face training is something I’ve yet to really solidify ideas on.

So my question for you is – if you could design your ‘ideal’ CPD workshop to attend, what features would you be looking for? What’s defined the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ PD you’ve been to? If you’re someone who delivers training, how do you cut the balance between expectations and intentions?

And my final question – is the workshop even the best model? Or are we barking up the wrong tree entirely?

Career paths and other ruminations

I’m currently enrolled in a coursework + project masters. The choice of course was made at the time based on the fact I had no guaranteed position at the university, and felt that a full research masters would be less relevant if I went back to teaching. Now, though, I’m one semester in and have a permanent job on an academic classification. While my current course does allow entry to a PhD on completion, I’m starting to wonder if it would be of more direct relevance to switch to a full research degree. If I am being completely honest, the coursework component has felt a little like ticking boxes – I can’t say that I have really learned anything outside of basic research methods. Which is not the fault of the course since it’s not designed for people in my line of work, but has been frustrating nonetheless. The decision to switch courses is based on the fact that a full research program is more directly relevant to my career and allows me scope to develop as a researcher rather than just marking time (and carries no HECS…!), but the converse argument is that sticking w/ the current course will be faster and easier, so I can then get on with a doctorate.


This post is research.

Yesterday I was asked to review a paper for a colloquium. The paper was describing (fairly outdated) ways that researchers can collate and archive web artefacts (blog posts and so on). The paper itself is neither here nor there, but the subject matter had some interesting repercussions on my still-new-to-research brain. When I read the paper, my first thought was ‘But this is what I do every day, only more efficiently’, and my second thought was ‘Am I missing a boat here?’. It had previously not occurred to me that practices that I simply thought were part of an efficient workflow, others were writing up as research. It took a bit of unpacking on Twitter (thanks @djplaner and @s_palm) to fully get my head around. Turns out most of what I do is potential research – Twitter networking, reflective blogging, training design, iPadding, Diigo/Instapaper/RSS/Mendeley research workflow etc etc. These were all things I just considered ‘getting on with it’, and ‘research’ was something in-depth, planned and conceptual that happened seperately. Not so, apparently.

It raises two questions for me. The first is – this might be how the research game goes, but is it really legitimate? Has it evolved this way simply because the pressure to publish is so great? Can anything now be considered research if you’re clever about writing it up?

The second is – how do I reconcile this idea as a researcher? Time on papers on things I consider run of the mill is time spent away from my intended research trajectory. Yet in the current research environment, papers talk and only blogging about things means that  a lot of people who could potentially benefit from research on good practice may never read it, because blogs aren’t on their radar. Although, there’s probably a research niche on the fact that often the most valuable information isn’t contained in journal articles, too…

Would love your thoughts on this. Is the system right? Is it broken? Do I need to jump on the train?

Moodle, dailies and angry birds

I’ve just been reading this post by @deangroom and aside from it being an excellent concept it’s got me thinking. Having never really been anything more than a passive gamer (although I did have an extended love affair with all things Mario on the N64 as a teenager), I’ve recently fallen prey to Angry Birds. Angry Birds is an iPad/iPhone game which involves flinging assorted angry birds at various structures holding green pigs, which one must destroy. It is insanely addictive and insanely frustrating.

However. The idea of dailies has got me thinking about exactly what it is that keeps me flinging angry birds day after day, despite my n00b skills. Essentially, it’s the thrill of the conquest – because achievement is broken up into small levels, my ROI for effort is quite good, and I can play for as little or as long as I like whilst still feeling like I’ve achieved something. The satisfaction of killing the pigs keeps me coming back to see if I can get more skills to kill more pigs in better ways. The other genius of Angry Birds is that there’s more than one way to complete a level. You can get an average score for a one-star completion that still allows you to progress to the next level, but once you’re a bit more skilled, you can return to that level and play more efficiently to get two- and three-star completions. Alternatively, you can just be skilled in the first place and knock over three-stars on every level. This is not me. But it would be nice. Additionally, my husband has now got Angry Birds on his iPod Touch, so there’s a nice element of competition.

Currently I’m charged with the task of designing the training program for our impending move to Moodle. With any training program, the real issue is how to get people to engage, particularly those who don’t self-select. Dailies might be at least a partial solution. I’m thinking of a course where staff login once a day, every day, for a very short period of time (Dean makes the excellent point that no-one is too busy to spare 10-15 minutes). The course is built on levels, which must be completed to ‘unlock’ the next level (using Moodle conditionals). Each level can be completed with one-, two- or three-star skills. It’s designed for one level to be done daily, but restrictions are only on completion, not time, so motivated people can rip through the course as fast as they like. Conversely, time-poor people don’t have to try and cram in everything in one go then immediately forget everything (which is the usual mode of operation in LMS training). Let’s just hope that if I build it, they will come.

A side note that I find interesting is the concept of cheating. If I’m getting frustrated on an Angry Birds level I can’t beat, I’ll go to YouTube and look up walkthroughs. My husband thinks this is cheating. I think it’s smart. In a Moodle dailies course, I’d encourage people to ‘cheat’. The more they go outside the course to source tips and skills the better. Bring it on, I say.

Development of Research Blogs

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.7252381&w=450&h=325&fv=]

I’ll admit this presentation was posted here accidentally. I had vodpodded it to use as a potential resource in a workshop, but didn’t realise I had auto-publish set up from Vodpod. However, rather than deleting it, I thought I’d use it as encouragement to actually write a post.

Professional blogging is something I struggle with time- and inspiration-wise. Research blogging even more so. I am very guilty of not following my own advice. Must do better.

What interests me about research blogging is that it’s changing what academic writing looks like. Once upon a time, published research meant a book, chapter or journal article. That was it. Every time you wanted to publish your research you had to submit to the powers that be and wait for approval. Not so now. Anyone can publish their research at any point, in any form, in a blog. The rate, scope and quality of research information available to us has skyrocketed. There is a vibrant and dynamic community of self-published researchers to be accessed online.

My question is – when will research methodology catch up? Why am I still asked to search locked-down, tired databases for journal content? Why do some look at a list of blog posts and Slideshare links in a bibliography and scoff? What qualifies ‘paper’ literature as legit?

EndNote, Mendeley and old school software design

Ever since yesterday I’ve been evangelising to anyone who will stand still for long enough about this, so you’re going to hear about it here, too. The topic? Referencing.

Anyone who has ever had to do any sort of research knows that referencing is tedious and horrible. And for years, a tool has existed to make this task even more tedious and horrible – EndNote. I know some people think it’s the bees’ knees (hi @gsyoung..!), but most people I know would gladly see it die a slow and painful death given any sort of alternative. I know people who have referenced entire PhD theses manually just to avoid using EndNote.

The issues I have with EndNote is that it’s closed, its UI is badly designed, it doesn’t play well with others and you really have to fudge to do any kind of cloud syncing. The web interface is not brilliant either. It offends my sense of efficiency no end. But it still seems to be the thing everyone uses.

More recently, Zotero has popped up. It’s better (and is FOSS), but it’s tied to Firefox and still doesn’t do everything I wanted it to do.

Yesterday, I found out about Mendeley (never underestimate the power of whinging on Twitter – my EndNote whinge was pulled by Mendeley marketing and garnered an @ reply in 3 seconds flat). Mendeley is cloud-based (tick), can auto-add from any browser (tick), plays nicely with any word processor, not just Word (tick), allows you to organise and annotate PDF articles (tick), has mobile apps (tick), and most powerfully, has LinkedIn-style networking features – meaning you can find, trawl, subscribe to and recommend other researcher’s references. It also integrates with Facebook and Twitter. Combined with Diigo for web annotation, I finally now have an efficient and connected referencing workflow.

It’s brought to my mind the idea of the new school of software/apps, and where software is heading. Outside of the specialist domain, the day of the DVD is about done. I thought I’d map some thoughts on the differences:

Old School

  • Closed & proprietary
  • Exists in physical form (CD, DVD, USB etc)
  • Paid
  • Tied to one device; OS-specific
  • Focus on complexity & power over UI
  • Doesn’t integrate with other software or tools, or integrates with a specific few

New School

  • Open or open-source
  • Web-based and/or browser/OS-agnostic
  • If not web-based, syncs over cloud (best-case scenario involves both – eg Dropbox, Mendeley, Evernote etc)
  • Multi-format (web, mobile, desktop)
  • Free, or freemium
  • Focus on UI and niche tools
  • Integrates with multiple tools, inc social media

Companies that are still trying to fit into the former model (Microsoft, I’m looking at you…) need to take a good, hard look at their relevancy in today’s web market. So EndNote – it’s sayonara from me. It’s been grand.

What do you actually do with an iPad?

The question was tabled recently – what do you actually do with an iPad? A lot of people like the idea of them, but when it comes to actually using one, they have a hard time articulating what they might use it for.

It’s a question of perspective. The genius of the iPad is not so much what it does, but how it lets you work. And I think until you have adopted a certain way of working, an iPad won’t necessarily make sense to you beyond a neat thing to access the internet with. The following is a list of things you can do with the way you work – understanding what you can do with an iPad will naturally follow.

  • Get yourself in the cloud. Dropbox, iDisk, GoogleDocs, whatever. If you don’t currently use cloud-based services, an iPad either won’t make a lot of sense to you, or will be a giant pain for you to use. Cloud services mean your stuff is always where you want it, when you want it. Get used to working this way. Your home computer will thank you, too (as will any computer you ever have to use anywhere).
  • Get yourself connected. The iPad makes it so easy to use social media there’s really no reason to keep putting it off. Twitter, for instance, is beautiful on the iPad. Twitter + Instapaper is a configuration not optional for any researcher. If you’re feeling brave, Flipboard is an extremely elegant and powerful way to mine social media for professional learning.
  • Get thee to an RSS aggregator. Trawling RSS feeds over lunch is a terribly efficient way to research and stay connected, and there are a veritable cornucopia of iPad apps that sync with popular readers.
  • Get used to working electronically. If you refuse to read documents on-screen and routinely mark or take notes by hand, the iPad will do nothing but frustrate you. Quell the instinct to hit ‘print’ and get your head around an electronic document workflow before you buy. Even without an iPad, it’s an easy way to make a very significant step towards reducing your carbon footprint.
  • Get used to using your fingers to do things. Unplug your portable laptop mouse and use your trackpad. If you worship at the altar of the mouse or stylus, you’re in for a frustrating ride.
  • Mix business and pleasure. If you’re the kind of person who never allows anything recreational near your work computer, you’ll be missing half the story on an iPad.
  • Repeat to yourself 1000 times, I do not need a file manager. If you go in expecting one, you will very quickly lose it and fling the iPad across the room in frustration. If you routinely use the ‘Open recent’ function in applications rather than opening a file from your file manager, you’ve already won half the battle.

Once you’ve conquered the above and bought an iPad, the very first thing you should do with it is either hand it to the nearest child, or sit next to an old lady on a plane/train/bus with it. These people will very immediately, and very naturally, without realising, show you just how powerful it can be. The next thing you should do with it is sit down and poke every possible thing on it. And finally, before doing anything, ask yourself ‘I wonder if I could do this on the iPad instead’. Chances are, you can.