technology

Making Moodle boring

TL at Moodle HQ

Moodle Education Researcher Know this guy?

Since starting to work at Moodle HQ as Education Researcher, a number of people, including my family, have been curious about what is it like at Moodle HQ, what do I do in my role and so on. Well, here are the pictures, the rest are words…

In short, I borrow Martin’s words from the iMoot introduction, I am an “interface between educators and Moodle developers”. Moodle team does not want to build a static, shiny thing that nobody uses but a living, changing thing that people can use to achieve primarily pedagogical, not technological goals. And I am here to help them (ummm, us!) do just that.

While recognising the importance of the position, my role is NOT to be ‘the guru’ on everything educational but rather a highly collaborative and proactive creator and ‘curator’ of sound educational practices within and beyond the Moodle community.

I already have a full plate and I love it. I am currently working closely with Helen Foster, Moodle Community Manager, on redesigning the sections on teaching and pedagogy on Moodle.org and Moodle Docs, making it easier and clearer to access, understand, use and ‘get’ Moodle by ‘an average teacher’ (I know you are laughing at this label…me too :-)   ).  I also work on usability of tools and features, I chip in a teacher’s perspective in developers meeting, I am going through iMoot presentations mining ideas (yes, including our panel), then there is planning for a large worldwide survey of educational uses of Moodle, and more… But enough about me.

Even on the first day, I was struck by the enormity and complexity of Moodle project. There is a stunning volume of code, not to mention ideas, changes, fixes, meetings, bugs, checks, test etc behind what you see on Moodle screen every day. I won’t go in minute details but let me tell you that this is truly an amazing logistical and intellectual exercise.

The place looks like the United Nations. David and Petr drop in from Czech Republic in our working ‘chat’, Penny is live from New Zealand on big screen skyping with Martin and Andrew about something, Eloy is talking from Spain to Sam sitting next to me about some piece of code as if they were sitting next to each other, Anthony logs in from US during our regular meetings, Helen and I are looking forward to many of our meetings, me in Perth and her in Belgium… not to mention the active worldwide Moodle Partners network on top of that. All effortless, relaxed yet very focused on task at hand – listening to our community and making Moodle better.

The ethics of Open Source projects like Moodle is something to aspire towards in any school. We don’t make something ‘perfect’ then ‘lock it down’ and claim superiority. We put our best effort out there, constantly and publicly, then invite people to pull it apart and change and improve it to fit a range of contexts and uses. Constructive critique, not platitudes, is seen not as a threat but music to our ears (yes, of course we get a warm and fuzzy from kind words too :-) , we are human after all and very much so). Transfer to school, when was the last time you met a teacher who invited you to genuinely ‘pull apart’ their professional practice (unless they were forced to), have a conversation about the underlying, possibly contentious philosophical (not just safe, technical) assumptions,  then change it together perhaps? You have? Great!!! I’d love to hear from you…

On a lighter note … I suck at foosball, love the coffee machine (you were right Tim :-) ), know where to find good Vietnamese rolls for lunch around us,  and how to trigger a very noisy security alarm in the morning. I am learning :-)

What about that ‘making Moodle boring’ title? Everything I wrote so far is shiny and good…

It actually refers to a comment I posted today on Ira Socol’s excellent post titled ‘What is Technology?’. Ira looks at how advances in technology, both as an enabler and disabler, become normalised and become seen as unremarkable, even essential over time (ever though that a pencil, desk or book was once a bleeding-edge technology?). Here is my comment:

“Ah, the fallacy of exceptionalism just never fades does it? We, as in (still) larger body of teachers, admins, parents, politicians & pundits, react with either fear or awe (hence the exceptionalism label) when it comes to the digital technology afforded to us today. And that’s not doing us much good, on so many levels…

Only yesterday I was sitting with colleagues (all software developers, passionate & veeery good at what they do) at my new work at Moodle HQ and joked: “You guys are trying to make this thing [Moodle] exciting, shiny, new and powerful, my job is to make it boring and ‘normal’. ” I got a few confused looks…

I explained:”The sooner educators move beyond the point of fear & awe of Moodle [or any other tech] and see it as a tool just like a pen, desk, whiteboard, book etc. the sooner they will be used better and more frequently to reach the pedagogical goals (add social, economic, environmental etc). Let’s stop fetishising tech, work out what it’s good for and then use it do get where we want with the people we teach, work with.”

So there you have it – my goal! What’s yours?

PS Big thanks to all the people who have congratulated and wished me well on my new role through Twitter, email or comments. Much appreciated.

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By human on February 17, 2010 | 1. Moodle, 3. Change? | 9 comments
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Provoke or inject

Smith Family Ad

Sounds familiar?

This image, scanned from The Weekend Australian magazine ‘hit the chord’ with me today. I heard the lines written many times at my (now ex) school, I have seen kids who have fallen into this spiral and also seen the kids who stood up and resisted it well. It’s a great reminder of what really goes on in that place called school, and which can be so wonderful and yet so brutal at the same time.

But this post isn’t so much about the vicious spiral of disadvantage that we so often avert the eyes from. It is about the similarities between great advertisers and great teachers. If you think that is a shocking comparison between a commercial, money-making enterprise and a noble, free, human endeavour of education…well, you may as well read the rest.

A good friend of mine is a copywriter and creative director of a reputable advertising agency here in Perth. He often tells me stories about how important it is to know the audience a particular ad is ‘pitched’ to. Cut the story short, he spends about as much time, if not more, on finding out about them (audience, target market) than the production of the ad itself. Why?

Because my adman friend knows, just like a good teacher, that information is only a provocation of meaning, not the meaning itself. Unless it strikes a chord, and the chord being the experience, belief, ability, aspiration, background etc of the receiver, information about anything is… meaningless. We pretend that (most of) what we write, tell, show will be ‘injected’ into people’s minds exactly as we wanted them, and get upset if they ‘don’t get it’ (enter politicans declaring “every child MUST” while, if you ask any half-decent teacher they’ll tell you that “every child MIGHT” would be far more accurate).

We are so preoccupied in producing information: static, lifeless documents, pixels and scribbles (including this post, yes!), increasingly easy to duplicate and disseminate. Yet lifeless information only becomes the coveted ‘learning’ or ‘knowledge’ we speak of so much at the point of always tacit (Polanyi), contextual human interpretation. It is very easy to share what you think these days but it is hard as ever to share thinking.

By the way, I prefer the language of ‘what we learn’ and ‘what we know’ over ‘learning’ and ‘knowledge’ – the latter terms sound like what we learn and what we know (the always tacit subtleties of our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc) can be somehow captured and treated as ‘objective’ and explicit, a thing. Say, whose ‘knowledge’ is better: yours, since you got 15% more on the test about cancer, or mine, whose beloved grandma died from cancer ? Ridiculous isn’t it?

And what does the preoccupation with injecting information look like in schools? Well, in mainstream classes at least, how much time do we spend learning about the kids we have in front of us at the start of the school year (or any other time for that matter)? What are we forced to know more about – content, syllabus and admin procedures OR whom of the kids may have certain learning disabilities, who might have been severely bullied recently, or who might have overcome a major obstacle in life and now aspires to become a writer or something… How are we going to provoke meaning well, instead of trying to inject it, in the people we work with if we don’t know a darn thing about them?

Teachers are being increasingly told to ‘personalise, individualise, customise teaching to each student’ (with same or less resources that is, while technology is seen as the panacea for that…yeah right). At the same time, teachers are now being increasingly told to cut any ’socialising’ with their students online (the world they increasingly populate), where they could really sometimes unearth kids interests, passions, aspirations, fears, concerns. It’s not all peachy, I agree (see my position on the issue written earlier this year) but aren’t we cutting off an important line to provoke, not inject meaning?

Finally, what could my adman friend learn from teachers? We are in a similar boat as far as provoking meaning goes. But …  our employer, parents, and every pundit out there wants us to get to ALL the people to ‘get’ what we say, teach, explain – not just the “15% of the market”.

And that’s tough. And worth it.

PS I may be out of class this year (working for Moodle) but you can’t get a teacher out of me :-)

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By human on January 24, 2010 | 4. Teaching | 4 comments
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Would you follow Anne Frank?

Thanks to Twitter, YouTube and other social media around these days, we read the messages and watch the images from what seems to be increasingly dangerous streets of Iran. These are raw, unedited fragments of human reality, taken just a few seconds before we can see them. We often pass these on to others. There are no gatekeepers – just real people caught in the rip of history.

Do you know the story of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager caught in the horrible rip of history called World War 2? Have you ever wondered what would happen if Twitter was around then and you could receive her updates? Would you pass on (or ‘retweet’ in Twitter lingo – RT) her most thoughtful, most dramatic tweets on. What if she (not some boring pop star) had 1 million followers? All passing on her messages?

“Jazzalujah” (don’t know his real name) is 21, lives in the US and he wonders just that. And thanks to him and the post on the Lost Liberty Cafe, you may (again) think about the human potential of social media to – change the course of history.

Need more examples of ‘what if?’

How about soldiers or civilians sending updates during the Vietnam War? What would that do to the public opinion? Would the madman Kim Jong Il of North Korea be so daringly and dangerously powerful if millions could photograph the starving children in his country and send the pictures around the world? Would the Berlin Wall have fallen any earlier if STASI couldn’t block a thing called Twitter? Of course, you can add a few of your own…

Think about these every time someone tells you social media is a “complete waste of time”. It can be. It can also be a beacon of humanity like we have never had in history.

PS Please note that Anne Frank I refer to above was a real person who died in Auschwitz in 1944. She is not the ‘Anne Frank’ on Twitter, who bears the photo of the real Anne Frank and updates her status regulalry.

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By Tomaz Lasic on June 23, 2009 | 5. Twitter | 9 comments
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10 minutes ahead

Oh, the orbital language of ‘21st century skills’ and ‘leadership’.

If you are an educator keen on using technology and wanting others to join you and benefit from it, don’t try to get them to move into “21st century” – just get them to move 10 minutes ahead to the point where they have just learned something simple and useful that will work in their class.

Use the gamers approach to learning – easy entry, easy win then level up and try again. Move them as a colleague, with empathy (“walk in their shoes”) not sympathy (“oh, you poor thing”).

Dean Groom tells it better - thanks mate for this gem. You can tell it below.

(A short blog post never felt better)

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By Tomaz Lasic on June 4, 2009 | 2. Professional development | 3 comments
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4th century skills

Any Questions?

And that’s BC!

Recently, I have replied to a few posts by fellow bloggers with what may have seemed a bit negative attitude towards the marriage of digital technology and education (I use the word digital because chalk was once called a ‘technology’, now it’s … just chalk).

Here is the gist of my thoughts as posted on Jez Cope’s blog post titled Why use technology in teaching? (see some interesting links from comments!). Time to come clean, you be the judge:

[Why use technology in teaching?] For my 2c – it is because with technology (by that I mean digital technology you and I are using right now) we can develop not just “21st century skills” (whatever that means because we don’t exactly know how the century is going to turn out do we…) but “4th century BC” skills [corrected ☺] that some of the old Greek wise heads were talking about – democracy, participation, freedom of expression & thought, active citizenship … you know those pesky old things that never seemed to have gone out of fashion with thoughtful people [and for which millions have thought about, enacted, fought and died for over centuries].

As long as technology is used to those goals it is a professional travesty not to consider it in education. Sadly, we are often more focused on the science of technology (the ‘best version’ or ‘latest tool’ or ‘most efficient system’) to kinda forget the massive opportunity to change not what and how we know, teach & learn but what we are and become. That’s the ball game for me!

Epistemology to ontology. Knowing to being. If it sounds a bit abstract, “high & mighty” – well, it is. But it is a direction, a purpose, a possible place to ‘come home’ to. I don’t think about it all the time, just like I don’t think about my children every single moment. But I do and like to care about it.

What effects is this ever-changing chatter of class sizes, rostering, assessment accuracy, not to mention instructional technology, going to have for what we and those we interact with want to be(come) – no, I don’t mean a career.

Put another way: “What is this going to make out of us and the kids we teach?” Simply collecting and amassing the arsenal of ‘technologies and strategies’ without really answering this question is like dressing all up with nowhere to go.

We should take technology for granted but we definitely should not take technology as ‘good’ for granted. Never forget that not long ago, some of the world’s most creative, intelligent and passionate people collaborated and used the cutting edge technology to create a …. nuclear bomb.

While hugely important, the question “can we teach and learn better with technology” must always be preceded, or at least tempered with, “can we be better human beings with and because of technology”?

I reckon we can, time will tell.

PS Just as I posted this I read a story about China blocking social networking sites – ’nuff said!

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By Tomaz Lasic on June 3, 2009 | 3. Change? | 2 comments
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Twitter saves lives

The images, sounds and stories from the massive bushfires in Victoria and their horrible toll have been crossing the globe over the last week. It has truly been a tragedy and it continues to rage.

There are dozens of stories of missing the loved ones, survival, reunions, hopes, uncertainty coming through the ‘conventional’ mass media. But driving to work this morning I heard a powerful story on the local ABC Radio how social networking sites, and particularly Twitter, kept people informed and in touch with each other during the worst.

While the circumstances in which the usefulness of Twitter has come forward here are awfully sad and disturbing, it is another (eg. the recent China earthquake) great example of the power of the immediate, raw, human communication Twitter and social networking sites can provide.

Enough writing, have a listen to the story. And while you are at it, please consider donating to the Red Cross appeal for the victims of the Victorian bushfires.

Go people – dig deep in and help!

Yours truly @lasic

PS. Twitter community does not just help bushfire victims. See what Twestival is all about – a fantastic worldwide charity event indeed.

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By Tomaz Lasic on February 12, 2009 | 5. Twitter | A comment?
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An analogue meal with kindred digital educators

connectA couple of days ago I attended a dinner with a world-renowned educator and presenter Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, her family, and a few fellow Perth bloggers and ed-tech enthusiasts. The company included a famous chocoholic and THE Edublogger Sue Waters, whom I met personally for the first time, Jean Anning, Jane Lowe and Paul Reid. The evening was very enjoyable and sprinkled with a wonderful dose of fun-spirited Aussie/American bashing and ‘war stories’ – all in all, we hit it off well (I am just not sure how much Sheryl’s family members enjoyed our passionate and often noisy rants, complaints and (mutual) inspirations).

I was particularly pleased and in many ways reassured to hear Sheryl’s passion to push for greater use of ICT and particularly the Web 2.0 (for lack of better word) tools with ‘tough’ schools and kids like ours (see my previous, cathartic post for details – thank you good people for your comments). And as we started getting into the thick of discussion, we recognised that not only the group of people present, but a wider community of bloggers, ed-tech educators etc. (you know the labels…) is vulnerable to the ‘echo chamber’ effect. We all pretty much agree on many things, we fuel each other’s passion, we share and exchange ideas, in short – we ‘get it’. That’s all good but we act mostly in our own individual spaces, despite creation of large (inter)national networks, so easily afforded by the tools whose usefulness and transformative power we try to unveil to others. We are doing great things but without generating the amount of synergy that would make powers-that-be stand up and go beyond, in the words of Seymour Papert (thank you for correction Bryn) ‘strapping a jet engine [of technology] on a horse and cart [of 18th century model of education]‘.

Why is that? More…

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