Learning s’more skills at Wordcamp St. Louis

Over the weekend I had the chance – the pleasure – to attend Wordcamp St. Louis 2012. I met some great people, doing incredible things with WordPress, and had a chance to learn and be inspired. Although the whole day was great, three of the talks stand out for me:

Most generally informative: Chris Miller (@iDoNotes) gave us the down and dirty on using WordPress as a podcasting/videocasting platform, blasting us with way more information than I thought could be squeezed into the 45 minute session. No doubt he had to leave some stuff out, but it was a comprehensive intro that put those interested on the right path for learning more. Especially if they remember to visit the resource bundle he put together for us.

Most specifically useful: Joshua Ray (@pdxOllo)  and Alex Rodriguez (@arod2634) presented Best Practices and Admin Customization, the latter which has been on my mind of late for a current project. Comprehensive coverage and plenty of code examples (I’ll post the links later, I seem to have misplaced them). Looking forward to digging in.

Most inspirational: Although the WordPress specific parts of Reshma Chamberlin’s (@reshmacc) talk on design were impressive themselves, what impressed – and inspired – me the most was her and her partner’s philosophy of design. And not just design, really, but how to chase your dreams, make a difference, and to do things right. (Sounds so easy, doesn’t it.) Check out the B&C Designers site to see for yourself. (And thanks, Reshma, for the book recommendation: Disciplined Dreaming is next up on my shelf!)

Teach your kids to embrace – not fear – the power of the internet

Yesterday I participated in a Twitter party hosted by @TheOnlineMom * to discuss the questions:

How much do we trust our kids online?
Can we monitor them closely and build trust?

The focus of the discussion was, as the topic questions hint at, how do we keep our kids safe? How do we protect them from all of the evils lurking out there waiting to swoop in and take advantage of them? Perhaps the biggest question, though, was: How do we protect our kids from themselves online?

It was a great discussion (you can see it at #TheOnlineMom), but it reminded me a lot of a not so pleasant PTO meeting about kids online that I attended a couple of years ago, when my kids had just started high school.  I’m not sure what I was expecting from the meeting, but you can probably imagine my horror when I realized that the basic point of the meeting was for internet safety experts to tell us how evil the internet is and that unless we did something our kids would end up dead in a ditch somewhere at the hands of a sexual predator.

OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The focus of the meeting was indeed the evils that lie in wait for our kids, and what we as parents should – MUST – do to protect them. You can see much of what they talked about on the district’s Internet Safety Resources for Parents page.

I had a hard time sitting still through this and not speaking up as they brought out negative after negative (after negative). I waited until the Q&A and then asked what I thought was a reasonable question: Do you (the school district or the presenters) have any related presentations that describe the positive opportunities the internet provides to our kids?

It wasn’t the first time – I’m sure it won’t be the last – that people looked at me like I had two (or seven) heads.

A big part of the problem, as I saw it then, was that so few of the parents in the meeting actually used the internet themselves. A case of ignorance breeding a deep fear of the unknown. Amazingly, I saw some of the same thing last night in the discussion, comments like “I hope my kids never hear about Facebook” (from parents of very young kids) to the question, “Many parents ask whether there is any learning value in social networks for teens, what do you think?”

Here’s how I responded to that last question:

Social networks – virtual or real life – are the primary way that everyone learns, teens included.

Unlike that PTO meeting all those years ago, the discussion last night also included quite a few voices of (what I would call) reason, parents who see more than just the potential dangers. But even so, there was very little discussion of the power of the internet in the hands of our kids, especially teenagers arguably going through the most potentially creative time of their lives.

What if, instead of simply warning our kids about the dangers of the internet, monitoring (or trying to) their every keystroke, and telling them they can’t do this or that, we start by showing them what they CAN do online, how they CAN use all of the incredible tools available to accomplish what they want to accomplish. All of the incredible places they can go online, all the things they can learn, and everything they can share with the world (besides those racy photos or gossipy rants)?

As I shared with the group last night, my job as a parent is not to protect my kids from the world, it is to teach them how to protect themselves. Not just in a “defensive” way, but by taking the offensive, understanding the world so they can go out and make their own mark.

Fear, and caution, have their place. But you can’t let them rule your life. This is what we should be teaching our kids.

* If you are a parent of pre-college kids and are looking for a great resource for dealing with technology as it relates to your kids, you should make The Online Mom one of your regular stops on the web.

50 books in 52 weeks – not this year

I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads.  As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.

It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.

But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.

In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche  expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:

One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.

During a pre-launch webinar for his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson also talked about the state of reading.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.

What are your reading plans for 2011?

Update: Check out my  2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

Safe? No. Awesome? YES! My review of Strange Loop 2010

When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.

More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:

Semantic Web

The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.

Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.

Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.

Complexity Theory

Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.

Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.

NoSQL

When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.

Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.

Android

Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.

It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square.  The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)

Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.

There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.

Summary (of my already too long summary)

At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):

“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.

I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

Mobile devices are not the enemy of learning

Towards the back of his book Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning, published in 2005, author Marc Prensky discusses the potential for using cell phones as a tool for learning in schools. I read the book back in the fall of 2006, and though I agreed with much of what he wrote in the book, I just did not see the potential for cell phones that he did. A huge failure of imagination on my part.

In my Google Reader feeds recently was an item shared by Harold Jarche (@hjarche), an interview with Royan Lee – “a teacher who’s not afraid of technology” – entitled Class, turn on your cellphones.

Interviewer Jesse Brown introduces the topic with the following:

One of the only places where it is still totally unacceptable to instantly learn about anything with a mobile device is in school.

Like so many things that bring about drastic change, the biggest concern that most parents and teachers (and administrators and school board members) have regarding mobile devices in the classroom is a fear of the unknown. They don’t understand it, so it must be bad, it is something to be afraid of and avoided.

If you are a parent or a teacher  (or administrator or school board member) who thinks that mobile devices have no place in school, then you really need to listen to this interview. It may not change your mind, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of what it is you are preventing.

Mr. Lee also takes on what he sees as a huge myth that needs to be overcome, that because students use this stuff so much they actually know how to use it. (See my post Social savvy, yes – tech savvy, not so much for some more thoughts on that.) Starting at 10:25 –

One big myth that we have is that because students are using Facebook on their own that somehow savvy already in terms of using these devices and their digital literacy…. It never ceases to amaze me how untrue this is. It’s almost frightening, especially the older kids who’ve been using it for a while. In many cases they’ve built up some really bad habits in terms of online behavior and posting behavior.

What if your organization functioned like a video game

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This second post looks at the role affinity groups play in learning through video games, and compares this to how many organizations work.

– – — — —–

Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

  1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
  2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
  3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
  4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
  5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), anddispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
  6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

  1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
  2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
  3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ’stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
  4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
  5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
  6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.

—– — — – –