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  • Doug Belshaw 4:30 pm on January 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Improving students’ experiences of learning through alternative digital accreditation 

    I’ve been at BETT 2017 yesterday and today. A few weeks ago, I was approached to do a short presentation in a new virtual teaching and learning environment called ALiS. It’s a spin-out from the University of Birmingham, and supported by Sheffield Hallam University.

    Click here or on the image above to check out the YouTube Live recording (embedding has been disabled, for some reason). I’ve shared my slides separately here.

  • Doug Belshaw 6:09 pm on January 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    The vicious cycle of 9-5 ‘open’ offices 

    CC0 Davide Cantelli (via Unsplash)

    I couldn’t agree more with an article I read today entitled If you don’t trust your employees to work remotely, you shouldn’t have hired them in the first place. In it, Yan Lhert, a software developer, lets rip at employers who favour open offices and a 9-5 culture:

    I am a night owl. You can tell me I have to have my butt in a chair within your line of sight at 8 or 9am, but that is very wasteful. You are wasting my time and yours. I am not a morning person. I will start being very effective around 11am and I really get going in the afternoon/evening. If you force your preferred hours onto me, both employer and employee lose. You get less output out of me! Here’s the cycle when I’m forced to be in a chair in your office at 9am:

    • I force myself to be up early and rush to work, feeling ill prepared
    • I try to focus and be effective in the morning, but struggle and the day is off to a bad start, killing my mood and momentum
    • I’m tired in the afternoon and cannot work effectively at my peak work time. I drink tons of coffee trying to kickstart my productivity
    • I go home when I’m finally starting to get going
    • I am restless in bed and can’t sleep because I drank too much coffee and I’m worried about getting up early
    • By the end of the week I am tired, frustrated, angry, and disappointed with my performance

    It’s a vicious cycle which has been hugely detrimental to my mental health and well being. This is another area where the science is very clear: there are morning people and there are night owls. You should accept your employees for who they are and optimize for their abilities. I am a night owl, always have been, always will be. I am done trying to work in the mornings – it is a waste of time as I am not effective and make more mistakes when I try to work at this time. I will only consider arrangements where I can control my work hours. This does not mean that I am lazy or a slacker. Far from it – I am frustrated that I cannot work at my peak productivity and I will not accept anything less than that from now on.

    I can’t actually believe that articles like this have to be written in 2017. We know what works, that rewarding people for results rather than following process works best, yet we carry on regardless.

    I spent three years working remotely for Mozilla (with plenty of travel) and now, as I’m self-employed, I do something pretty similar. Offices, and in particular open offices, don’t work.

    • ConceitedWombat 4:59 pm on June 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      Oh man. I feel so vindicated. I could’ve written that bullet point list myself. Glad to know it’s not just me.

  • Doug Belshaw 9:52 pm on January 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Linux apps I install by default 

    I’ll be setting up a new laptop tomorrow, so I’m spending this evening getting this one (Lenovo Thinkpad X220) ready to be a family machine. I’m going to wipe it and install Ubuntu GNOME 16.04 LTS on it as, in retrospect, I think it’s a better long-term prospect than the (otherwise excellent) Elementary OS.

    To remind myself, and for the benefit of anyone who’s likely to make the switch to Linux soon, here’s the apps I’ll be install straight away on my new machine. I’ve added a little explainer as to what each is and why I’ll be installing it. They’re not all free and open source, but I’d like one day to have an entire work flow that does consist of such tools.

    Albert — a fast, lightweight, quick launcher. Basically allows me to use the muscle memory I have for searching via Cmd-Space in macOS.

    Atom — a hackable text editor. The good people behind GitHub make this, and I find it very useful when writing any HTML and CSS.

    Audacity — free, open source, cross-platform audio software for multi-track recording and editing. I use this t edit the TIDE podcast and any audiobooks I produce.

    Calibre — an ebook management app and converter. Allows you to take control of your digital reading (and t strip DRM from Kindle ebooks using the right add-on)

    Clementine — a modern music player and library organiser. Also integrates with online music sources and can be controlled via Android smartphones.

    Firefox — web browser from Mozilla. I just feel safer and that my browsing is more private using this over, well, anything else really.

    f.lux — shifts the colour temperature of my laptop screen towards the red end of the spectrum during the  hours of twilight and darkness. I’m actually pretty photophobic, so this is essential for me.

    GIMP — free and open source image editor. I use this any time I’m going beyond simple cropping resizing f images.

    LibreOffice — a free and open source office suite. I use this when I have to (which is not very often)

    nvPY — note-taking application similar to Notational Velocity, but for Linux. Syncs with Simplenote.

    ownCloud — access & share your files, calendars, contacts, mail & more from any device, on your terms. I use this to sync files, instead of something like Dropbox or Google Drive.

    Skype — video conferencing tool. I mostly use appear.in, but when it gets flakey, or people would prefer using something they’re familiar with, Skype pretty much always just works. I don’t like using Microsoft products, though.

    Skype Call Recorder — does what it says on the tin. We use this to record the TIDE podcast.

    Thunderbird — email app. Sometimes you need an actual desktop mail application, and Thunderbird is solid, dependable, and has lots of great add-ons.

    Transmission — bittorrent client. Simple, straightforward way to download large files.

    If you’ve got Linux apps you always install by default, I’d love to hear about them! Add details in the comments below.

  • Doug Belshaw 8:41 pm on January 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Small habits make big differences 

    Loop Habit Tracker

    What’s the best way for us to decide whether we’ve had a ‘good day’? For me, at the moment, it’s measured by the above: did I do my daily reading? did I exercise? did I manage to go the whole day without (added) sugar in my diet?

    I’ve planned for productivity before, using an online spreadsheet. That did the trick, and a couple of things on that list (cold showers and pushups, etc.) are so engrained I don’t need to track them any more.

    However, the spreadsheet approach wasn’t as user-friendly as it could be, which is why I’m delighted to have found Loop Habit Tracker, a completely ad-free and open source Android app. It couldn’t be simpler to use.

    I’ve been using this app for a couple of months now, and have found it extremely useful. I can easily see a ‘streak’ that I’m on. Unsurprisingly, on days in which I don’t nail any of these, like last Monday, my productivity suffers.

  • Doug Belshaw 9:57 am on January 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Is it defeatist to concentrate on what you’re good at? 

    CC0 Clem Onojeghuo (via Unsplash)

    A book I’ve been gifting recently, especially to clients, is Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself. It’s a short book, applicable to almost everyone, and earlier this week I was discussing a very particular part of it with someone.

    It’s a difficult section to quote directly but, basically, Drucker’s point is that we spend too long trying to get ourselves and others up to a mediocre standard of competence. Instead, we should focus our efforts on helping ourselves and others move from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’. Initially, this feels a little defeatist to those involved in learning and development, as it suggests that not everyone can be good at everything.

    As someone’s who reads Stoic philosophy most days, I’m more sympathetic to Drucker’s position than my interlocutor was. For example, take this passage in Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life:

    You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition take you… Inborn disposition s do not respond well to compulsion, and we labour in vain against nature’s opposition.

    According to my observation scores, I was a good teacher, but it felt like being on stage every day. It wasn’t sustainable, long-term. I much prefer the situation I’ve got now, where I keynote conferences, run workshops, and organise webinars — but all on my own terms.

    In Montaigne’s Essays (‘On Solitude’)he offers some advice for those choosing a career:

    The occupation we must choose for a life like this one should be neither toilsome nor painful (otherwise we should have vainly proposed seeking such leisure). It depends on each man’s individual taste.

    Until I became a parent, I was convinced that 99% of who we are and how we act was environmental. Now that I’ve got two (quite different) children, and reflected on my own life, I’m now wondering if that figure is even 50%. If I’m right in my recently-revised opinions, then what Drucker states makes sense; we should focus on what we’re good at, and become excellent at those things.

    I don’t think that’s defeatist at all.

  • Doug Belshaw 2:50 pm on January 11, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    A (partial) badge issuing platform comparison 

    Badge issuing platform comparison

    Over the last few months, I’ve had a few meetings at my local high school. They’re interested in using Open Badges to accredit the school principles, and I’ve been willing to volunteer my time given my children will end up there! The project is currently on hold given the number of changes staff are having to deal with this year, coupled with the budget cuts the UK government are imposing.

    However, as part of the ‘discovery’ phase, they came up with some requirements of a badge issuing platform, which I mapped against some of the better-known badge issuing platforms. I thought it might be worth sharing, as it could help someone. I don’t prefer or advocate any platform on this list, nor is it by any means comprehensive. For a more complete list, check out the wiki page being maintained by We Are Open Co-op here.

    Link to spreadsheet: https://goo.gl/rCNKMe

  • Doug Belshaw 5:18 pm on January 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Democracy vs. digital capitalism 

    CC0 Annie Spratt (via Unsplash)

    In today’s Observer, Evgeny Morozov discusses the ‘fake news’ bandwagon, digging deeper than the cultural scapegoats (voter ignorance, racism, Russia) and into the economic causes:

    The problem is not fake news but the speed and ease of its dissemination, and it exists primarily because today’s digital capitalism makes it extremely profitable – look at Google and Facebook – to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives.

    To recast the fake news crisis this way, however, would require the establishment to transcend one of their denials and dabble in the political economy of communications. And who wants to acknowledge that, for the past 30 years, it has been the political parties of the centre-left and centre-right that touted the genius of Silicon Valley, privatised telecommunications and adopted a rather lax attitude to antitrust enforcement?

    I’ve already written about my admiration who don’t play the my-free-tech-is-funded-by-online-advertising game. Morozov says that more people like this are needed:

    The only solution to the problem of fake news that neither misdiagnoses the problem nor overpowers the elites is to completely rethink the fundamentals of digital capitalism. We need to make online advertising – and its destructive click-and-share drive – less central to how we live, work and communicate. At the same time, we need to delegate more decision-making power to citizens – rather than the easily corruptible experts and venal corporations.

    This means building a world where Facebook and Google neither wield much clout nor monopolise problem-solving. A formidable task worthy of mature democracies. Alas, the existing democracies, stuck in their denials of various kinds, prefer to blame everyone but themselves while offloading more and more problems to Silicon Valley.

    I’m trying, but it’s genuinely difficult given the way the internet is these days. In 2017, I’ll endeavour to encourage other people to do likewise. Our democracy depends on it.

  • Doug Belshaw 11:35 am on January 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    In praise of internet institutions 

    CC0 Samuel Zeller (via Unsplash)

    There’s a great piece by John Naughton in today’s Observer. It begins with a short essay, by way of context to his interview with academic, activist, and politician Tim Wu. Naughton asks Wu whether he was ‘utopian’ about the internet, and whether that’s changed. In the latter part of his answer, Wu notes:

    Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

    The lesson should have been obvious, if you consider important public-spirited institutions like public parks, universities, museums, charities, some parts of the media. None of the best of these maintains a public character by just assuming people will be good or by adopting not-for-profit business models and assuming, arrogantly, that they’d be different somehow. The exception that proves the point is Wikipedia, which did commit itself to a structured non-profit path. Today, I think Wikipedia can hold its head high: it has thrived without advertising or other commercial distortions, while attracting and handling more traffic than nearly any other site on Earth.

    Later, Wu makes a similar point about how we need more than just ‘good will’ to have positive social interactions when everyone’s got a smartphone in their pocket. Citing President Obama’s parties where guests are obliged to leave their devices at the door, Wu says:

    Obama’s example shows how you do it: by reclaiming physical spaces and making them non-commercial. The easiest place to do this is your home. You might have a policy of checking devices at the door, say, or confining their usage to one room in the house. However you do it, the real key is drawing physical lines, not mental lines, in recognition of just how weak our wills truly are. For you will not win trying to fight a running battle with the forces of commerce. You’ll end up like the alcoholic who goes to bars and says to himself: “I’ll be fine with just one drink.”

    I like this approach: don’t just rely on the strength of our resolve, but actively put measures in place to stop bad things happening. This works in families (for example, our son can only use his smartphone downstairs), in business (I set up a co-op last year with friends so we can work together in solidarity), or on the world stage (I’m a supported of the Open Rights Group, Internet Archive, and similar organisations).

    At a time of year when people are still making ‘resolutions’, it’s a good time to point out the difference between a resolution and a commitment:

    • resolution, n. a firm decision to do or not to do something
    • commitment, n. a pledge or undertaking

    To my mind, there’s a world of difference between merely ‘deciding’ to do something, and pledging to do it. A resolution is directed inwards, which his fine, but doesn’t necessarily change the world. On the other hand, a commitment means that you have to actually do something that’s observable, and has an impact on, others.

    I’m still a few years away from 40, but it’s looking increasingly likely that the second half of my life is going to be doing the less-sexy, ‘institutional’ stuff that preserves the digital liberties my generation has taken for granted.

  • Doug Belshaw 8:53 pm on January 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    The trials and tribulations of being a digital parent 

    Kid with smartphone

    My son turns 10 this month. For most kids in England, that would mean he’s a year away from getting his first smartphone. However, we live in Northumberland, where there’s a First, Middle, and High school system. As a result, kids start walking to school by themselves in Year 5, when they’re just nine years old.

    He made do from September until the end of 2016 with a Nokia feature phone. However, for lots of reasons (not least the ‘two ticks’ showing that a message has been read in instant messaging apps like Telegram) we wanted to upgrade him to a smartphone as soon as he was ready.

    Orginally, he was to have my wife’s old iPhone 5c. That was one of several old phones we had around the place, including an iPhone 4, a couple of Firefox OS phones, and an antidiluvean Android. I wasn’t averse to spending money on getting the right device but, to my mind, it was the operating system that was important.

    For example, Firefox OS is great, even if the operating system is no longer updated by Mozilla. I’ve got a friend whose 11 year-old son uses one of these devices. However, my friend’s son is obviously a bit more trustworthy than mine, as the lack of parental controls in Firefox OS means that he would probably access stuff via the web browser that I wouldn’t want him to see at such a young age.

    I considered Ubuntu Touch, but it’s almost impossible to buy a handset running that operating system. There are ways to flash Android devices to use it but, even then, from what I read, it’s a sub-optimal experience and with ports maintained by individual developers. People move on, we’d be left hanging.

    Windows Phone is not only dying, but it’s Microsoft, which I wouldn’t go near with a bargepole. That, then, leaves Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. I wanted him to have a phone that felt like his rather than just a generic thing that’s controlled by Cupertino, so I decided that even though I have misgivings about setting him up with a Google account so young, we’d go with Android. At least his Google account uses his pre-existing personal email address, rather than one @gmail.com!

    There’s a couple of great things about Android. First, you have access to change things at the operating system level – something that Apple would never let you do. Second, although Google add all sorts of proprietary things on top (including the battery-draining Google Play Services), the core of Android, AOSP, is free and Open Source.

    For reasons too arcane to go into here, I decided to upgrade (‘sidegrade’?) my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact to a Oneplus One. So, I was now in the situation where I had a spare Sony Z3C, in all of its waterproof glory, with an extremely tough case that I’d chosen 18 months ago. Instead of selling it, I consulted with my wife and we decided that, if we could configure it in a way with which we were both happy, our son could have it.

    To cut a long story short, we’ve used a combination of two apps to configure his Android device. After testing, we felt parental control apps like Dinnertime Plus were too invasive. Instead, the first app we’ve opted for is McAfee Safe Family which, after reading many glowing reviews from happy parents, and trialling its features, seems to do 90% of what we want. In particular, I’m delighted with the way it allows him to find out about things like gambling and dating sites, while preventing him from accessing the services themselves. I can also view his browsing history, restrict use of his device to certain hours, and even choose to get notifications when he enters/leaves certain geographic areas.

    The second app is Norton App Lock, which does one thing extremely well: requiring the entry of a secret security pattern to access any apps you choose to restrict. That means that our son can’t access Settings, the Google Play Store, Hangouts, or Google+. I’ve also deactivated YouTube, and other Google apps like Play Music.

    Parenting is hard, especially with your eldest child. You’re making it up as you go along, especially in areas that no one has a lot of expertise. On the one hand, I don’t like censorship and spying – which is why we’re switching from BT to A&A for our broadband next week. But, on the other hand, there’s an innocence to childhood that needs to be protected, especially when we’re putting such powerful devices into such small hands. My son needs to know we’re looking out for him.

    Our children return to school tomorrow, so it will be the first test of the above configuration. Fingers crossed, and we’ll see how he gets on…

    Image CC0 Gaelle Marcel

  • Doug Belshaw 10:25 am on January 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Language creates space for conviviality 

    CC0 by 223 223 (via Unsplash)

    About a year or so ago, my good friend Bryan Mathers kindly gifted me the audiobook of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: a journey on foot. It’s an extraordinary work that I enjoyed greatly. As a result, I was delighted when I discovered a pristine paperback copy of his follow-up book, Landmarks, in a secondhand bookshop recently.

    I’m less than fifty pages in, but wanted to share these quotations as I think what Macfarlane has to say is more widely applicable:

    Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. For blackberry read BlackBerry. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. A common language – a language of the commons – is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. (p.3-4)

    I don’t think this is peculiar to my children’s generation, it’s actually true of people like me who grew up in semi-rural Northumberland. I agree that it’s more than a ‘shame’, it’s actually pretty dangerous in a world where people are happy to concrete over sacred areas.

    It is my hope (but not my presumption) that the errors grouped here might in small measure re-wild or contemporary language for landscape. I do not, of course, believe that these words week magically summon us into a realm of pure harmony and communion with nature. Rather that they might offer a vocabulary which is ‘convivial’ as the philosopher Ivan Illich intended the word meaning enriching of life, stimulating to the imagination and ‘encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature.’ (p.9)

    Last month, I finally got around to reading Illich’s Tools For Conviviality*, and it was an eye-opener for me. It struck a chord with me in terms of how people and systems change — you don’t fight the status quo on its own terms, but create an alternative that’s so compelling that people want want to switch. What’s true of apps is also true of ways of being. I hadn’t really consciously thought of how important language is to demarcating that ‘new’ territory until reading Macfarlane’s words.

    The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy, and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. (p.23)

    I’ve included this quotation as I adore the pejorative term ‘blandscape’, which I assume is an original Macfarlane-ism. In the technological world I inhabit there are plenty of blandscapes — the candy kingdom of iOS being a case in point.

    We need more words to slice and dice the digital realm takes up increasing amounts of our time. For example, it’s currently extremely difficult to explain to someone who currently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about Open Source software and why privacy is so important. We’re currently using analogue language to describe digital things.

    I’d highly recommend reading this book, along with the other book I’ve mentioned by Macfarlane. His use of language, as you’d expect from the Director of English Studies at Cambridge University, is amazing, and his stories of his trips out into the wilds of the (still!) United Kingdom are enthralling.

    Image CC0 by 223 223

    * The book itself seems to be expensive, despite coming out in 1973, but PDF versions are freely available to download, discoverable via your favourite search engine.

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