Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why I still love the internet

No one knows who you are.

You've never spoken at a conference, published a book, or been quoted in a news story.

And, look, over there: a bunch of intelligent people you admire deeply are discussing something you're interested in. People you've seen at conferences. People who wrote the books you read. People whose careers you follow and choices you respect.

Clever, funny, caring people. And the only barrier to you becoming part of the conversation they're having, is the quality of what you have to say (and really, you can just listen if you want, that's fine too).

This is one of the things that first drew me to the internet in the 90s, and still draws me to it today.

The internet has been around for a good while now. Sometimes it's easy to take it for granted. Sometimes it's easy to get deflated by unpleasant people making it their tool for unpleasant activities. Sometimes it's easy to pine for simpler times, when you had a blog but no one had come up with a term for that yet, and the internet still felt like a secret garden where people like you would gather and be dorks together.

But it's still there, underneath all that other stuff. That wonderful power that lets you step back from being an age group, a gender, an ethnicity, a job, an income bracket, a location, a nationality, a height, a weight, a wardrobe. Where you can be, first and foremost, a human, shaping the core of your online interactions to align precisely with who you are. And you can be judged by the quality of your words and ideas, before all those other things (sometimes).

It's why I remember initially being quietly dismissive of people who used real photos of themselves for their Livejournal icons, back in the day. Because, why just take a photo of yourself, when you can choose from anything in the entire world to represent what you are?

Hey, I get it, now - and I use a photo of myself on my professional/web-talk Twitter account - just as I use a photo of a goofy smiling puffer fish for my personal/comedy Twitter account, and a cranky snail character for my game dev account, and... so on. Different channels, different focus, different conversations. But combined, they all amount to me.

The internet continues to evolve. It's not the place it was, but, the place it was isn't gone. And here, we can still have meaningful conversations with, and learn from, brilliant, wonderful people. I can (I hope) pay it forward, help other people the way they've helped me. There's more people going about their business online now, but, the good conversations are still here. The playful experimentation with new technologies and ideas is still here. Maybe you have to wade through more You'll Never Believe What Happens Nexts to get to them, but they are.

I want to see more access to quality education for all, more opportunity for everyone to learn and explore and joke and find out what your humanity looks like when you can choose your own face. And we can still do it. We still have the technology.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How to get things done, paperless style

I hate paper and I love paper.

I love paper. I still have a stack of fancy notebooks purchased in the previous decade, sitting in a box, waiting for me to actually need them.

I have terrible penmanship but I love pens. I buy mine from overseas, because there's one brand of ballpoint pen that just flows and writing with anything else seems clunky. Also, it comes in brown, so I feel like Ye Olde Magistrate when I scribble something illegible on a form.

I love stickers. I have stickers left over from when I was in highschool, a period of my life so long past it feels like it happened to someone else. I had penpals, then. Penpals I could communicate with through a combination of laboriously inscribed teenage insights, carefully curated sticker montages and 40 cent postage stamps.

But. I hate paper.

Every few months, I have to give up a few hours of my weekend to laboriously sift through it. Oh, look, an expired voucher. Huh, I seem to have written a new story idea down here... but I can't read anything other than "but he secretly is a candy-induced hallucination". Oooh, I'd better scan that receipt in case I need it in the next two years...

My paper management system leaves something to be desired, but when it comes to digital management? All over that. Last week, one of my party members on HabitRPG (more on that later) asked what tools people used to manage their tasks as a whole. Here's my current system, which is constantly evolving but generally serves me pretty well.

Recording tasks and supporting information

Before you can start actioning tasks, you need a bucket to drop them in. I have three main buckets. One important factor for me is that I can access these buckets via my mobile phone, so that I can add to them at any moment. If something doesn't make it into my task system, I'll probably never do it.

Planning bucket

 I use Todoist as my main task storing site. It has just the right level of complexity while keeping rapid task entry relatively simple.

Tasks can be assigned to projects, tagged, assigned priorities, and assigned due dates.

My tasks are grouped by project as my default view. I use projects to define broad areas of my life that are important to me - if the task can't relate back to one of those, what's the point of doing it?

Here is my project structure in Todoist:



For those without image viewing capabilities, the main Project sections are: "Learning", "Creating", "Socialising & communicating", "Organising & planning", "Experiencing & doing", "Career & earning").

Due dates - who needs them?

I actually do not use due dates much within this system, except for recurring task reminders, and I'm actually thinking of removing all recurring tasks and transferring them into Google Calendar instead (an example of such a task would be: book haircut appointment).

I find setting priorities works much better for me than setting due dates. Due dates can become meaningless as priorities shift and unplanned events change your schedule. I used to religiously assign all my tasks specific due dates, but honestly, most of the time it is not worth the investment of mental energy. Priorities allow me to filter tasks based on how important they are to my life, and are much easier to re-assign than specific dates.

And if something has to be done within the next couple days, it does not go into the Todoist bucket, it goes into my routine managing system, HabitRPG.

Creative bucket

I try to avoid placing ideas for future creative projects directly into Todoist (the entries in Todoist are to do with projects already underway). For storing ideas and planning for pieces of creative work, whether a story, film idea or game idea, I prefer to use Evernote as I can store a much richer collection of inter-related information for an idea.

I also reference Evernote from Todoist, so I might have a task that reads "Complete Chapter 5 of Raast's Tale: Evernote -> Raast" (Raast being the Evernote tag that will pull up all the notes and plans I have written for this character/story). 

Evernote also lets me rapidly clip reference material from the web into a main inbox to review and label later, which forms part of my routine, although I do need to get more disciplined about reviewing this inbox of interesting clippings more regularly.

Goal bucket

My goals bucket has two functions:
  1. It gives me a place to focus around my higher level goals without muddying my task systems with them
  2. It gives me a place to easily dump my wishlist without it cluttering Evernote or Todoist
I like my goals to be clear, easy to manage and brief. For me, Workflowy does this well.

Workflowy is essentially a list freed from the restrictions of paper. Sub-sections of the list are collapsible, list items can be tagged (I've never gotten around to using that feature though) and you can add notes or URLs to your dot points.

Goals

I've collapsed my 2014 specifc goals as some are quite personal, but here's an overview of the goal-related list dot-points. You can see I've also listed some values I want to keep in mind as I think about my goals in each area.



For those without image viewing capability, the goal categories are:
  • Health
  • Professional
  • Personal
And for each category there are three dot points for values around that category, for example my Personal values I want to focus my 2014 goals around are: Attentive, Adaptable, Communicative.

Wishlist

I'm not sure why I feel this way, but I don't like having things I want to buy in my main to-do lists.

I think it has something to do with the fact that these are all "wants" and not "needs", so in the end, if I don't do these, it doesn't matter. Also I use this list as a "cooling down" period - if I see something I want, I make myself add it to the list and let it sit there a while before I consider making an actual purchase. Plus, I'm then forced to look at all the other things I want and consider where my want-of-the-moment fits with all of those. It's one technique I use to try and be a little more frugal.

Here's a brief snapshot of the wants list:



The Todoist, Evernote and Workflowy buckets then inform the place I store my daily routine, upcoming tasks and habit/rewards management system; HabitRPG.

My routine

I manage my routine in HabitRPG, which uses RPG metaphors and incentives to encourage members of the site to stick to their habits, complete their tasks and follow a useful daily routine.

In a nutshell HabitRPG lets a player create an avatar, and go on quests in order to gain new abilities and rewards. Completing tasks etc earns you experience points, allowing your avatar to gain new abilities, and you earn gold and treasures. In HabitRPG, you can use the gold you earn with your good habits to either "buy" new things for your avatar, or you can use it to "buy" real-world rewards for yourself.

Habits

A habit can be positive or negative, and I have examples of both in my list.

Here is a habit I discourage myself from doing:



If I perform this bad habit, I click the "minus" symbol, and the health of my avatar worsens. If my health reaches zero, my avatar temporarily dies, and I lose a special item or ability I had previously earned for my good habits.

Here is a positive habit I wish to form:



Any time I perform an activity that I think has contributed to increasing my career capital or resilience, such as studying for a qualification or making a new networking contact, I press the "+" symbol and the website rewards me with gold and experience.

 

Dailies

Items on your "Dailies" are like habits, but they must be performed every day. If you fail to check off a daily, your avatar's health will decrease. I use dailies to help me create a regular routine. You can set dailies to apply every day, or only on set days of the week.

Here is one of my daily habits:



As I am tracking my calories, I have set as a daily task that I need to log my meals (in a different system) every day. If I fail to do this, my avatar loses health points.

 

Tasks

Finally, tasks. They work much like the above examples, but once you check off the task, it disappears from your list, as it is not a "habit" but a once-off activity.

If I have a task that must be done in the very near future, I skip Todoist and place it straight into HabitRPG. As the task list there grows shorter, I'll then visit Todoist to pull out my highest priority tasks to become new tasks to manage in HabitRPG.

Here's an example task:






It has turned red as I have been putting off this task for a while...

 

Incentives for getting things done

HabitRPG's equivalent to the stickers you can stick on a chore chart are "rewards", which you can buy with gold earned by completing positive habits, dailies and tasks.

Here is a reward I will buy myself when I have earned 90 gold pieces:



This was at the top of my Workflowy "wants" list, so I have placed it into HabitRPG as my next reward to myself for getting a lot of tasks done.

So by performing good habits and completing tasks, I am slowly building up towards rewarding myself with tickets to Gary Numan's show next month! Again, making myself "earn" these wishlist items helps me be a little more frugal than I might otherwise be.

I can also spend gold on virtual rewards, such as special items for my avatar.

Here is an example of a virtual reward to personalise my avatar:



You can see below my avatar, which I have indeed used some gold on in order to personalise it. I have decided to go for the "oompah loompah" look by buying orange and green items with gold I've earned for tasks:

 

Staying motivated via support from HabitRPG guilds and party groups

Members of HabitRPG can join together for shared "challenges" (such as writing 50,000 words in their novel or finding a new job) via a Guild, to help encourage each other to continue to succeed.

They can even tie their fates together by joining a Party to go on quests - if your friend fails to do her workout for the day, you both lose health points - so you are extra motivated to encourage your friend to work hard!


There is no single system that will meet every need for organising your life, but I hope that my combined approach is useful to some of you trying to work out how to keep yourself on-track and motivated.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Australia's Digital Technologies curriculum

I recently stumbled across this article on Australia's new Digital Technologies curriculum at The Conversation.

I was considering writing a reply to it here, when I scrolled down to find a brilliant comment from Bruce Fuda that I really think deserves highlighting. Re-posting with Bruce's permission here. Bruce writes:
As an IT teacher who has the skills and knowledge to deliver this curriculum, I get a little bit frustrated about some of the ongoing concerns people keep expressing with the curriculum, largely because I feel like many of the criticisms are being made with underlying assumptions in place that need to be challenged.

The Digital Technologies curriculum does not insist that students become programmers - at least no more so that the English curriculum insists they become authors, the Mathematics curriculum insists they become mathematicians or the Science curriculum insists they become Scientists.
Many of the same arguments and/or questions about the relevance of some of the content included can be asked about other learning areas - such as the need for students to understand stem-and-leaf plots in Mathematics, or the structure of multi-cellular organisms. Look at all of the curriculum documents (and it is important we differentiate the curriculum from a syllabus - they are different things) and you'll find that if it really came down to it, you could question the inclusion of many of the skills and/or understandings that the writers in each area have decided to focus on.

That aside, the other major consternation people have about it all is the time / crowded nature of the curriculum, however this all comes about because many commentators still insist on looking at the subjects as being independent of one another. We look at the Science curriculum and then, at school, we teach kids Science. We do the same with Maths, English... Why? How many times in the real world do we look at a problem and say "oh, that's a problem that can only be solved by mathematics, I'm not going to consider any of my scientific or social understanding to come up with an answer"?

The curriculum has been written with the interdependence and relationships between the learning areas in mind - or at least that is my understanding. We talk about falling levels of literacy and numeracy, and then argue that this is a case for eliminating non-critical subjects from the learning of students? Surely the reason they are not engaging with school has to do with the fact that the way they are being taught isn't working for them? It is possible to teach many numeracy and literacy concepts using much of what has been included in the Digital Technologies curriculum. Similarly, you can teach programming within the context of mathematics, algorithms as recipes in a kitchen, and data representation as an exploration of pattern recognition and language translation.

To simply look at the fact that programming has been included in the curriculum and then dismiss it due to the fact that not every kid needs to be a programmer completely fails to recognise the importance of logical reasoning and the methodical development of algorithmic solutions when faced with complex problems - a critical skill that can be developed through learning computational thinking. Not every student will end up being a mathematician, so why do they need to know about polynomials and parabolas?
And I also don't think it is sufficient to argue that a lack of trained teachers is reason enough for the subject to be relegated to a position of less importance. The curriculum should be both aspirational and intended - it is up to schools, society and teacher-training programs to find reasons to encourage people with the skills and knowledge required to teach the curriculum to consider joining the profession. The same argument would not be applied to any other learning area - we would never say that not having enough English teachers would be reason enough to stop teaching English, would we?

The use of technology for the "thrill" of using it is fine - I've got no problem with people making use of the great technology available to better their lives etc. But accepting technology as "magic" is not acceptable in the longer-term if we want to continue to develop as a society. Would we be where we are today if we had simply accepted the idea that rain just happened and didn't instead seek out a reason for it? We have the technology that we have today because people who found the passion and excitement to learn more about it did so through curiosity and interest.

We can make the Digital Technologies curriculum interesting for all students, just like we can for every other learning area. The first step in making that a reality is to stop artificially segregating the subjects and to emphasise the interdependence that exists across every discipline of knowledge. When designing a lesson or unit of work, what we need to do is look across multiple learning areas and find ways to engage students with lots of different interests - to connect what they are learning to their world.

Does this mean every child will like learning every aspect of the DT curriculum? No, just like not every child will enjoy Maths, Science or other subjects. But we can at least develop in them an appreciation of the value each discipline has, and the impact of each on their way of life now and in the future.

Oh - and on the last point re: not including Scratch (or anything else) in high school - the curriculum doesn't do that. There is nothing that precludes the use of visual programming to teach concepts from any learning area. What has been expressly mentioned is that students learn about general purpose programming languages. These languages are different when compared to drag-and-drop type visual languages because they allow us to perform significantly more computation than is possible otherwise. They are important, but that doesn't mean that other, more familiar platforms or languages can't be used to address other aspects of the curriculum. I use a similar technique to explore recursion with my students, producing fantastic looking artwork using Context-Free grammars and exploring randomness as well (which is a nice way of visualising genetic mutation).

We need to stop looking at movement through the bands as discrete periods of learning - it is a continuum and the learning that takes place in earlier bands should be used as the foundation for learning in later ones.