Another dot in the blogosphere?

Today I continue my journey as a consultant by revisiting experiences I used to facilitate almost ten years ago. I have designed ICT-focused modules for a group of allied educators whose work revolves around children with special learning needs.

As a teacher educator in NIE, I used to facilitate a core classroom management and special needs awareness course. Back then I relied on PBwiki (which became PBworks) and Google Sites to provide rich learning experiences.

Back then, the content of the course was centrally planned by a committee and content was stuffed awkwardly into an LMS. Once student-teachers graduated, they could not access the resources. I decided to use open wikis to provide continued and timely access.

The wikis are open to this day. Google is good at leaving things as is; PBworks annoys me at least once a year by asking me if they can claim the space.

This time round I am experimenting with the newly minted Google Spaces to provide a springboard for accessing numerous other online resource, tools, and platforms.

Google Space for CAE/SEED course on ICT for Inclusion.

Some things have changed in the area of ICT for special needs and others have stubbornly remain entrenched.

The ICT-enabled learning possibilities for individuals with special needs is immense. I have been collecting online references for a few months and the possibilities are mind-boggling and heart-warming.

Like most socio-technical phenomena, the problems lie in human ignorance, indifference, and inertia. One word encompasses all three: Administration. The group that should support and enable instead enforces and blocks.

Administration is typically multilayered, and while bureaucracy is generally a pain, I have been fortunate to work with a layer that has given me some freedom. I will use that leeway to design learning experiences that are active instead of archaic and meaningful instead of mundane.

Why do I do this? I believe that every one has “special needs” when it comes to learning. Each of us lies somewhere along a continuum of preferences and abilities. A course designed by an administrator ticks boxes and reaches for the low-hanging fruit. A course designed by a learner tickles and challenges.

If you ask ten people what disruption means in education, you are likely to get ten varied responses.

The disruption they describe might be one of

  • Reach: More local or more global
  • Impact: Temporary or permanent
  • Duration: Short or long term
  • Extent: Surface/perceived or deep/actual

My list is not exhaustive. I have arranged the concepts to form the acronym RIDE because established systems have a way of riding out change.

MOOCs were and are still described as disruptive. However, they have not replaced universities.

In RIDE terms:

  • Reach: MOOCs are accessible largely to those who are already rich, qualified, and educated. With a few exceptions, this is nowhere near the original goal to provide more equitable access to education.
  • Impact: Investors rushed to fund MOOC initiatives, and even before they proved their mettle, MOOC providers had to find ways to stay afloat or become profitable [examples 1 2 3]. Their disruptive impact in terms of reinventing education was temporary although that can still change.
  • Duration: The year of the MOOC was 2012, and while early versions like cMOOCs were around earlier, the collective impact of MOOCs is still short term.
  • Extent: From a systemic point of view, its impact is superficial. Many universities have co-opted MOOCs and MOOC providers have felt the pressure to monetise and offer face-to-face meetings in university settings, e.g., libraries and learning circles.

In short, MOOCs do not always live up to their hype and do not blossom as expected.

Back when most people could not read, those that could read to those that could not. This was the earliest form of lecturing. The literate feared how the printing press could disrupting lecturing.

Today some might argue that their lecturers are still just reading, but with PowerPoint instead. If you consider the number of lecture theatres in institutes of higher learning and lecturing as the go-to strategy, you might question if the printing press and reading was enough to disrupt lecturing.

When a change agent or process bumps into a system, it is tempting to call it disruptive. Like our own digestive system, social systems can reject, assimilate, or accommodate the change.

  • An input can be ejected from either or both ends of the alimentary canal.
  • The input can be broken down and absorbed into existing sub-systems.
  • Or the input can be partly taken in and partly ejected.

That is how established systems RIDE out the change. There are very few changes that are truly disruptive: Global in nature, permanent, long term, and deep to the extent of becoming a culture of practice.

From a superficial perspective, ride sharing (e.g., Uber), ultrashort-term rentals (e.g., Airbnb), and music streaming (e.g., Spotify), are disruptive. They challenge local laws and accepted practice. They make some people very unhappy and sometimes this incites protests.

While some practices have changed, e.g., lower ownership of personal cars, less dependance on hotels, no more archiving of music files, these are not necessarily evidence of systemic disruption because people are still travelling in cars, renting places to stay, and listening to music.

Can we talk about MOOCs, coding camps, or apps disrupting schooling or education?

You might think yes if you look at the ripples the pebble causes when chucked into still waters. The same pebble that disappears into the water and the water whose stillness returns.

I say no. Not as long as we still cling on to legacy concepts and practices like curriculum in silos, academic levels, classrooms as physical-only environments, tests for gatekeeping, etc. These are sub-systems that help the status quo RIDE things out.

Have you ever wondered what mobile apps might look like if they existed in the 1990s?

I got an answer when my son’s school authorities provided a notice for parents to download a “notification and attendance” app.

If you cannot remember what web pages looked like in the 1990s, this rude reminder might help.

The app reminded me of the web-based Java applets of old. It was plain and perfunctory. If the app could have an odour, it would be that of a musty attic or a mouldy basement. If it had an introductory screen, it would be to swipe cobwebs from its interface.

That is my way of saying it was unappealing. It was as if the app maker resented creating it.

The app was awful in form and function:

  • It constantly nagged you to log in.
  • It looked like it was ported from a desktop for point-and-click instead of swipe-and-tap.
  • As a phone app it was meant for portrait use, but it seemed to be designed from a landscape point of view.
  • It seemed to have borrowed its layout from a backward webmail programme. (Cough, iCON, cough!)
  • The designer might have taken paper prototyping too seriously. The layout and buttons look like paper outlines and stickers.

I share two screenshots and offer more specific comments with the examples below.

Snaapp app critique 1.

Screenshot 1: 

  • This is an example of the app’s blocky and monotone design.
  • Note its poor use of English.

Snaapp app critique 2.

Screenshot 2: 

  • The tappable icons or hotspots are inconsistently designed. 
  • The notification is incomplete: Saved to what location?
  • The landscape photo is saved in very low resolution as a portrait with black letterbox bars.

Local app makers need better design sense. For example:

  • Visual design: The look and feel should be modern or at least current, not a throw over from the Geocities web page era. A tight review of the five most popular communication apps should reveal a mountain of design clues.
  • Usability design: The mobile app should be a dedicated app instead of a wrapper of a web app. Good apps focus on what the user wants and needs, not on designer or desktop hangups.
  • Social design: A communication app should be designed for people to interact. It is not just for one party to disseminate. Users expect to be participants and to provide feedback. Build and promote those affordances.
  • Current design: Today’s design is flat and avoids skeuomorphism. Instagram recently changed its Polaroid-like camera icon to a modern, flat icon. Old design is like Microsoft clinging to the diskette “save” icon even though no one uses diskettes anymore.
  • Language: An app can look gorgeous and be user-friendly, but if its prompts are in broken English, its design is broken. This is not nitpicking; this is about taking pride in work.

Old and complacent design encourages old and complacent practice. Perhaps this is a strategy the app provider is using with schools. It looks safe and familiar to decision makers, so more schools might adopt it. But the app makers ignore other stakeholders and users at their peril.

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Recently I downloaded Visr, an app that relies on algorithms to highlight questionable words and images that might appear in my son’s social media channels.

Doing this reminded me why parents and teachers cannot rely on algorithms, blacklists, whitelists, or anything relies largely on automation.

The app provides summary reports on a schedule of your choice. It monitors the channels you choose, e.g., Google+ and YouTube, and both what a child consumes and creates in those channels.

However, I have found its algorithms to be like a fervent puritan.

Sample VISR report

This is a screenshot from the report of my son’s YouTube videos on using LEGO to build a likeness of a Team Fortress 2 sentry. The algorithm marked that the video as containing nudity when there is none.

I have noticed that the algorithm picks up faces, be they actual human faces or cartoonish ones, as nudity. Perhaps the algorithm is focusing on the eyes or the eyes and nose. By a stretch of imagination these might look like more private parts of the body.

The app lets you specify if the alert is a real concern, to see fewer of such alerts, or to point out a mistake in identification. I try to teach the algorithm by telling it to ignore such images. But it does not seem to learn.

Therein lies the problem with using only technology (the app) to deal with what might be perceived as a technological problem (you know, kids and their devices these days). Adults forget that the issue is socio-technical in nature.

I take time to chat with my son about cultural and social norms. We talk about what is acceptable and responsible behaviour. I do not shield him from social media because that is part of life and learning. I do not ignore its pitfalls either. But I do not just rely on apps to deal with apps. Both of us will have to live and learn by trying, making mistakes, and trying again.


Posted on: May 21, 2016

There is nothing remarkable about the number 27. However, today “27” is significant to me because it marks the number of years my wife and I have been together.

Last year I told our story with my reflection 13+13=26. Today we mark a milestone: We have been married longer (14 years) than we were a couple before that (13 years).

I actually met my wife a little over 30 years ago. We only started dating when I was in the military. As I explained last year, our journeys to different parts of the world and in personal lives kept us both apart and together.

This year also marks our tenth year back in Singapore. We have been very fortunate to have lived elsewhere, to travel regularly, and to be able to adopt different perspectives.

In reaching these milestones, I wondered what perspective I might share. Several weeks ago I found this quote from a parody Twitter account of comedian Will Ferrell:

Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow Internet to see who they really are.

When my wife and I first met, all we had was slow computers and barely there Internet. There was no Google, Facebook, YouTube, or Netflix. We had to actually talk to each other and look each other in the face. Horrors!

This is not a trip down nostalgia lane. Thirty years ago was the Internet Dark Ages. Trying to get any information or learning on your own happened at dialup modem speed, if at all. Horrors!

As I observe how kids learn today, I notice how they still have more access to today’s Internet at home than they have at school. No doubt that there are 1:1 and BYOD schools. But there are many more 30-year-old (or older) Internet access schools today. This is not because schools are not wired up and wireless. Instead policies and practices remain rooted in the past.

This is not to say that our schooling has not changed over a generation. Our assessment system is continuously poked and prodded, our curricula revised, and our pedagogy more student-centred.

But our children’s classroom of today is instantly recognisable to an adult. Most parents and teachers cannot see a school without legacy practices like homework, curricula, objectives, tests, etc. Their mindsets and practice are still powered by “computers with slow Internet”. All this while they cradle blazingly fast and hyperconnected computers in their hands.

Being with my wife for 27 years seems to have gone by like a blink of an eye. Observing the schooling system here struggle with change from my vantage point of teacher and teacher educator is like watching frozen molasses move.

Every day I ask myself how I might shape conditions to switch the speed of those circumstances. I want my happy years to feel like years; I do what I can to make the schooling system to be “broadband” or “smartphone” for the sake of all our kids.

In 1982, the late Prince may have partied like it was 1999.


But in 2016, why are we assessing like it is still 1999? Or maybe even 1899?

It is no big secret that the level of service in Singapore leaves much to be desired. It is acceptable in areas like cafes, but sub-standard elsewhere.

I take a poke at one aspect of customer service and find a link to schooling. Consider some overused and unquestioned phrases in email replies.

Please be informed that…
I asked customer service about an establishment’s parking arrangements. Their reply was: “Please be informed that we have 2 options for car parking service as below”.

Leave the phrase out and just state what the information is. This could have shortened and be grammatically corrected to “We have two parking options…”.

Telling someone “to be informed that…” sounds passive-aggressive. You sound like you are pissed off that I asked you something and you are reluctant to answer.

Please be informed that the way you write implies a tone whether you intended it or not. Tone up your writing by being simple and direct.

Revert back
“Revert” is to return to an original state. This is a 180 degree turn or a reversal. “Back” is another 180 degree turn. When combined, the two make a 360 degree pirouette and nothing changes.

Asking one or more people to “revert back to me” is physically impossible. You are you and I am me. I cannot return to an original state that is you and then resume my original development from you to me.

I know that there is a different understanding and acceptance of this phrase. But this is lazy thinking and awkward phrasing.

Just use one of these simple phrases: “Please get back to me by…” or “Please reply by…”. Both are also more specific thanks to a date and/or time.

I say we revert to a time when we communicated simply and clearly instead of trying to sound formal or authoritative. Let us go back to the future.

Gentle reminder
How are reminders gentle? Are you whispering in my ear? If so, that is creepy.

If you did not prefix “reminder” with “gentle”, is the assumption that reminders are rough, jarring, or otherwise unpleasant?

Gentle reminders are sometimes accompanied by a cousin phrase “kindly take note”. Is there a way to take note cruelly? The only person you might use “kindly take note” on is the Hulk because HULK SMASH.

Reminders are not gentle and notes are not kind. Smash this practice hard and mercilessly with “please remember to…”.

Link to schooling
Where do people who write such email learn to use such phrases? Surely not in school because this is writing for and in the workplace. I shudder to think that office administrators attended training where they learnt how to use such choice phrases.

The use of such phrases generally flies under the radar. No one really gets upset, turns into the Hulk, and smashes computers and servers to smithereens.

But small things add up. The little things matter because they combine and become part of a larger problem like poor communication or bad customer service.

Worse still, ignoring these seemingly minor things indicates a mindset among those that teach that standards are allowed to slip.

Standards can change, but they should not slip. If you do not know the difference, then you might have a bigger problem than minding your language.

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