Monday, June 22, 2009

Mobile etiquette

A guy at work many years ago spent most of his working hours talking on his cellphone. Being a salesman this was understandable but trying to have a face-to-face discussion was almost pointless since the cellphone always got top priority. As a result, the best way to get his undivided attention was to phone him, even from a range of a few metres.

Then, as now, there was debate about cellphone etiquette but it seems to have had little effect. Today the phones still ring in mid-meeting but even more frequent is the irresistable urge to check and answer e-mails, chatrooms or Facebook in meetings and even in negotiations or job interviews. A few weeks ago the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, was went so far as to confiscate a journalist's cellphone after being repeatedly interrupted during a press conference (see YouTube video).

There's an article on all this in the New York Times, Mind your Blackberry or mind your manners. The challenge in meetings today is to keep the group's attention otherwise all eyes will be focused downwards and the tip-tap on tiny keypads will begin. In defence of it all is the fact that today's customers want 24-hour access and if you don't answer then your competitor will. So you switch off at your peril.

Just as schools and universities complain about students' on-line activities during class time the executive world is far from immune. Companies seem equally at a loss as to how to restrict the use of technology in meetings and the hope is that common sense and consideration will eventually prevail. We often talk about kids having a short attention span but the rest of us are no better, happily zapping from one distraction to another rather than concentrate on the matter at hand. I'll admit I'm not immune either.

A new smart way of working or just a way of trying to impress each other with how effective we all are?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Group work - creative or conformist?

There's a post on Psyblog that I found interesting called Why group norms kill creativity. There is considerable evidence it seems that group work can actually stifle creativity due to the fact that groups tend to be focused on reaching a consensus. Groups quickly establish norms that govern their interaction and because of these norms it is very difficult to propose radically different ideas if they threaten the balance of the group.

We've all been in situations where you realize that your opinion is in conflict with the rest of the group and the most diplomatic move is to go with the flow or to make your idea more palatable. But what if your original proposal was right? How many good ideas have been sacrificed to please the group? Are there significant differences between working in physical groups and working in net-based groups?

George Siemens comments nicely on his blog, elearnspace:
"Wisdom of the crowds is often misinterpreted as suggesting that people are intelligent when they think together. It’s more accurate to say that people are intelligent when they think alone and that this intelligence is amplified when they connect. It’s a subtle but vital distinction. A homogeneous group is often not very effective at creativity. Individual diversity, connected, produces substantial advances. A group can refine, extend, augment, and even perfect certain concepts and ideas."

In education we assume that working in groups is good in that students will offer mutual support and provide a social dimension to the learning process. However, not all students appreciate the benefits of groups and I recently heard of students actually dropping out of courses due to a group assignment. Group work can indeed be frustrating when so much energy is required reaching a consensus or if some members are not willing to pull their weight. Some part-time distance students can only study late in the evenings making synchronous meetings with the rest of the group almost impossible.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

All in the mind

There's a good article in Times Higher Education on the future of distance learning, Coming to a screen near you. It discusses the growth in distance learning in the UK and the increasing use of Web 2.0 tools in higher education. The net is a prerequisite to most university education today with both campus and distance courses making increasing use of podcasted lectures, video feedback, social networks, mobile learning and meetings in Second Life.

Whilst students clearly value face-to-face contact they also expect to be able to access course material and to participate in on-line discussion.
"Students have increasing expectations about the use of technology on campus, but importantly they continue to value face-to-face contact. It's not a question of removing face-to-face contact, it's about developing a broader and richer mix. I don't see any evidence at all of lessening demand for campus-based institutions."

The big problem just now is the lack of solid research into evaluating the success of new technologies in education. There is, of course, research in progress but it needs to reach a critical level in order to gain full credibility. At the same time I wonder how much research is available into the effectiveness of, say, paper, pencils, whiteboards or lectures in the learning process.

We should see modern net-based tools as complements or improvement on traditional tools. You don't learn more just because you use a particular tool (analogue or digital), learning is the process going on in your head. The tools can aid that process and provide alternative paths to more effective learning. All the technology in the world, however, will not help you learn unless you have the necessary motivation, enthusiasm and curiosity. Those qualities cannot be downloaded.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I have far too many passwords, PIN-codes and user names. There are tools for keeping them in order but I haven't really come to terms with them either and they, of course, demand a user name and password. I try to keep things simple by using variations on a theme when it comes to passwords but the real problems occur when I try to log into a service that I seldom use. Now what password did I choose for this one? Sometimes I know the password but what user name did I have? I remember reading a few years ago that the most popular password on the net was, wait for it, PASSWORD! Now that's easy to remember.

Now I see that there is a campaign in Australia this week to encourage people to focus on net security, National E-security Awareness Week. The site has simple tips on how to improve your security as well as a video presentation. The message is to use more secure passwords, change them twice a year, use a security tool and update it regularly and to think before you click on ads, e-mail offers etc. Seminars and events are being arranged all week around Australia to focus on this.

We all need reminding about these issues and the Australian campaign is a fine example for other countries to follow. The problem is implementing all the good advice. My passwords probably need beefing up but how on earth am I going to remember them all?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Music for supermarkets

We seem to have a fear of silence in public places and try to fill those awkward spaces with background music or muzak as it's often known. Muzak is meant to be gentle and soothing but often has the opposite effect, as anyone who has wandered round a supermarket to the strains of instrumental cover versions of Una paloma blanca or I just called to say I love you will know only too well. The ultimate horror is working in a place that plays a limited selection of easy listening favourites in a never-ending tape loop.

Even if the muzak versions of such hits are very pale copies of the originals they still are copyrighted to somebody and the shops have to pay for the privilege of playing it. However the answer to this problem is on the way in the form of computer generated muzak. According to an article in (Death to muzak!) researchers at the Spanish University of Granada have developed a program that will generate muzak on the fly, in a variety of genres. Since the muzak is composed and played immediately there is no copyright and so we can enjoy our supermarket melodies free of charge and with infinite variation.

This is of course bad news for synthesizer players who live off recording instrumental versions of old Barry Manilow hits but a giant leap for the rest of civilisation as we know it.

Not all muzak is like this however. Back in the late seventies musician and composer Brian Eno experimented with various forms of background music (ambient music) that were not meant to be listened to but would create an atmosphere conducive to, say, studying or writing. Indeed one of his albums of this period is called Music for airports. Music can be used positively in public places; the trick is to make it as unobtrusive as possible.