Wednesday, September 3, 2014


One of the blessings of modern technology is the ease of communication. The internet has certainly made keeping in contact as simple as sending an email or tapping away a message on a messenger program. Skyping or video-Skyping is even more conducive to effective communication and a conversation can be carried out in more or less normal fashion, especially if you are able to see the smiling face of your interlocutor. FaceTime has its devoted fans already who swear by glitch-free performance and crystal clear video and audio. Virtual meetings, webinars and conference calling are all now routine. Work-related communication has never been easier with the all of the modern means of keeping in touch.

Often, though, the problem with keeping in touch is not how easy or difficult it is, but rather the amount of finite time that we have at our disposal in order to carry out everything that we are compelled to do in a day. Work has increased its demands in the last few decades and many people now work extra long hours in order to keep up with the demands of their job. Unfortunately, this leads to our neglecting many of our other activities, not spending as much time as we would like with our families and friends. Needless to say that the less pressing tasks, as well as the activities that give us personal and selfish pleasure, our hobbies, are often the first to be sacrificed.

The workaholic is very much a product of our modern society and is nowadays in many cases the rule rather than the exception that we were familiar with in the past. Work makes enormous demands on our time, not only in the workplace, but it also invades our own space and private life. How easy it is nowadays to take work with us every night? Simply a matter of loading some files onto a USB flash drive and the computer at home takes over from where the computer at work left off. Or even more to the point, many people work on the same laptop both at work and at home (and also on the train, perhaps, on the way there and back)! Cloud computing means that we can have our work with us everywhere we go on whatever device we may be using. Email access is universal and it is often expected to be able to send and receive work emails at any place and at any time. Mobile phones increase our accessibility and students expect to receive instant replies to their emails.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is certainly something that applies to today’s world as much as it did, all those centuries ago when the folk sage came out with this saw. It is surprising that in this day and age of labour-saving devices, increasing leisure time, and strictly legislated work hours many of us still manage to run out of time in order to amuse ourselves and take pleasure in the company of our friends and dear ones.

This issue becomes all-important as the year goes on and maybe there are fewer and fewer windows of opportunity presenting themselves to many of us. A time to take a break and indulge in some annual leave should be taken whenever one can do so. If you can afford to, consider taking some time off to have a break from work and relax as you catch up with family and friends, read a novel, fly a kite, go away somewhere, take a drive, bake a cake, put your feet up. “Taking time away from the stress of work can improve job performance, decrease stress-related illnesses and add years to our lives”, says Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life”.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


“Which of these activities occupies more of your time: Foraging for food or surfing the Web? Probably the latter. We’re all informavores now, hunting down and consuming data as our ancestors once sought woolly mammoths and witchetty grubs. You may even buy your groceries online.” - Rachel Chalmers
Each year the Macquarie Dictionary names a Word of the Year from a shortlist of words that have made a valuable contribution to the language. And it has declared 2013 to be the year of the “infovore”. The Macquarie defines an infovore as “a person who craves information, especially one who takes advantage of their ready access to it on digital devices”.

The term infovore or informavore (also spelled informivore) describes a person that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behaviour in modern information society, and the word is formed in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food.

George A. Miller coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger). Miller states, “Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores.”

An early use of the term was in a newspaper article by Jonathan Chevreau where he quotes a speech made by Zenon Pylyshyn of the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Cognitive Science:
“Zenon Pylyshyn closed the conference with an apt description of Homo sapiens in the information age — Man the Information Processor, or Informavore.”
Jonathan Chevreau, “Some A1 Applications of Wishful Thinking”, The Globe and Mail, March 30, 1984

Soon after, the term appeared in the introduction of Pylyshyn’s seminal book on Cognitive Science, “Computation and Cognition”. More recently the term has been popularised by philosopher Daniel Dennett in his book Kinds of Minds and by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker.

Humans are active information foragers who gather and consume new knowledge, unlike a passive sponge that sits in the sea depths and relies on whatever the sea currents bring its way. From controlling the movement of our eyes to determining which sources of news to consult, judging the quality of alternative sources of information is a critical part of our behaviour. Researchers are now investigating, explaining and predicting how people shape their information seeking behaviours to their information environments. Nowadays a lot of this relies  on the Web, Twitter, social tagging systems, media, etc.

By hunting around for reliable information that satisfies our need to learn we construct Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). A PLN is an informal structure of information sources around a learner (or informavore!), with which he/she interacts and derives knowledge from in an environment that is adapted to the individual’s own needs. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another information source with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection. Generally, in a PLN, individuals are involved and the interactions between them is how information is transferred.

An important part of this concept of PLNs is the theory of connectivism developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Learners create connections and develop a network that contributes to their personal development and knowledge.

A Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is very much related to a PLN and is sometimes used synonymously with it. PLEs can be created independently, by building and collecting content sources from the Web, including creating content through blogs, podcasts, slideshares, etc. A natural extension of one’s PLE is the development of relationships with individuals that emerge from the process of building the PLE, which is how the PLN develops. When connections from a PLN are engaged, knowledge creation becomes interdependent.

In Dryden and Vos’s book on learning networks (Dryden, Gordon; Vos, Jeannette (2005). “The New Learning Revolution: How Britain Can Lead the World in Learning, Education, and Schooling”. UK: Network Educational Press Ltd), we read:
“For the first time in history, we know now how to store virtually all humanity’s most important information and make it available, almost instantly, in almost any form, to almost anyone on earth. We also know how to do that in great new ways so that people can interact with it, and learn from it.”

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Are you the sort of person who makes New Year’s resolutions? I used to be, but it was many years ago when I was younger. Nowadays, I prefer to set some goals at appropriate times throughout the year and then do my best to achieve those goals. It certainly works well and if I manage my goals like projects they are much more likely to be completed successfully. Experience has taught me to be realistic about goals and this increases their likelihood of being attained at the appropriate time.
Some of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends come back to work in the New Year with impressive lists of resolutions (I have seen a couple of them even post them up above their desk so that they can look at them daily). However, come February, these resolutions are rather forgotten, taken down unceremoniously or else are conveniently covered by other bits and pieces of paper that are posted over them.
New Year’s Eve has always been a time for looking forward to the coming year and celebrating the new beginning. Taking a tally of all that has happened and not happened in our life and making some decisions about what we want changed in our life is something that we think more soberly about in the days that follow. It’s a time to reflect on the changes we want (or need) to make and resolve to follow through on those changes. If you are in the habit of making New Year resolutions, see how close they come to a popular “top ten list”:
1)     Spend More Time with Family & Friends
2)     Exercise more, get fit, live a healthier life
3)     Lose weight so as not to be obese
4)     Quit smoking
5)     Enjoy life more, be happier
6)     Quit drinking
7)     Get out debt
8)     Learn something new
9)     Help others more
10)  Get more organised
I am sure that most people would have found a few of those resolutions that resonated with them, and perhaps were even familiar from last year’s list, or even the list of the year before. Funny thing about these resolutions they keep recurring like clockwork, year after year…
Perhaps one of the best resolutions one can make for the New Year would revolve around learning something new. Perhaps enrolling into an educational course and achieving something that would actually manage to tick off several of those resolutions in the list above. In these days of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) it is easy to find something one is interested in and taking some time each week in which to learn.
I have just enrolled in a free Coursera course on composition, which begins January 6. See it here ( I am sure that you can find something that interests you as well. Numerous other MOOC providers abound and you can find almost anything you are interested in studying online.
Have a Happy New Year
full of health, prosperity and joy!

Monday, December 2, 2013


To be well educated is a goal that many people aspire to, but especially so if they are parents and they wish to provide what is best for their children. It is quite interesting that most people when asked what a good education is, generally respond with answers that can be summed up as “the collection of a great number of facts in one’s head”… Learning seems to be equated with memorisation of bits and pieces of information. A “smart” person is one that people see as rattling off hundreds of facts (often trivial) and “factoids”. Which needless to say is rather sad!

Others may equate “education” with some lofty activity confined in an ivory tower and engaged in by gowned academics who invariably are balding and wear glasses (amazing also how many people equate wearing glasses with being “brainy”, but that’s another matter…). These university types are far removed from the real world and engage in research and teaching, commonly are absent-minded and disengaged from everyday cares and concerns. They are a fount of knowledge and ostensibly “well-educated”.

My dictionary defines the word “educate” as:
educate |ˈejəˌkāt| verb [ with obj. ]
Give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to (someone, especially a child), typically at a school or university: She was educated at a boarding school.
• Provide or pay for instruction for (one’s child), especially at a school.
• Give (someone) training in or information on a particular field: The need to educate people to conserve water | A plan to educate the young on the dangers of drug-taking.
Late Middle English: From Latin educat- ‘led out,’ from the verb educare, related to educere ‘lead out’.
Many of us that work in education reflect frequently on the above definition and try to understand our role in the system whereby we provide the context within our students can learn. As an educator I have tried to limit my teaching role and rather provide an environment in which students can learn in a manner that is best suited for them personally. Frequently I find that I am learning as much as they are, while facilitating their learning. Education is an exercise in clear thinking and an enabling of the learners to do the right thing. Good teaching is a facilitation of learning and the best learning comes from self-discovery of one’s own ignorance, the more one learns. As Socrates remarked: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

I have often thought of education, teaching and learning through the analogy of a banquet. I as the educator am the cook and host. I provide on the banquet table a selection of healthful, fresh, nutritious and attractive dishes. I ensure that they are served at their best so as to tempt my guests. It is up to them to come in, look at the feast and fill their plate with a balanced, nutritious and well-serving meal…

It may be worthy to consider what Socrates answered when he was asked what a good education was. His response didn’t mention at all the accumulation of facts, but rather it hinged on behaviour. He regarded “well-educated people” as those who:
  • Actively control difficult situations rather than being controlled by them
  • Deal with and face all events with logic and courage
  • Are honest and fair in all of their dealings with other people
  • Face difficult situations, and interact with unpleasant people, in a well-intentioned and pleasant manner
  • Keep a check on their personal desires and control their self-indulgences
  • Are not overcome by their defeats and ill-luck; and finally (and perhaps most importantly),
  • Have not been spoilt by their successes and fame.

Greek philosopher Socrates was tried, convicted, and executed in Athens, Greece, in 399 B.C. In the case of Socrates, the legal proceedings began when Meletus, a poet, delivered an oral summons to Socrates in the presence of witnesses. The summons required Socrates to appear before the legal magistrate, King Archon to answer charges of impiety and corrupting the young. The preliminary hearing before the magistrate at the Royal Stoa began with the reading of the written charge by Meletus. Socrates answered the charge. The magistrate questioned both Meletus and Socrates, then gave both the accuser and defendant an opportunity to question each other. Having found merit in the accusation against Socrates, the magistrate drew up formal charges.

The document containing the charges against Socrates survived until at least the second century C.E. Diogenes Laertius reports the charges as recorded in the now-lost document: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognise the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the young. The penalty demanded is death.”

Socrates spent his final hours in a cell in the Athens gaol. The ruins of the gaol remain today. The hemlock that ended his life did not do so quickly or painlessly, but rather by producing a gradual paralysis of the central nervous system. The trial of Socrates, produced the first martyr for free speech. As I. F. Stone observed, just as Jesus Christ needed the cross to fulfil his mission, Socrates needed his hemlock to fulfil his (image above is “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David - 1787).

I have blogged about this today as I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a fellow academic and his views differed from my own, and from Socrates’. He did have a bit of a swollen head and his self-importance prevented him from acknowledging something that was obvious to some observers of the conversation. What do you think? Do you agree with Socrates’ views of a well-educated person?

Monday, October 21, 2013


Communication is a thorny topic. The most eloquent, intelligent, rational and verbose amongst us may have trouble with it even when trying to converse with someone who is sitting across the table from us. How much more difficult does it become when we are limited by time constraints, distance, the medium of the electronic message and of course any underlying language limitations! It may become even more complicated if one is trying to be tactful, diplomatic or discreet. Frequently, we must rely on the written message alone, and this may become less clear and more convoluted through loss of intonation, facial expression, gesture, other body language… The opportunity for misunderstandings increases a thousand-fold.

St Exupéry said: “Words are the source of misunderstandings”, and yet words are also our only weapon against misunderstandings. How do we resolve situations where our words have been misconstrued? By using more words! Resolution of communication breakdown needs simple words, honesty and a genuine sense of wanting to clear up confusion or perceived ill-will. However, the situation becomes more complex when words simply fail us. One may talk plainly, communicating lucidly what is in one’s mind, but the recipient of that information may pass the words through a personal filter that is tinged with any colour of the perceptional or emotional rainbow, and thus construe a meaning completely different to that of the originator of the message.

A frame of reference is important when we are communicating and the social and psychological environment of the communicating persons need be kept in mind as well. The simple word “love” can be uttered in such a bewildering variety of contexts that it can become bogged in a quagmire of communication breakdown. We love our spouse, love our parents, love our children. We love pizza, love our country, love our friends, love going on holidays. We love playing games, we can score love in tennis, we can meet the love of our life, we make love, fall in love, fall out of love. We can call our partner “Love”, but the woman at the corner shop can ironically call us “Love” also. Context matters!

Communication can be purposefully made difficult. We may choose to be deceptive in what we say or write. “No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” Said Henry B. Adams. Words can be a fortress we hide in, words can be the fog that obscures our actions, words can be our defence or our offence. Words can be daggers that are thrust to wound and hurt maliciously. Words can be uttered in a facile way so that they flatter and fawn. Compliments and cajolery, blarney or sweet-talk, propaganda, can all get in the way of true communication. Rumi advises us: “Know that a word suddenly shot from the tongue is like an arrow shot from the bow. Son, that arrow won't turn back on its way; you must dam the torrent at its source.”

In work environments the failures of communication are manifold. We write our emails, publish our communiqués, draw our labelled diagrams and we are the originators of much published material that the world can see. Just like any other form of communication, our work-related written material can create misunderstandings and can have consequences that range from the amusing to the dire. What we write about and how we choose to do it, can have an immense effect on other people that may be quite dramatic. What we choose to write about can heal or hurt, amuse or anger, attract or repel, inflame or influence, excite empathy or indifference. Our words can be balsam or poison. Or at the very least soporific!

I speak plainly, and communicate what I think and feel. If I choose to write about something, I do it because I want to and because I need to. My tact is genuine, for I do not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. If I am misconstrued, it is has not been my intention to be so. If what I say seems obscure, words are there to be used, so please ask for an explanation. If I can resolve misunderstandings, I will almost certainly do so.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


I was lucky to have been brought up by a family that values education. Beginning with my grandparents, then my parents, my uncles and aunts, even our family friends, they all extolled the virtues of a good education. I grew up in a household where to be educated was the rule. It was never questioned that I should do anything else but progress through school, enter University and then possibly continue on by studying further. My love affair with education, which was aided and abetted by my family, was supported by my own love of learning and the end result was that I became a dyed in the wool academic, never far from education and the pursuit of learning.

In the society I grew up in, education was not only respected, but put on a pedestal as the solution to that society’s many ills. A university education assured one of a certain social status, a good job, and a tacit understanding that one’s efforts would not be in vain but that they would contribute to the social good and resolve the problems that beset the country. Times have changed… Now the unemployment queues are full of university graduates, many of them with several postgraduate degrees!

I guess I am showing my age and my nationality to a certain extent, as views on education (particularly university education) have changed, especially now that I am in a country where the ability to make as much money in as short a period of time as possible is seen as the real measure of success – education be damned. To be called an academic in Australia carries with it a stigma, I sometimes think...

Being educated in Australia and finishing my degrees here, but also after working for many years in academia, has disabused me of some of my romantic notions about education as being the panacea for all the ills of the world. Nevertheless my experiences in tertiary education have convinced me that tertiary education can be a transformative, life-changing experience. The ways in which one’s mind can be opened and the breadth of one’s existence can be expanded are astounding.

Major Australian universities in the “Group of Eight” (our Australian version of the Ivy League) are committed to several important activities: Tertiary education in the undergraduate and graduate arenas, cutting edge creativity and thought leadership in the arts and sciences, professional education and world-class research. All of these activities are essential assets and the best of our universities are up there with the best universities in the rest of the world. But all is not well in Camelot. Universities also have problems, even if they are in the top tier, or perhaps because they are in the top tier.

Why does is does it cost so much to attend a university and spend such a great deal of money in order to be educated nowadays? Why do universities always demand more and more money from the government (and increasingly from their students also)? Why do universities try and attract more and more international students, who pay higher tuition fees? Are universities financially responsible and do they operate on a good business model? Are universities as scrupulous and accountable as they ought to be? Do our august universities concentrate too much on research and postgraduate education to the detriment of the undergraduate courses? Are universities truly independent and are their staff able to operate in the spirit of true academic freedom, that is, freedom of speech and enquiry? It is such questions that have been debated for decades and have created tensions between academia and our broader society.

In the last year or two, it seems that tertiary education has been thrust willy-nilly into a rack and forced into a situation of great stress. This is perhaps the most disruptive time in the entire history of tertiary education. The internet and its widespread, highly scalable use globally as well as the growing popularity of online education as a viable alternative to on-campus education has been a catalyst for this. The appearance of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) into the tertiary education landscape with the consequent opportunity for students to have access to free tertiary level online study was the slap in the face that awakened universities from their complacency and forced them to ask some soul-searching questions.

A student these days has many options regarding study – whether they choose to go to a physical university or not. In this rapidly changing environment becoming well educated need not be equated necessarily with being admitted to a “Group of Eight” university and paying inordinate amounts of cash to study. Flexible and global education solutions at different levels geared towards any individual are now readily available at a fraction of the cost (or free). Ultimately this empowers the learner who can make an informed decision and take responsibility for their own learning.

The question that arises out of this concerns the credibility, validity and validation of the education programs on offer. What is their quality, what is the ability for the learning achieved to be authenticated in a secure way, and primarily perhaps, whether or not the overall online experience is engaging, interesting and motivating enough for the learner accessing learning through the internet – i.e. the “onlinearity” of the offering.

Onlinearity being: The appropriateness and judicious choice of technology, good learning design and pedagogy, suitability of course material and learning objects, reliable delivery platform and media - in order to run an engaging, effective, quality online course.

As more and more reputable tertiary educational institutions worldwide get online, not only the public and employers are seeing these means of becoming educated at an appropriate level as a viable option. Government and some of our more conservative universities are beginning to entertain the notion that a student should expect a quality educational experience in blended and fully online modes. The costs of doing online education well are not insignificant, but one has to balance that with the cost of having students on campus and providing them with suitable facilities for quality face-to-face learning.

The bottom line is that quality educational experiences, whatever their mode of student engagement, require adequate investment and considerable resources. Whether face-to-face, fully online or blended, in order to teach well you require passionate, interested and engaged teachers who have the facilities, professional development opportunities and access to technology to develop innovative programs that facilitate student learning. The real question is whether universities are willing to allow this to happen by devoting adequate resources to develop good learning and teaching, but also reward good teachers in the same manner that good researchers are rewarded in terms of career advancement, promotion and status.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Nearly all of us still use email on a daily basis and it has become an indispensable tool in our communication armamentarium. Email is not only used in business, but also as a means of communication in education, and also for personal and social purposes. Despite the social media revolution, email still gets used, a lot!

Although email is useful and can achieve much, it can also become a two-edged sword, especially if it is used indiscriminately and unwisely. The ancient Romans used to remark: “Verba volant, scripta manent”. Translated literally, it means “spoken words fly away, written words remain”. It is originally derived from a speech of Caius Titus in the Roman Senate, who said it wishing to drive home the point that spoken words might easily be forgotten, but written documents can always be produced and be the conclusive evidence in public matters. This is a pointed reference to the reliability of written records, on which agreements should be based, rather than a conversation, which can never be agreed upon as an accurate record of what was actually said, if the two sides involved have a different recollection or interpretation of it.

However, the written word also carries a sting in its tail, as something hastily written in the heat of the moment, under stress, or in frustration and anger, and sent to someone via email can cause much harm. The ease with which we communicate nowadays via email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook or even through blogging has made us a little unwary. What we write remains behind as a record and we can be held accountable to it. A quick note written down hurriedly can give a completely different message to the one intended. Especially as the written word is deficient in terms of facial expression, vocal tone, gesture, and further clarification if your interlocutor expresses their inability to fathom what you are saying or what exactly what you mean.

How many celebrities (with the world’s eye on them) have had serious problems with something they published on Twitter or Facebook? How many stories do we hear of very public apologies and retractions of the thoughtless comments that were written unwisely or in haste? There are numerous occasions where something written has created huge issues not only for the writers, but also for the people referred to in the communication… Written words are powerful weapons, and in untrained hands or in the hands of the unwary, can injure as severely as sharp swords. More so than verbal invective, a written attack is there to hurt the recipient continuously and can come back to haunt the writer, who may have repented writing the offensive missive at a later stage.

I have often felt a need to reply immediately to an email I have received which incenses me or insults me or assumes that I am an idiot. How often have I sat down and responded in like tone or language! However, I always do so in “draft” mode. I never send the reply immediately. I sit on it for a variable period of time, read it, re-read it, change it, reshape it, and more often than not, delete the draft without ever sending it. The draft has served its purpose. I have vented my anger, rid myself of the poison and then, when I am suitably composed and having considered the matter from all angles, I rewrite the reply in a more sedate tone and in a more logical frame of mind. The heat has dissipated and in the coolness of good sense I reply in a fair and logical manner, without repeating the offence of offending the offender.

In other cases I write something on paper, seal it in an envelope addressed to myself (this is important!) put it in a drawer and come back to it later, the next day being preferable. When I see the envelope with my name on it, I open it pretending its contents were not written by me, but by someone else – a close colleague, a family member or my partner. I try and read the letter through new eyes, trying to imagine the feelings of these people might experience if they read this letter. I invariably feel embarrassed. On some occasions where I have not torn the letter up immediately, I have felt the need to burn it as tearing it up I did not deem to be destruction enough for it!

We have to be even more careful when communicating to a large number of people (how careful are we when we click on the dreaded ‘reply all’ button?), or to people outside of our immediate sphere of acquaintance. Professionalism, courtesy, leadership and good sense should prevail in all of our communications, but especially so in our written communications, which persist, can be produced at a later stage and generally haunt us…

Catharsis is a powerful feeling. We all need it, we all feel better after it has worked its magic on us. Writing a hasty response to a vituperative email or letter can prove to produce an even more virulent and damaging effect than the original communication did. However, writing such a response can be cathartic. Just don’t send the blooming thing!