Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Photography for Elearning Developers - Understanding Exposure

Between the last post and today, I had a great time at Thattekad - one of India's finest bird sanctuaries down south. I can't say it was the best photography tour - grey weather, rain and dark clouds never make for a good mix. I did have a fascinating birding trip, having spotted 110+ bird species during those three days. Along the way, I got some good photographs but not too many to be frank. I'm hinging my photography fortunes on the next few trips this winter - hopefully my luck will come good somewhere.

Coming to the topic of today's blogpost, you may remember that in my last blogpost I'd explained how to choose a new camera for yourself. In today's blogpost I'll follow that up with what I consider the most crucial part of photography - exposure. Simply put, exposure indicates the total amount of light that your camera receives during the time that you record a photograph. When your picture is optimally exposed, you get a great picture. In photography parlance, an underexposed image is usually dark and conversely an overexposed image is usually too bright and white. Well, not all the time - but we'll come to that later. Let's first look at the three different parameters that actually affect the exposure on your image.


Aperture on your camera lens indicates how wide your lens is open when receiving light. The wider open your lens, the more light it can take in - the narrower the opening, the lesser the light. Simple? Your camera indicates your aperture setting using what we call an f-stop. The confusing thing to remember though is that the larger the number, the narrower the aperture. This is because we express aperture as a fraction of the focal length. f/1.8 therefore is wider than f/5.6.

Now why would you like to control aperture? Firstly of course, a wider aperture gives you more light for your frame which is always a good thing. That aside, adjusting your aperture gives you the opportunity to play with the depth of field on your picture. Depth of field refers to the depth of the picture after which the camera blurs out the details. Remember seeing those pretty portraits where the background is a beautiful blur? This is a result of playing with the aperture. So here's the trick - a wide aperture will usually result in a shallow depth of field. A narrow aperture on the other hand will capture a large part of the image in a sharp fashion. So for portraits you can go with wide aperture. With landscapes and interiors you could go with a narrow aperture. Take a look at the above pictures for reference.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the amount of time a camera's shutter is open when you capture an image. Think of a tap and a glass to fill. If you opened the tap fully your glass will fill in a jiffy. On the other hand if you just let the tap drip a drop at a time, it'll take you much longer to fill the glass. This is the relationship between aperture and shutter speed when it comes to aperture. If your tap of light is fully open you can go with a fast shutter speed. If your tap of light is down to just a drip you'll need a longer shutter speed to fill your glass of light. Simple?

Here's why you may want to control your shutter speed. When you shoot at a high shutter speed you freeze action in that split second. When you shoot at a lower shutter speed you get the opportunity to capture details in the poorly lit scene or capture motion using creative blurs - like the silky smooth waterfall in the above picture. The above pictures will help you see how shutter speed can help you capture different kinds of photographs.

ISO or Sensor Sensitivity

What if your tap was down to a drip and you still wanted to fill your glass quickly? You'd have to cut some corners right? You could potentially fill the glass with sand such that it takes only short amount of time to fill the glass! Yes, yes you make the water dirty - but you do fill the glass, don't you. This is how ISO works as balancing factor for exposure. ISO defines how sensitive your imaging sensor is to available light. So ISO 100 indicates low sensitivity while ISO 6400 indicates very high sensitivity.

Where could adjusting the ISO come in handy? Think about a situation where you're shooting a cityscape at night - handheld. If you shoot at low ISO, you'll need a very slow shutter speed. Here's the catch - slow shutter speeds introduce blur because very few people can keep their hands steady for more than 1/60th of a second! In such a situation, if you shoot at ISO 100 you just won't get a sharp picture. On the other hand you can go with a sensitivity of ISO 800 and you'll most likely get a sharp picture.

Now here's the other catch - remember the sand in the glass? The higher the ISO, the lower the quality of your image. In the film days you'd notice this in the form of what they called film grain and in the digital world you see it in the form of image noise. So the bottom line is this - a high ISO is the arrow in your photography quiver which you want to use only if absolutely necessary.

How do you control Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO?

While most serious cameras have a manual mode where you control everything, it's usually not the best idea unless you're shooting in a very controlled, studio type setting. You're best off controlling either Aperture or Shutter speed and letting the camera control the other. If you're using a DSLR, then you'll perhaps know the modes to control these as Aperture priority (A on Nikon, Av on Canon) and Shutter priority (S on Nikon, Tv on Canon). All you need to do is pick the parameter you want to control, select the ISO you're willing to live with and let the camera help you along from that point.

What mode do I shoot on? Well as most photojournalists would say, "Aperture priority, f/9 and stay there!". Well not quite - I select modes based on the need of the photograph, but for the most part I shoot in Aperture priority since that allows me to control how much of the picture stays sharp and how much blur I need.

A Photo Case Study - Ceylon Frogmouths

For the last year or so, I've been waiting to see the Ceylon Frogmouths. These birds are some of most elusive species to spot in the wild. In fact, I was looking up Wikipedia and found that from the Batrachostomus genus only bird that they have photographs for, are the Ceylon Frogmouths.  These birds have excellent camouflage. They're hardly 23 cm in size and they choose their homes in dark, thickly forested, leafy areas. Since they look like dry leaves and branches they completely blend in. You could be a meter from them and still not be able to see them. The reason why we can actually find them in some spots of India is particularly because some birders know their roosting spots and end up guiding folks like me.

Now to this photograph - the tropical forest was very dark. We were struggling to see the frogmouths with naked eyes - through the camera it was even tougher. I proceeded to shoot at the widest aperture my camera offered. However at f/5.6, the shutter speed of 5 seconds was just unmanageable with a big lens, handheld. I kept upping the ISO until I reached a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second and then pressed the shutter. At an ISO of 6400, the picture isn't as sharp or as high quality as I'd like it to be, but I want to think it was the sharpest I could have got in that environment. I could have perhaps gone to ISO 12800, but that would have brought down the picture quality even further. In any case I hope this adventure of a photograph helps you see how ISO, shutter speed and aperture play together to help create the right image.

I hope today's blogpost gives you a basic sense of exposure for your photographs. I am mindful that I'm not focussing on elearning-only situations with my examples and that's deliberately so. I'm guessing that if you can use your camera effectively in a life situation, the ability to do so for elearning will come automatically. In the next blogpost, I'll touch upon some simple tips related to colour and format choices in photography. Stay tuned until then - cheers! Is there other stuff you'd like me cover on this blog? Let me know by dropping your comments on this post.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Photography for Elearning Developers - Choosing a New Camera

If you’ve followed this blog long enough, you’ll remember that I’m no big fan of stock images. No, I don’t hate them - in fact I use them quite often. That being said, I think there’s significant disadvantages to stock photos - my primary gripe with them being the fact that they’re so inauthentic. People just aren’t as pretty as they look in stock images, except of course you lot that’s reading this post. And then again, they don’t strike cheesy poses. Most importantly, stock image models are so far removed from the real world that the credibility a real colleague’s photo brings just doesn’t come through with a stock photo. In my presentations and learning programs I’m using more and more of my own photography and I can imagine this could be a really useful thing for other elearning designers too.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to do a few posts on basic photography that’ll help you take high quality photographs for your learning materials. Of course, I don’t proclaim to be an expert and well it’s going to take far more than my posts to be a really good photographer. I’m sure though that learning about the art and science of photography will help you develop the craft in case you have an interest for it. In today’s blogpost, I’ll show you how to select a new camera - after all, that’s a prerequisite to awesome photographs!

The best camera is the one you already have

Photography geeks can keep going on and on about the best equipment. Is the A77 the best DSLR ever? Or is it the monstrous 46 megapixel Sigma SD1? Well no one cares. I for one don’t have the budget to buy the best gear on the planet. And then again the deal with photography is this - your existing equipment is good until you run up a limit. So if you have a point and shoot and you need more creative control on your images then you perhaps should get a prosumer camera. On the other hand if you’re looking for lightning fast response then you may have to choose a DSLR. Often you may be already shooting with a DSLR and you need to capture a small object with all its details. You may then need to upgrade to a macro lens. All this said, if you have to always remember - if you don’t see a problem with the results you’re getting, your existing equipment is just good enough. I am however going to tell about the different types of cameras in the market so if you did have to purchase a new one you can make an informed decision.

Equipment Geekery

I like to look at cameras in three different categories. Let’s take a look at each of these:
  1. Point and shoot cameras: Compact and pocketable in size, these are the cameras that a lot of us have. I have one too. They take decent pictures and are meant for exactly what the category is called - point and shoot. Your cellphone cameras also fall under this category. Most people will say that these cameras aren’t meant for serious photography, but hey - look at these photographs from the iPhone 4! For a lot of photography, a little pocket device is adequate. The downside of these cameras of course is that they aren’t really versatile for various purposes and because of their small imaging sensors, the image quality often isn’t as good as you’d like it to be.

  2. Prosumer cameras: Prosumer cameras are a little more advanced than compacts. They essentially have similar or slightly larger sensors and theoretically are capable of producing better images. More importantly, some of these cameras allow you to shoot in the camera’s native format a.k.a RAW which gives you a lot more control to tweak your images after the fact. This apart they’re equipped with more versatile glass that can zoom into far away objects or often shoot really wide landscapes.

  3. Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs): SLR cameras start to go into the realm of serious photography. The ability to shoot at rapid pace, to choose from a wide range of lenses and accessories and to be able to come up with high quality, tack sharp images is something a lot of photography enthusiasts prefer. Amongst DSLRs there are full frame cameras that are fitted with image sensors of the same size as good old 35 mm film. This means that if you were to put any lens on top of these cameras, your picture would be similar and true to the 35 mm film format. These large sensors help you reproduce vivid colour and detail and well that makes these cameras quite costly - anywhere between $2000 and $8000. There are also what we call crop or APS-C format cameras which have smaller sensors than the full frames and produce a cropped image in comparision to those big guns. They’re still pretty good and I own two of those. You can get your hands on one of these for as little as $450. There are also newer variants such as the mirrorless micro-four-thirds cameras and the single lens translucent (SLT) cameras. I’ll leave it to you to find out about those.

If you’re looking to buy a camera for your elearning photography, I suggest you go for a DSLR. I’m a Canonista and I strongly recommend the EOS 600D as your first camera. I’m pretty sure Nikon produces good cameras too - I just don’t know about them. The advantages of the DSLR are aplently. The fact that there’s only one moving mirror which projects to an optical viewfinder, you have a WYSIWYG experience with photography. Plus you can keep adding equipment to the base system as you want to expand your photography repertoire.

Beware of the myths

If you’re buying a prosumer camera or a point and shoot, do remember that there’s a scam in the market. I call it the megapixel and optical zoom scam. You can guess what I’m referring to. Manufacturers, regardless of whether they’re well meaning or not, need to have some way to keep selling you new models of their devices which don’t necessarily add much value beyond what you already have. Don’t believe me? Check out the story of stuff. Now with cameras, technology doesn’t really change by much each month. Yet there are new models in the market every month. The one way that camera manufacturers can lure you into buying something new is by providing you a quantitative metric to evaluate your purchase. The easiest one is the megapixel count.

Now remember I told you that point and shoot cameras and prosumers have very small sensors in comparison to DSLRs? Think about it. Pixels are finally dots on your final image. To reproduce these dots as they appeared in real life, you need to lay out several mini-sensors on your sensor area. Therefore as you’ll notice from the diagram above, while a DSLR sensor area has these mini sensors laid out quite comfortably, the point and shoot has them fighting for space. The more megapixels you pack into a point and shoot, the more mini sensors you need. The more mini sensors you pack in, the more squished they will be. The more squished they are, the more they’ll interfere with each other and produce poor images. So if you’re picking up a new point and shoot camera or for that matter any other camera, be mindful that more megapixels doesn’t always translate to better pictures. For all you care, you’re likely to get better pictures from a camera with a lower megapixel count!

The other scam that camera companies run is that of optical zoom. Remember those numbers you saw at the store - 4x, 10x, 15x? Does a 15x camera lens have a better zoom reach than a 4x camera lens? Not really. X here signifies the ratio between the highest focal length of the camera lens, to its lowest focal length. So a camera that goes from 20mm to 300mm is a 15x lens. Now let me tell you that several wildlife photographers use the following professional lenses for super long reach:

  • 100mm-400mm; just 4x
  • 200mm-400mm; just 2x
  • 400mm, 600mm, 800mm primes which are just 1x!

As you can see the x value is nothing but a hoax to make you buy a new camera and doesn’t really mean anything without knowing the focal length of the lens on the camera. Also remember that it takes great engineering to build lenses that operate at various focal lengths. This is the reason that most professional lenses are either primes or 2x or 4x. A camera lens that operates at a focal length multipliers of 15x, 18x and 30x is surely cutting corners with image quality.

There’s perhaps heaps more technicalities to know about with photography. In my next post, I’ll try to clarify some of the technical jargon you’ll hear thrown around in the space. After that we’ll start getting our hands dirty with some neat stuff. Deal? See you next week then.

Camera image credits: Individual manufacturers. Title photo credit: FOTOCROMO

Friday, October 28, 2011

Share your images freely - you have no excuses

This week is Diwali in India. An extremely colourful festival of the country - one that celebrates the victory of good over evil; I believe it represents some of the greatest inequalities of our nation. Don't get me wrong - Diwali is like Christmas for many Indians. It's a time for family and a time to be happy. At the same time it shows what a great divide exists in our society. While one part of the society showcases its opulence by lighting fireworks worth thousands of rupees, another part of society still sleeps hungry and earns less than two dollars a day. While some children spend all evening in new clothes and launch fireworks into the sky, several Indian children have been slogging away in the same factories that produce these fireworks. While society brandishes its wealth by causing noise and air pollution this year, we lose several plants, birds and insects to this rampage by human kind. As you can tell, I have a very different perspective to Diwali from most Indians.

Anyways, let me get to the point of this blogpost. Last week I reached out to a very respectable wildlife photographer and made him a request. I noticed that his pictures had really huge watermarks which he'd placed to protect his work from copyright infringement. I asked him if he could consider opening up his work a little more and he revealed to me what he was apprehensive of. His concerns were quite valid and as an amateur photographer I'd like to share them with you. In addition I'd like to share some other concerns I've heard from photographers who've been reluctant to open up their work. But before that, let me explain some basics about intellectual property.

Copyrights and Licensing

A copyright as the word indicates is the exclusive right to make copies of a piece of work, to distribute it, to modify it and to create derivative works. When you take a photograph, you automatically gain the copyright for it and it's upto you to share those rights with others. No one can use your photograph until the time you either grant them the right to do so. You can grant people all or some rights by using a license. There are three traditional ways around this :
  • Now quite often you'll give people the entire picture which means that you've shared all your rights.
  • You could give them the picture with an informal agreement, in which case if there is an infringement you'll have trouble explaining your agreement, especially if you have no legal skill.
  • You could use a custom license, and while this has it's advantages, it increases complexity, because you need to understand the legalese behind it.
The simplest way out however is to use a Creative Commons license. You can retain whichever rights you want to retain and give out the remaining rights. I won't get into the details of the creative commons scheme - you can choose a license that suits you by using the Creative Commons license chooser. At the heart of the system though, is the one thing that most artists care for - credit and attribution. Every creative commons license requires the licensee to give you credit for your work. With that basic information in mind, let's look at some of the arguments people have against openness.

Argument 1: People have copied my work and given me no credit

I've heard this complaint often and here's what I'll say. Jerks will always be jerks. Regardless of how much you watermark and protect your pictures, it's very easy for theives to steal your work if they want to. Take a look at this one minute video to see how easily I removed the watermark from the above picture. Also be mindful of the principle of fair use. Anyone who is using your picture for the purpose of research, criticism, teaching, commentary, news reporting or other such purposes are fully entitled to use your picture without seeking your permission as long as they attribute back to you. By placing a watermark on your pictures, you make it difficult for the rest of human kind from using your work for such purposes. Given that people will steal if they need to no matter what you do, does it make sense to make fair use difficult?

Argument 2: I'm not required to use a Creative Commons license

Absolutely - you could just keep all rights reserved and let people ask for permission each time that they need your pictures. Do remember though that this only creates friction. The more the barriers to use, the less your pictures will be used. Now you could argue this is good, but again remember that only if your pictures can go far and wide will people actually know you.  Most geeks know Linus Torvalds - there's a good reason for that. It's because Linux and Git are open source and they take his name far. But even with photography, you don't need to go far - Trey Ratcliffe, Jonathan Worth and Kalyan Varma are great examples of people who are popular because of their openness.

The advantage of choosing a creative commons license is that this makes your approach towards sharing explicit. You can be very explicit about what people can do with your photos and what they need your permission for.  For example, people can use, share, modify and redistribute my photos as long as they attribute back to me and they don't use my work for commercial purposes. I wouldn't mind earning some money, so if there's an opportunity for something like that I'd love to have a share.

Argument 3: But what if I want to use my work for a commercial purpose?

This is the beauty of the creative commons scheme. You can reserve the rights that you consider important to yourself. If  you'd like to preserve your work as is, you can reserve the right to make derivative works. You can reserve the right to commercialise your work. You can share a low resolution version of a photo liberally and reserve the high resolution version for commercial printing. It's a very flexible system.

As you can see, thieves shouldn't deter you from sharing your work with the world. The Internet can be a much better place if photographers in particular share their creative representations with the world without fear. If you are a photographer or create digital media of some kind, please read the power of open for inspiration. If you haven't been sharing openly, you'll surely find some stories that strike a chord from that book. And by the way, don't be scared to visit the link - it's a free book.

Do you have other fears about sharing your work? Please post them in the comments section of this post and I'll do my best to answer them for you. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Three antipatterns to protect your learning community from

I'm back from China and it feels great to be back home finally. China's a great place that I recommend everyone tries to visit at least once in their lifetime. That said, if you are hooked to the internet then you've got to be prepared to sacrifice some of that during your visit. So with about 30 days of no access to my blog, several of Google's apps and Twitter or Facebook, socialising on the web was a bit of nightmare.

Anyways, I got back last week and went on an amazing birding trip to Ganeshgudi. In birdwatching parlance, a bird you see for the first time in your life is a called a 'lifer'. My friends Raji, Kannan, Sandeep and I lost count of the number of times we saw a bird and shouted the word 'lifer' to each other. An amazing biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, Ganeshgudi afforded sightings of about a 110 different species of birds. If you're interested, you should look up my photographs. I wasn't looking at photography as a goal on this trip. I wanted to use my camera as a bit of a documentation tool for this trip. I'll be back there soon and then I'll perhaps move around with a monopod and try to get better shots.

Three pillars of successful communities

Speaking of the birding trip, all three of my friends that came with me were folks I know from a naturalists' community that I participate in. It's been an enriching experience being a part of that group. I believe that successful learning communities are founded on three important pillars:
  • Sharing and Altruism: The most successful communities are where people participate because they believe that sharing what they know helps others and they believe that they'll be better off if others share what they know as well.
  • Feedback: In his Last Lecture, Randy Pausch said, "Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." Communities that have a healthy culture of sharing feedback are likely to learn and grow better.
  • Respect: As a fundamental value in most meaningful human relationships, respect has to be out there as one of the fundamental building blocks of successful communities. Communities that respect experience and the lack of it alike and can create safety for people to participate are likely to see a lot of meaningful traffic.
As I was thinking about these three pillars, I've been thinking of three very common antipatterns I've observed on online communities that I'd like to share with you. If I'm running a community, I'll probably avoid these like the plague and I really hope that you do too.

Hero worship

Every community has it's heroes and top contributors, but to elevate these individuals to god-like status is an absolute no-no. I remember that a few days back on a birding community on Facebook an experienced wildlife photographer posted a beautiful photograph of a bird. He'd also posted a write up on the bird. Everyone had great stuff to say about the image and the write up. That being said, there was  problem. The photographer had copy pasted the write up from Thomas Jerdon and had done nothing to attribute to the great naturalist. I was surprised that no one had called him out on this. I have very little tolerance for plagiarism and un-deserved praise gathering, so I had to call him out. This however led me to notice how several of the established photographers and naturalists on the group received nothing but fulsome praise. There was hardly any useful feedback for these folks. Now this is a problem. How does someone with expertise grow and learn if they receive no feedback?

At ThoughtWorks, we have our heroes in people like Ola Bini, Martin Fowler and Jim Highsmith. That doesn't stop us however from sharing our views openly with them, even if we're at odds with how they think. That's what makes the ThoughtWorks community so awesome. Think about where your community suffers from hero worship. If so, you need to fix that soon.

Boorish behaviour

Some months back, I wrote an article about behaviour on social media. A respectful community handles disagreement and feedback respectfully. Often people will say or do things that may or may not be correct in our opinion. It's crucial though that we convey our opinions in a manner that doesn't undermine someone's intelligence and doesn't humiliate them on a public forum. Let me explain.

A few days back one of the members on a naturalists' forum mentioned how he'd attracted a crested bunting by throwing food grains and then lying in wait to snag a photograph. One of the more experienced members of the forum was furious with this. Baiting is generally a frowned upon practice amongst naturalists and for good reason too. The experienced member laid into the photographer and gave him a public dressing down on the forum.

I felt a bit odd about that angry response. I wrote back to this person explaining that while the actions were wrong, the photographer perhaps didn't mean any harm. I explained that by berating someone in public he'd not only insulted that individual, but made the community environment unsafe for genuine, well intentioned mistakes. After all, mistakes are a great way to learn!

Thankfully the experienced member understood my point and immediately wrote back on the group apologising for his outburst and explaining why he felt strongly about the concept of baiting for photography. I'm pretty sure this made the original poster feel a lot better. This was a story that had a happy ending, but a lot of such stories end with just bad behaviour that goes unnoticed. If you're running a community, this is something to be aware of. Remember - good, respectful behaviour creates a safe environment for people to contribute and learn from their mistakes. It also creates a healthy environment to share feedback.

Hoarding over sharing

If you're a member on any wildlife forums, you'll see a lot of people sharing photographs with copyright notices that look like this:

"Copyrighted by _____________ and may not be used in any form,website or print media without written permission of the Photographer.For any enquiry for the photographs please contact _______________."

You know my views about this. Communites are about sharing and restrictive copyrights are about hoarding in the hope of maximising value for an individual. They have no place in learning communities. I'm amazed why people even bother posting restrictively copyrighted work on online forums. Is it just to tease people with a 'see, don't touch' approach from museum culture? Are these contributors so full of their own work that they believe they're better than all of the awesome, successful people who make money despite sharing freely?

This is a simple problem to solve, and yet something that's not easy. It takes talking to people individually, and high standards for sharing in the community. It's quite easy to ignore, but in my opinion this is a stink to watch out for in just about any community.

Over the next few weeks I want to try a few different articles on this blog. In particular I want to focus on photography for elearning media. I've been experimenting with photography over the last few years or so and I wouldn't mind helping elearning professionals select gear, understand the technology behind phototgraphy and play around with the composition and post processing. While I've almost made up my mind to do a series on this, I'd like to know if you think this could be a valuable thing to cover on this blog. I look forward to hearing from you - either on this post or on any other channels you're connected to me on. Until next week, happy learning!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Setting up a learning community? Consider this.

You've perhaps noticed that I haven't posted in a while and frankly I have no excuse. I'm just slacking off - it's a bad thing to do as a blogger, but I must confess that my participation in the real world is affecting my contribution to the virtual world. For those interested in news about me - I'm back China now and I'm unsure how that'll again affect my Internet usage. In the mean time though there's really no reason for me to not share what I've learnt about learning over the last month or so. In today's blogpost I want to share some epiphanies I've had as a consequence of my experiences over the last month or so. These are only theories and I'd love to know what you think about the validity of these thoughts.

There's no pace better than your own pace

I'm the kind of guy that tour guides hate. I meet them with a "No" almost each time. There's a part of me that likes exploring places at my own pace. I must say though, that I've developed this tendency through my prior experience with tour guides. Tour guides have the tendency to give their standard spiel regardless of who they're with. Often this is a mouthful about the history of the place full of facts, dates and information that I struggle to remember. In the end I remember only the highlights, which are usually signposted by tourism authorities near the monuments themselves. When in China, I just got myself several pages of information on each of the sites I was planning to visit and carried them along with me on my iPad. When I thought I needed more information, I pulled out my iPad and found what I needed. From the perspective of learning and recollection, I found this to be a more effective, tailored approach than following a tour guide's pace and narration. I wonder if there's something in their about learning in general. Do we really need teachers and trainers for most learning? If most knowledge is in the public domain and people have the motivation to learn, do we really need the trainers as middlemen? I don't think the role of a trainer or teacher is dead but I do think these roles need some redefinition.

Empathy is a big connector in group work

There was a point in China, where I was really depressed. Despite all the great sights and colourful culture, I think the language barrier had just gotten to me. Plus my iPad had gotten stolen, so my easiest way of communicating with the rest of the world was lost too. I think I'd hit a brick wall with how much I was willing to do all by myself. By my last weekend in China I think I was well and truly at that brick wall. When I look back at the few really memorable days in China, it was perhaps the nights that my Chinese colleagues took me out for dinners; hanging out with Dave Worthington, Anita and Adam who were foreign ThoughtWorkers like me in China and hiking the Great Wall with Emily Ghan, a fellow tourist who I befriended. I think in several of the situations the feeling of empathy was the glue that made the activity hold together. My Chinese colleagues displayed a sense of empathy towards my situation as a first time China traveler and took me put for some of the most fantastic meals of my life. Emily and I had a sense of empathy towards each other as we chatted away about China, India and our hike on the Great Wall. Even when I cramped up and fell, Emily was nice enough to give me a helping hand. And I had the best times with Adam, Anita and Dave because well, we had so much in common as foreigners working in China. Going through bucket loads of chicken wings with them was such a great experience! Now that I'm back in the country with a team of my own, I can't tell you how enjoyable the experience is. We have two Mandarin speakers in the team and four of us are of non-Chinese origin. That's a great mix to connect to the culture and learn about it while having a group that can be empathetic to each other's situations. As we look at technology to connect people, I wonder how we bring together the empathy glue that truly helps people engage with each other. There is a point where just being self driven isn't enough, is it?

Strong ties are crucial for the success of a social network

I'm running a few little communities on Facebook. Two of these communities are quite interesting. One of them is a photographers group and another a group of naturalists. If you go to the Naturalist's group, it's buzzing with activity. On the other hand, the photographers group is a bit quiet. I don't believe that the photographers are any less inclined to sharing than the naturalists, but here's the deal. The core of the naturalists' group is a set of us that share a great friendship and have extremely strong ties. While there's part of the article I disagree with,  Malcolm Gladwell wrote sometime back as to how at the centre of revolutions and high risk activism you need people with strong ties. I suspect there's something similar with online communities too. It's tough, though not unprecedented to build communities on the basis of weak ties and acquaintances alone. On the other hand, communities with a core of people with strong ties is a lot more likely to attract and support weak acquaintances. Something for us to investigate further and think about as we spawn newer communities.

There's still nothing that beats the real world

One of the reasons the naturalists group has a lot to talk about, is because we a lot of us meet very regularly for nature trails and birdwatching expeditions. Every trip has a trip report that follows and requests for identifying birds, butterflies, insects, plants and fungi that we couldn't recognise. This heartbeat ritual ensures a regular channel for communication in addition to the adhoc collaboration on the group.  Had it not been for the real world activity, we would have had nothing to discuss in that forum. This is where the photography group suffers - we have little in common in terms of shared experience and while photo critique is an interesting activity every now and then, the lack of common context makes a big difference. There's something to be said about the value of real world meetings and activities, don't you think?

So, I've tried to give you my view on these theories of mine. Now it's your turn. What do you think about these theories? If you agree how do you think they influence the way you design communities and learning experiences? If you disagree, what's your view?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A tale of two photographs

I know I haven't posted this week. That's because I wanted to spend some time on my photography. So here's what I've decided - why don't I post something about my experience this week? I took a couple of photographs this week and I thought I learnt something from each of them. Neither of them are awesome snaps since I kinda took them in trying situations and of course, I'm always learning about the craft. I think though that some of my introspection may be of interest to the at least those of you interested in photography. Let me tell you a bit about each photo.

The new urban raptor

Photo here.
The Shikra or Little Banded Goshawk is a primarily a forest and farmland raptor. It's quite uncommon to see them in urban environs, especially residential areas. However, in recent months Shikras are becoming quite a regular if not common sighting in the city. My theory is that we may be seeing a rise in the number of rodents and the Shikras potentially are attracted to the food source. I'm no biologist though, so I can well be wrong. Now to this photograph. This is a juvenile, who came and sat right next to my balcony when I was sipping on some late evening tea - ready to head out for a run with my dog. I took this photo at f/5.6, 1/50 and ISO 1600. Here are some lessons I learnt:
  • You never know when your next photo opportunity will arrive. A state of readiness is quite important. When I saw the bird, I was able to jump into the house, pick up my camera and get out to shoot in 30 seconds. If your camera is not at arms length, you're most likely to rue lost opportunities.
  • Your camera is a great feedback tool. I was initially set to shoot at ISO 400. In fading light, that led to a really impossible shutter speed for hand-holding my 100-400mm lens. I kept looking through the viewfinder to adjust the ISO to a point where I was able to finally get a manageable shutter speed.
  • Your subject deserves proper attention. While you could say this is a satisfactory shot, I actually missed a really good shot. I saw the bird fidgeting and I thought I should change the camera orientation to get a frame filling portrait. In the split second that I was trying to compose a length shot, the Shikra exposed it's beautiful belly markings, spread it's wings and took off. Had I not bothered about the new orientation, and tried to read the bird's body language, I would have had a much better shot to show you. Sometimes composition can be secondary to understanding your subject. Post processing can often help with composition, especially in nature photography.
  • Calmness is a great virtue. I think I got too excited to see a Shikra at such close range in my colony. As a result I wasn't breathing right, I wasn't thinking clearly and I didn't balance myself well. If you blow up the image, you'll notice that there's a bit of blur and it's not really the nicest picture. Photography is like a sport - you need to have the right stance, you need to breathe normally and balance your posture. The clearer your thought process, the better you capture your subject (or so I guess).

The lovable neighbourhood owl

Photo here.
The Barn Owl is probably one of the most common species of owls across the world. Extremely social birds, these are mostly nocturnal and I can't ever remember seeing them in the day. They have little fear of humans and often make their homes in apartment complexes, roofs of mansions, tree hollows and of course, barns. I have a family of five owls staying on top of the last house in my lane. I see them every night, but they tend to stay in the shadows and my attempts at photographing them have generally been quite bad. This time however, I saw this guy when running with my dog. He was sitting on the tree opposite the house and the street light was illuminating the scene partially. I ran back home, picked up my camera and kept praying all this while that he'd still be sitting in the same place when I got back. Here are a few of things I learnt from this photo:
  • The onboard flash isn't a bad tool at some times. Now this isn't a great photo, but it's good enough for me to help people recognise the bird. The light was poor, I don't own any other lighting - shining a flashlight would have just made the bird fly away. I had to make a compromise and use the flash. At the end of the day, it's what saved the picture and at least I have something to tell a story around.
  • Manual focus is not scary. Autofocussing in that light was a nightmare. When there's no contrast with visible light in the scene, cameras struggle to autofocus on the right subject. I turned that off and manually locked onto this guy. The advantage was that I not only could get my focus spot on, I could also lock it in and shoot in a burst. Other situations where I've found this useful is where I'm really treading the line of minimum focussing distance - auto focus can sometimes go right through the subject. Manual focus comes in real handy in those spots as well.
  • Knowing the photo you want helps in a big way. I knew I had no photos of the barn owl to show anyone, so I've been looking out for opportunities everyday. My gear is always in the living room, so I can always get it quickly and shoot. Every day when I get back home, when I leave for work, when I run my dog, I look for these guys. Whenever the opportunity presents itself I know I'll be out there shooting. I still don't have quite the picture I want, but I know that if I stay focussed I can get there at some point.

I usually don't post much about photography since I'm so much a learner at this - but these photos are such great learning moments for me that I just couldn't help sharing my thoughts. Hope they made sense - do let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I'm sorry, education is a scam

My friend's daughter got accused of being ADHD a few weeks back. My colleague Dinesh is keen to take his son Aravind out of school. My friend Sandeep is trying to build software that recognises every child to be a unique individual with their own little achievements. I see a growing sentiment in my friends circle about the current state of education and it's impact on young minds. I don't have a kid, but I can only dread being a kid in this climate. It's a hostile environment that teaches kids to master a curriculum but not to learn. It makes kids competitive but teaches them very little about collaborating, about being better citizens, better people. I have a few thoughts about education and I want to share them with you - it's a real scam.

What is this model based on?

"If Isaac Newton had done YouTube videos on calculus, I wouldn't have to. " - Salman Khan

We've predicated our model of education on a system that presupposes that kids need to go to school to gain knowledge. It is based on the assumption that knowledge is scarce and you need an expert to dole it out. Except the person who your kid learns from is not really an expert. That person is a middleman. Knowledge is not scarce anymore. You could learn the guitar from a really successful, best selling artist. Using your computer. Not in school. Actually, you couldn't learn from the best selling artist in school. School is really a bit of a deterrent when it comes to learning from an expert. Yet, school is still all about that old model which isn't true anymore. Kids can learn sitting at home, using a service like Khan Academy. School doesn't teach people what our ancestors learnt - applying knowledge to the real world. School instead is preparing people only to clear the next exam.

Life skills? Not a chance?

Success is in the doing. And failures are celebrated and analyzed. Problems become puzzles and obstacles disappear. - Gever Tulley

My nephew is 12 years old. He ranks first in class each year. Awesome eh? More information - he is overweight, he plays no sports, he can't have a real world conversation beyond his textbooks and couldn't survive if his parents were away for even a couple of days. Is that what education is supposed to mean? What about experiencing life and learning real life skills? Where are the tinkering schools of the world? Why isn't every school helping children learn like Diana Laufenberg does?

We learn to succeed despite education

Children quickly learn to navigate and go in and find things which interest them. And when you've got interest, then you have education. - Arthur C. Clarke

I work in a job that I never received any formal education for. I'm quite happy about that frankly. Let me give you an example so you understand why. In school I was deeply interested in plants, animals and birds. But to tell you the truth, the biological names and academic knowledge behind them was of little interest to me. I could spend hours at Alipore zoo admiring the animals in my backyard but to remember a tiger as Panthera Tigris was beyond me. Unfortunately to have an education in nature, I needed to cut up frogs, fish and cockroaches in the lab which I avoided like the plague. I quit biology studies in 11th grade because I just couldn't take it anymore. Why couldn't I just learn about natural history as I do today? I've learnt more about birds and animals as an adult than I did with formal education in school. To me, my self-supervised hours in the field mean a lot more than the supervised hours I had in school. I got educated out of my interests in school and it's no wonder that I'm my current job is miles from what I actually studied to be. Children are wonderful - they have the natural ability to learn if left to their own interests, the internet and the resources they'll need to support their passion. Sugata Mitra's hole in the wall project proves it.
Current schools depress me. There's great thinking in various circles about the future of education, but we're not there yet. And it troubles me that my nephews and nieces, my friends' children and kids I care for may have to go through a generation of poor education. I wonder how this'll change - I'm very cynical about this whole scam we call education. I wonder what you think. Especially if you're in India, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Be open, be nice

One of my friends in the wildlife photography circle is very strict about the copyright notices on his images. A lot of his images have descriptions such as, "Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer." While I don't wish to make a judgement about his choice of restrictive copyright, I personally dislike this approach. I consider it against the very fabric of the sharing culture that makes us human. I take it as granted that writing, photography and music are art forms. No doubt about that. I also take it that artists need to make money. But sharing and making money don't have to be exclusive of each other. My biggest example is Trey Ratcliffe - he's one of the best known travel photographers in the world. Trey travels the world and makes his best photography freely available on the web. His work is acclaimed the world over - he's even on the wall of the Smithsonian. I'm pretty sure Trey makes a lot of money too, and that's because of the word of mouth his photography gets - 175,000 views a day! There's obviously a business model to making money through openness - The Power of Open is a great testimony to that model. In today's blogpost I want to share some notes about openness - photographers, elearning developers, artists, writers are all likely to have a view on this. Feel free to rouse a debate if you wish.

Most of us are not looking for money

The fact is that most content creators don't necessarily want to make money out of the stuff we put out. The internet has given us a medium to share our work which we never had before. When all we had was 35mm film and 36 shots on the film, we'd create the pictures and share the albums with our friends and family - but only those that we met face to face. Today, even our aquaintances and distant friends and relatives can see our work and share their reactions. So yeah, the internet gives us wings we never thought we had. The internet however, is prone to it's ills. People can plagiarise our work, mistakenly or deliberately not point to us as creators. It's a risk - I agree. I am of the belief though, that if someone's a jerk and doesn't understand the effort an artist puts into their work then I'm not going to change him. In fact, if someone does plagiarise my work then I really don't have the means to take that person to court. So I'm not going to lose any sleep over that. What I can do, is make my licensing approach transparent, simple and low barrier so the majority of the (nice) people out there can use my work if they want. So if they want to use it in an article they're writing, sure they can. They want to use it in a presentation - why not? They want to create a derivative work - I'm ok with that too. All I really need is attribution - the fact that my work can get used in several places means that I'm more likely to build a name with that, than I ever will via restrictive copyright. Now I'm not famous and I don't do much to build a followership with my work. I do know though that if I did want that fame - attribution would still be the only thing I'd need.

Openness helps people around us

I love wildlife photography. Actually I like all forms of photography, but wildlife photography is the only thing I'm half good at. Now the beauty of this beast is that it can be a great educational tool for anyone who views my photographs. Since my photographs are under a non-restrictive license, you can add them to Wikipedia and help build a great body of knowledge about the flora and fauna around us. People can use them for their dissertations and studies. Those who want to make a great presentation but have no money to buy stock photography can use my pictures too. By keeping my work open, I believe I'm more likely to help people and leave a bigger dent in the universe. The fact with photography is that I've created neither the moments nor the objects. All I do is to capture them through my own representation. To restrict people from being able to use that representation is perhaps being a bit full of myself. Now this is my approach and I don't say everyone needs to do this - but the only thing I restrict against is the use of my work for commercial purposes. I don't do this because I want a share of the profits or anything - though that would be nice. I take a lot of photographs with people in them. Now I am concerned if a brand decided to use the photo of the tribal woman I shot without giving her some money. Or if they used a photograph of my pretty friend without her explicit permission. Oh yeah, and I also have one more retriction. If you create a derivative of my work and share it with others, you're welcome to do so as long as you share under the same license that I shared the original work with. I don't want my open work to become closed as people create derivatives.

How to add the right copyright notices

Licensing is a matter of choice; however I strongly recommend the Creative Commons licenses for anyone producing artwork. My personal favourite is the Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license (CC-BY-NC-SA). It allows people to create derivative works and share with others as long as they preserve the license and allows only non-commercial use. There's other less or more restrictive licenses. There are several ways to apply the licenses to your work.
  • If you blog, add the license embed code to the sidebar of your blog (example here). You can use a similar strategy when distributing music.
  • If you take photographs and have a newer Canon DSLR, you can add license information to the EXIF data of your photographs.
  • If you are sharing photographs online on Flickr, then the application allows you to select from a list of Creative Commons licenses.
  • If you're writing an e-book, you can add the license icons and deed to the the document itself.
  • If you're distributing an elearning course, then you can either add the license inside the course or provide a separate license document in the package.
  • If you have documents that support XMP, then you can add license metadata to them.
The key is to make the licensing transparent so that people know what the limitations are and how low the barrier to sharing is. Most people don't mind giving you credit for your work. There are some outlying idiots who we can either lose sleep over or just ignore. I choose to do the latter. If you still don't want to open up your work, at a bare minimum don't watermark your work with ugly patterns just because you're afraid of the crazy bootleggers. Share with confidence - not in fear!

You may think I'm taking the moral high ground here because no one really cares about my work. You could be right if you think that way - I'm no famous artist. That being said, TED, Jonathan Worth, DJ Vadim, Trey Ratcliffe, Curt Smith, Kalyan Varma and others are famous, aren't they? Something works for them because they make their work open. While my advice is only a guideline, their work is an inspiration. I strongly urge all of you to make as much of your work as open as you possibly can. Let's remember that we would have learnt nothing as a human race if anyone who discovered or created anything decided to close down their work under restrictive licenses. I'm more than happy to be part of a debate on this one - I have strong views as you may have noticed. So yeah, if you have a view - let me know.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Spatial Serendipity - The Key to A Social Workplace

Image credit Christopher Schoenbohm

First things first, I'm sorry I couldn't post anything on the blog in the last few days. I've been in China and the great firewall is simply impregnable. I've somehow broken into Blogger and can now post. Thanks for your patience. So, let's come to what I want to write about today. Serendipity - it's a beautiful thing. Imagine walking down a street and seeing an interesting restaurant that you'd never heard of. You walk in, and order a great meal and have a great story to tell at the end of it all. I'm guessing I'm not the only person this has happened to. It's a wonderful way to learn about things around you and I argue that the human race would have learnt very little had it not been for the serendipity we've been privilege to, ever since our existence. Serendipity, or accidental discovery is also at the center of most social business strategy. Technology aside though, I believe this phenomenon has a big place in the physical design of workplaces. After all we didn't invent serendipity after social media. In today's blogpost, I want to share some thoughts about the design of workplaces and how they may affect the social fabric of your organisation.

Being Social begins in the Real World

For social media to make an impact to your workplace, the physical orientation of the workplace should ideally mirror all the behaviours you're trying to mirror online. Think of these of the top of your head, you'll perhaps come up with sharing, openness, visibility, connectedness, storytelling and the like. Why then, are workplaces designed for the exact opposite? Corner offices, cubicles, closed doors - all of these are counterintuitive to the idea of serendipity. Now, I'm not saying that we don't need closed doors conversations. Businesses are sensitive and certain conversations need a closed environment. That being said, designing your workplace around that as the default is perhaps a bad idea. This leads to the concept that I'm calling spatial serendipity. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

How connected is your team?

My team at work is starting to get bigger. Dinesh heads our knowledge strategy and enterprise 2.0 offering, Nikhil owns our social business platform, Sahana community manages, Kavita is our instructional designer, Siddharth handles industry research and Rajiv takes care of branding and events. Add to this the several people at ThoughtWorks University and we've got a fairly diverse team. It may seem like a good idea for each person to have their cubicle and work by themselves. In fact the commute in Bangalore is so bad that I sometimes feel like working in my silo at home. All this said, some of the most productive days for me are when I can work onsite with my entire team in one place. Merely listening in to my team-mates' work life creates a huge difference and each day I learn something new. If you notice from the picture above from our Xian office - teams in my company sit across one big table with no barriers. This is really cool because people can listen into conversations happening across the table and problems get instant solutions from the chatter around the team. Cubicles may be the way to go for predictable transactional work, but for knowledge work, a barrier free team environment is the way to go.

How visible is your work?

Agile promotes the notion of big visible charts to depict your work. This is how you'll see creative companies like IDEO or Duarte work as well. There's something magical about making mental models explicit on a big, visible chart and to depict the state of work on a visible information radiator. Now my company also sells Mingle which is quite an awesome collaborative project tracking and collaboration platform. That being said, visualising your work only on a software system such as Mingle turns it into what my colleague Mark Needham calls an information refrigerator. There's a lot of value in having a representation of your work status that not just your team members but everyone in the office can see. Often, people walking by will notice something unusual and give you an interesting tip. Often people will learn from your representations. For example, I learnt an interesting way to represent a customer journey by looking at the above design wall for one of our teams in China.

How connected is your workplace?

It's not just the team that needs connection and serendipity, but potentially your entire office. We talk of silo-busting in the virtual world, but what about the physical silos? Why do different teams need to have different rooms and work areas? Why can't we have large contiguous spaces where each team is visible to the other? Take a look at the design of our Xian office above. The entire office is one single space and the head of the office sits in the same place as the rest, as do people in HR, recruiting, admin, finance and the like. Everyone knows everyone - most people are aware of each other's work and that level of connectedness leads to solutions to common problems from the collective. It's not that tough, we just need to get over the default mindsets behind office design.
In my view workplace design needs to be an integral part of any social business consulting that you seek out. Serendipity just happens, but the fact is that you can prepare yourself for serendipity by creating an environment that encourages it. Workplace design can't just be the realm of architects and interior designers - it's a social engineering activity. By now there's a lot of examples out there, including Google, ThoughtWorks itself, Stanford. Inspiration's out there - it's time for us to learn from it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to be an awesome Pecha Kucha host

A lot of my friends in the learning community have been intrigued by the fact that we run Pecha Kucha nights every week at ThoughtWorks University. I often get asked how I run these and what value I see. In my experience Pecha Kucha nights are a great way to achieve a few things:
  • the speakers find a platform to share their thoughts around something they're passionate about;
  • the team gets an opportunity learn something new in a serendipitous fashion;
  • everyone gets to know a different side of their team members;
  • and even if the presentation has nothing to do with work, it often is a good laugh
In addition, Pecha Kucha is a great format to practice presentations. The constraint of 20 slides for 20 seconds each is a great way to force some positive presenter behaviours. Firstly the 20 second limit forces you to prepare well. If you don't prepare well, your slides are likely to overtake you. 20 seconds also forces you to be minimalist with your slide design. If you add too much clutter, you're likely to have no time to go through everything. The 20 slide limit forces you to prepare a crisp, yet impactful story. After all, when your time's over, you need to leave the stage. There's quite a bit more you learn - but I'll leave you to figure out the rest.

One of the main roles on a Pecha Kucha night is that of a Pecha Kucha host. The host runs the presentations that each speaker submits and also ensures that the talks keep moving on smoothly. Think of the host as an emcee for the night. I've been a Pecha Kucha host on several occasions and over the months there are a few things I've learned. In today's blog post I want to share a few tips for hosting these events. Take a quick look.

Before the event

Remember the presentation is not all about the slides. We don't want speakers to feel obliged to do a presentation. They should look at it as a platform to share their thoughts about something they really care about. Here are a few things I like to do a few days before the Pecha Kucha night:
  • Contact the speakers individually and ask them if about their topics - if they have selected a throw away topic, urge them to find something they have a passion for.
  • Ask the speakers if they need any help to create effective slides. Often you'll notice the very anti-patterns that we try to avoid and it's quite easy to fix these by giving them some Presentation Zen tips.
Remember, we want the speakers to look good during the presentation and potentially set them up for success. They shouldn't dread presenting by the end of the exercise. I like them to get addicted to the applause and mature as effective presenters.

On the day of the event

The day of the event is crucial. It's not easy to produce a Pecha Kucha event, even if it is only for your little team. Make sure that you've invited more people than just your immediate team though - the larger the audience, the bigger the challenge and potentially the bigger the applause!
  • Try to get the presentations by 10AM on the morning of the event. This helps you ensure that all the slides play properly and that the speakers are happy with how they look on your computer.
  • Get the speakers together and give them a bit of pep talk. Try to soothe their nerves - a lot of them are presenting for the first time.
  • Call out some instructions and tips for the speakers:
  • Don't look back at the slides - show them the presenter view on your laptop and mention they can use this as a confidence monitor.
  • Ask them to make eye contact with the audience and to stand closer to the audience. Interacting with the group is likely to make their presentation effective.
  • Most importantly, let them know that they've done what they could have to prepare. From now on, they need to go out there and enjoy their experience.
  • Let the speakers know in advance the order they'll speak in. It helps to calm their nerves and doesn't surprise them when they're called on stage.
  • Remind the speakers to stay back on stage for questions and let them know that they should encourage questions - it's a sign that they engaged people in their talk.
  • Often neglected - order food if you can. Most people feel hungry if they have to be in the office until 7PM. We order pizzas, pastas, Indian food, burgers, salads and the like - there's no rule for this one.

During the event

This is what everyone's been waiting for and you are the master of ceremonies. Remember, one of your key roles is to keep the event true to its spirit. If you notice anyone going over time - cut them off. You need to be consistent with this; otherwise, what's the point?
  • Make sure you have a whiteboard with a list of the speakers and the speaking order.
  • Don't forget to get a volunteer to record the talks - these are often great artifacts to share within the company. Who knows what people may learn?
  • Think of this as a mini-conference. How would you open the night? How would you welcome the audience? Where's your radio announcer voice?
  • Call out the rules of engagement. For example 6min 40s presentation, 2 mins for questions.
  • Remind the audience that several of the presenters may be speaking in public for the first time. As you call out each speaker, encourage the audience to applaud the speaker and ensure that they give a loud round of applause even when the speaker finishes.
  • Hold the speaker back for questions and encourage the audience to ask questions.
  • Close the event with a flourish. Food is a great ending, but don't forget to thank the speakers for putting in the effort. Be sure to announce when the next event is and perhaps tell the non-team members of the audience why they should return!

After the event

Just like the buzz behind a conference doesn't end the day it's over, the buzz behind your Pecha Kucha night should stay alive too. Here are a few things to try doing.
  • Get a hold of the videos and upload them on YouTube or a platform that you want to share them on. Tag them appropriately so you can easily find them later.
  • If you can, upload the slides to slideshare and tag them appropriately too.
  • Share these links with the speakers so they can look at their videos and look for areas of improvement and so they can also look back at presentations they liked for inspiration.

In general, think of the night as a show. There are performers who are in it for the first time. How can you still make this a grand success and a memorable evening? I hope you find this blogpost useful and I hope you can use this to host several awesome Pecha Kucha nights. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Our brutality and their emotions

Last night something terrible happened. Toffee, my neighbourhood stray lost her puppy Sheena to some crazed driver who decide to knock the kid dead. Road kills happen all the time in India but for someone to be driving fast enough to kill a living being in a residential colony is brutal and inhuman. When I found Toffee this morning, she was mourning by the side of Sheena's corpse. She called me and almost implored me to check what was wrong. She kept squealing, crying and licking the limp body.

We think of animals being a lesser life than us. That is untrue. Toffee kept crying by Sheena's body until my wife and I came back to the scene and comforted her for a good length of time. We had to coax her into finding her other pup, Skittish. The way she called to Skittish and the kind of nervousness the surviving pup showed, was an example of how deep emotions run in the animal family. One careless driver has disrupted a happy family - we wouldn't do this to a human being. We wouldn't hit and run a human baby and leave it in a pool of blood. Why do it to an animal? This world belongs to them as much as it does to us. They feel pain too. I feel Toffee's pain - it's how I felt when Tequila died, perhaps a lot more.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Social Media in Learning and Social Learning are just not the same thing

It concerns me how a lot of the social learning conversation seems to veer around the tools in the space. Tools are arriving thick and fast and yeah, it's easy to get caught up with all the bling. And this is not to say that I'm never excited by tools - nothing could be far from the truth. This said, social learning is less about the technology and more about the human interaction. I often seem to get the sense that a large part of the learning community believes that the use of social media in learning is social learning. So sharing your courseware on a Facebook group then becomes social learning as does organising a lrchat-esque chat with pre-defined questions on a microblogging platform. To me this is perhaps Elearning 2.0 where you incorporate a higher degree of user interaction into your courseware, but it's still not social learning.

I want to explain my views in a little more detail on this blogpost and I hope you can humour me. And feel free to tell me I'm wrong.

We can't set a low bar for 'social'

If the mere use of a social media platform makes a learning experience social then we've been social all along. I do a lot of classroom training as well. My classroom training is never about being a sage on stage. It's full of real world activities, interpersonal interaction and experience sharing. I do a lot of socratic facilitation in the classroom - I use my questions to draw out experiences, perspectives and lessons for the group. This said, I decide on what questions I want to ask, the agenda and the topic for discussion. If you think of lrnchat, it's quite the same thing. There are a set of pre-defined questions and a pre-defined topic for discussion. The only thing that's different from doing this with a facilitator in a classroom is that now we've distributed the discussion and there are several more participants than there could possibly be in the old world. So yeah, it's a far more scalable approach, I don't believe it's any more social. Now this isn't a criticism of lrnchat - I love being part of the discussion. All I'm saying that this is no different from formal interactions we've practiced earlier.

My bar for 'social' is quite high

Image credit: Jon Husband

I believe that true social learning has a few important characteristics. And this is where the 'new' social learning is different from the old. Here's what I think are non-negotiable criteria to dub any learning as social:
  1. Democratic: To me the classic example of social interaction is gossip at a watercooler. Gossip emerges from the ground up. It doesn't need someone to lead, though a regular gossip fellow can facilitate the conversation and lubricate it. The key ingredient with social interactions at work or otherwise however, is that the crowd decides the agenda, the crowd decides the conversation. When a minority decides the agenda for a large group, then the interaction can still be social, but not enough to be any different from older models. Learning is truly social when individuals can decide what they want to learn and how they wish to collaborate on it.
  2. Autonomous: The key factor with social interaction in real life is that it moves by itself and is not controlled by a facilitator. I look at my social network on Facebook and on Twitter and even my enterprise social network to behave this way. We aren't talking about a specific platform, it's about a pattern of interaction. Now a facilitator can help make the flow of the interaction smoother, but in no way does the facilitator become responsible for the direction of these interactions. We can term something as social learning when it gathers a pace of its own without intervention from a trainer, facilitator, manager or leader of any kind.
  3. Embedded: One of the key aspects of social interaction in real life is that it's about life in general. It's not a separate exercise. I share stuff that I'm passionate about, I talk about things happening in my life. I blog about issues on my mind at a given point in time. Learning is truly social when it's embedded into the context of work. Think about this - I face a problem at work I know nothing about. I post a question about it to a company social network. Soon I receive a response from another colleague in a different team. That's the kind of interaction I'm speaking of - 'just in time' learning.
  4. Emergent: Social interactions have no predefined structure. The structure emerges from the natural interactions of a participating group. A big problem with enterprise social learning is the desire to structure before you start. Predefined structure has its uses - I don't doubt that. The uses however are limited to finite amounts of information - such a sitemap for a website. The nature of social communication is that it's frequent and high volume. You can try second guessing the structure for this endless stream of communication and you can also guarantee failure for every such attempt. As I've mentioned earlier, everyone's structure is different. Andrew Mcafee has written quite eloquently about the concept of emergent structure. "These are all activities that help patterns and structure appear, and that let the cream of the content rise to the top for all platform members, no matter how they define what the cream is. Without these mechanisms, online content becomes less useful –  less easy to navigate, consume, and analyze — as it accumulates. With these mechanisms in place, just the opposite happens; the platform exhibits increasing returns to scale, and becomes more valuable as it grows." You should read the complete article here.
This is my view and I'm happy for you to tell me I'm wrong - only when learning exhibits all of these characteristics can you call it truly social. This may or may not involve the use of social software, though I suspect it'll be quite tough to foster these characteristics without social media. What I'm saying though is that social media is a crucial tool for the success of a social learning initiative, but the use of social media doesn't necessarily mean that a learning experience is any more social than that in a classroom.

My aim is not to stir a hornet's nest with my statements in this post. In fact I've been wanting to write this post for a while but was wary that I'll upset some of my friends by terming what they do as 'not' social learning. Frankly if you don't agree with what I've said, feel free to post in the comments section and shout at me. I'm no theorist, but from experience I've built a bit of an opinion. If it resonates with you, I guess I'm thinking right. If it doesn't, I guess I'll learn from you. Look forward to hearing what you have to share. Until next week, bye!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

4 Lessons Photography has taught me about Learning

If you follow me on the web, then you perhaps know that I'm big on photography. I absolutely love taking pictures - my Flickr stream with about 13000+ pictures will tell you just that. I'm no pro, but something makes me feel I've gotten better with time. As I reflect on the last 10 years of having owned cameras, I think I've some interesting insights on how adults learn. In today's post I want to share some of those thoughts with you and I'd love to hear how you feel about what I'm writing.

Learning is effective when it's autonomous and purposeful

When I got my first digital camera I wasn't fussed about technique. I was just keen to take pictures. I think I had a 256 MB card for my camera and it was an absolute luxury for me. All I wanted to do was capture every moment of my life. You need to know something about me. I didn't grow up with many of the gadgets that kids my age in the west were exposed to. So I didn't have a computer or video games. I have some photographs of my life prior to getting a camera, but the frank truth is that we were always constrained by the 36 pictures on the film roll. The ability to take pictures and see them instantly was gratification enough for me. Gradually, I got interested in photography as an art and only over the last few years have I gotten over the desire to 'snapshot' my life. Instead, I want to capture vivid moments that tell stories of their own. I haven't yet been to a photography course. I haven't let anyone dictate how I should shoot. As my purpose and subjects have changed, I have learned and my approach has evolved. I think this tells me something. It has taken me 10 years to learn what I know about photography, which frankly is precious little. On the other hand, someone else with a completely different purpose may have learned much quicker. I don't feel that I'm stupid because I took 10 years - I didn't need to. I enjoy the autonomy with which I learned. My learning has served my purpose and that's all that matters.

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Our educational systems are built around the premise of promoting success and success alone. I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating success, but we can't forget that failure is a stepping stone to success. I love shooting wildlife. Unlike many other subjects, filming wildlife is a very unforgiving experience. I can safely say I've had more failures than success filming wildlife and especially fast moving birds. A few days back I went to the lake near my house to try and follow the resident pied kingfishers. This is a curious bird and to watch it fish can provide hours of entertainment. It was no easy task filming these little geniuses given how skittish they can be. I failed at least four times before getting some satisfactory pictures on the fifth attempt. Failure was heartbreaking I must say, but the safety of knowing I have another chance gave me confidence. Each time I failed, I learned a little more. When I finally got the shot I wanted I was able to repeat my technique several times over. As you design learning experiences, how are you building in the safety to learn from failure?

Constraints make for great learning

When I bought my first camera, a simple point and shoot Yashica film device, I'd complained heavily about the lack of zoom. That complaint carried on as I graduated to better, more expensive cameras and super-zoomers. What I failed to appreciate was that every camera has a built in zoom - our two feet! Ever since, I've moved onto better equipment and longer lenses, but I must say my favourite lens today is a the 50mm prime that I own. It's a simple piece of equipment. It can't zoom, it has no image stabilization. That makes for great learning on how to get close to my subjects and how to keep my hand steady. In a similar manner I have learnt from the constraint of having to shoot vivid images through a single frame of a prosumer camera. Cameras don't see what our eyes see - there's way too much contrast to capture. This has led me to explore techniques such as high-dynamic-range (HDR photography) - the picture above is an example. I love placing meaningful constraints in the learning programs I design. For example at ThoughtWorks University I like to place the constraint of learning while on the job of delivering software to a client. It helps the new consultants to learn how to learn and gain useful experience on the side.

There's no match to social media  and mobile platforms as learning tools

One of the things I've learned from photography is that it's extremely gratifying to get feedback from your friends, skilled or not. I often put up my photographs on Flickr and sometimes on Facebook. When people favourite my images or comment favourably on them I know that I must be doing something right. It motivates me to do more. Social media has been a big influence on my learning journey too. Twitter, Google Reader, Facebook and Flickr put together have become an integral part of my photography learning journey. The byte sized pieces of inspiration I get every day are just the right size to help me learn on a daily basis. Add to that inspiring mobile apps like Life and Guardian Eyewitness  help me analyse great professional photography. As Brent Schlenker writes on his blog, mobile apps and new media are removing the middlemen from the learning experience. I learn from the best today by following their blogs. Trey Ratcliffe's blog is far more up-to-date than his book. That's an example of how powerful the social media learning experience can be. The era of having to go to school is past. School comes to me - every day and at my own pace.
Learning is an iterative, experiential process. We however seemed to have based corporate learning around a dated model of education which lacked autonomy, had little social structure and discouraged failure. I can't say my experience with photography is representative of all kinds of learning. I do think that there is something for us to think about as we analyse experiences such as these. I'd love to hear how you feel about my musings today. I apologise my bad back has stopped me from being regular with my blog posts. As I grapple with this situation, I hope you continue to visit this blog as and when I post. I'll do my best to maintain a regular schedule as well. Hope you enjoyed today's post.
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