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.
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