Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Did virtual learning ever take off?

Today over on Facebook a former TAFE colleague, Kate Wise, wrote:
"Thinking of our virtual learning Michael. Did it ever take off? Missed those wonderful sessions with the rest of the world.
Did virtual learning ever take off?"
 It certainly did. Virtual learning can mean different things but Kate is referring to those international events hosted by the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector where scores of people, and sometimes hundreds, joined live virtual classroom (webinar) sessions from across the world to discuss educational issues. They were enormously popular and most everyone who joined those sessions would testify to their effectiveness. The model worked brilliantly for professional development.
I always found it frustrating that the same model never really worked for classroom delivery in the VET sector. It got some traction in higher education, but even there the predominant model turned out to be the one way non-collaborative lecture style webinar offered by tools like Echo 360.
It seems that there were too many hurdles and ideological leaps for the average teacher to teach their classes this way. What’s interesting is that the corporate word adopted this model with gusto and today virtual meetings for companies with a distributed workforce is commonplace.
Virtual learning is also used as a synonym for online learning. Online learning is everywhere these days, but the model that has been widely adopted is essentially the set and forget model that offers little real interaction and almost no real time virtual sessions. Many people who were employed as e- or online learning specialists in professional development (ie people like me) have been discarded and deemed unnecessary. The prevailing model is still static content plus quizzes. It was decided that nothing more was necessary.
So people like myself who were encouraging a richer form of elearning that emphasised collaborative approaches with a synchronous real time component are left bemused that we spent so much of our professional lives promoting a model we knew was powerful and effective but in the end was deemed superfluous. It still sits uneasily with me. It feels sometimes as if I wasted my time; that my belief in this richer model was misguided and na├»ve. But I’m left with the memory, like Kate, that some remarkable and deep learning occurred in those virtual sessions sponsored by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. But we failed to in our quest to have that model become part of standard delivery.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making Meaning

I read today – I think on the ubiquitous Facebook – that if you don’t write about what you think then no one knows what you think. That seems particularly pertinent to me now in the ‘post permanent job - pre-retirement’ phase of my life. I was an educator. I didn’t appreciate till it was all over how much I enjoyed talking to groups of people. Classes. Of course the purpose of the classes was not for me to talk, but teachers do. Inevitably at regular intervals you got to talk about what you believed and thought. It’s part of the bonding process that needs to happen between educator and students. Students need to get to know you and trust you before they accept what you say as having value. So they ask you questions. That doesn’t happen to me much anymore J
My life now has long gaps where I can’t talk to groups of people. I rarely now have classes. And I find myself wanting to say things when I don’t have a ready-made audience. So it’s a good time to start writing again. There have been multiple occasions over the last 18 months where I’ve wanted to say things about all manner of topics: the state of the Australian VET system, the whole sorry Islamist phenomenon, the continuing role of the Internet in upending life as we know it, the state of Australian political life and its corruption by the major parties, the secrets to effective management (I have just been reading Fullan on change), the drift towards the public disclosure of every facet of life in social media, why I don’t want to do that, how social media has become mainstream and has consequently lost its sense of innovation and challenge….I could go on.
I used to write a lot. I used to write dutifully for about 30 minutes each day. That’s how these pieces came into being. It used to be called journalling, or keeping a diary. As someone once commented, I blogged, as many others did, before blogging was a thing. Along the way I got waylaid by images. I became entranced by the daily posting of photos on Flickr – a disease I caught from, and am eternally grateful to, Alan Levine. The 365 project he suggested – posting a photo for each day of the year – changed my life. I became a person who preferred to express and share their life with images. It has been a joy and a revelation about the power of random serendipity. (see more here). I’ve come to realise that what I have been doing with the posting of images of my daily life is in some sense trying to make meaning of my world.
Making meaning is a common concept in many disciplines. Humans by default try and make meaning of what is happening around them, and if for whatever reason that ability or opportunity to make meaning is denied us we are not at peace. It is not a conscious process; it is just what we do if we are a healthy functioning citizen. Apart from the field of linguistics and language learning I always struggled with this concept of making meaning. I wasn’t sure what it was or if it was even necessary. It’s one of the many insights that appear to accompany the process of getting older and contemplating one’s own life coming to an end. (No I'm not dying!) I do now try and make meaning out of things; for me now it is occasionally a conscious process. I’m no longer just satisfied to just do or experience something. I want to explore why I am doing it; I want to know what it means.
It crystallised for me very clearly when I watched the Lazarus video from David Bowie on the day he died. It was inspiring to watch this work from someone who, though dying, was intent on making meaning of existence and what was happening to him for the entertainment and cultural enrichment of others. Through art. Reinterpreting the last days of his life to make it more powerful and leave us all with an instructive culture artefact rather than just tears and sadness.
I could go on…..

..... but before I go I just want to acknowledge and thank my dear friend and colleague Stephan Ridgway for the amazing work he did in the Australian elearning arena over the last 15 years. Stephan today became another casualty of an Australian VET system that is methodically disposing of anyone with a sense of innovation and who might dare to do things differently. Today was Stephan's last day at work for Sydney Institute of TAFE. As Robyn Jay wrote, "with grace he goes."

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bit of a Brick

Have loved this song forever, and have played it many times live. Currently rehearsing it with a couple of friends to play live at the end of January.

Thursday, August 06, 2015


There was a moment at Womadelaide a few years ago when Gurrumul silenced a crowd of several thousand mostly white Australians with songs sung in ‘language’. We had no idea what he was singing about, but we knew somewhere it was about things like hills, stories from the Dreamtime, ancestors – things of antiquity. He was the voice of ancient Australia and he had us in the palm of his hand. It was one of the most profound cultural moments I’ve ever experienced. And this concert was another night of magic with this remarkable singer. Billed as the gospel songs tour, it featured several songs from Gurrumul’s past on Elcho Island that are more like hymns than the gospel sounds one associates with black America.
The show began with safe territory – two of Gurrumul’s better known songs – Wiyathul, and Bapa, a dedication to fathers everywhere, and they set the inspirational tone for the rest of the evening. When long time Gurrumul collaborator Michael Hohnen announced that they were now going to play the religious tunes it seemed a little superfluous, as these songs are deeply spiritual in the effect they can have on an audience.
Nevertheless, local Adelaide choir Women with Latitude joined the band for the religious/gospel part of the set and it’s a match made in heaven. They provided a beautiful soft backdrop to Gurrumul’s timeless vocals, embellishing every note with a restrained ethereal presence. When they did crank up the volume later in the show on a Gurrumul original, while singing in his native Yolngu tongue, the whole effect was superb. It was quite noticeable too that as soon as multiple voices are added to Gurrumul’s songs you can hear the link with the islander music of the Pacific.
There is something intangibly primal about Gurrumul’s ability to cut across Australian cultures with the voice of a songbird that soothes and caresses and delivers you to a place of immense joy and deep satisfaction. He is an extraordinary gift to this land.

Another original song, The Crow, was richly textured and again showed Gurrumul’s ability to portray simple symbols from the world of nature in a way that all Australians can appreciate. A catchy reggae tune closed out the evening. Just the standing ovation was left, which of course Gurrumul can’t see. I hope someone tells him about it. But my guess is he can probably sense it.  

Also published on The Clothesline

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Boomers' Legacy

OK. I’m going to write this rather than talk it. In truth, I wasn’t a big fan of Stairway to Heaven. In fact the song drove me nuts. As a guitarist and busker I was asked hundreds of times if I knew how to play it but I never learned it. But the version of this song in this concert is a stunner. Nor was I a great fan of Led Zeppelin after their early years. Like many bands their best came early on and they never quite reproduced the edge of their early stuff. So the reference to Led Zeppelin being the ‘wind beneath the wings of a generation’ was really using them as a metaphor for all the music that served that function. It could have been The Who, Stones, Beatles, Animals, Hendrix, etc – it was the collective impact of new rock that sustained the cultural change.
What of that change? Yes there were early utopian claims that the Age of Aquarius would herald the age of peace and equality, but it clearly didn’t happen. So what did change? It definitely drove a wedge between mine and my parents’ generation. By the time I was 20 I was living a life that was eons apart from theirs. The outward expression of this gulf was our appearance. We let our hair grow, wore daggy or weird clothes, stopped going to church and moved in to shared houses. Youth embraced a new freedom that was missing in previous decades, and the stifling tyranny of the family unit was broken. And rock music was our music, our mouthpiece. It’s not just the music that did it – it was a mix of many things – but the music was the outward expression of liberty that youth had discovered.
The legacy of this time can still be seen in a myriad of things:
·         It is now for example quite OK to go to a fancy theatre in jeans and a t-shirt. Or the CBD. Or anywhere. This breaking down of a strict uniformity of dress code for all began in the late 60s.
·         It began a globalisation of the world. People like Dylan helped people realise that struggles were the same the world over.
·         Young people started to travel – roaming far away countries for months on end.
·         People began to live together out of wedlock en masse and eventually wore down the importance of the institution of marriage.
·         Mainstream religion suffered a massive downturn in appeal. People began to look elsewhere – Buddhism, meditation, Eastern religions generally – for spiritual sustenance.
·         Communities based on very different values like Nimbin and others on the northern coast of NSW began to spring up all over the world. Many dropped out of a mainstream society that no longer met their needs.
·         Many more people began to take drugs and had their consciousness altered. There were plenty of casualties but no one who takes mind altering drugs can ever look at the world the same way again.
·         It did liberate women to some extent. Divorce became socially acceptable and single parents received social security to enable them to live a life free of abusive partners.
None of these things are final. They are processes of cultural change that are still evolving. It’s interesting to think about whether the Boomers created these changes, or whether they happened to them. It’s probably both. Things were changing rapidly, and they were the agents of change.
The fact is that between 1965 and 1975 the Western world changed dramatically. And behind it was this music, these anthems advertising and extolling another life and other values. The music you listen to in your teens and twenties is typically the music that stays with you forever. It is the music that was playing when you were becoming adult and working out who you were and what you believed, and it is woven into your DNA. It provokes deep emotion whenever you hear it. So I understand too well what Robert Plant was feeling as he listened to his song in that concert. Quite frequently, without warning, I’ll be listening to music of that time and tears will come. Tears for the memories, the intense emotions of love and love lost and youth and freedom and good times, for the people who have gone or who got lost along the way. And because these people who inspired us with their anthems of an incredibly exciting time are dying. Every time I see a musician from that time I am acutely aware that it is probably the last time I’ll see them.

We’re still left with a world of wonder and turmoil.

Perhaps the part of the legacy of the 60s and 70s I value above all else is the fact that I am friends with my adult children in a way that was impossible when I was 20. The world had changed too much and too fast for me and my parents to be anything but polite strangers. They simply had no clue who their children were anymore. So I, and many of my generation (Leigh’s going to tell me something different!) made sure as parents that we would never be strangers to our children; that we would never impose on them values that were not theirs. I am friends with my children, and the generation/cultural gap is small. But that is my life….. J  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"This Music Won't Last"

Sometime during my teen years I was watching rock/pop music on TV and my mother, a classically trained singer and pianist, assured me this music would never last. It was her way of telling me that she thought the music of little value and that I’d be better off spending my leisure time on other things. We often debated this question. I remember another day when I again was watching TV in the lounge and she came through from the kitchen asking ‘who is that with the beautiful speaking voice’? She was shocked to see a long haired, bearded and bizarre character speaking. It was in fact Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
I don’t remember really having any sense of belief at the time that the music I loved would last. As I grew older I learned that the pop/rock music of the 60s and 70s represented a radical change from what had gone before, both in terms of sound – they’re had been nothing like it – and the cultural values held by many of its exponents. Long hair and outrageous appearance and on and off stage behaviour was par for the course. As a teenager and early 20 something I was proud that I was part of a new generation that had at least in some sense changed the world. And it satisfied my natural tendency towards rebellion and rejection of my parents’ and mainstream values.
Last night a Facebook friend (who is incidentally also a good friend in ‘real’ life) posted a link to a video from a memorial concert in honour of the pioneer rock band, Led Zeppelin. The video featured a live performance of Stairway to Heaven by Ann and Nancy Wilson. Complete with choir and orchestra I really enjoyed this superb version of ‘Stairway’. But what moved me more was watching the reaction of three of the original members of Led Zeppelin – Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones. Once wild men of rock they were seated in the audience dressed in suits and had it seemed turned into thoroughly respectable old men.
Robert Plant seemed stunned at what he was witnessing. His eyes welled up with tears, and he stared at the performance happening on stage with a kind of ‘what have I done? what did I do?’ expression. But in a positive sense. It was as if he was realising for the first time the beauty and the power of the song he and Jimmy Page had created 44 years earlier. So Stairway to Heaven has lasted and has been enriched and transformed by a new generation of musicians. (John Bonham’s son played drums in this performance.)
My own eyes began to well up as I watched and listened to this wonderful rendition of ‘Stairway’ until I was finally quite simply crying. Crying In support of Robert Plant. As my wife commented I just want to give him a hug. Crying too because I remembered that comment of my mother’s all those years ago and I realised, if I hadn’t before, that the music of my generation has been validated. We weren’t just listening to a passing fad or an aberration in the history of music. We had been part of huge and powerful cultural change that has left an indelible stamp on the world. It did have value.
You could scoff and bemoan the fact I guess that the Led Zap boys are now respectable senior members of the community and wear suits – Robert Plant often performed bare chested for heaven’s sake – but they are no longer wild and provocative young men. They don’t need to be. They, and many of their peers, created music that was the wind beneath the wings of a generation and it is clear now that much of it will outlast them and the generation that is growing old with them.
I felt proud watching this performance that I had made the choices I had, that I had listened to this ‘devil music’ from an early age and I want to believe now that I knew instinctively all those years ago that something huge was happening, and that our music had value. It’s a big call but it felt like it validated much of my life and who I am.
For another example of how another wild man of rock has become part of the musical establishment watch Ian Anderson singing Wondering Aloud with a chamber orchestra.

You were wrong Mum.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Frisky and Mannish - Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Taken by Rosie Collins
What a ride! Roaming spotlights playing over audience and stage at the start of the show suggested we were in for something big! Looking positively glamorous in gold, Frisky and Mannish enter the stage to form a beautiful tableau, and that was about their only serious moment. Everything about this show is over the top. I’m tempted to tag them the greatest hams in the history of show business. But this is a good thing.
Promoting themselves as a bridge between pop and cabaret they set about demolishing everything you may hold dear about either genre in a fast paced, tightly scripted and hilarious send up of a long list of songs and their performers. We learn that most pop singers (except for Katy Perry and her paean to plastic bags) don’t write their own material, and in fact 81% of all popular songs are written by the Bee Gees!! We learn too that Sinead O’Connor wrote way more letters of advice than just the famous one to Miley Cyrus.
There are so many really funny moments. A medley of songs revised for the Internet age inserts Google, tweets, and Facebook into the lyrics of famous songs. “I still haven’t found what I’m googling for.” (U2) A collection of Australian songs reveals their take on the Australian psyche, and a fast and furious trawl through candidates for a feminist anthem is priceless.
And just in case you might think they take themselves seriously, once they’ve finished taking aim at everyone else they turn the blowtorch on themselves.
This superb dismantling of popular culture is all done via bits of well-known songs with altered lyrics, and some of the funniest singing I’ve ever heard. They can make the most beautiful song sound ridiculous, and the most inane pieces sound like works of high art.
Outstanding performers; great writers. They try towards the end to take things seriously again for a minute but it lasts about 30 seconds before their wonderfully weird and demonic selves resume control. They close with a love song to us and all humanity but we know they don’t believe a word of it! Sensational.

(Also published on The Clothesline.)