Weightier Matters

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:54 pm

In the runup to his birthday, here’s something Jesus said:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy, and faith. – Matthew 23:23

A little bit of translation: the church leaders of the day paid a 10% tithe on their income to the church, and were so careful about doing that that they even paid tithe on the spices they used in cooking. That is, every last detail was exhaustively figured out to the fifth decimal place… but at the same time they were slumlords, or profited off others’ suffering in other ways, or were corrupt judges in cases that came before them, or even just failed to actively seek justice in the world and extend mercy.

I was made to think of it by discussion on a Christian forum I read, where there were pages and pages of debate about wearing jewellery, dancing, eating at restaurants on the Sabbath and dozens of other ‘anise-tithing’ minor issues. Christians need to have a role in spreading justice and mercy in the world – and that should run them out of time for the trivial debates. And, as always, when I pronounce on what ‘Christians’ should be doing, the first one I indict is myself.

Certainly the fact that the oxymoronic ‘Christian Right’ has climbed into bed with those who actively and energetically seek to increase the injustice in the world is also a worry, but as always it’s easier to point fingers than to actively challenge and change ourselves. And it’s easier to laugh at the anise-tithers than it is to actively seek justice myself. But I’m trying and I’m gonna try more.


A little taste of what it’s like to be me

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:07 am

So on the radio on the way home last night, I heard the first few bars of a song, and immediately thought “this is the Jeff Healey Band’s version of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps'”. That made me think about Jeff Healey, the blind guitarist who plays slide blues on a Fender Stratocaster in an unusual tuning lying flat on his lap, and who was in the movie Roadhouse, starring Patrick Swayze who is most famous for ‘Dirty Dancing’ and ‘Ghost’. The song was written by George Harrison of the Beatles, and I occasionally get him mixed up for a moment in my mind with Jerry Harrison, who was originally a member of Talking Heads but went on to form ‘Jerry Harrison and the Casual Gods’.

Pretty much every song I hear does that to me.


Back Home

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:38 pm

OK, no more travellogues for a while now. Next trip is to Stanford in January for the next Carnegie Residency, then not until June.

Just a couple of random notes to tie up a few loose ends:

I bought Agalloch’s album ‘The Mantle’ while I was in Oz, and absolutely love it. It’s very hard to describe, but something like ‘mostly acoustic environmentalist black metal from Oregon’ is about as close as I can go. Amazing stuff.

I’m playing Joseph in a Christmas play at church this week, and playing him as an unshaven carpenter, so I stopped shaving on Saturday and have an itchy three days growth now. Should look OK by the weekend, but I’ll be glad to get rid of it after that. Just memorising my lines now… It’s more of a monologue than a dialogue, and I’m not sure whether that makes it easier or harder.

The trip back was pretty easy, and now there’s really only a couple of days until the Christmas holidays… and I need and deserve a total break from work, and plan to take one over Christmas.

From tomorrow we’ll be back into the realm of ideas, I promise.


The Lizard

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:50 pm

…is how one of my Sydney friends, who used to live up that way, refers to Lismore. I did a flying trip from Brisbane down to Lismore on the weekend (it’s just a little over a 2 hour drive) to catch up with Cam, my best mate from school, and my younger brother Paul and their families. We got to go for a walk on the beach on Saturday afternoon, then Cam and I stayed up late talking and watching old Iron Maiden concert footage (and Cam gave me a burned DVD with 2.7 GB of Maiden and other associated goodness!)

Pretty much cuteness overload, too. Paul and his wife Vanessa have a very cute 5 year old daughter named Lucy, and Cam and his wife Jen have an 11 year old, Taflin, an 8 year old, Lachlan, and two adorable 3.5 year old twins, Genevieve and Isabelle. It was fantastic to see everyone again, and hopefully we’ll head down that way, or they’ll come up, often enough that we’ll get to see them a fair bit when we move to Brisbane.

On Sunday I drove back up to Brisbane, then headed out to the eastern suburbs like Wynnum and Manly that are on Moreton Bay. We’d been thinking about living out there, but it’s a longish commute to the St Lucia campus and an even longer one to Ipswich, so I suspect we’ll live further west and just head out to the bay or the beach on the weekend.

And after returning the hire car I spent a couple of hours in the air-conditioned hotel room watching Australia gradually increase their lead over South Africa on the fourth day of the cricket Test Match, and eating an enormous and delicious mango. Aahhhh….

This afternoon there’ll be a School of Education Christmas Party where I’ll get to meet a lot more of my future colleagues, and after that I’ll chat with the Head of School about the office issue and whatever else still needs to be sorted out. I’ll keep ya posted…


(Race?) Riots in Sydney

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:26 pm

You’ve probably seen the reports in the media. Here’s my reaction:

Three proximate causes that I can see:

  1. John Howard’s concerted attempt to make white Australians scared over the past 12 years, in all sorts of ways, including falsely claiming that illegal immigrants threw their children overboard.
  2. Just booze and summer and testosterone.
  3. The media. I subjected myself to a bit of ‘A Current Affair’ the other night, and story after story is pretty much ‘white Australians, everyone’s out to get you’. The ads for pretty much all the ‘news’ programs are similarly full of paranoid crap: the news in Canada is nowhere near this bad… And then, of course, (shudder) large numbers of people in Sydney get their political and social views from Alan Jones.

(4. The ability to broadcast or network with SMS for a ‘flash mob’ type event is not a cause, but it’s an enabling technology.)

At least one report I saw said neo-Nazi groups were giving out free booze and leaflets, but to me that’s the same as the Satanists who were handing out flyers when I saw Iron Maiden: Maiden’s not satanic, it was just an opportunity.

Office Space

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:07 pm

Hmmm… all this is very much up in the air, and changing moment by moment, but I thought I might as well share it now and then the resolution later.

So one of my colleagues had told me I’d likely be given a particular office in the St Lucia campus – hence the comments on yesterday’s photos. After that the School Manager told me I’d have an office at Ipswich. I just assumed I’d end up with both, given I’m teaching at both campuses.

Turns out (at least as of right now) the aim is that the Ipswich one would be my office, and I might have a desk or a shared office at St Lucia. That’s not ideal – we don’t want to live out at Ipswich, and it seems like most of the action takes place in at the main campus.

There could be underlying issues such as that the Ipswich program has a different budget and they might be trying to move my salary (and only incidentally me) out there – not sure.

But I’m about to chat to the Manager, and then make an appointment to chat to the Head of School on Monday – I’d like to get this sorted while I’m still here.

UQ Ipswich

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:52 pm

The other main University of Queensland campus, and the one where I’ll also be teaching and spending some time, is at Ipswich, about 40 km west of Brisbane. (More on the campus stuff in another post.) I took a trip out to that campus yesterday afternoon, and here are a few photos:

UQ Ipswich front
UQ Ipswich from the front

UQ Ipswich Aerial
UQ Ipswich from the top of a water storage tank on a hill a couple of km away

Building 4
The building in which my office is likely to be, as well as some of my teaching. The Ipswich campus is actually a converted insane asylum, and this building was apparently reserved for the ‘treatment’ of young women afflicted with the particular form of insanity that caused them to get pregnant out of wedlock.

Inside the Ipswich library. This is an amazing new building: you can see the ‘stacks’ (book shelves) in the background, then the little jungle area in the middle: it includes a little stream with fish in it, shown below. Invisible to the left are the computers and other parts of the library. It’s awesome.

Library fish
Very well educated fish.

The two campuses are completely different from one another, but I think both quite beautiful and with excellent services.


UQ St Lucia

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:22 pm

Columns along the back of the library, opening on the Quad. This is very typical architecture for Australia’s older ‘sandstone’ universities.

My building
This is the building my office will be in – one of the windows you can see here, actually. It faces a pretty little park, which there’s a photo of in the Flickr page.

City Cat
The kind of City Cat I’ve been riding from the hotel to the uni each day, along with a view of the river and part of the city.

Quite a few more photos, some with comments and descriptions, are at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bravus/

The camera battery went flat just as I was about to take some in a beautiful park and lake on campus, so I’ll head back out there in a while with new batteries, but try to save some for the Ipswich campus where we’re going this afternoon. I also want some for the beach on Saturday…


Lifestyle Stuff

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:22 pm

“It’s hot, damn hot. Hot and wet. Which is nice when…” I’ll leave the rest of that line from ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ out, since this is a family publication, but it describes the Brisbane weather pretty well. Definitely gonna be doing a lot more sweating here than in Edmonton. Yesterday was 34 and very humid, today is 32.

The upside, though, is that we spent yesterday evening sitting out on the back deck of my colleague Tony’s house, listening to the cicadas, listening to and watching the beautiful parrots and cockatoos, and watching the cooling thunderstorm sweep in from the south, with thunder and lightning and a few minutes of intense rain that just cooled and refreshed the air. And everything is tropically green and lush. Virtually all of the houses are on big blocks covered with trees, so that even in the middle of the city you feel as though you’re out in the bush. Lots of sun and lots of rain all year ’round, and rich soil, means the place is just brimming over with life.

We’d thought about living out near Moreton Bay, and might still do that, but it would be a much longer commute in heavy traffic, so I’m also looking at houses closer to the university. It’s a bit more expensive to rent (and later buy) in closer, but given the cost of fuel at about $1.20 a litre it would likely pay for itself, and it’s nicer to spend time with the family than on the road. We can always drive out to the bay to sail, and to the beach to swim.

I think we’ll definitely try to find a place with a pool – it makes a long, hot, sweaty day so much better if you can just fall into the pool at the end of it, and we’re much more likely to spend time outside and off the computer if we have a pool. Cassie will also be delighted – the university has a number of very nice tennis courts, quite near the building I work in, and very cheap to hire for faculty members. Might try for early morning or mid-evening games, though, at least in summer.

I think the verdict is that we’ve made a good decision, and are going to have a much better lifestyle here – more physically active, more outdoor, and although the work productivity expectations are high, it seems as though the interpersonal climate is also pretty mellow. Queensland also does some very interesting and progressive things with school science curricula and assessment, and although there’ll be a pretty huge learning curve, I think it will be an exciting environment in which to teach and research.

Photos tomorrow, I promise (or taken tomorrow and posted the next day, possibly) (probably a sample in the blog and a heap more on Flickr).

What Bravus did next

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:49 pm

So I came down here, at considerable expense to the University of Queensland, to talk to colleagues andfigure out my program for next year. I hadn’t heard much about what was planned for the week, but I’d kind of assumed that I’d arrive and have some sort of agenda thrust at me that outlined my activities for the week.

Didn’t turn out that way – met with my colleagues yesterday, chatted a bit, asked about teaching and got some more detail on the program… but they didn’t want to preempt the Head of School, who wasn’t in yesterday. Met with him this morning, very interesting, very cordial… but from him too it was pretty much ‘what do you want to do?’ He also sent me back to my colleagues to discuss with them what I want to teach… Kinda hard to get clarity in a hurry, but definitely a governance style that I think will work well for me: trust the people who do the work to get together and figure out fair ways to do it.

I know where my office will be on this campus, and how big it will be (bigger and nicer than my current office!), and that I’ll have some space on the Ipswich campus too. I’ve seen the lab here, and definitely everyone I’ve met and talked to has been very nice and welcoming, and the ‘vibe’ of the department seems very positive (that’s a big thing for me).

It looks as though I’ll be starting off teaching a middle years (Grades 6-9) science education program at the Ipswich campus. The middle years model is a more integrated, home-room based approach to teaching this age group – a bit more like primary (elementary) school where the one teacher has the class most of the day and teaches most subjects. That means the students won’t be science specialists or necessarily have a strong science background, so there’s some science content teaching as well as the pedagogical stuff, which I actually like. It will mean driving out to Ipswich (about 40 minutes away) one day a week to teach this course. There are 100 students enrolled, so I’ll teach (it’s called the ‘lecture’, but it won’t be) the whole group of 100 for an hour and then they’ll separate into four groups of 25 or so for a two hour tutorial, for which I’ll lead one of the 4 groups.

There’s some involvement in the postgrad program too, but only as a support to a colleague who is responsible for the course, so that’ll be fun, and that’ll happen on the St Lucia campus (the main Brisbane campus).

Should all be good, and I’m headed out to see Ipswich tomorrow afternoon… more soon.

It’s a long, long way

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:19 pm

I think I already mentioned that I’m in Australia this week, just getting a sense of the University of Queensland and my role within it, as well as what I’ll be teaching, where we might want to live and so on. I’ll report in here in a number of separate posts addressing different issues and facets of the experience… and add some photos soon too.

So the reason I didn’t post for a couple of days is that it’s just a long way from Edmonton to Brisbane. I flew Edmonton-Vancouver (1.5 hours), then spent 3 hours in the Vancouver airport, then Vancouver-Honolulu (about 6 hours), spent an hour and a half in the Honolulu airport, then Honolulu-Sydney (10.5 hours),spent an hour and a half in the Syndey airport, then Sydney-Brisbane (1.5 hours), then the train in to Brisbane (0.5 hours). I’m scared to even add all that up! Add to that a transit of the International Date Line on the way, and I left at 2 pm on Sunday and arrived at 9 am on Tuesday (it’s even freakier the other way, due to the dateline: spend the same amount of time flying, but arrive home 2 hours before I leave Brisbane!)

So then yesterday (Tuesday) I was determined not to nap during the day – establishing the new pattern as soon as possible seems to work for me. So I spent time at the uni, then went home with one of my colleagues for a dinner party in the evening (see above). Got back to the hotel, slept well and came to work along the Brisbane River on the CityCat boat service, which was just a beautiful way to start the day.

I tend to be a bit careful about bringing the camera with me to a new place on the first day when I need to build relationships with people, so I haven’t taken any photos yet. Tomorrow is the day, because I’ll be here at St Lucia in the morning with some time on my hands and then travelling out to the Ipswich campus in the afternoon. Expect photos.


What Counts As Improvement?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:09 am

Last post in relation to the technology in education working group. I actually alluded to this issue in a footnote to one of the posts below, but wanted to expand on it a little more. The main question that Alberta Education seemed to have on its mind in running the working group was ‘how do we measure the impact of technology on education?’ A sensible and important question, since far too much policy around this issue is made on the basis of what’s ‘sexy’, or will sound impressive in the paper, or will allow the Minister to make big program announcements… rather than on the basis of good research and evaluation.

The issue is made more complicated, of course, by the pace of change. Too much of the research has focused on particular technologies that have quickly been superseded: it’s very instructive to compare the claims made for slide projectors, filmstrip projectors, videodisc and other out-dated technologies, and compare them to those currently being made for interactive video and games/simulations. Suffice it to say ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. It makes a lot more sense to focus the research on the learning, and on the ways in which the particular technology supports (or damages) the desired learning.

But there’s the rub – in that phrase ‘desired learning’. It reminds us that learning is a complex and contested thing, and that what counts as worthwhile learning is something that is decided by society (or parts of it) and changes with time (history) and location (geography).

One way of measuring the impact of technology on learning would be to simply loook at students’ standardised test scores with and without the use of a particular technology, and make claims about the benefits (or otherwise) of that technology based on the differences. But the claim made for technology is often not that it will allow students to learn the same ‘stuff’ more efficiently and effectively (a [b]quantitative[/b] change in learning) but that it will allow them to learn ‘[i]different[/i] stuff’ (a [b]qualitative[/b] change).

That is, the background paper (you read it, right? ;)) talked about things like ‘information literacy’ and ‘learning for the 21st century’. The claim is often that learning is no longer about committing information to memory and being able to access it, but about knowing where to search for and find the information students need, when they need it.

That makes it much more difficult to test: no baseline, no direct comparison is possible. So the issues of ‘what counts as improvement?’ and ‘how do we measure that?’ are actually pretty complicated.


A laptop on every desk?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:27 am

Further musings on the technology in education working group I participated in yesterday. One of the presenters talked about the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. In September 2002, all of the 17,000 Grade 7 students in the US state of Maine were given Apple iBook laptops to use in class and at home. The project rolled out through Grade 8 and Grade 9 in successive years.

The report we heard seemed a little too positive to me – maybe I’m just an old cynic (or maybe a realist), but 100% positive reports of educational change make me wonder what evidence they ignored – but it sounds as though the results were pretty positive, in terms of changing the nature of how students learned. There was also some evidence that students’ achievement was improved, but that may not even be the goal (see tomorrow’s post and the footnote to one of yesterday’s posts for more discussion of this issue).

There have been other laptop projects in the past, and some have been fairly successful but others have foundered after a couple of years. Part of that was the cost of laptops – at the point (in the late 90s) of the studies I read about they were something like $3000 each. The $100 laptop may still be just around the corner (and could be for a while yet), but with the volume of this deal in Maine they apparently paid something like $300 each for the iBooks.

It’s still a lot of money, but if you think of the total cost of textbooks for the average student 9and the health advantages of students not needing to carry heavy textbooks, and the cost of building, equipping and maintaining less-effective computer labs in schools… I think you could probably make the case that it all balances out, and that the learning changes make it worthwhile.

The other keys to Maine’s success, though, were extensive professional development for teachers and excellent tech support.


Digital Camera Instantaneity

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:23 pm

Someone mentioned something in passing at the workshop today that I thought was intriguing. Digital cameras mean you can check the image instantly, whereas with film cameras you can’t see it until it’s developed. (Of course, original cameras meant it took 60 seconds or more to even take the photo, let alone have it developed.)

It’s an interesting thought: I’d already thought about the fact that, if you have any kind of decent memory card, you’re on 500 or so shots instead of 24, so digital cameras mean you can shoot a lot more and pick the good ones, and the fact that digital means you can crop and zoom and colour adjust and… but the instantaneity is another difference. (And with a camera-phone, instant sharing joins the picture – although with a laptop and a decent connection I can upload stuff pretty fast anyway.) Mind you, I still occasionally take the shot, check it out on the LCD on the camera and miss enough blurriness that the photo is not usable later when I see it full screen…

But the key thing with the instantaneity is that, if you don’t get the shot you like, you (generally, unless the subject is a transitory phenomenon) get to have another go.

Implications for the ‘digital generation’ and the way we ‘do school’? How about instant feedback and chances to have another go?

Four Things We Know Will Work

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:04 pm

I was at an invitational session today run by Alberta Education (the provincial education department) which brought together a bunch of really interesting people from Alberta, other parts of Canada and the US to talk about ways to assess and research the impact of technology on student learning in Alberta.

There were a number of interesting issues and ideas that arose, and it was very stimulating – I’ll post a few more reflections and issues from it over the next few days. But one thing that struck me early, as I read the background paper: there are at least four things that we already know — based on existing research, experience and common sense — that will help to support teachers in integrating technology in their teaching and enhance students’ achievement1. There’s no need to wait for the research results, and we shouldn’t: all they take is money (which we’re rolling in) and political will:

  1. More focused professional development and support for teachers. Teachers need help in getting comfortable with and using the technology, but to do that they need on-going, high quality support in thinking about how to incorporate technology in teaching in their subject areas.
  2. More tech support: if all the technology in schools worked all the time, students and teachers would be much more inclined to use it regularly. Good tech support2 also helps with choosing and buying new tech and with security and other network issues.
  3. More in-school preparation time for teachers to prepare innovative lessons using technology. This is something that’s been eroded for years and is continuing to be: if you want teachers to do cool new stuff they need time to plan it. And if you want them to support one another, collaborate and learn from one another, they need synchronised preparation periods within the school day.
  4. More school librarians and teacher-librarians. Librarians are no longer just custodians of the books (if they ever were), but information professionals, and the people who can support students and teachers in finding information, judging its quality and becoming ‘information literate’. This is another trend that needs to be reversed – these people have been vanishing from schools for at least the past decade, just when we need them most.

So there ya go – don’t try to make a pig heavier by weighing it: just feed it some’a this!

  1. there’s a whole other issue in that we can argue about whether the goal of using technology is to improve students’ achievement on things like existing standardised tests — i.e. to do the things we already do more efficiently and effectively – or whether there are new skills that our students need in the 21st century that the computer helps us to develop… and then we need to find new ways to measure their development of those skills
  2. We’re very blessed with tech support in our Faculty of Education, with a team of three smart, personable, helpful people – Raj and Kim (who read and post here sometimes, Hi Raj and Kim!) and Joanne. They’re available for ‘just-in-time’ support: help with our questions when we have them, not with their ideas when they have them… They also do cool things like a ‘so you want to buy a tech toy for your kids from Christmas – what do you want to know?’ session that helps the more reluctant faculty get more comfortable with tech


Passport Panic

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:31 am

So I’m flying out to Australia on Monday, and I started earlier this week just desultorily looking for my passport for the trip. When I couldn’t find it I started looking more energetically and then even more energetically, then in a panic. I’m talking moving every piece of furniture, ransacking every pile of papers, checking the pockets of every jacket and pair of pants and backpack and suitcase, then doing it all again…

When I hadn’t found it by yesterday (Wednesday) I realised that I might have to get a replacement. (The trip is booked and paid for by my new employers at the University of Queensland, and with all my commitments I couldn’t move or re-book it.)

I phoned Carol at the Australian Consulate in Vancouver, and she told me I could get one on 48 hours notice by paying an extra fee, and by coming to Vancouver for an interview. So I’d have to pay about $60 for priority processing, about $50 because I lost my passport and $170 for a new passoprt – on top of a flight to Vancouver and 2 nights in a hotel because after the interview I’d have to wait to pick up the passport. I’d need to take my birth certificate to prove I was an Aussie for the new passport.

I booked the flight using some frequent flyer miles, and the hotel on credit card, cancelled the last class of the course I was teaching, skipped the department Christmas party, raced home from work and threw a few things in a bag to travel to Vancouver. Couldn’t find my birth certificate and thought that folder was at work. Raced back to the office – and it wasn’t there. Almost late for the plane, but raced back home and Suzie finally found that the folder had slipped down behind a row of books in the bookcase (bless her).

Opened the folder to double-check that my birth certificate was in it, and lo and behold, there was my passport! It never lives there, and I have no clue how it got there and no recollection of putting it there… but whatever: got on the net and cancelled the flight (I still have the miles, just have to pay $55 to re-book) and the hotel ($70 for one night’s rent forfeited). Still, it was a lot cheaper than it would have been to get the new one.

Of course, the other thing was “has Carol cancelled my old passport as lost?” If she had I couldn’t use it – and in fact could end up in custody if I turned up at the airport with it. And I’d cancelled all the flights and stuff, and the time was so short that I couldn’t book it again… rang her this morning and was reassured on this point… whew!

Now I just get to anticipate the big trip!


Quiet Time (with Loud Music)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:42 pm

Just a very short note to let you all know I haven’t deserted my blog or lost interest in it. Just last week I was posting sometimes 3 items a day, but then for the past few days nothing has really come up on my radar that needed to be posted… and I’ve learned not to force it.

I’ve also been keeping very busy: wrote myself a ‘to do’ list that filled a page in a meeting last week, and just crossed off the last couple of items on it today. I’ll be in Australia next week (yay!), so there was lots of work stuff that had to be cleared away to make that work. I also tidied my office last week, which took a whole day in itself (in fact there’s still one foot-high pile of papers to be sorted to complete the job!), but that feels good to have done. It’s actually a shock walking into this sterile room without the tottering piles of paper on every flat surface.

Anyway, the other thing I’ve been doing is kinda getting back into music. I used to buy and listen to a lot of music – my home page talks about some of my old favourites – but had been spending more time on computer games and other pursuits. Lately I’ve got back into it – enough that my letter to Santa included an iPod nano! I’m discovering some bands that mix the more extreme ends of black metal and death metal with beautiful melodies and quieter sections, and the dynamics are wonderful… but part of the reason for the iPod is that no-one else in the family can stand them!

New faves: Opeth, Evergrey, Agalloch (and I still love the old faves too)