Posts Tagged ‘education’

What educators can learn from yoga

April 9, 2012


Rather than food, animals or Dr. Seuss characters, perhaps the alphabet strips over grammar school whiteboards should illustrate the letters with yoga poses.

Certainly, apples, bears and cats in hats would better engage students, but contorted bodies would prod teachers to follow Baltimore city schools’ Jess Gartner‘s sage advice: That school should be less like school and more like Bikram yoga.

At once rigid — every yogi does the same series of 26 postures (just enough for our alphabet strip!) every class — and loose — there are no levels or grades and the instructor does not lead the routine — Bikram yoga, Gartner explains, empowers students and teachers to pursue personal mastery, rather than arbitrary standards, and to pursue that mastery together, rather than in isolation — or worse, in opposition.

The middle school social studies teacher applies the yoga metaphor to fundamental challenges and opportunities facing educators in the accountability and digital age, from the limits of one-off, all-or-nothing tests to the seemingly limitless applications of new technological tools.

In the information age, many teachers are rightly moving away from direct instruction models that position teachers as the sole arbiters of information. With increased instantaneous access to information, the purpose of school is shifting away from memorizing finite amounts of knowledge and beginning to focus more on the skills of finding, analyzing, manipulating, and creating content. With the new function of education, so to should develop a new function of teachers as guides and facilitators on the educational journey, rather than solitary gatekeepers of knowledge.

If you’re at all vested in K-12 education (and from its effects on property values to crime rates to economic growth, who isn’t?) Gartner’s blog post a must-read, both for all it says about the current state of schools and for the clever way it says it. Even if you don’t have an interest in schools (again, hard to believe) you’re sure to find parallels in your own work and life and how you define and encourage success from yourself and from those around you.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user lululemon athletica


More with less: Mobile innovations from all 7 continents

January 22, 2012


More with less. Whether it refers to the daily wonder that we’re carrying in our pocket or purse several times the computing power that once required entire floors, or to the growing demands a fragmenting media landscape places on shrinking legacy brands, perhaps no other single phrase so succinctly captures the triumphs and trevails of the digital age.

With mobile, the adage describes the challenge and opportunity of doing what we did before, plus all kinds of fun, visually and locationally aware new stuff on a smaller screen and, depending on the hardware and network involved, varying degrees of limitations on data speed and usage, connectivity and battery life.

Like a good copy editor, the constraints force all involved to focus on what matters: More signal, less noise.

Like a good copy editor, the constraints force developers, designers and content producers to focus on what matters, often resulting in a better user experience: More signal, less noise.

If you want to know where innovation will arise, just look at the limits. From poor cellphone users in India, to the lack of Internet infrastructure in Kenya to a saturated app market in the United States, here are seven ways, from all seven continents, mobile practitioners are doing more with less.

ASIA: Missed call ecosystem (India)

Everybody makes them and gets them. But most people, in the West at least, probably have not thought about using them. In India, missed calls, the “poor man’s text message,” are used all the time, by people, by apps, even by infrastructure.

From GigaOM, here are a few things Indians are doing with free missed calls:

  • Friends, family or business associates might place a missed call to communicate a pre-determined message or, if the recipient is able and willing to pay for a text or call back (incoming calls and texts are free in India), to signal that they would like to communicate.
  • After receiving a missed call at a designated number, a system developed by a cloud telephony company and Bangalore-based partner will call users back with dynamic information, such as the current daily deal or real-time bus schedule.
  • By attaching a receiver and SIM card, to authenticate that the call is coming from an authorized number, to a switch, startup RealTech Systems created a device that lets farmers turn on and off irrigation systems remotely, saving them from miles-long walks.

AFRICA: Texting lions (Kenya)

In East Africa, the lions are disappearing, in part because herders poison them to protect the livestock they depend on to earn a living.

If herders knew where the lions were, the thinking goes, they could instead just move their animals away from danger. Once you collar the lions with GPS units, which must be easier said than done, tracking the animals is a straightforward enough task to accomplish over a wireless or satellite network. But what if you’re in a place without established Internet infrastructure, like East Africa?

Attaching a simple modem to the lions’ collars as well, as New York-based research company Ground Lab, with the help of nonprofits, has done in Kenya, makes it possible to send lions’ locations to a centralized computer via text message, a potential model for other machine-to-machine communication across the Internet of Things, according to this Atlantic Wire summary.

EUROPE : The French Mobile Revolution

They’re calling it the French Mobile Revolution. Revolution? Yes, and one that might just spread to other nations.

When you learn it’s giving customers unlimited voice, text messages and data for the equivalent of $25.50 a month, you may start to nod your head. When you learn how Internet service provider Free is doing it, you may start head-banging.

It’s doing it, coverage by GigaOM’s Mobilize blog and PC World explains, by networking five million customers’ set-top boxes. Within range of others customers’ boxes, nanocells for data, and, being phased in now, femtocells for voice and SMS, provide Wi-Fi-quality service. Out of range, traditional towers, a 3G network, which will throttle customers who consume more than 3 GB of data in a month, and roaming agreements with other providers, fill in the gaps.

While since Free Mobile’s launch earlier this month competitors have cut prices some, because their networks depend on large, costly cell sites and antennas that took years to build out, they can’t hope to compete with Free Mobile on price long-term. 

NORTH AMERICA: Rate everything! Ever-y-thing (United States)

It’s funny ’cause it’s true?

The people behind what many assumed to be a joke app are acting kinda serious, releasing a second native version, for Android in addition to iPhone, and an API.

You’ll get more laughs if you let the above video explain it, but, the app, Jotly, in short, lets users rate anything, then snap a photo of it, tag it and geolocate it.

Yesterday, for instance, I gave the Baltimore area’s first snowstorm of the season – pretty and easy to clean up, but icy and with minimal accumulation – a “C”.

Whether Jotly indeed started off as joke or the jokes completely on us, you can decide for yourself. Either way, even if it’s not the “Best. App. Ever.” as the Web versions of users’ posts proclaim, it’s brillant commentary on marketing hype, feature creep and over-sharing in a crowded mobile app marketplace.

In a way, Jotly is the “Seinfeld” of apps. It’s about nothing, and everything, it parodies itself, it’s as one reviewer put it
, “Dumb and awesome all at once.” In short, it’s so F- it’s an A+.

AUSTRALIA: Training mojos in indigenous communities

At the heart of any mobile content, or any interactive feature for that matter, is the story, not the technology. That mantra is the focus of a government-funded citizen journalism project in Australia, NT Mojos, which seeks to give indigenous residents living in remote areas the tools and training to produce and share videos about their lives.

It’s hoped that the project provides other Australians a less marginalized view of their neighbors, promotes education and literacy in the indigenous community, and establishes enough of a foundation and momentum to sustain itself after the initial outreach has ended.

After training, which, according to an article on MobileActive, focuses on journalism fundamentals including media law, newly minted mobile journalists report, shoot, edit and upload videos on whatever topics they see fit, all on an iPhone 4 and, typically, a 3G network.

The former broadcast journalist behind the model, Ivo Burum, has launched a version in China, is adapting it for schools and educates others how to implement it on his blog.  

SOUTH AMERICA: Learning, 160 characters at a time (Brazil)

From augmented reality then-and-now historical tours, to apps that measure air pollution, to self-adaptive virtual tutors, mobile phones are doing things for education that as recently as my high school days might have seemed like science fiction.

These more spectacular m-learning implementations, of course, use smartphones. The root of their power, however, is their interactivity, which even the simplest phones, through the versatile text message, deliver just as well.

In Brazil, where smartphone adoption lags behind North American and Western European markets, SMS subscription services prepare students for a national high school exam and teach them English, among other subjects, The Next Web highlights.

With their immediacy, intimacy, simplicity and brevity, text messages have the power to be a tremendously engaging teaching tool, even more so than many flashy apps.

ANTARCTICA: Here, in fashion and tech, trends are trivial

If you’re not a scientist, it’s one of the last refuges from our hyper-connected society, and even with a purpose, and the resources, staying plugged in in the Antarctic can be difficult.

But in a place where self-sufficiency is not just a virtue but a necessity, the accessibility, versatility and generativity of personal mobile devices are a space-saving, time-saving and potentially life-saving addition to researchers’ and adventurers’ toolbelts.

Accordingly, users follow pragmatism, not trends, when choosing a mobile operating system. Linux-based Maemo 5 was a “longtime favorite due to its compatibility and expandability with virtually everything,” a May post on The Noisecast blog says. But last spring, iOS moved into the lead, according to the post, which speculated about iPhone’s and iPad’s enterprise, academic and clinical potential.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user David Paul Ohmer

Fast Times at Digital Harbor High: Catching the spirit of Education Hack Day

November 22, 2011


What sounded like a rad concert, the weekend and the majority of the “best time of your life” ahead of them, two college girls at the back of the downtown shuttle were wrapped up in that morning’s psychology test.

“The first part was so hard!” the duo’s navigator said, ticking off the cross streets as the bus lumbered south.

Her companion concurred.

“That’s why I did the first part last,” she said.

It turns out she completed the exam all out of order, jumping among and within sections, pouncing on questions she knew she knew and “half-answering” — tracing the answer bubble but not shading it yet — ones she was less confident about.

Non-linear learning

We all don’t take tests that way. Maybe we should. If question order can affect the outcome of a survey, certainly it can change the result of a test. But we all learn that way. In our minds, the shortest distance between information and knowledge is rarely a straight line, especially one someone else drew.

Unfortunately, our education system, developed for the industrial age, from grouping students by age to all-or-nothing accountability systems, still favors linear, assembly-line-like approaches.

In our minds, the shortest distance between information and knowledge is rarely a straight line, especially one someone else drew. 

Over a whirlwind weekend of brainstorming, researching, coding and building at Baltimore’s first Education Hack Day, 70 developers, designers and teachers demonstrated the non-linear path of discovery and, it’s hoped, through the 10 products they built, helped enable it for some of the city’s 83,800 students.

No matter what becomes of the products created at the Nov. 12-13 event — detailed in the sidebar below — schools, or any institution for that matter, can benefit by channeling its spirit.

Who’s got spirit?

Hack day organizers — hundreds of similar events have been held across the county, including a government data hack day in Baltimore last February — are taking quite a gamble, if you think about it. They spend no small amount of their and others’ time, money and resources rounding up space, equipment, participants, sponsors and online and IRL audiences without much assurance of the result.

They trust that folks they’ve never necessarily met and who’ve never necessarily met each other will have useful products to show the final night. Almost always, they do. They certainly did two weekends ago (see sidebar video). And along the way they learn not only about technology but also about problem-solving, about each other and about themselves.

It’s so backward it seems surprising that it works. But that’s precisely why it does. Baltimore developer Mike Subelsky, in announcing his own radical project, summed it up well: “You can only get good ideas by working on real problems.”

A to B learning:
Efficient, but limited

We’re used to, and, let’s face it, bored by, the A to B approach. Someone who’s been to B directs you how to get there from A. It’s efficient, but limited. Because you don’t have agency in where you’re going or in how you get there, you put less into it.

Before we “know enough to be dangerous,” this is generally how we learn the fundamentals of a trade, process or craft. If you’re training to drive the downtown shuttle, one of your first steps will be to ride along with an experienced driver. Even if you’re bored, you, the girls dissecting their psych test in the back and their fellow downtown commuters are safer for it.

B from A learning:
Inefficient, but limitless

We’re not used to, and energized by the B from A approach. Someone places you at A and says, “Here is everything you need to get to B. I can’t wait to see what B is!” It’s inefficient, but limitless. Because you have agency in where you’re going and in how you get there, you put your all into it.

Once we’ve mastered the fundamentals, or, yes, “know enough to be dangerous,” this is how we grow, often through failure. If you’re asked to improve buses’ gas mileage, the new stop locations or times, maintenance procedures or bike rack design you come up with might teach you something unexpected or generate other benefits.

Hack the classroom

There’s a reason they have hack days, and not hack weeks, of course. (Do they have hack weeks?) Ask a grad student: Going full bore for days on end is not sustainable. (There is no coffee strong enough, not even from New Orleans or Panama.) That there is light at the end of the tunnel is part of the draw. “Suck it up. One way or another, we’re all presenting this time tomorrow. It’ll all be over soon!”

My grading’s unfair? Design your own system. My reviews are boring? Help each other prepare for the test (and share a grade).

All the more reason for educators of all disciplines to hold their own “hack days” from time to time. My grading’s unfair? Design your own system. My reviews are boring? Help each other prepare for the test (and share a grade). We just got new iPads for the class. Give me five ways we could use them.

If students, or parents or colleagues or the principal don’t like the break the from the book, they’ll be back to regular programming soon enough. I think before they are, though, they’ll catch the spirit, too. They’ll be itching for the next hack.

Original Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Parker Michael Knight

ALSO SEE: Hack Day wish list a window into educators’ world — and our shared future

Hack Day wish list a window into educators’ world ??? and our shared future

November 9, 2011


Whatever happens this weekend at Education Hack Day at Digital Harbor High School, the inaugural event has already succeeded by surfacing such thoughtful proposals from educators on how technology might make learning more efficient, responsive and rewarding for students in Baltimore and beyond.

Asked what problems they would like developers to address, teachers and school officials went straight to offering solutions. Demonstrating a nuanced understanding of technology’s abilities and limitations while revealing institutional and cultural symptoms technology alone cannot treat, their creative but pragmatic responses should be required reading for anyone who tries to control or critique the difficult work they do.


See for yourself on the hack-a-thon’s website and distribute up to 10 votes among the ideas you like. I’m supporting the eight listed below. My favorites grow the audience and generativity of students’ work through sharing and turn potentially distracting mobile devices into instruments of learning. Oh, the classroom noise meter is also one I’m loud on. And foreign language chat roulette is too cool for words, in any tongue.

‘Share work and projects with parents/family and other teachers’

Suggested by Billy Michels

So many projects are completed and sent home and nobody gets to see them but me. I want to connect the families with the classroom more. Show work of all students, share ideas, etc.


‘Hey Teacher’

Suggested by Andrew Coy 

I wish there was a way for a student to “raise” their hand with a web tool or iOS app that would send a push notification over wifi to the teacher. The teacher then could have a que of students instead of having students call out or raise hands.

‘Bring native foreign language speakers into my classroom via Skype’

Suggested by Henry van Wagenberg

What if there was a fun “language learning” video chat roulette where my students could pick the language they want to learn, and a foreign student from that country popped up to chat live in that language?

‘Science animations in HTML5’

Suggested by Mark Davis

Almost every animation online (from mitosis, meiosis, seasons, moon phases, states of matter – you name it!) are all flash. Many teachers have classroom sets of iPads but still need to walk down to the clunky computer lab to learn from animations.

‘A volume meter for the classroom like yak tracker but for iPod’

Suggested by Justin

A leveled meter to remind students of the noise level in the room. Green good, yellow a bit noisey and red too lound. Once they get to that level an alarm will sound.



‘I wish there was an app that could work with a positive behavior system’

Suggested by Charlie Gerancher

The application would work in conjunction with a positive behavior system. It would allow teachers and administrators to award different types of digital badges that would be compiled within the system. The system would also have a mobile interface to provide a way for schools to integrate the use of handheld devices by students in a positive manner.

‘Create a database of good story problems’

Suggested by Scott Messinger

It’s hard to think of good, rigorous story problems for students. It would be nice to have a database curriculum writers could use to enter and organize the story problems. Teachers in the district could log on and print off relevant problems for use in the classroom.

‘Get permission slips filled out and signed by parents’

Suggested by Paul Genge

Right now our parents have to fill out the same information ten or more times per year. If there were a way to get their information and a “fresh” signature somehow then that would save an enormous amount of time and energy for parents and teachers.

Learn more about Education Hack Day in this Bmore Media article or on the event’s website. Demos of the resulting apps, scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, are free and open to the public, but organizers ask that guests register.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user opensourceway

ALSO SEE: Fast Times at Digital Harbor High: Catching the spirit of Education Hack Day

Born digital citizens still must learn citizenship

October 31, 2011


Duke University professor and HASTAC co-founder Cathy Davidson, whose work I’ve followed since attending a panel she chaired in 2010, posted a spot-on response to last month’s widely circulated New York Times “Grading the Digital School” piece on the struggle to quantify technology’s educational value, namely through standardized tests.

Davidson, whose new book “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” includes a chapter on the origin of standardized testing, argues that industrial age yardsticks can’t reliably measure digital age progress, and that, whatever the yardsticks say, technology is not just another subject, but a prerequisite for all others.

She also makes a broader, and, I’d offer, more pressing point, on what we’re not measuring: How society tends to take for granted that youth are tech experts. 

Because they can use technology easily, doesn’t mean they understand it.  And that’s a problem. The whole point of living in a “Broadcast Yourself” era is any one of those blogs or Facebook quips can go out into the world instantly. We are not responsible as educators unless we are teaching not just with technology but through it, about it, because of it. We need to make kids understand its power, its potential, its dangers, its use. That isn’t just an investment worth making but one that it would be irresponsible to avoid.

Yes, we adults can learn a lot from youth, and not just technically. But, from grade school to college, confusing familiarity for mastery is dangerous. Kids these days will always better know the tools. But we have lived and need to teach them the techniques.

Read Cathy’s full essay on her HASTAC blog.

Creative Commons image by Flickr user gretchichi

The Five Gifts of Sharing

May 6, 2010

Human paper cutouts holding hands (sharing illustration).Everything You Need To Know About the Future of Education You Learned in Preschool

Sharing. In preschool, our teachers wouldn’t shut up about it. The rest of our school careers, it’s like they never learned it themselves. Think about it. In grade school, high school, even in college, what happened to all that great content you produced? That “Where the Wild Things Are” diorama? That coming-of-age introduction to film screenplay? That term paper on electoral reform? Very likely, three things:

1. Your teacher reviewed it, thoroughly if he or she possessed the motivation or time, less than thoroughly if he or she didn’t.

2. Your teacher assigned a grade to it, and, sometimes but not always, provided written or verbal comments.

3. You paid more attention to the grade than the comments and filed the assignment away to gather actual or virtual dust — or simply trashed it.

With the Web all but eliminating the production and distribution costs of content sharing, education is becoming more participatory, but not to the extent it could be or should be, according to members of the “The Future of Learning is the Web” panel at last week’s FutureWeb conference in Raleigh, N.C. Even many e-learning programs, they said, are little more than traditional lessons dressed up in online clothes. The trick, panelist Tony O’Driscoll, professor of the practice of business administration at Duke University, said, is to go from using technology as an engine for automating the classroom to using technology as a network for liberating learning.

The trick is to go from using technology as an engine for automating the classroom to using technology as a network for liberating learning.

— Tony O’Driscoll, professor of the practice of business administration, Duke University

O’Driscoll and his four panelmates, also Duke University professors, argued that sharing the educational process on blogs, social media, discussion forums, crowdsourcing sites and elsewhere online benefits students, teachers and society alike.

  • Sharing’s first gift is motivation. When students know their work is potentially being judged by their peers, experts or even just anonymous Internet users, they take their work up a notch. The extra eyes likewise motivate teachers to maximize the quality and relevancy of their assignments.
  • Sharing’s second gift is feedback. Constructive criticism affords students a chance to improve their work before turning it in. Praise in the form of a comment, repost or adaptation validates their scholarship in a way an arbitrary letter grade never could. Meanwhile, if students aren’t reacting the way teachers expected, teachers can see this and call an audible.
  • Sharing’s third gift is understanding. The public and even other educators often dismiss divergent teaching approaches as lacking earnestness or structure. Why tell critics your allegedly easy class is actually challenging when you can show them by posting the final exam question online, as panelist Mark Anthony Neal, black popular culture professor, recently did?
  • Sharing’s fourth gift is what O’Driscoll called “double-loop learning.” External audiences absorb students’ knowledge and respond in kind with their own, which students fold back into their work. This cycle additionally addresses what panelists criticized as academia’s lack of urgency.
  • Sharing’s fifth gift is efficiency. Rather than over-extending themselves trying to become an instant expert in something they’re not, teachers can outsource the job to the real experts. The organizing power of online networks further frees up teachers to teach — and, critically, the panelists said, to provide context for the deluge of information modern students must manage. This benefit applies to organizing people — think about those hundred-plus-student freshman classes at public universities — as well as information.

Given that education has long been a pet interest of mine, that many from my family work in or have worked in education and that I used to cover education as a newspaper reporter, I found this panel especially engaging. There’s a fourth reason, however, that it spoke to me so. And that is how closely the changes taking place in education resemble the changes taking place in my own industry: news. In both education and journalism, the process is becoming a product. In each industry, successful practitioners will leverage this new process-product to improve the traditional product.

Neal, author of the NewBlackMan website, and O’Driscoll, co-author of “Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration,” spoke alongside Duke colleagues professor of interdisciplinary studies Cathy Davidson, the panel chairwoman and writer of the widely circulated blog post “How to Crowdsource Grading;” professor of history and romance studies Laurent DuBois, a French colonialism expert who also blogs about the politics of soccer; and associate professor Negar Mottahedeh, best known for organizing the Axis of Evil and Twitter film festivals and for her commentary on last summer’s Iranian election protests. Video from the panel is available on the conference’s YouTube channel.

BONUS: Noteworthy links mentioned by the panelists:

Learning For A Lifetime

November 5, 2009

Less than seven months from now, if all goes as planned, I’ll receive my second degree from Elon University, this time a Master of Arts in Interactive Media. I expect this to mark the end of my formal education. Of course, that’s what I was leaning toward after undergrad. And here I am, back in school. In any case, in this fast-moving field I’ve chosen, what is certain is that my informal education will never be complete. 

My program, just 10 months long, is designed for this pace. The idea is to keep students from getting too detached from the professional world and to get them back in the field while their skills are still fresh. 

Still, a lot can happen in 10 months. Twitter, for example, has exploded in popularity since January, gaining tens of millions of users. 

To keep up, I’ll continue to read as much media and technology news as I can find time for, seek out opportunities to learn from talented colleagues and probably drop in on the occasional weekend workshop. 

Where these means fall short or are impractical, online training is an attractive option. Structured, up-to-date instruction from experts the globe over when and where I want? I’ll take it. Sure, it’s not as personal as classroom learning, but next-generation video conferencing and virtual reality could help it come close. 

Certification is another benefit of many online training programs, offering professionals a level of authority that saying they know a new skill or even talking about it intelligently just doesn’t. 

One such example is Google’s Conversion University. Since March, the search engine giant has administered an analytics certification program based on its approximately 230-minute online course. Applicants pay $50 to take an online test, and, if they score 75 percent or higher, are registered as Google Analytics qualified. 

I was assigned today to complete the course for one of my classes. Since I’ll be putting in the study time, I figure I might as well aim for the certification. If I get it, thanks to a just-introduced feature, I’ll be able to prove it with an official link. I’ll update my progress and share what I learn in this space. Stay tuned. Or, perhaps I should say, “be a returning visitor.”

They’ll Assume You’re a Social Media Expert. Prove Them Right.

October 21, 2009

In no other marketing arena are messages born, spread and adapted as quickly as they are in social media. Reputations can be bolstered or broken in a few clicks.

To whom do firms turn to navigate this volatile landscape? Very often, young people.

In Elon University’s School of Communications, nearly every summer internship student this year reported completing social media-related tasks such as creating Facebook and Twitter accounts or blogging.

Young people, it’s assumed, know social media. That they at least have a better grasp of it than their older colleagues is generally a safe bet. The median age of a Facebook user is 26, a MySpace user 27 and a Twitter user 31, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But what exactly do young people know? Do they know how to monitor what customers are saying and exploit opportunities and put out fires? Or do they just know how to post mundane status updates and write clever captions?

The Elon interns, who had already been blogging and studying reputation management in their classes, were better positioned than most. The communication school’s internship director wrote to faculty and staff that in many cases supervisors were impressed enough by students’ skill level to extend to them opportunities not offered to other interns.

But what about those without any formal training? Young people who on their face seem social media savvy may in fact be practicing some very bad habits. Friending everyone and their brother regardless of their character merely to increase their own perceived popularity. Posting embarrassing photos of themselves and their friends without regard for what potential employers may think. Not the kind of quality control you want in the business world.

Furthermore, behind the technology bells and whistles, strong social media marketing comes down to strong writing. And, while the opposite argument is also made, there is concern among educators that electronic communication’s carefree spelling, lax punctuation and grammar and acronym shortcuts degrade writing quality, also according to Pew.

Students or young workers may read this and get defensive. “We can write.” “We can and do use social media responsibly.” And I hope they do call me out. Because, what an opportunity. If you know social media tasks are probably going to be part of your next job — or are part of your job now, why not do a little homework and learn how to use social media to grow a brand, not just grow your friend count? You’ll differentiate yourself from your peers and just might get that promotion a bit sooner.

Social media blog Mashable’s How To section is a good starting point. It’s a gold mine of concise primers, some geared toward general social media literacy, but many also geared toward business applications.

The Art of Failure

October 9, 2009

mistakes-watercolorThere’s a grade school art piece of mine, a watercolor, I like to reference to illustrate — pardon the pun — why one should never be afraid of mistakes.

The assignment involved using a cardboard edge to paint the wisps of a flower’s stem. Class was winding down and my piece looked nothing like a flower. The more I tried to fix it, though, the less like a flower it looked. Panicked, I frantically swiped the cardboard across the paper. I was close to giving up when I realized what I was painting did look like something: grass.

With a new design in mind, I worked with greater care and confidence. What I thought was a lost cause suddenly resembled a scene one might find in nature.

It also had pretty brilliant depth of field. It ended up being featured in the student art show at the town center mall for thousands of shoppers to see.

My parents still have the piece. I’ll try to digitize it and post it here sometime.

Two Golden Rules for Interviewers

September 30, 2009

My cohorts and I are in the thick of the expert-interview stage of our future-oriented research projects and today our professor, a former newspaper journalist, gave a slide presentation of interviewing tips. An ex-print journalist myself, I received similar advice in high school, at internships, in college and in the workplace.

Still, a refresher never hurts. Familiarity breeds complacency. On deadline, one adopts shortcuts, and some of them stick.

Research ahead of time. Have a backup plan for if technology fails. Save hardball questions for the end. Always get contact information for follow-ups. All tried and true.

Two of my favorite tips are also among the simplest:

First, leverage the power of silence. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable for the interviewer, but, trust me, it’s even more uncomfortable for the subject. I used this technique at my last reporting job to get details on the relationship between a murder victim and the suspect before police were ready to announce them.

I was canvassing the apartment complex where the homicide occurred and came across a chatty older gentleman who seemed to know more than he was letting on. Sensing he was one of those people who enjoy the sound of their own voice, I kept him talking no matter the subject. Then, I asked what I came there to ask and waited. And waited. Sure enough, he spilled what he wasn’t ready to spill before. His information matched up perfectly with what the police would later release.

This technique is helpful not only for sensitive questions but also for complex ones. If a subject doesn’t answer immediately, it’s natural for the interviewer to assume something was wrong with the question and scale it back. Give the subject time to think things through. The point of an interview is to generate original, well-thought-out answers, not trite, off-the-cuff ones.

Second, before ending an interview, always ask something to the effect of, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” Usually, the source’s response will yield something of value. It’s not always groundbreaking, but, surprisingly often, it is. The source will point out an essential resource or raise an issue that completely reshapes the story.

A ridiculously open-ended question can even produce a bombshell. It did for me one Sunday afternoon working the cops shift at my first paper. The police beat required tracking disorder of all forms across a sprawling four-county area. Keeping an ear to the scanner and asking “Anything going on?” “Anything else?” over and over was pretty much the only way to do this. I made the first of two routine calls to one of several state police barracks on my call sheet and asked the routine question. “Any accidents, arrests, anything to report?

“Oh, you’re calling about the arrest from last night,” said the trooper on the other end of the line. “What do you want to know?”

I had no idea what arrest he was referring to but it was obvious it was newsworthy. “Umm,” I thought, before responding with more boilerplate, “Name, age, residence, location of the incident, the charge.”

Whether the trooper could tell that I was clueless I’ll never know. But the name was that of the county sheriff. The charge? Drunken driving.

Yes, preparation and tact are important, but the worst question can be the one never asked.