Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Another Advantage of a Zero Inbox

I'm now increasingly checking my email from a mobile device, and having an empty inbox is very handy in this case: the built-in email client doesn't thread messages like gmail does, so even having only one conversation in your current inbox can already mean that you've got several screenfuls of emails cluttering up everything.

With your Zero Inbox (or was it 'Inbox Zero'?), if something crops up it is immediately visible as new, and in a nice case of a positive feedback loop you will want to deal with it quickly to get back to that pristine empty inbox.

And of course you have the satisfying blank page when there is no actual mail waiting for you...

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


The marking season hasn't even started yet, and I'm already tired of it. At present I'm looking through a pile of formative assignments, which are exam-style questions to prepare students for what is awaiting them in a few weeks' time. And I don't like doing it.

Why not? Is this the typical whingeing about an unpleasant job? Partly. I can think of many things I'd rather do, and that I still have to do once the marking is finished. But that in itself is not the reason. Giving feedback should be one of the central tasks in education, but the ways we have available for it are not very satisfactory.

Ideally I would write an essay about the length of the students' submission to give them proper feedback about all the things I like and don't like about their work. Because the student will read it at some point, and might come back to me with questions about it, I have to be very specific, and have to make sure they can be read out of context (ie without having the student essay still fresh in mind). This is very difficult to do. And would consume more time than is available.

It is also the case that it is very hard to phrase feedback properly. I can easily read a text and decide whether I like it or not, but then telling somebody else why I came to that conclusion is difficult. Often these points are on an almost sub-conscious level, and hard to verbalise. It would also be a lot easier if it could be delivered in a face-to-face conversation, as interactivity would be much better than simply a list of bullet points with good and bad points about the student's work. Resource shortage however makes that impossible, apart from practical considerations.

Maybe it would be an idea to try out what other people have done: record feedback orally, and then send it to the students. It would be quicker to say something, rather than to write it down in great detail, but dealing with sound files might be more time-consuming in the end.

So it remains the only option for the moment, filling in feedback forms, printing them off, attaching them to the paper, and hoping that the students will be able to use them to improve their work. Unsatisfactory!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Internet Radio

A word of warning: if you have an Internet radio and a limited bandwidth broadband connection, then you want to be careful. A few afternoons of listening to the world's radio stations and your usage allowance goes down the drain.

Apart from that it's fantastic: you can listen to all sorts of stations from all over the world, sorted by genre or country, whatever. Recently I discovered a Canadian station (I think it was Canadian), Ancient FM, and they played some very interesting Renaissance music, which I then bought on iTunes. Great to broaden your horizon, but keep an eye on that bandwidth!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Inbox Zero

One important productivity tool is your inbox; the email one, not the David Allen conceptual one. Nothing is more depressing than an overflowing mailbox which takes ages to load and makes it hard to find what you need. So having a zero-inbox is really a first step towards feeling more positive and productive, at least that's the effect it has on me.

The first important step is to consolidate multiple email-addresses you might have (work, private, etc) to a single account, so that you do not have to check in multiple places all the time. This is very easy to do with gmail. Next, set up four labels for the important/unimportant and urgent/non-urgent combinations. I have chosen _A1 to _A4, as these will show up at the top of the "labels" bar on gmail. Each email that requires an action is immediately shunted off into one of those four mailboxes. Constantly archiving all the other mails you get is also very important, and occasionally, wenn stuff builds up, move everything into an _inbox, to get your Inbox Zero back. If you allowed it to build up, then it cannot have been important!

Another benefit, apart from the psychological one, is that when you're on the move, checking your mail is a lot quicker!

Thursday, 9 April 2009


I got a new toy, which pretends to be a mobile phone but instead really runs lots of applications on it. One of them, which I installed today, is called Streaks. This is exactly what I need to keep up my writing: you get a little calendar, and tap a date (has to be in the past...). The program then puts a satisfying red X on the day, and counts how many days your current streak is. It maintains counts for the current streak and the longest. Ideally, of course, you will only have one streak!

For my own writing chain I only count work-days, so there'll be a bit of a break over the upcoming Easter hols. However, I can't tell that to the program, so I'll mark weekends and holidays as 'streaked'. The first consequence is that my 34 current links got puffed up to a massive 46, which is of course nice... And it makes it even harder to stop.

Today I was a bit stuck for what to write, and so I started a new project, one that I wanted to have started earlier anyway. With new projects it's a lot easier to write stuff, and if you do it during the mindless "have to write 200 words" stage of the day it saves you your more productive time to do the real work. At least that's the theory!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Video Recording

This afternoon I had a lecture video-ed (spellchecker suggests voided?!?!). This will be used by Student Recruitment for marketing purposes: they go out into schools and scare the pupils with it. The recording took place in a conference-type room, fairly small, and originally there was supposed to be an audience of about 8 school kids, but Recruitment couldn't get hold of any, so it was just me talking to an almost empty room (the person doing the recording was there as well).

My first attempt was no good. Not helped by my sore throat and the absence of any of the usual visual feedback (bored or perplexed students) made me go through my 49 slides at high-speed, ending the lecture after only 27 minutes. Not good.

Luckily there was enough time, so I had a break, drank some water, and then we did it again. This time I felt much more relaxed and at ease, explaining things in more detail, speaking more slowly, and at the end came in at 44 minutes. Much better!

The recording was done using the new Echo-360 system, and it is basically live. You can't pause or edit anything. Once you've started, you've got to finish. Unlike podcasting where you can edit out all those hesitations, repetitions, and deviations.

I got a list of tips from the media people, and I'll have to add another one: Have something to eat beforehand. At one stage I was getting very worried that my rumbling stomach would drown out my talking. I hope you won't be able to hear that on the recording...