alarm clock, bought from IKEA
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Are you concerned about your future? Are you worried about the possibility of being fired? Or of your company going belly-up? What should you spend your time doing? Up-dating your resume? Checking your rolodex? Maybe joining LinkedIn? Facebook?

These are certainly some questions I’ve been asking myself lately. What skills will I need? What should I be spending my free time doing?

Time that I spend and consider it well spent is reading Gary North’s website. Here’s a sample from today:

If you go with the start-up, don’t get mired in the technology. Focus on the marketing. These skills are transferable. If they want you to push digits around a screen, pass. You will be investing your time into the owners’ dream, not yours. Time is too precious to waste on other peoples’ projects. Look only to put food on the table from a job. Don’t make it your Big Payoff. The odds are against you.

He’s giving advice to a man who asked for it: should he join this new start-up company? The advice is to take a job where you will learn transferable skills. Marketing, in this instance.

In my job, I have the opportunity to learn to use an online learning management system developed by the university I work at. It’s now in use by about 40 universities around Japan. It works like Moodle, but is geared towards video. Teachers can get their lectures videoed and archived. They can also set the access level.  At the moment, there is no remuneration. The LMS itself (the servers and admin) is paid for out of government grants. These grants will end in a couple of years, but the system is expected to continue and to be self-sustaining after that time: that is one of the conditions of the government grant.

I hate it.

It does not have Moodle’s flexibility. Every class has to be fitted in to a number of categories, many of which cannot be overridden (e.g., you cannot easily set up a class that is for non-traditional “students” who are not already  enrolled in an academic institution). I can video my own classes (a very useful tool for professional development), but there are no funds for a cameraman. The system is set up for lecturers who stay in one place, and who are teaching in a computer classroom where students are sat in front of a monitor.  I do not sit in one place. Thus, the camera must be set at the back of the room and at maximum wide-angle, or else have me out of the picture for most of the time. The students in the classroom don’t mind, but it doesn’t make for a riveting video for distance learners.

Another government-grant idea was digital pens. Teachers were badgered about this: try them! Try it! Give it a go! I did. I regret it. “Well, it’s not actually designed for teachers, but for students.” Thanks for telling me that 1 month into the experiment. First, students need to write on special paper. The paper is not generally or easily available, but must be printed out by the young technician in charge of this project. On demand. The printed sheets each have a digital code number, and this digital code number is linked to a date. Thus, the digital sheets printed for one day’s class are are valid only for that day. It took us a couple of weeks to figure this out. Lots of emals back and forth on the lines of “Where’s the bloody data?” “What class is this for? What’s the code number in tiny print right at the bottom of the sheet you wrote on?” “What code number?” Etc.  Am I boring you? I’m boring me, for sure!

In other words, it’s a huge hassle. It has taken me and the few students who volunteered for this experiment (all 5 of them; the others were more sensible) about a month to understand how the system works. It’s not a bundle of laughs. It’s not a riveting experience. The technology intrudes too much.

At first, the technicians wanted it to be even more intrusive. They assumed that we all wanted to see the data captured by these digital pens “live”, as it happened. To do that, you need a PC in the classroom connected to the Internet and logged in to that day’s class in the LMS. Then you need  a projector and a screen. All this setup would take at least 15 minutes before class (and again to “set down” after class).

And all for what? So that you can see words on a screen? Isn’t that what the blackboard is for? (Yes, we still have blackboards! No whiteboards!  Maybe a couple of Smartboards hidden somewhere in the computer centre. Good luck borrowing them.)

All of this takes time. Sure, I’ve learned a lot, but has it been worth the time it took? Have I learned transferable, marketable skills? I think the answers are clear.

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