Archive for August, 2008

Tech Tools for Working From Home

As promised I will briefly describe the tools we work with as a collaborative virtual team. I will also describe how we use these tools with some of our subject matter experts (SME’s) in the design process for our courses.

Aye, I have to say I work with very active and adventurous group. They’re really into trying all sorts of tools that help with virtual work and collaboration. I think it took us probably about 6 months before we found the combination that is working well for us right now:

  • Adobe Connect (Professional Version)
  • Skype
  • Google Docs

There are other tools that we use, but I think of the three above as our “Holy Trinity” of collaborative tools. They’re sort of like our Swiss army knife of virtual tech.  I’ll spend a little time here giving a summary or description of how we use each tool.

  • Adobe Connect (Professional Version) – helpful for sharing desktops and working out technical issues with each other. It allows us to be extremely productive during meetings because we can work with or on documentation and visuals as we talk. For example. I like using a visual like a  PowerPoint slide in a design meeting. I can always allow the other participants to manipulate the slide, including adding their own content or suggestions. The example below shows a visual outline I developed during a meeting with the help of a subject matter expert or SME. Adobe Connect allows you to visually share and grant control over items on your desk top. In this case, the SME could add or move any of the elements on the PowerPoint slide as long as I gave them control.
slide32

Example of a content map or visual used with a subject matter expert

Same image after learning objectives have been with content. Note, this was a course re-design project.

Same image after learning objectives have been aligned with content. Note, this was a course re-design project.

  • Skype – we use Skype for voice connection during meetings. The chat tool is also very user friendly as well.  Skype isn’t perfect. Sometimes the audio quality isn’t that great, especially when there are more than a handful of people using it for a conference call. For larger meetings we opt for using a conference call service where we can set up “bridge” calls.
  • Google Docs – Google offers a virtual office program that allows you to upload, create and share text or wordprocessing documents. You can also, develop simple PowerPoint-like slides and virtual spreadsheets using google docs. When we’re working on a document or want to share text content and sometimes images, we use Google docs to work on shared documents.  I really like the color coded commenting feature that’s available. It makes it possible to track changes, comments and contributions to any text file we’re working on together. Also, we’ve found that Google Docs is one of the most user friendly collaboration tools, and can be used when working on documents with SME’s who have even a limited experience with web technology. Also, I love the fact that they really don’t change the basic look and structure of the interface, so the user doesn’t get confused. In addition to the Skype Chat we teach SME’s to use the Google Talk as well. It’s an additional way to get a hold of us if they have a quick question or need to comment on work we have sent for review. For those who have never used web software like the Google tools, we send out a quick little guide (I whipped up) for using them.  It’s true that Google already develops fairly intuitively designed products, but some subject matter experts don’t feel facile enough with software or online tech to just dive in to experimenting and using the software, so we figured that we would give them a guide to help them learn the tools. I linked each page of the guide in the thumbnails below.

We’ve also used the simple survey tool available when you work with the Spreadsheets in Google docs to record data from usability tests.  Google makes it possible to create no-frills survey tools which are actually quite effective.

I did forget one more tool… we keep meeting and design minutes and notes in a Wiki Spaces website. The wiki is also used to document our business process and even complex sub processes. We’re currently using it right now to document our Learning Management System (LMS) conversion process.  Thank goodness for wikis! No one person is in charge of setting up the structure of the wiki, and for some reason, it works: we’re still able to find what we need.

Google Tools Guide:

Working from home

When you tell people you work from home 100% many of them respond with, “So that means you can work in your pajamas right.”  I’ve often wondered whether pajamas is code for “Naked,” but that’s not really the point of they’re making… or is it? The biggest assumption people make about working from home is that it’s easy and a cake walk compared to being harnessed to a cubicle and thrown into the area of corporate office politics.  The other reaction I’ve had, is disbelief. My father, for example, still doesn’t understand how the work-from-home arrangement works. He always asks, “But how do they know that you’re working?”  I ask back, “How did they know I was working in the cube farm?” My real answer to his question is, “They know I’m working because I get my work done.”  If I don’t deliver my projects on time and with good results, then I am not doing my job. It seems so simple, but there it is.

I remember having to fill task-tracking sheets and weekly status reports with multiple tables and stats that demonstrated what exactly I was doing with my time. If I wasn’t careful the stupid status reports and related metrics would take me at least 10% of my working time. I don’t think that that’s unusual in some office environments, and actually 10% is a conservative amount of time. I have encountered business groups or divisions that spent a good amount of their working hours tracking exactly what they did rather than ‘doing it.’ Sadly, in some corporate environments, this seemingly futile exercise is conducted for purely political and sometimes bureaucratic reasons.

Ugh… I feel myself shuddering with a form of PTSD just thinking about this… I digress.  I meant to focus mainly on the mechanics of working from home, and how it’s possible to be incredibly efficient and productive as well as connect and collaborate with others virtually. In response to Cass Nevada’s request, I’m going to share a bit about the tools and methods I (and my colleagues) use to work effectively with each other. I’m going to divide this series of posts into the following categories

  • Tools for communication and work - having good office collaboration tools really helps, and sometimes this means paying for them.
  • Work expectations/behaviors of the ideal virtual employee - working from home is not for everyone. Though there are some behaviors that one can learn in order to be an effective virtual worker/contributor
  • Drawbacks of working from home – believe it or not there are tons of drawbacks. After the first six months of 100% virtual work, I found myself joining social groups and clubs to balance not being able to go to lunch or engage in ‘water cooler talk’ with friends and workmates. In this section, I’ll touch upon some of the drawbacks and then discuss some of the possible options or remedies to these issues.

Cass, you’ll have to bear with me because I may take sometime to gather my thoughts together for each section.

Image from the Morguefile

Image from the Morguefile

It still irks me… when women belittle their math skills

Warning: I’m on the soapbox kick. Sorry lately I’ve been in a mood of sorts.

Cute soapbox with kittens

Cute soapbox with kittens

It still bothers me that there are people out there who really thought that being a girl makes you less adept at math. I think I ran into (or had the oppportunity to listen to) at least three women, all above the age of 50, last month who expressed their own shortcomings in math. They all seemed resigned to the fact that they were terrible at math and that they could never be good at it.

HOGWASH!

I have two words for those women who still think that women of past generations weren’t  or couldn’t be stacked in the Mathematics department: Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was not just a pretty face. She was a gifted inventor and engineer developed the idea for technology which has influenced the development of cell-phone and wireless tech.  “Any girl can be glamorous,” Hedy Lamarr once said. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” She must have had brains and guts to cope with living in her times. I wasn’t able to find much about her formal education in mathematics or engineering, other than hints that she learned a great deal from work with one of her husbands, who developed guidance technology for weapons.

Hedy Lamarr - co-inventor of the Frequency-hopped spread spectrum invention

Hedy Lamarr - co-inventor of the Frequency-hopped spread spectrum invention

And about womens’ so called deficiencies in Math…. sure the circuits in your brain may not be as fresh as daisies*, but anyone can learn how to master functional mathematics. Most adults unless they have a severely debilitating brain disorder can figure out how to balance their checkbook. I’m sure most of those ladies who made these comments about their lack of Math skills understood how to do this and quite well. At least two of them are fairly good knitters so they unwittingly or not have mastered some math as knitters. Even as learned adults, if we’ve traveled through life and work experiences we have developed some basic “Math Sense.”  Many of us have “Math Muscles” that we just haven’t used for a while or on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that we’re “Math Stupid.”

One person I spoke to defended her comments saying that she was ‘taught this by her teachers’ (whom by the way I hope are roasting over some slow hot fire somewhere for making these statements in front of students).   I have to say it once and a million times.  One’s ability at math has nothing to do with their gender!  And even if you were taught this, don’t share it to younger people. PLEASE DON’T. It still can affect others self-perceptions of their abilities. Or if you do, preface or follow your self-deprecating comment with: “I’m not as strong at math, but this may be because my teachers were insensitive and ignorant, and they screwed up big time when they were teaching me.”

If I go back to that one teacher who told me that I didn’t need to learn math… because I was a girl. Even though I knew what she was saying was wrong, it still had an effect on me to some extent. Later, I remember opting not to take higher math courses or even statistics in College, because I really didn’t think it was that useful. I also knew that math wasn’t my strongest subject and I decided to skip it. I’m not that good at it, so I’ll let it pass. Later in graduate school, I really regretted not taking that statistics class.

I’m quite a fan of the following book: Math Doesn’t Suck, by Danica McKellar.  I wrote a brief book review here. The book was written for Middle School girls, and it’s purpose was to walk girls through some basic pre-algebra concepts and provide examples that demonstrate that girls can master and do quite well in math.  I also liked the stories included in the book that featured young women who discovered entered fields where they used their mathematical know-how in their careers. Plus, Ms. McKellar is a great role model for young women pursuing careers in Mathematics, besides having an active career in Hollywood,  she continues to be an advocate for Mathematics education and achievement for girls and women. It looks like she’s authored another book called Kiss My Math.  I love it when women have an ‘attitude’ about their smarts.

More about Hedy Lamarr:

http://www.inventions.org/culture/female/lamarr.html

More about Danical McKellar:

http://www.danicamckellar.com/

*My own daisies need re-watering every now and then.

It hurts to think… but it’s still rewarding

I’m just babbling… so you’ll have to excuse me. I haven’t been writing in my blog lately, because I’ve actually been finding journal writing (on paper) a little more satisfying. Maybe it’s because no one hears what I’m saying. No, I’m serious about that.  Sometimes it feels better to let oneself go on uncensored. Also, I find that sometimes it’s the best way for me to work things out before I’m ready to share them with others.

You may have noticed from my last post that I’m a bit obsessed with two subjects. Change and time (sub interest = resistance to change).  I wonder if I will start to develop a crusty or curmudgeonly gait as I grow older. Sometimes it feels like the world around me resists change… despite the growing impetus for change.  Sometimes it feels that it’s all too easy to confuse people because of their dependency on technology for information… and their immediate need for information. Media is simply a teat from which we feed our incessant hunger. Just change the filter or introduce a slightly different brew or concoction into the bottle and people will react accordingly. From the past century to the present, fear seems to be the most effective ingredient. If you want people to act or ‘not to act’ simply make them afraid of an enemy or impeding crisis. If you don’t want them to panic in the event of a crisis, such as economic one, simply downplay the seriousness of the problem… or even deny that it exists.

Is it only my perception, but does it seem that people just swallow these happy pills without question? I have to wonder too how easily people are swayed by what they hear even though many proclaim themselves to be cynical about the News. Sometimes I think that sharing of poll results can have an effect on the rest of the public who did not participate in these polls. They can either give us a false sense of security that our beliefs are shared by everyone, or they can dishearten us by convincing us that we are truly alone or so small in number that any hope of finding commonality with others is hopeless.

When people say that building a truly educated and enlightened society is impossible. I simply look at children and remember that most children have the ability (maybe not the opportunity) to be ‘smart.’  I listened to a Smart City podcast called Green Buildings and Smart Children not to long ago that featured Jeff Howard, head of the Efficacy Institute, which states as their goal that” The central objectives of our work are: to build belief that virtually all‘ children can ‘get smart;’ and to build the capacity of adults to set the terms to help them do so.” Some children need less help than others, but something tells me that it’s to our advantage to make sure that people ‘get smart.’ Hmmm… less problems with financial investments, better health that doesn’t tax the healthcare system, better living choices, better income … I think these arguments and many others have been made countless times in the past. I wonder what prevents us from moving forward?

I also believe that people can be taught good analytical and decision-making skills. I admit that I myself can be easily muddled by what I hear and am spoon-fed, so I rely on help to analyze what I’m seeing and hearing. I recently found a gem of a podcast called “LSAT Logic in Everyday Life.”  I loved how Andrew Brody picked apart the whole rice shortage ‘crisis,’ and reduced it to action based on faulty assumptions.  I may be a geek and a half, and that’s why this sort of thing excites me…. being able to pick apart a problem despite the assumption that it’s too difficult or impossible to solve.  Think about it, come up with a solution, and then do something about it.  To me that’s the original American ethic (good old Yankee know how) that I will be forever proud of.

Envious Thinker

Envious Thinker

Change is Good, Change is Natural… Stasis is an abomination to nature

Excuse me while… I chew on this thought for a bit… I may wax philosophical. Things change. The seasons change. The Earth changes.   Geological records have proven that the Earth’s surface has changed many times over it’s long life. People change. Throughout history, technology has changed the way humans live, produce and interact with each other.  Do you think the emerging democracies could have occurred after the Middle Ages and Renaissance without the printing press and proliferation of ideas through books?

But why then do we so cling to the desire to ‘keep things the same?’ I’ve been wrestling with this idea ever since I can remember.  Maybe this explains my love of History. Perhaps humans naturally crave stability because they’ve spent much of their unrecorded and recorded history dealing with the seemingly unpredictable nature of the elements, disease, and natural events.  Animals respond to change via natural selection or development of instincts, but we actively try to stop change from happening or build constructs that allow us to thrive despite change.

What would happen if we had a ‘long memory’ for change?  Who would build communities or cities on a flood plain or riverbank if they had memory or records of constant floods? How would we deal with social change? Would we nod things off as just a fad that would pass or would we actually try to develop laws or social institutions that were meant to adapt to change? I’ve noticed that politicians rely on people’s limited memory of history in order to push their agendas or to get elected or re-elected into office. Sometimes I lament that we live such mayfly lives. Still, having this memory might actually cause use to become more conservative in our actions. Since we could better predict cycles of events because of our personal memories.

Someone had the foresight to build this house on stilts

Someone had the foresight to build this house on stilts - Image from the Morguefile.

Resources/more stuff:

Why people resist change (from the Slow Leadership Site)


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