In which every work project teaches you something

I’m quite close to finishing a rather long project I’ve been involved with. It’s largely to do with women’s health, but closely linked to conversations about fertility and protecting girls and women from cancer.

The learning curve has been massive; I’ve been thinking about all the things I learnt in the space of three weeks by reading client material, conversations and digging around on the internet: the conversations girls and mums should be having, how single dads feel about approaching these issues, how ‘coming out’ or virginity stories are fraught with emotions (and ‘First Time‘ by Kate Monro is a great book by the way), the health policies my generation narrowly missed out on and medical advances in health and vaccines that weren’t around when I was 12-13.

Most importantly — it’s crazy how ignorant women are when it comes to their own health, especially the super important stuff, not the quinoa, acai berries and diets – and how we rarely ask of ourselves, “what can I do to help myself as a woman of 18 (or 25 or 32 or whatever)?”

Calvin Klein - Every Mother Counts

It’s moments like these I’m happy projects like these come through the door; they take me into a world of insane granularity and detail that I’d never achieve if left to my own devices. I think of it as a privilege not to be taken lightly.

In my mind now, there are three types of projects you can learn things from (if you keep a sufficiently open mind): 

First, the project or client whose industry or area of expertise you are very familiar with. You’re hired because you know it so well, but the downside might be that you lose the ability of seeing things objectively, the previous “outsider” perspective, naive to the tacit knowledge going around – sometimes the thing that could make the world of a difference. The worst thing you can do is assume you know everything and/or dismiss other people’s thoughts and be impatient with them. On one hand, it takes effort to remove yourself when you’re not adding anything new and on the other hand it takes effort to squeeze something new when you don’t think you can (or as they say, “a professional is the person who does the work even when he/she doesn’t feel like it”). 

the creative process

Secondly, there are projects where you’re familiar with the nature of the problem but not much so with the area they operate in. There’s a period of intense learning about a new market, business model, product or service etc. and drawing parallels with what you already know. They’re often the best projects because you can bring in knowledge that is ‘new news’ to the client and can result in pretty amazing stuff – those “I never thought to look at it in that way” moments. I have yet to find one that disproves the rule of thumb: you will have a gut feeling in the first week, and a person (or group) very close to the heart of the problem will provide the big ‘aha’ moment. I often wonder if Honda was like that.

Thirdly, there are projects where you’re out of your depth in terms of both subject area and challenge at hand, but the people trust you because you’ve delivered brilliantly for others in the past. The adjustment time takes a lot, and often others maybe have already had a go at cracking the problem, usually unsuccessfully. It’s interesting but also painful to learn about to the point where your brain hurts with so much information. I’ve had this happen with some work on tyres and luxury services I’ll probably never have first hand experience of, but the best teacher is what I call the “despair” moment. The “I have tried everything, from leaving my desk to indian head massages and/or acid”. You end up so frustrated, you’ll talk to just about anyone about the problem – and unless they’re weird about having their brains picked for free by someone who is in advertising, the most unconnected people are the ones helping you frame the question in a different way.

It’s something I’ve wanted to convey since the last two APG events but haven’t been able to – names will not be named, but so many other people my age thought that they’d explored so many avenues when they only got so far. It’s a shame not to stretch yourself a bit more, so here’s hoping this is useful to someone in that respect (as for me, it’s a kind of mental bookmark for the future).

Making progress in the world of MOOCs

Using MOOCs and working with people who are interested in creating them has led me to some really wonderful experiences and thoughts lately.

I wrote about Udacity before and covered their statistics course. It was an interesting way into the world of MOOCs at a time when I was working with some people interested in the area and also great fodder for conversation and way of furthering knowledge.

Now I’m on my 2nd and 3rd courses, one over at EdX and one over at FutureLearn and I know that if I don’t write things down and refine what I’ve already said, I’ll forget them. Having tried some very different platforms, areas of expertise and teaching methods there’s definitely more to say. Anyway, questions and other things always welcome via email (andreanastase on gmail).

Broadly speaking, comments and builds come in three big categories:

  1. Technology
  2. Content
  3. “Face to camera” or teacher experience
  4. (Bonus) subjective point of view on the whole thing

On technology:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. EdX is clearly a sophisticated platform with an intelligent back-end and pretty pleasant and simple, but not simplistic front-end but it fails miserably on forums and discussions.

How does it fail?
Every MOOC will have a massive number of registrations. This one I’m doing has about 30,000. This is pretty standard because it’s free to register, but only about 200-300 people finish. From experience and research, the completion rate varies wildly depending on what you’re studying, who is offering the course and your stated intentions before course start. 

If 30,000 people sign up and experience peak excitement on Day 1, the discussion area had better be good. It’s not.

  • It has a nice WYSIWYG editor and it borrows ‘feed’ type chronological display – social media standard but opposite of email threads, for instance. I really wonder how that’s working out for people, but then again I don’t know how old others are.
  • It borrows the “upvoting” mechanic but it completely misses the reporting or downvoting one. Reddit and YouTube have them, why kid people that there are only good posts out there?
  • A lot of people either can’t or won’t change their display name – Anon0121, hello. We want you to chip in to this discussion, but don’t really care who you are.
  • Instead of borrowing some tried and tested technology, it’s created a new one. There’s still work to be done. I’m not saying it’s the answer, but back in 2005-2006 there was phpBB, a pretty popular forum technology that must have powered a whole load of conversations. phpBB (for bulletin board) was to forums what wordpress is now to blogs. Easy to install and ubiquitous. It had good things in it, good practices to learn from and it handled shitloads of people really well (categories, user groups, good admin tools, etc.). This doesn’t. 

A very, very good point is that all the videos have transcripts that you can follow through on-screen. Another very good touch is that you can slow down videos to 0.5 speed. It’s amazing how many English speakers can’t follow the lecturer’s speaking voice – and this is a man with perfect diction – but it also allows anyone who is not a native speaker to pause, rewind, do it all in his or her own time.

Another downside is that you have no ‘live editing’ tools. You’re given passages to read and memorise but it’s up to you to paste them into word editors, highlight stuff, go back to things. A ‘clipping tool’ built in would be nice but it may also be extra work if people have their own annotation preferences. Surprisingly though, most seem to use ye olde notepad and pen.

Content

It’s hard to fault the content without being subjective about why I chose the course and what is being studied. It’s a topic tangential to something I’ve done in the past (combination of politics, philosophy, etc.) but taught with a very different lens. It’s good difficult because that lens is different – not incorrect, just different.

What *is* missing is a bit more of a narrative around why this course, what the journey we’re going to go on will be about and so on but this is early days and I’m nitpicking.

On “face to camera” experience

The teachers are great (as I mentioned diction earlier), but they’re recorded in a small lecture theatre that’s almost set up as a talk show studio – whilst standing. It may be indicative of the ‘standard’ college lecture in the States, but to me it’s new and different (coming from big amphitheatre style lecture halls) and it feels like you could innovate with decor a bit more. Is it better to sit than to stand? To have the illusion of activity in the background or to impose an air of sobriety by paring it down? Don’t quite know.

Intertwined with the technology point, we’re not yet in the realm of a curricula customised to you, your needs, your deficiencies and the teacher addressing you individually but who knows. One day I might live to see that happen.

And the bonus bit…

I’m not quite sure what to say other than this is massively enjoyable. I think MOOCs are my equivalent of TV series but depending on motivations and patience levels people will interpret it differently. For instance, I mentioned a while back that research points to how boys and girls learn:

“Girls handle [elite schools] differently than boys. Girls tend to thrive in these environments, across the board, and the more elite the school, the better they do. Not necessarily so for boys.

Girls thrive [...] in the best schools and around the smartest peers possible; boys [thrive] in schools with the brightest teachers, not hypercompetitive environments. Being a small fish in a big pond is particularly bad for boys.”

 

Why are men so foolish? – Salon.com

 

 

Udacity and Statistics

Udacity Statistics

I spent the last few days or so playing around with a Udacity course on statistics and wanted to jot down a few notes that came to mind whilst doing it. Think of this as a ramble into ‘why statistics’ and ‘why another course’ and ‘why a MOOC?’ rather than a review of the course itself.

Was it good? At its best, it was informative and like setting an old cog into motion; hadn’t touched statistics, probability, calculus and quantitative methods since school and first year of university and it felt appropriately rusty. Being taught in a mashup of two languages didn’t help. Made me realise that university was 3 years ago and school even further back.

Why do it in the first place? A little bit passing interest and general desire to more with numbers and charts. Course on visualising data before made me realise that the people who know how to analyse data* make boring charts or don’t know what charts to make and the people who can do amazing visualisations are not particularly interested in what you could call ‘actionable charts': charts to support a business case or charts that urge you to act upon them. So far no one has been able to answer my question – “do you know of any chart that made people do something differently as a result?” What’s the 38 degrees-equivalent commissioned visualisation that had an impact?

Do you get qualified? By Udacity, yes. Like many other MOOCs, you just get a little diploma you can keep hold of at the end. For accredited qualification, look elsewhere.

Did doing it online help? Absolutely. Work pays the bills, I’d already shunned a course that interested me to do this job, I’ve got very little time or interest to go on a campus these days, so the biggest toll is simply in terms of hours and mental capacity. It achieved its goal – memory refresher and paving the path for more advanced stuff.

Flaws, weaknesses and other strange moments: 

  • Sometimes too simple, sometimes oddly complicated; there are moments when you’re asked a question without having been given the tools to answer it; you can’t eyeball the answer with maths. You can skip answering but it’s oddly demoralising even if someone says “Don’t be disturbed if you don’t know the answer” or “You’re a genius if you get this right” (imagine if you don’t). In a typical classroom environment, you might be able to figure out who’s a bit ahead (demoralising everyone else) but online it seems utterly pointless – more like a reality slap for someone re-entering and assuming they know the right answer.
  • Definitions are missing or not explicit enough: it’s not just that units, symbols and other things aren’t explained at the beginning (do you assume everyone knows the Greek alphabet?), more fundamental things are not stressed enough. At one point there’s the question “Do you remember the central limit theorem and what it said?” – I remember the central limit theorem because I’d learned about it before and I’m here to recap, but in the unit it was never explicitly stated. You only (really) get the explanation quite late and in a brief manner.
  • Irregular difficulty of experience: sometimes you’re progressing at a steady pace, at times the gaps between one lecture/exercise and the other are monumental. You wonder whether it’s you or the fact that the teacher can’t assess the level you’re currently at.
  • It’s OK if you get it wrong: it really is. You can re-submit answers as many times as you like until they’re correct. You’re either guessing or actually calculating and in most cases you can skip answering. This is (in a way) the essence of ‘massive’ and ‘free’ at the moment, a casting of the net so wide as to attract lots of people. Still, it’s truly curious that with such a lax examination regime vast amounts of people still don’t finish.

* in and around marketing, advertising and business in general