Creating presence online

Last week my headset stopped working in a videoconference with my line manager. I asked him to wait a few minutes while I found a replacement and went to the Bag of Useful Things at the end of my sofa. My cat was sitting on the arm.

Cat (looking on): Meeeoooww.

Me (to cat): I know, I’m looking for a spare headset.

Cat: Meeeeoooww.

Me (tipping stuff onto floor): OK it’s a mess, I’ll clear it up later.

Cat: Meeeooow

Me: No. Nothing there. I’ll give up.

I went back to the laptop, and see that I’ve forgotten to mute the microphone. The one thing more embarrassing than talking TO your cat when people can hear is talking WITH your cat.

On a forum earlier today too I was talking about Teresa MacKinnon’s work with Wimba discussion boards. A colleague had been talking about a voice-recording plug-in for Moodle. I suggested that if it had the functionality of Teresa’s work, i.e. having an option to just click on the set of reply options to open up a recording dialogue, which you could then record a reply and click on it to upload, this is far better than going to a recording program and creating, storing and uploading a file. I used a shorthand phrase to describe this —  a Wimba way. A new post means I can drag out all the old puns that got tired in the previous post.

So both of these things came up in the webinar this morning while we were waiting for people to turn up. I relayed the conversation with my cat (quoting the cat’s parts). Then I recounted the “a Wimba way” pun (which works better in audio than text). Which meant that the participants entered the Connect room either hearing me meowing, or me and my colleague singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight before the session started.

Now anyone who knows me is aware one of my biggest faults is a poor filter mechanism. I don’t play out in my head things before saying them. So maybe that doesn’t always come across as professional. However, I am going to argue that actually in online teaching, it’s incredibly useful.

One of the topics of the presentations in the seminar covered the role of humour in teaching. The presenter said how useful it is. She also pointed out how much we as teachers rely on visual cues from students and how that’s missing in an online environment. I’d agree with that, but only to a point, in that it’s also possible to develop the habit of supplying and looking for other cues. Emoticons, brief comments, even just seeing the “(typing)” notification appear in the chat box are all cues that the audience is engaged. After one particularly bad experience with presenting via videoconference (no camera at the far end, and no typed responses to my questions – but I still kept going – then found out when I finished that no-one had been listening to me because a row had broken out at the far end about a previous session, and the row had got so bad that people had actually been thrown out) I will now not continue unless I get a response. “I’m waiting …. I can wait all day if necessary.” We need to train our students into supplying those cues during our teaching.

Another presenter discussed the role of cake in teaching. In order to engage her students she brings them cake. Cake also helps with encouraging them to attend focus groups. I have been employed by 10 universities now, and Brookes does have the best cake. Another lecturer discussed Lego which we also all agreed was an excellent motivation for learning but a real bastard to kneel on.

At the end of the session all of the presenters said it was a lot less nerve-wracking than they’d been expecting. One of them said it was a real laugh.

The problem with presence online is a difficult one to overcome. You can never be as present online as you can in a proximal situation. The technology can only do so much at bridging distance. However, this can be compensated for by a whole range of mechanisms, particularly humour, and being relaxed, and being as personable as possible (in words of Mel C, be yourself, unless you’re a tw.t, in which case be someone else), and off-topic at times, and talking about cake, can all add to that sense of being together. It takes a couple of goes to relax that much, to be able to function despite the visual cues (actually for me it’s probably a lot easier without them because the visual cues are quite often eye-rolling). I’d suggest we all attempt to inculcate that type of interaction as much as possible.

And I’ll carry on having conversations with my cat.


Tips for travelling in Brazil

Well I don’t have many, I’ve only really spent a few days looking round so far but here are some you probably won’t have thought of.

Remember those days (not so long ago, really, but they seem way off) where you had to struggle to get by because people didn’t speak English. I actually miss them when I’m travelling. I loved having to get a phrase book out and trying the language, or getting through with gesticulating and mime. I think it must be about 10 years since I had to do that while travelling round Europe. Well in Brazil they don’t speak English on the whole, so dust off your Portuguese phrase book and pop it in your luggage.

Bring your staff card with you. Professors (by which they mean anyone who teaches, not just the title) get in musea and galleries half price. I didn’t bring mine, but they believe me because I’m travelling with academics and my bank card has Dr on it. This is possibly the first time having a PhD has paid off.

Try the Brazilian tea. Everyone goes on about the coffee, so you expect that (and so far the ratio of bad to good coffee in cafes I’ve tried is about 2:1, better than the UK but not brilliant). The tea gets overlooked. It’s very good.

PS: Firefox – yes musea is a word, so is travelling. Stop redlining proper words or I’m going to turn off the spellcheck.

Tips on editing

Today I am mostly editing book chapters – this is the fourth book I’ve edited and also have done two sets of conference proceedings. So there are some things I possibly do as rote now that might not be obvious. Although most are:

The obvious ones are good discipline with organising directories with the various versions in them. If I’m writing my own stuff it’s easier, the date of the file goes in the file name (in a YYYMMDD format obviously) so the most recent one is always at the bottom. When you have loads of different authors, all using different naming conventions, and when you might have to take a break of a month or so, while they do rewrites, or you go off and do things that earn you money, then it’s important to make sure they’re always sorted into the right directory, properly labelled, so you know where everything is when you come back to it. And have another directory with things like author emails addresses and so on so it’s to hand. And a list of what everything is and which chapter it is too.

Create a style sheet. It’s a bit laborious but the minutes you spend doing it at the start will save you hours at the end. Create a template using that style sheet and send it out to the authors. You’ll probably need to do some tidying up at the end, but it will save you a lot of hassle.

Get the authors to submit pictures as separate files, and inserted into the text. Publishers want them as separate files and it saves you having to mess about at the end, but it’s good to see where they belong. Find out what the minimum dpi your publisher insists on too.

Here’s the least obvious one … tables should be submitted as images, not spreadsheets. You want the author to be deciding which bits go where and how it should look, not the publisher, leaving it to that stage creates all possibilites for error. Particularly if the table includes images. As few a files as possible is always a good practice.

Check references tie up with citations. The easiest way i’ve found to do this is to go through checking citations tie up with a reference at the back and while doing so highlight the reference the first time it’s cited. When a reference is missing, it’s easy to flag. And at the end you have a mass of yellow (or whatever) at the end. Where there are gaps do a word search on the name. If it doesn’t return anything, then you’ve an uncited reference. Flag that for the author. Then remove the highlights.

The most common mistakes academics make? Plurals. “Data is.” “Media is” or pluralising “medium” as “mediums”. Mixing up phenomenon and phenomena. I even saw “dices” the other day. Sure there are some tricky ones, (octopus for example, but that one doesn’t crop up often), but those are worth always checking.

It’s worth looking up some of the references too. Sometimes they’ll misquote, or misinterpret. Usually common sense will flag those. If you’re thinking “really?” it’s worth a look.

Oh yeah the reviewing thing as a whole is worth another post. I’m really in this one thinking about the bits that are specific to editing, organising, copy editing, since that’s the stage I’m at with this book.

EDIT: Some more points occur to me.

Don’t use the bullet point tab to create bullet points. Create your own style called “bullet” and mark the bulleted lists up with that. Chance are you may want to change your mind about how to lay them out, and then you have to go through changing them all manually. Or you may change the Normal style and it re-sets all your bulleted lists, or just some of them.

Leave the formatting till last. There are lots of reasons for this, one is during the editing process your authors may add new stuff (so you have to do it again) or delete stuff (so you’ve wasted your time). It’s unlikely that they will do the formatting themselves. If they haven’t started off using your template, then they won’t. The golden rule of anything to do with editing anyway is that it’s less effort to do it yourself than get someone else to do it.

The other reason is there is something exhilirating (by my standards anyway) at seeing all of the disparate chapters, with various naming schemes and formatting, and with variations in spelling, all coming together into a uniform look. It’s at that point you really feel like you’ve got a book. At the moment I’m about half way through and have them all for the first time in a single directory with all the figures etc with a standard naming. At the moment, with the chapters that aren’t formatted properly (and bless, the current one I’m working on has tried but the styles on the headings and subheadings are switched).  I usually paste a new chapter into a previously created file, save it as a new file and then delete the old text. It’s the easiest way to import an established style sheet.

Oh and if possible, if it’s a book in a series, have an earlier edition in the series to check against.