One of the many parental lectures I give my kids has to do with defining terms.
(I often think of just giving each of my lectures a number so when the kids are doing something out of line, I can just yell, “Lecture # 59 A!”, but that’s for another post). In this lecture, I tell them communication is a two way street. And I’m not talking just since the advent of fancy, interactive social media. I’m talking since the dawn of time. Communication is two way because it requires a sender and a receiver. And since the sender can’t open his or her head to let the receiver peer in, they have to use the next best thing to get their point across: symbols. Those symbols might be cave drawings or Morse code or smoke signals – or language. The thing is, the symbols aren’t the thing – whether the thing is an idea or a cat. The symbols are a representation of the thing – and everyone can have very different ideas of what the symbols mean. Now, if everyone understood this, things would be better. But the problem is that too many people think everyone has the same idea of what symbols mean and it doesn’t occur to them to question this assumption. This is a particular problem with complex terms like “the digital divide”. If you ask 10 people what it means, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.
So who’s right?
Googling the term yields this definition first:
The Digital Divide is the gulf between those who have ready access to the internet and computers and those who don’t.
Seems simple enough – until you start asking some basic questions:
* What is “ready access”? Does that mean having a smart phone or having access to a computer at your local library?
* What kind of “computers”? Desktops or laptops? PC’s or smart phones? Are video game consoles computers?
* What is “ready access to the internet“? Is that access to private WiFi you or someone else pays for or public access? Is that high speed? Does it mean not having external barriers to access, like not being able to afford internet access or living somewhere where it’s not available, or internal barriers like lack of education?

When you start considering the complexity it becomes clear that the term “digital divide” may be too black and white. It’s more like a digital spectrum – or spectrums – with different groups,  or members, falling somewhere along them. For example, ask most North Americans which side of the digital divide Africa is on and 99% will say “the wrong side”. Yet Africa has one of the highest rates of mobile penetration in the world – and growing.
Or ask kids from the West Bank, brought up on images of the wired West, what side the US is on and they’re bound to say “the right side”. Yet kids in inner city schools struggle along with 10-year old desktops while kids in rich ones are downloading the latest iPad app.

We need to talk about digital spectrums and get more people closer to the good end of more of them. Our future on this planet depends on it.

January 28-29, I attended the Institute on Governance’s Digital Governance Forum in Ottawa and it’s a good thing I did because the event had a lot of great things but there was one big thing it didn’t have: diversity. Let’s just say, I was one of seven specs of pepper in a sea of salty participants (OK, maybe a little over 100 grains isn’t a sea but you get my point). However, compared to the speakers, the participants looked like the United Nations as, of the more than 30 speakers, not one was non-white.

And that was just cultural diversity. Several speakers and participants noted the lack of young people and there were scant, if any references, from the stage or the floor, to the potential impact of these crucial, global issues on people with disabilities, gay people, or aboriginal people (there were lots of women attending, and some speaking, but the podium was heavy on testosterone).

I asked one of the organisers why all the speakers were white and he said it came down to availability. Really? Not one brown person qualified to speak on digital governance was available for a conference that was months in the planning? I then asked how his team had chosen speakers and he said they discussed it among themselves. Finally, I asked how they got out of their own bubble since they’re all white…

Now let me be clear: I’m not implying the organisers purposely chose all white folks. In fact, I’d be happy if that was the answer because then the solution would be easy: replace them. No, the reasons are more complex – and systemic. It’s about how the networks we use to do things, whether finding a good movie to see or finding speakers for a conference, are often too homogeneous. It’s about staff being too homogeneous – and too busy – to take the time needed to find out how to get outside their networks (and let diverse groups know about their events far in advance). And it’s about how social networks are making this all worse, not better.

However, it’s also about underrepresented groups advocating for themselves, getting the word out to their communities about learning opportunities so people can attend, and letting organizers know they have great people who can speak on a variety of issues.

Smart organisations don’t pursue diversity out of guilt. They do it because they know it’s crucial to achieving their objectives faster than their competitors. Just ask the Montreal Canadians. ;-)

So here are 3 ways you can help narrow the digital divide – and help your organisation’s bottom line in the process:

1) Diversify your networks – and your perspective. At conferences, seek out folks who look, walk and talk different than you and connect with them. Set up Google Alerts for things the dominant ways of thinking in your field (i.e if you’re conservative, have things with progressive points of view sent to you daily and vice versa).

2) Diversify your organization – when hiring, seek out great people who look, walk and talk different than you – and hire them.

3) Diversify your outreach – get the word out to underrepresented groups about your events and job offerings via the online channels they frequent (start by simply Googling the name of the group and your city).

I did my part. After the conference, I congratulated the organisers on a great event then sent them the name of a brown friend of mine, a Harvard lecturer on globalization, social change and technology, as a possible speaker.


The Good

Canada’s Open Government initiative has already delivered some good things and promises many more. One of the good things is the government’s second Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16, which was drafted after consultations with Canadians. The plan’s intro states the aim of open government:

“As part of the global open government movement, governments seek to broaden access to data and information, ensure transparency and accountability, and strengthen citizen engagement in the activities of government and in the democratic process.”

The government’s initiative has achieved some of this already, in addition to launching the new plan.

In June 2013, it launched an open data portal that now has over 200,000 publicly available government data sets in machine readable format. In late 2014, it introduced its new government-wide website,, that is supposed to provide intuitive navigation features to help Canadians find the information they need more quickly and easily. Based on a short experiment I did, information is, in fact, easy to find – which is due to the very smart choice to use Google as the internal search engine. Using the site’s search engine, I easily found mobile-friendly information on various topics, quickly and easily.

In the spirit of transparency, the government posted the public consultation report and the complete transcripts from the Open Government Twitter town halls Treasury Board President Tony Clement did as part of the consultations.

The Action Plan makes commitments (12 of them) that, if all kept, will give the government a shot at delivering on the ideals in its intro.

The Bad

However, the Open Government initiative in general, and the Action Plan in particular, have some issues, with the biggest being the little attention it gives the uneven distribution of digital opportunity, known commonly as the “digital divide”.

The Action Plan doesn’t mention the term “digital divide” despite Open Government consultation participants specifically calling for it (see Inclusiveness and the Digital Divide). Interestingly, the government posted comments on the Open Government Action Plan below the plan itself and one from Ottawa’s Susan Hall, from November 2014, says “Really pleased about the digital divide entry; does not go far enough”.  I responded to this comment asking where the entry was and got this reply from “”:

The Open Government Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16 includes some deliverables addressing digital divide by committing to the following deliverables :

Deliverables to be completed in 2014-16:

- Sponsor projects to increase understanding of the relationship between digital skills and relevant labour market and social outcomes, including building a profile of Canadians’ digital skills competencies by region and by demographic group.
- Develop online tools, training materials, and other resources to enable individual Canadians to assess and improve their digital skills.
- Fund private sector and civil society initiatives aimed at improving the digital skills of Canadians (e.g., digital skills in rural small business, essential skills for Northern youth, business technology management accreditation).

You can find more information in the plan under the digital litteracy section.


open-ouvert team

I then asked what has been accomplished on this and what specific demographic groups they are looking at.

As of posting this, I had received no response to my second comment.

The other key issue is that, although the government posted comments from the Open Government consultations, it gives no clear indication whether any were incorporated in the final document. This does little to respond to critics like Michael Geist, holder of University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, who critiqued the Open Government initiative “for what it hides.”

The Promises

Part IV of the Action Plan on Open Government, titled Canada’s Action Plan 2.0 Commitments, says, “Canada’s second Action Plan on Open Government consists of 12 commitments that will advance open government principles in Canada over the next two years and beyond.”

However, there’s no clear list of 12 commitments. There is a list with lettered and numbered entries – but they don’t add up to 12 no matter how you count them. Assuming what the commitments are, in the absence of a clear list, the next big issue is how solid each of them really is.

One commitment related to transparency in particular, about making mining companies report how much money they give governments, seems great at face value. However, it loses its luster quickly when one digs below the surface. As Canada’s open government guru David Eaves wrote in his March 4, 2014 blog post, Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure, instead of creating one public report database, the government will only require companies to post the reports somewhere on their own websites. Eaves also points out that although Canada boasts of the $12.7 million it gave to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as of this posting Canada had not adopted the transparency standards on which the initiative is built.

Last of the big issues is that, for a two-year old, major government initiative driven by the powerful Treasury Board – anecdotal evidence suggests Canada’s Open Government program isn’t well known (although, I concede my evidence is simply asking my fellow government communicators, none of whom had heard of it).

The devil is in the details (if we could only find them)

So that’s it for the big stuff. The small stuff is easier to fix.

The Open Government initiative has three streams: Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue, which is confusing right of the bat because it begs the question: what’s the difference between data and information? Open Data is about making government raw data sets available for download in machine readable format. Open Information is about making government information like completed Access to Information Requests and contracts accessible and easily searchable online.

But if people get that clear, the Open Government website confuses them all over again with this search box:

Conflicting titles

The site has some good content that is, unfortunately, badly organized and therefore hard to find – or discover. For example, the headings for the three streams, Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue, are in a group of seven headings making it unclear they’re the three pillars of the program.

 3 hidden streams

The result is that key items, like the Open Government Blog, are buried (I had to email the Open Government team to find out where it was, after I read about it on another part of the site.)

Then there’s the issue of some content not delivering what it promises. This is particularly true with the “Communities” section. It doesn’t have communities. It has collections of data picked by “the Open Government team with input from our users”, with little ability for users to connect with the Open Government team or each other.

The new website claims to provide “better use of social media”, which would seem to indicate it will allow more dialogue with Canadians which social media channels enable. However, if that’s what it means, then there’s an issue. Yes, the site provides links to all Government of Canada social media sites but does so in one of the least user-friendly ways possible: what I’ll call The Multi-page Frustrator. The list of government social media sites is presented like a list of Google results, so if what you’re looking for isn’t on the front page, it’s a pain in the butt to find it. (Thankfully, there’s a Google-powered search engine which, of course, works well.)

The bottom line is, if Canadians hold the government to its transparency commitment, all other issues can be resolved by being dragged in to the light of day.

This is a story about why it’s so important to take action on ideas: because it’s not about the success of the idea. It’s about what you learn through trying to achieve that success.

People take interest when you take action

There are a couple of university radio stations in our town and one of them has a long-running show focussing on local people who are making things happen.

We know the hosts so I emailed them about SpellWizards and they asked to interview us. Now, neither of my boys had ever been interviewed on the radio before and were apprehensive at first. However, after explaining that the fear they were feeling was “good” fear, I convinced them to go for it.

Preparation is key to success

Next, the host emailed us questions to which we wrote answers, in plain language – just the way the boys talk. Then we practiced with mommy playing host. Then we practiced again – and again.
I’m still trying to get the audio file of the interview to post so you can judge the result for yourself, but we think they did pretty good! Although they had their answers in their hands (an advantage radio has over TV), they didn’t sound like they were reading and they even felt confident enough to ad lib bits!

Lessons learned

What the boys learned from this:
1) Take action and people will take interest.
2) Being well prepared is key to overcoming the fear of failure.
3) How radio interviews work.

Let the learning continue!

We’ve all heard the phrase over and over again (at least I have): we live in an amazing time where anyone can start a business in a fraction of the time, and for a fraction of the cost, of what it used to take. But I didn’t really understand it until I did it myself with my two boys, aged 12 and 9.

Now you may be asking, “What does this have to do with social ed?”. Well, firstly, it’s about alternative out-of-school learning, and secondly, it’s about all the amazing free tools and information available from people and for-profit companies (ever heard of “Google”?) that make it possible.

Here’s our story…

While looking for ways to help my boys master their times tables, I stumbled on the site The site uses, pictures, stories and rhyme to help kids learn their times tables and we were blown away by how well it worked. After many attempts at mastery, my guys had their tables down in a weekend!

And we weren’t the only ones who thought the idea was great. Alan Walker, the guy who created the site,  made a book that sold over 50,000 copies.

So, with the “it’s easier than ever to start a business” mantra in our head, me and the boys starting thinking how we could create a book, using Walker’s technique, to help people learn something.

After racking our brains to find something that people needed help learning, like times tables, we decided to focus on spelling. We would create a book with stories and pictures that helped people learn to spell some of the most commonly misspelled English words.

Now, here’s the neat part…

Using a combination of free and very cheap tools like Google Sites, Paypal and ProjectLibre open source project management software, we went from idea to a full website, from which people can purchase a slimmed down pilot version of our book – in two weeks. Total cash outlay: $300 to pay a young, local artist to draw our first set of pictures.

Now, there are a number of things about this experience that have blown me away but I want to highlight just three:

1) How simple it is to create  a website with Google Sites;
2) How simple it is to set up a way for people to pay you using PayPal; and
3) How easy it is for you to teach your kids the entire process of creating a business in under a month.

Our website will go live some time in the summer and even if the book is a complete bomb, we’ve already succeeded on so many levels.



This post is about an old problem with new causes.

My oldest kid uses my iPad for school and, like any smart device, it’s a challenge to make sure he really uses it for school when he’s supposed to. With him, that occasionally means taking the iPad and, until now, sometimes changing the password so he can’t access it (you may know where this is going).

The problem with the changing the password, is remembering what I changed it to. This is especially challenging when a holiday falls just after I change it – which is what happened at Christmas. We went away and when we came back and he tried to get in to the iPad and his password wouldn’t work. He tried three times and I tried seven times over several days. That’s when I learned that after you try ten wrong  passwords, the iPad locks and the only way to unlock it is to erase all the data. No problem if you’ve made backups. We hadn’t.

Old problem: losing data with no backup.
New causes: parental attempts to control smart devices

Teachers are confronting similar challenges in schools embracing Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies that encourage students to bring and use their smart devices for learning. But, rather than looking for ways to force students to use their devices for the right things, we should look for better ways to help students develop their intrinsic motivation for learning so they keep themselves on task.

How do you build intrinsic motivation in your students (whether they’re yours or someone else’s)?

Nothing like a week in Cuba to remind you that many of the ideas discussed on this blog are completely useless to people without reliable, high speed internet access.

My experience of Cuban internet access was going to the place in our hotel where I could pay $10 for 1 hour of access. However, instead of being able to purchase an hour of good, old fast wifi access, my $10 would instead get me 60 minutes tethered to an ancient desktop using what was described as painfully slow internet. And, oh yeah, there was no printer.

I learned from our taxi driver, Angelo, that home internet access is too expensive for most Cubans. This got me wondering how Cuba manages to produce world class doctors if they’re studying without access to the net at home… Do the schools have reliable access? Do they study abroad?

Even if average Cubans don’t have access to the net themselves, I had one experience suggesting they understand its power.

I offered to say good things on the net about the hotel employee who hooked us up with Angelo and our taxi to Havana. However, he asked me not to because he does his taxi business on the side and the government hotel owners scan the net for mentions of employees advertising their moonlighting activities using the hotel name. It seems they turn a blind eye to the activity itself but not the marketing of it. So the employee asked me to be “discreet”. Although, how I can direct potential customers his way without also directing the hotel authorities to him, I haven’t figured out.

But I don’t want to paint Cuba as a have not country when it comes to innovative, collaborative education just because they have sketchy net access. Any country that has managed to produce world class health and education systems despite years of punishing sanctions imposed by the most powerful country on the planet no doubt has a lot to teach the world’s educators about doing amazing things with very little.

Minecraft minefield?

Author: Robin Browne

My son’s teacher recently made the debatable choice to let the students use Minecraft to do an assignment on building a biome (i.e. a physical environment containing distinct animals, plants and climate like a desert or grassland.)

I get why he did it.

He was trying to engage them in learning by letting them use the tools they’re already engaged in.

I was skeptical when my son first told me his teacher had not only let them use Minecraft – he had encouraged them to do so. I thought he would spend his time playing Minecraft instead of doing his project.

I was half right.

The assignment was to create a biome and describe it in an oral presentation. My son chose to create an Arctic tundra biome and did a great job creating, bleak, snowy beauty in Minecraft:

However, he wanted to spend all his time perfecting the look instead of doing the far harder task of finding and editing the descriptions of tundra animals, plants and climate – and practising his oral presentation of the info.

We battled for hours over this, resulting in a final presentation where he read lots of info while walking viewers through a mostly unrelated Minecraft tundra environment. The presentation was unengaging as reflected in the faces and comments of his classmates.

So, one key lesson learned was that, if students are going to be allowed/encouraged to use tools like Minecraft (or any other potentially distracting tool) for assignments, care must be taken to ensure they’re giving equal efforts to all aspects of the project and not just those that let them use the fun parts of the tool.

One way to do this might be to encourage them to do the tough parts with a partner or partners either in person or online (i.e. using Skype).

A number of times when my guy was working on his project, some of his classmates would try to call him on Skype. I would always say he couldn’t take the call and had to stay focussed on his project but, in retrospect, perhaps it would have been better to let him take the call and encourage him to ask his classmates for help with the tougher parts of the project (i.e. he could do his oral presentation over Skype and they could give him feedback)

What successful strategies do you use to help your kids integrate the tools they love in their learning?

Yesterday, I finally found a, free, effective tool for helping my 12 yr. old with learning issues learn his times tables. It’s a game called Dynamite Multiplication on the site

It uses an image memory technique I’ve been using with him, effectively, for other things. But it adds rhyme and stories to make it even more effective.

The one I’ve been using involves creating images, no matter how outlandish, to link ideas you’re trying to remember. One way involves imagining walking through your house. So if you’re trying to remember, say, the names of all the continents, you imagine yourself walking through your front door and are greeted by a penguin (Antarctica), in your kitchen you find a lion enjoying a meal at your kitchen table (Africa), and in your bathroom you surprise a kangaroo in the shower (Australia)…and so on.

Dynamite Multiplication covers the 2-9 times tables and assigns an image to each number.  Two is shoe, three is tree, four is door, eight is skate, nine is sign and so on. So to remember that 8 x 4 = 32 the site provides the image of a door wearing skates who makes himself a big U to skate on, which he makes from some dirty wood he finds. So SKATE x DOOR = DIRTY U or 8×4=32. The site then provides a short story about the image to help lock it in the brain. Here’s what it looks like:

Dirty U


The result for my kid, who’s a visual learner, was learning his 7 times table in one night after having tried to master them many other ways.

But this great tool is buried among some 30 games on’s game section with no indication of its unique, powerful use of images.  So please share it!

I had found a paid service providing a similar image technique for times tables but why pay for something you can get for free? ;-)

On to the next challenge…..

**** UPDATE  Dec. 12, 2013 ****

After digging deeper in to the site, it turns out it’s built around the images and stories for learning times tables created by Washington educator Alan Walker and captured in his book Memorize in Minutes: The Times Tables.

OAMA site

Here’s a case study of the website of a local Ottawa martial arts school, The Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts (OAMA). I  chose this one because the site was done by a local company I just discovered, N-VisionIT Interactive, whose CEO, Brent Mondoux, recently won a top Forty Under 40 award from the  Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. Plus, the company has done lots of websites, mobile development and social media campaigns for various local businesses and government departments.

The OAMA site is a nice piece of work and here’s how I see it:

The positives:

  • it’s simple and uncluttered with the menu items clearly visible and easily accessible at the top and just two dominant colors (too many colors make sites look too busy).
  • the site appears to have great search engine optimization (SEO) as it’s the first organic result for the search term “martial arts Ottawa”.
  • the OAMA phone number is in big, red font in the upper right corner; this is crucial since a website’s main job is to help potential customers complete tasks, and since the OAMA doesn’t have online registration, their number one task after finding out about the school will be to call them.
  • each page with information about classes, where OAMA offers a free trial class, has a box like the one below to make it easy for folks to act when it’s most on their minds.

OAMA signup

  • the splash page has the message “Call today to schedule you free trial class” with a big phone number but the message could be bigger (the splash page is the first page you land on when you go to the site).

Suggested improvements:

  • the banner showing the 3 OAMA locations should show on the splash page as it does on every page after you enter the site.

 OAMA banner2

  • the OAMA logo at the top of the site should be a link back to the Home page.
  • the “Call today to schedule you free trial class…”  text on the splash page should be bigger as I said before.
  • give “Kids’ Programs” its own link as now it’s buried under Kids’ After School Program making it hard for people to know that OAMA has great things for kids like birthday parties!’
  • put “To sign up your child up for the after school program call…” in big red font at bottom of the Kids’ After School Program page.
  • N-VisionIT made an iPhone app for the OAMA but a responsive site would be better than an app. Responsive sites “respond” to the device people use to view them so they work on multiple devices. An iPhone app requires people have an iPhone and download the app and doesn’t work on other devices (when I view the site on my Android phone I get a really small version of the regular site). Even if they stick with the iPhone app, they should remove the link to download it from the site as those wanting the app will download it on their phone.
  • add some videos. OAMA is a fun place with very friendly staff that some short (and I mean SHORT) videos would really help show.
  • all pictures should be able to expand to full size. Right now, there are some that don’t.
  • fix the typo in the explanation of what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is on the  Intro page (the line “…Renzo Gracie is the son Robson Gracie…”)

All in all, a great site and one that, according to N-VisionIT, helped greatly increase business generated from OAMA’s site.

That’s my two cents.