Friday, March 30, 2007


On March 27th I participated in the 4th Innovatium Conference. This was the last time that the conference was organised by the Digital University, the Dutch Higher Education consortium that will formally end by July 1st. I also visited the 2nd and 3rd edition of Innovatium, which can surely be characterized as a series of conferences being held in inspiring and creative environments. Remember the conferences in Evoluon (Eindhoven) and the Rabo City Theatre (Hengelo)? This time the conference was hosted by Passenger Terminal Amsterdam, right next to the water. It was possible for delegates to take short boat tours during the lunch break.
The number of delegates was rather high (over 500) which creates a sort of mixed feeling. On the one hand there is the large number of people joining a lot of interesting presentations and workshops. On the other hand there was the perception that the DU will formally end, and the question what will happen with all of the nice products and the collaborative networks that have been established. The workshops I visited in the morning were completely full and there were lively discussions going on. After lunch it was my turn to stay at the Sakai booth of the SURF Special Interest Group. I was scheduled for only 45 minutes and had several interesting conversations with people passing the booth. As a result of those talks I spent a lot more time around the booth than foreseen, but I was still in time to join the plenary end session by Norbert Verbraak. When something comes to an end, there is time to look back. Six years of Digital University, a lot of very interesting projects and products. I heard some people saying that the nice thing of the DU was, that a lot of projects were going on in which people actively worked together on the delivery of innovative educational products. Of course not all projects were succesful, but the majority of the projects did achieve good results and deliverables. The inheritance of the DU is now being integrated into SURF Foundation. Some of the DU program managers also found a new job at SURF. But the big question is how to proceed from here. SURF Foundation is perceived as a different type of organisation than the DU. Will DU products be used in the future or will they 'disappear' in the archives of SURF?
In my opinion there is also a great personal asset that should not be forgotten. Thanks to the many DU projects and the roles one may have had, there was a context in which you really could collaborate with colleagues in the field of higher education. So 6 years of DU has also brought us a strong higher education community. This was demonstrated at the end in which a group of about 100 delegates was invited to a formal closure dinner. During on of the speeches Michiel van Geloven mentioned that about 80% sent a positive reply to the dinner invitation within 48 hours which implies a lot of appreciation for what the DU has brought us in six years.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Haiku is a mode of Japanese poetry, the late 19th century revision by Masaoka Shiki of the older hokku, the opening verse of a linked verse form, haikai no renga.
Haiku usually combine two (or rarely, three) different phrases, with a distinct grammatical break (kireji). These elements of the older hokku are considered by many to be essential to haiku as well, although they are not always included by modern writers of Japanese "free-form haiku" and of non-Japanese haiku. Japanese haiku are typically written as a single line, while English language haiku are traditionally separated into three lines (source: Wikipedia).

The digital world is sometime called as being soulless -- a charge that is borne out by on-screen error messages like "abort/retry/fail?" and "404 -- file not found."

It's already been a few years ago that there was a modest attempt at change: an error message in the form of a haiku poem. Readers were invited to submit up to three error messages written as haiku poems. The haiku is a three-line poem in the 5/7/5 form (first line 5 syllables, second line 7, third line 5). One of my personal favorites is the next one, submitted by Peter Rothman:

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

Probably not a Microsoft fan;-)

More Haiku error messages? Click here:

You want to see some pictures?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Math Online

Today I delivered a project plan for our board of directors which is focused on repairing knowledge and skill deficiencies in Mathmatics when students are admitted to our university: a considerable amount of students fail the math entrance test which has to be taken at the beginning of the academic year.

The plan is written in close collaboration with colleagues from ITBE, ELAN and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science. The main objective of the plan is how to use existing (on-line) materials in a blended learning approach. A first analysis on primarily Dutch projects shows that there is already a lot of ready-to-use content (tutorials, readers, exercices, assessments) available in the math domain. In some cases these materials are available for (almost) free, so why develop new materials if a lot can be re-used? It's much more interesting to think about the pedagogical way these materials can be offered to the students. Moreover, it can save a lot of time in order to achieve some quick wins.

In our project plan we distinguish three types of student admission:
  1. those who enter from the highest grade of secondary education (VWO)
  2. those who enter from higher vocational education (pre-master)
  3. those who enter from an international insitute
We have proposed to set focus on the first target group, because that's the largest group and there is already a lot available that can be offered to them. Besides deploying the online materials (also in the highest grades of secondary education) it is especially important to coach their teachers and to create a collaborative setting instead of pointing the finger to someone and saying that he or she is doing something "wrong".

We now have to wait until the meeting with the board (next friday). An interesting aspect is that the plan is delivered together with a corresponding Wiki site. So, a lot of resources and links that are mentioned in the document can also be viewed in an interactive way.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Second Life for education

A few days ago it was on the radio that Randstad (a Dutch job agency) is establishing a virtual office in Second Life. When you think about this it's really fascinating. Large banking companies (e.g. ABN Amro) and also IT companies (Tam Tam from Delft) have their virtual offices. But what's the purpose? Why do you want to be on Second Life as a company? Randstad claims e.g. that it can help people to prepare their job interviews. Create your very own Avatar and go to Randstad to see whether there is a suitable job for you. When you decide you want to apply for the job you can arrange for a job interview with a virtual employee from Randstad. The claim is that it will help you when you have to go to a job interview in the real world. That's an interesting claim, because a virtual interview can be hardly compared to an interview in real life. What about the 80% of non-verbal communication? You can probably write down all kinds of answers as your contribution to the job interview, but how will you behave when you are in a real interview situation. Will there be stress, will you look the other way when answering a question, instead of looking someone in the eye? It's kind of different when sitting in the quit surroundings of your home, where you can think in a clear and sensible way about the answers you want to give. Moreover, your Avatar can be much more attractive than yourself. I've created an Avatar myself and it's easy to give it any look you would like, of course far away from your own look: I was surprised how many athletic young men were running around in Second Life. This may give more confidence than you would have in real life.

Another interesting aspect is that you can actually invest money in Second Life. You can buy so called Linden dollars from your real American dollars. The exchange rate is about L$270 to one US Dollar (Wikipedia, March 7, 2007). Residents can create new goods and services, and buy and sell them in the Second Life virtual world. It's possible to buy land and build a house on it. I recently read an article in which the author suddenly became aware that he was looking into a house where someone was reading a book. He felt uncomfortable about it, feeling a voyeur, as if he was really looking into someone's home. Well if you ask me, why sit in a Second Life house to read a book??

Second Life has also emerged as one of the cutting-edge virtual classrooms for major colleges and universities, including Harvard, Pepperdine, Ball State, New York University and Delft University of Technology. Second Life fosters a welcoming atmosphere for administrators to host lectures and projects online, selling more than 100 islands for educational purposes, according to a New York Times article. The article quoted Rebecca Nesson, an instructor at Harvard who brought her Legal Studies class to Second Life in the second half of 2006. "Normally, no matter how good a distance-learning class is, an inherent distance does still exist between you and your students," she says. "Second Life has really bridged that gap. There is just more unofficial time that we spend together outside of the typical class session." Joe Sanchez, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin evaluated the use of Second Life in education in an interactive qualitative analysis, finding that once students overcome the technical and interface difficulties with Second Life, they "indicate a preference to social learning activites and find it enjoyable to interact with other avatars while learning in this space". At the University of Twente we are currently thinking about organizing (virtual) summerschools for students who want to enhance their knowledge and skills in math. Should we also bring this to Second Life (apart from the question what possibilites you have to deploy existing assignments with mathematical formulas, etc.)? I think it's interesting enough to take a closer look at. Being present at Second Life may be(come) an important unique selling point if you want to attract new students.

There is one major worry though. A Dutch professor in economic psychology stated that the Second Life economy is much more vulnerable than the economy in the real world. Companies are present on Second Life for economic, commercial reasons. They make investments and expect to gain any form of profit in the future (in money or otherwise). When they find out that their commercial objectives are not fullfilled there is a great risk that they will shut down their virtual office again, which may initiate a chain reaction.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Time management

Working hard and achieving many results are two different things. The idea of a busy employee, with lots of activities, running from one thing to another sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? He or she is always busy, but the question is whether this person actually achieves results. First think, then act is the right way for an efficient use of available time. By making choices it is possible to choose whether a task should be done by yourself, by someone else or not at all.

There is an important difference between important and urgent matters. Something that is important doesn’t need to be urgent and something that’s urgent doesn’t have to be important. Before starting a task it’s a good strategy to consider what type of task it is. It can save a lot of time to choose the most efficient way of dealing with the task. The main question is to ask yourself whether the task is important and/or urgent. Depending on the two answers, this may lead to a different type of follow up:
  1. Important – Yes / Urgent – Yes : do it yourself
  2. Important – Yes / Urgent – No: plan the task, if possible ask someone else to do it
  3. Important – No / Urgent –Yes: ask someone else
  4. Important – No / Urgent – No: consider no doing the task at all (unless you have spare time)

A project manager can provide additional value to choose the right strategy, especially in case of type 1 and type 2 tasks. According to the Pareto principle 20% of the work can deliver 80% of the results, meaning that 80% of the time is lost for all kinds of trivial aspects. When you have chosen the right task strategy it is important to create the right working conditions:

Calendar: clearly make use of a calendar. What’s possible, what’s not. Reserve time for unexpected things, time for preparation, travel time, make your personal planning. When you use shared calendars in your organisation, this is even more important. Others can see that your time is set to ‘busy’, so the risk that new appointments or acitivities will be planned for you is diminished.
Planning: try to be honest about the amount of time you need for a task. Take this into account, take care of some extra time and set your priorities. Don’t underestimate this.
Phone: if possible, re-direct your calls to a secretary, don’t make longlasting phonecalls yourself and set time frames on which you’re not available
E-mail: when e-mail drops in (e.g., showing itself by a small pop-up), do not react immediately. Before you know there is another task on your table that needs to be done. This is especially bad if it is a type 1 task. When you have to concentrate on a task, shut down the e-mail and check it again after a while. An interesting filter is to create a rule to move all cc: mails to a separate folder. I have never seen Cc-mails that included type 1 or type 2 tasks. The effect on your Inbox is amazing.
Open door: beware the open door principle. Off course this creates a nice, social and open work environment, but everyone can drop in at any time, also when it’s not convenient for you. For some tasks, don’t hesitate to shut the door (as if you were in a private meeting).
Virtual office: Even better (but that depends on the work you’re doing and the HRM policy) work at home every now and then. When you have a fast broadband connection, e-mail, VPN, mobile phone, collaborative environments, and a webcam as standard facilities, it’s just a second, virtual office, only with a limited risk on disturbances. A lot of people won’t even notice, expect those who work in your immediate environment. I think it’s a pretty good estimate to say that about 50% of my work e-mails are sent from my home office. On the one hand because I work at home one day a week, on the other hand because I deal with part of my e-mails in the evening because I often leave the office at 4 PM to avoid (part) of the traffic jam. All non-urgent mails can be handled in the quiet surroundings of my home office.