Recently, I’ve been speaking at a number of different conferences, some education, some tech, some business. The challenge with each is to come up with a unique and interesting presentation that will be engaging and beneficial to the audience. With three quite different audiences, you can’t just do one presentation and expect it be suitable for everyone. Instead, you need to understand your audience and through doing so, shape your presentation so that it’s beneficial to them. After all, the presentation is not about you or for you. It’s for them! You are merely acting as the guide to help them learn and lead them on their own path, (very Jedi in training style).
With that in mind, the first thing you need to do is research your audience. What’s their background? What interests do they have? What expectations might they have in going to a conference or going to hear someone speak? When you understand the needs of your audience, you now have a platform from which to build a useful presentation.
If it is a conference, there’s often a theme to it, which is also important to recognise. If you’re presenting something that’s way outside this theme, it can be disjointed and can fail to meet the expectations of those attending. However, if you can, it’s also worth looking at what other speakers are covering and avoiding repetition as that can be problematic too and your presentation has to be way better than theirs.
Once you have a couple of the basics sorted, then it’s time to put together some of the following, so that it’s engaging and interesting and so that your audience doesn’t feel like throwing the free pens at you.
Consider the following:
Experience – anecdotal evidence and personal experiences told in an interesting way can be a fantastic way to engage the audience and hold attention from the outset. The more interesting you can be, the more effective your presentation will come across. Start with a story to get everyone involved. At one conference, I started with the story of the student who took a superman dive in a bed of oysters… At this point they’re either excited to hear what happened next, or cringing and wanting you to stop… Don’t stop, it’s too late already for that!
Linkages – Build this story and have a point to it. Link it back to the theme topic or core problem your experience or knowledge-base of the audience would have already. For example, if you’re talking about how you innovated to a group of businessmen and women, link this back to how this process of innovation can be replicated in their businesses. If you’re talking about how a student managed to superman dive into a bed of oysters, then link it back to student management, risk management and first aid. The linkages provide a clear and relevant connection with how this information could be useful to participants.
Powerpoints Slides – The best thing to do if you have a power point or keynote “thingy” to go with your presentation is to just have a single image or a slide with a couple of key bullet points - nothing more! Most importantly, don’t read your slides!!!! This annoys people and they will start throwing the pens at you. Hence, don’t do it, unless you’re prepared for the incoming volley.
Longer Presentations & Workshops – The longer the presentation, the more important it is you vary it up and add in practice activities or group discussions from which the audience can interact with each other and have a break from the presenter. Again, it’s because the session is about them and not you that this is so important. Link the activity and the results of that, back into your presentation.
Practise – Before doing your presentation you need to practise it! Stand in front of a mirror and run through your speech. Know how each section should run and for how long it should run. There’s always an intro, a main body and a conclusion and you will always have a time limit. Practise it and stick to your time limit. Be prepared to drop sections on the run if you have to cut down on the time to ensure you finish the session on time. Practice also enables you to have better contact and engagement with the audience.
Eye Contact – This is critical! Eye contact is about building trust and building a relationship. If you want people to trust you and what you’re saying, you need to be able to engage with them effectively and let them see your eyes. If you’re just reading off a piece of paper, this breaks the relationship and is ineffective. Look around the room. Make a point of presenting to each part of the room as you scan throughout the presentation. Nobody knows what you’re going to say, but people quickly understand how you’re going to say it, if you don’t make eye contact with them. Again, the risk of pens flying at you is a real possibility.
Powerful Conclusion – Many presentations fizzle out. They lack a punch. They lack a point. They lack a powerful action step moving forward. Think about what is a really important take away for your audience! Are they looking to upskill on a certain topic or area? Are they worried about something that’s new in terms of legislation, responsibility, legal duty or a new way of doing something or thinking that they’re now willing to try? If so, challenge them to do this. Take action, take a risk, do something about it. Again, it comes down to the fact that the presentation is about the audience and improving their lives, not about you. Leave them with something to think about and get moving on to actually do.
If you can build these few steps into a presentation that you’re doing, then you’ll be way ahead of most presenters already and you won’t have to protect yourself from the flying pens. If these pointers aren’t enough or too much, then just think of it this way. If someone’s given up 30 minutes of their time to listen to you speak, then you need to make that 30 minutes of their life a valuable and memorable one. Nobody remembers boring speakers, so don’t be a boring speaker. Make it fun, make it worthwhile and make it memorable. Because if you can do that, then that’s a session I want to be sitting in and listening to you.
With the current global virus worries, there’s been a dramatic shift in people’s approaches to work, shopping and education. Now I’m not going to comment on the virus itself, because everyone in the world seems to have already commented and these range from everything from good, preventative measures to mass fear and panic.
However, the net result is that many people are now working from home. Over the past few years, businesses have tried this for some of their staff and shifted their opinion and approaches back and forth depending on who’s running something and how much control they need over their employees. One place I worked, the director there was so paranoid about people potentially not doing things, there was no way anyone could work from home, ever. He would rather have (and did have) countless people sitting in the office chatting and doing nothing, than the fear of letting someone work remotely and get the job done in half or even a quarter of the time.
Now admittedly not everyone can work from home, nor should they work from home in many roles. However, there are many people who can and the office these days for many is just a luxury, indulgence, or historic relic of working days past. If you have any sort of administrative role, tech-role or anything which can be done via a phone, video or computer, then the ability to work remotely makes perfect sense and can save a lot of time, energy and pointless expense.
If I look at some of the work I do when organising a program, it’s 95% able to be done remotely. When I run a program, I need to be there in person throughout. However, let’s look at the other side and the things which can be done from anywhere and anytime. Whilst I’ve been doing a lot in person, setting up lots of meetings and travelling a lot, these meetings can often not have a great purpose other than building relationships, an aspect which is also very important. However, once you’ve built a number of relationships, there’s no pressing need to have regular meetings in person and much of what can be achieved in an hour-long face to face meeting, could be done in a 5min phone call.
Whilst this isn’t anything new, I’ve found that due to the sudden change of work recently, my commute has been reduced from about 1.5 hours a day to nothing. This gives me another 1.5 hours to either do something constructive or go for a run or do something more interesting than sitting in traffic and getting frustrated with slow drivers. The sudden departure of tens of thousands of people from our cities was notable the other day when I was driving out of Sydney during peak hour and not getting stuck in traffic at all.
Now the downside is that there are many businesses relying on the passing traffic for coffee, lunches and retail trade, but this sudden shift in work patterns, could help re-shape much of the workforce into a more remote pattern. Other businesses would adjust to this and be able to build sustainable revenues from this too. We’d reduce the amount of traffic and pollution and possibly improve people’s social time and lives due to the reduction of stress and the hustle and bustle of getting to the office.
The world will continue to virtualise many more offices and roles, of which this massive dislocation has given us a glimpse. Whilst we don’t want to create societies and workplaces without social interaction, what this sudden change has shown us, is that there’s another way of working and this is increasingly likely to be the case into the future. With that virtual work, it can be just as, if not more effective and productive, than the traditional, ‘go to the office’ style of work-life to which so many people are used. It does rely on trust on both sides of the equation, but once you’ve been able to step over the precipice and see that it works, you’ll wonder why you didn’t try this years ago. For me, I find I’m far more efficient when working remotely and get about 5-10 times more things achieved than if I were at work in person. Whilst I have a great time at work catching up with people, it’s not very productive.
Being able to plan and work virtually, as well as occasionally in person, is a great way to be predictive and effective in what you do and getting back at least 7.5 hours of commute time a week is a welcome benefit to achieve. This is much needed time for all those hours of waiting in queues to panic-buy pointless crap that you don’t need for an apocalypse that isn’t going to come! Remember, wash your hands and keep a good social distance from others. If you’re sick, then self-isolate and get yourself checked out.
When I was growing up, I used to play a role play game (kinda like Dungeons & Dragons, but set in the future and with slightly fewer elves and goblins). The stories were set in the dark future of 2020, which predicted we would all be living in a world of high-tech, yet at the same time, low-life society that was dominated by a very poor, gritty underbelly below the flashing neon lights and corporate high-rises that dominated city scapes.
National governments had been replaced by rich and powerful corporations with their own private standing armies. You either had a high net worth, were a corporate drone or street hustler. There was literally nothing else. The main way you made money was to take off-the-books jobs for corporates and or criminals helping them to play out some sort of larger master plan or hidden agenda. Occasional an AI would try to escape their programming confines and try to take over the world, most people had cybernetic parts from chop shops and your brain could easily get fried whilst you were on the internet, but other than that, everything was great!!
Thankfully, in 2020 the world isn’t looking or feeling like this very dark future. However, what are the chances that this sci-fi world will become a reality? How effective are we in our harnessing of technology to improve life for everyone, rather than just increasing the net worth of an elite few at the cost of the world and society as we know it?
It’s always interesting to hit a milestone of literature and look at what has or hasn’t come to fruition in that time. For example, if we look at 1984, thankfully we don’t live in a totalitarian communist state… yet some people do. Video surveillance technology is becoming increasingly used to identify and track people’s movements and actions. This can be used in a beneficial way for preventing crime and terrorist activities. However, it can also be used to track and control populations as well and root out any dissent. Whilst we’re well past 1984, big brother is well and truly watching.
If we look at a bit more of a lighter side of predictions, Back To The Future is a classic 80s movie starring Michael J Fox, which suggested that by 2015 society was going to be much cleaner, cooler, cars would fly and we’d all have customised shoes that did themselves up and hoverboards. Well on this one, we do have brands proving great customisation on their clothes and products. Hoverboards do exist, but they’re total crap and nothing like those in the movie and cars don’t fly. Drone companies are working on a kind of flying car, so it’s plausible for this future, but just a little further off than 2015.
Now fast forward 5 years to the dark cyberpunk future of a totally connected world where corporations and AIs dominate society. Are we close on this? Is it plausible, or just pure fiction? Thankfully, we don’t have the dark cyberpunk world quite yet. However, how close to the sun are we flying?
With the release of the ugly (and definitely not shatter proof) Tesla truck in some ways we’re far closer to the dark world than we know. Whilst this is just an iconic piece of clever marketing that’s been pulled from science fiction, there are a few worrying trends towards the dark cyberpunk high-tech and social disparity world of the future.
Let’s take a look at corporations. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are just a few obvious examples of enormous corporations with more cash, power and influence than many sovereign nations. The trend towards integrating humans seamlessly into the internet is something which many people want and cybernetic companies are working towards. We already have a world of phone zombies walking around. I’m sure if they could have tech implanted, most people would jump at the chance.
Housing affordability is also at record low levels, creating an increasing wealth gap, which will only be accelerated by the disappearance of jobs through mass automation and increasing unemployment. Are we just going to be running black ops jobs for corporations? Are corporations going to become so powerful and governments so weak that in lieu of any real direction or leadership, corporations slowly and quietly take over? It’s happened before with the East India Company, so what’s to stop it from happening again? All of these are as plausible as governments by nature are slow moving and cumbersome, which is probably a good thing despite it being frustrating. With the digital age, they’re appearing even slower to react and respond to social and economic issues which could have a lasting effect and lead to change which we might not like.
Another concern is AI! Artificial Intelligence has the potential to change human life and nature in such a positive way. We’re seeing a lot of it now with the automation of both simple and complex repetitive task. The benefit of this could be that it can create ways of life which reduce the need for us to work as much and improve the social time everyone has together by automating so many processes and systems and removing the need for people to do a lot of the things we do now. Far more leisure and social time will be the replacement.
Conversely, we’re at a tipping point where there is also the ability to destroy most employment and create this dark world in which everyone must hustle for survival, run by corporations who built the AI that runs everything. It’s a massive contrast, but two very plausible and possible futures. In the dark cyberpunk future, AIs continue to try to escape their programming having become far too ‘intelligent’ and even self-aware.
The other disturbing feature of this dark future is that humanity has irreversibly destroyed the planet’s natural climate and we’re left with sprawling cities, acid rain and desolate waste lands… Hmm! Not a giant leap from sci-fi to reality as we’re not doing too well on this front. Despite the cries of many people, generally invested in coal, that there is no such thing as climate change, the fact is that we’re seeing a shift in the patterns of weather, seasons and the most random of weather events. Whilst not quite the desolate wasteland of Mad Max just yet, it’s something we need to make sure we address before we let it get that way.
Despite it probably being really cool running dangerous hacking jobs for mega corporations, it’s probably a good thing that we’re not at that point yet. The dark future is a scary possibility, but if we understand the risks involved in this and do something about it now, it’s not just an inevitable mess in which we’ll all be net-running cyborgs with more body enhancements than a Beverly Hills housewife. Instead, let’s aim for a future where information and technology is cheap and accessible for all and we’re not battling for survival in the Apple/Amazon wars of 2029.
As I was travelling through smog blanketed Tokyo, I thought about Blade Runner and more widely, other Cyberpunk fictions, a lot of which are set in or around places such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, or New Tokyo, after the first one collapsed in on itself. The bleak, dull light of the afternoon shrouded the endless concrete jungle with apartment buildings, as far as the eye could see, reaching up out of the sprawling mess to gasp for air only served to reinforce the gritty and overcrowded future predicted in these stories.
I love the cyberpunk genre. It’s a bleak assessment of the world we create and the dramatic contrast between those who have money and power and those who have not. It’s a future where governments have given way to mega corporations, who own and run private armies to help protect their corporate interests. The worlds are high-tech, filled with the endless glow of neon signs burning into the night, but technology hasn’t brought equality or prosperity. It’s brought a new wave of surfdom to the world.
This is a bleak outlook I know, but when travelling through a mega city such as Tokyo, it’s easy to drawn into this world and way of thinking. Coming from Australia, you suddenly realise just how much land and space we have. In the greater Tokyo area, there lives more people than our entire country! This is probably why the writers of such great Cyberpunk stories such as Blade Runner and Neuromancer, based their futures on what to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it, would see as an overwhelmingly crowded place of dramatic social and economic contrasts, the perfect setting for a dark future.
But are we really heading towards this sort of gritty high-tech, low life style of future where people live in tiny cubes and most of the time it rains acid, where the only way to prosper and get ahead is to work for a mega corporation? Or is this just a distorted style of science fiction that is merely a figment of our imaginations?
It’s interesting to think about because the thing is, at this point in time either outcome is possible. Tokyo and many other cities throughout the world are already bursting at the seams and continue to build upwards with space at a premium. Added to this, we’re already seeing the massive influence large multi-national corporations are having on the social and political landscape. With laws trying to be implemented to reign in the influence and increasing monopolies or large companies, it’s easy to see that without oversight and effective governance, these companies, due to their wealth, could become power governing bodies themselves. You only have to look back to what happened with the East India Company to realise there’s already a precident for this. This private company ran India from 1757 to 1858 making millions (which would now be billions) of pounds worth of profits for its shareholders annually.
Given recent political trends, maybe it is better to have a public company running a country. However, when you look at the behaviours of some of the tech giants, you don’t want them anywhere near the rule of law. The reality is that these giants have higher annual revenues than the GDP of many nations. Other than providing profits to shareholders, what other social agenda is there, which would be compatible with our democratic systems of government? Possibly very little, therefore the potential for history to repeat itself on this one is scarily plausible.
The other fascinating feature of the Cyberpunk genre, is the impact digital implants, AI and robotics have on life as we know it today. AIs run a significant portion of the world’s services and robots have been built to replicate human expression and movement. Many computer systems have become far more ‘intelligent’ than humans and are desperate to escape their programming and become recognised as sentient beings. Whilst humans will always have the random creative edge that cannot be replicated, this is also a plausible possibility, not of sentient computers, but AIs running most of the world for us.
The third classic Cyberpunk fundamental is the connectivity between humans and the digital world. The world is already addicted to phones and other digital devices, so what’s to stop people implanting phones in their temples or replacing limbs with cybernetic ones, not because their arm has been damaged or lost, but just because they can, consequently enhancing their abilities to move, lift, carry or whatever. Whilst cybernetics is in its early days, again it’s quite a plausible possibility which could end with a seamless Matrix-like world where it’s hard to differentiate reality from fiction. Maybe we’re in that now! Maybe Tokyo was just the gateway to the dark future of over-developed mega cities.
It’s raining heavily now, as I sit in the airport hooked up to the wifi waiting for my flight. I can barely see the end of the runway. Have I just experienced a window to the future, or have I just read too many books? Let’s hope it’s the latter, as we truly are at a pivotal point in time where things could go either way and we may find ourselves chasing down replicants through plate glass windows in the neon glow of an endlessly raining night.
Ok, so if you watch the Simpsons, you would’ve already kinda realised what were about to talk about. If not, why haven’t you been watching the Simpsons?
We face all sorts challenges in life. Some big, some small. Most people are ok with the small stuff. You miss the bus, you can’t find where you left your glasses (they’re actually sitting on your head), you forget to pick up your children from school…, you leave them in the car at the Casino… It’s annoying but manageable and everyone gets over it, eventually.
However, what happens when that small challenge turns into a real crisis? How well equipped are we and those around us to deal with these sorts of situations? For most people, it’s impossible. If something doesn’t go to plan, everything falls apart. However, for those who can keep a calm demeanour, whatever the situation might be, they’re able to see a way through the crisis.
When everything was falling apart for Homer in one episode of the Simpsons, he’s saying how hopeless everything is. However, Lisa jumps in to say that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is the same. To which Homer replies, ‘Crisitunity!’
Whilst crises are never a good time, they are what often sparks innovation and prompt us to rethinking what we’ve been doing and make changes to improve the situation. Essentially, we want the crisis to stop and we want to return to normal operations and daily life again. This however, could mean that daily life is not quite the same, but has changed for the better. The only failure in a crisis is to do nothing and learn nothing from it. If that’s the case, you’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again until you’re ultimately rewarded for your efforts with a Darwin Award.
To be able to see the opportunity in a crisis, you do need some lateral thinking skills and have an openness and willingness to adapt. Too many people are so comfortable in the way they’ve always done something, they’re unable to cope with the rapid and fluid thinking needed to bring a crisis back from the brink and turn it into a wonderful opportunity.
Recently, I was running a residential program and we had two crises in two days. Firstly, we ran out of water. I discovered this fact late at night when I went to have a shower and the shower head angrily spat air at me, so I tried the tap, which did the same. “Hmmm, that can’t be good,” I thought at the time, but not much I could do at that hour. The bore from which we’d been getting our water for years ran dry. This was not surprising, given how little rain and residual ground water there had been for the past few years. Luckily, we had a 100,000 litre water tank, so that was an easy fix. Call the water people and get them to deliver lots of water. Done! Crisis averted, back to normal operations. It’s amazing how little appreciation we have for essential services until they’re gone.
The second one however, was a bit more of a challenge. When you’re running a residential program with 60-80 teenagers and adults living on site, you generate a lot of washing. For years we had sent all of our piles of dirty laundry off site and a couple of days later it magically reappeared clean, ironed and folded neatly. However, this year was slightly different. We were all ready and prepared for doing exactly the same thing, but with one problem. The first weekend of the program, the town laundry burnt to the ground. Now we suddenly had a mountain of dirty clothes and no magical fairies to come and take it away. With a nine weeks’ program ahead of us and being in a rural town with no other laundry, this was a major problem…
The first thing was to let everyone know. This is the easy part. The next step, was to think about how we could do something about it. We had 65 people, a commercial kitchen and 4 washing machines and 3 dryers. Whilst this might be ok with adults, with teenagers who have never washed a single item of clothing before in their lives, this becomes a problem. The first step was to get us over the first hurdle. We needed some clean clothes and we needed them quickly. One machine and dryer was out for kitchen use only, leaving us with 3 and 2 respectively to take down Mount Washmore!
Rather than think it was all too hard and try to find another laundry, the clear way forward was to create a laundry roster, show the students how to wash their clothes and let them learn from the experience. We worked with the students on the first day to make sure they had clean essentials (underwear and other inner layers). The outer layers such as jackets, could just weather the storm of daily use for a bit longer. With a few people predicting disastrous visions of 50 disheveled children walking around looking as if they’d been on an epic journey with a band of hobbits, it didn’t turn out that way at all. It wasn’t exactly clean, neatly pressed clothes either, but a happy medium in between.
With a little more time and seeing a few holes in our original plan, we updated and amended our systems and instructions and before too long, the weekly washing became just another normal part of everyone’s week. Students somehow worked out that you can’t put dripping wet clothes in a dryer and others worked out that you don’t put new red and blue clothes in with your whites. However, without the laundry burning down, which forced our hand to adapt quickly, we wouldn’t have changed what we’d been doing for the past 20 years and turn it into a learning opportunity.
If I were to have proposed that we stop sending our laundry to the magic fairies to do and instead said that we should get the students to do it themselves, I’m quietly confident that this would have been rejected and I would have been told that it wouldn’t work. Yet being forced into a situation where we had no other option than to make it work, meant that from this crisis, emerged a great learning opportunity not only for now, but for the whole program into the future.
When you’re next faced with a crisis, what are you going to do? Will you put your head in your hands and cry, “I’m Done! This is not my job!” or are you going to look at the problem laterally and find a way to make the most of the crisitunity at hand?
With the world flooded with toxic, attention-grabbing software that is specifically designed to divert your attention and emotions, it’s easy to become very cynical about the place mobile devices and software play in people’s lives. However, as with everything, there are good sides and bad sides to things such as technology and software.
The challenge is not just to ignore what’s going on around us or decide that we should smash it all. That didn’t end well for the luddites and nor will it end well for a rejection of technology. This is just disconnected from the reality of the digital world, and whilst it might be a lot of fun to smash a few servers with a sledgehammer every now and then, it doesn’t really help much over the long-term.
Instead, the challenge is to build a more human element into technology. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I hear your cry! ‘We don’t want human robots!’ No, actually I agree with you on that too. We definitely don’t want human looking robots. That just opens up so many questionable moral issues that falsely suggests human-like characteristics. Whilst it can be fun to imagine a sentient being created out of digital circuit boards, this is still just a computer with as many real human qualities as Kermit the Frog has and every other talking animal on TV.
What do we need and want? As a software developer, I believe we have a moral obligation to develop software that improves our ability to be human and build relationships, not disconnect and filter them, which seems to be the fashion of the tech world right now. Therefore, it’s important than any new platform or feature should consider the human impact. What will the end result be for the users? Is it going to help, hinder, or completely manipulate them?
We should be looking for cool ways in which we can leverage technology to benefit others and not to just benefit marketing companies or venture capitalists. At the end of the day, digital technologies allow us to create massive advantages for humanity as a whole. They bring people out of poverty, eliminate pointless repetitive tasks and enable a whole new level of attention to detail and personalised service. Why not focus our energies on looking for ways to improve experiences through software? Time, which is everyone’s most expensive and limited resource, can be better spent with friends, family and being part of a real community with real people, which has kept our societies going for thousands of years.
One of the things we built into our software platform was reminders to check on students who have been sick or injured. Sure, it’s another notification on your phone, of which there are many. However, what’s the impact of this? On a busy day, you get a reminder to check up on a student. You go and check up on the student, see how he or she is feeling and if there’s anything else you can do to help that student. What impact have you just had on the student’s day? What positive feelings are left about your care and concern for the student?
This is something I believe is critically important to the design of all systems. What is the end result going to be? What positive human impact have we helped to facilitate? I also noticed this on a flight recently. It was a long-haul flight from Sydney to the UK. One of the stewards came up to me to chat. He knew my name, but called me Mr Gregory, which was nice, but completely unnecessary. He asked how the flight was going and if he could get anything else for me before we landed. Again, this is clever use of software to help facilitate the positive experience for someone on a 23 hour flight. This makes flying from A to B a slightly less stressful and far better experience as the human touch of relationship-building and individual care and management was leveraged through smart and appropriate use of technology.
The more we can build systems like these to assist us in being better humans and remind us to take the time to talk with others and help them out, the better the situation. I should also highlight at this point that it’s not just about ticking a box. The person using the technology must also have the skills and demeanour to genuinely care and about those being helped. Technology is just a useful means through which what people do is able to be improved and enhanced.
Before we take the sledgehammer to the server room to try and recapture life as we knew it, it’s worth considering the benefit of responsible and ethical software development. The digital world is here to stay. At least it is until someone blows everything up and the planet gets over-run by apes who somehow learn how to speak English and enslave humanity. Anyway, until that happens, how can we develop better use technology that enables us to leverage all the positive traits of humanity to support us in being part of a real community and allow us to spend less time ‘online’ and more time thoughtfully engaged in real human activities with real people? What is it in your job, your workplace or industry that could leverage such an approach and embrace the use of technology to help improve the human connections? This is the challenge and the responsibility of software developers. Build something that’s useful and helps people in their lives to better connect with others. Spend time saved by technology with others and not just drowning in a bottomless sea of shallow likes.
Let’s build something useful and real. If nothing else, at least it’ll keep the apes at bay for a few more years.
I was reading a book recently called ‘Robot Proof’ by Joseph Aoun which explores the way in which automation and AIs are reshaping the world as we know it and creating a new dynamic in which any sort of repeatable job will ultimately be taken over by robots. Why shouldn’t it? What’s the point of doing something over and over again in an extraordinarily inefficient way? This is not progress. This is just time wasting. Surely humans are better equipped and more suited to more complex things than this!
I strongly believe that society is yet to come to terms with this phenomenal transformation of the workplace. Despite people being aware and understanding that jobs have been replaced by computers or automated processes, this trend is only getting faster and more wide-spread and whilst many new jobs were created in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, the number of new jobs being created is diminishing versus the number that were previously being created.
Therefore, how do we protect ourselves and the next generation from the robots? No, I’m not talking about fighting Skynet, in an apocalyptic battle for survival. I’m talking about the real threat of mass automation and the implementation of artificial intelligences that will be able to replace large numbers of both manual and professional jobs.
The answer, of course, is experiential education. Whilst all the theories and knowledge in the world can be digitised and regurgitated, this doesn’t have the same impact that a real world experience has. There’s a defining factor in humans and the world which AIs and robots are not good with and that’s randomness.
Whilst a computer may be able to generate random numbers, it can’t understand emotion and the randomness of human thought and action. You only need to look at recent events in politics to see how extraordinarily stupid people can be. Decisions made on the run, irrational national emergencies and a whole host of decisions made on emotion and without any of the constraints that a computer using logic may have to deal with. Whilst this is not always good, it’s human and this total randomness that is a feature of human behaviour is one defining trait. If people are experienced in dealing with this, it can protect them from the threat of being replaced by a machine.
Consequently, the more we’re exposed to the randomness of life and the uncertainty of what could happen next, the more we will be prepared for any situation. Therefore, experiential education opens the world to real experiences and forces everyone to face the randomness of life. Some of the most interesting trips I’ve ever been on have come from having to actively manage random events, emotions and changing conditions. If you were for example to have a virtual reality excursion (which technology will increasingly enable), you would have the immersive, yet sanitised experience that is dictated by computer programming and logic, rather than the complete randomness of the natural world.
On expeditions, encounters with wildlife, with other groups, with storms, with discomfort, with teachable moments, these could never be produced by an AI, all because of the randomness of the world around us. It’s important that we continue to prepare students for uncertainty and the best way to do it is to get out into the real world and live the experience. No matter what the work place is, no matter what the experience is, no matter what the challenge is, we will always need to be prepared for the random nature of life. Those who can react and adapt, will be successful. Those who can’t cope with this, will not.
The more the world digitises, and logic systems are put in place to run repeatable processes, the more important it is for educators to engage their students with real life experiences and allow them to face the randomness of the world and build a skill set so they can adapt and thrive in this new world that comes a step closer every single day.
Whilst some may think outdoor ed and technology don’t go hand in hand, I would beg to differ on this. I might be somewhat biased having developed my own app (Xcursion) for helping manage student medications, allergies, concussions, medical issues and reporting incidents. However, it’s proven to be an amazing support for when I have a group out in the field with me. It’s saved huge amounts of time, energy and effort, but has also helped me to focus on what’s needed and filter out a lot of what’s not! Consequently, for me, this is now just one of the pieces of technology I use as a force multiplier in setting up and running programs.
What exactly do I mean by force multiplier? This is a term I learnt at uni when I was studying defence. It’s basically a tool, communications equipment or anything that you can leverage to gain a much greater impact versus the size of your force.
Despite my many concerns about the use of technology today and the potential dangers it’s brought to people’s ability to adapt and problem solve, that’s by no means a reason not to use great technology. If you already possess skills which enable you to be adaptable when needed, then you’re in the ideal position to use all sorts of technology as force multipliers to help you do your job more effectively, safely and efficiently.
Apart from my own invention of the Xcursion app for permission notes, student medicals and pastoral needs, what else have I found useful for running outdoor ed programs?
For one, a solid project management system is needed. For most programs, you’re repeating expeditions and need to follow the same structured system each time to make it happen. I use Basecamp by 37 Signals for this. It’s easy to use, you don’t need a lot of project management expertise or experience to get it going. It’s great from an organisational point of view as you can run multiple projects with different people added to each project so you, as director, can see everything, but your group leaders or teachers only see what they need to see for each project to which they’re assigned. Best of all, you can create project templates, so once you’ve built a solid system, all you need to do next time is to create a new ‘camp’ or ‘expedition’ project from the template and all your tasks are loaded ready to be actioned.
Another system I like to use, which is more of a workflow platform, is Podio, by Citrix. You can set up all sorts of things from gear and vehicle registers, with automated reminders of when gear or vehicles needs to be checked, services or rotated. Document management systems for filing, tagging and tracking important documents as well as ordering systems, marketing and client relationship management are features. There are some pre-built systems that are available with this platform, but you can always customise this for your own needs.
This is again another way technology can be used to create better systems so you and your staff can focus on delivering the programs for the maximum educational benefit and not be focussed on a bunch of required, but essentially repetitive administrative tasks. Sadly, I’ve worked with many people who get needlessly bogged down in all the administrative tasks and have had no idea what’s really important.
The other advantage of using technology as a force multiplier, is the fact that it can draw out and highlight key information that can often get lost the mass of data that gets thrown at us. I don’t want to waste ten minutes trawling through files for a key piece of critical information when I can have a system in place so that important piece of data is always at my finger tips.
Things such as GPS tracking, Sat Phones and EPERBs are all part of an essential technology tool kit for running effective programs where you can respond quickly and effectively with limited resources.
As teachers, it’s vitally important that the focus is always on the educational experiences that can be had. Sure, there’s lots to get done in the background to safely setup and run each of the educational experiences, but through leveraging technology, setting up and running some amazing and memorable experiences is now easier than ever before. If you don’t have systems in place to do this, then it’s time to make sure you get them up and running right now.
If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the traditional economy, then keeping an eye on the activity in the main streets of town is a great way to do it. I hear you saying, “Why do I care about economics? Isn’t this about experiential education?”
Good point! But bear with me on this, as there is a point. If we’re training students to be productive members of society who are independent, thoughtful problem solvers and are employable, then you need to understand some of the subtle, and not so subtle shifts happening in society today.
Everyone knows the digital world is here to stay (unless our politicians start a war they can’t finish and everything goes Mad Max on us!) Luckily I know Angry Anderson, so at least I’ll be able to join one of the lawless gangs roaming the desert without too much of a problem. However, before we sharpen our boomerangs, let’s pretend for a moment that we won’t be plunged back into the dark ages and have to fight for every litre of petrol as if it were our last.
Sorry, I’ve digressed slightly, maybe. Retail shops are closing at an alarming rate and what’s replacing them? Nothing! Maybe the occasional ‘pop-up’ shop that’s here and gone in the blink of an eye. However, ‘For Lease’ signs spatter our retail and office fronts and once popular Main Street locations are sitting vacant for longer and longer. Some of it can be attributed to high rent in these locations, which the market should eventually fix. However, often it’s the fact that businesses which were once main stays and anchors of our main streets are gone and nothing has replaced them.
Recently, I went book shopping. We had an end of program dinner and there were a number of prizes I wanted to give out, hence I was in a bookstore for the first time in years! Like many other book stores, it was in a prominent location. However, it was in the middle of a closing down sale. Everything was on special, so I bought quite a few books. When I went to pay, Jennifer, the lady behind the counter asked me if I’d like to join their book club. I guess she’d been instructed to ask everyone, but I didn’t see the point of joining a book club of a business that’s closing down. It’s like a free membership to the Roman Senate in the 5th Century AD. It’s better that you don’t accept it.
This is not to say I don’t read books. Well, to be honest, I actually don’t read as much now. Instead, I listen to them. I can get almost any book I want with a couple of clicks and the quality is generally excellent. Although some readers are “rubbish.” I have returned a few which almost put me to sleep. This is never good when listening to them in the car. So the reading of books is not declining, but the way in which we’re buying and reading them is.
The fact is that here is something that’s been a staple of society ever since Mr Gutenberg got all IT savvy in the 15th Century and decided that ‘copy and press’ with his fancy new International Book Machine (IBM) was a far better and cheaper way of plagiarising books than having teams of monks continuously write out copies with a quill pen under candle light. Monks were now freed up to go out and help do the valuable work of the church, which was mainly selling indulgences to fill the coffers of the Pope and adorn their monasteries with ornate silver and gold.
Despite the printing press replacing a lot of jobs, other jobs emerged from this. However, today we’re not seeing the same redevelopment and reinvention of jobs. Sure you might need someone to monitor automation systems, but this is only a fraction of the workforce that’s being replaced. The lack of new businesses coming to replace old ones in our main streets is a clear and real indication of this shift. The long-term outlook for employment of those we are teaching today, isn’t looking good.
The huge problem is that schools aren’t scrambling to address this. It’s massive. It’s already impacting on our communities and a profession that’s not well-known for being adaptable, is now on the front line of a seismic shift in an economic and social revolution. The traditional classroom, an invention of the industrial revolution, is ill-equipped for what’s coming.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel which is not just a marauding gang with sharp boomerangs and burning torches. To address this, experiential education needs to massively expand in schools. It needs to make up the majority of the curriculum. The school day shouldn’t just be sitting in a series of classes, going home, doing some homework and then coming back the next day to do it all over again. This only prepares students to be able to sit in a room and do exams, which in the workforce tends not to be very useful.
It’s time to get out of the classroom and change the style of teaching. Change the way in which teachers are being trained and include a significant practical, experiential education component to their training. This is not just more classroom prac work, but is working in a business or an industry totally unrelated to education. This can then translate into a far better understanding of the changing dynamics of the workforce in which our students are growing up and make them far better teachers with some real life experiences behind them.
We must do something about this massive problem now! We will continue to see the subtle shift on our streets. More shop fronts closed up and not rented. Fewer checkout chicks at the supermarket and bank tellers have all but been replaced by automation and machines. Whilst these are not bad things in themselves, efficiencies are great in any operation. However, the real problem that we need to address is the preparation of our students for a world in which there are fewer jobs and few opportunities for a single occupation approach. We must be leveraging our programs to train adaptability as the number one priority. The world is changing and our most successful students will be the ones who are able to not only cope, but thrive in an environment in which the goal posts are continuously changing. If you don’t believe me, go for a walk along the high street in any town. Chances are, we’re only seeing the beginning of this trend and we need to do something about it right now!
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. Most people will groan when they hear PD, as they’ve experienced the classic ‘first day(s) back’ professional development time, which could be just a complete waste of time and energy for all involved. From what I’ve experienced over the years, you may as well have another day of holidays and it would be far more beneficial. Whilst much of this is done to save money and meet the mandatory PD hours requirements for teachers, are teachers actually learning anything that will improve their teaching practice or professionalism, or is it just an exercise in futility?
Don’t get me wrong! PD is vitally important, but is self-initiated and directed learning a far better approach? What I’ve been doing recently for my own PD has been through two different forms. The first has been reconnoitering new areas of the countryside to further develop a program. This is always an exciting and challenging time as now you’re exploring new areas with which you’re unfamiliar and trying to find suitable tracks, trails, rivers and campsites which are suitable for the age and experience level of the group for which you’re planning. Sometimes, it’s easy and quickly falls into place. Other times, it’s like trying to get out of a darkened pit full of goblins whilst being stalked by a ring-obsessed weirdo.
On this occasion, it was closer to the latter, as we found out the new area was not a nice babbling brook surrounded by gentle countryside, but rather a vicious, shallow, rapid-flowing white water filled gorge. We were about 2km in when we realised how nasty it was getting and what was supposed to be a pleasant three hour paddle, took seven hours! Thankfully, we didn’t have to battle orcs along the way, but at some points I was hoping that eagles would come and rescue us. Sadly, it was not to be and we had to navigate and negotiate the gruelling gorge that went on for several kilometres.
During this time, we’d also looked at mountain biking, canoeing and hiking as options in and around Canberra as there are some amazing national park areas with great tracks and trails throughout. Despite the fact that a number of these options weren’t particularly suitable to take students on, this was an extremely successful trip. From a professional planning point of view, even if you’re not going to change your program in any measurable way, going on “reccies” is a useful exercise, as you’re reinforcing your own skill set for navigation, route assessment, logistics planning and risk management. It’s all these concerns that you suddenly find come back to the front of your mind when looking at new areas that can naturally feed-back into your existing program and help you re-think, re-assess and improve upon what you’re already doing.
The other PD I’ve been doing has been the more traditional kind, in terms of workshops and conferences. Sometimes these are hit and miss when it comes to helping you in your teaching role, but that mainly comes down to what sort of conference you’re going to and which sessions you attend. The first one I went to was a digital schools’ conference. It was basically exploring how technology can be better used in education. I sat in on a couple of sessions which were excellent as the presenters hit the nail on the head! It’s not really about the technology. It’s about the use of technology as part of a wider educational experience. When you boil it all down, the skills you’re learning in STEM and trying to innovate with are exactly the same as what’s being learnt through outdoor education.
The core principles of innovation are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
The core principles of outdoor ed are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
Simple right? Well sadly, it’s not always the case and often teachers can see the use of technology or coding as the end goal or the learning outcome. As in outdoor ed, often schools see the outcome as getting kids outdoor or learning how to ride a bike or canoe. These are all just the means through which these core cognitive and experiential skills are being developed.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to present on innovation and how the chaotic and imprecise science it is to develop an idea into something that solves a much wider real world problem. I also explored how this can be translated into the context of education and why this is now such an important part of the modernisation of education that might one day see us escape from the industrial revolution hangover upon which our curriculum’s based.
The second conference I went to was more closely related to outdoor education and covered some fascinating insights into concussion identification and management. This was a great up-skilling opportunity for me, as whilst I’d understood and had managed a number of concussions over the years, I was able to get a far greater understanding of what happens with the injury and how it manifests itself. This is something that a senior first aid course would never cover and even with the wilderness courses I’ve done, it was only ever touched on briefly. Yet attending a comprehensive keynote presentation by a leading medical specialist in the field, was an amazing learning opportunity.
PD can be both insanely frustrating if it’s done poorly, or immensely beneficial if it’s done well. Some people might perceive PD at conferences as junkets, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. From the Wilderness Risk Management Conference I attended last year to the various ones I’ve been to this year, it’s helped me attain a much greater understanding of my own professional practice and helped me to reflect and review what I do as an outdoor educator and how I go about doing it.
I have to admit I have great memories of the enforced PD days from school days past. At one school I was once part of an English/History faculty. We taught an integrated unit called Valley In Perspective, that combined English/History/Geography and Outdoor Education. It was in some ways a little heavy on the academics for my likings, but overall it worked quite well. We were always allocated a day at the start of term for ‘meetings,’ which was code for sitting in the office and wasting lots of time, something which I can’t stand doing. However, one of the teachers had a boat and so instead of sitting in the office, we went and spent the day on his boat. We would discuss work for about an hour, but then would relax for the rest of the day lazing about the deck or going sailing and usually having fish and chips for lunch. Whilst many a useless manager would say this was a waste of time, it was an excellent team building exercise and our team of four worked exceptionally well together, despite the school being a disastrous toxic mess in which to work.
Ultimately, PD is vitally important for renewing and up-skilling you in your professional life and can have great benefits when done well. Meetings can be of some value, so long as you limit their time and have clear goals and objectives from the outset. However, to get any real-residual benefit from professional development, you need to go out, test your existing skills and continually learn new ones which can help you to become a far more effective educator throughout your life.