Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Finally... I'll get back to work
I can't remember to have had such a long vacation ever since I graduated from the university, when I was trying to start working, and the managing director was sending me back home again and again - pretending that the studio assigned to me was not yet painted :-))
It's true that I didn't stop working these three months - I have too many things on my mind! - but I had no fixed hours and no office, working from home, from friends and relatives and often on the train.
Not knowing how long this waiting period will last, I tried to talk to as many people who seemed interested in knowledge management and blogging as possible here in Romania. The Romanian blogosphere is growing every day, and more and more interesting people are starting to blog. But general awareness on knowledge management is quite low. Good textbooks and translations of few fundamental works in the field are badly needed.
And now it's time to go. Finally, I can blog freely about my new position and my future work.
I mentioned it here before, but Romanians have a saying: "Don't consider it done until it really is!" (sa nu zici "hop" pana n-ai sarit!). So I was pretty reluctant to speak about it before all the necessary formalities were accomplished.
Now it's official. For the next two years, I'll join the University of Limerick, working at the Interaction Design Center on a very interesting research project. We will focus on problems encountered in Distributed Software Development (DSD). We'll be a multidisciplinary team, and we will probably have to do studies in several locations. Quite a challenge, but also a great opportunity to join a fabulous team and to use some of the results of my previous research !
Here's a new beginning - and I am looking forward to it!
Saturday, May 21, 2005
The 7th Intl Conference on Information in Economy
This time, the long period of time needed for getting a visa for Ireland gave me the chance to attend this conference on 19-20 May in Bucharest.
Few details to show why this particular conference was so important to me: it's organised by a Department of the Academy of Economic Studies that was my alma mater ever since I started my studies there many many years ago: the Business Informatics Department. I got my Bachelor degree there, and also my PhD. I attended five of the seven editions (missed the first and the 6th for various reasons). It was a great occasion to meet my former professors, some of my colleagues who became academics themselves, peers from all over the country and from abroad, to take the pulse of what was happening in the Romanian research.
This year's edition was a bit different from what I've seen before: much less foreign participation, but a surprisingly numerous participation of peers from all over Romania. It looks like competition made the Romanian higher education in Business Informatics much more coherent. In order to compete, they must be aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses, and where can one observe them better than in an international conference?!
I'm glad that the old attitude of ignoring each other is gone. In a few years, they will have to face the international competition, and awareness of one's own value is a first step toward it.
I was a bit late for the opening session, scheduled in the Aula Magna, and when I stepped in, a small student choir was starting to sing the traditional Gaudeamus igitur. It was really impressive, I felt the deep significance of the moment and the important moments of my life when I've been there before came into my mind.
Lots of VIPs where there: among others, the Secretary of State at the Research Ministry , a prominent Member of the Academy and director of the Informatics Research Institute and the Rector o the Academy of Economic Studies chaired the session. In the public, several seniors who actually were the ones who pioneered the business informatics research in Romania 30-40 years ago. One of them, Valeriu Pescaru, happened to be my professor, but I've never met most of the others in person before - even if I was reading their books and following their strategies.
The Secretary of State mentioned in his speech the very low capacity of Romanian research to access European funds - only about 18% of the Romanian contribution to FP6 came back to Romania, so we're merely sponsoring the European research than participating in it. The Romanian Government set up a program of its own to encourage top research, targeting both projects, specialists and international cooperation.
The speech of the rector, prof. Ion Gh. Rosca, was extremely realistic.
The Romanian higher education system used to be a closed system. Under these circumstances, the ASE was the best school in economics all over Romania. And it is still. A lot has been done already to open for international cooperation: a Romanian-Canadian MBA, a National Institute of Economic Development, and many others. But starting with 2007, there's a good chance foreign higher education institutes will open branches in Bucharest, offering best quality education.
The rector was complaining about ASE not being in any higher education institutions top - even on the very last position. International recognition will be constantly sought before the entrance of Romania in the EU. Afterwards, it could already be too late.
I always cherished prof.Rosca for being direct, sincere and extremely realistic. And a very good manager - I still remember a meeting in Cluj 3-4 years ago where most of the rectors of Romanian higher education institutions were complaining about the very low funding and their lousy infrastructure. He was the only one who kept silent. During lunch, he felt the need to explain: his institution had all the money it needed, because they were project oriented; instead of begging money from the government, they were participating in national and international projects, putting their competencies to work, and providing for the necessary infrastructure. I always thought this is the right attitude.
We, the Romanians, are still suffering from that old mentality: it didn't count how much you worked or how good your work was - the result was pretty much the same. The only thing that mattered was to convince the party people you needed funding by using their own language and the "appropriate" arguments. People became experts in begging - for their institutions or for themselves. And some cannot get rid nowadays of the old mentality that the government should provide for their institutions, and they aren't supposed to do any efforts but asking for money. "We should be granted the money" says everything. We - passive. The donor - anonymous. Doesn't matter if it's our government or the legendary uncle Sam.
The festivities continued with the uncovering of a plate marking 40 years of business informatics research in Romania, at the entrance of the IT Center. 40 years means quite a history, and I felt a sort of pride for being a small part of this history. It was great to have the chance of greeting colleagues from all over Romania and the Republic of Moldavia under the sunny sky of May - and there were so many old acquaintances I was happy to meet again!
After 3 days of spending money in various Internet cafes in Bucharest, I discovered the big lobby of my department's building had been turned into an Internet Plaza, thanks to a generous Korean donation (well, speaking of uncle Sam...this was uncle Roh Moo-hyun)
I should have known! I should have gone there - free access for anyone on the street able to show identity papers. The unpleasant surprise was that Blogger was banned, because I felt an urge to blog my surprise immediately. I could have gone around and e-mailed my post - but then I thought that talking to as many people as possible was more important.
All the conference materials were in English - unfortunately the absence of foreign guests from most of the sections made the participants to prefer Romanian for presenting their papers, instead of using the chance to practice their English.
In my KM section, there were just a few papers really addressing KM issues. Most of the participants took this opportunity to put a new label on their work. But they cannot be condemned, because there's so little information on KM in Romanian yet.
I have been talking to several persons about jointly writing a KM textbook, and I got very positive feedback.
In the evening, I attended a Microsoft event dedicated to MS Business Solutions. The people from Microsoft were ASE alumni, and there's a very natural connection between Microsoft Romania and the ASE.
To me, the purpose of the event was clear enough: academia is very eager to teach the students how to use business applications, and so are the students. If Microsoft is to provide successful Business Solutions, getting a demo version and the necessary documentation becomes a must for universities. The interest of MS is also crystal clear: the future graduates will try to persuade their employers to adopt these solutions, because they were told they are the best.
One of the presenters was very sincere when speaking about this: the first target group was that of MBA students; they're already in companies, they are already decision makers,and the results of this campaign won't need much time to show.
Navision was mentioned more than a hundred times, I think. But besides the fact that it is role-based and it uses portals, we only got a glimpse of few screen captures, without a clear presentation of what academia could do with it. The presenters had to know their mission wasn't to convince this particular audience - it was already theirs; what was needed was a scenario of teaching the use of Navision and other MS Business Solutions to the students.
Seeing my professors at the mercy of almighty Microsoft, asking for demos and documentation, reminded me of myself at the time when my university was the first in Romania to introduce IT in Law study programs, and I was knocking on the door of every provider of legal databases trying for obtaining a demo version to show it to my students.
My secret thought was why nobody here was thinking of Open Source solutions? Participating in OS projects would be an excellent way to acquire programming skills, to learn how to collaborate in an international environment and to build business solutions from already available "bricks". There's a strong Microsoft monopoly in Romania - they are one of the strategic partners of our government. And they promise affordable solutions- I wonder what does this "affordable" really mean?
And here I am, back to my old sorrow: nobody's giving a penny in Romania on IT Evaluation. Like being poor wasn't quite enough, we spend our money careless.
Anyhow, the event was interesting, and the dinner provided by Microsoft was excellent - as always; with all my criticism, I was happy to be there and meet all these people.
Because foresight was one of the issues on discussion, I tried to look a bit into my own future, thinking of what I'd like to do after my two years Irish period. I am attracted by academia and I would like to stay close, and research doesn't seem to be an alternative here in Romania - but it's for sure I won't go into full time teaching again. I see myself more fit for higher education administration, for organising conferences, managing international projects, writing research applications. Maybe distant teaching, online facilitation for communities of practice and innovation networks, but who knows?!
Friday, May 20, 2005
Introducing blogs to educators
A new tour for presenting blogs to educators brought me to the Eastern part of Romania, in
Iasi. On the 14 May, I went there to talk to a group of IT teachers. After travelling 11 hours by train, I must confess I was a bit disappointed by the small number of people who came to listen to me.
I found out afterwards that the organizer only announced the meeting via fax - in his place, I would have taken my time to talk to the potential participants, at least on the phone.
I know very well how fed up people are of these calls to various activities taking place in their free time. It was typical for the communist era to call people to work on Sundays - especially on religious holidays. It used to be compulsory - thanks God it isn't anymore, and people were free to chose if they want to come or not. I'm glad no one was forced to attend.
The ones who came were exactly the people meant to listen to what I had to tell them: we didn't started with blogs, but with e-learning and the brilliant comparison made by Stephen Downes that learning should be like water or electricity, available in flows, and always up-to-date.
We talked about the shift in the teacher's role and the way he has to get ready for accepting to become a mentor, a coach, a tutor, a guide. It's not easy for an adult to accept you could learn from your 6th graders, but we have to cope with it. And when I say "we talked", I really mean it, because it was a friendly open discussion, and not a lecture. Blogs and wikis were regarded with the highest attention, but I am sure del.icio.us and Technorati didn't go unnoticed either.
After sending the outline of my presentation by e-mail to the participants, I got excellent feedback, and I can foresee a blog harvest there very soon.
On May 19 I participated in Bucharest in an international conference (more on it in a separate post). I named my paper "Collaborative learning using weblogs", and what I meant with it was to inform the audience and to raise its awareness on blogs. The section I chose for sending my paper was titled "K-Management", and it landed in a good neighbourhood - that of Mihaela Muntean from Timisoara, Adriana Schiopoiu Burlea from Craiova and Denisa Neagu from Iasi. There were also papers in our section having nothing to do with KM, and I assume it was partially the organizers' fault, who only approved the initial section choice of the authors without checking the content of papers.
With few exceptions, my audience never heard of wikis and weblogs before. The presenation was scheduled after lunch, and half of my audience was falling asleep. I thought I know how to enlive a conference room - it started like this last year in Graz too, but there I succeeded to catch their attention eventually.
Probably here there wasn't absolutely anything in the audience's background I could connect to.
I spoke about blogs in general, blogging tools, and then about different uses people gave them in the educational field. I used stories - the 7 years children in the UK, Elmine's experiment, Barbara Ganley's work, the joint experiment of Thomas Burg, Jan Schmidt and Sebastian Fiedler - nothing could grant me their attention. The closing was about the Romanian pioneers in the field - Carmen Holotescu, George Popescu, Mircea Lobontiu, AISTEDA's course - more blank looks.
The chairman made a discrete sign - I had already used my 15 min- so I had to give up. He asked me one stupendous question: "If there are more than 10 mil blogs out there, as you say, how does it come I've never fallen on one before?" Ok. I think I understood he actually meant: how can one find blogs? I mentioned Technorati, Bloglines and Daypop, but I think the answer was much simpler: you just open your eyes for them and become aware of their existence. You google, you take a bite, then decide on your own if there's something in it for you or not...
We're completely blind to tones of things around us, because we're not interested in them.
I've never heard of Lawrence Durrell till I read his first novel. Then, I couldn't stop reading him. I wasn't aware of the taste of Lassi till I first tried it. Afterwards, I've been looking for Indian restaurants wherever I went to.
The next day(20 May) brought me back to my residence town - Alba-Iulia - where my former employer, the AISTEDA University, had invited high school teachers of all specialties to listen to a presentation on the Pellea project.
I only slept 3 hours the night before, busy with setting up my new baby . I prepared my presentation on the train - as it was meant to include an extensive part on the details of the Pellea project.
Well, the train was late, and when I got to the meeting place, my colleague already finished the presentation of the project. It was my part to focus on Blogs in Education and on the way we used blogs for setting up portfolios. Well, this time I got my reward: there were about 40 people in the room, and there was none falling asleep. The way they were looking at me showed great interest - I felt I was having an impact, a real one. I volunteered for setting up blogs for the ones who were ready to embark upon next week.
I used mind maps in all these three presentations, trying more and more to avoid Powerpoint. There are obvious advantages:
- Mind maps are a lot more flexible - you can explode a branch or not depending on the time left and on the reactions of the audience.
- You're forced to be concise - long nodes are impractical to handle.
- With mindmaps, you can't fall in the trap of plainly reading the content, dragging your audience toward the famous Death by Powerpoint (don't laugh, it happened to me too, even if I was preaching to my students never to do something like this :-)
- You make the audience to ask what kind of program do you use - and get the chance to promote Freemind and Open Source Software.
But there are also some disadvantages:
- You can't use them without the appropriate software - if the organizers decide to make you to use their computer, you're forced to use the less prettier HTML outline;
- Sometimes you can get in trouble with the size of the image on the screen - either too small characters, or unclear images. (I guess I should have enlarged them more).
Anyhow, I learned an important lesson: when the technical aids do not work properly, avoid taking care of them in the middle of your presentation, or you'll lose the focus of your audience. You can always fill the stage with your presence, tell them stories, explain the concepts and make the best use of the time they're granting to you. You can always send them the presentation or the outline later on via e-mail, if you succeeded to make a bell ring for them.
Sunday, May 01, 2005
Spring decided to stay...
It's Easter time in the orthodox countries - lots of work for preparations, followed by a couple of days when tradition forbids any kind of work: it's eating and drinking time, people are visiting friends and parents, and taking some rest.
Difficult to bear for a workaholic like me! Usually, this is the time I reserve for reading books - the only way I can resist without touching a computer! But this year, the nice weather and the close perspective of my departure for Ireland convinced me to go on vacation for a week.
I'm so spoiled this Spring - my heart is full of love, the sun is shining, wherever I turn to, I meet friends (both off and online:-), I will start working again soon... and I'm feeling really happy!