Imagine being born 2000, 1000, 500, or even 150 years ago and being shown an iPhone or a self-driving Tesla. It would surely seem like magic or witchcraft - David Truss ‘We Are Not Alone’

A colleague recently said to me, “You just go and do your magic.” It was intended as a compliment, however it left me wondering about what it means for people to think about work as ‘magic’.

Wikipedia defines magical thinking as follows:

Magical thinking, or superstitious thinking. is the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them, particularly as a result of supernatural effects.


Growing up, I remember being wowed watching magicians on television. However, what interested me more were the shows that unpacked the various tricks and illusions. More than slight of hand, I was interested in the steps that made such acts possible.

I guess it is often easier to wed yourself with the mystery, rather than do the heavy lifting. This is something Cory Doctorow captures in discussion of Kirby’s film Trump, QAnon and The Return of Magic:

In a world of great crisis – pandemic, climate inequality – it’s not crazy to want to feel better. For all that magical thinkers cloak themselves in “skepticism” their beliefs are grounded in feelings. Evidence is tedious and ambiguous, emotions are quick and satisfying.

For many, technology is full of magic and wonder. However, often such perceptions are produced by our willingness to give ourselves over to the narrative. As Doctorow explains in his response to Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:

Surveillance capitalists are like stage mentalists who claim that their extraordinary insights into human behavior let them guess the word that you wrote down and folded up in your pocket but who really use shills, hidden cameras, sleight of hand, and brute-force memorization to amaze you.

Rather than handing myself over to a world of magic and mentalists, I am more interested in trying to be more informed. For me this come by asking questions, learning with others and continuing to challenge myself.  As Clive Thompson touches on in regards to coding, this often involves repetitive work done over time.

You should try to do some coding every day—at least, say, a half hour.

Why? Because this is just like learning Spanish or French: Fluency comes from constant use. To code is to speak to a computer, so you should be speaking often. Newbies often try to do big, deep dives on the weekends, but that’s too infrequent.

This repetition is not only about understanding simple processes, but also building on this to join the pieces together to how they maybe interconnected. One way of appreciating this is using the SOLO Taxonomy, a learning model that focuses on quality over quantity. It involves a  progression of understanding from the task at hand to more generalised leanings.

The model consists of five levels of understanding:

  • Pre-structural – The task is not attacked appropriately; the student hasn’t really understood the point and uses too simple a way of going about it.
  • Uni-structural – The student’s response only focuses on one relevant aspect.
  • Multi-structural – The student’s response focuses on several relevant aspects but they are treated independently and additively. Assessment of this level is primarily quantitative.
  • Relational – The different aspects have become integrated into a coherent whole. This level is what is normally meant by an adequate understanding of some topic.
  • Extended abstract – The previous integrated whole may be conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction and generalised to a new topic or area.

Doug Belshaw talks about levels of understanding in regards to moving from competencies to literacies.

In a similar vein to the SOLO taxonomy I believe there’s a continuum from skills through competencies to literacies. As individuals can abstract from specific contexts they become more literate. So, in the digital domain, being able to navigate a menu system when it’s presented to you — even if you haven’t come across that exact example before — is a part of digital literacy.

This is something I tried to get capture in my presentation at K-12 Digital Classroom Practice Conference a few years ago where I explored ways in which different Google Apps can be combined in different way to create a customised ongoing reporting solution. It was not just about Docs or Classroom, but about the activity of curating, creating, distributing and publishing.

John Philpin approaches this problem from a different angle. Responding to the question as to whether we should all learn to code, he suggests that appreciating how technology works is actually an important part of any business. This does not mean you need to have written all the code, but it does mean you have an awareness of how things work.

You wouldn’t think about running a business if you didn’t have the fundamental understanding of law and accounting, why would you assume that it is ok not to understand technology.

This touches on Douglas Rushkoff’s point about programming or being programmed.

Coming back to my work, I feel appreciating these pieces is not only helpful in understanding the ways in which technology is a system, but also the way strategic risks can be taken when approaching something new. In Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about measured risks:

It is much more sound to take risks you can measure than to measure the risks you are taking.


For me this means taking risks based on prior learnings and experience. I may not have all the answers, but I think I am good at capturing particular problems at hand and with that drawing on past practice to come up with possible solutions. I am going to assume this is why people come to me with such diverse questions and quandaries.

I am not saying all this because I feel that I know and understand everything. However, I cannot help but feel that references to ‘magic’ are often attempts to cover up the hard work, sacrifice and opportunity that produce such moments. As always, comments welcome.


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Instead of having a donate now button on my website, I have buy now and hire me buttons.

With the move to platforms like Patreon, it leaves me wondering about the impact on the wider community.


I opened my feed today to find Doug Belshaw has made the move from Gumroad to Patreon. After the recent glitch involving fees, it seems that there is a growing move to the platform within the group of people I engage with online.

Adi Robertson explains how:

Patreon offers individuals the opportunity to provide a more profound level of support: donors aren’t just supporting art; they’re supporting a person, an art style, or an idea.

While Cory Doctorow argues that:

The measure of Patreon’s success isn’t creating an army of full-time creators with middle-class incomes where none existed before: it’s ensuring that the money generated by art goes primarily to artists.

My question is the consequence of depending on patronage. As Seth Godin states in What to do when it’s your turn?:

When you overstate the obligation of the audience, of course they’ll let you down, and when they do, you don’t have to show up again. What a great excuse to stop making art, to hide …

It’s not your turn to win, or your turn to be picked, or even your turn to be guaranteed gratitude … it’s merely your turn to give a gift.

For me, this comes back to Bill Ferriter’s warning about chasing wider audiences. However, it also touches on his idea of ‘bringing your own audience’. For Belshaw, this allows him to provide a more uncensored side to his patrons.

In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon makes the case for giving stuff away and instead focusing on selling art and services:

Instead of having a donate now button on my website, I have buy now and hire me buttons.

A part of this process is the production of a mailing list:

I know people who run multimillion-dollar businesses off of their mailing lists. The model is very simple: They give away great stuff on their sites, they collect emails, and then when they have something remarkable to share or sell, they send an email. You’d be amazed at how well the model works.

Cory Doctorow has reflected on the benefit of giving away his books, discussing how it has led to an increase in readership, people actually buying the books and opportunities:

This “market research” of giving away e-books sells printed books. What’s more, having my books more widely read opens many other opportunities for me to earn a living from activities around my writing, such as the Fulbright Chair I got at USC this year, this high-paying article in Forbes, speaking engagements and other opportunities to teach, write and license my work for translation and adaptation. My fans’ tireless evangelism for my work doesn’t just sell books–it sells me.

Although Doctorow does have a place for ‘donations’, it is so that you can buy a copy for a library.

This approach to giving stuff away is an approach I have taken. I blog, I help out where I can, I share, inspired in part by Kleon and Belshaw.

I started a monthly newsletter. This is as much about connecting ideas within the community as it is about promoting my own work. Maybe one day I will have something else to offer, then I will reach out and share with my supporters. Until then, I will keep on giving stuff away.

I have also taken this mindset to the way that I engage with others. Rather than become a patron, I try and buy what they are selling. For example:

  • Micro.blog: I do not pay for Micro.Blog and did not support the Kickstarter campaign. I neither want my blog hosted on Micro.Blog, that is what I pay Reclaim Hosting for, nor do I want to use Micro.Blog to syndicate, I use SNAP for that. However, I am happy to pay and support Manton Reece’s book once he finishes writing it.
  • Visual Thinkery: I paid for Bryan Mathers stickers. Truth be known, because I love his work. In a strange way, it made me feel a part of the Visual Thinkery tribe. I am yet to use most of them though. However, I use the sketch he made me in my signature, as well as for my newsletter. To me, how I use them is not necessarily the point. It supports Bryan to do more work, that is what matters.
  • Ben Collins: I read Collins’ blog and subscribe to his newsletter/mailing list. He gives away a lot and is always willing to clarify any technical queries. Subsequently, when he announced that he was developing a self-paced course on Pivot Tables, I was there. I started it, but got distracted. I know that I will get back to it eventually, but I also know that I am supporting Collins in a small way to keep on doing his work.

Maybe this is just me? Maybe it merely reflects my privilege of having a contract, rather than living from one gig to the next? Maybe my stuff is not worth selling? Maybe I am just missing something? As always, comments welcome.


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flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

I remember when, while still studying at university, I attended my first educational conference. It was the History Teachers Association National Conference. Being new, I had no idea how to choose what sessions to attend. That is how I ended up in a session reviewing the recent changes to the senior syllabus. To add to matters, I walked in late and the session had already started. There were comments being thrown around left, right and centre. On one hand I felt lost and out of place, but on the other hand it demonstrated to me what was required, both in regards to appreciation of the complexity of the curriculum, as well as the work I still needed to do in order to get my head around the topic. I had a similar feeling reading Cory Doctorow’s book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free – Laws for the Internet Age.

Author, blogger and activitst, Doctorow provides a vision of now. Along with critics such as Quinn Norton and Audrey Watters, he captures a dystopian side of technology too often overlooked in the mainstream media. Although there are those such as Sherry Turkle who highlight the negative impacts of technology, Doctorow focuses on the choices that are so often dictated onto society by governments and large corporations.

Influenced by Arthur C. Clarke, Doctorow frames this discussion around three ‘laws’:

  1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and wont give you the keys that lock isnt there for your benefit.
  2. Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it.
  3. Information doesn’t want to be free, people do.

Through his investigations he touches on how coding works, including ways it can be broken, and why the use of digital locks, hidden code and DRM is a problem, not a solution. He talks about how with access to the biggest audience machine ever a little bit of fame can go a long way. However, this can also lead us into the trap of handing over rights to our work in the name of popularity and promotion. Doctorow also addresses the place of copyright in a digital age, exploring aspects, such as censorship, remixes, national firewalls and the spread of ideas.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age does not make the claim, like some, that ‘Google’ is making us dumb, rather that corporations are creating a world that restricts our freedoms and limits our privacy. The concern is not the strangers online supposedly waiting for prey to stalk upon, but 1’s and 0’s mined unbeknownst to us by online companies. Although there is a lot of fear associated with all of this, it does not have to be that way and Doctorow is keen to point out that there is still hope. The question though is what tomorrow are we willing to fight for? This is an important read not only to appreciate the world that we are in, but to build an awareness of the impact of the choices made either by us or for us each and every day.

Here is a collection of quotes for a different perspective on the book:


While for those interested in Doctorow’s ideas, I recommend the following videos:



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Deliberate Practice is more than practice done deliberately. It’s a way of operating in a zone whereby 95% proficiency can be achieved within a relatively short space of time by focusing in on more granular skills. These, in turn, produce habits — both in terms of muscle memory and habits of mind. Doug Belshaw ‘Deliberate Practice and Digital Literacies’

This semester I have been using Edublogs with my students. This has included managing over 70 student blogs, all facilitated through one ‘class’ blog. By using this workflow, students are able to keep up with different ideas being shared in the stream presented within the dashboard. A stripped back view of the posts which, like applications and add-ons, such as Pocket and Evernote’s Clearly, cut posts back to their basics. This has worked for some, while for others the experience is frustrating. Although some get annoyed at the visual layout, the biggest issue seems to be managing the plethora of information in a meaningful way.

One solution that I have been tinkering with of late is changing the way I use the class blog. Originally, I had imagined using the central space to house resources about blogging. Whether it be creating images, visualising information or adding different content. Although I still think that there is a place for such posts, I wonder if they are best housed elsewhere leaving the class space becomes something of a meeting spot. The question though is how?

One idea that I came upon via Doug Belshaw on the TIDE Podcast is to use the P2 Theme within WordPress (Houston in Edublogs) to create a personalised social media space. Unlike the usual blogging themes, which rely on navigating the dashboard and drafting posts, P2 constrains the process to being able to quickly text and tag. My thought was that students could then share canonical links to their work or other interesting ideas, similar to Twitter. It also provides a safe space to learn about social media and explore. Although spaces like Edmodo and Google Classroom offer a similar functionality, neither allows users to organise their posts or have any sort of ownership over their content.

Although Twitter would offer much the same experience, it is not necessarily the solution for every context. One of the issues that is brought up again and again is the privacy. Creating a digital sandpit is a step towards that in that it provides the means for a safer and more supportive environment. Whether it be knowing what to share or how to protect themselves online, we need to consciously teach our students best practise when it comes to participating on the web. We need to develop the deliberate practice of students regularly sharing their work and ideas in collaborative spaces.

For a different perspective on technology and web literacy, watch Cory Doctorow’s informative TED Talk which explores the questions of privacy and networks in schools:


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