Living like a Mayfly

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Zero motivation?  What’s that?  When did I think that I had a motivation problem?  It’s so last month.

I did start to overcommit, so I’ve toned down a little from my frantic whirlwind tour of study, doing things to the house (eternally – OK, so I can’t stop that), heavy duty gardening, and most recently, testing eLearning plugins for WordPress.  It all took off again because I needed to complete my tax return and am a master procrastinator when it comes to engaging in horror.  But – yippee! – I completed the tax return back in May and continued on this motivational plane to better things.

Experimenting with eLearning plugins on WordPress

Elearning has interested me since it took off in a big way over a decade ago.  I learned French and German (ultimately getting another degree) through distance learning on the Moodle platform, and I taught undergraduate and master’s students the same way.  For quite some time now, I’ve been interested in creating my own eLearning environment in order for me and possibly a few colleagues to deliver small scale courses combined with live AV tutorials – a blended learning experience with or without face-to-face sessions to enhance them.  The benefit of working purely online is clear; your students can study from anywhere, and only live online tutorial times could be awkward.  Adding face-to-face rules out participation by many students, although it’s still the choice of many students (and teachers), because body language is an important part of communication – and crowd management is easier.

However, the number of books available to teach you how to use Moodle suggested to me that it may be quite complex to set up a full distance learning experience on the very small scale which I require.  What’s more, fans of WordPress course creation plugins specifically refer to the small amount of storage required by comparable WordPress sites and their increased loading speed.  This sounds like a better option for me.

A friend kindly set up a little sandpit area for me on his server so that I could test a few tools.  Up to this point, I had never tried out the downloadable WordPress software, instead using the wordpress.com platform hosted direct on the WordPress servers (like the completely free site you are on now, and also for the hobby art site which I share with my husband over at www.art4begonias.com).  This doesn’t allow for the sorts of plugins available for wordpress.org.

 

TeachPress – good and basic

First of all, I tried out TeachPress, which is a good tool, even if it doesn’t have as much as I am likely to need.  As someone not often known to “RTFM” (read the ahem manual) first, I found it easy to set up a mock course and add a test student.  It was certainly a good way to dip into course creation tools, and would be up to the task for many course creators, particularly in a blended learning environment, for example, in support of a college class.  TeachPress also allows you to manage publications, and has BibTex support for referencing, which makes it ideal for that class support option.

CoursePress – powerful and easy to learn

I then moved on to CoursePress, which provides many more features, yet seems easier to set up than TeachPress – perhaps because I’d already gone through the process with the other plugin.  The enrolment process to add new students went a little more easily with TeachPress, but as I didn’t read any instructions for CoursePress either, I can hardly criticise that it took me a while to working it out.  Learning by doing is definitely my thing!  I love the easy integration of different types of media (consider linking externally to video if you don’t have a lot of storage space in your hosting package), text blocks, documents and so on.  CoursePress even comes with an attractive customisable theme which allows you to add your company/school logo to the page.

There are two versions of CoursePress – free (allowing the creation of two courses), and Course Press Pro (scroll down the link page for details), which is a subscription based model.  To be honest, if you could muster a dozen students using one or two different courses, you could probably afford to move to the subscription model.  It would be a business expense, in any case.  Nevertheless, the free version is a powerful plugin and would keep individual course creators going for a while without the need to upgrade.

The total time I spent messing around with both course plugins was roughly three hours without ever trying any of this stuff before.  During that time, I was able to enrol my test students on both platforms, set up a few test modules, upload documents and link to external video sources – all without reading any instructions, so just think how much quicker it might have been if I had read the info!  In essence, this is easy peasy stuff even if you have no clue about running fancy things on WordPress.  Clearly, I need a lot more time to find to delve into the nitty gritty of these platforms, but given how much you can do for free, I’m impressed.

Next stop, Simple:Press and marketing plugins

I’d like to check out other course creation plugins, but purely out of curiosity, as I think that I’ve already found what I’m looking for in CoursePress, and you can spend forever testing without ever accomplishing anything.  You never know whether a better – and still free – plugin might be around the corner, though, so feel free to suggest alternatives in the comments section.

My next stop will be to investigate forum plugins.  A course which I’m studying  at the moment (spot the lifelong learner) uses the Simple:Press plugin.  If you’re familiar with the Moodle platform and how its forums work, you will already be familiar with the functions of a Simple:Press forum, which looks much the same.  It allows you to do similar things in terms of quoting, adding topics, formatting text and so on.  It’s free to download and use, but there are additional features which you could unlock through subscription if you need them.  The link I’ve given here takes you straight to the features page, but scrolling down will show the additional plugins available through subscription.

I have given absolutely no thought to marketing courses yet, but there is clearly no point in trying to set anything up without first thinking of that.  Another thing on the agenda.

If you have tried WordPress plugins to create courses and have found a blend which works for you, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences.

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My goals are like eggs. How do I make them hatch?

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Do you have goals for the summer?  Do you know what you want to achieve?  Is there something which you must achieve?

On Thursday evening, I participated in a webinar on setting summer goals, and I realised that I didn’t really have any – or anyone to share them with if I did have them.  I always used to have lots of clear goals – I’m a great list maker – and I even used to achieve many of them, despite the number.  I still kind of have goals, but that live chat session made me realise how vague my goals are, and that even the short-term stuff has kind of morphed into long-term.  Right now – today, this week, this month – I am just drifting along.  So I set to thinking through what I want to achieve and setting time limits.

And you know what?  I think that everyone should do this once in a while!

When I realised how lax my goals really were, I admit that my thoughts were mixed – guilt that I had relaxed too much, fear that I would achieve nothing, then motivation that now I would definitely achieve something, if only because I had noticed that I needed to.  I’m still on though number three, but I have to get those goals organised before that motivation dissipates.

Most of my time is spent alone, and that means that I rely entirely on myself for motivation.  Yes, yes, there is Facebook to keep in touch with my friends far away, but that’s not like sitting down with someone and chatting over a cup of tea and a biscuit, setting the world to rights and incidentally coming up with great ideas (which is what I do over tea and biscuits with friends, anyway).  It’s rare that I even chat with people on the phone, other than for work.  I’ve also – oh horror! – got into the absolutely-no-routine pattern.  That is a surefire recipe to go nowhere.

So let’s take a look at this business of setting targets, and how that’s going to work.

Personal, household or work?

First of all, take a look at each part of your life, just as I’m doing as I type.  Although the chat session on Thursday was focussed purely on work goals, I realised that right now, I have no immediate goals for anything.  I know that I have a number of music gigs in the calendar and that I will meet my parents today, but beyond that, I don’t even know exactly what I want to do when I wake up tomorrow morning.  My thoughts are filled with probablys.  So it’s time for an overhaul.  Right now!  Why don’t you try it, too?  Move along with me here, while I pretend that I am somebody else and give myself some advice.

Personal

These can be tough goals to set.  A lot of people think of personal goals related to work (“I want a better job”).

What I’m talking about here is ensuring your well-being – your health and happiness.  Do you need to build confidence?  De-stress?  Spend more time with your family?  Manage a medical condition better?  Tackling these sorts of personal goals can be the key to achieving anything else at all.

Some of my friends use meditation to tackle stress, and the calm puts them in the right place to improve their confidence.  Mindfulness has become the thing of the moment, and you can find courses everywhere or work through a book.  One of my friends swears by an app called Headspace, so I tried it.  A man with a pleasant voice guides you into a state of calm.  That’s it!  And if you do that regularly, you will reduce your stress.  It’s simple, really.  If you are not calm, then you can’t just say to yourself “right, today I will be calm, no matter what!”.  Calm takes practise, like music, drawing, maths, building brick walls…

You should also begin to sleep better when you achieve a sense of calm (medical conditions causing pain aside), and better quality sleep will help you see things more clearly during your waking hours.  What’s more, if you like Headspace and want to dig deeper, for a small fee you can subscribe to further meditation programmes to help you manage your health, improve your confidence, job prospects and even tackle emergencies.  I’m still happy with the free version – I have some way to go simply to learn to be calm – but I may yet decide to subscribe.

Have you ever heard about the need to surround yourself with positive people and remove the negative ones?  Let’s rule out negativity caused by difficult times – those people need you just as you might need them during your own difficult times.  The others, though, the leeches who drain you of positivity, who dwell on any hint of misery and seem to make it their mission to make you feel bad?  You don’t need them.  Difficult people can dominate your life to the extent that you believe everyone to be the same.  I removed just a couple of people and discovered that everyone else was great.  My thinking improved almost immediately without those black clouds hovering over me, and I felt happier to be sociable again.

Once you find yourself back on track, move on and set new goals.  I mention this, because I didn’t.  It was some time ago that I realised the need to tackle my thinking, my stress, negative influences and several other issues before I even worried about other goals related to work, the house and so on.  I set about working on a group of personal goals and it worked!  But that chat session last night showed me that I hadn’t moved on.

OK, what’s next?

Household

It might sounds odd to include this, but if you’re as haphazard as me, you will go through periods of not noticing how full the laundry bin has become, or that the larder has got in a mess and needs a good tidy.  Organised people don’t have magic fairies to do the cleaning; they schedule these things.  This is not about obsessive cleaning, but about maintenance.  These are dull jobs, and we put them off, but many of them are really quick – if you don’t leave it until you have to do all of them at once!

There was a series on British TV some years back called “How Clean is your House?” which took a voyeuristic view at the grotty, shambolic living conditions of a different person or family each week.  My house, I can say with complete confidence, is much cleaner than any of those.  On the other hand, although I don’t want it to be a show home, I do want to make sure that I keep on top of the tumbleweeds of cat fur, piles of laundry and get the dishes done.  On reflection, I think I need a magic fairy…

I’m never going to have a spotless desk, but contrary to the idea that a tidy desk is the sign of an empty mind, I am now convinced that it allows you space to think.  It’s calmer.  Having to clear a space every time you need one saves time and frustration, and allows you to get on with the work or hobbies which need that space.

Pinterest is a great source of infographics and tips for household chores.

Running your house is not all about cleaning, though.  Try making a “home command centre” (a smart name for a central place to keep track of household matters and family appointments) in the corner of your kitchen, under the stairs or tucked away in some another bit of dead space.  Use it to keep track of bills – and pay them!  Here are some more command centres – you don’t even have to have a desk (although I think it helps you tackle important written tasks there and then).

Make a list of regular tasks; assign times to do them; stick to it!  And soon, very soon, I will take this advice.

Work

Employed

Are you already employed in a job which makes you happy and pays enough for you to live?  Great!  Skip this section – you’re done!

But what if you’re trying to get a promotion or even change jobs?  You need to think through the process.  Do you need a new CV?  That’s a quick goal to achieve, and there is a ton of online help available.  I did a quick Google search for British CV help and American resumes – remember that some jobs require a different style, though, so do your own search including British CV or American resume AND [your job choice].

Perhaps you need new skills to be able to move-up or on?  Look at adverts for the sorts of jobs you’re interested in and check whether a common skillset is required; if necessary, do the extra training by distance-learning or at night school.  If you have to retrain completely, you are going to have to set yourself a savings target first.  Look into sponsorship programmes, too, as some companies take on a potentially excellent candidates at a lower pay rate and help fund them through training.

Freelance

If you are a freelancer, setting regular targets is the only way to ensure that you stay in business.  Marketing is vital, but don’t get bogged down in reading about it – do it!  (Oh, I’m getting bogged down in reading, I see that now).

The simple fact is that if you are not marketing yourself, nobody knows about you.  You can get your initial marketing and web site up and running fairly cheaply.  Setting up a web site is a big topic in its own right, but let Google be your friend to help you find web hosting – and get something with email so that you can have a professional [your name/company]@[your domain.com].  The software available from WordPress.org is great for most people, removing the need to design everything from scratch, and there are lots of themes available to help you customise your site.

Think about your client targets.  How many potential clients do you need to contact in order to get one?  How many new clients do you need to meet your income targets?  Do the maths!

Just as it is with moving up in employment, the freelance life can often be enhanced with some form of professional development.  I’ve taken time off in order to focus on a training programme recently.  I’ve always studied alongside work, and find continuing/lifelong education valuable.  Professional development courses exist for almost every type of job, so consider doing something to keep your skills up to date or improve on an aspect which needs work.  Some courses require a weekend residential commitment, or a few hours per week over a month or two, while others need a lot more of your time over an extended period.  Don’t push yourself too hard with study, especially if you’re just getting back into the swing of it – remember to live, too!

Don’t be overambitious with your short-term goals

That’s what your medium and long-term goals are for.

Review your goals often.  If you were too ambitious, move the harder things to medium or long-term.  If you gave yourself an easy ride, well, you know what to do!

My goals

Okey-dokey, here we are.  I’ve managed a lot of the personal goals which I set recently, and I’m not going to worry about any more of those immediately.  I definitely need to get some organisation into this house, which is covered in a ton of recent art projects (the importance of hobbies), tumbleweeds of cat fur and rabbits (don’t ask).  At least the laundry pile is small!

It’s the work goals which I need to organise most.  I need to:

  • complete my 20 module training course (a whole summer project)
  • contact potential clients to fill some more of my working week (the maths says that I’m going to be busy with this throughout the summer so that I’m up to speed again when my course ends – trying to avoid dead time)
  • find two new business English students (teaching brings variety and contact when so much of my work is online)

I’ll review in July to check that these goals are working and that I’m not slacking.

Have a great week!
Catherine

Language trauma

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Today’s tasks include editing a couple of music reviews, making a huge space available to lay out everything I need to do my annual tax return and writing an article on living in Germany.

It’s the last one which enthuses me the most, but I haven’t decided what to do with it, so I’m currently working without payment in mind.  It leads me to wonder about the best way to prepare yourself for the move to a new country (Germany, in this case), how to learn the language and how to integrate.  Ultimately, I’ll look at the chances of a person remaining in that country for good if the move is one which can later be reversed (e.g. you are not a refugee and you may have a specific job which takes you overseas).

Even after eight years here, I’m still the main family communicator for anything more complex than the usual day to day necessities, although my parents and Tosh (husband) have gradually acquired the basic language skills that they need to get by.  The thing is that getting by isn’t enough unless you have a circle of friends who speak your native language, because it is amazing just how many topics even a general chit-chat might cover.  Unfortunately, English speakers are not only easy to find in Germany, but they also want to practise their English on you, making it easy to live without learning much of the language.

I always speak German with people as a matter of course – except when I’m out with my family, as they generally start speaking English and hope that everyone goes along with it.  Bizarrely, this is more isolating for me than it is for them.  I’ve often discovered years after meeting someone that they speak fluent English, only because one of my family meets them at some point.

I find it stressful to be the communicator and realise that I was often the one behind the scenes when we lived in the UK.  Maybe that has been good for me in the long run, but it was very hard in the early years.  I’ve found that this often happens in other families moving overseas, too.  Those who have children have an advantage; ultimately, the children will become completely fluent and probably take care of many small matters of communication as time wears on.  We don’t have children.

My article looks at ways of learning the language before moving.  I did, which was why I had a head start, but my course was primarily academic and actually didn’t set me up particularly well for the initial practical phase of living here.  How and what you learn relies on the funding you have available.  If you are moving overseas with your job, then the ideal would be to get your company to put you through a language course which will help you deal not only with your work, but also with living in your new country.

I just have to decide what to do with the article, now.