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January 24, 2012

By jleffron


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Of Serifs & Silk – Analog Learning in a Post-Analog World

Every few months it seems that the topic of handwriting comes up – generally revolving around the question: Should we still bother with teaching handwriting in this digital age?

It’s a question I’ve looked at on-an-off over a number of years; part of a series of questions about learning in a post-analog world.

There’s some interesting research on the topic, from fields like haptics and embodied cognition.*  Good stuff, important stuff; I’m always looking for more…

Understanding how writing, literacy, cognition, memory and attention work together is critical, but it’s not the only reason we need to look at handwriting and other analog activities in the context of learning.

Today I’m going to be a bit lazy (academically) and look at this with just some good old horse-sense.  It’s not just a straightforward cognition issue (that is a key element, but not the only aspect).  On a practical level, we are physical people and we do respond differently to the tactile than to the digital.

The efficiencies gained in the past 20-30 years of digital development, are quite evident.  Remember drafting images for presentation slides by hand, and then sending them over to the slide-makers to be photographed? (Of course the upside was that there were a lot fewer slides in any given talk.)

But, with any gains in efficiency there are necessary losses elsewhere and it’s good to weigh those in the balance.  By moving things from the slow and tedious to the brilliant and efficient, we may, along the way, lose some intimacy with the material – and, through that, miss out on some wide-ranging insights.

There is, of course, the famous story of Steve Jobs studying calligraphy and how that parlayed into the variety of fonts, the proportional spacing – all the visual elements that made the Macintosh so staggering when it was released.  He had a kind intuitive grasp of both the principles and the beauty of fonts that came from his extensive work with them; and he was able to translate that into a new sphere.**

In a similar vein to the handwriting vs. keyboarding question: With machine knits in every store, what is the value (beyond pure recreation) of learning to knit?  Having taught a few people to knit – I’ve watched them learn some interesting things. Things like:  wool, silk and cotton each have a different elasticity, which leads to some consideration of plant vs. animal fibers (and the underlying cell differences), the nature of protein chains… Things that they would learn in biology class, and which will now have a real, personal meaning.   It’s non-trivial stuff.

Clearly this isn’t to say that all students should try knitting, or calligraphy; its about tactile people building translatable insights from tactile experiences.

Sometimes we just need to ask the question: If the digital machine can do it faster and better, when is their value in doing things in the physical world?

There are situations where the answer is obvious, like when you are designing a manufacturing plant – you step away from the design screen and walk through the actual space and consider things like “If we move these pipes up a foot, we won’t have to duck every time we walk under them.”

It’s not so straightforward in learning, though.  We don’t have time for people to build a deep, personal knowledge of everything, and they probably don’t need to build it.  But based on your learning goals you probably have some notion of the peripheral concepts that your learners would benefit from having a good gut-feel for.  That is a good pointer to determining the types of experiential learning in one area that will greatly support digital learning in many others.

* Of note: written text is processed in the auditory centers of the reader’s brain; Braille is processed in the visual centers.  I’ve yet to find many studies about what parts of the brain are activated when writing by hand and also by keyboard.  Would welcome links on that.

** Interestingly, there was a related phenomenon when AutoCAD was introduced into the drafting profession.  Those who had started with hand drafting tended to produce AutoCAD designs with fewer errors than those who had only used AutoCAD during their carreers. This may have been because errors in hand drafting were a pain to correct, so hand drafters learned not to make them, but generally speaking it seemed that those who spend some time designing plants or buildings by hand had a deeper awareness of the systems as a whole, they weren’t just digital objects to put into place.
November 14, 2011

By jleffron


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Putting (Non-Traditional) Learning to the Test

There was an eye-catching article in the WSJ this weekend: Online Education: My Teacher Is an App.”

The author was looking at online public schools as an alternative to the traditional classroom model. The article spends a good bit space comparing test scores between online and classroom students and making note of the consistently lower test scores of the online students. Interestingly, the discussion of test scores follows a number of comments from student who discuss how much they are getting out of online learning.  So either the students are dead wrong about how much they are learning (possible), or testing isn’t necessarily the best measure of learning (also possible) Both may be true; they are not mutually exclusive, but….

I found the article a bit cringe-inducing for a simple reason: it’s missing the point.

Test Scores are not Learning.

Even when I was in grade school I could see through standardized testing; the weaknesses were quite visible. I usually had extremely high marks on my tests, so my beef wasn’t against testing per se – it made me look good. But I also wasn’t stupid. I knew full well who was cleverer than I was in ways that mattered, often clever in ways that would involve creating things (what we would now call “innovation” ,but at 12, I didn’t really toss that word around a lot, I just knew what I saw). But some of the innovators didn’t necessarily score well on tests.

Test Scores are not Ability.

In college, I would study in the labs with a fellow student working through samples and discussing processes. His depth of understanding would blow me away, but come test time, he’d get a C, and I’d get an A.

Test Scores are not Mastery.

It may be that the online students had lower standardized test scores because they haven’t learned as much as classroom students. But it might also be that that they scored lower because they learned more. It’s possible that they were busy learning, discovering… while their classroom counterparts were being taught how to succeed on tests.

Ultimately, though, the whole conversation in this article points to something deeper than test scores. The reliance on standardized tests as the basis of measuring learning (and structuring the educational system) is a symptom of a bigger issue: the overlying assumption that learning is something which can generally be standardized, and which is scalable.

What can we validly test at a massive scale? Standardized tests can do a decent job of measuring basic skills: things like the ability to do arithmetic, and perhaps the ability to read with comprehension, to write a coherent sentence and paragraph? Those are foundational tools for any job or just living life (balance the accounts, read an email from your boss, write a thank you letter…).

Skills are good, even necessary.  But there’s a difference between using standardized tests to verify skills, and using them to define education.

Learning is not inherently scaleable** nor stadardize-able. Evolving technology can either be used to build even more extensive cookie-cutter approaches to education, or it could be a golden ticket to something better – a chance to allow for a more human scale of learning; supporting the creation of something quite remarkable – allowing something more than standardization. I’ve been playing with this a lot lately. So much in fact that it’s becoming a major focus of my work.

I don’t see myself as taking on education reform as a whole – that’s far too complex and extensive a problem for my abilities. Instead I’m playing with ideas like narratives, and games (meaning world-building, not gamification); looking at how digital and tactile environments affect learning and how they can work together; and I’m using lots of very bad, and highly labored, analogies. You’re welcome to come join in. (Website going live very soon.)




**Looking at learning in its uber-scaled, standardized test format, compared to what learning can be, is rather like the difference between a strawberry milkshake at the local fast food emporium as opposed to fresh strawberries and cream at the local cafe. The same base ingredients, but what a difference in the delivery. Uniform, prefrabricated goo versus the lovely individual dish, with it’s mix of flavors, colours and textures. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m in the “strawberries and cream” camp on this one.



September 26, 2011

By jleffron


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Blogs and Presentations, Learning, Rigour

In Praise of Critiques

I don’t like criticism, which probably puts me in pretty good company. But I like critiques very much.

Yesterday there was some lively discussion on Twitter  about the use of public critiques as a learning tool. The phrase “learning tool” is the key – critiques are about learning, not correction.

Critiques are not a new tool for learning, many university Music and Art Departments post their guidelines for effective critiquing online. It’s not a tool restricted to the world of performing arts; at it’s best public critiquing is a civilized discussion of a person’s work, looking at what’s good, what’s lacking, what other avenues could be pursued. It’s a blend of offering needed objectivity and providing additional germane resources. It’s discourse, it’s learning, and it can be a bit unnerving to the uninitiated; but that last bit doesn’t have to be the case.

Consider the popular site Critters.org where there are loads of people actively seeking critiques of their novels and short stories. Why would someone do this? If you’ve written a piece of fiction, even if you (rightly) suspect that it’s absolute dreck, you’ll be irrationally fond of it, protective of it; you love it like your firstborn child, so why seek out critiques? The answer seems to be simply this: for writers, improving in their craft matters more than their fear of hearing something negative about their work; they know they need that objective outside voice.

Common Objections

Supposing you’re sold on the notion of critiques. It’s still not all sunshine and daffodils, because there a few hurdles to clear before most people are going to jump on the “Critiquing is Awesome” band wagon. And they’re big ones.

If critiques are going to be effective as a learning tool, there are some logistics to be addressed, in the form of trust, culture (individual and organizational), and personality. Some of these are clearly not in your control; but you can usually address enough of them to be successful. Being aware of obstacles allows you to address them up front in your learning design.

As an example in some organizations the nature of the work is such that “failure is not an option” (things like nuclear power plants and neurosurgery come to mind) but that’s the big picture view the performance of the job. During the learning process, it has to be clear that critiques are not indicators of failure but stepping stones to success – or at least are akin to bumper bowling, keeping you from drifting too far off target.

Of course, there may be some cultures where critiques are a bad match. In a company with an up-or-out policy critiques may turn to daggers pretty fast.

Making it Work

In most circumstances it’s probably not the best plan to jump in with full throttle critiquing.

The whole notion of critiques is a bit contrary to our nature, or at least to our habits. It’s a bit like going for a swim in very cold lake – most of us like to ease in a little at a time; jumping in right off the bat is likely shock all but the most hearty folks right back out onto the shore. So, you need to help people want to swim in the (metaphorical) water, and then make it as painless as possible for them to ease into it.

Let’s look at back at those writers who willingly seek critiques – what’s going on there? In general it boils down to a sense that “the success of my project; the excellence of my work has risen to a higher priority than my fears or feelings”. We might call this “engagement” in the learning world. There has to be a sense that what is being achieved worth the investment.

So, let’s say you’ve done your up-front work and you have group that says “we’re so committed to excellence in understanding that what we want mutual public critiquing here so we can maximize our learning curve”. You still have real people with real fears and feelings, so how do you ease them into critiquing?

The first step will be tough: as an instructor you need to minimize the teaching and leave a void for people to fill. Cover the principles and potential pitfalls of the subject, but then turn folks loose. Critiquing is participatory by it’s nature. Too much noise from the instructor tends to silence the other voices; provide guideposts as needed, but let people wander around a bit and find their way.

Imagine the following scenario: you’re an instructor trying to build critiquing in your class. What might you do to get the conversation started?  One approach might look like this:

  1. Step away from spoon-feeding information and then fill that gap with brain-work. You have your learners “Read 5 of these 8 sources (and others if you like), then write an opinion/commentary on 2 of them. Leave comments on at least 4 other posts; your comments should be substantial. Bring in relevant information from other sources to support your comments as needed.” Repeat every week and pretty quickly comments evolve into meaningful, complex discussions. The learners realize that critiques aren’t red marks on paper, they are conversation; invitation to discourse.
  2. Build up to the big time. When there is a high comfort level, you might move onto oral assessments, taken collectively where students can amplify or refute comments made – shared marks on this kind of assessment can lead to a group of learners really working to build the best possible responses to questions. In this setting the only failure is lack of preparation, thought or constructive contribution. I’ve seen this work in real life – the students all agreed it was the most they’d learned in a class, and the most excited they’d been about preparing for classes.

Make no mistake: the instructor does not get off easily in this format. Sure there’s less lecture on information, but the workload shifts to preparation and mediation Curating a list of readings and references, creating the discussion formats, addressing group culture and checks/balances that will work with the learners at hand will all take some serious time on the front end. Even more important will be knowing the learners, knowing what’s going to convince them that (insert topic here)  is vital to them.

A lot of time especially early on, may be spent providing mediation in conversations in order to keep balance, allow voices to be heard, and redirect non-constructive approaches. This requires a bit of a deft hand, and more than a dash of diplomacy in some cases. But it’s really a big chunk of the learning – learning how to exchange ideas (even differing ones) rationally and respectfully; recognizing that you just might be wrong about some things; and it may be the others are also quite wrong, but collectively you might all hash through the wrong and get to something approaching “right”*. In particular, if this is the first time learners have walked through this model, there may be a learning curve from violent disagreement (or violent agreement) to actual discourse.

When done well, critiques a bit like Beta testing for ideas. Ideally in the course of discussion, terms are defined, assertions are supported and a spectrum of opposing opinions are allowed, all of which refines the original work.  And like Beta testing, ] the learning comes from hashing through the “Whys” in the critiques as much as from the “Whats”.

June 11, 2011

By jleffron


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Learning Design from an Unusual Source

If you need to help a person, or even 20 people, learn something, it’s easy do so in a highly personal way; recognizing what is relevant, what’s already known, discussing the merits and problems in alternative approaches to that which is being learned.  You can personally see if people are “getting it” and customize on the fly to make the learning more valuable and more memorable.  It’s great.

If you’re tasked with assuring that 20,000 employees (or, say, every 8th grader in the New York Public School System) all have the same level of learning or achievement in a topic, things look a bit different.  With a large and (effectively) anonymous group, you have to assume a certain “least common denominator”.  This means you layer on a lot of detail that might not be necessary for all learners, whether it be background knowledge specialized information that might only have value to certain user groups.

Scaling learning is tough.  It’s like the difference between fresh strawberries and cream at the local cafe versus a pre-fab strawberry shake at a fast food franchise.  They might both have the same core ingredients, but scale (and the need for uniformity and efficiency at large scales) has a huge impact on the delivery.

I don’t need to tell you how this translates to onboarding training, or new software training, or <insert tedious course title here> in the workplace.  You already know. In the same way, you know how it looks when a school curriculum is built to support state standardized tests.  It’s fast food milkshakes, served up one size fits all.

But that’s not an inevitable outcome, as I was reminded when got an email about, an online magazine dedicated to, of all things, knitting socks.


And it got me thinking…

When an organization is designing a course for a large group, they need:

  • People to be engaged, interested, somehow pulled into the necessary task so that they not only complete it but actually learn from it
  • Assurance that learners will gain the essential fundamentals
  • Affordability.

As I looked at Sockupied, I realized it hit those criteria smack in the bulls-eye.

Interest and Engagement

People who design magazines live or die on getting your attention, and then keeping it.  They are good at “Made you look!” covers and headlines, but they won’t sell a copy if that’s all there is.  They know how people visually and mentally track, not just through pages, through the entire magazine.  Some folks read cover to cover, some hop from topic to topic.  Both kinds of readers have to get enough value from the magazine to make it worth shelling out the money, so magazine folks design content that works for both kinds of readers.

Learning the Fundamentals (and beyond)

Knitting is like a lot of workplace (or classroom)n tasks.  There are certain fundamentals that you have to do right to get the result you want.   But beyond those fundamentals there’s a lot of latitude for individual approaches.  I love how Sockupied demonstrates the principles of personalization within the inherent constraints of the topic:  the pros, the cons…  and let’s show you few videos… oh, and here are some examples of how variations will affect your material needs or end product.



Cost is Always an Issue

Budgets are always a tough point in learning design, so I found myself doing some informal mental calculations.  How many people are actually going to buy an emagazine that is solely devoted to knitting socks.   I doubt we are talking sales in the millions, probably not even 10’s of thousands.  Combining that with the price tag of $15 and the need to turn a profit, tells me that this is kind of learning can be fairly economical for organizations and schools that have outgrown the “strawberries and cream” scale of instruction.

I think most folks would be happy to bypass click-through training for something is beautifully compiled and accessible, adaptable, flexible and with a variety of support mechanism (from good quality video to forums which allow questions and a chance to showcase personal innovations)…  And like any good magazine, you can put it on the virtual shelf so it’s there for reference, review, and just-in-time learning when you want to try a new approach sometime down the road.

I’ve never knit a sock, but this emagazine actually makes me want to try.  That’s a good metric for course design – it should make you want to dig in, learn some more, and build a new skill.


December 14, 2010

By Michael Effron


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Project Platypus

Project Platypus

A digital learning site, providing a guided learning environment which immerses the learner into a business problem and teaches them new skills as they work through the problem.  Available: Fall 2011