Buddhism and Thailand

This month, I enrolled in a 4 week course on Buddhism led by a member of our Unitarian Congregation here in Edmonton. I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions and the opportunity of this course coupled with my first opportunity to visit South East Asia, proved to be a great learning opportunity.

On the first evening of the course we were discussing basic Buddhist concepts including, of course, the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is that all life is suffering. These kind of all inclusive statements always make me suspicious -especially when they don’t align with own experience. In a similar way that I reject the Christian idea that I am an inevitable sinner, (though I do make mistakes) I have trouble conceiving of my life as continuous suffering.  With the caveat that I realize that I am a privileged male, with high status job, in a rich country, I mentioned this confusion  to the class and the course instructor. She wondered if my moments of anger weren’t suffering (but I don’t get  angry that often either) and I later reflected that certainly the degeneration of the body through aging causes suffering as most recently experienced with death of my Mother a few months ago. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure about the veracity of this first Noble Truth.

The evening after the second class of the seminar, I headed off to Bangkok to deliver the keynote at the Asian Regional Association for Open Courseware and Open Education Conference. The trip went well and I was met at the airport by my ever attentive Thai hosts, and driven to a nice hotel in downtown Bangkok. The next few days were spent touring the quite amazing sites, palaces, historic and modern temples in this capital city and attending the conference. It is a wonderful and privileged way to see the sites, with a local faculty member from the Thai Cyber University Project (my hosts for the whole journey) to guide and translate and a private driver

and the company of colleagues from Japan and the US. My talk went pretty well and the food, conversation and “networking” was great.   My hosts heard that I was interested in hammered dulcimer music and found a shop that sold me traditional Thai Khim, for a very reasonable price. Now, if I can only learn to tune and play it!!

Four days after my arrival in Thailand, we took a 70 minute flight to  Sakon Nahkon, capital of a state in North Eastern Thailand not far from the Laos border. This second conference was for an annual meeting of the computer service directors from all Thai Universities, held at Kasetsart University an Agricultural University. We attended the opening ceremony, wore our VIP badges, but the proceedings were in Thai, so we didn’t add much and spent the afternoon touring the rice, cotton and forestry test plots at the University.

That is when suffering struck!  A small discomfort in my stomach soon turned into a now becoming too familiar acute gastritis attack. The next 48 hours were spent retching and moaning about the suffering in my miserable life.  My hosts were very understanding and I was visited by a pharmacist and a physician and was relived from having to give my second lecture of the trip.

The Lord Buddha, had indeed taught me a lesson about suffering!

I recovered, though still a bit sore, for a two final days of touring, notably to the beautiful temple on the banks of the historic Mekong River. On our final day we visited  Ban Chiang World Heritage site, where evidence of brass and iron tool production from as early as 5500 years ago has been discovered – causing historians to rethink the Euro/African/Chinese centric view of early bronze age tool development.

We visited probably over 10 temples, all of which were very ancient, in very active use, or both. Orange robed monks were much in evidence in both towns and in the rural areas. Buddhism is a part of the day to day to lives of nearly everyone, as evidenced by the shrines in the yards of most houses. The monks, whose daily food is acquired each morning from the people and must be consumed by noon, treat this ‘begging’ as a gift to the people that allows them to earn good karma.

As expected the numbers of poor people, crowded cities, traffic jams and heat (for Canadian in January) were a bit much, but what stands out for me about this trip is my lesson on suffering, and the incredible kindness, constant smile and palms together greetings and gifts of the incredibly generous Thai people.

Joseph Priestly – The Man Who Invented Air and Unitarianism

Here is a link to the text of the sermon I did at the Westwood Unitarian Fellowship on April 15 2012.

The title comes from the great book by Steve Johnson, The Invention of Air. Priestly was an 18th century scientist, minister and radical political critic. He won great fame as the inventor of carbonated water and the first to isolate oxygen and many other gases. His outspoken politics and support for the American and French revolutions caused his home and lab to be burnt by the mob in in the United Kingdom and he was forced to less to the US.

He serves as an example of a great renaissance man, an inspiration – and a cautionary note, to us today.




Unitarians and Religion on the Net

I was pleased to hear Rev Brian Kiely talk this morning at Westwood Unitarian Congregation, where I am a long term member. Brian spoke about the effect, impact and opportunity presented by the Net for Unitarianism. His talk was inspired by a blog post from Peter Morales the current President of the US Unitarian Universalist Association.  Morales argues that the day of large churches and exclusively face-to-face communities is over, and that both mileniums and boomers are demanding organizations that allow for more flexibility, multimode interactions and greater networking opportunties. Brian reinforced these ideas with a challenge to broaden Unitarian contribution, engagement, influence and service beyond the increasingly aged population who shows up at Church on Sunday monrings.

These messages were, of course, “music to my ears” as I have preaching this message for over a decade. The service this morning reminded me of a talk I gave in 20o0  to the Canadian Unitarian Council annual meeting  in which I outlined three generations of net-enhanced churches (Sigh,  after an hour search through old machines, CD roms and flash drives, I think the text of this paper is truely gonzo! – Not to self – Get organized!!)

The first generation (where Westwood is today) uses the Net to facilitate  and adminstrate face-to-face organization. Our Westwood website is an example of a first generation tools as it serves as a useful resource for general information, announcmeents, newsletters and docuement management for our largely place-based organization.  The second generation (which Brian was urging us to grow into) blends face-to-face activities with net-based ones. For example holding meetings, rites of passage and celebrations in SecondLife, via SKYPE or using a myriad of other means by which spiritual and community activities take place both in person and on the Net. The eco-advantages of this blending are obvious, but more importantly it opens the door for participation beyond geographic borders. It also meets the lifestyle  of those who are managing an increasing large part of thier social, professional and leisure activities online. Brian also noted the capacity to add backchannels to Sunday service, running up twitter feeds, as reactions to or comment on the live service from F2F or distant net-based participants, as is comingly done in many of the Ed tech conferences that i attend these days.  The Third Generation I overviewed was religious or spiritual organizations that were “net-native” and that manage to broach temporal and geographic boundaries entirely by existing exclusively online. Even in 2000 a few of these “cyber churches” were operating but now a see a listing  of 23 Christian Cyberchurhes and numerous links to cyber Buddhism, Digital Islam and TechnoPaganism.

The key message from Brian was both the opportunity and the need to develop a support and outreach network that nourishes and energizes those  who idenify as Unitrains (or lapsed Unitarians) or the much larger groupo of people who can’t stand dogmatic, creedal religion, but who already belive and ascribe to the 7 principles of Unitarian- Universalism  (even if they have newer heard of them)!!. Many people today are socially committed to justice, seek diverse forms of spiritual, intellectual and social stimulation and learning, but they are not now, and never will be ,”church people”.

Groups, Nets and Sets in Religion and in Education

The talk also resonated  with work that Jon Dron and I have been doing on the type of social organziations that we use in education, but now I see they are equally relevant to religious organizations. The first of our “taxonomy of the many” is the well known group. Groups have been the focus and major organizational model for both classrooms and local religious congregations. Groups excel at building trust,  creatng and sustaining strong links among members and creating the extensive support systems that have sustained human life from earliest tribal origions to modern families. Groups however can be marred by group think, exclusiveness, and manipulation by powerful and occasionally unscrupulous leaders including teachers or ministers. Groups are the organization that defines Westwood and most other religious organizations today.

The second aggregation that Jon and I wrote about is Networks. Networks connect indiviudals and groups with a mix of strong and week ties. They are typically very fluid and bursty as network members slip in and out of active participation. Leadership in nets is mch more distributed than in groups, and thus a diversity of idea and background much easier to support. Networks arise at denominational level in Christian Churches and the network itself is sustained by strong groups at congregational level. Social Capital Theorist, Ronald Burt wrote that “members of networks are at higher risk of having good ideas” – a goal for both education and any thinking religion!

The final aggregation is Sets, in which indiviudals or larger groupings or even objects are sorted and selected by nature of belonging to a defining set. One doesn’t join a set, rather, a set is calculated based upon the behaviour of otherwise unconnected individuals. Sets allow us to discover and utilize the ways in which we are like (and unlike) members of other sets. For example, one can use the net to find the set of Youtube videos, or facebook posts that have been “liked” the most times in the last week, or find the set of people who recently purchased a partciular book on Amazon. From this set we can find links to other sets or make inferences such as  determining what other books they also purchased or are likely to purchase. We are just beginning to develop aggregation and analytic tools to exploite sets for edcuational and religious use, but marketers are becoming very good at using set techniques for advertising, solicitation and recruitment purposes.

So to conclude, as I had predicted over a decade ago, the Net is becoming a dominent influence on religious institutions, as it has on education, commercial and government organizations.  Our challenges for religious organizations, as other institutions, is to learn how to best exploite the affordances of these very powerful tools, while not isolating or turning off either those who “get it” or those who wish it would “get lost”.


my trip to Dalarne, Sweden

I was pleased to get an invite from the University of Dalarne to do a keynote at their Next Generation Learning conference tomorrow. Besides not having been to Central Sweden, this is Parish from which my Great-grandparents immigrated from in the 1870’s to come first to Minnesota and then to Canada.

I couldn’t help thinking what would have happened if they hadn’t left as I toured the Dalarne Museum in Falun. This picture helped my visual it – but I hope my partner wouldn’t be so blank faced !!

I also enjoyed the way you can watch the NHL here. On Sunday, you get to watch about 20-25 minutes of the highlights of ecah game played on Hockey Night in Canada. Just right for an attention deficit type like myself. But after the way the Canucks thrashed the Oilers last night, I wish Sweden had of kept the Sedin brothers home here in Sweden.

Cartagenia de Indias, Columbia

I was honoured to be asked to do a keynote at the 2nd Congresso Mundial de E-Learning sponsored by the Universidad National Aberta y a Distance (Columbia’s Open University). The conference was held in one of the oldest and perhaps most well maintained  historic ports of the Spanish Main.

The Congresso started 90 minutes late, because the Internet connection to that part of the town was severed by tram construction. I thought at first that this was pretty odd to hold up a F2F conference for the Internet, not realizing that they had a few hundred paying registrants online and in Second Life. But I found that time-lines aren’t really hard in Columbia anyways!

There were about 900 delegates and they all seemed to know the words to the stirring martial music of the National anthem, the state anthem and UNAD school anthem. Someone I can’t imagine a stirring, trumpet filled anthem (with everyone singing) at a Canadian University event (do any of our Universities even have anthems??). Next came the official greetings by the Mayor and various Ministry officials. I was quite thrilled to be given the keys to the City (literally a big brass key!!)  but I didn’t manage to find any banks or chests of Spanish doubloons to which the key would fit. Continue reading

The revoIution will be on Wi-Fi

Susan and I are being tourists for the weekend in Philadelphia, after I did a keynote and couple of sessions at Montgomery County Community College on Friday. Of course we had to see the Liberty Bell, watch the self congratulatory video (not implying that  the American Revolution was big deal) at Independence Hall and are leaving to climb the ‘Rocky stairs’ and the view famous art collection at the Museum of Art for today.

But I wanted to share my impressions of Occupy Phily. In over 30 cities across America young people are ‘taking back” a prominent square and exercising their right of free assembly. They are inspired by a vision to create a change that may be the “American Autumn” – OK the term doesn’t have quite the same promise as the Arab Spring, but the similarities are marked.  Both acknowledge a profound sense of frustration with the status quo and both hope and dream for a better form of social and economic organization.  As the many placards attest, there are many grievances, but I see at the bottom, a sense of outrage at the way public wealth is being squandered – from corporate bailouts, to unwinable wars, to subsides for the rich. All of these policies resulting in lack of health care, education opportunity, jobs and a chance at the American ideal for the young occupiers. Underlying even the massive public spending and debt is an inability of American-style capitalism to derive a means of distributing the wealth of this richest of countries, in any style except one that sees 1% attain staggering wealth while for 99% are seeing their assets and their opportunity for the “pursuit of happiness” diminished.

The scene with about 500 protesters outside Philly City Hall was upbeat and hopeful. The continuous drum circle set the beat of square that was half camper tents and half meeting, talking, sharing circles and information tables. Slogan printed signs and chalk drawings were everywhere with a host of messages. The familiar Peace sign from the sixties is back, as were many of the slogans I recall from the 60s. A major focus was on attracting the attention of the vehicles passing by, with a small cadre of placard carriers walking, cheering and chanting across the intersection every time the walk light changed.

We were able to overhear a circle discussion of I assume was a central organizing committee. The talk was of strategies, food and responsibility for activities on the square. We saw a number  of interesting turn taking techniques and an interesting waving of fingers to show agreement with a speakers’ comments. It seem

Below is a shot of the Communications tent.  This revolution will be on and facilitated by WI-FI.s the talk hasn’t yet turned to concrete suggestions fior change, but as in the Arab Spring and the 60’s mearely demanding change is a necessary first step in any making change.



Off My Chair

I’m celebrating today, in my last day sitting on  a Canada Research Chair (virtually of course!). I doubt if chairless tomorrow will be much different than today, but it is the passing of a personal academic era.

I came to Athabasca University 10 years ago as the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Distance Education. The CRC program is funded by the Canadian federal government to support scholarship – in a very backward country that does not have any federal educational mandate nor initaitves. The feds are however constitutionally allowed to participate in research. They choose to do so through the funding for up to 2,000 chairs in all disciplines in 2000. Each University was allocated Chairs based on the amount of federal research council funding they are awarded – and Athabasca got three. The catch is however, that the Chairs come in two funding levels – Tier 2 for newer academics, with a 5 year term, renewable once and Tier 1 for all scholars, for 7 years, renewable indefinitely.  Unfortunately for me,  Atahabacsa was not awarded any Tier 1 Chairs, and thus 5 years after my renewal in 2006, it is out of the chair for me – as of tomorrow!

All in all, I have enjoyed the expereince and the prestige. I had a slightly lower teaching load than my colleagues and commensurate higher expectation for research output. A quick look at the old CV shows output over the past 10 years (authored or co-authored) of 5 books, 25 book chapters, 44 peer reviewed articles and more presentations, keynotes and rubber chicken, than I can accurately count.  So a great opportunity!

Life, post CRC, carries on pretty much same as before – without a chair to sit in!  I continue as a tenured Prof here at Athabasca where I teach in the Centre for Distance Education (mostly in our EdD program this year), advise students, edit IRRODL and keep our SSHRC funded research agenda on social networking in self-paced courses afloat.

Thanks to all my colleagues for the visits, correspondence, critique, collaboration and good times over the past decade!

What I did this summer (cont.)

A final post, recounting the story of summer ’11 with a brief account of the voyage of the sailboat Barakette. We (friends Scott, Don and I) bare-boated from Vancouver Island, Nanimo Yachts for one week heading up the Sunshine Coast. We have become accustomed to much smaller boats – (or bigger boats and someone else in charge), so this was a test for our relatively inexperienced crew.

The Barakette is  27′ Catalina, the work horse and likely most popular family cruiser on the West Coast. It was old enough to be sufficiently scratched, that we weren’t too intimidated by the gloss!  To our delight everything seemed to be working well (small galley, big ice box, radio, charts, head with holding tank) and all set to go.

We headed across the Straights of Georgia, with good winds and 30 minutes after casting off we were heeled way over, beating into 15 knot winds and sparkling ocean whitecaps – great fun!! We dropped the hook at Smuggler’s Bay the first night, with a stern line to a rock on shore. Beautiful evening and time for a swim and barbecue. Next morning we topped up provisions at Pender Harbour and sailed up Agamemnon Channel. Next morning, heading up Jervis inlet, we came onto a school of porpoises who swam over to check us out, but soon found us a bit boring, compared to this scenery.

32 miles sailing and motoring up the channel brought us to Princess Louisa Inlet – guarded by Malibou Rapids. Fortunately we have leaned to read the tide tables and motored through near slack tide on a one knot current. Princess Louisa is one of those ‘bucket list” type destinations. It is a 3 mile mountain-bound fiord, with at least 20 waterfalls spilling down the near vertical mountain sides. At the head is the roaring Chatter Box Falls, which we visited, but choose to anchor by a much smaller waterfall that serenaded us all night.

Next working we headed back down the channel to Ballet Bay on Nelson Island– the most beautiful anchorage we have yet seen. After a swim, we were enjoying a beer on deck, when a very perplexing dowsing stick began heading straight for our anchored boat. Turns out it was a white tail dear swimming between islands. Using the snorkel and mask we discovered the thickest oyster bed we had seen – 2-3 five” oysters piling on top of each other throughout a small bay.

Next night be headed to our favorite Marine Park on Jedediah Island –picture here. The whole Island is a park, that once was an active homestead. So we walked through ancient old growth forest (Douglas Fir, Cedar, Maples and Oaks), to the old pasture, now overseen by a flock of 30 or so now wild and very unshorn sheep, had a few (rather hard) pears and apples from the orchard and toured the old falling down barn, outbuildings and farmhouse overlooking the bay.

Final day of sailing saw us at the Dingy pub and moorage at Protection Island in Nanimo Harbour. Next morning we then returned the boat, none the worse for wear, but one winch handle (over the beam) less.

A great sail, then home via Vancouver and 30th birthday celebrations with daughter Solanna and 13 hours drive through the Rockies to Edmonton

Thus ends the summer, 2011.

What I did (am doing) this summer

I remember with unpleasant memories the task of having to write the “What I did this summer” essay in September every year of grade school. I thought I would pre-empt the pressure by getting it out of the way in early August!

I mostly wanted to share the scene (below) that I ‘ve been staring at every morning from the deck of my Father-in-laws cabin on Allen Lake, near Blind River, Ontario.

It is a wonderful place and though Telus mobility reached my wife Susan’s cell phone out on the end of the dock, I was blissfully unable to connect to either a phone or the net for a couple of weeks. But of course, I did peddle the 8K to the local pub when I really needed an Internet fix.

In this ‘blended holiday’ I did write a forward to an upcoming Networking book Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning  (sigh, not Open access), prepare for an inotroduction to the keynote of Clark Quinn at the Madison conference, read a book on educational research (way too American) and another on chaos theory BUT  spent lots of time just reading fiction  (really enjoyed Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce – Athabasca’s first ‘writer in virtual residence’) swimming and visting with new and old friends – including (of course, my wife and best friend Susan).

I’m now at the annual Madison Distance Learning and Teaching conference and looking forward to meeting a colleage and ex student Terumi Mitazoe from Japan. Terumi and I have published 3 articles, a book chapter and a co-authored a book, but have yet to meet F2F. She has expanded upon my “Equivalency Theory” and is creating a site with various studies that have validated the ideas in that early 2003 work  So Friday we present together this combined work.

Then my summer ends with 6 days of sailing off the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. tough life…..