Thursday, October 17, 2013

Digital Learning Apps in Guatemala

In between the talks and workshops that I gave at FIT this week, I also got the chance to talk to many people that are involved in digital and online learning in Guatemala, and was surprised to find out the many ways they're experimenting in the space. I want to highlight two projects here:


This is Galileo University's take on the MOOC format, and is led by GES director Rocael Hernandez. They developed the web app in house, culling together open source projects and APIs into a platform that supports lectures, quizzes, discussions, and peer assessments. They started it off with an iPhone courseand based off the Stanford iPhone course curriculum, and now have 6 engineering courses on it, with 2-5,000 spanish speaking students enrolled in each. They've experimented with various aspects of the platform, like using the Google Docs API to track changes to a document, and have published a few papers in the space: MOOC in Latin America, Implementation of Online course with Accessibility features, MOOCs Concept and Design using Cloud-based Tools.


This project was initiated by their Education Innovation director Ali Lemus, and is an experiment in finding a new way to teach math and reasoning to young kids. Cerebrex is a game made for Android, iOS, and the web that presents challenges in a Maya-themed setting, translated into the Mayan language of the user (there are something like 30 spoken Maya languages in Guatemala). They trialed it in several classrooms, and saw great results with increased intelligence measurements after the test. Ali told me the story of one student that was young for their grade and bullied for that, but once that student was at the top of the game leaderboard, their classmates suddenly respected them. That's an anecdote, of course, but its promising, especially in a country where students have low confidence about their place in the world to start with (or so I'm told). Ali shared his slides about Cerebrex here.

It's easy to think that it's only Silicon Valley where innovation happens, but really, whenever I visit another country or talk to a foreigner, I find out about the amazing projects that they're working on in the education space, and realize that of course, we're not the only ones. It sounds obvious, typing that now, but it's nice to venture outside and get a reminder of this every so often.

I look forward to seeing what Guatemala does in the education space in the future!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

1 Day in Antigua, Guatemala: Where to Go, What to Eat

At the end of my trip to Guatemala to speak and teach at the FIT conference, our gracious hosts took us on a day trip to Antigua. Antigua was the second capital of Guatemala, 12-by-12 blocks of colonial architecture and Baroque style cathedrals and churches. After it suffered from an earthquake in the 1700s and many of its structures went to pieces, the capital moved to Guatemala City, where it is now. Antigua is a popular destination for tourists, who can walk amongst the ruined cathedrals and enjoy local food. If you ever get the chance to visit it, here's what I recommend.

Where to go

  • 2013-10-12 at 10.32.53 El Tenedor del Cerro: This little collection of museums and restaurants sits atop a hill, where you can see three of the volcanoes that surround Antigua (2 active ones!). As you walk around and enjoy the mosaic murals and sculptures, parrots from their sanctuary will happily land on your shoulder and tweet away.
  • Cerro de la cruz: Before venturing into Antigua, drive up for a view from the cross. You'll get another vista of the volcanoes (a straight on view of "Agua", if there are no clouds) and a birds-eye view of Antigua. You can also see the first capital of Guatemala from there, if you squint and look for the white church near the base of the volcano.
  • 2013-10-12 at 12.54.36 Las Ruinas: You can wander around giant blocks of cathedral, now the home for beautiful sprouting flowers, and wonder how magnificent they once were, back when the cathedral actually had a roof. Or, if you're like me, you can count the number of times an enamored visitor has proclaimed their love by etching it into the walls, and wonder how many of them actually stayed together.
  • Sereno: A restaurant that doubles as a popular spot for wedding ceremonies, thanks to a rock-studded cave that looks beautiful inside when lit up by tiny white lights.
  • 2013-10-12 at 15.36.10 Hotel Museo Casa Santo Domingo: Another popular spot for weddings, home to an open air cathedral surrounded by ruins. They cover the fountains and grounds with hundreds of candles each night, and if it's a wedding night, *thousands* of candles, which I was lucky enough to witness. The grounds is also home to rather noisy parrots and a chocolate shop.

What to eat:

  • Dulces tipicos: Translated literally, they're the "typical sweets", and they're candies and pastries that are part of the Guatemalan tradition. You will need to pace yourself to try all twenty-something of them, or pick and choose - I tried the sweet coconut bar (a bit too sweet for me), the coconut macaroon (yum, just right), and a macaron-like almond cookie (also yum).
  • 2013-10-12 at 13.13.53Chocolate: Guatemala is home to many chocolate and coffee farms, so you'll find multiple local chocolate shops while walking around Antigua. In fact, you may want to skip eating normals meals and just stick to sampling chocolates. You can try different exotic mix-ins at ChocoLala, like chocolates with rum, ginger, or papaya, or go for more classic chocolate at Guatemala Chocolates, or even go for a chocolate-making class at ChocoMuseo.
  • Steak: You can eat steak the Guatemalan way at Casa Santo Domingo - with guacamole (no tomatoes!), frijoles volteados (bean puree), salsa, and platanos. You'll have to enjoy it with a red wine from Chile, not Guatemala, because it's too hot for them to make local wine, but hey, the Chile wine is highly enjoyable.
  • Ron Zacapa: The native rum of Guatemala, you can drink this straight (if you're into that) or mixed with Sprite and ice. Once you do, you'll likely find yourself buying a liter to bring home for your friends to try. Or you'll just find yourself drunk.

Disfruta-te de Guate!

*I wrote this after reading United Airlines "Hemispheres" during take-off, so, uh, if this sounds too much like an airplane magazine article, blame the fact that I can't use electronic devices on airplanes during take-off.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Shyness Hacks for Conferences

A few years ago, I gave an ignite talk at Google I/O about the ways I'm shy and the many ways I've found to work around my shyness. I recently saw a post on overcoming shyness at conferences on HN, and realized I never formally wrote up my own tips.

Before going into my shyness hacks for conferences, let me clarify what I mean when I say that "I'm shy". For me, it means that I'm afraid of approaching and talking to people, especially when its me and a group of strangers. Ultimately, it's because I'm afraid of rejection. As long as I don't approach people, then I don't have to worry that they will ignore me or turn me away. Sometimes I try to just be a hermit and not worry about my fears, but I soon realize I crave human interaction, and always will. If I'm going to go through the effort to go to a conference, then I don't want to waste that opportunity for interaction.

Given that, here are my shyness hacks for conferences:

Be a Speaker

This is my primary hack. I will almost never attend a conference if I'm not a speaker, because I know that if I'm just there as an attendee, I will spend my time getting shyer and shyer until eventually I'm just reading my book in a corner in the bathroom.

After I deliver a talk to a group of people, there will be a whole room of people afterwards who know who I am and even better, who know what conversation topics they can approach me with. Speaking isn't easy- I still get sick to my stomach just before I talk- but for me, its worth it. When I moved to Sydney and didn't know anyone, I gave two talks at their BarCamp my first weekend there, and that's how I met 90% of my Aussie friends. If you're nervous about speaking in front of a big audience, start small - give a lightning talk or lead a BOF session - that's still a group of people that now know who you are!

Whenever I get the choice of when to speak in an event, I always ask for an early slot - - early in the week if it's a multi-day conference or before lunch if it's one day. I want to make sure that people know who I am as soon as possible so that I can spend the rest of the time hopefully getting approached by them with their thoughts on my talk.

Talk to Speakers

Okay, let's say you really don't want to be a speaker, or you didn't have a speaking opportunity at this conference. Now that you've seen that many speakers (okay, at least one of us) become speakers because they want to be approached, an obvious hack is to talk to the speakers.

I will typically keep a running notepad with the questions that come to my mind during a talk, and then I will often ask one during the formal Q&A, so that the speaker's seen my interest, and save the rest for attacking them after with my curiosity. Most of the time, the speaker is more than happy to answer questions, and loves that somebody is interested enough to ask.

Go to Workshops

Traditional presentations are not very conducive to social interactions. It's a bunch of people, watching a speaker, and the only opportunities to talk to each other are before and after. A workshop, however, is inherently more interactive: there's many a time at which you'll be working on an exercise, and that's a time at which you can talk to the people near you about what you're working on. If you want to be very popular, then try to be the one that pays a lot of attention and can help out everyone else. Otherwise, don't be afraid to ask for help, too. (Just not *too* much).

Be a Conversation Piece

This is a hack that works anywhere in life - parties, cafes, dinners. If I make it so that some aspect of my physical presence provokes conversation ideas, then people will have an obvious and immediate excuse to talk to me.

That's typically in the form of a t-shirt, like a geeky one, an awesome band, or some ironic one from Threadless, but it can also be in the form of a crazy hat or accessory, like my often brightly colored hair or super cute animal socks. I actually don't wear geek t-shirts to work anymore, but I've saved up a spectrum of them so I have appropriate ones to wear at each conference I go to.

Hand out Free Shit

This is the hack that I used as a kid. I was shy around my classmates, so I would bring crazy candy to school in a Santa-like bag and offer it to everyone around me. The word would get around fast, and pretty soon, everyone would be approaching me, even the "cool" kids.

This isn't something I've done frequently myself at conferences, but I've seen others do it. Lug around a bag of cool stickers or shirts, and pretty soon, because we all have grade school sticker-mongers deep inside us, you'll have random strangers approaching you for them.

I'll update this as I think of more. Feel free to share your own hacks in the comments!