Leading on from my previous blog on flipped learning, here’s a video of a presentation I put together for my department on a flipped learning design and implementation scenario.
Comments are welcome.
Leading on from my previous blog on flipped learning, here’s a video of a presentation I put together for my department on a flipped learning design and implementation scenario.
Comments are welcome.
In this blog, I’ll explain how I have become so interested in and enthusiastic about the potential of flipped learning. This is a moderately adapted report I wrote for my current corporate training centre (the PTC) within the British Council in Bangkok.
It’s a report on e-learning innovation and it’s split into four sections. In the first section, I provide a definition of innovation in e-learning. In the second section, I discuss the PTC’s current context and detail three e-learning interventions that might be positively employed within the department. In the third section, I detail some concerns while the final section will consist of a brief conclusion.
At the core of innovation is change. Change can be the development and implementation of new devices or practices to replace or complement existing tools and operations. However, innovation is defined by the context in which it exists. A familiar process in one context used for the first time in another to affect change would constitute innovation. In e-learning, a central consideration would be whether the introduction of a new technology positively affects or facilitates a change in pedagogy within that context or whether it is a new tool used in the continuance of traditional styles of instruction.
The British Council Thailand’s PTC is responsible for providing corporate clients from a variety of sectors with corporate training and English language instruction.
At the time of writing, sales were low with few new classes opening and the team and to meet management utilization targets, the numbers of trainers had been contracting. Market research had yet to be undertaken to ascertain why. However, informal anecdotal evidence suggests that though the PTC could capitalise on the British Council’s prestige as an educational provider, its price-point for its products is perceived as too high when there is little differentiation in products from cheaper competitors. This, to my knowledge remains the same today.
In relation to e-learning products, while the British Council develops and provides online e-learning products, but at this point the PTC offers no e-learning products or services to clients.
As a result of the above, I felt that the department required attractive differentiation from its competitors while also providing a more inexpensive solution for clients. But to safeguard the department and the wider organisation’s reputation as a high quality provider, any shift had to be based on solid pedagogical principles to ensure learning goals were achieved.
A flipped classroom is a rearrangement of how and where learning takes place. In contrast to a traditional classroom, the focus is shifted from teacher-centred instruction to student-centred learning. Direct instruction no longer takes place in the classroom with the teacher. It occurs online. Class time is dedicated to more collaborative, project-based learning.
Online instruction does not necessitate the teacher to be present and the materials, once designed can be used again and again in later classes. This decreases the cost of courses for the PTC, resulting in a more inexpensive product.
A Learning Management System (LMS) is a necessary technology to implement new methods of instruction in the information age. An LMS is a software application that allows a user to automate the administration, assembly, and delivery of digital learning content. If flipped learning is the goal, the LMS is what facilitates the online delivery. There can be the application of structure to specific courses with modules of online instruction culminating in modes of assessment to ensure understanding before in-class components.
It is the experience of many educators that some learners fail to understand some concepts and therefore flounder in freer activities. This is often true in English mixed-ability classes. However, with online learning facilitated by the LMS, Students can as Vygotsky put it ‘theoretically pace their learning….using student-centered pedagogies aimed at their readiness level or zone of proximal development, where they are challenged but not so much so that they are demoralized’. For example, if an instructor provides a video giving instruction on a particular concept, learners with lower aptitudes can pause and rewind it or choose to read captions or transcripts if available. Another benefit from the teacher’s perspective is that less focus is applied to ensuring lower-level learners are up-to-speed, giving more time to focus on feedback and the individual needs of all.
Also, as educators in the field of corporate training, our responsibility is to enhance learners’ ability to operate in their context with the training provided. In the information age, engendering a more connectivist approach to learning would potentially address this. Connectivism relates to how learning is now a process of making and maintaining connections to nodes of specialized information sources to facilitate continual learning. In the traditional classroom instruction model, information is imparted in a one-size-fits all manner. In contrast, in a flipped classroom course using an LMS, this approach can be replaced by a greater emphasis on active learning where it is the student’s responsibility to understand the content and solve problems. The student learns in a way that best suits them individually. This factor and incorporating tasks into the learning designs where information can be specifically gathered outside of the course framework from websites, their own experience, or from a peer group online or otherwise, might result in the learner making those connections that will benefit them in future.
Research by the Flipped Learning Network in conjunction with ClassroomWindow found the following for teachers:
The Flipped Learning and Democratic Education survey in 2012 reported the following in relation to students:
80% of students agreed that they…
70% of students agreed that they…
Learning analytics is, says George Siemens ‘the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections, and to predict and advise on learning’. They can function to make sense learners actions achieving their learning goals and aid institutions in improving their learning designs.
So, through the analysis of learners habits, actions, interactions, failures and successes in their use of the LMS, the content, devices used, and data from social networks, and semantic data, the PTC could make predictions of learners’ requirements, and how to best adjust curriculums, materials, communication, and access to optimize the learning experiences. This would result in effective and sustainable products that were constantly adapting to shifting learning, social, and technological trends.
I’ll cover the ethics of learning analytics in a future blog.
A primary concern is access to devices, bandwidth, and learners’ technological competence in engaging with materials and achieving the course objectives on the LMS. A possible solution is materials being available in alternative formats. To ensure the PTC’s adherence to the principles of universal design in relation to accessibility and the British Council’s commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion, this should be the case, regardless. A key element to initial needs analysis for PTC representatives would now incorporate an analysis of the above factors.
Another concern is the additional responsibility placed on learners outside their existing responsibilities. It is possible that if the time to undertake the online elements of courses are shifted outside of work hours, there may be resistance to it and decreased participation. Clients should make appropriate decisions regarding the cost/benefit analysis of not scheduling time for study. Furthermore, the PTC would need to delineate the benefits of undertaking the online element as to engender greater intrinsic motivation.
As I stated at the beginning of the blog, I’m very enthusiastic regarding this medium of learning, particularly so when you try to in-build connectivist theory within the learning designs to promote continued learning. While this scenario is for non native speaker learners, I feel that it can relate to many different spheres and industries and is, of course, already being implemented all over the world. Some organisations are just a little slower than others.
So in this blog, I’d like to run through one of the interesting projects I’ve been a part of for my MA course on E-learning innovation with the Open University.
This was a project where I’d be working with a geographically dispersed group of people to design a learning artefact on a subject that we had little experience of and facilitating others to learn about that subject through the medium of Digital Storytelling. This is an adaptation of the report I wrote on my experiences. It will be helpful for me to review what we did and it may be of use to anyone reading if they have to undertake something similar.
We were given the task of using digital storytelling to explore social/cultural/ethical dilemmas and instructed to choose either a professional domain, or a school subject, where learners would need to develop an awareness of a social, cultural or ethical issue and make informed and considered judgements with a view to learning whether digital storytelling could provide an effective educational tool.
|Name and Profession||Responsibilities||Technical competencies||Location||Further notes: aspirations / hopes for project etc.|
|Bob Bennell –Police Trainer||Examine new ways to deliver training, reduce necessity for classroom-based||20 years experience in IT||UK||Would like to use Google Hangouts and desires to explore storytelling to bring subjects to life|
|Stephen Penney (Steve P) – Deputy Headteacher||Safeguarding SMSC (British values), community/employability links, teaching, and teacher training||UK|
|Huw Davies||Works at a private English language school and has a part time job teaching second year students at a university||Japan (GMT+9)||Doing the module for personal interest. Has no experience of a project of this type and indicated that he’d be working while most were asleep|
|Steve Bell (Steve B) – E-learning professional||Has worked in e-learning across wide variety of levels and contexts||Web and software development experience and has high levels of experience utitilising Google apps including Sites||UK||Has no context in mind for the project but wants to incorporate Google apps into all levels of communication and build|
|Gareth Davies – Corporate Training Consultant||Works in business training, English language instruction, and academic preparation.||Has experience of using Learning Management systems, e-learning authoring tools, and minimal use of Google apps||Thailand (GMT+7)||Expressed an interest in using video editing software in future but no preferences regarding context for the project|
|Simon Hobbs||Working with county councils to develop leadership and management training||UK||Keen to use e-learning more in professional role|
The group members came from diverse professional backgrounds, and a number of the members in the initial introduction thread stated no particular preference for a topic. Stephen Penney raised the idea of radicalization as he felt that Digital Storytelling with the focus of a current social/cultural issue might lend itself to the topic.
Steve B noted that there were two very different approaches available to us in designing a digital storytelling learning design. The first was to facilitate learners in telling their own stories. Alternatively, we would create a digital story targetting specific learning objectives.
Huw said he felt the latter approach would be best. This was supported by Steve P, making reference to an example of good practice by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and adding that an exploration of why people become radicalized or migrate could be an option.
Ultimately, in our second online meeting, we clarified our ultimate goal of creating a learning resource to raise awareness about radicalization in the UK with a target audience of young people.
|Team Leader||Huw||A process of elimination left the Team Leader role to Huw|
|Connector||Simon||To monitor for connections in our ideas, themes, research|
|Media Manager 1||Gareth||Preference due to potential responsibilities providing desired practical experience|
|Project Manager and Media Manager 2||Steve B||Professional experience as a manager and experience of managing Google apps respectively|
|Researcher||Bob||Across the group, members had little experience of digital storytelling, so Bob volunteered to collate research on that aspect|
|Subject Matter Expert||Steve P||Steve P was the sole member with experience related to the topic area of radicalization|
Steve B set up a Google+ community space for our project team. He designed it as to have one central point for communication and resource sharing.
Links were provided to the project’s website, a shared Google folder where we could upload and store materials and later host our individual stories. There were also links to Google Docs documents for a Project Plan drawn up by Steve B that we could all access and modify, and a contact sheet for all members. Importantly, Steve B set up a Meeting Room for Hangouts which we could use at any time in order to chat about the progress of the project or to ensure that there were no technical issues prior to one of our weekly Sunday meetings.
All meetings were scheduled for 2pm BST on a Sunday by mutual agreement. With myself and Huw in Asia this was an ideal time. The meetings took place on 24/5, 31/5, and 7/6. After the third meeting, communication was solely via the Google+ Community using Google Hangouts.
As media manager, one obstacle I had at the beginning was never using Google sites before. However, with Google and YouTube tutorials I learnt its functionality by making changes while reacting to the needs of the group in the development of the project. Requests and following the progress of the design were made simpler via some of the functionality of the Communities page.
When an issue was raised for specific members, typing, for example, ‘+Bob Bennell’ would send them a notification.
Also, any post made necessitated it be categorized according to the area of the project to which it was related.
This made it easy to find information according to the area you were working on at any given time.
Team members’ levels of participation/input seemed to fluctuate, and, therefore, a lot of what we did was not entirely synchronous. A great deal of work was done after mutual agreement in meetings and prior to the next one. However, the Community providing such an easily navigable source of information and easy communication was invaluable.
We created imaginary personas from which were extrapolated factors and concerns to consider in regards to our learning design that resulted in forces that might shape our project and its implementation. The process was helpful in reminding us of the technical, methodological, cultural, and demographic diversity of our potential target learners and it will be something I may use again in future.
However, as was discussed in the second Hangouts meeting, as there was a lack of a unifying theme with most, this diversity indicated that it would potentially be counter-productive to develop our project with such a finite number of personas in mind. We felt that it would be more appropriate to the context of the issue discussed to keep a more open mind and make it as universally accessible as possible in terms of the choices of how we facilitated learning and the subject matter discussed around the topic.
Technical and Pedagogical Approaches
We had tacitly agreed in one of our discussions in Meeting 3 to maximize the number of modes in which to present our stories. This decision was made due to the fact that we were working asynchronously, had differing levels of technological competence, and for the sake of our stories appealing to as broad a range of learners and learning styles as possible.
From our preliminary research we compiled a bank of theoretical frameworks, case studies that shared similar fields and/or objectives to that which we envisaged as our own, and we had a list of potential subject areas to address. We identified that the subject matter was too multi-faceted and complex to be able to cover in its entirety, but we could look at our prototype as the beginning of a larger project with the unused themes being addressed at a later date having received feedback and made adjustments based thereon.
Our digital story was non-linear due to the nature of having these separate stories covering so many aspects of the subject matter which learners could access in any order they wanted, but the central thesis of informing learners about the subject of radicalization ran as a throughline connecting them.
From our theoretical frameworks and case studies, we derived design patterns and principles which aided us in conceptualizing and storyboarding our stories. Personally, I had been finding it very difficult to conceptualize what I was to do, but found this process and reading the preliminary research found by others and referring to the ongoing discussion in the increasingly invaluable Google Community space very helpful. Essentially, through a process of researching the topic area and finding appropriate authoritative work that could be explored for our prospective learners, we had the necessary content. Then by looking for similar digital storytelling projects and researching what they had learnt in regards to good practice and potential avenues of improvement and exploration, we found a method of delivering the content.
Finally, we created our prototypes based on our conceptualizations and added them to the site.
The five digital stories that comprised our overall prototype were:
Radicalization in the Digital Era – A non-linear interactive digital story exploring how people can become radicalized in the digital era created with Twine, an open-source tool for creating interactive, nonlinear stories.
Ask the experts – A video of a Q&A with an expert discussing radicalization from a historical perspective.
Right and Rights – A second Twine-created non-linear interactive digital story exploring ethical dilemmas related to rights.
The Story of Radicalization – An exploration of the history of the concept of radicalization in a Google Slides presentation.
Has the Media Hijacked Radicalisation – A discussion of whether the term “radicalisation” been hijacked by the via a Google Slides presentation.
In writing the heuristics with which users could evaluate the prototype and its individual stories we wanted to ensure that what we had produced met the following criteria:
|Heuristic||Score 1 = Weak 5 = Strong||Reasoning|
|1||3||No obvious areas of concern. Navigation straightforward but language could be less complex at times. User feedback key in this area.|
|2||2||Learner outcomes sometimes expressed for the learners but no learner quantifiable outcomes plugged into the design.|
|3||4||Varied modes and subject matter should equate to higher degrees of engagement in learners. User feedback again of importance here.|
|4||1||Other than self-directed by the learner, there is no linking to off-site material|
|5||2||The materials are varied and do attempt to promote emotional reactions and critical thought of complex issues, but there is are no activities or areas for discussion of concepts.|
|6||4||Much work was done to ensure ethical standards were met and it appears that the materials reflect that.|
|7||3||Ideally, more pictures and a more distinct site would be used to present the individual stories but clear and concise with short descriptions of content.|
|8||4||Feedback required but criteria appears to have been met.|
|9||4||Ideally, there would be more multimedia as to make the pages more engaging but otherwise, while feedback is again desired, the criteria appears to have been met.|
Personally, I had not expected to be creating non-linear interactive digital stories. I had expected to be using video editing software. I also had not considered how much I would personally learn about the topic covered in the overall design too.
The Process and the Product
Overall, the process was an excellent learning experience. I have learnt a great deal about what would be involved in the creative design process regarding research and conceptualization in areas I have little familiarity with, and I have a lot more insight into how to work as part of a geographically dispersed team.
I feel that central to any success for the project was the communication channels of the Google+ Community and how that served as a central area for all activity. I fear that without Steve B’s experience and his proactive engagement, our project would have been very different. This is an important point for me. When you’re low on experience, look to leverage the experience of others as much as possible, but always ensure that you make that person aware of how grateful you are and look to reciprocate in any way possible.
However, the group suffered to a degree as a result of a lack of regarding who did what. While a couple of members certainly took the lead, in this context we could not expect someone to be particularly forceful in telling others what to do and by when. Therefore, in future, I would look to ensure that there be clearer roles and assignation of tasks.
Simon Hobbs disappeared shortly after the roles were chosen. He was to be the connector, looking for linkages between ideas and research which possibly serves as a clue as to why there was less cohesiveness in what we were doing. Our work was disparate and individualised. There was little communication and feedback on what was updated to the site. Little feedback was given to the learning designs themselves and no discussion was evident in regards to their being a balance of pedagogy in our designs.
Crucially, there was a failure to think beyond the creation of our individual stories to create a rounded learning artefact with an introductory exercise introducing the subject of radicalisation, the middle section of individual stories, and then final activities or discussion where learners could use and demonstrate their learning which could also provide measurable outcomes.
Firstly, I have to again make reference to how instrumental Steve B had been in so many of the tasks that would have been solely my responsibility had he not been in the group. I feel I would have struggled a great deal and would not have been able to set up the integrated platform as he did.
Also, while I attended all of the meetings, I feel I did not greatly influence the direction in which the project went. My story, also, was heavily reliant on the work of others. Ultimately, the conceptual framework I used and the application used to create my interactive story had been found by Steve B.
Nevertheless, the case study material I utilised to ensure the authenticity and ethical and sensitive treatment of the story created was sourced by me and the story itself was an interesting and potentially immersive learning experience.
I feel that as the project developed, I communicated and contributed more. I took the initiative to improve the aesthetics of the site, and reacted to any issues with permissions or the site’s pages.
The research I used to explore the theme of radicalization in the information age was mainly Terrorism, Communication and New Media: Explaining Radicalization in the Digital Age and Radicalization in the Digital Era
To explore the radicalization of people via digital media, I created a non-linear interactive digital story using the application Twine where the user reads the story in the third person of a protagonist and make choices as to that person’s actions.
As you can see in the storyboard above, the story branches off in various directions based on those choices. The choices relate to decisions made regarding exposure to digital media that may have the effect of radicalizing that character, allowing the user to experience how this might happen to someone. Ideally, I would want the possible scenarios’ journeys to be based on real cases of radicalization but potentially branch off in directions that result in results for the character that are very different to reflect the fact that it is possible that radicalization of one sort or another can happen to anyone.
The story begins with the following question:
The answer to this is can be defined as the knowledge and experiences you possess and the actions you tale. A final component of that definition is the network of relationships we are a part of at any given time. Your friends, family, work colleagues.
Communication technology such as the Internet and instant messaging extends our relationships beyond those face-to-face relationships. They extend our reach far beyond the limits set on us by geography. You are about to read a story. In this story you can make choices. These are the choices of another person but in taking this journey with him, you can perhaps appreciate how it is that someone might come to make choices that may seem utterly alien to you and possibly even evil. This story tells us of how someone very ordinary, just like you or I, can become radicalized by the choices he makes tied with the person he is.
The story introduces us to John Roberts. John Roberts is a young man in his early twenties. He lives in a quiet working class village in the midlands. He attends the local college where he studies computer science. His father is an unemployed ex-factory worker while his mother is a carer. He’s a shy and quiet boy with few friends who generally keeps to himself.
John has a decision to make. This isn’t a huge decision. It’s a simple everyday choice. The kind of choice we make every other minute. It’s a choice of what to expose ourselves to. A choice of what we see and read and the legion of cumulative forces that have brought that particular option to the screen or newspaper we are currently training our eyes on.
The choices John makes from here affect the person he is. Ultimately, John has moved from the indirect relationships of this imagined community of people whose connections are governed by their shared political beliefs alone to a direct relationship via electronic correspondence with a representative of a group that moves beyond the action of debate and information dissemination. As the correspondence continues, it becomes clear that the world-view narrative of this group matches that of John’s very closely. John, disenfranchised with the current politics of the ineffectual mainstream parties decides that he wants to prove his dedication to the cause.
Desiring above all to affirm his beliefs with action of his own, John makes a final choice.
John today is still the combination of the knowledge he possesses, the network of relationships of which he is a part, and the actions he takes. However, all three of these factors have shifted and changed as a result of the choices made, the new relationships that have been fostered and the new knowledge resultant of those relationships. John finds himself now an extreme actor, radicalized by the narrative that was the result of the many other narratives that he came into contact with via social networks, the media, and his family. This is not a condmenation or a justification of who he is today. It is simply his story.
I got off the ferry at breakfast time and followed some of my fellow passengers to the Stockholm underground where I took a train to Gamla Stan, the old town. I followed the signs to Ridderholmen and found my hotel, The Malardrottinghen Hotel, a renovated ship…..or is it a boat….maybe a yacht….I’m patently not very nautical. Regardless, I threw my luggage in my cabin before heading out to explore the city.
Stockholm is a beautiful, modern, clean city. It’s very forward thinking but still very mindful of its past. With its cluster of islands connected by bridges, it’s also a wonderful city to walk around, and I was lucky that day, Easter Monday as the sky was blue, the air was crisp, and there was very little traffic.
My plan was to get to the Vasa museum a few kilometres away but I wandered pretty aimlessly and got a little lost. Unlike Ulan Bator though, I was happy to get lost in Stockholm as it ensured that I would see a great deal more of the city than had I taken the direct route.
For example, I unintentionally found myself outside the Stockholm City Hall, the venue of the annual Nobel Prize Banquet.
There’s a lot of Turkish food in Stockholm, so I picked up a kebab for lunch.
A true test of a great city is how good its selection of Adidas trainers in an Originals shop is. Stockholm’s was excellent. There you have it.
Along the Strandvagen where many tourists walk to and from the island Djurgadsvagen that seems dedicated to museums such as the Vasa and other cultural sites there are moored lots of older wooden boats decorated and furnished with individual character. Sadly, perhaps some of them need a little maintenance as one of them had sunk.
Unfortunately, the Vasa was closed for renovation to reopen in the summer so I went next door to a modern art museum called the Spritmuseum. The Spritmuseum is dedicated to alcohol. There was an exhibition of Absolut related art there featuring work by Warhol, Hirst, and Annie Liebovitz while upstairs there were some instillations dedicated to the act of drinking and creating the sensations of drunkenness and having a hangover. I actually had a hangover and if you’d ever wondered whether two minuses make a positive in hangover terms, you needn’t any longer as simulating a hangover while suffering from one makes no difference whatsoever.
This above was a dark room where you could lie down and watch a video of a drunken night out through the different stages of inebriation.
As I said, Stockholm is a great city to walk around. Apart from the fact that it’s so very beautiful, clean, and well-maintained, the pavements are very often as wide as the roads.
On the walk back to my hotel, I walked through the old town to find a restaurant to get dinner in later. Unable to find any reasonably affordable local cuisine, I had some kofte for dinner. Maybe I would have just settled for the kofte anyway. It was lovely.
I then went on the piss at an Irish pub called Wirstroms. It was pretty good. There was music being played but it wasn’t too loud and it was run by real Irish people so didn’t seem particularly plastic. The beer was savagely expensive though. I paid around £8.50 for around a pint. It was, however, good beer and at 7%, it did the trick.
I was going to head back to the hotel, but on the way I passed a live music bar. The brilliantly named Stampen is a free to enter jazz and rhythm and blues bar. That night was the birthday of one of the regular performers there, an American by the name of Brian Kramer. I was going to have just the one beer but I ended up having four or five as the music was so good and the people, a mix of tourists, locals, and muso friends of the singer were so friendly.
So around midnight I walked the five minutes back to my hotel and fell on my arse for the second time during the trip on this ice.
I woke up and had a marvellous breakfast and set out to get the 5.5 hour train to Copenhagen.
I took the SJ2000, another wonderfully modern fast train.
There was a nice little bar/dining area.
In Malmo station, videos of individual train windows were projected on the walls showing train journeys through a diverse set of sceneries. It was these kind of little artistic flourishes injected into the mundane that impressed me in Stockholm and this attention was apparently that existed elsewhere. It made an otherwise everyday platform into an interesting and memorable experience. If you’re British, reflect on how many times you’ve had a memorable experience in a train station that didn’t involve a homeless person relieving themselves or football fans hitting each other.
Between Malmo and Copenhagen, the train passed over the 5 mile long Oresund Bridge. The bridge leads to an artificially created island lying in the middle of the strait where the train enters a tunnel for a further 2.5 miles to the Danish island of Amager. It’s a fucking engineering marvel and there’s probably an episode of that Megastructures show about it. There is a show about a murder on the bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen where the respective police forces have to work together, doubtless with much contrasting cultures-based hilarity.
I got to Copenhagen mid-afternoon on the 2nd of April. I had a few hours to kill so I wandered around the station area, had a £7 pint of Danish beer, ate a pizza from a 7/11 and a couple of cheeseburgers while watching the very multicultural Copenhagen people going about their business.
The taxi rank looked like Brands Hatch.
I didn’t spend much more than a couple of hours in Copenhagen. It looked rather bland compared to Stockholm from the little I saw but it was as expensive if not moreso. I’d naturally love to return. One thing I have taken away from this trip is that Scandinavia is absolutely a top destination. Beautiful, seemingly well organised. If you love chaos as I do sometimes, it’s not the place for you. If you like the orderliness of the world’s best queuers, efficiency, and a great emphasis on things being aesthetically pleasing or a respite from the regular chaos of 99% of the rest of the world, then it’s the ideal place for you.
So, from Copenhagen I took an overnight sleeper to Cologne.
The sleeper train was actually arguably the oldest and least comfortable that I’d slept in. My body was simply too long for the length of the compartment. I slept poorly.
I was sharing the compartment initially with just one other person a Danish/German lady by the name of Britt. She was heading to Germany for some treatment for an ongoing medical condition as she said that in that area Denmark was in the dark ages which surprised me. We spoke about our respective travels and her German grandfather who’d fought with the Nazis in the Second World War. It was a lovely conversation and serves as an example of why travel such as this can be so good.
We crossed another one of those massive lovely bridges again as the sun was setting. It was marvellous.
I got to Cologne very early in the morning and said goodbye to Britt who was catching a connecting train almost immediately.
I had a couple of hours to wait until I caught the ICE fast train to Brussels, so I had a quick walk outside to have a look at the huge gothic cathedral near the station and watch Cologners amble to work.
The scenery on the way to Brussels was all very Belgian, fields and fields and a few more fields. The train was beasting along far too quickly to take any pictures. This portion of the trip was all somewhat of a whirr. The fast ICE train and the Eurostar make this part of Europe seem tiny. After travelling so slowly over such large expanses of Asia and Europe up to that point, these short few hours flew by. Something that’s affected me greatly is that nowadays, a three hour journey seems like a trip to the local shop to buy bread.
After crossing through Denmark, Germany, and Belgium without a whiff of customs intervention, getting onto the platform for the Eurostar finally featured some good old fashioned British queuing and credentials checking. Unlike what the Fascist Right would have you believe in the UK, the floodgates are most certainly not open when compared to continental Europe.
The Eurostar train was rather underwhelming from outside, mainly as it was so filthy. The train was rammed. Full of Belgians off to London to buy Belgian chocolates from Harrods.
I headed to the restaurant car for my last beer of the trip.
I got to St. Pancras early afternoon on the 3rd of April having left Bangkok on the 18th of March.
I had a pint in an empty pub in Victoria where I met my sister. She gave me the keys to her flat and I hopped on the Tube to Bermondsey.
After a few days of hi-jinx in London, including my degree ceremony and drinks in Camden, the Financial Square Mile, and about ten other areas that really compounded my suspicion that the disparity of wealth in the UK between London and just about everywhere else is fucking startling, I took the overground to Watford.
I watched my football team Cardiff City bag an important draw against fellow promotion chasers and Elton John favourites Watford FC and then caught a bus full of very drunken valley boys back to the South Wales Valleys for last orders in my local in Ystrad Mynach.
I’d already travelled a fair bit in my life. I’ve gone coast to coast across Australia, travelled up the west coast of the US from LA to San Francisco, and taken buses and trains the length and breadth of Thailand and Malaysia. But at the end of this journey, I felt a genuine feeling of accomplishment. It’s a well-travelled path in points, I’m sure, and maybe for many other more seasoned travellers, this journey might not have been as great an achievement. For me, however, I can’t deny that I felt that sense of pride in completing the journey without a hitch.
From a personal perspective, that, I feel, has been the most beneficial aspect of the trip, planning and making the journey alone. Unencumbered with the constant connectivity of email, mobile phone, and social networks, for long periods of time, I was utterly alone without anyone truly knowing where I was. It’s a great feeling and one that many people who have travelled, particularly in less-developed areas can relate to though I rarely hear or read that aspect of travelling articulated. Generally you’ll be told how beautiful the beaches were, how serene and innocent the native people are, but rarely will you hear them telling of how they felt and how this might have changed them. But that’s why we travel isn’t it? To live in a moment and be changed by it?
Would I have done anything differently today? The journey took two and a half weeks and cost around 2.5K sterling. Naturally, slumming it in 3rd with the soldiers, builders, and fake brand mules would have been considerably cheaper. Also the added frisson of being molested by a drunken train guard or having a lovely violent vodka fight would have added a degree of colour lacking in a trip that might seem rather clinical and overly focused on making connections.
Some people were surprised at the time of year that I went. Quite apart from the fact that I had no choice in the matter as to when I could make the journey, the cold was an integral part of why it was so special.
I was hardly ever cold. I think that one time, crossing that bridge in Ulan Bator, fighting through a gust of air from Siberia, cooled by the mighty expanses of the Gobi, was the one and only time I suffered with the temperatures. Like Billy Connolly said, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.’ I had thermals and a new double layered Gore-Tex Berghaus coat, a good hat, and gloves which I rarely wore.
Ultimately, the frozen rivers and seas and the snow was part of the reason I enjoyed it so much. You get to appreciate the truly inhospitable climates in which we as a species eke out a living. Travelling through the Siberian tundra, you would see these incredibly isolated small villages where people just had to go about their business. In the UK, if there’s a day of snow, the supermarkets run out of bread and eggs. Five inches of snow and the entire populace turn into extras from a Mad Max film fighting over boxes of Rice Crispies. Here, in five feet, people are living their day to day lives.
This particular route I came to realise as I took it, had the unexpected effect of giving me a greater appreciation of not just the terrain and the people thereon but the slow yet distinct changes in culture and appearance as the land was traversed. From the still very alien culture of the Chinese and their distinct features, travelling east to west, cultures and facial features slowly, mile by mile, became more familiar and relatable.
There were the short glances of connections where culture and language made interaction impossible and possibly undesirable on the parts of the locals in Beijing. Then there was a degree of shared culture which helped me bond with my Russian companion on the Rossiya train but where interactions were limited by our lack of a lingua-franca. And then aboard an overnight train from Copenhagen to Cologne there was the long conversation with someone that could have been a lifelong friend yet whose grandfather had fought on opposite sides to my own during the Second World War seventy years earlier.
Seven years ago, I was (looking back) depressed and going nowhere in life. As a response, I decided to move to live and work three quarters of the way around the world in southeast Asia. I really think that I was a very different person then. These past seven years, making that new beginning with no friends and family as a direct support network and building that new network while working and studying towards a degree and then an MA have, at times, been difficult. Anyone that has ever made this move should tell you the same thing but it makes you so much stronger and more independent.
Who someone is can be defined as the knowledge and experiences they possess and the actions they take. The final component of who someone is can be the network of relationships they are a part of at any given time. Their friends, family, work colleagues. When you live and travel extensively abroad, most of these factors undergo change, particularly the latter. The actions you take that might differ to what you did or didn’t do in the past can exemplify this transformation.
Can a journey define you? I’d like to think yes and no, but I’d really like to think that this journey at that particular point in time defined me and how much I’d achieved in seven years. Arriving in London and meeting my parents for the graduation ceremony in the Barbican there seemed a perfect culmination to the trip. Pity Cardiff couldn’t have gotten the win at Watford though.
Helsinki to Stockholm
Took the high speed Allegro train to Helsinki. The journey takes 3.5 hours and it is a lovely train. I had lasagne from the restaurant car and wondered how much horse meat had found its way into my meal. It was nice anyway. There’s free wifi, a children’s play area, and currency exchange on the train.
Passport stuff was all done on the train with portable passport reading machines. There are stops along the way but passengers aren’t allowed off at certain points. It was….so friendly…so efficient….Russia and Mongolia felt a long way away already.
It was nice being in the EU, comforting. It was great to be able to speak to people in English again as I asked for help getting to the ferry port. I was told to get the tram which turned out to either be free or I didn’t understand how to pay. The port was very near, I was disappointed that I hadn’t walked, especially considering the fact I could have used Google maps seeing as Helsinki has free wifi. Everywhere. I got to the port a couple of hours before my Silja line ferry was due to leave.
The Silja line ferry leaves Helsinki in the late afternoon and arrives in Stockholm in the morning of the next day. This was to be my first ever cruise experience and having had some bad experiences on shorter trips to and from France and in the Thai islands, I approached this portion of my trip with some trepidation. Happily the sea was like a pond and the ship was so vast that it rarely felt like you were on water.
My Swedish friend in Bangkok had referred to the ferry as the Chlamydia Cruise and so I had expected a rather rough and ready affair full of drunken scandies but what I found was a lot of families and couples on duty free shopping trips. I had been upgraded as they were reasonably quiet and I found that I had my very comfortable compartment to myself.
Breaking through the ice as we left the harbour was epic. I had a beer in the pub at the stern of the ship and watched us leave Helsinki behind.
As it got darker and we entered open water, I had a wander around the ship. There was a lot of duty free shopping being done on the lowest level while Irish Titanic jigwankery entertainment kicked off in the central promenade. Surrounded by ice, with this Titanic theme and a nightclub by the name of Atlantis, I couldn’t help but feel that fate-tempting of this magnitude could only ensure that this ship would never end up at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
I got drunk and watched a pretty good solo singer in the pub as well as an ice hockey game before losing some money in the casino and suffering the workmanlike Black Eyed Peas wannabe band and daddy-dancing for a while. As the number of people watching and dancing dwindled and it all started to look rather pathetic, I went and found the other club above the pub. I was impressed by how clean, polished, and well lit the interior of the ferry was. I would imagine that it could be a good lads night out experience there were it busier.
The club was dead but a few persevered, including myself it would seem as I’d gotten pretty drunk, but it was that nice inebriation that fits so well with new experiences. I wandered through the now empty ship to my room and collapsed into bed.
I woke up early to watch the ship creep through the fjords as we approached Stockholm. There was a thin film of ice sitting on the sea. The sound of it cracking softly in our wake was wonderful and the scenery was stunning. I was hungover and quite possibly still quite drunk and it was actually all rather emotional after having travelled so far. It was very possibly the highpoint of the trip that morning.
The ship glided smoothly into port in Stockholm.
St Petersburg is stunning. From the moment I got off the train at the end of Nevski Prospekt, the main drag that runs a couple of miles up to the Neva river and the Winter Palace that sits on its bank, everywhere you looked there was incredibly beautiful and well-maintained architecture. It naturally has a fascinating and long history but there also appears to be a marvellously diverse nightlife and social scene and the people are confident and interesting.
I got to my hotel, The Nevsky Central Hotel a short walk from the station on Nevski Prospekt, around breakfast time and was told that I could check in after lunch, so I stored my bag and walked to the Hermitage museum.
On the way I had a coffee in KFC. This man was sleeping in his suit, obviously worse for wear after a night on the times in one of the 24 hour bars or late closing nightclubs that dotted Nevsky Prospekt and its side-streets.
I didn’t eat here but simply had to go in to look at the layout of the place. It’s a Burger King. A. Burger. King. Every facet of the city seemed to want to maintain the tasteful, classical styles of the larger historic buildings.
The Hermitage is incredible. From all the art that had been stolen from all over Europe by the Nazis, to the exquisite decorations of the Winter Palace, and the hall full of portraits of military leaders that fought against Napoleon. Then there’s the Egyptian collection and the Jordan Staircase. Much like the city itself, it’s difficult to walk ten metres without wanting to take pictures.
I was hungover and rather respectful of the hundreds of old men and women whose jobs seemed to consist of sitting in the corners of rooms and looking disapprovingly at people wielding Nikons in the directions of the paintings.
The next morning I took the underground to Peter and Paul Fortress over the Neva from the Winter Palace. While waiting for my train. The doors of the St Petersburg underground are very unforgiving. Once they start to close, that’s it. You’re either in or you’re out and for a few people in the picture below, that was particularly bad news. The doors closed with a very young child on the one side while his family screamed in panic on the other. The look of desperation on the face of his mother and the sound she made as the train pulled away was horrible. I have to imagine that it is something that happens regularly, and they therefore are used to dealing with such situations. I hope everything was OK anyway. I felt particularly useless there at that stage, unable to offer any realistic help.
Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the island stronghold built by the tsars, was home to a good number of attractions, primarily Peter and Paul’s Cathedral where the empire’s leaders’ bodies were all laid to rest and a certain Mr Tolstoy was banished.
The main lot were all laid to rest here, inluding Alexander and Catherine the Great who was put in the casket next to the brother she assassinated in order to claim the throne.
People in tour parties were given the opportunity to climb the tower with a few of the active priests that wandered about the place. I was shouted at for taking this picture and wrongly identified as a member of the Italian tour party. What an amazing adventure.
Visitors can exit the Nevsky Gate where people were sent for execution and walk around the frozen periphery of the island. I did so myself, noticing on the way Russians taking a load off here and there to relax while enjoying a view of the Neva. While frozen it must essentially look very much as it did a couple of hundred years ago. In the warmer weather it’s probably crawling with oligarchs’ yachts.
Having done a circuit, I checked out the Naryshkin Bastion, the prison on the island that had been home to very many political prisoners including Trotsky, Lenin’s brother who would be later executed and a great deal more in addition to a good deal of members of the establishment after the revolution.
Here and there in the more tourist parts of the city, people wandered around in period costume ready for photo opps such as these two newly-weds.
This was a rather striking mosque
This was a rather striking old ship
And this was the rather stunning Church on Spilled Blood built on the spot where Alexander the 2nd had been assassinated in 1881.
Inside, I was compelled to say the most inappropriate/appropriate ‘Jesus Fucking Christ’ since I’d visited some of the grander cathedrals in Italy.
This is the precise spot where Alex Part Deux was forcibly shuffled off his mortal coil.
Naturally, there was religious tat for sale to appease the angry God of capitalism.
I left the church and walked back to the hotel, checking out the sights as I went.
This was a lovely knife and gun shop I came across.
This was a club shop for Zenit St Racistberg fans that were probably regular customers of the aforementioned shop (I’m sure this is an unfair reflection of the majority of Zenit fans).
Below my hotel there was a bar/internet cafe establishment by the name of CafeMax. I went here to have some food and a beer before retiring for the evening. It was a Saturday but still surprisingly busy. I was informed that this was a city wide meeting for different ‘Mafia’ clubs and they were having a tournament that day. This was the kind of stuff I loved seeing, locals interacting and doing stuff that I could both relate to and which rather mystified me.
The game seemed to be a sort of roll-playing game where they took it in turns to shout at each other. At the beginning they all wore blindfolds while an invigilator shouted more things I didn’t understand in Russian. Loud rock music played over the shouting. It was marvellous.
The players were animated and passionate, genuinely delighted and despondent having won or lost respectively. I sat there watching those that were waiting to play while drinking more strong Russian beer. These were to all intents and purposes what would be deemed nerds in the UK/US but they weren’t socially inept. In fact, probably buoyed by the heroic volumes of caffeine and sugary cakes they were ingesting, they were confident and talked animatedly.
The women were fucking absurdly attractive as well. Russian women were by and large very attractive. Not so much because of their features, Russians resemble British people. They have a poise, and a knowing sexiness that they exude in the way they fix their stares on their partners and the way they walk, stand, sit, and slouch. The staff in the hotel in Irkutsk, for example, all had athletic bodies and the aforementioned poise. Like gymnasts and ice skaters that had had to take on more mundane professions to pay for their husbands’ alcohol abuse issues.
All in all, I loved my very brief couple of days in St Petersburg and recommend it to anyone. However, Scandinavia was waiting.
Moscow to St Petersburg
I’d read two and a half books by the time the train reached Moscow and watched the scenery change from what eventually became the tedium of snow and taiga trees punctuated by dramatic blizzards and colourful wooden houses in impossibly remote villages into the large often jauntily coloured apartment blocks and well-to-do houses of the more moneyed Muscovites. Moscow looked to be a vibrant and impressive city through the window of the train but around the train station, as it seems to be almost everywhere in the world, it was a little more grim.
I had intended to put my large bag in a locker and take a walk or short underground trip to Red Square to compare it with its Chinese equivalent Tiananmen, but I couldn’t find any lockers, probably as Leningradski Station was being renovated. I decided instead to just get pissed in the train station for a few hours and do some people watching until my overnight train to St Petersburg was leaving a little after midnight.
I got myself a souvlaki and a beer in a 24 hour cafeteria around the corner from the station before going back into the station and buying a few Baikal no.7 beers which had become my weapon of choice on the Rossja. The souvlaki shot through me within an hour leaving me dashing drunkenly to the public toilets. While there I realised I’d left my large bag there in the cafe unattended and so dashed drunkenly back to the spot to find it still there. Maybe I have terrorism to thank for that stroke of good fortune.
I really was rather drunk by the time I got on the train. I’d again foregone what some people might say was the unmissable sight of a world class tourist attraction in the Red Square and decided to simply drink beer and people-watch. I don’ remember much of it to be honest. I think there was a pickpocketting gang operating in the area. There was an Artful Dodger type with a Bill Sykes handler walking back and fourth, eyeing the foot-traffic. They may have just been lost or huge train station interior enthusiasts, but those thoughts didn’t entertain me nearly as much.