Tag Archives: learning

“Why We Play”…

Pat Kane gathered an interesting panel for Edinburgh International Science Festival to discuss “Why We Play”: a biologist, a social scientist – and a games creator.

It was a fascinating discussion, raising lots of questions – perhaps most importantly, “what is play?” Not fully answered, if only because once you define it, it stops being play! – and giving many answers to the implicit question of why, but that’s fine – it was thought-provoking, and for me that was the point.

There are of course problems. Defining “play” seems difficult – it is one of those behaviours that we all recognise and understand the meaning of, but can’t really define. Patrick Bateson (a biologist, and hence something of a taxonomist too) laid out five characteristics of play:

  • it is intrinsically motivated – there is no or limited external reward

  • it has no immediate benefit
  • it is sensitive to wellbeing (to the extent, Bateson felt, of being an indicator of it)
  • it most common, but not exclusively so, among the young

But these don’t seem exclusive behaviours – unless one includes activities like reading and artistic endeavours in the definition (perfectly plausible – the discussion went on to discuss creativity, so maybe art is just another, “creative” form of play?). Maybe it is best not to get lost in semantics, though as Bateson pointed out, scientists (and, presumably, other academics) need to be able to define something to study it.

Mammals play (cats, anyone? Chimps, dolphins, you name it…); birds play (and learn from it); humans play. In mammals – including us – play can be social or directed at objects, as we (and other animals) learn to manipulate the world around us.

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Obligatory cat photo: cats do it…

Bateson also highlighted that “play” is a homonym: as well as play itself, we play sports, playmusic and play in the theatre. We even play with data…

He also pointed out a difference – which I am not sure I really get – between rule-based play and “playful play”. Many games are structured – particularly in competitive play and sports – and the structure brings meaning to the game. Playing chess, for instance, relies on a very complex rule structure. If one could improvise chess moves, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But “playful play”, outside the strictures of games, is apparently linked with imagination and creativity.

Alex Fleetwood, a games designer who I saw speak a couple of years ago at TEDxOrenda, discussed how it is possible to use games – and play – to generate new ideas. People can use games to help them interpret and make sense of the world, and as new technologies come along – be it clocks, printing, or virtual reality – new games have come along to help us understand the technology; in turn, games can change the way we integrate this information and the way our brains work. (I couldn’t find any references for that contention!) Interestingly, many of the games Alex’s company, Hide and Seek, develop seem to use old technologies in novel ways to make us think differently about the world and explore new behaviours.

Wendy Russell took a rather more academic approach, though focussing on games and society. There are, she said, four kinds of games and play (with what I guess are Greek names…):

  • agoncompetitive games and sport

  • alea – games of chance
  • mimesismimicry, make-believe and play-acting (and, perhaps, even theatre?)
  • ilinx – dizzy play and disequilibrium

These form a continuum, she reckoned, from rigid, rule-bound games to turbulent, improvised anarchy – from order to disorder.

She pointed out that on of the things about play was its pointlessness; and if you try to impose a point, it threatens to become serious and – well, not fun. (Just think about how seriously people can take football matches!) All those people looking to “gamify” their processes, take note…

Those in power and in institutions like order and structure; those at the bottom of the pile like disorder, as a way to get away from their everyday lives. Society allows disorderly games, sometimes in a managed environment, so that people can let off steam: funfairs, carnivals, mardi gras, April Fool’s Day – all allow people to relax the usual conventions and escape for a while. The role of the fool and the jester do the same: the normal hierarchy is temporarily suspended.

British society is changing (or has changed!) the way we, and children, play. Parents seem to manage their children’s time much more closely, and seem scared to let children play outdoors, unattended; both adults and children can play more easily indoors, using modern technology, than outdoors, albeit socially. Russell said that architects are now trying to design space for play into new structures – perhaps just as interior designers are trying to build play-areas in workspaces.

The role of play in creativity was touched on by each of the speakers, but it seems hard to put a finger on it. Some creative processes tend towrds the anarchic – brainstorming sessions, for instance, where all ideas are equally valid and anyone can contribute. The burgeoning unconference movement (of which I am a strong advocate!) might also be seen as disorderly play, beyond the usual bound business strictures. Everyone felt that play – or a sense of play – is crucial to promoting creativity – without specifying how.

“Silence Is The Question”: a dialogue

I went to my first “seasonal dialogue” last week – named because there are four a year, I’m told. The group has been meeting for several years; I was invited by a friend and former colleague, who I had just caught up with after moving back to Edinburgh.

The group consisted of an eclectic mix of about ten people, though many now seemed to freelance in one capacity or another. There was no fixed topic for discussion, though the process (based on “open space“) seemed more formal and as a result the discussion more controlled, respectful and measured than other discussion groups I’ve been to: this made for a somewhat different experience – though perhaps quieter and with less excitement of exploration as others interject. (Normally I think of control as a bad thing, imposed externally to manage or manipulate; in this context, however, the control was self-imposed by members of the group, and a positive.)

In particular, we seemed respectful of the silence. One of the formalities was a “check in” question, to set the tone; and the discussion per se didn’t start till everyone had answered the check in. And people only responded when they chose to. I have never been to a Quaker meeting, but I’m guessing it might feel a but like this.

This was quite hard work: I had things I wanted to say and ask about others’ responses to the check in, and I had to bite my tongue until everyone had had their say. (I had jumped in with my response early on, eager to get going!)

Having to wait – and to listen to others – was humbling. Silence – all too rare in our connected, clouded and device-mediated times – was a good thing. The quality of listening was high: even if it was listening to the silence.

Similarly, the ease with which we disconnected from our devices and connected instead with the group was informative. Like many people, I regularly check Twitter and Facebook, write email or text messages whilst ostensibly doing something else. In the space of the dialogue group, the desire to fill the void created by the silence by getting out one’s phone and seeing what’s going on in the outside world rather than listening to what was going on in the group – albeit silence – wasn’t an option. This felt liberating and healthy.

Silence also played a major part in the discussion later on, as we shifted from one topic to another – unsurprisingly, the silence prompted introspection, and a conversation about silence itself. That silence should be an outcome of conversation sends pleasingly oxymoronic; that it should add value to the conversation doubly so.

There was much resonance with the discussion by Richard Sennett of dialogic as opposed to dialectic, adversarial debate, particularly with respect to learning. The subjunctive and empathetic approach of the dialogue group was certainly in line with Sennett’s approach. It seemed that we were mostly learning about ourselves.

(“Silence Is The Question” is the name of a piece of music written by Reid Anderson. His band The Bad Plus play it on this video.)

Personal Learning Networks: why?

I first came across the term “personal learning network” in a blog post about five years ago (possibly this one from 2008, or this one or maybe this one – or maybe not!).

The phrase was new to me, and frankly I didn’t understand it – or rather, it didn’t seem relevant. And I am still not sure if it is relevant, because my personal learning network – defined by Wikipedia as

an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…

is constantly changing. Back in 2008 I doubt I was thinking about personal learning much, and most of what I learned came somewhat randomly from the many blogs I read, through an RSS feed.

Following my move to London, that changed: I became involved with Tuttle, where I learned a lot, mostly through conversation, and through Tuttle, the School of Everything, and more specifically its offshoot, Everything Unplugged, a weekly meetup to discuss learning specifically and much else (ranging from politics to art and music) besides.

Fred Garnett, one of the many regulars at Everything Unplugged, recently pulled together others’ thoughts on the gathering, limiting us to 50 words. What I wrote was

A loosely-connected group of people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences who gather together to talk about ideas – prompted by, but not exclusively about, an interest in learning. It is essentially an ongoing, wide-ranging conversation which challenges, educates and entertains.

(Fred’s and others’ thoughts can be seen in his presentation on SlideShare.)

So Tuttle and Everything Unplugged formed part of my personal learning network. But – well, conversations are just the start. I think the internet, mediated by Twitter specifically, forms a huge part of my learning environment. Which means anyone sharing a link on Twitter may form part of my PLN. That is a whole lot of people – sufficient for it to be pointless defining it, frankly. Through Twitter, it feels like I have access to the whole world: quite a large network, and one which doesn’t benefit from mapping.

In Edinburgh, where I now live, there are alternatives Tuttle and Everything Unplugged – Edinburgh Coffee Morning, a huge range of meet-ups and tweetups, a dialogue group – ranging from the formal to the very informal, all based around conversation and with various degrees of learning attached.

And of course the internet is still out there, facilitating the exchange of ideas, learning and conversation (as well as cute pictures of cats).

Is there value in the concept of a personal learning network? I think if one has embarked on something with a clear learning objective – gaining a new skill our specific knowledge, or to obtain clearly identifiable learning objectives – it clearly makes sense: it would be the group of people on whom one relies to help meet those objectives. Even then I am not sure on the value of identifying (and hence naming and formalising) that network: I can’t see what is actually gained by doing so. (Though I doubt anything is lost.)

But outside of specific, structured objectives, when the whole world is available to learn from, specifying a discrete network seems almost to defeat the point. With self-directed, self-organised ad hoc – or even self-disorganised – learning, it seems beside the point.

Trends About Trends

William Nelson and Richard Hepburn explored some long term trends in the UK – reassessing them and exploring new qualititative techniques such as crowd sourcing. Such trends have an impact on economics and government policy, as well as fundamentally affecting the way we live our lives (ten years ago I would never have guessed the impact carrying a mobile phone would have on my behaviour!).

The themes they identified were

  • changing structure of households (what Nelson called “home-alone v ‘all together now’”): there have been increases in young people staying at home, people living by themselves, couples cohabiting, and young people sharing till later in their lives.The current state of the economy and the jobs market is driving a lot of this as young people stay at home or have to because they can’t afford a place of their own (apparently leading to an increase in squatting in London and some novel approaches to communal living and working elsewhere), but of course it also has economic impacts. Immigration and demographics (which Nelson also covered) will have an effect, too.(
  • “smart v connected”: drawing on “the internet of things” – the ability to give any object its own internet identifier – Nelson argued against the need for “smart objects” (all those food-ordering fridges PR-savvy white goods manufacturers say we’ll be buying) but reckoned our homes would become more connected – but under our control. He foresees us using our mobile phones as universal controllers, switching on heating, lights and cookers remotely. As technology converged, he also believed that it would be gas or electricity companies who would own the interface, not the telecoms or media companies that currently own our broadband connections, prompting competition for control of our homes: remote controlled central heating might be the killer app. (Maybe Sky will buy British Gas?)
  • social networking to networked socialising: we’ve been living in a technology-mediated networked society since the advent of the telephone in the early 20th century, but we’re increasingly connected. The ability to carry the internet in our pockets has changed the way we behave. Whilst our lives might be more and more busy, we’re also procrastinating more: we might arrange to meet people, but the details – where, when, what – are more flexible and subject to change: we are less willing to commit to a fixed schedule, with frequent and repeat rescheduling. People are more willing to take the best offer that comes along (apparently 40,000 people are stood up every day!). A lot of this happens on mobiles – people are checking what’s on and booking more last minute tickets, which effects artists’ and venues’ planning and pricing strategies.Their is also an increase in “leisure as performance” – people tweeting or Facebooking (is that a verb? I guess so…) photos of themselves at events – the ease of one-to-many communications is turning us into a nation of show-offs – and sharing information about our plans to go to events becomes a currency. Interestingly, one doesn’t actually need to go to the event – you can share the information that, for instance, you’ve got a ticket for the Olympics (posting the details and a photo of the ticket, perhaps) before selling it on. Data about the event can be more valuable than the event itself.

    (It also means we are under self-imposed scrutiny: the more we share online, the more we are building the panopticon… And I am shocked that there is a data analysis firm called Panopticon. Maybe we get the future we deserve.)

  • the gender revolution finally happens: decades after the 1960s, Nelson reckoned that changes in gender relations have now become so normal as to cease to be newsworthy – and when things get boring, change has happened. (I know many feminists who may disagree with this; please don’t blame me for sharing his views with you!) There are now more female graduates than male, and they get better degrees; they’re also better at getting jobs than male graduates. Nelson said that women aged 20-29 now have higher hourly wages than men (I have searched the ONS website, which is full of fascinating data, but I can’t figures split by gender and age, so I’ll just have to take his word for it!).As women become more equal to men, they are becoming less equal to each other: there are growing disparities between women. And whilst pay hourly pay might have moved in their favour, women still spend more time on housework (in the US) and are the prime provider of childcare. It’ll be interesting to see if those roles change with women having the higher earning potential.

    There may also be pressure on employers to change their models of employment (strongly rooted in the early 20th century?) to cope with highly qualified, high earning women who want to fit in childcare and their home life, too: this might add pressure to develop more flexible models of employment.

  • ageing population: the “demographic timebomb” has almost become a cliche, but it remains important, affecting policy and opinions for decades. 2012 sees a spike of people reaching 65 – the results of a mini baby boom in 1946 and 1947 as soldiers returned from the war. Since Britain didn’t really recover economically for another decade or so – it was in 1957 that MacMillan asserted “you’ve never had it so good” – it won’t be until the 2020s that the wave of over-65s resulting from the 1950s baby boom reach 65.The ONS predicts that the proportion of over-60s will continue to grow whilst the proportion of under-14s is static and the proportion of those aged 15-59 decreases – hence worries of a decreasing working population having to support an increasing number of the old.

    None of this is news – the “demographic timebomb” has been written about for decades. But by looking at the detail, we can plan and change – both public policy and our personal choices. For instance, Willie pointed out the market for Saga will grow by 7% pa (I think – I didn’t write the figure down!), without the company doing anything at all. The effect of demographics on policy – the provision of health care, pensions and social care for the elderly, for instance, as well as indirectly affecting, say, transport, housing and industrial policies – and of course the economy

  • “the youth of today”
    It was in his discussion of youth that Nelson really challenged our assumptions. The young are not hoodie-wearing rioters drunkenly threatening passers-by: Nelson gave figures from the UK for reducing youth crime, decreasing youth drug and alcohol use and a decreasing teenage pregnancy rates – not the stuff of tabloid headlines.At the same time, parents are being more protective of their children – driving them to school and managing their leisure time (back to the panopticon there…) – in part driven by a culture of fear: children are taught about “stranger danger” when other risks may be more relevant. What effect will “paranoid parenting” have on future generations? Will they learn to assess risk if protected during childhood – surely a key part of growing up? And what will such cosseting have on our children’s future health?

These are just some of the trends that Nelson has worked on; perhaps most interesting is where they intersect: for instance, the effect of the changing nature of networked socialising as the population ages; or the changing form of households when examined through the lens of changing, less rebellious youth; or the impact of changing economic power of (some) women on household structures and the balance between generations.

Personal Learning Systems?

At a recent Everything Unplugged session (the Wednesday morning London meetup I went to), we discussed what systems and processes we use for learning. This struck me as being a bit too structured for me: I am not sure that my learning works like that. When I need to know something – a specific piece of knowledge for a bit of work, for example – I will either Google it (and start a trail of links, maybe making paper or digital notes as I go along) or ask someone (either face to face, on the phone, by email, Twitter or text message – indeed, whatever medium is the most appropriate for the person or the information).

Most of my learning, though, is adventitious and informal – accidental or serendipitous: things I come across in conversation or on the web, via Twitter or one of the many blogs I read. I may or more likely not record this learning: I don’t keep a record of what I read, although I do keep a pile of links I want to follow up on Twitter by favouriting (is that a verb? ‘Tis now…) others’ tweets. I also use Diigo for links I come across (and its mobile app, PowerNote) – and one can add tags and notes to Diigo (a real limit for Twitter, I think).

(Some definitions of learning require the setting of learning goals – most common in formal education and training. I don’t that on my own account: it is much more informal than that.)

I also use Evernote to write down ideas and lists of books and other things I want to follow up. (Evernote has distinct advantages to Diigo, I think – it is usable when one is not connected to the internet, and has much better text handling capabilities, I think – but Diigo is much better at bookmarking and tagging.)

I go to formal talks and lectures (the RSA has been a boon for this whilst I have been in London – I will be taking advantage of their live streaming and video channels in my new home) and have informal conversations at, say, Tuttle or Everything Unplugged which are nevertheless full of learning (and frequently more challenging than formal talks, since there is more feedback and exploration through questionning). I often blog about lectures, talks and conversations – one way I record and explore what what I have have learned – like this!

And then there are filed emails, my calendar, my (paper) diary and notebooks. (Paper has a lot of advantages for me over digital note taking: it helps me make connections and remember things better. I often make mindmaps, and those only work for me on paper; and in a lecture or a talk, using a device more sophisticated than a pen and paper distracts me from the talk itself! I can see that tablet devices – without a screen to get in between me and the speaker – might solve this; but pen and paper works just fine! I am not one of those people who can type faster than they write…)

So, not so much a system, more a random group of methods that seem to work for me in an unstructured, somewhat haphazard fashion.

Others in the Everything Unplugged group had a much more rigorous approach – indeed, Neil had come along to try out some of his ideas for developing a personal learning portfolio on us, which got us into the conversation. Using online and offline resources, for instance, one of the group has a structured workflow to manage his learning, including using Delicious as a bookmarking tool (similar to Diigo – I started to use bookmarking when the future of Delicious looked in doubt, though it now seems assured; someone mentioned a specific bookmarking service for learning, XTlearn, though I’ve not explored it) and TiddlyWiki as a note-taking tool. (TiddlyWiki looks great but I have failed to get it working properly on any of my devices – though I’m pretty sure that’s me and not the programme! Maybe I should give it another go.)

Creating a learning portfolio means that one would have a record of all relevant learning; someone reckoned that this – a summary of our learning – could be used in place of a standard CV – the summary of our experiences. Neil feels it will be able to identify matches for new roles and to examine knowledge, learning or skills gaps, which one could then plan to fill.

My main criticism was that such a record of learning shows neither the impact that something has had nor what we think of it. One may learn things which have absolutely no influence at all; other ideas may be highly influential and change the way one behaves. Simply recording what we’ve read, watched – learned – doesn’t differentiate. Maybe that is why people use CVs instead of a learning portfolio.

There are clearly some benefits to having a more structured approach to learning – not least being able to retrieve what one has learned. For long form research – writing a book, say – one would need to record all the references. But for every day, informal learning, an unstructured approach works for me: trying to codify it might make it more like work and less like fun.

Talking about Dialogic Learning…

Last week’s Everything Unplugged discussion was about dialogic learning. I first came across the term “dialogic” when I heard Richard Sennett talk at the RSA last month: Sennett contrasted dialogic against dialectic: the first involving discussion, listening, and understanding, the second involving argument, debate, confrontation, polarisation and adversarial stances.

Our discussion could be summed up by “statement of the bleedin’ obvious”: learning through discussion, sharing ideas and collaborating rather than the intervention of an expert (ie a teacher) to direct our learning and lead us to the truth, has clear benefits. But then we are a self-selected group of people with a clear interest in self-directed leaning through discussion. That’s what we were doing there. Of course it seemed obvious to us.

In part, we were talking more about the Wikipedia article on Dialogic Learning, which reads like an essay and really needs editing (which, somewhat hypocritically, I haven’t been bothered to do), rather than the concept of dialogic learning itself.

But despite perhaps being obvious to us, the idea of dialogic learning is useful. Sennett pointed out how it leads to collaboration rather than confrontation. It teaches people to think for themselves, perhaps in a creative fashion, making new connections and challenging established ideas – critical to innovation, perhaps.

At a time when schools are being criticised for schools are being criticised for failing to adequately prepare students for university and “teaching to the test“, dialogic learning could be a useful method.

We may all know this – but it doesn’t make it any less valid…

(David Terrar’s thoughts on our discussion can be found here.)

#Tweetcamp: my takeaway lessons…

Last Saturday, I was one of maybe 150 people who made it to a rather shiny new school in the East End for Tweetcamp – a BarCamp-like unconference on Twitter. Since I like the unconference format (I’m off to another next week), I signed up and went along, and had a great day talking to old and new friends about Twitter, mostly, but also London, music, chocolate and many other things.

The conversation is the thing. The morning was taken up answering some deceptively simple questions posed by the ever-present Benjamin Ellis (@BenjaminEllis and Farhan Rehman (@farhan) as we moved around tables. These simple questions led to some deep discussion about why and how we use Twitter.

The first question was “why do you use Twitter?” (I said they were deceptively simple questions!) Sitting around the table, there were a huge number of answers. The ones which resonated with me were: learning; sharing; communicating; discovery; and conversation – all big headline uses, undifferentiated – there is a lot more in there. Others came up with trolling and stalking (and I won’t be following her!); managing, advertising and sharing events; creating community; connecting; collaborating; news (reading and gathering); following celebrities; branding; finding work; dating.

My takeaway here: Twitter users use Twitter in many different ways, simultaneously – and most of the time we are probably not conscious of the way we are using it: it is simply a tool, integral to the way we use the internet, and we switch from one mode to another. I think we could have spent much of the day exploring the issues that came out that session – but we only had fifteen minutes or so before…

The next question was actually more interesting: “what DON’T you tweet about?” Some people in the group had very firm views – no real names (leading to a rich debate about persona and identity, privacy and anonymity), no food tweets (that rules outs #breakfastofchampions and #dinnertweet), no work tweets, no swearing, no locations, no cross posting between Twitter, Facebook or any other service, no relationships…

I realised that though there are things I rarely tweet about, there is little I would never tweet. I made a decision when I started using Twitter to use my real name, because I wanted to use it for work as well as socially, and I reckoned that running two accounts would just be confusing: the easiest way to solve my Twitter identity problem was simply to be myself. Clearly others strongly disagreed, keeping their offline identities separate from their online personas (and sometimes have more than one online identity).

Whilst I rarely swear on Twitter or tweet about food, neither is completely unknown. Similarly, I actively try to avoid giving away my location – and neither FourSquare nor other location based services have made sense to me – though I do tweet about events I attend (like #TweetCamp!), where Twitter creates a richer experience.

Someone said they used the “mum” test: don’t put anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t want your mother to read. I think I use a similar filter – don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want someone else to see, and which you wouldn’t like to be recorded – for ever: because once something is on the internet, it stays there, however hard you try to remove it, sitting on someone’s server, somewhere.

The last question of the morning was perhaps the easiest and hardest to answer: “Has Twitter changed relationships with others?” The easy answer is a resounding “yes!” Harder was working out in what ways. Twitter has brought people (and things – events, for instance) closer: it has made connections easier, facilitating online meeting across distances, and offline face-to-face social get-togethers. For me, it has made learning social (albeit undirected and serendipitous). Of course, as with the first two questions, everyone’s answer to this was different; and in the heat of the discussion, I didn’t take notes on what others said…

TweetCamp London 2011

photo: Benjamin Ellis, on flickr

The unconference sessions held a lot of interest – and a lot of clashes. My chosen schedule featured the use of social media in organisations, with discussions on connecting virtual teams, knowledge sharing and learning, and internal communications. There was much cross-fertilisation between these three sessions – many of the same ideas and attendees cropped up in each (creating a great spirit of camaraderie!). They also incorporated thoughts generated before lunch, too – the role of communication in organisations reflecting its place in society as whole. Through making connection easier, social media may facilitate flatter organisation structures and matrices. But they need to be included in the workflow – within the established processes.

Cultural issues – within organisations as well as societies – came to the fore, as did issues of power and control: do flat organisations use social media because their use makes the flat structure workable, or will their adoption by more hierarchical organisations result in them being flatter? A bit chicken and egg, perhaps, and the answer is most likely to be both; but rigid hierarchies dominated by managers control the way work is done seem unlikely to take to social media. The ability of social media to create networks across organisational silos seems to be very powerful and empowering.

In learning and knowledge management, we talked about knowledge-sharing and communities of interest, and how social media can mediate these processes, promoting “just in time learning”. We decided that there was a great difference between the impact of social media on learning as opposed to training – the former about discovery and community, the latter about tickbox and control, for instance. What social media can do is help develop peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing, maybe reducing the value of offline networks in which knowledge is power. The use of Twitter as a personal learning network – the whole network, that is, not just a select few within it – could be very useful.

The overriding theme of the last two sessions I went to, the first on the impact of social media on central government, the civil service and policy making, and the second on the adoption of public and private profiles, and how we might manage them, came back to issues of identity (at least for me!). Mediated by the online avatar of @Puffles2010, we discussed the impact of social media in breaking down the links between ministers, journalists and the public, such that structures of policy-making established in Whitehall for decades (if not centuries) are likely to fail. Social media cut out the middlemen – the civil servants whose main role may be seen to protect their ministers – and can illuminate the spin that ministers use in speeches as crowd-sourced fact-checkers can identify waffle and hypocrisy before the speech is even over. Just follow the #BBCQT hashtag to see how people on all sides of political debate challenge and engage with political and public figures. (The hashtag is much more interesting than the TV programme it responds to, in my view!)

Those same civil servants can also become targets of the media, as the oft-told tale of Baskers shows. Without an upfront policy on social media use – a vacuum that directly led to the creation of @Puffles2010 for a civil servant to participate anonymously in social media – indulging in social media can be risky.

Tweetcamp had a busy schedule. Much of what was discussed didn’t feel new to me – for instance, many of the organisational issues around social media were covered during last year’s ConnectingHR unconference – and I’ve had conversations around many of the topics discussed during the day, so I didn’t feel I learned as much from the day as I had expected. But then I had deliberately chosen to attend sessions in which I had an active interest, so that shouldn’t really surprise me.

And I wasn’t surprised either by the great warmth and degree of participation that everyone I spoke with –old friends and new – brought to the day. Just like Twitter, really…

“What Is The Internet Doing To Our Brains?”

This week at the RSA, Paul Howard Jones asked a simple question – “what is the internet doing to our brains?”

Not a simple answer, though – and to be honest, Jones didn’t really answer it. This wasn’t his fault – he was summarising his review of the evidence of impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (PDF), and most of the work has been done on children (which is also Jones’ area of interest). So he couldn’t tell me whether the internet was frying my brain, Facebook is infantilising me or Google is making me stupid.

Instead, Jones examined the evidence for digital media in general and games more specifically affected users, mostly children. Young people have been the subject of most studies because parents and educators worry about their more plastic brains and that digital media use may affect other areas of development.

Much of the evidence is conflicting. Early studies – before “web 2.0”? – showed that high internet usage increased social isolation and decreased connectedness; now, the opposite is true: the internet is all about connectedness, and the internet stimulates young people to be connected and social. There are downsides to this – young people (and old!) lay themselves open to bullying and abuse, but that’s about society, not technology or the internet – in the US in 2006, only 2% of sex-related crimes against children involved the internet (you can find references to any “facts” in this post in Jones’ paper).

This became a theme of Jones’ talk: technology is neutral, what matters is how you use it: for digital media, it’s when, what and how much.

Apparently, when is important: technological devices – PCs, tablets and mobile phones – can disrupt our sleep patterns quite significantly. As well as the content they distribute exciting and energising – and hence stopping us wanting to sleep – the light produced by the screens, even at low output, can affect our circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep. This can lead to tiredness, lack of concentration and memory loss the next day – again, symptoms parents and educators may not want to see in young people in classes (though not many employers – or our customers – would be too happy, either).

What can be central to the impact of digital media, too. Shoot ’em up games can teach people to be violent; online learning can help people access resources they otherwise couldn’t. It all depends.

And how much – how much may be the most important factor. The strong attraction of digital media can displace other activities – things like reading books or taking outdoor exercise which educators (and politicians) see as important. But again, the evidence seems contradictory. Apparently, between 1.5% and 8.2% of the population have an issue with excessive internet use – what might be termed “addiction” – except that label may not be relevant.

Jones explored the ways the internet and specifically gaming can have positive benefits – indeed, how they can be used for education. In particular, games can help improve various skills and visuomotor tasks. Even non-gamers can improve their skills through playing video games, and transfer them to other environments (ie the improvement is “sticky”). Interestingly, many of those excessive, “addicted” users are kids playing games. (Others are adults gambling and using pornography, apparently. Who’d’ve thunk it?)

Jones’ message, then, was that the technology is neutral – like older technologies: books can be used for good or wrong, and so can digital media. How we use it matters. Digital media may reduce students’ attention spans, but that may be as much because they provide such attractive pursuits (Jones explained a fair bit about how games work with the brain’s chemistry to be very attractive) than because of any inherent propensity to cause ADHD. It might just be that the online world is more interesting than the real life teachers trying to teach the students…

Bye Bye Blog Roll…

I have decided to redesign my blog. In a teeny, weeny way – although it says a fair bit, I think.

I have removed my blog roll – the list of blogs that used to sit on the right of my home page.

I was looking at my blog the other day, and I noticed the blog roll. And I realised that it contained many blogs I hadn’t looked at in a while. And, more, that the way I access blogs – the way I explore the internet – now relies on Twitter, rather a blog reader or any list of blogs.

I still read these blogs – sometimes – but I access them (and a lot more) by clicking on links in tweets, feeding on the information others share, and passing on some of it myself.

It is a minor change to the blog, but I think it reflects a big change in the way I use the internet.

Changing Education: “Education for Uncertain Futures”

I have spent many months over the past few years working with public servants in the Scottish Government on change programmes in the education sector. I wasn’t designing or leading the change – there were pedagogues to do that – but I was responsible for programme management of some workstreams.

Change in the education sector is difficult. There are a lot of deep-rooted interest groups – parents, teachers, unions (surprisingly, learners rarely seem to get a look in…). The change happens in classrooms, far removed from the design and political drivers of change. There is a very long time lag – changing a school curriculum means changing the assessment and exam system. And the political pressures to tinker can be huge.

So changing education is difficult and complicated.

I was therefore really interested in a recent debate at the RSA entitled “Education for Uncertain Futures”. This was held to launch the output of an RSA project, “Building Agency in the Face of Uncertainty: a thinking tool for educators and education leaders”. I haven’t read the pamphlet – yet – but the debate was interesting and raised a lot of issues.

There were four speakers: Keri Facer, who was co-author of the pamphlet (sorry – thinking tool…); Patrick Hazlewood, a head teacher who has been doing some work with the RSA; Carolyn Usted, an educationalist and former inspector of schools; and Dougald Hine, an itinerant thinker (and co-founder of the Everything Unplugged meetup I sometimes go to). A varied bunch, each coming from a different perspective.

It made for an interesting talk, but there was a lack of cohesion in the views and issues discussed. This is what some of the contributors talked about, and some thoughts of my own they prompted. (There was an underlying assumption in the discussion that mainstream education is the way forward. It might not be; but it probably will be the system that most young people work through, so there seems little point in challenging that assumption. Maybe that’s another post!)

The education establishment, like other organisations, faces lots of uncertainty – economic, environmental, technological – but the feedback in the system may take years. Governments and educators are designing the education system in a fog of data: and the educational environment is changing much faster than the system can. The policies being implemented now are not just unlikely to work in the future – they’re unlikely to work today, because they’re based on data that is now outdated.

Beneath this uncertainty, though, is a continuity: the purpose of education remains the same (if we can agree what that is – there seems to be no overriding philosophy of why we educate; we may not even share a common language to discuss learning). The daily business of teaching remains (more or less) the same. Against the background of change and uncertainty, what teachers do and try to achieve remains pretty constant.

The curriculum and its objectives has changed little: the early 21st century curriculum would be recognised by teachers from the early 20th century, though the tools and practice may have changed considerably. Teachers aim to get measurable results – so they “teach to the test”, and always have done (because that is how they are assessed). Teaching is generally a linear, sequential process (though learning may be recursive). Generally, we teach what we know based on the past, not what we may think will be needed for the future (the one thing we can be certain of predictions of the future is that they will be wrong).

Change may be a constant, but the rate of change – particularly technology and the way we use it – has greatly accelerated. Young people – the primary consumers of the education system – are at the forefront of that change, ahead (maybe way ahead) of their parents and teachers. Their access to information and other resources is far superior to previous generations’. Helping people manage the vast amounts of information available now, sifting value from the chaff, would be useful.

One thing that the education system could do is prepare young people to cope with this rate of change: to enable them to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, to improvise in novel situations. Society may come to rely on these skills as institutions – banks or universities or governments – fail. The gap between those in power and influence and those without – consumers of it, perhaps – is changing too, in ways the powerful may not understand (the Arab spring illustrates this, and it could happen anywhere).

Allowing educators to improvise and experiment – removing the yoke of management by results from them – to see what works and what doesn’t in their situation (and every school may be different) might add a lot of value. Teachers are the people who have to manage the change and pass it on to their learners: providing learners with skills rather than answers would be a good start.