Tag Archives: internet

This Happened Edinburgh and Creative Edinburgh

Four years ago, I spent an evening at the first This Happened Edinburgh – an interesting, collaborative event where technical and creative people discussed some of their innovative projects. (I thought I had blogged about it at the time, but clearly I failed to do so!)

After a four year gap (whilst I was down in London – where there is also a regular “This Happened” but where I found it impossible to get a ticket, such was demand!), I went to This Happened Edinburgh #9 last week.

This Happened Edinburgh #1 was the first event like that I had been to: four creators discussing their projects; this time, I knew what to expect. First time around, it was in a crowded upstairs room of a pub; now it was in the much more salubrious surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Inspace gallery, a white space which may well have been designed for events such as this. Much techier, much smoother, much cooler – but much less “funky”, too, and more deliberate and knowing.

The four projects were as interesting as those four years ago – I was particularly taken with Shenando Stals examination of the emotional geography of walkers’ Edinburgh – how our emotional sense of a city is created and alters our everyday experience of place – and Gianluca Zaffiro’s description of a project involving the users of social networks managing their own data (rather than the firms running the social networks).

The mantle for the funkier side of things has been taken up by Creative Edinburgh who, amongst the other things they do, have been organising a series of irregular events called “Glug” (part of a broader programme of Glug around the UK – I do like the subtitle “Notworking”: for all the self-unemployed out there…) where entrepreneurs and artists give short talks about their projects. Loosely curated around a theme – the first one I went to was on “collectives” (from I learned that collectives come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies – and it is the people not the idea that make it work! And I meant, and failed, to write about that at the time, too); the last one, in December, was on “materials matter“, though I’m not sure the case was proven: it was the creativity and the ideas that came through for me, the materials just being the medium.

Creative Edinburgh’s Glug evenings are more entrepreneurial and less academic than This Happened; maybe a bit more social, too. Not necessarily better – just a different focus. Both present a series of fascinating, engaging talks, and I look forward to more.

“I Am Seeing Things”. Or not.

I have had many conversations over the past few years about “the internet of things” – giving any object an ability to communicate, a specific URL and putting it online – particularly with Tony Hall and Martha LaGess; their interest lay in particular in what the internet of things might mean for cities and society – a kind of “quantified self” for buildings and social structures.

I don’t get it. (Actually, I get neither the internet of things nor the quantified self!) But that makes it interesting. So when I learned about I Am Seeing Things a few weeks ago, I signed up.

It was an interesting day, though in some ways it didn’t live up to expectations: the papers were not as focused on the internet of things as I had expected, and there was a fair bit of academic dissociation from reality. (But hey, it was a symposium held in a university – clearly my expectations were off-kilter!) There was a lovely moment when one of the organisers described playing with augmented reality apps on his phone in the park; he turned to his companion, expecting her to react like ecstatic characters in a Vodafone ad – but instead she said, “You’re a sad little man!”, demonstrating the gap between virtual and physical reality!

I think that gap is crucial. There are some neat tricks one can do – or experience – by connecting everything to the internet: the ToTEM project allows people to record their stories about objects, linked by a QR code, for instance – every object could have a narrative, adding to the way one experiences the object. But fundamentally I think most people respond with a huge “so what”, and get on with their lives.

There is also something a bit too exclusive about it all – a bit too “clever-clever”: partly this is down to the use of QR codes, which I feel is currently limiting – users have to be pretty interested already to use QR codes, and you are excluding anyone who frankly can’t be bothered to download an app or find out what the pretty chessboard patterns actually mean. (As an example of how bizarrely dissociated from reality people that use this stuff – mainly marketeers, I guess – can be, I saw an advert in last week’s “The Economist” for IMD. It contained a QR code – and they want you to download an IMD-specific app to your phone, then scan the code and see what happens. Because that is so much easier than just, say, providing a URL. I mean, FFS! It’s not just me that thinks so, either.)

You are also adding to the work people have to do to get at your object, story, information or other experience – in effect pushing them away, rather than bringing them in. (As you probably noticed, I don’t really get QR codes…)

There were several interesting presentations, though some seemed only tangentally connected to the internet of things.

My reaction to Mark Shepard‘s vision for the Sentient City veered from “so what” to out and out paranoia as the ability to track things through the physical world (the internet of things apparently started up as a way to better manage logistics, using items tagged with RFID transmitters) turns into a Orwellian surveillance nightmare. The smart city could seem more like a prison than we would care to admit.

Mike Philips talked about using sensors or “ecoids” – Arduino-like systems – within the environment, detecting and managing dynamic systems: pollution, for instance, or the internal environment within a building. Such systems interact with people already – the nature of a building depends on the people using it – and tying in active monitors allows greater control and management. Including biological data from personal sensors – an extension of the “quantified self” extends the person into the environment: we are already part of the environment, not separate from it (and as Philips pointed out, we are ourselves environments for significant number of organisms – we contain more cells of bacterial than human origin!), and becoming part of the internet itself is perhaps the next step. Perhaps…

“Things” can take on a different meaning when they are connected. Chris Speed discussed how attaching stories to objects changes them. Using QR codes and the internet so that any object has its own URL, meaning can be stored in a readable database: objects can be tagged with meaning, and they can tell their own stories. (But they don’t: the stories are stored in a database; we put them there, we retrieve them; the objects are and always will be inanimate. It is our stories and our meaning we associate with them.) He reckoned this changes the value in objects – though of course this has been the case for valuable objects forever: a painting with known provenance is more valuable than one without. Most things don’t have stories attached to them – they are purely utility – and I’ll admit to remaining pretty sceptical of this.

Maria Burke and Irene Ng both took a business-view of value (a broad term!) and the internet of things: what it means for the value chain. This was a fascinating, hard-headed take on TIoT: what difference it could actually make in the way people do business. Value depends on context (as Speed had pointed out): connecting things to the internet changes both the value proposition and the relationship to the object. Value becomes more of the moment – an digitised object may have no intrinsic value until it is used, pushing value down the value chain. With the proliferation of mobile services, value becomes “on demand”.

Mike Crang took this one step further by following objects through their life to destruction and salvage. This was fascinating – the way objects become incorporated into others, attract meaning and stories (“social biographies”), and change and are destroyed. The meaning remains – “ghost stories” (or as Craig put it, “the afterlife of things”). Despite being the most functional of processes, there was real poetry here. Some people don’t want their objects to have stories or history – in the market for second hand clothes, one doesn’t normally want to know the history of the bra you’re wearing (unless it was worn by Madonna or Monroe!). But at the end of their lives, even waste materials can attract value from thoses who have been part of their history: naval vessels being scrapped attract souvenir hunters, often those who have sailed in them. Almost any removeable part can have value.

Throughout the day, inanimate objects on the internet of things seemed to develop their own identities and personalities: we anthropomorphise our objects in relation to ourselves. When discussing the internet of things, people talk about the objects tweeting, for instance. They’re not: a computer sensor, programmed to respond (still anthropomorhising…) in specific ways to particular conditions or data is doing just that. It is possible to have “Death” of an object is part of an natural (re-)cycle. But on the internet of things, the dead objects survive as digital ghosts.

Addendum: Tony Hall has directed me to this download on the internet of things: a critique [pdf] – which looks interesting!

(I also liked the artworks demonstrated by Torsten Lauschmann and Geoff Mann – but it was hard to see how they fitted into the internet of things: rather, they struck me as being digital art. I missed the connection. But here are a couple of works I enjoyed:

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.

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.

“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…

Eli Pariser and the Filter Bubble

Another week, another talk at the RSA… This time, Eli Pariser was discussing his thoughts (and his book) on the filter bubble – the way the internet shows us a cut-down, “me-too” world.

To some extent, the filter bubble is nothing new. We have always surrounded ourselves with people like us, who share similar views and like similar things; we buy (at least, I still do…) newspapers which reflect our views and interests. It is no surprise that on the internet, we do the same: our friends on Facebook and those we follow on Twitter generally reflect our views and opinions, creating an echo chamber.

Pariser’s argument extends this with a healthy dose of paranoia. He noticed that Facebook was filtering out his friends with views which differed from his, and he realised that this was because Facebook were applying an algorithm to the stream of updates on Pariser’s page which ranked those with similar views most highly, just as Amazon uses an algorithm to generates recommendations – “if you like that, you may like this…”. (Presumably, Facebook only does this when “top news” was selected – I assume by selecting “most recent” to get updates in chronological order, any algorithmic bias is removed. This may be wrong!)

Google uses similar algorithms to return personalised search results, based on previous search behaviour and internet use (mediated by cookies, I believe). Pariser got some friends to use Google to search on “Egypt”, and was surprised by the wide disparity in the results Google returned. Pariser’s view was that most people’s ignorance of this made it quite dangerous.

I can understand the need for Google and others to use their algorithms to filter what they show us. There is simply so much information that we couldn’t process it without some filtering. The problem is that most people aren’t aware that it is happening. (Nor would most care. Probably.) They are also trying to make money, which they do by having us click on adverts and paid links – so obviously the will show us the links which will make them most money.

Worse than filtering, though, he said that by mining our friends’ data, companies (or, perhaps, government agencies?) are able to predict our own behaviour with 80% accuracy – without recourse to us at all. Credit rating agencies could use this to assess one’s credit worthiness, for instance, or insurance companies the risk of a claim – and since it is not based on our data, we would have no influence over it (and nor might it be covered by privacy legislation). This week, WPP, the world’s largest ad agency, announced that it has built the world’s largest database to track our use of the internet, and the London Evening Standard reported that

Google has been hit with a lawsuit by an Irish hotel… one of the first results via Google’s autocomplete function would have been “receivership”. There are no stories or links suggesting the hotel is in receivership… the hotel points out that Google Instant’s suggestion was bad for business

These corporations are only accountable to shareholders – not to us, and not to those whose results they demote or incorrectly list.

I find this disturbing, and perhaps awareness of the ways corporations use data is one way to combat it, the price of freedom being eternal vigilance. Pariser felt that the filter bubble represents a threat to democracy, since a functioning democracy needs informed citizens to exercise their choice. He may be right, but my guess is that people are much better informed of the world around them because of Google than they were before its advent.

It is the almost accidental way that Google, Facebook and others are editing – or personalising – our web experience that is worrying. When I buy a newspaper or watch a tv news programme or documentary, I am aware of the editorial influence. The algorithms designed to filter the web are unthinking and data driven. Their designers are engineers (probably male, probably white, possible lacking in emotional intelligence and with a strong a belief in rationality). Pariser said there is a view amongst the technocrats that privacy is over – all our information will be out there, and we can’t control it (although those with wealth and power may have more chance than others). This may produce a beneficial panopticon, bringing back village values to the global village; but do we want to live in a prison?

I was discussing Pariser’s talk with David Jennings, who pointed out that he’d written critically about the idea of the filter bubble a few years ago. I don’t dispute David’s three objections – that the filtering is far from perfect (Rory Clellan Jones tried to repeat Pariser’s experiment by getting his friends to use Google to search for the same search terms, and Google returned the same links to everyone); if it were perfect, we’d get bored of it, and corporations would have to engineer in serendipidity; and we can see further than our computer screens – we know there are different views out there, and we have a variety of other news sources.

I still find the filter bubble disquieting: there are huge issues around the use of our own and others’ data in this way. It is people’s ignorance of it – the fact that most people won’t care – that worries me. Maybe I need a new tag for this blog – “paranoia”…

(Pariser’s website recommends 10 ways to pop your filter bubble.)

Why Are “Mobile” Websites So Badly Designed?!

I am fortunate enough to have a whizzy smartphone, which has become my main way of accessing the internet. I use it to access the internet much more than I use it to make calls. I have had a smartphone for about two years now, and it has become indispensible. (Well, that’s how it feels. True, the world doesn’t seem to end the moment I switch it off. But if it did, I would read about it on Twitter…)

Naturally enough, though, I have a couple of gripes.

The first is the large number of websites that default to a mobile version. Without asking me. I have a smartphone. It can render full internet content. If I want to look at the mobile version of your website – and there are times I might want to – then give me the choice. Don’t make me go there whether I want to or not – it just pisses me off, and makes me go else where.

The second is how badly mobile websites are designed. They have many of the functions I want – the opt-out of mobile mode (not, note, opt-in) and the search function, mostly – at the bottom of the page. So I have to scroll through a whole website just to switch to the normal site. WordPress does this, Twitter does this, Facebook does this. They all bloody do it, and it pisses me off!

The WordPress mobile site. At the bottom...

...and mobile Twitter. At the bottom...


I’m a user, not a technologist. Maybe they are technical reasons why all the useful stuff is put at the bottom of the page, making me do all the work to find it, rather than usefully putting it at the top where I can go right to it.

But it makes no sense to me.

Debating social media…

Last week, I went to the Centre for Collaborative Creation for a debate organised by Claire and Nicola at SEO PR, part of Social Media Week London, on the role of corporate use of social media, and in particular, which part of an organisation should “own” the social media budget. The debate was between representatives of a search engine optimisation agency, a PR agency, a marketing publication, a small social media consultancy and a technologist.

It was a very interesting discussion. Very roughly speaking, the SEO, PR and marketing guys all said “we should!”, Anke Holst – the consultant – said “it depends”, and Benjamin Ellis, the technologist, said “who cares?”. Given my dislike of absolutes, Anke and Benjamin had my vote: quite where social media activity sits within an organisation depends entirely on what the organisation is trying to achieve. By the end of the debate, all the speakers had come around to agreeing this, and Benjamin won the final vote by a large margin. (Though I must declare an interest: I know both Anke and Benjamin, so perhaps I’m biased!)

What interested me was how little was said early on about customers. (It was later, if only because I asked where the customer came into all this!) Anke’s and Benjamin’s views included the customer, because they stemmed from a strategic view. If the point of social media within an organisation is to communicate with customers in a two way dialogue, it doesn’t matter where the budget is based as long as that activity is aligned with the business strategy.

Benjamin came out with two interesting points. Firstly, we are still early – very early – in our use of social media (although Anke pointed out that media have been social for centuries!): their use might be spreading quickly, but a small minority of people are using them.

Secondly, he pointed out how organisation structures haven’t caught up with social media. As a means of communication, social media flatten hierarchies – anyone in a firm can communicate with customers (whether they’re allowed to or not…), and whist customers’ views might once have been the realm of customer service, or marketing, or any other bit of the business, they can now be quickly disseminated through an organisation: anyone in a business can read the tweetstream. Just like use of social media within organisations, using social media to talk to customers will change the lines of communication, remove layers – and change the way businesses work.

Social Media and education: “constructing real time education”

I went a long to the Constructing Real Time Education #140conf London May Meet Up last Wednesday.

My main interest was in training and development, but I spent many months as a programme manager for a government curriculum change programme for schools a few years ago, so the focus of the meet up on school-based education didn’t leave me disappointed. I had also been talking about the development and potential of Agile Learning – how online tools and resources could be used in both education and training – so there seemed to be a lot of congruence.

Using a panel format, there were four short talks on different aspects of technology and its influence on education. First up was Bob Pinkett, who wanted to make two main points – firstly about the built environment and the potential folly of the previous government’s focus on the private finance initiative (PFI) bequeathing large debts for new schools to future generations (I’m not clear on the new government’s plans for PFI), and secondly about the divisive nature of the trend towards greater specialisation and selection, and the consequential effects on the environment (specialisation and selection require larger catchment areas for schools, and hence increased transport needs – Bob estimated that school students travelling to schools some distance away from their homes costs London £1bn).

Graham Jones said that schools are much more than the built environment: learning in school is a social activity. He reckoned that using new media provided new opportunities for social learning outside schools and across large distances, and that these would change the way we think about education – and possibly even the way children think.

Terry Freedman described the possibilities and opportunities for teachers and their need to prepare for the future. Terry described how many young people are grasping the potential provided by the internet and setting themselves up as entrepreneurs whilst still at school – he told of a school student he had met who had taken clothes she designed in a school project and set up an e-business to market and sell them. There is a rapid adoption rate amongst young people – they are at home using new technologies – and teachers run the risk of getting left behind. Terry reckoned that the focus on targets and the push for measurable results – usually in exam league tables – means that teachers often don’t have the space to think: using technology to provide this could actually catalyse some change, too.

Last up was Pat Parslow, who works in learning and collaboration. He spoke about the need for teachers to grasp the social issues that arise in a changing society, and the danger of meeting historic rather than current – or future – needs: the education and legal frameworks are probably not best to meet tomorrow’s needs. Pat gave the apparently popular practice of “sexting” explicit pictures between adolescents as an example: this breaches laws which could lead to underage children being placed on the sex offenders register. Society – that’s us – need to allow both students and teachers the space to make mistakes, in both life and learning. As well as risks, though, the huge amount of “distributive knowledge” and other resources represent a vast resource. When you can watch or listen to lessons by the world’s experts, why would you not? One of the activities that Pat felt most useful was the development of a personal learning network using online tools as a support for learning. [I have been meaning to write about PLNs for a while – but I am not sure I quite understand what they are – there seem to be so many alternate definitions that I just got confused! I should resurrect that and give it another go!]

These four short, very different, talks gave us the introduction to the broad area for discussion; but it was the audience discussion itself that really took off and made the evening so valuable. The participants (by this point we weren’t an audience!) had a lot to discuss, and the debate moved around lots of different issues, including

  • the potential conflict arising from teachers’, managers’ and society’s desire to control and manage when social media and other tools push users towards freeing up learning, sharing and collaboration
  • teachers’ reward systems and the ability for students to rate their teachers – but of course students may not know who the good teachers really are until many years after they have left school (and exam results may also be inadequate indicators!)
  • the difference between learning and teaching; in the future, mentoring, curating or facilitating might be more appropriate verbs than “teaching”
  • the university system was set up 800 years ago and carries a lot of structural baggage – Graham pointed out that professors have “chairs” because historically they literally had a chair, whilst the reader – a lower ranked academic – read out the professor’s words to a possibly illiterate audience
  • the balance between the need to control to deliver whatever curriculum society thinks is necessary, mediated by management and bureaucracy, against the freedom the best teachers – “mavericks”, according to Pat – and their students need thrive
  • the fact that whatever we – a bunch of (let’s face it) middle aged, middle class men and women – think, young people are going to be out there trying these things out for themselves [it was telling that of course there weren’t any school students at the meetup to tell us what it was really like…]
  • they will also be able to do this wherever they are – the built environment of the school full of the classrooms in which learning takes place is probably a really outdated metaphor, because people can (and surely do) learn wherever they are, and, at least in developed nations with mobile communications, they can access this huge pool of resources and teachers

It was a wide-ranging, involving and exciting discussion, and we were rightly brought down to earth by the closing comments from a teacher who had for many years taught secondary pupils who were excluded from formal education for a variety of reasons. They were often illiterate – how would they benefit from this revolution in education? Even if they have ready access to the internet, they probably can’t read effectively and are not engaged in education – the future we had been painting involved self-motivated learners, and those who were left behind by today’s teaching methods would probably be further left behind by future methods, too.

All in all, it was a really good evening: challenging and engaging. But of course, there were as many questions unanswered as those that were tackled – we could have gone on and on. And whilst a self-selected group of interested people can discuss the wealth of issues surrounding education and the potential created by the internet, what can we actually do to bring about change in the education system? There was a desire to discuss this further, and someone threw out the challenge that if we really want to make a difference, we should bring Michael Gove along to another session and create some concrete plans. His ministerial email is ministers@education.gsi.gov.uk; now all we have to do is plan another meetup. Now that would be constructing the future of education!

TEDxTuttle2: Son of TEDxTuttle…

With a shock I realise that it is two weeks since TEDxTuttle2 at Cass Business School; and that I meant to write about it after the event. I shall do so now, then; if my thoughts had any currency then, they should still.

I went to the first TEDxTuttle in September and was very enthused by the experience. The second round was equally interesting, although it didn’t have the same feeling of excitement or energy that the first created. This might in part be due to my own expectations – last time I didn’t know what to expect, this time it would have been hard to live up to my inflated expectations; in part it might be down to the venue – a lecture theatre – which carries a lot of baggage with it (sitting in a lecture theatre puts me into lecture mode: a passive sponge of information); and in part that, although there were a lot of people there, we didn’t fill the space, so it felt a little as if we didn’t have critical mass.

One major change for the better was the decision to allow questions after the speakers. I think a lot of the value from this kind of event comes from the debate engendered by questions, and there were some great questions from the floor.

There were five live speakers and a couple of TEDtalks videos, grouped into three sessions: the first centring on youth and education, the second on new developments in social media, the last a single session from Steve and Lobelia Lawson who mixed a discussion of the role of new media in the music industry with some musical illustration.

Norman Lewis was first up, discussing the role of technology in children’s lives and its impact on innovation. This seemed to be a talk of two halves: in the first half, Lewis built up his targets; in the second, as far as I was concerned, he missed them spectacularly. It seemed like there were some logical steps missing to his arguments – and he failed to take this part of the audience with him. Some of his discussion relied on contention that he didn’t substantiate – for instance, he maintained that young people are not necessarily better with technology than their parents, and that parents who praise their children’s technology skills do them a disservice; but I can think of lots of families in which children have naturally taken to technologies which stump their parents, and where the parents don’t take this as a sign of their children’s genius but simply that they are growing up in a different environment. He also maintained that today’s children are growing up less innovative than previous generations, but I see evidence to the opposite: they may not get to play outside like I did as a child, but they can still roam their imagination, they have more tools to be creative and seem to use them, and they use technology in innovative ways to avoid the watchful eyes of their parents. Lewis seemed to be arguing against his own views at times, and the contradictions failed to convince me. He has recently published a manifesto in praise of greater youth innovation, “Big Potatoes”, in conjunction with others, and perhaps that will fill in some of the gaps I felt were missing from his argument.

Next up was Julia Shalet, who described her digital youth project. Julia – a regular at Tuttle – spoke with passion about her work which has taken her to actively engage with young people around product development and the world of employment. What surprised me was how little of this actually seems to be going on: Julia described video games manufacturers who hadn’t thought to work with their target market – the millions of young people out there – until she suggested it. None of what Julia described seemed radical, just solid common sense; common, perhaps, but clearly rare. Julia’s evangelism for involving young people in what we do on a regular basis shamed me into realising how few young people I know…

This session finished with a precocious young American wowing the audience of a TED conference into giving her a standing ovation. I wasn’t convinced: I would have preferred to see some video of the more normal people Julia has worked with. I was left with thought about generational discord: a foretaste, perhaps, of the greater battles to come when future generations realise what a mess – ecological and economical – the current bearers of power have left them. A topic for a future TEDxTuttle discussion, perhaps.

The next session dealt with recent developments in social media. First up was Caroline Wierte who works at Cass; she spoke about her as yet unpublished research into the impact of social media in word-of-mouth marketing. She focused on Twitter and the role of tweets on the cash take of movies in their first weekend showing – a big indicator of a movies ultimate financial success. She’s developed models to compare current movies (where Twitter might be an influence) against a control of equivalent pre-Twitter movies. She also controlled for the nature of the tweet – positive, neutral or negative. It was an interesting, if as yet inconclusive, talk, and prompted a broad discussion about the nature of influence in social media – who one trusts and why.

Lloyd Davis, Tuttle’s founder and mainstay, followed. Lloyd was talking about his recent Tuttle2Texas adventure – a rail journey from Boston to SxSWi in Austin, Texas, in the company of other Tuttle people, and then onward to Los Angeles. I’ve heard Lloyd talk about Tuttle2Texas before – and, it has to be said, I was in part involved in the planning, so I must confess an interest. As Lloyd discussed the trip and the impact it had on him, as well as what he learned from the people and communities he met on the way, a slide show of the pictures he took a long the (long distance) way rolled on behind him. The combination of the images and Lloyd’s words was interesting: as yet the pictures are unedited, so there was a rough immediacy to them that matched the somewhat alienated feeling that Lloyd’s travels encompassed.

There seemed to be a lot to learn here. Lloyd described how whenever the Tuttle folk needed help, all they had to do was ask – the various communities, in the US and back in the UK, came up with solutions, even if they weren’t quite the solution originally envisaged. There was a real feeling of the power of improvisation in what Lloyd and others accomplished: a whistle stop tour (literally) of the eastern USA, finding help and friends a long the way. His insights into the different cultures – in conversation, for instance, in the UK it is polite to wait to talk, and in the US polite to fill the silence (a cultural conversational death spiral…) – were enlightening and brave, and rewarding.

The second TEDtalk video featuered Jane McGonigal talking about online games and learning; and how to save the world. She reckoned that the solutions to the world’s problems was probably out there, and that the way to access those solutions may well be by utilising the skills, dedication, collaboration and brain-power of the many millions of people who play online games. She makes a convincing case, but it is probably best if you watch the video and take away your own views!

The afternoon finished up with Steve and Lobelia‘s exploration of music and social media, and the opportunities that social media present for a different business model. Although Steve mapped out how he and Lobelia had got to where they are – how they used technology both to create and distribute their art – I couldn’t help but look forward: new technologies create lots of different opportunities; some of which succeed for some people, others maybe won’t for anyone. Time will tell…