Tag Archives: technology

“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 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.

The Future. Now…

I went to the London Bloggers meetup the other day, which had a panel scheduled to talk about the future of blogging – of much interest to everyone gathered there. It was a good evening – thanks due to Fishburn Hedges for hosting (and the excellent confectionary-based goodie-bags!) and the collective conversation of the meetup (and for Andy for organising this regular bash!) – but I didn’t feel that the panel really addressed their topic: they spoke about what their blogs were doing now and what their next steps would be, but next week isn’t really the future.

But whilst such criticism is fine, it did make me I should put my money where my mouth is. What do I think the future of blogging is?

I have absolutely no qualifications for making any predictions whatsoever: which makes me as qualified as most of the people who make predicitions (the others must work in strategy, technology and futurology, and they would have data to support their views. I don’t…). And of course I will be wrong. This seems very presumptuous. But hey…

So here goes…

  • blogging becomes even more mainstream: everyone’s on Facebook; schoolkids use blogs as portfolios of their schoolwork – at least in the west. It can only get bigger, frankly – so normal that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Of course, this means it stops being something specific – no more blogging – but somewhere to put online, digital stuff, and maybe a bit of writing
  • blogging becomes more open: I must thank Lloyd Davis for this one, because we were chatting about this over coffee this morning (indeed, maybe that prompted this whole post – thanks, Lloyd!) – but as blogging becomes ever more mainstream, we will want to own everything: no more beholden to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon or whoever, we will move from platform to platform. This may mean the rise of social aggregators. Or not. (Lloyd pointed me to this excellent, challenging post by JP Rangaswami; he may be saying I’m completely wrong, at least about my next point…)
  • the resurrection of walled gardens: of course, the providers of services will want just the opposite: the value of the networks they create increases with the number of users, so they will do what they can to keep us – and our data – on their platform: sites will work to become more sticky
  • someone will come up with a new, shiny, must-go social network. That does everything. Until the next one comes along
  • changing views of privacy – and with it, perhaps, culture: or vice versa; but as billions more people around the world come online (particularly in Asia and Africa), online – and blogging – will change
  • everything everywhere – not the UK mobile firm, but mobile: the difference between mobile and non-mobile – static? – access will change and become seamless, or change and become completely differentiated, depending on the use. People have been saying the future is mobile for years, so they’re probably right…

I could play this game for ages, and probably will, but that will do for now…

“Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere”: Paul Mason on the social media, revolt and the connected self… #RSAmason

Paul Mason, talking at the RSA on his new book “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, supplied the bits that I had felt missing from the recent RSA Job’s Summit: he explained why the great and good – the economists and politicians with whom we entrust management of our economic and social government – don’t (and won’t – can’t) get it. (You can here a recording of his talk here.)

He was trying to explain why around the world – most notably in the “Arab spring”, but also China, Russia, and the west too (with the Occupy movement) – there had been public uprisings of one sort or another. He painted it as a Shakespearean tragedy in which the common people – the “fools” – sounded philosophical and the powerful and elite sound like idiots.

His argument had three strands:

  1. economics
    The “global financial crisis” is not a crisis but the collapse of the neo-liberalism model: the expansion of free markets, deregulation and globalisation since the 1980s lead only to their collapse: the old idea of “get a job, get a house and save for your pension” won’t work any more. The young today will be poorer than their parents, because the nation-states themselves are bankrupt. The never-ending growth of the world economy cannot be sustained, and this is causing a massive rethink in the young. The trouble is that there is no alternative to neo-liberal economic model: religion hasn’t worked, communism hasn’t worked – where else are people going to turn?

    Society’s promises to the young have been broken. The neo-liberal model helped the rich elites to grab more power, but with rampant inflation people are grabbing some back – and it is a growing, disenfranchised middle class who have nothing to lose. Mason quoted Taine from 1879 – “don’t worry about the poor, worry about poor lawyers” – except now in a garrett there is a laptop…

  2. technology
    With easy access through mobile and broadband communications to social media, the elite no longer have control of information. Commodified technology makes anyone a publisher, and governments can’t control it. (Though I couldn’t help but recall Evgeny Morozov’s talk in which he discussed how governments can use these technological tools to manage and control information.)

    To Mason, these new technologies and tools reconfigure the dynamics of power. In Kenya, for instance, the spread of mobile communications is seen as the “same as democratic transition”. Social media allow collaboration and co-operation between tribes who would previously have fought each other – they can foster trust from a distance and highlight similarities.

    Knowledge is now distributed and instantly available, rather than being restricted and controlled.

    These new tools are non-hierarchical – but the power-structures in society, like political parties, unions and global institutions are rigidly hierarchic, and this is why Mason thinks they “don’t get it”: they cannot understand how decentralised, self-organising groups such as the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street can function. They cannot conceive it – no beliefs but a will for massive change, no leaders and no command structure. The demonstrators can move more quickly and fluidly than the police – mediated by social media.

  3. lack of leadership
    Mason quoted Karl Rove describing the world’s leaders as those who create reality – ”when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities”. Now it is out of their hands: it is the those without formal power who create reality, and this is causing a parallel change in behaviour and thinking. Mason drew parallels with the changing perceptions early in the 20th century: a sea-change in society. (He attributed this view to Virginia Woolf – which someone else has verified – but I can’t find anything about Woolf expressing this.) Mason sees a new conception of the self – connected, networked and “leaky”. (Not sure if I really get this, but it is an interesting idea!)

Where does that leave us? In an increasingly uncertain world. Mason drew uncomfortable parallels with late 1920s and 1930s Europe, and we know how ell that ended. Nationalism is on the rise in southern Europe – and in Greece and Italy, elected governments have been replaced by unelected technocrats. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, is reaching scary heights. (This was the starting point for the RSA jobs summit, of course.)

There may be different outcomes in different parts of the world. And it is unknowable, perhaps. Mason questioned whether the nation state may be challenged by technology – but where would this leave the welfare state (the safety net for those unemployed, in the UK and parts of Europe at least)? Twin – and opposing – forces of localisation and globalisation may lead us to new models.

Perhaps we do indeed live in interesting times.

[Mason also gave a talk at the LSE – you can read a transcript here (pdf).]

#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…

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.

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.

Playing with photographs at the Natural History Museum…

I went to the Natural History Museum at the weekend, to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. The exhibition was excellent – I’d recommend a visit – but that’s not what I wanted to write about.

But there was one small bit of technology used in the exhibition that struck me as being a great use of the internet, and served to make users advocates and advertisers of the show – willingly. Innovative, too – I’d not seen it used before.

At the end of the exhibition was a desk with a touch-screen, where one could select pictures from the show – and have them emailed to you (or any other email address).

This was very simple to use – more or less drag and drop.

My favourite picture from the show - Light projection, by Michal Budzyński (Poland)

I picked several pictures – it didn’t seem as if there was a limit (if so, it was quite a large one) – and emailed them to me. And of course, I could forward them elsewhere – sharing them (and publicising the exhibition and its photographers).

This simple bit of tech just seemed so neat: I get to look at my favourite photographs later, I can share them. And talk about them! It really engaged people. Whoever thought of this at the Natural History Museum deserves a medal – I wonder if it will catch on at other exhibitions? (And I’m sure you’ll let me know if it is already widely used around the place!)

Back in, front out, by Esa Mälkönen

“Learning Unplugged!”

This week, there seem to be lots of education conferences in town. There’s Education without Frontiers going in the City, BETT over in Olympia, and Be BETTR – a fringe event about “hacking education” – in the Conway Hall on Friday.

You won’t be surprised that Be BETTR sounds most like my kind of event, though I can’t make it…

But David, one of the organisers of the Wednesday morning learning meetup, is giving a talk there, and he decided to pull together his interviews on “agile learning” in paper form. Many of these interviews were done at the Wednesday sessions, and several of the regulars there helped David rework and edit the interviews and write further content; I did some sub-editing.

It was an interesting experience – and, necessarily, a learning one, too. It was good to have some concrete outcomes – to actually produce something from our sessions, albeit paper. It felt like creating something substantial. In these days of online content, it was also salutary to produce something readable on paper: it made me rethink what writing – be it in blogs, on twitter, or on paper – is actually for.

It also forced me to think hard about some aspects of our discussions: as I said before, we each come to the Wednesday morning sessions from different perspectives, and here we were trying to produce a document with a unifying vision and theme.

Reading "Learning Unplugged!" at Tuttle (photo: David Jennings)

David and others will be distributing copies over the next couple of days, but you can also read it online at David’s blog or read or download the PDF version.