After a packed two-hour lecture at Napier University yesterday it was great to get chatting to some of the students afterwards in their practical seminar. What emerged was that there is so much to learn in new technologies, even for these software engineers, network analysts and business analysts, the specialists of the future. Degree courses by their (current) nature silo information so much that they can be experts in one thing, and know nothing about a potentially related technology.
For one small group, spending 20 minutes having a play with RSS feeds for the first time turned out to be a real thrill, especially since it's so much easier to manipulate than when our school was producing its first podcasts three years ago. I had great fun finally getting some more time to play with Yahoo Pipes, whose way of showing you where all your bits have come from is particularly charming.
I put out a quick Twitter 'miniblog' asking for my friends' ideas on what might constitute an 'interesting' manipulation of RSS, where the web is brought together into one place, and got the following: an eclectic bunch of RSS aggregations, single feeds and mashups. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below:
Twice in the past two minutes I've had an "a ha" moment as I finally place the people behind blogs that I really enjoy reading through my anonymising blog reader each day. You see, that's the problem with a feed reader: you miss all the design, quirks, feel and emotion that people put into the look of their actual web page.
First up came a search through the feed reader for continued discussion of this week's Naace conference in Torquay. This led me to realise that Memex 1.1 from my feed reader was, in fact, John Naughton, whose keynote preceded mine on the first day of the conference. I didn't agree with everything he said, and brought it up in my keynote. He doesn't know this, perhaps, and doesn't mention it in his own blog. Alas, the discussion will never happen, I will never have my own mind swayed, since his blog doesn't allow comments. A shame. Another connection lost.
The second "a ha" is of a far more conversational variety. While Twittering away that I was happily in my new hotel room (as in it was still being built as I arrived), one AmyPalko gets in touch to ask if I'm still around, as she's finishing off some PhD work down in my old office building at the university. I flick onto her Twitter profile to remind myself how I know this virtual connaissance, click through to her blog and realise that hers is one of my favourite design/photography/cool stuff blogs. I'm currently listening to a recent "Oistrakh plays Debussy" video that she posted a few days ago. Listening for the sixth time.
How many bloggers are there in your feed reader who you think you know, only to find out that they are down the road or completely uncontactable? Which ones will you choose to stay in touch with? Whose blogs will remain in your reader? In the meantime, some more Debussy...
For me, decision-making isn't just based on what information comes through to me, but also about the conversations around that information.
My contribution to the discussion was a request for email with no reply button, a way to get the information sent by Ned Luds in email out into the open for discussion by the rest of my team, group or community. My biggest problem with current aggregation type services such as Netvibes and Pageflakes is that they merely create new boxes for old stuff, emperors with new clothes. Even when presented with feeds and flows of information, people will always lower themselves to the common denominator of email if it is offered to them, despite the fact that they will also complain about being submerged in email.
Email with no reply button is maybe just a simplification for what I do when emails arrive at the moment. Often email isn't just for me, it's for someone or some people in my entourage or in my blog readership. I manually take it out and add it. Unfortunately, being Ned Luds, the original senders probably don't see the ensuing discussions on the blog.
We also talked about having the ability to temporarily switch off information when we see that it's just getting in the way, but might be useful 'someday, maybe'. Geographically-centred information, friends', contacts' and colleagues' information, team-mates' information, CEO's information... we can subscribe to it all and more, but we need a way to swiftly switch it off to aid our comparison analysis of information.
Ideally, of course, information to which you already subscribe should only come to you at the time you are seeking it for your decision. So we ended up designing one search box on a page into which you type your decision-making question, but instead of the response being random search, the returns are based on those people and that stuff to which you have chosen to subscribe.
Jim in The Highlands was quick to note Channel 4's move from £6m per year on educational television programming to a large part of £6m per year on online educational programming. Is educational TV dead on C4? Not quite, but it's certainly undergone some serious surgery to make it recognisable to a 2008 teen. Channel 4 is certainly living up to its mantra: Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change. And I'm glad to have been part of it.
Yes, it's a bold experiment, but no, it's not to 'cash in' on anything. It's just using the web because that's what teens and tweens use most, and using the web that they use (adults tend to call it Web 2.0, for them it's just the web). As Channel 4 remains one of the few television channels in the UK to engage the tricky 14-19 age group (the only one?) this is just one more set of innovations in 25 years of innovation.
I was lucky enough earlier this year to have been appointed member of the fivesome that make up the Education Advisory Board of Channel 4 Television, and I'm very grateful to Learning and Teaching Scotland for supporting my time. I don't know how much we've helped shape the online programming other than saying 'yes' a lot, 'no' a few times and reassuring Matt Locke, Alice Taylor and Janey Walker that what they are doing is spot on. As Janey put it:
"In all conscience, Channel 4 could not continue to spend £6m on programming that is not engaging people."
Socially networked, playful, participative content is the only way we can create successful media to engage, motivate and inspire young people "on the box". The box these days is more likely to be a Nintendo DS screen or PC.
Matt and Alice, the commissioners, are both avid gamers, keen on everything from the world of alternate reality games to playing Zelda on the Nintendo DS. Working through some ideas with them on the Board has been a pleasure, and expanding on some of the ways we can engage young people on this 'slate' of programming as been incredibly challenging.
The new 'programming' online is playful. That doesn't mean that it's trivial, but rather it's about getting young people to participate in the project, create the programme/site/knowledge/learning together. Teens will be encouraged to do this not on some mothership Channel 4 site, but rather on their own Bebos, blogs and Photobucket sites.
It has a strong social element, so that teens are constantly part of a feedback loop on what it's like to grow up in 21st Century Britain.
It's about 'playful exploration'. "The BBC tells you what you need to know. Channel 4 helps you ask the right questions."
I know that Matt and Alice have had to do a heck of a lot of work to convince production companies to change the way they pitch, propose and structure these much more playful, explorative, social 'programmes', where the TV programme might come as the end result of a year's online learning.
The things the indies have come with are great, and I'm so happy we can all start playing/viewing/talking about them:
Gaming projects include City of Vice by Littleloud, which invites
the user to solve historical crimes from Georgian London, and Six to
Start's project The Ministry, which explores privacy and identity
Phantasmagoria by EC1 encourages web users to explore
their identity by tying together profiles across different social
networking sites. An online project by Maverick Television will
encourage teenagers to use web-based tools that can help them to set up
The broadcaster says it wants to encourage a
more collaborative, supportive environment for young entrepreneurs,
moving away from the cliched and aggressive view of business seen on
programmes such as Dragon's Den.
One thing is sure: the audience isn't on the television. So maybe it's not that "high risk" a strategy after all...
The need for schools in the UK and Ireland to educate children on what self-publishing means rather simply than ban the tools, has never been higher, as Bebo are on the verge of opening up their platform to developers.
But there's a huge difference between Bebo and Facebook that makes this move smell a little fishy: the average age of Bebo's users must be about half that of Facebook.
The move to open up means that the information placed online by teens, both before now and from now on, will become far more spreadable, far quicker. Applications ask for permission before being used but what they do with your information after that point is unpredictable: one case in point, from Facebook, the number of people who appear to be suddenly happily married or, worse, divorced from their better halves [How Facebook ended my marriage].
Potentially, a new application installed on your page could start to replicate your data out of context elsewhere on Bebo, for public consumption, in much the same way as some Facebook apps have done. Adult users of Facebook, 'expert users' like Crampton, even, have already had to learn to navigate this open-ended app-filled social networking world the hard way. How much we are willing to let kids explore this on their own, in the wild, and make their own mistakes the hard way is another matter, when the consequences are arguably greater. How Bebo pitch this to their younger users will be an important factor, too, for educators wanting to plan digital literacy into their work.
So, if you are a teacher in a UK or Irish school, the latter a country where Bebo has 95% penetration in the teen market, don't hang about for Bebo. You need to start thinking about how you are going to educate your students in the art of self-publishing without signing away their content, their private information and their online life. What Bebo want to do is not 'bad' per se, but it's open to misunderstandings and mistakes will be made by young people who don't know how to play the game because they haven't been told how.
Are you going to ban or are you going to educate, Teacher?
At the end, however, I outlined four challenges for these future leaders of change in the schools system. I don't know how many leaders read my blog, but if you do or know someone who is, then feel free to send this as far and wide as you think it's worth. I think there are some messages a few more leaders could take on board. If you want the audio and slides you can view the video right here: (I've put a super high quality version here: 28.4 MB, higher quality, m4a/Quicktime)
1. Anyone can know How, but you can only know Why by being In There is a new literacy set, at the very least an adaptation of the one we most commonly use, which we need to be working on with our students. Teaching these is notoriously difficult, eliciting from students a haphazard affair with more or less success depending on the questioning and personal literacy skills of the teacher. I think if we are to think about creating a new literacy framework which includes media literacy there are three things leaders have to understand:
Firstly is the greatest skill of them all: know when to teach, know when to stand back and listen. You're a leader, not an expert in everything. You're likely not an expert in social media to the same extent as some of your staff and certainly your students. If someone else can do it better, let them explain how it works. Paraphrasing some arguments you don't really understand will only make people feel the message is that little bit weaker, and those who feel they should be there leading things, too, will feel that their ideas have not been recruited (Corante). (Great managers teach (when they should; Lifehack).
Second, you've got to participate if you are going to engage with others in the the ways social media and gaming can help improve the education of our young people. It's not good enough for leaders of change to pay lip service to these seismic changes - the students, for one, will smell you out for the lack of interest in the thing that interests them the most. Do you want to give an internet safety talk? Get yourself on Bebo for eight weeks and see where the real dangers lie (and they're not where you expect them). Going to tell us how much potential Facebook has for education? Not until you've been on there long enough to see where the potential really lies.
Importantly, if you are going to encourage this in your school you've got to, for a while, be the most regular commenter on school blogs, Flickr streams and wikis. Participate, participate, participate. If you do it, the sharing culture you're looking for will largely take care of itself.
2. Death by risk aversion? Does this describe your school or management environment? The phrase comes from Kathy Sierra's post of the same name. She uses the analogy of the Roomba process, whereby good things happen to those that don't plan it that way. We can only go one step at a time before seeing what the next step might be. Planning out all the steps in advance means risking a loss of creative spark that creates the next achievement, that unturns a stone you hadn't noticed before.
Hugh asks if you are "owned by Wall Street", if you are only as good as your last financial quarter and anything else means that silly social media project you're doing will be killed. The notion that a school's aims be dictated by a private bank of investors is abhorrent to most yet, every time a leader starts to avert risk, taking into account only the negatives, it's equivalent to being run by a bunch of faceless investors.
Who is telling the leader not to do something? Who is saying that it's too risky? The thing is, no-one probably is. It's rather the expectation that the faceless investors (parents who don't know about the idea yet, press, staff who only engage when they are complaining) will revolt. On the contrary, the more control exercised by a leader before an idea finds its wings the less trust they will garner in the longer term from their staff (link to Dave Weinberger).
There are some symptoms you can look out for before it's too late. The blog post that you write is only the stub of a conversation, remember, so open up the comments to let the conversation be in a place that you can see and in which you can participate. Not opening the comments up to the public is a common leadership decision and, on closer interrogation, it's because there is a genuine fear of fast feedback. Leaders like time to prepare their justifications, even when the walls are falling down around them. Blog comments are just a little too publicly fast.
If you don't open the comments then nobody will say bad stuff on your blog, but they will be saying it elsewhere. You just won't know about it.
3. Spread the word Schools are normally great places for viruses to spread of both the medical and vocal variety, yet when good stuff happens it's hard to get the word to every kid, parent, aunt and uncle in the school community. The role of leaders in spreading the word about good news, through technology in particular, cannot be underestimated, yet some leaders have debatable communication skills at the best of times (think of the last PowerPoint you witnessed from one of your leaders).
There will always be glowing examples of open, online communicators in leadership, the first or early adopters, yet they may not take on the next stage in the process - employing the ideas of the other early adopters around them, finding cohesion. East Lothian's Head of Education provides one example where leadership in online communication from the top has helped reduce the permissions-based culture for those 'underneath', although there are still some pockets where permission is clearly felt necessary.
One of the ways to approach this is like a marketer. Take a read, for example, of Dan and Chip Heath's Made To Stick:
Simple Have a single clear mission by finding the core of what you do and ridding the noise and chaos that no doubt currently surrounds it.
Unexpected Putting a man on the moon before the end of the 60s seemed like science fiction, not science. Break down misconceptions of what is and is not possible.
Concrete Don't abstract - put forward notions with which no-one can quibble: Man, Moon, Decade.
Credible The man on the moon idea came from a President's mouth. Leaders have to lead by making informed unexpected decisions. They have to know the detail of what is being proposed, too, which means becoming more expert than they have been in new domans.
Emotional Appeal to the aspirations and emotions of people, and take off that analytical hat. Does your education leader want your region to be the best education region in the world? If not, why not?
Story The man on the moon story is all about overcoming obstacles, and has inspired many other stories. Make sure you have a story to tell if you want to lead others with you.
The curse of knowledge is often a reason for leaders obfuscating and missing the point. As Dan says, a modern day manager's/leader's take on the man on the moon would read something like:
"Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity's future."
"We're going to put a man on the moon within a decade".
Learn how to communicate effectively, without the meeting request and memorandum (think about Google's 20% time and efficient creative meetings). Learn how to present this stuff to people. Lots of people know the stuff, but very few have worked out a way to explain it succinctly in a way that people can feel and use themselves.
Sustainability: "Sustainability does not simply mean that it can last (£). It addresses how particular initiatves can be developed without compromising the development of otheres in the surrounding environment, now and in the future."
I'm giving an hour-long intro/demo to searching the web and using RSS to East Lothian ICT Coordinators this afternoon (4pm at Prestonpans Education Centre) and have started to populate the support wiki with some ideas. I'd be grateful if anyone has extra ideas or good resources can add them to the page to help support the staff further.
The ICT Coordinators are a crucial group of educators and managers in the authority, able to help persuade staff to come on training sessions or create their own in-house training sessions on the issues we cover. There is a dedicated CPD session on this subject later in May, so the potential to have a relatively big impact in some schools is there.
For me, RSS is the only way anyone will ever be able to cope with the huge amounts of information on the web. Today I am very much starting off with an efficiency angle, but feel that the educational uses, especially in current affair-led subjects such as Modern Studies and English language, its potential is much more than mere efficiency gains.
If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about I look forward to meeting you on May 24th's training session to help you become among the fastest surfers on the web!
I was presenting a keynote this morning in a Slovenian school to about 100 eTwinning teachers, ambassadors and European Commission-y people, a Slovenian school where Skype is on and available, where the connection speed is rapid and the welcome one of the warmest you can hope to get. The audio from my talk to Primary Leaders of the Future, given on Thursday, provides most of my main points (minus the visuals, of course):
I'll be doing three workshops next taking what I did en francais about tools back in Holland and turning it into a workshop in the fullest sense of the word. Instead of presenting more stuff and potentially blanking them I want them to discover something new and think about how they could apply it in a collaborative project - and maybe even start a new international project there and then.
The bouquet of technologies and pedagogical starting points will probably include:
Collaborating for planning:
GoogleDocs: Sign up for a free account here (or use your existing GoogleMail login) and several people can edit a document 'live', in real time. Great for planning timelines (using the Spreadsheet) or sketching out ideas (using the Word-like docs). All participants need to have been invited by the person who set up the original document so it's very safe and secure.
Audio stories: use Audacity and the LAME MP3 converter (tools and how tos here) to create MP3 episodes of a story you can share via iPod, mobile phone or the web. Donald talks a bit more about this kind of Keitei and how it's become so popular in Japan.
Improving on a computer game: Using PowerPoint your kids can start redesigning and rewriting their favourite narrative games.
Keeping safe and sensible:
East Lothian's documents and, coming soon on this blog, how we go about bringing students, teachers and parents on board. I'll be doing it later on so that we can compare with some of the issues already raised in more 'restrictive' European states.
More to come very soon with those interesting comparisons hopefully and some solutions for teachers in these different and sometimes difficult situations.
School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.