March 19, 2009

How to help people better use the net - go to them, let them copy, open up

 Tanya Byron reckons we're guilty of Ephebiphobia, the fear of young people, as we incarcerate our young people in their bedroom prisons and replace the dangers of the street corner with risk-taking on unbridled access to the net. Worse still, the challenges raised by the continued lack of interest we take in our children's use of the net are coming back fast to create broader challenges for society.

The reaction to this might be 'teach the kids and teach the parents'. But we're now in an era where it's not so much about signposting where to go on the web, but teaching society how to navigate the net without even a map.

For years now, parents (and by default most educators and decision-makers) underestimate what young people do online. While most adults think youngsters spend somewhere in the region of 18.8 hours per month online, the reality is that UK kids are averaging 43.5 hours a month. Only four of those hours are spent using the net in schools, the rest is mostly unaccounted for on mobile phones and at home in those bedroom prisons. What's going on in those remaining 24.7 hours each month is unknown. The people with the media literacy challenge are not just young people - it's adults, too, who lack the basic alphabet of understanding that's needed to bottom out responsible, creative, enjoyable and engaging use of the web by us all.

Gen-Y doesn't exist
We know from research, anecdote and a cursory glance across Bebo or Facebook profiles (I've probably viewed close to 15,000 in my previous work with Learning and Teaching Scotland) that we are wrong to annoint youngsters with some sort of technological superiority through lables such as the "Google Generation", "Gen Y" or, my pet armageddon, "Digital Natives".

Firstly, we know that while young people are taught how to swim in the safe goldfish bowl of school and private intranets, often by educators who themselves have a filmsy idea of how to operate in that arena, they are completely incapable of operating safely and responsibly in the oceans of the web. If young people are to learn how to upload and download information responsibly then they must be allowed to play with their technologies with the lifeguard of the educator to drag them back to safety when they start to falter. Filtering these technologies serves only to compound the ability of the educator to work with the youngster on media literacy, and harms us all in a wider sense.

Secondly, we romanticise the technological creativity of our youngsters online. While large numbers now upload material online (close to 78% of teens according to most recent research) most of this material is photographic - i.e. mobile snaps from nights out. Creating and publishing original narrative, original code or Facebook apps or even mashed up video or code is not currently a regular pass-time of you average British kid, though we are beginning to see valiant efforts to make this process of creation-publication the norm in our schooling.

However, most don't come close to the kind of creativity illustrated by a young Mark Zuckerberg, pictured, who avoided his near flunk at Harvard art class with some online creativity, a story recounted by Jeff in WWGD. With a few days to go until his final exam, for which he hadn't done any work (well, he was creating his $15b company), he created a site with copies of the artwork that was likely to appear in the final exam, put in some comment boxes under each one, and let his fellow students know that he had created a collaborative study guide. All they had to do was fill in the blanks. Not only did a cheeky Zuckerberg pass with flying colours, but his classmates also did better than normal thanks to their formative assessment that Zuckerberg offered them.

But here's the tough question Jarvis doesn't ask: how many youngsters actually do that, or even think of it as a possibility? Today's literacy benchmark is copy and paste. A media literacy strategy, instead of talking about how we block copying and pasting, and enforce filtering, rating, copyright and IPR restrictions, could begin the hard work of illustrating how copy, paste, open sourcing and creative commons-ing can lead to much better content and information for all.

The challenges of attracting attention to these challenges with a public that's hard to get

The biggest challenge for a 'strategy' like this is that it's incredibly hard to a) attract young audiences b) keep them and c) turn that into some form of value. Channel 4's arguably one of the best broadcasters in the world at doing this, and with 4iP and Channel 4 Education's work online, we're attempting to work out how we replicate television's success at 'reach' to this group online, on mobile and in socially connected games.

Matt Locke and I have been playing around with Dave McClure's Metrics for Pirates in our work with independent companies to push them to think about those questions: how are you going to attract people, how are you going to keep them, and how are you going to turn that into some sort of value? Matt came up with a strong reduction of this, and I made it look less pretty but more utilitarian by insisting on a timescale for each metric. Take those three questions and apply them to what we know about online community uptake (that 90% lurk, 9% will follow regularly and 1% might contribute something) and we end up with a roll-your-own site metrics table:

One Page Metrics.018

To help see it in action I made one up for YouTube, had they approached 4iP a few years back for funding. It shows how a site that "gets people to upload videos" has added a lot of small ingredients to the recipe to take people on that more-complex-than-it-looks journey to uploading a vid. It still takes great ideas and a strong awareness of the potential of different technologies and techniques (RSS, Ajax, email, marketing, business development, cloud computing) to be able to fill it in and act on it, and this is where we might just see some problems in our institutions and schools. The knowledge and understanding just isn't there in enough quantities to high enough a level.

Our well-meaning institutions are another obstacle in the process
One could even go as far as saying that it would be counter-intuitive, professionally suicidal even, for institutions to seize this opportunity to engage with young people - any people - in this kind of open, copiable, distributable, redistributable, changeable, alterable way. Jeff Jarvis is right:

"Industries and institutions, in their most messianic moments, tend to view the internet in their own image: Retailers thin of the internet as a store... Marketers see it as their means to deliver a brand message. Media companies see it as a medium, assuming that online is about content and distribution...
"The internet explodes [this notion that industries and institutions have some point of control over people]. It abhors centralization. It loves sea level and tears down barriers to entry. It despises secrecy and rewards openness. It favors collaboration over ownership. The once-powerful approach the internet with dread when they realize they cannot control it."

As a starting point, therefore, media literacy begins with much more communication between young people and adults when we're taking decisions on how we proceed. There are three main areas that need tackled first:

1. Filtering needs to be a joint-decision activity
Who defines 'safe' in the large grey area where user's own discrepency is accepted as the main tool of judgement? Who decides what 'Bad Content' might be (a phrase used in the context of a presentation at the EU Media Literacy conference)? Who decides if content is culturally acceptable or not within a geographical area, and why should I as a Brit have to have an internet that is culturally adapted to the country in which I find myself, while I and my judgements remain coloured by being British? Filtering is the poor cousin of film classification, something invented as a solution for atoms crossing borders, not digits.

While filtering illegal content is a no-brainer, we need to assume the rest is whitelisted and have conversations about those where we're less sure. Blocking the unpopular but legitimately published free speech of bloggers, for example, is plainly wrong and not an option any more.

Neither is it an option to create 'safe havens' where we expect people to come along and get 'safe' stuff. Glow, a national intranet for schools, thus far comes over as this, although the desire for it to 'leak' out onto the web is becoming clearer. But I feel it needs to take a leaf out of the book of, say,

Battlefront, an education project designed to encourage more young people to campaign on important issues. It consists of broadcast and social media 'authored' elements on the web, rooted in getting people to think about campaigning, but gets huge amounts of traffic from being distributed around the web, in as many parts of it as possible. Traditional education would have you "Come to school", broadcaster's to "their channel" - it's got to be the opposite, modeling good online behaviour by providing different contexts for the same material, different discussions, setting off new trails amongst users.

2. Parents need to understand better what's going on
I'd disagree with some speakers' assertion that "most learning goes on in schools", at least in relation to learning about internet use. On average only 60 minutes per week per pupil is spent on the net in school, compared to 1340 minutes per week at home.

Yet, only a third of parents in UK befriend their offspring (and what about the 'real' profiles where youngsters go and live their 'real' lives away from the old folks?). While 80% of parents feel sure they know what their offspring are doing online, only 30% of the offspring think so. We see a gross lack of communication between students and teachers, even when they are fighting the same cause. British parents in particular are poor at understanding what they're children do online - this means parents and educators need to speak more with the youngsters in their lives.

We also need to make sure that we don't demonise anonymity on the web. For public service media, the type that makes people's lives better and draws them from one-way web to the read-write web, anonymity is often the prerequisite for stimulating and sincere discussions.

Take a look, for example, at Embarrassing Teenage Bodies where anonymity offers the chance to discuss those 'embarrassing' but pervasive issues of growing up. Or Sexperience, where people of all ages, shapes, sizes and cultures are able to anonymously tackle the myriad of issues around seual health, wellbeing and enjoyment.

On the flip-side, anonymity doesn't work for Landshare, where we want people to trade their unused land with people who can cultivate it - we need to know who people are and if they're bona fide for the safety of those involved: anonymity needs handled with due diligence.

3. Talking helps you know, but using helps you understand
We all need to get more involved in not just the theory of how these things work but in the practice too - being in and creating media opportunities in the places where we seek participation from the public or our students.

One of the biggest media literacy and digital divide challenges, now that most of the UK is online or can get online, is making enough interesting stuff for non-net-users to want to get online. That means content that empowers them more than not using it, maybe in the form of some of MySociety's projects (TheyWorkForYou or the travel maps)

To take that point of empowerment further, and to conclude, there has to be a realisation that while artists and creators of content used to have value in owning their IPR in a world of atoms, in a world of digits this ownership if IPR comes only with costs. In a digital world if you own the only version of something then, for a while, your IPR has value but, eventually, will be commodotised as me-toos appear - not direct copies, but similar and maybe even better.

If you let people copy and distribute your stuff then you're able, eventually, to reduce your overhead on marketing and distribution - your fans and copiers are doing this for you. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is twofold:

1. Get over the idea that your creation is the last stop of the creative bus:
People will change your message, distort it, make it worse, make it better, create something you hadn't intended - your original will always be your original, their altered version always their altered version. The important thing here is that it's as easy as clicking a link or running a Google search to find the original source and to let the user/participant make their own mind up as to which message they are more engaged with.

2. Find alternative means of being recompensed for your initial efforts
Have your original stuff carry ads or sponsorship, give away poor versions for free but top quality versions for money as eBook fans and TV companies on YouTube and social networks already do, find the George Lucas approach to making your stuff, and make your money on something else.


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Quite right Ewan. Gen-Y is smoke and mirrors. Digital natives is a misnomer. Points similar to those you have raised here have come up at staff meetings. This very point has come up in staff meetings and during IT workshops, etc. Sure there are students who may know a few more keyboard shortcuts and can type much faster than I. Their use of mobile phones is impressive. Yet, there are a wide variety of IT skills lacking.

They can all make an iMovie or Windows Movie Maker project but they exhibit little creativity with their editing, timelines, etc. They do not explore the technology. They may apply special effects but they do not know why they are applying the special effect. They produce a video then what next? Teachers then have to share the technological and creative possibilities that are available to allow online publication or dissemination of the product.

Even use of tools like Word or Powerpoint is quite basic on the whole. Rarely does a student show an eye for good design or layout. These skills need to be taught by a teacher with the necessary skill set.

I am trying to encourage the student population at our school to avoid wasting endless hours with MSN Chat, MySpace and the like and steer their energies towards the construction of blogs and web sites that are beneficial for not only for themselves but also for the wider community. It is an uphill battle. The term blog is not a favourable term in the school community.

Some of my students have produced worthy web sites. One is actually earning a nice little stipend via Google AdSense on their site. Great way to earn money while still a Year 10 student. I am actually impressed with those students that share their self created and annotated surfing footage online. That is genuinely interesting and I believe vastly superior to accumulating 'friends' on MySpace or Facebook.

As I have written in the past perhaps they are not Digital Natives at all but simply Digital Dilettantes… they are, and I quote from a dictionary, an amateur or dabbler; especially, one who follows an art or a branch of knowledge sporadically, superficially, or for amusement only.

In my years of teaching, I am yet to find a pupil who would define himself or herself as a digital native, twenty first century learner or whatever latest cool catch phrase crosses the pond over to these isles.

Our pupils these days are just like we were back in the day, only they have other, better tools available to them. But they need to be taught how to use them...

...and it's our job to do that. We shouldn't accuse our pupils of not being creative if we haven't taught them what being creative means and how to express their creativity; and we shouldn't accuse our pupils of being incapable of using the internet and all the possibilities it offers if we haven't first taught them how to use it effectively.

As regards Ewan's sentiment about opening up, I agree entirely. Our fears and insecurities are holding back our young people's education and, in doing so, we're stopping them from acquiring the skills they need for adulthood in what's going to be their world, not ours.

Yes we're signed up to this have a look at next generation user skills report and you can see where we are going post school.

As for schools .. doctor heal thyself ..all the flexibility to do all of this lies all around and it happens when learners get to College or out of school at moment - need to look around a bit more

Meanwhile, back in Dunoon, I can't even send PDF files of text for an Easter assembly through the school firewall and am going to have to revert to sheets of paper delivered in my sticky hand. Grrr.

And still not too sure why Glow doesn't incorporate Facebook and Bebo which would make it more attractive and used more often.

Prensky’s phrase has been the single most regressive and detrimental contribution to the entire educational technology movement. So glad to see it finally being acknowledged as such and not celebrated as has been the norm to date.

But I think you are still one major step out of synch with the reality of teenage web use Ewan. If you listened to last week's Radio 4 Analysis programme,, you will have heard some teens genuinely being allowed to speak for themselves about their online activity and my goodness, didn’t their insights dispel a lot of techno-voodoo. They were very clear for example, that being online made them completely vulnerable to distractions they were ill equipped to resist.

How many skilled and responsible teachers I wonder, devote the considerable time, energy and thought to providing the best conditions to ensure their pupils are not vulnerable in this way?

Our understanding of the impact of web technology on the way we all communicate, isn’t even a twinkle in Tim Berners’Lee’s eye, never mind in its infancy!

A few months ago I shared a platform with a speaker from one of the largest technology companies in the world. He spoke complete and utter none-sense, for fifteen minutes. His slides were also utter gibberish. If any sixteen year old had drafted that speech or text for me in an English classroom, I would have had to spend half an hour working through the language with them, just trying to unpick what they were trying to say. The technology, in his case chiefly Powerpoint, had rendered him digitally illiterate. Something I see a lot of in my work.

We have a brand new intranet just for our school community. How long are kids going to spend there I wonder? Do parents want this kind of 'safety'?- they must want the illusion that school can filter out the evils of the ww web.They'll be diving off back into Facebook as soon as they can I reckon. Student Council events are arranged on Facebook- not the intranet. Will it last? The Truman Show comes to mind.

@Joe - I think you and I both agree on the reality of teens' web use, in fact, and that I'm not out of step. I'm re-reading my post to make sure that this is clearer. This post and others would reassure you (if that's the right vocabulary) that we are failing our young people in schools. Teachers are ill-equipped to understand how one might reach that balance of technology use, and young people themselves are ill-equipped to know how to best exploit (and turn off) their tech.

Will Richardson recently wrote an interesting post from his view as a parent, trying to work out how much or how little time to accord his kids online, on the iPHone on the wii.. It makes for interesting reading.


Fascinating stuff as always Ewan. This is a useful counterpoint to the rather silly Twitter stories yesterday...

Many thanks Ewan for posting the metrics images. So simple, yet so necessary for any web startup, or indeed any project that requires engagement. Gold dust.

Re the blog post as a whole, we're obviously facing a fascinating time in education, where there's real uncertainty about what to do with all this technology and information. A single mobile phone has more processing power than the technology used to get people on the moon, yet they're banned in schools. But encouraging schools to 'open up' is not necessarily the answer, as with increased freedom comes many more complications.

My own view is that schools as we know them simply aren't designed to integrate the liberality of information that the web and hi-tech communication devices allow for. They're Victorian institutions, designed for Victorian teaching practices. We'd almost be better starting from scratch and designing something new from the bottom up. What that would look like, I have no idea. But hats off to Channel 4, Henry Jenkins, Jim Gee and others who are pioneering this new frontier.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

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.

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