Tuesday, 2 November 2010

I've moved over to Wordpress!

Hello everybody,

After two years of happily using Blogger I have moved over to a hosted version of Wordpress.

You can find me now at: www.svanstraten.com

I've moved for a number of reasons:

  • I wanted to have more control over the look and feel of my web space
  • I wanted to bring all of my web activities under one roof - blog, photos on Flickr, Twitter feeds, and so on
  • I wanted to link everything under my own name
So, although I'll still be logging in regularly so that I can see what my A Level Media Studies students are up to, from now on all my blog postings will be on the address above.

Do drop by my new home on the web and let me know what you think. I've imported all of the blog postings from here, and, with the categories option available on Wordpress, I hope you'll find it easier to locate material that's of interest. It also means I can showcase other areas in which I work and create, such as photography and poetry.

There are still refinements to make but I'm happy with where the new website has reached and am keen to share it with those of you who have been kind enough to read and comment on my writing since 2008.

With best wishes to you all,


Monday, 8 March 2010

A tragic loss, a terrible warning

image courtesy of the BBC

My heart sank as I heard the story on the radio about the murder of teenager Ashleigh Hall by the convicted rapist Peter Chapman.

He had posed as a teenage boy, using a false identity, on Facebook, and lured the unsuspecting 17 year old into his web of lies.

When they met eventually he claimed to be the father of the boy she had been talking to online.

An innocent girl paid for her life because she was trusting.

You can read the full story on the BBC here.

It's terrifying that young people continue to treat their digital footprints and social networks like idle playgrounds, in which nothing bad can happen and no wrong can be done.

A year ago I did a series of school assemblies. With permission from the senior management I took mobile numbers of sixth formers for one assembly, and then presented them as an animation when they entered the auditorium. As students realised what they were looking at one could see the indignation spread. And yet these numbers had been posted freely on Facebook.

With the senior school boys I created a fake character, Sandra, and added a suitably glamorous photo I found online. It was shocking how quickly these lads would hand over details like their full names, and place of birth, at the drop of a hat. Needless to say, there were red faces and shuffling of feet as I revealed Sandra's true identity.

It's a year old now, so some of the privacy details about Facebook have changed (and not necessarily, in my opinion, for the better. When Jerry Zuckerberg claims there's no such thing as privacy any more, we should all be scared), and the usage numbers will have changed, but I think it's worth re-publishing here. If you want to download a copy then you can do so here.

At some point the voices of the adults warning the young and encouraging them to act responsibly will have to be heard. Let's hope it's not too late. One death is one too many.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Digital Childhood and the lessons of history

There's been significant coverage in the last week or so concerning young people, their exposure to inappropriate imagery in the media, their treatment by the media, and the recording of them covertly by a school authority.

It struck me, as often it does, that there are patterns of behaviour which taken together might point towards shifts in the relationship between audience and institution, between the producer/user and the content aggregator and distributor. The traditional lines of production and reception are blurring and evolving - maybe that's why we're seeing a prevalence of stories expressing concern, confusion and outrage.

Let's begin with the study. A Home Office report, led by Dr Linda Papadopoulos, claimed this week that children were being mentally affected by viewing an excess of sexually explicit material in the media. Amongst other recommendation the report suggests having parental blocks switched on as the default on mobile phones, computers and games consoles. It also suggests putting an age limit for so called Lads' mags.

The report claims there's a clear link between youngster viewing sexually explicit material and the rise of violence towards females. There's a host of other recommendations and it'll be interesting to see if an incoming Conservative government, or re-elected Labour administration, is bold enough to tackle head-on the challenge of web data access, in order to protect the young.

Of course, claiming that the young of today are worse behaved than previous generations is nothing new. Take this quotation for example:

'The Children now love luxury; they have bad manner, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up food at the table, cross their legs, and terrorize their teachers.'

That was Socrates, two thousand years ago, and so it's possible to see how critics on both sides of the argument might claim either that the Greeks' theory of moral decline is merely accelerating, thanks to the Web et al; or conversely, that since each generation thinks subsequent ones are worse behaved than it was, there's little to worry about.

However, other developments in the last seven days point to something more pernicious creeping into the zeitgeist. Three Google executives received six-month suspended sentences in Italy, following the uploading in that country to YouTube of footage showing an autistic boy being bullied. This raises fundamental questions about whether the Web is a free domain for content exchange, or a place that should be monitored and filtered at source. Trying to 'police' and censor content is likely to prove an impossible task, given the sheer scales of economy the Web creates. But the Italian case does raise questions about responsibility and accountability. We might be living in an age of unfettered access to content of every hue, but can legislation restore a sense of morality and balance into the lives of the young? This is where parents and teachers face the mounting challenge of modelling good online behaviour, and using dialogue with common sense to help young people make the right decisions for themselves.

Equally terrifying and so wrong on every level, was news that an American school had deployed laptops to students, then used the integrated webcams to spy on students. This included allegedly watching them undress and other private activities. Although the education authority is claiming the activation was used only to locate lost laptops, the fact this remote access wasn't detailed in the contracts signed by parents shows a disregard for ways in which technology can be abused; or at least, seen to be abused. Currently there is one lawsuit pending, in which a male student was allegedly seen acting 'improperly' at home - the evidence was a screen grab from his school laptop's webcam. In this case, the breach of trust between educational institution and student points to a wider issue about digital identity, safety and representation. Although this may seem an extreme case, nonetheless it highlights the dangers in using technology to enhance the learning experience positively.

And so, to end with something uplifting. I found this fantastic video of American childrens' TV host, Mister Rogers. I came across the following blog post by Karl Staib, in which he talks about the importance of trust in business relationships. His role model of the caring interlocutor is Mister Rogers, who in 1969 managed to persuade a Congressional hearing, looking to cut public spending on educational TV programming, to have a change of heart. Listening to Mister Rogers' submission is a reminder of the need for passion, honesty and clearly communicated core values; if the lives of children are to be enriched, happy, creative and fruitful.

The vide clip lasts just under seven minutes.

Do make time to watch it.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Visual Language and its power to communicate

Bronwyn van der Merwe has written an amazing blog post at the BBC, detailing the corporation's detailed plans for re-designing the visual language it uses across all areas of its online presence.

It provides a first rate insight into the importance of design in communication, and the need for media institutions to build consistency and ease of use into the core of their practice. It's an essential undertaking if audiences are to recognise and engage effectively with media companies and their content. It's a long post indeed, but very well worth the effort of reading and looking at in detail.

Pollock, Fractals, and how Maths can make Ed Tech Research Better

As time progresses the way I'm using my blog is evolving.

Last year and the year before, when I started to blog in earnest, I found that I was often making shorter blog posts, as I discovered interesting ideas or technology that I thought might be useful.

Then I discovered Twitter and most of those timely posts have moved there, where I can share and discover the findings of others.

So, where does that leave my blog? For now, it's become the place where I like to write and think synoptically - pulling together patterns that appear before me as I work and research in the e-learning sphere.

This was brought home to me over the last week, as I started my next module for my MA in Online and Distance Education at the Open University. My new course, H809, is called Practice-based Research in Educational Technology. The first reading, dating back into the dark ages of 1989, is all about statistics and the reliability of hypotheses and data.

In brief, the article looks at the early developments in e-learning (or Computer Mediated Communication) and the degree to which asynchronous online communication made learning better or worse for students.

The problem the researchers had was that they developed over 50 hypotheses and the sample groups they used weren't large enough, or clearly defined enough, to make the resulting data produce results that were meaningful. Consequently, the language in the report hedges its bets with 'ifs', 'on the one hand', and other similar expressions, to gloss over the fact that the numbers game just didn't produce clear and consistent outcomes. Of course, in education that's often the case, and basing policy on numerical data alone probably isn't wise. That's why we need experts to make value judgements that combine data with a broader perspective.

While I was musing on this, two other articles dropped into my digital lap. The first was all about the rumpus the government in the UK has caused by its proposed deep cuts to university funding. My alma mater, King's London, is set to lose a vast number of academics, including one of the few Chairs of Paleontology in the world. Being a Classicist by academic training, this struck me as a terrible blow to the future of Humanities teaching. If everything is reduced to economic output potential, which seems to be where we're heading with higher education in the UK, then the future looks grim; if we're to maintain a balanced civilization, that combines Arts and Sciences in equal measure.

Jonathan Jarrett's blog post about the cuts at King's covers the main issues in great detail and I recommend spending 5 minutes reading through it. It's a good example of when relying on numbers alone doesn't make learning better.

On the other hand there's no doubt that gathering and exploring data is a vital part of educational research. Personally, I think the ethnographic/qualitative approach suits me better than quantitative mining for truths, hidden within the stats; but that's just my preference. One aim of the course, according to my tutor, Prof Vic Lally, is to enable me to look at published research and form my own opinions about whether or not the data supplied is reliable and meaningful. I won't be a statistical expert by the end of the course, but I should be able to make more sense of it than I can at present. Indeed, when I told the Prof that I'm no expert in stats, he did point out that I'm very happy talking about Web Metrics and the demographics of my school's YouTube channel audience, so perhaps I'm more stat savvy than I thought?

The second article is all about how a Physicist, Richard Taylor, while in the UK studying for an MA in Art History during a sabbatical, became fascinated with Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. He became intrigued with the thought that Pollock might have been using deliberate fractal shapes in order to create what appeared at first glance to be meaningless dribbles on the canvas.

Using some clever mathematics and technology he was able not only to show the degree to which Pollock was indeed creating graduated fractal shapes of differing dimensions, but also to date when within his creative cycle paintings were produced. And that means he can now help to authenticate other works for buyers.

Even more fascinating was Taylor's subsequent work with perceptual psychologists, in which it was discovered that humans have a numerically determined range within which they find geometric fractals appealing. The thinking is that this dates back to our pre-historic time on the Savannah, when an ability to distinguish between wind rippling the grass, and a lion lurking in the shadows, was an essential skill.

And all of that goes to show how the numbers game can add up and produce meaningful statistics that help us understand our world more clearly.

When Disraeli claimed that there were three types of lies, 'Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics' he was expressing a fear that many of us hold, about the complexity of numbers and how to interpret them. The truth is that data helps us make informed choices, and informed choices should make what we do better.