Monday, 14 December 2009

Ed Balls - kids need more protection on TV

As if the Government wasn't doing enough to protect kids in the UK by making it ever harder for anyone to work with them at all, today saw the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, claim that kids appearing on TV need more protection.

I would agree that there's a need to address the recent phenomenon of broadcasters using children's emotions for ratings winners, but is new legislation the best way forward? The problem I have with increased legislation is that it tends to create even more problems than it solves.

Surely common sense and political pressure are better alternatives to a heavy handed regulatory approach?

I do think the idea of better Media literacy in schools is a good idea, and this could be incorporated into ICT schemes of work, since much of the content kids themselves access, in an unfiltered way, resides online.

I hope I'm not turning into a free market libertarian, but this administration's desire to control everything we do seems out of control.

19 million watch X Factor final. Why?

Why did more than 19 million people watch this weekend's X Factor final, the show's largest audience in six series?

Personally, it' rather passed me by. Call it the Big Brother Syndrome, or perhaps attribute it to the fact I've been very busy at school, but I find it puzzling.

You can read all the statistical data here.

From a Media Studies viewpoint it shows that:

  1. Simon Cowell is great at capturing populist trends
  2. Simon Cowell is great at monetizing the TV show as an international brand
  3. Audiences don't always follow predictable patterns
  4. Institutions hate to leave their comfort zone if audiences and advertisers seem happy, although experience suggests that time and repetition should dull popularity.
Thanks to the Web I can of course revisit what I missed and see the key moments, thus saving myself hours of valuable life time, focusing in purely on the best bits. Does this make me a bad media consumer, or a thoroughly postmodern media interaction specialist? I'll leave you to decide.

Using the iPhone in connected learning

A great story from Wired about an American university piloting the use of customised iPhones for student learning and collaboration.

The rise of connected mobile technologies for learner interaction, content access, and collaboration is likely to be one of the big buzzes of the next year or so.

You probably didn't read that here first, but if you're reading it on a smartphone then you're surfing along nicely on the Zeitgeist wave.

Ushahidi - open source disaster prevention

This is a great demonstration of the power of social networking for positive good.

Ushahidi takes Google Maps and allows contributors to add real-time, geo-tagged data and postings, focused on areas of conflict or natural disasters.

It's a brilliant learning tool to show how areas of man made or natural disasters cope.

Have a look at the Afghan website, Alive in Afghanistan, which gives a very different picture to the mediated news that we see, read and hear in the mainstream Western media.

It makes for fascinating and disturbing reading, taking you into the heart of a conflict zone in a much more accessible way than normal news outlets can manage.

iPhone and the Stockholm Syndrome

Maybe it's getting quiet in the run up to Christmas, but I was intrigued by this report, claiming to have spotted similarities between iPhone users and their dedication to the product, and the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, where captives become enamored of their captors.

My own mobile phone contract expires next May, and as Vodafone, my supplier, are due to start selling the iPhone in the New Year, I will confess to having been tempted to upgrade to one.

Many of my colleagues are surprised that I haven't gone for an iPhone before. However, although I use Macs a lot of the time, I'm not a slave to the product. For me, the iPhone has always been to expensive, especially given the fact other phones can do better in key areas. That said, the iPhone seems to have matured into a decent product and costs have fallen. Although I've been a Win Mob fan for the last two years, the time for a switch may be coming.

If it does, I just hope I don't develop any un-natural emotions as a consequence.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

News International - the biggest media audience database?

The Guardian reports that Rupert Murdoch's News International holds information on its database about a third of the UK population.

This information has been provided willingly, when consumers sign up for Sky TV, or subscriptions to the Times, Sun, Sunday Times, and News of the World.

In a period of recession it was quite amazing to read that around 200,000 users are rated as 'high value', meaning that they were potentially worth as much as £600 a year each to News International.

When we talk in Media Studies about the relationships between institutions and audiences, it's useful to remember that often these relationships are predicated on financial transactions - the consumer pays, the institution delivers content, and increasingly, enhanced services.

However, the newspaper industry itself seems to be in terminal decline, with readership figures falling and ad revenues getting hammered by the move of advertisers to online sources. It should come as no surprise, then, that News International and the Guardian Media Group have been making noises recently about Google's dominant position. Not only does Google reap advertising revenue from visitors, but, say its detractors, it's 'stealing' revenue via its Google News aggregation service. This provides access to a range of news headlines, but also enables Google to make cash from associated on-screen advertising. This, claim NI et al, is not fair, because Google is in effect recycling someone else's news and making cash from it.

It's an interesting debate, since Google is driving more users to respective news providers, and evidence shows that online browsers are more likely to click on ads if they're using a search engine, and indeed, are more likely to make a purchase. There's a great article here that explains this in more detail.

And, as an end-note, it's worth observing that the Office of Fair Trading has ruled recently that it won't be referring Google to the Monopolies Commission, as it is a major driver for innovation, change and consumer satisfaction.

For the newspapers, they're going to need new business models. For those of us passionate about the media and the future of newspapers, it's going to be fascinating to see if the news print industry can respond to changing market dynamics faster and more effectively than the music industry managed, when faced with threats from online, MP3, and Apple.

Educational Values in a Digital Age

I came across this fascinating blog post from e-learning specialist Steve Wheeler, who works at the University of Plymouth.

His presentation to a group of final year trainee teachers makes for timely reflection. What are we teaching our students? How can they be prepared for a future dominated by digital technology and knowledge economies?

I've embedded Steve's presentation below, but it needs to be read in conjunction with his blog post, in order to make the fullest sense. You can find it here.

As an adjunct to Steve's observations my colleague Britta Bohlinger has written a timely post, looking at the ways in which employers might glean more meaningful data about prospective employees, using the Web as a research tool. You can find her blog here.

The Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009

Jane Hart, an e-learning specialist, who runs the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, has produced a fantastic list of e-learning tools that have come to the fore in 2009. Many of them I know, but there are some undiscovered treasures.

What's interesting is the number of tools that are web based. It's a trend that seems set to continue. For schools, this means that high-speed, high capacity broadband connections will become increasingly important.

View more documents from Jane Hart.

The mobile web is ruling us!

Trendy mobile phone company HTC have released some fantastic TV commercials in the States.

They've hit upon the fact that most of us live with our mobile phones no more than an arm's length away from us a great deal of the time.

Apart from the slick messages being delivered (and thinking about it from the perspective of theorist Stuart Hall, it might be reasonable to assume audiences will read the media text using its Dominant, or Preferred meaning) there's some interesting truths under-pinning the ads.

Increasingly, we're moving to using smartphones, capable of web browsing, image capture, and document production. Many of them link automatically to social networking services, and so indeed, the phone is becoming the accessory of choice that many of us keep nearby almost constantly.

This raises questions of identity, ownership, media consumption and interaction, and indeed poses the possibility that Western cultures, a little like New York, are becoming the ones that never sleep nor stop.

Either way, the adverts are a great example of style, narrative, audience appeal, and great music (Nina Simone's Sinner Man, remixed by Felix Da Housecat). Enjoy!

P.S. If the song seems familiar from another media source, you might be reminiscing subliminally about the Bourne Identity, which used the original Simone song.

Mind mapping for free online

I came across this free mind mapping, web based tool, called

Mind mapping is a great way to visualize your thoughts, and work out the relationships between elements of a project or plan. This could be the delivery of a syllabus, if you're a teacher, or ideas for an essay, if you're a student.

I haven't had a chance to try it out in class yet, but I like the fact it's web based, can be embedded into blogs, and worked on collaboratively. is yet another example of how Web 2.0 technology is providing Software As A Service (or SAAS for short). I'm not sure how many of these companies will earn money, although the received wisdom currently seems to be that you offer the service for free, get in the user base, and then work out a way to charge for premium services. This model's called Freemium, but I'm not sure that we won't end up with another crash at some point.

For now, let's not worry about such matters - we're educators and students after all, and the breadth of the Web means that if one service shuts then another will doubtless spring up in its place.

Blogs as language learning tools

One thing in a French day

I came across this rather good blog, 'One Thing in a French Day.'

Its author, Laetitia, writes daily updates on her life is Paris. Alongside the French one can listen to a podcast of her reading out the text.

It's a great way to listen to contemporary French, while having the text in front of you.

It won't be useful if you're a beginner, as there's no translation, but I've found it a good way to keep my ear in tune for the nuances of spoken French.

I can see it being useful for advanced level students, both in class and at home.

A bientôt!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Radley Media Conference 2009

I was lucky enough to receive an invitation from Ian Yorston, the Head of Digital Strategy at Radley, to attend their annual sixth form conference, which was held today. The theme changes each year, and the 2009 topic was The Media - A force for good?

The school had assembled a stellar line-up of speakers who debated the ins and outs of the media in a changing world.

Ian added live updates to the blog he'd set up in the run-up to the event, and you can see his postings and the live comments here.

The first session focused on the theme: Opinion forming - to what extent can, or should, journalists influence opinion? Four speakers each gave their insight, followed by questions from the floor.

John Murray Brown, Ireland correspondent for the Financial Times, offered his views on changing revenue models and audience participation. His was a thoughtful, academic approach to the fundamental changes technology has brought to the newspaper industry. More importantly, he defined the function of journalists as expert witnesses, capable of analyzing complex issues and distilling them into meaningful context. John's historical journey through the maze of proprietorial ownership was a good reminder that power in the hands of the few can be detrimental to democracy. For me, it was the perfect start to the day, and the warm applause he received was a fair reflection of his considered and balanced approach to the craft of the journalist.

If Murray Brown was the thoughtful academic then the next speaker, Jim Gillespie, came straight at us with the blunt talking of someone who's spent a lifetime in the popular press. Jim's most recently been a news feature editor at the Daily Mail, and his approach was earthy, humorous, self-deprecating and full of the joyous cynicism I recognised from my own time in broadcast newsrooms. Jim reflected that research done when he worked at the Independent newspaper showed that leader columns, op eds, and the views of columnists tended to have the least effect at persuading readers. In other words, papers can have influence but the timing and extent of that influence can't be predicted. We do need someone to create and report the news, but, he seemed to be saying, a free press is essential to democracy more by the act of its existence, not necessarily for the power it believes it wields.

Having listened to two newspaper men, the next up to the podium came from broadcasting. John Ryley is Head of News at Sky, and his view was that convergence and multimedia accessibility means any of us can be citizen journalists; but it takes experience and training to do it properly. John touched upon the influence of social sites like Twitter, and deplored the fact that many local news outlets are reproducing PR stories they receive verbatim. For him, creating a strong press, capable of asking awkward questions, was essential. He used the Telegraph's breaking of the MPs' expenses scandal as an example where reporting the facts can have profound outcomes. John reminded us of Lord Northcliffe's observation that, 'News is what somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress; everything else is advertising.'

To end the first session we were treated to the thoughts of Lyse Doucet, a BBC award-winning journalist and correspondent. She reflected on her time in Afghanistan when it was the Russians taking on the locals, and the global challenges facing a public service broadcaster such as the BBC. Whether she was in Africa, Iraq or Israel, someone, somewhere, would accuse her of bias. Lyse gave us a sensitive and intellectual view of what life as a reporter for one of the world's best known news reporting brands is like. Lyse opened up a discussion on what should constitute a news agenda. Should there be good news? How far do audiences come to new agendas with their own partisan and biased views? I was reminded of the theories of Stuart Hall, although sadly there was no time to throw the notion of audience reception into the mix. Lyse finished with a warning that the need for journalists to multi-task as reporters, radio operators and photographers risked eroding their core activities of reflection and analysis; while turning them into process driven operatives.

The ensuing discussion from the floor showed that while many of the students present read more than one newspaper, a majority used online sources for news. It would have been good to find out what range of sources they do use - I suspect that if a poll had been taken, the resulting list might have been narrower than one would hope. I was reminded of the fact that an excess of information doesn't necessarily correlate with a corresponding ability to sift and analyse.

The second session of the day looked at Spinning and De-Spinning. John Momo runs a number of TV channels in Nigeria. Despite just coming off a plane, having been working at Harvard, he gave an insightful and meaningful analysis of the importance of a free press in all parts of the world. It was great to get a non-European perspective and it's vital that in a shrinking global village our students don't forget that this means we can reach out to the rest of the world. We shouldn't expect the rest of the world to come joyously skipping to our virtual front doors.

It's easy to forget that much of the world either isn't online, or blessed with a free press. John reminded us that, in the words of C.P. Snow, legendary editor of the Guardian, 'Comment is Free but Facts are Sacred.' John questioned the laziness of much of the journalism conducted today, and was a powerful advocate for strong journalistic endeavour to ensure the truth gets heard.

Jonathan Hill was a fascinating speaker. He ran John Major's election campaign in 1992, and having served in a variety of roles in Number 10 Downing Street, now advises corporate clients when their reputations are on the line. His view was a soothing one of mis-represented individuals being hounded by the press. He had helped Eton College defend its reputation when it was alleged Prince Harry had received help with Art coursework, and he had helped Oxford University when it rejected the Medicine applicant Laura Spence, who had come from a State school. Having spent my career on the other side of the fence, I was impressed with Jonathan's ease at making the unpalatable seem tasty. Then I was reminded why I decided to quit the media and become a teacher - dealing in people's fate via the strange arena of the TV circus can be injurious to one's conscience.

I needn't have worried, as the next speaker, the writer and journalist Tom Bower, soon put things to right. Tom's written unauthorised biographies of Maxwell, Murdoch and Branson, inter alia. He's also written the award winning Broken Dreams, about corruption in football. John spoke softly, but his words were barbed. He warned us against complacency and reminded us that standing up to the Establishmemt requires luck, tenacity and an iron will. His examples of how the great and good have tried to gag him and failed made for entertaining listening; but they were a timely reminder that 'truth can be manufactured' and that in a world awash with spin across numerous channels. finding the real truth can be an arduous task.

After lunch came the main keynote speech. It was an absolute privilege to listen to documentary film maker Paul Watson talk about the craft of the empathetic storyteller, who will record and assemble snapshots of reality in order to create a narrative about contemporary life. He showed us a showreel of some of his most famous work, including the Family, Sylvania Waters, and Rain in My Heart.

Paul spoke with conviction about the need for TV to produce intelligent stories, rather than inconsequential sound bites. He wasn't against shows like the X Factor per se, but argued that TV's power to hold a mirror up to society was an important role. He was delighted that he and a clutch of other traditional documentary makers have just been asked into Channel 4, to discuss some heavyweight projects. He didn't elaborate on what they were, but I'm sure the end result will make gripping content.

Paul re-iterated the notion that while anyone can be a film maker now, it takes time to reflect on the story, and practise the art of becoming invisible during filming. His clarion call was for film makers to be subversives, and not to shy away from the stories of real people. It was a timely reminder that much of what consumes the media's interest nowadays is celebrity driven. I was greatly influenced by Paul's documentaries, and in part it was his work that helped me decide that was what I wanted to do when I left university. Interestingly, when a student asked Paul who his influences had been in documentary, he replied 'No-one.' However, he had been influenced by the film makers of the French Nouvelle Vague. It was a revealing insight at the end of a fascinating talk.

Finally, a lively debate ensued, in which students had been split into different groups, where their task had been to focus on different areas of the media: fashion, gender, science, entertainment, celebrity and so on. What struck me most about this final element was firstly the ability of many students to articulate a reasonably media literate view of the world around them; and secondly, how terrifyingly willing they were to allow newspapers and TV channels to be owned by one individual or company. The most common refrain was that since 'you can read another paper, or watch another channel, it doesn't matter if Murdoch et al suck up more media outlets.' There was a strong rebuttal of these views, both from Ian Yorston, who did a splendid job chairing the debate and guiding the discussion, but also from a minority of students who could see the inherent dangers in a monopolised press. Ian's closing comments referred back to an observation from a female student, that only one of the day's speakers had been a woman. Perhaps, Ian reflected, the real challenge in the media today was gender imbalance, in terms not just of practitioners, but also the stereotypical divisions that existed in the representation and coverage of stories.

It would have been great to have more time, to speak, to discuss, and to reflect. Nonetheless, this was a wonderful example of both the influence of the media and the importance of bringing young people into contact with today's opinion formers; so that they might learn what tasks lie ahead for them in years to come.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Access for all, but at what price?

There's no doubt that the internet has transformed the lives of millions, and changed the parameters within which media is produced and consumed, information shared and refined, and networks shaped and re-formed.

However, if you're one of the millions of people worldwide who has difficulty with text, whether that's due to poor eyesight or a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, then all may not seem so rosy.

Accessibility is one of the great challenges of the digital world, and it's one that tends to get relegated to the hinterland of public debate.

I was delighted, therefore, to see Intel announcing its commitment to produce technologies to help those with visual impairments or dyslexia access the same content as the rest of us.

Their Reader will enable users to scan pages of text, and turn them into spoken MP3 files, or larger sized text. It's a compact device and has the potential to transform the lives of millions.

So, what's the drawback? The £1000 price tag, that's what. I can understand that the development costs for such an assistive technology are huge, but surely there must be some sort of government funding, or incentive from a charitable source, to make access to this fantastic tool affordable?

At a time of economic woe the good news of the Reader's arrival is sorely tempered by the prohibitive cost of purchase. I'd like to buy one to see if it could help the dyslexic students at my school. I'm sure it would. But at that price point I'm unlikely to find out.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

An Age of Personalised Content and Media Collaboration

The news that the outstandingly successful BBC iPlayer will be launched on Nintendo's Wii console is proof, if proof were needed, that the relationship between media institutions is changing dramatically in a web-driven world.

Fundamentally, commercial alliances and content sharing with acknowledgement are the way forward. As we move to an age where personalised information will find you, consumers are becoming less brand loyal and more content focused. Nicholas Negroponte made this observation back in 1996, but it's taken more than a decade for the mass market and appropriate technology to play catch up with the theory.

For producers of media content this means that cross-platform co-operation and content fertilization will be key drivers to economic success. The power of Twitter to enable disparate networks to rapidly share links to relevant information, is the most striking example this year of how consumers want to find what they want, and find what they didn't know they'd like.

The age of content protected walled gardens, with media institutions battling to keep audiences within their reach for as long as possible, is over. And that's why claims that Rupert Murdoch may try to limit Google searches for paid-for content coming out of his News International stable ultimately will be floored.

It's not just content that's King. It's the consumer. And the sooner media institutions embrace that idea and think about reach and spread, rather than control and restraint, the sooner they'll find new and profitable business models appearing.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Twitter tweets land TV deal

I like this story, about a 29 year old whose tweets of his 73 year old father's pearls of wisdom have landed him a TV deal.

Justin Halpern moved back in with his parents in San Diego. His father was prone to making profound yet hilarious observations, which Justin duly posted onto Twitter. Now he's been offered the chance to co-write a TV pilot for CBS.

You can read some of his homespun truths here, however, let me repeat a couple of my favourites.

"Oh please, you practically invented lazy. People should have to call you and ask for the rights to lazy before they use it."

"Just pay the parking ticket. Don't be so outraged. You're not a freedom fighter in the civil rights movement. You double parked."

The story shows how ordinary people can have talents (in this case for being able to extract humour from the everyday) and find an audience. Justin's Twitter feed has more than 700,000 followers. Like the adage used to run in the good old early days of the Web, 'Content is King.'

When Politics, Media and Business collide

I heard a fascinating interview with Lord Mandelson, the British Government's Business Secretary this morning, on Radio 4's Today programme.

In the interview Lord Mandelson claimed the Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, is collaborating with the Conservative party to undermine the incumbent Labour Party administration. In return, he suggested, News International had promised some sort of kickback should the Conservatives win the election.
Lord Mandelson also claimed that coverage of anti-government stories in the Sun would be covered on TV by Sky News, also part of the Murdoch stable. Then, perhaps bizarrely, he claimed this would force the BBC to cover biased stories, which in turn would threaten its impartiality.

It was a remarkable allegation for a senior politician to make, and there's more coverage of this and subsequent comments Lord Mandelson made in an article from The Guardian Online. You can read more here.

As we get closer to a general election in the UK, the rate at which mud is slung is bound to increase. Today's salvo is interesting because it's a timely reminder that despite falling circulation figures and savage cuts, the power of the printed word still has clout and can't be discounted.

The times they are contracting

With all the buzz over the launch of controversial videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and its surrounding hype regarding the controversial civilian airport shooting scene, one could be forgiven for thinking that the videogames industry itself has been recession proof. The UK launch saw the game receive the red carpet treatment that's normally the reserve of Hollywood film premieres.
Indeed, one of the interesting cultural shifts has been of consumers away from traditional media forms, such as TV and newspapers, towards videogaming instead. The figures are quite staggering. Annual revenue globally for videogames are expected to reach $68 billion by 2012

However, news is coming through today that both EA, one of the best known videogame producers, and Adobe, the global brand that changed the face of image editing and document production/distribution, are shedding jobs aplenty. You can read more about EA here and about Adobe's job losses here.

Given that much of the Western world is either clambering out of a global slump, or showing signs of receovery, this should give us pause for thought. What's going on?

For my ha'penny's worth, I think it could be linked to the rise of cloud based free applications, such as the rather good Google Apps, plus the increase in cheap gaming platforms like the Apple iPod Touch. Apple's move to digital distribution has shown how costs can be reduced, while driving up the numbers of units purchased, because cost of ownership is cheap, making consumers more willing to take a punt.

What might this suggest? That traditional production and distribution models are changing and that maybe, in terms of digital content, we're only just at the beginning of the Long Tail.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Silent reminders from a golden age

Classic Poster - Silent Film

One of the new developments in the OCR A2 Media Studies syllabus is that students have to make two ancillary tasks to accompany their main coursework production.

For those making film and video based work it's interesting that one option is to produce a print design. This ranges from posters to CD/DVD covers, and I was reminded today of how powerful posters can be. Even in an age of online and TV saturation, there's something scintillating about a well-designed poster, that grabs your attention when you're out and about.

I read about the following blog on Twitter and it's full of great posters from the silent movie era. If nothing else, they're great works of 20th century commercial art and I do recommend you check them out.

Enjoy looking!

Using Google Apps in Education

Well, it's been a long time since I last posted. There are two reasons for that.

The main one is that for the first half of the new year, as well as taking on Head of ICT at school in addition to being Head of Media Studies, I've been covering for a colleague who was sick for 6 weeks. So, I found myself running a House. In the British independent school system the House system is a way of splitting students up into smaller units, of around 40 students. The Houses compete against each other, share in daily life, and provide a pastoral backbone to academic life.

However, I haven't been idle and currently we're trialling Google Apps for Education. You can find out more about it here. Basically, this offers a suite of email and cloud-based applications, that provide powerful learning and collaborative platforms. At present we have a selection of teachers and students experimenting with it. Our main VLE is Moodle, but I think that based on early results Google Apps could make it onto our list of recommended tools.

Incidentally, my mobile phone contract expires next February, and I'm increasingly drawn to replacing my Samsung Omnia with one of the new phones running Android, Google's mobile operating system.

In the bigger scheme of things I wonder how long it'll be before the European Union takes Google to court for being a monopoly? Certainly, Google have been canny at making it very easy to upload and export data in a range of popular formats, and most services are free, so it could be an interesting showdown, should it ever happen.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Enemy of the Great Satan enters Videogame arena

I rather like this story that's been posted on the BBC website. It would seem that Iran has taken to producing video games, basing them on the rich legends of Persia.

Games producers from Iran have been exhibiting at a big trade fair in Cologne, in an effort to drum up financing and to raise the profile of their fledgling market.

All of which goes to show that technology can bridge boundaries in so many unexpected ways.

I for one hope some of the games being designed make it into Western stores. Having studied Herodotus and the rise of the Persian Empire against the Greeks at university, I would love the chance to re-create some of the epic myths and historical events in a digital gaming domain.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Satire is alive and well

I'm always happy to be distracted by some of the quality satire available online.

Here are two offerings that have made me smile this week.

The first is from the Onion, mocking Google and privacy:

New Google Service Lets Privacy Critics Opt-Out, Relocate To Remote Village

The second is from the ongoing series that features Hitler being enraged by a topical issue. In this installment he's just found out that Facebook has bought the aggregation service FriendFeed:

Making money out of paper

I rather like this idea - give individuals, groups, companies, anyone with a shared interest, in fact, the chance to make their own newspapers. Not some crummy 'I read a Dummies' guide to DTP' output, but something rather elegant and delightful to read and hold.

The brains behind Newspaper Club are British and they're aiming to start up and be operational within 60 days. Their trials and tribulations can be read on their blog. It's a cracking read, especially for Business Studies students.

You can sign up for the Beta at their main website which is here.

At a time when media mogul Rupert Murdoch is claiming all his newspaper titles will be charging for online content within a year it's refreshing to see a consumer led model appearing too. You see, despite the fact that much of what I read is done so on an LCD screen, I still like the simplicity and tactile experience of reading a paper. I also like the way Newspaper Club is proposing taking online ease of design and transforming it into something that can be held, stored and shared in person.

It's an ambitious plan and it will be interesting to see what the pricing is. Newspaper Club offers a new dimension in terms of social networking and user control over content production. I hope they succeed and wish them well.

Sharing the musical love

One of the areas that interests me is the point where informal and formal learning overlap in the digital domain. It's something I've been studying as part of my MA in Online Education at the Open University, and it's an area where there's plenty of scope for research and innovation.

With that in mind I was interested to read the findings of a report from the University of Hertfordshire, showing that there's been a slight shift in the attitudes of teenagers towards illegal music downloading using peer-to-peer services. You can read the full facts here.

What is relevant from my point of view is that teens are beginning to accept that there can be a value placed on content and intellectual property. If that change is beginning to occur then we might also see a shift in teens' approaches to greater learning and interaction taking place online.

When Berkhamsted had to shut for a week due to heavy snow in February, we used a Facebook group to keep parents and students in touch with what assignments needed to be done. I was interested to see the degree of antipathy this created - students felt that their space was being invaded by adults. This is one of the problems in bridging the divide between formal and informal learning. There are no explicit ground rules or guidelines for what language to use, which metaphors to apply to the process of online interactions and so on. Perhaps it is the vehicle or technology that's used that's created the tension we experienced?

This is something I'm reading up about at the moment for my MA - and in particular the ideas of social theorist Etienne Wenger. He proposed the idea of communities of practice and maybe what's needed is education for teachers and students alike into how online learning communities should function. Certainly, it's an area I intend to explore from a practical purpose when the new academic year begins in September.

There is a chasm at present between the walled gardens of Virtual Learning Environments, and the free-to-all Web 2.0 open source options that exist in the ever expanding online Cloud that the WWW has become. How educators span that space between what is taught in school and what is learnt elsewhere remains, I believe, one of the great challenges for the near future.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

One number to Phone them all...

One of the biggest challenges facing users of digital media in both professional and private areas of their lives is the difficulty in joining the dots.

By that I mean it's hard to let people know what you're about when so many online services are available. For example, I can be found on Facebook, Blogger, Skype, Twitter, Delicious, Issuu and Flickr. Each service fulfils a different need, ranging from reflective blog postings here to timely observations on Twitter, and a range of personal and professional photos on Flickr.

In the past I've tried to harmonise my digital footprint by using the same moniker - svanstraten - but even that fails to show interested parties the holistic view of what I'm doing.

So, there are two services that have grabbed my attentions recently. The first is which collects all your online streams of information and bundles it into one place. It's an excellent service and from it I've discovered that historically I've made over 631,000 online postings!

The other development comes from Google, which is trialling a one number fits all service. Basically, users get one number for friends and colleagues to dial. This one number then sends the call through to every phone device owned by the subscriber. The subscriber can decide where calls are diverted, so for example, business calls might go to your business desk and mobile phones only, while family calls go to every number that's been entered. In an age of VOIP calling, increasing mobile ownership and the growing expectation that we can be contacted whenever/wherever, it's a fascinating development, and one that could make it easier for schools to keep in touch with busy parents and digital native students. Read more here.

All in all, we're beginning to see online developers address the need to provide a range of services that link the disparate elements of online life. And that can only be a positive outcome.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Using Flickr to teach colour in Art

I've come across some fantastic tools for searching through photos on Flickr, where remarkably my own photostream passed the 90,000 views today.

First up is a great tool for searching for photos using a colour picker wheel.

You slide your way through to a colour you like and hey presto!, the colour you chose suddenly appears from the millions of photos on Flickr, which, if you don't already know, is one of the largest online photo sharing sites in the world. Give it a go here.

Next up is a wonderful tool for making up mosaic walls based on search terms. From this you can create your own badge, as I've done here, to display my own work. Of course, art teachers could use it to create embeds into school webpages or blogs that focus on particular themes.

It's called Photo to Wall and you can try it here.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Future roadmaps for ICT in schools

As part of my MA in Online and Distance Education at the Open University we've been looking at policy and research into the use of ICT in education. Understandably, most of the course we're studying, entitled Technology Enhanced Learning: Practices and Debates, focuses on higher education. At the moment we're investigating the bigger framework for technology enhanced learning (what some are calling cyberlearning) and my colleague John Haren, who's based in Ireland, came across an excellent framework for ICT deployment, set out by the Irish government.

Rather than re-hash John's post, I'm going to point you to his blog. The main thrust from this policy document is that investment in teacher training and maintaining educators' knowledge and understanding of why we should include ICT into our teaching and how it can help, are key to the success of ICT within a school environment. I couldn't agree more and that's something I and the rest of the ICT team at school will be doing next term - going into classrooms, talking with teachers and offering hands-on training and support, so that ICT isn't seen as a lurking monster, but rather as an effective tool for enhanced learning opportunities.

Here's the link to John's post.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Postmodern mashups make the User Content King

A great video and an interesting blog post from Epic FU.

The video takes a song by Phoenix and matches it with clips from 1980s Brat Pack films. The end result is a brilliant and entertaining mashup, that once posted on YouTube gained the respect of the band and even its own tributes. However, as the posting on Epic FU points out, the very act involved in making mashups brings the producer involved into breach of copyright.

Somewhere along the line there needs to be a careful re-think about this issue. At a school level I find myself in the odd position where I'm told by my exam board (OCR) that while students choosing to make A Level music videos using commercial music won't be penalised by the exam board itself, they may find themselves in breach of copyright when they make the obligatory posting of their content to a website. And that may cost them marks and grades.

In this case the students are not attempting to defraud the music companies or their artistes. They're engaging in an academic exercise. As for most of the mashup producers, they're having fun and quite often bringing added airtime and publicity to bands. Famously, the Red Hot Chili Pepper ran a mashup competition a couple of years ago, inviting fans to make their next music video. The age of collaborative media production is upon us and the relationship between audience and institution has changed. Someone should tell that to the legislators and traditional content producers. As with Apple and the iTunes store a creative and innovative solution is required, so that user generated content can continue to flourish within a framework that doesn't threaten the financial well being of commercial media producers.

For now, the waters remain choppy and grey, but at least there are some great videos being made!

The Future of Learning

A great video fronted by technology and education supremo Prof Stephen Heppell, all about the need to adapt modern day teaching methods, so that technology is integrated into the fabric of what teachers and students do.

Recommended viewing.

Scary faces of mobile recognition

This video is demonstrating a concept, but it's easy to see how it might well make it into the mainstream in a few years' time.

In some ways it's easy to be dazzled by the ever-increasing ability of technology to blend the real and the virtual, especially as so much of our lives are fragmented now in a variety of online spaces. However, given the current generation of teens' inability to comprehend the dangers of posting personal details all over the Web, I can't help but feel a little un-nerved by what I'm seeing.

Let me know your thoughts.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Men in Mac?

A little bit of insane fun. It's been a long day after all.

Here's a great advert, featuring an unsuspecting French employee and a trans-galactic Mac book.

MacBook transforms and ... well just watch it's AWESOME!

Should words be obscene and not heard?

BBC NEWS | UK | Obscene stories or free speech?

An interesting tale from the blogosphere that should make us reflect on what is public and what is private when posting online.

British civil servant Darryn Walker has escaped prosecution for a story he published online, that described the kidnap and torture of pop group Girls Aloud.

His 12 page story was seen by the Internet Watch Foundation last year and a prosecution brought under the Obscene Publications Act.

However, Mr Walker's defence team argued successfully that the act of reading his material on its own would not cause someone to replicate what they had read, and they argued that although it was in the public domain, his article could not be found unless someone was searching specifically for it.

You can read more here but it's a timely reminder that we should never assume anything we place online is 100% private and secure.

The sense of power provided by anonymity, sitting at a PC in the comfort of one's home, can't protect us from the hurt and offence our postings may cause; as Darryn Walker found out to his cost.

Mobile Tech and the Incentive to Learn

 I came across this story in a roundabout kind of way.

Droga5, an advertising agency, has recently won two prestigious black pencil awards at the D&AD awards. The first was for its viral video campaign featuring Sarah Silverman, 'The Great Schlep', which was used to empower and motivate older Jewish voters in America to vote for President Obama in last year's election.

The other award, which is what interests me more, is for a radical educational program currently being tested in New York.

The Million Motivation program sees students from the most deprived backgrounds being issued with adapted Samsung mobile phones. These can't be used to make calls during the school day, but come with a range of learning apps integrated into the phone.

What makes the program most interesting though is the way the contract for the phone operates. Rather than pay with cash, students earn air time and the ability to get downloads via hard work and good behaviour. The more 'points' a teaacher gives out the more time the student can talk, text, web browse, and so on.

There are , of course, always risks related to these sorts of incentive based programs, and the Digital Journal has a good article that outlines the scheme and delves into these. Principally, there's the risk that doing anything for something leads to skewed intellectual and moral values regarding the benefit of study.

On the other hand, with drop out and failure rates as high as they are amongst disadvantaged groups in the Big Apple, anything's worth a shot. Academic support is provided by Harvard University's newly founded Ed Labs, that's looking for scientific solutions to educational problems, taking an analytical R&D multi-disciplinary approach. The results of their various projects should make for fascinating reading.

In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what benefits or hindrances the Million Motivation program brings. Let's hope, for the sake of the children taking part, it works. 

Something old, something new - Walkman V iPod

BBC NEWS | Magazine | Giving up my iPod for a Walkman

I just read this great story on the BBC, in which a 13 year old is given an old fashioned cassette-based Walkman to use for a week.

Terrifyingly, it's been 30 years since the first Walkman was released by Sony, changing the landscape of personal and portable music for ever.

The article is well written and entertaining. It'll make some of you feel distinctly nostalgic.

Read more here.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Status and the interference of authority

Now that I'm the Head of ICT as well as Media my mind has turned to the fantastic challenge of making e-learning an accesssible and powerful learning tool for both teachers and students.

I came across this hard-hitting and thought-provoking blog post by Scottish educator John Connell

John takes a firm stand, to say the least, regarding those within education who in his view are impeding a radical shift in what education means and how it should work.

Even if you find John's ideas too revolutionary for your liking he's well worth reading - passionate, committed to raising standards, and able to offer clear responses to complex issues.

Twitter, Mobile Learning, Africa, and a whole heap of big ideas

Right, I'm going to attempt to draw some threads together here.

First up, a fascinating story, with accompanying video, all about how an American professor is using Twitter to get real time feedback and asynchronous comments during and after her History lectures. Read all about it here

I've noticed that only a few of my Media students have engaged with Twitter (or maybe they have, they just don't want to engage with me!). Still, it's something I'm going to try with my sixth form Media students come September.

I noticed in the video that a number of students were using iPhones and other smart phones. I got a Samsung Omnia at the end of last year and I love it. Running off Windows Mobile I can sync with Outlook, watch BBC streams live when I get a 3G signal, and best of all, pick up Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents from students and colleagues when I'm out and about. 

I also run Skype off it, play movies and generally use it as a good tool for taking notes and gathering ideas. In that vein I'm quite excited by the ways new smart phones are developing. For example, HTC's Hero, using Google's open source Android operating system, seems to be taking the Web 2.0 criterion of 'collective intelligence' and allowing users to tap into that on the phone. It's possible to select someone from your address list and see their details, Facebook postings, Flickr uploads, Twitter tweets and so on. As someone who resides in numerous spaces online this is an attractive option. 

Educationally, I can see the potential for it being harnessed to improve informal and formal learning opportunities. Students could harvest ideas and search engine entries into a format that will allow information from a range of sources be assimilated and presented in meaningful ways. This could be distributed to friends, peers, teachers and learning groups, in order to drive projects and assignments forward.

All of which ties in with this week's topic on H800 Technology Enhanced Learning, the MA module I'm taking at the Open University's Institute for Educational Technology. I've been preparing some ideas on the use of mobile learning in Africa, since my school, Berkhamsted, sponsors Sandi School, a developing school in the Eastern Cape. As Head of Media/ICT I'm keen to help the school explore ways of bringing e-learning into the curriculum. So, here are some articles that I read which I hope you'll find interesting too.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Sky gets limited?

Media students always seem to baulk at the idea of studying numbers, yet understanding the business models of production, distribution, and exhibition are crucial to anyone contemplating entering any of the creative industries.

News breaks that OFCOM, the UK media regulator, is planning to cut the prices that Sky, Rupert Murdoch's satellite outfit, can charge to third parties, like Richard Branson's cable-based Virgin Media, for hosting Sky channels like Sky Sports 1. 

This story is a classic case of how the media operates in what is often tantamount to a strange act of parasitic content sharing and money shifting.

The linked BBC article covers the finer details well, so I won't attempt to repeat those here, but do have a look at them.

The headline issues are as follows: 

  • Sky paid a fortune to the Football Assocation et al for the rights to show football.
  • In addition, there are production costs for filming, editing, promoting and commentating on matches. This is a cost Sky picks up. 
  • It recuperates some of this cost via in-match advertising plus the monthly subscription fees it charges to viewers. So, there's a clear relationship between production and exhibition, in terms of Sky itself, which not only produces the content but owns the satellites, dishes and decoder boxes that allow people to watch its content.
  • However, in order to maximise viewers, avoid claims of monopolizing the market, and recoup more of it initial outlay, Sky effectively distributes itself, reselling and distributing its channels with other media outlets. Virgin Media is a good case in point.
  • This creates an interesting symbiotic relationship between Sky and those who appear to be its competitors. Although it may seem to fly in the face of business orthodoxy, Sky is not giving away its content, nor is it diluting its brand. It is expanding its distribution channels by re-selling itself, at a profit, to companies serving non-Satellite based markets.
  • The risk in terms of having its wholesale prices cut, as OFCOM wants, is that the price for various channel packages will fall to a point where Sky is only just covering its costs. For a business, especially in a recession, this is bad.
  • However, if seen as an opportunity, given the right marketing mix Sky could see subscriber numbers rise, and in turn be able to charge more for advertising; except, we're in a recession and advertisers don't have any money to spend in the first place.
At the moment Sky's response is to say it will mount a legal challenge. However, it seems possible that OFCOM will have its way. Maybe Sky knows this, but hopes the cost of dragging out a case might be less expensive than seeing re-sale prices plummet at the bottom of the recessionary economic cycle. You see, the world of business media is complex, inter-connected, and central to what we get to watch.

Still think the numbers game is tedious? Think again. It drives the majority of decisions affecting all aspects of what we see, read, hear, and watch. 

To put it another way: I may not be an engineer or any good at DIY, but I can still appreciate the genius of engineering when I peek under the bonnet of my car and note the many complex sequences that occur, allowing me to get from A to B in comfort and ease.

Where reality gets in the way

So, let me begin with an apology.

This last month or so has been exam time for me, when students get ready to flee the nest by sitting their final year secondary school exams and move on to university, or in the case of my year 12s, get the first part of their A levels sorted, ready to move into their final year.

What this means is that I get overloaded with coursework portfolios and the attendant administration that accompanies them. Allowing for revisions I estimate I read and marked over 100,000 words. I've also had the joys of assessing Year 12 work that's now submitte in the form of blogs and DVDs with extras. Managing all that data has been unexpectedly complicated, in terms of tracking and collating information. We'd thought paperless would be swifter, but making the adjustment has been trickier than we'd anticipated; which goes to show that deploying new technology in learning environments never progresses as you imagined it might.

In amongst all of that I also took 30 eleven year olds to Italy for a week on a Classics tour. Using a Samsung NC10 laptop and a nifty mobile broadband USB stick from 3 Mobile I kept a daily blog. I managed to blog from within the Colosseum and the top of Mt Vesuvius. Interestingly, this year the parents wrote back to me, leaving messages for their kids and questions about where we were. 

In that time we've had Lord Carter's Digital Britain report, looking at ways to expand digital take up in the UK, and suggesting that possibly the BBC should be top-sliced and share its licence fee with commercial competitors, in order to maintain regional news, for example. Not surprisingly, the BBC responded negatively to the suggestion, as did the Liberal Democrats, who struck a chord for all who believe in an independent public service broadcaster. At the same time the Corporation has disclosed the size of its senior staff's salaries and their expense claims. All I can say is that there seems to be a lot of people claiming over £200,000 a year, which is surprising for what is effectively a public sector employer. 

Elsewhere in the world Iran has tried free speech and Twitter was there to keep the lines of communication open. The usual rules apply - be wary of the unfiltered and unverifiable information that Twitter can spew out. Nonetheless, it still makes for fascinating reading. 

Meanwhile, the Head of the BPI, the British music industry body has said Napster should have been engaged with, rather than taken to court. It's a good example of new tech and alternative practices being feared because they were unknown. Lots of similar attitudes exist within education, with staff fearing what hasn't been explained properly.

And finally, the tragic and premature death of Michael Jackson at 50 saw the internet grind to a halt, and BBC soap East Enders show speed and agility when it rapidly added a scene that included reference to this major cultural event, ready for broadcast on Friday night.

All in all it's been a busy six weeks and I've been busy too working on plans for our school's VLE, testing new kit (digital SLR upgrade, audio recording kit, HD camcorders that record to 16gig SD cards) and a whole lot more.

Now that the students have finished I hope to get back to writing and sharing.

All the best, 


Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Future Pace of Change?

A great video that highlights the incredible speed with which our world is being swamped by digital data, and the pace at which new communication technologies are reaching global market penetrations of 50 million users. The shrinking timelines are quite terrifying, and reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's coining of the phrase, 'The Global Village', back in the early 1970s. How true his observation has come to be, how swift the rate at which people all over the world can join real-time communities of shared interests and values.

There's mileage in using this video, I think, within teacher or student presentations that look at how the relationship between audiences and institutions are changing rapidly. There's also some use here if the video were to be incorporated into a presentation about issues surrounding Distribution.

If you use the video do let me know how. I'd be interested to hear from you.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The End of Cyberspace?

I came across this fascinating presentation about where the online world might evolve while browsing There are some interesting ideas contained within it, plus the joy of seeing how Prezi's non-linear presentation format makes absorbing information so much more pleasant.

Swine Flu closed your school? Go online!

We've been chatting this week at Berkhamsted about how we'd cope with a flu pandemic.

Now, the school's had an emergency plan since Bird Flu threatened to wipe out the known world a few years back. What's changed since then is the wide range of free online learning tools that can be used to keep students and teachers in touch with each other, should schools themselves be physically shut.

Back in February when heavy snow shut us down for a week, we created a Facebook group and sent work out. It might not have been pretty but it did function and kept the information flowing in the right direction.

We do have Moodle as our virtual learning environment and that's what we'll use should Swine Flu necessitate a full closure.

However, there are some interesting free online tools that may be of interest, and certainly are ones that I would look to use as complements.

One problem with a VLE like Moodle is that it's great for offering up asynchronous content, but it's not so good for providing the real-time interaction that makes learning fun and engaging.

Here are two solutions:

  1. Dim Dim is a great online collaboration tool, that allows a teacher to host a learning session where participants can see/hear each other, make instant text contributions, and use an on-screen whiteboard. Images and documents can be loaded onto the whiteboard and annotated by the teacher and students. Dim Dim also offers instant feedback functionality with thumbs up/down icons. It's a great way to bring real-time interaction to life online. Dim Dim is free for up to 20 participants.
  2. Cover It Live does something similar but can be embedded into an existing blog, Wiki or website. As a complement to material you may have prepared for students to download and work on, CIL allows you to run live, moderated blogging. Users don't need a password, or an invitation. It allows live and pre-loaded presentation of weblinks, YouTube videos, still images, plus some excellent real-time polling tools, so ideas can be tested and audience feedback shown visually. The end chat can be archived and played back, thus making a reusable resource. This is something I've discovered only recently and intend to trial shortly. It's being used by large media outlets and range of other business companies. It's use in schools seems to be limited, but I found a great presentation about using CIL and similar tools, in what's known as 'back channelling' here. Thanks to Scott H. Snyder for putting it together.

One final tool that I've just come across that looks fantastic is Prezi, a Hungarian presentation tool that takes the idea of sharing multimedia information and turns it on its head. I can't begin to describe how it works, so have a look, have a play, get hooked, get students using it, and change how you think. I intend to do all of the former in the near future. Once you've seen it you'll see what I mean.

Re-viewing data in online environments

One of the issues that interests me is how rapid digital developments might change the way in which we use data and multimedia information in all its forms for educational purposes.

In the broader scheme of things there are fascinating developments taking place in the wider technological community that will, I believe, impact on how we can convey meaning and analysis to our students.

Here's a video example of a Microsoft developmental idea called Sea Dragon (thanks to Michael Rosenblum for mentioning it on his blog):

On a less practical yet interesting note for Media Teachers, here's a fun way to deconstruct YouTube videos into streaming film strips, that change every time a shot change is detected. 

Finally, I've written before about Wordle, the free online tool that creates Word Clouds. Now it's possible to extract key words by frequency. I was doing some training with the Religious Studies department at school a couple of weeks back, and my colleagues went crazy for this facility. They realised they could take passages from the Bible, or as one did, Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, and pull out the most commonly used words. It made for some fascinating results.

As one teacher pointed out, this is a great way for students to see easily, quickly, and visually how words are used to convey meaning, and indeed to see the essence of a text, by taking a reductionist and minimalist approach to it, and using that as a starting point for further discussion.

So, there are changes afoot and there are options available now that educators can use to make information dynamic and appealing to Net natives, as well as providing useful complements to traditional methods for encouraging independent thinking and reflection.