Monday, 26 January 2009

Back to Mac

Aah, the joys of viral marketing. Courtesy of the Viral Video Chart I've been reminded of the first time Steve Jobs showed off a Mac, back in 1984.

I was still in school, and within a year or so Berkhamsted had invested in what I believe was the first IT suite in a school.

What were we using? Why, the first Apple Macs, that's what. At home, my parents had invested in a Sinclair ZX80, a ZX81 (they were renting a property to a couple involved in selling them, so I got to see the first generation of home PCs up close long before they made it to market), and then later a Sinclair Spectrum. Finally, I ended up with a BBC B computer, which was a fantastic piece of kit.

Looking back, it's incredible how far we've come in 25 years. I remember having to load up games by playing a cassette tape into the computer. A series of painful squawks and screeches somehow got transformed into games and other applications. 

The total memory of these machines was no more than 16Mb (for the ZX81) and when the Spectrum was released with 256Mb of memory people wondered what anyone could possible want with that amount of memory.

Even back then the sight of a floppy disc pulled from Steve's pocket is enough to make people in the video ooh and aah. 

The pace of technological advancement is progressing at such a pace that it's hard for those of us in education to know where to deploy relevant systems that will deliver measurable benefits to students, parents and our colleagues.

With that in mind, I will be starting an MA in Online and Distance Education at the Open University next week. My first module is entitled Technology Enhanced Learning - Practices and Debates. It's going to look at precisely this sort of question. 

I'm looking forward to learning more, engaging with other practitioners, and sharing my thoughts. I'll keep you posted. 

P.S. After a quarter of a century I'm still a Mac Boy. Old habits die hard.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Rebellion takes hold of iTunes

Photo by Tessa Angus (​www.​tessaangus.​com)​

Here's an interesting story, that my student Tom brought to my attention. 

Over the last week or so an unsigned London-based band called the Boxer Rebellion have managed to come from nowhere and storm the online charts of iTunes, in both the UK and USA.

The band self-produced and published their album, and on its creative merits alone, had one of their songs designated as an iTunes' Free Single of the Week.

The response has been huge and it's a sign of how far the relationship that's existed traditionally between the institutions of the music industry, the performers looking for funding to create good songs, and the audiences who purchase them, has changed and evolved.

You can listen to the Boxer Rebellion's songs and watch videos here, and if you're interested in their background story, then read more here.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Eyeless in Gaza

I was reminded of the lines from Milton's poem, Samson Agonistes, when reading about the following news development today:

Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves ...

The surprising news that caught my eye in the media world was the announcement that the BBC would not be televising an advert by the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) to raise funds for humanitarian aid in Gaza. The DEC is an umbrella organisation for 13 aid charities.

The BBC says that it was concerned about how aid would get through to Gaza, and given the fact that the story is still current and being reported on, felt it might damage its impartiality were it to air the ad.

It's a convention that either all or none of the broadcasters carry DEC appeals in the UK, so shortly after the BBC announced it wouldn't be lending a hand, all the other major players fell into line.

I'd like to say I feel disappointment, outrage, or some other meaningful emotion at this decision. But having lived in Israel and visited Palestine on a number of occasions while there, I know that the complexities of the situation are so challenging, that I must admit to a sense of bewilderment.

So what does this tell us about the media, in terms of representation and institutional issues? Probably that nothing is ever as simple as it seems on the surface, and what we see and consume on TV won't necessarily have a logical reason for being there. Just as importantly, it's crucial, as observers of the media, to keep tabs on what gets left out of the schedules. The gaps, the silences, and the omissions, can be as revealing, important and worthy of study and debate, as the programmes we deconstruct and textually analyse.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Data Overload and the need for screens

I've come across two interesting reports in the last day.

The first is one from the charity Childwise that suggests young people now prefer their computer screens to those of their TVs. And what's more, when asked what object they could not live without, a majority now cite their computer. 

The average 5-16 year old now spends 6 hours a day in front of a PC screen.

All of this points to a major cultural shift taking place, as work/leisure boundaries blur. 

Young people now consider interactive communication to be a cornerstone of their daily social activities. Whether it be watchin YouTube videos, making content to upload, reading/writing a blog, sharing information or photos, the current generation consider the sit-back system of traditional TV consumption to be passé. 

You can read about the report here.

The second is a posting on a BBC blog by the technology writer Bill Thompson, who notes how a tendency to keep too many communication apps open on his computer is making it impossible to get any proper work done. Read it, empathise, then let someone else know about your frustrations on Twitter. 

A Man for Our Time - captured by multimedia

Apart from being inspired by the rhetoric and passion of President Obama yesterday, I was struck by the fact that this was the first time I had watched a huge news story unfold live using the internet. 

I was working at school, I had stuff that needed doing, and so the ideal solution was to use the BBC's live feed from BBC1 online. What struck me was how good the streaming video looked, the fact it didn't crash at all, and also that below the video window were live rolling comments from BBC correspondents and viewers.  It certainly made me feel like I was part of a global village.

I suspect that most people watched the inauguration on the TV, because frankly at this moment in time that's the best medium for such an event. But that didn't stop the various media outlets innovating in the online arena.

I particularly liked the 3D rolling panorama offered by CNN who partnered with Facebook. The technology was supplied by Microsoft's Photosynth software. The end result provides what none of the newspaper photos quite managed this morning - some idea of the scale of the event in the Washington Mall. 

Over at the BBC, technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones tried out as many ways of watching the event as he could. His report makes for interesting reading.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a great online app called You put in text, it analyses it into a word cloud - a visual representation of the text, based on the frequency of key words. Since then I've noticed it creeping into the mainstream media, and by today both the Guardian and the BBC were serving up word clouds of the President's speech, plus those of former leaders. 

So, a magnificent day for the new President and the nation he leads. An interesting glimpse too into the changing nature of media communication.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Twitter and News

The day before last I was showing my students Twitter, the micro blogging service. If you imagine the 'what am I up to?' part of a Facebook profile then you'll pretty much get what Twitter is.

In effect, it's short bursts of information about what someone is doing. The problem with it is that what a user tends to receive is an unadulterated stream of information without context or any easy means of verifying facts.

This has been the main issue regarding its use as a news tool. The terror attacks in Mumbai late last year were heralded as proof of Twitter coming of age, as a news feed from so called citizen journalists. However, a number of claims made during that event by Twitter posters turned out to be false.

The benefit of Twitter, when it comes to News and audiences, is the speed with which headlines can be conveyed.

Most of my students found themselves being driven to distraction within a few minutes of using the service. They couldn't see what the point was. 

However, with remarkable timing, yesterday's miraculous ditching of a plane in New York's Hudson river showed the power of instant audience-led news feeds.

A man by the name of Janis Krums was on a ferry when the plane came down. As he watched the incredible event unfold he posted a line to Twitter - 'There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.'

As he had an Apple iPhone he also took a photo, and posted that to Twitpic, a service that adds imaging functionality. As you can see, it's an atmospheric photo, made all the more impressive by the fact it was taken on a 2 megapixel camera.

Within minutes his photo was being shared around the world, while traditional broadcast news outlets were still organising themselves to get down to the crash site.

At the time of writing the photo has been viewed 252,583 times! 

So, maybe Twitter is showing a new paradigm for news gathering and sharing, in which anyone can be a headline breaker. Just don't expect what you get to always be trustworthy, relevant, or reliable.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

What do my students think of me?

My Lower Sixth students have been making lots of short films as a preliminary exercise for their main filming coursework.

As a teacher, sometimes you wonder what the students think of you. Well, here's an answer.....

PS If you scroll down to the bottom of the page you'll see an embedded Berkhamsted Media player.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Making a Visual argument

Now here's a fantastic tool, although I must warn you the interface takes a little getting used to.

Debategraph is a brilliant idea for taking Wikis to a new level. As you may know, Wikis (of which Wikipedia is the most famous) offer anyone the chance to contribute to a body of contextualised knowledge on a given topic. The problem is that sometimes it becomes too difficult to absorb all the different points and links that end up in a publicly edited web-based document.

Debategraph tackles this problem head on by allowing users to create easy to read visual maps. These show the different points made in a discussion. Various colours show whether or not someone is agreeing or disagreeing with a particular point. Each point is represented a sphere. 

By clicking on a sphere a user can open up more specific elements that follow that line of the the argument.

It's a fantastic resource and I'm tempted to try it with one of my English or Classical Civilisation classes.

Do be aware however that (a) there doesn't seem to be a way of making a debate map private, so anyone might see what's been entered. This raises issues of student ID privacy, but on the other hand does mean you might get more input from around the world, which could make for an interesting exercise;  and (b) the interface isn't as intuitive as it might be when it comes to entering data. 

All of this points to how the nature of data sharing, analysis,. and knowledge capital is being altered at a remarkable rate. The challenge for teachers is to figure out which parts will work and which parts are best left beyond the school gates. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The video game debate

Another day, another tragic story implicating violent video games in actual physical harm.

In this case, an American teenager is claiming that playing the game Halo 3 made him so perturbed that when his parents took it away from him, his only response was to shoot them.

The boy's father, who was shot in the head, survived, but his mother tragically did not.

You can read the story here

The Judge in the trial has rejected the claim, saying that the youngster had planned the attacks for weeks.

The press has a long history of using the Hypodermic Syringe theory to claim that violent video games inject their ideologies of aggression into those who play. Of course, this is a hot potato, but there's as much evidence for either side as there are proponents and opponents of each corner.

Monday, 12 January 2009

I heard it on the grapevine....the Brits are coming

Today I'm going to combine two events, both worthy of congratulation, into one posting.

The first is to wish the revolutionary record label Motown a happy 50th birthday. It was half a century ago today that its founder, Berry Gordy, using an $800 loan from his family, launched the company that would bring black music to the masses in both America and the world. In an age of global communication and branding, it's easy to forget the racial segregation that split the USA up to and beyond the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Motown broke through the divide and found an audience, becoming in the process one of the great examples of how the media, when used effectively, can be a force for positive social change.

There's a BBC report here and you can visit the Classic  Motown website here. The site offers a great and free podcast subscription, enabling you to listen to the greats of Motown talking about their experiences, and playing some of their best known tracks. Find it here.

Motown launched the careers of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson, amongst others. So congratulations and birthday greetings.

At the other end of the scale, yesterday saw a victorious night for the Brits at the American Golden Globes award ceremony. Kate Winslet suffered an overwhelming case of emotional overload, stuttering and blubbering her way through her acceptance speech. No matter, for her two wins - Best Supporting Actress in The Reader, and Best Actress in Revolutionary Road - were hard won and well deserved. 

Slumdog Millionaire picked up the Best Film award, and Best Director went to its visionary master, Danny Boyle.

Sally Hawkins won Best Actress for her role in Mike Leigh's film, Happy Go Lucky.

You can find the list of nominations and winners here. 

Watch the Brits blubbing and gushing here.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

What women want.....

Some interesting research, that's still ongoing, about what women prefer to see in advertising.

It would appear that female audiences do prefer to see models who reflect them in size, age, and background.

The research is being carried out at the University of Cambridge.

Dove, the skin care company, has been the most prominent brand in the UK to acknowledge this fact, well before the research began, running a successful advertising campaign using everyday people to front its campaigns. The image above is taken from one of their advertising series.

You can read the Guardian article all about it here.

What's interesting too is to browse through the comments that follow. Opinion is, naturally enough, divided. There are some who think promoting 'over-sized' models is promoting poor lifestyle choices, while others, both male and female, see the use of a wider range of bodyshapes to be a good move. One or two hold a cynical feminist stance, arguing that to encourage women to feel as if they are taking on an editorial role in marketing, is a cunning ploy to suck audience members into a greater dependency on brand allegiance.

The re-presentation of the human form in the media is a complex topic and one that too easily becomes bogged down in polemical mud-slinging. However, it's the high octane level of debate it causes, and the important issues it raises, that makes it such a rich area for study.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The end of culture?

I know I shouldn't be a cultural snob, but the following extract from Celebrity Big Brother, on the British TV station Channel 4, is so dire I can't decide whether the sheer awfulness of what follows is a brilliant piece of popularist broadcasting, or the end of threshold standards of quality as we know it.

Watch it and weep. Or laugh. Possibly both.
Click here.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Words into Art (2) - The DNA of Web

It's strange how one's ability to find alternative activities rises in proportion to the amount of proper work requiring attention.

Anyway, to follow on from yesterday's posting about the fantastic here's another cool site you might find interesting.

Basically, it takes your website or blog, analyses it, and turns it into a visual depiction of DNA.

Digital Lives, the blog you're reading now, looks like this:

Make your own here

If DNA is your cup of tea then you might like some photos I took of DNA samples, which I've posted onto my Flickr account. You can view them here.

I could see this being used by teachers of Maths and ICT, to show how data can be re-interpreted and presented. Either way, my blog sure does look pretty, even if in its DNA state its pretty unintelligible.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Making Art out of Words - the easy way

Here is a simple, free app that I know my students are going to love experimenting with, given its immediacy and knock-out end result. is a piece of sheer brilliance. Add text, or link to a website/blog, and Wordle transforms this into an instant Java based text mashup. There are plenty of options to play around with, including a range of cool fonts, text layouts and colour combinations. 

Showing is often better than telling, so here are some results: my Delicious social bookmarking entries (a nice word cloud above), the opening to the Aeneid, and some of my poems. I've also begun to play around with simple aphorisms, and that's going to be an ongoing experiment. If  you click on any of the images they'll take you to my space on Flickr. Click on the 'All Sizes' option above each image and you'll be able to see a larger version.

The more times you repeat a word the more prominent it becomes. Cut and pasting can produce some interesting results. There's a lot that can be done with this nifty piece of software. Enjoy.

A New Year, a new nomination

Hello and welcome back. I hope you've all had a restful and peaceful festive break.

Now that my mind has returned to matters media and educational, I'm delighted to tell you that my friend David Dunkley-Gyimah has been nominated by the We Media Foundation as one of the top 35 digital media innovators in the world.

You can read an article by David for the foundation here.

David has had an unusual media upbringing and his many years of hard graft and continual quest to understand, predict and innovate in the digital sphere is bringing him his just rewards. He's worked in Ghana, South Africa, with Janet Street-Porter in the early days of revolutionary youth TV (Reportage), he was an original videojournalist in the UK at Channel One (where we worked together), and now is a senior lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Westminster. Incidentally, his academic background is in applied chemistry!

His online magazine, View Magazine, is as he describes it, 'my digital playground, where new ideas can be explored.' It's very much worth a look. 

When I spoke to David yesterday he was pointing me towards some great sites that are exploring where the next generation of digital journalism and storytelling are heading. The links are below. Both of them are worth investigating, not only for their intrinsic worth, but for the possibilities they suggest for technology-enhanced learning at the secondary school level. 

National Film Board of Canada Film maker in Residence. This shows what can be done by ordinary people when they're empowered with multimedia tools.

Multimedia Shooter.  A fantastic site that aggregates some of the best digital story telling around.