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.

SeeSaw Saw You Wanting TV

News comes in that yet another online TV aggregator has launched.

SeeSaw aims to provide a vast array of TV back catalogues to British viewers, thus filling gaps that the big players like YouTube and Hulu either don't fill, or in the case of the latter, don't yet provide, as Hulu has still not launched in the UK.

The service is free for now, but intends to make some charge, probably for American imports, later in the year, according to a report in the Guardian. By focusing in its PR on shows like Skins, it's doubtless hoping to suck in a younger demographic. Admittedly, YouTube has started to offer full length shows too, so it will be interesting to see how the minnow fares with the shark.

The service is coming out of Beta in the week that YouTube celebrates its fifth birthday.

I was lucky enough to be working in Web TV back in 2000. Looking back, maybe I should have hung around and made my first million, instead of turning my back on it all and becoming a school teacher? On second thought, hell no, I love what I do. But it's certainly true that back in the day we had to encode video into a variety of formats (Quicktime, Windows Media Player, Real Player) at multiple bit rates, manually, for every video. Tedious as a definition couldn't even begin to describe how dull and time consuming that process was!

YouTube's trick was to jump on the Adobe Flash bandwagon, right at the time when Flash become capable of embedding video into its framework, making it a lot easier to embed video across the Web.

It's interesting also to notice the spat that's emerged this week surrounding Adobe's alleged attempts to block the development of HTML5, the new web browser standard which, inter alia, will allow video streaming and 2D graphics within the frame itself. For Adobe, purveyors of Flash, this is a potential disaster; not least because it means all those iPhone users around the world will no longer be barred from watching funky animations as part of their web experience.

What does this mean in the bigger picture? Basically, the delivery mechanisms are moving towards becoming truly platform agnostic, and this might force us back to the concept that content is indeed King, and it will be those who can create narratives for interactive platforms who will succeed.

To see evidence that this where we're heading take a look at the American Beta Google have been running with Living Stories, in which its partnered with The New York Times and Washington Post. Longer running stories are contextualized and re-presented for readers. From Google's viewpoint this enhancement of the user experience might provide more revenue opportunities, in terms of users staying on pages longer (good for advertisers) and content deals with publishers (they acquire an audience online that they're losing in print).

In other words, what we want is meaningful information, and what media institutions need are new ways to connect to us. The landscape in which the two sides meet and interact is evolving rapidly, and those who put up barriers to that process happening any place, any time, on any platform, are deluding themselves that the process can be stopped.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Why does the Hitler meme seem so popular?

One of the interesting web phenomena of recent years has been the rise of the Hitler meme on YouTube.

In these, a clip from the film Downfall (2004)is used repeatedly, but with a range of subtitles added.

The idea combines a mixture of humiliating the demonic figure that Hitler represents, while also displaying the prowess at comedy writing and timing of the producer, who uses a raging Hitler as the platform for social satire.

Some work better than others, and the choice of subject matter can make for uncomfortable viewing.

The Guardian newspaper has produced a good article that explores this phenomenon. It's a good reminder that in an age where we're all media producers, popular content and the means of its distribution don't necessarily reside with the ruling elites of old. What makes it fascinating for media educators and observers like myself, is the fact that the old rules don't apply, and market forces are taking on a whole new dynamic.

Teens go for micro rather than macro blogging

An interesting report, quoted in the Guardian, suggesting that teens are moving rapidly away from the contemplative, longer form style of multimedia writing that embodies the production of a blog; choosing instead to write often and little on Facebook status updates and Twitter tweets.

The interesting fact about this is that the decline appears at a time when more schools are looking to use blogs as a mainstream way of encouraging literacy, independent thinking and shared collaborative reflection. Indeed, the introduction and promotion of blogging in schools might be one reason why personal blogging is losing its allure, as students come to view it as associated with 'official' academic work.

You can read the article, which analyses key elements of the Pew Research Center report, here.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

How fast are those fingers on the keyboard?

Phil Gyford has produced a fantastic blog post, in which he's experimented with data input times on a range of devices, from an iPhone, to a Mac laptop keyboard, vintage Apple Newton message pad, and two flavours of Palm - a phone and a PDA.

His results are intriguing and not at all what one would expect.

The photo above comes from his blog entry and you can read all about his findings here.

Apple's iPad and educational uses

Apple's iPad has been one of those technology launches that seems to divide people into those who can't see what the addition of a larger iPod Touch or iPhone can bring to the table, those who just want it, and those, like me, who fall somewhere between the previous two categories.

I can see that with a ten hour battery and a month on standby (although given that startup is less than 15 seconds it's not really that relevant), there are certain practical advantages. It's multi touch screen and small footprint make it advantageous for students and teachers alike.

For me, the fact is I have a Mac laptop that enables me to edit photos, video and audio, work on MS Office for school related documents, use Apple's Keynote for presentations, and run Windows XP for the things in school that aren't Mac compatible.

Therefore, do I really need a tablet? Having held out for the last two years before getting an iPhone, on the basis that I wasn't going to pay for a tool I could get free from another manufacturer, and indeed wait for bugs to be ironed out, I find myself in a similar position with the iPad.

There are certain obvious school advantages - having a digital jotter with me as I trot between campuses, collecting emails and making bookings on a shared calendar with staff would be great, as I move around school and often end up chatting to colleagues in non-PC connected places. The fact I can add a VGA for showing information wherever I find myself in school is cool. Incidentally, all rooms have a projector, so finding the means by which to show and tell isn't an issue.

If we can get academic publishers making digital versions of text books then there are educational and environmental benefits too. Less could indeed become more.

I was pleased to read that Apple are intending to make the iPad enterprise friendly, adding Exchange and direct printing support.

And yet, part of me wonders if this is part of a bigger trend, and whether cheaper yet practical alternatives will appear off the back of the Apple innovation train? I've been quite happy with my Samsung Omnia phone for the last 18 months, even though having an iPhone would have made it a bit easier for me to sync my digital life.

Being an Apple fan doesn't make me a blindly loyal follower. Could the iPad be the driver to persuade me that Apple products are the best for our school? Possibly, but that sort of commitment shouldn't be made in a hurry.

We're planning to deploy an Apple server, initially to help me and my technician manage the vast amount of audio/visual and photographic data we ingest each year, and to do the same with our Art department, who are the other big Mac users. At a recent discussion meeting I was shown the benefits of Snow Leopard Server, and it is a great piece of kit. Prof Steve Molyneux, with whom I was conversing, made the practical suggestion of a mixed-economy approach. Roll out some Mac laptops and let staff incrementally see for themselves the advantages that a Mac can bring. If they want it, let them have it. That seems a sensible approach to me. Forcing teachers to use technology can lead to resentment and a poor return on investment, both academically and financially.

Do I think Apple is the best way forward in education, when it comes to content production, independent learning and collaborative activities? Put it this way - it's not the only way, but it is a powerful solution.

As has happened so often during the last decade, Apple are challenging our preconceptions about how we think and communicate. The iPad deserves serious attention, if not for what it does now, then for its potential to change the means by which we learn and evolve in schools.

Touching the heart of tech-enhanced education

January has proved to be an interesting month for me and the whole issue of e-learning within school.

VLE's and all that

Currently, we have Moodle as our VLE. It's free to use, but of course there are internal costs in terms of deployment, management and maintaining the service. It was introduced some years ago in response to the threat from Avian flu. Consequently, there doesn't appear to have been much discussion with staff about the pedagogical implications or benefits of using technology to enhance learning; especially in terms of how a social constructivist approach can help students become better independent learners. The fact that Moodle can ingest work from students and if set up properly mark the work for you seems to have been a lost message too.

So, we have Moodle, we have Outlook for mail and calendars, although its use as a collaborative management tool isn't widespread amongst teachers, and we have deployed iSAMS, an excellent reporting and student data management tool at the start of the academic year. This is a web-based solution and allows teachers to see timetables, student information, write reports, see exam data analysis, send group emails (either to students or teachers of students), award merits, and a host of other tools. Its easy to use interface has made it an instant hit with colleagues.

Rationalising tools to improve learning

However, this legacy of adding tools to match needs as they arise has led to both confusion and inefficiency. Moreover, as we've discovered in the last few weeks, having rolled out email to our sixth form students, we have inherited a system that doesn't always want to talk to itself. We've found that user names for Moodle don't always match user names needed for iSAMS and Outlook. Consequently, we've had to start a program of digital ID harmonisation.

It's clear that over the coming years we are likely to move more towards virtualised and cloud-based systems of communication and learning. With that in mind it's vital that we can move our database of users from one place to another with ease, and put in place the wherewithal to make this happen with the minimum of fuss.

Against this rather convoluted backdrop of data clear-up, we're also looking at the school's digital strategy and how that might play out in the future.

At the recent BETT educational technology show we focused on learning platforms. We were impressed with Frog, who offer an integrated Web 2.0 solution, in a gorgeous interface, that combines learning platforms, email, parent portals, external facing websites, access to shared areas, and even remote terminal server type services, that allow users to access the software on school computers remotely. All of this sits on a custom built server, that sits alongside a school's existing provision. I was particularly impressed with the way templates are eschewed in favour of an Apple/iGoogle drag and drop widget based design system. It appeared to be easy to use and powerful. The Head of ICT from a school that has implemented it, who demonstrated Frog to us at BETT, was delighted with its take-up by technophobic staff and students at her school.

Frog isn't cheap but when considered in terms of the services it offers it does represent good value for money, especially in a large multi-campus school like Berkhamsted.

Plotting a future proof strategy

However, is this the way forward? What is it that we hope to achieve pedagogically? The deputy head who line manages me, Greg, and I have been speaking at length recently about this question. We recognise that while a whizz-bang solution like Frog will tick a lot of boxes, and staff will like it, is where education is headed? As our Principal, Mark Steed, said to me, 'Isn't it possible that the VLE is dead? Maybe they've become too static and don't represent the mobile driven world of our students.' It's a fair point. I've been keenly aware that more and more of our students are coming to school with iPhones and Blackberries. It's fascinating that a business comms tool has seeped into the teenage market so effectively. And yet, we shouldn't be surprised. To many teenagers, having access to email, Facebook and Twitter is de rigeur. And a smartphone is just the ticket to keep them in touch with their digital world.

With that in mind , Mark's point is that perhaps we should be seeing students as connected nodes in a learning network, towards which we can push relevant data. Do we need a learning platform, when what students really want is access to information, in a timely way, whenever they desire it? And if we take that view, then the parameters begin to change.

For starters, we're looking at ways of making wifi available to students, so that they can access material using whatever web-enabled device they choose. It might be a laptop or netbook, it could be an iPhone or Blackberry. Either way, we think that anywhere access to the Web, email and other services is essential, especially for older students. We do have a good provision of IT labs and PCs located in classrooms and libraries, but their number can't match the number of students for whom web access is becoming an crucial part of their learning experience. Thus, by making access available we aim to enhance learning.

And that brings me back to my earlier question: what are we hoping to achieve pedagogically?

An App for all seasons?

Last June we heard about the benefits of Google Apps for Education. It's a free to use suite of tools, that offer web-based alternatives to Word, Power Point and Excel. In addition, it combines a powerful calendar tool, plus interactive groups and Google Sites, which allows users to create websites, into which content can be embedded and or up/downloaded. Documents created in its suite can be converted and downloaded as Microsoft or PDF files. It has drag and drop functionality. More importantly, any document can be jointly edited. Google's GMail is also provided.

What it offers is a suite of collaborative tools, in which students can find space where they take control of their learning and work together. For me, this represents a powerful educational benefit.

Although it's free to set up, and Google provide the means for schools to securely add and maintain a list of users, all of whom receive a Google email account, re-branded with a school address, we wanted to see if the service would work with our students. Therefore, I set up a couple of trial groups and sites, using Greg's Politics class and a sixth form Classical Civilisation class with another colleague.

What we found was that students took to it like a duck to water, and in both cases we were surprised to see students accessing the site, asking questions of each other and making a real effort to extend their learning beyond the classroom. Even over the Christmas break the sites remained active. Other colleagues have followed suit and even a couple of technophobic teachers have had a go and managed to produce some lovely looking sites. I've added some images below.

So where do we go now?

Having been impressed with these early trials, and bolstered by the fact even the Open University, which has over 200,000 users, is switching to Google Apps, we've decided to deploy it. But that still leaves us with the question, 'what do we do about VLEs, access, and improving learning from a pedagogical perspective?'

After much discussion Greg and I think that a combination of Moodle as a static repository for schemes of work and other material, coupled with Google Apps as the place where students and teachers go to discuss, learn and share, is perhaps the best way forward for now. We'd like to see what Frog can offer for us, although at present they don't seem to offer support for data transfer with iSAMS.

It might seem counter productive to add yet another tool to the box, but we think that Google for collaborative learning, Moodle for course data, and iSAMS for reporting, represents a good mix that also remains affordable. We have a lot of material on Moodle already. The issue with it is its perceived complexity in terms of uploading and managing dynamic content. Google will get around this, due to its ease of use. iSAMS has proved to be a godsend for the back end data management and reporting that we do. Keeping that data separate from the day to day work we engage in with students is a good idea.

We're hoping that we'll have Google Apps for Education up and running in time for the second half of term. After that, we'll roll it out to staff and see if the wider learning community at Berkhamsted finds it as useful as those who have taken part in our trials.

I'll let you know.