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.