Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Opal Fruits, Marathon, Jif, now Flickr - Grrrrr!

Ok so the first three on that list are product name changes, but the principle remains the same - punters were not happy about Opal Fruits becoming Starburst (incidentally here's a great site showing other sweets from days of yore) and nor now it would seem, are fellow Flickr members about this email we received within the past 24 hours:

"Dear Old Skool Account-Holding Flickr Member,
On March 15th we'll be discontinuing the old email-based Flickr sign in system. From that point on, everyone will have to use a Yahoo! ID to sign in to Flickr.
We're making this change now to simplify the sign in process in advance of several large projects launching this year, but some Flickr features and tools already require Yahoo! IDs for sign in -- like the mobile site or the new Yahoo! Go program for mobiles,
available at:
95% of your fellow Flickrites already use this system and their experience is just the same as yours is now, except they sign in on a different page. It's easy to switch: it takes about a minute if you already have a Yahoo! ID and about five minutes if you don't.
You can make the switch at any time in the next few months, from today till the 15th. (After that day, you'll be required to merge before you continue using your account.) "

My initial reaction was one of simple annoyance. I DON'T WANT to use a Yahoo account to get into Flickr and that was the extent of my ire last night - it will be inconvenient. After all since Yahoo bought Flickr a changeover of some kind was on the cards. And many of us have coveted our 'Old Skool' logins. Using it made us feel just that wee bit special.

However I did not expect the veritable tsunami that has arisen today in the wake of that email. A discussion forum set up to discuss this topic within Flickr had received over 700 posts within 24 hours the last time I checked it and the anger is palpable. Many people have taken the news far worse than I did. It has become clear that this is a very emotive topic.

Now don't get me wrong, there are far worse things that can happen in life than a username for a website having to be changed, but this has several associated issues that make it a cause worth fighting for.

In a way this has soured the social, friendly feel that Flickr had helped to foster and in one fell swoop they have undone several years of chummy neighbourliness that money couldn't buy. People are talking about deleting their Flickr accounts because they do not want to have anything to do with Yahoo and I have to admit some elements don't sit well with me
There are some excellent posts on the Forum and if ever there was a time for a company to pay heed to their customers, I think that time is now.

Now what this shows to me is that the social web has sort of 'backfired' on some companies. After all, the Flickr site is all about sharing your photos with other people. But now these sociable members are rebelling against decisions affecting what is, after all, only a service they use, and many use it at no cost! They feel ownership of Flickr and perhaps there's a danger there for all other Web 2.0 companies that are bought by larger companies in future.

One irony is that Yahoo are now restricting the number of contacts a user can have - surely at odds with the ethos of a site that wants people to share their images with as many people as possible. Also the limit (albeit at 75) of the number of tags a photo can have assigned to it, this seems to stifle the collaborative nature of the site. Surely its a total contradiction to have a site that is built on an ethos of social networking, and then to limit the number of social contacts you can have! That in itself shows that yahoo are not 'at one' with the what Flickr stands for.

I wondered what was 'in it' for Yahoo when they bought Flickr (just as I did about Ebay buying Skype!) and now I wonder if one nagging thought will come to fruition. That is to say I wonder whether Flickr will ultimately become Yahoo's images repository. And as Mrphillip says "here in the UK Flickr would be on very shaky legal ground on this one - certainly in terms of refunds. They're forcing people to sign up to another service from the same (parent) company in order to continue to use something they've already paid for. If users don't sign up for that other service, they are then going to be denied access to a service for which they have already paid in full, but they're also being denied rights in relation to their own intellectual property (photographs). That breaks all kind of consumer laws here."

Add to that this taken from Yahoo's Terms of Service:

"c) With respect to all other Content you elect to post to other publicly accessible areas of the Service, you grant Yahoo! the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensable right and licence to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed. "

And here, here, here, here and here are further reasons why many people do not trust Yahoo. Here's a nice blog post that summarises the arguments well.

And you have a very dodgy situation in my book. A bit like Paul McCartney being powerless every time Michael Jackson flogged rights to all Beatles songs.

It's all a bit icky and I bet Flickr didn't see this coming, or if they did this is a bit of a PR disaster despite how helpful their staff have been so far within the Old Skool Merge Forum.

I have just added THIS LINK which shows just how Yahoo intends to marry the use of Flickr with their advertising (thanksderek@antiquark) - and this Yahoo advert for the Wii features 'all rights reserved pictures' ! Oh yes I think this story has just moved into a different league and may spell a crisis for Flickr.

More on this concerning Yahoo's intention's can be found here, including this explanation about their rationale: "In addition to presenting strong imagery and other unique media content, the Brand Universes will pull photos from Flickr tagged with that specific brand name, Yahoo Answers related to the brand, and user-generated bookmarks and links from tagged with the brand, giving users the power to control parts of the site's content. Yahoo is not asking for input from marketers nor seeking licenses for the content, however, Broady told reporters. "We're doing what makes sense for the users," he said. "Yahoo has loved to work with brand owners, but we've shown we don't need them to promote the content. We don't pay a license, we're tapping a community within Yahoo."

Here is the same page after some civil disobedience that I helped to instigate:

Monday, January 29, 2007

The creases will drop out

Hanging intimacy, original image uploaded to Flickr by AnA oMeLeTe.

I was having a chat with a friend the other night and she asked me how I'd spent the evening.

'Ironing three weeks worth of washing', I said to her.

'Ha ha ha', says she, 'I don't own an iron'.

'Hmmmmmm', I thought, 'So how do you get your clothes neat?'

'Aha, that's easy,' she says, 'The creases just drop out'.

After a moment or two's scepticism, I realised she was deadly serious. Then the penny dropped.
'Do you mean to tell me that I have spent three hours doing all that sweating and toiling, and I could have saved all that by just hanging my clothes on a hanger straight out of the washing machine?'

'Yep.' she said - and although MSN is only text based, I swear there was an undertone of mischievious delight in her use of that three letter word.

So Grrrrrrrrrrrrr @ irons. Grrrrrrrrr@ all other technological devices, which the Germans might call Schlimmbesserung - a so-called improvement that makes things worse (as described in Howard Rheingold's delightful book 'They Have a Word for it'). Now okay I appreciate I may be viewing the role of the iron in a slightly skewed way, but hey, isn't technology meant to make things easy for us? So why do we have a device that makes no difference in the long run?

So from a Devil's Advocate point of view I wonder, are there any other technological devices that we don't actually need - and I'm not talking about automatically rotating tie racks either. Are we now in situation where each and every new ICT product or package is one that we use just because it's there? Or do we genuinely have a need and use for these new tools?

In previous times the audience held up lighters as a show of solidarity and understanding to accompany 'anthemic' tunes. Nowadays it's more likely that they will hold up mobile phones to capture a piece of video to upload to YouTube. No gig seems to be complete without a plethora of people holding up their phones to capture that 'moment'. Are these people videoing these clips for later use? Or will they never see the light of day again? If it's anything like my use of a Sony Discman, then that will be the case. That piece of hardware won't allow the sound files to be transferred into any other format without a set procedures rivalled only by the steps involved in the launch of the Space Shuttle. And I have recordings of some great concerts too! Oh and the grainy photo I took of Brian Wilson on the front row of the Royal Festival Hall when he played Smile for the first time ever, remains one of my most prized digital possessions.

But do these images, video or still, serve any purpose to us? In education we discourage children from using mobile phones, although some exciting projects do exist they are only employed in schools or by organisations that are willing to take risks with such technology, such as the now sadly pared-down Ultralab. I find it sad that this technology lies in the hands of some many of your students yet they cannot exploit them in school. In fact the only time young people seem to be seen to use such technology is in incidences of so-called 'happyslapping'. It would be so much better if we let them record the experiments they do in Science or their golf swing in PE instead of insisting their phones are off within the school's walls.

In some cases some organisations would seem to prefer that some technologies do not exist. As mentioned in another post in my Blog Mika was No. 1 with Grace Kelly. But not according to my local TESCO who had the charts showing 'Just Jack' as No. 1 in the singles chart. Yet this week, Mika remained at No. 1 and TESCO now has him in that position in their singles chart. Why would this be? Because the single was only available as a digital download last week and TESCO couldn't have the No. 1 single in their chart as being something they couldn't sell. I wonder if this means in future as more and more singles chart in high positions before the physical single is released, that shops will show their own charts that bear little resemblance to the actual charts, leading to fragmentation. I have not seen anyone report this yet, so maybe my observation is misguided, but I don't think so.

TESCO by choosing not to list Mika as No.1 in the charts had no idea how young people would mock their chart - as I overheard on my visit to the store yesterday. 'Thats not a real chart', quipped one boy within my earshot, 'It's false cos Mika's No.1. But don't worry mum I'll download it for you from iTunes when we get home'. It's almost like TESCO were afraid to admit that they were inferior by showing that the top selling product in a list was unavailable from their store - of course it wasn't available in ANY store! So like some Stalinist state they decided to pretend that it did not exist at all. But the young people in the store I was in noticed this and to them the chart was a laughing stock, just as people do when shown retouched pictures of Stalin when unfavoured people were removed from them.

Wesley Fryer's excellent post on Uth TV suggests that part of the reason for this, is that some technology is passing us Digital Immigrants by, whilst Digital Natives are using it and exploiting it - making many of us frightened of it and feeling unable to cope. Very much as I do when I look at the pile of ironing I have to do on a Sunday morning.

Friday, January 26, 2007

We want our marbles back

Elgin marbles 8, original image uploaded to Flickr by mharrsch.

This news story has caught my eye over the past few days. It describes the sale by Christie's of a collection of paintings once owned by King George I of Greece. Greek officials had asked the auction house to stop the sale as they suggested that buyers would face legal action if the paintings had been illegally exported from Greece.

This story is reminiscent of the Elgin Marbles debate. This is used as a topic in Key stage 3 ICT in which 'Reliability, Validity and Bias' are taught. This specific instance is an emotive topic that students can easily identify with, given a little explanation, as opposed to other more controversial topics such as abortion, fox-hunting and vegetarianism. It also means that research on this topic, whilst resulting in a wealth of information from 2 polarised viewpoints, is less likely to be offensive than the other topics mentioned earlier - this makes it perfectly suited for study within school. Add to the mix stories like this recent one, where a Swedish lady returned a piece of marble to Greece, that some say weaken the case for the Elgin Marbles to stay in Britain and you have an excellent discussion point for students.

My means of covering this topic makes use of the Elgin Marbles, but is taught using a Webquest. First devised by Bernie Dodge, a professor at San Diego University, Webquests are powerful tools to aid learning. Students are made to work collaboratively to solve problems where their corporate actions are monitored and affect the grading of the whole group. A typical Webquest sees students working in groups of 4 each of them taking on specific and different roles. The highly structured format of a Webquest presents the user with all the information they need in the form of:
  • Introduction
  • Task
  • Process
  • Evaluation
  • Conclusion
  • Teacher Page

This uses constructivist teaching theory in which students are virtually set loose to explore the topic, giving rise to constantly unique end products.

I use this Webquest to cover the 'Reliability' topic and many other similar Webquests can be found here (and UK ones here). Bernie has set up a utility to allow you to create your own Webquests here at Questgarden. The Webquest I use is extremely engaging and the students especially identify with the Dr Doug N. Deep archeologist as Indiana Jones's classroom is situated within our ICT department - oh yes it is!

Students carry out research in their allocated area and all research the way in which the Elgin marbles debate has unfolded and then try to apply that knowledge to the Webquest scenario which is set in Egypt and concerns the discovery of a pharoah's remains.

Webquests are always the most engrossing and engaging tool I use when teaching. I have never seen pupils work as hard as they do when carrying out Webquests. I urge you all to give them a go.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us....

We all have lice, image from Flickr originally uploaded by Antonia Pneumonia. see oursel's as others see us. So wrote Robert Burns in his famous poem 'To a Louse' which is often used in an allegorical way to describe how the mighty fall. As yet another Burns Night draws to a close, it seemed somehow apt to quote the Bard somewhere in this post.

I love the phrase 'too see ourselves as others see us' - it reminds me of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby from The Water Babies. And this is a philosophy by which I have tried to live my life. Hence I believe in the altruistic beliefs that led to the HUGToB campaign last year.

It also gives rise to a quite different notion - how do others see us? And how do we choose to let others see us?

I am perfectly happy for this Blog to be representative to others of the sort of person that I am. I am lucky in that after trawling around the Internet searching for websites on which I can be found, I could not find a single entry that I regretted - not even my posts to the BBC making some pedantic complaint about my favourite TV show!

Bill Thomson makes an interesting post in which he discusses the way today's young people treat their Myspace account as disposable if they forget their password. They prefer to create a new account in such circumstances - whereas many people of my generation would covet their Myspace site having nurtured it over time and would rather jump into a shower with Michael Winner than lose the site they have cultivated. The interesting point he makes is that MySpaces huge membership numbers may actually be being bolstered by a large number of young people registering a new account having ditched their old one.

Another aspect of this is the phenomenon of 'facebooking' where young people use the facebook website to observe changes in social relationships. This site also allows employers to find out about job applicants or parents to find out details about their daughter's new boyfriend!

I am anxious that young people cannot cope with this sort of technology - no matter how much of a Digital Native they may be - as was illustrated by 3 female pupils of mine several years ago.

In the early days of social networking sites they created, at the age of 12, a joint site which contained many candid photographs of themselves and friends. The name these 12 year olds chose to give themselves? Dirtylittleteenagesluts! I was alerted to this site by a concerned pupil whose image had been put on the site without her permission (in the end this was the case for at least 20 other girls). Silly decisions such as those are what can make social networking sites such a dangerous place for young people and its this personal experience that has led me to my stand on the use of such sites in my school. Nice to see this 'mom' has decided to subscribe to MySpace to see how the site ticks and in order to keep an eye on what her children are doing there. Way to go mom!

Social networking is a powerful tool but in some cases, some young people just aren't equipped to handle it. We need to enable them to handle such tools in a better way and portray themselves in the way they would like people to think of them in years to come. In fact Burns couldn't have put it better when he wrote: 'For a' that, an' a' that, Their dignities an' a' that, The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth, Are higher rank than a' that.'

The Highest Apple

Just an apple tree, image originally uploaded to Flickr by kodama.

The prolific David Warlick made a recent Blog post requesting educationalists to Blog about their 'greatest challenge when teaching appropriate ethical use of web-based media to students'.

Here is my response:

There once was a little boy who lived in a farmhouse right in the middle of the countryside. He loved apples. He ate them all the time. Morning, noon and night. But one thing he didn't like was that he lived so far away from the nearest shop, so it was hard to buy enough apples to satisfy his need. So he wished and wished and wished for an unlimited supply of apples.

Then, one morning he awoke and looked out of his bedroom window. There in the middle of his garden was a tree that had never been there before. Not only that, it was covered with many, many apples. He jumped for joy and ran out out into the garden to pick some to eat for his breakfast. It was only then that the magnitude of his task became apparent to him for the tree stretched high, high into the sky. But looking around at the lower branches he thought to himself 'there are enough apples that I can reach'. So he picked a rather dull-looking one and took a bite. Yuck! He spat it out straight away - it had a worm in it! So he picked another dull apple and took a bite - it had a worm in it too. 'Hmmmmmmmmmmmm', he thought, 'so many apples but they are horrible'.

Then he noticed the apples a little higher were a slightly different colour and bigger, perhaps they'd be better. So he got a ladder and reached up to the higher branches, picked an apple and bit into it. Yuck again, no worm but this one tasted sour. So he went to his neighbour and borrowed a much larger ladder so he could reach higher. He took an apple from this higher level and sure enough it still didn't taste right, but it was much better than all the others he tried.

Next he called a building firm and got them to build a very high scaffold and that allowed to to almost reach the top of the tree. This apple tasted delicious but it wasn't as shiny as the one beautiful apple that was sitting at the very top of the tree. So he got out his climbing ropes and crampons and after an hour or so he reached the single rosy apple at the very top of the tree. He took a bite. It had the most exquisite taste of any any apple he had ever tasted before.

As soon as he took the apple he noticed that a few more took its place, this time they were not just at the top, but further down the tree too. He shinned down a little and ate another apple. More nice apples appeared on the tree. The more he ate the more shiny lovely apples appeared until the whole tree was covered with the nicest shiniest tastiest apples he had ever seen.

Story inspired byAn Ubhal As Airde (The Highest Apple) by Runrig. Which describes:

"The winds will blow
And the sun will shine
From generation to generation
Through the trees of the garden
But the day and the hour
Will surely come
To take the highest apple
From the knowledge tree"

I find that it is often the case that within my students there are many of them who want to use the Internet properly but they seek guidance and direction. It would be easy to just continue to allow them to copy work from the Internet verbatim and pass it off as their own, or to include work from invalid sources. It takes much more effort to educate young people that this approach is wrong, wrong, wrong. However, the benefits are that students realise that plagiarism is wrong and that they should cite their sources and the effort put into educating a few initally can quickly cascade to the others. Our Resource Centre Manager Lorna Cowburn has made it a major goal to educate young people as to the dangers and unfairness of plagiarism. Once they see it is wrong, they are less inclined to do so any more.

I used to spend a great deal of time to educate pupils about how to cite a source or how to use web sites for reverential reference not as resources to be plundered. A good illustration of this has recently taken place on a Devon beach where contents from the striken MSC Napoli recently washed ashore and 'beachcombers' came from all around to take the treasures they could find. They seemed to think this was okay, despite the police presence, until someone in Sweden realised it was their personal belongings that were being ravaged. It now appears that many of the people who took goods (some selling them on ebay) have realised rather late that they could face prosecution, or find the booty they took to be of no use to them, and they have left a shocking mess behind them. It has now occured to some of them, after the event, that perhaps the did wrong. To me this draws many parallels with copying someone else's work without attribution. The quaintly titled 'beachcombers' have now become 'scavengers'.

However, now I find I need to instruct my pupils less and less about this menace, as pupils have come to learn from themselves as to what is acceptable practice. That's not to say plagiarism et al is not still a problem. But I believe it is less of a problem in my school due to the time and effort spent addressing the issue rather than ignoring it or leaving it to solve itself.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What is Inspiration?

Buscando inspiracion , image taken from Flickr, originally uploaded by Girard Girbes.

I was having a chat with a friend last night during which I thanked her for being one of the sources of inspiration for the restarting of my Blog. She maintained she'd been nothing of the sort and suggested I might be grossly over-exaggerating her role. So I began to wonder - what exactly is 'inspiration'? Is there an 'Inspiration Quotient' that has to be reached before it can be said to influence or inspire an individual? Or, as I maintain, need it only be a brief comment, wink of an eye or a wee word at just the right time?

I thought I'd explore this topic by looking at the factors, events and individuals that have inspired me recently. A veritable mixed bag they prove to be too.

Here's an interesting little exercise that serves to illustrate the diversity of origins for our inspiration. Take a moment to load up Google and type in the phrase "Be inspired". Then just feast your eyes on the resulting hits you get. If your results are anything like mine were, then the first 50 or 60 hits (that's as far as I looked) you get are all from different websites, without repetition. Now I don't know about you, but such a search (using any other keywords) usually results in bunches of hits from the same site or repetition, but I found not one repeated site in the first 60 or so hits I got.

So what's my point? It is this. That it seems only fitting that when inspiration can come to us from many different sources, that searching for the phrase should result in a similarly diverse selection of web sites. This is particularly noticeable when you see the nature of the websites that prepare you to "Be inspired" - images from the north west of England, a manufacturer of scrapbooks, Oxfam, BBC's digital work in the community and taster days at Imperial University.

One of my most poignant personal stories of inspiration comes from a dearly departed friend and mentor, Lesley Reading. She was Deputy Head at my school and her assemblies would not come parrot-fashion from a book or a website, but would be inspired by her walk to school through the avenues of blossom-covered trees. She would marvel at such beauty, or the birdsong that she would hear and this would seem to create a text all of its own that she would read to the girls. So she would be inspired by the world around her, and in so doing, inspire her audience to go out and enjoy things that they took for granted.

In the educational ICT world it is hard to find people more inspiring than Professor Stephen Heppell and Richard Millwood, formerly of ULTRALAB. Their magnificent work has been the spur for many educationalists like myself to follow their lead by embracing technology and making it do fantastic things. Ian Usher is in this mould too - one only has to hear him give a presentation and one wants to experience what he has experienced. He can be one of the best motivational speakers you can ever meet.

A recent addition to my pool of inspiring individuals is Adam Burt - a truly humble yet innovative ICT developer and although different in character to the other people I have named so far, he inspires by example, notr least because of his dyslexia. He has a gift to show users such exciting possibilities using ICT as a tool, such as his new project which converts lecture notes, into podcasts via networked photocopier. What an awesome tool that is! My friend Dale Jones continues to inspire me through his words and deeds - he is everything an ICT Co-ordinator should be - knowledgable, cutting edge, exciting, friendly, supportive, challenging and innovative. I was lucky enough to attend a podcasting seminar run by Ewan McIntosh and his inspiration was clear to every person in the room - the 'buzz' the looks on faces, the excitement and the way he made it look so darned easy! That's a gift that is.

I am proud to be a fellow of Mirandanet, founded by Christina Preston, an organisation jam-packed with inspirational people all working collaboratively to make the world a better place. And there can surely be no one who would not want to take that lead. Take a look at their Etopia and World Ecitizens projects and see that these are people that want to inspire others. In a similar vein, my good friend Bernie De Koven aka Major Fun wants to make the world a better place and I believe he succeeds in doing so by encouraging others to have fun with whatever tools are available - such as evidenced by his Junkyard Sports.

These are people who have shown me how to use ICT to make a difference. These are people who have inspired me and changed my life for the better.

But this story sprang from a discussion with someone who is not ICT-centred. My Liverpool-supporting friend's inspiration to me was merely to say she might be starting a blog. That planted the seed - it was all I needed to get going. And special Eve - she's always there with a word or two to keep my feet on the ground, and sometimes makes suggestions that in their own way make me think I should get out there and do what she says.

These people all play a part and without them (and many others) my life would not be half as fulfilling as it now is.

With so much INspiration in my life, I have a lot of PERspiration to do if I am to become a genius, if Thomas Edison's maxim is true.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tell me lies, Tell me sweet little lies....

".... tell me, tell me lies", so sang Fleetwood Mac in their 1987 hit song. The song is a plea from one partner to another saying they can lie as much as they want, as long they are together it's all that matters.

In many ways we as a society seem to have grown used to this sort of philosophy. We are confronted with so many contradictions in every walk of life that it can be hard for young people (or anyone for that matter) to judge exactly who is telling the truth.

I am reminded of the 6th February 2003. Picture the scene: America and Britain are hurtling towards invading Iraq and Colyn Powell appears in front of the UN with a tiny vial of white powder. The two newspapers with the biggest readership in Britain feature the same close-up of this esteemed man and the vial. However, the headlines could not be more different. The Sun says 'Gotcha' whilst The Mirror says 'Not Enough' - two strong opinions, but poles apart. From the same information, using the same photograph, two publications came to two different conclusions. So how on earth do people know which to believe? The Mirror's point of view becomes more obvious however, when one realises that they were running a high profile 'No War' campaign.

Anyway, in ICT we do our best through the National Curriculum strategy units, to discuss the 'Reliability, validity and bias' of information. And we mostly cover this in ICT by looking at web sites.

Last week I introduced this theme to my Year 8 classes by asking them to write a report on Boilerplate, the famous Victorian robot. This Year group have to carry out a large History coursework (thanks to the ingenuity of Mrs Anne Ratcliffe, my colleague and Head of History) in the next month or so, which requires them to use a wide variety of sources for research. Now if you've looked at the site you'll probably agree that it looks very impressive. The students had to write 300 words about this little-know marvel of engineering. In canvassing the students' opinions of Boilerplate, one said 'I think its fascinating to see what was possible even in Victorian times' adding, 'if you hadn't shown us that site I'd have chosen Boilerplate for my History project.'

Small wonder that Boilerplate is little known - the site is a work of complete fiction.

When I unveiled to my students this week that this site was completely ficticious, not one of the 64 students said they had worked that out. NOT ONE! Their response was to be angry (in a good natured way) with me for lying to them (which of course I had not done - at NO POINT did I ever say the site was truthful). Ah bless students put SUCH trust in us as teachers.

Having read the reports they wrote, they are lovingly written as many students had seemed to like the idea of a Victorian robot that might have saved the world. But what I find most interesting is their lack of investigation or observation. Not one of the 64 students had looked on any website other than the one I pointed them to, in order to find out more information about Boilerplate. They had implicitly trusted the information they were presented with. This shows how important this topic is prior to their big research project for History.

Secondly the instructions I gave the students were:

a) Use Google to search for Boilerplate
b) Choose the top hit and look at the official Boilerplate website.

And what I found MOST interesting is that the second hit that Google presents the user with, contains the words 'a fictional Victorian-era robot created as a hoax. Site include a wealth of humorous "historical" photos and fictional accounts of the robot's exploits in...'. But not one of my 64 students was able to pick up on this vital nugget of information.

My students learned from this exercise because they have realised how much they trust the information they are presented with on the web and how little they do to validate or verify the information they obtain.

In fact most seem deflated to discover the content was false, prefering me to 'tell them lies, tell them sweet little lies'.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Mika-ing a name for himself

I've been listening to to the sublime voice of Mika for a couple of months now, ever since I saw his name crop up on so many people's lists of 'names to watch for 2007' and since catching him on an episode of 'Later ... with Jools Holland'. YouTube helped me by showing me some live footage of him performing and I've been captivated since. I got the chance of tickets to see him at London's Koko, but dithered too long (grrrrrrrrrrrrr!) and after he won BBC's 'Sound of 2007', tickets have become worth more than a snooker-table sized flat in Chelsea.

Anyway, I was very impressed to see that Mika had benefitted from the timely changes to the UK singles charts by becoming No.1 with 'Grace Kelly'. This was made in response to the vast numbers of digitally downloaded tracks which seems to be the main way people are obtaining music singles these days. Now that ANY single including those digitally downloaded - no matter when it was released - counts towards a chart position, we are going to see some amazing music charts in the future. It's an exciting time we live in right enough, and people like Mika are rightly benefitting.

This started me thinking about ICT as a subject and the fact that ICT has changed immeasurably since all of the last syllabi and National Curriculum strategy was written - yet these courses and syllabi dictate students computer experiences in schools today. Just as the UK singles charts were updated to take account of new technology, so indeed, I believe, should the UK's school curricula.

A recent discussion on the NAACE mailing list in which the demise (for want of a better way of putting it) of the KS3 ICT online test was roundly celebrated, made for interesting reading. This was originally conceived as a revolutionary test that assessed pupils' ICT performance, not with pen and paper, but through their use of a complex piece of software. One of the biggest criticisms on the mailing list cited 'a lack of wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 social software tools'. Colleagues seemed to relish the opportunity to be like the cast of 'Murder on the Orient Express' and all want to stick the knife in.

I will state now that I was a co-writer of content for the KS3 test and a lot of the content was written over 3 years ago - when Web 2.0 wasn't even a flicker of an idea in Tim O'Reilly's head and few people had heard of wikis or Myspace or YouTube. So it seems astonishing to me that people would decry the test for lacking these tools. And here's a thought - only a year ago I did a presentation to 42 ICT Co-ordinators from schools in a city which shall remain nameless. When I asked how many of these so-called ICT experts knew what a wiki was only 2 ICT Co-ordinators put their hand up! So ICT colleagues need to remember that although the Web 2.0 bandwagon is rolling apace, its only barely been built and only a relatively few people are on board at the moment.

At the same time though, I completely advocate a more rapid updating of ICT syllabi as technology changes year on year and we need to encourage teachers, parents and students to use these rapidly evolving tools. How many schools ban the use of Flickr for example - despite it presenting immense educational possibilities? And how many teachers get the chance to explore this sort of package never mind incorporate it into their lessons?

Here we are in an age when all of this social software is out there yet no UK ICT syllabus explicitly states that these are tools that should be used. I think this is largely due to the sheer time it takes to plan syllabus changes, meaning that ICT syllabuses are obsolete by the time they are first implemented. But I feel there should be more flexibility to incoporate such tools and packages in lessons without feeling we are spending time on irrelevant topics or content. I have seen for myself the creativity that students can show when allowed to use these collaborative tools.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Grasping the nettle - collaborative work using Wikis

When I use a Wiki with my students (usually within Moodle), one basic tenet needs to be understood by them, and that is as follows:
“No one person’s word is more important than any other’s”

It is crucially important that all participants get used to this mantra. This is because, the very nature of Wikis means that all users edit text that has been written by another member or members of the group. It can take a lot of courage for a students to edit the work of another pupil (especially a bigger or supposedly cleverer pupil) – after all by making changes the editor is implying that the original was not as good as it can be.

Therefore this is the main area that a teacher should work at if she wishes to use a Wiki in her teaching. There is no good in letting pupils loose on a Wiki without preparing them in the art of editing each others’ work.

There are different strategies for doing this - one is to start a Wiki with some entries of your own. These entries should be blatantly erroneous – such as a factually incorrect description of the life of Henry VIII or the geography of Great Britain. Then the class should use those entries as a starting point and that all must edit one inaccurate statement within the Wiki and then add a sentence of their own. This allows the document to be built into a substantially different one to that which it was at the outset. Best of all this is a truly collaborative piece of work, one which the group can take pride in, and in so doing the group can learn how a Wiki works.

Wikis usually have two important tools which a teacher can call upon to help with assessing what pupils have done. Firstly, there is usually the facility to UNDO any contentious or malicious statements – in other words the Wiki can easily be returned to the state it was in before it was ‘abused’. Secondly, and this is a powerful tool in the right hands, there is usually a ‘history’ option which allows the teacher to see each iteration of the Wiki. By using this tool the teacher can ascertain exactly who has contributed to the Wiki and exactly what that contribution has been.

Here are three examples in which a Wiki has successfully been used within my classroom.

a) Writing an Acceptable Use Policy

Pupils were given a Wiki as part of an A Level ICT lesson in which educational use of ICT was the topic. Pupils were asked to construct their own Acceptable Use Policy for the school. To ensure they had somewhere to begin, the Wiki began with the following text:

“Pupils may consume as much food and drink as they like in the computer rooms. It is acceptable to leave bags lying around on the floor. Running around in the rooms is fun and is to be encouraged.”

These three statements were clearly wrong, and so pupils had to change what was initially written in order to make a sensible policy. This served two purposes: they got used to changing someone else’s erroneous entries and it showed the tenet stated above is true: “No one person’s word is more important than any other’s”.

b) Inventing a new sport

Following on from the ‘rule’ format of a) above, it was suggested to students that they invent a new sport. They were given 4 basic elements that were SET IN STONE, they were told to add any other rules as they saw fit. Not only was the final product a set of rigid rules, but the students piloted the use of their new sport amongst their friends. A hospitable PE department might allow this to be played within their lessons.

c) Song-writing

A group of 15 pupils were asked to write a song by giving them a title (The Bellringer) and the structure the song should follow. They then produced an outstanding 5-verse song – having decided on the theme and structure of the song themselves. This was constructed in a 24-hour period during a school holiday period. When asked the pupils said it was one of the most exciting educational tasks they had ever undertaken. One asked ‘why don’t we get to do something like this in school lessons?’

It was found that the best results from Wiki work were obtained when students used avatar names or pseudonyms. Under such guises they felt happier about editing their peers work, than they did when it could be identified who they were. When questioned about this, they felt the anonymity meant that quieter pupils felt less intimidated about editing the work of more aggressive or vocal pupils. In the same way it allowed less able students to edit the work of their more able peers where this may not happen in a more conventional lesson situation.
Why Wikis?

Some schools have shared areas on their hard drives where work can be edited by multiple users, so what is so special about Wikis? As mentioned earlier, the History tool mentioned earlier allows the teacher to see who has carried out particular edits within the Wiki, this is not possible within a saved file on a network. Furthermore if one person has a file open on a network then someone who tries to load the same file at the same time will receive a ‘read only’ error message. This is not the case with a Wiki as multiple users can edit the document at the same time depending upon the flexibility of the Wiki software being used.

I have mentioned the term Wiki at many lectures and conferences at which ICT specialists have been present. It comes as a great surprise to me that so few ICT ‘experts’ know what a Wiki is - this is usually established by blank looks when the word is mentioned or a show of hands. This would indicate that if ICT experts are unaware of Wikis, then few less ICT-literate teachers would be also unaware of the tool. Many people now know about Wikipedia, but do not realise how it works. Once the concept has been explained most people understand what makes a Wiki so different but few teachers with limited ICT skills would choose to use such a tool. In their seminal book ‘Working the Wiki Way’, Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham describe “a perspective on the nature of wiki-style online communication”. The Wiki Way describes a willingness of users to accept that others may know better than they do and that as described in German as Gestalt, “something is so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts”. In other words it is not just the finished product which is important as the contributions that individuals have made to get it there.

It is unfortunate that a caveat should be added as an end note, but anyone who wishes to use Wikis within their lessons has to realise that there are some drawbacks to the use of Wikis over conventional methods of collaborative work. Firstly, as has been well documented in news stories over the past year, it is possible for blatantly erroneous or fraudulent information to be added to Wikis. A study by nature magazine claimed to have found “factual errors: 162 in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica” – the slight difference between the 2 does not disguise the fact that there are errors in the printed encyclopedia as much as in the Wiki version. It also goes without saying that any teacher who uses a Wiki in their lesson takes risks in doing so.

Ironically, the following quote from the Wikipedia website, on the page defining the word ‘WikiWiki’ serves as a salutary lesson to any teacher who wants to use Wikis within their lessons: “Because of recent vandalism or other disruption, editing of this article by unregistered or newly registered users is currently disabled".

A version of this post will appear in the next edition of 'Coming of Age' edited by Terry Freedman.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Badly Laced Shoes

Okay. Notice anything unusual about those shoes? Okay they are tatty, but apart from that do you notice anything unusual? Well I guess the title of this post kind of gives the game away, but I'll explain.

A few months ago I was sat on my sofa having returned from work dog-tired, and promptly fell asleep. I still had my shoes on. I was awakened by some furtive activity at my feet and looked down to see my six year old daughter admiring her handiwork. She had undone my shoelaces and now proclaimed loudly that she had managed to lace them back up again.

Now, I felt I should be cross at her - after all you don't do shoe laces up as shown in the picture. You just don't. But wait a minute, she did! She chose to lace up my shoes that way. So just because they are not laced up the traditional way, is there anything wrong in that?

This set me thinking, we as teachers are so quick to judge the work of our students based on them producing out put that conforms to our expectations. Harry Chapin once sang 'Flowers are Red' - a song that resonates with any teacher or parent who wants pupils to be as creative as possible. It concerned a teacher who told a couple that their child was no good at art because he painted flowers all sorts of colours but 'there's no need to paint flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen' ie. red petals and green leaves.

So my daughter through her interpretive lacing of my shoes taught me a lesson about creativity and I just could not get cross at her. I was just proud - a VERY proud dad, that my wee girl had laced her first pair of shoes.

Her lacing made me focus on the outcomes of some of the work done in my Moodle by students at my school. Work that I had skirted over before and perhaps not given proper credit to now looks astonishing in the way it has innovatively made use of the available tools. I will post articles on these later.

Two personal examples that can be used to illustrate this point come to mind. Firstly there's this blog. Now in and of itself its nothing special - it's full of misspellings and poor grammar. But it was written by my son. My ten year old son. He has an interest in dinosaurs and Euan decided, off his own back that he wanted to make a web site to tell others what he knows about them. What better a mechanism for him to gain personal pride and self-esteem than by writing his Blog? All his posts are written by him, when he wants to write them. Through the fog of misspellings you can still see what he's trying to say. And I think that's amazing. You simply can't buy the feeling of pride I feel as a dad seeing his Blog.

The second example is this Blog by a former GCSE student of mine. I suggest you take a moment to read the text of a couple of her posts. This was her self-evaluation and diary covering the progress she was making on her GCSE ICT coursework. A post containing the seemingly inane comment 'Return of the music!!!!! I would like to point out that while I have been listening to music I have done THIS much work. When I wasn't I had only done this much work. Now I'm almost on my 10th page which may not sound like much but for me...' is followed by the far more valuable 'Grr, every time I change the font size all the 'spelling mistakes' reappear. They're not even mistakes the computer just doesn't recognise .bmp or whatever.' This idiosyncratic voice which the student had found for her Blog would not be acceptable in a formal GCSE coursework, but does that mean it is of no value at all? I think not.

I still have my shoes laced that way - 4 months after Shona laced them for me. In one way I'm a proud dad and when people ask me why they are laced that way I tell them the story. And hey, the lacing is functional - its fit for purpose and my shoes have never ever felt so comfy.

I WALK TALL in my uniquely laced shoes.

Walking on Glass

At long last this Blog sees the light of day - haha. After a somewhat turbulent year in my life, it has taken a collision of some unrelated events (reminiscent of both the fantastic film Amores Perros or Iain Banks's 'Walking on Glass') to focus my mind back to the Blogosphere. So it's a joyful moment for me to be back blogging again.

Firstly a trip to the wonderful, but ever-expanding Bett Show, reminded me of this blog's title. For it was there, at the Bett Show last year, that the irrepressable John Davitt referred to a group of 4 fellow teachers and Moodle users, and myself, as being 'DIGITAL MAVERICKS' because of our HUGToB project. At the time, and even now, I take this title as one of the greatest honours anyone has ever paid me.

Well my spirit for 'maverickitude' has not diminished, but rather it has been sidetracked a little by some events in my personal life. Still the enoucouragement of friends (you know who you are) and a recent upsurge in my reading of other people's Blogs (such as Ewan McIntosh, Ian Usher, Miles Berry and Josie Fraser) and just the inspiration that some individuals have given me (such as Dale Jones and my very good, Liverpool-supporting friend - sometimes the little prods are all you need), has fed a need in me to get Blogging again. Also my son Euan is inspiring me with his wonderful new Blog.

I'm involved with a few projects in school and out of it and I felt re-establishing a Blog would ensure that I could write about those too.

I have had a paper accepted for the forthcoming CAL 2007 conference which I see as really exciting. At the last CAL conference (in 2005 at Bristol) I was joint winner of the Teacher Poster competition, which was all the more amazing given that Miles Berry and some other notable educationalists were also involved in that event. So I am chuffed to have been accepted again this time.

Anyway, enough blathering for now. I'm away to think about my first meaningful post for this Blog.