Previous month:
November 2007
Next month:
January 2008

December 2007

What we're teaching this year

I thought I'd post here some links to stuff we've developed and are using with our first year students (13 year-olds). The material is in the public domain, on JotSpot.

So, here's the syllabus. (It's open to revision this year, as we teach it, and, of course, before we teach it again next year.)

Autumn Term

ICT at school, home ... mobile
Internet & web: key figures and events
Reading the social web: browsers, RSS and search
Communicating & collaborating, on- and off-line I: Office(s)

Spring Term

Communicating & collaborating, on- and off-line II: webmail, IM, chat, VoIP; blogs & wikis; video- and photo-sharing; social bookmarking and tagging; maps

Summer Term

Responsibility and Identity: Wikipedia (critical reading, responsible writing); social software (privacy, safety, digital identity)
The Law: copyright (links, permissions, problems); music (file-sharing, DRM); defamation and abuse (rights and responsibilities)
Virtual Worlds   

Then there's a wealth of linked-to background material that served earlier this year as stuff for the department to immerse itself in as it readied itself. (We're very fortunate in the quality and commitment of the team which teaches this course.) I update this material from time to time so it can remain useful. 

Finally, the lessons to date: 

1  Introduction

2  Home & mobile technologies

3  The internet

4  Internet pioneers

5  The web

6  The web

7  Browsers

8  Personalisation and home pages

9  RSS and Aggregators

10  Search

11  RSS & Search: improving the signal to noise ratio

12  Office: I

We've had fun delivering these within the constraints of time (one 40-minute lesson a week!) and the engagement of the pupils has been inspiring. 

In doing what we've been doing, my concern has been to leave behind what John Naughton called (in the Observer) the Old Person's ICT Curriculum. I also found inspiration along the way in Dave Snowden's blog post, Huginn and Muginn. Not everything there meshes with what we're doing (we're not delivering touch-typing and, yes, we should be) and we are teaching something of a body of knowledge (eg, about web history —€” Eliot: 'A people without history Is not redeemed from time' — but that's not what he was referring to: see 'don't teach ICT as if it was a "body of knowledge"'). Such things apart, I'm entirely at one with the spirit of remarks like these:

make computers and broadband a universal right, like water … most computing skills and all social computing capability is learnt by doing and by regular practice rather than classroom lessons.

what really matters is that children experience and contribute to the evolution of technology, and to see that evolution as a symbiotic relationship with human kind. That requires us … [to be] thoughtful and mindful. We don't need to sacrifice an eye to gain wisdom … but we do need to sacrifice an over explicit non-experiential approach to ICT teaching.

I also like his fifth point:

Let things emerge, don't plan … It's not so much about repeating a success as repeating the conditions which led to that success. In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions. … you want multiple diverse initiatives to emerge, and you want to measure their impact on the social and educational fabric … not a series of pre-determined targeted outcomes.

There's been a surprising amount of room for things to emerge: pupils experiment in their own time, bring a lot to the table, anyway, and are excited by discovering more about the powers given them by contemporary computing.

I'd add to all this a word about the re-appraisal of Prensky's influential digital natives meme — a re-appraisal that has been going on for some time now. Here's Henry Jenkins (writing earlier this month):

Talk of "digital natives" helps us to recognize and respect the new kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal and networked computer. Yet, talk of "digital natives" may also mask the different degrees [of] access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

Teaching this course this year, we have had it confirmed that being born in 1994 doesn't mean that online life, for all that it may be familiar, is well understood: where it's come from, what it can do and what your options are —€” these are all things that unite adults and teens as we seek to develop and mature in this new and changing world.

On not rushing to disparage the internet

Vint Cerf in last Monday's Guardian:

It is not often that a technological innovation changes fundamentally the way people communicate. In the 15th century the printing press made it possible to distribute the written word. In the 19th century, the telegraph enabled rapid point-to-point communication over long distances. Then there was the telephone. And we're still coming to terms with the social effects of radio and television.

It takes decades if not generations to fully understand the impact of such inventions. We are barely two decades into the commercial availability of the internet, but it has already changed the world. It has fostered self-expression and freed information from the constraints of physical location, opening up the world's information to people everywhere.

Shelley Powers, responding two days ago to Doris Lessing's bleak assessment of the internet's impact on culture, education and reading:

The internet is no more culpable for people 'wasting' time away than the television was, and the radio before that, and the electric light before that–on back through history marked by one invention or another. Technology does not change culture, as much as technology and culture impact, equally, on each other. …

… Amazon has grown fat on the profits of selling that which we supposedly disdain: books. Entire web sites spend most or all of their space providing reviews of, what else, books. The Gutenberg Project actually makes books available online for free. Ms. Lessing mistakes our assumptions of easy access of books for indifference to books. A very romantic thought, but not a very logical one. …

As for the banalities of this space, among the items I've read this week were [detailed summary of online reading, viewing and web-led book discoveries follows] … I would be curious to know at what point in all of this reading is the moment where I stepped over the line from spending time in banal pursuits, to spending time usefully? What makes one piece of writing more important and therefore more worthy than another?

Adactio hits St Paul's

It was such a pleasure to welcome Jeremy Keith to SPS last Tuesday, to talk about 'Designing for the Social Web'. As expected, it was a tour de force — but one which artfully concealed its learning and expertise so that everything was at once informed and accessible to the interested but not geekily literate.

Jeremy blogged the talk and visit here: I like his succinct overview of his talk as being about 'small world networks, the strength of weak ties, portable social networks and, inevitably, microformats'. Adam blogged it here; Alex, here. Jeremy's slides are available on Slideshare.

Adam's blog post captures very well much of what the talk was about. Part of his overview runs:

He began by outlining a brief history of the internet working his way from mailing lists and BBS to the modern social web, comparing and contrasting how they functioned and detailing the pitfalls of each. He gave specific weight to problems such as trolling and flaming, catalyzed by communities (usually over the dunbar limit) which lack a central aim and the methods by which these problems could be minimized, including keeping the community focused around groups. He named a few websites which managed this issue well (, delicious) as well as lambasting digg for failing on this front.


A word about Web 2.0. Now over two years "old" — two years, that is, since Tim O'Reilly's classic paper, What Is Web 2.0; (see, also, his 2006 posting, Web 2.0 Compact Definition: Trying Again) — Web 2.0 means all things to all men: rounded corners and drop shadows; tagging; business models; leveraging collective intelligence … I hope the link to Tim O'Reilly's paper may be useful to some who attended Jeremy's talk, but this was not a talk that put this buzzword at the centre.


Networks can scale very well but people don't. This is the challenge for social software design. Jeremy singled out four things to focus on and I've found myself digging back into these in the days since he spoke:

1) Social objects (eg, events — Upcoming; photos — Flickr; bands/albums/songs — This made me go back to Jyri's classic blog post, Why some social network services work and others don't — Or: the case for object-centered sociality (2005). (And see, too, his 2007 blog posting, What makes a good social object.) I recall, also, Stewart Butterfield talking about Flickr in these terms — something I blogged about here.

2) Community guidelines: 'be civil' (Jeremy's Irish music site, The Session); 'be polite and respectful in your interactions with other members' (Flickr); 'use common sense while posting' ( As a school, when we go to set up a site (on Flickr, on, guidelines are what we we soon start to think about. The advice here is sane, straightforward — and necessary.

3) Phatic communication. We miss this online. We long ago adopted emoticons, and some emergent social software just is phatic: eg, Twitter. (Facebook does phatic well.) Jeremy mentioned Leisa Reichelt's work on ambient intimacy (March, 2007) and Twitter:

I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter (and also Flickr and reading blog posts and Upcoming). I call it Ambient Intimacy. Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. … There are a lot of us … who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.

I remember, too, Ian Curry's Twitter: The Missing Messenger (February, 2007):

It’s basically blogging reduced to what the Russian linguist and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as “the phatic function. (see note below)” Like saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. It made me think of the light, low-content text message circles Mizuko Ito described existing among Japanese teens - it’s not so important what gets said as that it’s nice to stay in contact with people. These light exchanges typify the kind of communication that arises among people who are saturated with other forms of communication.

This brought us on to the network effect of weak ties, which made me think of Joi Ito writing (in 2003) about Granovetter's classic 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties:

Strong ties are your family, friends and other people you have strong bonds to. Weak ties are relationships that transcend local relationship boundaries both socially and geographically. He writes about the importance of weak ties in the flow of information and does a study of job hunting and shows that jobs are more often found through weak ties than through strong ties. This obviously overlaps with the whole 6 degrees thing. … What I can see emerging is a way to amplify the strength of weak ties.

And here's Grant McCracken, How social networks work: the puzzle of exhaust data (July, 2007):

Naturally, networks, especially really distributed, anti-hierarchical ones of the kind we like, are profoundly reciprocal enterprises.  So it is especially true here that, as George Herbert Mead observed, our knowledge of ourselves depends upon what (and that) others know about us.  Or, to put this another way, we we find ourselves when others find us. … I'm ok and you're ok.  This means the channel must be ok, and this means that the network must exist, and this means that the network is ok, and this means that the network is active, and this means the network is flowing.  There is a "superorganic" concept of the network at work here, according to which every small moment of phatic communications so reverberates that we are briefly and tinyily reminded of our larger network and social connections.

This has all left me thinking I want to revisit network theory and weak ties.

4) Open Data: we make these sites (an old argument, as we all know). APIs, RSS, microformats all enable us to get away from the idea of a web site as a place and enable us to extract and redeploy our and others' data. We have mashups (photos+events; maps+photos …), lifestreams. (The time stamp is key.) Jeremy has written about lifestreams here and his own is online here. (See, also, Thomas Vander Wal, Life Data Stream :: Personal InfoCloud. And, on Jaiku as lifestream, Are You Paying Attention?: Twitter vs. Jaiku vs. Loopnote.) 

Questions about privacy follow, inevitably. As Jeremy suggests (following Jeff Veen), there may be a generational difference here, younger people tending to think "my data is public except where I say it is private". I was glad Jeremy found time to talk about his experience with the Flickr API, Lock up your data: 'I don’t know the answers but I’m fairly certain that we’re not dealing with a technological issue here; this is a cultural matter'.


One thing even the successful social software sites don't share well so far is our social groups — which brought us swiftly to the idea of portable social networks. Here are a few touchstone reference points I've collected recently:

"If you add content to a site, then you should be able to take that content with you. You should also be able to take all associated tags and metadata. You should be able to move your content from one site to another."

"… you should be able to import or preferably subscribe to your profile information [and] your social network from any existing profile of yours. In addition it would be nice if preferences around notifications [and] privacy also transferred between profiles" Social Network Portability

"it seems like a no-brainer to design systems that allow for simple import/export of your social network. ... Today I want to walk through the mechanics of how Dopplr is working on helping you migrate your social network." LikeItMatters

"Great experiences & trust are going to be key differentiators. ... We’ve seen this movie before and walled gardens eventually get about as interesting as Biosphere 2. ... make your networking data open ... it’s the smart play given how the Web works" LikeItMatters

A lot of the data that's needed to make social networks portable is out there in the URLs, the microformats (XFN, hCards ...). Provided we accept a Pareto-like solution (over the semantic web — which works well in places with very structured data such as museums and universities), we can get to a very good end-result of portability.


Finally, two things I read last night that I think are wise about how we should proceed with social software and networking. The first is a blog posting, the second a comment on the same. (Adam's argument is that 'the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is broken - and not just a little broken, but badly so'. His argument challenges, as he says, a hugely popular approach to social networking online. For my part, I think Mike's comment is dead right.)

Adam Greenfield

For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

I understand that this is very much a minority opinion, and one which will not carry the day. But neither is it simply the knee-jerk, reactionary rejection of technology; I see it as a demand, rather, that we use information technology for the things it’s good at, and keep it far, far from the things it damages at first touch. I feel far too strongly about my friends and about the experiences we’ve shared, and which I cherish, to submit any of them to the idiot regime of social networking as it is currently understood.

Mike Migurski

The only sane social network relationships I’ve seen are modeled in terms of the objects featured on that network: who gets to “see your trips” or “view your photos” is a superior description of a relationship than “friend”.

Talks, talks, talks

I get to do a lot of these within the school and I don't post about most. But a couple of weeks ago I talked to a group of some 80 parents of students about social software and I thought it might be worth saying something about this talk here. (I believe there's value in also saying something about a couple of other talks: clips from one follow below; I'll post about another shortly.) The slides are now on Slideshare, here. (Update: some of these slides have been rendered less than clear in the process of uploading and converting them to Slideshare. If you download the slideshow, everything returns to its original PowerPoint glory.)

Parents are worried about social software — and given the sensational way in which it is commonly reported in the traditional media this is no surprise. I was keen to convey how, from the outset, the web was conceived as social and how, in being so, it is fulfilling something fundamental in our nature.

Some of these slides are ones I've used before: they are, for the moment, useful reference points. Some have parts blocked out in the interests of others' privacy. Few need explanation to anyone immersed in Web 2 culture. The 'St Paul's: ICT Group' slide is a snapshot taken from earlier this term when we had just set up this group: the group is not a replacement for our ICT support but a recognition that communities of users have a considerable body of experience and can be their own best resource for help.

A section near the end, 'IV SPS', looks at what we're teaching this term to our first years (13 year-olds) at St Paul's School (SPS). I'll be posting more about this course soon. My job, as this section goes on to say, is very much about having an open office and my guiding star is danah boyd — whose writings are referenced, explicitly and implicitly, in the closing slides. I can't recommend the Congressional Internet Caucus video too highly. 

The social web: a cause for celebration, for thinking again about what we do when we teach and learn … and, as David Weinberger says, for joy.


During this term I talked to our top two year groups (17 and 18 year-olds) on three occasions. The subject of one talk was, again, the social web — its nature, the need for digital literacy, the implications for work (taking newspapers as an example) and the contrast between how long the technological changes have been coming and the perceived suddenness of it all. I don't think there's much merit in publishing all the slides on the web, but here are my favourites from some of the quotations I used:

David Weinberger

Hyperlinks … enrich, rather than reduce. Open-ended, decentralized, messy … Most of all, they are social.

Douglas Wolk

Each blogger is a gravitational center, great or small, but there's no sun they're all orbiting around.

Cory Doctorow

… there's no solution that arises from telling people to stop using computers in the way that computers were intended to be used.

Henry Jenkins:

… help young people place Wikipedia in a larger context, developing a deeper understanding of the process by which the its information is being produced & consumed. ... develop a more critical perspective on other, more traditional sources of information.

Clay Shirky

Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline., reporting Alan Rusbridger:

For at least 10 years we are going to have to have an act of faith and pump money into digital markets without significant return… [in] the expectation that things will change. 

Roy Greenslade, reporting Rusbridger:

The print-on-paper model [for newspapers] isn't making money and isn't going to make money. It's no longer sustainable. Though the future is unknowable, we are taking an educated guess about what we should be doing and where we should be going.


Yesterday, Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, told the staff of his newspaper that now “all journalists work for the digital platform” and that they should regard “its demands as preeminent.” 

A Deutsche Bank analyst says (from BuzzMachine): 

… newspapers are shrinking while Facebook is growing by 200,000 new users a day. A day. And those users spend an average of 20 minutes each day inside the site vs. 41 minutes a month on newspaper sites …

And on change, Tom Coates

'The snail! The snail!', they cry. 'How can we possibly escape!?. … the snail's been moving closer for the last twenty years, one way or another, and they just weren't paying attention.

Technorati tags: , , ,