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January 2009

Things (and quite a few people) are talking to me

Stephen Fry — on Twitter

One of the bits of our new course for Year 9 that has given me the most pleasure to write is the part about microblogging. We have a number of students nurturing entrepreneurial ambitions and, when their ideas hit some kind of maturity, the next thing they may come to talk about is how to get themselves known. Looking at how Stephen Fry has used Twitter to reach a lot of people is something instructive to put before these students (if only because of what makes him so different), but everyone can benefit from looking at this sequence below. There’s much food for thought here — about celebrity and the web, brands and the web, scale, writing for unknown audiences, creating and sustaining (and providing confirmation of) your digital identity, the relationship between the person posting and the companies she/he is associated with … as well as “just” microblogging in general, of course. (Roo has a very good post, How do you use Twitter?, that I recommend to our students.)

 

As of today …

 

That’s one strand.

Then, all those things now a-twittering: Andy House, Botanicalls0106, Mars Phoenix, the Shipping Forecast, Tower Bridgeold Father Thames.

Oh to be young now and see how this all works out. Matt: "treating the web not as a web of pages and websites but as a web of data"; "digital and physical things—and, increasingly, excitingly—things that can’t make up their mind which they are". Russell: "The stuff that digital technologies have catalysed online and on screens is starting to migrate into the real world of objects."

In just one lesson (35 minutes) a week, in just one year group, sometimes we can’t do more than give a heads-up (omitting so much), but I hope our nascent engineers, software developers, designers, advertisers, planners of cities, architects, climate scientists, privacy activists, politicians, doctors, civil servants … in short, all wide awake citizens-to-be are getting this.

 

Fry9

 

PS   I haven’t even mentioned Google Profiles — have you created yours (or taken the decision not to)? Or used that new Contact info tab yet? There’s a bit about them, and Windows Live Profiles, in Lesson 17. Jyri just twittered, “Google profiles reached that state where it was time to point my blog’s About link there”.


Our work (so far) this year

It’s again been an exhilarating experience to teach our first years (13 year-olds) their ICT course. The pace of adoption by them of technological developments still surprises: once again, I notice how this year’s cohort is just that much further on than the equivalent year group last year. It’s not just us, the adults, who notice this: where we might think that teenagers swim in all this digital stuff like fish in water, it’s eye-opening to watch only slightly older students being amazed at what 13 year-olds now know. So last month, a year on from when I last posted here about this course, I was feeding back to colleagues whose specialism is not ICT:

Last year, for example, we taught about tabbed browsing, but this year we didn’t need to: our 13 year-olds are experimenting freely with different browsers, wasting no time in downloading and adopting the recently released Google Chrome. They joined the school knowing more than last year’s 4ths about operating systems and several have experience of Linux. They are keen to learn about how they can maintain their personalised experience of computing (by exploiting web apps) when using the school’s networked machines and many were already using iGoogle before joining St Paul’s. One 4th former routinely uses PortableApps and showed others how to do the same. Others know about running Firefox from a memory stick, retaining all their individual settings no matter what PC they are on. There is a wide range of hardware in use and the barrier between desktop machines (hitherto commonly taken to be synonymous with computers) and mobile devices has gone — notebooks, mini-books, smartphones, the iPodTouch, iPhones ... all proving their computing worth in day-to-day life. Location-based services are being widely used on mobile phones; such services are coming soon to browsers (Firefox, Chrome) and operating systems (eg, Windows 7).

Some further context here: a year ago, iGoogle was alien to nearly all our first years; memory sticks were used more or less only as … memory sticks — running apps off of them was a fringe experience; browsers and the exploitable differences between them simply hadn’t the popular prominence they have now. Most interesting in many ways to me is the demand for Open Source software: because of 13 year-old, pupil-led demand we are networking Open Office, running it alongside MS Office. It’s up to the user which product he/she wants to use. I’m also interested in reports from colleagues about 13 and 14 year-old pupils, when asked to create a document or to collaborate, opening web-based apps as a matter of course.

So, the course as it is evolving this year is currently online here. I have no doubt, though, that we are now at a watershed and, as I also summed things up for colleagues, ‘The current course, revised from that of last year, will need fundamental revision for next year in order to keep pace with the changes afoot and the rate of adoption by young teenagers’. In particular, I think we’re now ready to make a fundamental shift towards the creative — and this pleases me a great deal.

They don’t have blogs, or I’d link to them, but my gratitude to the team with whom I co-teach this course (Richard, Andrew, Olly, David) is great: my thanks to them for all their hard work and enthusiasm.

This year has been very busy on a number of other fronts. We took the decision late last academic year to re-design our website and asked Clearleft to undertake the work. As I knew it would prove, it’s been a pleasure to work with Clearleft: we’re somewhere around halfway through the project and I’ve learned a great deal from them — about web-design, for sure (we had fun with affinity diagrams and played with post-its), but also about how good design work probes and challenges a company’s perception of how it’s promoting itself. I recommend the experience.

We’ve also been working a lot with Firefly, the company who write the software that powers both our website and our intranet. Simon and Joe, the founders and developers of Firefly, were pupils at St Paul’s and wrote the first iteration of Firefly whilst studying here. With the great help of Jess and Serena from Headshift, we have worked together, discussing how the interface and capabilities of Firefly might be developed, and this month saw the release of the new product. Thank you, Joe and Simon, for all your work on this. In summary: comments can now be enabled on all pages; we have blogs; the editing interface has been re-worked and made in-line, write-access is on by default and key editing options are immediately visible in hover-over mode; RSS has been made both much more obvious and widely available; the permissions dialogue has been improved and made more transparent; search has been improved both in UI and performance; template documentation is on its way, as is tagging; shared workspaces are available; calendaring now supports iCal; pages are owned by their creators but stewardship of a page is assignable (useful with classes, projects, etc). These are major software improvements for our intranet (which has amassed some 25,000 pages), providing us with something to build on collaboratively (staff and pupils) and develop further.

When we were deliberating the next iteration of our ICT Development Plan, I wanted green computing to be high on the agenda and I’m delighted that we worked with Gavin at AMEE and are now poised to start aggregating our energy data for the school (ie, the whole site) with AMEE. Our building program recognised the importance of sustainability from the outset.

We’ve been in discussion with Google about starting a branded YouTube channel. We filmed most of this year’s talks (see below) and have these and other stuff to go up. All this takes time, of course, but it’s coming.

This year we also began what I sense is necessarily a thoughtful, slow and sensitive engagement with games and gaming. These have a poor standing in schools, yet their cultural influence and their ubiquity in the lives of many younger people (by no means “just” students) is evident and widely reported. Grand Theft Auto originates from Paulines, of course, and it was high time to address the whole “matter”. We founded a society this term, met a couple of times (the first time without anyone, perhaps, realising it was meeting) and grew it out of two influential, important talks (see below). Next term we move the throttle forward and give it some more oomph. Those involved (it’s pretty popular) bought the idea of everyone reading more about games, and we’ll start with Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.

We’ve had a great run of speakers so far this year, with more to come. Last academic year I blogged these talks as we went, but this year things have been too busy for that (along with all the work detailed here, I’ve also switched to commuting daily, which involved decamping mid-term from my school flat and giving some much overdue attention to our own home — and then there was learning to live with First Great Western …). So here’s the run-down …

Continue reading "Our work (so far) this year" »


Tilt into the future

So many reasons to be gloomy as we slide into 2009, but I’m with Eno in refusing to go down that route. I’m buoyed up by what so many friends are doing, by the inspiration students give me and by my 92 year-old mother getting up in the night to watch the US election results (“after the 60s and the civil unrest, I just had to see this through”).

Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama and his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. (David Katz/Obama for America)
Flickr, Creative Commons licensed, Barack Obama

Barack Obama with his family on election night in Chicago, IL on Wednesday, November 5, 2008L
David Katz/Obama for America (Flickr)

I first came across Obama in 2005 and quoted him that summer in a farewell speech I gave for a close friend (alter ipse amicus) as he stood down from his pastoral post in a boarding school. I think the Economist had reported on a speech to graduating students that Obama had made that June, where he had invited them to ask of themselves, "What will be my place in history?":

In other eras, across distant lands, this is a question that could be answered with relative ease and certainty. As a servant of Rome, you knew you would spend your life forced to build somebody else's Empire. As a peasant in 11th Century China, you knew that no matter how hard you worked, the local warlord might take everything you had - and that famine might come knocking on your door any day. As a subject of King George, you knew that your freedom to worship and speak and build your own life would be ultimately limited by the throne. And then, America happened. A place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that, against all odds, they could form "a more perfect union" on this new frontier.

I quoted another bit (shorn it of its specifically American references), made right for the occasion because it expresses perfectly my friend’s own wise, kind and optimistic humanity (expended tirelessly in his work with the young):

Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail when you embark on your own … journey? Surely. But the test is not perfection. The true test … is whether we are able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time.

Go and read this 2005 speech: it’s often fine (Obama and rhetoric!) and prescient, attuned to the challenges of technology and globalisation, to what an inter-connected world means — and to the significance of education. It is youthful and attentive to youth, inspired by hope and looking to the future:

So let's dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let's imagine what we can do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.

Back in March of last year, Marc Andreessen wrote about Obama (“We asked him directly, how concerned should we be that you haven't had meaningful experience as an executive -- as a manager and leader of people? He said, watch how I run my campaign -- you'll see my leadership skills in action.”):

It's very clear when interacting with Senator Obama that he's totally focused on the world as it has existed since after the 1960's -- as am I, and as is practically everyone I know who's younger than 50.

Well, Palin and the plumber are just a memory and we’ll soon be seeing how it goes. My 01.20.09 t-shirts now have a whole new life ahead of them.

(My non-Obama take-away from last year’s campaign: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power” — Bill Clinton.)

As Warren Ellis wrote in another context:

Tilt into the future. Or get the eternal past you deserve.

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