Tilt into the future
Things (and quite a few people) are talking to me

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 …

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (left) came on 16 September to talk about all things Arduino/Tinker.it. For those who don’t know her, Alexandra is an industrial and interaction designer and the CEO of the technology and design consultancy, Tinker.it — who make the Arduino project, ‘an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software … intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. … The boards can be assembled by hand or purchased preassembled; the software can be downloaded for free. The hardware reference designs (CAD files) are available under an open-source license, you are free to adapt them to your needs.’ This was a much enjoyed talk (we have a strong interest in electronics) and we’re now liaising with Alexandra to do more together. In common with all the talks this year, hers was promoted widely and attracted a cross-disciplinary student and staff audience.

Gavin Starks (right), 18 September. Gavin is a director of d::gen network ltd and Managing Director of CI.  An astrophysicist and a composer (he worked at Jodrell Bank in radio astrophysics, and created new courses in Electronics and Music at Glasgow University), in 1995 he helped set up Virgin Net ISP and in 1996 helped establish the International Webcasting Association in Europe.  In 1999, he created the cross-media company, Tornado Productions, leading projects with clients who included Channel Four, Rolls Royce, Tate Modern, Shell, Christian Aid ... He is the Founding Director of AMEE, Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine, a software project designed to create a standard for carbon dioxide data and profiling. AMEE is used by the UK Government (Defra and the Act On CO2 campaign), The Climate Group, the RSA, Radiohead ... and (now) St Paul's.  It was about AMEE and the threat of climate change that he spoke:

AMEE is a neutral aggregation platform to measure and track all the energy data on Earth. This includes aggregating every emission factor and methodology related to CO2 and Energy Assessments (individuals, businesses, buildings, products, supply chains, countries, etc.), and all the consumption data (fuel, water, waste, quantitative and qualitative factors). It is a web-service (API) that combines measurement, calculation, profiling and transactional systems.  Its algorithmic engine applies conversion factors from energy into CO2 emissions, and represents data from 150 countries.AMEE aids the development of businesses and other initiatives - by providing common benchmarks for measurement, tracking, conversion, collaboration and reporting. AMEE is designed to add to, and support, your business or projects. Its role is to help create, stimulate and be part of the emerging ecosystems around energy data; whether you are creating a calculator or a marketplace, tracking a building or a supply chain. AMEE is complimentary to and can facilitate Smart Grids, information systems, legislative frameworks and compliance schemes. We aim to assist with the development of energy as a global carbon currency, assisting governments and companies that need to account for and trade internationally in CO2 emissions. Over two hundred organisations have developer access to the AMEE platform across dozens of sectors.

Again, this was a talk that attracted computing enthusiasts (massive data aggregation and tracking) and a wider audience, too — environmentalists, geographers, school development and estate staff …

Phil Gyford, 7 October. Phil is the creator of the online Pepys’ Diary:

This site is a presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the renowned 17th century diarist who lived in London, England (read more about him). A new entry written by Pepys will be published each day over the course of several years; 1 January 1660 was published on 1 January 2003.  If this is your first time here, you may want to read the the story so far, the frequently asked questions or some information about the text. You can also read the site using RSS and receive diary entries by email. If you want to post your own annotations you should also read the annotation guidelines.

Phil has never spoken about his work with Pepys’ Diary to a conference: this was a first — and one I’m delighted we hosted.  Many paths meet in his work and he pulled in an eclectic mix of students and colleagues: those interested in Pepys, Old Pauline; those interested in both the why and how of what Phil has done, in how the site has been received and developed, in the community that's built up around it (it's very popular); then, amongst the literati, those wondering about Pepys-on-the-web, the differences between a hand-written diary and a blog … Thank you, Phil.

On 9 October, Oil came to talk about their new project, Routes. Kim led the charge (very good to have had you here, Kim). Oil is ‘an interactive drama and entertainment studio’, and this is Routes:

Launching in January 2009, Oil’s first commission from Channel 4 is an interactive thriller and Alternate Reality Game (ARG), based around genomics and directed at a teen audience (14-19 year-olds). The format will span multiple websites, broadcast channels and mobile technologies. Routes is not a passive viewing experience; it is a story that participants can reach out and touch, where all telephone numbers work, where the fictional bio-tech company websites are indistinguishable from their real counterparts and where characters may turn up on your doorstep asking for help.  The participant is not just a fan of the game and the accompanying narrative; instead they are a tangible part of its universe with their actions shaping the events that unfold in the story. Routes differs from most ARGs produced to date in that the narrative is underpinned by credible, cutting edge science; so much so that the format has gained recognition and investment in the form of sponsorship from The Wellcome Trust.

We know that as many as 99% of our pupils may be gamers and I was prepared for a crush: it was the best attended talk of any during my time at St Paul’s, the room close to bursting.  The quality of engagement the students showed with the game designers was stunning: for over an hour, attention was focused and comments incisive and intelligent. Several of our students will be getting stuck into Routes when it goes live shortly and I hope we can build further upon this relationship with Oil.

Steven Johnson came on 15 October to talk about the subject matter of The Ghost Map: nineteenth century London and the challenge of cholera; the emergence of epidemiology; maps and their role in showing how cholera spread; the importance of hyperlocal knowledge; the importance of what he calls the Long Zoom — the ability to move across different disciplines, synthesising information; the lessons of all this for today — for social networks, for the modern mapping abilities of the web (see his project Outside.in), for the understanding of the well-being of cities.The cross-disciplinary approach he has developed went down well with the (again) cross-disciplinary group who came to hear him. I’ve been teaching a sixth-form course on cities and have made use of Steven’s TED talk, The Web and The City. I hope some of those from that course, or from those who came to hear him speak, will go on to read both Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and his new study, The Invention of Air, a book exploring not only Priestley's scientific work that led to the discovery of oxygen but also the role Priestley had in the founding of America (a ‘lost Founding Father’, ‘a hugely important figure to Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson who is barely mentioned today in most accounts of the revolutionary generation’). We look forward to having Steven back before too long to talk about games.

On 18 November, Tom Armitage came to talk about ‘If Gamers Ran The World’:

It’s more likely than ever that in the coming years people with power - political, industrial, corporate, technical - will have played videogames. And not just had a passing experience with them; they may actually be what we might term “gamers”. In the coming years, the world will face problems such as impending recessions, peak oil, and global warming (not to mention all manner of other difficulties over the horizon). And it's not just impending disaster; there are all manner of positive challenges we're going to have to rise to. What have videogames taught the leaders and innovators of tomorrow? What are the necessary skills for the 21st century that gamers have been learning for years? What can we learn from games, and what can gamers - and game designers - take to other industries and sectors?

This hit the bull’s eye: like Oil’s session earlier in the term, it raised the bar on debate about games and left everyone — enthusiastic gamers and sceptics — with plenty to discuss. You can read the full text of Tom’s talk here — and you can listen to him being interviewed on Canadian radio about the same, here. If you follow up those leads, you’ll see why Tom’s talk was the perfect final stepping stone into our kicking off the St Paul’s Games Society — and a week or so later we met properly at last. (I’m particularly grateful to Tom for this talk and for his inspired writing on his blog about games: there’s a good body of criticism now grown up around and about games, and Tom’s a great guide if, like me, you missed out on computer gaming when young and are now trying to understand what it’s all about.)

Finally, on 1 December, Cory Doctorow came to talk about the kinds of issues that inspired, and lie behind, his new novel, Little Brother, his very successful dystopian novel written with teenagers in mind.  The reading marked the occasion of its UK publication in paperback.

In my science fiction course for sixth-formers, I’ve been dropping broad hints that they should read Cory’s work, including his column for the Guardian and his personal blog. There’s a bang up to date Guardian interview with Cory I’d recommend, too — Cory Doctorow: willing science fiction into fact:

“I’m a presentist,” he says, smiling broadly as he leans back in his chair. “All science fiction writers, whether they admit it or not, are writing metaphorically about the present. To extrapolate the future is really to comment on the now. ... The job of a science fiction writer, historically, has been to understand how technology and social factors interact,” he says, “how technology is changing society. An activist’s job is to try to direct that change. ... My hope is that Little Brother is a verb and not a noun, that it’s a thing you do, not just a book you read,” he continues. “That’s where thinking about the future and influencing the future converge.”

I also strongly recommend this recent Guardian piece by Cory, Database nation.

Earlier in the year, some of our students did some filming with Cory and one of those who took part, Noah (14 years-old), wrote after Cory’s talk, ‘It’s not often you find someone who’s into technology and can actually keep you listening when they talk about it. Cory Doctorow certainly proved that he is one of that select few when he talked … about how computers and the power of networking can and have been used to beat the establishment.’ Thanks, Cory.

What else? We’ve started a small society for entrepreneurs. I talked to parents in an updated version of last year’s talk, 'A Social Web, A Social World'. And, wearing my literary hat, we squeezed in a poetry reading (6 November): Michael Symmons Roberts, James MacMillan’s librettist.

And now, term’s about to start all over again. Life may be a little calmer this year and I’ll try to post about what we’re doing as we do it. Or thereabouts.