‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write ... I shall never overtake myself’

I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term … the pattern becomes clear. — Tom Armitage, ‘Telling Stories’ (Reboot 8, Copenhagen, 2006) (pdf)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months paring and pruning, trying to focus more closely on the things which really matter to me. I’ve got something to put down here soon about attention and curation, but before this new year runs away with me and everything, yet again, tilts Tristram Shandy–wards, I thought I might look back, sum up, take stock (a bit).

Here’s something I wrote for our annual school magazine about last year’s talks. (It goes over some of what I’ve written about here during 2009–2010 and I’ve given the links, in square brackets, where that’s the case.) It's very … potted.

ICT Talks 2009–10

This year, our talks continued to cross disciplines. We kicked off with Andy Huntington (RCA graduate, designer, musician) on interaction design [see 20.9.2009 entry]. In Digital Ground (MIT, 2004), Malcolm McCullough set out how interaction design ‘studies how people deal with technology — and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century’. Andy, who has worked on interactive objects and experiences for clients from the BBC and the Science Museum to Nokia and the Bartlett School of Architecture, talked us through tapTap (‘The system is built up of individual knock boxes. Each box has its own memory and is completely self-contained. As you tap on the top of a box, the box waits for a few seconds and then taps back what it has heard. If you want more you add another box, and another, and another, tap, tap, tap’) and Beatbox (‘a physical programmable drum machine’). Later in the autumn we were delighted to welcome Usman Haque, architect and co-founder of Pachube (‘store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world’):

Usman Haque

The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other. We no longer think of architecture as static and immutable; instead we see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant. Our projects explore some of this territory. — Haque Design + Research

Playing with tapTap and Beatbox, thinking how objects are now interacting with us through the internet, reflecting on how we can use Pachube … Ubiquitous computing has well and truly arrived and, as McCullough foresaw, educators need to address interaction design as a matter of urgency.

Also in the autumn, Adrian Hon came to talk about his games company, Six to Start [see 30.9.2009 entry]. He began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the striking role now played in our lives by online text. The main part of his talk focused on We Tell Stories — a project developed for Penguin: ‘six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks’. Adrian, who left a career in neuroscience to co-found Six to Start with his brother, sets great store by narrative: ‘Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves’. His ambition for games is, indeed, remarkable: ‘Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world. … It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities.’

Professor Chris Frith, FRS, talked about how our brain generates emotions and thoughts and he was followed soon afterwards by Professor James Paul Gee, the distinguished American scholar, on games and learning. In his book, Making up the Mind [see 22.9.2009 entry], Frith argues that, ‘on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating’. In Gee’s thought, the world of a complex game mirrors the functioning of the mind: ‘We run videogames in our heads’ [see 30.10.2009 entry]. At the heart of his critical understanding of games is the idea of situated meanings and their role in learning. Games are about problem-solving. Today’s problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. Today, we must be able to work way beyond standard skills, learning how to be part of a cross-functional team — a very high order skill common to play in many games.

Another theme this year has been how we are living in a time when information is becoming more accessible. We welcomed Timo Hannay, publishing director of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing, to talk about open science and in March we had the opportunity to hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [see 22.3.2010 entry]. Timo spoke about the nature of early scientific publishing and the rise of the expensive (and therefore relatively inaccessible) specialist journal. He explained projects he has helped to develop at Nature, including Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists, Nature Network (a social network for scientists) and Nature Precedings (‘a platform for sharing new and preliminary findings with colleagues on a global scale’). Jimmy, arriving straight from Heathrow, spoke to a packed hall on the origins, vision and role of Wikipedia. One thing to emerge from this very well-received talk: about 80% of the students present had edited Wikipedia. Next day at a Guardian conference for heads of media, the same question from Jimmy revealed that only about 30% of that audience had edited the online encyclopaedia.

Another highlight of the year was the chance to hear Stewart Brand and Brian Eno talk about the Long Now and Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand & Brian Eno
The idea of the active intellectual is very important, Brand said, and we’re very pleased that St Paul’s is the first school in the UK to join the Long Now and engage with its commitment to long-term thinking and sustainable living. This takes us neatly back to Pachube and the way we interact with technology. The future requires that the young grow up learning about the history of technology, of man’s long journey of inventiveness in manipulating nature and of the possibilities, for good and ill, that lie in this relationship we have with our world.

Videogame Nation


Way back in May, when I was at Futuresonic, and Kraftwerk were due a few weeks later at the Manchester International Festival, I caught the first day of Videogame Nation at Urbis.

It was a really enjoyable exhibition, a celebration of the British gaming industry with a particularly keen eye for Mancunian and regional contributions. The Guardian posted something about it, and there are a couple of reviews I came across that are informed by a knowledge of games and gaming heritage that I lack (almost completely): National Videogames Archive and Negative Gamer.

There were timelines displayed on the way out. I was hurrying past them with Guy as Urbis shut up shop for the night and I had just a few seconds to snap what I could. From 1948 …

Videogame Nation

… to 2009,

Videogame Nation

It’s the timelines I want to keep in mind just now as I read more about the history and development of games. Other photos (uploaded back in May and then forgotten about) are here, including five more of the timelines — and these wonderful maps of Wonderland Dizzy and Fantastic Dizzy by Philip and Andrew Oliver:

Videogame Nation

Videogame Nation

Most of the images need to be viewed at large size.

Technorati tags: , ,

‘We run videogames in our heads’

James Paul Gee

It was a very great pleasure to welcome James Paul Gee to talk at school, shortly before we broke for half-term. James spent an hour in conversation with our students, examining what games and learning have to do with each other. He was in the UK to speak at Handheld Learning 2009 and this is his talk from there:

At the heart of both talks, besides his zest for life, learning and a passionate engagement with his subject, is the critically important idea of situated meanings and their role in learning: ‘Comprehension is grounded in perceptual simulations [of experience] that prepare agents for situated action’ — Barsalou (1999).

Some photos of slides James used at St Paul’s (which illustrate what he means when he says, around 5m 50s into his Handheld Learning talk, ‘Our schools don’t use the best principles we know about learning, but our popular culture does’):

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

Many students who came to hear James talk had read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You (2005) and will have recalled Steven’s discussion of James’s thinking. Here’s Steven on ‘probing’, that process in learning to play a videogame where the player ‘probe[s] the depths of the game’s logic to make sense of it’ — exploring the rules, yes, but also something subtler and more complex, ‘the physics of the virtual world’:

The games scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the “probe, hypothesise, reprobe, rethink” cycle:

  1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
  2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
  3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
  4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

Put another way: When gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.

It might be useful to summarise here James’s six headline slides from his Handheld Learning talk about what characterises videogames: an experience of being simultaneously inside and outside a system; situated meanings; action orientated tasks; lucidly functional language; modding; passionate affinity groups. From his talk to us, some points I jotted down:

  • 700 games design courses have started in US universities in the last six years.
  • “We’re a profoundly contradictory people”: we worry about violence and videogames and GTA is put in the spotlight, yet a very violent game like Postal goes largely unnoticed and America’s Army is free — funded with tax-payers’ money! (James talks about America’s Army here.)
  • Games are not like books: Doom has a poor story (and graphics), but very good mechanics and mechanics really matter in our appreciation of a game. Warren Spector thinks story is very important to games. The creator of Doom doesn’t. Of course, if it’s got good mechanics and a good story …
  • The modern world handles knowledge distinctively, working with large, broad, cross-disciplinary themes.
  • If education is only about standard skills, it will only get you a job with standard skills (probably off-shore). In the US and UK, three-fifths of workers are in the service industries.
  • Success at school may square with the job you get, but it doesn’t predict how well you’ll do in your job.
  • Games are about problem-solving. Our problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. You must be able to think way beyond standard skills.
  • Cross-functional teams, a feature of games such as World of Warcraft, require very high order skills — greatly valued in high-tech firms. Working in such teams is exceedingly intense and demanding.
  • A game like Portal creates an embodied feel for physics and provides continuous assessment of your knowledge (performance). The game itself guides the experience.
  • James Paul Gee

  • Good games makes you feel smarter than you are. Play first, learn later (situated meanings). Where school fails is when it’s like a bunch of manuals without the games — and that’s also a very good way to make the poor look stupid.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh cards and their associated ecosystem are a striking example of geeking out with passion. Here’s a card James took from a seven year-old — who understood it completely (complex, technical language made lucidly functional by being married to action in the game) and explained it to him:
  • James Paul Gee

  • Modding: not only ‘How can I use what this game design has given me to my best advantage?’, but also ‘How can I improve/develop this?’
  • James Paul Gee

  • As Will Wright said, my games designers can make better stuff than 90% of players — but not the other 10%.
  • Recommendations: Half-Life; Deus Ex (1); System Shock; Flower (PS3); Braid. My colleague, OIly Rokison, chipped in with Fable 2.
Here’s an interview with James from Gamezone, 2007:

What is it specifically about video games that help people learn?  Does it have more to do with the gameplay than the story, the visual content or the characters?

My book covers 36 good learning principles built into good games like System Shock 2, Rise of Nations, Arcanum, or even Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.  But there are many more.  Let me just give a few examples.  First, humans are terrible at learning when you give them lots and lots of verbal information ahead of time out of any context where it can be applied.  Games give verbal information “just in time” when and where it can be used and “on demand” as the player realizes he or she needs it.

Second, good games stay inside, but at the outer edge of the player’s growing competence, feeling challenging, but “doable.”  This creates a sense of pleasurable frustration.  Third, good games create what’s been called a “cycle of expertise” by giving players well-designed problems on the basis of which they can form good strategies, letting them practice these enough to routinize them, then throwing a new problem at them that forces them to undo their now routinized skills and think again before achieving, through more practice, a new and higher routinized set of skills.  Good games repeat this cycle again and again—it’s the process by which experts are produced in any domain.

Final example: good games solve the motivation problem by what I think is an actual biological effect.  When you operate a game character, you are manipulating something at a distance (a virtual distance, in this case), much like operating a robot at a distance, but in a much more fine-grained way.  This makes humans feel that their bodies and minds have actually been expanded into or entered that distant space.  Good games use this effect by attaching a virtual identity to this expanded self that the player begins to care about in a powerful way.  This identity can then become a hook for freeing people up to think and learn in new ways, including learning, or least thinking about, new values, belief systems, and world views, as the Army realized in building America’s Army.  If you stick with it, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind does this brilliantly and people play the game very differently depending on the different ways in which they have invested in their character.  We would do better at teaching science in school if kids really invested in a scientist identity.  But you have to make it happen, you can’t just say “pretend.”

You can read a recent paper written by James and Elizabeth Hayes, his wife, here: Public Pedagogy through Video Games.

‘Passionate affinity groups’. That stays in my mind when I’m thinking about school and how education works, doesn’t work … and is changing. Here’s James’s slide about the qualities these groups exhibit, from his Handheld Learning talk:

Screen shot 2009-10-30 at 10.05.14.png

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , ,

Adrian Hon

Last Thursday, Adrian Hon came in to talk about Six to Start, games design and story-telling.

We’re about storytelling and play.

Storytelling is a huge part of the world’s culture, and great stories have always had the ability to move and excite us, whatever the medium. 

Play means a lot to us, too. We draw inspiration from video games, boardgames, casual games and playful applications and services.

Play helps us learn, grow and deal with new experiences – and when play and storytelling are combined, they give us the opportunity to deeply engage with our audience and get them to do things – as a large single group, or individually. Great storytelling and great gameplay are at the heart of what we do.

Adrian began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the great role now played in our lives by online text. You can get a good sense of what Adrian said from his posting earlier this year, How we Tell Stories.

This brought us to We Tell Stories ('six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks'), pausing briefly to look at In particular, Adrian talked us through Charles Cumming's The 21 Steps and Mohsin Hamid's The (Former) General. The latter grew out of an idea for a CYOA with a difference, but emerged as something very different — a "still life": 'while it does have branching, it doesn't allow the reader to affect the outcome of [the] story — only their own experience of it'. You get an excellent sense of the excitement surrounding this project from Six to Start and Penguin Books launch We Tell Stories and, of course, We Tell Stories received great acclaim, winning both the Experimental and Best of Show award categories at this year’s SXSW Web Awards. More about We Tell Stories on the Six To Start site (and there's a screencast). I'm looking forward to using We Tell Stories with my Year 9 class this year.

A number of our students have been playing Smokescreen, Six to Start's new game, developed for C4.

there is no better way to inform and educate people about online security and privacy than through a web-based game. — Smokescreen: Why Interaction Matters

Adrian describes Smokescreen as ARGish. Unlike Perplex City (designed and produced by Adrian at Mind Candy), a massive treasure hunt lasting 18 months and playable just the once, Smokescreen is replayable and each mission can be played in 10–20 minutes. The game is also marked by a strong story — and you might argue whether it is more an interactive game or an interactive story.

At the time of the talk, just 6 of 13 missions were out. My murky slides (sans flash, in a darkened room) give a sense of the realism of the game — Gaggle, fakebook, tweetr — and two, short, Six To Start videos follow:




I think we might use at least some of Smokescreen in this year's ICT course (also Year 9).

Questions followed — about platforms, episodic games, recommendations, the time he gives to games (books claim pride of place), his role at Six To Start … We're very grateful to Adrian for taking the time to come and talk at St Paul's. These words give some indication of how he set the bar higher for us:

I feel there are two, equally mistaken, views of games. One is that stories in games are basically mediocre, and will remain mediocre, due to business reasons. There is no doubt that many publishers are demanding juvenile and  dumbed-down games, and that this makes it difficult to write a good story, but it shouldn’t make it impossible. The other view is that the stories in games are already more than a match for books and TV. I would disagree with this as well. … I think a good story in a game relies on having writers who have independence, and the trust and respect of game designers. … Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves. …

When I compared videogames to the development of books and novels, I was being serious. Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world.

It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities. We just have to open our eyes to them. — How We Tell Stories

Last words on last year

A few words to add to what I wrote back in January about the first half of last academic year, 2008–9.

This was the second year we’d taught our Year 9 the new ICT course (online here). Now that this body of material is very familiar to us, we can move on with confidence, keeping the old cycle of lessons as a reference for us and for anyone else who wants this level of detail, but producing much cleaner, leaner lesson material for the pupils with more time, now, for hands-on experience both in lessons and beyond. Given the engagement we’re building with professionals based in London, and the inter-disciplinary collaboration now going on at school to make much more of all the considerable areas of overlap between art, ICT, technology, electronics, science, etc, I’m confident that there’s something underway which, properly nurtured and encouraged, could be very exciting and creative.

As part of our continuing exploration of computer games, we were fortunate to have two more visiting speakers of distinction. Ian Livingstone came in May. Eidos hosts a biography. One of the UK’s founding fathers of interactive games and fiction (he co-founded Games Workshop in 1975), at Eidos (the UK's leading developer and publisher of video games) he was instrumental in securing many of the company's major franchises, including Tomb Raider and Hitman. In 2000 he was awarded the BAFTA Special Award for his outstanding contribution to the interactive entertainment industry. In 2003 he was appointed Creative Industries advisor to the British Council and in 2005 he was appointed Chair of the Computer Games Skills Council. He was awarded an OBE in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List for his contribution to the Computer Games Industry. His talk, Life Is A Game, focused on his many years in games. He spoke about the acute skills shortage in the UK games industry and the urgent need for top quality UK maths/computer science graduates to consider it as a career.

I'm delighted that, again in May, Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor, Education, at Channel 4 and a renowned gamer, came to talk about her life in gaming (she played Quake for England), what she does now and why she thinks gaming matters. You can read about her work with C4 and what she's up to on her blog. You can also read what Matt Locke at C4 has to say about her (‘she’s one of the most inspiring women I know working in technology at the moment’) and you can read about some of her thinking to do with a game C4 is developing about privacy. (And the game, Smokescreen, is now out.)

In June, we squeezed in another excellent talk — by Graham Cooke, eCommerce Senior Project Manager, EMEA, Google. He spoke about cloud-computing (trends and changes in computing and how cloud-computing is changing the way we work), his own work at Google and website analytics (what it takes to make a website work).

Last term saw us celebrate our 500th anniversary as a school and as part of that my colleague, Olly Rokison, showed off Centograph on our open day (more about our open day and ICT in an earlier post), a piece we’d commissioned from!. We’ve been talking with Alex and others at! for a while now (and Alex spoke at school last September), looking at ways in which we can make more use of Arduino in our teaching and at how we teach about “the internet of things”.


From the! post about Centograph:


Students in St. Paul’s technology classes are studying the fundamentals and the latest advances in computation, networks, electronics, and physical design. These technologies are increasingly complex and interconnected; this has been reflected in the emergence of fields such as interaction design, human computer interaction, and physical computing.

Centograph, a physical representation of virtual information, uses today’s technologies to encourage viewers to reflect on the past.

When you enter a search term into the computer, Centograph queries the Google News Archive for a list of related news articles over the past 100 years. The archive returns a timeline of articles sorted according to date. The bars on the graph then change height to display a histogram of the relative number of news articles for each decade. This allows you to view the ‘shape’ of the past century in relation to different topics—from progression in computing technology to times of war and peace to changing sources of energy, to name a few possibilities.

Centograph provides viewers with a context for exploration and reflection, and it urges viewers to seek connections between different subjects and evaluate changes in public discourse over time. It also raises questions about how we use technology today. How do we acquire and interpret information, and how do we connect the web of virtual data to our physical lives? Users type a search term into the computer and press enter. The bar graph then changes to display the histogram for the term. You can also browse through words that other people have entered by clicking on a term to see the related graph.

We’re looking forward to doing more with both Arduino and!.

And so, the new school year begins … More about us and AMEE, YouTube/Vimeo, etc as we go.

Back in May …

… St Paul’s held an open day to celebrate its 500th anniversary. For our part, we put together a small show in our main ICT room. My thanks to the four pupils who helped me set this up and who looked after our visitors so well for the whole of what was a fun but long afternoon.

Open Day  Open Day  Open Day  Open Day

Making use of the bank of desktop machines in the room, we gathered together a number of videos under this umbrella:

A brief introduction to the modern web: an overview of how computers shrank, became mobile and ever more powerful, an insight into how we teach about all this and a glimpse of the world we’re all soon going to be living in.

It may be that some of what follows in this longish post (a lot of video) is of interest beyond the immediate occasion of the day. I put the videos in playable form here as you may want to scan quickly and then dip in when something catches your eye. On the day, visitors could go round a number of videos/slideshows (mostly paired and in the sequence below) but of course, and as we expected, people dipped in and out: it was that or giving over a lot of the afternoon to this one room. (For me, in these very general talks or events, there’s quite a bit of churn, but it seems always to be the case that there’s plenty of new hooks for anyone whose life isn’t spent immersed in this stuff.)

Incidentally, one of the successes of the afternoon was the discovery of what you can do with the simplest of devices. Spotted in the field the previous week at Manchester’s Urbis, Staples’ slanted clear acrylic sign holders are a brilliant way of signing an exhibition with the minimum of fuss and a lot of clarity:

 The internet of things 

The only nod towards a more formal, display-board style of presentation was this:
 Moore's Law

(Sources: see the first slideshow below, Gizmodo for the smiling boy with the make-believe mobile and Intel’s Moore’s Law 40th Anniversary Press Kit for the two charts on the right.)

Finally, alternating on the overhead projector throughout the afternoon were these videos:



Slideshow 1 (credits as per the links and also: original Apple iPhone ads — see 6/ below; stills from Did You Know; the Flickr slide — from here).

A short history of how computers have grown in power, how their size has got smaller and smaller … and how they’ve gone mobile. Also (and very swiftly), an overview of developments in technology and the web, the advent of both cloud-computing and ubiquitous computing … and the emergence of astonishingly rich social sites and practices.

Steve Jobs (1991?) talks about what computers mean to him: ‘Computers are like a bicycle for our minds’.


2/  Apple, 1984

In January 1984, a youthful Steve Jobs demonstrated the first Apple Mac. This film still has the power to impress, such was the reception this innovative machine received. And then there’s also Jobs’ own reaction …

This advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was shown on US TV in 1984 and introduced the Mac personal computer. As they said in a later campaign,
Think Different.


3/  California dreaming

‘Knowledge Navigator’: another Apple film, from 1987, imagining a personal computer that would be like a PA, memex machine, scholastic aid, visual display — oh, and phone. (Sound familiar?)

‘Time Capsule’: an Apple film made in 1987 and imagining the future of 1997. “No question about it, the 1990s have really been the Apple decade.”


4/ Google and Cloud-Computing

It’s hard to believe that Google is just ten years old. In January this year, the company released this film looking back at what they’d done in that time. All 4th Formers get a thorough grounding in using Google’s tools and in managing their personal identity and privacy.

Cloud-computing: more and more of the data we create and use and store is not on our devices but “in the cloud” — in data centres such as this one. Google makes energy efficiency a priority.


5/  Google Earth

Everyone knows Google Earth and Google Street View. We explore in our 4th Form course the implications of these technologies for the visualisation of information. We also discuss the emergence of location-based social software and its implications for privacy.

Here’s a beautiful example of the educational value of Google Earth: Ancient Rome (a layer in Google Earth) as it looked in 320AD.


6/  iPhone

A game-changing device. The original advertising campaign from June 2007 summarises brilliantly what had been achieved.

The iPhone brought touchscreens into the lives of many. Will it be a key player in bringing ubiquitous computing into our lives, too?
4th Formers are taught that “computers” are much more, and much more present in our lives, than the single desktop this film is playing on.


7/  Living in a digital world

Slideshow 2:

An idea of how our students use web-based tools and a panoramic view of our course for 4th Formers.

(I used much of this material in my talk at C4’s recent What Comes Next? The Channel 4 Education Summer Conference.)

Editing Wikipedia: a time-lapse film of the edits made to the page about the London 7 July, 2005, bombings. The article was created, that morning, at 9.15am. In its first four hours, it was edited over a thousand times. All 4th Formers are taught how to understand, evaluate, use and edit Wikipedia.


8/  The near future

CGI: no water was harmed in this film. Or even used. Programmers from St Paul’s can look forward to working on enhancing such techniques even further, in film and videogames.

Big Dog, a robot built by Boston Dynamics, walks on rough terrain and ice whilst carrying heavy loads (340lbs). Control Technology works in areas that prepare students for fields like this.



9/  Games

A contentious area for some, the development of a substantial body of critical literature and the wise words of respected reports such as last year’s Byron Review, along with research and better knowledge generally, are leading to a more considered reception of computer games. This slideshow outlines some important research from last year and highlights a talk given here in November 2008.

Old Paulines created Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, etc). In school today, we are creating an intelligent ethos for the discussion and understanding of games.

In designing videogames, something called The Uncanny Valley needs to be avoided. An entertainingly presented talk.


10/  The internet of things

Many of us have grown up thinking the internet is mainly the web — a web of pages. But the machines are coming: embedded devices of all kinds … Machines … talking … to us.

Gartner think that, “By year end 2012, physical sensors will create 20 percent of non-video internet traffic. … The extent and diversity of real-time environmental sensing is growing rapidly as our ability to act on and interpret the growing volumes of data to capture valuable information increases.”

Sensors to monitor energy consumption will become very common. Simon Hay, OP, has been working on this concept (see this poster and site) and three current pupils in the school will be using AMEE to record and monitor our energy usage.

This final Apple video shows the iPhone 3.0 and its use with medical devices — for example, in the monitoring of diabetes.


(And for further food for thought, Matt Jones’ iPhone 3.0: everyware-ready?.)


11/  Getting it wrong

So many of the things we imagine about the future are wildly wrong. This trip round the recent past and the fast-developing present has tried to avoid such wild predictions, preferring to look instead at some things that are coming true already (a near-future becoming the present) or that are already here.

Cue Postcards Show the Year 2000 (circa 1900). And then:

Here, in two parts, is the GM Futurama 1939 World’s Fair looking ahead to the imagined 1960s, a techno-utopian vision we still haven’t achieved.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

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" »

The certainty of chance

From the Economist's obituary of George Melly:

As a lifelong Surrealist, he was sure that the bizarre and marvellous lay in wait for him everywhere, and carried in his head a Surrealist motto, “the certainty of chance”.

'The 'certainty of chance' was', James Boyle says, 'the phrase André Breton used to describe both modernism and his own philosophy of life'.

Earlier this month, the TLS reprinted George Melly's 1991 review of A Book of Surrealist Games, in which he concluded:

It may puzzle the more pompous as to why this body of men and women, these ardent revolutionaries of the spirit, spent so much time engaged in occupations usually considered more suitable for bored children on wet afternoons. The answer is, to quote the preface, that “Surrealist play is more like a kind of provocative magic”, that it “breaks, the thread of discursive thought” and, above all, helps to confirm the primary Surrealist belief in what they called “objective chance” or “the certainty of hazard”. These games will prove to you that not only was Lautréamont justified as to poetry; one could add a rider: “Surrealism too can be made by all.” 

Surrealism 1

Of the cover, George Melly wrote:

… a bourgeois interior, painted with the minimal realism of early Magritte. Seated opposite each other in identical armchairs, a young father is engrossed in his newspaper while his wife is teaching their son to read. Something is mildly askew. Is it because, while it is dark outside, the curtains are undrawn, or that the room is lit by anachronistic Victorian oil lamps, or that the newspaper, despite the completely Western ambience of the decor, is printed in oriental typography?

The origin of this illustration is unrevealed. I suspect it may have been an advertisement for a pre-war European product aimed at the Japanese market, or vice versa, but it is a brilliant trailer for the displacement on offer within. In a balloon-shaped inset, replacing perhaps a commercial slogan, is a quotation from Lautréamont, the nineteenth-century writer so revered by the Surrealists: “Poetry should be made by all.”

Amazon carries an "editorial review" (cited as 'Surrealism is far more than some dead art movement: it is also a collection of tools for perceiving and representing the world in ways that transcend normative perspectives. … If you have any spark of creativity, you are strongly encouraged to get this book to help loosen the holds of quotidian existence on your craft.'

I see Anne's been here before — and quotes more of the preface to A Book of Surrealist Games than George Melly did:

Surrealist games and procedures are intended to free words and images from the constraints of rational and discursive order, substituting chance and indeterminancy for premeditation and deliberation... In one particular and important respect Surrealist play is more like a kind of provocative magic. This is in its irrepressible propensity to the transformation of objects, behaviours and ideas. In this aspect of its proceedings Surrealism makes manifest its underlying political programme, its revolutionary intent.

Before going on to put some surrealist games online, Anne also quotes Philippe Audouin:

It is not to belittle Surrealist activity to consider it as a game, in fact as The Great Game, whose prizes in the eyes of those who played and lived it, can be calculated in promises of freedom, love, revolution, and in anything else that intransigent desire can aspire to.

Unsurprisingly, various things here made me think again about the aleatoric

Will Wright on Spore

Interviewed in

Do you see Spore, or the rest of your games for that matter, as being educational? 

I think in a deep way yeah – that's kind of why I do them. But not in a curriculum-based, 'I'm gong to teach you facts' kind of way. I think more in terms of deep lessons of things like problem-solving, or just creativity – creativity is a fundamental of education that's not really taught so much. But giving people tools… what it means to be human is to learn to use tools to basically expand your abilities. And I think computer games are in some sense a fundamental tool for our imagination. If we can let players create these elaborate worlds, there's a lot of thought, design thought, problem solving, expression that goes into what you're going to create. You know, I think of the world of hobbies, which isn't what it used to be. When I was a kid, you know, people that were into trains had a big train set and they spent a lot of time sculpting mountains and building villages, or they might have been into slot cars or dollhouses or whatever, but these hobbies involved skill, involved creativity, and at some point involved socialization. Finding other people and joining the model train club, comparing and contrasting our skills, our approaches. And I think a lot of computer gaming has kind of supplanted those activities, they have a lot of the aspects of hobbies. Especially the games that allow the player to be creative and to share that creativity and form a community around it. I think just in general, play is about problem-solving, about interacting with things in an unstructured way to get a sense of it and what the rules are. 

Which is counter to current trends -- educational philosophy seems to have taken a huge step towards the three Rs, the basics, what you can regurgitate on a standardized test. And this seems to be going back to process-oriented education, where you're learning problem solving. 

And a lot of it also is… you know, some of the most effective education is failure-based, where you're given a system and you can manipulate it and explore different failure states and success states, and all that. Most of our educational system is designed to protect you from failure. You know – here's how you write a proper sentence, here's how you do a math problem without failing. So basically, they don't let you experience failure. Failure is seen as a bad thing, not as a learning experience. And even when you get to the professional world, things like architecture, engineering, industrial design, they teach you how to do it the right way. Where it used to be you would build five bad buildings and they'd fall down and you'd learn yourself – that was more the apprenticeship, craftsmanship model. You'd build 20 bad chairs but eventually learn how to build a good one because you would learn the failure states yourself, inherently – you'd experience them directly. Whereas when you go to engineering school they teach you how not to fail, so you're never directly experiencing those failures. It limits your intuitions. Whereas a kid playing a game – the first thing they do is they'll sit there and play five or six times and learn from that, and they learn at a very core level in a very different way. They've actually explored the whole possibility space. It's not that they've been told 'don't go there because you'll fail' and so they never go there and never experience it directly on their own. They're encouraged to do that all on their own, in fact they're directly building that possibility map.


Where do you see gaming moving in the future? 

One thing that really excites me, that we're doing just a little bit of in Spore… I described how the computer is kind of looking at what you do and what you buy, and developing this model of the player. I think that's going to be a fundamental differentiating factor between games and all other forms of media. The games can inherently observe you and build a more and more accurate model of the player on each individual machine, and then do a huge amount of things with that – actually customize the game, its difficulty, the content that it's pulling down, the goal structures, the stories that are being played out relative to every player. So in some sense you're teaching the game about yourself and it becomes kind of your ultimate playmate, in terms of knowing 'oh, I think you'd enjoy this' or 'try that,' and it's kind of playing against you. You and I might buy the same game off the shelf one day, play it for a month and, a month later, our games are almost unrecognizably different – because yours has evolved to fit and entertain you, and mine has evolved to fit and entertain me. And I think that's something that's going to be a fundamental thing about games about ten years from now, because we're just starting to see that more and more at this point.