This conference, in London in April 2019, looks at a range of issues around education technology.Read More
Why is it so hard to recruit teachers? I attended a Westminster Forum conference in the summer of 2016. This looked at the key issues of teacher shortages and professional development. This article contains my reflections on some aspects of the conference. It's not about ICT or Computing in particular, but given the acute shortage of Computing teachers it does, I think, provide some additional food for thought.Read More
News of 4 forthcoming events, including one that takes place tomorrow.Read More
Over three years since the new Computing curriculum in England was mooted, and more than a year since it came into being, there are still not enough teachers who feel competent and confident to teach it. This is not least in part due an insistence on an elitist approach to training them. In this article I suggest a few possibly more fruitful approaches.Read More
Please note: the Westminster Forum Conference on Preparing for the new Computing Curriculum
listed in the post entitled Some useful-looking conferences takes place on the 26th February, and not the 14th as originally stated. Apologies!
The agenda and other details of the conference may be found here.
The phrase “May you live in interesting times” is usually cited as a sort of curse, but can you imagine the opposite, ie living in boring times? Fortunately, especially here in England there is no danger of that for a while, at least in the world of ICT. Here are a few snippets of news which I won’t comment on at the moment because I like to cogitate, reflect, and then cogitate some more before pontificating. As I said in a previous article (10 Obligations of Bloggers), quoting Salvator Rosa, I believe in the adage “Be silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence”.
Having attended a conference at the Westminster Education Forum today on the future of technology in education, I am moved to raise this issue again: have computer labs had their day?
The idea that they have was mentioned two or three times. Whilst I can see the attraction of arguments in favour of mobile technology as opposed to fixed technology, I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. Rather than rehearse my arguments again, I’ll refer you to an article I wrote back in March 2011 called Come back, computer lab, all is forgiven. Hope you enjoy it.
I was inspired by a Westminster eForum event entitled Missing Discs and Mislaid Laptops to write this article.
Why is it that disks, data and laptops appear to go missing with alarming frequency (although, as I say in another article, this appears to have abated recently)? Is it that there is a general lack of understanding about the nature of digital data, and how it is fundamentally different from the old paper-based approach?
You may find it useful to discuss the points made in this article with your students.
We may live in the digital age physically, but mentally many people still exist in the pre-internet era. I say “still”, but this applies as much to children and young people, the so-called “digital natives”, as the rest of us. What I am referring to is the tendency to treat digitised data as merely a more convenient form of paper data. It is this failure to grasp the reality of computerised data that, in my view, underlies the alarming tendency for laptops to be left lying around and disks to be sent through the post. What it comes down to is a lack of understanding, and therefore a lack of respect.
Although people and organisations are often implored, rightly, to make backups of their data in case it is lost or deleted, there is, perhaps, not enough emphasis on the other side of the coin. That is to say, the longevity of data. Incidentally, this is a key issue to try to get across to (young) people in terms of their conduct online, especially in social networking communities. Consider the following five points.
Once data is computerised, the cost of duplicating it is pretty much zero, and it is easy to do. I recently read a novel in which someone unearthed sensitive documents from the WW2 era and destroyed them in order to protect people. The possibility of solving the problem in that way may or may not have been viable when the book was written; it is certainly not viable now.
Once data is computerised, it can be copied and copied and copied with no loss of quality. It’s not like photocopying, where after making copies of copies a certain number of times it becomes unreadable.
Once data is computerised, it can be spread around the world in seconds. Ask anyone who has lost their job or their reputation because of ill-advisedly sending a risqué joke to their friends by email.
Once something has been posted to the web, it cannot be unposted. Even if web pages are deleted, archives of them exist on the internet. You can take down a photo you have posted – but someone may have already downloaded it to their own computer and be thinking about sending it to others.
Encrypted data may not be as secure as you think.
When you consider these points, it becomes clear that committing data to disk, and then disseminating that information, are not trivial decisions. Organisations (and individuals) need to ask the following three questions before doing so:
1. Do we need this data, in this form? Here is a good example of this way of thinking. Because of the drive to have joined-up databases in the area of children’s services in the UK, it is often taken as read that certain data have to be available to all the professionals concerned with an individual child’s welfare. That is not necessarily true. The goal might be achieved by having a system of flags in the data, ie notes which say things like “Contact the child’s doctor about this”.
2. Have we taken basic precautionary steps to keep data safe? That means giving different people access levels according to their professional needs, as opposed to their level of seniority; making it mandatory for computers to be password-locked when people leave their desks momentarily; making it harder to pass the data on than it is to not do so.
3. What would be the cost, in terms of reputation and litigation, if we get it wrong?
Some of the issues involved can be solved by technical means, such as encryption and other security measures. But on the whole what is needed is a completely different way of looking at computerised data: a different mindset entirely.
I once wrote, somewhat flippantly but not entirely jokingly, that if you live in the UK and pick up a newspaper on any particular day there is almost certain to be yet another news report about a government laptop going missing. The very next day another of those articles appeared. My perception is that things have improved since then, but that could be because little has occured for a while on a large enough scale, or frequently enough, to warrant the attention of the mass media.
The sorts of disaster I'm talking about include the occasion when it was reported that the UK's tax website had to be closed temporarily because:
"a memory stick containing confidential pass codes to the system was found in a pub car park."
That was repeated again a few months later, along with another article stating that according to official figures, one official is disciplined over data loss every day. And if that's the "official" figure, there is no doubt in my mind that the actual figure is higher. I wonder what it is when you take into account private companies "losing" data, or Local Authorities "losing" data?
I've even attended a seminar on the subject of missing data and laptops, where a number of experts gave talks on the problem. But it seems to me that the problem could actually be solved very quickly by changing the way we think about data.
One of the aspects of many ICT courses is the effects of IT on society. Perhaps this opinion piece (which, as you will see, is backed up by facts and figures) might be used as the starting point for a debate and other work on the subject.
For those outside the UK who may not have heard about this phenomenon, these are basically what seem to be the common features of these cases.
1. Someone, for reasons best known to themselves, leaves their place of work with a laptop or memory stick containing personal data details of thousands -- or in one case, 25 million -- people.
2. They leave the laptop or usb stick on a train, back seat of a car or other equally safe places.
3. Someone discovers it and reports it to the authorities or the press.
4. There's a press release assuring us that the data was encrypted, but they've changed everything anyway, so there is no need for anyone to worry.
5. The person who lost the item is reprimanded or fired.
6. There's a lot of wringing of hands, promises of internal inquiries and so on.
7. It all goes quiet as the media focus on the next organisation to lose a load of data.
To my mind, there is something wrong with the word "loss" in this context. I'm not sure exactly what the right word would be, but I think of it in much the same way as road accidents. Traffic "accidents" tend not to be called "accidents" these days, because most of them are caused by human error. The word "accident" conveys a sense of "not my fault", when actually most road crashes are someone's fault, as opposed to, say, mechanical failures or acts of God.
In the same way, losing thousands of people's details is not simply accidental, as the term "loss" implies. To leave a laptop lying around or to lose a memory stick in the street surely suggests a lack of attention. We all lose stuff -- I'm always putting things down and then retracing my steps mentally to work out what I did with them -- but I can assure you that when I leave the house with something really valuable, like my passport, I go to absurd lengths to prevent losing it, such as using a bulldog clip to attach it to the inside of my pocket. Or, despite wearing a jacket with zipped pockets, I check that it's still there every 5 minutes.
Why do people feel the need to take such huge amounts of data away from the office in the first place? I've been working now for nearly 35 years, and in all that time I have never taken home the kind of data that seems to go missing virtually all the time now in the UK. If I did take data home, it consisted of pupils' names and their exam grades. School registers, which contained pupils' names and addresses and phone numbers, were never allowed off the premises.
These days, if people have to work from home, they should be able to access the data they need over a secure internet or extranet arrangement. I just don't see why there should ever be a need to physically remove the data from the place of work.
What to do about it?
Health and safety
As long as people continue to think of data loss as losing "data", there is never going to be a real appreciation of the possible consequences of the data loss in human terms. There have been cases of armed forces personnel details going AWOL, fugitive criminals' details, financial records going missing . See this article for a summary of this pretty bleak picture as it stood in August 2008, and then this article for more examples from the first few months of 2009. Just last month someone walked into a council office and walked out again carrying a laptop containing over 14,000 people's names and other details.
So surely the first thing we should do is redefine data loss as a health and safety hazard? According to a report last year into identity theft:
"More than 49% of the respondents reported stressed family life, 22% felt betrayed by unsupportive family members and friends, and 23% said their family didn't understand.
The strongest feelings expressed were: rage or anger, betrayal, unprotected by police, personal financial fears, sense of powerlessness, sense they were grieving, annoyed, frustrated, exhausted, sleep disturbances, an inability to trust people, and the desire to give up and stop fighting the system. ITRC long term emotional responses included: 8% felt suicidal (my emphasis), 19% feeling captive, 29% ready to give up and 10% felt that they have lost everything."
When we discuss e-safety with kids we talk about the need to keep their identity secret from strangers. There's an inconsistency if we fail to regard the losing of data, which could clearly lead to identity theft on a massive scale, as a health and safety issue too.
Now, if a company was poisoning its employees or the local populace with toxic waste or a contaminated water supply, they would risk being fined. The directors could even find themselves arrested on a charge of corporate manslaughter. I wonder what effect it would have on data loss if employees and their managers knew that if a memory stick ended up in a rubbish tip or whatever they could end up facing years in prison?
Learning from schools
Schools in the UK are subject to inspection every so often, and are also obliged to undertake self-evaluation. Why shouldn't companies have to do the same, and be expected to show high standards, and improvement over time, on a range of criteria, including data security?
Learning from photo libraries
If you're in the media business in the UK, and you need to hire photographic transparencies from a photo library, don't lose or damage them. Why not? Because you're likely to be fined between 400 GBP (630 USD) and 600 GBP (945 USD) for each one.
What if, applying this principle, companies or government departments were fined for each unit of data they lost? Even if only £1 per item was levied, losing 25 million names would be a costly business. Or do we as a nation think that in principle photos have more value than people?
Over to you
What do you (or your students) think of my suggestions?
This is an updated version of an article which appeared in 2008.
What do the Cambridge Primary Review, the 14-19 Diploma and walking down Piccadilly have in common?
In the evening of 19 October 2009 I attended the launch of the Cambridge Review of the Primary Curriculum, at the Royal Society of Arts. What the report brings out is the fact that there is much that children know, understand and can do. This will not be news to anyone who believes that children are (or could and should be) active agents in their own education as opposed to empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge. Anyone who believes that teaching is more than merely following a script written by a third party, which is about as creative as painting-by-numbers, knows this.
Indeed, my own small-scale research (please see References), and the research which Miles Berry and I undertook (ditto), shows this to be the case. So hearing it emphasised at such a meeting and in such a robust publication was most welcome.
It was interesting to learn, for example, that when asked what makes a good teacher, the children came up with the same answers instantly as academic researchers take eons to discover! The teacher must know their stuff, make learning fun, and tell the class in advance what they will be covering.
(I intend to write a separate article about the Cambridge Review, but I'd like to go on record now as saying I think it's a seminal piece of work, and likely to prove the modern-day equivalent of the Plowden Report (and no doubt suffer the same fate). I haven't read the final bit about ICT thoroughly yet, but was impressed enough by the statement, at the launch, that ICT was seen as fundamental a type of literacy as oracy or numeracy, and not merely as an instrument for achieving something else, to say that perhaps I was wrong when I said the educational ICT community should reject the ICT aspects of the report. But, as I say, I will write more when I have read more)
The following day I attended a Westminster Forum on the subject of Diplomas and Apprenticeships, as I have already mentioned. There are two dangers in education. One is that conference organisers too often fail to include young people as an integral part of the programme. Another is that good ideas like the Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills will end up as just more sets of tickboxes for teachers to complete.
I am delighted to say that my worse fears on both counts were allayed at the seminar. Not only did the organisers have the good sense to include a talk by a young person, the school had the good sense to choose an excellent spokesperson!
Victoria is undertaking the Advanced Diploma in Engineering, and was one of the most articulate speakers I've heard. In her allotted five minutes she managed to convey vividly the benefits and challenges of the Diploma, and what doing it has meant for her personally.
She also said, in response to a question of mine, that her teacher's ability to teach the course improved dramatically after s/he had attended an Inside The Workplace event as part of their professional development!
Victoria was accompanied by a friend, who sat in the front row giving her moral support, and who was also prepared to assist in answering questions. In speaking to their teacher I found out that preparing for, taking part in and attending such events was all part of the school's approach to teaching Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills.
Finally, whilst walking down Piccadilly writing the draft for this article in my head, I was brought back to the here and now by a girl asking me if I knew where Regents Street was. I replied that I did, and that it would be easier for me to take her there than to try to give directions (and before you leap to any conclusions, I should mention that she was accompanied by her mother!). We got chatting, and it turns out that the reason she was in London was to attend St James's Palace, where she was presented with her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award by Prince Philip, the Duke himself. Just listening to the catalogue of what she had done in order to achieve the award was enough to make me feel exhausted!
So what do these three episodes have in common? I think the obvious conclusion is that young people know and can do an awful lot, given the right set of circumstances. So, as far as ICT is concerned, what are the 'right circumstances'? I would suggest the following:
- Start from the premise that the young person in front of you knows a lot, but is keen to know more.
- Provide a real challenge, as far as possible, not a made up, and therefore irrelevant, one.
- If audience is involved, let it be a real and important audience. Victoria sat next to, and was spoken to by, Tim Boswell, MP. That's more than a lot of adults have done. And it's so much more meaningful than having an 'audience' of several thousand unknown people on YouTube in my opinion.
- Build the teaching and learning of Functional Skills, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills and other kinds of skill into the work itself, not as some kind of artificial add-on.
- Make learning enjoyable.
- Treat the young people as adults, as far as possible. At least, treat them with respect: the ideas and opinions and scenarios they come up with may pleasantly surprise you.
- Make sure you and your colleagues obtain relevant and enjoyable professional development.