My grim and distant techie past: the uni years, part 2

banda sheets detailedIn this occasional series, I am outlining the sort of technology I’ve been obliged to use at various stages of my life. On the whole, I think things are much easier now than they have been at any time in the past, especially for teachers. When I did my first degree, for instance, photocopiers produced poor quality copies, very slowly, and at an exorbitant cost. (I wrote about this in the article My grim and distant techie past: the uni years, part 1.) These days, you can buy a multifunction printer for less than £30 (under $50), and have a photocopier, in effect, right there on your desk at home, producing copies for a few pennies each.
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No Articles For Nearly Two Days? How Come?

Imagine this. You're enjoying a lovely sleep, completely enwrapped in your duvet. Well, you're not enjoying it because you're asleep, but you know what I mean. You start to become aware of something wet and sticky, and a bit rough, in your ear. All of a sudden you know: it's a tongue.

Now, in some circumstances I imagine this might be quite pleasant. But when there's a cat at the other end of the tongue, it is arguably less so. That's how my day started off yesterday morning, and this morning too, at around 3:30 am. Couple that with a horrible chest infection that I managed to pick up at BETT and the usual sorts of deadlines, getting stuff out at my usual rate has been a bit of a challenge.

So, thanks for your patience. Look out for a special post-BETT edition of Computers in Classrooms, another instalment in the Web 2.0 For Rookies series, a post about challenges and the start of a new series (one of two new series) for ICT/ed tech leaders.

In the meantime, I thought you might like to see a picture of the miscreant who disturbed my beauty sleep. Note how overworked he looks. I'd include a picture of myself too, but the bags under my eyes embarrass me.

Cat at work

Why I Love The Internet

I think it's easy to take for granted all the information we have at our fingertips, but every so often I have an experience that reminds me of how wonderful it all is.

Take last Wednesday for example. Elaine and I went shopping in the afternoon to a local supermarket, and all of a sudden a good music track started wafting over the airwaves, one which sounded original rather than the usual ersatz rubbish. Neither of us could place it, but when I arrived home I looked up the only snippet of the lyrics I could remember.

I plugged the following into Google:

lyrics: love is kinda crazy

From that I discovered that the song was called Spooky. I looked that up in Spotify, and very quickly found out that the version being played in the supermarket was the one recorded by Dusty Springfield.

Total length of time spent on research? Three minutes. I can't imagine how long that would have taken me in pre-web days.

So what was all the fuss about? Well, here is the YouTube video of Dusty singing it. To be honest, the video is not exactly the most exciting thing you've ever seen, but the tune is nice!

The Value Of Games in Education: A Case Study

A short while ago I wrote about my first ‘wow’ moment in educational technology. It concerned using a computer to simulate the workings of a concept in Economics known as ‘the multiplier’. It’s not important what that actually is. More to the point is the fact that it was through using a simple computer program that enabled students to get the concept in an instant, simply because the results of their actions could be seen straight away.

That wasn’t a game as such, but it’s relevant because, just a few years later, I had my students playing a simulation called Running the British Economy. Utilising both the Treasury model and the latest Treasury statistics, the game involved manipulating a number of economic variables in order to keep the economy on an even keel between inflation on the one hand and high unemployment on the other.

Now, the game had value right out of the box. Students were given access to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s goodie bag, and found out after five game years how successful they’d been, as measured by the simple issue of whether they’d been voted back in after a pretend general election.

OK, Sim City it wasn’t, but it was complex, realistic and, crucially, gave feedback on the effects of changing tax rates, interest rates, government spending and many other things. My students ‘got’ it. I entered them for a national competition, and they came second, beating even a team from a private school. They learnt more in the few weeks of playing the game than I could have taught them using traditional methods in a whole term.

But for me, the real value of the simulation became apparent if you decided to try and break the rules – in order to find out what the rules actually were.

So I instructed the class to go for full employment at all costs. Increase government spending. Reduce taxes. Go for it! They succeeded. Within three game years there was 99% employment. There was a slight problem that inflation was running at around 1,000%, but we’ve got to make sacrifices, right?

However, the prospect of riots in the street and the government being lynched didn’t appeal much, so  we went for the opposite: zero inflation at all costs. We did it too! Within a year of cutting all non-essential services (health care, police, armed forces, education) we had a negative rate of inflation: prices were actually falling! I’m sure the 2% of people who still had jobs were delighted.

What we discovered from all this is that the Treasury model was based on Keynesian economic theory – which is fine if you believe that to be an accurate descriptor of how the economy works. If, like Margaret Thatcher and others, you do not believe that, then the ability of simulations like Running the British Economy to predict outcomes is seriously called into question.

As a result of mis-playing the game in the way we did, my students and I were able to uncover the underlying assumptions of the economic model being used. That led us on to rich discussions, not only about the assumptions in this particular case, but the fact that they were not made explicit anywhere. How far might other economic ‘predictions’ – such as the one which states that if you reduce State benefits you’ll get more people into work – be based on models whose assumptions are questionable? Perhaps even more to the point, the assumptions you start with determine the result. What playing the game in this showed us was that there’s no such thing as an objective economic model, whatever the pundits try and tell you.

This is just one example of how a game or simulation was used as a means of bringing about some very deep learning in quite a complex area. If you’re interested in how games can be valuable in education, you’re in luck because there are three important events coming up. I’ll be writing about those in a separate article.

BETT Highlights #2: Serendipity Rules OK

#BETT2010 One of the things I love about the BETT Show is meeting people by accident. On the second day (I think) I was standing in an aisle trying to (a) get my bearings and (b) identify which branch of Vedic Mathematics the organisers had used when planning the location of the stands, when I noticed another gentleman standing nearby.

"I recognise that glazed expression," I thought to myself. "You look as geographically-challenged as I am", I said.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (well, it's not that long, but this is meant to be a 'highlight' after all), he turned out to be Gerald Haigh.

Gerald is a journalist whose articles I used to read in the Times Education Supplement, and who still contributes to the website of Merlin John, erstwhile ICT editor of the TES.

BETT is great for meeting people you already know. It's good for making new contacts too. But nothing quite beats the frisson of finding yourself talking to someone you've read, known about and communicated with for a long time.

After BETT, the Deluge

I am surprised. I am really surprised. Despite a gruelling 4 days at the BETT Show (doing 7 am to 1 am days), a terrible journey home, a looming chest infection and a blister, I am feeling incredibly creative. Perhaps it's true that writers give of their best when they are pain- and angst-ridden.

Or it could be that my fitness levels are up (I've been a good boy, working out in the gym; it's supposed to be boring, but I use the time to write articles in my head!), or staying over for the first time ever. I think I will add that to my list of pre-BETT tips. Not having a journey (door-to-door) of about 1.5 hours twice each day really helped. As my wife never seems to tire of pointing out: I'm not getting any younger. (My mum always used to say that too, about herself. It kind of implies that there some people who are getting younger....)

Or it could be that I came away from BETT feeling exhuberant. That happens to me sometimes, although I don't think it did last year. I came away buzzing. I'll be writing about why in the next issue of Computers in Classrooms, which I hope to bring out this week (I'm setting myself the deadline of Wednesday: I like a challenge.)

But for now, as someone in the twitterstream said, 'back to the day job', which for me is encapsulated in a list of 95 things which I must try to get done this week.

Why do I insist on writing these lists?

What Was Your 'WOW' Moment

Dr John Cuthell of MIrandanet likes to ask people what was their 'wow' moment, that nanosecond in which they realised that technology had something truly transformative to offer.

That 'wow' moment!For me, that moment came in 1976. Interestingly, I had already been using technology, but at one remove. I was teaching Economics at the time, and in order to familiarise my students with the vagaries of the stock market, I enrolled them in a game called Stockpiler. The idea was that you were 'given' a certain amount of money, and the students' job was to use that to maximise their profit through the buying and selling of shares.

Each week they would pore over the share prices and, having spent their 'spare' time (I didn't believe in such concepts) in the previous week reading periodicals like The Economist and the newspapers (I'd made sure these were amply available) and then make their decisions.

I would then collect in the forms on which they'd detailed their instructions, and send it off to some central processing place. Around a week later we'd find out how we did.

That was interesting, but it's hard to become excited by the technology when the time between input and output is so high.

About a year after I'd joined the school, a student brought in his computer. He had taught himself to program it, so I asked him to knock up a quick program to emulate a concept called 'the multiplier'. He did so, and the rest of us crowded around the screen. When we saw the numbers responding instantly to the suggestions we threw at him ('Make the interest rate 12%'; 'Lower income tax to zero'), I knew things could never be the same. With this technology it would be possible to model the behaviour of systems and show instantly the effect of changes in inputs on the outcomes.

That was my 'wow' moment. What was yours?

The Right Writing Style

My deskWhat is the 'correct' style for a blog post? When I first started blogging, I decided that my blog should be pretty serious. After all, one wants to be taken seriously, so it's logical that an article with a serious intent should be written in a serious manner.

But there are degrees of seriousness. If a blog post comes across as too didactic, it may prove useful, and may even be bookmarked for future reference. But it won't be enjoyed necessarily.On the other hand, some blogs go too far the other way in my opinion. Blog posts which use the occasional swear word may be funny, but you can't really share them professionally. I experienced something like this before blogs came on the scene. Back in 1998 I saw an hilarious diatribe against the internet by a British comedian called Ben Elton. I should have loved to have shown it at my next Ed Tech Co-ordinators' Day; unfortunately, the use of a swear word at a crucial point made it an untenable prospect.

One of the things I am growing weary of, when I read some blogs, is their underlying arrogance. In my opinion, blogs are meant to encourage conversation, but it's difficult to feel confident to start a conversation with someone whose tone already suggests that theirs is the only valid viewpoint. I have to say, it is almost exclusively men who have this trait in my experience.

In my own writings, I have become increasingly conversational in tone. I'm writing more and more often in a way that is closer to speaking than writing. I'm not sure if that is objectively good or bad, but it feels right for me.

And I think that is the crucial point. When it comes to blogs, which, after all, started their existence as personal web logs or journals, we need to find our own voice and our own style. Only if we enjoy the act of writing will others enjoy the act of reading it.

Surely that is the standpoint we must adopt in schools too? For example, should youngsters be asked to 'correct' their grammar or not to use text-speak in their blogs? Should they even be asked to correct their spelling?

If I were back in the classroom now, I think what I'd like to do is encourage my pupils to experiment in lots of different ways when writing their blogs. I try out different things myself, sometimes writing list-style articles, other times writing longer, more discursive pieces. Occasionally I even experiment with fiction writing. As far as I'm concerned, experimentation is fundamentally necessary, in the same way that exercise is necessary.

Let's make 2010 the year of trying out new ways to express ourselves in blogs!

This is a slightly amended version of an article I posted at the Technology & Learning blog yesterday.

Authorised Madness

I offer this rant partly to get things off my chest -- I think I now officially qualify for the title "grumpy old man", even though I don't much care for the "old" part -- but even more so as a topic which teachers may like to raise with their students. The basic question is, I think, is technology being used inappropriately, or intrusively or even, ultimately, ridiculously?

I visited my local supermarket yesterday and decided to use the self-service check-out. This is a very advanced service which seems to require there to be at least two members of staff on hand at all times in order to sort out the problems it comes up with. If I tell you that I, of all people, have developed what amounts to a phobia about using it you may get a sense of how awful I think it is most of the time.

It isn't that the problems which arise are terrible in themselves, just that it's so embarrassing when a line of people is building up behind you. And that's another thing: it works perfectly when nobody else is around....

Just to put the positive side to the equation, I will admit to having found it much faster, sometimes, than the normal check-out, and it is undoubtedly more fun. There is a video game-type display showing you what to do, and a voice which guides you though the process.  That voice is female and was chosen, I am certain, to sooth the nerves of people such as myself and thereby prevent acts of vandalism directed towards the machinery.

But yesterday even I was floored by a message that appeared on the screen.

Before going any further, I have to inform non-UK residents that we in England have reached the point where anyone who sells anything is scared to death of being sued. Thus it is that if you buy a drink from a fast food outlet you'll see a notice on the cup informing you that the contents may be hot -- even if you've purchased an iced tea. On foodstuffs, just about everything contains the warning, "May contain nuts". Bizarrely, bags of nuts do not come with such a warning. I must contact my attorney....

Even food which could not possibly contain anything even resembling a nut comes with the caution that it may contain traces of nuts, or that it was processed on machinery that may once have been used to process nuts.

Medicine packets list every single possible side effect of the contents therein. So, if 3 years ago someone took one of these tablets and then 2 weeks later his left leg dropped off, one of the possible side effects listed will be "May cause leg to drop off."

Back to the supermarket. The way it works is that you scan the item, then drop it into a plastic bag. The item shows up on the screen, then you're ready to put the next one on. One of the items last night was a box of painkillers. I scanned it, dropped it in the bag, and then had a warning message appear reading something like: "You have bought painkillers. You cannot buy any more unless you are authorised to do so. Are you authorised to do so? Yes/No"

Authorised? By whom? My mother? The store manager? I pressed "Yes" and it let me continue. In discussion with my wife we decided that it must be the store's way of protecting itself against prosecution by the families of people who decide to end it all by taking an overdose of painkillers. Presumably such people are too depressed to think about buying one huge box, buying several small boxes in several shops, or just to press "Yes". Perhaps there is some law that states that nobody is allowed to sell anyone more than one box of painkillers at a time.

Perhaps this idea could be extended to other areas of modern life? How about this: when you press the button on a traffic light, suppose a message came up: "Crossing the road is dangerous. Have you been authorised to do so?"

Homes could be fitted with such a system, so that as you go out of the house you're warned that "There are muggers and drunk drivers out there. Don't do it!" And when you put your key in the door to come in: "You do realise, I hope, that most accidents happen in the home? Do yourself a favour and head to the nearest hotel. Here's a list of the nearest ones which have vacancies..."

And by the way, I do hope you've printed this out to read. Computers use electricity, and electricity is dangerous. Make sure you've been authorised.

A Touch of Humanity

It is a sad but incontrovertible fact that one of the unfortunate effects of technology is that it provides some people with the excuse they need to abrogate all sense of personal responsibility or discretion. Note that I don't say the rise of technology causes people to behave in particular ways, just that it creates conditions in which such people can thrive.

This was epitomised and satirised by the Little Britain sketches on the theme of 'The computer says 'no'!" (See below for an example.)

Automated menus are another manifestation of this phenomenon. The worst ones are the ones where you end up in a sort of closed time loop, in which, after ten minutes of increasingly 'niche' destinations you end up in the same menu you started at.

Possibly the absolute worst one was the one which, after ten minutes getting me to the extension I wanted, announced that the office was now closed and that I should try again in the morning. I quite like the automated answering machine script in this context.

The Oyster CardYesterday I raced for a bus and placed my Oyster Card against the automated reader. The Oyster Card is a kind of cashless travel ticket that stores details of all your journeys on the Transport for London system. It probably also stores how many cups of coffee you've consumed, the point you're at on your circadian rhythm cycle and details of your DNA.

The wretched machine bleeped twice.

"What does that mean?", I asked.

"It means you haven't got any money left on the card", came the response.

"OK, how much is it then?"

"Two pounds."

"Two pounds?!" I exclaimed. "Good grief."

I rummaged around for some money, but found just a few loose coins.

"Can you change a ten pound note?" I asked.

"Where are you going?"

"The station".

"Forget it", said the driver.

"Really?", I said. "You are a gentleman, Sir."

In times gone by I would have written to the bus company, giving the time and route on which I was travelling, to thank them for such commendable service. If I did that now, he'd probably lose his job for not following some set of rules to the letter.

But it was a pleasant experience to meet someone who could exercise a bit of judgement, and show a touch of humanity.

How I started teaching ICT

Full Circle: How I started teaching ICT

Image by Terry Freedman via Flickr

Sometimes people ask me how I made the transition from teaching Economics to teaching ICT. In case you're interested, here's (part of) the story.

In 1986 I was working as what was called a Permanent Unattached teacher in London. Basically, it was supply teaching with a difference. In fact, with two differences. Firstly, it was for at least one term at a time in a particular school, to cover long-term absence. Secondly, it was (in theory, at least), subject-specific. In other words, I was covering lessons in my own subject specialisms.

Although I loved teaching Economics, I was starting to have doubts as to future job prospects in that field. It seemed to me that fewer and fewer schools were offering it as an option, and more and more schools were looking at vocational and business studies courses. I'm not sure if the then government's half-baked notion of teaching economic literacy across the curriculum was a help or a hindrance in the prognosis for Economics. (It's interesting to me, as an aside, how Economics has suddenly become very popular in the mainstream.)

The school I was in at the time was quite forward thinking. It had a suite of computers in the business studies department, which taught word processing. A senior teacher used a computer spreadsheet for helping him work out the timetable.

Now, I had used computers in one form or another since starting my teaching career, but I had used them as a means of enhancing my lessons in Economics (a topic for another article), not as a tool in their own right. Thus I didn't know how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet.

(The school also had a computer club for female staff to learn how to do computer programming. In an appalling act of sexism I was not allowed to join that group. That, too, is a subject for another article.)

You have to bear in mind that in those days the computer programs were not WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). To make a word bold you had to put a control code before and after it. To centre a paragraph or a heading you had to put a code in the margin. It wasn't exactly intuitive, and you could never be completely sure you'd got it right until you'd printed it off.

The Head of Business Studies, Jane, taught me how to word process. Tony, the Senior Teacher, taught me how to use the spreadsheet. Thanks to them, I learnt enough about using the software to talk my way into my next job, Head of Business Studies and Information Technology.

Eleven years later I was working as an ICT advisor in the same borough. One day, my boss asked me to go down to the school where I'd cut my teeth on word processing and spreadsheets. Apparently, the Deputy Headteacher was trying to devise a spreadsheet that would enable him to analyse and correlate examination results with attendance records and that sort of thing.

I made an appointment through the school secretary, and turned up the next morning. I was shown into the Deputy Head's office. He had his back to me while he desperately tried to clear some papers so I could sit down.

"It's very good of you to come at such short notice, Terry", he said. "Can I get you a cup of tea?"

He turned round to face me and we shook hands.

"Good morning, Tony", I said.