Tag Archives: Education

The Future: Findability

We only noticed three months later, but we passed something of a milestone last December. I’m hoping it might, finally, wake us up to the real power of the Web: findability.

According to Ericsson, a mobile network company, in December we exchanged more data over our mobile devices than we talked on them. In short, we now do more email, social networking, all that stuff, on our mobile phones and mobile-connected laptops than we do voice.

Quite a turning point.

But a turning point of what, exactly?

Well, the conventional wisdom is that we will use our cellphone (or a netbook with a cellphone connection) to do all the things we used to do, or still do, on our desktop tethered laptop or PC. According to a report by Sandvine, another network company, released this month, one in five of us mobile data subscribers are using Facebook and video sharing website YouTube accounts for at least a 10th of all traffic.

But the conclusions they draw from this are wrong.

The thinking is that we’re somehow interested only in doing things that we did at our desk, even when we’re in the open air. Or on the couch.

Well, OK, but it betrays a lack of imagination of what we’ll do when we’re really untethered.

When we have access to everything the Internet has to offer–and when the Internet has access to us. Then we’ll have findability. By that we mean we can find the answer to pretty much every question we ask, from where’s the nearest 24-hour pizza place to what’s the capital of Slovakia. Or who was in that movie with John Cusack about a hit man returning to his high school prom?

We know that we know all this, even if we don’t know it. Because we have all this at our fingertips, because we have the Internet. No longer do we care about hoarding information because we know the Internet’s hoarding it for us, and Google or someone, is there to help us find it in a microsecond.

That’s one bit of findability. But there’s another bit. Connect all this to other bits of information about ourselves, drawn from sensors and other chips inside the device: where we are, what time of day it is, what that building in front of us is, who we’re with, what language they’re speaking, our body temperature, whether we’re moving or stationary, whether we’re upright, sitting or laying flat, whether our eyes are closed, whether we used voice, touch, eyes, keys or gestures to pose whatever question was on our mind.

All that adds extra layers of information to findability, by giving context to our search for information. Only our imagination can tell us how all these bits and pieces of data can be useful to us, but if you’ve used a map on your smartphone you’ll already get a glimpse of its potential.

Last December, we passed into this new era. The era when the potential of the Internet to move beyond the desk and lap, and start to mesh with our lives so that it is all around us. Where we, where everything,  can be found.

Nightmare on Spyware Street

A case in Connecticut has exposed the legal dangers of not protecting your computer against spyware, as well as our vulnerability at the hands of incompetent law-enforcement officers.

Teacher Julie Amero found herself in a nightmare after spyware on her school computer popped up pornographic images in front of students. Instead of realising this was spyware at work, the state accused her of putting them there and forcing her pupils to watch.

In June of 2007, Judge Hillary B. Strackbein tossed out Amero’s conviction on charges that she intentionally caused a stream of “pop-up” pornography on the computer in her classroom and allowed students to view it. Confronted with evidence compiled by forensic computer experts, Strackbein ordered a new trial, saying the conviction was based on “erroneous” and “false information.”

But since that dramatic reversal, local officials, police and state prosecutors were unwilling to admit that a mistake may have been made — even after computer experts from around the country demonstrated that Amero’s computer had been infected by “spyware.”

It seems the nightmare may be coming to an end, but not without a price. She’s had to admit to one misdemeanour charge and surrender her teaching licence. She’s also been hospitalized for stress and heart problems.

The lesson? This was a school computer, and it seems the school failed to install the necessary updates and protection to prevent the spyware from loading itself. That’s probably something Amero should be exploring with her lawyers.

But there’s a bigger issue. We need, as individuals, to take more reponsibility for the computers we use—to learn the basics of protecting them from attacks, and to be able to at least identify what the problem is when something like this happens. It may have taken a techie guy to clean the computer in this case (I admit spyware is really hard to get rid of) but knowing, roughly, what the problem is should be the bare minimum of our working knowledge of the computers we use.

Connecticut drops felony charges against Julie Amero, four years after her arrest – Rick Green | CT Confidential

Social Engineering, Part XIV


Further to my earlier piece about the scamming potential of Web 2.0, here are a couple more examples of why social engineering is a bigger problem than it might appear.

First off, governments and organisations are not as careful with your information as you might expect them to. There are plenty of examples of CD-ROMs and laptops going missing, but often even that doesn’t need to happen. Some governments openly publish such information on the Internet. Indonesia’s minsitry of education, for example, has published the names, addresses, age, date of birth, school and education number of 36 million Indonesian students in easily downloadable XLS format.

Who might use such information? The mind boggles at the possibilities. But one hint might be found in this Straits Times article from neighboring Singapore, which reports a growing wave of faux kidnappings: Gangs phone someone with enough information about their loved one—child, spouse, or whatever—to convince them they’ve been kidnapped and the mark must pay the ransom immediately. In the past six months employees at one bank alone have foiled 14 such attempts—merely by alerting the victims trying to withdraw large amounts of money that they’re being conned.

In the first half of this year, according to the newspaper, 21 people have been scammed out of S$322,000 ($216,000) in this way. Such scams rely on having access to just the kind of information contained in the ministry of education’s database: Knowing kids’ names, their class, their home address, their school chums—all would be invaluable in doing a scam like this. Or any other number of scams.

The point is that we need to think beyond the narrow confines of single channels of data. Scammers don’t: They use a combination of techniques to build up enough information about their mark to be able to either impersonate them or convince them of something. In the above case, it’s that they have kidnapped a relative. In this (still ongoing) Hong Kong-based scam, it’s that they are their bank.

I’m not suggesting Web 2.0 is going to breed a different kind of scam, it’s just going to breed a new kind of opportunity. Social engineering relies on gathering just the sort of data that social networking and presence tools base themselves on.

links for 2008-09-14

Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

Some interesting discussions about whether laptops should be allowed in class or meetings. This from Cybernetnews (via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed):

At the start of my last semester of school, I was taken back when I read the syllabus for one of my classes. It read something like: “laptops may not be brought to class because they distract both the student and the teacher.” For most of my college career I had gotten used to bringing my laptop to class to take notes because I could type much faster than I could write, and sorting and organizing notes was much easier. Here I was in my last semester and the teacher wasn’t going to allow a laptop. I was annoyed, but life went on without my laptop and I had to get used to writing my notes once again.

This is also happening in business meetings.

I definitely think it’s distracting to a teacher or presenter to have people tapping away on laptops. And, perhaps more importantly, distracting for people around them. Speakers at tech conferences can feel themselves battling for attention in a room full of laptop users who rarely look up. I often bring a laptop to interviews and type directly into it; I can tell some interviewees find this distracting, and it’s not good for the ‘hold eye contact to make subject comfortable and stick to topic” routine I try to instill in students.

But laptops are part of our culture now in the same way that notepads and pens were. The truth is that laptops are part of our productivity, and removing them doesn’t make sense since it punishes those people who have succeeded in meshing them into their lives. And besides, few of us have got so much to say, and are so good at saying it that members of the multitasking generation can’t do a few other things while they’re listening to us.

The downer is if the user is clearly not actually taking notes. Or not using the laptop to dig up useful information to contribute to the meeting (my favorite example of this is PersonalBrain demon Jerry Michalski, who can dig up interesting links related to what’s being talked about in seconds). And there’s another aspect to this: the flattening effect of the backchannel, where participants at a conference discuss what is going on onstage among themselves. In one sense this is good, since it gives a passive audience a tool to control the session, but in another it’s simply another distraction.

But I think we presenters/meeting leaders/speakers need to think harder, and throw out the old rule book.

I’ve tried to analyse why I as a teacher find it distracting. One student has been tapping away almost incessantly in class when I’ve been talking. And until recently I’ve had no way of telling whether she’s been writing a letter to Aunt Joan or IMing  or whether she’s so impressed with what I’m saying that she’s taking it down verbatim. But I’ve figured out the solution: just lob a few questions her way and see whether she’s flummoxed or in the flow.

The truth is that while it’s great to have everyone’s eyes on you when you’re talking, rapt fascination sculpting their features into a permanent O shape, those people are not taking notes. We don’t assume that people writing longhand are goofing off (although in my students days that was exactly what I was doing, writing lyrics) so shouldn’t we give laptop users the benefit of the doubt? I’d rather students had some record of what I was saying in class, even if it means they’re also checking email.

The bigger solution, of course, is to ditch the whole ‘presentation thing’ in favor of participation. I know my class are more attentive if they know I’m going to ask random questions of them. An audience is going to be more attentive if the speaker is not merely droning on but offering a compelling performance and engaging them as much as possible. A meeting leader is going to have the attention of the room if s/he doesn’t waste their valuable day giving some PR schtick but keeps it short and genuinely meets the other participant, rather than lectures them.

In short, the onus is always on the person who leads the meeting/class/conference to engage the participants. It’s not rocket science to figure out that all the laptops will clamp tightly shut if the meeting is so absorbing and lively that participants don’t want to miss a second of it, and feel their voice is being heard. And the teacher/presenter/meeting leader should make sure that there’s a decent record of the meeting so those who participate aren’t punished because they haven’t had a chance to take notes.

Laptops have been around long enough for us to have figured out a better way of absorbing them into our workflow. Campuses now have power outlets and lots of tables where students can work on their laptops. This is great to see (and I find it a tad strange that some lecture rooms don’t have the same deal.) These students are used to doing stuff on their laptops, and they’ll enter the workforce with the same mentality. We should be encouraging this. We need to figure out ways to work with this, not against it.

No Laptops Allowed! A New Trend?

Why I Don’t Work in an Office, Don’t Give Out My Phone Number, and Live in Indonesia

Great piece from The Guardian’s Technology editor about the dangers of working in an office, having a telephone line and living in a place swarming with bad PR:

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the swarm of ever-more-desperate people trying to pitch stories about which they either have no clue, or know are dead in the water but are putting themselves through the pain of pitching in order to bill the client. But in a world where we’re turning out ever more meeja studies students, it would help to have some clue about how the minds in the media work. We feed on information, If you haven’t got it, we’ll bite your heads off just to check there isn’t any lurking down there.

Plagiarising Students, or Wiki-style Collaboration?

Plagiarism or just a great example of the new way things are done?

Not content with copying their coursework from the Internet, students, it seems, are now plagiarising their university applications.

A study by the British university admissions clearing house Ucas has found that 5% of student applications had borrowed material to write their personal statements which accompany their applications, according to the BBC. And we’re not just talking lifting a few choice phrases here and there: whole histories are being created. The study found that in these statements, which are supposed to reflect the character and motivations of the applicant:

    • 370 sentences contained a statement beginning: “a fascination for how the human body works…”
    • 234 contained a statement relating a dramatic incident involving “burning a hole in pyjamas at age eight”
    • 175 contained a statement which involved “an elderly or infirm grandfather”.

That’s a lot of burnt pyjamas and infirm grandfathers.

But actually upon closer inspection, I don’t think this is a simple case of lazy and insecure students lifting their statements from elsewhere. Students are merely leveraging the same tools that elsewhere are being lauded as the foundations of citizen journalism, collaborative writing and Web 2.0. Finding their applications being weeded out and discarded not on their academic qualifications but on vague and ill-defined “personal statements”, they’re searching for ways to press the right buttons.

Online of course makes this much easier. A website called Studential.com, for example, allows students to swap stories and information about applying for university, on doing interviews and writing personal statements. It’s not clear who runs Studential, since there’s no ‘about’ page and the domain registration is hidden, but it appears to be an individual. But it’s clearly the source of at least some of “pyjamas” material, since one successful applicant to the University of Bristol began their personal statement in just that way. They then posted the statement in its entirety to the website and have since elicited dozens of positive comments. (The same applicant then posted this on another website forum seeking help on writing personal statements”:

Here’s how I started mine:

Ever since I accidentally burnt holes in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my 8th Birthday, I have always had a passion for science.

Maybe that will give you some inspiration..

Clearly it did. Of course, there’s no condoning folk copying other people’s work, and in particular copying personal anecdotes. (Unless all these folk really did burn holes in their pyjamas on their 8th birthday.) But in other ways it reflects two things, one positive, one negative:

  • the online world favors cooperation and collaboration. Student applicants in a very competitive environment are happy and willing to share their experiences and their material. This is a real community.
  • the online world doesn’t necessarily favor originality, creativity or individuality. We have too much prior information, too much of an idea of what the benchmark and received procedure are, so what we do create tends to be bland and unoriginal.

Did these students feel they were plagiarists when they copied the pyjama episode? Or did they just feel that this was what worked, what was required of them, and then gave it? The system was asking them to come up with a personal statement that pressed the right buttons, and the pyjama button seemed to work.

I’d say the problem is with the personal statement approach, not unoriginal students desperate to do whatever gets them into medical school.

The Mind Mapping Software Weblog

For mind mapping fans, there’s a new Mind Mapping Software Weblog:

The Mind Mapping Software Weblog is designed to provide businesspeople with a focused collection of resources related to visual mapping – its applications, its benefits, and how you can use it to increase your productivity and creativity.

It’s early days. but looks promising. If nothing else, there’s a good list of mind mapping software, which includes some not in my own list.

The Skype Revolution Hits Teaching

I don’t know if this is the first, but it’s certainly an early example of how Skype and other VOIP products are going to create a new form of business: Accessible voice services. An Online Language School Uses Skype to Teach English:

Isle of Man (UK)-based school Telephonenglish.com [not the most elegant of website names, and you have to wonder how the spelling will rub off on students] has committed itself to using Skype VoIP technology to teach English to its global clients. “The quality and the popularity of the Skype VoIP telephony service makes it the obvious choice for our e-learning services,” said Telephonenglish founder Martin Curtis.

Telephonenglish.com was founded in September 2004 to take advantage of cheap internet telephony as a means of teaching English students around the world who are either too isolated, or simply too busy to travel to a traditional language school for classes.

Why Skype?

“The ability to send files during the lesson, as well as using the text-based chat facility during the e-lesson, makes Skype a perfect platform for affordable online learning,” said Martin Curtis.

So who is Telephonenglish.com? It’s four full-time teachers, and as far as I can figure out from the websites, students get emailed the lessons in advance, download Skype and then will get called by the teacher at a booked time.

Jim’s Answer To The Moleskine

My friend Jim was passing through town the other day, and we compared Moleskines. Or rather, I brought out my immaculate Moleskine and he brought out a black pile of something or other. I asked him to tell me about it in response to a comment from someone about the benefits of the Moleskine pocket on an earlier post. Jim posted his comments here but I reproduce them here in full, along with pictures:

To add to the great debate, Moleskin versus Miquelrius.

My qualifications, in brief, included 14 years in journalism, consulting, peacekeeping and roaming the world for other NGOs and international organizations. As a shorthand writer as well as one time foreign correspondent and official diplomatic notetaker, I think the old fashioned paper notebook is more reliable, in the long run, and less intimidating. It can transition gracefully from presidential palace to remote village. It doesn’t get crushed, run out of batteries or attract attention. Wrap it in a Zip Loc bag and its waterproof.

While I like the Moleskine’s “high end” features such as the strap, pagemarker and back pocket useful, it has drawbacks. The Moleksin has less volume, therefore I use one every three months as compared to a Miquelrius every eight months, even with extensive notetaking. This means the Moleskin is less useful as a portable archive.

Size does matter, but the Miqquelrius is still small enough to fit in a trouser pocket.

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (open)

The Moleskine is also more expensive, so using them more frequently adds to the cost.

It is narrower more difficult to do good shorthand. The width also limits your ability to sketch and draw, everything from organigrams to the scenery.

My solution? Improvise with the Miquelrius to get something just right. Add a small envelope to the back. I use left over wedding RSVP envelopes:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook pocket #3

I generally use two green elastic bands for section dividers. I picked those up wrapped around my vegetables from Trader Joes. The elastic bands the postman leaves behind also work:

Jim's Miquelrius Notebook (wide)

Pages can also be marked with Post-It Flags, paper clips and regular Post-It Notes folded back into the page you last used. My pictured notebook has been around the world a few times, including to a few remote African and Indonesian villages. It looks a bit tattered by the time you get it back to Washington, but I reckon there is nothing better for your “street cred” as a guy who knows what’s going on in the field than walking into a meeting with a weathered notebook.

Thanks, Jim.