The future of tech education – ICT upgrades to open source

In the final show of Cool Stuff Collective series 3 I put forward my wish for 2012, which actually occurs at 20:12 in the show that ICT in schools needed a revamp (there a few days left before this rotates from the player, I don’t have the rights to youtube it AFIAK yet). Now I am not the first person to say this about ICT, and I was adding to the many voices both of the various tech industries, reports to government UPDATE* The Royal Society have just release a report too here* and those teachers bypassing some of the ICT curriculum to get kids actually skilled in computer science and building with technology. Yesterday the government minister for education Michael Gove gave a public speech at the BETT education conference that indicated that all the pressure was working. Admitting that ICT was not working, was boring the kids and was leading to a crippling loss of hi tech skills in the UK.
There is a full transcript of what was said here and of course it features general political sound bites. yet the core of it is positive as far as I can see.
Two things stood out for me.
1.”That’s why, rather than focusing on hardware or procurement, we are investing in training individuals. We need to improve the training of teachers so that they have the skills and knowledge they need to make the most of the opportunities ahead.”
2. “An open-source curriculum

Advances in technology should also make us think about the broader school curriculum in a new way.

In an open-source world, why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document? A statement of priorities frozen in time; a blunt instrument landing with a thunk on teachers’ desks and updated only centrally and only infrequently?

In ICT, for example, schools are already leading the way when it comes to using educational technology in new and exciting ways – and they’re doing it in spite of the existing ICT curriculum, not because of it.

The essential requirements of the National Curriculum need to be specified in law, but perhaps we could use technology creatively to help us develop that content. And beyond the new, slimmed down National Curriculum, we need to consider how we can take a wiki, collaborative approach to developing new curriculum materials; using technological platforms to their full advantage in creating something far more sophisticated than anything previously available.”

1. Is about people, teaching teachers, industry getting involved to help and
2. is an amazing alteration in the view that the processes and interactions are open source as much as the actual technology itself. Something many of us in the emerging tech and open source world already know and share.

It could be seen as dropping responsibility for ICT but I think this will work out, as most collaborative ventures as activists with clear positive ideas making changes and that will naturally drag everyone along.

As you know I try and not just talk about things but do take a bite out of technology so you don’t have too and this has all coincided with some observations and activities by my kids, aka the predlets. Predlet 1.0 is 8, Predlet 2.0 is 5 (just about). Yesterday Predlet 1.0 was not well in the morning so ended up not going to school. Rather than veg out in front of the TV I put minecraft on for her. Yes a game, but also with some other properties.
With a few hours of focus she got to do things other than just build blocks. She tried survival/crafting mode for a while and learned how hard it was to manage resources, this made her appreciate the open world of creative mode where all the blocks and resources are available to you all the more. Having switched to creative mode she started to explore the functioning blocks. Minecraft has mechanical and electrical components in it. Very soon there were switches and pressure plates opening and closing doors, mine carts propelled by red ore repeaters on rails, some needing more power to go up hill etc.
When Predlet 2.0 came home from school he was keen to join in so it was time to get computers running and a local minecraft server. This then meant the two of them were in their own virtual world, together. Where the actions of one impacted the other. They talked about it a lot and started to build a house. This was a collaborative build in a location they felt was best for the house. By a river near some mountains with a lush forest around it. 1.0 the showed 2.0 how the switches and mechanisms worked on doors.
This is the result. Viewed from my minecraft as I too can attach to our server and see how things are getting on.

Here there is a pressure plate in front of and behind the door to “automate it”
The small room has a bed each and also notice a bookcase as books are important

Whilst running this multiplayer setup across our network there was a crash. I was on a call so tech support was closed for 30 mins. They used their initiative and got the server going again, though were foiled by passwords on the clients, so instead switched to offline play on their own individual worlds until I was free.
Now this may not be a regular lesson, I am not a teacher. Yet this covered an awful lot of ground.
a)In world they were moving around in 3d space, aware of one another. There were creating and removing 3d block objects, choosing from inventories. So the mechanics of a metaverse, just like being in Second Life or OpenSim were in full use.
b)They were collaborating on a single project, dividing the tasks up, one did the walls whilst the other did the floor.
c)They chose a location near water and other resources, which to all intents and purposes is a geography lesson!
d)They shared how to start to build machinery, basic physics and mechanics and to some degree electronics, and implemented those together.
e)When there was a tech failure they attempted to resolve it, understood there was a server component that was brokering the 2 clients. When that did not work they worked out a fall back resolution. They now also are starting to ask about general systems management and how interconnected processes need to be kept running.
f)They enjoyed it immensely.

For me seeing a multiplay sandbox creative environment like this running is yet more of the same that we had with Second Life back in 2006 when we started to use the environment to communicate and share ideas. Back then we wanted our own servers for privacy and control. That spun out into things like Opensim which exists today. The pattern is the same with minecraft though it has more of a game feel and reason for existing, yet this creative mode becomes about building. Why build? well answers a) to f) above should be a good reason.

We are obviously a tech g33k family, and social exclusion from technology does worry me. However… put this sort of thing in schools to get kids interested in the first place? Those that like sys admin will gravitate towards the power of running servers. Those with a design eye will build interesting things, the engineers will make machines and understand cause and effect. Then of course there is the growth of 3d printing, the digital things can also become real products. Online social skills and etiquette will grow. It does not have to be minecraft, there are lots of ways to do this. It does not even have to be a specific tailored experience.

These things are there, available, not science fiction. There are also those of us out here ready to help because we have tried some things out. So the future looks bright doesn’t it?

ICT education is not what we need – Official

Today, as you will have noticed from twitter, the UK government (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) has published “The Government’s response to Next Gen. Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries”.
The next gen report was originally written by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope and is part of a ground swell of annoyance at the lack of proper technical education in schools due to the curriculum being filled with ICT which is “using” not “building”. Other reports have come out too from the government and with Google’s Eric Schmidt indicating in a major speech he felt the UK had too many luvvies and not enough boffins it really does need addressing.
The response in this new report does not exactly leap of the page calling for action. As with most government documents it is full of “welcoming comments”, “recognizing the issue” etc.
It does point to “lots” of after school clubs allowing various activities “However, the Department for Education is keen to encourage even more such clubs and looks forward to working with the sector to develop ways of achieving this.” yes that seems to be missing the point that these development skills for programming are actually core skills now, needed and lacking.
The report does sing the praises of Raspberry Pi as an ideal project and they seem to recognise that it is of use, though goes not further than that.
Equally in teaching the response is “The Government recognises the need for more high quality computer science teaching and will, over the next few months, be looking at the best ways to achieve this.”, but this is of course on the backdrop of a massive teaching strike over pensions this week.
I think the stand out quote though, and one that will be the seed for the beginning of any growth or change is
“However, the Government recognises that learning the skills to use ICT effectively and acquiring the knowledge of the underpinning computer science are two different (albeit complementary) subjects. Furthermore, the Government recognises that the current ICT programme is insufficiently rigorous and in need of reform.”
The rest of the report really is a lot of word play around not actually knowing what to do now they have spotted that.
Things move very slowly in politics, so hopefully armed with this information industry will step in to help. That of course leads to a two tier system of those that have the tech and those that do not. I was in a school that is sponsored by Apple last week. ipads and Macs everywhere, and more importantly being used to create and learn. We still have a long way to go but lets hope we can keep the next generation inspired long enough whilst the people with all the power get their act together.

Spot the difference – Kids virtual worlds

Predlet 1.0 introduced me to a new website/virtual world/game that her friends had been playing the other day. It is called Bin Weevils. There are clearly a lot of interesting things coming along all the time but I was struck but the almost complete similarity between this and Moshi Monsters
It has comedy and education linked, many quick brain training puzzles, maths and observation to generate the things you need for your character.
It is abstract in its reference to the character too, i.e. its a pet not an avatar proxy for the user. It is tied into CN/Nick Tv too and has a free to play with an enticing subscriber model.
It is also visual similar, to the point I can’t help thinking this is a white label moshi?

I have not come across any pop star baiting yet in Bin weevils but I am sure that humour will be there too.
They are both UK based too which is interesting in its own right.

Physical to Digital with LEGO – Life of George

There is a definite theme of physical toy and game interaction emerging. An interesting one that appeared recently is LEGO Life of George. This comes with a build platform for LEGO bricks and a app that is used to identify your creations through the camera, which in turn unlocks new things in the app.
The video is pretty self explanatory 🙂

There is of course a website and a facebook page to like
I like the 8 bit nature of the LEGO. It reminds me of those days in the 80’s with graph paper working out sprites for the C64. The 8 bit style is certainly en vogue with Minecraft taking a similar block approach to graphics and many apps such as Tiny Tower and Game Dev Story using pixel art in the same way. It is also very Little Computer People (if you remember that 🙂 )
I like that George is a software engineer. A fellow g33k but with lots of interests outside his cubicle.
The tone of the site is also self deferential as the lead paragraph indicates “I am George …and this is the game of my life. It uses an awesome LEGO Brick capture technology that turns your iPhone/iPod into a revolutionizing new experience, giving you hours of building fun with endless possibilities (marketing told me to put that in).”
This will of course be the start of a greater interaction between the physical and the virtual world. Whilst this is pattern matching and creating relations to visual tags it will not be long before we can scan in something we have built with LEGO in 3D and drop it into a virtual environment.
The lines are blurring, and that is good 🙂

More practical science in education – Let’s hope so!

Today a report came out from the UK government select committee on Science and Technology looking into the apparent lack of practical science work in schools that will create the next generation of scientists . It is heartening to see that the problem of a lack of practical science in schools has been identified. It is something that I have spoken about and also heard many others publicly express concern over.
It is a little concerning that some of the reporting is suggesting that it is the teachers in schools avoiding doing field trips and hands on science due to health and safety concerns and to curriculum pressure as if it was the teachers that created the league tables, measurement culture and paperwork. Most teachers want to excite and engage students, that is the point of the vocation. It is the policies around schools, the funding models and the generic nature of the curriculum that is the problem.
Arduino board
In the branch of technology that I work in there are plenty of opportunities for hands on practical work, programming, electronics, art, expression, logic etc. Much of what I try and help people with is things that they can just go and do, at relatively low of zero cost. That clearly can’t happen with some of the more physical sciences that require raw materials, or complex instruments but it is all about people getting to do and then share that creates interest. Being told and then measured really is not a sensible approach to inspire people of any generation.
As I wrote a few months ago about the excellent Raspberry PI project “There is also that realisation that developer community is shrinking, the grand masters are getting older, kids are not getting into programming. It’s not really even being taught.”
Whether you regard this as a science or an art or a branch of engineering the skills used in software development and understanding patterns of technology are relatively low cost to engage students with though it does need teachers who are programmers. I think there are few technical experts out there that want to change profession to teach ICT (which is basic use of of packages akin to learning to type). When I started as a programmer our teacher was from the industry, there were some keen hobbyist teachers too, but the main teacher has worked building systems. This, along with self teaching on easily accessible systems, was my grounding when I was in my early teens.
Now we have lots of unusual platforms, Opensim as a virtual world, Minecraft, Little Big Planet, Arduino hardware all available to encourage a generation of hackers, engineers and potential scientists just waiting to be rolled into more common school usage.
What am I doing about that then? Well short of going to train to be a teacher (now there is an idea!) I try and bring these things to the TV and to presentation and conferences, trying to show through practically doing things.
Of course if we miss a generation or two, separating them from technology and science in favour of paperwork we end up with a set of parents who will not be able to share the science with their kids. This in turn will lead to politicians, teachers and educators that also do not have that passion for science and tech. So we have no choice.
I know I gained an appreciation of large scale engineering and the challenges of it from my Dad working building ships. The trades (welding, plating, carpentry, technical drawing and design etc) all blended together into a very tangible and physical experience of what has to come together to make something as impressive as a large ship.
We need to make sure that whilst all the red tape and obsessive measuring is removed from education we keep the interest levels alive so that when the system is ready to enthuse the kids they haven’t given up already.

Talking careers, games, TV, BCS and Virtual worlds in 5 mins

At the Develop conference this year I was asked if I minded doing a quick interview for so I popped along and this is the result.

We had a very quick chat before and then we just blasted through in 1 take 🙂
I am in good company if you look at the actual site here
Between Colin Anderson of Denki and Mick Hocking of Sony.
The BCS and its role in careers may be of interest or resonate with some games industry people looking for some structure.
I am pleased with the points I got across too. Thanks to @davidsmithuk for putting this together and asking such good questions in the interview.

Inclusive gaming – An inspirational project

At Develop last month I got talking to the guys on the stand for the SpecialEffect loan library project 2011-2013. @SpecialEffect is a charity which aim to make all games accessible to everyone. The library aspect is to provide specialist controllers, emrging technology solution and software patches for young people with vary degrees of accessibility issues with games in particular.

SpecialEffect Loan Library Project from William Donegan on Vimeo.

The charity points out that many games can be too quick or difficult to play for many young people with disabilities. They aim to either provide new interfaces or changes to the games, or actually tell people which games already are playable with suitable settings for specific needs of a specific audience.
If you think about it this can be as easy as providing subtitling on dialogue to hearing impaired, or enough changes in speed and skill level to allow the game to still be enjoyable and a challenge.
On the stand there where examples of console games adjusted to take single oversize reactive button input, or shoot em ups that had context sensitive directions. It was very inspiring and thought provoking.
We have often talked about the affordances virtual worlds give us, a digital environment, haptic feedback etc all providing ways that anyone could interact. The reality though is that accessibility is not a focus of mainstream gaming, but Specialeffect are pushing the right direction.
There is also a games database called gamebase that indicates what features existing games already support to help people understand what can be done with them.
It is well worth checking out, and considering.

Virtual campus tours for students

I know that if I need to check out somewhere or something new I try and experience it in as many ways as the computer in front of me will allow. We used to just have to sit and paw through prospectuses for places before deciding to visit and check out a place (which is quite a commitment). This 3d virtual campus tours from Designing Digitally and my surnamesake Andrew Hughes (no relation that we have figured out yet) shows the very real benefits of this mirror world application.

This is clearly not there to remove the need to travel and visit somewhere, but to give you the interaction with both a representation of the physical space and the people that are already there to give you tours. So unlike a prospectus you get to talk to people. Why wouldn’t you use something like this?
So here this is an specific industry vertical (in this case education admissions) using game style technology and the benefits of metaverses to engage with people. This is start of it all coming of age.
Well done 🙂
There is a live demo to go and see, just bear in mind if you are form the UK that the our US cousins are more proud of their further education that we are (yes I know they pay but we seem destined on dismantling our system)

Identity is not binary – plusgate

I have to join in with support for those people out there who wish to use a pseudonym or handle to express themselves on the internet. This is all sparked out of the apparent short sightedness of Google and it Google+ on suggesting that if you don’t use your “real” name you can’t be on the “service”.
It is true that this is a free service, it is one, like most social networks that the owners can choose their own terms of service, however it is not an excuse to miss the point of all this connectivity.
The web is about people, social media is about people, virtual worlds are about people. People are not merely defined by a first name and second name and a physical home address. Those are merely an anchor point for physical services. People are defined by their actions, by their affiliations. They are also defined by the creative output. Social networks are not a forensic legal network of our DNA kept and logged with fingerprints, voiceprints and an absolute 100% certainty “we are who we say we are”. I am sure some people think that would be the ideal, however it is missing an important point.
Just because you know someones real name and potentially real address it does not mean that you know that real person. It no more indicates that they will tell you the truth or tell you a lie than if you ask them to roll a dice for you, 3 means truth 5 means lie the others are not sure.
People choosing to either use a different handle, a nickname or an AKA are not usually hiding. A few characters or a picture to express who they are in the context of a particular social network is more likely to offer insight into who they are rather than the surname handed down by birth and a first name given by parents.
Trust is very different from physical appearance or labelled identity. Having a human face profile picture does not make that profile “genuine”. The actions of someone or the organisation behind the profile are where trust is formed and where bonds are strengthened.
I can understand worries about accountability or security of knowing the same person is using the same account, but these are completely different from anonymity or pseudo anonymity. I am more than happy to talk and deal with the same person time and time again regardless of their “name” just as I am happy to deal with them regardless of race or creed. If the “name” they have made for themselves and their actions is an alias then so what?
Much of this has sparked form the virtual world communities, in particular Second Life choosing to help and early adopt Google+. In part to get away from the over controlling nature of Facebook and it’s names and identity policy. It seems though Google want to be a copy of that.
I am wondering where this ends though. Should we not be able to search the internet for fictional characters, are we not able to engage with people with imaginations online. Should everything be geared to a replication of the physical world?
It is lazy to treat identity as binary. I have seen corporations and companies try this with employees (and fail). We are complex messy collections of carbon atoms. We all have more than one mood and persona. Different situations require us to suspend disbelief or augment ideas. Nothing is black and white.
Does this affect me? Well not exactly. I am known as epredator on a number of systems. People call me epred when we meet. I am also Ian, Mr Hughes, Sir, Oi You, Dad, Son. I have an avatar in Second Life that wears a mask, yet I don’t hide behind that mask. I have not made a specific separation between me online and me offline in that I am shades of me and shades of characters in different situations at different times. I do however admire those who have a completely separate online nom de plume, why shouldn’t they? It is part of the magic of the human condition. Just as with a magic trick, once you know how its done it loses its appeal.
So, who ever you are, do not stifle creativity and creation, do not stifle humanity by fixing a technology based policy in place just because you think it “might be a good idea if…”. I reserve the right to have an anonymous profile that I can fill with whatever I want to explore a character and some ideas. Google “do no evil?” killing creative expression sounds rather evil to me?

The science of the Sun – Solar Flares

There was some slight confusion on Saturday for TV viewers when The Cool Stuff Collective moved from 9am Sat ITV1 to 8:10am so a few people think I have changed into Hannah Montana. Hopefully the various repeats the rest of the week will rectify the problem.
The show this week was space themed and so it was worth trying something a little more scientific in future tech. So I got to discuss Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections.
Given the current activity of the Sun and the fact that the main news is covering such solar events it was a real honour to do big science. NASA provided some great footage too.
As usual there were several points I wanted to get across. The rationale for covering CME’s was the potential harm to all our gadgets. Large waves of energy bombarding the Earth could seem scary, in fact they are. I think we avoided any scaremongering in talking about how there were ways to shield devices. In order to demonstrate the power of this invisible wavescollection of particles I used a picture frame of iron filings lined up nicely in a row, then passed a magnet over the row and caused breakages in the visual of an electronic connection.
Explaining Solar CME's
To show that all is not lost I then had a piece of wood covered in Aluminum foil to act as a shield. (I made it perfectly clear it was Monkey’s attempt and that wood and foil is not the ideal thing to blog a CME but it does block a small magnet. (The foil was of course for that home made science effect 🙂 )
Shielding a CME
The other part of the piece that I thought was important was that scientists need help investigating solar flares. The is effectively a crowdsourcing science website. It has made an achievement driven game out of us all being able to look at solar observation footage and spot unsual activity. It is the gamification of science and very educational too. It is well worth a look.
It is always good when we are able to mention something that has some follow on activity, I love the fact that the viewers can go and try something, just as with the Wikipedia show.
There is much more of that to come the next few weeks mixed with some of the big gadget adventures we have filmed on the road.