Seeing Under Water

If you’re in Australia I’m sure you’re aware that there are large parts of the country in serious flood at the moment. If you’re overseas you may have heard about it but not been aware of the degree of devastation.  It’s shocking and quite unbelievable. The flooding is enormously extensive (covering an area larger in size than France and Germany combined!) and has decimated many rural towns, crops, property and lives. Many people in the flood affected areas have lost everything. It makes me so sad to see it.

I got sent an email today with this mobile phone footage shot from a building yesterday as the floodwaters raced through the town of Toowoomba, just outside Brisbane.  The devastation and destruction is mind boggling (although I think a few of those cars could have been saved if the guy filming was a little more concerned with notifying people of the obviously impending disaster rather than just capturing it all on video!) It is interesting to see just how much “citizen journalism” is being used to report on the floods.

If you’d like to make a donation to the relief efforts, the address is http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate.html

Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 3

My role at school is all about trying to helping teachers leverage technology to come up with more interesting and engaging ways to help their students learn.  Some of our older students are in laptop programs which gives them fulltime 1:1 access to their own computer but many still do not, especially in the junior years. Which is a bit of a shame since there is, I think, so much scope in the younger grades to use technology in interesting ways that support the curriculum.  Unfortunately, with the way things are structured at the moment, our primary kids get scheduled into a single one hour lesson in the computer lab each week.  That’s not really my preferred option, as it’s hard to get technology integration working in an ongoing, embedded way when it involves trotting off to the computer room once a week.

Ironically, all our primary classrooms do actually have a small pod of four desktop machines in them, but unfortunately I don’t really see them getting used in any consistent, meaningful way.  Technology integration is still, by and large, reliant on that one hour a week of “computer time” in the lab.  However, whether I like it or not, it is what it is, and until the system changes it’s a limitation I have to work with.

Ludus - our school Blog ServerOur Year 4 students are doing a unit of work on Australia at the moment, so I started the term by having a planning session with the Year 4 teachers to look at how we might weave ICT into the unit.  A couple of years ago, the ICT component was – you guessed it – making a PowerPoint about Australia, but thankfully we’ve tried a some new approaches over the last few years. For the past two years we’ve been using blogs to get the kids writing about Australia, in fact I think we’ve come up with some good ideas for structuring the writing process when blogging.  We started off using Edublogs, but after having a particularly frustrating series of outages, the school decided to set up our own WordPress MU server and gave every student their own blog on that system. It took a bit of fiddling to get the feeds on the front page working the way we wanted, but that internal WPMU site worked quite well for us.  Because we run Moodle, we recently installed Mahara as well, which also provides blogs for students and so I guess we’re a bit spoiled for choice at the moment when in comes to school blogging.

Although the blogs had worked quite well for us in the past, for the unit of work on Australia the Year 4 teachers felt that they wanted to try something a bit different, so we brainstormed some ideas and came up with an idea that I think has worked very well.

For me, ICT integration becomes far more interesting when it involves lots of little skills used in a lot of different ways that student have to piece together into a finished product.  I like it that way because it give them a broader understanding of the way that technology tools fit together, and I think helps their understanding of how technology can assist them cross over into many areas.  I also like the idea of providing a structure, a scaffold, so that even our struggling students have a clear framework to work within.  However, surrounding that scaffold should be flexibility, options, choices, and a way for more able students to scale their work up and allow for that important differentiation.

What we came up with was a project called 25 Moods of Australia.  We brainstormed a collection of words (it started as 25 words, but grew to 50) that described various moods – haunting, hostile, creepy, effervescent, etc. Using a free wiki (where every student and teacher was given their own login) we published a list of all the words.  Working in pairs, the students then adopted a word from that list. There are 50 students in the two Year 4 classes, so working in pairs required 25 words.  The reason we came up with 50 was to give them a choice of what word they wanted to select, and to provide some extra words in case any students wanted to do a second one.

Armed with their chosen words, each student pair started by creating a new blank page on the wiki for that word. Then they had to find a clear, concise definition for the word (so that they understood it) and they then added that definition to the wiki page.  They used both regular paper dictionaries as well as online dictionaries. It was useful to compare the two.

The next job was to use Flickr to find a photograph taken somewhere in Australia that they felt captured the meaning of that word.  This was quite tricky… the Flickr search engine is not as sophisticated as Google’s and so to find a photo that both described their word and was taken in Australia required some thinking.  It involved looking carefully at the images, at the tags, at the captions, and using a bit of detective thinking to find photographs that met all the criteria.  To make it even trickier, we had a talk about copyright and the use of other people’s photographs without permission, which led to an interesting discussion about Creative Commons.  The students picked up on this idea very easily, and now know how to use the Advanced Search feature in Flickr to find photographs that are free of traditional copyright restrictions.  (I was feeling very encouraged to hear from their teachers that they are also now being much more mindful of copyright in other areas of their school work, and they’ve been observed looking for Creative Commons images for other projects as well! I consider that a major win!)

Once they found an image they like, they then used the All Sizes selector in Flickr to find the 500 pixel, medium-sized version of the photo and they copy it to their desktop. They also copy the URL of where they got the image so it can by pasted into the photo caption as an attribution, required by all CC licenses.  Once the photo is copied to their computer, they then upload it into the wiki (we used Wikispaces) and insert it into their page.

The next job is to go to Google Maps and find the location of where that photograph was taken on the map. This is also tricky, since not every photo makes this clear.  Some photos are geotagged with the exact location of where they were taken, but many are not.  We talked about geolocation.  We learnt to look at the tags, the keywords, the captions, the other photos in the Flickrstream, and to look for clues that might give us an idea about where the photo was taken.  And sometimes, when their were no clues, we had to make educated guesses about where the photo could have been taken.  Once we decided on a location – either a definite location based on real clues, or an imagined location based on common sense, the students found that place in Australia on the map.

Using the Link option, they then generated the embed code for the map, copied it, went back to the wiki and created a widget. They pasted the embed code into the widget and saved the page to reveal the embedded Google Map of their best estimate for the location of the photograph.

The last step is for the students to then write a couple of paragraphs talking about their photograph and why they think it represents their focus word. This can be quite a challenge, as they have to think very carefully about how exactly they will justify their selection, describing the photo and linking it back to the key ideas in the definition of their word. They also need to write about the map location and explain how they knew (or guessed) that the photo was taken in that place.

As you can see, it’s a task that contains a LOT of small pieces.  It contains lot of ICT skills and techniques and understandings in a number of areas. It is a task of small pieces loosely joined.  It’s also not a task that can be plagiarised.  It’s not a task where there is a “right answer”, as any answer could be right if it was justified well enough.

Remind yourself, these kids are 9 and 10 years old. And they have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moving information around, remixing, repurposing and restructuring it in fairly sophisticated ways.  They quickly pick up the ideas of bringing all the pieces together to make something new. I think they are using some reasonably advanced information skills, as they learn to search, evaluate, synthesize and create with the information they find, and then add value to that information by interpreting and summarising and justifying it.  In short, I’ve been really impressed with what they can do. And even more impressed with what they can’t do, but can learn to do.

You can visit the wiki at http://ausmoods.wikispaces.com, although at the time of writing it is still a work in progress.  The final stage, when everything is complete, will be for them to use the discussion tabs on the individual pages to leave comments and feedback for each other.

I think it’s been a really good task, with plenty of really worthwhile ICT skills built in, as well as an integrated use of literacy, writing, geography, thinking and reasoning, collaboration, and so on.

If only we had more than an hour a week to do this stuff…

No Clean Feed!

I spent today, pretty much by accident, at a forum-style discussion of the issues surrounding the Australian government’s proposal to filter the Internet access of all Australian citizens.  I say “by accident” because the invitation to attend an “Internet Filtering and Censorship Forum” appeared in my email a couple of weeks ago, and without reading it too carefully, I thought it was going to be an educationally focused discussion about the filtering issues that schools face.  That would have been useful and interesting, but I didn’t realise that the discussion would actually be centred on the bigger issue of the Australian government’s proposed Internet filtering scheme.  I’m glad I went.
Look, there is no argument from me that we need to keep our children safe online.  We absolutely need to protect them from the things that are clearly inappropriate, obscene or undesirable.  I remember the first time I realised my son had seen things online that I didn’t think he should see, and it’s a horrible feeling.  But this proposal by Senator Stephen Conroy (the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) is unrealistic, unworkable, naive and just plan stupid.

Let me put you in the picture.  In the leadup to the last Australian federal election, the Australian Labor Party (then in opposition) made a series of promises to try and get elected (as they do).  One of those promises revolved around a deal done with the powerful Christian Right, in which the Christian Right essentially said “we will give you our preference votes in exchange for you promising to put ISP-level Internet filtering in place”.  The Labor party, in a desperate attempt to get elected, said “yes of course we will do that!”.  Well, they went on to win the election and now they are in the unenviable position of having to meet an election promise that is just plain stupid.  The minister in charge of all things digital, Stephen Conroy, is either the most honorable politician at keeping his promises or the most ignorant, pigheaded, obstinate politician I’ve come across.  I suspect a bit of both.

The plan is to legislate for all Australian Internet Service Providers to supply mandatory content filtering for their customers, at the ISP level.  This would mean that every Australian ISP would have to maintain whitelists and blacklists of prohibited content, and then filter that content before it gets to their customers.  It means that every Australian internet user would have a filtered, censored, internet feed, removing any content that the government deems inappropriate.  Many comparisons have been made to the filtering that currently takes place in China, where the Chinese government controls what their people see.  I don’t think it’s quite that bad (yet), since the Australian proposal is only only really talking about blocking content that is actually illegal (child pornography, etc) but the fact is that filtering is a non-exact science, and there is little doubt that there will be many, many webpages that get either overfiltered of underfiltered.  Those of us in the education sector who have been dealing with filters for years, know exactly how frustrating this can be.

The forum today, which was held at the Sydney offices of web-savvy law firm Baker and Mackenzie, raised many important issues surrounding the filtering proposal.  There were many experts in the room from organisation such as the Electronic Frontiers Australia, the Internet Industry Association, the Law School of the University of NSW, the Brooklyn Law School, the Australian Classification Board, the Inspire Foundation, and many others.   Many of these organisations had a chance to make a short presentation about their perspective on the government’s proposal, and there was a chance for some discussion from the larger group.  It was a great discussion all round.

This is a big issue.  Much bigger than I realised.  I’d read a bit about it in the news, but hadn’t given it that much thought.  On the surface, a proposal to keep children safe and to block illegal content seems like a reasonable idea.  In practice, it is a legal, political and logistical nightmare.

Here are just a few of the contentious issues that the Conroy proposal raises…

What are we actually trying to achieve? What do we really want to block? Stopping kids getting to a few naughty titty pictures is quite a different proposition from preventing all Internet users from accessing pornographic content. Are we trying to just protect children, or are we trying to prevent adults from seeing things that they ought to be able to have the right to choose whether they see or not?  The approaches for achieving each of these goals are probably quite different.

Who will make the decisions about what is appropriate or not? There are many inconsistencies in the way the Classification Board rates content.  There have been numerous examples where something that is rated as obscene is later reviewed and found to be only moderately offensive.  Who decides?  Why should a government be allowed to make decisions about what people are allowed to see or not see.  In Australia, unlike the US, we do not have a constitution that guarantees a right to free speech, so we cannot even use the argument that our government has no right to control what we see.  They can, and they are trying to enforce it.

Won’t somebody think of the children! Sure, filters are designed to keep children safe.  We all want that.  But what if I’m a childless couple?  If I have no children in my household, why should I have to be filtered and restricted for content that is aimed at adults?  As an adult, I should be able to access whatever content I like, including the titty pictures if that’s what floats my boat.  As an adult, I don’t need the government telling me what I can and can’t access online, especially if it has nothing to do with children.

How do you filter non-http traffic? Traffic moves around the internet using all sorts of protocols… ftp, p2p, https, email, usenet, bit torrent, skype, etc.  I was told by a reliable source today that there are hundreds of different internet protocols, and many new ones are being created all the time.  Filters generally only look at regular http traffic (webpages) and will therefore have little chance of catching content that uses other protocols.  Usenet News Groups are a huge source of pornographic material, yet they will be unaffected by the proposed filters.  There is nothing to stop child pornographers exchanging content over peer-to-peer networks, bit torrent, skype or even as email attachments…  and these would all go undetected by the filters.

Do we bend the trust model until it breaks? Although the http protocol is pretty easy to inspect for its contents, the https protocol is not. The https protocol, otherwise known as Secure http, is the same one used by banks, online merchandisers and so on to facilitate secure online ecommerce transactions.  Sending traffic via https instead of regular old http is trivial to do, so one would expect that if the filters eventually happen, then the child pornographers will just start to transmit their stuff using https instead.  This will lead to one of two possible situations…  either the filters will continue to ignore http traffic (as they do now) and the pornographers carry on with business as usual making the whole filter thing pointless; or instead, the people who create the filters get smart enough to come up with a way to inspect https traffic as well.  As clever as this might be, the whole idea of https traffic is that it is encrypted to the point where the packet contents cannot be seen.  To design filters that were smart enough to inspect encrypted packets, would, if it happened, also break the entire trust model for online ecommerce.  If https packets could be inspected for their contents there would be a major breakdown in trust for other transactions such as Internet banking, ecommerce and so on.  Would you give your credit card details if you knew that https packets were being inspected by filters?

Computers are not very good at being smart. There is no way that all Internet content can be inspected by human beings.  It’s just too big, and growing too fast.  There are about 5000 photos a minute being added to Flickr.  About 60,000 videos a day being added to YouTube.  There are thousands of new blogs being started every month.  Content is growing faster than Moore’s Law, and there is no way that content can be inspected and classified by humans at a rate fast enough to keep up with the growth.  So we turn to computers to do the analysis for us.  Using techniques like heuristic analysis, computers try to make intelligent decisions about what constitutes inappropriate content.  They scan text for inappropriate phrases.  They inspect images for a certain percentage of pixels that match skin tones.  They try to filter out pictures of nudity, but in the process they block you from seeing pictures of your own kids at the beach.  Computers are stupid.

The Internet is a moving target. The Internet is still growing much too fast to keep up with it.  There are new protocols being invented all the time.  Content is dynamic.  Things change.  If I have a website that is whitelisted as being “safe” and ok, what’s to stop me from replacing the content with images that are inappropriate?  If just the URL is being blocked (and not the content) then that makes the assumption that the content will not change after the URL is approved.  A website could easily have its content replaced after its URL is deemed to be safe.

The technical issues are enormous. The internet was designed originally to be a network without a single point of failure.  When the US military built the Internet back in the late 60s, its approach was to build a network that could route around any potential breakdowns or blockages.  Yet when the filtering proposal is mapped out, the Internet is seen as a nice linear diagram that flows nicely from left to right, with the Cloud on one side, the end user on the other and the ISP in the middle.  The assumption is that if you simply place a filter at the ISP then all network traffic will be filtered through it.  Wrong!  The network of even a modest sized ISP is extremely complex, with many nodes and pathways.  In a complex network, where do you put the filter?  If there is a pathway around the filter (as there almost certainly will be in a network designed to not have a single point of failure) then how many filters do you need to put in?  It could be hundreds!  The technical issues facing the filtering proposal are enormous, and probably insurmountable to do effectively.

Filters don’t work. The last time the government issued an “approved” filter (at the user end) it was cracked by a 13 year old kid in minutes.  We were told the inside story of this today and some say that this was an unfair claim since the kid was given instructions by someone online, but the point remains that the filter was easily cracked.  Over 90% of all home computers run in administrator mode by default, so cracking a local filter is just not that hard.  Schools that filter will tell you that students who really want to get around the filters do so.  They use offshore proxies and other techniques, but filters rarely stop someone who really wants to get past them.  All they do is hurt the honest people, not stop the bad ones.

Australia, wake up!  Conroy’s plan is a joke.  It’s an insult.  It’s nothing but political maneuvering to save face and look like the government is doing something to address a problem that can’t be effectively addressed.  Conroy is doing all this to keep the Christian right happy in exchange for votes. He won’t listen to reason, and he won’t engage in discussion about it. He is taking a black and white view of a situation that contains many shades of grey.  The problem of keeping our kids safe online is important and needs to be addressed, but not like this.  Please take the time to write to him and tell him what you think. Don’t use email, it counts for nothing (even if he is the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy!)  Write to him the old fashioned way… it’s the only format that politicians take any notice of.

The irony of the underlying politics and the involvement of the Christian Right is the disgraceful history of child abuse by the Church… Catholic, Anglican, you name it.  There is case after case after case of children being abused and taken advantage of by priests and other religious clergy.  If Senator Conroy is serious about “evidence based research” and wants to legislate against the most likely places that children get molested and abused, maybe he should be doing something about putting “filters” on the catholic church.  Or what about banning the contact of small children with older family members… because statistically that’s where most child molestation takes place.  Stupid idea?  Of course it is, but it makes more sense than trying to impose a mandatory “clean feed” of Internet access for all Australians.

It’s a complete joke and a bloody disgrace.

Real Life and Real Life Learning

Kent Peterson, Chris Betcher, Linda Johannesson and Susan SedroiIn previous posts, I’ve mentioned how nice it is to occasionally convert some of our online connections into real ones.  This week I had the opportunity to again meet up with someone I’d only ever know through the blogosphere.

Susan Sedro is a teacher at the Singapore American School where she does ICT support for years 3, 4 and 5.  The first time I “met” her was during a group Skype call back in September last year and since that time we have read each other’s blogs, chatted occasionally on Skype and, along with Kim Cofino, even recorded an episode of Virtual Staffroom together.

I’d noticed that Susan was asking some very Aussie-centric questions on Twitter a while back, wanting to know the best places to go snorkelling on the Barrier Reef, etc, so I assumed she might be planning a trip down here.  We got in contact and I said if she was in Australia to give me a yell and we’d catch up.  Well, she yelled and we caught up.

So last Wednesday night, Linda and I met Susan and her partner Kent in front of the Orient Hotel at the Rocks here in Sydney.  We had a very pleasant evening wandering around the city, starting by catching a cab down to Darling Harbour, walking across the old Pyrmont Bridge to have an al-fresco dinner and a few beers at the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel, followed by a walk through Darling Harbour, up Liverpool Street through the Spanish Quarter, left into George Street past Town Hall and St Andrews Cathedral and all the way down to Wynyard Station.  It was a nice night for a walk and we had a good chat about all sorts of things, some education-related, and some not.

I made the offer to Susan and Kent to drop into my school, PLC, at some stage if they had time.  Fortunately, their plans for the next day had them catching a train that went right through Croydon so they took me up on the offer and popped in on their way.  We did a quick tour of some of the school, and even dropped into one of the computer rooms where Year 4 was having a lesson and had a chat with some of the kids.

My school runs a program called Transition Class, which caters for special needs students with fairly significant learning disabilities.  These students, about 20 of them, attend regular classes but also focus on learning a lot of life skills.  To help facilitate this, PLC bought a house next door to the school which they call Transition House and the kids regularly spend time there, learning very practical skills to teach them to look after themselves. One of the wonderful things these kids do every term is called Transition Cafe, where they host and manage a cafe luncheon for PLC staff… the menu is prepared, orders are taken and the food is cooked and served by the transition students and it’s a wonderful example of real life, relevant learning in action. Kent and Susan’s visit just happened to coincide with this term’s Transition Cafe event so of course they were invited to join us for lunch at the table reserved for the IT Services team.  We all had a very pleasant time sitting in the sunshine, chatting and being served by our wonderful transition kids.

I had to sneak off from lunch a little early as I had an IWB workshop I’d promised to run for our Creative Arts staff.  I left Susan and Kent in the capable hands of our IT Director, Chris Waterman, who escorted them over to meet me just as the IWB session was winding up, and we took another quick tour through The Croydon, an old pub that was bought by the school a few years ago and converted to our centre for technology and the arts, before eventually bidding them farewell as they continued on with their day.

Meeting IRL is a good thing… If you ever get the chance to meet up with colleagues you’ve only ever known through the network, I’d encourage you to do it.  It was terrific to meet Susan and Kent, and I’m hoping to be able to take them up on their offer to catch up in Singapore one day.

I think it would be rather nice to sit and share a beer or two at Raffles Hotel.  🙂

Welcome to 2008

The Kiwis got there a few hours before us, but Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations have come and gone for another year. Linda and I caught the train into the city last night, along with more than a million other Sydneysiders, and watched $600,000 worth of gunpowder get launched above the harbour. As always, it was quite the spectacle. We got in there a couple of hours before midnight and wandered through Martin Place, then down George Street towards the Quay. The crowd was getting pretty raucous the closer we got to the harbourfront so we turned up Hunter Street and tried getting a spot at Mrs Macquaries Point but it was completely full. We kept walking all the way past Wooloomooloo, Garden Island and eventually found a decent vantage point in Potts Point, just below St Vincents School.

I took a little bit of video, as I promised I would on Twitter… here you go Jen Wagner! At the time of posting this, the Pacific, Australia, Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe have all already ushered in the new year. London is about 30 minutes away while Canada the Americas are still another few hours away yet. It’s a big world.

Anyway, Happy New Year and all the best for 2008, no matter where you may be in the world!

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