The Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass Conference

I’m writing this from the Novotel Twin Waters Resort on Queensland’s beautiful Sunshine Coast.  It’s a hard life, I know, but someone has to do it. It’s been a spectacular day here, and I’ve managed to fill it with a bike ride along the beach, drinks at the bar, and lazing around the poolside area, so it hasn’t really been too hard to take. No need to feel sorry for me. I’ll be ok.

But it hasn’t all been just lazing around the pool and soaking up sunshine… The real reason I’m here was to take part in the first Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass conference, run by the good folk at IWB Net. I had the privilege of being involved as a presenter, leading one of the Cohort sessions and doing the keynote on the  Saturday.

The ITL Masterclass conference attempted to be different to a typical conference. Most traditional conferences have a pretty standard format… There is a keynote address in the morning, followed by a series of workshops or breakout sessions that are all organised well in advance. At these traditional conferences, delegates typically register, turn up, and hope that some of the breakout sessions will be useful, which, often, they aren’t. Despite the best intentions of conference organisers, making sure that delegates get what they need from a conference event is difficult, since a) most times, the delegates don’t really know what they need, and b) once a conference schedule is in place it’s hard to have the flexibility to adapt it to people’s needs on the fly.

If you’ve been to many conferences before, you’ll know that, often, many of the best conversations and networking happens in places and at times that have nothing to do with the organised part of the event.  Conversations over breakfast and dinner, at the bar, in the lift, during the breaks… often this is where the best stuff happens. It’s as though the “conference” stuff is the reason to get the people together, while the “un-conference” stuff is where they do the real connecting and learning.

This idea of the “un-conference” has grown in popularity in recent years, with the rise of Teachmeets and other un-conference style gatherings. A true un-conference event is highly un-organised, very much made up as it happens. The point of these is to not make it too organised or too rigid, and to try to find ways to make all the “incidental learning” the main focus of the conference and not just a valuable byproduct. Proper un-conferences can be quite chaotic to anyone not used to them.

It’s a double-edged sword of course. If you have too much structure in a conference it becomes inflexible and may not be able to meet the needs of the attendees.  But if you make them too unstructured they can easily degenerate into a mess where attendees get frustrated.  Some people like, and need, structure. Others prefer a more open and agile approach. What would be ideal is a conference that had the best of both worlds – enough flexibility so that attendees could make sure it met their needs, diverting and exploring into areas of interest to them, but still with enough structure so that it didn’t just feel like a bunch of people making stuff up as they went along.

I thought that the IWB Net team did a great job of trying to get the balance right for this event. There were five main aspects to the conference:

  1. a keynote address each morning to set the theme for the event
  2. a series of “cohort sessions” where a group of attendees could spend time doing a 6 hour “deep dive” into an area that interested them,
  3. a series of pre-prepared workshops on a range of topics,
  4. a series of un-conference workshops based on topics suggested by, and voted for, by the delegates during the event
  5. breakfasts and dinners (and the bar afterwards!) where conversations flowed freely

I’ve been to regular conferences where everything is prepared in advance and have sometimes found them frustrating because they don’t always cover what I want. And I’ve been to un-conferences where nothing is prepared in advance and have sometimes found them equally frustrating because they can be just too disorganised. As a hybrid conference model that sits somewhere between these two extremes, I must say I really enjoyed the format for the ITL Masterclass event.

I arrived at the event on Thursday night and went straight into a meeting where we discussed the possible topics for the un-conference sessions. A list was made, groups were organised, and volunteers stepped up to facilitate the sessions.

Friday morning kicked off with a keynote address from Steven Bradbury, Australia’s first Winter Olympic Gold medalist, talking about the idea of peak performance in sports. Steve is best know for his controversial win at the Salt Lake City Winter Games where he won gold after a massive crash that took out all the other competitors in the final. It was wonderful to hear him talk about his “12 years to become an overnight success”. His passion for the sport, his determination to succeed, the stories of his own setbacks and disappointments, all made for a really engaging and interesting talk. We got to hold both his Gold and Bronze Olympic medals, and I found the story of his journey to be very inspiring. The common theme in his story was passion, perseverance, persistence, never giving up, and realising that the gold medal was not a reward for the 30 seconds of the race, but for the decade of hard work that led up to it.

After Steven’s talk, we then started through the various workshop sessions. Some were pre-prepared, some were un-conference style, and we also began the cohort sessions.  I enjoyed the cohort idea… A group of people gathered around a central theme, working over 4 x 90 minute sessions to explore a topic in greater depth.

My cohort theme was Lessons from Leonardo: Dealing with Little DaVincis, and was predicated on the notion of imagining how we might teach differently if our classrooms were full of kids that were as curious, inquisitive, inventive, talented and productive as Leonardo DaVinci. Obviously, you’re not likely to have a whole class full of kids that just happen to be as bright and clever as one of history’s greatest geniuses, but I think if we went into our classrooms with an expectation that our students actually were like that, we might approach what we do a little differently. Over the four sessions I tried to facilitate my group through some deeper discussions about their own school, sharing insights and comparing notes. Then we looked at some of the tasks and assessments we ask our students to do, and tried to measure them against the Seven DaVinci Principles, as found in the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.

On Saturday, the day kicked off with my own keynote to the group, a talk called Passion, Purpose, Perspective and a Pirate Attitude. In this keynote, I tried to follow on from Steve Bradbury’s talk about what it takes to be a champion sportsperson, and explore a few ideas about what it might take to be a champion educator. It’s always difficult to speak to a group of your peers, especially ones that are clearly already good teachers, but I hope I did the idea justice.

Here’s a copy of the keynote, along with an audio recording I made and then synced up using SlideShare.

The rest of the day was spent mainly with my cohort group, as they worked to create a product or develop skills that they could take back to school and use. Some worked on creating their very own multimedia Credo for Teaching, as a statement of what matters to them as a teacher. Some took the opportunity to develop an assessment task for use with their students to incorporate some of the Da Vinci principles, and some chose to learn Scratch as a way of taking a cross curricula, whole brain, approach to learning. At the end of it all, they were a great bunch of people to work with and they produced some terrific end results.

Between those sessions, I also ran an impromptu Scratch/Picoboard workshop in the hotel foyer (or would that be an un-workshop) and also managed to get around and drop into a few of the un-conference sessions.  There was lots to see and do.

Overall, it was a great conference event, and I thought the hybrid format worked really well. Having the structure, but also the flexibility, was a nice balance, and I hope they continue to explore this new format.  A special thanks to the team at IWB Net for inviting me to be part of it.

I didn’t leave right away, and instead stayed another night before catching a late flight home. On Sunday I got to hang out with a few other folk who stayed on for the extra day, and after a late breakfast, Jan Clarke from WA suggested we rent a couple of pushbikes from the resort and ride up the beach to Mount Coolum and back. (OK, so riding along the beach was my idea… I’m not sure we were supposed to do that, but it sure was fun.)

I’m off to Canada tomorrow to spend time with Linda’s family and friends, then down to Philadelphia the following week for the ISTE conference. I just love being a connected educator! 🙂

The Sydney Google Teacher Academy

What do you think of when you hear the name Google? To many people, it’s just the place to go when they want to find something on the web.  You just type a few words into that simple text box and, hey presto, you usually find what you’re after. To the majority of users on the web, that’s just what Google does.

If you’re a serious web user, you know they do a little more than that.

Last week, along with 53 other amazing educators from around the world, I had the pleasure of attending the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney. It was the tenth GTA since the program started, but only the second to be held outside the USA. There was a selection process to be part of it, and many more applied than were actually accepted. There was a ton of hype and excitement leading up to it, with Twitter carrying the anticipation of both those who would be attending as well as those who wished they were.  So what was it like?

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the GTA. I knew it would be a fast paced brain dump of information about Google tools. I suspected we would get some inside information about where Google was heading in the education sector. I hoped to hear from others about innovative ways that they were using Google’s cloud based services in their schools. I expected to be able to play with devices and tools I hadn’t used before. I hoped to to see a little bit about life in the Aussie Googleplex. I was looking forward to connecting in real life with many of the names and faces that were part of my online community, as well as meeting many new people. And of course I had great expectations for the networking and socialising that would take place amongst those lucky enough to be chosen to attend.

On all of these fronts my expectations were met and exceeded.

The information we received prior to the event suggested that it would be a fast paced tour of everything Google, and it certainly was that. From the start of the day we had ideas, suggestions, tips and examples thrown at us almost faster than we could absorb them. Thankfully someone started a collaborative Doc that we all took notes into, and together we managed to document much of it. We were given a fast paced tour through the full range of information search tools that Google offers – regular search, images, squared, maps, books, scholar, wonderwheel, realtime, alerts, news, custom search, recipes, readability, creative commons… the list of search variations and extensions that Google now offers is quite amazing. To be honest, there was not a lot in the list that I hadn’t seen before, but it was good to be reminded of the depth of search options that Google offers and to see just how far some of them have come since I last looked at them. Book Search and Scholar Search in particular have come a long way since I last used them.

The barrage of information continued through the use of Gmail, Calendar, Apps and Sites. Although I use all of these tools, most fairly regularly, it was useful to learn some new power user tips and to realise just how far some of them can be pushed beyond the way I currently use them. And as funny as it seemed to hear Danny Silva talking about “making Google Calendar sexy”, it was really useful to learn about that aspect of the Google toolbox. So useful in fact that I came home and completely reorganised my own use of calendaring, dropping Apple’s iCal and moving my whole online life to Google Calendar instead. That might be the subject of a whole other blogpost sometime, as I think I’ve finally hit on a usable cloud/mobile solution that works for me, that doesn’t require Apple’s outrageously expensive MobileMe service.

We spent a good deal of time looking at Google Apps for Education (GAFE), something I found really useful since my school uses them more and more, and as the year progresses I can see that use will increase exponentially. We looked at Sites in some detail, which was interesting because I’ve never really thought of Sites as being a wiki product although it’s now pretty obvious that that’s what it is. Again, as we ramp up our use of GAFE, the Sites component will begin to play an increasingly important part of the toolset we offer our students. Potentially, the use of Sites, Apps, Gmail and Calendar could cause us to dramatically rethink the current tools we offer to our students. All free, all managed by Google. Pretty amazing really.

We looked at some lesser known tools like Hapara, had a GTalk video call with Mike Lawrence from CUE in the US, and also heard from one the project heads of the Blogger and Google Apps team. There are some fantastic things coming for Blogger users, enough to make me seriously question my continued use of WordPress. A lot of this discussion was under NDA so I can’t elaborate on it, but the demos and examples we were shown really blew me away. If this is what HTML5 will do to the web, we’re in for some interesting times ahead!

Towards the end of the day we had a talk from the project lead of Mobile, who brought in a bunch of Android devices for us to play with, including the as-yet-unreleased-in-Australia Motorola Xoom tablet. I have to say I was very impressed with what Android offers, and enjoyed being able to play with these gadgets.

Speaking of gadgets, one of the nice surprises we got as we entered the room was a Cr-48 Chrome laptop to play with. Unfortunately we had to give them back at the end of the day, but I’d been keen to try the Chrome OS so getting a Cr-48 to use was much appreciated. Unfortunately, we were having a bit of trouble with the wifi (dodgy wifi at Google of all places! This was one place where I expected Internet access to be kick-ass!) so the Cr-48 struggled to really impress me. Being a completely cloud-based experience – the OS is essentially just a Chrome web browser – the flaky wifi made for a disappointing Cr-48 experience. I like the concept of a machine that is entirely cloud based. Flash memory means it boots in seconds and you log in with your Google account then basically just live in the browser. I liked the way that the Chrome OS automatically synced with my Chrome settings from my other computers, adding all my favourite extensions and remembering all my settings. Overall, I found the Cr-48 a little frustrating. While I can see a network-based machine would work for certain use cases, I think I’d find it far too limiting as my only computing device. Despite the fact that I had been really looking forward to trying the Cr-48, by mid morning I’d resorted back to my MacBook Pro (where, ironically, I still spent almost 100% of the rest of my day using nothing but Chrome Browser!)

Just before lunch we were given a tour through the Googleplex to see the fabled work environment at Google. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed in the building so I have no pictures to show, but I found it interesting that so much thought was given to the architecture of creating a whimsical, playful and personal space for people to work in. As well as the actual “work areas” of desks, computers and monitors, there were many hidden spaces for people to use to relax, chill out, get some private time, meet in small teams, think, meditate, and so on. From small little cubby holes where Googlers could lock themselves away to work in silence, to meeting places that looked like something out of a movie set, to whole rooms populated by indoor gardens and playful decor, there was something for everyone. It was not unusual to find quiet corners with large TV screens, couches and game consoles, to sleep tanks, to pool tables and foosball games. Unlike teachers, whose lives tend to be ruled by bells that ring every 55 minutes, it was good to see that people in the real world are free to manage themselves, work hard but find time to play, and be trusted to produce. It was good to see that Google’s famous “20% time” is alive and well here in the Sydney office.

The Googleplex struck me as a particularly pleasant working environment, where the workers were given both resources and trust to use them responsibly. I couldn’t help but imagine the same environment being used in a school, where students had their own places to work and meet and talk and play and produce. I’d love to see a school using this same architectural model of open space and interesting interior design, of playfulness and whimsy, of trust and productivity. It made me further realise what an enormous impact the physical design of a space can have on the learning/working environment.  The closest I’ve seen in education have been the Discovery and Unlimited schools in Christchurch, but providing a more Google-like environment for more schools would be a very interesting experiment.

We got to hear “Inspiring Ideas” from six teacher participants who were selected in advance to give a 5 minute presentation of some innovative ways they have been using Google tools with their students. I was lucky enough to be one of the six presenters, and although 5 minutes is not a long time to fully present an idea, it was fun to share something with the group and interesting to see what others have been up to.

Of course, the people were the real magic of the day. Although it was useful to experience the firehose of Google tools, there really wasn’t very much that I hadn’t seen before. Certainly spending time looking more closely at the tools was useful, but you could argue that a motivated person could learn all these things simply by playing with them and watching some YouTube how-to videos. Although the tools consumed a large part of the day, the real value was in connecting with some amazing teachers. Some of the best parts of the day were in the small group sessions, and especially during the optional half-day unconference session on Thursday, where we got to spend a little more time actually talking and sharing with each other. It was great to put faces to names, to meet people I’d only ever known online, and to meet new people I never knew before. The official dinner on Wednesday night, as well as the unofficial dinner I organised at BlackBird Cafe on Thursday night, was a great way to get to know the other participants, and I suspect that many future collaborations will emerge as a result of this whole event.

On the whole, it was a great experience, learning more about powerful tools we all use every day, seeing a bit of vision for how organisations can work, and connecting with other innovative and inspiring educators. Several people have asked me “was it worth it”, and my answer is definitely “yes!”

But that’s not to say it was perfect either. There were things I’d change about it if I had the power. The main one is that one day is simply not long enough. The teachers who were accepted into the GTA were all very  intelligent individuals with a demonstrated ability to learn and use these tools, so they were able to keep up with the fast pace. But I can’t help thinking how much more powerful the event would have been if we were given more time to unpack these tools more fully into our own educational contexts, to really think through what they can do for us and to share ideas for how to best leverage them. I mentioned this to the organisers and while they agreed in principal, their thinking was that we can go away after the event to do that. To some extent I see that as being a little back-to-front… we can learn more about the tools anytime, but we are only face-to-face with this group for a very short time. The better solution would be to have a longer event. Apple’s ADE Institute goes for 4 whole days and gets the participants sharing and collaborating on CBL projects together. Adobe’s AEL Summer Institute goes for 5 days and participants work together and learn from each other over that time. Our biggest complaint about schools is a crowded curriculum that doesn’t allow enough time for reflection and play. The GTA suffered the same problem.

One day for GTA is simply not long enough, and doesn’t do the program justice. Especially with it being held here in Sydney, with so many people traveling such a long way to get here, it seems a shame to have it all wrapped up in a day and half. I realise that there are budget constraints to these programs, but to really get value from them requires some time to take it in, think about it, ask questions, put ideas into action. Just like working at Google itself, the GTA would benefit from some 20% time.

Remember, the actual GTA is just one day. The extra half day unconference – which many people commented was the most valuable part – is optional, and wasn’t funded by Google. It was done voluntarily by the organising team (thank you!)

The problem with having to pack so much into such a short time is that it puts way more focus on the actual tools themselves, rather than the pedagogical uses of what can be done with the tools. A few people I met had a quiet grumble about the very tool-driven nature of the GTA, seeing it as being counter to what we say is important in education. Smart teachers have a mantra of “It’s not about the tools”, and yet we spent a full day focusing almost solely on the tools. This is not to suggest that all the tool talk wasn’t useful – it certainly was – but the short timeframe forced us into putting a lot of emphasis on the tools and not nearly enough on the pedagogy, and that’s unfortunate.

I also wanted to comment about the physical environment of the room we worked in. Again, I know there are always constraints when working in someone else’s space, but I was surprised to find the room set up with rows of tables all facing the front. Especially because there were parts of the day when we were working in teams, having the rooms set up like a traditional classroom with rows of desks and an obvious “front of the room” where people could deliver content, seemed counterproductive to the goals we say matter to us. If “21st century learning” is about teams and collaboration and discussion and flexibility, then it would have been good to be working in an environment that facilitated that more effectively. Putting desks in islands where teams could face each other, and physically creating a learning environment that represented the pedagogy we say is important would have been better. That might sound like I’m being overly critical, but if we can’t model these things at this kind of event, then where can we model it?

Overall, I very glad I was able to be part of the Sydney GTA. It was a great chance to be part of something special, and to join a global team of Google Certified Teachers who stay in regular contact online. It was great to meet people from all over the place, and to realise that no matter where we teach, we have a lot in common.

Special thanks to the GTA team of Mark Wagner, Lisa Thumann, Wendy Gorton, Danny Silva, Kern Kelley and Dana Nguyen. It was really good to meet you all, and I even got the chance to go hiking in the Blue Mountains with Mark, Lisa and Wendy before they headed back home.

I’m looking forward to doing some great stuff with all of this information and working with other GCTs over the coming years.

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

ITSC 2010. It all begins.

So, here I am on the beautiful (but currently rainy) Gold Coast.

I arrived this evening to spend the weekend at Gold Coast ITSC 2010, the annual Innovative Technology in Schools Conference run by Apple.  It certainly sounds like it will be fun, and I’m rather humbled to have been asked to give the keynote address. What’s more surprising to me is that Apple asked if I’d do not only this one, but the entire Australian ITSC series, so over the next month or so I’ll also be at the Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Melbourne events as well.  It came as a complete surprise to be asked, but I’m really thrilled to be able to be a part of them.

Apple is using a different approach to the ITSC events this year that sounds like it will be really good. It’s all very unconferencey.  Beyond the keynote, there will be lots of opportunity to mix and share and socialise and learn together. I think that’s great, and it’s certainly the best part of most conferences I’ve been to, so it’s cool that we are seeing more conferences these days that try to focus on the conversations and encouraging the serendipitous aspects of this kind of learning. I like it.  There is also going to be a focus at ITSC on actually making something, creating something to take away back to our schools that will help drive the shift.  It sounds pretty cool.

Anyway I better get back to putting the finishing touches on this preso. It’s an honour to have been asked to present, and I’d like to do a good job of it, although I’m always concerned about what I can actually add to the conversation. It’s a bit daunting, but I’m looking forward to it.

If you happen to be going to any of the ITSC events over the next month or so, please come and say hi!

What Libraries Need

Ah serendipity, how I love it.

We have a major building project going on at school right now.  The bulldozers are busily demolishing walls from our old library, and and we will soon have a beautiful new library Information and Research Center.  From the plans I’ve seen, it should be a great space.

I was asked today to come to a meeting next month and give a short talk to a group of parents and supporters of the new school library building project.  Many of these folks are still getting their head around the massive shifts in the way information is managed.  Many of them perhaps don’t realise that the term “library” no longer means what it once meant.  Information is different in a digital age, and so libraries need to manage information differently.  My talk to them needs to cover (briefly) an overview of how information and libraries and “books” are different to what they used to be.

So I thought it extremely serendipitous when I opened my email this afternoon to find this little video.  I’m sure I’ll be able to find one minute and twenty seconds to share this video with the group.  Should be a good place to start the conversation.

I have no idea how they managed to get this little girl to say all those complicated phrases! Thanks to VALA for making the clip, and to Tony Brandenberg for passing this along via OzTeachers.

Experiencing the Unexpected

This is the first time I’ve ever done this, but I’d like to welcome a guest writer to Betchablog.  This post was written by one of my work colleagues, Pam Nutt, and was actually the first part of her welcoming address to staff for the start of the 2010 school year.  I enjoyed hearing Pam deliver this address to our teachers so I asked if she’d mind posting it here for all to read.  As you’ll discover, it was based on some of her experiences in Alice Springs in outback Australia, and I liked the way she linked it back to kids and learning.  Enjoy!

“You’re  so privileged,” some said. “Very few people see the Todd flowing.”  Others, with an almost  reverential whisper, said “Only 1% of tourists see water flowing from Uluru.”

The sign outside the Alice Springs Desert Park said it all: “You will never look at deserts in the same way again.” Indeed. Torrential rain. Enormous umbrellas that benefited little. Puddles that we gave up walking around and just walked through. Pathways that resembled miniature Venetian canals.

I have to admit to a few churlish thoughts early on in that four and a half days of rain in the Red Centre. We were, after all, travelling with overseas friends, and the whole experience was meant to be postcard perfect – living, breathtaking Ken Duncan panoramas. And what was one of my first purchases in Alice Springs? An umbrella!

But it’s the surprise of it all that stays in my memory. The Todd not only flowing but breaking its banks in a spectacular display; the sound of it as well as the sight; the excitement of tourists and locals alike as we were all drawn down to the dry riverbed that had turned into an ever-expanding rush of noisy fast-flowing water.

And so the saga continued, with moment after moment taking us by surprise. Did it ever occur to you that you could be drowned in the torrent flowing down Kata Tjuta? That the road could be washed away in huge sections, barring your way to the MacDonnells? And to top it off, that Uluru should be shrouded in a mist that, rather than limiting our vision, enhances the mystery of the place.

Our final day at Uluru began with the obligatory dawn viewing – misty clouds on the top; subtly changing pastels beneath; the dawn of a beautifully sunny day and the sight of waterfalls glistening on the Rock. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected but it’s that sense of surprise, even awe, that remains with me. It’s a powerful and living landscape, not merely a postcard, and the fact that it was a shared experience enriched it further. Long live the experience of the unexpected.

It’s the unexpected that brings our experiences into sharp and memorable focus. I don’t wish to diminish events of unexpected horror and tragedy by not centering my thoughts on such moments. Rather, I’d like to reflect on the fact that out of our ordinary experiences come moments that can transform – the extraordinary behind the ordinary, as Patrick White observed. The power of the unexpected experience gives fresh meaning to the ordinary details of our lives.

Think of our classrooms. The fact that we have detailed programmes, desired outcomes and well-planned strategies clearly outlines what we expect in them. And these expectations are in no way to be derided, nor is the satisfaction that, at the end of it all, we’ve accomplished set goals. But I don’t ever recall being joyously excited by this. Satisfied. Happy. Gratified. Even relieved, perhaps. But what gives greatest cause for excitement are the unexpected moments that highlight the experiences of individual students. They’re often unexpected because they operate outside the formality of our written curriculum.

There’s the ‘A-ha!’ moment when a struggling student has suddenly grasped an elusive concept in terms that mean something to her.  It could be a moment we easily miss – the rest of the class has got it quite some time earlier and moved on. But suddenly, there’s a “This poem really says what it feels to…” or “Macbeth could be a today story!” or ‘There’s a pattern here that I can finally understand and apply. It makes sense!” Then you know that a student has reached out and grabbed an idea for herself, rather than noted what you’ve said in order to give it back to you in an assessment task, intelligibly or otherwise.

There’s the moment when a clever, ambitious  and articulate student quietly reaches out to spend time with someone who just doesn’t get it , taking joy from the shared experience of learning and celebrating what could seem to her to be a lesser achievement. There are the moments when students are prepared to laugh and talk with you, not just merely take down notes about what you are saying, or ask what they could have done to get 20/20 instead of 19/20. Or when a student from years ago meets you and says, “I remember in one of our classes…“ and they go on to tell you of something that they built into their life because of some interaction in a classroom.

There are the times when a group learns how to deal with accepting that not everyone is like them but is to be valued. Or the times when they understand why they are privileged, even though they’re not given everything they want. It’s a joy to see someone who rarely dips below an A sharing the moment with a student who’s excited about getting a C+.  In the rush and pressure of teaching, it’s easy to miss those moments. It’s a joy when we experience the unexpected and it brings us back to the things that really count – what kind of people we are, what we value, where our hopes lie.

At all levels in our lives, experiencing the unexpected can have a profound impact. Valuing the unexpected in our classrooms, for example, goes far beyond expecting certain outcomes in relation to some learning stage. And such an experience of the unexpected, whether it be part of an intellectual, emotional or spiritual journey, may well have begun somewhere in a classroom, both for the pupil and the teacher.

I’ll never look at these unexpected experiences in the same way again.

Words and Video by Pam Nutt
CC BY-NC-ND Image by

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.