Tuesday 2 July 2019

Unleashed Creativity: The Digital Society School’s showcase

‘Unleashed Creativity’
The Digital Society School’s 2019 showcase was a show stopper! Fortunately, you’ve got all week to immerse yourself
On a sunny afternoon, along the windy Wibaustraat (home to the HvA Digital Media and Creative Industries), the doors to the Kohnstammhuis were thrown open to visitors: students and parents, staff and managers, and intrigued passerbys, were welcomed and ushered in by an extraordinary board spinning  student on the top steps.  Akin to a pizza thrower - which he assured me he was - his rotating red board spun OUTBURST. This was a suitable start to the experience that what was to follow: a student-centered, lively and fun, interactive showcase of the accomplishments and achievements of the 2019 Digital Society School student cohort. 
Digital Transformation Designers
The self-titled intrepid digital explorers were introduced by their new Dean of Faculty, Frank Kresin.  He gave an enthusiastic speech celebrating achievements while paying homage to all those involved in creating such an event as well as the work that has gone on all year to reach this grande finale.  What was stressed more than ever was the important of collaboration internally, between staff and students, but also externally, with parents, partnerships and businesses: “behind every students are several teachers, lecturers and mentors” and he did not want us to forget that. One of the lead course coordinators humbly described how his students were their “best asset” and suitably invited them to “tell our story”. 
Being a digital media event you’d expect nothing less than a full auditory, visual experience and we were not disappointed.  The show opened with two skilled drummers performing over a loud techno beat. Stepping onto the stage - a purpose built white cat walk reaching from one end of the hall to the other and which was lit up with bright images and color - they entertained and lifted the rhythm of the place. Draped either side, in the windows and between the balustrades, were  curtains continuously lit up with changing projections.  Later these same areas were used to show videos, audio clips and to display the names of students and project titles.  It was an ingenious piece of creative Media in action.  Throughout the whole event, the staff and student alike were happy to let their hard work do the talking.
Quite literally,  this happened when they wheeled (or rather led  but the ‘hand’) onto center stage ‘Meray’.  ‘She’ proudly and confidently - if we can attribute these personalities to a robot - presented herself to the stunned audience. Cracking jokes, in Dutch, and mocking the basic computers before her, using hand gestures and sort of ‘facial expressions’ it felt like glimpse of the future. 
 It was equally impressive and terrifying.  
To conclude the catwalk, a flamenco dancer impressively swirled and spun her way around in an eye catching red, yellow  and pink dress as part of a virtual reality project.
There was a strong message: that the human centered interaction with technological and digital developments was key.  To avoid the “dark future of cyber punk” or to counter act the fearful future of a compute takeover, course leaders and lecturers emphasized that students involved in this kind of learning were trailblazers at looking for solutions, rather than adding to the problems we are all too familiar with (climate change, energy, over consumption, mental and physical health,  and much more). This is clearly reflected in the outcomes of student ambition and vision.  
Their projects, which are on show all week, include: a ‘My Happy’ app, an app to encourage healthy living in kids, Xbox games like ‘Snail trail’ or others designed to support those with slower mobility or learning difficulties and ‘Terra’: a sci-fi planet building game designed to support brain damage recovery  patients.  You can have a chat with the robot or even take an immersive virtual reality parachute jump, called ‘Ramsey’.
Without the external support, Frank Kresin reminded us in his opening stint, students would not be able to gain valuable real life work experience, research or gain insight into innovations.  Because of these connections, students seems to  be on point with their foci and what drives them.  Thanks to the “internships, ‘flipped learning’ projects, business visits, research, guest speakers”, we were told these enable students to develop and channel projects like genuine business initiatives.

If you haven’t yet, make time to check the website:  https://digitalsocietyschool.org/event/dss-program-during-outburst/ Sign up for an event and interact with the experiences.  As they say on their website, “Celebrating the most outstanding work in fashion, digital interactive design, media, communication and ICT! Come and join us!” What are you waiting for?

Saturday 11 May 2019

Dyslexia: the mind of the future?

Dyslexia: the mind of the future?

Could discoveries made this century about neurological development at a pre-natal level be about to shed some light on the truth: how many of us live with a dyslexic brain and what this means for yesterday, today and the technological future we are pioneering our way into.

Researchers are currently offering important answers to life-long questions: years of studies are combining together and in doing so are developing our understanding of and knowledge about genetics, the brain and child development (and adulthood too).  It is ground breaking.  It has reached the point where they are able to prove ancient theories - from Adolf Kussmaul’s 1870 ‘congenital word-blindness’ or stretching back to Socrates’s initial concerns about the change from an oral culture to a literate one, in the fourth and fifth centuries BCE - right or wrong.  It’s astonishing how close our ancestors’ predictions were.  Through careful thought, examination of subjects and the most primitive forms of surgery, the earliest scientists, psychologists and doctors were able to make astoundingly insightful hypotheses about the psyche, the self and ultimately the minutiae of genes that make each and everyone of us unique. 

In order to appreciate fully the impact of these findings it is important we start at a shared understanding of the term dyslexia, and what it means for the brain and the individuals.  Definitions of dyslexia have changed over time.  In Maryanne Wolf’s fascinating book Proust and the Squid (2008) she discusses the problems faced when trying to agree on one way to define it.  The reason for this is that increasingly Science is uncovering new forms and strands.  In her final chapter: ‘Genes, Gifts and Dyslexia’ she sums up Gerschwind’s thirteen conclusions that he and Orton agreed “should be incorporated into any explanation of dyslexia. Beginning with the genetic basis... and possible structural differences in brain organisation, this list went on to include remarkable spatial talents found in affected family members... an unexpected ability to read equally well upside down or in a mirror [like Leonardo Da Vinci]... dysgraphia; unusual speech, affect, and  motor findings...(such as stuttering, ambidexterity, clumsiness, and emotional issues); slowness in the acquisition and development of speech and language systems”.  What this allow us to do, as readers, is to gain insight into the truth: that dyslexia is not just about ‘reading and writing problems’.  
Lateral thinking - evidence of a dyslexic brain?

It is about far more.  And it could be in all of us.

Surrounded by systems and policies, whereby the rich get richer and poor get poorer, it may come as no surprise that reading encumbers society in much the same way.  It is not equivocal that being able to or not being able to read can establish (from a very young age) the ease at which one will or will not be successful later in life.  Scientifically, this is because in a reading brain the human brain’s ability to connect and integrate various sources of information is more developed: this is the literate brain. For those with a dyslexic brain set up, these same connections and the speed at which they are made is hindered, from pre-natal through to early adulthood. There is no doubt in the researchers minds that the development of the brain is very much a battle of nature vs nurture, and neglect: “the more children are read to, the more they understand all the language around them, and the more developed their vocabulary becomes” (Wolf) so the same can be said for the opposite.  To summarize, in a literate society where everything is geared towards the reading brain, if you can read your life chances are increased.  Take, for example, school assessments: a student’s success is determined by end of year, exam based tests. Most of these will be reading and writing focused.

And yet, the historical development of the spoken word being recorded (ultimately leading to a literate society) means we have been able to learn about where life began, through scientific and philosophical recordings and engravings and the survival of historical texts - “without words, without writing, and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity” (Hesse, Hermann).  It is this ‘shared human quest for knowledge’ which has led us into the current technological age at high speed and perhaps with not much sense (especially if we might be creating the mechanical monster which could wipe out the human race).  In a round about way, the development of a literate society (and the oppression of the dyslexic brain) could be viewed as less of a hindrance and more like an unavoidable, necessary evil for the progress of all human kind... or its demise.

On a more cheerful note, there are in fact many advantages to having a dyslexic brain. Although these individuals may experience slower processing speeds, what is known as a “gap in time” or “asynchrony” (coined by Israeli psychologist Zvia Breznitz), as well as “naming speed” delays, they show stronger connections in other areas of their brain.  Even though the “left angular gyrus” has been found by neuroscientists to be completely non-functioning in a dyslexic brain this is because they have a rearranged a brain, and use an “altogether different reading circuitry” (Wolf).  A dyslexic brain is atypical - it is not our ‘typical reader brain’. However, Wolf goes on to explain that the “unusual reliance on the right hemisphere” and “bilateral use of pivotal frontal regions” means that they have strengths where the reading brain shows weakness: greater “creativity, pattern deduction and contextual skills”.  Hence the answer to why so many architects, artists, designers and scientists are dyslexic.  Their brains are better suited to those jobs.  It’s the brain not the person. 

Socrate’s fears were well founded: the modern focus on a literate society being the ‘best’ society has oppressed the dyslexic brain and rendered it useless, while - simply - it is a brain we cannot do without.

Disappointingly and all too often, both historically and still in this modern age, children with dyslexia are told they are failing - at reading, writing and understanding. They are told that they are ‘behind’ where they should be, slower than their peers, and that they will amount to nothing unless they ‘catch up’.  Does this sound familiar?  It may not have happened to you but I am sure there is someone you know who has experienced this confidence and character crushing rhetoric. Yet some of the most profound and progressive achievements were made by those who had a dyslexic brain.  To name two iconic leaders of revolutionary thinking: Albert Einstein, who did not speak until nearly three and was mediocre at subjects requiring memorizing, and Thomas Edison, who had poor health and struggled to read and yet had a mind fit for wonderful creations.  

The tragedy of dyslexia, Wolf writes, is that no one tells this to the children and they all too often live a life of humiliation.  She calls for these new findings into dyslexia to result in intervention which “explicitly addresses every component system of reading intensively and imaginatively, until some level of automaticity and comprehension is attained”.  Doesn’t it feel like it is time for society to take responsibility?  Firstly by assisting - training teachers so they are able to help individuals better - and secondly by moving forward - the development of digitalisation and A.I. might well be the area where the dyslexia brain flourishes while the reading brain flounders.  

All children will need to be “bitextual” or “multitextual” readers - this is what the digital future will demand of us all.

Ray Kurzweil describes the future like so: “we have the confidence that we will have the data-gathering and computational tools needed by the 2020s to model and simulate the entire brain, which will make it possible to combine the principles of operation of human intelligence with the forms of intelligent information processing and inherent strength of machines.”  Simplified: human brains and machine brawn hybrid. He goes on, “...we will then be in a position to implement these powerful hybrid systems... that greatly exceed the capabilities of the human brain’s relatively fixed architecture...”  Machines will out grow human design and themselves, exceeding all human capabilities. No wonder there are fears of a redundant population (Yuval Noah Harari, 2018).  In truth, the biological brain has not changed structurally in the 40,000 years since our ancestors were nonliterate humans.  What chance would mere mortals have against artificial intelligence, which is developed to adapt and evolve and always find ways to better itself?

As Sam Cooke sang, “times are gonna change, oh yes they are” and the romantic notions of George Eliot, that “reading changes our lives, and our lives change reading” are a thing of the past, in a literary sense.  Learning to read, Wolf writes, is a wonderful thing that can go wrong for any number of reasons. In her wonderful, explorative book, she exemplifies the known numerous types of dyslexia, from reading and writing to speech and emotional issues. She examines the cause and effect - linguistically impoverished backgrounds and bilingual households, to finding the best intervention.  Her verdict: dyslexic people are not dumb or failures.

There are lessons to be learnt and, excitingly, prospects to be had. With the help of her sons and her experiences at the Center for Reading and Language Research, conversations and unraveling ideas, Wolf concludes that “dyslexia will turn out to be a stunning example of the strategies used by the brain to compensate: when it can’t perform a function one way, it rearranges itself to find another, literally.”  

What came first - the brain or the function?  

In pre-literate times, the dyslexic brain thrived. In literate society it suffers. In a futuristic society of digital choice and the electronic transmission of knowledge, how will the brains compete?  

What will be lost to the reading brain if we replace these skills with highly developed computers or AI?  In other words, what if we don’t need to read (in the modern sense) in the future?  And what will be gained by the dyslexic brain, in a digitalised, visual-auditory society?  Undeniably, we needed to develop reading and writing skills and should be thankful to the ‘reading brain’ for getting us where we are today.  However, will we need it in much the same way in years to come?  Or will the brain evolve, yet again, to diversify its genetic set-up to form a brain capable to meet all our needs.  My favourite quote Wolf uses in her book is this, and seems apt to be my final offering to you, a Viennese expression: “If two choices appear before you, there’s usually a third.”

Saturday 30 March 2019

Digital dependency: addiction or fantasy?

More commonly than ever our lives are interrupted with ‘shock’ stories making us question the impact that technological advances are having on our lives. It’s not unusual for individuals to post photos, intimate or private things online and even parents, including Celebrities, seem to be posting photos of their children online - like Gwyneth Paltrow recently being outed by her daughter, Apple Paltrow, for sharing photos without her daughters consent. We seem to live our lives through our digital selves. 

Concurrently, headlines report that huge companies are hit with shocking data protection failings. Thank goodness for the new GDPR laws (which feels better late than never). Everyday we are receiving alerts: through the digital bodily extension that is our phone, tablet or laptop. 

Whether we choose to stop and reflect on this, the truth is that our lives are becoming increasingly digitally documented, monitored and influenced by the use of devices. But are we right to be scared of rapid new developments and what seems to be a growing dependency? And why are people up in arms about this new ‘digital drug’ to hit our high streets?

Karl Marx’s famous dictum, that religion is the “opium of the people”, was imitated in the 80s from those who held a fear of technological developments. In a research paper by Kern and Hainmueller (2007) they explore this idea and the use of media as an ‘Opium for the masses’ by drawing on evidence of World War Two: namely the “impact of West German television on political attitudes in communist East Germany.”  

If we look back to the bygone era of radio sets and then the golden age of the television sets, people feared then that those ‘sets’ were the new “opium” for the masses. Parents in the 80s and 90s readily stuck their children down in front of the box for a little peace and quiet, to get on with some chores or to allow themselves two uninterrupted words with friends. 

Following this, in the ‘modemified’ 2000s, it seemed like we were seeing a rise of internet addiction; popularity of computers and their progress towards something more affordable meant nearly every household had one. Now in the age of smart phones, there’s a new drug in town - social media and gaming addiction - and everyone is at it.

Unlike radio and television where there is an Ofcom legislated 9pm ‘watershed’ time, it is more difficult (but not impossible) to monitor what people can see on the internet at any time of the day. Parents use surveillance strategies or block their children’s devices: there is big money to be made and big money being made by companies selling ‘good parenting’ apps to enable this. However, despite their best efforts, it’s possible that this isn’t enough. 

Parents (like any adult in a child’s life) are role models. If they are seen on their phones then the child themselves will want to use phones: use of digital devices becomes normalized from a much younger age and is perhaps something we haven’t prepared for (we certainly don’t have the answers for it). Andra Siiback, Professor of Media Studies from Tartu University, suggested in her presentation ‘Digital Parenting and the birth of the Datafied child’ at Utrecht University (2019), that parents are the “gatekeepers”.  Are parents not the ones who can and should monitor their child’s life, online or otherwise? If so, it would make sense then that they have the rights and privacy of their child in mind? And so the responsibility would seem to fall on them, to set an example and to monitor their child’s digital activity?

However, it seems like being a parent in the 21st century is never ending - a sort of ‘transcendent parenting’ (Siiback 2019): a timeless and relentless role, one which remains a thankless task. This focus on 24 hour online access and remote ‘technical mediation’ means that parents are rarely getting (or taking) time off. But what impact is this having on them? The parent-child relationships? Or even on the young people being directly affected by this? 

Unsurprisingly research and news reports increasingly show that they (9-17year olds) are fed up! They feel constantly monitored and want their rights acknowledged and respected. Or else, they don’t have a clue to what extent their mobile lives are being tracked and tamed. If this is the society we are living in, perhaps we need to think about the purposes of surveillance, digital use and ultimately the impact this will have on families (and society) in the future.

Of course, when things go wrong there’s a tendency to point the finger - but to whom should it point? The child - innocent? The parent - did their best: had controls in place? Social media platforms - who us? Currently social media platforms relinquish and accept some responsibility in equal measure. What is posted online can only be controlled so far, we are told, and there is the matter of ‘freedom of speech’. Has this Frankenstein’s monster got out of control? 

Like the monster, it even has its own language. 

Have you heard of - Big data? Every one of us, unknowingly, provide data to companies every minute of every day when we use our phones or the internet. These companies are then selling it on and/or using it to sell us ‘what we need’. It’s a commercialization dream.

What about - The Datafied Child? Something of a contradiction, parents who later on in life want to ‘protect’ their children from the online world of monsters and wonders are the same parents who create their child’s online footprint. Even before the infant is adept at using a tablet (which, by the way, is happening at an increasingly younger age), let alone old enough to utter any sounds, new born ‘datafied’ babies are leaving their digital trace. In 2010 81% of children had an online identity. 

Part way of explaining this is the modern phenomenon of ‘sharenting’. This is where parents seek support, solace and success from their peers by sharing photos and updates about their child/children online. This in turn is creating a generation of child “social shadows” (Leaver, 2015). Is it any wonder that their children continue this trend when they themselves become digitally active?

Despite the popularity of insta-babying there is a new wave of anti-sharenting: with fears of digital kidnapping and publicized catastrophic data hacks, parents are taking a stand. As the “digital native” in the parent-child relationship, they are taking a more “do as I do”, and “say as I say” approach; in a recent survey conducted in the UK, 71.3% of parents said they ‘do not like sharenting’ and are refusing to post any photos online. 

Interestingly, there were some conflicting findings made from similar research in Estonia. It was uncovered that although parents said they didn’t like their children using digital devices, in interviews children claimed that the reality was different. Of the 9-17year olds interviewed, 41% said they were online for 2-3hours day while parents put this statistic as much lower. Furthermore, 97% children claim to be online everyday and adult online daily use has gone up from 69-95% (Livingstone 2015). Is someone getting it wrong? Or do we need to consider perspective and the foci that the different groups are taking?

Koning et al (Utrecht University, 2018) as part of the ongoing Dynamics of Youth project, conducted research into perspective in primary and secondary aged children and their parents. Research showed discrepancies between the ‘rules’ the parent perceived they were enforcing (e.g. no phones before bed, no phones to bed and no more than 3 hours online) versus the child’s take on things (basically, the opposite to what the parents said). Parents were shown to considerably underestimate the child’s internet use. This is similar to findings in research done on alcohol abuse. Koning et al. examined the ‘effective parenting’ techniques used and discovered more similarities with alcohol abuse: most notably an increase in the frequency of communication about the ‘abuse’ behavior (internet, alcohol or otherwise) had a negative effect on the child’s progress. In other words, it had a worsening impact: talk about it? Expect an increased use by the child.

So would preventative measures work? According to Koning it’s a complicated issue. With 80% of parents surveyed initiating their child’s use of digital devices, and 60% not wanting to intervene when the child is using the device, we need to ask whether parents are the right and proper gatekeepers. Furthermore, with the rise of digital behavior in society in general and the swift and steady move towards A.I. (which we have been told will change the face of ‘work’ and ‘employability skills’) are any of us in any position to be limiting the use of digital technologies?

As with any dependency, the digital world is no different: it can be an addiction, it is a place of fantasy and escapism. But increasingly, and this is something that terrifies me because I know so little about it, the digital world will become a place of reality (for some or all of us, eventually). Artificial but real. So surely it is about this that we need to be asking the questions - for ourselves, for the children and for the future of soceity.

Thursday 28 February 2019

Draft #2 A middle man is a middle man is a middle man...

Academies. Built on promises, promises which ultimately concluded with: promises of a better education system for the UK. Promises of better schools. Promises of “No more failing schools”! No more mediocre!  But what is really happening behind the closed doors of our local ‘Academised’ Community Colleges and Schools? 

Since 2000 and the coalition government, the goal was to replace underperforming and ‘failing’ schools by giving them more autonomy. What this meant was that school leaders were given a wad of cash to distribute how they saw fit... however, unlike the previously LA supported schools, they would have to generate income year on year, much like a business.

Parents were invited to welcome in the new age of academies. In deprived and desperate areas of the UK, the Government gave a golden carrot to Head teachers and gave them the power to be free from the Local Authority's (LA) ball and chain.  Some official lines were: “Academies, operating in England, are publicly funded independent schools... Academies benefit from greater freedoms to help innovate and raise standards" and "These include freedom from local authority control, the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff, freedom around the delivery of the curriculum and the ability to change the lengths of terms and school days” (1). 

Freedom equals innovation. 
Freedom equals greater success.

The LAs, it was implied, are failing the school system, letting down our children by inadequate support and by wasting tax payers money. It was stressed that by giving Headteachers of Academies more power, over pay, conditions and curriculum, children would do better in school. Quite how this would work - the mechanics of the scheme - were (and still are) a grey area.

However, freedom also equals responsibility.
Freedom from Government support.
Freedom from local authority support.
And so, LA support teams were at risk of losing their jobs. And they did. Subsequently, the LA ‘businesses’ became privatized and some staff saved their jobs. Others moved onto pastures new.

This left Academies having to pay separately, from their wad of cash, for the ‘newly privatized’ support systems. This included important external provisions like educational psychologists, educational welfare officers, caterers and so on. 

Hang on. Companies bought and privatized LA provisions? Yes. Those local authority provisions that were judged 'inadequate' and failures to schools were bought up by private firms. Who saw that coming? Not me. 

But Babcock, for example, did. Babcock is a private firm which as well as education services also specialises in Nuclear warfare, with a finger in the pie of NHS privatization and the privatization of National Rail. According to their own website, babcockinternational.com, “Babcock International is a multinational corporation headquartered in the United Kingdom. It specialises in managing complex assets and infrastructure. Although the company has civil contracts, its main business is with public bodies, particularly the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence and Network Rail.”

The company invested in ‘buying up’ LA services (which were deemed corrupt and failing) and then charge schools for a private service. These services, which would have previously fallen under the LA remit and would not have cost the schools more than an annual subscription, suddenly became expensive extras they can’t always stretch to. 

It’s kind of like paying your taxes and having access to an annual subscription to a medicine you need and then being told that they’ve stopped that deal. That your taxes no longer include that medicine. Then they say they’re going to give you a lump sum of money, to help (which by the way also has to be used for other people’s medicine). But that each month’s subscription is going to cost you three times as much... it doesn’t take a maths specialist to work out that the lump sum is quickly going to run out and that you’re going to have to make difficult decisions about whether to buy the medicine (which you need) and/or who to buy it for. So it’s kind of like that but also not at all like that. Because I could also just be describing what is happening in the NHS, couldn’t I?

Anyway, after underperforming Academies were not improving in this scheme, in 2010 the Government encouraged schools that had been rated Outstanding to become academies themselves. Then they could ‘buddy up’ with local underperforming academies to form Mutli-Academy Trusts (MATs). Suddenly the status of Academies rose - there were, for once, Outstanding Academies... not achieved quite the way we were sold it, but achieved by signing up more schools that already held an Outstanding OFSTED rosette.

Under the MAT (multi-acadmy trust) initiative, a group of schools - or rather their governors - appoints a CEO (usually a previous Headteacher) who oversees all the schools, as well as all of the Head teachers and subsequent staff and students. What they actually do is beside the point. And what they actually earn, according to Sir David Carter (ex-south was regional CEO) is “good value for money”.

Suddenly that wad of cash provided to the Academy, by the Government, has been used up by paying for another level of management, putting schools into a deeper deficit - which is further exacerbated by cuts to Government spending in schools (in real terms). I won’t go into this right now - I am sure you’ve seen the headlines?

What about those promises? To “innovate and raise standards”? 

The truth is, despite the introduction of CEOs, MAT coordination between schools (which actually already happened and was managed by the LAs) and pie in the sky aim to reduce poorly performing schools, the education system is struggling. Really struggling.
You may have seen the BBC program ‘School’? If you didn’t, I’d recommend you watch some of it for a flavor of the system as it stands today. Maybe you read the recent Guardian article (other newspapers are available) about a Stockport school's Headteacher and Governors finding no other choice but to close early every Friday? This is as well making HUGE cuts to vital school services. (2)

These highly paid CEOs are not radicalizing education or driving up results and performance. Head teachers are forced to make cuts, but where? From experience and anecdotes and reports like the one above, it is the lower end, the ‘under achievers’ and the special education sector, post-16 and extra-curricular that are hardest hit. A national attempt to keep schools at the top of the league tables mean Headteachers are unwilling to let their results slip and so high performers, higher previous attainers and in particular, closing the gap between girls and boys, are the main foci.

This is not the reality of the Academy dream, I am certain. Or at least I am hopeful.
When the coalition Government chose this course for our community colleges and schools I am sure they didn’t imagine that Academies would fail. The really shocking thing, for me at least and I am sure for others, is that they are lying about the value and progress of Academies. Through the freedom of information act you can access the results of academies. You can also read some concerns about it in a bbc article from 2016 here: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-36014563.

The findings from a recent report by the Education Policy Institute are very interesting and are based on evidence. It was led by independent investigators and experienced educators - see page 2 for their impressive roles and responsibilities (3). “Our evidence points to an initial (and significant) improvement in GCSE scores in the year prior to and after becoming a sponsored academy. However, we cannot attribute this trend to anything that may have been implemented by the academy sponsor – as it, in part, occurred before academisation. It may however be a result of the incentives generated by the academisation policy, which the government may well argue is a success in itself. Alternatively, it could be that these schools were improving in any case (perhaps as a result of competitive pressures or other interventions targeting schools likely to be subject to ‘forced’ sponsored academy conversion), and so the fact that they became academies is not relevant. Further analysis is required to try and establish whether there is a direct, causal impact of a school becoming a sponsored academy on attainment.“

A new White Paper proposal, laid out in 29th April 2016 version, read: “The White Paper proposes that local authorities would no longer maintain schools, and an all academy system would be created. The proposed system would include:
  • Most schools becoming part of multi-academy trusts (MATs);
  • A reformed role for local authorities, focusing on duties such as ensuring sufficiency of school places, supporting vulnerable pupils, and acting as a champion for parents;
  • A new legal framework for an all academy system.”
When under discussion in the House of Commons, Government officials raised their concerns that seem to have been silenced over the years: “The proposals have proved highly controversial.  In particular, questions have been raised about the desirability of such large-scale reforms in the context of other challenges, the impact on local democracy and teachers’ pay and condition of an all academy system, and whether sufficient MAT capacity can be created to provide a high quality academised system.  The question of whether academy status is in itself a boost to school standards has also been a key focus of the debate.”
One more thing to consider. If Academies are the education system for the future - to bring UK education in line with the most successful in the world: essentially the use of MATs has been awarded the golden globe of education (despite no evidence of a positive impact) - then why have the Government needed to set up the The Regional School Commissioners?

What’s The RSC? I’ll let https://schoolsweek.co.uk/regional-school-commissioner-pay-revealed/ explain: “the commissioners are part of the government’s middle tier of accountability for academies, brought in last September and tasked with tackling underperformance and boosting the number of academy sponsors... In December, in a written answer to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the DfE’s permanent secretary Chris Wormald gave the estimated running costs for the RSCs and their offices for the first year as £4.5 million.”

A middle man is a middle man is a middle man is a middle man.

Goodbye education funding.

Goodbye promises.
3. https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/EPI_-Impact_of_Academies_Consolidated_Report-.pdf.

Sunday 24 February 2019

The Digital Age in the Anthropozoic era

The Digital Age in the Anthropozoic era

Through our TV screens, cinema, magazines and newspapers, in Science, environmental news and photographs from space, or even just walking along the main road of a city or town you know well, there is proof enough that we are - and that humans have and always will be - having a huge and often detrimental effect on the natural world.

In the late 1800s a phrase was born: Anthropocene. Italian geologist Stoppani reportedly coined it in an acknowledgement that humans were increasingly having an influence on the ‘Earth’s systems’. This is called the Anthropozoic era: ‘the current geological age defined by human activity having the greatest impact on the climate and environment.’ What can we define as the greatest impact?

In 2014 The Guardian published an article showing satellite images of a dried up Aral Sea Basin as a side effect of over production of cotton due to demand. In the article, Transy Hoskins blames “The fashion industry” as being “linked to the environmental devastation in the Central Asian inland sea” (https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2014/oct/01/cotton-production-linked-to-images-of-the-dried-up-aral-sea-basin). But there’s no smoke without fire - consumers as well as producers all need to take a long hard look in the mirror and accept responsibility for the damaging effects fashion greed is having on our world. Much of this I have discussed in a previous blog post (https://www.wellbeingwithrosie.org/2018/10/sustainable-fashion-making-better.html). Fortunately, there are people and movements making a change: opting for up-cycled fashion, second hand fashion and reusing material rather than producing new.

David Attenborough has taken to the stage to hammer home the message about protecting the natural world - ok, rather than hammer he sort of gently serenades us with a soft, sad soliloquy. The serene but serious tone of Attenborough is being relied on. As the token spokesman he has been called in to relay to the general and generally adoring public (who doesn’t love and respect Attenborough?) that humankind is destroying the earth and it’s ecosystems. Wiping out entire ecosystems without even noticing, he once stated matter-of-factly in an interview with Prince William. The most pertinent message was delivered in Blue Planet II, watched by millions; it was credited with highlighting the issue of plastic pollution and pushing it up the political agenda. 
Conversely, critics of Attenborough claim that those documentaries dodge the more fundamental problems, like industrial fishing and overconsumption. One such critic, George Monbiot - a commentator who is also admired and whose work is acclaimed by many - states, “By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance.” He even goes so far as accusing “Attenborough’s environmentalism [of having a] coherent theme, it is shifting the blame” (David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves, The Guardian online 7 Nov 2018).

Can you blame a person for trying? According to Monbiot (who was, since 1985, working in the department that has made most of Attenborough’s programmes), you can. By shifting the blame.

Attenborough, scientists abundant and activists are all reaching out to the public and politicians to listen and act. They reach out through TV programs, the internet, social media. But how does the digital world and the new digital age play a part in this Anthropocene? 

Marshall McLuhan famously cited that all media are now ‘bodily extensions’ due to the increasing use of media as central to human life. Media theory has taken a ‘mediality’: it now exists as the place in the middle of or in between all things. When you consider this in a practical sense, about where and when you rely on media, it’s hard to disprove this theory. The innovation, interaction and immersive world that the digital age has to offer its users promises of a future of development, rapid change and virtual reality. There is an illusion of control, power and progress. But what does this all mean, in Attenborough’s reality?

At the cost of rainforests, poisoning water ways and plastic waste, we can now celebrate Healthcare which has improved dramatically.  As a direct result of digital developments, it promises up to 75% of developed nations having digitalized records and more autonomy over heir health care and access to treatment in the near future. However, according to weforum.org, “Reaching the most disadvantaged and truly transforming their circumstances requires a significant shift in mindset.” In terms of business, technology is seen to be advancing not only corporate purpose, but smart-automation (as well as killing jobs, its creating them and changing the skill sets employers are looking for) and “Global wealth”, which “has increased since the beginning of industrialization in the early 19th century” (pwc.nl). 
Consider the use of the internet - the old, beep beep beep routers and modems are gathering dust, relics of a not-to-distant past. You can now access infinite possibilities from the flick of a finger, a tap of a tablet and from the comfort of your phone, which conveniently fits in your pocket. Who’d have imagined that in post-World War 1946? The first computer - catchily named ENIAC and measuring a humble 1800 square feet - is a far cry from the adept, sleek and shiny handsets we have today. For a more comprehensive list of the changes in IT development I recommend you read this: https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/articles/internet-changed-everyday-life/

With most people having access to the internet and immeasurable mounds of information, are we able to deal with this information correctly? Are we ready for having the world at our finger tips? And what does it mean for the world?

Proust explored the idea of reading. We are not predetermined, genetically, to read. We are predisposed to have and acquire language. We are genetically programmed to be able to and to want to communicate, orally or otherwise. But to read we have to be taught. Maryanne Wolf, in her book ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’ (2008) offers an idea about how and why the brain works or doesn’t work when we try to learn to read. 
In chapter one, she describes her thoughts about the “Google universe” that her children, and increasingly all of humanity’s children, are growing up in: “Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously?” She also wonders whether the old and the new can exist harmoniously side by side, “can we preserve the constructive dimension of reading in our children alongside their growing abilities to perform multiple tasks and to integrate ever expanding amounts of information?”  Interestingly, she poses ideas about why the dyslexic brain may be better suited to a futuristic world of technology - as designers, creative thinkers and visually strong people, they could flourish in a computerized multi-modal world.

So what does the technological future hold for humanity? We can read widely and delve into the ether as much as we want and as far as we like, or dare to go... but the only way we will truly know the answer to this is to live the life we choose and the life that has been chosen for use by our predecessors - the inventors and the surrealists, the artists and scientists, the teachers and students. And if, in the meantime, we can use our technological advancements to reduce the impact of humanity on the climate and environment, I am all for it. Otherwise we’ll need to coin a name for a post-geological world defined by humanity’s destruction of the Earth’s systems.

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