Archive for May, 2012

Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

Evolving Our Expectations of Privacy

Friday, May 4th, 2012

So I walk into my local pub, the landlord calls out “hey Dave! Your usual?” – I acknowledge him with a smile and nonchalantly walk up to the bar as he pours my drink; I am secretly overjoyed that I have finally achieved such status and recognition (although I barely spare a moment’s thought for the years of patronage and resulting family neglect that have afforded me such privilege.)

That kind of personalised service is something we as consumers strive to experience (come on, we all have a secret fantasy of playing Norm in your own local bar where “everyone knows your name”) and service providers have long chased the dream of creating that sense of “home”, where we know you, we know what you like and relax, you’re amongst friends here. (Don’t believe me? Watch any airline advert from the last 10 years and you’ll know exactly what I mean).

drinking manSo what if then, I walk into a different bar, in an unfamiliar town and the landlord does the same thing “hey Dave! Your usual?” do I offer him the same smile and nonchalance? Of course not, I turn around and run out of the bar, screaming in terror at the indignity of the invasion of my privacy.

But why should I be freaked out by that? After all, the landlord in the second bar has as much interest in offering me the personalised service as the landlord in the first pub. But what’s different is my _expectation_. If I had whiled away the hours on http://www.makeminemylocal.com availing landlords across the country with my photograph and drinking preferences so they can offer such a service, then I might reasonably expect such a friendly welcome, but the fact it is not expected is what freaks me out.

The lesson here for us as consumers (and for us as technology providers) is “no surprises” – if the consumer is (reasonably) surprised about the service or the usage of their data, then as a provider, you’ve probably got it wrong. You can tell me all you like that a specific bit of information about me is public information, but if it doesn’t feel like it to me then I’m going to have a hard time when somebody I wasn’t expecting uses it. It’s that expectation that’s almost as important as the permission to use the data, in the first bar, I’m OK with the data attribute “my favourite beer” being used. In the second bar, when it gets used I am unnerved not just because I never gave permission, but equally because I wasn’t expecting it.

I think this difference between the role of reasonable expectation and permission is often overlooked and will potentially catch us out as our culture (and expectations) about reasonable use evolve. We live in an increasingly personalised world, and our expectations and comfort with the mechanics of how that world is created are growing ever easier, we are freaked out initially by the “filter bubble” but then realise that actually, used properly (and transparently) it is a vital resource if we are to stand a chance of sorting the wheat from the chaff in a modern (big data) world.

I am reminded of a similar example from our recent past that shows how these evolutions can happen.  Do you remember when caller ID first appeared on our landline phones at home?  I do, mostly because I was incensed at the thought of _my_ number being displayed to whoever I called, even though I had requested to be “ex-directory”.  Fast forward a few years and you will find me refusing to answer the phone when the number is unknown or not recognised.  I no longer care about my number being displayed because my expectations have evolved to appreciate the value that the service provides.

But this is not just about always adapting or evolving to new developments and privacy boundaries.  Crucially, there needs to be some constructive tension to ensure that this evolution neither goes too far too quickly nor becomes unbalanced in terms of the value to the corporation versus the consumer. Given the complexity of the issue (and the difference context makes in the usage of the data in question) the law alone is not enough to do this, we need to ensure that a place exists where consumers, regulators, privacy advocates (like Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and others) and technology providers can come together to collectively and constructively debate the best way forward for all involved. I talked about this recently at an event on Location Privacy, and was reliably informed that there at least 5 different places (and counting) where this debate can and does happen. This is good but it needs to be better and more focused if we are to provide the best outcome for all of the stakeholders involved.

We all have a part to play in making sure this dialogue continues to happen – why don’t you join us?