Archive for the ‘Digital Literacy’ Category

RSA Animate: Reimagining Work

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

After months of painstaking work (not by me I might add!). The RSA have launched their own animated version of a talk I gave there recently on re-imagining the way we could work.

It’s 9 minutes of your time, but I think you’ll find it more than worthwhile:

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I’ll post a bit of background on this later, but for now, sit back and enjoy!

 

Accounting for a "Freemium" world

Friday, September 13th, 2013

So, we reached a key milestone in the Coplin household over the summer, my son has taken his first steps down his own path towards financial independence. Yes, much to the pain of my reluctant wallet, it is finally pocket money time.

I’ll spare you all the details of the endless wrangling around how much (£2) and what we felt he needs to do in order to earn it (make his own “contribution” to the family). The point is, we decided it was time he started to learn the consequences of being responsible for his own spending.

The thing is though, teaching financial independence in a freemium, digital world is an incredibly different proposition to anything we have previously experienced (either as kids or even as parents even just a few years ago). In a world of tangible physical products which have a price point as a point of entry, it’s easy to teach the lessons of “save for what you want and you’ll enjoy it all the more” but in the friction free freemium world, this lesson is presented with a few problems.

kidsshutterstock_115520779Like any other 8 year old, my son loves apps, and there are a few really good freemium games that he really enjoys. You know the sort, these are often brilliant and compelling games that are free to download and let you acquire points within the game to buy attributes, power ups or just plain old items to bestow on your avatars or whatever. Typically a good freemium game will let you earn these points whilst also providing you with a short cut that means you can just buy the points and it’s the proximity of this choice combined with the threshold of how much effort you need to put in to earning in order get the additional content you need that seems to be causing some cracks to start to appear in the whole freemium approach. Some freemium games providers seem to push it a bit too far, bringing the in-game upgrades consistently (and increasingly intrusively) closer while pushing the “free” part further and further out of reach.

Of course the key lesson I’m trying to impart to my son is that you have finite resources in your piggy bank and you want to buy a bunch of different items, and it’s up to you to prioritise finite resources accordingly. This is tough for any kid (bloody hell it’s still tough for me) but the freemium model lowers the friction of any purchase – in that it’s really easy to buy what I want, I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to exert any effort, I just click on a button and hey presto! Instant gratification. It’s like locking the kid in a sweet shop, taking the lids of all the jars and just saying “Help yourself! Go nuts!, just remember you’ve only got a finite amount of money” I don’t know many kids that would come out of that situation with any cash left (or even without over spending), regardless of how much they wanted anything else outside the sweetshop.

It’s the combination of the proximity of the purchase and the lack of friction of the purchase that causes the problem. Kids are pretty instantaneous, occasionally impetuous and have yet to learn the long, hard boring lessons about patience and value. (And I admit that as an adult there are times when I am really jealous of that).

There’s another related issue here about the value of “effort” – I had this conversation with my son which was basically, “look Dad, why would I spend all my free time earning 1,000 points when I can just buy them for 70p? After all, I’m getting pocket money now”. 70p? I can’t even buy a bag of crisps for that, it’s a trivial amount of money but it’s the principle that is infinitely more important. Ultimately it’s an argument that I have a tough time responding to without resorting to that worst excuse of parenting “just because”.

Ultimately I can cope with the latter argument, as a parent I’m used to the fact that I have to work hard to get my messages across, and that all I’m doing is to try not recreate the same “mistakes” my parents my made, (while acknowledging in the process that I’ll be making plenty of new ones that my son will rail against with his kids) but it’s the (lack of) transparency of the freemium model that worries me most and it is something that app providers (and platform providers) really need to give some thought to.

Of course, this year, there’s been plenty of news coverage of kids racking up thousands of pounds of bills on their parent’s credit card without anyone really being aware it was happening. Our own research showed that on average kids spend around £31m a month on apps or in app purchases without asking for permission! Thankfully people and organisations are evolving in how they both deal with that situation (give you the money back) and building systems and education that help parents manage and control spending, but I think there’s another level of detail that we’ve not yet reached and it’s one of individual app accountability and transparency of reporting that will help address the issues I’ve outlined here.

Don’t mistake any of this for either a rant against the freemium model or worse, some miserable old git hankering after simpler times. I actually love the freemium model, I think it’s a really important development in the software industry, but I just think we need to help our society evolve to understand how to make best use of it.

Frankly, I really don’t care if my son wants to blow his “lavish” allowance on virtual cabbages that he can feed to his virtual pets, or on that gold laser powered jump suit that will look “A-W-E-some!” but I do want him to be able to make decisions easily. He should be able to look at his individual apps and see how much he has spent on each of them, not for me to have to trawl through credit card statements and app store emails to piece together the picture. It’s the same kind of transparency and “business intelligence” we try to create for our enterprise customers to help them make “informed, business decisions” so why the hell wouldn’t we want to do this for our consumers as well?

I get that app developers don’t make much on a free or even a 69p game, but the freemium model will break if it forces the developers to drive monetisation harder by pushing the consumer further and further towards having to spend money in order to enjoy the game and then doesn’t give them the capability to account for their spending. Ultimately, if that plays out, consumers (or their parents) will vote with their feet and just walk away and at that point, just what is the point of the freemium approach other than to obscure and, to an extent, trick the consumer around their spending?

The Future Workforce – Curious, Confident and Tooled up with Tech

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I recently presented at an event at the RSA around the role of technology in jobs, the economy and the future workforce in the UK, and although this may initially feel a little counterintuitive (and for me, potentially career limiting) I’d like to bring some of the discussion to you, highlighting in particular the general irrelevance of technology in our deliberations as to what we need to do to ensure our future workforce is equipped to help maintain and extend our position (and economy) across a broad range of industries.

Over the past few weeks, there has been much in the press about the relationship between skills, technology and job prospects, especially recently with all the discussion around the role of ICT in the tool curriculum.  In all of this, overall, I grow increasingly worried that we have confused the word “skills” with the word “tools”.

Most people’s experience of technology is now more defined by their personal experience than it is by their experience at work. We no longer live in a world where people only ever see computers at a place of work or place of study and broadly speaking, technology has become a natural ingrained part of our everyday lives, just like the television, just like the 240v, 50Hz AC that comes out of the sockets in your wall.  However, even despite all this, we seem predominantly transfixed on the specifics of training people to use specific tools and technologies rather than on the broader principles that make their use important and valuable.  ICT continues to be a separate bolt on to both education and in how organisations use it rather than something that is naturally embedded into every aspect of our lives. 

(Please understand, I get that we do not live in an society where everyone has equal opportunities and access to digital resources, but we do live in a world where increasingly, like the recent government mandate, everything is becoming “digital by default”.)

scienceBy now, we are familiar with the cliché around how we are “currently training people for jobs that don’t exist yet”, but I would argue that, although the pace of change may be slightly faster these days, that particular problem has always pretty much always been true.

My own family offers me some evidence – I am but the latest in a long line of engineers bearing the Coplin surname, my grandfather grew up in the industrial heartland of this country, working for one of the many engineering firms in the midlands as a pattern maker.  My father grew up in that same environment and became an aeronautical engineer, I grew up surrounded by aeronautical and mechanical engineering insight and artefacts and became a software engineer, my son, is growing up similarly “blessed” (or cursed as his Mum may occasionally have it) and will no doubt, find his own way to re-engineer the world (although like any other six year old, his current ambition sees him working with the Police, not on the motorbikes or in the squad cars but specifically “with computers”, his own important addition to the job stereotype that makes me infinitely proud).

My grandfather went to a school without electricity, my father went to a school without calculators and I grew up in a world without personal computers and went to college in a world without the internet or the web.  My son will be similarly afflicted in relation to his children (“Tell me again Dad? You didn’t even have hoverboards?”) and so it goes on.

Although the generations of Coplin engineers grew up with incredibly different tools and concepts of education, we are united by a common set of skills; almost insatiable curiosity and a desire to re-engineer and improve the world around us.

What this says to me is that the tools are broadly irrelevant.  Don’t get pedantic on me, I’m not saying totally irrelevant, just that it’s more important to understand the principles that make them work and where to apply them, than it is to understand the specific workings of a given software package (or lathe for that matter).

This is really where our challenge lies – how to ensure our children and workforce are equipped with the broad principles and the aptitude and attitude to know when and where to apply them along with that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world about them.

Perhaps it was because I had just spent the best part of the past weekend with them, but my baseline for success is broadly defined by the incredible “Gov Camp” community we have here in the UK.  Some 250 or so individuals from all over the country, from all parts of public sector, united by a love of technology and a desire to improve public service (or as Chris Taggart so pragmatically puts it, to “make the world a little less shit”).

GovCamp 2012What makes this community special (and for my money, an early indicator of what we can look forward to across all industries and companies in the future) is that from all of these people, only a handful (certainly less than 10) would class themselves as being from “IT”.  These are individuals from the business end of government who use technology as a part of their everyday lives, and want to use it to the same extent in their professional roles.  They think of technology as an enabler not an outcome.  They are curious, they are confident, they overcome organisational boundaries and are guided by a civil purpose – they want to take the world apart and put it back together again in a way that it makes things better for those involved.  These are the hallmarks of a creative, capable and competent workforce and the principles that are behind this curious mind-set are exactly those I think we need to infuse in our children and future workforce (of all ages).  (If you want a more detailed look at what makes UK Gov Camp and the people behind it so special, you can find out what it feels like to “walk a mile in their sandals” from Steph Gray, one of the community’s incredible architects.)

For too long we have drawn a distinction between science and art, when in reality they can both be the same thing. We need to show kids (and adults alike) that, as Niko Macdonald, one of the audience members eloquently put it, “there is beauty in code” and “majesty in mathematics”. It is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration.  Unfortunately, from the discussion it becomes clear that there is a significant gap between schools and industry in helping each other understand which skills are important and what sort of careers they could lead to. 

I think we can do more here, especially those of us who have children within the education system – we need to find a way of spending more time with schools to help demonstrate what careers and vocations the basic skills like maths, english and science can lead to (and that these subjects can be as creative as any art-related subject).  I think a re-birth of the school computer club is one key way that we can do this without getting caught up in (or in the way of) the curriculum discussion. (HT to @MadProf and the “Monmouth Manifesto” on that one).

There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial part in our future economy, and that technology skills will be fundamentally essential for individuals to have a challenging, rewarding career but I think it’s important to highlight those careers will increasingly not be in “IT” itself. I believe it far more likely that they will be spread across the existing (in some cases eternal) and the incredible new industries that our future will offer.  More importantly, the specifics of the technologies being used will vary even more significantly than over the preceding 100 years and so now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to infuse those essential principles into the mind-set of all those who are venturing into this new world of work.

Helping them understand that, as Matthew Taylor from the RSA puts it, “you don’t ‘get’ a job, you ‘create’ one” could be all it takes to get us started.

(GovCamp photo credit: David Pearson)