Apr 172015
teacher and student literacy

Two years ago the Los Angeles school board proudly announced a $1.3 billion project to roll out iPads in some of its more disadvantaged schools.

Now the contract has collapsed and the school board wants the money back from Apple and its partner, education publisher Pearson.

It seems the program’s big problem was the software with Pearson supplying a poor product that was unusable for students.

What we may well be seeing though is the end of the obsession politicians and education bureaucrats have with technology, something that ran ahead of teachers’ skills to use the tools and the capabilities of those tools – as we see with Pearson.

Perversely though this may be the time that education technology starts to flourish as the sector falls into what Gartner describes as the ‘pit of disillusionment.’

Apr 152015

I’m in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, for the next few days for the Open Source, Open Society conference.

During one of the welcome events Lillian Grace of Wiki New Zealand mentioned how today we’re at the same stage with data literacy that we were two hundred years ago with written literacy.

If anything that’s optimistic. According to a wonderful post on Our World In Data, in 1815 the British literacy rate was 54%.


That low rate makes sense as most occupations didn’t need literate workers while a hundred years later industrial economies needed employees who could read and write.

Another notable point is the Netherlands has led the world in literacy rates for nearly four hundred years. This is consistent with the needs of a mercantile economy.

Which leads us to today’s economy. In four hundred years time will our descendants  be commenting on the lack of data literacy at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century?


Jan 292015
Windows Phone 8 is essential for Microsoft

One of the challenges for parents in connected households is managing how kids use their screens, a survey released by Telstra this week is a good reminder of how parents create an example for children when it comes to computer usage.

In December last year the telco ran an online survey asking Australian adults and children about their use of technology devices with 1,348 parents and 507 Australian children aged 12-17 responding.

Sadly the survey isn’t available online however the parents were scathing of their own performance with two thirds of the parents believing they’re not good role models when it comes to device usage. Interestingly, half the kids believed their parents were.

A generational shift

If anything, this survey describes the shifting generational changes with parents unsure about how they should be managing computers in their home, something that isn’t helped by inconsistent messages about internet and technology use coming from schools – “I need it for my homework” is the constant cry from teenagers when the computer or router is shut down.

More concerning is how many kids are on the computer late at night with the survey showing 74 per cent of children use their device between 9pm and midnight on school nights, with 39 per cent falling asleep while using their device.

How we use our computers is setting an example to our kids says Telstra’s Cyber Safety Manager, Shelly Gorr who points out the survey is a reminder to parents that they’re a key influencer on their children’s online behaviour.

“Children model their parents’ behaviour so it’s only natural for them to copy the example set by their mum or dad in relation to the way they use their device,” Gorr said. “So, for example, if it’s important to you that mealtimes are device-free, make sure you put your mobile away during dinner because children are happier if everyone in the family follows the rules.”

Gorr suggests the following tips to help manage kids’ computer time;

1. Agree limits

Talk to your children about the amount of digital time they’re living and then, based on what you agree is a healthy balance, set ‘switched off’ times of day. Help your children create a media use roster allocating blocks of time for homework, chores and their screen time.

2. Be an offline supporter

Support and encourage your kids in activities that don’t involve a digital device. A ball game or reading a book are all great ways to show kids how they can enjoy themselves without a mobile, tablet or computer.

3. Set family rules

Make sure you’re seen as a positive example. Do you want the dinner table to be a device-free zone? If so, then have everyone (including Mum and Dad) turn off their mobile phones and devices during dinner, or when taking part in family activities. Children are happier following rules if everyone in the family plays by them.

4. Turn off devices before bedtime

Lack of sleep can affect alertness, concentration and memory. For a better night’s sleep try encouraging children to switch off at least one hour before bedtime. Create a charging station and charge all household devices in the one spot overnight.

5. Make the most of parental controls

Many parental controls tools allow you to set time-of-day restrictions on children’s device usage. We recommend Telstra Smart Controls® for mobile devices and Telstra Online Security for your home network.

6. Consider the difference between types of screen time

Not all screen time is created equal. Think about the differences between using a device for homework or creative expression versus using it for passive entertainment.

One of the things that becomes clear when talking to researchers about household computer use are the changes in the family dynamic and the differences in the way age groups use technology. It’s not surprising we’re all struggling with this given the magnitude and speed of change.

Sep 012014

A briefcase sized device could wreak havoc in today’s networked world warns William Radasky in the IEEE Journal.

Fans of the  wave of nuclear war movies like The War Game or The Day After will remember the first bomb detonated in the attacks was a high level explosion designed to knock out electronic equipment.

The resultant Electro Magnetic Pulse leaves everything from military radar to civilian communications systems unusable.

In both The Day After and The War Game the high altitude detonations over Rochester and Kansas City destroyed motor cars’ ignitions leaving a key part of the nation’s infrastructure paralysed.

Unlike a zombie TV series, the unlucky survivors of a nuclear strike weren’t going to leap into the nearest abandoned Camaro and speed away from the heaving hungry masses.

What should be considered is The War Game was filmed in 1965 when electronics were not ubiquitous. Even then the scale of the damage from an EMP was substantial.

In today’s world, an wide scale EMP would bring down a region’s entire economy.

I’m writing this post on the 28th Floor of San Francisco’s St Francis hotel and were such a blast to happen now I’m not sure I’d be able to find the fire escapes as the emergency lighting would be fried — it’s not even worth considering the lifts.

What a first world city like San Francisco would like after all its technology, including electrical and communications systems, were knocked out doesn’t bear thinking out.

On the bright side, this means a devastating nuclear war killing millions may not be useful military strategy any more. To bomb a first world nation ‘back to the stone age’ just needs a handful of well targeted high altitude nukes.

The IEEE article is a timely reminder of both the fragility of our systems and the society that depends upon them.

Apr 272014
workers in a building site

“In the 20th century the planet’s population doubled twice. It will not double even once in the current century,” states The Economist in a lengthy article on how the world’s aging population is going to affect economic growth.

One of the most overlooked aspects of modern day economics is the changing demographics of the developed world, the aging army of baby boomers has been effectively ignored by policy makers and voters alike and now we’re about the see the consequences.

Japan is the case study as the country is well ahead of the pack with an rapidly aging population and the indicators aren’t good.

Amlan Roy, an economist at Credit Suisse, has calculated that the shrinking working-age population dragged down Japan’s GDP growth by an average of just over 0.6 percentage points a year between 2000 and 2013, and that over the next four years that will increase to 1 percentage point a year.

Despite that drag on growth, the Japanese are still living quite well and could be showing that an economy can grow old gracefully and productively.

The key to doing that is to have a well educated, skilled and productive workforce. An efficient health system that ensures older workers stay fit enough to work doesn’t hurt either.

What The Economist illustrates in its story is that some countries are going to perform better than others as their workforces age. Those who’ve neglected their education systems and workforce skill bases are not going to do well.

One can’t help but think the ideologies that gripped the Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1980s that saw skills being discarded, investment neglected and education cut are going to have a high cost on those nations over the next twenty years.

May 242013
how are we using data in our business

As we all get buried under a tsunami of data, the challenge is managing it. The MIT Technology Review this week looks at the rise of the data scientist, a job title unknown a few years ago.

The problem for industry is the skill sets required to become a data scientist are fairly esoteric.

Data scientist has become a popular job title partly because it has helped pull together a growing number of haphazardly defined and overlapping job roles, says Jake Klamka, who runs a six-week fellowship to place PhDs from fields like math, astrophysics, and even neuroscience in such jobs. “We have anyone who works with a lot of data in their research,” Klamka says. “They need to know how to program, but they also have to have strong communications skills and curiosity.”

Over the last twenty years we’ve done a pretty poor job teaching maths and statistics which is going to create a skills shortage as industry struggles to find people qualified to figure out what all of this data means.

While Big Data might be to this decade what plastics were to the 1960s, it’s not the only technology change that’s affecting business as the McKinsey Quarterly describes the ten IT trends for the decade ahead.

The thing that really stands out with McKinsey’s predictions is the degree of reskilling the workforce is going to need, today’s workers are going to need an understanding of programming, logic and statistics as much the kids currently at school.

If you’re planning on being in the workforce at the end of this decade right now may be the time to consider getting some of these skills.

Just as businesses will be separated by how they use Big Data, workers may too find those skills divide the winners from the losers.

As the amount of data flooding into our lives explodes, we’ll all need to think about how we can get the skills to manage and understand data.

Feb 232013

A strange little story appeared in Business Insider a few weeks back, 9 Things Your Resume Needs if you want to be Hired by Apple or Google is a curious view into the mindset of Silicon Valley.

Purporting to be an extract from a book written by a former recruiter who claims to have worked for Apple, Google and Microsoft, the story exposes a weakness in Silicon Valley and the technological elite which may cause the very disruptions they have unleashed to work against them.

The nine items are fascinating for the elitist, US-centric view of the world they portray and each is worth investigating on their own.

If you graduated from an elite college, your chances of getting an interview vastly improve

Yes, where you went to school does matter to the tech giants. Of course there are exceptions, but McDowell says an Ivy League or other top university will get you noticed.

There’s not much more to add to this, except to note that the vast majority of students whose families can afford such an education are from the upper middle class.

The Googles and Apples like to see relevant internship experience.

If you waited tables when you were 19, that isn’t attractive.

If you are lucky enough to get into a an Ivy League school on a scholarship or manage to scrape together the money you may still not make the cut.

To the author, only those with sufficient wealth to participate in unpaid internships are going to get jobs at the top Silicon Valley companies.

Your major matters

Sorry liberal arts people or chemical engineers, you’ll need another way in to Google or Apple.

This is an interesting one, Silicon Valley boosters often talk about the creative process and how coders are artists however according to the recruiter that’s just lip service.

She encourages students to pick majors that are directly relevant to Google or Apple. Finance, accounting, marketing or computer science majors have the best shot of being noticed by a tech recruiter.  At the very least, minor in one of those fields.

A focus on finance, accounting and marketing is the same as any old corporation – you could be going for a job with AT&T, Goldman Sachs or the government with qualifications like that. So much for unique.

Dissing chemical engineering is particularly interesting as Chem Eng graduates have passed one of the toughest university degrees. Whats more, the demands of mobile computing devices means battery technology is one of the most pressing issues facing Silicon Valley at the moment. Chemical Engineers are the folk who will solve this problem.

Big tech companies like to see people giving back to their communities.

Volunteering can be a great way to buff up your resume. That said, McDowell warns: “don’t serve soup in a soup kitchen.”

Instead she suggests hunting for a sales or marketing position, or offering to help a charity with its website and design.

This is a really obnoxious statement – basically saying we want to you volunteer, but we don’t want you to help people.

Just how many sales and marketing people are needed by soup kitchens, volunteer fire brigades or community pantries is open to debate.

A bigger issue with this mentality is that it favours bureaucrats and paper shufflers rather than doers. Which again is something anathema to the public statements of Silicon Valley’s leaders.

They also like good spellers and speakers.

Writing and communications skills aren’t just necessary for media jobs. They’re important in any career you’ll have.

Well, duh.

If you are buddies with college professors, that’s a plus.

Professors aren’t just impressed by how you do in their classes.  McDowell suggests helping them with research projects, asking for help and attending office hours, or becoming a teaching assistant.

That doesn’t hurt, but it’s pretty basic vanilla advice and again it’s tough luck if you have to do a shift at the local fast food restaurant so you can feed yourself.

Show you understand multiple positions at Google or Apple

If you want to work at one of the top tech companies, it helps to have at least a basic understanding of multiple positions in the organization.  McDowell calls this being a Generalist.

On one hand this advice makes sense but on another many technical roles are not generalist positions.

Generally having a knowledge of the company’s structure and roles is going to look good to any interviewer, assuming you can get past the gatekeeper at the recruitment company.

Entrepreneurs have a better shot of being hired.

This is a funny one, if you’re a real entrepreneur then the thought of working in cubicle at Apple or Microsoft while answering to a middle manager straight out of a Dilbert cartoon ranks with getting hot pine needles thrust under  your toenails.
One of the conceits of modern corporate life is that they value entrepreneurs and the free-wheeling spirits – the truth is they don’t and the first true hint of entrepreneurialism among the ranks will be smothered quickly with a deluge of paperwork.
Funnily enough, being a successful tech entrepreneur is a path to getting a good job at a tech company although it’s more likely to happen as an acqui-hire than through a recruiter.

Good news: Your GPA doesn’t matter very much

Most people think tech companies, Google in particular, harp over candidates’ GPAs. McDowell says there is little truth to that rumor.

This is only good news if you’ve ticked most of the other boxes, which means you’ll be considered if you’re middling graduate from Stanford or Harvard but forget it if you went elsewhere, regardless of how good your marks are.

The danger of recruiters

What the Business Insider story really illustrates are the risks of relying on third party recruiters as gatekeepers to filter out new employees.

Regardless of how good the recruitment consultant is they are going to apply their own cultural filters and biases onto the selection process and as a result knock out most good candidates.

More importantly, a company risks developing a monoculture if the recruitment process is too effective at filtering out people who don’t fit a narrow stereotype.

A new breed of officemen?

Reading the Business Insider story leaves one with the feeling that many of these companies are beginning to look like IBM in the 1960s – monocultures more concerned about the colour of an employee’s tie and choice of shirts rather than the talents they bring to the organisation or the value they can add to customers.

This is probably the greatest risk of all to the tech industry, that they end up with an insular group of people with fixed mindsets.

Should that happen, then the wave of disruption Silicon Valley has unleashed on the world will end up being the industry’s undoing as smart kids working out of garages in Michigan or slums in Delhi will out innovate the staid, comfortable incumbents.

It’s also interesting to consider how many other industries are now suffering after several decades of similar recruiting practices where leading businesses are now dominated by insular, unworldly monocultures.

Image courtesy of Alexfurr on SXC.HU