The Messages We Send

This past weekend I attended and presented at a conference, hosted in a high school. Entering through the front door of the school, this large banner was one of the first things anyone would see.

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I certainly understand why a school staff would be happy, even proud, about receiving their state accreditation, especially if they had failed multiple times in the past.1 And this is not intended to be a slam on them.

However, is that the message they want to communicate to the school community? Is that really the most important characteristic of this school? A distinction for which the school administration felt compelled to purchase a large banner and display it in a prominent place for all to see?

I wonder what would have been on that banner if it was created by the staff instead. More importantly, what would it say if you asked students to design a banner communicating the most important attribute of the school?

Navigating the largely administrative, and somewhat political, processes behind the accreditation process is very important to school and district administrators.

I doubt many other members of the community understands that process, or would ever list it as one of the top aspects of a successful school.

A Very Unbalanced Compromise

Perceived threats to “national security” make politicians and pundits say stupid things, especially about privacy rights. There’s just no other way to put it. Open almost any information source, or Fox “news” if you must, at almost any time of the day for plenty of examples.

Following the recent events in Paris, came another round of those stupid things, including calls to ban communications tools that don’t allow governments to have “backdoor” access to every bit of information sent, including this one from the British Prime Minister.

He said: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?” He made the connection between encrypted communications tools and letters and phone conversations, both of which can be read by security services in extreme situations and with a warrant from the home secretary.2

We have plenty of high profile people in this country who also want the government to have that backdoor as a tool to keep us “safe” from bad guys. Even though the NSA, our own literal “big brother”, is already hoovering up every bit of communications data they can find.

However, as Cory Doctorow, the EFF and many other smart people have pointed out, “backdoors” won’t just be used for honest law enforcement.

What David Cameron thinks he’s saying is, “We will command all the software creators we can reach to introduce back-doors into their tools for us.” There are enormous problems with this: there’s no back door that only lets good guys go through it. If your Whatsapp or Google Hangouts has a deliberately introduced flaw in it, then foreign spies, criminals, crooked police (like those who fed sensitive information to the tabloids who were implicated in the hacking scandal — and like the high-level police who secretly worked for organised crime for years), and criminals will eventually discover this vulnerability. They — and not just the security services — will be able to use it to intercept all of our communications. That includes things like the pictures of your kids in your bath that you send to your parents to the trade secrets you send to your co-workers.

Plus, as Doctorow also points our, similar requirements and technological solutions haven’t worked in much more restrictive countries like Russia, Iran, and Syria.

Ok, I’m no security expert, although I do have a good basic understanding of the technology involved. This is simply the rant of someone who is tired of being told by an assortment of largely untrustworthy figures that we must give up rights, Constitutional and other, for an uncertain and vaguely defined promise of “security”.

It all seems like a very unbalanced compromise.

More Thoughts on Communications

In a comment on yesterday’s rant about my new big boss’ slightly retro communications style, Doug told me to cut the guy some slack. At least his newsletter wasn’t printed.

Later, in a post on his own site, Doug expanded on his point that he has many different options, each with their own purpose and weaknesses.

Yet these “21st Century” tools have their limitations. Twitter assumes your message needs no more nuance or detail than what 140 characters can convey – and that your entire staff will “follow” you. The Facebook fan page is fine if your school doesn’t block Facebook, you really don’t want any feedback, and that your entire staff will “friend” you. Blogs, podcasts, or infographics are great communication tools provided they are supplemented by and additional communication method that allows readers to know they have been updated. I rather doubt all my staff regularly have or check RSS feed readers.

I don’t disagree with any of this, or the idea that “Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”.

However, the fact that the boss and the rest of our district leadership seem to automatically fall back on static, one-way communications tools is somewhat disingenuous. As I noted in my post, these are the same people who tell the community how students need to learn “21st century skills”. They need to practice their preaching.  

On the other side of things, I’m also frustrated by many of my colleagues in the department and elsewhere who, as Doug noted don’t use RSS or other aggregation tools. Many people I speak to don’t even have a basic understanding of the concept.

This is not new technology. Blogs, audio and video sharing, social sharing, along with RSS have become the basic building blocks of modern communications and I think an understanding of them should be considered part of basic adult literacy. Certainly they are alternatives to be considered, along with email and pdf, when discussing how to better connect with a community.

BTW, I did suggest to the boss that he write a blog instead of a weekly newsletter and he agreed to consider the idea. I call that progress.

Communicating Like It’s 1999

The new assistant superintendent for our department here in the overly-large school district says he wants to improve communications both within the organization and with his office.

To that end, a couple of months ago he started writing a weekly email message to all of us. Lots of text, one-way message.

This week his efforts took several steps even farther backwards when his message showed up as a PDF newsletter-formatted attachment.

We continue preaching “21st century” skills for kids while modeling methods from the 20th.

Keeping The Future at Bay

Predictions of what will happen next year should be viewed with great suspicion.

Those dealing with what will happen in the next five years are pretty much worthless.

However, these four big predictions about the web’s near term future I think fall into the no-duh category.

1. The Web Will Be Accessible Anywhere

It’s pretty clear that many of us want to be connected, at high speeds, from anywhere we go. Those numbers will only grow and the infrastructure to do it is rapidly expanding as well.


2. Web Access Will Not Focus Around the Computer

Certainly not around those devices that we currently identify as “computers”.

3. The Web Will Be Media-Centric

Is that a prediction or a statement of current reality?

4. Social Media Will Be Its Largest Component

Again, a trend that is well underway.

I wonder when (or if) these trends (you can’t really call any of them “predictions”) will significantly affect schools and the American education process.

After all, none of them fits particularly well with the traditional teacher-directed educational structure we continue to cling to.

When it comes to using the web, schools work hard to control the times, locations, and circumstances under which access will be allowed, at least for the vast majority of the people involved in the learning process (ie. students).

In most schools and districts, we insist that the equipment used by teachers and students look like a “normal” computer, often locking them up in formal “lab” settings or slightly less formal “mobile labs”.

And, of course, the media used in most classrooms is still overwhelmingly text-based (even when using screens) and we actively discourage anything that looks like social media.

So, is the American education system immune (or just oblivious) to these major shifts in the way the world outside communicates and uses information?

How long can we prevent the future (or the present for that matter) from leaking into our classrooms?

Picture: me, myself and I – in a crystal ball by Michal Kolodziejski. Used under a Creative Commons license.