Being digitally literate

Have today started a new blog site called “Being Digitally Literate” focusing on ideas around developing digital literacy in students.    My hope is to create a site which explores and asks questions as I explore and ask questions, and that by doing so it might help others to also explore ideas.

As a starting point I have decided to re-post my first entry from the site below:


What does it mean to be digitally literate?

We often speak about the importance of developing digital literacy in our students.   The issue with the intention is the lack of clarity as to what it means to be digitally literate, the areas which should be covered in developing such literacy and also the methods or approaches which should be used in this development.

I intend to post my thoughts on this matter over the coming weeks and months.   I will admit that I suspect a number of my posts will pose more questions than they answer, however my hope is that the act of posing questions will promote further thought even if this is just within myself.

To get the ball rolling I would like to just define in very general terms what I believe we are looking to achieve in developing digital literacy.    I believe the fact we are even discussing digital literacy is an acceptance that we are living in an increasingly digital world.   We are surrounded by ever increasing levels of technology in our work life, social and home lives.     As such the previous literacies, of languages and communication, including reading and writing, and of mathematics are no longer sufficient.   We need digital literacy.

Given this seeking to develop digital literacy is seeking to ensure that our students are sufficiently literate with this new technological world and with its technologies, to be successful in their lives.   To be able to understand the technologies and use the technologies appropriately and effectively.

Does the above definition cover what is meant digital literacy or is there something missing?   

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Reflections: 2017 so far

Having just turned 41 years of age, it makes for a good time to reflect a little on the year so far.   Firstly I think its important to note that this year appears to be disappearing very fast.   I feel at this point as if the Christmas period was only yesterday.   I suspect a quick review of past posts will show a similar perception throughout the year.   I may be able to draw positive conclusions from this, in that time flies when you are having fun, or negative conclusions in that I am that busy I am unable to stop and truly experience or review the events that have occurred.    A third option, and the one I think I will stick with on this occasion, is the that this clearly highlights the frailty of our memories to accurately reflect past events.

During the last few months I have taken to journaling to try and keep a record of the things I have done and how I have felt.   Sadly this has been a little hit and miss with some weeks consisting of daily records of each day while other weeks have been empty of record.    This is something I want to try and be more consistent with and I have been considering that maybe I will need to reduce my blogging in order to release time to facilitate this.   Given that one of the reasons for blogging is to have personal records of my thinking, which is the same reason for having a journal, this trade off seems logical.    As such this may represent the last of my blogs for a little while at least.

I found the recent Secret Teacher article in relation to English teachers not reading quite interesting given that I had set one of my targets or pledges to be reading at least 1 book per month.   I continue to progress well on this target with the hope that I will continue to do so.    I am finding the act of reading to be relaxing but also thought provoking as I explore subjects such as stoicism, culture and also how we think.     The Secret Teacher article strikes me as representing gross generalisation, which is often a feature of online educational discussion, although generally this is backed up by some research.

The area of fitness continues to be one of my weak areas.   Still I am unable to keep up more than a sporadic attempt at physical exercise.    As I have repeatedly said before this is an area which I need to continue to work at.    I am starting to wonder whether the issue here is that I am basing my targets on what other people do while my aspirations should clearly be much lower.     A quick glance at twitter highlights various teaching colleagues across the world who have engaged in their daily or weekly run.   Am afraid the best I can hope for is a monthly or yearly doddle.   Maybe the fact that it is in my mind and therefore I am making sporadic attempts is the best I can hope for.    I suppose I can also be positive in that I have played an hour or so of football with my son on the last three nights.   Progress is progress, even if it is little and infrequent!

My connectedness is another area which is giving me similar thoughts to the above.   I feel that I should be doing more in terms or writing blog pieces, contributing to twitter chats, contributing to publications, etc.    Now again this may be comparisons with others who appear to be doing more.   Again, twitter and other social media seems to present us with models to follow however I am increasingly wondering if these are the right aspirations.   Are the few education stars on social media distorting what I perceive as normal expectations or more accurately my expectations?   These stars are a very small percentage of the overall educational body of individuals across the world yet they are very public and visible.   If plotted on a graph of connectedness they would be outliers, being significantly more connected and active than most, however this has an effect of significantly changing the average connectedness.  Take them out of the equation and the average would be significantly lower.    In addition to this there is the psychological factor in that they are very public and therefore come easily to mind.   This ease with which they come to mind makes then seem common which again impacts on the perception as to the connectedness of the average educator.   This makes me think of Coveys book, “First things first”, and that there may be a need for me to reflect on what actually is my “first thing”.

Five months of 2017 have now be completed and I must say that they seemed to have passed quickly.   The summer period is now not that far away and I look forward to using some of the time over this period to reflect and plan for the start of a new academic year, to energise and also as discussed above, to re-evaluate and identify what truly is important.   I may also look back and review my previous evaluations of the year, as I have posted year over the last year of so with some regularity, to see if any patterns are emerging, however that’s for another day!

 

 

 

 

Cyber threats: Some thoughts

The recent WannaCry ransomware outbreak clearly identified the importance of keeping operating systems and other apps up to date to protect against identified vulnerabilities.   Given the high level of news publicity it is likely that a lot of us went home and updated our home PCs and also checked with IT departments to make sure they had done the same with company machines.    The outbreak, in my opinion, highlights a number of critical issues.

The vulnerability in this case had been previously identified and a patch made available by Microsoft, as such had all machines in the world been patched the impact would have been minimal.     But what if the vulnerability had not have been previously identified?    Had this been the case the attack could have been considered as a “zero-day” attack as it would have been on an unidentified vulnerability.    This would therefore have required the identification of the vulnerability followed by the coding and release of a patch, all post the initial infection.    In this case the impact of the ransomware would likely have been much more significant than it was.

The WannaCry Ransomware was specific to machines running Microsoft operating systems.    This has already resulted in a number of comments online suggesting people make use of Linux or Apple as these weren’t affected, suggesting that these may be safer systems.    As an operating system Microsoft has the predominant share of the desktop and laptop markets although the specific figures are difficult to ascertain.    This makes Microsoft machines a preferred target as there are simply more machines to attack.    Although there are differences in how the operating systems are managed, with Apple using a very closed development process and Linux using an open source approach, Apples OS, Linux and also Microsoft OS’s are all equally complex.   It is in this complexity that lies the risk of as yet unidentified vulnerabilities with equal risk across all the above OS’s.    The difference currently lies in the fact that Windows is the most common desktop OS, however if we were all to go out and buy an Apple or install Linux, it is likely the threat of attack would follow the masses.

My final issue is that of the devices we don’t give much thought to.    We think about the operating system of our laptop or desktop and even these days of our phone, and in thinking about these we carry out, or not, the required updates.    Our homes however increasingly contain more and more internet enabled devices and I would suggest we don’t give these the same level of thought.   My router, with which I connect to the internet, runs software in order to allow it to connect, to allow it to present an admin page along with providing other functionality.   This software is basically its operating system.     Your SMART TV runs an operating system which allows it to respond to your voice commands, search the internet and also carry out its other functions.    Your web connected home surveillance system runs an operating system which allows it to connect to cameras around your house and to allow you to connect in to view footage remotely, again, along with other functions.   And what about your wireless printer?    The above is the tip of an ever growing iceberg, however do we know how to upgrade the software in these devices to protect against identified vulnerabilities?   Do we know whether these devices automatically update or how to change the update settings?   Do we know how to check the version number or when the last update was done?

Microsoft called the recent attack a “wake up call”.   I tend to agree.    We need to be more aware of the implications of the use of each technology item, be it hardware or software.   We need to be aware of the risk to which usage exposes us as well as the precautions which we need to take.

My biggest take away from the whole incident is a reminder of what Nassim Taleb described in “The Black Swan”.   On Thursday 11th May all was well, systems were generally safe and precautions were in place.   Largely we didn’t expect a serious whole world cyber incident.   By the following day it was clear all was not well and that significant vulnerabilities existed.   A global cyber incident was underway.   A lot changed in a day and we didn’t do too well at predicting and preparing for it.    What shape will the next incident take if we can’t predict it?     And are those areas where we believe we are the safest those which are most at risk given we are unable to predict the unexpected?

A cyber learning opportunity

The global cyber attack of yesterday marks a learning opportunity in relation to discussing cyber security with our students.     It is important that our students are aware of the implications of such attacks including the impact and also the measures that can be taken to protect against attacks being successful or at least minimise their impact.

So what are the key learning points to take away from this incident and to discuss with our students:

OS and Software Updates:

One of the key points to take away is ensuring that desktop and server operating systems are regularly updated.  This includes updates and also upgrading of versions, for example upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 10.    Older operating systems eventually stop receiving support from those that produced it, meaning that new security flaws which are identified go unaddressed leaving users vulnerable.  Support for Windows XP ended back in 2014 so users of XP would be vulnerable to flaws identified between then and now.     For more modern operating systems such as Windows 7 and 10 the key here is the updates.   These updates provide the fixes to security flaws as they are identified and therefore it is important to keep your system updated to make sure vulnerabilities are promptly addressed.      This expands beyond operating systems to application software as well, as equally applications which have not been updated may expose users to vulnerability which the appropriate updates would have addressed.

Data Backup:

In the case of ransomware backup is critical as the virus will encrypt all files it can get access to.  As such at this point you can either pay the ransom which may or may not get you your files back, or, assuming you have kept backups, roll back to your latest backup with only minor loss of data.    As such regular backups represent the best protection against ransomware attacks.   The more regular the backup the less the loss so a weekly backup means a loss of up to a week worth of work, whereas a nightly backup reduces this loss down to 1 day worth of work in the event of a successful ransomware infection.

User Awareness:

The weakest point in the network is usually the user, the human being making use of the system.   An IBM report from 2014 identified that 95% of security incidents involved a human being.    It is unlikely that this figure has changed much.   As such it is important to try and educate users to exercise caution and to be aware of the precautions they should be taking in relation to suspicious emails, password security, etc.

Anti-virus:

While not protecting you against zero day attacks or new variants anti-virus will provide some protection against existing identified threats.   It is also worth noting that new anti-virus products are introducing new capabilities such as heuristic based identification of threats and sandboxing to provide additional protection.

Segmentation:

A key security maxim has always been assignment of minimum privileges required.   This means ensuring that users only have access to the files that they need to have access to in order to carry out their role.    This includes defining whether a user is limited to reading files or can in fact modify or delete them.    This also includes whether users have access to specific networks or whether their access is limited, such as in the case of a guest user.     By limiting access in this way we limit the impact of ransomware or other viruses to some extent.   As such in looking at the resources on our network assigning the minimum privileges is a key step.

Conclusion:

The recent attack is the largest attack I can remember since the Love Bug Virus which I vaguely remember from back in 2000.   It is likely that such attacks will become more common as we become more and more connected and reliant on technology, adding more and more connected devices into our homes and using more and more software apps in our daily lives.   As such, in preparing our students for the future, it is important that we take every opportunity to discuss how these attacks can and do impact on us and how we might all take appropriate precautions.    With the latest incident so widely reported in the news, now is a good time.

 

 

Home network security and digital literacy?

Our home networks have been ever growing.   Originally it was just having a basic network for a PC at home, which at the time was usually just a desktop connected to a dial up connection.    Now however, we have a host of devices, games consoles, personal devices and home appliances all on our home network, all adding to the complexity and therefore the security risk of our home networks.

Following on from our basic dial up connection our home network started to grow, first with the addition of Wi-Fi capability to allow internet access for laptops and also mobile phones.   Next, with the introduction of broadband and fibre, our children might have introduced a gaming system such as a PlayStation or Xbox into the house again linked to the network and the internet.   Next we start introducing networked and then Wi-Fi enabled printers before moving on to add home helper devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home.   We might even have added Internet of Things devices to our home network such as remote managed heating and lighting, or an internet enabled fridge freezer or kettle.    Internet enabled, and therefore network connected, surveillance may have been added in the form of a home security system or possibly a baby monitoring system.   The list of network connected home devices continues to grow and with that the complexity of our home networks.   They are now at a point where the complexity of a home network may equal or even exceed that of a small business network.

The issue here is security.      When we pick up our laptop to go on the internet to access our personal banking we assume it is safe to do so due to the various safety features on our laptop and on our Wi-Fi router.     We think about our security largely in terms of separate devices however our network security is largely based on the sum of all devices connected to the network.      Therefore, the more devices we have connected, the more complex the network becomes and the weaker the network security becomes.

Our network security is largely based on the security of the weakest devices.  So have we taken time when connecting a new device to review the available security options and to change the default passwords?    Actually, have we considered security when purchasing the device in the first place?    And in the longer term do we revisit the device and perform updates to ensure that the software on the device is such that any identified vulnerabilities have been addressed?

We talk about digital literacy and how we want our students to be literate in the use of technology however the security aspect of our home networks if largely overlooked.     The question is can you truly be digitally literate if you are using your home network without considering security?   Can you be digitally literate if you happily add additional devices to your home network without concern for the security implications?     Another question is where do we cover these issues in our teaching of digital literacy within schools?

Digital Literacy and big brother

Further to my recent post on digital literacy I thought I would revisit one of the areas I mentioned in a little more detail.    The implications of technology use makes for an interesting discussion with students in that there are some implications which we are well aware of, some that we are less aware of and more than likely a whole heap of implications which we haven’t as yet realised.

Taking the implications which we are currently aware of and discussing online safety, or e-safety as we previously called it, has serious implications and as such is being discussed in schools.    We are already discussing with our students about the dangers of people misrepresenting themselves on the internet, the dangers of posting too much personal information on the internet and fake news, which has been the subject of discussion in schools for some years, again hitting the headlines.   I remember teaching about the spaghetti crop failure as a way to illustrate about fake news some 10 or more years ago.    We are also discussing and teaching about the permanence of online data and how once the post, photo or video is out there it is impossible to delete.    Online privacy and security settings are also a topic of discussion with a particular focus on social media usage among our students.

The above are what I consider to be the main areas of discussion in schools around technology use.    Some lesser consideration is given to the impact of search engines such as google.    As we all use google to search for information, we all end up getting the same search results.    This potentially has the impact to narrow our focus as we seldom look beyond the first few results in google, the results which represent the popular answers.     This in turn might obscure from us alternate lines of thought and resources which previously we may have come upon in a book leading us to explore different pathways and possibly even arrive at alternative or even better solutions.

Sticking with google we also need to recognise the purpose of the site in that Google is a business.   As such they need to make money which they achieve through advertising.    What are the implications of their need to sustain or even increase their revenue on the search results they return, the way the present the results and also their gathering of data in relation to the searches we do?    Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc are all businesses so we need to bear this in mind.

This brings us nicely to another implication in the data gathered about us.    If we are logged in to google when we run a search, and we have location services on then google will have gathered information about us in details of the search, the time and the location.     They can, from this, build a profile of our search habits, our interests, our geographical locations and search habits in different locations and at different times.   From this they may be able to work out where we live, work and socialise including the frewuency of each.     Combined with the search habits of our family members they may then be able to start building a profile of the family.    Are we happy with this?     When I think about it I also give thought to the TV series Criminal Minds where the FBIs Behavioural Analysis team are able to gather basic information from a crime scene before providing a detailed profile of the offender or Unidentified Subject, Unsub, for use by law enforcement in arresting the said Unsub.   Through googles data gathering they can identify a lot about us as individuals and our families, beyond the data they gather, by statistical analysis.     And this extends way beyond just Google with Facebook, Target, Amazon, etc. all gathering “Big Data” for use in statistical analysis for the purposes of identifying trends and profiling.

A bigger question which may be how might the data gathered be used in shaping peoples views and perception.    This was raised in relation to Facebooks coverage of the US elections.    Through profiling of users a site or service may choose to feed users with materials targeted at them in order to change their voting or other preferences.     For example, as a user my profile may show that I am very focussed on human rights, via my search habits and postings on social media, so the service shares with me articles and incidents where the actions of the party which the service do not want me to vote for have infringed on human rights.    At the same time they may show me materials on where the party they want me to vote for have taken noble actions in relation to human rights.     When I find myself ready to put my cross on the voting ballot paper I remember one party which was good in relation to human rights, an area I focus on, while the other party were not.   I therefore tick the form accordingly however how much of my decision was influenced by technology and profiling?   Was it my decision at all?

Looking at emerging technologies, the internet of things (IoT) is definitely growing in profile.   As such more and more devices are being connected to the internet including fitness trackers, home security systems, heating and lighting control and many more systems.   We also have devices such as Amazon Echo and googles equivalent device.    Each of these devices gathers more data about us and our habits.    This data in turn can be used to infer further data about us through statistical methods.  Is this Orwells big brother becoming reality as we introduce more technology into our lives, allowing more and more data to be gathered about all we do?

I am very much for the use of technology.   The key though is in the need to consider the implications and act accordingly.   The world generally, in my opinion, exists in balance and therefore for every gain or benefit of technology there is a flip side, whether we know it or not.     With our students who often eagerly adopt new services and tech for their perceived or advertised benefits the key is the need for us as educators to ensure that they have considered the other side.