ANME and Microsoft Event

So, Friday morning was an early start, up at 5:20am for a 6:20am train heading to Reading and an ANME and Microsoft event at Microsoft’s offices.   As always, I had my concerns regarding potential travel mishaps as often happens with me.   I was however prepared with multiple cans of “the Bru” to keep me going throughout the day;  I suspect Microsoft arent yet forward thinking enough to supply the Bru.   As it was, it turned out my expectations were correct;  Many less acceptable brands, such as Coke, were available but not a single Bru in site, so that’s the event marked down not long after it had even started!

It promised to be a busy but good day, with this event originally having been planned for late in 2022 with it cancelled at the last minute due to adverse weather conditions.   It was a shame this happened, albeit understandable.

Networking with the IT network folk.

So, like a lot of events one of the key features was catching up with quite so many great people all contributing to the use of technology in education.   The ANME’s Rick Cowell introduced the ANME and Microsoft even before others such as Alan Crawford and Kevin Sait presented on various topics.    Then there were the ANME ambassadors, Peter Othen and Ian Stockbridge to but name a few (and apologies to those I have missed off).  

Ian interestingly enough was wearing a T-Shirt which relates to a little project we have both been working on during Jan; Further info on this to be shared soon.

Every event I attend continues to emphasise the fact the “the smartest person in the room, is the room” and therefore the more people we share, interact and collaborate with, the better, with this being one of the key purposes of the ANME.

The presentations

In terms of the presentations and the event itself there were some techie discussions looking at Intune, a really useful session exploring Microsoft licensing as well as more strategic sessions looking a school 1:1 journey and the benefits of the MIEE (Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert) and Microsoft Showcase School programmes.   From my point of view, I took quite a bit away from a number of the sessions particularly in relation to Microsoft licensing and the use of Intune.   The use of Intune is definitely something I think we need to build on.   Additionally I noted references to the importance of having a plan regarding infrastructure including ongoing replacement, and the need to consider cyber security/resilience;  Both these issues are key and should be part of initial planning ahead of tech deployment, particularly in relation to mobile devices or 1:1 programmes.   They also need to be continually reviewed in relation to changes in technology usage and changes in the available technologies themselves.

On the way out

Upon the conclusion of the event and after a nice group photo, which hopefully will be shared in the near future, I arrived at the train station a little early.   I therefore availed myself of a bar next to the station for a quick pint.  There I ended up chatting with a stranger also waiting for a train.    This highlighted to me the continuing importance of social contact and the totally random interactions which technology doesn’t tend to currently provide.   Technology continues to be a tool but we need to use it to support and enhance our lives, where our lives are that of social animals who crave interactions and especially those which are outside the norm.  It was very nice to share a pint and a chat while waiting for a train.

Conclusion

It was great to visit the Microsoft offices, to catch up with so many people I already know and a few new people along the way, while listening to some technical tips and some more strategic insights.   This was my first in-person event of 2023 and I can only hope that the events later in 2023 will only build and enhance on this.    Onwards to the rest of 2023………

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School IT Tendering

The recent court case in which a school management information system (MIS) vendor took a multi-academy trust (MAT) to court is of concern to schools.   It highlights the potential risk of vendors taking schools, colleges or multi-academy trusts to court where decisions don’t go their way.   In these cases, for me the educational institutional organisation will always suffer a loss, independent of any court decision as their plans have to be put on hold while any court proceedings are undertaken.

Now first, and to be very clear, I don’t have all of the details as to the court case in question so what follows are some general thoughts and my personal opinion on the information I have read in relation to this case, and also on the wider risks and implications.

Tendering processes have to be clear and fair

I think this is one of the key issues here, that any tendering process must be fair to the parties involved and that the methodology should be clear.   Time spent on ensuring this can hopefully prevent time lost in court cases.    It therefore is important to consider the factors that you will decide will influence your decision making.   Some of these are obvious, such as cost, service level agreements, the vendors reputation and size, while others are maybe less obvious.

Total cost of ownership

Examining the total cost of ownership is critical, as the cost of a solution, whether it is a software solution, hardware solution or mixture of the two, is more than just the upfront and annual costs.   There are the costs incurred through use of staff time during the setup phase and then the ongoing maintenance of the solution.   There is the cost of training staff to use the new solution, with this often being a largely hidden or at least difficult to predict cost.    These factors which relate to change management need to be carefully considered and weighed up.

Change management

This is where, in my personal opinion, the issues examined during the school management court case appear to have gone a little wrong.     In this case one of the vendors already had a separate contract for some of the schools within the MAT.   The tending process however did not include these schools so was clearly separate to this contract.   The courts assertion seems to be that the consideration of discounts in relation to this unfairly influenced the decision to go with this vendor, meaning the competing vendor was at a disadvantage from the outset.

A pragmatic view

As a Multi-Academy Trust you want consistency in your MIS due to economy of scale and ease of support when working on a single solution rather than differing solutions across schools.   This put one vendor at a disadvantage from the start, in tendering for a new contract limited to a subset of all schools.   I wonder if the school could have approached the existing vendor regarding exit from their contract and put out a tender for all the MATs schools?    I suspect the existing vendor may have been reluctant here however it seems, in hindsight, to have been one possible solution.

We also need to acknowledge the real-world disadvantage; As the MAT is already using one vendor they already have experience of that vendor, including trained and experienced staff in using it, experience migrating to it or setting it up, etc.   In any abstract examination of two equal solutions, where we have a positive experience of one of the solutions, plus have people already trained and skilled such that they could support others as a migration is undertaken, it seems clear to me that we would tend towards this solution, thereby disadvantaging the other.    It’s the availability bias, its confirmation bias, and its risk aversion and sticking with what we know versus what we don’t.    I note that if the current solution was poor and ill fitting in the schools currently using it, this would likely have disadvantaged them in any tendering process.   The fact it didn’t suggests to me that the solution in its practical, everyday use, rather than in a sales demo, has been viewed at least neutral if not positively.   I also note, assuming the two solutions did compare equally when disregarding the fact the MAT already had practical experience and skilled staff working with one of the solutions, would we then expect the MAT to simply flip a coin to pick a solution and in keeping the selection process fair?

Conclusion

For me this whole incident is of concern.  We are in a time of limited budgets plus time pressures yet this court case took up both and may signal similar cases occurring with other vendors and schools.   I note that the MAT is planning to appeal the decision so this may help in providing some clarity but only time will tell.   In the meantime, it highlights the need for care in tendering processes especially where they relate to bigger sums, such as where large MATs may be involved.    My learning experience from this incident seems to be that time spent in planning the process and ensuring transparency at the beginning may prevent time loss further down the line.    Sadly, it has taken this incident to make this more apparent.

The only final thought I have to share is that I hope it all gets resolved as soon as possible as until it does all the schools in the MAT, and all the many students they support are simply sat waiting to find out what will happen next.  This period of watching and waiting can’t be a good thing.

References:

United Learning loses High Court battle over £2m MIS deal (schoolsweek.co.uk)

ChatGPT and IT Services

I recently wrote an article for the ANME on ChatGPT and on the benefits but also risks.   You can read this here.   My view is that AI models like ChatGPT are going to become all the more common and also more and more accurate, and therefore we need to explore them and identify how they might be positively used within education.   Seeking to block their use is, in my opinion, guaranteed to fail.   

Following my post, I saw a reply on twitter to the article with ChatGPTs view on AI and education.  You can see this here.    It picked up a couple of points which I hadnt included in my piece and I note that some of my piece actually included content generated by ChatGPT itself.    It wasn’t obvious that ChatGPT had a hand in both pieces which suggests it wont be easy to identify where ChatGPT is used.

All this got me thinking about how ChatGPT might benefit IT Services and the IT teams particularly in schools.   As such I gave some quick thoughts as to possible uses cases, which I have outlined below:

User guides and Help

ChatGPT can be used to create a knowledge base of information that can be easily accessed by IT staff and other school personnel including simple user and help guides.  This seems like the most obvious and easiest use of ChatGPT;  I have already tried asking it some questions in relation to iPad related issues and its responses were clear and accurate.

Creating software and other solutions

Where schools are creating their own internal software solutions including website solutions, ChatGPT can help with the basic code building blocks, thereby speeding up development.   It will still require human input to finalise the projects and add that bit of creativity and flair however ChatGPT can get us part of the way there, thereby saving time and resources.

Policies, processes and procedure documentation

Writing policy and process documentation can quite often be a long and laborious job but ChatGPT and other AI language models can quickly put together a basic document which human staff can then refine and customise to fit the school.

Chatbots

ChatGPT can be used to create a chatbot that can interact with students and staff, answering questions and providing information.   This therefore allows IT support staff to focus on more complex issues or more strategic tasks.

Language Translation

Where schools include non-English speaking students ChatGPT can be used to assist IT support staff in communicating with non-English speaking students and families by providing translations in real-time.

Process automation

A number of the above relate to process automation where ChatGPT is used to automate common support tasks, such as answering frequently asked questions, troubleshooting basic technical issues, and providing instructions for software and hardware.   There are likely other areas where simple processes can be automated through the ChatGPT or other AI Language models.

Conclusion

I think one of the key conclusions I arrive at from my thinking is not related to the benefit of using ChatGPT, or other AI language models, in itself, but for the potential for ChatGPT and a human user to work together.   This hybrid approach of AI and human is, in my view, the way forward as both complement each other.  The AI solution can easily do the basic and repeatable parts of a task, such as creating a user guide, while the human can bring that flair and creativity to make such guides engaging, accessible and usable.    It isnt a case of ChatGPT or humans, or ChatGPT replacing humans.

I suspect there are many other applications of ChatGPT within an IT Support or IT Services capacity which are yet to be realised and I look forward to finding out more in terms of how AI Language Models can enable IT staff to deliver, enhance and even redefine the services provided to users in schools and colleges, and to the communities they serve.

These are interesting times!

Ransomware – A criminal enterprise

A recent story of a ransomware incident impacting a hospital for sick children highlighted for me how ransomware, and by extension other cyber-crime, is often a criminal enterprise.   It is run by individuals and groups in much the same way that a conventional business or enterprise would be run, but to a criminal ends.

The story in question related to a ransomware incident which impacted on SickKids just prior to Christmas this year (you can read more here).    The incident was reported as resulting in longer patient waiting times however where this story diverges from the normal ransomware story is that a ransomware gang publicly apologised for the attack and provided resources to help the hospital in the form of a free decryptor tool.   Now it is unclear if the decryptor worked on all or some of the effected systems, or even if it was used at all, as using a file provided by a criminal operation doesn’t come without its risks.   The ransomware gang also acknowledged that the attack came from a “partner” and that they have been expelled from the ransomware gangs “affiliate program” for violating the gangs rules.

If we change the context to a simple and legal business operation a lot of the above would still make sense.   Affiliate programs, business or partnership rules, a public apology for an error plus the offer of support;   This is what you might expect from an conventional business operation, not a criminal gang.

This I believe is the big challenge for education and the wider world, that we need to accept that some see a business opportunity, an opportunity to make money off the illegal activity of cyber-crime.   While this continues to be the case criminal gangs and cyber crime will continue to exist.   And if we consider increasing technology usage and increasing data volumes being gathered in society as a whole, this opportunity can only be viewed as continually increasing.    Additionally, if we extend the business analogy these illegal gangs will likely be constantly seeking to improve, expand existing revenue streams and create new revenue streams in much the same way as a conventional, and legal business would do.

So cyber crime is likely to continue to grow as a threat and this is pretty inevitable.   What do we therefore do to try and protect ourselves?    For me it comes down to a number of things, to organisations but also to individual staff, to seeking to regularly review, test and improve defensive measures, while also preparing to deal with an incident when it should eventually arise.  It is about building awareness as to the risks and preventative measures and building a wider cyber culture in organisations.  

All of this makes me think of business competition, where two business fight it out in a given sector or product market, to see who wins.   Coke vs. Pepsi for example.  Here however one business will be legal, fighting against another illegal, criminal enterprise.    I can’t help but think that this is an inherently unfair fight but one that will continue to become more and more common!

Pledges for 2023

In thinking about the pledges for the coming year I think I need to include an equal share of big picture, more strategic aims, alongside some more measurable smaller targets.   I think this should provide a balance between things which will be easier to assess in terms of achievement at the end of the year, alongside aims which are much broader, more challenging but also equally more difficult to evaluate come the end of the year.

So lets get into my pledges for 2023…..

Podcast

I last did some short podcast episodes in 2021 with a plan to build on this in 2022 however other priorities meant this didn’t happen.   It is definitely something I want to progress and something I have been in discussion with a colleague about, however have so far not managed to progress.    For 2023 it would be good to get maybe 2 seasons of podcasts produced and shared, with hopefully at least 6 or 8 episodes in each.    My thinking would be focus on cyber security, digital citizenship, data protection and technology in schools as the key themes of the podcasts.

Time management

The last few years have felt as if time has been flying by, with weeks, months, terms and years flying by in what seems like the blink of an eye.   I think therefore, in the year ahead, I want to look at how I manage time particularly trying to ensure I allocate specific time for reading, for exercise, for relaxing, etc, building up appropriate habits in relation to how I use the finite time available in each day, week, month and year.    Part of this will likely start with some long term initial planning at the start of the year in January.   My hope is that through better planning of my time I will be more satisfied with how it is used, but also will achieve a better balance between being busy and relaxing.   

Also related to this, especially at home, I need to let and encourage others to contribute rather than trying to take things on myself.  More delegation should hopefully allow me to achieve more or at the very least focus on things which are more important or where my efforts add the most value.

Running

I would again like to keep up my running in 2023 however with more consistency.  As such am thinking a minimum of 50km per month, which would equate to 600km for the year as a minimum.   I would also like to very much achieve at least one 10km run every two months, so meaning I should have completed six 10km runs by the end of the year.   Now it would be good to achieve more however I am also concious of avoiding pushing my exercise too much.    From a weight point of view I want to try and keep my weight around the 84kg mark, which was always part of my aim in terms of regular running.

Reading

Having struggled with reading in 2022 I would like to again stick with trying to read 6 non-fictions books by the end of the year.  This equates to one book every two months which I think should be achievable.    I already have a number of books purchased ready to read.   I will share some info on some of the titles in a future post.

Bigger picture

The last couple of years I have worked hard on maintaining a to-do list however I feel this may have led to me focussing on things at a micro and small scale, and in focusing there I have taken my eye of the bigger picture.     As such, in the year ahead, I need to spend more time looking at the bigger picture, at strategic tasks and aims over the smaller day to day tasks.    Part of this will be rolling up the regular day to day tasks which currently exist as separate tasks to achieve and considering them as a singular grouped task, taking the small tasks each day and bundling them up as routine single task.   Equally I will need to establish the more strategic projects, tasks and aims that I want to look at possibly either on a monthly or termly basis.  

Holidays and Experiences

I would like to ensure I create some new memories, particularly family ones in 2023.    There are clear opportunities over the summer holiday period, easter holiday period and also key points in the year such as my birthday, wedding anniversary, etc.   I need to make sure that I make the most of each of these opportunities.   I think it will also be important to take photos as a record of events so I have something to look back on and refer to.     Linked to this, I think it will also be important to continue journalling and keeping records of achievements, etc, on a week by week basis, again so that I have something to refer back to in being able to more effectively and accurately reflect on the year once I get to the end of it.   Part of me wonders about having achievements and challenges as part of my journal template so that it makes me stop and think, plus take note as I regularly seek to journal my thoughts and feelings.

Contributions to the wider Edu and Tech communities

I would very much like to see me building on 2022 in 2023 including continuing to contribute to other organisations, podcasts, blogs, magazines, etc with my thoughts and ideas.    It has been very enjoyable and at times challenging to do this in 2022 however I have definitely considered it to be worthwhile so it is clearly something I want to continue.    I would be particularly good to be involved in some bigger conferences if possible and even in some international events however this will be dependent on logistics, etc.     It will also be useful to explore the potential for new opportunities and challenges so this needs to be something I keep my eyes open for as 2023 progresses.

I have considered personal studying a certification as an option for 2023 however had decided that the cost v benefit especially of the technical certifications I have been looking at is not sufficient to justify the time, effort and cost.   This may however be something for me to reconsider as the year progresses.

Work

In work I cannot think of a particular target or focus in 2023 however if there was to be something it is in relation to innovation and change.   I would like to be able to focus on innovation and change projects and hopefully creating a culture and appropriate support functions which encourage and promotes this.   Other than this, I hope to support the members of my team to grow and develop such that they are able to continue to feel engaged, challenged and also to better contribute to the school.

Conclusion

In work I often use a single word or phrase as a theme or focus.   I think this might also be useful in setting my pledges for 2023.  So what one word or phrase would summarise what I want to achieve:

              New opportunities and experiences

I think the above summarises what I want from 2023.   2022 has felt a little routine, albeit with some notable achievements and positive points, but I just don’t feel there were enough truly memorable moments mainly as our memory needs the unusual and the new.   So in 2023 I hope to try and find and achieve the unusual and new.   Here’s to 2023 and the year ahead.   

And happy new year and all the best for 2023 to all in my PLN.

Reflections on 2022

We are at the end of yet another year, and this time, the end of 2022 so its time to briefly blog a bit of a reflection on my year. The easiest place to start in reviewing the year is the pledges I made at the beginning of 2022.

Exercise and Health

2022 saw me once again reach 750km of running for the year however it saw me much more inconsistent than I had been in 2021.   Although I managed to run over 100km in each of 4 months, more than I had managed before, I also had some months where I achieved very little distance at all.   In terms of distance, I did finally manage to achieve a couple of 10km runs although these runs were rather broken and slow.     My speed over the whole period continued to be rather slow, being on average 6:21 min/km whereas I would have very much likely to have been closer to the 6-minute mark.  That said, throughout my years running my focus was always on achieving the distances regularly rather than on building up my speed.    Towards the end of the year, I did start to suffer some joint and muscle pains so decided to rest from mid-December onwards to allow me to then look to restart in 2023.

I suggested at the start of 2022 that another health related plan was to reduce my alcohol intake.  Sadly, this didn’t really happen and the idea of a “dry” month certainly never looked like happening.   Now, I enjoy a beer especially when watching the football or a good film, plus it is one of the few vices I believe I have so I am not too disappointed on failing to meet this pledge.   It is important to balance trying to achieve things, to work hard, etc, with also having a bit of fun.  I suspect my alcohol intake is overall slightly less than in 2021 although I don’t have any really evidence to support this, so this may simply be me justifying not doing more.

Another area of health which didn’t work out in 2022 related to dental accidents with a number of accidents during 2022 resulting in dental treatment which I find difficult, and that’s even before, as a Scotsman, I get to having to pay for it!

I also note that as I finished work in December I fell ill with a bit of a flu (not covid!).  Upon looking back to 2021 the same issue had occurred with illness in December.   I wonder if this is me simply pushing too hard and failing to consider my health, then as the term and year ends and I relax, the strain on my body catches up with me, manifesting in illness.  Maybe something to think about next year in ensuring I take care of myself as term ends in order to hopefully avoid a period of illness over the festive season.

Wellbeing /Happy memories

Sitting here writing this things don’t quickly come to mind although a family holiday abroad, our first since the pandemic does come to mind and was enjoyable.  I also thoroughly enjoyed a trip with my wife as part of our anniversary which saw us spend a few days in London together, even taking in a stage show and seeing a number of historic sites around London.   There are also a number of other significant memories created during the course of 2022 however I will not go on to list these here.  So this is all positive.

I think part of the issue here is that I maybe don’t have a great long term memory and therefore find it difficult to quickly reflect.   To that end I started noting things, achievements, etc, starting in March 2022 to help me with this.    Reviewing this it seems clear a vast majority of the notable things from 2022 relate to either my job or to the wider education and technology sectors in which I work rather than to personal or family related things.  This is something I need to think a bit more on in terms of my work/life balance and whether it is a balance I am happy with.

One memory I will have for 2022 will definitely be turning up to the Houses of Parliament to attend a morning meeting, but sadly attending on the wrong day, a day to early, followed by feeling ill and not being able to attend the event on the correct day.  Ooops.

Reading

I didn’t read quite as much as intended or would have liked during the course of the year.   I think I maybe managed 6 or 7 books rather than my normal 12 books although I did start to read some fiction in addition to my non-fiction, enjoying re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune and also a number of HP Lovecraft short stories.    The issue was generally one of time and priorities with reading sitting with a reasonably low priority.  This was however helped by the various conference and other events I attended which required train travel, thereby providing me with an opportunity to catch up on reading.

Contributing

This is likely the area where I think I did best during 2022.   I had opportunities to contribute to several different education and technology conferences or other events as a speaker, panellist, or guest while also developing a number of different bits of content for various organisations.   There were also many brilliant opportunities to network and catch up with colleagues from across the UK including the ANME ambassadors, Bukky Yusuf, Mark Anderson, Al Kingsley, Olly Lewis, Abid Patel and Emma Darcy to name but a few.  The fact that Abid Patel presented me with a can of my favourite Bru (intentional spelling) at an event being a particular highlight.   I was also both surprised but also very pleased to be nominated for Network Manager of the Year as part of the EduFuturist awards for 2022.  This was definitely not something I had expected or even hoped for.    As such am not sure I could have achieved much more that I did in 2022.    Here’s hoping for the same kind of opportunities in 2023.

Work

I think the year in work went well with the fact I have began to take notes of achievements being a useful aide-mémoire to help in assessing this.   When I addressed my team before the school broke up for Christmas it was good to be able to go back to the summer holidays and the beginning of term and list off some of the many things we have done, introduced or changed during the course of a single term, where had I not noted these down they may have simply slipped from memory.  

Other achievements

2022 once again saw me take on an external accreditation in ISC2s Certified in Cybersecurity.   It had been a number of years since I had last needed to take on a proper exam so I was a little nervous.   As it turned out a lot of the content overlapped with some of the other accreditations I already held and as such I didn’t find the exam to be that challenging but was still happy to achieve confirmation of my achievement of the certification.

Conclusion

2022 was a busy year and I think I crammed quite a bit into it.   I think one of my issues is that I seek that single highly significant and memorable event where this just didn’t happen in 2022, or indeed in a number of the preceding years.    This may detract from the many lesser events and achievements I did reach in 2022 and hence leave me feeling a little depressed or under appreciative of what I did achieve.   For 2023 I need to get passed this and be more positive and appreciative of that which I can and do achieve.

And so with my quick review of 2022 out of the way, it is onwards to 2023.   I want to try and treat 2023 as a fresh start and new year so hopefully be able to look back, around a year from now, and find my reflections on 2023 are not merely a repeat of those from 2022.    My next blog post will therefore focus on pledges for 2023 and how I might bring about the change I would like to see.

Online Safety Bill

So, the online safety bill is once again back under consideration and already looking like its getting softer.    The proposed dropping of the “legal but harmful” clause being another example of a focus on individual privacy winning out over monitoring and filtering in the interests of public, and child, safety.  

Now I understand the challenge here of balancing individual privacy and public good.   Individual privacy is enshrined in the principles of basic human rights, yet we want our governments, intelligence services, police and even schools to be able to monitor and filter content to keep people safe and to proactively identify potential threats to the lives and wellbeing of those under their care.    These are opposing points on a continuum and each step made positively in one direction is usually at the expense of the other position.   More privacy means less ability to monitor/filter in the interests of public good.    More filtering/monitoring means less privacy and the risk of data being mis-used or leaked.

To me it is clear that there is a definite tendency towards individual privacy winning out in this argument.  Apple quietly dropping its plan to monitoring iCloud accounts for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) and now the UK government looking to remove the “legal but harmful” clause being two good examples of how privacy is winning.    I doubt this will change, at least for now, and especially as more and more organisations are seeing fines and reported issues as to how they are managing the data of individuals.   So, what is the solution in particular in relation to schools where online safety is such a key and important topic and issue?

I think the key here is in establishing very clearly the need for social media vendors to look after children using their platforms.    Maybe the “legal and harmful” clause is inappropriate when applied across the general population but surely we must be able to agree we need to protect our children and therefore identify some of the materials which might be legal yet harmful to them.   And it isnt just the content that is the issue, but the medium and the algorithms feeding the content.   Is it right to categorise a child, where children are more impressionable, and then field them a specific type of content constantly, based on trying to keep them hooked on an app?   Might this not shape their world view such that they see things as rather binary rather than the more nuanced and complex nature of the real world and real life?    Is it right to feed children almost constant streams of content, including potentially harmful content, or provide contact with unknown individuals?   We need to make the vendors consider the medium they providing along with their algorithms and the potential impact they have rather than just pointing to the content as the issue which needs dealt with.

I will admit I saw problems with the Online Safety Bill from the outset, and even more so given it was first proposed as a draft in May 2021, over 18 months ago;   In the technology world 18 months is a long time and a lot can happen so this highlights how legislation will always be playing catch up.    My original concerns, I will admit, were more on the technical side of things.   Privacy points towards end to end encryption and other security solutions which then hamper monitoring and filtering, plus there is the challenge that social media vendors cross geographic jurisdictions, where different governments may have different motives and ethical standards for the monitoring they may require or request.    Also any weakening of security and privacy may in turn increase the likelihood of cyber criminals gaining access to data. So my concerns were that, although the bill might be well meaning, it would be difficult or impossible to effectively implement.

That said, something needs to be in place and I think this is the point we have now got to, that we need to accept something imperfect as a starting point and then hopefully build from there.    I will also admit that the responsibility for online safety doesn’t just belong to the centralised provider of social media and other services, or to the centralised government of the nation within which a user resides.  When we talk of online safety and children, parents and guardians also have their part to play, as do school pastoral teams, form group tutors and teachers, friends and other members of a child’s wider social and family circle.   And maybe this focus on the online safety bill for a single answer may actually be having a negative impact in taking our eye of the need for a wider and collective effort to keep children safe.

I suspect the solution at this point is to get the online safety bill into law.  Its better than nothing and can add to the wider efforts required, and hopefully be seen as a step in the right direction rather than an endpoint.

Big Tech and balance?

Within the technology space there are now a small number of hugely powerful players.   These players, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Meta (previously Facebook) and Apple, are now so dominant that their impact is felt beyond the technology space.   With this comes some advantages, but as I have often written, we live in a world of balances, and therefore there are also some potential risks or drawbacks.

Writing this blog piece came as a result of reading an article in relation to Sony and the PlayStation brand, a large and powerful player within the gaming space, where they are being sued in relation to breaching anti-competition laws, using their powerful position to apply pressure to games developers and publishers which then drive up game prices and therefore profits.  You can read the article here.    We have previously seen similar lawsuits levelled against both Google and Amazon in relation to their shopping platforms either favouring suppliers or brands based on their relationship with Google/Amazon or favouring their own brand products in the case of Amazon.    In the case of Google/Amazon the concern relates to their power resulting from providing the search functionality for users while also either providing products themselves or providing advertising services to brands/suppliers.  

And this isn’t the only risk in relation to these big players.    In the case of Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple, they store our data for us in the case of Google Drive, OneDrive or iCloud.    Where this is free storage, this is convenient for us, but if we aren’t paying for the service how are the ongoing costs being covered? Recently France suggested that schools not use the free services of Google or Microsoft for this reason.

It may be that in using their services for search or for purchasing items or for music, etc, they gather data about us.   So as the large players, that most of us will have regular interactions with, they will be gathering huge amounts of data about us which they then can use to profile and predict our behaviours.    Now we might accept that they do this for good reasons such as improving their services, etc, however if we believe that some of their corporate practices have been questioned it may also be reasonable to consider that they could seek to misuse this data.    And in the case of those services supported by advertising revenue it would be easy to see how they might use the data to influence our decision making and that’s before you consider the possibility of these services, themselves, suffering a data breach resulting in all this data being leaked onto the public internet.

There is also the issue of truth;  In the case of Google and Facebook, which allow users to access the news and other current affairs information, they control the information they present to users.   How do we know that they are presenting the “right” information?    (I note that establishing what is “right” or “the truth” is a problem in itself, however is outside the scope of this short post)   How confident are we that the information being presented to us is absent of bias?   Do the algorithms present sufficiently broad viewpoints or just present a singular viewpoint, that which the algorithm thinks we want to hear? In trying to keep us engaged with the platform do the algorithms tend to only present viewpoints we are likely to agree with, thereby creating echo chambers and online binary arguments?

The significant issue here is the fact that we havent been through this kind of technological change ever before in history.   Yes, we had the invention of the printing press, of radio and of TV, but these didn’t impact on society with quite the same pace of change as the combination of smart phones, internet access and social media.    And the difference in pace of change is so easily observed in the rate of adoption with the TV taking 22yrs to reach 25% of market access while Facebook only took 2 years.   We are now in a situation where so many of us are carrying an internet enabled device in our pockets, and regularly interacting with apps, including search and social media, where these apps and their underlying algorithms are constantly gathering data in order to hone and adjust the content which they serve us with.  

Now I know when I talk to students they don’t want to give up the convenience of google search or amazon for shopping, or the interesting content, including that from friends and family, provided by TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.   I will admit I am equally reluctant and would find not having google and twitter difficult.  

So what is the answer?    

Well I think the answer is simply to discuss and acknowledge that these services and the vendors that provide them, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, etc, provide us beneficial solutions, however in most things there is a balance.   We need to be aware of this balance, we need to discuss this balance with students such that they know the drawbacks and risks associated with the vendors and solutions we now so commonly use. It may be that our current technology revolution resolves itself much like TV, radio and the printing press of the past, however in case it doesn’t, I think we need to develop our overall awareness of the risks.

Privacy and OSINT

The more time I spend looking at cyber security the more concerned and paranoid I become and the more I realise how, in general, we don’t pay enough consideration to the data we share online.  Take for example a recent post I saw online where an individual was celebrating the purchase of a new house.  

They posted a lovely photo of the front of the house, with the for sale sign showing as sold.   The photo didn’t include the door number however it wouldn’t take much effort to find the address of the individual concerned.    Their photo showed the name and telephone number of the estate agent giving a rough area based on the UK area code.    A quick search on the estate agents site would give details of houses they had for sale along with photos from that period in time.   A quick comparison and you have an address, plus the name of the individual is included in their social media profile.   So, we now have a name and an address, plus from the social media profile we know about what they do for a living and various other bits of info.

The above is an example of OSINT or Open Source Intelligence, using freely available information to track someone down or create a profile on an individual.   It is all too easy given the information we make available online plus the various search tools which are now available. A logo, identifiable vehicle, company name or any manner of other things can help in tracking a person down.

In another post I saw an individual posted regarding repairs being done by the water board and how the works blocked their driveway.    The house number is in sight in the photo as is a house name plate.   Again, there is enough information to track the individual down and identify their address, with their name and job identified through their social media profile.

We all too often post photos online, such as photos from our evening run or photos with family, almost always giving away more information than we intended.   We equally may share information from health or fitness apps, possibly including run routes, again giving away more information than we intended.

This is yet another area of digital citizenship which we need to be discussing in our schools, with staff and with students.     If we don’t, it is likely that our continual sharing online will continue to compromise our privacy and potentially could result in some individuals putting themselves at risk.

Connected isolation?

How is it that social media allows us to be hyper connected yet we can still feel so much individual isolation?

I found myself wondering this ahead of the schools and academies show sat having something to eat on my own, while tweeting and otherwise engaging with individuals from all over the world via social media.     Isnt connection a key feature of social media in allowing us to have large “friends” groups which we can access even when geographically apart?    Shouldn’t I therefore have felt connected rather than isolated as I sat there?

A broadcast medium

One possible reason for my feeling of isolation may be the fact that todays social media is very much a broadcast medium.   We post outwards on twitter, we post outwards of Facebook, on TikTok and on other social media platforms.  They are no longer a simple extension of our “in-real life” connections, our friends and our families.   We hope that someone will reply and engage with what we have posted, or at least will provide a like, however this is a hope rather than an expectation.   So maybe the isolation therefore relates to the fact that my social media engagement amounts to throwing out posts and updates in much the same way a message in a bottle is cast into the sea in the hope that someone may read it.    It isn’t the two way conversation and engagement, the “social” experience which it pretends to be.

The human animal

This brings us nicely to another possible explanation being how we as humans have been conditioned through centuries of evolution to behave and respond.   We are used to smallish social groups rather than the 1000’s of followers we may achieve on social media.    Could it be that the we don’t have the same connection online with the 1000s we send our posts out towards, at least not to the same extent we might have a connection with the stranger we bump into and have a drink with in the pub? I will admit to having a conversation earlier in the day with a stranger in a busy pub and that this was engaging and enjoyable, and made me feel connected.

We are used to the social experience of face to face interactions, of getting verbal, facial and other non-verbal ques in our interactions with people.     We have a physiological response to the presence and interaction with those we know and like, while we have a different physiological response with those we don’t get on with.    Am not sure, however I suspect there may equally be a physiological response when interacting with people online however I suspect in some ways it may be a lesser response although I will also acknowledge in some cases the response may be greater or even extreme, spurred on by the safety of being a keyboard warrior distanced from any physical risk which could arise through face to face arguments.   I would suggest though, if we take the extreme cases out of the equation the average physiological response to online interactions is less than that for face to face interactions.  And so it may be that the online interactions feel a little numb when compared with face to face interactions.

Conclusion: An illusion of connection but not a very good one

The above is simply a little musing.   I have made some great connections with some great people via social media so as a vehicle towards face to face connections it is invaluable.    But does the supposed “social” nature of social media, the 1000s of online connections, make us think we are more connected than we end up feeling?    And if so, does the difference between how connected we think we are versus how connected we feel lead to a greater feeling of isolation?   Is the feeling of isolation a response or a result of this disparity?

If I was to draw any sort of conclusion I think it would be this;   For me, I am happiest when engaged in conversation in person even where with strangers.   Social media presents an illusion of connection and not a very good one, but this illusion can impact on us.    I think that is why I felt isolated as I sat there.   The solution, to stop engaging in social media in hope of a connection and to spark up a conversation with someone, to do what we as humans have been doing for centuries and engage with a fellow human being in a face to face conversation where I can actually feel properly connected.

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