Tech Roundup (October 2014)

A few things that caught my eye, and interest, over the last thirty days.

The Return of Virtual Reality

VR is back with a serious bang, and in the last week Mark Zuckerberg justified Facebook’s $2b aquisition of trailblazer start-up Oculus Rift by claiming he believed the virtual reality headset would eventually shift 100m units. I was lucky enough to spend five of the most nerve-shredding moments of my gaming life with the tech at EGX (playing a very immersive version of the sci-fi horror game Alien: Isolation) and I am very excited about the potential of this for consumers. This isn’t the only VR game in town, with Sony working on a headset for the PS4 by the name of Project Morhpeus, and Oculus themselves working with Samsung to produce a headset incorporating a mobile phone.

None of which will be anywhere near as cheap as Google’s Cardboard; a project designed to bring VR into even the most frugal of homes. All you need is an Android smartphone and a DIY headset made from, you guessed it, cardboard (I got mine from Amazon for less than £20) and you can have your own lo-fi VR experience in your home. There aren’t too many apps available yet, but the price feels worth it purely for the cinema-like YouTube app.

It’s Complicated by danah boyd

This fascinating book has made more of an impact on how I talk to young people about being safer online, and particularly how I empower parents and school staff to discuss these issues with children, than anything else I’ve read in the last year. danah boyd (the lack of capitalisation in her name is her choice) is an academic with a brilliant insight in the connected lives of teenagers, and her writing makes some really complex ideas seem simple. Although most of the references are US-based, and the websites discussed now seem quite out of date (particularly the number of mentions of MySpace), the overall thrust of why teenagers seemingly spend so much time on social media is as relevant as ever. The book is available as a PDF for no charge here, but it is also available on Kindle and from all good bookshops.

Teh Internet is Serious Business

Again, not a typo, but rather the appropriation of an Internet meme that encapsulates this brave and thoroughly engaging production at the Royal Court Theatre. It’s been an interesting year for the Internet in the theatre world, first with James Graham’s Privacy, which dealt with the subject of Edward Snowden and online surveillance from governments and tech companies, and now Tim Price’s take on the rise of Anonymous, 4Chan, and the convicted members of LulzSec. Part irreverent history of Internet memes (including the origin of Rick Rolling), part serious drama investigating the manipulation of two British teenagers that led to their high profile arrests; this was a play that wasn’t here to judge online culture, but to try and explain it. Trolls and all.

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Changes to Ofsted and ‘Inspecting E-Safety’

This morning’s NSPCC CASPAR email (a very useful and informative resource – sign up here), reported that Ofsted had published revised guidance for inspections of maintained schools and academies. There is some e-safety focus in all three of the new resources for inspectors (the Inspection Framework, the Handbook for Inspectors, and the Inspecting Safeguarding briefing), which is good to see.

Unfortunately, the brilliantly clear and useful ‘Inspecting E-Safety’ briefing document has disappeared.

This document has been invaluable to the Heads and ICT coordinators I have worked with, many of whom do not possess a huge amount of experience in e-safety beyond the odd CEOP session. It clearly laid out what a good school does with regard to e-safety, and acted as a road map for school improvement. Although there are a number of resources to help institutions in this way (in particular the excellent 360 Degree Safe self-audit tool), many schools still look primarily to Ofsted to take the lead and show what they should be doing. In short, the Ofsted Inspecting E-Safety briefing was a great way of forcing schools to look at their processes and make the appropriate changes.

I contacted David Brown, the Ofsted National Lead for Computing and E-Safety, on Twitter (@DavidBrownHMI) to gain clarification on this matter, and to his credit he responded very quickly and clearly.

ofsted (2)

Our full conversation is available as a Storify here.

So there we have it. Although the document is still a useful tool for schools to use, it is no longer being given to inspectors and isn’t available on the Ofsted website. It’s great to hear that all Ofsted inspection remits believe e-safety is very important, and that all education, social care, and early childhood HMI will be receiving regularly updated training. I just hope that this message is still going to be clearly communicated to schools.

Just the facts ma’am

In today’s Observer, Mariella Fostrup used her agony aunt column to congratulate a 17 year -old girl who ended her relationship with her boyfriend due to his ‘addiction’ to pornography. Nothing controversial or even unusual about that, I must say. In fact, it’s refreshing to read about a teenager who is prepared to stick to her principles and doesn’t feel pressured by the normalisation of porn in today’s society. Like Mariella, I would also like to give her a pat on the back.

Fostrup doesn’t leave it there though, and continues to deliver a few paragraphs taking furious aim at everything wrong with the ‘Porn Generation’, including the disturbing image of “under-10s dressing like hostesses in roadside bars while singing anthems to emancipation from Frozen“. I’ve got no problem at all with the concerned parent column, and she does make some salient points about the potential harm that the ubiquity of adult material can cause to young poeple. Sadly though, she completely undercuts any argument she has with two familiar tactics those engaged in a serious debate on these issues often have to overcome.

The first is her morally superior stance, particularly with those who disagree. I can almost picture the sneer as she wrote “Pornography may be considered liberating by a minority like Belle de Jour blogger Dr Brooke Magnanti, who’ll no doubt pipe up again(my emphasis), but such brusque and unpleasant mentalities exist on both sides of most debates. Her bigger crime is far worse in my opinion. What follows is, I’m confident in saying, a barefaced lie.

“I told my eight-year-old son to Google his favourite band, the Sex Pistols, the other night and both of us got quite a surprise at the search results.”

I just searched for the Sex Pistols on Google (without quotation marks to ensure as full a search as possible) and the first five pages of results contained no links whatsoever to any page that wasn’t directly related to the seminal UK punk band of that name. I got the same results searching with Bing. This didn’t surprise me, as I know roughly how a search engine works. And unless the surprise Fostrup mentioned was surprise that her ill-thought out experiment didn’t return pages of results about sex and guns, then she is lying. And that’s just not on.

I also checked the Google image results, and there were a few images that I certainly wouldn’t consider appropriate for an eight-year-old to be looking at. Pictures of people smoking and drinking, and some semi-naked women as well. Incidentally, all of these were press images for, you guessed it, the Sex Pistols. I’d suggest Mariella Fostrup think a little more about the cultural influences she is encouraging her child to engage with, and leave this very important debate to those who can at least stick to the facts.

Review: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Valiant Hearts, Ubisoft

Valiant Hearts, Ubisoft

It was during the media coverage of the commemoration of the Great War (or World War I as most of us know it) that I realised how poor my knowledge was of this terrible conflict. Everyone knows that the assassination of Scottish indie band Franz Ferdinand was the trigger point, but beyond that episode of Blackadder Goes Forth and the underappreciated Stanley Kubrick classic Paths of Glory, the First World War loses out massively in our cultural storytelling to its more stylish and easily packaged sequel.

This discrepancy of coverage is even more pronounced in the world of video games. Call of Duty, the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, started out as a WW2 shooter; and before that we had the brilliant Medal of Honour series. Other franchises that use this historical setting include the Wolfenstein, Battlefield, and Sniper Elite games. World War I on the other hand boasts only a slender selection of games, mainly smaller indie or PC-only titles.

That is where Ubisoft Montpellier’s latest offering comes in. Available on PC, Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox One and Xbox 360, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a puzzle adventure game which aims to educate as well as entertain. Having played it for the last week or so, I cannot think of a better way to engage some younger minds into discovering more about the history of this conflict.

It’s a beautiful and very artistically stylish game, both visually and in its soundtrack. The action is two-dimensional, but with a beautiful depth of level design and incredibly richly detailed backgrounds. The story was inspired by the real-life correspondence of people caught up in the conflict, stitched together into a narrative that sees you control four (five if you count a cute medic’s dog) characters, each with their own heart-breaking stories. There’s Karl, a German expelled from France at the start of the hostilities who has to leave his French wife and child behind. Alongside him Karl’s father-in-law Emille, who is drafted onto the enemy side in the war. We also spend time with American ex-pat Freddie, and Belgian nurse Anna, who is searching for her kidnapped father.

The gameplay mechanic is fun and challenging, without ever being frustrating. The difficulty curve is just right, and it took me back to my youth, and a great series of puzzle games featuring an egg named Dizzy. Puzzles generally revolve around finding the correct items to open up the next stage of a level, although there are a few action sequences, including a driving mission choreographed to the Can-Can which brought a huge smile to my face.

Woven into the game are 100 secret items hidden across the levels, all of which are based on artefacts donated by the families of soldiers who fought in the war. Each level has a number of wonderfully illustrated facts about different aspects of the war – for example, soldiers used urine soaked rags in lieu of gas masks during German chlorine gas attacks. It never feels forced though, and I’m a huge fan of this education by stealth technique. I’ve learned so much playing this game

The game is a PEGI 12 rating, and although you are only ever saving lives as the protagonists (apart from the odd clonk over the head with a ladle to knock a guard unconscious) the game isn’t afraid to shy away from some of the horrors of this particular war in its style and atmosphere. That said, the game treats the war with a huge amount of respect, and has clearly been very well researched. It would be the perfect game for teenagers to play to enhance their understanding of the First World War, and for parents to play with younger children, helping them with some of the more difficult puzzles, as well as putting some of the scenes into context. A truly marvellous game.

A step in the wrong direction

Last week we learned that Nottinghamshire police have distributed a letter to all of their schools, warning teachers and parents of the “grave concerns” they have about young people engaged in ‘sexting’, or the sharing of explicit or sexually provocative images using technology. The letter goes on to cite a couple of specific cases, including one where a teenage girl who sent a topless photo to her boyfriend was given a caution, along with her boyfriend who shared the image with his friends after the couple had an argument.

There’s no doubt that both of the children involved committed a serious crime, as the laws about the creation and distribution of child abuse images are very clear. What is concerning though is the message this sends out to children and their parents. At a time where sex education and e-safety work in schools is finally starting to get across a positive and helpful message to young people, here we have a draconian edict from the authorities threatening to undo a lot of hard work.

The excellent ‘So You Got Naked Online’ resource for young people produced by South West Grid for Learning, in a section on who can help you, states:

“The Law is on your side and was not designed to punish young people for making mistakes whilst experimenting with their sexuality. The law is aimed firmly at those who choose to trade or profit from sexual pictures of children.”

This statement is based on the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) lead position that was produced in cooperation with CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre). The following sections clarify this position (use of bold type is my own):

First time offenders should not usually face prosecution for such activities, instead an investigation to ensure that the young person is not at any risk and the use of established education programmes should be utilised. CEOP accept that in some cases, e.g. persistent offenders, a more robust approach may be called for- for example the use of reprimands. It is recommended that prosecution options are avoided, in particular the use legislation that would attract sex offender registration.

ACPO does not support the prosecution or criminalisation of children for taking indecent images of themselves and sharing them. Being prosecuted through the criminal justice system is likely to be distressing and upsetting for children, especially if they are convicted and punished. The label of ‘sex offender’ that would be applied to a child or young person convicted of such offences is regrettable, unjust and clearly detrimental to their future health and wellbeing.

ACPO considers that a safeguarding approach should be at the heart of any intervention. This approach is informed by Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989, which states that within the context of any statutory intervention the welfare of the child is paramount. This approach is reinforced by Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, which places a duty on key persons and bodies to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

I understand that ACPO guidance is exactly that, guidance. However I am struggling to understand the reason for Nottinghamshire police disregarding such guidance, and actively acting against the interests of the children in their care. And they are quite explicit about the legal ramifications facing children engaging in sexting. Says their letter to schools,

“When photographs that fall within the category of an indecent image (even if taken with consent) are uploaded, reports are made by the administrators to the police. If a person is aged over 10yrs and distributes (shares – even to friends) an indecent image then they can be arrested, charged and dealt with for this offence. If they are found guilty they must then register as a sex offender.”

By threatening children with prosecution, and the additional step of having to sign the sex offenders’ register, they reduce the chances that a child who has made a mistake in sending images will step forward and tell someone. The letter goes on to say:

“An individual’s online reputation needs protecting as it stays with them for the rest of their life.”

I find it slightly crass that on the one hand the police seem concerned with a child’s online reputation, and on the other are happy to potentially destroy a child’s reputation via the use of cautions and the sex offender register. It also helps to know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Internet, as their statement that “It is crucial that children (under 18 years) understand that every internet site and social networking site is monitored by an administrator” is hugely misleading, and could easily be dismissed as scaremongering. Although GCHQ may well have access to all of these images, services such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Snapchat simply do not have administrators scanning all the images uploaded in order to report these to the police. And most kids will know this as well.

It seems a little unfair that young people are potentially facing prosecution for acts that the police wouldn’t bat an eyelid at if the perpetrators were a couple of years older. Essentially, these young people are being punished for being children. Laws prohibiting children engaging in certain acts before they’re 18 are designed to protect them, not to punish them. Retailers are fined for selling alcohol to children, rather than children receiving criminal records purely for the act of buying alcohol. The laws against the distribution of child abuse material should be a tool to mandate the removal of these images from public websites, and to prosecute the people sharing these images with the wider public.

I hope the actions of Nottinghamshire police are an outlier, and that common sense and the well-crafted ACPO guidance still holds sway across the rest of the country. By haranguing the originators of these images, there is a danger we will lose sight of the real scourge of sexting, the ‘revenge porn’ aspect. We need to create an open dialogue about how we can protect all victims of this disgusting act, regardless of their age.

Engaging parents

Safer Internet Day is over for another year and, despite a very positive week, I can’t help but feel a little relived. Having spoken to schools in Leicester, Northampton, Liverpool, and as far as Estonia, even I’ve become a little tired of the sound of my voice. The relative calm of half-term is providing the chance for a spot of relaxation and reflection.

Last week I spoke to parents at schools every day, and most evenings (including one lucky school who had the pleasure of listening to Professor Andy Phippen talk, after I persuaded him to drop in on his way between events), and I was really pleased with the range and intelligence of questions asked by these groups. However the most common question I encountered during the week came from teachers, asking how they can reach the parents who really need to attend such events.

While some schools saw fantastic turn outs, at one or two sessions I ended up speaking to just a handful of parents. While I’m a firm believer in the idea that converting just one parent to the cause of e-safety can make a difference, here are a few tips for those schools wishing to engage as many of their parent population as possible.

Drop the jargon

Whenever a school asks how best to market their E-safety Session, the first thing I suggest they do is drop the word ‘e-safety’. It’s no longer a buzzword, and many parents think they’re already up to date because they attended a session three years ago which told them to ‘keep the family computer in a shared space’. Besides, who as a parent wants to be told they’re not already keeping their children safe?

Instead, try to promote the session by referring to the technology that children are currently using. Use a loaded question such as “have you recently bought your child a tablet or smart phone?”, or maybe even link it to issues that have arisen in your particular school (such as Facebook or online gaming).

At their convenience, not yours

Different parents have times that are more convenient for them to attend, and schools would get more interest if they offered a range of sessions, while also striving to make it easier for parents to attend without their children. Daytime sessions usually work better just after the parents have dropped their children off, or just before they pick them up. Consider offering tea and coffee and maybe even a crèche facility, to enable parents to spend half an hour focussing on this vital subject.

Evening sessions can also be very successful, especially if combined with other events which parents are already committed to attending. You could start parents evening half an hour earlier and arrange for someone to talk to parents then; or hold a twilight clinic, so parents have an opportunity to gain advice on specific issues, rather than just spend time listening to someone giving a more generic talk.

If they won’t come to you, then go to them

I’m not suggesting anyone go round to every ‘absent’ parent and doorstep them about their digital habits, but there are more ways to engage parents than herding them into the school hall and showing them a video. If they’re not coming to your space, then get into theirs.

I’m always trying to sell the benefits of schools using Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with parents, as some parents do favour communication via social media over more traditional channels. Managed correctly and safely, school social media accounts can engage with parents, provide them with useful information, post photos, and convey important school related messages.

Using these channels not only allows you to increase your reach in terms of information distribution, but can encourage parents to behave a little better online. After all, it’s not just children who post irresponsible, hurtful, or even libellous comments online.  Sometimes simply by stepping into these spaces, schools can see parents modifying their online behaviour in a positive way.

It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worthwhile. And remember, safer internet use is for life, not just the second Tuesday in February.

Filters are the Diet Coke of E-Safety

Last month the Authority for Television on Demand (ATVOD) organised a conference entitled ‘For adults only? – protecting children from online porn’, where speakers and professionals debated a number of ideas on how to protect children from what David Cameron calls “poisonous websites” that are “corroding childhood”. A lot of time was spent discussing Internet filters, and the UK government’s proposed default-on Internet filters.

While this is still an agenda playing out among politicians, professionals and industry figures (no parent I’ve spoken to in schools over the last two months has been aware of the plans), it is something that parents (and also non-parents) will have to consider in the next twelve months. Whether or not people’s ‘active choice’ will be an ‘informed choice’ remains to be seen.

Opponents of the proposed scheme (as it stands) come from a number of different perspectives, from child protection proponents to free speech campaigners, and so the counter argument has failed to form into one coherent voice. Particularly while many of those in support of the proposed filters continue to shout down this voice with cries of “won’t someone think of the children?”

So let’s just focus on one particular concern that a great many experts (and myself) have. Internet filtering is at best an ineffective way to keep children safe online. And at worst can actually put children at risk.

The following is taken from Ofsted’s ‘Inspecting E-Safety’ briefing from September of this year, and refers to the level of Internet filtering used in schools:

Pupils in the schools that had ‘managed’ systems had better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe than those in schools with ‘locked down’ systems. Pupils were more vulnerable overall when schools used locked down systems because they were not given enough opportunities to learn how to assess and manage risk for themselves.

That’s right; pupils are more vulnerable when attending a school with a ‘locked down’ network. The reason for this is that if schools just block everything but the most benign websites, then they don’t feel compelled to teach children how to assess risk and make safer judgements about the material they encounter online.

The sad fact is that a huge number of parents will become complacent about their children’s safety online, especially if they are to believe Cameron at his word when he described the filter plans as being “one click to protect your whole home and keep your children safe”. That wasn’t an off-the-cuff answer to an unexpected question, but a soundbite that will have been honed and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life to see how it would play with newspaper editors and voters. If the Prime Minister is this complacent about the effectiveness of filtering, then what chance do parents have?

Unsurprisingly, during the first week of 2014, we are being bombarded with the usual incessant ‘new year, new you’ chatter from the media, our friends and colleagues. I’ve worked in plenty of offices in my time, and, without fail, they always contain one or two people watching their weight. (Sometimes, but not often enough, including myself.) For some, this ‘diet’ consists merely of swapping sugar-packed fizzy drinks and chocolate biscuits for countless cans of Diet Coke and Weightwatchers cakes.

These people know that sugar was bad for you, so to lose weight and live a healthy life they convince themselves that all they need to do is cut out sugar. They don’t think about other healthier changes they could make to the diet, or about engaging in some regular exercise. Obviously, this particular ‘diet’ proves ineffective. My excuse for being overweight is that I know what is bad for me, but I still make mistakes. In that sense I’m not too dissimilar from most teenagers online!

And that’s exactly what will happen with default-on Internet filtering. If it isn’t offered as an option alongside a health balanced diet of education, and encouraging parental engagement about technology, their children are never going to be safer online. Filtering does have a place in the package of e-safety options available to parents, but without context, and unbiased guidance, its stated aim of protecting children online is a fallacy. I hate to be a cynic, but the government must know that this isn’t really going to make a difference, and is in it for the headlines and positive press. Either that, or David Cameron genuinely believes it will make a difference, and is being quite seriously misadvised.