Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Joy of Sex – my joyless journey into sex and tech

I produced the interactive version of The Joy of Sex in the late 90s. First we had to scan and digitise all of those original drawings. They were held in the publisher’s basement vault, so we had them couriered down from London. They needed insurance and security, as each drawing was worth a lot of money. The book had been a phenomenon, breaking taboos in media and publishing. Nobody ever owned up to buying it but it sold squillions. 

Big problem - one drawing was missing - the erect penis. So I commissioned 'Big Bill' (6'5"), a Brighton illustrator, to come up with the goods. It took longer than expected as he used himself (and a mirror) as the model, so whenever he turned to draw in detail, it drooped. Had staying power, did Bill but still took a couple of days.

People will do anything for money
The video shoot was even weirder. The young couple were great in a narcissistic sort of way, a couple in real life, they did what they had to do – for the money. The shoot for the old couple, in a swimming pool, in the section on ‘Sex for the older couple’ was toxic. They had broken up recently. She hated him, he still loved her. She feigned arousal and undying love in a worryingly, well practiced manner, while he was bitter with unrequited love. It was horrible.

Edutainment is neither fish nor fowl
This CD (pre-internet) was an educational product, commissioned by the publisher. I say ‘educational’ but the interactivity, which was quite smart, didn’t do what the book did – which was not educate, but titillate. I’ve been suspicious of edutainment, serious games and gamification ever since (see critique here).

People want porn
This project taught me that people are pure in their wants and when it comes to sex, they want porn. Sure enough, the internet exploded not long after this work and porn drove lots of the innovation in tech. It was ever thus. Read ‘The Erotic Engine: How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication from Gutenberg to Google” by Patchen Barrs. Payment models, methods of payment, streaming, biofeedback, driving up demand for broadband – and lots more. It made SnapChat a success, expect it to be central to the development of the VR market.

Expect the unpredictable
Despite what I said above about games, the best bit of the product was the ‘Mr & Mrs’ game. You could play this with your partner at home. First the presenter pops up and asks you a question, while your partner has earphones on or is out of the room. You write it down. Then you’re partner is asked the same question and you compare answers. Simple but a real hoot., especially at parties – if you want them to end in bitter accusations, acrimony and people heading for the door shouting abuse at each other.
If you don’t know the famous story about the TV version of this game, listen up. The husband was asked “What’s the strangest place you’ve ever had sex?” After lots of evasions the husband finally says “…in a bus shelter”. His partner comes out of the booth and is asked the same question. She is horrified and refuses to answer. Several times she refuses to answer. Then the presenter says “…but your husband has already given us an answer”. She looked horrified, thought for a moment and said, “OK…  it was up the bum”.

Rules of one medium don’t always apply to another
I worked with a really lovely guy, Peter, from the BBC, but TV production is different from interactive production. In games and sims, it’s POV, you are the director, so you have to break a lot of the traditional rules of TV and film production. These lessons apply to the new medium on the block – VR. Virtual reality has a grammar of its own and it’s not the grammar of TV and film. You need to think in terms of scenes, slow things up, understand that the viewer will look around, take their time and explore.
Lesson 7: When it comes to consumer buying nobody knows jack
We built this thing but it sold diddly squat. Wasn’t as bad as our foray into feature films, where we lost a fortune on funding “The Killer Tongue”. You can watch it on YouTube – if you have patience, resilience and the ability to watch plotless tat.

I’d like to say I came out of these experience s a better person but I didn’t. I came out wiser, more cynical and determined to avoid mistakes. Forget all that bullshit about failure being good for you - that’s usually mouthed by people who have a fall back position – rich parents.  It’s painful and to be avoided at all costs.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

ASU wants to be a new sort of University and they're getting there

Watched TED 2 last night (the drug-fuelled bear not the over-righteous talks) and ASU was the butt of the bear’s jokes. I thought– they’ve done it, ASU have achieved stardom by being referenced in the culture of ‘cool’. Actually, TED 2 is a lot less funny than TED, but back to ASU. I love ASU.
The ‘Crow’
Michael Crow has run ASU since 2002 and is a smarter than the average bear. His goal, well vision, even dream, was to create nothing less than the "New American University". It’s all in his Designing the New American University (2015). Here he explains how he wanted to do the unthinkable – grow research at a blistering pace and, at the same time, raise the bar on teaching in terms of both access and quality. Any one of these would have been difficult, all three at the same time, tricky.
The key word for Crow is ‘scale’, a clever word on which to hang a vision. Scaling student numbers or bums on seats is easy enough but that is to focus on the wrong end of the learner. Quality has be scaled and attainment (less drop-out) also scaled – that’s a ball crusher. And its here that they have embraced a certain truth, that scale must come through the smart use of technology. They take this as an assumed truth, as self-evident. If you can get increased numbers of students over that first year undergraduate hurdle (in maths, writing and reasoning) you’re well on your way to sustaining subsequent quality.
Profs are doing it for themselves
But here’s the rub. Courses are almost universally owned by individual professors. They design, develop, deliver and assess their own courses. It’s their baby and so implementing technology is like threatening to pull their offspring from their arms and shove them into some sort of uniform collective nursery.
That’s why tech in HE remains a cottage industry. It’s stuck at the fragmented level of the individual. So when Blackboard is rolled out, all of these profs create stuff, but they don’t have the resources and skills to do it well, so we end up with lots of low quality, repository resources. It’s all a bit crap really.
The trick is to get a collegiate thing going with all of the profs involved in the teaching of say, maths. Now you have a posse of maths profs. Explain to them the power of adaptive learning and personalisation. They get it – it’s down to the power of maths. Maths is a touchstone here as it’s such a hurdle for many students.  It also happens to be well defined with clear dependencies. – ideal for adaptive learning. ASU manage to get approximately 85%  through developmental maths. The national standard for success is around 55% to 60%. They think the theoretical limit is around 95%. That’s smart, recognising that success should be real and not too utopian. At the same time they have to move faculty towards a different sort of coaching and supporting role. That’s the hard bit.
Global Freshman Academy
Now for the big bear hug. You’ve proved over five years that the technology has significant results on reducing drop-out and increasing attainment. You’ve shown that groups of academics, working together, can leverage this technology on the scale that’s needed. You now roll this out across all undergraduate courses and subjects – for free. Using EdX, they are producing a full slate of courses. – doing things on scale. The cultural change is immense but so are the benefits. To what problem is all of this a solution? Losing too many students. It was that simple. Once everyone focused on that one problem, the solution was obvious.
Next step is a step up
The next step is to match student expectations on the quality of online courses. They all have smartphones, good laptops and experience exemplary content on all of these devices. Education needs to meet those expectations. This is really hard. Learning is not entertainment and often damaged when it becomes too glitzy. The stuff that’s produced within Blackboard looks like the stuff that was done on computers before these kids were born. Within the next few years every high school leaver will have been born in the 21st century and every teacher and academic in the 20th century. This is not an arbitrary decimal barrier. The turn of the millennium was when online really started to rocket. Over the last 15 years we’ve seen an eruption of services that these students use daily, if not hourly, even by the minute. That’s the new challenge and one I'm glad to be involved in, as I'm in an organisation that is providing adaptive courses in a range of subjects that ASU see as critical to their vision.

Michael Crow is not without his critics, some are as angry as a bear with a sore head at his effrontery – how dare he take responsibility away from the individual academic?  He has , after all, challenged the nay-saying power of academics who want to keep it all at their single cell level of evolution, whereas his vision is of a multicellular future. He can’t afford to let those attitudes win, as that is what keeps access low and costs high. What Crow rejects is that the system will always be built on scarcity and not abundance. He wants to scale out of scarcity into high quality abundance through technology and adaptive technology, which personalises the learning experience.  They are redefining the University as a scalable organization serving the public good. You may not like his vision, but a vision it is.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Greece – how does its education system fare? (It's not good)

While Finland gets all the attention in education, lauded for its performance, few look at the other end of the spectrum, the poor performers in Europe. So what’s Europe’s poorest performing country? Guess what – the ever topical Greece.
Teacher-student ratios
Sadly, Greece is a high cost, high staff but low attainment system. Greece has four times more teachers per pupil than Finland, extremely low student-teacher ratios in both primary and secondary but performs poorly in almost all areas. The student-teacher staff ratio is an astonishing 7.66 in socio-economically disadvantaged schools and 9.29 in advantaged schools, which are among the smallest in PISA-participating countries. Only one country out of the sixty one, has better (smaller) ratios. To put this in context, their student-teacher ratios are twice as good as ours in the UK.
Teaching hours
The number of hours primary teachers spend teaching in public institutions is comparatively small in Greece, ranking 32nd smallest out of 33. Lower secondary teachers teach the fewest hours of any country, ranking 33rd out of 33. Upper secondary teachers are not much better at 32nd out of 33. So, it’s lots of teachers, who teach less than in almost all other countries.
Poor performance
When students are asked whether they feel happy at school, Greece comes 56th out of 64. Nearly half of all students report skipping classes, which puts Greece a disappointing 9th out of 64. So despite the low student-teacher rations and high number of teachers, student attitudes are awful.
School culture
When it comes to taking responsibility for the curriculum, course content and assessment, Greece comes stone last 64th out of 64. It’s not much better on the use of data to compare results and improve the system, where they’re 63rd out of 64. In other words the system lacks flexibility and oversight.
School guards
Lastly, and this is an odd one, there’s the issue of school guards. This caused uproar in the recent Grexit negotiations. The Greeks were criticized for overstaffing and having ‘guards’ in schools, a subject that vexed outside observers from countries where they do not exist. Interestingly, a significant number of these ‘guards’ had Masters degrees and PhDs. How do we know this? Because when the guards were laid off a special exemption clause was inserted to preserve the jobs of these over-qualified staff.

The data suggests that the Greek school system has exemplary teacher-student ratios, but the teachers teach less and the outcomes are dreadful. The school guards’ issue simply shows that the system is somewhat out of control with regard to staffing.  Christos Tsolakis, an honorary professor in the Education P Department of the Aristotle University of Macedonia, saw poor education as the root cause of the Greek problem. “The economic problem is only the surface. The real problem of Greece, however, is the educational lack as well as the cultural crisis. Unfortunately, we Greeks have not yet clarified the meaning of being educated. Ethical concepts such as understanding what is right and wrong, respecting the laws, understanding the meaning of egalitarianism, rate, measurement and democracy retreat in front of amorality have been long forgotten”. Education would appear to show, in microcosm, some of the problems the Greek state faces in implementing reform. Given the brouhaha over school guards – a fight to the death to keep them all employed, the future looks bleak.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chief Happiness Officers – send in the clowns?

This whole thing is getting out of hand. I don’t need an HR manager, who’s primary skill is in pay and rations, to be responsible for my emotional well-being. Since when did HR professionals turn into pseudo-psychotherapists? So you’ve read some populist paperback on ‘mindfulness’, attended some half-baked, Ponzi scheme course and now you feel qualified to rain happiness down on us all?
Happiness is a dumbed-up state
Despite the idea being widely rejected as simplistic by John Stuart Mill and almost every serious thinker that’s ever thought deeply on the subject, the idea that ‘happiness’ is the sole purpose of life, or even an end-in-itself, seems to have taken root in our therapeutic culture. Life is not a simple calculus of unhappiness/happiness. Even a cursory look at the complexity of feelings, emotions and behaviour make that idea seem childish. These simple distinctions; happiness=good/unhappiness=bad; positive feelings=good/negative feelings=bad, are puerile and misleading. These false binary narratives are all too easy. Even Seligman, the pied-piper of happiness came to reject the term.
The fake ‘wellness’ syndrome in the workplace is another spin on the happiness theme. But beware of words ending in –ness – wellness, mindfulness, happiness. They’re catch-all terms that purport to mean everything but in the end mean little or nothing. Life is not a course and life is not an illness. We don’t need an army of narcissists telling us what to feel and how to feel it.
Binary thinking
Unfortunately HR has caught a bad dose of ‘happy clapping’ and middle managers have latched onto the idea that we should try to engineer this happiness. You see it in the work-life balance debate (read work=unhappy, life=happy). You also see it within organisations, as hapless HR people try to take control of the emotional welfare of employees. Self-appointed armies of coaches, counsellors, mentors and therapists are crawling all over organisations searching for the pathological deficit. Everyday emotions and ordinary contention are diagnosed as illnesses and people with creepy ‘open questioning’ techniques come in to offer cures. This is not a plea for grumpiness, it’s a plea for realism and sanity, before the therapeutic brigade start seeing the whole of society as an asylum full of pathological patients who need to pay for their platitudes.
Chief Clowns

Every bit of psychobabble that comes along is scooped up by people who seem to be paid to read self-help books and turn them into courses. By all means create these ‘Chief Clown’ roles, but expect the ridicule you deserve. People deserve dignity at work, fair pay and conditions, a safe workplace and a good work environment. They’re adults, not children. You’re NOT a chief and my happiness is MY business. Finally, let me throw my own personal piece of psychobabble into the mix - people who constantly fret about being happy are usually, in fact, miserable sods who want to foist their own deep dissatisfaction with themselves, on others.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Apprenticeship levy: 8 potential pitfalls but it's a game changer

No one predicted the apprenticeship levy in the budget, the Conservatives out-manoeuvred Labour by legislating for a levy on large employers. The truth is that Tristram Hunt was Labour’s Achille’s heel. He knows nothing about vocational learning, just another public schoolboy and academic, dislocated from the reality of the majority of young people, who do NOT go to University. I’m not speculating here. I spoke to him personally on this issue before the election – he was clueless. The truth is that this is a productivity issue, alongside the recognition that the academic route is not for everyone and that the strongest European economies have adopted this models. Tom Wilson, the Director of Unionlearn, called it a game changer. It is. But there are potential pitfalls.
1. Feed from schools
There’s some irony in the fact that Alison Wolf, who recommended this policy, was also responsible for abolishing a huge tranche of vocational learning in schools. With a succession of Labour and Conservative Education Ministers hostile to vocational learning in schools, the EBacc has all but led to its disappearance. We can insist on academic qualifications for entry into apprenticeships but this will be a hindrance for many, not a help, especially in Maths. The solution is a functional maths alternative.
2. Quality control
Apprenticeships are not trivial. They demand quality control. There’s background theory and knowledge, actual practice in the workplace, as well as attitudinal and pastoral issues. In many ways it’s more complex than degrees. Additionally, they’re sector specific. We’ve had the trailblazers in some sectors, which act as exemplars but there’s much more work to be done. The important thing is to stick with it and not get too critical too early. Mistakes will be made but we owe it to young people to get this right. An apprenticeship needs to be structured with good support for students. These are young people who need guidance and support, not treated as cheap labour. We need the best of employer training and practice, as well as strong educational components. There has to be adequate regulation, namely an overseeing body, to keep everyone honest.
4. Brand through accreditation
Credible accreditation matters in terms of employer, parent and student acceptance. We need to create a credible currency, whether its independent accreditation bodies, such as City & Guilds, educational institutions or employer accreditation. It’s a matter of building the brand to sustain effort into the future. This is all about seeing apprenticeships as a viable alternative.
5. Money matters
The levy levels the playing field. If you don’t have apprenticeships, you either do them, or pay, so that there are opportunities for others. It will be interesting to see whether this will be linked to revenue, profits or payroll. We don’t how much the levy will be or how it is to be collected (suggestion is 0.5% of payroll: £2 billion). It has to be high enough to pay for the 3 million apprenticeships promised by 2020, without the Conservatives resorting to statistical jiggery-pokery, to get to that figure. 3 million apprenticeships over 5 years needs a lot of money – billions (plural) not millions.
6. SMEs
One immediate problem is the large company focus. Our economy is also driven by small and medium sized companies. One would hope that opportunities are also available in this context. This is not easy but selected criteria, around high growth, high productivity sectors, may allow some of these to participate. The public sector also has to respond.
7. Technology support
There is a real opportunity to use technology to manage apprentices, who are in many different locations. This is not just tracking but supporting them and spotting potential drop-out. There’s also an opportunity to get scale on the delivery of content. This is not blue-sky, as it’s already been implemented in pools of excellence. To ignore technology is to ignore the present.  The point is not to recreate the apprenticeships of the past but those of the future.
8. England only
This is employer-led but as the levy only applies in England, and many large companies operate across the UK in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, how will those countries respond. It could lead to a drain of apprenticeship activity towards England. It would be great to think that these countries would adopt this policy but they won’t. Interesting tensions here.
I welcome this policy. The idea that forcing everyone into HE is the route to higher productivity is patently false. Our productivity has stagnated in the face of substantial increases in HE student numbers and graduates. We have ignored the majority of young people for decades, leaving them to an underfunded FE system, a truly awful career’s service and the vagaries of the market.

There’s no real problem with the idea of apprenticeships. My nephew and his parents were delighted when he got one in a large company in Scotland. The problem was that he was only one of three, from 588 applicants. The demand is huge, the supply pitiful. Where there’s market failure on this scale, the government has an important role to play. We need to grab this opportunity, shape it and not get bogged down in petty carping. The left must see this as an opportunity and not a form of cheap labour or, as New Labour did, as non-aspirational. The right must not play games and do this on the cheap, with holes that allow employers to exploit the system. Evidence from abroad shows that it needs co-operation between employers, government, training providers, accreditation bodies and unions. So come on CBI, don’t be such a bunch of stupid sceptics. There’s a lot of good people who want to make this work.