One suite to rule them all?

GSuiteOffice365At a recent conference event I got into the discussion with a couple of other attendees in relation to what the best suite of apps for use in schools was.    The main options on the table were Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Office 365 however other platforms such as Firefly and Showbie were also mentioned.

The key here, in developing digital literacy, is do we focus on a single suite such as Google Apps for Education, or G-Suite as I believe it is now called, or should we make use of a variety of different apps with our students.

A singular suite presents the option of consistency.   Students experience the same apps used across all of their lessons within school, whether they are developing homework, viewing resources or undertaking in class learning activities.    They also experience a common user interface and experience across the different apps within the suite.   This can also be beneficial for staff in that all teachers are using the same apps and therefore can support each other and share ideas.   This has an equal benefit for students who are able to support and help each other given the common nature of the apps used across subjects and year groups.   The single suite develops depth of knowledge in students as they are able to explore the singular suite in detail, which should support them as they move to a another similar suite.

Using a multitude of different apps and possibly different suites, such as using Google Apps and Office 365, has the advantage of allowing teachers and students to pick the best app for each given purpose from all apps which are available.   The ability to pick from any app also has the advantage of being able to access a wider range of functionality than is available within any single suite.   It also allows for teachers and students to select according to their personal preference.    Use of multiple apps develops cross platform skills in students and also staff allowing them to more easily flit between apps as need.

My preference is to find a solution somewhere in the middle with a single core suite being used but with an allowance for other apps and suites to be used as need.     As such I use Office 365 as my core suite however often make use of Google Forms within the G-Suite due to its superior functionality and my greater familiarity over the Microsoft equivalence.

And if pushed to select between Office 365 and Google Apps, I would answer that I would pick both.    For schools heavily invested and attached to the traditional Microsoft Office suite I would go with Office 365 for its familiarity, as I have done in my current school, however in a new school or a school which isn’t attached to a particular office suite, I would go with G-Suite due to it being slightly further along in development as an educational tool.



Wheres my data?

binaryBeing a citizen in a digital world means using an increasing number of services in our daily lives.   Online banking, passport applications, email accounts, twitter and other social media accounts, an account for google so we can store our favourite locations in Google Maps and backup our phones app data, accounts for our fitness tracker and for amazon.   The above represent a small number of the services which we may be using.    Our students may be using even more services including music and video streaming services, Instagram, Snapchat and a multitude of other services which I doubt I could identify or name.    And as our use of technology increases we enroll in ever more services including services relating to our home assistant and our home control systems among others that are yet to be invented.

But who has our data and does it really matter?

In thinking about this I remember back to a student I met in the late 90’s.    Using some basic information about me, his teacher or lecturer as I was then, he was able to tell me where my home address was and basic information about my immediate family.   He was even able to provide a basic route map from the college where I worked back to my family home all based on a couple of basic facts and a couple of online web services.   This immediately took me into a lesson on the risk associated with the internet and also on ethics relating to publicizing of data and also deciding on how it should be used.

That was almost 20 years ago, when the amount of data which was on the internet about individuals was significant less than it is now.    When our ability to search through, sort and sift through data was less than it is now.

So if that was possible 20 years ago what might be possible now and also what might be possible in the near future?

Should we sign up and provide ever more data to online services or do we need to stop and take stock of who has our data and the why?

Encryption, privacy and public safety

hackerThe internet provides us with freedom to discuss ideas and thoughts, to collaborate and share.   For educators this is invaluable in sharing teaching techniques, resources and also allowing for the discussion of pedagogy and teaching ideologies.   It also allows us to securely purchase goods and services and to share images and video with our friends via social media such that only those we wish to have access to our content will have access.     For organisations it allows secure communication and transfer of files such as confidential or other sensitive business documents even when staff are out of the office travelling on business.    It allows files to be protected through encryption so that only authorized personnel have access.     On a personal level it allows files to be protected from prying eyes for where they are of a personal or private nature.

The above represents the positive side of technology, however technology is a tool and therefore much as a hammer can be used to build things or as weapon of violence, it can be used for malicious and evil purposes as much as it can be used for good.

In particular, the ability for secure communication and sharing of files can be used in planning acts of terrorism.    It can be used in coordinating acts of violence or other criminal activities.   It can be used to prevent police or intelligence services from accessing files which relate to illegal activities.

The above represents a dilemma.   From the security perspective we want the police and intelligence services to be able to access files and streams of communication for the purposes of keeping us safe.    This seems logical and an obvious step in light of recent events in the UK.    The prime minister in her recent speech made reference to how the internet provides a safe space for extremism to grow and how this needs to be tackled.   The issue here is that to do so we need to introduce vulnerabilities into the encryption methods to allow the police and intelligence agencies to have access.    This means that secure access methods become less secure not just for those conducting or planning illegal acts but for all users.   The vulnerabilities that give the police access, may be discovered or breached by criminal or other threat actors.      It’s like adding an extra side door to your house where only the police have the key.    If someone manages to copy the key, someone manages to create a skeleton key or if the police lose the key, then our house becomes accessible to those we would prefer to prevent from access.    The new door represents an increase in the risk to the privacy of home.    A perfect technology example is the recent WannCry ransomware where the source of some of the used vulnerabilities can be traced back to the NSA.    The NSA had discovered the vulnerability and developed tools to exploit it with a view to using it to protect people’s safety however when this leaked the same vulnerability was put to malicious use having a significant impact on the UK National Health Service (NHS) among others.      Any weakening of encryption is going to increase the risk associated with the security of business communications, banking, social networking and any other systems where data is being exchanged using the now weaker encryption methods.

Although giving the police and intelligence agencies the tools to better identify illegal activities and terrorism online sounds an obviously good idea, it doesn’t come without some downsides and risks.

Where is the correct balance between personal and corporate privacy and the ability of national agencies to view and intercept data in the interest of public safety?  

Where does personal privacy end and public safety begin?







Secure communication and sharing to prepare

Easy access to information.

Communication for the purposes of coordination


The internet is neutral with no-one exerting control.   It crosses boarders.    So how would it be effectiviely monitored?

If it is monitored then this introduces vulnerabilities to protocals which have security at their heart.   Such vulnerabilities, may become known by malicious actors.  This is a risk.



Awareness of technology

gps-304842_640Digital literacy includes an element of awareness of the technologies which we use however some technologies are more evident to us than others.     When we are updating our social media platforms via our mobile phone or tablet, this is clearly technology at use.    This kind of technology and this kind of usage come easily to mind.    It may even be the first thought which arises when some mentions technology use.      Equally using a computer system at work to respond to emails and create documents is likely to come quite easily to mind.   But what of the technologies we use which may not come as easily to mind?

More and more new cars now come equipped with Sat Nav.   This technology has now been around for a while and is becoming more normal and accepted.   It seems quite simple in that all it does is get us from place A to place B however in doing so it generates data regarding our travel habits which in turn can identify our home and places of work, our preferred route to work, the school our children go to if we drop them off, which other people and cars are in our household, etc.   I am not sure we give much thought to this.

An emerging technology is that of fitness trackers.   Again more and more people are using them but I doubt it would be one of the first items listed when talking about technology use.   Like Sat Nav these have information about where we go to and also when however in addition they have information in relation to sleep patterns and heart rate.

We are also seeing an increasing number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices starting to make appearances within our homes.    Having recently had to look at purchasing a new washing machine I was presented with the option of a Wi-Fi connected machine.   You can also get your central heating, lighting and power sockets on the internet so they can be controlled via an app.    On face value these devices present a new level of convenience with easy control of your home from your phone including while away however more connected devices means a greater online footprint which therefore represents a greater online cyber security risk.

The above are only a small number of technologies, some which we easily perceive as technology while others we are less aware of or possibly just less aware of the implications of their use.

Do give enough consideration to the implications of using a new technology when going out and purchasing the shiny new tech toy?  

Can we actual predict the implications given that they may not manifest themselves to some years further down the line?

Developing cross platform skills

OSsIt is important that we develop in students the ability to develop cross platform skills such that they are able to pick up and use new software and/or hardware given their previous experience across a range of similar solutions.    This covers different hardware, such as makes of laptop, and different software inclusive of both operating systems such as windows and apps software.    The example I will use in discussing how cross platform skills are developed is that of computer programming and my own personal experience.

When I was young I started dabbling a little with computer programming in the form of BASIC on a Commodore 64.    At this point I had had no formal instruction on programming instead learning from a magazine and by experimentation.   As I got a little older I started experimenting a little more but now in AMOS BASIC on the Amiga 500.   It was only a little after this that I received formal teaching on programming in the form of technological studies lessons looking at programming a basic robot using assembly and machine code.   By the time I reached university and came across Visual BASIC I was on my fourth programming language mainly from within the BASIC family of languages.

Moving to learning and then teaching C++ wasn’t a significant step for me having seen four languages already, having seen the commonalities in the basic principles of programming and having seen the differences in the syntax of each language.    I was quickly able to pick up C++.   I have since been quickly able to pick up PHP and dabble with python among other languages.

For me the key to cross platform skills is exposure to different systems.   Through experimenting with different systems the commonalities can be identified.    These commonalities can then help in adapting to a new system, while the differences in encountered systems can help in developing flexibility and adaptability needed to deal with new tools.   For me an interest in programming was also key as this spurred me on to experiment and try different approaches.   So in working with students getting them actively engaged in learning about different solutions will be key, such that they are interested and able to draw comparisons.

The challenge in relation to developing cross platform skills is one of depth.    I benefited from experimenting with each programming language due to spending some time working on it.   I reached some depth in my learning with each language before moving on to my next language.    This therefore requires time.

Do we cover enough breadth in the tools we look at in lessons?    With each tool do we achieve sufficient depth of study?

Every changing technology

FloppyDsk-MFPreparing our students to live in the technological world presents us with an immediate challenge in that tomorrows technologies, the technologies our current students may be presented with in the working world post the completion of their formal education may not as yet exist.

I remember the 3.5″ Floppy Disk.   I remember MySpace and Friends Re-United, sites which are now gone.   I consider myself reasonably familiar with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest however less familiar with Snapchat and Instagram.   These sites represent a tiny fraction of the networking and other social media sites which exist so I suspect there are many sites which our students are using that I am not aware of.

So does this lack of awareness of all current tools mean that I am not digitally literate?    Does the fact my son has no clue as to what MySpace impact on his digital literacy?

I have specifically listed social media sites in particular as I think the answer here is in the form of categorization, which my choice makes it easier to illustrate.   I am aware of social media as a category, and can use various social media tools dependent on my needs.   The fact I am making regular use of a couple of apps and also occasional use of a few others evidences this.    I also feel I could pick up and use new tools where there is a need.   This is therefore sufficient when looking at digital literacy as it unlikely that anyone would be be actively using all social media tools, including new tools as they arise.    New tools are being created too often and usage is based on need.     We also need to accept human habit, which results in preferred tools such as my preferred use of Twitter as my social media channel over other tools.

The questions that come from the above are therefore:

  • what are the current categories of tools and technologies which exist?
  • how can we develop the skills needed in students to be able to pick up and use new tools as needed?   
  • Should we provide shallow breadth of app/technology coverage or deeper coverage of a more limited set of apps/technologies?  

Digitally literate?

What does it mean to be digitally literate?

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

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

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

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

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