Survival Tactics in Product Development…

Johan Skullman, former Head of Development and an officer in the Swedish Armed Forces

I was recently lucky meet and to sit in on a seminar given by Johan Skullman, former officer and head of product development for the Swedish armed forces.  Johan was describing the complexity of requirements that need to be considered when using equipment in extreme conditions. He is a world renowned expert in this field and now, after more than 30 years experience in the Swedish army,  provides advice and support to a range of Scandinavian manufacturers of clothing and survival equipment.  What struck me most about Johan’s talk was the fact that the principles he has developed for testing and improving equipment are extremely applicable for any product development process.

Survival in extreme conditions is all about planning, preparing, being pragmatic and positive. Well, in any case, these are the themes I have adapted from the seminar after further contemplation and reflection, but,  before I come on to this, I want to share an extraordinarily powerful message Johan had about product effectiveness; and it is this:

“Even when you believe you have developed a product which you believe to be 100% effective, be prepared this will only be the case for a split second. “

In Johan’s field this means,  for example, an item of clothing designed to prevent water penetration in extreme weather may easily be the wrong thing to wear if conditions change. Sometimes, it can be better to wear a garment that will get wet, but will dry quickly and doesn’t become an extra piece of luggage to carry.  In the pursuit of excellence, I  believe many product managers have a tendency to produce solutions that work perfectly for a given situation or environment but are consequently rigid and inflexible. Sometimes, they may be better advised to develop products which may not be absolutely perfect but which can be used in a broader range of settings.

In my own field, enterprise computing, this is extremely applicable.   Since the mid-90’s I’ve witnessed and, hopefully, facilitated a move away from what we call “stove pipe” solutions towards software systems that can be used in a wider variety of situations.  By introducing APIs (application programming interfaces), breaking down monolithic systems into functional components and installing a never-ending list of configuration variables and tables, we continue to pursue the mantra of “flexible, scalable, modular open”. It reminded me of speech given by Dr. Kenan Sahin when I worked for Kenan Systems in the late 90’s: “It is as important to consider how easy it is to remove a piece of software, as it is to install it”.  I guess, even then, we had recognised the principal of not trying to create a “panacea product” – it was certainly an interesting philosophy to share and explain to potential customers….

So in the pursuit of brevity and to help encourage you to read this article to its conclusion, I have prepared a table to explain how principles of survival equipment design and use, can be applied to the computer industry:

Planning Awareness of conditions, thinking ahead of the situation. Using, for example, a layered system of clothing or having a number of tools rather than a single multi-tool.Understand that you won’t simply go out tomorrow and (literally) climb a mountain, build your knowledge, experience and skills to take on greater challenges. Consider the lifetime challenges of the product you are evaluating, understand where you are willing to make sacrifices e.g. performance vs. flexibility vs. functionality vs. cost.A “big bang” approach to change carries many risks, break down your processes into manageable steps (various methodologies are available) and manage risk sensibly.
Preparation If you need to light a fire in wet conditions – don’t learn on the job. Practise beforehand, so that when you need to use your skills for real, you will be confident and prepared.Look after your equipment, if your boots get muddy they will need a thorough clean to prevent their deterioration. Check your equipment regularly – it’s better for you to find any problems before you leave the house than when your survival depends on it. How will your system work in real life? Include your user community in development and testing and implementation of systems – better ownership of systems encourages successful projects.Anticipate failure – implement a DR (disaster recovery) plan AND test it.Schedule routine maintenance and upgrades – don’t wait until they become critical.
Pragmatism Sometimes you will get wet and sometimes you’ll get muddy. Occasionally, a tent pole might break or a jacket could spring a leak.The less complex a piece of equipment is – the easier it may be to use and maintain.  For example, adding a wax finish to clothing (and, only where it’s needed) is something that can be repeated when necessary and allowed to wear of when expedient – which may prove better than an expensive pre-treated fabric which has a finite life-expectancy. If a product solves your business issue, is it important if it looks nice? Is it necessary to buy a “top of the range” brand if a lower cost solution provides a better ROI (return on investment)?Think about the processes around a system – do they all need to be fully automated or is it worth allowing for some flexibility by, for example, enabling users to manually schedule operations?
Positivity You may be dependent on your equipment for survival but maintaining a positive attitude is just as important. Having skills, experience and confidence in your equipment will empower you to be successful.Use your previous experience as a foundation that you can build on – sharing experiences with others will foster a culture of learning and improving continuously. Having a happy an engaged user community is at the heart of any successful product. Developing a culture of sharing, learning and improving will enable you to build this kind of community.Learn from others, treat suggestions and “war stories” with the respect they deserve.  Learn from mistakes – with every crisis comes the ability to adapt, develop and improve for next time.


In particular, I am a huge fan of user community fostering – having learnt at the school of “marketing is making sure you’ve got what the customer wants, sales is making sure they want what you’ve got” I believe the best products and solutions require plenty of real-life input.  Johan describes a lot of companies in the survival and tactical gear industry as having “bullshit marketing”, a strategy designed to bamboozle potential customers with features and technology they never knew they needed.

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. used by US Navy Seals

I will apologise to Johan, in advance, for clearly not doing his speech justice – let’s face it, I’ve only been developing software products for 20 years – so I’m a relative junior! In my defence I can show that I have taken his advice to heart – as soon as I got back from Derbyshire I gave my muddy boots a good dose of TLC!

In conclusion, before you go shopping for your next application – beware of “bullshit marketing” and apply some wilderness survival tactics to your decision process!

Are you an #austismsnob?

What’s in a name?
There’s a surprisingly common held belief that we tend to “over-diagnose” these days. One person’s clumsy is another’s Dyspraxia, a child with ADHD may be viewed as, well, just plain naughty and so on. I grew up in an age of behaviour criticism when my fellow pupils were “away with the fairies”, dreamers, poorly behaved and slow readers. Thank heavens for one thing – with diagnosis comes understanding and, even more importantly, help.
That’s why I pushed to get my eldest son, now 15 years old, diagnosed. Having carefully weighed up the impact that any diagnosis may have on my son’s future (big decision to make, huh?). Let’s face it, I’ve faced plenty of prejudice just by being a woman of a *coughs* “certain age – I can only guess what will face a generation of ADHD youngsters when they become adults. I considered it was worth ignoring my husband and risking future problems in order to get my son the help he needed at school. In fact, the process would have been a complete success had it not been for the failure of individual teaching staff – but worth it nonetheless.
So, son number 2 is eight years old now and I met with an educational psychologist this morning – I requested a process be kicked off a year ago and this has already involved a few meetings and an in-class observation. The purpose of the meeting was to go through a CCC-2 form – “Childrens Communication Checklist” – which is a catalyst for assessing whether a child needs external intervention and for suggesting strategies that can be used within the class setting. It’s a process that works best with a trained psychologist on-hand to explain what the questions are getting at and to sort the wheat from the chaff so to speak. There were many questions which didn’t apply in this case, namely pronunciation of words and mixing of words, articles and tenses. I’ve previously described my little one as a “mini Stephen Fry” – not only does he love language but he is also very precise about what he says and how he says it. That said, be prepared that any conversation with him will work best when he’s on a topic that interests him. If you’re up for a 40 minute chat about Skylanders then you’re in for a treat for sure.
So here’s the nub of it: you may not be aware that in the last 12months a major change to diagnosis has happened on the other side of the pond. The diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, only recently recognised in 1994, has been subsumed along with ‘autistic disorder’, ‘childhood disintegrative disorder’ and ‘PDD-NOS’ (pervasive development delay not otherwise specified) into a general umbrella term of ASD – Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Read more. Although this approach has not yet been adopted by the World Health Organistion or in the UK, I wonder what impact it will have on parents in the same position as me. Here’s the tough bit, I am owning up to being what could effectively be described as an “Autism Snob”. When you think of Asperger’s Syndrome most people would conjure up a picture of a socially awkward genius. A list of diagnosed and suspected Aspies which servers to highlight this ensues:
 AutismNumbersGary Numan (diagnosed)
 Andy Warhol (suspected)
Bill Gates (suspected)
Abraham Lincoln (suspected)
Robin Williams (suspected)
Al Gore (suspected)
Tim Burton (suspected)
Michael Jackson (suspected)
Alfred Hitchcock (suspected)
Woody Allen (suspected)
 Bob Dylan (suspected)
Jim Henson (suspected)
Mark Twain (suspected)
Michael Palin (suspected)
Howard Hughes (suspected)
Dan Aykroyd (diagnosed)
Susan Boyle(diagnosed)
David Byrne (self-diagnosed)
Albert Einstein (suspected)
 Anyone given a diagnosis would consider themselves in lauded company and any potential employer would (hopefully)be likely to support any social difficulties in return for the benefits an Aspie can provide: creativity, single-mindedness, obsession, love of routine, alternative thinking – even lack of financial voracity. Widen the context of the diagnosis and you could forgive an employer for simply passing over applicants based on an unclear definition of what issues or strengths they may have. As a parent, would you be happy with a general diagnosis that could cover a range of problems? It’s not too dissimilar to adding “diagnosed female” to a CV – i.e. could be helpful but lacks specificity, especially as recent studies estimate one in fifty school-age children have the condition. Read more 
To be honest, what’s most important to me is that my little one gets the support and encouragement he needs at school. More importantly, that his needs are clearly articulated before he starts secondary school. As a child who is on both the “gifted and talented” and “special needs” register he can be rewarding and frustrating to teach in equal measure. To give him every best chance in life (in particular, thinking about his future) I have decided not to push for a diagnosis if it means giving him non-specific label .

Stealing candy from a baby….

As long as there have been advertisers there have been campaigns, offers and collectables that harness the “pester power” of children.   I personally don’t remember anyone collecting cigarette cards when I was a child, however, I remember my grandmother have a random assortment of the things. Although they were originally introduced as a novel way to stiffen the packet and protect the enclosed cigarettes, it’s a great example of how a supplemental product can influence the selection of brand – and how the decision can be manipulated by pressure imposed by an individual (i.e. a son or daughter) that isn’t even the product consumer. The lure of the cards was so strong that some 300 companies were using cards as a sales gimmick at the peak of its popularity and the practice spread to other consumables like tea as well as giving birth to a whole new,  independent “trading card” industry.   I do remember, however, expecting an obligatory toy with breakfast cereal packets. In a household of 3, there was always stiff competition to be the lucky box opener and with regard to influencing my mother in choice of cereal based on the lure of the freebie – I am 100% guilty as charged.

Candy Crush Saga - image via MSNNowadays, advertising, gimmicks and freebies have reached a whole new level and, in particular, it has affected two specific, vulnerable groups more than others:  those who are unfortunate to have an addictive personality trait and children.  The post-pc popularity of smartphones and tablets has provided commercial organisations with a valuable advertising channel and a platform which can be exploited, through the use of carefully crafted applications, to leech these groups in a way which has built an industry worth billions.  In a worrying development , The Telegraph report recently that Gamble Aware estimate some 60,000 11-15 year old children have problems controlling their gambling behaviour. Read more I’m fortunate not to have gambling issues myself, but I have been personally affected by the impact gambling can have on relationships and it’s an issue I feel very strongly about.


One can make an argument that mobile gaming titles such as Candy Crush Saga, Hay Day and Pet Rescue Saga (to name a few of the top-ten highest grossing iOS apps) are benign in comparison. Don’t be fooled.  Candy Crush Saga, the “crack cocaine” of the mobile gaming industry,  is close to breaking the $1m / PER DAY revenue barrier alone.  Addiction anecdotes, particularly from women aged between 25-55 – the application’s demographic sweet spot, have peppered a media desperate to understand the game’s lure Read more Finding information on the habits of younger players is more difficult but the affects of this kind of game on youngsters is worrying. According to Prof. Mark Griffiths ‘Children who play those free games are more likely to gamble and more likely to develop problem gambling behaviours.  These are gateway activities that can lead people down the gambling road.’ Read more What is known is that the market leading manufacturer of hand held devices, Apple, has agreed to pay $32.5 million in refunds to consumers who were affected by the in-app purchase loophole that allowed unauthorised purchases to made by children piggy-backing their parent’s iTunes accounts. Read more

Cut to the chase – what is the issue here? Children like gaming – whatever the platform. Historically PC based games, video console games (e.g. Playstation Xbox etc.) and games played on dedicated handheld game devices (e.g. PSP, Nintendo DS, Gameboy etc.) have required an upfront purchase but allow the gamer to complete or play the game with no further spend. Everyone knows where they stand.  Today, “Freemium” games i.e. games which can be downloaded for free but penalise players that don’t make IAPs (in app purchases) by slowing the game or giving lower chances of success / reward, have turned the model on its head.  Instead of paying, say £30-50, for a beautifully crafted, advertisement free console game, unwitting or addicted players are sometimes paying hundreds of pounds for an inferior product which can lead them onto more insidious applications like online gambling.  It should be remembered that Candy Crush Saga has been developed from games like Candy Cruncher and Bejewelled Blitz with more humble beginnings routed in free-to-play versions on websites like – I note the Candy Cruncher title appears to no longer be available.

The short and the long of it is this: more research is needed to understand the issues raised by both the addictive nature of mobile games and the commercial terms under which they operate.  Only then can the right level of regulatory control be introduced.



To bake or not to bake…

I’ve been studiously avoiding any baking whilst at home with the boys for a couple of months. I’d probably be very good it at, mind: I’m accurate with measurements and pay close attention to instructions. I guess I don’t want to fall into a trap of hoping a hobby can turn into a lucrative livelihood. Despite friendly bank TV adverts to the contrary – those who can make a successful business out of their passion are few and far between. For most it’s simply a means of getting by without being part of the rat race.
I’m reminded of a Woody Allen film, “Small Time Crooks”, where Woody, who plays a dishwasher and fantasist bank robber , plans a subterranean heist whilst his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) opens a cookie baking business in the ground floor retail unit to provide cover for the premise lease. Needless to say the plan cooked up by Ray (his friends call him The Brains – ironically) is a dismal failure, however, Frenchy’s cookie business accidentally succeeds in spectacular style rendering the couple millionaires and introducing them to all the issues large wealth brings. To be fair, I think I’m probably more likely to triumph as a bank robber than a baker – let’s face it – you don’t see many intelligent criminals – so one can assume those who are will be secretly enjoying their spoils on an extinct volcanic island somewhere or other.
Back to baking. I discovered today that the Greeks, it turns out, are a very superstitious people and among these superstitions is a belief that cake baking can bring good fortune. The story goes like this (and I thank Susie Atsaides for the history):
St. Fanourios is the patron saint of “things lost” and Orthodox Greeks bake a special cake each year on August 27th called a Fanouropita by way of an offering.
“According to Greek lore, he will show you the answer to your problem or question if in return you offer him a cake and ask God to forgive his mother and rest her soul in peace. It is unclear as to why we ask for his mothers’ forgiveness. Some stories say that she was a sinner of some sort, others that its only spoken out of respect as Greeks always ask God to forgive and rest a soul in peace when they refer to the dead.
The Fanouropita is not just any cake. It is made completely out of fasting ingredients and contains no dairy products. While you’re making this cake you keep in mind the problem at hand or the question that you wish an answer to.
After it is baked, the cake must be given to at least 7 different houses. In other words, people from at least 7 different families have to eat it. Of course, after meeting the 7-house requirement, you and your family can have some too. None of this cake can be thrown away; all of it has to be consumed.”
Now, I now it’s a tad late in the season, but I thought I might give it a whirl. Firstly, since it’s a spiced & nutty cake and might save me from a seasonal mince pie addiction that’s slowly creeping up on me & secondly because, as a family, we are no stranger to things going missing. This year, my 15yo Aspie son has lost 4 waterproof jackets – the total value of which comes to more than £300 and (more importantly) the most recent of which happened to by mine; borrowed by mistake.
As a parent to an Autistic child you expect that some things “just happen” and nothing you can do (buying an expensive *special* jacket, emotional blackmail etc.) will stop the process. I’m hoping that for the cost of a few basic ingredients – we might just have one of them turn up. Fingers crossed it’s a shrewd investment. 
Here’s the recipe for anyone who’s curious – it’s also dairy free!:

Fanouropita Cake

•1 cup sunflower oil
•1 cup sugar
•3/4 cup orange juice
•1/4 cup brandy
•2 tsp. ground cinnamon
•1/4 tsp. ground clove
•1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
•3 cups all-purpose flour
•1/2 cup ground walnuts
•1/2 cup raisins
Preheat the oven to 180˚c degrees.
Lightly grease and flour a 9 inch round (24 cm) cake pan.
In a large bowl using a whisk, mix together the sunflower oil and the sugar until well combined. Add the orange juice, brandy, spices, and baking powder and mix well.
Using a spatula, incorporate the flour into the batter and mix until just combined. Mix in the ground walnuts and raisins.
Transfer the batter into the cake pan and smooth the top with the spatula. Bake in a preheated 180˚c degree oven for 45-50 minutes or until the cake is nicely browned.
(Thanks to Charliemakescakes for the Fanouropita Cake visual)

Drop Dead Day…

As it goes… it’s actually “drop down day” and it’s an initiative of a local secondary school to provide enrichment activities for pupils within normal school hours.
October’s “Maths Focus” day was pretty routine for my 15yo Aspie. Overlooking the obvious irritation that his timetable / routine had been upset AND that he had a whole day devoted to maths topics, he came through the event tired but unscathed.
*deep TV announcer voice* Tomorrow is DDD II – this time it’s back and bigger than ever!
We received a letter from school last week (it had been tucked away in a school bag for several days) to update us on the activities planned for the next DDD – poor love – if the school had been asked to assemble a timetable which would create maximum embarrassment and anxiety for any pupils with ASD; well they couldn’t have done a better job – and I quote:
Year 11
This day will consist of many sessions in which students will be asked to think about and discuss their future choices with regards to safe sex, substance abuse, mental health and career pathways.
By way of helpful preparation I asked him what he understood by “safe sex” – the answer left me temporarily speechless:
“Well, it’s having sex and using a condom….. and, I guess, asking the other person if they have any STDs you should know about…”
“Well,” I congratulated him (after I’d stopped laughing) “Yes, condoms can help you to have safe sex…. however, I think you’d be more likely to have *no* sex if you went round asking people what diseases they were carrying…”
Obviously we had a conversation about getting to know someone, how you might bring the topic up, etc. as well as discussing the day’s other tasty topics. It’s hard, however, explaining “the rules” to someone who has no social intuition.
I was reminded of a conversation I had with his psychologist a few years ago, who described a former patient coming back to see her after years of therapy-free independent living. He had got himself a girlfriend and, whilst he was very happy to have found someone special, he was nonetheless terrified because he had no idea what was considered acceptable behaviour. They went on to have a productive session chatting about how he could behave in public, what he could do in private, how to take the initiative and, more importantly, when he should ask permission and how to interpret unenthusiastic responses.
It got me thinking… Tom Daley, our Olympic diving medallist and (incidentally) my niece’s heartthrob, announced today that he is gay via a YouTube video (other media sharing platforms are available) posted for all the world to see. Now I am firmly in the “So what? Isn’t it a shame he feels he has to do this” camp”. It got me wondering… what must it be like for any of my son’s fellow pupils, whether gay or unsure about their sexuality, anticipating tomorrow’s planned events? It’s one thing to be sexually naïve and run the risk of ridicule or teasing – but to have a group discussion on an issue which, by the public nature of Tom’s announcement, is still so potentially alienating, it must really feel like a Drop Dead Day for them. Whilst I agree, it’s healthy and often necessary to cover sexual matters in school (especially where young people don’t have support at home), I hope that whoever has put this day together has carefully considered how to approach the subject sensitively.

Reenie got a full-house – why #Stereophonics need to go back to the drawing board.


Reenie got a full-house - why #Sterophonics need to go back to the drawing board.

This is the Stereophonics gig review which promoters Ticketmaster declined to publish.

Two years on from the duet of Hammersmith memorial concerts dedicated to former drummer Stuart Cable and you get the feeling there’s still a ghost on stage with the current Stereophonics line-up. True, the opener – “Catacomb” – is a reminder to a now aging audience that there was a new album out this year, but with a swift follow up of “Local Boy in the Photograph” (the most live-played track by the semi-Welsh group) you feel the guys might not be comfortable getting on with the set until they’ve tipped a nod.
The LG Arena gig at the NEC last week was the 10th concert in a 16 gig UK & Ireland arena tour to promote the “Graffiti on a Train” album released in March and it’s fair to say, that’s exactly what it felt like. Although you can’t knock the work ethic of a band that have barely stopped for a breather in the best part of two decades (2006 being the only year since 1996 without live appearances – resulting in the solo album debut of Kelly Jones – “Only the names have been changed”), there was a discernible lack of magic from the group which inevitably comes from playing the same set list night after night.
So what went wrong? Kitty Daisy & Lewis, the kooky family act from Durham started the proceedings with a botched attempt to warm up a bemused audience with a six song set that failed to nail any musical genre comprehensively. More seriously, 2 songs into the 24 song, 2 hour rock marathon, it was obvious something was wrong with the sound mix rendering some Stereophonics classics, like “A Thousand Trees”, frankly a little irritating. One can assume, I guess, generating acceptable facsimiles of tracks from a substantial back catalogue incorporating an array of styles, is never easy; but there were one too many disappointments for the average fan to be satisfied. Near-double-speed renditions of “More life in a tramp’s vest” and “The bartender and the thief” generate an impression the group were more eager to get the ‘must have’ staples out of the way and done with than is polite. A disturbing lack of female backing singer support on “Las Vegas two times” and a keyboard fail on their final encore track, “Dakota”, completed the lacklustre performance.
Did I say, lacklustre? Hmm – hard to put a nail on it really. Pint size front man, Kelly Jones, never disappoints in my humble opinion; his voice, if anything, is improved since Hammersmith in 2010. Indeed, with a little work on his keyboard skills, one can imagine him making a decent pension from Las Vegas cabaret in his twilight years. Two other issues, however, need to be addressed. In a group that have had more line-up changes than average, it was good to see Jamie Morrison providing a percussion service worthy of the group. It must be said, however, Richard Jones on bass and Adam Zindani on guitar simply lack the skill you would expect at this level. With self-indulgent performances demonstrating less technical ability than, say, Dave Grohl or Paul Weller possess in their little toe (by Jones’ own admission – “Indian Summer”, for example, merely requires the mastery of 4 notes), you can’t help thinking a fresh injection of axe-talent and (dare I say it) even an unsullied perspective on writing, would keep the band successful for another couple of decades.
The show is pretty much all about Kelly – and why not? He’s the one reliable constant and an engaging raconteur to boot. With supporting guitarists worthy of adoration from a new generation of younger fans, Stereophonics may just solve their other major dilemma – an audience so senior in years, the stage crew should consider erecting windbreaks in the mosh pit. Yes. The audience were to blame too. Even if many had bought this year’s album, few had revised it and instead of complimenting more recent tracks with disturbing video vignettes of relationship breakdowns, perhaps a good old-fashioned visual of lyrics complete with a bouncy ball cursor (karaoke style) would have encouraged more participation. Indeed, the release of oversized balloons into the audience to accompany “Indian Summer” suggested organisers were trying to compensate any fans who had missed a potentially more enjoyable bingo session in favour of the event. A pleasing light show didn’t make up for the sound quality and I left the arena feeling sorry for Kelly. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone.

Richard Jones demonstrates his prowess on the bass – how to play “Indian Summer” with the simple mastery of 4 notes:

Set list:
Catacomb, Local Boy in the Photograph, Superman, Graffiti on the Train, We Share the Same Sun, A Thousand Trees, More Life in a Tramp’s Vest, Maybe Tomorrow, I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio, Vegas Two Times, Bank Holiday Monday, Mr Writer, In a Moment, Indian Summer, Have a Nice Day, Roll the Dice, Violins and Tambourines, Been Caught Cheating, Traffic, The Bartender and the Thief.
I Stopped to Fill My Car Up, Just Looking, Handbags and Gladrags, Dakota

Still taking the tablets?

Still taking the tablets?

Yesterday evening’s Gadget Show on Channel 5 had me mumbling under my breath just like Dick Milhous Dastardly’s dependable canine companion Muttley. Not because their senior gadget tester, Jon Bentley, had compiled a review of the latest tablet devices (well 3 of them at any rate) but because some bright-spark producer thought it would be a good idea to put the gadgets through their paces in a secondary school setting.
The three tasks the tablets were given only served to underscore the reasons why technology introduction in schools should be taken seriously and considered carefully: An exercise to write “mini essays” in a history lesson highlighted perfectly how easy it is for students nowadays to plagiarise their work from the Internet and indeed to meander through their education career without developing traditional, methodical research skills. The art class task was a mere comparison of photo-shop-style applications available for Android, Windows and Apple devices and comprehensively failed to prove how tablets can develop artistic talent. The final throwaway task showed students using the devices in a lab environment to take photos of experiments – silly me – I thought science experiments are about hypothesises and results not snaps of budding professors in goggles.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the things, have one myself and, from firsthand experience, know how useful they can be as a learning tool; especially for children on the autistic spectrum or, indeed, with all kinds of special needs. I simply find it hard to believe that a technology that is so revolutionary to education, is being introduced in such a haphazard way and with such a piecemeal approach. The casual endorsement provided by The Gadget Show, broadcast on terrestrial TV to school governors up and down the country, will no doubt have school bursars under pressure to check their budgets to see if their establishment too can join the iPad gravy train. Of course funding is an important issue – along with ownership and misuse there are plenty of hi-tech hurdles to overcome even before their value as an educational support tool is considered.
My youngest son came home from school at half term with a sponsor form for a cross country event to raise £18k for ICT equipment at his village CofE primary; £65 per pupil. Now, if you’ve ever met my 8 year old Aspie son – you will recognise this is, indeed, a big mountain to climb for him. Give him a spelling bee and he would mop the floor, so to speak, so any contributions (by way of congratulations) would be thankfully received. Back to the point. I suppose, for once, I was actually relieved to receive a “sponsor summons” that was in aid of computing equipment but NOT to buy iPads (other tablets are available).
Other schools, like Hove Park school, in East Sussex (see Guardian 27th July 2013 ) have taken a direct approach – asking parents to shell out for a device to support their child. Now, if the ownership of the device lies with the pupil / parent and not school – this could lead to difficulties when trying to prevent misuse.
Case in point, a newly formed free school in Bucks, opened in September with a “one pupil, one iPad” philosophy. Three weeks into term and the high-spec gadgets were confiscated from all pupils after some had been caught red-handed messaging each other after 10pm – on a school night. To quote the school in question: “We are mindful that the use of ICT brings risks and therefore a programme of teaching the awareness of responsible IT use and online safety will be provided for both parents and students from the outset” – they are currently working with their IT partner to address issues and have issued a statement to concerned parents that use of iPads will not bring an end to written work.
Whilst the obvious pitfalls, like misuse and accessing inappropriate material will always prove a challenge to hard to resist for a few talented young hackers (see Daily Mail article published 5th Oct 2013 – where more than 300 Los Angeles pupils cracked security to gain unauthorised internet access and play games), at least you can sympathise with a school which provides the tool and polices it too. I spoke with another school over the summer which was allowing their pupils to select their own apps and resources – a market driven approach; one could argue. Laudable maybe, however, I pity the teacher who sets a piece of homework only to receive submissions in 30 different formats…
Esteemed London diarist and mature student at the University of London, Dickon Edwards, recently told me how students can borrow an iPad (or other device) from the Senate House Library facility. I like this approach. Firstly, if the student is neither owner or keeper of the device and if it’s not kept overnight – they opportunity to use it for purposes other than intended is greatly diminished. Secondly, it’s a scheme which does not discriminate on the basis of parental disposable income and finally, of course, it favours pupils who are more inclined to visit a library – i.e. study. Notwithstanding, colleges need to provide access and facilities for saving and backing up coursework (Oxford and Cambridge University central computing services provide all students with a 2GB file storing facility and Dudley College in the Midlands has a similar facility – although storage is routinely wiped over the summer holidays) it would seem to provide a happy medium.
There is another obvious benefit to this approach in that it would drastically reduce capital outlay and on additional costs of management (e.g. MDM platforms) which are traditionally cheaper if tethered to a device vs. a pupil. Indeed, software veteran VMware had to make a speedy update to pricing after the launch of its flagship solution for so-called “End User Computing”, Horizon Suite, allowing educational establishments to purchase based on concurrent users. The about-face happened following pressure from schools who’s pupil numbers were way in excess of the number of devices (including desktop, thin client and table); rendering the product uneconomic.
Any school or college looking introduce these devices should ask themselves the following questions:
• What limitations are they introducing through their choice of gadget / operating system?
• What is the total cost of implementation? – this needs to include repairs, maintenance, MDM / desktop virtualisation, software as a service (SaaS) where free apps do not meet educational needs etc.
• What is the best economical model for providing devices? – 1-to-1 allocation, short-term loan, self bought etc.
• Can teachers justify their use in class? – simply serving as an alternative means of recording (typing) class work is not enough.
• Are the benefits that can be gained through giving home access to systems (staff or pupils) that would not be possible otherwise? – if there is an argument of equality of access (regardless of circumstances at home) then this needs to be highlighted and quantified.
Let’s hope they do.