RSS feeds of Twitter streams

Having discovered EdSurge I’ve been rather enjoying their content. I was hoping it would replace the combination of Ars Technica / TechCrunch / Engadget that I turn to first in the RSS reader.

Unfortunately not. I couldn’t find an RSS feed, which turned out to be because there isn’t one.


Not to worry I thought, maybe I can subscribe to an RSS feed of their Twitter updates. Turns out you can, but not as easily as clicking on a button in Twitter, instead you need to construct a URL like this:

where you’d replace ‘aiddy’ with the Twitter screen name of the feed you want (omitting the @ symbol).

Here’s a little tool to make it easier to generate RSS feed URLs (and this explains why the tool isn’t embedded in this post). Enjoy.

A year on: purpose

A year (and a bit) after starting this journey I’ve been reflecting a little on the purpose of it all.

It comes down to this:

Is the education system designed around the right set of outcomes?

Where the definition of *right* depends on who your are and where you are coming from.

If the outcomes that the system is optimised and funded for aren’t the right ones, then:

What should those outcomes be and how should we construct a system that delivers on them?

and for me as an aspiring educator:

Where do I add value in today’s system?

Where could I add value in a new education system, fit for the needs of students in the UK in 201x?

Do I try and change/influence the system from within or without?

I’m using this post to collect links to resources that I’ve been using to think and reflect on the above. (And as a holding pen so I can clear my mind a little to focus on the learning to teach bit.)


Kick starting the debate on “the purpose of education”.

A Whole New Mind

Dan Pink’s book on the future of society and the need for education to encompass all aspects of human nature: artistic, intuitive, big-picture in addition to linear, logical, sequential, analytical.

Stop Stealing Dreams

Seth Godin’s look at education from the perspective of the changes that the massively connected internet has brought to other industries and how education might look if it focused on, and succeeded at delivering on, all of the following objectives and not just the last…

To create a society that’s culturally coordinated.

To further science and knowledge and pursue information for its own sake.

To enhance civilization while giving people the tools to make informed

To train people to become productive workers.

The Shift: the future of work is already here

Lynda Gratton looks at how trends in globalization, society, demography, technology, and energy are changing ‘the future of work’ with the implications for education (or the implications if you assume the purpose of education is preparation for work). Includes evidence to support many of the assertions made by Pink.

Changing Education Paradigms

An animated version of (Sir) Ken Robinson’s (classic?) speech on education and society.

The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

A report summarising a collaborative look at the impact on institutions from the changes in technology that enable ‘shared, interactive, learning.  (Part of a series from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning)


A collection of observations and reflections on what was needed to build, run, and grow a business in the highly connected and scaled world enabled by the internet today. Based on the experiences of 37signals building things like Basecamp.

The Spirit Level

Why more equal societies are better for *everyone* than less equal societies. Kind of a foundation for thinking about the rest.


Most people think this blog is outstanding.

But, just because the government are looking at it, doesn’t mean we should discount it (behavioural science that is).

Future of Ed

US site focused on the Future of Education. A subproject of KnowledgeWorks, a US organisation that supports schools across the states.

eBooks Nasty Little Secret

In PastLife™, when I was a Program Manager (aka PM) at Microsoft, one of the interview scenarios I used with potential college hires was around eBooks. It was a great way to understand how candidates thought about, and broke down, unfamiliar problems. It also provided lots of opportunities for discussion across the whole gamut of PM skills – from UX design to diving down into technology to the business of software. It was also an excuse for me to keep a stack of CDs next to a 1940 edition of The Ilford Manual of Photography on the shelf as a visual cue: “CDs have gone digital so why not books?”

At that time eBooks were a niche. The Palm Pilot had had them from the late 90s and Microsoft had the floundering Microsoft Reader application but there wasn’t the ubiquitous eBook experiences that we have today. Which is why it was such a fertile area to explore in an interview.

Then along came Amazon with the Kindle.

The Kindle is a great product (as are it’s imitators). It has done much to spur a revolution in how readers consume the written word. Critically, a key part of the Kindle’s success is the integrated end-to-end model that Amazon provides: the device, the software, the content and the services that make that content easy to access.

But there’s a snag.

The problem isn’t the reading experience –  the eInk displays are just fantastic – although many still prefer paper. The problem is the formats often used to store eBooks use a technology called DRM to make sure that only the people that are licensed to can copy them. Actually, I should say that DRM tries to ensure that only the people that are licensed to can copy them. DRM systems aren’t perfect and sometimes you can’t access something you have rights to, and that’s the rub of the problem.

DRM (an abbreviation for Digital Rights Management) provides a way for someone to protect digital content by encrypting it. Before that content can be used, it needs to be decrypted. DRM systems include mechanisms to check that the person, or device, using the content is allowed (i.e. has a license) to use it. No license? No decryption, and the content stays locked away and unusable.

DRM has been used in a range of places. It protects music, DVDs and BlueRay disks, sensitive documents and, more recently, lots of those eBooks that more and more people are stuffing onto their Kindles.

So, what’s the problem? We’ll here’s a couple:

  1. DRM systems are, by their nature, closed systems. This means that the DRM used to protect content is tied to the devices that consumers use. This means that, for example the FairPlay DRM system used by Apple for iTunes is tied to Apple devices. If I have some content protected by FairPlay then I can only access it on an Apple device.

    This also creates interesting problems for people using Open Source software like Linux since DRM systems rely on obscurity but Open Source is open to everyone.

  2. The DRM system often needs to check that you are still allowed to access the content. To do this it needs to ‘phone home’ to check that the license you have is still valid. In some cases this can result in the content being inaccessible because of some delay in performing those checks.
  3. A company that sold you some content could have second thoughts and prevent access to something you’d purchased at a later date.
  4. A company could go out of business or close down the product leaving you unable to access the content you’d purchased.
  5. You will die. When you do who inherits your collection of DRM-locked books and how do they read them?
  6. Technology changes rapidly. I can still read my 70 year old copy of The Ilford Manual of Photography but given the rate at which we currently make technology redundant, it’s unlikely that will apply to a DRM-protected digital equivalent.

Not convinced? Here are some examples…


What did music do?

In many ways the book publishing industry is where the music publishing industry was several years ago.

The first CD I ripped to MP3 was, ironically, one of the Sony protected disks that didn’t work in our car audio system (although sold as a “CD” the disk didn’t comply with the relevant standard, known as the ‘Red Book’). For years, the music industry persisted with selling DRM-protected music as ‘digital downloads’. The justification given for this was to protect the rights of producers and to prevent piracy. However, it quickly became apparent that the impact of DRM was on those that had purchased the music. Those that didn’t want to pay had many ways of avoiding the protection, leaving the inconvenience of imperfect DRM systems to be felt by paying customers. Obviously, the wrong way round to have things if you want to keep valuable customers for your product.

By early 2007 Apple, estimating that some 97% of music on iPod devices was *not* protected by DRM, put pressure on the major labels to allow the iTunes store to sell non-DRM music. As a result, market pressure quickly led to the removal of DRM, resulting in the situation we have today where most music sold is not DRM-protected.

The music experience is quite clear. DRM doesn’t protect business models that the market no longer wants to support, but DRM does inconvenience those that legitimately pay for the content.

Given that, are we seeing the publishing industry making the same mistakes as the music industry did? Certainly at the moment it looks that way, but there’s a couple of reasons why publishing may get away with DRM in the short term:

  • Where the content comes from: The availability of source content in a digital form as the CD disk, a format that could easily be converted to MP3 and shared quickly, led to a breakdown in the traditional business model for the music industry. Books aren’t the same. Converting a paper book to digital by scanning is a costly and time consuming process. This barrier to conversion means that the majority of eBooks consumed on eReading devices come from publishers (like Amazon or Barnes & Noble) rather than being converted by the end-user from an existing library of content.
  • Devices that people are using: because end-users buy content through eBook suppliers (like Amazon) rather than converting their own existing content (as with CDs) there’s a tight link between the device people use to read and the services that provide the content. For example between a Kindle device and Amazon’s Kindle store. This means that relatively few people switch between devices from different providers, which in turn means few people have encountered the problems switching between different DRM systems.


Here’s some things you do (if you can think of others, I’d love to hear about them).

  • Stick: stay with paper books. Most people can figure out how they work, and they tend to keep on working.
  • DRM free: Buy DRM-free eBooks – for example from the some publishers that are considering DRM-free or providers like Project Gutenberg.
  • Put up: Go ahead with DRM eBooks and the potential consequences from all that brings.
  • Techie: There’s also a technical solution: it’s possible to remove DRM. Whether that’s legal depends on where you are. Whether that’s within the terms of the license for the content depends on where you purchased it.

Assuming you’ve paid for the content, all this is rather depressing when you think about.

More reading

Free hacker school

Here’s an interesting model. Programmers get to go to school, for a very specific education, for free. The provider, in this case Hacker School, gets paid by taking a recruitment fee from the employer…

Hacker School is free as in beer. This is possible because startups pay us to recruit. If after Hacker School you want a job, we will help you find one. If you don’t want one, or you’d prefer to search on your own, that’s fine too.

It looks like a great way for start-ups to build a pipeline of appropriately skilled talent. From the other side the model also helps ensure that as an educator you’re providing students with exactly the skills and attributes a subset of employers need.

Reading about the model, I was reminded of the talent pipeline Microsoft built, hiring straight from college (university) into big impact product teams like Windows and Office. No better place to learn and hone a skill set.

Small companies and start-ups don’t have the recruitment power and internal strength of companies like Microsoft. So Hacker School’s approach is a nice twist.

I’m not sure how well this translates to secondary schools in the UK. How would you feel if your school budget was based on hiring decisions of local employers? Would you feel any different if it also factored in offers from college and university admissions tutors?

JCQ Not Open

This post was going to point to the JCQ data on 2012 GCSE exam results. Instead I’ll link to the Guardian Datablog post (which has a link to a Google spread sheet version of the data).

Why so?

The JCQ is the Joint Council for Qualifications (see Wikipedia for a description). It acts as ‘a single voice for the seven largest qualification providers in the UK’.

The Terms and Conditions for the JCQ website include this clause:

2.6 You undertake not to:


establish a link to this website from any other website, intranet or extranet site without our prior written consent;

Complying with this clause means not *establishing* a link with the JCQ site [1]. A rather strange clause to include in the T&Cs for *using* a web site. The result? I guess it makes JCQ a single voice that’s not part of the conversation.

To quote Nate Anderson in Ars on a similar issue:

But those wanting to link to a normal Web page on the site certainly don’t, as a general rule, need permission to do so; indeed, the Web would be a hugely different place if linking were permission- and form-based. One can see why Lowe’s likes such agreements, but it’s harder to see why anyone would sign one.

I wonder if they really mean this. I’ll ask.

In the meantime…


[1] I suppose there’s an interesting legal discussion somewhere on whether including an HTML anchor tag is *establishing* a link (or if that’s what happens when the browser makes an HTTP request to the webserver hosting JCQs site). Irrespective

Exams are bad metrics?

The exam fiasco. What can you say? It has got me thinking about what exams are for. As an employer, what do they tell you? And, what do you *think* they tell you?

Everyone, it seems, uses exam results as a metric. But few, it appears, actually agree on what the metric is measuring. Which makes the discussion and occasional argument over what’s to be done rather circular.

Here’s a couple of statements, heard made on Radio 4s Any Questions, but echoed in discussions elsewhere, to illustrate the confusion.

Employers want…

Employers want to be able to differentiate between the best candidates. Therefore it’s important that exam grades provide differentiation within a cohort of students.

In my experience as an employer that’s true, but only partially so.

Employers, sometimes (and admissions tutors for further and higher education, always), are interested in getting the best and so being able to differentiate within a cohort of students is vital.

However, employers often (and, I’d argue, more frequently) want a measure that candidates have reached some level of competency. Do they have the numeracy skills to analyse sales data effectively? Does their command of the English language enable them to inform or negotiate? For this a metric that is transparent and that remains consistent year-on-year is needed.

Need an analogy? The UK driving test isn’t a good metric if you’re a Formula One team looking for the fastest driver, or a school coach company looking for the safest driver. But the test does tell you that a person has reached a level of competency when behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. That may not be complete and sufficient for your needs, which is why there’s separate tests for motorcycles; advanced driving; and HGVs…

Exams measure…

exams measure intelligence

Do they heck. Exams are a test the ability of a student to pass a test that covers parts of a syllabus for a course they have studied. That may, or may not, correlate highly with your preferred measure of intelligence. That depends on the course, the syllabus and the test.

It follows that increases in average grades do not mean that students are becoming more intelligent. It may mean that students and teachers are getting better at learning the syllabus that the exam covers. It may also mean that students and teachers are getting better and sitting the exam that attempts to measure that syllabus. Or that exam boards are inflating grades.

Bonus question: If we *really* wanted to, how could we tell which were the case?

Wider context…

All of which puts the whole number of students with 5 GCSEs A* to C including English and Maths (and your choice of additional subjects) metric as a measure of school performance in it’s rightful place. Yes, it’s a measure, but it’s not the only measure of performance, nor is in necessarily a good one. However, it is the one that schools are pressurised incentivised to optimise for and so, unsurprisingly, they do.

Update [20120830]

Related links:

Update [20120831]