Recently there have been a number of incidents in the world that have highlighted an interesting moral, ethical and in some cases legal debate about social media and who is responsible for the content on these platforms.
Briefly, Instagram is under fire for being a platform where it is trivial to find information and "guidance" on various forms of self harm, eating disorders and even suicide. Several high profile events have shown that young people especially are finding what they see as support groups of like minded people which then normalises their own feelings/actions rather that supporting them in the ways they need to get help.
Facebook has once again come under criticism for the woeful monitoring or moderation of the content on its network (and don't forget they own Instagram so are equally responsible for criticisms levelled there also). In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in New Zealand, it quickly became apparent that one of the main motivators for the attacker was to spread their actions as far as possible using various outlets, Facebook being the originating platform.
These actions have raised several questions which on the face of it are trivial to answer, but when you look into it raise all sorts of questions about who ultimately holds the responsibility to moderate content online. Questions such as:
Australia and New Zealand were in a difficult position - they clearly had terrorist attacks happening in, or linked to, their countries and the attacker had posted their "manifesto" on social media before then live streamed the attacks on Facebook. Both governments called for "more to be done" to prevent this kind of thing happening - which anyone would conclude is entirely reasonable. However, it's also obvious that they're fighting a battle they can't win.
Some ISP's in Australia especially have taken the decision to block certain websites that hosted copies of the attack video and failed to remove it. This is likely to avoid government action or bills being passed that would require further and more sweeping changes to be made. Interestingly, some of the pages that have been blocked have protested their innocence and annoyance that ISP's have blocked them. Clicks = cash, so less traffic is hurting their business.
They're also a little miffed because Facebook has faced no action from governments (as yet) because they "took swift and serious actions." The cynic in you might point out that the reason ISP's haven't blocked Facebook in the same way they blocked other sites is because Facebook forms a huge part of their traffic and if they block it, users will literally cancel their subscriptions and move to an ISP that didn't block them. Arguably, if you're going to put blocks in place, then Facebook has to be blocked - this is where the attack started, was publicly planned and then carried out.
Sadly, then, it seems the frustration most governments feel is with the fact that some companies such as Facebook (and Instagram as they own them), Google and so forth are simply "too big" to be tackled. Sajid Javid, the current UK Home secretary repeatedly makes public statements that social media companies must be more responsible or take more preventative measures or "face action." He knows full well, or will quickly find out, that no matter how much he would like to make changes, he is largely powerful - the internet is not under any one countries control.
So then we move our attention to those social media companies. It is fairly clear that governments can only introduce rudimentary measures and then only in their country or jurisdiction and then these can be easily bypassed by most VPN/Proxy services. Also, the people we are trying to protect the most - the young, are by far the most switched on to technology and they are all capable of bypassing measures either themselves or by following methods by word of mouth.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that companies like Facebook should take the lead when it comes to finding, removing or blocking this kind of content altogether. Let's establish some facts - they are the central point, they are the only organisation with access and control to all this content and most important of all, they absolutely are capable of implementing measures that would either completely or vastly reduce this kind of content.
If they want to.
And it's a big "if" isn't it. These companies don't charge users to use the service, they experience an unimaginable amount of content being uploaded to their platforms on an hourly basis and make all their profit from advertising. Advertisers do not care about morals, they care about reaching their target audience as intrusively and repeatedly as is possible. Social media has given them these opportunities in a way never possible before in history - this is why social media platforms like Facebook are worth hundreds of billions.
The sad fact is that Facebook are a business. Business exists for one single core purpose - to make profit. To think that they have a moral obligation is to pull the wool over our own eyes - they absolutely do not. Given the choice between an awkward press release and some soothing words to various parties and actually making changes for moral reasons, they'll choose the press release every time. Any changes that Facebook make that would make an impact in the real world would result in fewer users on their platform. People don't like the idea of "censorship" and are used to an always on, instant upload culture. Any delay in content appearing on the platform would give a "second rate experience." To a company like Facebook this is unacceptable. User count is everything and less users = less profit. They want all of your data and they want more of it. The more they have, the more they're worth.
So yes, if they wanted, Facebook could easily bring in a multi pronged attack that would have a drastic effect. They could easily afford to employ hundreds of moderators in different countries to automatically review flagged content. They could employ their machine learning to analyse content in a more aggressive way and to highlight more for review. They could tighten their guidelines and refuse to allow hate speech on their platform, or to refuse groups advocating certain right wing view points. They could follow through on the terms and conditions all users agree to and remove more accounts, or even bring action against particularly offensive users. The list is almost endless - but all of it comes at a cost.
Did they do anything? Their analysis looks really good. They did immediately remove the video of the attack but... once it was reported. Remember, before it took place, the manifesto, a page of hate speech was already hosted by them without raising any alarm. Remember also that computers are absolutely amazing at text and language analysis and they definitely have the technology to highlight this. Then they hosted a free for all - users uploading the content which they then had to chase down and remove or rely on user reports. Users took measures to obfuscate the video so that it didn't match a hash created of the original stream. From the outside, it looks like they did a lot to prevent the spread. In reality, they did what they had to do to minimise the poor publicity of what had happened on their platform.
Will anything change in future? The answer is no, because the only way Facebook could be encouraged to change is their users closing their accounts. If users started to leave en-mass then they would begin to listen. They made positive noises when users left of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The unfortunate truth is that millions of users simply don't care, they want to log in, aimlessly read terrible memes and look at pictures of pets and dinners before moving on.
It is, then, perhaps us as users that hold the ultimate responsibility here. We are responsible for not posting offensive content and also we have the absolute power to force change if we want. If you genuinely think that a platform hosting a live terrorism event and then taking zero action afterwards is socially unacceptable then maybe there is a moral obligation on us to no longer associate ourselves with that platform.
Morals and ethics is an endless conversation.
If you're in my Year 11 class right now, you'll know that we've just had a grim taste of reality when looking at the calendar and realising there are 8 school weeks left until our exams. Inevitably, as teachers, we then roll out the tired cliches of "it goes by so quick," "you'll wish you'd revised sooner/done more," and "you need to have a sense of urgency now!!"
All of these things are true and in an ideal world you'd all be robotic and be sat in your rooms every night, going over exam questions, comparing yourself to mark schemes, highlighting your weak areas and addressing them with revision. But you're not, you're human and this means you have a social life, other subjects to worry about and pressure coming out of your ears.
So how do you cope?
Simple - Little, effective and often. Make the most of your time and your stress will reduce as you gain confidence and realise you're becoming more and more prepared.
Apparently, it takes two weeks to form a habit, meaning you stop thinking of ways to get out of something or making up excuses and just get on with it instead, which indeed means there is still time to do the right thing.
Here's what I'd do:
The principles are really, really simple. The question is, how motivated are you to take control of your own exam destiny? The bottom line is this, all you need to do is walk out of each exam knowing you did the best you could. This way, you'll be less stressed and confident in doing well. If you know you could've done better, that will stick with you and nag at you for some time.
Don't waste the wonderful opportunities you have right now.
Music - it's a pretty big deal. Some people quite literally define themselves based on their chosen genre or favourite band and lets face it, I'm no different. If I could turn into Noel Gallagher then I would. Instantly.
In the late 1990's and early 2000's technology has got to the point where internet speeds were increasing, computing power was going through the roof and devices were getting smaller, cheaper and more powerful. This was something of a perfect storm for the music industry and they just didn't get it. To say that large record labels missed the boat is a slight understatement. They didn't miss the boat, they didn't even know it had even been made, boarded by most of the worlds teenagers and had long since set sail.
The way people listened to and experienced music was changing, rapidly. In the mid 1990's, CD was the height of technology and if you were really into your music you might even have had a portable CD player or later on a Minidisc (ah Minidisc, the memories – so many good times in my life have had their sound track played through one of these beautiful machines). Music shops were big business and I can still remember that latest release albums were always £9.99, but if you wanted something more "obscure" then you'd easily pay £16 for an album. Now I couldn't tell you where a single music shop even is. What, quite literally, caused the death of a whole industry?
Of all the technologies that influenced this change, MP3 is the single biggest factor. Before MP3 there really were not any sensible ways of taking a CD and turning it into a digital file that could live on your hard drive on your PC. Hard drives were small, PC’s were big and bulky things that you didn’t really want on all the time (or sat in your living room). You could certainly rip a CD to a WAV file, but these were uncompressed and until about 1999 when hard drive capacities really started to rise, that would mean you could fit about 5 CD's on your PC and then it would be full. This meant that no one bothered, or even thought about building a digital music library. Instead everyone stuck to CD - and why not, they were relatively small, portable and played through a decent system they sounded incredible.
To understand the impact of MP3 we need to understand a few things. MP3 is a lossy compressed file format. This basically means it took a sound file and made it much, much smaller. To put this in context, an average length song taken from a CD and stored as a WAV file would have been between 60-70Mb. The same song converted to an MP3 file would be 3Mb. Still not impressed? This meant we could fit an entire album as MP3 in the same space as one single song ripped to WAV and to top it off, the sound quality was really very good. This was game changing and was about to quite literally change the way most of us live our lives.
Coincidentally, just as this was happening, people started getting connected to the internet for the first time and because MP3's were so small, even on a 56kbps modem (max download speed 5kb per second) it wasn't too painful to download a song - it took about 10 minutes but most people were prepared to wait because that song was... free!
Initially people just ripped CD's and then created a website to share it as a standard download link. Record companies obviously got quite angry and made hosts take the sites down and not everyone had the skill to create them in the first place. Then Napster happened and my god, it was the internet equivalent of world wide looting raids and riots. Napster was a very easy to use program which simply scanned your hard drive for any music and then made it available to anyone in the world who also had a copy of Napster. I cannot tell you the amount of Oasis bootlegs, live performances, B sides and demos I downloaded that year. I literally filled my boots, as did every other teenager in the world who had an internet connection at the time.
It didn’t feel like it at the time but this had a huge impact on our very culture. Stop and think for a minute, music at the time was primarily played through hi-fi systems, car stereos or bulky Walkman or Discman systems (a what now?!). You simply couldn’t strap on a pair of trainers and go for a run listening to your favourite motivational play list – the technology literally didn’t exist.
Clever people suddenly started to take notice that young people, who were broke, had found a way of metaphorically robbing the music bank and they were getting away with it. They were also dying for a way of taking this collection with them – we were Winamp addicts and it was brilliant, but you’d look strange strapping several kilograms of PC, CRT monitor and a generator to you to take it outside. The walk/discman was about to die, but no one could quite figure out when or how.
It is one of my favourite “tech tales” the time that Steve Jobs got together some of the music industries biggest figures and basically told them they were all morons. Even with one of the most influential people in the history of technology sat in front of them they couldn’t understand that unless they lowered their prices, people were simply going to steal music until they went out of business. He told them a song was worth 79 cents and that was that. They thought he was crazy.
It took them about 5 seconds to realise he was right when the iPod was released and the world lost the plot buying them. The iPod is basically dead now, which was unimaginable 10 years ago even, but it cannot be underestimate the influence it has had on our culture and society. Almost overnight, headphones had turned from black to white, people were wearing them as a status symbol. Moreover, people were listening to music anywhere and everywhere they went – this simply hadn’t been possible before. I loved it, no longer did I have to sit on the bus to university doing the “we’re all pretending to be in a lift” thing where no one looks at anyone or dares to have a conversation. We could all just put white things in our ears and disappear into our own world.
And that is probably where the story turns sour. It is now the case that, given the choice or freedom, most people will choose to almost permanently have headphones either round their neck or plugged into their ears and there is, quite simply, no more antisocial device than headphones. No longer do we share the experience of listening to an album, discovering new music together, getting lost in lyrics or similar, most of our listening is done in solitary confinement. We’ve shut ourselves off from potential conversations, social interactions and “difficult situations” simply by ignoring them in an antisocial way.
Every advance in technology is a good thing and can always have a positive influence on our lives and our futures, but for every advance there is a method of abusing it. Everything in moderation is fine, but actually I can honestly say our school has become a more social, friendly place since we banned the use of headphones and phones during the day.
And to think, all this started because someone figured out how to make sound take up less space – it’s almost impossible to consider all the possible impacts of our actions, but it’s always worth a thought, right?
A quick summary of things that have changed on the site recently:
Exams are over, results are in and what an odd experience the last year has been.
OCR, the ever thoughtful people that they are, decided to send out certificates that you can print out for your students if you weren't naughty when doing the GCSE coursework to say well done for putting all that effort in for nothing. Remember, this is what you get for not cheating! Bonus.
The A-Level went well again this year and it was nice to see comments from the coursework moderator along the lines of "Christ, you're not cheating here either are you?!" The students did very well this year and several of our students have gone on to study Computing at university. Long may their beards grow.
As for GCSE, we improved for the third year running, proving that if you have a pair of complete nutters stood in front of you for two years, desperately trying to ram some information in your head in an interesting way you do actually learn something if you turn up and do as we ask.
In all seriousness I could not have wished for a finer set of GCSE students than I had this year. They were a genuine pleasure to stand in front of several times a week and I enjoyed every lesson. I am exceptionally proud to say we had our first grade 9 this year and on paper two the student in question was 2 marks off 100%. I take no credit for that performance, the amount of work the student put in meant the success lies with them alone. I also look forward to welcoming many of them back next year as Year 12 students, where I will have to learn their names all over again because I won't recognise them in different clothes.
But what have we learned from the experience of changing to the "tougher" exams. Well, in summary:
So what's on the to do list this year? There's a lot of work to do on the site, but here's my thoughts going forwards:
And quite frankly I think that's enough for one year - we've got students to motivate...
Don't do that. It's a bad idea.
It's that time of year again where Year 11's across the country finally come to life and realise two weeks before their exams that they should probably do something... Maybe... to avoid exam disaster. Revision sessions suddenly double in size and miracles are performed as students memorise entire specifications and then ace the exam.
Or something like that.
In reality, what can you do in these last few weeks to improve your chances of passing or, better still, doing well? The good news is it genuinely isn't too late to make serious improvements to your knowledge and ability to do well... If you start now.
The plan, then, is this:
Realistically, at this stage of the year that's about all you can do, but the difference it could make is incredible.
Some final advice:
I don't envy you lot. Good luck and don't let us pressure you - if you can walk out of each exam knowing full well you prepared yourself as much as you could, did the best you could in the exam on that day, then you will do yourself justice and you can have no regrets and a clear conscience.
I made the decision in December to switch banks. The process is surprisingly painless and only takes 7 days, as a reward banks normally throw in a bonus of around £150 for joining them - which is great, it's literally money for nothing, and we all know that never happens in day to day life. So I joined HSBC and this is where the good news ends.
What followed is a superb, real world example of the things we teach about project management disasters, poor software development and security in GCSE and especially A Level CS every year. What unfolded in front of me was a story of total and utter abandonment of common sense, core software development principles and one of the most frustrating and mind boggling experiences of my life.
The HSBC banking app for IOS is, quite simply, one of the most appalling pieces of software to ever grace a phone screen. How it ever made it out of internal testing, let alone into public use and general release is beyond me. A bank the size of HSBC (worth £147 billion as of 08/02/2018) has the resources to create a truly wonderful, seamless user experience. Instead it decided to create:
I shan't go into their full website, but that too is an eye opening tour of hideous design fails. I'll leave that with just one example which illustrates it's failures perfectly - if you want to send a message to the bank, you can, but only if it is less than 2900 characters, which is approximately 350 words (a seemingly arbitrary limit) and if you use an exclamation then... that's it! You can't send it. Incredible.
Rule 1 - Have a reason to change
So, during a phone call with the bank, they told me the reason the app was so poor is because it's new. Apparently, and please make sure you're sitting down for this, it is better and has more features than their old app.
I can only begin to imagine the horrors HSBC customers must've put up with before their latest revelation was released upon the poor, unsuspecting public. I can also conclude that their previous app must have had a feature count of 1. That's not a typo.
Computing history teaches us the following things:
You, I and your parents have also made many individuals very, very rich in the name of improvement through software development. Do I need to go any further than the £20 billion wasted on "digitising" the NHS only for precisely nothing to be actually developed of any use. Seriously, I could not even begin to explain where £20 billion gets spent on a project like that, even taking into account some incredible nights out, special dinners and amazing holidays for all involved, you'd still have change from £1 billion.
It makes the £300 million that Nationwide spent updating their IT systems seem like a bargain - and they were very brave in fairness, considering the consequences of even the smallest error.
This is why, believe it or not, much of the infrastructure we rely on day to day and indeed wouldn't even think about, runs on software that was developed in the 1970's and 80's - you know, a time when computers were delivered on the back of several lorries and needed you to knock a few walls down and phone the electricity provider to come and fit new cables to your building to make them work.
Want to fire a nuclear missile from the USA? Then you'll need an 8 inch floppy disk and some 1960's mainframe skills (link)
What about landing a plane at a small Parisian airport? Put your life in the hands of Windows 3.1! (link)
And on it goes - why did several banks stop working last year when people tried to use their cards? All down to IT system failures, and likely due to the fact that the code they rely on is literally older than you and me put together.
Trust me, even the US government isn't stupid enough to risk the lives of millions at the hands of a dodgy computer system - 1960's it may be, but it works, is robust as coffin nails and has been designed quite literally to withstand a war happening. It isn't going to break, it doesn't need replacing because its old.
So you need a good reason to change and, if HSBC are to be believed and their old app was genuinely that awful then they'd got over the first hurdle - a genuine need to change. On to the next phase!
Rule 2 - Conduct a decent analysis and know where you're going
It seems so obvious, doesn't it? Before you potentially spend millions, you should probably stop and think about:
The idea here is that you arrive at a point where you have an absolutely robust, cast iron set of objectives that become absolute gospel throughout the project. This is the list of things you must deliver, these are the deal breakers, the principles by which you work.
When projects wander from these tight, clear, focused objectives then you get failure. How much failure depends how poor your objectives were in the first place and then how poor your project management is. But failure you will get.
In the case of HSBC I can only imagine the conversation went something like this:
"What do we want the new app to do?"
"Well... banking, innit?"
"What do people do with their bank?"
"Look at their money."
"'Look at money' I'll add it to the list. Anything else?"
"Nah. That's it."
"Shall we jazz it up with some of those terrible pictures you see with awful motivational captions underneath?"
"It's a winner, it's like a professional meme."
"Yeah, go on."
Nothing else could explain what followed.
Rule 3 - Conduct usability and User Interface testing
Let's not jump the gun, before we even get to use the app there are hurdles to jump, challenges to overcome, stamps to be licked and eyes to be washed after being forced to look at this abomination.
This is the process you go through to use their app for the first time:
So that's you done for another week. You've gone through all that to then find out you can't actually use it. Ingenious.
What's wrong with this?
Don't get me wrong, security is very important, but overbearing security is worse than seemingly more lax security. It puts people off, provides more avenues for users to become confused or go wrong and ultimately leaves the user having a genuinely poor experience. You jump through less hoops to get a passport.
I've been with many, many banks and this is by far the most absurd set up I've ever been through. I've since switched to another bank and managed to get set up on their app in 5 minutes without once having to wait for the post to arrive. Every bank has a vested interest in fraud prevention and security. Every other bank has proven you can achieve this without users handing over their very soul.
The irony is, if someone did manage to set up as me on this app... they wouldn't be able to do any damage because it doesn't let you do anything anyway! Security through obscurity...
The river of terrible keeps flowing.
Once you're in, after verifying yourself for the 3rd or 4th time, just to be sure, you get the wonderful log in screen above. Believe it or not, this is an improved version released a few days ago and it's still awful.
First, if you feel the need to star out information for privacy on the home screen for "security" reasons... Don't put it there in the first place! To contrast, here is the log in screen for Natwest:
Spot the difference:
They read the design book didn't they?
HSBC just keep giving the gift of awful, because if you cast your eye down the screen you see what looks like, smells like and is effectively a... banner advert?
My eyes nearly fell out of my head the first time I spotted this. What possible need or reason can there be for a link to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme on the home page of a banking app? It's utterly, utterly bizarre and just paints a picture of an app that is poorly thought out, poorly designed and doesn't fill you with a feeling of trust. Would you advertise so boldly that you'll probably need some financial compensation at some point?
Ominous isn't it...
Rule 4 - Did I mention testing?
So we get into the app. Finally.
Things continue to fall apart.
On Iphone X, the interface doesn't take into account that there is a notch at the top of the screen. Consequently, titles quite literally fall off the top of the screen and the log off button is placed so close to other features in the notification area that it quite often doesn't respond to touch.
How long would that take to test? How much money do banks and their developers have? The answer is enough to buy several of every phone on the market today and about 10 minutes of testing. Worse, is that you don't even need to spend £1000 to test your app on an Iphone X. You need to click "build" in XCode and it'll show you on screen what it'll look like.
This means one thing, one thing that occurs again and again throughout this sorry tale:
One final kick in the teeth is the contact section of the app. If the bank respond to you (this is after you've logged into the full site, navigated the awful there, then formatted your message to fit in 22 words or less, removed punctuation, done a very special dance, done the Mr Tumble magic and off it goes) then you wouldn't know.
There are precisely zero notifications in the app, no notice of new messages, not even a change of the icon to indicate new mail. Nothing.
This is why for a week I didn't realise they'd sent me a message. Why would I? Even when you press the contact icon and are taken to the "inbox" there is still no method of indicating new messages. It would literally have taken 5 lines of code to put a number next to the icon or word "inbox."
But my favourite bit, for a contact section of an app, is once you realise you have a message, then want to reply to it, you..... can't!
Off to the website again with you! Another usability win and clearly a "feature" too far.
Rule 5 - Review, evaluate, make sure you've actually met your objectives
So the app passed the design stage and the developers would've brought along their work for HSBC to try out and, seemingly, they all sat around nodding approvingly and released it.
It's at this point, the last chance to save planet earth before it's recycled, the bit in the life cycle where you can still right the wrongs, that they just went "yeah... that'll do. Send it out."
What should have happened is large amounts of hysterical laughter as they picked up the phone to their legal department to begin legal proceedings for breach of contract at the sight of such a woeful app.
This is where my favourite part of my phone conversation with them comes in:
"The banking app is totally free of features I'd expect in a modern banking app and are provided by every other provider I can think of."
"Mr Davidson, we developed the new app because the old one didn't meet the needs of our customers!"
"And the new one does?!"
"Yes, it's already got more features!"
"Tell me, exactly which single feature did the old app have that wasn't meeting peoples needs, because I cannot find a single, useful feature anywhere."
"We've added a feature where you can report a lost or stolen card."
"that's... a feature? A useful feature? One I'd use every day? What exactly are the priorities in developing this app?"
"Oh there's lots of features planned for the future!"
"I can't tell you."
"Can't or don't know?"
"Well, there's lots of things coming, we just don't know when..."
In any sane organisation, at this point, someone would make the glaringly obvious decision:
"We cannot release this. It's not ready."
Because... no improvement is better than woeful attempts at improvement.
Rule 6 - This is 2018, there are no excuses
The fact is that 11 years after the release of the first capable smart phone, there are no excuses any more. Companies literally live and die by the quality of their applications.
Mobile is the way people work now, more and more we conduct our affairs solely through a phone and if it can't be done, then we either don't do it or move to a service that can. We have over a decade of experience, the bad mistakes have been made and everyone knows what users expect apps to look and feel like and exactly how we expect them to work.
Microsoft spent millions in the 1990's conducting experiments into user interface design, finding out how to get novice users to make the least mistakes and be the most productive with the least barriers to progression or work. The result was Windows 95, one of the biggest leaps in OS usability until IOS came along in 2007. We have learned - usability is not a new field, interface design is a trail well blazed by many thousands of applications.
If HSBC were a start up company today, they'd be dead in the water.
I've been humbled by the whole experience - the fact that this type of experience is happening today, that it is even possible for it to still happen really blew my mind. Worse, I learned a valuable lesson:
Never, ever assume that software is actually good before you've used it. Especially if you plan to move your banking to an organisation that seem to believe you don't deserve to use an application which provides you the ability to actually do some, er... banking?
Lets be realistic about the situation. You've spent the last five years having the time of your life at secondary school. Well, maybe not the time of your life if you didn't enjoy it. Er... You've done time. Yep, that should be a good catch all term to describe it...
So you've done five years and you're coming up for release, or "graduation" as it's more popularly known, and all you've got to do to set yourself up for life on the outside is pass your exams. Shouldn't be too hard, right? You've had eleven years of practise leading up to this point anyway, so it'll be a doddle! The only thing standing in your way is that over used and rarely understood word:
You see, the problem with revision is as teachers we stand there in front of you saying all manner of wonderful catch phrases:
"If you do more preparation and revision, then you'll improve!"
"You really need to revise more for your tests."
"You need to do at least an hour a day or you won't get through it all."
"You have two choices, revise yourself to death or fail and die."
Maybe the last one was made up.
But you get the point! My problem with this is that we bash you round the head with the word constantly for five years and very rarely does anyone actually improve to the point we'd like. Why is this? Simple, so rarely do we actually explain what revision is. Worse, teachers are terrible for passing on their stress to you as students. This is very naughty and ends up with situations reminiscent of The Simpsons where Homer is strangling Bart:
"Why aren't you passing your exams at the highest level so I look good??!!"
"I don't know!!"
"Why aren't you a machine?!!!!!!"
You get the point.
I genuinely try not to do this with students. If I grind you into the ground with stress you're likely to do badly anyway. If I say lovely things all year when you are, in fact, utterly terrible then you'll fail thinking you were amazing. Its a balancing act of just enough encouragement mixed with a bit of reality. I'm better at the reality part...
Before we go any further, I need to make a confession to you. A confession in the hope you'll realise that I am human and was indeed once your age.
When I was at school I came across as being very, very lazy. I called it "being efficient."
But I wasn't stupid. Well, not all the time anyway.
It felt as if I ran on batteries from Poundland and in order to not run out of power, I'd apply myself when necessary and only at those times. In other words - if it needed doing, I'd do it properly. If it didn't then... it got a lot less attention.
The thing to realise here is:
In my ten years of teaching I've come across lots of students who were just like I was. However, I also come across students every single year that just baffle me. These are the students who:
This is the single most stupid and dangerous thing anyone could ever do.
If you aim to simply do "just enough," to just scrape through on the last mark of the last question in the paper than you are playing an extraordinarily dangerous game that you are more than likely going to lose in the most spectacular way.
I don't understand it. You've worked for 11 years of your life to get to this point. That's over 2/3 of your entire living life. That's a long time, right? And at the first point in your life where it really, really matters you're going to go "can't be bothered."
Wow. Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen! Thanks for coming! Hope you enjoyed the show.
That's it? 15 years to get to a point where we just shrug our shoulders and consign all our potential in the bin and then most likely live a life of bitter resentment for the education system that "failed" you.
Some facts to understand:
It's not too late.
At this point in the year it's not too late to change your outlook, to change your mind about how you view "studying" and that maybe it's not just saddo's and weird kids that want to succeed. Whether you like it or not, we are all human and we all have a love of rewards, a love of success, a love of doing well. You can't tell me you don't - you might not feel it in school but you felt it when you thrashed your mate 6-0 on Fifa. It's the same thing. You won - you felt good.
I'm not going to tell you how long I spent revising for my exams. But I will tell you that in my final year of University, myself and a group of 6 friends managed to, for an entire week solid:
We all passed those exams. Not just by the skin of our teeth, we passed them well.
One of those people in that group also did his dissertation in 1.5 days. He'd given up, had enough, was going to quit university - right at the death. The exact same as a student giving up when it's GCSE time.
I managed to convince him to at least do something. He stayed up all day, all night and handed in what turned out to be quite a good project in AI.
He's now the head teacher of a behavioural school.
Why am I telling you this? Because if you're a student who:
Then you should realise you still have a chance to change your mind and realise that you could make a decision which completely changes your life. Oh and makes you filthy rich in the future.
So what do you do? Simple, it's time to talk revision...
What is revision?
I'm going to upset your parents.
You cannot revise for hours on end, day after day. You shouldn't be drawing up absurd timetables, colouring in each day a different colour for each subject and then feeling awful when you, strangely, don't behave like a machine and stick to it.
Let's understand you're human. Worse, you're a teenage human which means you're a total nutter with no sense of self preservation and an insatiable need to have a good time.
So we won't be shutting you in your room for days on end thinking somehow the knowledge will fall into your mind from the books you never open.
Revision is also not reading. If you've spent the last 5 years wondering why you get terrible results even though you read your book for 6 hours before the test... it's because you read your book for 6 hours before the test.
Here, based on real science (genuinely) is Mr Davidson's Lazy Persons Extremely Effective Revision Technique. (C) (Tm) (BSc Hons.)
While you are still in school:
We form memories through repetition, routine and familiarity. If you don't revisit your learning then those memories are much harder to form, or simply disappear altogether. This reading exercise basically keeps them "familiar" to you and makes your life much, much easier.
When it's revision time:
That's it. I'm sorry to say there is no magic here, but if you are prepared to put the time in... then magic will indeed happen.
So rant over. Please open your minds, think about your futures and have faith in yourself. If you can't believe in your ability, then remember I still do and you need to come and talk to me about it!
Oh and... don't leave it until later, start now.
Well that was a surprise, wasn't it?!
The Ofqual consultation came out today, and to our sheer, wide eyed, awestruck surprise we discovered that... they did exactly what they fancied doing! Click here to read the riveting document explaining their decision for yourself.
Ofqual have decided, like most decent schools had felt for years, that they've had enough of the cheating and that the coursework for both 2018 and 2019 GCSE entries will not count. However, you've still got to do it...
Why? Because it's part of the specification, which means if you don't cover it then technically we can't say you've completed the GCSE. There is also the small point that you desperately need programming skills in order to pass your unit 2 exam.
In many ways, this is the right decision. Now your grade will not be affected by other schools deciding to break the rules and do what they like. It also means that your grade is now entirely in your hands, based on the performance you put in during the summer exams.
It's the implications for the future that are more interesting/worrying:
OCR have the right idea here, by the look of it, in that we still do a programming task in the lessons we have with you but you then have to answer questions on the work you have done in the exam. This is fair enough - most candidates that cheat don't actually have a clue what their code does so wouldn't be able to explain this in the examination anyway.
In the meantime, what does it mean for you and what should you do going forwards?
If you want to know more, have a read of the the links below. Otherwise, carry on doing as you're asked and be thankful you can now begin your exam preparation just that little bit sooner.
It had to happen didn't it?
If you didn't know, the Government in its infinite wisdom and never ending "drive to raise standards" decided to get tough on coursework. This meant that for most subjects it was promptly placed in the bin and, lets face it, this was actually a really good move.
Because I'd wager about 10% of any given piece of work was actually the product of a student.
The sad fact is that schools and sometimes students (if they're feeling particularly weird) are desperate for results. Desperation for results ends up in people finding creative ways in which to make improvements and coursework was the absolute worst for this kind of thing. Doing an essay? Go through 15 "drafts" and each time just add in what I tell you. Languages work? Lets work on the answers before hand or memorise some text from Google Translate. When I took German GCSE I did it because my mother spoke it for her job and I knew all I'd have to do for my coursework would be to memorise whatever I could get her to write for me.
Maths used to have coursework and I know for a fact that it simply became a badge of honour between parents who all wanted to be the first to find the formula for the given task, which then went round the rest of the class like wildfire in an improved version of what happens in form and break times across the country every day as students trade their homework to others.
Don't get me started on homework.
Then there's computing. Out of everyone, we really were the worst because it was quite simply a case of being able to Google the correct code and you could copy and paste an acceptable solution to most GCSE tasks together in a few weeks. "Controlled conditions" meant that students were only subtly told what to do rather than just being given the answer, because you feel less guilt cheating that way. Failing that, lets write a "this is oddly similar to the real thing" practise task which we then change a few lines of text in and hand in as our "real thing."
Last year my students did it properly. No, really. I didn't help them write their code. I didn't tell them what to write and I didn't decide to have students work "miraculously" improve over night when it was clear they were going to fail. This goes against what happens in a huge number of classrooms up and down the country. As a result, my students coursework was reasonable. Not poor, but reasonable. Some students absolutely smashed it, they were natural programmers, but most just did a competent job - and this is key.
There are few natural programmers.
There are even fewer natural programmers who show it at GCSE.
But, now sit down when I tell you this, somehow the average coursework results were rather high and would contradict that.
Turns out there had been a lot of "accidental assistance" up and down the country. As a result, my students actually performed absurdly well in the exam but proportionally not as well in the coursework.
Nationally, that kind of thing looks rather odd. Why? Well, and stay seated, it seems that nationally students perform far, far better in coursework than in their exams. How can this be? Is it that they're simply better at coursework than exams?
No. Sadly, its their teachers who are better at coursework than exams.
So the Government set out on its crusade to put this right and in many ways it looked like a good start had been made. The marks went down from anywhere around 60% all the way down to a maximum of 20% of your final grade. Then they banned the internet - which has to be one of the most absurd things in the history of poor decision making. Think about it:
Now, the Government isn't that thick, they asked Ofqual/JCQ to threaten inspection visits to schools on a random basis and also if their exam results were obviously worse than the coursework results.
Which was good, right?
The worrying thing is that this coursework has been leaked from a school. The only way to get the tasks is if you've got a log in to the exam board of your choice and the rules are clear:
So someone took it home....
....and lo and behold solutions appeared on the internet.
This just drives me up the wall because there are schools out there that do it properly and really do play by the rules. We're one of them.
Having taken a good look at the tasks when they came out, we took the calculated risk of taking a significant time out of our schedule to properly prepare our students to plan and write code unassisted. We spent hour after hour learning not only how to plan code on paper but then go and implement it in our chosen language. We didn't start the coursework until we were convinced the majority had it in the bag and had the tools they needed to code for themselves.
They were confident - are confident. They've built up, week after week, a set of skills that mean they can tackle most problems. The down side is we now have far less time than other schools to prepare for the exam, but that's ok because this is still 1/5 of their marks, right?
Not any more.
You see, what the government giveth, the government taketh away. We've spoken before about the rush to fill our schools with "real computing" because we all know there's a huge skills shortage and technology is going to only grow.
As Kryten once said, "An excellent plan, sir, with only two minor flaws."
You see, the thing about CS is.... it is neck beard central. It is an area of study that is so devoid of people skills and personality that it could quite easily form a weird form of black hole which simply sucks the very soul out of the universe, from which no one even remotely interesting will escape past the event horizon, leaving behind a world that is eerily quiet as the remaining population stay indoors for fear of accidentally socialising with someone and dissolving from the awkwardness as a result.
This means there is a shortage of people who want to teach it, before we even get to the problem of those teaching it actually being any good - or at least ones not hung up on their own ideologies which they spend their time at CAS conferences massaging their ego along with other like minded personalities.
So what happens when you suddenly erase ICT from schools and push everyone into CS even though they haven't the faintest idea about computing and can't program let alone teach it? (hey everyone, best learn Python because that's what we do when we don't think for ourselves and like to just jump on the bandwagon!)
What happens is people take the path of least resistance.
And lessons are a car crash.
And people cheat.
So I'm not sure the blame entirely lies at the door of the government, but teachers have to take some responsibility also. As a famous meme said - "you had one job." That job was simple - don't cheat, don't let kids put the task online and don't share answers to it.
Because when you do, the few institutions that do it properly now have to explain to students who have played the game, come along for the ride, believed in you, followed your instructions and done a bloody good job off the back of this that their work is now, quite literally, worthless.
Sorry, kids. At least we still have our morals intact.