What are we educating for?

The other night I went to my first real unashamedly political event, a session organised by the “progressive conservative” bright blue (so new they’re yet to appear on Google) at the British Library, discussing the role of education in 21st century Britain.

The event deliberately went back to first principles on education, focussing on why we bother to send people to school/college/university in the first place, then going on to look at how we need to change our current approach. Hence the title, above.

The speakers really made the event for me, especially as Toby Young’s presence on Newsnight last week had motivated me to put down my own thoughts on the matter.

It must be said that Anthony Seddon generally out-shone Young in terms of stage presence, but the former came across much more so as someone who really wants to make a difference, rather than one who simply offers a critique of current policy.

The two were united in their criticism however, with Young pointing to various studies which have shown how measures such as social mobility (which, if nothing else, education should surely aim to improve?) have painted a worsening picture over the previous 50 years, and Seddon lambasting targets and exams in encouraging a sort of herd-like behaviour, where all effort is focussed on the short-term goal of achieving the best score, rather than in maximising purer academic performance.

As the arguments were developed further, the point was made that the education system focuses too heavily on teaching children to recall facts, rather than to develop the sort of critical thinking and logical reasoning required in today’s fast-moving world. PSE in particular was noted as form of indoctrination, where pupils are taught item-by-item what is right and wrong, rather than being given the chance to decide this for themselves.

There were disagreements between audience members and the panel and at times between the two speakers themselves over how best to formulate an overall educational policy and how to measure it’s outcomes, but there was almost universal agreement that the current system which has served us so well for the previous century is now looking increasingly out-dated, and that despite the personal interest of two PMs and many more high-profile education ministers, the massive investment made over the last few years have not delivered the improvements hoped-for.

The argument was therefore presented that another approach is needed. Seddon was particularly critical of policy for deliberately excluding parents from the education process, arguing that schools and parents must be in line with each other and that a failure to bring the two sides together causes alienation reduces the sense of belonging. Young’s school, if successful, could change this.

As Seddon surmised at the end, we are all common stakeholders in the process of education. We have all been educated, and many people have or may in the future have children who will go through the same process. Current circumstances provide a once-in-a-generation chance to get things right this time, and so now is the time to act.

http://www.brightblueonline.com/

Microsoft threats

Off the back of the latest Labs 3.0 Beta coverage I came across Microsoft’s Q3 SEC filing, via an article on Redmondmag.com.

The entire text is downloadable in (surprise, surprise) Word format – though not in Office 2007 format. No interesting metadata unfortunately, either.

Within the text, particularly interesting in an open source context is Part 1A of the “Other Information” section which lists the risk factors for the company. It’s worth reading the entire section if you’re interested in the threats to Microsoft, but the first three are the most relevant.

Item 1 on open source and SaaS:

Challenges to our business model may reduce our revenues and operating margins. Our business model has been based upon customers paying a fee to license software that we developed and distributed. Under this license-based software model, software developers bear the costs of converting original ideas into software products through investments in research and development, offsetting these costs with the revenue received from the distribution of their products. In recent years, certain “open source” software business models have evolved into a growing challenge to our license-based software model. Open source commonly refers to software whose source code is subject to a license allowing it to be modified, combined with other software and redistributed, subject to restrictions set forth in the license. A number of commercial firms compete with us using an open source business model by modifying and then distributing open source software to end users at nominal cost and earning revenue on complementary services and products. These firms do not have to bear the full costs of research and development for the software. Some of these firms may build upon Microsoft ideas that we provide to them free or at low royalties in connection with our interoperability initiatives.  A prominent example of open source software is the Linux operating system. Proponents of open source software continue efforts to convince governments worldwide to mandate the use of open source software in their purchase and deployment of software products.  Although we believe our products provide customers with significant advantages in security, productivity, and total cost of ownership, the open source software model continues to pose a significant challenge to our business model. To the extent open source software gains increasing market acceptance, sales of our products may decline, we may have to reduce the prices we charge for our products, and revenue and operating margins may decline.

Another development is the software-as-a-service business model, under which companies provide applications, data, and related services over the Internet. Providers use primarily advertising or subscription-based revenue models. Recent advances in computing and communications technologies have made this model viable and enabled the rapid growth of some of our competitors. We are devoting significant resources toward developing our own competing software plus services strategies. It is uncertain whether these strategies will be successful.

Item 2, on competition from smaller outfits and community-based groups:

We face intense competition. We continue to experience intense competition across all markets for our products and services. Our competitors range in size from Fortune 100 companies to small, specialized single-product businesses and open source community-based projects. Although we believe the breadth of our businesses and product portfolio is a competitive advantage, our competitors that are focused on narrower product lines may be more effective in devoting technical, marketing, and financial resources to compete with us. In addition, barriers to entry in our businesses generally are low and products, once developed, can be distributed broadly and quickly at relatively low cost. Open source software vendors are devoting considerable efforts to developing software that mimics the features and functionality of our products, in some cases on the basis of technical specifications for Microsoft technologies that we make available. In response to competition, we are developing versions of our products with basic functionality that are sold at lower prices than the standard versions. These competitive pressures may result in decreased sales volumes, price reductions, and/or increased operating costs, such as for marketing and sales incentives, resulting in lower revenue, gross margins and operating income.

And Item 3, on their dependence on tightly protecting their IP through patents and other mechanisms:

We may not be able to adequately protect our intellectual property rights. Protecting our global intellectual property rights and combating unlicensed copying and use of software and other intellectual property is difficult. While piracy adversely affects U.S. revenue, the impact on revenue from outside the U.S. is more significant, particularly in countries where laws are less protective of intellectual property rights. Similarly, the absence of harmonized patent laws makes it more difficult to ensure consistent respect for patent rights. Throughout the world, we actively educate consumers about the benefits of licensing genuine products and obtaining indemnification benefits for intellectual property risks, and we educate lawmakers about the advantages of a business climate where intellectual property rights are protected. However, continued educational and enforcement efforts may fail to enhance revenue. Reductions in the legal protection for software intellectual property rights or additional compliance burdens could both adversely affect revenue.

WordPress Upgrade

All blogs on blogs.alfresco.com have now been upgraded to the lastest shiny WordPress 2.0.11. Version 2.2.2 has also been installed and is available to anyone with an existing blog – but since this is a major upgrade I’ve left this one as an opt-in thing for now.

If you fancy trying out 2.2 and you already have a blog then drop me a mail.

A Lesson in Customer Service

Lesson number one: don’t lie to your customers.

So I phoned up Orange last night, having decided I’d give them one more chance to prove their worth before switching my allegance to a provider that didn’t charge me nearly £70 for a slightly-above average month’s worth of usage. Apparently they could add a few more inclusive minutes onto one of those silly animal packages off their web site, but still nothing close to the offer from 3 that I ended up signing up for today.

I explained that if it helped I was happy not to have a new mobile phone from them, if it helped bring down the monthly cost a little. After all, I’d be saving them at least £200 by not demanding the latest N70 from them for free, having only had my current phone for just over a year and quite liking it, thank you very much.

No go, apparently. Something about me being within my contract still and having to sign up for another one if I want to change my price plan before June. New contact equals new phone. Right.

So despite not really wanting a new phone, I now have a new Sony Ericsson K610i sitting next to me on the surface, ready for when my 3 contract begins next month (apparently you can delay the start of it by 30 days, rather like a student wanting to go to Africa before starting Uni, but in this case for me who wants to live out the remaining 7 weeks of my Orange contract before switching). Unfortunately my old Nokia 6230 just isn’t good enough for the blisteringly fast 3G connections required these days…

The new phone isn’t the latest model there is around, but it’s still a phone. I can make calls, receive calls and do a couple of pointless other things with it should I have the urge. It’s not “reconditioned”, as Orange assured me it would be when I spoke to them about disconnecting yesterday, a clear exegerration of the truth that actually made me more determined to leave, not less.

I was reading yesterday in the Observer that apparently people replace their mobile phones every eighteen months. Hardly surprising really, given how difficult it is not to do so. There was a time when wooing me with new shiny things would have persuaded me to put up with the bum price plan I was on, but not any more. Now I get to spend the extra £30 a month on other exciting things, like car insurance. Mmm.

Loving: Sitting on the river, drinking wine. Drinking lots of water now.

Thursday

From a conversation overheard in a random pub on Thursday night, as two men discuss their gay friend and their own love life woes.

Man 1 to Man 2: If I were gay and you were gay, I’d shag you.

Man 2: (Drinks pint)

Bored of toast

So, according to NHS Direct:

You may have gastroenteritis or food poisoning. If it is very mild, avoid solid food and milk for a day and drink only non-alcoholic fluids. Your pharmacist will advise you about medicines to stop diarrhoea (find your nearest pharmacist). If it is severe or there is also pain, or blood in your bowel motions, call NHS Direct.

A great example of when having a concise medical description of your condition can actually end up making you feel worse about it rather than better. Still, apparently my condition is “safe to manage at home”, meaning I guess, “don’t bother calling us unless it gets worse”.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone into work yesterday after all. But the flat was a tip after the day before, when my day of working from home had turned into a morning of answering a couple of emails followed by lots of falling asleep for the following 18 hours.

So this weekend I will be resting by mostly not leaving the flat, aside from the occasional trip down the road to buy more bread and soup. Maybe it’s good practice for later on in life when I discover that I can no longer leave the house and have become dependent on a laptop computer and old episodes of the O.C. to keep myself sane.

I’d like to think that when I reach the grand age of one-squillion-and-one – or however old we end up living until no doubt much to the Government’s consternation – I’ll have better things to amuse myself with than watching the moment where Marissa dies over and over again, but I probably won’t. Imagine how dated Ryan’s hair will look by then though. Wow.

Open source = fast moving

Google’s Chris di Bona on why they use open source throughout the company, and not just in their development stack:

It’s all about flexibility for us. The terrific thing about open-source software is that we don’t have to ask anyone’s permission before we make changes to our operating systems. We don’t have to ask anyone’s permission before we make changes to our databases. We don’t have to pay any per-client licence fees for these things. This is really important, not just from a cost savings point of view, but from a flexibility and speed point of view.

So the lesson? Open Source may be cheaper than proprietary alternatives, but having the freedom to do what you want when you want with your software is more important than saving a few bucks.

Lecture Notes

Brought to my attention by a reference in a ZDNet article I was reading this weekend was an event Oxford’s Saïd Business School hosted on Monday, curiously titled event called Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford. Chaired by the FT’s Enterprise Editor Jonathan Guthrie, the event gathered together a varied group of Valley experts to look at how innovation and entrepreneurship can be better fostered in the tech sector.

The article linked to a webcast of the evening panel session which featured a number of luminaries including Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Matt Cohler from Facebook, Chris Sacca from Google and Allen Morgan from Mayfield. This is well worth a look for anyone interested in building Internet technologies, businesses or both.

Some interesting business-y points that came up:

  • As Matt Cohler pointed out, HE institutions need to find a compromise between pure theoretical research favoured at for instance Yale and Oxford and the more applied approach taken by Stanford (and drawing similarities myself, Warwick) in order to give people the right skills they’ll need as entrepreneurs.
  • Anecdotal evidence presented by the panel suggested that this year’s students have a lot more confidence and entrepreneurial energy than in previous years, but turning their ideas into a reality may be challenging. Most of the time it comes down to having the right contacts, which in turn relies on having the kind of culture that encourages that.
  • VC isn’t dead, but there’s a lot of “scar tissue” around, according to Morgan. People are still investing in start-ups, but they need to have a solid model behind them. Encouraging stuff, given that Alfresco is one of the companies that Mayfield have funded in the last year.
  • Guthrie came up with some interesting comparisons between the technology sector over the last ten years and investment in the railways and canal infrastructure in Britain in the 17-1800’s. Unlike the canals, the railways at least lasted longer than fifty years, but in both people lost a lot of money that they’d poured into flawed and ill-conceived projects in both. Sound familiar?
  • The failure of a business can be a positive thing in some cases, if you can spot when it’s going wrong before it’s too late.

And on technology:

  • Everyone talked of how social networks are increasingly important on the web and will become even more significant over the next few years. Most communities are based on users gaining some form of notoriety or reputation for themselves, such as on LinkedIn and MySpace. The best way to build a community is by giving it’s members something in return , i.e. there must be some form of self-interest.
  • Matt Cohler talked about how monetising a community online requires you to focus on a particular demographic, but while still making that target group as big as possible. Maximising value requires that you find the right balance between the generality and specificity of a service.
  • Chris Sacca looked at how users can be divided by either their generation or their age group and the distinction between the two. Services can be designed across these divides, and Google Talk was given as an example.
  • There was agreement that we’re still in the early days of the web and we need to develop more advanced systems of authentication and accountability in order to build trust between people. Morgan summed this up well when he said that “Anonymity doesn’t always bring out the best in people”.
  • As ZDNet discussed in their analysis, Sacca referred to the “gated communities” that currently exist on today’s wireless and mobile networks, comparing this with the net neutrality issue in the US. There was general speculation (mostly gloomy) on what will happen to the providers once IP finally becomes ubiquitous on mobile devices, with lots of analogies contributed about dams coming down and various techies in Silicon Valley trying to work out how to take them down faster.

Update: There’s also a webcast of the lunchtime panel sessoin available here.

One hundred per cent

It’s official: After years of dithering, Sun is releasing Java SE and Java ME under the GPLv2. Not their own CDDL, not the MPL, but the GNU General Public License itself with all of it’s copyleft provisions. ZDNet UK have a good initial article on their move, which as they point out in particularly interesting in light of Novell’s recent pact with the devil.

Which means that in addition to being 100% open source itself, Alfresco can now run on a completely open source stack: Linux, Java and your open source RMDBS of choice. Hopefully this will make the whole process of installing on Linux a lot easier and will open a lot more doors, particularly in the public sector where increasingly using open source and open standards is a requirement. Today is a good day.