Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Google

Open Public Services and Social Media

In the last week of November I spoke to the Public Policy Exchange about the effective use of Social Media in schools. I can’t say who attended or what questions they asked as the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule. What I can reveal is a brief summary of what I discussed.

In 2011 the government published a White Paper on the future of Public Services (schools, hospitals etc and which served as the basis for the the conference). One heading stuck out for me:

The old, centralised approach to public service delivery is broken.

This line of thinking has huge implications if made into a reality. Two other quotes struck me from the White Paper and the progress update released last year:

Public services should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.

We will ensure fair access to public services.

Within this context, how could Social Media help deliver or enhance Public Services? My view is that despite the desire to move away from centralisation, that is a fundamental function of the state (see Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’ for a recent example of this)and we should really think about how we can enhance or add to the existing delivery of centralised public services.

Why Social Media and Public Services? Brief context is needed. A recent survey of students at HE suggests that 72% of them spend at least four hours a week on social networking sites a week (25% said they spent upwards of 11 hours a week). Are Public Services ready to reach such people on their terms? Can Public Services incorporate this information into what they do?

Social Media Landscape diagram

Social Media Landscape 2012 by Fred Cavazza

As there are so many tools to think about, I limited my talk to three of the most common (Facebook, Twitter and Google +) and returned to the work of Simon Sinek for helping us to understand why, how and what Social Media can do in terms of a particular Public Service – Education. Purpose/principles are very important in any endeavour and Social Media can help schools fulfil their core purpose of providing opportunities, celebrating success and ‘living’ the idea as a organisation geared towards learning.

I provided three (nowhere near exhaustive) ways that Social Media tools can be used by schools.


On a basic level, Social Media tools can be used as reminders for students, parents and colleagues. This works for promoting events, homework etc. I showcased examples of tweets announcing public lectures, teachers/lecturers reminding students about assignments and to reminders to watch particular documentaries.

Celebrate work

On another level, Social Media can be used to celebrate work publicly and in a timely fashion. This is especially interesting as Public Services do not have the marketing budgets commercial companies to show the brilliant work that is often undocumented. I used a few examples of Sixth Form Colleges showing off their colleagues wining teaching awards, teachers showing work on walls and the picture below of a Motte & Bailey castle made by one of my Year 7 historians. This tweet was retweeted and picked up by a national organisation and when I told the pupil, he was beaming which would translate into increased effort in his lesson (benefits for all).

Motte & Bailey Castle made of cake

Amplify intelligence

The third example of how Social Media can help deliver effective Public Services was in the area of professional development. Twitter has been incredibly helpful in spreading ideas in terms of teaching and learning and I used examples of hashtags on Twitter to link professionals across the country and generate discussion  (such as #TeachMeet, #edtech and #SLTchat). Talking online is useful but what is impressive is how these discussions lead to action or physical meetings in an attempt to solve a common concern. Using TeachMeets, Meetups and the forthcoming Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted as examples, I argued that the professional development that could be generated via Social Media could be more effective and targeted than what an instiution could sometimes provide. Using the example of TeachMeets and Meetups, I made the point that people gave up their time freely to discuss issues and learn from others which in a time of reduced budgets was something to seriously consider. The use of Social Media in this way was a clear example of  Steven Johnson’s ‘Peer Progressives’ – amplifying and developing expertise through distributed networks.

How could the example of schools using Social Media apply to other Public Services? In the first instance, it could be used to celebrate the work within the institution – something that is not done enough. With so many services under public scrutiny, Social Media could be used to raise staff morale in a very cost effective way – all you need is a smartphone (and an awareness of what is appropriate). Secondly, it creates the possibility to amplify what is already good within an institution not just through publicity but also through linking with other interested groups who can provide news ways of approaching a problem. If you have a common concern as a Public Service, would it not be useful to discuss this with other colleagues in different areas of the country?

I then suggested that there were three key things to consider when thinking about Social Media in Public Services.

  1. Does your use of Social Media fit the purpose of your organisation? For education it is a natural fit but if you are constrained by budgets, does it really fit into what is the main thing your organisation does? This is the ‘why’/purpose question.
  2. Do you have a framework to help schools/other Public Services to innovate? This means being able to take managed risks and a willingness to learn from mistakes (as this will happen).
  3. Be prepared for criticism as it will come. How will you deal with a disgruntled user of public services on Social Media channels? You need to plan ahead as it will happen.

The discussion and questions were really interesting (but I can’t say anymore than that)! I want to thank for the team at the Public Policy Exchange for their hospitality and understanding (especially Alex) that I had to leave after my talk to go back and teach my Year 10 GCSE History class. Yes, my class was also thrilled about it too.

Social Media Landscape image from Fred Cavazza.

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ISC ICT Conference and TeachMeet 7th November 2012

I am really looking forward to this year’s Independent Schools Council ICT conference. Part of my excitement stems from the fact that I do not have to travel far to attend (it is being held at Berkhamsted) and part is also due to the quality of the speakers we have confirmed:

  • Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics at the University of Hertfordshire, and Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.
  • William Florance, Head of Enterprise EDU – EMEA, Google UK Limited.
  • Miles Berry, Senior Lecturer and Subject Coordinator for ICT Education at Roehampton University and Chair of the National Association of Advisers for Computers in Education (NAACE).
Booking details for the conference can be found here and tickets are priced at £125.

We are also hosting a TeachMeet after the conference which is free to all (to be clear, you do not have to be at the main conference to attend the TeachMeet). If you would like to attend and share some of the excellent work in your school, please sign up here.

I look forward to seeing you on the 7th November!

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Google meetup and Chromebook thoughts

In December I received an invitation to a meeting at Google’s London headquarters. Having missed the Google Teachers’ Academy, I was quite pleased to meet up with other colleagues using Google Apps and hear more from Google about their plans for education (especially as we now have Google Apps at Felsted and my next place of employment). After being ushered in to Google’s offices I heard a number of speakers talk about how they use Google Apps and Google state that they really wanted to support and encourage teachers. To this end, they provided a Google Chromebook to all attendees which, in my humble opinion, was a very nice Christmas present! I must admit that ever since the ‘launch’ of  the Cr-48 by Google, I had always been interested in the concept because it fits within this growing trend of ‘Post PC’ technology (what I take to mean that the desktop computer with an internal hard drive is not the dominant means for accessing information and creating content). Below are my general impressions after using it for almost three weeks.


The Chromebook looks exactly like a traditional laptop with a 12 inch screen and I was pleased to feel that it felt solid, mirroring the general view of the meetup attendees that it had a certain ‘heft’.  The keyboard was pleasant to use and the screen felt surprisingly large after using an 11 inch MacBook Air although I did miss the obvious colour enhancement that comes with a ‘glossy’ screen. What was really disappointing was the trackpad; it felt cheap in comparison to the rest of the device and not as accurate as I would have expected. The Chromebook comes with two USB ports, one mini VGA, one SD Card slot and the biggest surprise being the SIM card holder. I popped a SIM card in from my old iPad and I was given the option to connect either through Wifi or through the mobile network. Mobile data reception was good and it worked well on a variety of train journeys around the country (although this may have to do more with the network rather than the device itself). Other minor quibbles presented themselves with prolonged use – the light sensor worked relatively well with automatic dimming and brightness depending on conditions but it was a little inconsistent when travelling by train and the trackpad would be unresponsive at times. On balance, I found the Chromebook to be a solid device with an impressive battery life. However the key feature would be the software…


The Operating System is based on the Chrome web browser and did what you expect when viewing content so no more needs to be said. However, things took a turn for the worse when I tried anything more than this. For all of Google’s savvy, the file browsing experience when plugging a USB stick/SD Card in reminded me of old versions of Windows (and not in a nostalgic way). I also found it very frustrating when trying to open a document via USB that a message asked me to upload the document first rather than open and convert it for me via Google Docs.  This was in complete contrast when electing to print a document and I was automatically given the option of converting it to a PDF and uploading to my Google Docs account. Viewing media content was a little better and the Chromebook was able to handle images and video via the SD Card slot well (although I only tested the mp4 format). I was quite pleased with this feature until I tried to upload to something to dropbox or Flickr which was not possible within the OS (although I am sure there must be an extension in the Google Marketplace for this). What really struck me at this point was the inconsistency of experience – some things worked as you would expect with a Google product and others, well, it smacked of a lack of development time. It also showed the major weakness of the Chromebook; if you are not completely wedded to the Google Apps experience, it can be hugely frustrating to use in a personal context but I can see that within a managed environment, this may be seen as an advantage and Google also offer management tools for schools to help with this.

Closing thoughts

I liked the Chromebook and it has rapidly become the other device I use when travelling.  Would I recommend it to schools? There are essentially three things to think  about here. The first is the necessary infrastructure required to run these devices; robust wifi and the deployment of Google Apps are essential otherwise the experience and learning possibilities are practically meaningless.  The second issue is price. At £399, the Chromebook is comparable to laptops and even the iPad it comes off poorly in a number when making comparisons in term of screen size, storage and the ability to run both a wide variety of applications (PC Laptop) and dedicated ones (iOS apps). Priced at £200-300, I would seriously rethink this view…

The last, and most important element, is how it would support teaching and learning within the classroom and outside it. The design and features including the ability to use a 3G network would lend itself to being used on trips and in the classroom and when integrated with Google Docs, possibilites for collaboration are impressive and some of the web only appliations are impressive (such as Aviary). However, it does not appear to offer enough (yet) to differentiate it from other pieces of technology but I believe that this is a first generation offering and I fully expect the hardware and the services it uses to improve greatly over the next year or so. One hope is that Google works with mobile operators to offer a data package to schools with filtering and management tools to encourage use in different contexts…

I want to thank the Google team for taking a first bold step in engaging with the education sector and I look forward to their escalating involvement with schools this year starting with  BETT and hopefully including plans for another Google Teacher Academy. My reasoning is very selfish; education is such an important task that I not only use all the brains I have but also all the brains I can borrow (apologies to Woodrow Wilson).

Image: slgckgc@Flickr 

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