The ghost of Gove haunts UK education

As ever, in the wake of UK grade results, the media’s trying to assess precisely what happened this year, and whether it was good or bad. One major element: grades were up but ‘good’ English grades were down.

It’s pretty strange to see press responses to these results, broadly praising removing listening/speaking components and coursework from GCSE English. I would have thought that many modern workplace environments would require precisely those things in order for someone to succeed. Regurgitation of facts within a stressful exam environment never struck me as the best way to assess anyone’s competence in a subject. Making it the sole way in any subject seems absurd.

August 22, 2014. Read more in: Opinions

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Tech companies don’t deserve respect for doing stupid things

The Next Web on Twitter’s major timeline update:

Twitter deserves our begrudging respect for its willingness to rethink the most basic building blocks of its service: tweets and timelines. Over the past year, Twitter has reordered your timeline with a new conversation UI and added images to a text-only medium. In the long-term, expanding the definition of your timeline is what’s best for Twitter as a mainstream platform, but doing so will upset hardcore users along the way.

Twitter doesn’t deserve our respect; respect is earned. When it comes to online services, respect is earned for doing things that improve a service for the users, rather than purely for the company that’s running it. It’s hard to imagine semi-random tweets dumped in timelines being cheered about on the streets. Precisely no-one I know likes the equivalent happening on Facebook, and so why assume Twitter will be any different?

Adverts: fine. Expanding tweets to link to content: fair enough. Adding stuff you never asked for in the first place: no. Respect? No bloody way.

August 20, 2014. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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What the hell is wrong with Twitter?

Twitter is a simple service. The basic idea is you follow accounts you’re interested in, and people who like your posts (tweets) follow you. Due to its origins being based around SMS, each tweet is restricted to 140 characters, forcing brevity.

The problem with Twitter is it’s never made piles of cash, and it’s clear those in command have been enviously glancing at Facebook for a long time now. This has led to changes in the way Twitter operates, some of which have been merely irksome but understandable (inline ads), and a few of which have actually been beneficial (expanded tweets, providing inline previews for linked content).

Today’s change regarding the Twitter timeline goes a step too far, though:

Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.

In other words, your timeline is no longer just manually curated. This breaks a fundamental contract with the user and totally changes the basic premiss of Twitter. In essence, Twitter just became Facebook — just with shorter posts.

I’m sure Twitter will argue this change benefits the user, in delivering them more content they might be interested in, but it’s also poor user experience to dump content into someone’s timeline that they didn’t request. In the short term, you can get around this by using third-party Twitter clients or bookmark/default to a Twitter list, but I imagine the former won’t exist for much longer and the latter will continue to be buried deep within Twitter’s options.

But, hey, at least you’ll see that tweet from someone you’ve never had contact with, about something you probably don’t care about, right?

August 20, 2014. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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Living your life through a lens and missing being in the moment

My latest piece for Stuff.tv is Your smartphone can capture experiences to watch forever, but they shouldn’t be the experience. It was inspired in part by hearing my unborn child’s heartbeat on a hospital visit, being totally in that moment, and then being fortunate enough to record the sound for posterity.

Too often, though, I see people documenting their own lives without actually living them. People spend gigs watching their device screens rather than the event in front of them. Elsewhere, countless photographs end up in digital archives that are never again visited, while the original moment was compromised by the very act of recording it.

Naturally, I’m not suggesting we all stop using smartphones to record things, as I make clear in the article; but as technology becomes increasingly interwoven in our lives, I do hope people will start to question exactly when they should record something—and also whether it really needs recording at all.

June 25, 2014. Read more in: Technology

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Apple, motion sickness triggers and OS X Yosemite — Why Apple should bring Reduce Motion ‘back to the Mac’

I’m not a developer, but I know enough about development to realise what a big deal WWDC 2014 was. Apple outlined the future of its two operating systems, with some major upgrades that will ensure iOS and OS X both mature and seamlessly integrate. There were also some ‘Back to the Mac’ moments, notably in terms of interface: although OS X isn’t yet as flat as iOS, Yosemite is simpler and cleaner than Mavericks.

Although all the new technology and interfaces are exciting, I’m hoping that it will be fourth time lucky regarding motion sickness and balance accessibility. I’ve been writing for over two years now about such issues as relating to Apple’s operating systems, including an open letter to Apple on this site, and then articles for Stuff magazine and The Guardian, specifically about iOS 7, which had become unusable to me and many others.

Apple listened. Within a month, major animations could be switched for a subtle cross-fade; as of iOS 7.1, the vast majority of other issues were dealt with too, as I reported on in a follow-up piece for The Guardian. Individual third-party apps are now the most common triggers (through developers getting a bit animation-happy), and those can be avoided.

I was truly thrilled at Apple’s response to the iOS 7 problems, and it meant I could use my iPad again, without fear of accidentally triggering the app-switcher and having to take a 15-minute break while trying not to throw up. (And I’m fortunate: many people with similar issues can be knocked out for days after being triggered.) But I’m also disappointed that Apple has fundamentally ignored this issue in three major versions of its desktop-based operating system.

With OS X Lion, perhaps, this is forgivable. Motion/balance accessibility is not well known, and Apple to its credit offers a huge range of accessibility controls and add-ons for people that require assistance for vision, hearing or motor. But then Mountain Lion arrived, followed a year later by Mavericks. Still the full-screen animation remained; still you transitioned between apps with a full-screen slide; still certain apps persisted in utilising similar animations.

As per iOS 7, I’m not hoping for any change in default behaviour. Apple’s existing animations provide a sense of space and location for people using them, and that’s great. What I am hoping for is that Apple brings one more thing ‘Back to the Mac’ for OS X Yosemite: Reduce Motion. Put a checkbox in accessibility that switches out these animations for something less jarring. Better: add more granular controls, and place them in context, rather than hiding them away. Given that TotalSpaces2 can override the app transition animation in full screen, offering six alternatives and an off switch, there’s no reason Apple can’t do the same. More to the point, Apple should do the same, unless it’s a company that believes, for some reason, there’s a cut-off point when it comes to accessibility and user inclusivity on the desktop.

June 9, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Design

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