Tell your children: “If you don’t go to University, you’ll end up homeless”

The University of :inux?
No chance!

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education” was something Mark Twain once allegedly said. Well it certainly sounds like he had an easy ride!

Infrequent readers of this blog will know that my education and my schooling (clearly different things) have been recurring subjects of this blog since the start.

From bypassing content filters, to satirically moaning about institutional IT to rants about utterly useless courses and teachers and finally how I got first got hired, my schooling and education did not get off to a symbiotic relationship.

Recently I helped Richard Smedley with an article, which appeared in Linux User and Developer Magazine (issue 125, page 57), about my route into industry.

For me, the main thing that keeps hitting home is how little things had a big effect later on.

Some examples:

  • I first got into the technology community through Manchester Free Software Group – Matthew Bloch from Bytemark Hosting was the first speaker I saw at the group. He’s now my boss. (Equally, other speakers I saw at the time are friends and/or customers).
  • I first played with the Asterisk PBX software when I was ~14-15 or something. I never really got it to work. My first job was supporting it. (I’m still not sure I got it to work though! ;) )
  • At the first Barcamp I went to (Barcamp Manchester 1!), I met someone who’d later employ me as a contractor at a big corporation and for a period of time, be my first flatmate. In return, I may have saved his life.
  • Several years ago I attended lots of technology community events to help myself learn stuff quickly. I still attend lots of events, but these days I can support the community, wearing my Bytemark hat.
  • At one point I found myself supporting a cluster of Xen hypervisor VMs using the xm-tools package, later, I found myself working alongside the original author.

Of course, this isn’t all that surprising, nothing is stunning unlikely, and of course, one builds on previous achievements and contacts, but up until after it happened, I wasn’t even aware it was possible.

It is not an understatement of my naivety when I mention that I thought schooling and careers had a linear aspect – get good grades in this, to get a good degree in that, to get a good job there, and be happy(tm).

If you approach it like this, then you can start to understand threads like this: Those of you who did not do well in their GCSE’s, how did your life turn out?

with comments like:

I did alright in the mocks, got a mixture of A’s and B’s. I was wondering if they actually were important for after education seeming as my school is trying to convince me that if I get less than a B on my Biology test then I will be homeless.

Sadly they’re clearly not alone. This makes me upset.

One of the other arguments people used to persuade me I should  go to university was that they themselves, made some really good friends at university – “the best friends of their lives”. This argument is relatively watertight, right up until the moment where you ask yourself whether people who didn’t go to university, really go through life with no friends at all… and then it unravels.

As it turns out, actually I’m a member of three university clubs or societies, across two geographically distinct, higher education establishments in different cities. Furthermore, I keep an eye on things that are going on in several other university’s clubs/societies. Hum, clearly no opportunities to meet people if you’re not at uni then!

It’s easy to say “Wow, Tim, you’ve done really well”, but this isn’t about me – it’s about the young people, stuck between by terror stories of university fees and threats that a “B in Biology” will make them homeless, making the right choices about what’s best for them.

I do various odd bits of mentoring but that makes a limited impact here – this is something that needs to be addressed at a higher level and as I’ve no idea how to effectively do that, I’ll just be sporadically blogging here as usual… unless anyone has other suggestions?


This Son of Dork song is a bit of an anthem for me:

Son of Dork – Slacker

The danger your children escaped! Technology!

At school, I was largely a goodie-two-shoes – however, that is to say – I was was aware of the line, and however close I was to it, I did my best to ensure I wasn’t caught crossing it. I’m dubiously proud to say that I never got a detention.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always successful, and after a particularly creative, episode of circumventing content filtering systems so I could access my webmail (which for some reason was blocked), my parents and I were called into the headmasters office.

Tut. Bad Tim.

After I explained how I simply wanted a way to check my webmail account every day at school during my breaks, the headmaster suggested I might be “addicted” to technology.

Me, being a being a hot blooded young man, retorted:

I’m not sure comparing an interest in technology to illegal substance abuse is appropriate to this conversation.

Symbolism?
Symbolism?

In hindsight, whilst that clearly wasn’t the way in which they intended the word, I feel this speaks volumes.

During those years of school, I spent many waking hours playing with technology. I certainly spent more time playing with technology than any other single activity, but I wasn’t “addicted” – I was interested, and thirsty to learn.

For inexplicable reasons, there were absolutely no academic opportunities for me to develop these skills, and so using Portable Firefox and Tor to bypass content filtering and access Gmail in my spare time, seemed a relatively productive.

Suggesting I was “addicted” to computers, was just as shortsighted as it would have been to suggest that my more academically studious classmates were “addicted” to revision.

Whilst my punishment (downgraded from suspension to effectively being banned from using any computer in the school), let them keep the perception that content filters work, and stopped me breaking their AUP on a daily basis, they failed to recognise the problem – that they were just years away from being asked why they did not teach “app development”, or indeed any technology subject.

Essentially they were sealing the middle fingered handshake goodbye from me as just a year later, I moved schools, and 18 months later was working in industry.

I hope that in the future, my grandchildren won’t be accused of “being addicted” to their “Raspberry Pi 3000″ – simply because they’re fascinated by how it all works. Please help us make that future.

I’m Tim and I suck at handwriting

When people see my handwriting, they sometimes joke,

“oh so that’s why you work with computers

but reflecting on it, that probably does relate to it in some way.

Throughout my school life, I sucked at handwriting.

My wonderful handwriting...
My wonderful handwriting...

I mean really sucked. I was slow, it was scruffy, and generally larger than that of my peers. I resented it and generally disliked everything about it – being told  I had to do a long bit of writing was awful.

In primary school, I learnt that every teacher would have a go at “getting me to improve my handwriting” but it wasn’t as simple as that for me. Whenever I switched teacher, I chose not to use my ‘best’ handwriting straight away, so that the new teacher would notice a vague improvement over time. Occasionally teachers would say “oh feel free to spend longer, writing it slowly”, but why would I want to write something really boring, much more slowly, for a mediocre boost in legibility, with a very small amount of recognition for the time and effort involved, especially when, heck, almost anything is more exciting that writing!

In secondary school, I made various academic choices based on the fact that some subjects (*ahem* history), appeared to be more about how fast you could write rather than what you knew – whilst I got some support in terms of extra time – essentially handwriting was still an unwanted exercise. I made various sets of revision notes in various classes, but I was much better at remembering stuff, and quickly reading through a text book than bothering to understand what I’d appeased a teacher with several months back.

How evaporation in lagoons works
How evaporation in lagoons works

Midway through secondary school, I started word processed as many pieces of homework as I could get away with. Some teachers had the idea that rewriting an A4 sheet to make a small correction wasn’t a big deal. For me, it was a big deal. All my GCSE coursework that possibly could be, was word processed or drawn electronically, so that corrections didn’t require painful amounts of work.

By college, I used my own laptop in almost every lesson that involved any potential handwriting, though I remember that I continued to use handwrite some of my french classes, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to learn the codes for the accented letters. There were however, some incredibly technologically inefficient days when I spent the lesson (*ahem* geology) copying what the teacher had written in the presentation displayed on the projector, down into a word processing document on my laptop.

Whilst, my distaste for handwriting certainly didn’t seal my envelope for the technology industry, it must have had a knock on effect – the fact I was spending more time attached to a computer meant that technology related things were more appealing, more accessible, and actually somewhat important for my school work. The incentive to investigate and evaluate any tool that could make my work at school any easier (combined with the fact that evaluating a bit of software is more interesting than writing actual physics coursework methodology) meant that I familiarised myself quite well lots of different bits of software, as time moved on, increasingly on linux systems..

Since leaving the formal educational system, I could probably count the times my handwriting skills have been put into use on both hands.

For note taking, I vastly prefer my memory, recordings, or keyboard interfaces, and the only times I can imagine I’ve had to use hand writing is on official forms of various sorts.

On the flip side however, I write more than I ever have – a large proportion of my job involves writing to customers, I’ve written many many words on this blog for fun – what a strange concept!

I think once I was able to separate writing from making figures with a pen, and once I was able to separate, writing about things I didn’t really care about, to writing about things I did care about, I was able to actually get to grips with it.

The  idea that I’d have a log where I wrote stuff everyday – would have – at one point in time, not all that long ago, seemed like the least appealing idea ever – but I’m now 11 days through my plan to blog every day this month!

The Pirates: Just a political party for a certain age group in Sweden?

At Learning Without Frontiers Conference, Keri Facer, Professor of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University said:

…in Sweden we have the first political party, that, if you like, is allying itself with a particular age group – the Pirate Party.

I don’t think this is true. I mean sure, in Sweden there’s a political party called the Pirate Party, but it’s hardly focused on a specific age group.

Let me explain: actually, there are Pirate Parties in over 40 countries, inspired by the Swedes. In Germany, I was there for the run up to an election which saw the German Pirate Party get 14 seats in the State Parliament. So whilst Sweden was where the movement started and has had some success, (Sweden is represented in the European Parliament by two Pirate Party MEPs), the concept is hardly isolated.

In the UK, we have a Pirate Party. If you’ve read this blog before, you may have noticed that I’m currently the Education Spokesperson and that I contested the parliamentary seat of Manchester Gorton in the 2010 General Election.

I think it’s also worth thinking about the other point that Keri made; is the Pirate Party allying itself specifically with a certain age group? Rick Falkvinge – the founder of the Pirate Party movement – puts forward an interesting explanation:

Rick Falkvinge at the Pirate Party Conference 2011 in Glasgow

As Rick says, “it’s a little bit more than that; let us explain” and I hope this post has helped people to understand and clarify the original statement. :)

Bright New Future for UK ICT Classes?

In response to School ICT to be replaced by computer science programme and Michael Gove to scrap ‘boring’ IT lessons

I’m very pleased with Michael Gove’s announcement on scrapping the existing ‘Information and Communication Technology’ curriculum. I think this is a great  step forward for young people and technology, and has the potential to increase interest in what is a vital area of skills for British youth.

With the launch of  ‘Code Year’ and the Guardian’s campaign to address issues with digital literacy, it is good to see the government giving this part of the curriculum the attention it both needs and deserves. Indeed this initiative comes at a great time and with the Raspberry Pi – an affordable British learning computer for exciting young techies – becoming available soon.

With all that said, I am still somewhat nervous about some of the details of this announcement.  The omission of a reference to open source software and solutions is disheartening, especially whilst referring to “an open-source world” and a changing and open curriculum. I hope that the Department for Education is aware of the potential positive benefits of looking at open alternatives to proprietary ‘solutions’.

I do welcome the premise and direction. Mr Gove is exactly right when he asks us to:

“Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch.”

As someone who now works in the technology sector but who suffered from poor ICT tuition at school, I hope that the government is able to deliver on these proposals; it is something that students in the UK deserve, that the economy of the UK will benefit from and something that has been ignored for too long. I have been campaigning for changes like these since 2009, they are very welcome and I am keen to see how they are implemented and developed.

Tim Dobson
@tdobson

Education Spokesperson
Pirate Party UK

Join the party

Press contact: campaigns@pirateparty.org.uk / 0161 987 7880

First posted on the Pirate Party UK Website

Remembering being taught Applied ICT at A Level

I recently noticed that I got quoted in The Information Age, at the beginning of the year due to the UK Cyber Security Challenge.:

“Tim Dobson, a 20-year-old university student, does not remember his IT A-level course fondly. “In one lesson, our teacher asked us how to find the YouTube website,” he recalled.

Dobson added that he had always been interested in pursuing an IT career, but it “would have helped if the course was not such a failure”. He dropped out of his course before completing it.”

It’s funny, I don’t remember being a university student, but sadly, that anecdote about YouTube is correct.

Back in 2007, I was in an Applied ICT (Double award) A level lesson. These were one of the most dull things I’ve encountered in my life.

The class was working and suddenly the tutor, who’s also working on a computer asks the room,

What’s the address of ‘youtube’?

Sadly, no one responded

*ahem*. Let me just google that for you

or

Shouldn’t you be teaching us that?

We were too stunned.

In the end, someone just muttered “youtube.com” across the room.

Several years on, I asked one of my classmates whether they remembered those lessons:

Unfortunately I do… I loved wasting 2 years of my life that I’ll never get back.

Which is pretty much how I feel about it.

There were positive reactions to such a negative experience – my involvement with the free software community, the formation of DFEY and the building of direct links with technology companies in the area would never have happened if I hadn’t had such a bad experience.

I can’t help but wonder, however, what would have happened if it hadn’t been the way it was – contrary to the article above, despite some attempts by the college to remove me, I completed the course.

To this day, I’m still very proud to have passed an A Level in Applied ICT, at Grade E.

~

Post Script: It looks like almost everyone has at least one story like this. Here is my friend Josh Pickett’s!

If Prof. Brian Cox can make understanding physics cool, how can we do the same for technology & IT?

Three weeks ago, I posted on twitter and reddit:

If Prof. Brian Cox can make understanding physics cool, how can we do the same for technology & IT?

I had an interesting conversation with James Cun. We both agreed that Cox’s personality had made physics more appealing to younger generations. We touched at previous attempts to make technology cool – the BBC’s Virtual Revolution (presented by Aleks Krotoski) series tried, and ultimately failed.

It was a well put together production, with good production values, a good cast, knowledgable presenter… But it lacked the spontaneity and jovial humanity that makes Cox such a ‘legend’ in the eyes of young people today.

Brian Cox

Cox’s fans even include Radio One who remixed one of his series to explain N-Dubz and the “mysteries of the music business”. Cox clearly has an ability to convey and make science interesting in a way other presenters and broadcasters somehow miss.

In my blog post of Eric Schmit ‘s criticism of the UK’s education system, I agreed that we need “a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, but in a very practical, hands-on way”.

I Love Geeks
© 2011 Harry Metcalfe - CC-BY-SA-NC 2.0

So I was interested to see the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, speak along the same lines in The House of  Commons the other day.

“The BBC’s power to make a difference in this area is significant, and I hope now that it will find a charismatic presenter for a history of computer science, so that we can increase interest in computer science education.”

Who? What? How?

Some have suggested the upcoming Raspberry Pi computer could play a role but really, I think the sucess will rest with the presenter’s style.

A presenter who can explain why something is wrong, why a small group of people should know it’s wrong in 2011, why everyone else know’s their wrong and can then conclude why people who believe is are  “complete twats”.  That’s the guy who can sell computer science to the country.

The question is, who could do this?

Eric Schmidt’s criticism of UK education

In the week that teenagers received their GCSE results, Eric Schmidt has lambasted the UK education system, and I find much to agree with him on.

Tim Dobson
© 2011 Marek Isalski - CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

The UK has a proud past of scientists and technological pioneers – the first computer wasn’t built in Silicon Valley, or somewhere in China, but here in Manchester. However, since the early eighties, our education system has failed to live up to our historic record of innovation.

The fact that computer science isn’t available as a subject at every single school is simply outrageous. It wasn’t an option at my high school – I actually had to move schools to be able to pursue my interests.

Students don’t need more classes in how to use Microsoft Word or how to search on Google – they can figure that stuff out for themselves. What’s important is that every student with an interest in technology should be encouraged to study the science, the mathematics, the engineering that lies behind it.

But it’s not all about maths and science – one of the things that we’ve seen very clearly in the past 10 years is that what makes new technology (like the iPad) innovative and exciting, isn’t just the nuts, bolts and software behind it, but the beautiful design and intuitive user interfaces.

Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together.”

Eric Schmidt

At school, I was told that the only way into technology was to do A-level Maths. I didn’t, but today I work as a professional systems administrator. You see the same narrow-mindedness in the Higher Education cuts – only certain “priority subjects”, ie science and engineering, will get funding.

We also have look at the wider picture; the legal and regulatory framework that people grow up in. The moment a young person begins to explore the creative opportunities that technology gives them, they find out that the most basic of mashups, remixes or samples are illegal and could get them ridiculous fines.

Over the past few years, I’ve been involved with several of the Young Rewired State events – bringing young people with an interest in technology together with talented mentors to build applications with government data. I’ve seen complete novices progress into talented young innovators. I think this is what we really need in education – a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, but in a very practical, hands-on way.

Tim Dobson
Education Spokesperson
Pirate Party UK

Contact:
press@pirateparty.org.uk
+44 (0) 161 987 7880

Join the party

A tribute to Richard Rothwell

Many reading my blog will not have heard the name Richard Rothwell and thus will have very little idea of his significance in the early days of DFEY.

I first encountered Richard, like many others, via the Schoolforge-uk (SF-UK) mailing list, with his posts on free software and LTSP related subjects.

Ben Webb and I, on hearing he would be speaking at Manchester Free Software group in May 2008 about Sustainable Education Solutions, went along to see what we could gather.

As probably one of the only Manchester Free Software talks that was not been videoed (release of the videos is a separate issue!), it was a talk that I vividly remember regretting it was not being recorded mid-talk. I regret this to this day.

Some may know that Richard was a important (I think Chief) Examiner for one of the exam boards in GCSE ICT (I think) and at the time, I was having a really hard time with my AS ICT Applied double courses.
I really enjoyed his talk which, whilst focusing on his deployment of LTSP in secondary schools, gave some very insightful ideas into what an school which fully embraced free software could turn out like.

He mentioned that the idea of running the network on LTSP came from two technologically adept 15 year olds.

He explained how they approached him with this distro that did basic LTSP, and so he took them out of lessons and got them to demonstrate how it worked to him on two old machines. Once the potential became clear, as I understand he deployed LTSP on a largish network with minimal resources, saving oodles of money and using recycled computers.

To me, a place where IT staff not only listened to the students, but interacted and were willing to look into ideas shared by the students is amazing, but for them build this system *around* free software is a utopia.

I think Richard persuaded me that there were better places out there, and it was worth working hard to work towards those.

I hope this is what I’m doing now.

A true legend, remembered well.

Richard sadly died on Friday 17th July.
There is a tribute website set up for him at http://tributestorichardrothwell.net, where you can leave your condolences.