Contributions to GSMA MWC Ministerial discussion on mobile-learning

It was great to be on Monday’s panel on “Why put ‘mobile’ in education?” hosted by Adrian Godfrey during the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress Ministerial Programme in Barcelona.  Mike Trucano set the panel underway by giving an important keynote on “Education, jobs and national productivity – why mobile education matters”, which was as usual full of down-to-earth sensible suggestions.  I suggested that governments should try cloning him, and each then have one clone to help them implement effective ICT and education initiatives.

Rebecca Walton (British Council) then hosted a panel discussion that also included Carolina Jeux (Telefónica), Chris Penrose (AT&T), and Tarek Shawki (American University, Cairo), asking us each a pre-set question to get the ball rolling.  Mine was “What are the three things that policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education, and what are the three things that governments should do?”.  This is actually much tougher than it might appear – keeping the list down to only three things each!

Here was my response:

Three things policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education:

  • The focus should be on the learning and not on the technology
  • Never ignore the content – far too many initiatives focus on putting equipment into schools or into learners’ hands – but often there is insufficient relevant content – and pupils do not always know how to access this themselves
  • It is essential to provide high quality training for teachers in how to use technologies in the classroom – and particularly mobile devices of all kinds. Keep mobile switched on in classrooms (and beyond)!

Top three things governments should do:

  • Approach mobile learning in a holistic and integrated way – bringing together all relevant ministries – ICTs, energy, education…
  • Focus on the most marginalised.  The market will take care of the majority, and it is the responsibility of states to deliver services for their poorest citizens. Hence, governments must implement programmes to support those living in isolated rural areas, and that will enable people with disabilities to gain the benefits of mobile learning
  • Begin by ensuring that the basic infrastructure is in place – electricity and connectivity (preferably mobile broadband) as far as possible making this universal.

I wonder what your three answers to these questions might be?

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Wind turbines in the Conca de Barberà

I have written previously about the landscape implications of wind turbines in the Conca de Barberà, but always somehow hope when I visit this beautiful part of Catalunya that I will not be annoyed by them as much as I have been on previous occasions!  It never works.  I was walking in the hills above Poblet today, and the view across the vineyards and fields, looking across to the snow covered Pyrenees Mountains in the distance were completely destroyed by these ‘urban’ conceptualised and created monstrosities in the rural landscape!  Have to admit that it tempts me to thoughts of how easy they would be to destroy…

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Runnymede floods and Staines under Thames, 16th February 2014

What seems like the first bright sunny day for weeks provided an opportunity to take a photographic record that would capture something of the flooding along the Thames in Runnymede, Egham and Staines.  The pictures below provide a follow-up to those that I took earlier in the year in January on a rather more cloudy day, when the floods were less extensive.

Whilst I have every sympathy with those living in flooded areas, these images emphasise that flood plains are meant to be just that – plains where rivers flood!  We have had exceptional amounts of rainfall, and no-one should therefore be surprised that such flooding has occurred!

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CTO visit to the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania

The final day of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation’s Digital Broadcasting Switchover Forum (DBSF) 2014 provided an opportunity for delegates to continue their discussions whilst visiting the magnificent Ngorongoro crater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated some three hours drive west of Arusha.  This event, along with many other aspects of the Forum was supported by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor John Nkoma (Director General, TCRA) for all of the effort that his magnificent team put into making this what was widely regarded as one of the best ever DBSF event convened by the CTO.  Particular thanks are especially owed to Habbi Gunze (Director of Broadcasting Affairs at TCRA) and to Innocent Mungy (Head of Corporate Communications, TCRA) for everything that they did to ensure that participants were able to hold fruitful and valuable discussions on Africa’s progress towards digital broadcasting switchover by August 2014.

The photos below provide a summary of the magnificent experiences that delegates had in the Ngorongoro crater, and also on the journey between Arusha and the crater.  As I hope these images indicate, the crater itself was very much bigger than I had been expecting and the range of wildlife was truly amazing.

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After visiting the crater, we spent some time in a small Maasai boma.  A group of children were gathered in one of the tiny huts that served as a pre-school, and it was fun to sing ABCDEFG… with them, and hear them count from one to 10 in very good English.  It reminded me of the images that appeared around 2007 in European and north American media of Maasai warriors with their mobile ‘phones, giving the impression that such devices were becoming more or less universal amongst the Maasai, and were transforming their lives.  I asked one of the chief’s sons whether there were mobile ‘phones in the village, and slightly perplexed he said “No”.  One of my colleagues then asked whether he felt ‘phones would be useful for communicating with friends, and the “warrior’s” response was fascinating, saying much about the resilience of Maasai culture.  “Why do I need a mobile ‘phone?”, he said.  “If I want to see a friend, I walk, perhaps two or three hours to see them”.  I envied him.  What a privilege to walk through such a wonderful landscape, and not to feel the pressures of our modern digital lives.  Perhaps I should not have asked my next question, but he was proud of the children’s learning skills, and wanted to improve his own education.  So, I asked “But if you had a mobile ‘phone, could you not use it to access books and information so that you could learn?”  I should not have asked, because the question embarrassed him.  It reflected a world so different from his own, that it was incomprehensible.  I felt embarrassed too that, although he had given permission, friends with me were using their smart-phones to take pictures of the boma.  I left feeling very challenged.  I’ve long felt that we should never impose digital technologies on the lives of others.  Of course many people think that mobile ‘phones could indeed make the lives of the Maasai very much “better”, but it would certainly be at a cost.  I left just wanting to find a way to give them books for their children, which is what he had asked for.  Perhaps then we could make time to help work with the villagers to design technologies that might enable them to live the lives they want to, rather than the lives so many of “us” want to impose on them of being both a market and a labour force.


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Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation’s Digital Broadcasting Switchover Forum, Arusha

Just under 200 people (including regulators, the private sector and civil society groups) have come together to discuss critical issues surrounding the switchover/transition from analogue to digital broadcasting at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation’s Digital Broadcasting Switchover Forum (#DBS2014) taking place from 11th-14th February 2014.  We were delighted that Hon Dr. Fenella E. Mukangara (Minister of Information, Youth, Culture and Sport of the United Republic of Tanzania) was able to open the Forum this morning.

With Nkoma and Mukangara

In my welcome address, as well as thanking the government of Tanzania and especially the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, I took the opportunity to highlight four particular issues:

  • The importance for Africa –  digital transition/switchover has considerable potential, especially in terms of the diversity of services it can offer, as well as the digital dividend it will provide through the reallocation of spectra.  However, it must be used to  serve the interests of all of Africa’s people, especially the marginalised, such as people with disabilities and those living in sparsely populated rural areas.
  • The potential for Africa – people living in Africa should not be only learning from the experiences of other parts of the world in terms of good practices (part of the purpose of this Forum), but should also be developing innovative solutions for the context of Africa, that can in their turn be used in other international contexts. We must build on the richness of African innovation.
  • The challenges facing Africa – some of the many challenges facing Africa include:
    • it is not easy to deliver transition/switchover solutions at a cost that everyone can afford;
    • we must not fall into the trap of being forced to deliver to a time-schedule that may not  be realistically feasible;
    • ensuring indeed that the poor and marginalised – those who often currently benefit most from analogue radio and television – can indeed still afford to do access digital broadcasting;
    • ensuring quality standards of equipment such as set top boxes; and
    • ensuring that appropriate information is shared with everyone in a diversity of languages.
  • My own experiences of switchover – I recall my parents being really concerned about switchover in England, not fully understanding what was involved, but they were grateful that a free service for elderly people was provided to put in a set top box and help them to use it effectively.  My mother can now benefit from all that digital TV can offer! This particularly reminds that it is not so much the technology that is the challenge, but rather that the most difficult thing to get right is how to ensure that everyone, and particularly the elderly, the spatially marginalised and those with disabilities, can really benefit from digital switchover.

Sirpa OjalaImage from session on the future of African broadcasting

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The River Thames at night

Somewhat surprisingly, I had never been on a boat on the River Thames at night until yesterday.  I remember  as a child, when London seemed to have turned its back on the river, which always seemed cold, dark, smelly and unattractive!   Over the last 50 years this has all changed, especially with the opening up of the path along the south bank of the Thames, and the transformation of the old docks into modern offices and residential areas. I had not, though, appreciated just how beautiful it was at night, with the buildings all carefully lit.  I hope that the pictures below do it some justice!  Thanks to Dominc and Caroline for making this possible for delegates at the Education World Forum!

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On “cyber” and the dangers of elision.

The use of the word “cyber” to refer to all matters relating to computers and the Internet has become ubiquitous.  Hence, the terms “cyberspace”, “cybergovernance”, “cybersecurity”, “cybercrime”, “cyberporn” and many other “cybers-” are commonplace, and feature prominently in current rhetoric about ICTs and governance of the Internet.

This has always made me uneasy for two basic reasons:

  • the original meaning of “cybernetics” had little to do with computers; and
  • there is a real danger of elision of meaning, when people use one cyber-word to refer to what other people use another cyber-word for.

A blog is no place for a detailed exegesis on these matters, but I have so often been asked about my views on them that I thought I would briefly summarise them here.

The meaning of “Cyber”
The word “cyber-” is usually seen as being taken from the concept of  “cybernetics”, which itself is derived from the ancient Greek κυβερνήτης, meaning steersman, pilot, or governor.  Hence, “cyber’” is fundamentally to do with governing or steering.  It is used in this sense to refer to the governance of peoples in the First Alcibiades, usually ascribed to Plato.

Cybernetics in its modern form came to be used in the first half of the 20th century to refer to control systems in biology, engineering, applied mathematics, electronics and other such fields, and so was always a very much broader concept than just relating to the field of computing.  As a discipline, cybernetics emerged in the late-1940s and 1950s, especially in the USA, the UK and France, championed by people such as Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann.  The importance of this is to emphasise that in origin, and even until very recently, “cyber-” has been associated with a very broad field of intellectual enquiry, across many disciplines, focusing especially on systems and their control mechanisms.

It therefore seems to me to be inappropriate for the term to have been appropriated quite so aggressively in the field of digital technologies, ICTs and the Internet, first because it causes confusion, and second because in some instances it is tautologous:

  • with respect to confusion, why do we need to speak about terms such as cybergoverance, cybersecurity and cybercrime, especially when there are other terminologies already in existence, such as e-governance, Internet governance, computer crime?  As discussed further below, the lack of consensus and agreement on terminology is problematic.
  • second, though, and of much more concern, it seems to me that the notion of cybergoverance is fundamentally flawed because it is tautologous.  If “cyber-” in essence is to do with governing, then all “cybergovernance” means is governing governance.

There have been many detailed critiques of the use of “Cyber-” in other fields, with Mark Graham’s critique of concepts of cyberspace in the Geographical Journal, being particularly useful.  However, few people have sufficiently emphasised this tautology in the notion of “Cybergoverance”.

Dangers of Elision
When concepts are used in such a slippery way, with meanings being appropriated and adapted so frequently, there is a considerable danger of misunderstanding, overlap, and ultimately of failure to deliver on practical action.  Moreover, behind every use of a concept there is also an interest.  This is very well illustrated by confusion over the terms cybergoverance, cybersecurity and cybercrime (or even cyber-goverance, cyber-security and cyber-crime).  All too often they seem to be used interchangeably, and there really must be clarity of meaning and understanding of such terms if progress in reaching consensus on these very important issues is to be made.  One person’s cybercrime is another’s cybersecurity, and an initiative set up to focus on just one aspect can readily seek to expand into another, thereby causing confusion, duplication of effort, and indeed mistrust.

Although, for the reasons above, I think that the term “Cyber-” should no longer be used at all with respect to work on the Internet, digital security, computer crime and the like, because it is far too broad, I recognise that unfortunately it is now in such common use that this plea will fall on deaf ears.  There are powerful interests who like this ambiguity, and wish to use such terms for their own ends!  Hence, let me offer a simple structure whereby some clarity might be injected into the discourse.  At least for me, there is a nested hierarchy of such terminology:

  • “cybergovernance” (ugh, the tautology still hurts me) should be used (if at all!) for the overarching notion of governance of ICT systems, including concepts such as Internet governance and e-governance;
  • “cybersecurity” can be seen as a subset of cybergoverance, and should be used to refer to all aspects of security with respect to ICT systems.  The concept of “cyber-resilience” can be seen as being closely allied to this, and might actually be a better term, since it is more positive, and takes away the sense of threat around security and the role of the military.
  • “cybercrime”, accordingly, is a subset of cybersecurity, focusing just on the aspects of criminality with respect to the use of ICTs.

Of course there is overlap between these terms, because fully to understand cybercrime, one needs to have a knowledge of cybersecurity, and to understand and act on that one needs to consider wider cybergoverance issues.

My preference is to abandon the use of this “Cyber-” terminology altogether and to use clearer more specific words for what we are talking about and seeking to implement.  Then, we might actually make some progress in ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from the potential of ICTs.  However, if these terms continue to be used, let’s first try to reach some better agreement on their bounds and contents.  Cybergovernance, cybersecurity and cybercrime are categorically different concepts, and the interests that seek so often to elide them need to be challenged!


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