Cellphones at schools – should they be banned?

French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced a nationwide ban of cellphones at schools. Was this a wise move? Is this a well-thought-out strategy?

French parents and teachers’ unions are dubious. They say the decision lacks logic and pragmatism. What makes this situation particularly tricky is that children will actually be allowed to bring their phones to school, but not allowed to use them.

Naturally, teachers want to know how the ban will actually be enforced Will we force children to “check in” their phones every morning, or will we leave the phones with them, and simply trust them to “do the right thing”?

Perhaps an idea might be to put the phones into lockers. If so, do schools have enough lockers? And then, who’s checking to see that the phones are actually going into the lockers?

Maybe security guards carefully monitoring students via a network of security cameras? What about the bathrooms?

Then there’s the question of wearable devices. I’m not sure if the French authorities are aware that you can interact with your smart phone using a smart watch, even if it’s safely locked up inside a locker. Should smart watches then be included in the ban? Will there be a daily pat-down for smart watches? That sounds like fun.

Then there are more subtle nuances such as what actually constitutes usage of a cellphone.

If a child pulls out a phone to check the time, or to check a message from a parent, is this tantamount to a violation? Does she deserve detention for this?

It’s not clear how the French authorities will deal with these logistical challenges, but one thing is certainly very clear: the ban comes into effect in September this year, and they currently don’t have a clue.

Of course, schools have very compelling reasons for banning cellphones. They are dealing with really serious issues relating to cellphones that are not just detrimental to the learning and teaching process, but also pose a risk to children’s physical, emotional and mental health – risks that come from spending too much of time slouched in front of a tiny screen.

Let’s face it: this is not a French problem, but a problem of global proportions, affecting every country and every culture.

Teachers everywhere are struggling to get any teaching done because learners are constantly distracted by their ringing, buzzing, chiming pocket devices. Children rudely text each other while the teachers are talking.

Then there are serious issues like pornography and cyberbullying. According to global statistics, children as young as 10 years old are exposed to internet porn, and this is no doubt a cause for alarm.

Ultimately, the question shouldn’t be whether or not cellphones should be banned, but whether banning them will deal with these problems effectively.

Are children going to be more motivated to learn, and are porn and cyberbullying going to go away? Or are we just running away from the real problem?

Artificial Intelligence could be a threat to humanity

In the 1984 movie The Terminator, a powerful, artificially intelligent computer called Skynet became self-aware, took control of the world’s weapons arsenals, including its nuclear weapons, declared war on its creators, and launched an all-out war on humans. Its mission: to wipe humankind off the face off the earth.

Terminator was a great movie, and made for great entertainment, but it left a lingering question in the mind of the audience: is it possible in real life?

Rogue Machines

The idea of artificially intelligent computers going rogue and taking over the world is not new, and is a recurring theme in dozens of science fiction movies and novels, like the movieEx Machina, the Matrix movie series and Asimov’s novel, “I, Robot”, which was also adapted into a movie.

It is perhaps because of the ideas propagated by these works of fiction that, whenever there are discussions on the rapid pace of technological advancement, and AI in particular, the first reaction for a lot of people is one of fear, or at the very least, concern. I’ve personally been told after numerous talks and presentations that nothing good can come out of technology in the long run.

But it’s not just works of fiction that spread these ideas. Some leading scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs have also expressed concern about the rise of artificial intelligence. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, warns that AI is “our biggest existential threat”. The late Stephen Hawking was concerned that “AI could spell the end of the human race”.

Then there are breakthroughs in the world of technology that are so astounding that they leave no doubt that computers are getting really, really smart. One such breakthrough happened last year when an AlphaGo, a computer equipped with deep learning artificial intelligence capabilities, won a game of Go against the reigning world champion, Lee Se-dol.

When you consider that Go is an ancient game which is extremely complex, where players use moves and strategies handed down over generations, then you can begin to appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.

But it didn’t stop there. The creators of AlphaGo went on to create an even more advanced system called AlphaGo Zero, which wiped out AlphaGo at the same game. It accomplished this after only 40 days of self-learning.

Then there was the news of Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence system that made a natural, human-like phone call to a salon and made an appointment.

What exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

A survey conducted in 2017 by Sage, an American cloud business management services company, revealed that nearly 50% of consumers in the USA and the UK had no idea what artificial intelligence was about. It will be reasonable to assume that South Africans are no different.

So what exactly is artificial intelligence, or AI? Putting it very simply, AI is a term used when machines are programmed to mimic human intelligence and cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.

AI can be applied to achieve something as simple as playing and winning a game of tic-tac- toe, through performing optical character recognition, where computers recognize handwriting. Then there are the really complex functions like controlling self-driving cars.

We use AI on an almost daily basis. Google Assistant on Android devices is an example of advanced AI, and so is your mobile phone’s camera app that recognizes and highlights human faces. Google maps also has AI which helps you to find the quickest route to your destination.

Many times, we put our lives in the hands of AI without even realizing it. Have you taken a long flight recently? When the pilot switches to auto-pilot, who do you think is keeping the plane in the air? You guessed it: artificial intelligence algorithms.

Is AI essentially a Threat?

So, the big question is, are we going to face an evil, super-intelligent computer like Skynet someday in the future? Is it possible that we have already begun to create this “Frankenstein” machine that will someday gain consciousness and become our nemesis?

While people like Elon Musk believe that this is indeed possible, a lot of experts strongly disagree, saying that the opponents of AI are vastly over-estimating its power and under- estimating the power of the human mind. Other experts warn that needless fear-mongering is irresponsible, as it will potentially hinder the progress of technology.

One such person is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, who said that Elon Musk’s statement was “irresponsible”.

Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Institute, a department within Toyota that works on artificial intelligence projects, believes that artificial intelligence has tremendous potential for improving people’s lives, and that sentiments like those expressed by Elon Musk could be “emotional reactions to science-fiction dystopian descriptions of AI overlords”.

To answer the big question, AI is not evil. Computers are not, and cannot be evil. They are lifeless machines, and AI is nothing more than a set of instructions that we feed into a machine, nothing more.

The bigger concern should be “who” is giving those instructions.

What is the future of AI?

It is almost impossible to predict the trajectory that technology is going to take with any degree of certainty. In the 1980’s we had phones, computers, video cassette players, audio cassette players, still cameras, video cameras and modems. Yet no one could have predicted that one day all those devices will be compressed into a small piece of glass and metal in the palms of our hands. But fast forward to 2018, and we cannot live without our cell phones.

We will just have to wait and see how the story unravels, with cautious optimism. Technology certainly has the potential to improve our lives, but it will undoubtedly bring with it new challenges. But§ in time we will, as a human race, overcome these, like we did countless times in the past.

So, should we be afraid of artificial intelligence? There’s no evidence that suggests we should. But then again, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are no fools. Were they perhaps onto something?

Wake up and plug into the future

Can you imagine a time when your cellphone will be able to make a call on your behalf and actually converse with someone? This may sound like science fiction, but that time is here. A few weeks ago, Google conducted a spectacular demonstration where Google Assistant, Google’s artificially intelligent system, made a call to a hair salon and made an appointment.

What was truly great about the demonstration was that Google Assistant dialed the salon and spoke to the receptionist in a casual, human-like fashion. It was so convincing that the receptionist did not know she was speaking to a machine. Google Assistant even dropped in a casual, very human-like “Mm-hmm” into the conversation!

“The amazing thing is that Google Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation,” according to Google CEO, Sundar Pichai. “We’ve been working on this technology for many years. It’s called Google Duplex.”

What this simply means, is that the system is able to speak, listen and understand, all at the same time, just like a human. What’s more, the system can even react intelligently if the conversation takes an expected turn.

Conversations with machines
It was a truly remarkable demonstration, and a sure sign of things to come. In the near future, your phone will be able to make calls on your behalf to make appointments and bookings, or even take a call for you if you are busy, and conduct an intelligent conversation with the caller. Perhaps it will even be able to mimic your voice.

It certainly isn’t hard to imagine a time when you might call a company and have a full conversation with someone who you think is human, but will, in actual fact, be a computer. This will surely make business sense: why hire dozens of call center agents when a single computer will suffice?

Undoubtedly, information technology has come a long way, and these are truly amazing times to be alive. There was a time when we used to marvel at the little things, like being able to make face-to-face calls to people in other parts of the world, or send a text message, an image, an audio clip or a video anywhere in the world in seconds.

I remember being fascinated when online flight bookings became a thing, and I still haven’t gotten over the fact that if I need a ride, I can open an app, choose a destination, make payment, and then be picked up by a car within minutes. But all that was way back in 2017. Things have moved on now. Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

There are many things that distinguish the fourth industrial revolution from its forerunner, but the most significant differentiator is that in the past, computers and technology were simply tools that we used to streamline our lives. They were really powerful tools, and were great at what they did, but ultimately the human was the controller. We had our place in the real world, and they had theirs in the cyber-world.

But now, all that has changed. The lines are blurred, and computers are no longer confined to the digital world. They’ve made their foray into the real world, and have begun to do things that were traditionally done by humans. Back then, they were extensions of our minds, but now they have minds of their own. They are able to sense their surroundings, converse, and make decisions. They are even able to drive vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are already being prototyped in parts of the world, and once they have been thoroughly tested and perfected, it will be just a matter of time before they replace human-driven vehicles entirely, just as the ‘automobile’ replaced the horse just over a century ago. There will probably come a time when it will actually be strange to see a human driving a vehicle.

Taking it a step further, Dubai successfully tested an autonomous passenger drone taxi, which is projected to be in full operation by 2020. Take a moment to take this in: an autonomous flying taxi. This is not science fiction; it is a reality.

Then there are the wearable devices, which are computers embedded inside clothing, like watches and footwear. These devices are intelligent enough to monitor our health and fitness, and even warn us when something is not right. Consider the case of a Hong Kong man whose life was saved by his Apple watch: the watch detected an abnormally high heart rate, and gave him a warning. He immediately sought medical assistance, and doctors found that he had almost suffered a heart attack.

Communication in the 21st Century

Communication in the 21st century is not just between humans; it is between us and our myriad devices, their communications with each other, and their environments. We are living in a connected, technology-driven world that was mere science fiction just a couple of decades ago, but is now our reality.

No one really knows where all this is heading. As technology marches ahead, computing power and storage increases exponentially, and as brilliant, innovative individuals keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, the story will unravel. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that whatever the future holds, it is going to be very interesting.

The big question for us is, what role will our kids play in this? Will they be at the forefront of technology innovation, or will they be passive observers? Do we have a comprehensive strategy in place for them?

Will Africa play a meaningful role in the fourth industrial revolution?

Bilal is Head of Learning and Teaching Innovation at Educor
He blogs about kids, technology and education at www.bilalkat.com

The World is Shrinking. Here’s Proof

We often hear people mention the term  “global village”, but what does it really mean? It means that, thanks to technology, the world is becoming more accessible than ever before. Here’s my own recent experience with that. Continue reading “The World is Shrinking. Here’s Proof”

6 Simple tips to ensure elearning success at your school

Are you trying to make a success of your school’s elearning efforts, but students are just not taking to it? Here’s what you may be doing wrong.

I have a colleague who works at an educational institute that recently decided to go the elearning route.

They installed a Moodle Learning Management System (LMS), uploaded some study guides (in PDF format), and then made a call to each student, informing them about the LMS.

Two months later, my colleague sent me this note:

“Hey Bilal! We are in a desperate situation: only around 50 out of 5000 students have accessed the LMS. These numbers are pathetic – about 1% of the student population! We can’t say the students don’t know about it – we made a personal call to every single one of them. What went wrong? Please advise!”

What went wrong?

What went wrong is this: students were not engaging with the LMS because they were not receiving any additional value on the LMS.

To get students using the LMS, the school has to do better than PDF documents. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them to use the LMS. They simply will not use it unless there is something worth going online for.

This is not a unique situation. Most educational institutes initially have the same challenge: students do not engage with the online content. As a result, their efforts at going elearning fail.

6 Simple tips to increase student engagement with the LMS

The following are 5 easy steps to increase student engagement that any institute can apply.

  1. Start small: Start with a pilot rollout. Offer a single course online.
  2. Get teacher buy-in: If the teachers are not comfortable with the new technology, the students will never be. Give teachers all the support, guidance and training they need to get comfortable with technology.
  3. Provide value: Provide content that will actually provide value to the students. Provide a lot of videos, graphics, infographics, animations  and the like. Students will love it. The best part is there are tonnes of content available online for free.
  4. Encourage interaction: Teachers need to create engagement through interaction. They need to provide opportunities for students to interact with the LMS and with each other. They can use forums, quizzes, chats and group tasks. Here’s a tip: answer all student questions on the forums.
  5. Continuous improvement: Identify student challenges, and find solutions, continuously improve.
  6. Scale up: gradually take more and more courses online.

Conclusion

Implementing elearning at schools will undoubtedly provide a lot of benefits to students as well as teachers, but it can get tricky.

In essence, it is digital transformation, and digital transformation is not a simple and trivial process. It takes time, effort and resources.

What makes this situation more challenging at schools, is that the transformation needs to take place on two levels: at the institutional level, and at student level.

The good news is, using a strategic and phased approach, we can achieve it. We just need to remember a simple, golden rule:

Start small, scale up

Guest lecture at University of KZN Westville

I was honoured to be invited by my good friend, Dr Craig Blewett, to deliver a lecture to his final year Computer Science students at the University of KZN, Westville.

My topic was on Mobile App Development Strategies, and I gave a high-level explanation of how apps are made, as well as some insights into starting an app business.

Topics Covered

The topics I covered were:

  • Native apps versus Hybrid HTML 5 apps: the pros and cons of each approach.
  • Mobile trends in Africa: internet and mobile device trends in Africa, and the business implications.
  • App business models: different ways in which apps make money.
  • Strategies for starting an App business: what you need to know before you start.

The lecture was followed by a lively discussion around feature phones and their potential in the African market, since a large percent of people on the continent still use feature phones.

Slides

My slides are available to download here: Mobile App Development Strategies (1MB)

Kids spending too much time with gadgets? Try Nature Walks

According to some studies, the average kid spends at least 42 hours a week in front of a screen, and only about 40 minutes outside.

Now I am all for technology and gadgets, but even I have to admit, we have a problem here. That’s just too much time with gadgets!

So, what’s the solution? Do we take the gadgets away? Or maybe impose restrictions?

Unfortunately, being a father of three gadget geeks, I can tell you that taking the gadgets away just doesn’t work (it’s a nice way to get your kids to resent you) while imposing restrictions has only limited effectiveness. We need something more.

Add, don’t Subtract

What’s a parent to do then? Here’s a tip that worked for me: add, don’t subtract. In other words, rather than take away gadgets, introduce an alternative.

Give them something else to do that is fun and exciting, while at the same time providing multiple benefits. Something that will preferably get the kids outside.

One activity that meets the above criteria is nature walks. Nature walks are for everyone: mums, dads, kids, grandparents. They are not only free, but also provide amazing benefits for everyone, particularly the kids.

Benefits of Nature Walks

It’s impossible to list all the benefits of nature walks, but here are a few:

  • It gets kids outside, away from gadgets: this is probably the most obvious benefit.  One exception to this is a digital camera, because nature photography is really good for kids.
  • Healthy bodies: nature walks are a great form of exercise, especially if they are a bit challenging with steep climbs.
  • Healthy minds: walking itself is great for the mind: it’s been proven to improve memory, increase creativity and boost your productivity. Combined with nature, the effect is multiplied.
  • Healthy souls: nature walks reduce stress, create a sense of calmness and makes you feel happy. There is something about being in nature that is just amazingly soothing. Which brings us to the next benefit…
  • Allows them to use their senses: nature provides countless stimuli for all the senses, whether they are looking at the countless shades of green, listening to the beautiful songs of birds, taking in the scent of a flower or feeling the roughness of a tree’s bark.
  • Strengthens family bonds: there is no substitute for spending quality time together as a family, and doing a nature walk encourages everyone to talk and basically enjoy each other’s company.
  • Creates an appreciation for nature, wildlife and the environment: unlike our forefathers, we live in artificial environments, completely detached from nature, making it hard to appreciate the natural wonders around us. Nature walks brings us all up close with nature, rekindling that awe and appreciation for the world.
  • Above all, it’s a deeply spiritual experience: there is no better way to reconnect with your creator than through observing His creation first hand.

Conclusion

Technology is great, but we need to get out as much as possible, spend sufficient time outdoors and get enough exercise.

Very few activities are as enjoyable and chock full of benefits as nature walks.

So the next chance you get, get your gang a pair of hiking shoes and try out the nature trails in your area.

Have you had any amazing experiences in nature? Please share in the comments below.

How much bandwidth is enough for schools?

How fast internet is ideal for schools? This is a tricky question that has many schools stumped. I will try to shed some light based on my experiences.

As more and more schools shift towards technology-enhanced learning, they set up powerful Learning Management Systems (LMS), provide learners with beautiful tablet PC’s, acquire amazing digital content and get ready to step into the future of learning.

But then something horrible happens: everything crashes because the internet is too slow. They are dead in the water without decent internet speeds. So then the question arises: how much speed is ideal?

Internet speed guide for schools

The speed requirements for any institute will be mainly dependant on two variables:

  1. Number of concurrent students: the keyword here is ‘concurrent’. What this means is the maximum number of students that will be using the internet at any given time.
  2. Type of usage: how will the students use the internet? Will they use it just for browsing, or will they streaming videos as well? Will the content be primarily offline (apps, local server), or will it be online?

The starting point will be to establish the above at your question, and then make a decision from there.

As an example, let’s say your school has 1000 students, all of whom will be on campus at the same time. In other words, you have 1000 concurrent users. You will require the following amounts of bandwidth:

Bandwidth guidelines for schools

Not All Schools are the Same

Of course, the above are guidelines based on my experience, and may or may not apply to your school. Additionally, there may be budgetary constraints that prevent you from implementing the ideal speeds; or perhaps higher speeds are just not available in your area.

What I would recommend, is to start off with a low speed fibre line, perhaps 40 Meg, and see how it works out for you. If you need more, you can always increase the speed.

The great thing about fibre is that the speed can be changed within 24 hours. There is no need for any additional infrastructure upgrades.

How to save on internet costs

If you are based in South Africa, there is an e-rate legislation that entitles educational institutes to a 50% discount on bandwidth. The Icasa website defines it as follows:

“E-rate” means the discount of no less than 50% applicable to public schools or public further training colleges, or any other independent schools or private further education and training colleges, as may be declared, to be entitled to the discount for utilising internet services provided by a licensee.

Click here for more information on this.

Conclusion

Trying to figure out how fast internet your institution needs, is like asking the question:’how long is a piece of string’. It’s very difficult to answer up front. There are some guidelines to help you decide, such as the recommended 1Gig per second per 1000 students, as you saw in the diagram above.

Most importantly, you need to do what works for your school. You can do this by starting small, and then increasing the speed until you find the sweet spot between speed and affordability.

 

5 Simple steps to a happier life

We all want happiness, but we are doing things that deprive us of it. What’s worse, daily we harm ourselves and cause ourselves serious health issues without even realising it.

I love coding

This morning I stumbled on an article about coding, and suddenly I remembered how much I miss coding (What is coding?). Coding has been my hobby since I was 10 years old (and used to be my profession at one time), and I love it.

I love the whole process of thinking up an idea for an app or a video game and then creating it. It’s a great feeling to see something you think about become a reality.  It must be how artists feel when they complete their projects.

Coding also helps me to calm my mind, to structure my thinking and to help me to focus. It’s my zen place. My happy place.

The problem is, I’ve been so caught up with work that I haven’t had a chance to do what makes me happy.

Scientists say that is bad, because doing what you love and what makes you happy, has numerous benefits.

Benefits of doing what you love

Doing what you love not only makes you happy, but has numerous benefits, such as:

  1. Reduces stress
  2. Promotes good health
  3. Helps you to focus
  4. Makes you more productive
  5. Boosts your creativity

Most of all, doing what you love keeps you sane!

Despite that, we just don’t find time for ourselves. And it’s tough sometimes, what with all the demands of work, kids, family, friends, colleagues and countless others. But we need to find some ‘me-time’.

5 Simple steps to a Happier life

No one can promise complete happiness, but there are a few things we can do to be a little happier. Like finding time to do the things we love.

It can be challenging to get started, but here are 5 simple steps:

  1. Identify what you love doing. What would you do if you didn’t have your current responsibilities? Or if you didn’t have to go to work every day? For me, it’s coding. There are people who love gardening, cooking, reading, nature walks, etc.
  2. Find the time. Morning, evening, middle of the night; whenever you can (just don’t freak everyone out by wandering around the house at midnight).
  3. Tell everyone what you are doing, and ask them to respect that. Also, leave your phone behind.
  4. Enter your zen state. Do what you love.
  5. Enjoy.

As for me, I’ve got this idea for an awesome video game, and I’m starting tonight…

What will you do in your ‘me-time’?

What is Coding?

Coding is a real buzzword these days. People talk about the importance of teaching kids to code at school, and about how important coding is for future career success. But do you know what coding is?

Short answer: you know how we communicate with each other using human languages like English, French, Spanish etc.? Well, computers communicate using their own language, which is called code. It’s that simple.

More detailed answer: coding means giving instructions to computers to do certain tasks, from something as simple as adding 2 numbers to extremely complex tasks like flying a plane on autopilot or managing flight traffic in an airport. Everything, and I mean everything that a computer does is code. Without code, computers will be totally dumb.

Wherever you see a computer, you know there’s code telling it what to do. And there are computers everywhere, like your smart phone, which is a computer. When you switch on your phone, there’s code that tells it what to do. Making a call? There’s code running. Open an app? That app is code. Candy Crush? You guessed it: code.

We are surrounded by code all the time. And I don’t just mean in our computers and phones. There are computers in our cars, appliances, watches, clocks, pool pumps, etc. And all these are run on code.

What’s interesting about code is that, just like human languages, there are different computer languages too. You might come across terms like Java, HTML and C# (pronounced C sharp). These are all computer programming languages, and you can code in any one of them.

What coding is not: coding is not about cracking codes, like bank account access credentials. That’s called hacking 🙂