Sunday, 8 December 2013

Don't Feed The Trolls..

For those readers of a certain age – of which I am one – I am not referring to the creatures from fairy tales that lurked under bridges and had issues with goats. On this occasion I mean the vermin which infests the Internet. Having been online the best part of twenty years I have come across them frequently, and the advice I was given when I first started on the Internet all those years ago still holds true, and is the title of this blog. So, what does it mean?

A troll in the Internet sense is not 'a nasty person', or 'somebody who I don't agree with' per se, although elements of both come into the manifestation of a troll. A troll to put it bluntly, is a brainless cretin who has nothing better to do with their time than to upset others, and who derives enjoyment from the outrage and upset their comments and actions engender. So, they spend their time posting inflammatory comments on the Internet, and then sit back revelling in the uproar their effort has caused.


(NOTE: I am not in any way advocating the below nor am I saying I hold either of the following opinions, they are examples only.)

On a Christian based mailing list:

Anyone who believes in God is a moron.

For reasons which should be obvious to all, if this were a genuine post it is a statement intended to enrage the members of the mailing list.

On Twitter:

People who use Twitter need to get a life!

There was an actual example on Twitter the other day which I will not repeat as I then run the risk of upsetting people who may not have seen the original, and that is the exact opposite of the purpose of the blog.  However, I will say it was clear to all that the poster intended to offend as no apology was made for any offence which may have been caused, indeed judging by their Timeline they appeared to revel in the attention. Others commented in the poster's defence saying it was 'obviously' a joke. Had this been true then the poster would have followed up with an apology for their ill-judged humour but they did not, and I therefore reject the 'joke' defence out of hand. This is a classic example of the Troll in action, and regrettably their intended reaction occurred judging by the responses that were posted, and comments made, both on Twitter and Facebook.

This is a clear hallmark of a deliberate troll, an offensive remark made with no attempt to apologise once the offence it has caused becomes obvious.

There is of course a very important point that must be made here. As a rule a Troll's intent is simply to upset and enrage people, it is not to break the law; after all they need their continued liberty to pursue their hobby of upsetting people [I do wish blogs had a sarcasm tag!]. Therefore it must be clearly understood that comments which clearly have illegal content such as those inciting violence or hatred against others are not Trolls in the true sense and are a definite exception to the rule stated in the title above. However I am sure that you dear reader have the ability to tell the difference between the two types and act accordingly.

Thus to the advice. Don't Feed The Trolls. As outlined above, a troll's raison d'etre is to upset and enrage people and to revel in the resultant reactions of their offences. If they do not get any reaction and they are starved of the attention they crave their impact is effectively neutered. While it is true that some may be persistent and try greater and greater means to offend, many will just give up and go away. Of course there is the possibility that some of the more cretinous individuals may cross the line and end up making slanderous or otherwise illegal comments at which point they may be reported to the relevant law enforcement authorities, however I think – at least hope – that these are in the minority.

In a nutshell, if someone posts a comment you find offensive, step away from the keyboard, think to yourself 'Are they doing it just to get attention and/or upset people?' and if they are ignore it. Put simply in four words.

Don't Feed The Trolls.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Where Now For Education?

With the publication of the PISA rankings for education across the world a widespread debate has inevitably ensued. Why is the UK so low? What are we doing wrong? Should we copy [insert miscellaneous country ranked higher than us – there's plenty of choice!]?'

To the latter question I say an emphatic No.  Whilst Korea for example may have higher achieving students than the UK, according to the BBC Breakfast current affairs television programme they also have an alarmingly high suicide rate among the young.  Therefore it can be reasonably assumed that their way is not the right way for everyone.  Apart from which, according to BBC Radio Wales this lunchtime Wales used to be the envy of the world for education and yet now we are the lowest in the UK.  What is required is for us to look back at what we used to do right and correct where we deviated from that path.

Education is a devolved area in the UK with different bodies controlling England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I suggest this is a basic error from which all else grows. My reasoning is simple; I have a friend in Germany where each region has a separate education body as well, and this has resulted in a situation where Saxony is deemed to have harder examinations than others; therefore a high achieving student from Saxony is a more desirable employee than one from another region with perceived lower standards. In the UK this could easily translate into students from one country being preferred over those from another. Only with a cohesive single strategy between all four will this be avoided.

We are also ignoring the basic building blocks of education. I am 43 years old and left mainstream education many years ago. I am also disabled and spent the first seven years up to the age of 12 in Special Education, only at that point entering mainstream education. Previously I have been a somewhat harsh critic of special education, however my experience of the last few years has given me significant pause for thought. At the age of 35 I decided to study for a degree, and given my employment at that time was in the IT sector I chose an IT related discipline and enrolled.

One of the first lectures was in Quantitative Methods and Statistics (QMS) which came as a bit of a shock given that I had not touched a mathematics book for 18 years at that point. More of a surprise was the lecturer's opening gambit of progressing around the room asking students random times table questions. I was in the middle of the thought 'What is she doing?' when it became all too obvious. Many of the students, indeed it seemed the majority, struggled with the answers, and some were incorrect. I remind you at this point that in that room only two of us had at any point been in Special Education, every other student had at that point spent 12 years or more in mainstream education.

The above raises two questions.

a) How could students pass GCSE Mathematics – a core requirement for any degree course not just IT based ones – with such poor mental arithmetic skills?
b) If such basic building blocks are omitted in Mathematics, what else is being ignored in other subjects? Grammar in English? To watch some talent or reality TV shows my answer to that one is an emphatic Yes.

The final point may not seem education based but having given it some thought it could well be at the core of all else, not only education. There has been for many years a culture of not allowing children to fail, or I should say to feel they have failed, be that at sport etc, or academically, and this I believe is a badly flawed concept.

Currently a child goes to school, takes exams and tests and mostly passes due to the lowering of standards to achieve this – whatever anyone says standards have lowered because the pass rate at GCSE and A Level has increased every year for 25 years, and any statistician will tell you no dataset is perfect. If they fail they are consoled and told it doesn't matter 'You'll do better next time..' That child then grows and leaves school, perhaps to go to university, and for the first time is treated like an adult. Adults are not cushioned from failure as they are supposed to know how to deal with it. If you go to an employer having made a mess of a contract tender and cost the company thousands of pounds in lost revenue they won't accept 'I'll do better next time..' they will be more likely to show you the door to find another job.

Consider the difference in contestants on a talent show such as X-Factor. Irrespective of personal opinion on the merits, or lack thereof, of the programme itself, compare how different contestants deal with failure. The older contestants in their late twenties and upwards are upset of course, but the late teens and early twenties are positively distraught, a common wailing refrain being 'My life is over!' between sobs. Of course it isn't but it is likely that this is the first failure that they have had to face in their comparatively short lives because the education system has failed them abysmally in this respect.

If a child fails when they are young they will learn it is not a nice feeling, but that it is a fact of life and will happen to them from time to time and they will learn to deal with it. Should that same child fail academically they will feel the same upset, but rather than be consoled 'it doesn't matter' they will learn that the way to avoid failure is to try harder. It is of course obvious that some will still fail, but the crucial lesson which is often overlooked is simply the satisfaction of knowing you did your best. Fail when you didn't try hard enough or were not pushed to do your best then the path only leads to regret for what might have been. Fail when you know you tried your utmost then the pill is a much less bitter one to swallow.

I strongly believe that a combination of the above factors properly addressed will lead to the UK returning to the higher echelons of the academic world.