This is how Religious Education should be taught

NssA new report published by the National Secular Society (NSS) (PDF file) has revealed that publicly funded schools are being exploited by evangelical Christian groups. The report was published in light of many parents getting in touch with the NSS with concerns that schools were allowing external visitors in with unwelcome religious interests.

This seems like a clear aim by religious groups to prey upon young people with the ultimate aim of relaying a set of beliefs and winning conversion. Much of the report could be seen to be targeting the loose definition of Religious Education (RE) itself. The specific aims and purposes of RE are all too ambiguous, which is giving external Christian groups a foot in the door.

The report comes in the wake of last week’s report by Ofsted that more than half of England’s schools are failing pupils with religious education. Not only are teachers failing to understand the subject but the subject is failing to get pupils to think about fundamental questions surrounding human life. Contrary to some of the comments surrounding this story, I believe that RE is of significant value in schools but first its purpose has to be defined.

Firstly, the purpose of RE should not be about pushing children/teenagers into having a faith. Classes should be interactive thought-provoking environments, where children can discuss their individual beliefs openly. We are living in an increasingly multi-cultural society and intellectual understanding of different beliefs would serve the future well. There are themes behind all religions that relate directly back to sociological, physiological and anthropological roots.

The next step should be to support the British Human Association’s reform of RE. Approaching RE impartially; allowing students to explore religious and non-religious viewpoints. RE should be integrated into other humanities, exploring the social and historical relevance of religion and belief. In turn this would clash against confessional teaching in state schools, where pupils must follow particular religions and are denied a balanced objective syllabus. It certainly wouldn’t allow exploitation by outside religious groups.

This would be fitting for two reasons. RE can now be entirely beneficial to the students and devoid of internal education despotic interests in evangelism or forced cultural conformance. It would introduce RE back to the principles of the Age of Enlightenment, promoting intellectual thought and skepticism.

Elephant in the room! Google unleashes latest updates to push publishers to advertising

new Google logo

It doesn’t take long to realise who is in potential violation of Fair Search’s transparency principle, “When search providers engage in search discrimination – manipulating search results to promote favoured products and demote competitors – consumers pay the price”. Google Search is at the heart of the internet, with the average number of global searches each day in 2012 reaching 5,134,000,000. With many considering the first page of 10 results as a search totality; anything beyond the first page is not worth knowing. The results of the 2007 investigation ‘Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google’ (PDF file) highlight the danger of large dominant search engines.

So it doesn’t surprise me that plenty of companies exist who attempt to manipulate Google’s search engine results. Appearing on the first page of results can be a matter of life and death. When I search for ‘Where can I buy cheap shoes?’, what gives the right for boohoo.com to appear as the first result and shoezone.com to appear on the third page? It’s a pertinent question that companies and individuals alike wish to be answered. Especially when search results become a matter of reputation management, like when an Australian man’s name implied he was a most wanted criminal. Believe me, this is not an isolated case. It’s an abomination that Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, implied in a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal that the answer to such risks in the future may be automatic entitlement in society for people to change their names to avoid reputation risk. For a man frequently praised for his intelligence, this seems like a short-sighted solution to a problem which has wider implications than just dodging the bullet from Google’s search results.

In August Tom Foremski threw up how the modern practices of PR could fall foul of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (I swiftly responded), with many industry practitioners feeling offended. Whole businesses exist who offer SEO services and in August the entire industry had to re-think their strategies. The apparently scientific analysis required to manipulate search results has changed because Google updated their link schemes document,

“The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links

Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

The above list reads like a death warrant for many SEO agencies. For a long time link schemes have been an effective way to build traffic to websites, now Google has thrown everything in question. In fact, every travel blogger who goes on a familiarisation trip on behalf of a tourism board could fill the pinch on their own search traffic. If I accept a guest post to this blog, I could see my own search results see a sharp fall. Yet, the document is not absolute, “this can negatively impact”.

google-penguin-watch-out-webspam
More like “watch out SEO agencies”

From last month, Google started making a series of changes that has made it pretty much impossible for SEO to be managed like it once was:

1)      Google quietly decided to encrypt all search activity

In the past website owners could see the search terms that brought people to your website. Now Google has blocked this data, meaning that query referrer data is 100% not provided. In essence, Google knows more about your website than you do and has pushed people to use AdWords instead.

2)      Google’s External Keyword Tool stopped working

This tool was completely free and used to show keyword suggestions and the traffic these terms received around the world. Now this tool has been closed down and the only way to get the data back is to sign up for AdWords.

3)      Websites have been completely destroyed by Google’s Penguin 2.1 update

Essentially this update reinforces Google’s link scheme policies; it targeted links across the internet from bios, forums, link directories and even blog comment boxes.

Google may publically say that it is trying to perfect its search results and personalise our search experiences. In reality it is pushing publishers and businesses towards using their advertising platform, whilst throwing the existence of SEO agencies into question. No doubt over the next few months’ even harsher changes will come into place.

Bing It On campaign
Microsoft challenges Google

Let’s hope that Microsoft’s ‘Bing It On’ campaign gets some traction.

European Court of Human Rights rules website responsible for anonymous comments

European Court of Human RightsThe ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that a popular Estonian news portal should be held accountable for anonymous comments posted under one of its articles shows a lack of technological understanding. The unanimous decision by the court found that it was entirely reasonable to hold Delfi.ee liable for anonymous comments posted. The portal attempted to argue that removing the comments would have violated readers’ freedom of expression.

Usually in this situation a publisher would have been protected by the EU Directive on Electronic Commerce which protects information providers from illegal content travelling across their websites. In this case it was found that the offensive comments were not governed by who wrote it, which country the website was based but instead where the reader is. This meant that the court discounted the portal’s right to the EU Directive because the case was brought against a non-EU member, where the content was read. Highlighting how website owners are potentially at risk for preaching libel laws across the globe. Where

Delfi Screenshot

Although this was a case based upon Estonian law, the situation serves as a cold reminder of the risks of online publishing – including bloggers. If you choose to publish material online then you have to be ready to take responsibility for any comments posted. The age of claiming for no liability for content being posted is disappearing. In this particular case it was proven that the Estonian portal was seeing commercial benefit from the comments posted and failed to take action against them.

Throughout the reading of the case it is clear that the portal should have made actions to moderate the comments, yet the court failed to make a distinction between the professionalism of portals. This is where the risk to bloggers becomes a real threat,

 “…as a professional publisher, the applicant company must at least have been familiar with the legislation and case-law, and could also have sought legal advice. The Court observes in this context that the Delphi.ee news portal is one of the largest in Estonia, and also that a degree of notoriety has been attributable to comments posted in its commenting area. Thus, the Court considers that the applicant company was in a position to assess the risks related to its activities and that it must have been able to foresee, to a reasonable degree, the consequences which these could entail.”

You don’t have to think very hard to realise that there must be thousands of online portals, even online media centres, which could fall foul of the courts above observations. Plus the court hasn’t taken into consideration (nor will it) that the extensive amount of online comments requires a level of moderation that not all providers can fulfil. Neither does the ruling understand the people are not always willing to identify themselves online. Therefore it might be in a portal’s best interest to permit anonymous comments.

The ruling against the portal is not final yet and it might be referred to a hearing by the Grand Chamber of the Court. What we can learn from this is that the days of anonymous commenting may be numbered. It should at least make online publishers think twice before setting up their comment box.

What could you achieve in 700 hours?

By the end of this year I will have spent at least 700 hours commuting. That’s the same amount of time it takes to become a Yoga expert. Except my time was spent differently; pressed up against strangers faces and making sure I wasn’t dead-staring unfortunate victims. Whilst at the same time willing my journey to just hurry up!

inside train

We all carry commuting horror stories and disdain the extortionate costs it entails. Despite all of this, commuting is one of my most productive times. It’s the perfect way to leave the buzz of the office and the randomisation that it can cause. In our always switched-on culture, trains and buses offer a much needed break. They are the purgatory of the working day, a black hole in our daily schedule.

Don’t miss this opportunity. Use your commutes.

I’m actually writing this article on the train now. A quick look around the carriage shows people listening to music, some playing games on their phone and others staring out the window. Time is more valuable than money. Spending over 700 hours a year means that this time has to be well spent, not wasted.

I generally approach my commutes understanding that I can choose to be passively productive or actively productive. As a blogger, and someone who writes as part of their career, I need to make sure I’m not only informed about the latest news, events and products; but I also have time to write about them as well. If the balance is wrong then my content loses depth or I simply stop producing content.

If you’re standing listen to a podcast or read a book or magazine. If you’re lucky enough to have a seat then the world is your oyster! No matter your position make the most of your time.

Of course, sometimes the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Watch out for those small acts of kindness shared between strangers and take a moment to part yourself from the hectic nature of social media. What matters is that you understand the hidden value of time behind your bus or train journey.

What could you achieve in 700 hours each year?

The tingling taste of local business

Nothing drives tingles through the taste buds more than a fruiticious twang of freshly made smoothies and juices. Not only are such drinks dangerously healthy but they boost vitamins in a way that leaves more questionable pleasures to be consumed guilt free later on. That’s why I enjoyed visiting the new Fruit Bat Juice Bar in Cheam.

Fruit Bat Juice Bar

So I no longer hold any qualms with Ben Hamilton (a brilliant freelance visual data guru and friend) for tearing me away from our local pub one afternoon, so we could instead sample the latest business to greet Cheam Village. It feels good supporting local business and, because of this, my digital mind flares with all sorts of potential avenues for local biz.

Just because you are a local business, doesn’t mean you should think small. Always think big. The internet has handed us all the opportunity to be the online celebrities of our chosen areas, you just need to work out a decent communication strategy and be prepared to create plenty of zesty content. Fruit Bat Drinks

For a local business like Fruit Bat they should quickly tell Google that they can be found in Cheam (with all the right web details) and make damn sure that their website is ready for the fruit and veg searching visitors. They could very well be parents on notebook computers and school children on iPads.

Their product is purchased in the shop but they are not selling fruit mixes, they are selling an experience. Local businesses have so much potential to shine online. High streets are becoming barren mazes – a clear reminder of our tough economy and how the internet is shaping society.

No business should give up though. Work on your high street presence by not just dressing up your shop but by using online tools. Keep those fruit mixes tingling.

Do like their Facebook Page.

Business Startup Tips from BBC Apprentice Star

In 2010 I like to think I became close to becoming one of the business bods on BBC’s The Apprentice. The initial application resulted in an email and phone call for the first stages of interviews, yet I felt conflicted. I was already on a priceless internship with Microsoft, needed to finish the last year of university, plus I didn’t have a BIG business idea; something which I fuddled together on the application form. A brilliant contact of mine put me in touch with the only flack yet to appear on the series who basically advised me to avoid the show. I never met Lord Sugar.

Nick Holzherr
Nick Holzherr

So when I heard one of the stars from the 2012 series of The Apprentice, Nick Holzherr, speak last week at the eCommerce Expo in London about his company Whisk, I began to wonder what I missed out on. He too had questions about taking part in the 2012 series. All it takes is one tiny slip up to get filmed, then you’ll be known as that person who “Is completely clueless when it comes to maths, creative planning…”, the list goes on.

You know what? The Apprentice went really well for him. The commercial value of primetime exposure on BBC One was worth the 12 weeks of nonstop tasks. Of which the BBC allegedly fork out £1m per episode! Astronomical, but that’s exactly what buys all the resources behind the tasks and locations.

Lord_Sugar_announces_air_date_for_The_Apprentice
No!

Despite Nick waking up each morning with a microphone hanging over his head, when it came to the crunch hardware-centric Sugar said “no” to his company. Inevitably it has grown massively. Despite not getting any PR around winning, today Whisk has support from the major supermarkets and is simply revolutionising how people are ordering their groceries online.

What is Whisk?

Whisk creates smart grocery lists from recipes, helping you buy ingredients easily and use them efficiently.

Where I’m interested in Whisk is from the technological point of view. Just how do you take masses of unstructured data from recipe websites and build a platform that deciphers this into coherent information. Well, the process has a lot to do with semantic analysis (which I’ve written a dissertation on); building an algorithm that allows a computer to understand written language. In the case of Whisk, understanding which product is which and what are the quantities. Only then can this information make enough sense to be relayed to online supermarket shopping baskets.

Here are the key takeaways I got from his talk:

  1. People have a perceived lack of time on the internet. Whilst you may spend over an hour walking around a supermarket, in the online space a minute can seem like an hour. Think accordingly.
  2. Don’t be afraid to share ideas with others or use other people’s ideas. We all need to learn from each other.
  3. Beware of the project plateau. At first you will get a real buzz about a project and when times get tough, don’t switch to a new idea straight away. Stick at it.

Nick Holzherr is an inspirational guy. He is clearly passionate about running his own business and happy to help others do the same. Even being incredibly open about his own weaknesses, something few can admit to. It’s fascinating hearing stories from startup founders. It’s not a path suitable for everyone but if you’re considering starting up a tech company, it’s the best time to do it.

The Social Media Bubble Bursts: social network usage stabilises

Oxford Internet InstituteIn times of need we used to have religion, we now have the internet. It most certainly has all the answers and you never need to ask for forgiveness. Whether you enjoy stalking friends of friends on Facebook or just like looking at peoples’ dinners – the internet has a wide range of uses.

You could read books, watch films, play games, conduct academic research, publish to the world, hold events… The internet is a passive entertainment medium or an active tool. Just how does society use the internet in 2013 though? The answers have arrived in the newly published Oxford Internet Survey 2013 Report with the one statement swaying particular weight:

“One small increase is especially noteworthy: after years of rapid growth, social network site use may have stabilised.”

In fact, the report appears to show that most forms of social content creation have either stabilised or seen decline; from blogging to founding a new website. This could very well mean that the internet has left its hormonal teenage years, with 2014 looking to see stable usage of all aspects of the internet.

Before self-obsessed social media gurus start job searching and big wig FTSE bosses moan “I told you so”; society still spends hours daily on social networks. It was inevitable that a precipice was to be reached, at least until the next big digital revolution. Still, this new data does raise a lot of questions around Twitter’s upcoming IPO. Surely leveling social media registration demand only spells disaster for long-term commercial opportunities? You have to be very brave to promise big advertising bucks when audience levels look to remain stable.

Where the internet still excels, and ultimately where its foundations lie, is when searching for information. Unsurprisingly the internet is the first port of call when questions need to be asked; information online is expected to be reliable. Yet, search engine usage is down overall. The phrase ‘to Google’  still means search, except our internet habits seem to be becoming more ingrained. If we want Wikipedia then we’ll go straight to Wikipedia, this same behavior applies for each social network. We’re still searching online but are choosing to search on specific social media sites.

It was unfortunate that I was unable to attend the official launch of the report in London. How the internet is affecting society as a whole should be a primary concern to everyone who works in the media. Knowing the latest tools helps but knowing your audience trumps all. Oxford’s report has settled me that social networks still engulf much of society’s time but has got me pondering over two important developments.

  1. Does the stabilisation of social networks mark a significant trend in the years to come?
  2. Are we beginning to see a shift away from global search engines to instead specific ones (vertical search)?