Category Archives: Technology

Held accountable… for my tech predictions

When dinosaurs ruled the internet. (Wikimedia Commons image / public domain)

It can very much suck to go out on a limb. Especially if that limb is attached to the fast-growing tree of technology.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay about the future of the news media and technology. The long version appeared in Analog Science Fiction & Fact (for what was Analog‘s regular non-fiction ‘State of the Art’ feature) as “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Airwaves.” The short version — punchy with predictions — showed up in the Seattle Times on Wednesday, October 7, 1992.

Turns out a lot can change in 25 years.

A smarter person would have cashed the checks and moved on to the next “here’s what the future will be like” project, never glancing back. A smarter person would have made sure his future self never found the original essay online (there was no “on the web” in 1992, at least not the way we think of it). A smarter person is not me.

So, my 2017 future self has critiqued my 1992 futurist self in an essay for GeekWire. It reprints the substance of the entire original Seattle Times essay (except the opening paragraph) and, more importantly, evaluates how I did.

On balance? Not bad. But there were two major misses, having to do with the internet as we know it, and with rumors as we fear them.

Two of these things are not like the others. (GeekWire image / Todd Bishop)

Keep in mind that, in 1992, I was relatively new to tech (2017 marks my 30th anniversary in the tech industry full-time). That was in the era of “personal computers.” But I also had more than a dozen years experience in broadcasting, including work for KING Seattle and NBC Radio. Plus I was actively writing science fiction.

As a result, I thought I had as good a shot as anyone of getting it right. And, I didn’t. Because the wild card in prediction is always a new development that cross-pollinates with another new development to create something unexpected in combination. Like the internet + smartphones, as one example.

Some things still hold up well, such as my introductory Seattle Times paragraph:

It is the end of the Mediazoic Era. The information-spawned creatures feel it in the air as they lumber across the Electromagnetic Plain, feet leaving newsprint images, bodies trailing audio tape. In large part, the demise of the Networkasaurus is due to the very developments that gave it great strength: satellites, computers, and cable television.

And the closing paragraph of the longer Analog version:

There won’t be a lack of information or tight-fisted high priests who control access to it (as was the case in the Dark Ages). Rather, there will be the ability to choose both sources and “editors” of those sources. But this won’t come until we get through the growing proliferation of news sources and gatherers, the resulting confusion, the end of news network and wire service dominance, the development of smart filters, and the accompanying readjustment of social equilibrium.

I’m still waiting for that “accompanying readjustment.”

Do read, “25 years ago, I predicted the future of media and tech — here’s how I did,” at GeekWire.

Public media’s digital transition & future

I’ve often thought that digital technology is one of the best things that has ever happened to radio … and one of the worst.

NPR’s DC HQ.

It dramatically increases radio’s global reach (in a way mailed cassette tapes of “airchecks” never did) and the ability to consume its audio in bite-size chunks, such as in podcasts. Yet it provides an existential threat to terrestrial broadcasters who assume radio waves, not audio content, is what sets them apart.

Both extremes of thought are well known in public radio. And discussed in the latest interview in my special GeekWire series of podcasts and articles about the arts, popular culture and science fiction. This time, I speak with representatives of two Seattle-area public radio stations, Matt Martinez from jazz/news/blues format KNKX, and Bryan Lowe of classical format KING-FM.

Martinez has an additional perspective, having come to Seattle two years ago after 15 years with NPR. It was while on a vacation visit to NPR studios in DC in September that I got the idea for this podcast, seeing the floors of studios, the two-level newsroom, and even the glassed-in control center for program distribution (with an odd, unexplained egg-shaped chair in the center — sadly, no photos).

Lowe from KING-FM and Martinez of KNKX. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The conversation with Martinez and Lowe was fascinating, and the podcast goes far beyond what’s in the summarized GeekWire story. We also delve into tech fads vs. trends for public radio, how radio content gets from their studios to your (non-radio) devices, and even some backstory about The Bryant Park Project, an NPR morning show initiative that Martinez worked on a decade ago and was, in the telling, a bit ahead of its digital time.

My NPR vacation souvenir.

And for those who don’t know, the “aircheck” I mentioned earlier was a tape that radio personalities used to make either for critique sessions with management or to look for work at other stations. Yeah. I spent a dozen years on the air, for a brief time as a disc jockey and then, for much longer, in news as an anchor/reporter and also a news director.

Never in public radio, though. I was once offered the news director position at public KUOW Seattle after what I thought was a disastrous group interview with news department staff.  (Them: “What makes you think you, as a commercial newscaster, could handle public broadcasting?” Me: “It worked for Daniel Schorr, didn’t it?”) The interview had gone so badly, in my mind, that I’d already taken my first position in tech before the KUOW offer was made. Not only did I wind up leaving radio behind, I discovered I wasn’t always a great judge of how I did in interviews.

Off-air musings aside, check out the GeekWire story, “Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening.” And listen to the 43-minute podcast, too. It’s got some great voices.

A note about GeekWire & work-work balance

Team GeekWire at the GeekWire Summit 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Last week, I attended the GeekWire Summit. One year ago, I was certain I was done with GeekWire.

I’d joined as an outside columnist at its inception in 2011. Four years later, I’d run out of column ideas, and limped along as an occasional contributor. Finally, I decided I was done. I even ended it on my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made. Because I wasn’t thinking about balance. Not work-life balance. Work-work balance.

Many of us have more than one professional activity that we are good at and love doing. But we can only take one full-time job at a time.

Once we land in one professional field, we may think we have to give up other professional interests. We may bank them for some far-off retirement.

That is a false choice.

If you love doing something, don’t give it up. Better to tuck that professional love in around the edges of your main gig. Both will benefit. When you move between the two, you’ll be mentally refreshed. And you may have fresh ideas from one that cross-pollinate to the other.

Now I devote some weekend time to a new series of GeekWire podcasts and articles on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts. While it’s not a lot of activity, it’s enough.

And I remain proud to be part of Team GeekWire.

Sourcing, conserving, displaying: Behind the scenes at MoPOP

Three years ago, I decided to clean out some of my science-fiction collectibles. Among them, I had dozens of top-condition lobby cards — the small rectangular cardboard cards with large photos and the names of films that movie theaters used to display in their lobbies beneath large movie posters.

One of the many lobby cards donated to MoPOP by this writer.

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture agreed to accept them as a donation, back when MoPOP was known as EMP Museum. And that led me to wonder how museums that focus on music, science fiction, and other aspects of popular culture actually get, conserve, and display these sometimes very ephemeral objects.

My GeekWire pop culture podcast (and two accompanying articles) digs into that with MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. How do they find stuff? How to they keep it from deteriorating (more)? And, ultimately, how do they tell a story with sometimes very different objects?

Museum of Pop Culture Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

The questions — and answers — led to a very lively and anecdote-filled conversation that definitely upends any misperception that museum collecting and curating are dusty and dry occupations. Especially when there’s a pig lizard involved.

Bring me the head of … never mind. I’ve got it.

Read the overview on what the MoPOP collection is like in, “Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture.” Move on to how MoPOP leverages fans for, “Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want.”

Or just listen to the entire popcast, “Preserving Pop Culture.” And don’t miss earlier installments in this special series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts.

SFWA’s Cat, internet cats, & the short story category

You don’t have to be a professional writer to learn from the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

In my latest GeekWire podcast, I interview SFWA President Cat Rambo. There’s news (SFWA will introduce its first-ever Nebula Award for Best Game Writing next year) and there’s advice (if one wants to become a short fiction writer, “I would suggest that they put their butt in their chair and start writing”).

As a matter of fact, there’s so much of interest, I wrote two separate stories based on the interview. The first, on awards in science fiction and fantasy and their continued relevance, and a second, on advice to wannabe science fiction and fantasy writers, especially those interested in short stories. (A bonus discussion about cats on the internet and in SF is in the first story.)

Twitter appears to have enjoyed the duality of this new episode in my special GeekWire podcast/story series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts, and how they tie back to tech.

And it all led to a very active, popular discussion thread on Reddit with more than 600 comments.

Cat Rambo has fascinating perspectives on what SFWA has meant for writers and readers of fiction since its founding in 1965, and on the current state of the field.

Read, “Game writers to be honored with Nebula Award in first for professional science fiction and fantasy org” and ,”So you want to write sci-fi? Tips from the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,” both on GeekWire.

Plus, listen to the full podcast interview for additional thoughts on diversity in science fiction, and more detail on the stories’ topics including a nice shout-out to the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

New GeekWire “popcast” series launched

I’ve always been interested in culture and the arts — pop or fine — and technology, and how the two intersect.

Now, there’s a podcast for that.

I’ve just started hosting and reporting a new podcast and feature article series for GeekWire. While it doesn’t (yet) have a name other than the informal “GeekWire popcast,” the series looks at pop culture, science fiction, and the arts as each ties to tech.

Science fiction as a subject is a bit of a no-brainer, of course.  But there is also a lot happening in the rest of pop culture and the arts, and I’ll expose the fascinating tech underpinnings in these interviews and GeekWire posts based on the interviews. At this writing, the first three podcast topics and interviews are already lined up.

As I mentioned to the science-fiction blog File 770, first up was best-selling author Greg Bear on the state of science fiction (spoiler alert: it’s golden). Upcoming episodes will include interviewing Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) President Cat Rambo about the relevance of awards in science fiction and fantasy and the role of diversity, and curators at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) about the challenges in preserving science fiction and fantasy artifacts from film and TV that were never designed to last.

More episodes to come after that, probably at the rate of one or two a month (as my day job allows). While this is a limited series, I suspect the limit, not to be too trite, will be my imagination. Plus listener/reader suggestions that spur it.

Get started by reading, and listening to, the first installment, “Science fiction has won the war: Best-selling author Greg Bear on the genre’s new ‘golden age’,” at GeekWire.

TWIEtR: School-parent communication trends

The many ways technology is used to communicate with parents (yet no one way is the best). Online education industry expected to grow 8x in India. And “clickers” may not help concepts mentally click. All this week in edtech reports.

These summaries of new studies, surveys, and research (plus the occasional commentary and analysis) are based on snippets from Twitter shared by @FrankCatalano. Feel free to follow.

West Corporation has released the results of a national survey of school districts detailing how they’re using communications technology to engage parents and families. West, provider of SchoolMessenger solutions, has some expertise in this area as its communications products are used by tens of thousands of schools across North America.

(For full disclosure, I was the primary author of this study, as West is where I spend my days. So I could probably write this summary in my sleep. And just may have, since it’s at home where I spend my nights. Of course, I only speak for myself in this post and these summaries.)

The webinar releasing the survey results was accompanied by a white paper that delved into the details , “From Apps to Announcements: Increasing School-Parent Engagement With Communications Technology.” Some of the key findings:

  • Mobile apps are on the rise. Projecting from today’s use to their planned investment of time and resources over the next 1-3 years, districts expect a 44% increase in their emphasis on mobile apps to engage parents. Overall, mobile apps were predicted to be the “most effective and used” communications technology in 1-3 years by 53% of those surveyed, coming in right behind social media (76%) and text messaging (69%).  Despite this increase and optimism, district leaders are concerned about the proliferation of communications apps that parents are asked to download.
  • Social media is a dominant force. Across all questions and time frames, social media was seen as a significant communications tool for schools to engage parents. Some 85% of districts use it today, 61% of district leaders find it effective today, and 76% expect it to be the most effective tool in 1-3 years. But it’s not without pitfalls, due to negative posts and constant monitoring.
  • Multiple channels are key to maximum parent engagement. Of districts surveyed, 65% already use five or more communications channels to engage with parents. And even though some may perceive it as an “old” technology, broadcast voice notification remains important — 65% find it effective today, and a stunning 96% use it today, making broadcast voice notification the most commonly used communications technology by respondents.

But all is not sparkling unicorns and fluffy happy bunnies. Districts report several significant obstacles to using communications tech to engage parents — and parent internet access tops the list, at 45%.

Rounding out the top five challenges: staff training and time, at 41% and 38%, respectively, then mobile app proliferation at 33%, and finally automatic language translation, cited by 26% of respondents. Interestingly, parent mobile device ownership, at 17%, was not seen as as much of an obstacle.

The report concludes the future of parent communications for better engagement is, “multi-channel, asynchronous, and parent-selectable.”

KPMG and Google have sponsored a study of online education in India that shows remarkable potential growth. The report, “Online Education in India: 2021,” appears to look at online instruction, and not edtech in general (despite a misleading news story headline).

It notes re-skilling and online certification — two adult/lifelong learning segments — are the biggest segments now, followed by primary and secondary education. But primary and secondary education are expected to surpass all other segments in size by 2021.

A research study out of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth indicates that “clickers” — those little handheld devices that students use to respond to quizzes in class — are complicated. Complicated in that while they appear to help students learn facts, their use when the facts are disassociated from the bigger picture may get in the way of understanding the overall concept taught.

It’s worth reading the nuanced article in EdSurge. And it again shows that the “edtech good/bad” dichotomy is too simplistic. It’s not just the tool. It’s the context in which the tool is used, and how it’s used.

And one more thing:

I sat in to co-host a GeekWire podcast on one of my favorite topics: tech in libraries. Seattle City Librarian Marcellus Turner was wonderfully open in our interview, from his take on Maker spaces and libraries (in Seattle, they’ll give instruction into how to use them, but won’t dedicate space to them due to the number of other options in the community), to his wish list for Seattle’s libraries (a library-employed “journalist,” and experimenting with 365/7/24 opening hours).

Libraries are a vital part of community education and have their own kind of edtech. I encourage you to read the article, and listen to the podcast, with the head of one of the nation’s top libraries for tech.

(Note: Yes, it’s an outdated practice as we are no longer primarily an agrarian economy. But after 16 installments, education report sources are starting to slow for the summer. So like many schools, TWIEtR too will take a summer break & reappear as reports warrant. Or when the leaves start to fall.)

TWIEtR: Chrome beats all others … combined

More analysis of Chromebooks as the tool of choice in classrooms today, in what otherwise is a light week in edtech reports.

Looking for real-time updates? Follow @FrankCatalano on Twitter. Or avoid having to check the blog for new posts by entering your email address above “NOTIFY ME” in the left website navigation.

Education Week continues to slice and dice the information in its fascinating survey of school administrators and teachers that pits four major tech companies (Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) against four major education companies (Scholastic, Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The latest? Google Chromebooks are used “more frequently in day-to-day instruction than all PC and Apple desktop and laptop computers combined.”

It’s that last phrase that is telling, that Chromebooks are used more frequently than all others combined.

Another interesting, but not surprising, tidbit: going forward, district staff plan to invest more in tablets and laptops than in desktop computers for classrooms.

Quick diversion to my day job: West Corporation (which provides SchoolMessenger communications solutions to districts) is starting to release results of a national survey that will be officially issued in a webinar and white paper on June 1.

The survey examines what communications technologies districts use to engage parents, which channels they find the most effective, and where they plan to invest their time and resources in the next one-to-three years.

Key findings are that, “school districts increasingly rely on social media, turn more to mobile apps, and, ultimately, recognize that they must use multiple communications channels. ”

Tech & Learning had a nice summary of three of the initial data points, summed up as:

  • 86% of district leaders surveyed use social media to communicate with parents today.
  • 65% of district leaders surveyed already use 5 or more channels to communicate with parents.
  • 33% of district leaders surveyed plan to focus on district mobile apps in the next 1-3 years (an increase of 44% from today’s use).

A fourth initial data point — that 45% of district leaders cite parent internet access as a significant obstacle to engaging parents with communications technology.

I’ll be joined on the June 1 webinar by Elisabeth O’Bryon, PhD., co-founder and head of research of the non-profit Family Engagement Lab, which itself has done some interesting research on what families want to hear from schools, and how they hear about it.

Webinar registration is open now. And I’ll likely summarize more results here after the white paper is released.

And one more thing:

I was reminded on May 18, 2017, where I was and what I was doing on May 18, 1980. I was interviewing for a broadcast news position in the Seattle market. I’d flown out for the weekend from my current station, WNFL Green Bay, where I was news director.

That Sunday morning, as the person interviewing me and I headed out for brunch, we heard — and felt — a muffled “boom.” We drove straight to the station, where it was confirmed that nearby Mt. St. Helens had erupted.

I immediately went to work filing reports for the local station as well as the network with which WNFL was affiliated.

Much later, after catching a red eye flight home, I walked into the newsroom and was greeting by the Green Bay station manager. “Great reports about Mt. St. Helens on the network,” he said. “What the hell were you doing in Seattle?”

Fortunately, I was offered the Seattle job. And remained on good terms with WNFL and its management. But it just goes to show that when an opportunity presents itself, it’s important to act. Even if there is both the potential of reward and risk.

Oh, and the 1980s-era photo I posted with the 140 characters on Twitter? It’s now out there, for good or ill. You can’t un-chirp a tweet.

(Note: This Week in Edtech Reports will take a Memorial Day weekend break and return, refreshed and re-snarked, in early June.)

TWIEtR: Edtech attitudes, tech giants vs edu giants

Surveys showing that, despite all the edtech hype, classroom edtech use and tech access is showing only “incremental advances,” and how Google is crushing traditional education companies in educators’ edtech perceptions. Both this week in edtech reports.

This Week in Edtech Reports (TWIEtR) is collected from the public tweets of @FrankCatalano and succinctly expanded upon.

Project Tomorrow released another batch of results from its annual (and huge) Speak Up survey of school administrators, teachers, parents, and students. While survey respondents are self-selecting — that is, this isn’t a scientifically random or representative survey — the sheer volume of responses and how the data is weighed and sliced makes for an interesting snapshot into the state of education technology.

The latest isn’t exactly good news for those who thought more technology in the classroom would transform education practice.

Taking 38,000 teachers who responded to one Speak Up effort through January 2017, Project Tomorrow tallies how they and their students access or use technology in the classroom, and concludes the data, “indicate the lack of real systematic changes in activities, attitudes or aspirations of teachers … These are activities teachers have always done and they are very important, but they would do these regardless of technology.”

Additional good analysis is provided by Anne Wujcik, senior analyst for MDR’s EdNET Insight, who has noted these “incremental advances” over many years: “Too many teachers are using technology to do things they have always done, without rethinking the expanded possibilities technology brings to the table.”

Normally, I’d cite some of the actual data from the surveys, but the clear conclusions are more compelling, and I encourage you to review the data in both Project Tomorrow’s post and Anne’s additional analysis. There is also interesting info from administrators and students.

But let me leave you with one device-centric data point, courtesy of Project Tomorrow. “When we look at impact of technology,” the post notes, “75 percent of teachers say mobile devices increase student engagement, but only 35 percent say mobile devices improve the quality of student work.”

It’s good to be Google. Even in education.

In a new survey released with great fanfare by EdWeek Market Brief (it’s free, but you have to fill out a form to download it), Education Week pitted four major tech companies against four major education companies. This nationally representative sample of teachers and administrators was surveyed in April.

My old stomping ground GeekWire sums up the results. Of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft (the four tech), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Scholastic (the four education), educators were asked which one company they’d hire to improve student achievement in their district. Google ran away with the results, at 52%. Apple was a distinct second, at 13%. Then, in third, came the first education company to rank — Scholastic — at 9%.

There is, of course, much more, including how Chromebooks and G Suite dominate classrooms. Also, of course, by Google.

Some of the most interesting analysis outside of the report itself came in my Twitter feed by those knowledgeable about edtech:

And one more thing:

Who knew one of the biggest issues in American education today, worthy of detailed debate and study, was … fidget spinners?

As once was said of in-fighting within academia, these battles are so fierce, because the stakes are so small.

TWIEtR: Dissecting EFF on student data privacy

A rather light week in edtech reports. The most interesting work was a calm take down of part of an earlier study from the Electronic Frontier Foundation by a knowledgeable and respected education technology leader in the trenches.

In weeks in which there are fact-based edtech reports, This Week in Edtech Reports (TWIEtR) appears, sourced from the tweets of @FrankCatalano.

Three weeks ago I noted the alarmist tone of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s detailed report, two years in the making, called “Spying on Students.”

Apparently I wasn’t alone. Now Jim Siegl, technology architect for Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) as well as co-chair of the group that developed the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Privacy Toolkit, has done a detailed analysis of the EFF report.

Siegl’s dissection undermines some of the EFF’s claims by noting errors and blind spots, notably in the 152 products that EFF cited as the basis for its findings. Siegl found more than 12 percent of the products shouldn’t have been included because they aren’t used by students, are locally installed (not cloud based), or other reasons.

Siegl went on to discover that more of the products had privacy policies than EFF cites, more had encryption at log in, and more had external protections likely not considered by EFF, such as being signatory to the Student Privacy Pledge enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission.

Siegl is careful to note that his analysis is his own work and doesn’t necessarily reflect the perspective of his employer. It’s a long read. But it’s worth it for those wondering if the EFF had the definitive say on the matter. Apparently not.

And one more thing:

I find it odd to quote myself, but my public note on Facebook and LinkedIn about the end of any status as a “contributor” or “columnist” was said best by a very slightly younger me:

“Some have noticed that I’ve again put my “Contributor/Columnist at GeekWire” status in the past. This time it’ll stick. While I’ve enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) a great relationship with GeekWire and its founders, John Cook and Todd Bishop. I haven’t been able to figure out a way forward to where I can again regularly contribute and fit in with the current direction of what is indisputably the definitive news resource for the Pacific Northwest tech industry and its workers, with a solid readership far beyond this geographic area.

“GeekWire has been patient with me as I try to figure a potential new fit, and as they try to determine where I could contribute the most (with my approach, interests, and time constraints). Despite a handful of contributions over the past two years, nothing has firmly aligned.

“Sometimes, it’s best to acknowledge the obvious. And that’s all this does. I still support GeekWire, its talented founders and staff, and hope I can be a resource for its current direction. Who knows? One day its direction may again more fully intersect with my own, and I’ll welcome that.”