Zombie code: the ghost that bites you.


My thanks goes to Julian Sims (web site http://www.bbk.ac.uk/management/our-staff/academics/sims-julian, twitter @juliansims) for prompting me to write this post.


Julian and I had a long and wide-ranging discussion on Twitter about some of the causes of the recent disasters experienced by banks when it came to delivering services to their customers. Examples include the Lloyds Banking Group and Bank of America. This was underpinned by Leo Kelion’s article entitled “Why banks are likely to face more software glitches in 2013” which examined the causes of such events. One of the key phrases in that piece is “dead code was brought back to life”. This is often known as “zombie code”, hence the title of this post. The problem with such zombie code is that it was created for another age – it is much the same as asking a stagecoach driver from 1750 to drive a modern day Ferrari: the result is guaranteed to be a disaster.


Julian and I were were tweeting each other about possible causes of zombie code, and one of his tweets “@philhart in the UK Aspergers is labelled ‘learning difficulty’ rather than ‘learning specialty’ – could that be part of the problem?” jolted my thinking out of its usual ruts. My short answer to that question is “No”, but that answer needs justification.

Before I go too far, I should mention that Asperger syndrome covers a range of symptoms, one of which includes “Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject” (Wikipedia, accessed 3 February 2013). It is entirely conceivable that this would manifest itself in the way such an individual would write software. I have seen examples where software writing was done in such a way that it was obvious that the software writer had an intense preoccupation with over-applying a particular design style. It is not obvious to me how the software writer’s style would have been influenced by his educators’ use of the labels “learning difficulty” or “learning specialty”.

Once a piece of software has been written and properly tested, it will continue to do the same thing forever, regardless of whether or not its author had Asperger syndrome. We now need to look at the business context in which this happens. Business rules change over time, and financial products come and go. In particular, a new financial product with a strong resemblance to a previous financial product can arise. The key point here is “a strong resemblance”, meaning that it is not identical. In particular, there is something different, and the piece of software that worked correctly for the old financial product is not guaranteed to work with the new product: it has been resurrected, and has turned into a zombie.

By way of a thought experiment, imagine that “cash account” has been changed into a “ready cash account”, and with a change to at least one of its rules, such as what happens when an attempt it made to go overdrawn. It is a new product, but the decision maker, usually somebody high up the organisational tree, is unaware of its impact on the piece of software that is about to become a zombie. The individual responsible makes the assumption that the old software will work correctly with the new financial product. The behaviour of the piece of software then becomes undefined. At the lowest level, cash could simply disappear – this would be picked up by an internal audit and rectified, and the general public would be none the wiser. At the other extreme, it can cause the whole system to crash, and everybody knows about it.

To the Future

Re-casting Leo’s words, I think it is something that we may need to learn to live with. 🙁

Save or Save As …


My thanks go to Derek McCoy (web site http://mccoyderek.wordpress.com/, twitter @mccoyderek) for bringing my attention to this post entitled “Save or Save As: Should Third Graders Know How Computers Work?”

My reaction to that article can be summed up with with this image:
save or save_as


Working as I do in information technology, I use the tools of the trade. I use files and folders for a variety of purposes, in exactly the same way as a 19th century artisan. I have them organised in such a way that I can find everything that I need easily and efficiently. It is a skill, or perhaps a habit of mind, that is well over 200 years old.


Today’s children are growing up in an information age. In terms of learning how to be organised, it is no different to children growing in the technological age that has been with us for well over a century. Today’s teachers have a duty to help their charges learn to function as effectively as possible in their own futures. (Teach not what you were taught yesterday, for their futures belong to them.)

Failure to help today’s children learn such skills amounts to a dereliction of duty.

A Way Forward

It is ludicrous that this situation was allowed to arise in the first place. I suggest that every concerned parent takes this matter up with their relevant educational authority, with the aim of having it fully resolved by the end of 2013.

Recognition of Prior Learning by e-Portfolio


When I was working for my (now outdated) Certificate IV Trainer and Assessor (TAA) qualification, I went through the exercise of assessing a portfolio of evidence against a national qualification. Strangely enough, I have never assessed any student’s portfolio of evidence for the same purpose. But I wondered what creating and submitting a portfolio of evidence was like from the student’s point of view. Added to that, I wanted to see if it was possible to submit such a portfolio entirely by electronic means, rather than (as I have seen others doing) submitting three large lever-arch files crammed full of paper.

The short answer is “Yes, e-portfolios can work”. The rest of this post describes a history of my efforts.

A Piece of Educator’s Jargon

There is a process in Australian education known as “Recognition of Prior Learning” (RPL). If somebody submits a portfolio of evidence, often based on their experience in the work place, to a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), and the RTO assesses that the portfolio demonstrates competence for the award claimed, then the RTO must award the submitter an appropriate certificate.

Subject Area

My subject area was information technology. More specifically, it was Certificate IV in Programming.

The Production Process

Following guidance others who work a lot with the RPL process, I wrote a number of web pages describing my work experiences, and set about matching those experiences against the specific “Performance Criteria” contained in the Units of Competency that constitute the award. Just as I was about to find an RTO that would accept my portfolio, the Certificate was changed, which meant a major overhaul of my portfolio. It will come as no surprise that I found doing the overhaul rather irksome, but at least it meant that the qualification would be valid for rather longer than otherwise.

Structure of the Portfolio

The portfolio was designed with the following objectives:

  • Navigability: it had to be easy for assessors to move their way around the portfolio
  • Adequacy of evidence: the evidence presented needed to be absolutely convincing
  • Entirely electronic

The result was a web site stored on a CD. It contained the following items:

  • A front page, containing links to the rest of the portfolio
  • A guide to the portfolio: how it was organised, with suggestions to assessors as to how they might like to use it
  • An “evidence matrix”, containing exactly one link for each Unit of Competency
  • For each Unit of Competency, a listing of all the Performance Criteria, along with links into the rest of the portfolio showing how each Performance Criterion was met
  • A listing of each of the work place experiences

The portfolio contained a mixture of text, pictures, screen shots, movies and links to external web sites.

I regarded both the evidence matrix and listings of the Performance Criteria for each Unit of Competency as being crucial to the organisation of the portfolio. It allowed me to check for completeness of evidence prior to submission, and it also afforded assessors a means to do their work easily and efficiently.

A Side Issue

As an educator, I assess student work against Units of Competency, and I do so quite ruthlessly. If there is a requirement for something to be demonstrated, but it is not demonstrated by the student, then I am required to not sign off on the award. As I was digging through one of the Units of Competency (ICAA5154B), I came across two things that I did not immediately recognise (Oikos, SOCCA). After doing some research on the Internet, I discovered that they were both projects that had ceased by 1997, and so could no longer be considered relevant. I approached Innovation and Business Skills Australia about this, and was told, in effect, that they can be ignored for the purposes of assessment. This was in stark contrast to what I was taught when I undertook my TAA training. This, and other issues with other Units of Competency, has left me wondering about how well Units of Competency relate to the needs of such a rapidly evolving industry.

Finding an RTO

There are a number of RTOs near where I live, any one of which could have assessed my portfolio. The first one that I approached kept on passing me from person to person, and never returned my telephone messages. This carried on for weeks. The second responded on the same day that I approached them, and I was enrolled on an information session for RPL candidates two days later.

Feedback from the Assessors

When I attended the information session, I handed in a CD with a copy of my portfolio as it then was, this with the purposes of establishing whether or not the assessors might be happy with it as a means of proceeding. In my view, the contents of that CD could not in any way be considered as being fit for assessment: almost half the evidence matrix was missing, and there was a major error in one the work place experience files. Nevertheless, the assessors concluded that I “was operating at a level far higher than [the] Certificate IV level” (their words), though they did not tell me this until much later. Being educators, and hence rushed off their feet, it can be argued that going through that version of the portfolio thoroughly would not have been a legitimate use of their time.

The assessors needed to check that the portfolio was indeed my own work. They checked with one of my clients that I performed the work claimed in the portfolio. They had also encountered another RPL candidate whose portfolio was not his own work (in other words, a fraudulent candidate), and they needed to check that I was indeed the author of the portfolio. We arranged to meet. It was at this meeting that I handed over a CD containing a complete and correct portfolio of evidence. They also revealed that the fraudulent candidate did not even understand the questions that he was being asked at the equivalent meeting.

The assessors deliver learning in a Microsoft context. I work an an open source context. This might have presented something of an issue when it came to a practical demonstration of my own competence. I required of my assessors that I perform my demonstration in my own context, to which they were unhesitatingly agreeable. As a result, I needed to use a student computer in a sandpit setting so that I could load on to it everything that I required. Fortunately, such computers were available. (For the uninformed, most student computers are locked down so hard this sort of thing is quite impossible on them.) The practical demonstration went flawlessly.

The meeting continued after the practical where we chatted about both education and information technology. I was asked for my motive in going through this RPL process, and I duly explained. They also invited me to go for a Diploma based on the evidence that they had seen on the initial CD.

And returning to the theme of having an entirely electronic portfolio, the assessors said that it was by far the best that they had seen, and that it was very easy to navigate. I had achieved my objective.


In a similar fashion, I submitted a CD for the Diploma of Software Development a few weeks later. This was assessed as demonstrating competence without any further work needed on my part.

To the Future

There is a Teachers Guide on the Use of ePortfolios in Education by Med Kharbach (twitter: @medkh9). My own portfolios sit at the “Portfolio as Showcase (Product)” end of the spectrum. They were created using a simple text editor and basic image editing software, this coupled with a good grasp of HTML and CSS. For classroom usage, I would suggest the tools pointed at by Med’s post.

20th Century Expectations in the 21st Century?

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Jacques Cool (Twitter: @zecool, web site http://about.me/jacques_cool (in French, en français)) for prompting this post. It was sparked off by an exchange on Twitter about evaluating student learning in a digital age, with the key issue being identified (in Jacques’ words) as “Amount of learning, or quality of learning? 😉 I just want to avoid assessing 21st c learning with 20th c expectations and tools.”.

A View of a Metric of Learning

My own view of the value of learning is that it is something that finally rests on the judgment of the learner: “How useful or important is that piece of learning to me?”. It is a learner-centered viewpoint, and the learner’s answer is critically dependent on the learner’s own aspirations.

A Viewpoint From Assessment

There are really two strands in Jacques’ implied question: that of the human narrative (his “expectations”), and that of technology (his “tools”).

In terms of the human narrative, I feel that I cannot offer a proper answer, as it devolves to questions about the expectations of learners and educators, how those expectations evolve over time, and how that evolution is shaped by society’s wider expectations. Readers might like to consider Sir Ken Robinson in this context.

In terms of technology, I think that we come down to the strengths and weaknesses of educators. My current , and perhaps poorly informed assessment, is that it is very much like the Curate’s Egg: excellent in parts. In terms of my own practice, I will use any tool that is available to both me and my students, even if that tool is 3,000 years old (astrolabe). My preferred tools depends very much of the subject being assessed: numeracy skills very much lend themselves to being assessed using computer technology. Having said that, I am aware of other educators who, despite recognising the power of such 21st century tools, really struggle to harness them to good effect.

Quantity, or Quality

I must draw upon my own experience of learning mathematical skills when it comes to addressing this point, and perhaps the more difficult question of what is meant by the quality of learning, this last being perhaps influenced by the learner’s own capabilities. I know that there are some people who are capable of learning vast amounts of what seem to me to be apparently unrelated facts. From that viewpoint, being able to recite all Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory could be regarded as having depth. In another dimension, the learning that I had about basic numeracy at age 6 really came alive for me when I learned about polynomials 10 years later. Similarly, my learning about vectors and matrices at age 16 became fully internalised when I used it on behalf of my then employer 20 years later. We are now touching upon classification of knowledge: “Recall, Explain, Apply, Analyse, Evaluate and Create”. In this context, I see evaluation tools as being classifiable by relevance, not by age, while expectations again come down to societal values.

Finally, a Question

Ultimately, I feel that I must answer Jacques’ question with another question: Are we allowing ourselves as a group of educators to become bogged down in questions about technology and educational history when our prime focus should be on the learners who are asking questions of us right now?

Putting my neck on the block


I have had cause recently to work with something called a Unit of Competency, specifically ICAA5154B (Model data processes). For those of you unfamiliar with the framework from which this comes, this is under the auspices of Innovation & Business Skills Australia (IBSA), a body charged with ensuring that every Unit of Competency is both up to date and reflects the current needs of Australian industry.

Issues of Relevance and of Currency

That Unit of Competency requires that learners be skilled in both Oikos and SOCCA. There are two issues with this. Firstly, both Oikos and SOCCA are areas of knowledge; more specifically, they are research projects, not skills. Secondly, both projects were current in 1995, but both have long since vanished from practical usage.

The Teacher’s Dilemma

Any conscientious teacher follows the requirements of the Unit of Competency in its entirety. We now have teachers with a conundrum: are they honest to the Unit of Competency, or do they do the right thing by their students? Individual teachers are likely to take different views on this point. (In my own case, there was a requirement as late as 2009 for learners to be able to format a floppy disk, a skill that became irrelevant several years earlier. My solution was to get them to do it once, and thereby deem them competent, knowing full well that they will never need to do it again.)

A Way Forward

I took this matter up with IBSA, and received a very positive response, giving both advice to teachers (both “Oikos and SOCCA” should be ignored), and saying that the Unit of Competency was due for review, and inviting me to become part of that review process. This demonstrated IBSA’s commitment to serving industry’s needs.

Next Steps

My own practices in Information Technology only make use of some of the bits and pieces in that Unit of Competency. As such, I can contribute directly to the updating of those bits and pieces. However, this raises the question of how I might contribute to the other areas in the Unit of Competency. How do I find out what other practitioners are doing in my industry area? How do I keep myself up to date? Two answers suggest themselves: read industry news (which I do occasionally anyway), and see what vendors are offering (a new task for me).

Watch this space!

Wow! Just WOW!

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Brad, Caitlin, Erika, Ethan, Jayden, Jordan, Jo and Micky for contributing so much to the Extraordinary Learning For A Digital Age (ELFADA) project.

Some Background

This project is two runs of an intensive course lasting four weeks. It is funded through the National VET E-Learning Strategy (NVELS). The project’s driving force (Jo) has written a detailed post about it.

The project is an adjunct to the Certificate in General Education for Adults (CGEA) course. Student achievements in the project are carried forward to their CGEA work. One of the central aims of the project was to encourage students to develop a habit of studying, and to be able to use this effectively during their CGEA work.

The first run of the project succeeded beyond all expectation.

“How Come?”

The Mechanics

Before explaining why the project so far has been so successful, it is worthwhile looking at the mechanics.

Each day’s work was structured around three sessions:

  • 09:00 to 11:00, where lecturers present material
  • 11:00 to 14:30, where students could work, and there was always a lecturer available to answer questions
  • 14:30 to 15:00, to round off the day, and answer any outstanding questions

All contact with the students was virtual: there was no face-to-face contact.

What Happened

The use of a virtual environment freed students from having to be in a certain place at a certain time. One of the students had to miss parts of some sessions due to prior variable commitments. Another student was traveling as a passenger in a car during one of the sessions. The need to be inside any particular pile of bricks became void.

Students also worked to their own schedules. They performed research, undertook individual creative work, sent the lecturers e-mails, and posted on their blogs at times that suited them. In return, they understood that the lecturers would always be available during the stated hours, and that, provided it suited the lecturers’ own schedules, the lecturers would provide feedback outside those stated hours. It is a complete break from the factory model of learning.

Readers could be forgiven for thinking that the social sense was one of nine isolated individuals with very little in the way of an esprit de corps. In fact, quite the opposite happened. Despite the separation in space, there was a very powerful sense of social bonding between everybody who participated.

A Vision for the Future

What I have seen here is a radical experiment that successfully challenges the notion that “the [physical] classroom” is the only way to achieve educational success. It is a way forward for people who are physically isolated, and for whom the strictures of Monday-to-Friday 09:00-15:30 are unacceptable.

I look forward to seen this model being developed and used to great benefit in the future.

The Teacher, the Student, and the iPad

A Question

There is a discussion that seems to be becoming increasingly common among educators along the lines of “How can we make best use of e-technology [to assist with teaching and learning]?”.

The Good

It is worthwhile looking at the work of Eric Scheninger (Twitter: @NMHS_Principal, web site http://ericsheninger.com/esheninger/home) whose primary focus is on achieving effective communication with the learners, with a subsidiary focus of using e-technology to achieve that communication.

The Bad

More locally, I have been in face-to-face discussions with other educators who have puzzled over how to use the functionality of a particular e-device as an aid to teaching, learning and assessment. Fairly recently, I overheard a despairing “What devices will the students be using next semester?” – this with the idea that if the answer was known, it would then be possible to devise suitable delivery materials.

Even worse, there is view that “Because we are using e-mail [alone!] with the students, we are therefor using e-technology very effectively.”.

The Ugly

The reason is that this is bad is that it puts the focus of attention on the wrong component of the system. It flows from teachers who wish to nail down the e-technology before they start thinking of how to use it. It misses completely the reality that the technology at the start of the school year may bear very little resemblance to the technology at the end of the school year: new devices are coming out all the time, and many of today’s learning are buying and using them. Any approach that relies on knowing in advance what devices will be used later in the course is always sub-optimal, and may be very bad for the students.

We need instead to consider how we connect with and communicate with students. To list a few off the top of my head, these could include:

  • Their Personal Learning Networks
  • Web 2.0 technologies
  • Synchronous/asynchronous methods
  • Campus/mobile

We then need to be ready to exploit whatever technologies are at hand – typically in the students’ hands, of course – to achieve that communication. As teachers, we need to be prepared to accept (at least) and exploit (much better) whatever devices and patterns of use that our students present to us. The excuse that “It is a new device, I don’t [want to] know how to use it.” simply will not do!

Teachers these days have access to an enormous range of ways of finding answers:

  • They should have and exploit their own PLNs. (“You haven’t got one? Why not?”)
  • There are search engines available, not limited to just Google, Ask and Wolfram Alpha, but also including the “search” box included on many web sites
  • Ask the other students
  • Go to the manufacturer’s web site
  • And as a final resort, “Read The Beautiful Manual!”.

If teachers are not modelling these behaviours themselves, how can be expect our students to function effectively in the coming decades?

In Conclusion

Teachers often talk about teaching students about “learning how to learn”. I can now say “Physician, heal thyself!”. Unless we ourselves learn how to learn to use these new devices, we are failing in our duties to future generations.

Old teachers, new technology

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Santtu Toivonen (Twitter: @touqo) for prompting this post.

Santtu tweeted “Any evidence or studies that the younger generation of teachers is more willing to adapt their teaching to fit new technologies? #edchat” which generated a fairly long exchange of tweets between him and me exploring a number of ideas, this helping me to clarify my own thoughts.

Initial Remarks

I will assume that all readers are familiar with the phenomenon that the ability to learn decreases with age. I will not explore this point further.

I will however mention an owner of a training organisation, in her 70s, who understands new technology very rapidly, and a lecturer in his mid-30s for whom using technology is somewhat difficult.

What I Learned

As a teacher, I will use the technology that is available, best suited to the learners’ needs, and which I feel I can use effectively. At one extreme, this could be two rocks to sit on, a stretch of sand between them, and a stick to draw with. (Who knows, I may well do this one day.) At the other extreme, it could be a mobile device that became available to the public earlier that day. I am fortunate: because of my own background in Information Technology, I find new technology particularly easy to use. To give a comparable example from the automotive industry, I would like to think that when gas-powered cars first became widespread, teachers would be very comfortable with the changes in the engine.

Different people have different aptitudes for different things: some find information technology very easy, while others can find it impenetrable. Again by way of offering two extremes, I realised that I had left my teacher behind when it came to learning how to program a computer about half-way through the course – this was back in 1970. At the other extreme, I still meet local teenagers who dread such classes – this could be due in part to the teacher, but having worked briefly with such teenagers they seem to lack the aptitude for the subject. This manifests itself in an inability to follow a set of steps in the order given, for example.

Da Capo

Looking into my crystal ball, I see more changes in degree over the next decade, rather than any changes in kind. The rapid transition from mobile phones to smart phones is a change in kind, but adding more power to smart phones is merely a change in degree: the crest of the Information Revolution is now behind us.

My guess is that tomorrow’s teachers will use the technologies with which they feel comfortable, and they will tend towards those subjects for which they have an aptitude.

Pictures and presentations: an issue of size

Reflections on an Edublogs/Collaborate Session

It was my pleasure to co-moderate a serendipity session where one of the topics was the large size of some PowerPoint files, and what to do about it. Jo Hart’s thoughts on the same Edublogs/Collaborate session are at http://johart1.edublogs.org/2012/02/20/edublogs-serendipity-webinar-overview-four-topics/.

I was moved by the difficulties of one of the participants to write a Google document about how this issue could be managed. It is a public document, with readers invited to add their comments for improvement, or they can send them to me via an e-mail link embedded within it. I have so had two very valuable contributions from readers; they are credited in the document. (For the sake of security, I am the only one able to edit it.)

I first came across Google documents years ago, but I had no cause at the time to use them. It was not until relatively recently that I started using Google documents, creating them as and when needed for some or other purpose, whether it be education (as in the example above) or business. I felt immediately at home when I first started using Google documents.

Time Management – An Alternative Viewpoint

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Sweetie Berry (Twitter: @SweetieBerry, web page http://www.sweetieberry.com) for prompting this post. She shared with me a link to a web site which is (in her own words) “geared to help ADD high abilitied people (all ages) learn to use 7 minutes at a time to prioritize time to organize how they are effective in their plans of action, choices.”: http://www.the7Minutelife.com. This fired my grey cell into thinking about the whole issue of time management, which I find to be a somewhat peculiar phrase.

First, Some Groundwork

Before developing an argument, I need to lay some foundations from which I will be arguing.

Time is Finite

Whatever the time management experts say, we all have exactly 86,400 seconds available to us every day. Time is incompressible.

Of Goals and Tasks

We all have goals. Some goals are minor, such as having clean teeth after a meal, while others can be major, such as completing a research project. We achieve those goals by undertaking and completing tasks, such as using a toothbrush or writing research papers.

Continuous Choices

I now raise an idea that seems to be much neglected: the notion of “continuous choice”. This may need some explanation. By continuing to read this item, your are making a choice to keep reading: this is a choice that you keep making for as long continue to read. There any number of things that might change that continuous choice, such as

  • You reach the end of the item
  • Your telephone rings
  • You have a sudden and great urge to visit the bathroom
  • The device that you are using to read this item runs out of power

The same idea applies to driving a car on a long journey: anything could happen to change your mind to keep driving, including

  • Desire for a coffee break
  • Having a flat tyre
  • Needing to refuel your vehicle

These are decisions that you take continuously, and largely unconsciously, but they nevertheless control your actions on a moment-by-moment basis as you respond to the varying priorities of your own consciousness.

Da Capo

What we have here is an issue of task management, where we change the task of the moment to meet different goals. Whether or not we decide to switch between tasks is a function of the relative priorities of the goals at any given moment (“continuous choice”). The phrase “time management” is something of a smoke screen, merely reflecting the amount of time that we allocate to any given task, while obscuring the issue of goal prioritisation.

My Own Daily Goals

There used to be days when I remembered in the evening that I had forgotten to do something important that day. It might be to call a client, or pay a bill. To overcome this, it is now my habit to write a “to do” list at breakfast time, when my mind is usually least cluttered. It usually fits comfortably on a small “Post-it” note, measuring about 75mm square. I then refer to it throughout the day, and somethings think, “Woops, I’m glad I wrote that down.”.

“You Are REQUIRED to Attend this Time Management Course”

We now come to the classic case where time management is seen by some management teams as a “universal panacea”: they perceive more effective time management as a means of squeezing yet more work out of staff who are already fully committed to the business. At best, this is simply an exercise in futility. At worst, this can be a very effective means of demotivating everybody.

In Conclusion

Perhaps it is time to start thinking in terms of goal prioritisation and task management.