Tuesday, September 25, 2007

using SMS at school

It seems the days of writing absent notes, signing excursion forms and having to convince your kids that they really should tell you when parent-teacher night is on, might soon be drawing to a close.

Now it's all about SMS - instant information for parents and students about what's going on in school.

While the predominant use of this system is still to confirm a student's whereabouts, we're not only seeing the use of it for general information, but more the arrival of advanced systems such as swipe cards and fingerprinting.

Amy Spear chatted to Isabella Reily, a year 12 student at Newcastle High where they have been using SMS for two years now. She also caught up with the principal Peter Kilburn and Vladimir Ostashkevich from attendance system developers Academy Photography.

Isabella Reily says the system is quite effective - you only have to be a little bit late for class and the SMS system will kick into place, informing your parent or caregiver about your absence. However, she does find that this can sometimes be too much.

Her Dad, a busy teacher himself, will often receive messages saying Isabella is absent when she has a free period and is therefore not required to be at school.

There are certainly mixed messages coming from the student body. While many don't have a problem with the system, feeling that it's merely a good thing to embrace technology, some do feel that it can be an invasion of privacy.

Isabella suggests that it should be based on the relationship between a child and a parent - for some, a text message is an effective way to know what they're up to. For others, however, it's an unnecessary precaution. She also knows of instances where students have given a false number (for example, their own or a friend's), effectively making the system redundant.

However most embrace the system for what it is - Principle Peter Kilburn describes it as just a quicker, more convenient update of the old note system, one that can quickly cover 80% of the student population.

He says that the general response from the school's community has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, it's now not just absent notes that are distributed through SMS, but information about parent-teacher nights and other school functions. Guess that means that there will be no 'forgetting' to get the note out of the bag anymore!

Mr Kilburn admits that mistakes can be made, and plenty of parents will tell you that they've received a message when their child was simply on role-duty. However, the school feels that it would rather err on the side of caution, then fail to take up their duty of care.

But what about issues of privacy? Mr Kilburn can't understand how a message could invade privacy - it's simply doing what has been done forever in schools, marking attendance and informing parents.

There are now other systems on the market, such as fingerprinting and swipe cards, which are creating quite a stir amongst some groups, claiming that it is going too far. A sentiment that Newcastle High will stick to now, with no foreseeable plans of this kind of system in the future.

Vladimir Ostashkevich, of Academy Photography and Attendance, is a company who develops these systems from SMSing to student fingerprinting. It became apparent a few years ago that there was a demand for newer student administration technology and, as they already provided bar-coded library cards as part of their photography package, this seemed the logical next step.'

Vladimir agrees with Mr Kilburn, in that the technology is simply the next step forward. When he was in school, attendance was kept in a number of books and notes sent home to Mum. Now it's simply a matter of reading a barcode and a quick SMS - or fingerprinting and card swiping which is being introduced over the next few years. Therefore he too doesn't believe it's anymore of a privacy concern than old systems - it's instantaneous rather than over a period of week or so.

His suggestion to combat giving the school false number or the accidental response of "yes, I'm sick" is to have the parent call, rather than SMS back as often as possible.

It's great to see schools embracing the technological age and now that everyone is so adept at using a mobile phone for example, it certainly is convenient. But whether some measures are going too far will remain to be seen.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Online counselling and grieving

Life is full of obstacles and it is inevitable at some point most of us will face challenges in our lives that will cause us to grieve and look for others to offer support and advice. Death networking is a recent online trend where people are turning to the internet to grieve and make memorials and tributes for their loved ones. They can also meet people over the internet that are also in the same position. This in turn can help people through their grief.

This trend inspired Homepage producer and presenter Elizabeth Leong to look at how the internet can help people that are experiencing tough times in their lives.

Elizabeth talks to Roger Chappell, the manager of a company called Media-two which runs an online memorial site. Roger explained people are more comfortable expressing themselves online because it’s like writing in a diary – there’s no need to hold back.

There are also many other factors which make the internet an attractive medium – convenience is an important one because the internet is easily accessible by most people and can be accessed any time; proximity is another because people all over the globe can access the one memorial.

The Chief Executive of the Australian Counselling Association Peter Armstrong argues this point: people are going online to express themselves not because they’re more comfortable in doing so, but because of convenience. He uses Princess Diana’s death as an example: people were not able to travel across the globe to pay her a tribute, so many opted to go online to express their thoughts instead.

However Kids Help Line senior researcher Phillipa Hawke says telecommunication mediums are attractive because of the anonymity it offers users for users behind the phone and a computer. It helps people who want to talk about issues which may bring up feelings of embarrassment and/or shame – communicating through telecommunication mediums provides these people with a safer environment.

On the other hand Phillip Armstrong says people need to be mindful when they’re seeking for help online because one negative comment can have potentially shattering effects. He says someone could come in and make a remark or a comment which could send many people into crisis because it can confuse, be hurtful and cause complicated grief. However, comments made online can also be therapeutic because it can reassure someone that there are people who can understand and relate to their situation.

Phillipa Hawke also looks into the dangers of not going to an online accredited counsellor, saying seeking help from other online venues requires stepping in with caution. She says older people can take advantage of vulnerabilities in younger people and information can be misused.

Phillip Armstrong and Phillipa Hawke also discuss the pros and cons of going online over face-to-face counselling and discuss future aims and developments in this field concerning telecommunication mediums.

Services include the Kids Help Line, which is a free 24 hour telephone and online counselling service aimed at young people between the ages of 5 and 25. Lifeline 131 114 is another 24 hour crisis line offer counselling over the phone not only for the grieving and abuse/violence, mental illness, life direction, suicide related issues and, but not restricted to – loneliness.

Health Online

The World Wide Web is beginning to compete with human interaction as the amount and range of services provided on the net meet and sometimes even exceed those available to us in our neighbourhoods.

But can the internet meet all our needs?

One service that is being offered over the internet through thousands of websites is healthcare information and advice.

Some argue that these resources are a danger to people who have health problems because the internet is so difficult to mediate or standardise, however the accessibility of the internet does seem to open up a lot of possibilities to the world of medicine and health.

Dr Peter Garcia-Webb is the chairman of the Australian Medical Association IT committee. Aimee McIntosh speaks with Peter to find out about the world of online health.

"I think it (online medicine) offers a huge amount. Obviously there are some areas like anything where the information is not such good quality, but there also are some quite good quality sites. And particularly when an individual is considering the follow up of disease and looking to get a bit more information."

Dr Webb explains that the online world can be good for follow up and information, however it faces obstacles in the area of diagnosis, and so online health has to be approached together with consultation with a doctor.

"One of the difficulties in a person trying to find out what's wrong with them from using the web, is that they might miss the real problem. There's got to be a balance between trying to fix it yourself and getting professional advice."

Some websites offer online consultation with a qualified doctor. Aimee asks Dr Webb if these 'medical chat-rooms' could substitute face to face consultations.

"One of the major difficulties of just chat-room type medicine is that the doctor doesn't end up seeing the patient, and although you could say you could easily manage over the phone, in point of fact if the patient is blue and I don't know that, that is slightly different to if they're pink. So it's quite possible to miss things quite seriously if we're dealing with just words."

There are many excellent health resources available on the internet but like anything on the net, it's important to be careful and critical of information, look out for sites run by organisations that you know and trust, and always make use of information along with advice from your doctor.

A couple of helpful and reliable websites include:

Lab Tests Online - This is a website launched last month by the federal health minister Tony Abbott, which offers in depth but easy to understand explanations of all the tests your doctor prescribes for you http://www.labtestsonline.org.au/

Department of Health and Aging - This website for the government's department of health and aging which provides information on health services and health products in Australia and links to to other reliable health information on the internet http://www.health.gov.au/

Monday, September 03, 2007

Technology & Farming

The face of farming as we know it is changing. Now you need to be just as adept in using a computer as being able to identify a good animal when you see one. How are farmers adapting to the change? Is farming technology a welcome development for those working on the land?

Neil Inall of the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology suggests the image and practice of farming is shifting and technology is playing a role in that shift. While there are some in the farming sector adopting to new technology, there is still some resistance among many long-time farmers. Neil suggests that, in order to see the value of new innovations, the farming community need to be shown how they can use different systems to the benefit of their work.

It's been the subject of many debates, and one that always finds its way in to the media...are people living on the land serviced adequately in terms of communications technology? All these new systems and software are well and good, but they'll make no difference if people living on the land can't access them. Neil believes a policy to address this situation in rural Australia might be a vote-winner in the upcoming election.

Will farms be able to operate in the future without the level of communications as we know them now? "Yes," says Neil, "but don't expect them to make any money."

To take a closer look at the software and technology available, there's a whole range of products that come under the farm management title. You've got programs to calculate estimated breed value and manage entire herds of animals. Records can be kept and easily accessed in order to monitor breeding plans and keep track of, for example, a temperamental cow that is treading a very fine line between paddock or sale yards. They cover the financial side which enables farmers to watch over income and expense. There's mapping and climate information at your fingertips and of course, you can delve into automated irrigation and tractors that can be programmed to drive themselves.

But how important are having all these gizmos and gadgets? homepage producer Amy Spears asks Stephen Lil from cattle company Chadwick Downs if technology is an essential tool for every day farm life and business? Stephen says when it comes down to whether or not technology and software can assist with the basic task of breeding cattle, a farmer needs to look beyond the surface of the software because cattle and farming don't fit to a calculated equation. While breeding software programs can help you identify, monitor and predict herd traits, you can't truly track nature.

Stephen is a avid adopter of computer technology and uses a website and email for 80-90% of business dealings. Additionally he uses technology to keep records of his farming activities. One thing that technology can't do though, is bring the rains.