Category Archives: Mumblings

Tablets in your music lab?

Whilst waiting for a repair authorisation on a Macbook the other day (bad Apple, naughty Apple), I caught sight of this – the Akai Synthstation.  This, at last, appears to be an answer to a problem:

For some time now, there’s been lots of talk about tablet hardware in class however such discussion often stems from an eagerness to find uses for new technology as opposed to trying to solve pre-existing issues via deployment of alternatives.  The Synthstation is a distillation of why I think Apple (and those affiliate manufacturers who play nice with them) have really ‘got’ it – true integration of the hardware with the tablet – even those of us that are somewhat technolgy-averse can see the potential benefits.  For certain tasks, it’s possible to remove the need for a ‘host pc’ entirely, gaining desk space, reducing power consumption, licensing costs and classroom clutter.  Instead, using a Synthstation (or similar) to work with the iPad allows music to be created, edited and shared in class with greater ease than ever before.

Before anyone suggests it – this isn’t an advert!  I’m going to petition my place of work to get one and trial it and will post the findings (both positive AND negative) on here, in case anyone else is interested.

 

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Technical planning and implementation – whose responsibility is it?

It’s an all-to-common issue that new technology arrives in school, usually generating a buzz among early adopter staff and is proudly trotted out at open evenings and via various publications to impressed looks and knowing nods of approval, but what then?  In fact, what happens a month, term or even year later?  Recently I’ve been doing a lot of research into tablet computing and something that comes up again and again is that it’s very much a technology that relies on the user putting significant time into considering the possible uses that the gear can be put to.  But where does this come from?  If a school is fortunate, it will enjoy an element of the staff who actually embrace and revel in the opportunity to see how things can be done differently,however in many cases there are plenty of teachers and support staff for whom change has to be managed carefully to avoid fears of alienation or being considered somehow ‘preachy’.

So, do we leave it to the techno-enthusiasts to get things going?  In my opinion, not at all.  Enthusiasm gets you a long way, but it can make you blind to the real-world benefits of certain technology, and possible alternatives.  How can we motivate as many staff as possible to get thinking about the possibilities of new equipment?  Here are some of my thoughts:

1). Build a project team, but mix it up – ideally a blend of technical and teaching staff.  The whole team don’t have to be involved with the day-to-day running and reporting of the project but you’ll find answers easier to come by if there’s a broad skill set on tap.  Senior Leadership involvement would naturally be of a benefit but there’s plenty of opportunity to empower other staff by giving them the chance to make a difference and shape the future of the schools’ technological adoption.

2). Be transparent – don’t make a secret of trials or plans.  Make the mission statement and list of ongoing projects available to all, invite contributions and actively seek interaction outside of ‘the group’ – this will help to avoid the feeling that the projects could become ‘personal’.  Consider using ‘public’ forums, shared documents and public demonstration sessions to develop this.

3). Don’t be afraid to fail.   Personally, I’d rather spend £500 now to save £10,000 later.  Consider purchasing trial equipment and sharing it out where possible, but keep ‘prodding’ for feedback and results – if the equipment languishes in a drawer, move it on.

4). Stop ticking boxes.  Chances are, if your project begins with ‘we need iPads’ then you’re already on shaky ground.  Take a step back and look at what you’re trying to achieve and relate this back to real world goals.  If the equipment you’re considering purchasing cannot be evaluated against the schools’ wider aims, then the project is unlikely to be giving useful results when considered to be complete.

5). Be aware of factors outside of your control.  Let’s go back to ‘we need iPads’.  Okay, we hear you!  So what does this mean for infrastructure, deployment, lockdown and management?  Do we need to investigate the purchase of additional equipment, software or training to support the equipment?  If so, what is the TRUE cost of this and in what order should these be approached.

6). Factor in resistance.  There are a million reasons why staff, and even students can be indifferent to the introduction of technology – it can be viewed with suspicion, fear or even plain ol’ ignorance.   Users often need time, exposure and repeated encouragement to come to their own conclusions regarding the usefulness (or otherwise) of technology but sometimes these need challenging via the circulation of best practise and the showcasing of exceptional implementation elsewhere in the institution.

7).  The most important part?  Have a plan.   This shouldn’t really be a point on its own but it’s so important that it surely justifies its inclusion.  It’s not possible to evaluate technology using the same metrics year on year, things change and your projects should reflect this – think of it as a 360 degree appraisal!  Projects should be reviewed not just as a means of concluding them but to allow them to develop and morph into future projects – this WILL help those involved develop a greater understanding of how these things fit together.

As usual this is just my own personal opinion, but thanks as always for reading and I hope you found it useful!

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Movember: Looking daft for charity

Together with some of my colleagues at the wonderful St Albans High School for Girls, I am donating my face to ‘Movember’ this year, in support of raising awareness of Men’s Health and in particularly, cancer.

If you’d like to donate, please follow this link http://mobro.co/stahs – any donation, no matter how small, would be great!

I shall post some before and after shots, be prepared to be underwhelmed!  Those that know me will no doubt be pleased to hear that my ‘rock beard’ has already become a casualty of Movember!

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Google Plus – It’s not going well, is it?

Oh dear.  It somehow had a feeling of inevitability about it, but Google Plus just doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact.  I’m not calling in the undertakers, but wonder whether it can really make the statement Google so badly want.

I’ve tried to like it, it makes sense for me to use it as I’m a GMail user (and a big fan) and I use a lot of Google App services, but Google Plus is failing to tie it together.

Of course, Google tells a different story – squillions of users sign up every day, but as ever the numbers are only part of it.  Early figures showed encouraging signs that users were registering in their droves – my fellow early adopters, keen to see what the Buzz (oops) was all about.  However, looking in on it these days feels like it’s already stagnated as a service and the pessimist in me already fears it’ll go the same way as W*ve and Bu*z (sorry Google, it doesn’t feel fair to speak their names!)

However, Google is nothing if not persistant – it WILL make it work to some degree – it has to, as it can’t sit and watch Facebook biting its thumb in its direction much longer.   But how to convince users to jump ship?  They could just wait for Facebook to do it themselves, after all, recent changes to Facebook’s ‘Top Stories & Most Recent’ feed had users frothing at the mouth and threatening to reactivate long-lost Myspace and Friendster accounts in rage.

Realistically though, to loosely quote one of my favourite films ‘No-one gives it to you, you gotta take it’, Google NEEDS to have something it can shout about from the rooftops and really move us onto the next level of Social Networking.  The difficulty for them is finding something that is attractive to enough Facebook users to make all the related hassle of porting across worthwhile and it’s here where I think Google slightly misunderstands the different roles in Social Networking:

1). Broadcaster.   We all have them, the friends that merrily update their status with what they just ate, their journey to work and their cats’ every thought.

2). The Stalker.   The user who, despite replying to every utterance from their favourite Broadcaster with a volley of ‘likes’, ‘lol’s and inane ‘You go, girlfriend’ comments, doesn’t really dare put much of their own personality out there.

3). The Mystery.  Remember Friends Reunited?  Remember those people that clearly registered just to check if everyone else was having a better time than they were?  The Mystery is an engima, wrapped up in the anonymity of the Internet – they are a name, a sillouhette or perhaps a distant photo taken on top of a mountain somewhere, on a Tuesday.

4). The Social Butterfly.  This is the new breed, the people who were born to exist in a public theatre, admired by many and always first to the bar – but can you remember their Birthday?  Or actually their Surname? Hmmm…

5). The Advertiser.  I think we know what’s going on here.  Regretting saying you ‘Liked’ Whiskas cat food?  Fed up of the constant status updates offering 25p-off coupons?  Still, at least my friends are under no illusions as to my preferred choice of Meow Chow.

So, returning to the point of this post?  Google doesn’t know what to do with Advertisers, Mysteries and Stalkers – it doesn’t really want Advertisers using Google Plus as an alternative to Sponsored Advertising, it doesn’t want Mysteries to make its platform look bad by never putting anything out there and it certainly doesn’t want Stalkers, as it’s created the tools (circles) to be able to deal with them in a way that Facebook never really got to grips with.

In short, Google still doesn’t get the different ‘faces’ of social networkers.  Until it does, Google Plus stands to be quite a lonely place to be.

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All the gear and no idea?

So, I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into mobile learning, but perhaps more specifically iPads in the classroom.  One of the issues that seems to be common is that, just like Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) were in the early day, some schools seem to have the technology thrust on them without much in the way of strategy or plan for how to actually use them.   The schools that seem to be flying with the implementation of the iPads are the ones that (outwardly at least) seem to have the clearest idea of what they want to achieve at a teaching level.

The difficult thing with any educator and tech support relationship is balancing the practical with the ‘visionary’ – teachers should, indeed must, have the time to think big when it comes to the technology available to them – to buy a ‘suite’ of iPads is not enough, unless we’re all about box-ticking.  Instead, just like IWBs, mobile laptop banks and other technological onslaughts before them, the product is only as good as its implementation!  Encouraging teaching staff to find the time to get to grips with the technology is a difficult process for any school, after all, how many teachers would admit to having time (even if they did!) to be able to ‘play’ with new devices?  We need to remove the stigma that comes with the use certain technology in classrooms as somehow being gimmicky or unmanagable – it’s only gimmicky if you let it be – if lessons are taking place using iPads where previously held in an ICT Suite, that’s great but where’s the actual benefit?  Has anyone in the school actually had the time, help and support to discuss the potential benefits, or is it just assumed that newer = better and that because the equipment is actually being used then the box is ticked?  Are we simply installing equipment as a knee-jerk reaction to claims of out-dated-ness (eek) or as part of a ‘me too’ mentality?

What has become clear from the schools that are flying with the implementation of new technology is not that they necessarily have huge budgets, willing Senior Leadership teams or even that the ‘vision’ is there – of course all of these play a part, but the teacher-led implementations are the ones that seem to be succeeding.   After all, who could be better equipped to counter the ‘tablet sceptics’ (although it the term could apply to ANY technology really…) than teaching staff that can both see first hand and demonstrate the potential benefit to teaching and learning.

The point of this post?  I guess it’s a call to arms – if you’re a teacher and you WANT the chance to be able to experiment technology then make a noise about it and have a think about what you want to achieve, then bug the heck out of your line managers, ICT support team and colleagues to try and make it happen!

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‘What are you trying to do?’ The great technical staff / end user divide.

The above is probably the phrase I use most in my day-to-day support role.  In almost all cases, as teachers and students report problems, it’s only after asking this question that I’m able to offer help, or propose a solution.  Why is this?  It’s an interesting point that technical people very often have a different approach to their interactions with technology than those that are not so technically focused.  This isn’t to say that either party is ‘in the right’, but it can prove confusing for those who try to ‘walk the line’ between the two worlds – I count myself in that group!

A supplier to the school recently told me of the problems they have with getting information to Software Developers.  Very often a message will be relayed through a number of people, eventually ending up at the Development Team as a totally different project to that which the original user requested!  Part of this problem is the ‘chain of command’.  Because an issue has progressed through the layers of support, the risk of Chinese Whispers has increased, but also so has the feeling of detachment from the original user.  Helpdesk solutions DO help Support Teams plan their day, react to issues and ensure users are communicated to effectively, but they can add an unnecessary layer of stress to anyone reporting a problem.  However, the problem is bigger than that.  In most cases, when a user reports a problem, or a limitation of the software/hardware they are using, they are stressed – quite often they feel let down, either by the technology or their own ability and this can lead to lack of clarity in any requests to the Technical Team.

So, how can we ensure that Technical / End user conversations happen effectively?   One low-tech solution is to simply talk it through.  Very often we find that an email conversation over a matter of days could have been dealt with quickly by a face-to-face meeting.  IT departments can help by becoming more visible – it’s rare I can walk a corridor without bumping into someone with a request and that’s GREAT – it’s often the best part of my day to have a chat with someone and them (hopefully) leave feeling they’ve been helped.  I just don’t get that feeling from closing a ‘ticket’.  Let’s not forget that in education, we are dealing with users that have far less control over their time than we do, in support.

But there’s more.  Users can be encouraged to give more context and information in their requests and this can be done by VERY short, regular sessions with the staff, perhaps at briefings and other training times but also at key points throughout the year (preferably BEFORE busy times, not during).  It’s important that everyone realises the two-way nature of diagnosing and fixing technical issues.

Lastly, it’s important for all of the technical staff to have a decent understanding of how the technology is being used.  We aren’t in the business of simply opening a door and letting people do what they want once inside, but supporting, developing and advising how they can carry out their tasks in way that’s best suited to them and support teams should be making time to discover this.  Who knows? These investigations might mean a change of technology is required?  And that’s just fine, as long as such decisions are measured and taken in view of a wider strategy, it’s only right and proper that things should develop and change – the trick is spotting it coming!

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The transparency of technology…?

Why do I get angry with technology?  When it gets in the way.  The whole point of to deploying technology in the classroom SHOULD be to make people’s lives easier.  So why is the case that so often it doesn’t seem to happen?   There’s a few issues at play:

1). Unreliability.   For me, technology has to be reliable.  Therefore, if equipment cannot be trusted and staff have no confidence in it, it is destined to fail.  What can be done?  Repair/replace/retrain!  In many cases, if the system is genuinely faulty then pull it!  But is it the case that the users’ expectations don’t match what it was intended to do?  In that case retraining is the answer – what better chance to get genuine, real-world feedback than from talking to your users about their exact requirements and see how close the system is to serving them?

2). Inflexibility.  Technology should be flexible.  Humans behave in mostly predictable patterns, but one of the most fascinating thing about working with children is their ability to think with unclouded vision and mis-use (NOT often in a negative way) equipment.  If it’s a students’ instinct to use a system in a particular way, and it supports the educational goals, should we not consider how we can adapt to make this possible?

3). Transparency.  The best technology is the kit that you don’t realise you’re using.  When electric kettles were introduced, I’m willing to bet it was a big deal!  But I’m also willing to be that they didn’t require intensive training sessions.  Technology SHOULD be the same, and it’s heading there – look at the Nintendo Wii.  It’s the first games console to make controls intuitive, utilizing real-world motor skills to achieve tasks that would have required arbitrary button-presses via ‘traditional’ control methods.  Of course, using these skills to decapitate zombies is one thing and hopefully unlikely to have any real world benefit, but the Wii is also teaching people to cook, stay fit, even the basics of improving their mental agility with titles such as Big Brain Academy.

So, where does technology go from here?  The answer is ‘anywhere we want it to’.  As those tasked with supporting teaching and learning, technical and support staff need to spend time talking to students, teachers and each other and try to understand what people want to achieve.  Could the lesson take place without technology in the classroom?  In most cases, to a degree yes, but can technology be deployed to engage and enthrall students without the destabilising nature of intensive training all round?

Time will of course tell but technology is already moving in the right direction – it’s up to everyone involved to help deliver a future where its use becomes more transparent.  The next time you use a kettle, consider how neatly the technology suits the purpose!

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RIP Steve Jobs

It’s such a rare occurrence that the world of business and/or technology ever mixes with mainstream culture enough for almost anyone to know the name of a particular CEO, but with Steve Jobs that really was the case.  For some, Steve Jobs WAS the ‘friendly’ face of Technology.  Remember the ‘Mac Vs. PC’ adverts (featuring Mitchell & Webb over here in the UK?).  Steve Jobs WAS Mac.  He also brought a level of excitement to the WWDC events and other product launches that was somehow always lacking without his presence.  People liked him and quite frankly that’s a massive achievement for any human being, let alone the CEO of a multinational company.  He will be missed by many, both inside and, critically, outside of the Industry.

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And there we have it…iPhone 4s

Thanks to all at engadget for their excellent live feed, we now know:  http://www.engadget.com/2011/10/04/apples-lets-talk-iphone-keynote-liveblog/?sort=newest&refresh=120

So…no iPhone 5 for the moment, but some interesting developments going into the new iPhone 4s.  Siri seems interesting, but Dictation is a great feature – I can see that being a serious winner in MFL classes.  It’s not about the technology, of course dictation has been around for years, it’s about the implementation and this looks to be spot on.

Sadly, my hopes of a ‘cheapo’ version seem dashed, but I guess the good news is that the drive-down effect on iPhone prices has already begun, and with the 4s out soon it could bode well for the prices of the old units.

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Something wicked this way comes…

Something wicked this way comes!

So, the Apple Store is now unavailable, and it even made BBC News this evening.  The big question is, what next for iPhone?

My own hope for the future of the iOS platform is a cheaper, entry-level model.  Quite simply it IS the finest mobile OS and the only one that, for me, feels like it could be put to use in the classroom without a team of techies on standby.  Of course, whether Apple consider Android to be a threat (they should, it is a diamond in the rough) or not, will we see an iPhone for the masses? Or perhaps just or a shiny new update that has us reaching for the credit card?  Time will tell!

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