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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join.me

As a regular user of Teamviewer, both at work and for helping the users I support via my private business, I find the use of screen sharing software invaluable – having someone SHOW you the nature of a particular issue is so much more straightforward than struggling with the terminology to explain problems over the phone or email.  However, it just got even simpler!  Check out join.me for the easiest way to arrange screen sharing.  These guys clearly know how to write a good interface!  Thanks to Karl @frogtrade for the tip-off!

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Cheap software vs. the ‘Industry Standards’?

One thing that crops up regularly in educational circles is ‘cheap’ software being used in preference to ‘industry standard’ titles such as those produced by the big software houses such as Microsoft and Adobe.  Very often, ‘full fat’ software, such as the MS Office suite, Adobe Creatives Suite and ‘Pro’ editing tools such as ProTools, Final Cut etc. are spoken about as ‘extravagant’, overly-complex and cause Finance Depts across the countries to wince as they see quotes for site licenses roll in that would make your eyes water.  In the ‘age of austerity’, should schools be looking at cheaper alternatives to well known products?  Well, the answer as always is ‘yes and no’.

There are, of course, some neatly-crafted Educational titles, but in a lot of cases they have such limitations that they are only useful for teaching the basics – even then, it’s entirely possible for trends to move on and the point of teaching the skills in question becomes lost.  It’s also possible that these packages are selected because a limited feature set is attractive to the teacher, but are we doing a disservice to the students who will quickly reach the limit of the software’s potential and become frustrated by it?

Firstly – let’s dispel a myth.  ‘Pro’ software is always expensive.  Wrong.  Recent times have seen Microsoft wake up to the fact that schools are not a cash cow, ready to be milked till dry.  Office suite software has never been more affordable for staff or students and specialist media titles very often have cut down versions available with the key features remaining but at a fraction of the cost.

So, does that mean we should be grasping for our chequebooks right away?  No!  There are a lot of excellent, free or low cost alternatives to Office suites – Openoffice being one, and of course Cloud-based services such as Google Apps and the emerging ‘App’ market.  These are fantastic tools, and some truly offer a glimpse into the future where more and more content exists and is developed in the cloud, however, to not expose students to software in common use in industry, is a huge mistake.  When students attend job interviews, familiarity with ‘industry standard’ software is a key requirement, no-one in their right mind is likely to hire an office worker who isn’t familar with Microsoft Office – even on a basic level.

The more specialist the software gets, the more tricky it gets to ‘back a winner’.  Look at Music Technology or Video editing – there are certain programs out there (Protools, Final Cut, Premiere, Vegas, Avid etc. etc.) that it’s crucial we are able to expose interested students to.  If a recently-graduated student appears at an interview with only experience of Windows Movie Maker, they simply won’t stand a chance, regardless of the results they are able to get from it – competition for places is huge.  As an institution, we don’t have to be purchasing site licenses left, right and centre but having access to the technology is critical, lest we purely rely on the students’ home environment to do so, and that’s hardly fair is it?

So, what could support this?

  • Implementing a well thought-out strategy, with links to Gifted and Talented programmes, enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities to enjoy exposure to the technology across and outside of the curriculum.
  • The decision makers should have the ability to act quickly (with limited investment) in new technology – not panic buying, but introducing quality Trial programmes that takes on board teacher and student feedback and are regularly reviewed outside of the technical team.
  • Training time and materials readily available, up to date and engagingly authored to allow staff to feel less isolated from the new equipment.
  • ‘Key concepts’ taught as early as possible – it’s perfectly fine for goals to be as broad as possible early on, allowing for interests to become more refined as the student becomes more responsible for their own learning.  For example, despite my rubbishing of Windows Movie Maker earlier, it can serve to develop a basic understanding of timeline-based video editing. It’s only then that we can show the students what can be achieved with modern techniques and software.
  • Access to technology – there needs to be enough access to technology to make experimentation possible.  Students are happy, in most cases, to fail, to play and experiment with software and hardware until they get SOMETHING out of it.  In lieu of structured learning, this is a great start for encouraging students to go further and could be just enough to spark an interest!
  • Cross-curricular support.  If there’s an interest in Music Technology, why not get students recording presentations, recitals, shows and some of the other exciting events happening throughout school?
  • Don’t do everything, everywhere.  ICT Suites are brilliant, but for many tasks, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and multi-purpose rooms simply aren’t ideal.  Whether it’s the layout of the furniture in the room, the spec or the setup of the machines in question or simply the amount of competition their is for access to the room, allowing areas of specialisation is crucial to ensuring the technology is able to deliver in a way the user expects.

‘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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Now THIS looks good! VoiceThread

VoiceThread

Now this looks really interesting!  VoiceThread seems to offer itself as a ‘Group Conversation’ tool, but to me it looks like it could be an amazing lesson extension tool and much more besides.  It could even be the future of homework!

Available as an App, or via a web login for those without iPhones too, so a far better bet than some iOS-only tools, as access is less restricted based on the technology being used to access it.

Some really neat features include the ability to embed results into a webpage (are you listening @Frogtrade, crying out for a Widget!) and a whole heap more.  This one is going to have to be experimented with – watch for any updates after I try to get some feedback from some teaching staff!

This is what the Apple App Store has to say about VoiceThread:

“Create and share dynamic conversations around documents, snapshots, diagrams and videos — basically anything there is to talk about. You can talk, type, and draw right on the screen. VoiceThread takes your conversations to the next level, capturing your presence, not just your comments. Anyone can join the discussion from their iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac or PC — anytime, anywhere.

Stunningly simple and accessible, VoiceThread is already in use by architects, executives, kindergartners, professors, and engineers around the world. More than 25% of the top Universities in the U.S. use VoiceThread to connect and communicate around digital media.

FEATURES
* Add images from your camera or photo library.
* Flip through pages and annotate them while you narrate.
* Sharing is as easy as sending an email.
* Use your VT account if you have one — just sign in and all your threads will be there.
* Access the extensive catalog of content created on voicethread.com.”

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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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Useful eSafety advice via Grapple for Students

grapple - eSafety advice

Part of the problem of a lot of eSafety sites can be the condescending tone and patronising ‘advice’ dished out, with little real world examples to relate them back to.  This site is different to many out there.   Worth a look!

http://www.northerngrid.org/flash/grapple/index.html

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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