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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The worst vice is advice

I've been thinking a lot about blogs.

Most days I come and leave some sort of rambling scrawl on this site.

I hope that some days this might be quite insightful, sometimes thought provoking, and occasionally my thoughts may act as a starter for worthwhile educational discussion.

I also know that from the stat counter, there are quite a few people that bother to look at what I have to say.

Why though?

This is post number 70 in this blog. Of those 70 posts, probably only about 5 of them are really worthwhile. The rest of them merely serve as a commentary on what I have been doing that day.

What is the point in me doing this? Is it to serve the voyuerism in others? Is this really just like reading someone's diary? I hope not - I don't think I really make enough personal comments on this to serve that purpose.

There are a few who make regular comments. Of course I am grateful to them, but when you bear in mind that I knew them as individuals before I started the blog, then is there any 'value added' by this being public?

Sure, there have been a few comments from people that I hardly know, and in some cases don't know at all, but what have any of us gained by all this?

I had a discussion with Marlyn tonight about various issues, but we agreed that the blog was a fantastic tool for the kids - they have grown in different intelligences far beyond her expectations as a class teacher. I can see real educational value in the use of a blog for the development of our students - instead of working for the class teacher they are working for a global audience - all of a sudden, neat handwriting takes on a whole new perspective!

I'm just not too sure about the reason for keeping it up as an ESO. My employer does not expect or require me to keep a visible diary. It never ceases to amaze me what gets commented on, and what doesn't.

The worst vice is advice. My advice? Start a blog for use in the classroom. The motivation of your students will increase exponentially. Why you should keep one as an individual though I have no idea.

Here's looking forward to the possibility of post 71...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Been there, done that...

So it turns out that some very big name companies have been there already on the UMPC front, before they were called UMPC. The one pictured was the Sony U750 from 2004. Testing the market? Yes. The model (and the previous on the U50) were short production run models that sold out like hot cakes. Only problem other than availability - price. This retailed for around the £1,700 mark. Way too expensive for education.

The Samsung Q1 is to go to market next month with an initial price tag of around £600. Not quite the $300 that Mr. Gates had hoped for a year ago, but apparently that price point isn't too far away.

Nice to see a discussion on Microsoft's Origami Project site about possible use in Education?

I don't think until we crack this user/device ratio will we see the advances that we could in education - maybe the smart phone with access to blogs/podcasts is the way forward at the moment?

BUT, ... a device the size of a book that could run full applications for around $300? That's worth investigating...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

How strong are walls anyway?

This afternoon I went to Luss Primary to assist in the installation of their new 42"interactive plasma display. Just how exciting can this be? I was quite worried before making the journey how it would actually hang on the wall, as the combined weight of the plasma screen and interactive overlay is quite considerable, but I need not have worried.

Luss along with Luing and Rockfield are taking part in a pilot project this session to look into the varying kinds of interactive technology we could have in classrooms. Luing Primary are going to be using bluetooth graphics tablets with data projectors, Rockfield Primary are going to use a bluetooth graphics tablet with a 55" plasma display and Luss Primary are going to use a 42" plasma display with a SMART board interactive overlay.

I'm hoping to convince all the staff involved to keep a blog to chart their thoughts on the interactive technology usage, but I'll post about that once I have set things up for them. We still have some teething problems in Rockfield and Luing to resolve before the project will begin in earnest.

On a first look I am very impressed - the screen in Luss is sitting low enough on the wall for the infant children to be able to reach. There is no problem of seeing the screen, as it is a small classroom. No projector lense to worry about, but most importantly, no projected image to be in the way of. I can't wait to see how the kids get on with it!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

When investment pays off

Tonight I was in JLB Primary for the second instalment of Excel 2003. The school over the last year have made the jump to Dell computers from Apple. They have invested heavily, as Bill Miller the Head Teacher has a vision for equipping classrooms for the 21st century.

Part one of his project was to purchase a significant number of Dell laptops - all having the same operating system and software. Part two of his project is to kit out each room with an interactive whiteboard, sound system and ceiling mounted projector. This is now well underway, and hopefully next session there will be few rooms without.

What a difference this makes. The technology is up-to-date, and reliable.

Any investment of this level needs to be adequately supported - as a management team, they have ensured that there is a program of training in place for the staff to make good use of the technology.

The difference using technology can make to student motivation and attainment is marked. By focusing finance and attention on putting this technology in place means that the teachers in that particular school have the tools to do the job.

Now all we need to do is make sure the network and bandwidth are there at authority level in order for staff to run with it...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

An ode to a Danish King

You wouldn't think that Bluetooth would be that complicated, would you? I mean, all you do is switch the computer on, switch the device on, make sure each is discoverable and then try and pair them. Not all that complicated really, but try as I might, I could not get the bluetooth tablet to work with a 12" mac in Rockfield Primary this morning. Looks like it will have to be HEAT call - they'll love me for that!

The rest of today was the ICT Steering Group in Oban High. With everything pointed towards SSDN (or whatever it is called now), the focus of the meeting centred around our plans to be ready for it in time. It is great to hear our leaders thinking out of the box, and asking the 'what if...' questions - we need far more of this to move forwards. I am always calmed by speaking with our educationalist Neil Stewart - it is great to have someone so committed to the project for all the right educational reasons as our link with the company. He has given us a great deal of time so far speaking with various groups of stakeholders about what SSDN is and could mean for us - tomorrow he speaks to the Secondary Head Teachers. We need to ensure that our leaders understand the nature of the SSDN if we are progress, and dare I say fund?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Neither one thing nor the other

Today was a round trip of 154 miles and 3 1/2hours in the car to look at a couple of schools and their whiteboards/large displays.

I wonder greatly about my role in all of this - my role really is Education Support Officer, but today I felt far more like a technician. One school was having a problem with a driver for the USB port to recognise a Promethean board. Whilst I fully accept that I am there to support its use in the classroom, I often wonder whether I should be there to 'get it to work' in the first place. I'm not sure.

On a totally different note, I have just finished my first ever Skypecast - I joined one of my colleagues Matthew Boyle for a discussion on recent news for the second podcast of the www.insidelearning.net website. Quite a scary prospect, as I felt so ignorant throughout the conversation! Thankyou Matthew for the invite - I hope my comments were not too inane!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Making a safer educational environment

Love it or hate it, the 'NavBar' appears at the top of most blogs. Notice anything different now?

I have always shyed away from publicising blogger too much as there is always the worry in an educational setting of what you get if you click the 'Next Blog' button - in many cases it is quite inappropriate for the classroom.

Anyway, yesterday I was tipped off how to get rid of it. Want to know how? Click here for a quick tutorial...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The power of plain text

If there is a hard way to do something, I'll do it by default.

A few days ago I discovered that my blog wouldn't feed because I had created almost all of my posts in Microsoft Word and then copied and pasted them into my Blog. Disaster! In order to get the feed to work, I have had to systematically go through each blog entry and remove all of the extra coding that MS Word generates.

The good news is that the feed now works! Any site that displays the 'feed' symbol allows you to create a live bookmark - that means that when the author makes a new entry, you get automatically notified. The power of this is incredible - how many sites have you been trying to follow, but then missed something new because you haven't been to visit for a while? Well, with site feeds you don't have to miss anything again.

Now that's what I call communication.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Japanese Art of Paper Folding


At WinHEC last year, Bill Gates stood up and proclaimed that everyone would eventually be carrying around a small book-sized personal computer. The model he displayed (although a fake at the time) was about the same size as a paperback book, and only about 1cm thick. This was called the ‘Haiku’.

For the past few months, there has been the ‘Origami’ whisper campaign over the internet, with various people making claims as to what would or would not appear as the new form factor for PCs.

Last week, at CeBIT, most of these speculative questions were answered. The ‘Origami’ project and the UMPC (ultra mobile personal computer) project were in fact the same thing. At the time of my writing this, four companies have already unveiled their own UMPC sized machines which will appear in the market very soon.

I’ve been following all of this for months now. I can understand why the announcement was given a mixed reception. Many people cited why they thought there was this gap in the form factor market – people don't want a device this size - they like PDAs/mobile phones for their size, portability and battery life, but for full functionality, they would rather carry a larger laptop with them. I can’t help but think they’ve missed the point.

When I started my present post as Education Support Officer for ICT, John McPhee arranged for me to have a Toshiba Portege 3500 12” tablet PC – he was completely sold on the concept of the tablet PC. After a few months, it turned out that this particular machine just did not have the power/capacity that I was looking for in a computer, so this machine got recycled to a school and I got a conventional PC laptop. This was a great shame, as I really liked the tablet PC concept, but it had a number of problems – 1. It was expensive. 2. As a machine to be carried around, it was quite big, and reasonably heavy. 3. For any graphics/DV work, it was too low a spec.

In my work I carry around a PDA. I love the PDA for its handwriting recognition, its small size and its battery life. It is really limited though. It is too small a screen to work effectively with email and the web, and it is too small a device to run full applications.

In education, I can see huge potential for the UMPC format. This is potentially every jotter and every textbook you’ll ever need. We need to start looking into how we can fund this.

The retail price of the UMPCs is expected to be upwards of £300. On a 3 year refresh programme, that would be around £100 per year per pupil.

Sure, there are questions about battery life and about the size of the device. The manufacturers will solve both of these problems, I am in no doubt. If you are in any doubt, just think about this – compare the size and battery life of the first laptop you ever saw to what is available now. The first laptop I had weighed 4kg and the battery lasted 90 minutes. The laptop I am typing this on weighs just over 1kg and the battery lasts for 7 hours. Still not convinced? Compare the size of the original iPod to the iPod Nano. Huge multinational corporations can make tiny devices when they put their minds (or should that be money) to it.

There are also questions about the power of the UMPC machine. Again, I think they have missed the point. The vast majority of things we do on a computer use little of its power. Communicating, accessing resources, playing resources, making personal notes that we can then share use little processing power. If we need a computer with more power because we are creating a complex digital resource, then we go and use a more powerful machine. But for the vast majority of us using technology, that is only a small percentage of the time.

I think this has been one of the most exciting developments in ICT. If you want to know a bit more, check out the link below.

I’d love to hear what anyone thinks.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Fearless Learning

This morning I returned to Port Ellen Primary, this time to see the pupils making use of Tablet PCs in the classroom. It is wonderful to see pupils working so confidently with technology. The staff should be praised first and foremost for the culture and environment fostered in the school as it is first rate. There is a sense of purpose and belonging that radiates from the school which is quite brilliant. In the classroom, the pupils make seamless use of technology. I have been over to visit a few times during the project, and each time I have witnessed a growing confidence in their use of the technology. This time, it was quite clear that the pupils regard a tablet as a resource that clearly increases their productivity, and choose to use the tablet for work as it allows them to express themselves in a way that paper cannot – for example – the pupils showed me Mazeltov cards that they had made using 2Create. They had chosen to use the tablet for this task because of the clipart library, but also because the program lets you turn your still montage into a swf animation. So a primary 5 pupil today was showing me how to make an animation on a tablet PC as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to them. I must say they took it all in their stride, and they confidently explained to me how it worked.

Because the tablet PCs are one between two, the knock-on effect on collaborative learning has been quite incredible. I’ll say far more about all of this in the evaluation, but it is worth pointing out how they learned from each other as being a particular strength in the classroom. From what I can gather, this collaborative element that has been encouraged by the tablet PC project, now goes far beyond the classroom and into the much wide work of the school.

Late morning, I returned to the High School to discuss the evaluation of the use of ICT over the next three years with the senior management in the school. They are more than happy to use the MIICE toolkit for this purpose. I have agreed to assist them in the development of their ICT policy over the coming week.

In the afternoon, I had the pleasure of joining a first year class who were creating web banners in Fireworks. They were creating backgrounds, applying filters, using feather marquees to crop images to make a montage in their banners and then finally adding text with filters.

I walked away at the end of the day realising all too often it is us that hold kids back. So what if a kid discovers something I didn’t know – as teachers are we not allowed to learn too?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Limited by Paper

I must have had to re-schedule today’s appointment about three times, so my thanks before I say anything else about today to Violet and her staff for being so accommodating for my visit to Port Ellen Primary.

For about the last 18 months, Port Ellen Primary has been undertaking a pilot project to investigate the use of Tablet PCs in the primary school. For more information about how this has gone, please check out their blog if you haven’t already done so. Today was my concluding visit for this project, and I spent the vast majority of the day in discussion with Kathleen and Arlene about how they felt the project had gone. I am so grateful to them for spending the time to share their thoughts, as it is very rare that we get the opportunity to sit down and reflect.

Before the project began, I can admit now that I was in no doubt what the findings would be, but it is very satisfying to have had this play out and objectively evaluated. I must also say that I didn’t share my hopes and fears either before or during the project with the staff, as I didn’t want to skew the results in any way, shape or form.

Throughout the evaluation process of the project, we made use of the MIICE toolkit to help us ask specific questions. Before we began this project, I had always looked very sceptically at MIICE, as I naively thought ‘Not another audit tool’. I am so glad that we focused on MIICE though – it has helped enormously, and I now have absolutely no doubts about its usefulness. My task now it so write up the findings of the project, so at some point next week please take the time to have a read at this document (you’ll find it linked under ‘Projects’ once completed).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

We wish you a safe onward journey...

I’m going to try and keep these posts separate, but today started a 3 day visit to Islay, which always raises so many questions, answers so many others and invariably forces me to re-evaluate the use of ICT in education. I quite often find that when I am away from home, what should be three distinct days always seems to merge together.

All of today was spent in Islay High School, which is one of the schools identified by the Scottish Executive as a school of Ambition. And oh, my goodness, what ambition! I won’t say too much here, but over the next 12 months, there will be a significant investment in infrastructure, hardware, training and support to see the development of the use of ICT as a management, teaching and learning tool for all. I am so excited by this prospect it is incredible. I was almost on the verge of asking the Head Teacher if she needed an RE teacher (or History or even ICT – I’ll try anything!) for next session, as they are about to shift the goalposts entirely in their school. My advice to anyone interested in ICT in education is quite simple – watch that space. I for one can’t wait. I look forward to providing support on a couple of fronts – in paperwork and planning over the next week and in staff support in May. Wow.

At the end of the day there was a meeting of the Islay and Jura ICT Development Group in the library of the High School. Usually I can only join these meetings remotely by VC, so it was great to be there in person for this one. Although there has been some slippage in the timescale for the ‘Newsroom’ project they have been working on, plans are well underway and a great deal has already been achieved by those involved. Can’t wait to see the news stories online in the near future!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


This morning I visited one of our residential units for children with my colleague David Bain, Quality Improvement Officer for Inclusion. (I now fervently hope I have his title right!) We were there on a fact finding exercise to see the educational provision offered to our young people in care after school hours. First of all they deserve a huge round of applause – when you realise how well they care for young people with such diverse needs, I am always bowled over by the level of commitment the staff show. The first thing we need in education or social work is compassion, and I think that too often we forget this. At some point over the next few weeks David and I hope to visit the two remaining units in Argyll for a similar exercise.

This afternoon I spent some time with the staff of Innellan Primary primarily looking at an audit of their skills, and then looking at how to make good use of their interactive whiteboard in the classroom. It is always good to get out to school, and I hope they found the session both enlightening and practically useful.

Monday, March 06, 2006

"Come in number 7 - yer times up!"

I don’t usually write something if I have spent a day in the office, but today I had a small journey to make a delivery. Over the coming session we are going to run a pilot project looking at three different methods of interactivity in the classroom. These are (in ascending order of price!) one school working with Bluetooth wireless graphics tablets and data projectors, one school working with a 42” plasma screen and interactive SMART Board overlay and one school working with a 55” plasma screen and a Bluetooth graphics tablet. Having seen the expense (and lets face it, the problems many of our schools will face with front projected systems) I am keen to see how this technology will play out in class. Hopefully I’ll be able to convince the participating schools to keep a blog of their progress. The delivery I made today was owing to an administrative blunder by the distributor – they sent the 42” screen to me instead of the school. We asked the delivery man if he could take it there and he said that no, it would have to go back to the distributor – to save time, I took it over to the school myself.

The rest of today was spent producing an audit document for staff skills for one of our schools. Has anyone had a look at Certiports proposed ICT Benchmark that will sit below IC3? In this ever changing world of technology I’d far rather we were looking at industry standard certification.

Yet again today I feel humbled. I love it when I am reminded of how little I know. Life is undoubtedly a journey of discovery and if I ever lose the desire to constantly find out more then I am in trouble. All too often we get comfortable on the second rung of the ladder – we feel confident that we have moved up from the first rung, but sometimes it’s great to look up and see how far the ladder really goes (if indeed we can?). Today I had a look at what Ewan McIntosh has to say about blogs and RSS – I couldn’t agree more. I think we are far more interested in people than in subjects – I know I read quite a few blogs that are nothing to do with my chosen field, but I just find them interesting. We need to spread the word about blogging! I also really want to see this in the classroom context – not just the teacher writing, but seeing it as an effective means of communication for the pupils too. If this is problematic for security reasons, then we need look into this. I can’t help but notice that Blogger lets you publish on your own server. I should really try this at some stage. I also need to get my head around RSS feeds. Any advice is most welcome!

Friday, March 03, 2006

I can see a 2MB school from your window

This morning I visited two schools that were (or, lets face it ‘are’) having difficulty with newly installed SMART Boards. One of these schools has made a terrific investment and has a system installed in each of their teaching areas. I was almost on the verge of asking for a job! The problem turned out to be a Java one – they needed an update in order to use the Notebook application. No problem thought I – I’ll just download the update (26MB) and be on my way. 5 minutes into the download it estimated another 6 hours 42 minutes remaining for the download to be complete. 10 minutes into the download it hung up. One of the teachers on realising my frustration suggested we open the concertina door to the neighbouring teaching area as one of the technical staff had recommended they do this if the network connection speed was slow (Don’t even start me on this one). I politely informed them that if they wanted to check the wireless signal strength, all they needed to do was look at the indicator on the screen (all the bars were lit up) and that this wasn’t actually the problem we were facing. I apologised (yet again) for something that actually wasn’t remotely my fault to the Head Teacher, and offered them two possible solutions to their problem.

So there we have a school, completely kitted out to be making excellent use of technology but their hands are tied behind their backs. Sure, they can make great use of stand alone applications and CDs, but there is no point even trying to make use of the net. I can’t begin to describe their frustration, and I take my hat off to their patience and professionalism.

When I got back to the office late afternoon, curiosity got the better of me. Now those of you that know me know that arithmetic isn’t my strong point, but here goes. 6 hours 42 minutes to download 26MB – that works out to be 1.08KB per second – not even funny, is it? To make matters even worse I could see a 2MB school out of the window.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Finally, life is almost a Breeze!

I’ve been waiting for this day for so long, I can’t actually believe it has happened. Two years ago, Maggie and I attended a Macromedia publicity day in the Glasgow. Largely aimed at business, two members of Macromedia staff took us through the workings of two products – Breeze and Flex. If you don’t know about either, please follow the links. To say that day knocked our socks off put it mildly. I then made it my personal mission to make sure that my employer realised the enormous potential Breeze has for education. (One step at a time – Flex is fantastic, but we are nowhere near ready for that in Argyll!) After countless free trials and the enormous patience of the staff at Macromedia, we managed to convince the ‘powers that be’ in Argyll to part with the money to buy Breeze. 15 months later, we had the software installed and configured on one of our central servers. Pathetic, isn’t it? I appreciate there have been technical difficulties, but lets face it, the rest of the world has since moved on. There are many SCORM compliant LMS out there that give the tracking functionality (the important bit!) of Breeze. Very few others give the ease and compactness of Flash though.

11 teachers spent a day with me showing them how to turn their PowerPoint presentations into Breeze presentations and upload them to a server. At the end of the day, we had a look at assigning these presentations as a ‘course’ to a ‘learner’. All present realised what a difference this could make to their teaching, to their pupils learning, to the tracking and monitoring of their pupils achievements and last but not least, to their own marking workload as teachers.

Not without its problems though – accounts will need to be created for the students. Oh, and the small matter of the ‘Breeze Meeting’ not working on our network due to routers being set to automatically drop multicasting packets. It took 15 months to get Breeze up and running (as far as it is) – I’m not holding my breath for ‘Meeting’!

I hope the 11 folk on the course stick with it. They will have whatever support I can offer. Two years ago this was the future. I now can’t wait to see what happens.