Saturday, 29 October 2011

Here comes the $35 tablet!

Aakash Tablet from Venturebeat on Vimeo.

Well, if you're at school in India, that is. Even allowing for a Government subsidy of about $20 this is one cheap solution that works and will enable millions more children to see what we see and take for granted on our notebooks, pcs and tablets that cost ten times as much.

Yes, our kit may look cooler, work a bit faster, even have the seemingly essential letter i at the start of the model name but...

... the information we all access remains the same.

Thanks to Robert Rendl, a thinker at, Vienna, for sharing this initially.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Daughter's algebra homework takes me back to school

My daughter is smart but was understandably grumpy with some very tiresome algebra homework. The trouble is I love numbers and my enthusiasm for solving even the alien-looking display of letters, symbols, lots of brackets and superscript probably annoyed more than helped her. I can just imagine today's conversation at break:

"Did you do your maths homework?"
"No. Daddy did."
"OMG. What, without getting cross or reminding you how useful algebra will be?"
"Well, he didn't get cross but he did do the 'it'll be really useful' thing. He seemed to quite enjoy it, actually."

It had been a while since I'd had to do battle with x² and y³ but I really do think her school could have come up with more pleasant exercises - or at least less cumbersome answers that made you think you simply must have done something wrong when the last line of 'simplification' looked a damn sight more complex than the expression we'd started with!

Anyway, for some reason that I can't really explain, but I'll blame her for it, I woke up this morning trying to figure out how to slice a triangle so that the area of the small triangle at the top is one-half of the original area.

So the pink triangle above has 1/2 of the area of the bigger one.

What I wanted to know was where to draw the dotted line. Now there'll be people reading this who can just shout out the answer but I had to work it out. At one point I even looked up sine, cosines and tans on Google as I'd forgotten which was which. The answer, which I think is right, is delightfully simple (and that's the sort of problem Royal Latin School should be giving my daughter). You divide the original height by the square root of 2.

Then I had another thought. What height would a triangle with just a third of the area be? Ah - divide the height by the square root of 3! Brilliant. Ooops, no, surely, that can't be a series developing, can it? Because the next number is 4, so to make a small triangle with just one quarter of the original area would, if my thing were correct, simply mean having one half the height as the square root of 4 which is a nice, friendly number, 2, rather than some weird one with piles of never ending decimal places.

(The fact that I could, in those instances, never actually precisely measure where to draw the ruddy line did disturb me but I decided to leave that, together with why I can't measure a third of an inch properly, to another day.)

A picture helped me convince myself that I wasn't being silly.

So, with a little bit of algebra (I gave up on the trigonometry) I've discovered that you can make a smaller triangle of whatever proportion to the original just by diving the original height by the square root of whatever the fraction is to be. Along the way fractals made an appearance too when I played with numbers like 16 and 25. That's another story I'll share in a while.

And if my daughter is still struggling, there's always the excellent Khan Academy!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Goggles at the Zoo

Holding a Staff Conference in a zoo was, of course, bound to lead to a few jokes but what a great place! Whilst networking between sessions has its value, we did, actually have plenty of time to chat over lunch and on a mild autumn day it didn't seem to have as much value as wandering around and finding muntjacks crossing the path or ring tailed lemurs on the other side of a hedge. Add an ape or two, owls and some other exotic birds and some good exercise and you had a good reason to leave the discussions for a while.

Still remembering the Google Goggles presentation from a few days ago at the E-learning Forum this was also a great opportunity to put it to the test. I mean, I had no idea what the muntjack were but Google Goggles told me. This was the first time I'd used the software which had gradually downloaded itself the day before when I was in an area with a rather better connection than I have at home. It really is dead simple to get for Android users, taking care of its own download and installation with little more than the occasional tap on OK - and it's free. I had no idea how to work it but needn't have worried. You just tap the icon and it fires up instantly, presenting you with a camera like view and, assuming the camera's pointing in the right direction, another tap on an icon takes a snap and sets off the scanner. The scanner is a blue faded line that whooshes across the screen (and up and down sometimes too for reasons best known to itself). That takes a while and, once it's done you get told either that it doesn't recognise what you and it have seen or it does and then provides a bundle of similar images and some data which can be clicked to provide whatever else you want to know.

I clearly need more practice at aiming as most of my efforts, especially the ones where others were watching and I was hoping to show off , produced the unrecognised response. So more about that when I get a bit more success and maybe stop shaking when I press the buttons!

Unless I had something else running that I wasn't aware of it does seem to eat into my battery life, though and, from a full charge in the morning the bleep that tells me it's shutting down through lack of power (and, frustratingly, doesn't give me any time to grab a charger and do the decent thing to revive it) comes at about 7pm. That's not too good. Just as well I didn't make any calls or use the phone to make notes or do any research during the day or I'd have been lucky to make it home.

Something else I discovered after almost a year with this phone was that I could zoom in on things with the normal camera. I feel such a fool and must have missed, or not bothered taking, loads of potentially good snaps before! I had an ape in view and accidentally pressed what would normally be the volume control. And I'm now staring the fellow in the eye as if I'm a few inches away! Remarkable.

Some interesting developments with FE on the horizon and, for the first time for a while, I have some real hope that I may have a chance to express some views and constructive suggestions and actually have them considered. More on that another time. For now I have to deal with the problems that Staff Conference days do bring: 34 new e-mails to do something with (and that's after archiving those that are just for reading some day), figuring out what a new HNC course is all about and gathering enough information to ensure that I appear reasonably informed for a new group starting tomorrow and assorted personal matters like advising on increasingly difficult children's homework (I have already abandoned hope of being any use at all on my 15 year old daughter's Biology and Chemistry is virtually at the edge of my comprehension too). I seem to recall that the Khan Academy had some courses - looks like I'll be going back to school there again soon! Then there's the matter of liaising with the nice Edufire people who want me to do a Helping Students Succeed course soon, following up on a bundle of interested enquiries about my Staff ICT Skills Audit and then there's the E-learning Consortium to set up. Twitter and Google+ will ahve to wait another day by the seems of it. Hope I'm not missing too much. They have become my Daily News. Oh, and I nearly forgot ... dinner.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Tutors need to shut up and listen too

"We are looking into different ways to survey students to capture the 'learner voice'". Saw this on a Curriculum Champions Forum and I was about to reply with the usual survey webtools ideas when I stopped and thought a little more. Just what is this 'learner voice'?

A few years ago I remember a Quality Manager getting very excited about something called Learners' Voice which seems pretty similar apart from the capitals and a slightly more appropriate s and apostrophe at the end. A few days later the place was filled with Learners Voice (sic) posters and before we knew it this had become a compulsory item in tutorials and things called SARS where we take a guess at what grade a Department will get next year.

Now the Quality Manager concerned was genuinely interested in getting learners' views on what was going well and, I suppose, albeit a little more reluctantly, in what wasn't, but once the concept became an item that could be put on an agenda like Every Child Matters, Equality & Diversity and so on it all became rather drab. Previously enthusiastic tutors got forms to fill in. They were told off if they didn't get them in by certain deadlines. Presentations were issued to guide us and, basically, try to persuade students that when they did fill in the questionnaires that were now being developed left, right and centre they remembered to, er, say the right things.

Each group had to have a Course Representative. Now I have always thought that a better name would be an Of Course Representative because you can just guess who'll get elected. Few people tend to offer themselves up for the job, especially after they've been given a pile of assignments, and the ones that do will be those who prefer talking to listening and it gives them a chance to have a good moan about the premises, too many assignments, equipment or a tutor - and they'll do precisely that. It may or may not be the general view of the group. It can be pretty difficult to tell sometimes as some in the group are so quiet and really do just want to get on with the job in hand as best they can with whatever tools they've got available. A bit like tutors really. We could all go to meetings and say that we could do a much better job with this equipment or that application but it wouldn't make much difference. A decent manager will know that already and if he can squeeze the extra cost - and there's always an extra cost somewhere, even when you don't think there ought to be - out of his boss then he will have done so. A decent tutor will similarly know what changes, improvements, developments or whatever would make life, social as well as academic, better for the students. They'll have asked for them already. So whilst it can be nice to have another body asking for the same things, (and the current view is that students get listened to more than tutors), I am not convinced that much actually changes as a result that wouldn't have happened anyway.

Before the Learners' Voice got its capitals, tutors still knew what students thought, their concerns and their desires. All that seems to have happened is that it has become enshrined as Good Practice, got its own page in the Manual and, of course, ticks an OFSTED box. What seems to have become important is the process - the collection of views rather than listening to them or doing anything about them. Yes, against each statement there'll be an Action Point and against each Action Point there'll be a set of Initials for whoever has to do something by whatever Date goes in the last column. But smart managers will always put in there things that they had in train anyway so that it is no extra work to record action being taken. It's all a procession of evidence now. If we really listened to the learners' voices then we'd hear all sorts of little things that the Of Course Representative isn't going to bring up at a meeting with an agenda and Action Points. But those little things, people chatting about this or that to do with their course or tutor, wishing they could have this or that a bit earlier or later - these are the things that actually could make a difference and are what managers should be hearing. Not the selected sentences or big issues but the casual comments - that's what may tell you or colleagues something new about how the group feels.

So, to answer the Forum post: simply watch and listen, and let the students feel that you are genuinely listening to their voices. Your phone is likely to be a great tool, just tap the video button and record some of them telling you what they think about the course, the environment, tutors etc. Or if they don't like being filmed, record just the audio. Or just get them to share comments with you on a blog or VLE. Freestyle. If you try and structure it all then the originality and flow of comments can cease and they'll be thinking before they speak and it'll get a bit average and grey. Except for the Of Course types. They'll have plenty to say whatever you do! But you'll get a bit more balance this way.

Now, having got all these wonderful, probably rather amateur-looking or -sounding files, what do you do with them? Management and Marketing will adore the positive stuff and will gladly take that off your hands and you may even get back some clips to put on your own programme VLE or blogs. The bits where they're moaning and groaning about things? Oh dear, such a shame that the quality wasn't very good or you forgot to set the volume properly, wasn't it? Never mind. I'm sure you'll put anything important on an agenda for a meeting sometime.

Augmented banality

By the end of today I need to have some initial materials for nine new units or modules ready for students. You guys teaching Maths or History don't know how lucky you are that, for a large extent, the content is pretty constant. I've got to cover some at Level 2, some Level 3 and for a new HNC programme a couple of modules at Level 4 in things like web development or the impact of IT on business where, even if the technology hadn't changed much (which it has!) there are brand new sets of criteria that students have to meet this year so even if I had done it last year my stuff would need changing and, for the ones I have taken over, the last chap wasn't exactly hot on publishing material.

"It all has to be on moodle," announce managers. That seems to be the Holy Grail nowadays. "Stick it on moodle and we'll be able to tick the E-learning box for OFSTED." But have you tried making a reasonably attractive job of displaying materials on moodle? It's not easy. First it can take an age to upload every image that you want to work with and rearrange things on page and then you're faced with making moodle web pages look reasonable, which requires more than a little skill and some diving into the html code, and often finish up doing what every else does which is to make a list of Office documents and presentations. I understand that moodle 2.0 makes life much easier but we haven't got that.

I can see how it is a good idea to have a central one-stop shop for students. They log in and can get what they need. But that does depend on us all putting what they need there in the first place. And doing so in a way that is a bit more interesting and appealing than the contents page to a textbook with links to text documents that not only take an age to open but, when they do eventually appear, don't actually say much more than the textbook or an Edexcel web page says already. I have seen super examples of moodle being used well but invariably there's either a web design team or expert geek supporting them or even doing the display work.

Even then there are examples of nonsense. Well-designed, but still nonsense. As in the school that e-mails parents about some important announcement with a link in the body of the e-mail. You click the link and arrive at a beautifully laid out and themed moodle page. There is another link to click for the important announcement. PDF time. Long PDF time. Hurray! It's opened, and it's a size I can read without moving back six steps with a pair of binoculars the wrong way round. Two paragraphs. Important, yes. Glad I got the message but ... why on earth didn't they simply stick the text in the e-mail?!

Then I hear that some tutors in institutions get told to put their schemes of work somewhere completely different as well (or instead, I haven't figured out which yet). Not only is that place some drive on the staff server where they probably haven't visited since the 1990s but it's not somewhere they can access from home, and home is the only place they can actually get any work done in peace and with some reasonable software and equipment. As I said, I'm teaching web design, presenting information using IT and other modern, design-led modules like that where how I provide materials should be an example of the very same good practice I am trying to teach them!

My only solution is to produce all my stuff as I had planned, using all sorts of new ideas and applications that present it nicely and publish that on various blogs and web sites as before, and just putting links to it on the moodle pages for now. I can probably make the moodle pages, assuming someone has remembered to give me editing rights to them, and, indeed, has actually created the new ones I'll need, look a bit smarter with some images and design text for links rather than the odd default fonts and sizes with incorrect line spacing settings that display headings in larger fonts incorrectly when they require two lines. But the actual material will be somewhere else where I find much simpler to work with it all.

Of course that will land me in more trouble as I am apparently breaking some E-safety rule by using my own web spaces. If I remove any reference to a non-institution e-mail or non-course-related sections of my site then I may escape the men with the black bin liners. For a while, at least.

And there I was, getting quite excited about augmented reality after a super session at the Eastern Region E-learning Forum. I can probably mange to keep my students happy and well-provided for and stay in a job. But some colleagues I was speaking with really are still struggling, despite all the wonders of the new things happening around us. It really is time that someone has the courage to tell managers who reckon that adding Microsoft Office documents or PDFs and presentations to moodle and shared network drives is good E-learning practice in 2011 that they're wrong. It's just augmented banality.

Twitter: An Amateur Astronomer's Tale

As you sit in meetings today or plan lessons and listen to people telling you how terribly bad twitter is and is just used by students to waste time here's a simple little example of how you might try and change some views. I've often looked up at a night sky and wondered what the stars were and occasionally, very occasionally in the past, seen a shooting star streak across a black background above me. In the last few months I have learned a little about meteors and meteor showers and shown my children and friends where to look and when to see some of these wonderful sights themselves.

I'm really not the type of person to stand in a field at night staring at the sky at all but someone called @VirtualAstro inspired me to do just that. I don't know his name. He lives in Berkshire somewhere and that's his twitter name. I've been following him for a while now and he tells us in simple terms when there is likely to be something worth looking for. An amateur, with equipment he'd collected over years and spent all his savings on, he also publishes great pictures of what's going on up there for the benefit of those of us who may have missed a nice display.

I can't remember how I started following him. I expect someone I was already following must have mentioned him in one of their tweets and that was it.

This morning his news was not about the stars. Someone had broken into his house and stolen all his equipment, including some really old but valuable bits and pieces. Gradually, in a series of short bursts of less than 140 characters each, the story unfolded. The police had been. The insurance company had said the valuable bits weren't covered. He couldn't afford to replace them. The police catch the burglar. Some idiot had sold everything for £200 to buy drugs. He refused to identify the dealer who had got the equipment now. The police said he wouldn't see it again. The poor fellow was angry and devasted. Then he gets a pile of kind messages from followers and donations from some of them too. I don't know how much he has got so far but he's obviously amazed. You can just tell from his words that in a matter of hours he turned from being totally distressed to overwhelmed by the good nature of people he's never met.

This isn't much to do with education of e-learning, I know, and I'm sure there are far more dramatic stories out there that twitter or other social networks have featured in. I just felt that I had to write about this one. It happened this morning.

And if you hear of any Japanese Series 4000 super wide and ultra wide eyepieces for sale, let me or @VirtualAstro know. I have no idea what they are but the twitterverse will and it would be so good if someone somewhere can bring a happy ending to this episode.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Staff ICT Skills Audit Tool

Following yesterday's Eastern Region E-learning Forum I have had lots of requests to use this tool in institutions of all shapes and sizes. That's great and I shall be doing my best over the next few weeks. However, there's some help I need. Maybe someone at Google Docs can help or is there anyone out there with a bright idea?

The form collects data wonderfully and stores it all in a nice spreadsheet. So far so good. I can analyse this data using some formulae but it takes a while and sometimes I do like to watch tv or even teach students or mark their work. So what I really want is a tool or an application which will gather up whatever the user fills in and do the analysis for me then display it for them to see. I guess they'd need to click a Show Me My Results button or something to activate the extra feature and it needs some kind of health warning that, as I haven't seen the results myself and had a chance to spot some errors, they shouldn't get either over-excited or unduly depressed should the results appear impossibly good or embarrassingly bad.

The form is available here if you want to take a look.

A colleague at the Forum did mention something that I wrote down as 'flambaroo' but a search for that or variations of the name came up with nothing relevant. Now I know that someone who loves playing with PHP code and SQL could probably knock me up something and I have two possible sources of help for that but it's still a big job and, as I can imagine that different organisations will want slight tweaks made to things like the titles or department names and possibly even the question bank too and how it is compared to a benchmark, I would be forever bothering them with what sounds like a simple change but which actually takes them away from sleeping for several days in order to revise all their code.

If I can tweak things myself and get some magic application to do the night shift work instead of an ex-student who deserves some chance to get a life or a real job then I can survey the whole damn country and see if I can get Michael Gove to appoint me as an E-learning Tzar or something with a nice title and a bit of useful income. Or just gets some E-learning, ILT or ICT training work.

Answers on a postcard to or however you prefer!

Friday, 7 October 2011


At last, a chance to get out and talk to people about e-learning again! A nice day at The M├śLLER Centre in Cambridge. I couldn't find the ALT code for a small version that character, sorry. The Eastern Region E-learning Forum, merged with the VLE and Technical Forums and probably the Staff Development Managers' one as well, and we all gathered in this lovely environment where we were well looked after by JISC Regional Support Centre colleagues.

Both speakers in the morning session had a similar theme - things you can do with a smartphone. It was such a relief that not once did I hear what is becoming an annoyingly generic term iPhone either. QR codes. I had inwardly groaned a bit when seeing this on the menu but the actual title 'Augmented Reality' was intriguing enough to make me pay some attention and I genuinely learned something. Dale from Exeter University explained nicely. QR codes are those strange square icons that are appearing everywhere nowadays. they contain some large box-like graphics in some corners and a load of dots in such a way that one would presume that there'll be quite a few combinations before they need QR2 with either smaller dots or larger icons. Each graphic represents a link to something. You can make your own and anyone with a smartphone with some QR code-reading app installed can then simply point the phone at the graphic and up will appear a bundle of information, usually a web site, about whatever it is the person who created the code wants to show.

Yes, there's danger there but never mind! While the chap was showing us some variations on the theme I downloaded a reader and tried it out. My first QR reading. I was quite pleased with myself and wondered why I hadn't done so ages ago. I think it's something about the graphic which I have to say I find quite annoying, almost offensive to look at. Why i should think that I don't know. perhaps my brain already has some software installed that simply sees the arrangement of black and white pixels and gets grumpy. I now know quite a bit about bats, for that was the material involved in this marvellous bit of research work done by Exeter University to enable students to wander around their campus with various devices and get told all about what creatures lurked there.

Prior to that I'd been dragged on stage to do a brief impression of a magician, sweeping away a cloak to reveal my Vice Chairman's innards being displayed on a huge screen by the QR code slapped on his shirtW we were both quite relieved that he hadn't worn it a little lower. thatw as a more advanced version which even moved as he did so as he jumped so too did his organs jiggle. Not the sort of thing you expect at an E-learning Forum at all.

We also got to see how Google Goggles identifies whatever you happen to point your phone at and comes up with a load of gen about that too. I knew about this but hadn't seen it in action. Great. I shall get that too. In fact, that could be even more useful and may be what can rid us of the nasty looking QR invasion as and when Goggles can do what the codes do and can maybe interpret individually designed items which don't have to be boxes of pixels.

A great time was had by all and I do hope that everyone responds really favourably to the surveys about how useful they find the RSCs as the Government seek to get them to justify their existence. Just get shot of LSIS and give the money to JISC RSCs, especially the Eastern people. That's what I say. Maybe I should make a QR code to link to a large message saying just that and then stick the codes all over the MPs' drinking areas, loos and wherever else they make decisions.

That's the odd thing about these QR things. You see one but may not necessarily know what it's going to tell you about. Could be fun.

Outside The Moller Centre, Cambridge is a fountain with worryingly straw coloured water