Saturday, May 30, 2009

Find A Kid To Fix It

I finally handed over netbooks to each of the year 5 and 6 students this week and it was a momentous occasion for me. I have dreamed of what it would be like if all the kids in my class had their own computer on their desk since the day I started teaching 25 years ago. All those years ago I had one Microbee computer with a cassette tape drive in my classroom that took 30 minutes to load a simple program. This week I was in front of a class of students who were all connected to the wireless network, accessing the Internet, shooting and editing video and emailing their work to their teacher to mark. I had spent a lot of time preparing an image for the netbooks, making sure all the software was working and ironing out security issues but I knew that there would be problems bound to surface. I also wasn't sure how the kids would go navigating the Ubuntu interface that is slightly different to Windows. I decided the best approach was not to spend too much time talking to the kids about the computers but to let them explore the new machines, stand back and watch what happened. I handed them out, fully charged with a 5 hour battery life and told them to try everything out. Within about 5 minutes some of them had worked out how to use the built-in video camera, change the wallpaper, customise the desktop and discover nearly all the bugs that I hadn't anticipated. I realised I should have given them the machines sooner rather than trying to work out what the bugs where myself. It was really amazing when you consider that they had never seen Ubuntu or any of the software programs that came installed. If I had done the same thing to a group of adults I am guessing there would have been frustration and people giving up because the software wasn't exactly what they were familiar with. So if you can't work out how to use something on a computer, hand it over to a 10 year old for five minutes and then beg them to teach you.
Am I worried that I will have to make changes to 66 new machines to fix the problems that the kids found? Not at all. One of the many great things I am finding about Ubuntu (yes it is free as well) is that I can make changes to the one master copy of the software on their netbooks and as soon as they restart their machines, the changes are automatically installed and enabled.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chalk Makes A Comeback

It was a pretty challenging week on the North Coast of New South Wales with cyclonic conditions bringing widespread flooding, gale force winds knocking down trees, power lines and eroding beaches and schools being shut for 2 days because of fears of children being stranded in flood waters. It was the third such event this year and I think we have had enough rain to last for a while. I learned a few valuable lessons from it all. The first lesson was how much I rely on computers and the Internet and the second was the importance of radio in these situations. Being without power for a couple of days and not knowing what was happening in the local area, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in my car listening to ABC local radio for information on road closures as well as flood and weather warnings. I can't express more highly the value of this service. People were ringing the radio station and asking questions about how to get to different locations to avoid the flood waters and other listeners were ringing up with suggestions. It really turned into an interactive medium. Evacuation alerts were being broadcast warning residents to move to higher ground. The information also greatly helped me navigate my way to work and I found the reports were pretty accurate and up-to-date. Well done ABC local radio. I am going to buy a portable radio before I forget. Thanks also to Country Energy whose workers must have spent days sitting up in power polls in high winds and bucketing rain trying to get the power back on. I am also going to buy some chalk. It might end up being useful for those long days at school without electricity.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

No More Trouble

I don't watch TV. It has the same effect on me as drinking Kava. I particularly avoid TV News and newspapers. Why? I always found the news depressing but living in China helped me give up the habit completely. After spending 3 years with no English TV and no news, I was happily oblivious to terrorist attacks, pandemics and political controversies and I found my state of ignorance actually made no difference to my life at all. (perhaps more optimistic about the human race). I also just can't stomach the bias. As the song says "Don't believe the hype". I know I should watch a little, being an educator, but I have found that having an RSS reader on my iGoogle page allows me to get the news I am interested in sent to my desktop. I did see something on the RSS this week that got me thinking. Civilians in Sri Lanka and Pakistan caught up in the crossfire of war. It always seems to be women and children who get in the way of boys with their deadly toys. It reminds me of a cartoon I once saw where a kid asks his dad, "How do soldiers killing each other solve the world's problems?" As Mahatma Gandhi said "If we are going to bring about peace in the world, we have to begin with the children". For me that means it starts at home hopefully and teachers can do something about it in the classroom. So this week I have collected some links related to Peace Education which I hope you will make use of. I have included the usual, paper cranes and songs. I don't usually go for that kind of thing but I was impressed with Playing For Change and their version of Stand By Me and No More Trouble . My personal view is that singing about peace doesn't do that much except making you feel good. I am more interested in teaching about the root causes of war which is feel are lack of tolerance and an excess of bias, greed and racism. These are really hard values to challenge because most kids come to school with their parent's views firmly entrenched. But we can all do a bit to chip away at the wall that divides people and stop glorifying war.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Intranet

I am starting to see a few schools buying scanning kits for the photocopiers. These allow you to digitise all those old useful worksheets you have been dragging out of the filing cabinet every year for centuries and turn them into editable files stored, displayed and distributed to students without the need to photocopy them. Punch in your Inbox number. Load the tray with 100 double-sided worksheets. Press Scan and walk away. No more dragging around filing cabinets when you move schools. No more hoarding mountains of paper in the spare room or garage at home and no more wasting paper. I am sure you can think of many more advantages. Why haven’t you heard about this technology before? Because photocopy suppliers make money from every page you print, not from you turning your photocopier into a scanner. So ask your principal about it now.
So once you have scanned all the worksheets and handouts, you are going to need a convenient, safe and accessible place to store them. We have all been guilty of losing valuable files on old thumb drives that die on us just before the beginning of a lesson. One answer to this problem is a school Intranet, which is best described as an internal and secure Internet for your school. Intranets are great tools for collaboration and a place for students to save and display their work. They also support efforts to individualise learning and use constructivist pedagogy. Students can collaborate on projects, have more control over their learning and participate in learning that interests them. This is all great in theory but it won't work unless the teachers and students find the Intranet useful, usable and convenient. If teachers have to learn html to be able to display their next lesson on their IWB, the Intranet will die. This is where Content Management Systems (CMS) are essential. A CMS allows you to enter content much the same way as you would with a word processing program and without the need for learning html coding.
There are many free CMS software downloads and the one you choose will depend very much on what your school wants to achieve with the Intranet. Your goals are the most important place to start, so I suggest that if you are serious about creating a school Intranet or improving your existing one, read carefully the excellent free resources provided by James Robertson, a Sydney based expert in the field of Intranets. That way at least, you will build the Intranet that achieves your goals and hopefully it won’t be a case of the “tail wagging the dog”. My advice is to consult widely with other staff from the start and find out what things they find really annoying about your present Intranet or tasks that can be made easier, such as programming (always a winner) and deliver some small improvements that will win you support and build momentum for change in your school. This is much better than asking people what the want. Most people don't really know because it is all new to them. Solve a problem for them and you are a winner. Find out what the problems are now and work on solving those first. Once you decide on some goals and some timeframes, it is probably also worth thinking carefully about the best CMS for your needs have a look at my links and visit sites like Dave's Educational Blog . Ease of use, for example, is not always the best reason for choosing a CMS. You have to think carefully about governance and a policy for content creation as well as making sure someone is responsible for maintaining every page of the site so that content is always up-to-date. Happy scanning.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Adaptive and Assistive Technology

I ran into a teacher the other day who was singing the praises of a new type of software that would be terrific for some reluctant readers in his class. He told me the software could read out texts is a spoken form. He saw a demonstration of it but was flawed by the cost. I agreed with him that the price was outrageous and being a bower bird, I would try and find him a free version. I found a couple of programs and having a play with them, I realised that Text To Speech (TTS) software has got so many other applications. I haven't paid much attention to this kind of software before, and regretably to Adaptive and Assistive Technology in general, but it got me thinking that I should do some more foraging for some free alternatives. I expanded my list a little and tried to find other types of free Adaptive and Assistive Technology and it made me remember when I first asked some of my students in china to use their mobile phones to create a 2 minute film. Some of these students had very little English but were able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in the visual form with stunning clarity. The same is possibly true with students will special learning needs. So let them lose with something like Photostory 3 or the powerful and simple to use Linux alternative, Smile or with their mobile phones and see what they come back with. Most of what I listed is for Windows or Mac but I am sure you would be able to find lots of Linux alternatives. And if you can't find it, contact the The Ubuntu Accessibility Team, who volunteer there time to improve the accessibility support on the Ubuntu platform and the software that runs on it, as I am sure they would enjoy the challenge of creating something for you.