Chromebooks: faceless magnificence

It’s been some time since I added to my growing list of Chromebook posts.

 

Previously, in the Chromebook saga, a near-fatal flaw in Chrome Os had put the whole Chromebook experiment in jeopardy. Unable to get through the proxy server setup, the Chromebooks, all beautifully sparkling in their brand new charging trolley were a bit like a bank of door wedges – I might as well have bought ZX Spectrums – at least they’d have been a more wedge-like shape.

 

Many of my previous posts had me wrestling with complicated equipment such as paper clips and using interesting Star Trek-like phrases such as “I have now erased the stateful partition.” But the marvellous Matt from the Chrome Os support team in Mountain View got me back on track. In his laid-back Bay Area voice he explained, suggested, advised and encouraged until, with the help of a more updated version of Chrome Os, the Chromebooks starting working again.

 

And then what?

 

I was expecting the next problem. This is ICT you see – it never is completely straightforward. What would be the next barrier? The next obstacle? The next mountain to climb?

 

There hasn’t been one. All the Chromebooks work. Perfectly.

 

We take them into the classroom and give them to the students. The students use the Chromebooks in some or all their learning. Then we put them away again.

 

So the solution is even better than the Chromebooks working perfectly – it’s like they’re not there at all. There is no fuss about them. They have no charisma, no personality. They are faceless devices. They. Just. Work.

 

What that means is that the students can concentrate on using the software. So, during the last month students have:
  • used Worpress to blog (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Purple Mash to design 3D models (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Google Maps to embed photos of the school as part of the Switched on ICT scheme of work (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Google Docs to write stories (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Google spreadsheets to learn their times tables (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Khan Academy to practice maths skills (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Education City to practice phonics and literacy skills (on the Chromebooks);
  • used GoAnimate to make animations (on the Chromebooks);
  • used Aviary to create their own music (on the Chromebooks).
Some students even used Google Search to find out information for their topics…

 

Having had a bank of wireless Windows laptops in the past, Chromebooks have already proved to be better in the following 5 ways.
  1. The 8 second start up means that the only time wasted is distributing the Chromebooks to the students, whereas the laptops could take up to 2 minutes to boot up and access the network.
  2. No virus checker means that the Chromebooks work fast from the start, whereas the laptops would be slowed by for ten minutes by the inevitable start up of various Windows processes.
  3. An 8 hour battery life in the Chromebooks means that they only need to be charged over night, whereas the laptops would have to be charged during lunchtime to give afternoon users a chance.
  4. The light weight of the Chromebook means you can carry them around the classroom to show other people what you’ve been up to, whereas our laptops had been much heavier.
  5. The VGA adaptor that comes with every Chromebook has been really useful for showing what’s on the screen on the classroom projector. The laptops by contrast often did bizarre things when connecting to a projector.
There have been two small non-Chromebook related barriers. The first is that sometimes the children can’t log on because they don’t spell their names correctly. Or they forget their password. The second is that it has exposed the frailties of the school wifi network – for most of the above applications everything was fine, but for Aviary (online sound editing) the demands of thirty children all trying to create their own “Burial of the Pharoah” music was a bit too much for the sole wifi access point. Looks like Meraki could be the answer to that. Mercifully the 2 second shut down / 8 second start up (mentioned earlier) saved the day here – when a Chromebook got stuck trying to get through the access point, a quick re-start sorted it out.

 

In Chromebooks, it seems like we have found a device that enhances productivity – because you don’t really notice that its there. Instead of being a magnificent in-your-face piece of technical kit, Chromebooks are instead magnificently faceless, allowing all the fantastic software available online to come to the fore.

When shall we have Teachmeet Brum?

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So I’m looking to organise a Teachmeet in Birmingham sometime in March.

 

My preferred date would be Friday 9th March of Friday 16th March. I have a city centre venue with free parking that’s about 5 minutes walk from Broad Street, so I’m figuring we could go for a Teachmeet and then a TeachEat at a decent Birmingham balti place.

 

But here’s the thing – I’m not quite sure about Fridays. Being an inexperienced Teachmeet organiser (having only done one previously and that was mid-week), is Friday just to late in the week? Are we all too tired on Fridays?

 

So here’s a chance to influence the decision. Please fill in this spreadsheet to answer the question: When shall we have Teachmeet Brum?

What I learned from BETT 2012 #2: Grass isn’t always greener

I’ve never experienced a different education system than the British one, but of course the odd snippet or two has come my way over the years which have led me to the following beliefs about education in different countries:

  • The district structure in the US is ideal with between 10 and 20 schools in each district.
  • Hungarian education is best at teaching maths.
  • Finland is perfect.
This BETT washed those beliefs away like the chaff they really are.

 

I spoke to a Norwegian lecturer bemoaning the loss of small rural schools and the devastating impact it is on their community.

 

I spoke to US educators tearing their hair out at the slow pace of change exhibited in their state’s education system, with each district being stalled and blocked by what they really want to do.

 

I spoke to teachers from Germany decrying their assessment regime in the way in categorises students into 3 categories of achievement at the age of 9 or 10 – you know whether you’ll be going to university at that age.

 

I spoke to an Italian teacher shocked at how much technology was available to British schools and how little to Italian schools.

 

And I thought, it’s not actually that bad here.

What I learned from BETT 2012 #1: Cloud is the new Interactive Whiteboard

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1. Cloud is the new Interactive Whiteboard

 

My first visit to BETT was last year and I was struck at that time by just how many companies were marketing interactive whiteboards, or products that somehow augment interactive whiteboards. They just weren’t there this year. The obvious few had stands – Smart, Promethean and so on, but I didn’t notice many more.

 

What I noticed instead was the word ‘cloud‘.

 

It was everywhere, usually alongside some alliterative slogan that also used words like ‘connect‘ and ‘collaborate‘.

 

It seems to me that loads of companies are on the cloud bandwagon, hoping that schools will invest in some product somewhere on a server in a secure room on a business park in Milton Keynes.

 

Now I’m not averse to cloud stuff. As a Google Apps for Education user I have a lot of time and effort invested in the cloud and it has begun to make good efficiency savings at my school. It’s even helped some kids do some learning. Alongside Google Apps (which is free), I’ve also invested in Incerts, Purple Mash, Education City and Espresso, not to mention other free Cloud-based products such as Manga High, PixlR, Prezi, Aviary, WordPress, Posterous and Khan Academy. That’s quite a daunting list, and if I’d had the school check book with me I could have quite easily come away with another half-a-dozen products from the show. Moople was particularly interesting as it presents a kind of one-stop wrapper for a load of different cloud-based products, effectively providing a single sign-on for all users. Single sign on is critically important for younger users as they often have difficult remembering one username and password, let alone twelve.

 

What concerns me with all this is not really the huge range of products, but the fact that they can act as a barrier between the teacher and student. One-to-one teaching is the most effective way of raising a child’s attainment and skilled teachers spend their time finding opportunities for these one-to-one’s to take place throughout the course of a school week, no matter how big the class size is. One danger is the temptation to think that teachers can facilitate the use of these technologies to somehow engender learning. But teachers are trained to teach – the proven way of developing a child’s knowledge – and using cloud-based technologies can, if used incorrectly add an extra layer of complexity between the one-to-one teaching relationships that exist in classrooms across the country.

 

Similarly, for years interactive whiteboards have been seen as the must-have piece of kit in any classroom, but have also come with cautionary tales of only being used for presentations at the start of a lesson, or being hidden in cupboards only to be discovered by a particularly eager Ofsted inspector. I wonder if cloud technology will become that next big thing – used well be some, touched on by others and hidden in cupboards by a few.

 

And I also wonder if it really matters – I mean to education as a whole. Would students at my school really be disadvantaged at their secondary schools if they’ve never collaborated on a Google Doc before they get to Secondary school? Of course I’m going to continue using Google Apps and the many other cloud products I’ve brought into my school – but where’s the evidence that it really makes a difference?

Moments of learning from #domoreedu

My happiest moment of learning was sitting with my Year 4 teacher some 20 years ago and really ‘getting’ long multiplication. I remember thinking this is what I can do – I’ve never forgot the process or that moment.

My least happy moment of learning was realising what I thought was good practice was actually rubbish. It forced me to change quickly.

Welcome to my fully armed Lapsafe Chromebook trolley

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It wouldn’t strike many to be that important, but over the next few weeks I reckon I’m going to be counting my blessings that I forked out for a top of the range trolley from Lapsafe.

Surely it’s the quality of the technology – the laptop, the iPad, the Chromebook – that’s important. Surely it’s the product support / the software / the training that is the key to succesful deployment.

Nope. I think it’s the quality if the charging trolley (or Cart if you’re US).

The next few weeks will prove me right or wrong.

“Wow – Purple Mash looks ace!”

Today was the first time that all the staff got their hand on the Chromebooks.

 

It was a mixed success, mainly because of the ongoing problems we’re having with how Chrome Os talks to the proxy server. I’ve already written about those particular problems. I had put the Chromebooks out before the staff arrived and of course they all started playing with them. That’s great – I normally encourage such practice. However I knew this time it would augur a disaster. You see I had ‘backdated’ all the Chromebooks to version 14, which has no proxy problems. But unfortunately version 14 automatically updates itself to the next version, which does have proxy problems. So of course, those staff that started playing with the Chromebooks first couldn’t use them by the end of the session.

 

However, for some staff (those teachers who had left their Chromebook lids closed), the experience was very positive. They accessed our new learning platform and played around with some of the tools that the students could use, including Purple Mash, which was a real hit. From the simplicity of software such as Simple City – great for Early Years children, to designing your own cut out car, it all looks great. My particular favourite, though I admit it’s quite gimmicky, is ‘Mashcam’ where the children take a photo of themselves using the Chromebook webcam and it gets pasted into an outline of some other figure, like a spaceman or a police man. I’m particularly looking forward to the Year 3 children picturing themselves as Tutankhamun in a few weeks time as they get their Egyptian topic underway.

 

I really think that Purple Mash is an ideal match for the Chromebooks – sitting alongside our Google Apps domain, I think it will enhance the children’s experience and give opportunities for younger children in particular to access ‘The Cloud’. I’ve been aware that it is mainly our Key Stage 2 classes that have been using our Google Apps domain and Purple Mash looks just the right thing to draw in the younger children (especially the teachers of those younger children).

 

Back to the technical issue with the Chromebooks. After the session was over, the post arrived and there were the flash drives sent from Google Europe in Ireland with the experimental patch for version 16. Hopefully it will soon all work.

Cue the imposition of another fad in education

Many people who will have read the announcement from the Prince’s Trust I found on the BBC this morning will have dismissed it with the thought Oh anyone could have told you that. That’s just common sense. The headline reads, “Princes trust: school grades hit by lack of routine.” In the article, the vital statistic is that 30% of students with poor grades had no set routine as a child, contrasted with 14% of students with ‘better grades’.

 

Certainly it would seem to make sense. Children who go to bed whenever they want don’t do so well at school. I’ve experienced that myself – eight year-olds staying up watching TV into the early hours then demonstrating zombie-like engagement with lessons the next day. In the famed Birmingham Quake of 2008 (what – you didn’t hear of that one?) some students were woken at 1:06 in the morning by the terrifying shaking. Myself, I slept through it. However I was particularly concerned the next day when a Year 6 child (aged 10) told me: “Yeah it was so bad I dropped my Playstation controller.

 

So what is my response to that as a teacher? A conversation with the child perhaps. Maybe I mention it to parents at the next parent’s evening. If I’m really concerned that the late nights are affecting school performance I would make a phone call home.

 

However, I worry that someone in government is looking at that story right now and thinking they really have to do something about it. Something big. Something governmental. I fear the conversation may go something like this:

 

Concerned minister: Have you seen this article? We need to bring back routines into family life.
Junior minister: How can we do that? We don’t control every family.
Concerned minister: Hmm. What do we control?
Junior Minister [Thinks]
Civil servant: There’s always schools. And Ofsted.
Junior Minister: Yes. We could make schools teach their children to have better routines at home.
Concerned Minister: Yes. It could be part of the criteria in the Ofsted framework.
Civil servant: So… you’d like a glossy pack going out to every school, perhaps? An instructional DVD? A website?
Concerned Minister: Yes, that sounds good. I could really… Oh I mean, this will help the whole country.
Junior Minister: I’ll prepare a press release…
Civil servant: Might you also like a pilot study? Some academic research to back up what we want to do?
Concerned Minister [eyes glowing a baleful red]: Yes! Yes!
Civil servant: Right away minister.
(Apologies to the script writers of Yes  Minister)

 

Of course, the coalition government have said they want less paper work in schools. Less government and local authority control. More self governance. But when something like this comes along will they really be able to resist the urge to send that glossy fad-pack into school? Will they really have the confidence in the country’s teachers?

The King of shapes: the stellated icosahedron

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There’s nothing quite as good as mathematical toys for Christmas. After I had wrested this ‘geomac’ off the children, I made my very favourite shape – the stellated icosahedron.

I just love adding points to a platonic solid.

With 60 faces, 90 edges and 32 vertices, Euler’s formula still holds true: 32+60-90=2 (vertices+faces-edges=2 for all solids without holes in them).

The question for young mathematicians is “do all the 3D shapes you know follow this rule?” and following on from this “can you make a 3D shape that doesn’t follow this rule?” [clue: try making a donut out of geomac].