Monday, January 28, 2013

Free LE vs VLE

Schools can no longer get away with being a run down building with a boiler room that Geordie Laforge can barely keep running, with teachers forming an orderly queue for the banda machine before rushing to their classroom to start slowing winding a transparent sheet with lesson notes to be projected on to a screen. In the modern school, learning must be interactive and a high quality modern educational institution can now facilitate learning anywhere like in a restaurant, in a sushi bar and even in the back of your mama's car. The must have accessory for the new digitally enabled school is the virtual learning environment (VLE). There are free solutions (save staffing costs) like Moodle but many of these VLEs or learning platforms cost thousands of pounds, dollars or euros and I don't want to think  how many zeros to add for the South African Rand. Google apps for Education is, however, an excellent free alternative.
When I first worked in Japan, our school email solution only allowed us to check our email in school. I soon realised that I could set up my gmail account to receive forwarded emails and send replies from my work address, and whilst researching this, I discovered Google apps. I decided to create an account and started to use it with some of my Science students. I was surprised by how quickly they took to and enjoyed using it. This gave me such a buzz that I went home that Friday and created a front end webpage that made it more appealing and would give it a more professional sheen. I went in the following Monday and presented it to my boss. He liked the look of it and decided to let me give it  go. At the start of the following school year, all staff in the senior school started using it as their default mail and calendar program and were using it in class to create collaborative documents and share work with students through Google Sites. One year later, it was adopted by the junior school too and it is still used today.

There is no doubt that Google apps has excellent features for educators such as the ability to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations and collaborate in real time, as well as posting curriculum materials online. Given that it is free, you may ask why do schools pay thousands for a VLE? There are advantages to a VLE. It gives a well organised platform for learning and removes information overload.  It is easier to direct students to the information you want them to absorb. It allows you to set up forums and set and mark assessments and students and staff can access documents from home. All useful tools but there is not enough capability in current platforms that I have seen for real time collaboration, unless it integrates with Google apps or Office 365. The biggest issue with the VLE is that schools are still looking at the old school model with Geordie in the boiler room and trying to replicate it. It is almost as if schools are trying to take that old run down dysfunctional building with so many barriers to a truly rich learning experience and create a digital equivalent. The VLE shouts out loud, "I am the gatekeeper to knowledge and you can only access it if I give you the keys". Work is organised into classrooms with digital versions of worksheets neatly filed into the relevant lesson so students can kill another tree printing it out at home. Even with all this wonderful technology, in a world where typing a simple question in a search engine each day provides better and better answers, we are still obsessed with organising learning in a way which hasn't really changed since we were at school ourselves.
Back then to Google. When I launched our Google based Free LE, I too was obsessed with copying this structure. I even did a presentation at at Tokyo Edutech meeting called 'The $10 VLE' (the $10 was for the domain registration by the way, I could have done it for free but wanted a nice domain name). When I first started training staff on how to use it, I showed them how to create those lovely organised topic by topic structures using sites, but then something interesting happened. Students were using the documents to collaborate and I learned from them that this was the best way to share the information. Rather than worrying about what it looked like I went for the Millenium Falcon approach (got it where it counts). Everything was disorganised yet searchable and for each teacher and student, extremely customisable. Of course, with a little time, you could create a Free LE with Google apps that looks and acts like a VLE by using widgets and third party products but why bother when you can get better learning outcomes using a system that is based on organised chaos that resembles the real world more accurately.
VLEs will be here for a while to come, they are certainly useful and will be used and if you have one make the most out of it and use it. If you are a school thinking of investing thousands of pounds/dollars/euros, I would think twice. You can get a great product for free that will do more and staff and students already have a basic understanding of how to use it. The choice is yours. Now time to go dig out some warm clothes. I hear Geordie has the flu so the boiler won't be working tomorrow.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Unleashing the power of the cloud

Six years ago after being given my first USB drive by my school, I marvelled at a device the size of a key that could store 256Mb of data, fit in my pocket and allow me to transfer my data from computer to computer, that was until I transferred all my data to my washing machine, never to be accessed again. Several pen drives later and I have at least learned to back up my data, but the sense of marvel has now gone, replaced by a constant irritation at having multiple copies, or having to remember to transfer individual files across before I leave work. Thankfully the torrential rain of cloud computing has dampened enthusiasm for such a clunky and lets face it, outdated solution to the problem of working in several locations. So what is the potential within education for cloud computing and given that there are so many free solutions, how can schools use it to improve their provision and at the same time save costs?

Well, lets look at some of the main services available and what each offers. First up is Dropbox. I'm no tech historian but it was the first cloud solution I heard of, however not the first one I adopted. Dropbox  offers 2Gb of free storage (expandable up to 16Gb if you invite enough people and complete a few other simple learning tasks). Dropbox can be installed on most devices allowing you to seamlessly sync files from computer to phone to ipad etc, so you can work on a document in work, get on the train and access it on a mobile device and then resume work on it at home. Dropbox also allows you to easily upload mobile photos to be accessed anywhere. Files can be shared with anyone with an email address, as can folders.
Sugarsync is the first service I adopted and I chose it because at the time it offered 5Gb of free storage (expandable up to 32Gb) if you invite enough people. In many ways it is similar to Dropbox, however my favourite feature is how easy it is to share any folder on your computer and choose which devices you share that specific folder with. It is extremely simple to use for backing up mobile photos (this was great for me when I switched from apple to android.
Google Drive and Microsoft Skydrive are distinctly different to Sugarsync and Dropbox in that they are designed for working in the cloud. They both come with decent free storage (5Gb for Google and 7Gb for Skydrive). Google is great if you are in a school that uses Google Apps for Education. With appropriate mailing lists set up, it is extremely simple for teachers to share documents with relevant classes. Google Drive has come a long way since the early days of Google Docs and the features get better and better, especially the conditional formatting and scripts now available in spreadsheets. One slightly annoying feature with Google is that documents created in the cloud stay in that format when you go to access it from your Google Drive so that it always opens in a web browser. Skydrive has a certain charm, especially for those who need the comfort of working in that familiar Microsoft Office environment. With Office 365 for Education it is certainly shaping up to challenge Google apps, however, some might argue that the 500Mb storage they offer to students isn't really adequate by todays standards.
So which is best and which do I use. The answer is that I use them all. I use Dropbox for work, Sugarsync for play, and SkyDrive and Google Drive for a mixture of both. Why use one and then have to pay a subscription for storage when adding them together you get at least 19Gb for free. The key thing is that I use them all in different ways. I tend to use Google Docs when I want to do something that requires collaboration, for example getting students to work on presentations simultaneously  I like SkyDrive when I want to work on Office documents at home on my Mac and avoid the annoying formatting issues with Open Office or Pages, Dropbox is where I save all essential work that I need to be able to access anywhere and Sugarsync takes care of backing up all my personal data and mobile photos. With the latter, I can always use a 3rd party app to make edits if required.
Schools need to consider the sheer power of of cloud computing. Being able to access documents anywhere can only be an advantage and protects against losing data and the collaborative tools which allow students to work together and review each other's work empower them like never before. In my view the school network, that hideous cluttered ever growing mess, and the server it rests on should be consigned to the dustbin (albeit cautiously after reading the small print in each cloud storage company's data policy). Consider this example. A new school is set up where a rather young and slightly reckless Deputy Head is charged with the task of setting up the school's ICT procurement plan. He decides to go for a a 1:1 Chromebook, Netbook or Nexus 7 policy (Sorry Apple, this is Free Tech for Schools and if we can't go free we go cheap) and puts in a purchase order. The head then asks him about what server they are going to get. Oops, he thinks. I totally forgot to budget for that. Realising his job is on the line he thinks on his feet and blurts out "server? How archaic!" The Head adopts a puzzled look. "Go on" he says. "We don't need one. We are going to use Sugarsync" he replies. "They give each person 5Gb of free storage". "5Gb. That's your plan? That will never be enough." The soon to be unemployed deputy thinks quickly and says "We have 20 teacher right and 100 kids in the our year 7 group. Each teacher invites 5 students earning an extra 2.5Gb of storage, then the next year, each student invites the next year group, again earning more free storage. Not only that, we can share a folder with the students to collect homework and have another folder shared with each student to give feedback. We can also share folders in a way with staff so that they only see the documents they need to, removing the clutter of the network." The Head smiles before the next question. "So what Learning platform have you budgeted for?" Oh s#$t!, the deputy thinks. "Emmmm.....Google apps?" To be continued.....

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The crystal ball

Can you  remember what technology was available as a teacher 5 years ago? If you had to develop a 5 year ICT investment plan, would you have made a wise investment? Should schools make a 5 year ICT development plan or is it a waste of time given the high likelihood of a black swan induced paradigm shift? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Where should schools spend their money?

In the current economic climate this question has been more pertinent than ever when it comes to a school's investment in ICT and technology. If you work for a state school, the demands on government money are greater than ever and when budgets are tight, technology investment falls quite far down the list. For private institutions which rely on pupil numbers for funding, drops in student numbers have led to similar financial pressures. Therefore the question of what technology to invest in has become an essential one which haunts every budget holder.

When I first started teaching 10 years ago, the picture was very different. Schools had money to burn on technology and burn it they did. Money was spent on highly specialised software packages which were often rarely used and schools were trying to get the highest spec computers that money could buy.  There was little idea of software as a service although there were some excellent examples such as where by simply deleting your cookies you could use it again and again for free.

Fast forward to 2013 and it is a different story. Budgets are tight and the need for expensive specialised software is dwindling (although there are some things still worth investing in). 

The days of needing high spec computers and even a school server are now in question. The vast majority of computer use in schools is for accessing content and simple document creation. Even much of the highly specialised software that sat unused on school computers can now be accessed (or not accessed!) online for a fraction of the cost. This is excellent news for schools. The now dwindling budget can certainly go much further. Simple much cheaper devices like chromebooks, netbooks and tablets allow access to most of the technology students need for a fraction of the cost. Even the school server is no longer necessary. With Google Drive, Dropbox and Sugarsync, you can share documents with exactly the people who need them, and they can access them from any device, anywhere. A superior service to the old-school server solution and with most of these companies offering a lot of free storage for free, a cost effective one too.

What about software? I have already mentioned web-based solutions that provide specialised software. You can access a virtual  science lab, record music and create art for free or at a much lower cost. What about the basics. Do we need Microsoft office with free software like Open Office and collaborative options like Google Drive and Skydrive. I would choose collaborative web-based options any day of the week.

With all this money now saved, does that mean we should get that learning platform we always wanted? Not so fast. Look carefully at what it does and you will see that it can be achieved with products already out there that are free to use such as Google Apps for Education. Students can work on collaborative documents, communicate, submit work, view and get reminders of homework deadlines and much more. 

Schools need not despair about limited budgets for technology. With the right planning and implementation, it is possible to match pretty much everything that schools with bigger budgets can do. There is one huge elephant in the room here of course. How do you provide effective in house support for all these free services? I think I will save that for another post.