Open Thinkering


Tag: elearning

Why a ‘mixed economy’ of digital devices is best for your educational institution.

lisa's scissors

Earlier today, on Twitter, I mentioned that the 64GB version of the BlackBerry Playbook is now at the scandalously low price of £129. They’re practically giving it away.

I mentioned that for some educational institutions that would be a really good fit, especially given that you can side-load Android apps. Eventually, I should imagine, you’ll be able to dispose of the BlackBerry OS altogether and juse go with Android for the entire system.

Bill Lord, a Primary school headteacher, replied that he was looking at a ‘mixed economy’ of devices for his educational institution, adding that he had three main reasons for this approach:

  1. Pupil needs
  2. Staff needs (confidence/competence)
  3. Vagaries of the market

I’m with Bill. To my mind, being an ‘iPad-only’ school makes no sense. It’s replicating the Microsoft vendor lock-in all over again. Since when was school about teaching young people how to use particular types of devices?

Instead, it’s better to look at the affordances of each device. That doesn’t mean how much it costs, but rather what it allows you to do. The BlackBerry Playbook at £129, for example, has front and rear-facing cameras and a high-definition screen. Sounds like an opportunity.

It’s OK to build learning activities around specific devices some of the time, but I wouldn’t want to be doing it all of the time. Why not focus on building and using things that are device-agnostic? Surely that’s a more sustainable option? Use the Web, for goodness’ sake!

Finally, if you’re reading this in the UK you should really stop by HotUKDeals every now and again. I’m on there at least three times a day – and not just to find cheaper stuff than usual. I also find it really enlightening in terms of what people are interested in but, more importantly, the comments people leave and the context they give. There’s some serious expertise there.

Image CC BY-NC reebob

Dell Latitude 2110: a review.

Context: I’m looking at this netbook from a user outcomes point of view. Although currently working at JISC infoNet in the Further/Higher education sector, I was previously Director of E-Learning of a 3-19 Academy, and taught History and ICT for 6 years in secondary schools in England.

(if you’re on an iPad or non-Flash device click here for images)


I’m sure schools exist in some kind of parallel dimension to the rest of the world. To be successful in them, whether you’re a member of staff or a student, you need to work much harder than the rest of the world to jump through hoops that others care about only in passing. Having been on both sides of the fence I’m aware of two things: that most teachers don’t understand the world of business and that, more importantly, business doesn’t really understand the world of education.

Let me explain. Practices (i.e. the everyday life of the classroom) are predicated upon the affordances of an objects, devices and other 3rd-party props:

An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action.

In my experience, affordances are usually the result of the confluence of two or more features. For example, stored maps + GPS + touchscreen + voice synthesiser = satnav. The affordance is the ability to get to your destination. Affordances, in turn, are predicated upon specifications.

Unfortunately, and I’ve expressed my frustration about this before, a focus on ‘functional specifications‘ therefore misses the point. It’s what the user does with an object, device or prop (towards a larger learning goal) rather than its specifications that is important. Most educators get this; most business people don’t. There’s been a lot of talk about the iPad this year, and for good reason. Apple have focused on the affordances of the device to such an extreme level that the average user has no idea about its specifications. As Jonathan Ive explains, this makes it feel, in a way, magical.


I’m not particularly interested in the specifications of the Dell Latitude 2110; I’m interested in what it allows users to do and how it fits in with the classroom environment. I’ve had some success with the Asus Eee 1000H because of two main affordances: reliability (long battery life and well-built) and portability (lightweight and relatively small). I’m going to take the Asus Eee 1000H as my reference point for the rest of this review.

Is the Dell Latitude 2110 better than the Asus Eee 1000H? Yes. In fact, it would be my recommendation for any educational institution looking at rolling out portable devices with keyboards. Let me explain why from an affordances point of view; if you want a full technical run-down head over to Expert Reviews or (better still) Notebook Check.

First of all, the screen that came with my review sample was high resolution (1366×768) and glossy. Perhaps not great for outdoors work (because of the reflectiveness) but great for making things look fantastic indoors. That’s why Apple put glossy screens on their MacBooks, after all.

Secondly, the processor (1.83Ghz Intel Atom), coupled with 1Ghz RAM allows for quick browsing, especially when you swap out Internet Explorer for Google Chrome. Whilst I found that students are willing to be more forgiving of the relative performance drop when working with netbooks (a trade-off of convenience) there isn’t really likely to be a problem here. It’s nippy. Windows 7 is a much better operating system for netbooks than Windows XP (which, after all, is almost 10 years old). My review sample came with Windows 7 Professional but this comes at an additional cost. If you just need cloud-based wifi access I’d forgo this and use something like Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

Full HD video is 1080p. Attempting to play a 1080p preview of the film Kick-Ass downloaded from Filmous almost worked. That is to say that the audio was fine but the video stuttered with graphically-intensive scenes. Playing YouTube videos and embedded media, however, is no problem. Perhaps the ultimate test, though, for a netbook is Google Earth. It’s a tool used widely in schools – and not just in Geography lessons. It requires a decent machine for a smooth experience. How did the Dell Latitude 2110 fare? A similar story to the video clip, really: whilst you can certainly navigate your way around, it’s a little jerky and 3D buildings are a no-no.

Not all classrooms have speakers to couple with the obligatory interactive whiteboard. A daft omission, to be sure, but a fact of life. Many is the time I’ve been shunted into a classroom at the last moment only for the video clip I’ve prepared as part of the lesson be inaudible. Even without amplification the Dell Latitude 2110 is surprisingly loud. In fact, I was shocked how distortion-free and powerful the built-in speakers were. A definite plus point.

The inclusion of a 3G WWAN port is a curious decision. If this is an education-focused product, then a 3G connection presents somewhat of a security problem. Schools have internet filtering in place and, in some cases, this is rather restrictive – leading to students finding creative ways of bypassing it. I have no doubt that students would find a way to put a SIM card in the slot behind the battery, ‘necessity’ being the mother of invention. Whilst I think that mobile broadband, especially for field trips and the like, is of great value, network managers and IT technicians might beg to differ. It does, however, make it attractive to another market – business travellers.

One of the great things about early netbooks is that they almost all came with Solid State Devices (SSDs) instead of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs). The difference is that whilst the latter have moving parts, the former do not and, in fact, are a lot quicker. You get less storage space for your money but they’re much more robust. Bizarrely, perhaps because some people are opting to use netbooks as their primary devices (think teenagers with burgeoning music/video collections) SSDs are being slowly replaced by HDDs. The review sample I received came with a 160GB HDD which is a shame, really. The HDD of my father’s Asus Eee 1000H, bought last year on my recommendation, has just died. In a device like the Dell Latitude 2110, ostensibly built to be robust, not including an SSD by default is a mistake.

Whilst an upgrade to a SSD instead of a HDD is one I’d recommend, I’d advise against a touchscreen. Whilst my review sample did not come with one, I’ve used them on laptops and netbooks before. Touchscreens on devices with one-way hinges don’t really work: pressing with anything more with a glancing touch moves the whole screen (frustrating!).

My only misgiving, really, about the review sample I was sent is a degree of uncertainty about the battery life. The standard battery pack (an extended battery pack is available) is quoted at 4.5 hours which isn’t the 7 hours of the Asus Eee 1000H. I’d want to be able to rely on it lasting all the school day. Although I should imagine with strategic use it would be fine, it’s a niggling doubt.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how does it feel? It is something you find yourself just picking up and using? Well… yes, it is. The keyboard is as close to full-size as you’ll get with a netbook and, in fact, I touch-typed this whole review on it. It’s comfortable and rests on the knees or upon any nearby surface. Although I think the corners could be a little better protected, the ruggedized coating means, for example, I’ve had no problem in giving it to my 3 year-old to carry around an play CBeebies games on it.

Do I recommend the Dell Latitude 2110? Yes. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, if I was back in my role as Director of E-Learning I’d be using this as my new benchmark for portable devices with keyboards. I’d probably look at getting Ubuntu Netbook Edition on there and, with the money saved, plumping for the extended battery pack. I reckon 9.5 hours is enough for anybody!

Disclaimer: I was sent this unsolicited sample on behalf of Dell on the understanding that I was able to do a ‘full, frank’ review of it. No money has changed hands and I expect to have to return it eventually.

My bMoble TeachMeet presentation

Sometimes you have to push yourself a bit and raise the bar. I spent a good deal of time preparing for the TeachMeet attached to the bMoble Conference last week so that I could use the Lessig Method to talk for 7 minutes on Everything I Know About E-Learning.

Here’s how it went:

OK, so I ran over a bit. But no-one threw James Langley’s ‘Twitter pants’ at me. So that’s alright. :-p

#eduhivefive (a suggestion).

This follows on a previous post r.e. the problem with (non-OSS) free stuff.

Image: ‘Bees

I’ll keep this short.

Lifehacker has a great regular thing called Hive Five for software/productivity recommendations. It goes like this:

  1. Question asked: ‘What’s the best x for y?’
  2. People respond.
  3. Five most mentioned in a positive way become ‘recommended’.

We should totally do this for education. I’ve created a wiki at in anticipation. :-p

Perhaps, given the demise of Etherpad, we could kick off with: “What’s the best online tool for collaborative writing?” and use #eduhivefive and #writing as hashtags?

Where we’re headed with the Academy’s E-Learning ecosystem.

I have to keep telling myself that we’re only five weeks in to a brand new, 10-site all-age Academy. There’s so much I want to do this academic year in my first year as Director of E-Learning that it’s frustrating when it’s not all up-and-running straight away! However, that’s because of a number of factors largely beyond my control. Things will settle down! :-p

The above diagram is a very simplistic representation of how I want the E-Learning ‘ecosystem’ to function by summer 2010. It’s a 4-stage process:

1. Roll out Google Apps to staff

This has already been done. We were going to use just instance of Google Apps at but decided against it. Why? Because we want to turn on as much functionality as possible for staff (e.g. Google Chat, Google Sites) whilst having the option of turning of these for students.

Rolling out Google Apps to staff first enables them to play around with it and get used to a slightly different way of working before they start interacting with students through it.

2. Get forensic filtering & monitoring software up-and-running

Whilst we’ll have some filtering provided through the Postini services that can be turned on for free with Google Apps Education edition, I (and Northumberland County Council) want more than this. We’re going to be going with an offering by the name of Policy Central. This allows us, amongst other things, to do the following:

  • Automatically take screenshots based on keywords typed into any application.
  • Block websites locally.
  • Whitelist persistent offenders.

We need to have this in place before rolling out anything to students from an e-safety point of view.

3. Roll out Google Apps to students

I’m planning to roll out Google Apps to students ( strategically. I’m going to start with the Sixth Form (ages 16-18) as they’re likely to be the most responsible and give the best feedback. Once I’ve collated, reflected, and acted upon this I shall then roll it out to Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). Key Stage 4 may or may not get Google Apps depending on conversations I have with various people.

Finally, Key Stage 2 students will get access to Google Apps on the Primary sites. This will start with Year 6 (10-11 years old) and work downwards. This should allow me to go into assemblies and iron out any problems as they happen. I had hoped that this would be completed by Christmas but because of various events that have taken place it may take a while longer.

4. Open up the Learning Platform to staff and students.

We’re going with Frog for our Learning Platform. They are not only the market leaders in the UK, but have a track record of producing easy-to-use software which can incorporate and work with that from other providers. We’ll be looking – as other institutions are – to integrate Google Apps and Frog via a Single Sign-On procedure. That is to say, signing into Frog will automatically sign you into Google Apps.

Once this is in place, I think teaching and learning interactions should begin to be transformed. I’m not going to dictate workflows, but I can imagine something like this happening:

  1. Student collaborates with another student via Google Docs.
  2. Students complete document, export as Word document or PDF and send to teacher through Learning Platform.
  3. Teacher takes submitted work and opens in their Google Docs area.
  4. Teacher stores students’ work in a relevant folder within Google Docs.

You may wonder why I’m allowing only student-student collaboration and teacher-teacher collaboration. This is because I want the Learning Platform for the official submission of work and Google Docs for drafting, collaboration, and more informal interactions. At least in the first instance.

Other than that, I’m happy for things to grow organically. I’ve already seen some teachers begin to experiment with Google Sites, despite my only mentioning it in passing. Encouraging! 😀

What are your thoughts on the above?

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3 ways Google Wave could be used in the classroom.

Google Wave logo

So you’re an educator who’s managed to score an invitation to Google Wave. You’ve had a play and it’s all very nice, but how could it be used in education?

Before I go any further, read these:

Google Wave conversation

Here are 3 ways I think Google Wave could be used by students for actual learning rather than just playing with something because it’s cool.

1. Empowering learners

There was a great presentation at the TeachMeet that accompanied the Scottish Learning Festival this year. Fearghal Kelly talked about his experiments with giving one of his classes more ownership over their learning. He ran them through the learning objectives and the content they would need to cover and then the student co-created and collaborated on planning what exactly they wanted to do.

Google Wave would be great for this as it allows wiki-like editing but is more threaded and conversation-like. The whole wave can also be ‘replayed’ to see how the thinking of the group evolved over time. It’s something I’d definitely be trying if I had a GCSE or AS/A2-level class… :-p

2. Student feedback

The most powerful learning experiences are those where students have ownership of their learning. That’s been dealt with above. But that’s of no use if students don’t know how to get better in a particular subject or discipline!

That’s why I think Google Wave could be used as an Assessment for Learning tool. Learning as a conversation could be shown in practice through having an individual wave for each student/teacher relationship. Alternatively, these could be small group and ability based to enable peer learning.

I can imagine waves being used for ongoing learning conversations once Google Wave becomes a feature of Google Apps for Education. I’ll certainly be experimenting with it for that purpose! 😀

3. Flattening the walls of the classroom

One of the really exciting things about Google Wave is the ‘bots’ you can add to automate processes. One of these bots allows for the automatic translation of text entered in one language into that of the recipient.

Whilst language teachers may be up in arms about the idea of ‘not needing’ to learn another’s language, I think it could be fantastic for removing barriers for worldwide collaboration. Imagine the power of students having the digital and wave-equivalent of ‘penpals’ in various classrooms around the world.

Now that really would ‘flatten the walls‘ of the classroom. 🙂

What excites YOU about Google Wave’s potential for education?

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A proposal to get more high-quality explanatory videos to learners.


Image BY-NC-SA Kaeru @ Flickr

I’ve got an idea. Educators need high-quality videos explaining key concepts and processes. There are some great providers of these out there (notably BrainPOP) but these cost $$$. On the flip side, there’s graphic artists, illustrators and animators who are starting out and need examples to add to their portfolio.

The quality of visuals in a video makes a great deal of difference to its overall impact. An example of this is the Shift Happens video, originally created by Karl Fisch. You can view the changes and improvements it has been through on this wiki. Whilst v1.0 was powerful, you’d have to agree that v4.0 has a lot more impact! 🙂

My idea, then, is this:

  1. Educator comes up with idea for short explanatory video (e.g. how Google and other search engines work)
  2. Educator (with help of their Twitter/Facebook/whatever network) comes up with storyboard for idea including a script.*
  3. Storyboard and script are put in a central repository under a Creative Commons BY-SA license.
  4. Graphic designer comes along and chooses one they believe they can produce to a high quality and cost-effectively.
  5. Graphic designer produces video and shares on video-sharing site (e.g. YouTube). They are free to monetize this through Google Adsense and the like.
  6. Repository updated showing video has been created.

The great thing about this model is that everyone would win.

So… is this a good idea?

I’m up for creating the repository (with help from others) if enough people think it’s a goer. 😀

* Details of graphics required for this wouldn’t be as important as the script itself.

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On the important difference between hitchhiking and bandwagon-jumping.

Double Yellow Lines

Image CC-BY-NC-SA pitty.platsch @ Flickr

I’ll admit it. From 2004 up to about 2007 I was a bandwagon-jumper. I wanted to be the early adopter, the first to use pretty much anything to do with educational technology in the classroom. But that came at a cost. That cost – and it’s difficult for me to admit this to myself – was borne by my students who had a teacher who was too focused on the shiny shiny and not learning outcomes.

The trouble with bandwagon-jumping is that you’re not entirely sure where that bandwagon is headed; whether it fits in with where you want you and your students need to go; whether it’s potentially dangerous territory to head into. The bandwagon may be driven by sensible, rationale people in it for the long-haul, or you could be left stranded in the middle of nowhere by overnight cowboys. That’s not a safe place for teachers or students to be – even in a metaphorical sense.

Much better then to be a hitchhiker. The hitchhiker knows where they want to go. They don’t mind the odd detour or two so long as they get there. Whilst the destination is of ultimate importance, the journey is also important and life-enriching. So too educators who choose to be metaphorical hitchhikers. Sometimes we can ‘go it alone’ with our classes to blaze new trails to destinations, but often it’s better (and safer) to stick with others and figure things out together.

So if others use new technologies, websites and services before me, that’s fine. I’ll use them when it’s time for me to head that way, when my own or my classes investigations necessitate us exploring those areas.

Until then, I’ll leave the bandwagons to others. :-p

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E-Learning Strategy Overview (a.k.a. my 3-year plan)

I’ve already blogged about why I want to make myself redundant as Director of E-Learning after 3 years. At the end of this month – next week, in fact – I’m due to hand in my E-Learning strategy. I wanted my strategy overview to fit on one side of A4. Unfortunately, it’s run to two sides, but at least it’s still fairly short and to the point! 😀

It’s available ‘live’ (with any subsequent changes) here (via Google Docs), or below as a static PDF:

Creative Commons License

I’d very much welcome any comments or thoughts you may have on the above! 🙂

‘So… what do you do?’

Abstract light 8109

(image by atomicShed @ Flickr)

It should be an easy question. In fact, it’s the one that usually comes in rapid succession after enquiries as to your name and perhaps where you’re from. But ‘what do you do?’ is increasingly a difficult question for me to answer.

If I want to move the conversation onto other things – or indeed to get out of the conversation quickly – I simply say I’m a ‘teacher’. Except I’m not any more (although it is in my portfolio). As a ‘Director of E-Learning’ I’m in a job that has only existed for a couple of years in a handful UK educational institutions

So what do I say? One colleague referred to me recently as ‘Director of Excitement’. Sometimes, to get a cheap laugh, I refer to myself as ‘Chief Geek’.  But, whilst there’s a grain of truth in each, neither’s true in its own right.

The acid test is my 85 year-old grandmother who doesn’t really know what the internet is. I find myself at a loss for words to try and explain the world I inhabit. It’s so different to that which she grew up in it’s unreal; we have few common frames of reference.

So what do I do?

  • I blend digital and physical worlds.
  • I tell stories about how learning can be.
  • I show people stuff.
  • I research.
  • I find the best of the best.

My job’s what I make it. I can live with that. 😀

(N.B. this brief post has been ‘stewing’ a while, but was prompted directly by Chris Messina’s post The Elevator Pitch in which he recounts a similar problem)