Friday, 5 August 2011

iPads v. Own Devices

Much has been written lately on the topic of iPads in Primary schools as opposed to the use of own devices. In this post I intend to set out my experiences related to this conversation and the arguements which, from my perspective, inform the debate based on my school's circumstances. In the end however, I am not going to suggest which route is the "best." I'll simply outline what we did and leave your decisions to you.

Earlier this year my class was given the opportunity to carry out a pilot programme to begin instituting the use of mobile devices to allow the children to experience the benefits of a flat classroom. In other words, for them to experience learning outside the classroom which was not just a euphemism for doing work "chained" to a desk outside the school (ie bedroom, library, etc.).

Among the issues we dealt with in our preparations, was the issue of which devices we should have the children using. While cost was a factor in deciding which devices to use, it was not the most significant.

We had several options open to us. The first was to lease a class set of netbooks, which was quickly discounted due to our dissatisfaction with our current units. The second was to use own devices. The third, was to purchase and lease to parents a class set of iPad2s.

Our classroom demographics were the following: Fifteen children aged eleven. A slightly male bias in gender existed in the class. About 80% were EAL with good or very good levels of reading, writing and comprehension in English. All were experienced Constructivist Inquiry learners. The soci-economic status of the class was Upper Middle Class or greater with the vast majority of parents being graduates with professional degrees. The class were relatively versed in incorporating various forms of technology, from IWBs to various internet tools such as Google Docs and Dropbox as well as video and audio editing software, to personalise their learning. All but 2 had some form of mobile devices. Two had Apple products, the rest had Nokia smartphones, Blackberries and personal netbooks.

Our decion making revolved around several issues. So, I'll examine the issues in our circumstances for each of the two remaining options. We looked at iPad2 as a serious possibility. First, some children (20%) already owned Apple products and could help those for whom the operating environment was unfamiliar. Second, the support was such that if there was a serious problem we would have confidence the products would be supported. Third, portability and stress tolerance was important and we felt that the iPads, based on our research with other schools, could stand up to drama of a Primary school day. Fourth, screen size was important. We already had experience of netbooks whose screens were far too small in an effort to make them portable. Thus, iPads did provide a larger area to read on. Fifth, the large number of applications was seen as an added feature.

On the other hand, having the children bring in their own devices, also had its benefits. First, the devices were already in the children's pockets and school bags, thus the parental concern of "will it be used outside school?" was already answered. Second, these were devices the parents and children had already invested time in to investigate, learn and add apps which personalised the device. Third, the devices had no learning curve for basic functionality. Fourth, the concern over small screens was discussed, but since the children were not spending a significant number of hours staring at the screens this was less of a concern. Moreover, most devices had a relatively simple text enlargement method. The children were asked if they felt the screens were difficult to look at or navigate and they all said 'no, otherwise we would not have bought ----." It is important to keep in my we ran quite a pragmatic and agnostic programme. The children could bring in any device they felt comfortable using. As a result we saw some swapping one device for another from home until they had one they felt satisfied their needs.

In the end we went with own devices. Surprisingly, we had few connectivity issues after the "get networked" day, where all the kids brought in their devices, the IT rep was there and within 30 minutes all the devices were online except two. Those two shared other devices with students.

The devices proved to be very little hassle at my end because the owners were quite reliable in terms of knowing how to use them. Moreover, in all cases, there was another learner in the class who had the same device and could lend support if needed. Hence we could get right to the learning engagement at hand.

The results from the children were that it was very successful. I had no discipline problems, work got done (on time!) and the enthusiasm was strong and maintained throughout the month. Overall the project was deemed a success. 

Have you had similar pilot projects? How did they turn out? What issues did you need to deal with? Did you go for own devices or tablets? I'd be very interested in your ideas and comments - thanks!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Egyptian Uprising - Part 2

This morning we completed the packing and I decided to go back to school to see what the situation is. The HT has told me the school is closed for three days. Sadly, the phones are out and so is the internet. I have not been forward looking enough to advise the children to be prepared for online lessons although they know to check the learning gateway every day (I was also told by the IT department at school a few days later, that parents were emailed with the request for students to log in to the learning gateway for instructions). The HT allowed us to use the landline to call relatives, embassies, etc. From there I returned home and we grabbed a taxi to begin moving. During the move, several teachers saw us with our bags and initially thought we were fleeing. They were even more amazed when we explained we were just moving. During the move, we noticed the petrol stations were closed and that the grocery stores were doing a booming business. I learned that the local police station had been attacked overnight and set alight and weapons stolen and that the largest local shopping mall, had been set alight, flooded and ransacked by looters. That mall was about 15 minutes drive from our location. We also learned that the curfew was in effect and that by 5pm everyone had to be off the streets.

As soon as we had finished the move, about three hours later, we made a mad dash to the local shop and the bank. The shop had of course, been cleared out but we managed to pick up a few things we needed. People were panic buying like I had never seen. In the end we hit about four shops and basically came away with some of what we needed except water and milk. As we walked to our new flat locals were shouting to us to hurry home.

Eventually, the banks were closed. We were in a better situation than many because we had withdrawn the  maximum daily allowance as soon as we realised the situation was serious. Since there was very little warning, some colleagues were caught short and were concerned they would need to survive on the equivalent of $20 for an unknown period of time.

In no time at all the police had simply evaporated, banks had been closed, mobile phone access had been shut down or limited, a curfew imposed and panic buying was the norm. Where once one saw police on every corner or standing outside important locations, there were vacant chairs. They were replaced by the army but very few infantry, mainly armoured vehicles and vigilante groups made up of concerned home-owners and boabs (caretakers). Shopkeepers defied the curfew and took chairs out in front of their shops for the overnight job of deterring looters. Some were armed.

As soon as we got home after being urged on by locals we started unpacking and sorting out the few meagre groceries we were able to collect. By the time we were finished, it was well after 19:00 and several hours into the first curfew. We did what so many of our colleagues and neighbours did, and tuned in to BBC World Service and CNN. Sadly, these two pillars of news and information were often left wanting in terms of providing information we, as residents, needed to stay informed. While the government station frequently ran emergency hotline numbers for medical aid and the army we hoped that the two major news services would do the same but supplement that information with news and advice from the various embassies. In reality, there was very little of that and in fact several colleagues complained that the BBC and CNN gave absolutely no information for residents who were not residents of the UK or USA. Personally, I cannot confirm that, since I did not have the luxury of continuously watching the television, but I would agree that the coverage was limited in its usefulness to those on the ground beyond Tahrir Square.

Eventually, it came time to determine our shifts for the evening. It was suggested that since there were looters about, that we should barricade our doors and have a member of the family awake over night. I decided to do the night shift from 20:00 to 5:00, while my wife tried to sleep in what we decided would be the easiest room to defend. I was given various bits of advice on what "weapon" to have at hand so I felt fairly prepared.

By this time, we were already hearing semi-automatic weapon fire, some closer than others. Occasionally I would look through the patio doorway to witness what was happening. I saw the various owners, tenants and boabs encircling a fire and each was armed. The gun fire continued throughout the night in waves of severity. In some cases the shots were close enough I could tell from what direction they had come from. At about midnight I happened to be sitting in the living room trying to determine what we would do the next day when the floor of our ground floor flat began to vibrate and the cup on the side table near me began to shake as well. I got up and opened the door to see an Egyptian tank rolling from the far corner of our commons towards the corner closest to the main street. The dust it kicked up caused me to close the door again - and lock it. The tank was no doubt moving in to support a troop carrier at the T-junction nearby from where the last round of shots had been fired. The sounds of weapons fire became less frequent but still occurred a few times each hour lasting from a few seconds to 5 to 7 minutes.

That is how I passed the evening, until about 2:30 when another piece of equipment rolled down our street amid heavier than usual gunfire. There were a few cases of looters trying to get down the streets. They were always interrogated and in some cases turned back. Tanks and troop carriers made their way up and down our street a few more times over night.  

Earlier in the evening, before my wife had turned in, I called a few colleagues to try and support them since I knew they were alone and may possibly be the only people left in their low-rise apartment blocks, since many Egyptians had already started fleeing along with some foreigners. I kept that up until my phone credit ran out. A few days later, since many of the shops had been cleared out I, along with many other foreigners and Egyptians, lost use of the mobile phones not because the phones had been shut down again, but because it was impossible to locate recharge cards. It appears that mobile recharge cards where not immune to the panic buying spree as some people had bought hundreds of dollars of cards at a go. Not only that, but some shops which did have recharge cards were profiteering, charging in some case 100% premiums over the face value of the cards.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Egyptian Uprising - My Experience (part 1)

End of the day 290111 :
I am sitting here in our darkened living room at 21:33 on Saturday 29th January, wondering how I came to be in this situation and how things will turn out. Yesterday, the governement cut the mobile phones and early that day we realised that the internet was down. There was added uncertainty for us because the 29th was to be our moving date and we had originally told our ISP to transfer our line. So, just to clarify the situation I went into the school, a short walk away, to check. But, much to my disappointment, the internet was definately down. For several days before that, the network was running but people had been saying that, for example, Twitter was blocked. Despite that information, I was able to access Twitter via a third party application right up until yesterday. Yesterday, seems like a week ago but it's only been 24 hours.

When I got home, the first thing I said to my wife was to call or sms her mum because I we were systematically being locked out of our methods of communication and mobiles and sms would be the next to go out. Unfortunately, I was right. Shortly afterwards, the mobile network went down and stayed down until about 10:30 this morning when it crawled back into service without any sms capacity. One of the compounding problems we had was the lack of any other method of getting information. The TV in our flat was unable to get any channels because construction work to the bulding, I think, severed the cable. As a result we had gone 2+ months with no tv so the latest information came when I went in to school this morning. Our neighbours didn't speak English and they seemed to leave soon after things started going pear-shaped.

Anyway, back to yesterday. I had delivered the news to my wife and she had contacted her mum shortly before the phones went down. From then, it was as if we were in isolation. One or two people called us but that was it. They weren't able to tell us more than what we had already surmised. There was an uprising, it was out of control, don't take chances, wait for instructions from our school management. So, we continued our packing. It was surreal, it seemed like every other day. Aside from the rumors of looting at the local Carrefour, that was it. We heard no gun fire, saw no chaos, nothing.

One thing I did notice, was the absence of police as the day went on. We went in to the local market to get a few things and wandered off home.  Oblivious that then next day we would be lucky to get basics and that we would be battling against time.

I cannot believe it was only yesterday, because so much has changed since then.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Egypt Uprising - Introduction

On January 25th, there began protests in  Egypt demanding the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has led Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat over 30 years ago. Over the next few weeks, I will retell, for my own reflection really, the events which occurred and how they affected the provision of education for the children in my class and how Web2.0 learning tools helped to deal with the situations which arose. To some extent, the story is still unfolding and may continue to do so for some time. While I hope that someone may find some kernels of information which they may find helpful, the main purpose is for my own reflection so I can more effectively deal with similar situations in the future.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Skype an Author

Recently, our Year 4 and Year 6 students had the opportunity to have a live discussion about being an author with Barbara Mahler, author of "Hole in the Sky". It was very successful but I thought it would be a good idea to provide some suggestions for teachers who might be interested in doing a Skype conference themselves.

There are several sources where a person can find an author, some of whom are willing to Skype with classes, such as the Skype an Author Network and authors abroad. Otherwise, you can try contatcting the author directly. Sadly, there do not seem to be many similar services or facilities for experts in other fields such as Mathematics, Science or History, etc. Perhaps you know of some good resource banks of contact details for experts in these fields. If you do, please provide them in the comments.

The first stage in having a Skype conference is preparation and planning. I cannot stress enough that the time taken to plan out what will happen and running tests will pay benefits when the event occurs. Even after your planning and preparations are complete though, always keep in mind that sometimes, circumstances may conspire against you and cause difficulties over which you have little or no control. It is for those occasions, a Plan B or even a Plan C are always a good idea. In our circumstances, on the "wrong" side of the Digital Divide, we have to take in to account various possibilities which may or may not affect other teachers, who are in similar circumstances, as they hold Skype conferences. Among the obstacles we needed to consider were intermittant power outages, connection failures, surges of shared bandwidth use by the senior school, time zone differences, traffic, etc.

Here are the stages I worked through to get prepared for the Skype conference along with any links which you may find helpful. You may need to consider taking more, or fewer steps depending on your specific circumstances circumstances:

  • Finding the author. There are, as I mentioned a few resources to help you find authors willing to have a Skype conference. However, keep in mind that authors will have their own schedules to keep. Therefore, plan your Skype call well in advance and have a few backup days in the event the author is unavailable, falls ill or the connection or electricity get cut before or during the call.
  • Decide on details with the author or their representative such as: decide on appropriate times and dates, costs and make sure the author knows the audience they will be talking to, determine how the author wants to be addressed by the children, how long the author wants to speak to the children before taking questions, specific topics or issues the author may need to know about that the children are particularly interested in, how long the session will be (20 to 30 minute sessions are typical in my experience), etc.
  • Test call. I always make a test call at roughly the same time and day as the planned conference from the same location I will be using. Take note of connection fades and the habits of other parts of the school who may be using your connection at the same time. Confirm with your IT department that you plan to use Skype and when, so they can take appropriate action. Confirm the time in the remote location.
  • Organise. Make sure the children are aware of your expectations. Have the teachers organise their children into 2 groups, those asking questions and those who are not. Have the questions prewritten by the children and rehearsed and, if necessary, have the children in an appropriate order. Children asking questions should be sitting near the microphone. In our experience, we have been lucky because the laptop microphone and camera have been sufficient for the job. Ask teachers to rehearse the questions with their children and remember that there will be a delay between when the children speak and when the author hears them, so they need to be patient and speak clearly. In our latest conference the children asking questions sat to one side of the main group, then sat in a chair, asked their question, had a brief discussion if they wanted, and rejoined the main group. 
  • Setup your meeting space. I set up a chair on  top of a desk then blu-tacked the laptop to the seat after I had them each in the correct positions and also blu-tacked the chair to the table. Ideally, I try to get the camera positioned so that I can have both the child asking the question and the children in the audience in the same picture. The children then sit with the rest of the audience after they have asked their question(s).
  • Test all the cables and other tools. Check that Skype is working and make sure it is started in advance of the meeting. Obviously, you will need to have the author's Skype name before this! Check that all the cables are connected, such as the projector cable, Smartboard USB cable, speaker jack, and any other equipment you may be using.
That is about it. The list really does look quite intimidating but in practice it isn't. As with all things, you get better with practice. I started by simply Skyping other classes and sharing work samples, etc. You might find that is a good starting point to get your feet wet.

Have you found some exciting experts which have had a conference with your class? Do you have a good resource for finding Skyping Mathematicians, Scientists, Historians and others? Have you tried Skyping for the first time recently? How did it go? Do you have any tips for other teachers which I have missed? Please leave your comments!

Photo Credit: "Red telephone box in Bamburgh" by David Gruar CC

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Google search results based on reading level

Not too long ago, I noticed that Google had made it possible to organise search results according to reading level. In the screencast below, I show you how to do a search using the reading level options. However, I have not located anything indicating how the levels are determined exactly.

I hope you find the demo helpful.

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