Wednesday, December 19, 2007

eduspaces back from the dead

With the decline of eduspaces (and a mini-rush of various people trying to offer their products as an alternative) there has been a fair bit of disquiet and soul-searching about how OSS might relate to education when we start to rely on it.
Well, that was all so yesterday. Josie Fraser's just twittered that eduspaces (the name? the franchise? the whole shebang - looks like the latter) is going to be taken over by a Canadian not-for-profit TakingITGlobal . See the announcement on the eduspaces site and read an interesting article by Brian Kelly of UKOLN which raises issues around whether we should plan for free services to disappear, rather than just assuming they'll go on for ever. Ben Werdmuller's post on The Open Source Misconception is gone from his Elgg blog, but it's still available (for now) in Google's cache. I've saved it just in case... here it is quoted:

The open source misconception
November 22, 2007, 1:39 pm
Some of the most curious responses we've had to the open source Elgg project have centred on the conceit that being open source means that it is somehow like a natural resource that belongs to everybody. This is not the case. It means that the code is viewable and that you can modify it to meet your needs.
Open source is a process by which, in theory, better software can be produced. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't; actually, the most prominent open source projects, the ones that everybody knows and can reel off by heart, tend to be commercially funded and supported, and the core developers employed full-time. That's not to undermine open source itself - it just means that the almost socialist, distributed process by which everyone thinks it works isn't always the case.
In all cases, software is not developed by magical elves. It doesn't appear like water, for free. People have to put time and hard work into creating it. They'll do this for different reasons; some for the love of it, others because it forms the basis of another part of their business, yet more to disrupt markets - and so on. What we've found is that, even though you're giving the software away for free with no commercial return, people will very often treat you like they've paid for the service. Elgg in particular has no funding beyond Curverider, despite a common misconception that it's the recipient of public grants or affiliations.
In reality, the group behind the project, whether it's a group of individuals linked by a common purpose or a commercial company, should be treated no differently to a standard firm. (Think Red Hat.) The model by which the software is produced is different, but the processes that allow it to exist are not. They may well have different approaches, but the assumption that the software is a public service - presumably inferred from the fact that open source projects are usually free to download - needs to be squashed for the good of the whole community. That goes for both producers and users: the software needs to survive.

Monday, December 17, 2007

BBC iPlayer in unintentional Spinal Tap tribute

As a follow-up to the previous post on the iPlayer, the "403 - Not Available" screenshots were taken as the service was being upgraded. The post-upgrade "new" version contains a couple of extra features - the Listen Again BBC Radio feature is now held in the iPlayer and a couple of the "sharing" features I'd wished for are included. A "share" button now includes a "Link to this" button which opens your usual gamut of social bookmarking tools and "Send to a friend" which is a replication of the same feature which has been around on the News site for ever.
These buttons are attached to an online player for each programme - which means that you don't have to wait to download programmes into the Library before watching them and some programmes which (probably for licensing reasons) can't be downloaded can now be streamed. This is more akin to what's offered by the 4oD service.

But wait. What's that?
Look closer and you might see that in either a deliberate or accidental tribute to This Is Spinal Tap the volume control on the online player goes up to 11. Have a closer look, then relive the source material in its glory.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

BBC iPlayer - not quite Web 2.0

I received my BBC iPlayer beta invitation in the summer but didn't really use it much - then it wouldn't work on Vista so that was another delay. Anyway, it's now arrived on my machine and it's an interesting experiment which embraces elements of Web 2.0 in terms of technology without necessarily embracing it in terms of the ways in which people use the internet.
For an exhaustive explanation of what's installed when you invite the iPlayer into your digital life, you'll need to look elsewhere. Suffice to say that the iPlayer uses the same Kontiki technology which powers Channel 4's 4oD service and Sky's Anytime.
On loading up you're presented with menus from the last 7 days of transmissions across BBC1-4, plus a series of recommended programmes in the main splash screen. Obviously you can search, plus programmes are categorised into, er, categories.
Selecting a programme downloads it to your computer, where it's stored in the iPlayer Library for 28 days or 7 days after you start to watch it. Everything is done using DRM, hence it only works in Windows Media Player, however a Flash-based version is arriving after an agreement between the Beeb and Adobe.
The iPlayer is a P2P application, which means it (optionally) can load when your computer starts and then sits in the system tray, sharing what you've downloaded through your internet connection in a Torrent-like way. That (at the moment) is about the limit of anything approaching Web 2.0 uses.
For anyone who's used the internet in the last, ooh, three years, there are immediately several things which just feel like they're missing.

  • Did you like an episode of something (Blue Peter, The Mighty Boosh, Coast) and want to automatically download the rest the next time they're available? Sorry, no can do.
  • Did you think something was good and wanted to:
    • recommend it to a friend?
    • comment on it?
    • rate it? Sorry, not possible.
  • Did you fancy getting a feed of programmes which matched a keyword or some other criteria so you could link to them from elsewhere? Nope.
  • How about finding out what other people who watched the programme you've just seen watched as well? I don't think so.

Well, those all seem like quite trivial things, but they're not to those who use any media rich social networking site, whether it's based around video, audio, images or text. Maybe the iPlayer is intended for people of a certain age, who it's perceived would control a computer or media centre in a household. As for younger people with TVs in their rooms and teachers trying to encourage the consumption of media to support learning, they'll (for the moment) have to look elsewhere if they want to embed resources in their learning and teaching. Especially if this happens a lot:
I would imagine that with a project like this the "beta"aspect - a term clearly perpetuated and changed in recent years - would apply more to the technological logistics of making sure the P2P network works, rather than the user interface, so maybe things won't improve in subsequent versions. Overall it feels like the iPlayer wants to embrace the benefits of Web 2.0 (P2P and the reduced bandwidth required by the BBC) and avoid any potential pifalls (users commenting unfavourably on programmes, or not rating the expensive ones well enough? It'd be like a geuinely democratic Points Of View).
In the meantime, here's something for your gifted and talented students - originally broadcast on the BBC but naturally hosted elsewhere and, to my mind, completely appropriate. It was shown to a group of "young people" and compared with Channel 4's Skins and the idiotic Whatever as part of Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe on BBC4. I'd link to the video on the iPlayer so you could watch it but, er... Anyway, alongside Skins it was the most engaging for those involved:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

SALTIS vs. SIFA vs. the learner?

Today I'm at Atomwide in Orpington for the Local Authority Services Meeting. One of the issues this afternoon is around SIF and what might become of things. Phil C from Atomwide is describing how it's Atomwide's intention to host a ZIS and write a SIF Agent for the Atomwide USO system. Rupert Hay-Campbell from Barking & Dagenham LA shared information about meetings of SIFA and how this relates to further developments in this area.
In the meantime, SALTIS is a group of software vendors (deep breath - Suppliers Association for Learning Technology and Interoperability in Schools) who have decided to club together and set a series of standards so that their applications and services talk to one another. There is also a list of partners, which includes Becta. This appears to be in response to the move towards SIF, but bizarrely the list of Saltis members includes a wide range of companies and organisations who are members of SIFA - including Capita, RM and Becta...
So, what's going on? Are a band of brothers of suppliers breaking away in a valiant attempt to bring freedom to schools who are under the cosh of the not-very-accountable SIFA - or is it to ensure that "if you're in the club, then you get to play ball with other members of the club"? Presumably it will only take one or two key players (RM, Capita, a few others) to come down squarely on either side and that will be a signal to schools that whichever side that it is is the "correct" side - and the other is a road to nowhere.
Hang on though, Capita is a member of both, so is it just hedging its bets? Its Parternship XChange product is a tool to share data across institutions delivering the 14-19 diplomas (anyone care to bet that it only shares data between Capita tools, or is it truly open?) and the Capita press release for BETT says that this product is based on SIF ("which is backed by Becta"), so what's Capita's point with SALTIS? Interestingly, the SALTIS site states that anyone can apply, but their application has to be considered by existing members.
Crispin Weston (of Alpha Learning, mentioned in previous posts here) mailed the Naacetalk list with information about SALTIS, which he said is a working group of BESA. The only mention of SIF on the SALTIS site is on the Transfer of Student Records project page:

...SALTIS does not believe that a solution for this urgent requirement can wait, possibly many years, for these complex issues to be resolved. We are therefore bringing forwards a proposal based on bilateral interoperability using the IMS Enterprise protocol. However, we recognise the long-term merits of the case for SIF and shall work with SIFA to ensure that reliable and open solutions are available in all circumstances...
This sounds laudable, but wait a moment. The area of ePortfolios is currently notoriously vague - the specifications (such as they are) given out by Becta are perhaps deliberately so, and what this does is effectively to allow any vendor of anything to come along and say (to schools, local authorities, whoever) "Look at our product! This is an ePortfolio! It's what you need!" and schools have no external and independent definition to compare it with and question its functionality and form intelligently. SALTIS's approach to integrating the data from ePortfolios is:
SALTIS will draw on the practical experience of its members to develop an incremental programme, prioritising those types of e-portfolio for which a clear demand exists, from teachers, exam boards, consumers of assessment data, or central government agencies; and for which clear support exists in the industry.
There's a glaring omission there, and it's the learner. The final part also makes interesting reading - if "the industry" (education's an industry now) deems that a sort of portfolio isn't worth supporting, then it won't be, at least not in the first instance. Let's face it, once schools have been offered a few portfolio tools, all of which are based around the same assumption of what an ePortfolio is, they won't have the time or inclination to research or desire any other types. Well, at least the industry gets what it wants, even if the learners don't. SALTIS asserts that "the efficacy of [various types of ePortfolios] is in many cases still unproven" and hence it will turn to its members to decide which types are valid. Remember that these members have interests in promoting a particular view of what an ePortfolio is, and unsurprisingly this normally aligns closely with whatever they're currently marketing.
In some ways SALTIS reminds me of something I've previously mentioned, when a suppliers' body and software vendors decided that the BBC Digital Curriculum wasn't something they approved of and, at that year's Naace conference, launched a campaign to offer "choice for schools". I guess the fact that SALTIS doesn't rule out SIF completely means there's hope, but some people would surmise that the whole BBC Jam issue had its roots in this move, and I wonder what the outcomes of SALTIS might be.
Personally, I'd say that the efficacy of most ePortfolios currently being pushed to schools and LAs is still unproven - most case studies are based in the "unreal world" - a school gets chosen to be a pilot ("you lucky school!"), has an inordinate amount of support, training and resources and then this is sold to other schools as "You can have this in your school too!". Anyone who stops to think probably knows that the schools featured as "case studies" in the glossy brochures and DVDs littering BETT have had atypical support and resources, but most of us are still blinded by the gloss as we shuffle round Olympia looking for somewhere to sit. This is one of the reasons that, when we're training schools on Moodle, we don't show the resources to which we've given direct support to - a school which has developed something itself, operating within its own capacity and in The Real World, is something that I can share with a clean conscience, rather than illustrating the results of an unsustainable model which pretends that schools were doing this anyway. At least by sharing that I know that what we're sharing there is replicable.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The return of BBC Jam - or not

I've had some interesting comment passed to me from Neil Livesey, who used to work on BBC Jam. Rather than reword it into the third person, I'll just quote it, then maybe say what I think.
(If you want a little background to this, then I've posted previously about what happened with BBC Jam). First of all, here's the official current state of play with BBC Jam, according to the BBC Trust:

In developing its proposals the BBC Trust has asked BBC management to draw on the successes of BBC Jam; to consider how a fresh proposition can best meet the eeds of 5 to 16 year olds; and to take account of changes in the market and new developments since BBC Jam was approved in 2003. The Trust expects management to build on its existing investment and to consider the value for money aspects of any proposal. The Trust has asked management to deliver its proposal within three months.
BBC Trust Statement
The Trust's priority is to ensure the needs of the children and young people who use and value the service are not neglected during this process.
Chitra Bharucha, Acting BBC Chairman
We regret that for the BBC, all staff involved in the service, our external production partners and the many people who have enjoyed using BBC Jam over recent months – children, their parents and teachers alike – the decision to suspend the service will come as a real disappointment.
BBC Management statement
Here's what someone who's worked on it says:
What has become of BBC Jam?
In March 2007 I, like over 200 others, was employed by the BBC on the BBC Jam project. At that time we had been told that the service was going to be suspended and that a review of the service would be undertaken which should last between 6 and 9 months. Well it’s December 2007 and there has been nothing forthcoming from the BBC. Why, you might ask yourselves?
At the outset when the BBC proposed the Digital Curriculum it was a grandiose project (£150m) to provide a learning platform for all school, educational content and assessments. No wonder the commercial sector was up in arms. However BBC Jam was a scaled down version of this proposal, limited by years of regulation, government, industry and European intervention. BBC Jam was aiming its content at learners not teachers and was covering content that the commercial sector wouldn’t undertaken eg minority languages and learners with specific educational requirements. It supported a variety of innovative software companies producing this content and was changing the view of what learning content looked like.
From what I’ve heard 9 months down the line there is no one employed on BBC Jam, not even at a senior management level. What does this tell you? They want us to forget about it (and the £100m they’ve spent) because they don’t know what to do. When I left they were scrambling about trying to find an angle that differentiated then from the rest of the market to ensure that the industry wouldn’t object to BBC Jam V2. What content does exist is archived in some vault within the BBC, a bit like most of their TV programmes – never to be seen again.
So what of the industry that objected to BBC jam? In August 2008 eLCs will cease to be available and the ring-fenced monies that have kept the growth in the industry artificially inflated will disappear. Many small companies will go out of business and the larger ones will need to downsize. Rather than allowing the BBC to stimulate the market and create opportunities for the commercial sector they’ve killed off BBC Jam, limited funding and only postponed the inevitable downsize in the industry.The BBC should have continued with BBC Jam. It would have stimulated the industry, supported learners and benefited everyone concerned. Now the BBC has nowhere to turn and £100m of licence payers' money has been poured down the drain.
The biggest losers are the learners in the UK.
Neil Livesey
December 2007
So, a few thoughts...


  • Who holds the copyright on all this material? Does the copyright last for a long time and, if it expires soon, will we then see the content being sold by the individual production companies? As this would be individual companies making money from products which were funded with £100m of licence payers' money, would this be an even bigger skewing of the market than the original Jam would have achieved?
  • I would anticipate that if any of this content will resurface at all, it will be in BBC Bitesize and Blast. What will commercial developers make of these services then, especially if the market for their services is contracting as eLCs begin to disappear?
  • What will BETT 2009 look like without eLCs? Fewer large stands, I'd imagine... I'll be very interested to see what the BBC are left with at BETT in under a month's time.
  • Seriously though, what about all the content that was being used? I would imagine that (since commercial providers objected to schools getting it for free) that if it could be packaged in a way which meant schools couldn't get at it, then it could be used by individual learners... but wouldn't this lead to objections from those who sell services to home-schooled and EOTAS students?

In Buckinghamshire soon I'm assisting in looking at resources for children who for (a variety of reasons) can't or don't go to school. Many of these resources would have been perfect for them, but they're kicking around on a server gathering metaphorical dust somewhere, so... now what?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The artist not in residence

Last week, with my AEL hat on, I gave a brief presentation (four minutes plus questions) at the BFI in London as part of a launch event for the Diploma in Creative and Media run by Skillset. It was an odd evening for your author, the running order was British Music Rights, Channel 4, ITV Local, the BFI, Adobe (er, that would be me...) and BBC Blast - for an audience taken from employers, HE & FE and some schools. My presentation was about how Connect could be used to support the new Diploma - by bringing experts from the world of work into the world of the students, enabling them to collaborate, share ideas, work & experience. As things overran I didn't get a chance to mention what for me is the major example of what we've got, which Greg from Chalfonts describes as

...the artist not in residence...
Clare McEwan is an artist who, last year, had studio space in Waddesdon Upper School and did work with other schools in the Aylesbury Vale area. We started to experiment with ideas of how she might start to work with pupils in an online environment - with activity on Winslow's Moodle site and some basic activities on the Breeze server.
Well, this term things are moving on quickly, not least due to the fact that Clare is now based in Kent, where her studio is in a rented garage - have a quick tour here!
Clare's writing a blog about how it's going as well - which is well worth a read if you're interested in how a project like this works, or just looking at the use of ICT in Art. She's meeting regularly over Breeze (live - from a garage in Kent...) with staff and pupils from Chalfonts Community College, Waddesdon CofE Upper, The Grange Upper and Winslow Combined schools and (importantly) recording these sessions so that they can be viewed later. She's entitled this a virtual residency and for me it's a fascinating exploration of what's possible - and has obvous implications for how working creatively with practitioners (artists, poets, musicians, anyone really) could take place in both primary and as part of a Diploma at secondary. Clare has explored the use of the tools - but not before writing an excellent introduction of how the project came about - and even uses Breeze to create demonstrations of how and why she does what she does - such as the use of Photoshop within her work. It's also made the front page of the London Schools' Art Service. Woo-hoo!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dealing with large volumes of content

First things first: if you're using Moodle, please take a couple of seconds to cast your vote over on the right-hand side near the top of the page - I'm interested to know what versions people are running. We're currently using 1.6.5 for our school sites but are planning on upgrading to 1.8.something during the Spring half-term break. Atomwide are currently running a testing server of their 1.8 build for us and I'm hoping that we'll be able to give our Buckinghamshire Moodle admins access to such a server soon, so they can start to get their heads around the more complex (but much more flexible and powerful) roles system. We're skipping version 1.7 which, by Martin Dougiamas's own admission, was a rushed release and not really up to scratch. Still, with 1.6.5 being stable we can stay as we are for a while in case any issues come out of the woodwork with 1.8.n. If it ain't broke then... etc..
One thing I'm trying to write at the moment is the definitive guide for Bucks users on how to effectively utilise our Breeze server (soon to be upgraded to Adobe Connect) to remove the large payloads of files which they might include in their Moodle courses. Our Moodles have a file size upload limit of 30Mb, which means that after a few large PowerPoints, audio files and (especially) video files it becomes a pain to move them around. Also, if a course is shared by one school and becomes really popular - downloaded and used by many many other schools on their Moodle sites - we'll soon have multiple versions of that large content on our schools' Moodles, taking up lots of space with duplicates of the same information.
It's with this in mind that we can start to use Breeze Connect as a content repository - hosting MP3s, videos, PowerPoints, PDFs, Flash files, etc. etc. in a centralised location where (with permission) they could be shared within and between schools. It’s all like a local version of YouTube - mentioned in a case study of how we might use Connect which has come out somewhere else.
A natural process for us would be to host our Moodle training and support resources centrally (on the Connect server), create a "How to Moodle" course which linked directly to them, and then share that Moodle course with our schools (or ensure that it was installed in their Moodles when they were created). That way, we can easily keep all of the training videos (made in Captivate and streamed from the Connect server) up to date in all of the "How To..." courses in all of our schools' Moodles simply by republishing the Captivate movies on the central server. A really nice feature is the "rerecording" option - which means if I record a "how to do something in Moodle" demonstration of a site and the site then changes (e.g. colour or version), then Captivate can go back and re-record the demonstration automatically, without my having to click through the whole process again. I think this is what I'm going to cover at BETT2008 as part of my role as an AEL, unless you've got any better ideas...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Secondary Moodling at 100mph

It's taking a while, but as a team we're gradually working our way through an increasing number of secondary schools doing our four session Moodle training - we pay for supply cover for up to six people, and the school can send along another six if necessary as long as it sorts out cover for them.
We're currently in two Aylesbury schools - Sir Henry Floyd Grammar and Mandeville Upper. We've only done one session so far at SHF, but at Mandeville things are progressing at a rate of knots. Normally over the four sessions we cover a fair amount of topics - using resources (web links, documents, directories of files) and activities (choices, forums, assignments, quizzes) as well as thinking about whole-school issues and also covering RSS feeds (what they are and how to use them) and embedding pictures, audio and video from around the internet in a school's Moodle site.
As mentioned, the twelve staff involved at Mandeville are hurrying along (they're normally ahead of me) and so by halfway through yesterday's session (the third of four) we'd pretty much covered everything we'd normally cover in four sessions. This is almost certainly down to the fact that many of the staff had been putting in a fair amount of effort between sessions, which meant they've had a chance to reinforce and develop what's been done in "class".
So, what to do next week? We don't normally cover these, but it's going to be using Glossaries and Wikis - which incidentally, are featured in passing in the excellent Teachers TV video Secondary ICT Management - VLE in Action which covers Queen Elizabeth School in Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria, supported by the excellent CLEO. Subjects covered include Year 12 English Literature, Year 10 Food Technology,
Some quotes from the programme:

Anyone who says that the use of a VLE is going to save you time in the short-term is talking baloney...

[The support from CLEO] gives this kind of activity a professional legitimacy.

The longest process was getting my head around what I wanted to do, once I'd done that the actual setting up of the thing was quite easy...

I would advise people to dip their toe in the water and get going as soon as they can... find someone who's got a torch for learning, as opposed to a torch for technology...

Be clear that the most important part of a Virtual Learning Environment is the word 'learning' and just see it as a natural extension of all the various aspects of school life...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Primary training and another visit from Becta

This week I've been working with Pat, Andy and Geoff, colleagues from the ICT team, on training primaries and introducing them to their Moodles. We've been doing this for a while now and it's always difficult to know how to approach it. We've had most of the keen schools, those who were gagging to get started, and now we're at the stage where many of the schools we're working with are coming in up to a year and a half after some primaries have been using their VLE. Of course, it's very easy for these schools to look at the VLEs of some of the more established primaries and feel intimidated, the "How am I expected to achieve that?" reaction that's perfectly understandable. I guess our job is to reassure the schools that their job isn't necessarily to match and imitate those who've gone before, but to do something that is tailored to the needs of their schools. As such there's little pressure (from us, anyway) to "achieve" a VLE/Learning Platform by a particular date, and as we're not paying for a license for the software then there's no hurry to get going just because something's available to the school. Instead the school can use it when it feels ready - after Ofsted have been, after the new headteacher's had a term to bed in, whatever.
So should we insist that the remaining schools come on board, so that we can meet the oft-quoted but vague "Spring 2008" "target" for online learning spaces, or do we allow them to hop on board when they're ready? I'm aware of another local authority (also using Moodle) who have created instances of Moodle for all of their schools, whether they're starting to use it or not. Our approach is to do them in batches:

  • the ICT curriculum team identify those schools who might be keen, or ask specific schools to come along;
  • we submit a list of these schools to Atomwide as soon as we can before their training starts - hopefully about a month before but in the past it's been only a couple of days before (oops, my fault);
  • Atomwide check that they're controlling the schools' .bucks.sch.uk domains - if they are, it's a cinch, if not, some arrangement needs to be arrived at with whoever's holding the domain;
  • Atomwide do the creation of the Moodle and set up the synchronisation with the BucksGfL database;
  • on the first day of training, we set up those attending to be Moodle admins through their BucksGfL profile.

That's the approximate process, and it seems to work quite well. Compared to the other approach it means we only create Moodles when we need to, but it does mean some schools won't have one set up until the end of the cycle of training - but hopefully by this time we'll have learned much on all aspects of deployment - training, setup, sharing resources, etc. etc.

Last week I was just about to start a meeting in a secondary school when I got a phone call from Robin Ball from Becta. He said that Becta were looking at preparing a number of case studies on Learning Platforms and wanted to do one on an LA which was using Open Source software for its LP. Within an hour I'd had a phone message from one of his colleagues at Becta and on Tuesday this week two people came down and spent a couple of hours interviewing me about things in Bucks. It must be dull to listen to, but as we talked one thing that struck me was how different things are now in the detail to how they were even a year ago. One of the questions was "so what do you do with the money which is there for procuring LPs?" to which my answer was the ten or so primaries we'd been training on Weds morning were the answer.

Our approach to things like Inset is slightly different - we are happy to offer Inset to schools on a "delayed payment" arrangement. The Inset doesn't cost the school anything as long as they share courses, resources, quiz questions by an agreed date - if not, then we'll invoice them for the cost of the Inset later on. Most schools will have staff who are keen and capable of preparing such materials; it's getting them to adopt the idea of sharing that's more of a challenge. The advantage (to my mind) of this approach is that we invest the funding twice - once in building capacity in staff and a second time in generating content which can be shared with other schools. We're currently thinking about ways of working with those schools who we've already trained - should we invest our time in going round prodding them for anything good they'd like to share within the County. It'll take a while before the culture of sharing "stuff" is embedded, but in some forms it's started over the past couple of years and I think that in itself it's worth investing effort and time in, no matter what form the outcomes might be.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The not-retro-in-any-way Naace Social Networking Conference

Brrr it's cold. Today I'm sat in The Palace, Tamworth, which hosted the The Bay City Rollers at the weekend and in future weeks will host a Whitesnake tribute band. However, in a departure from this the venue is bang up to date as it hosts the Naace Social Networking Conference, which places it firmly in the twentieth twenty-first century.
So, today might be the only useful thing to have come down the pipes as a result of the "naace will eat itself" tool that the Naacetalk Advisory list has become over the last few months. Anyway, the first thing that strikes me is the number of "sponsors" here for the conference about Social Networking Sites (SNS). This morning there are a series of "lightning" talks (i.e. five minutes long), at least half of which appear to be directly related to specific products. Well, as they're lightning talks I guess the only thing I can do it give them a one sentence summary. You can see the entire programme in PDF if you like, or you can read whatever I tap out below. The most important thing at any ICT conference is to get a seat near to a plug, so I'm sat at the back on the wireless network sharing an extension lead with the venue's sound desk, which has recently mixed Bye Bye Baby and will mix Here I Go Again and more. Today, it'll have to make do with a bunch of people promoting software or companies they have relationships with, and the occasional person from a school. Actually, only one practitioner here, according to the programme.
First impressions? Well, I hope this isn't too pejorative, but you'd never guess this was a "Web 2.0" gathering from the clientele. Anyway, I'll publish it now (at the start) and update it throughout the day.
First up is Stephen Carrick-Davies from Childnet International on Social Networking opportunities and risks for children and educators. I saw his presentation at the Handheld Learning Conference a couple of weeks ago on Mogulus and wonder if this might be similar. He starts off with Douglas Adam's point that whatever you're born with is just "stuff", whatever comes later (before 35) is understandable, anything invented when you're older than that is a bit scary until about ten years later when it might be OK. Actually, I've just realised that he's Josie Fraser's boss (or one of them), which makes sense now, suddenly I understand what she's doing.
Positive things on SNS - the ability to hang out & have an identity, a shift from consumption to creation, risk assessment, peer to peer education and informal learning.
OK, here are the lightning talks (plus my one sentence summary). These are all, allegedly, examples of how social networking is being practically incorporated into mainstream education:

  • Andy Preston, EduJam: recap on why the conference is here, quick plug for EduJam, no examples of anything;
  • Ian Lynch, TheIngots: online courses and accreditation for work by students - examples of students' work and how it's assessed by using Web 2.0 tools;
  • John Hackett, The Learning Landscape for Schools: it's about blogs, file storage and RSS, apparently - or a tweaked version of Elgg. This is purely a promotional piece - the two important things? The URL of the product and the fact that the speaker's here all day. No examples of anything due to the connection going down - don't classroom teachers have a Plan B? I think this talk was about 10 minutes;
  • Drew Buddie, The Royal Masonic School: examples of Web 2.0, descriptions of practice within speaker's Moodle, example of anonymised collaboration, a nice picture of the speaker's daughter playing EyeToy against her stuffed toy lamb,which elicits "aaaaaaahs" from many of the audience;
  • Doug Dickinson, apparently on behalf of Podium: it's a software promotion, which looks like it shows how an ICT consultant can use a podcasting tool to record some Shakespeare, which is entertainingly theatrical;
  • Charles Worth, Infomapper: It's a five minute plug for the product. That's all you need to know. Obviously there are no examples of practice, and I think I'm losing the will to live.
Well, unless I'm very much mistaken I saw four and a bit plugs for software tools and nearly two examples of practice. Without meaning to offend anyone who presented (all of whom had a tough job, after five minutes the microphone was muted) but instead of being the main focus as promised, evidence of how social networking tools are being practically incorporated into mainstream teaching was conspicuous by its absence, and as such the session has made me very frustrated. I can't imagine any teachers who had been asked to present on "examples of practice" coming along and showing how to use a piece of software or trumpeting its great features, so, how does an advisory community get away with it? Grrr, I give up.
After an odd cup of Earl Grey Green Tea, Ruth Hammond from Becta is speaking about the national perspective on safeguarding children online and how this shouldn't be just an ICT thing - even though it's in the revised secondary ICT programme of study. Apparently the new SEF now includes section 4b - the extent to which learners adopt safe and responsible practices in using new technologies, including the internet. There are some interestinglinks to places like Teachernet, Know IT All, CEOP and the TDA, as well as explanations of what roles those resources might play in combatting cyberbullying - and not just of children.
Leon Cych Workforce remodelling and web 2.0: Leon is talking about why Web 2.0 is a challenge which requires remodelling of the workforce – why models of CPD need to take into account what happens outside the classroom as well as what happens inside it.
As you’d hope, it’s about the need for proper education about how to use the real-world resources rather than expecting learners to use dumbed-down/emasculated versions of these tools. Kids have got good media literacy but no life skills – that’s an important gap. One question he asks at the end is “what can Naace do?”. His answers include: get a dynamic forum, put in a Moodle or something, have a go. Someone then says that there are lots of things coming but implies that they’re being tested so that they work. This leads to the question in my mind – what about creativity (after Sir Ken Robinson)? Why can’t an organisation like Naace (or a school, or an LA) be permitted to try something, maybe even get it wrong, learn the lessons, but at least do something? Maybe there'll be an answer later. In the meantime it's time for lunch.
Terry Freedman, editor of so-long-in-gestation-it-might-come-out-as-an-elephant Coming Of Age 2, is presenting on Social networking from a teen's perspective. He questions some of the stats around SNS, in particular the issues around active users versus those who have a mainly dormant account. One interesting area is a review of Their Space (the Demos report) by teenagers - the teenagers' response to some of the portraits of scrupulous, well-informed, balanced teenagers in the report are very interesting and contradict the report's main findings. The presentation is available online and will make interesting reading once the data (such as it is) is fleshed out with some more examined case studies.
The final parallel session is done by Theo Kuchuel, who does an excellent presentation on practical uses of things like del.icio.us, flickr for things like classroom displays, uses of wikis like the Flat Classroom project, plus the obligatory mentions of Facebook.
The final "expert panel" session is supposed to (the programme says) include people from Bebo and Google, but doesn't. There's a dearth of questions, and I do try and point out that it would have been a good idea to model good social networking by using a social networking site to do some pre-conference administration. I came to a Naace meeting on transforming CPD a few years ago and we used a content management system instead of a VLE for course preparation; anyway it's suggested that we did indeed use some sort of social networking tool since the Naacetalk advisory list was the genesis of today and information was shared on the Naace web site. Which, bearing in mind the nature of the advisory list recently, makes me wonder what any follow-up conference might be. Does anyone in Naace get what social networking really is? (I don't know the answer to that, it's just a question I've heard asked a few times today by others). Is anyone up for an anti-social networking conference?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Help! We’ve got a new learning platform

Doing the rounds of many staff rooms at the moment is Secondary Teacher, the Teachernet magazine. Normally this would pass me by, but there’s an excellent article in there which (with one reservation) I’d recommend to any secondary school (and some primaries) who are thinking about starting out with a VLE.

As easy as VLE

The article ("As Easy as V.L.E.") is on the Teachers Magazine site, but isn’t reproduced in full cartoon form (random thought: how long before someone develops a Manga theme for Moodle?) and importantly doesn’t include the main pitfalls of the process, but its main points are. Don’t rely on the electronic version, try getting hold of the original and (if necessary) photocopy the cartoon for whatever group of people is responsible for leading the VLE in your school. I’ve seen copies kicking around in most of the secondary staff rooms I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks, so there should be one near you if you’re in a secondary school.

The one reservation I have is for Buckinghamshire schools, who shouldn't follow the link to a company which offers Moodle services for schools (mentioned previously in these posts, who have blanket emailed our schools offering to sell them Moodle...) but should instead contact the ICT team at the Teaching & Learning Centre in Aylesbury.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Learning From Rainbows

I've just driven back from Tylers Green Middle School where we've had the second session (first hands-on session) of training for a group of primary schools. They were keen to get on and the first thing we did was downloading a shared course from the central BucksGfL Moodle help section, and then use this as a basis for simple operations - moving, hiding and editing items, moving and hiding sections, how to navigate around a Moodle course, how to view activity reports, etc.
Naturally, with it being the 10th October, my soundtrack to driving to Tylers Green and back was In Rainbows, the release of which has made it into mainstream media and beyond the world of the muso by (in case you've been living under a rock) being an album by a major artist which is (potentially) free. On completing your order for the download you are asked to specify how much you would like to pay - anything between £0.00 and £99.99. Of course, Radiohead can afford to do this (as can The Charlatans), as they've already made their money, but the word from the heads on the radio this morning was that this wasn't a viable strategy for anyone coming into the music business for the first time.
This week on the Naacetalk advisory list there's a message from the Chief Executive of the North-West Learning Grid, Gary Clawson. NWLG have already got a track record of sharing free resources, whether it be DiDA courses in Moodle form, or all sorts of other free resources. This email was a rewording of something that came out in a Naace Newsletter the other week and is essentially a call for a national repository of free learning resources, many from Local Authorities and RBC, which would be available to all. The suggested format is SCORM (which, to use a phrase beloved of my colleague Geoff, is seen by many vocal contributors to the Naacelist as about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike as far as learning goes) and could (on one level) be seen as a viable alternative to resources available via eLCs through Curriculum Online. Go and find out more (and sign up) from the NWLG site.
I've always maintained that to exhibit joined-up thinking in this area Becta need to sort a few things out, something like...

  • we want people to use Learning Platforms / VLEs;
  • we are funding schools (for the moment) with eLCs;
  • eLCs are frequently used to purchase resources which languish somewhere or are underused;
  • many eLCs are used to provide access to web sites which add yet another set up usernames and passwords to the already vast constellation of such which schools have.

However, we have a couple of (vague) standards in this area: Shibboleth (for authentication & access management) and SCORM (for learning resources).

So why not insist that, before an "online resource" can be badged with the Curriculum Online Seal of Approval:

  • if it's a resource which involves logging in to a vendor's web site, the resource should be Shibboleth compliant so that existing school usernames can be used;
  • if it's an online resource then it must be available in a SCORM-compliant version, so it can be used by the Learning Platforms which schools are expected to use.

We're already trying to encourage schools to ask questions of their software suppliers as regards their use in Moodle, particularly in the area of licensing, SCORM-like issues and the whole breaking the resources down into useable chunks thing. However, until someone (like Becta) mandates this, they will be just individual schools with little influence. No change there then.

Back to Radiohead. As we were doing the course today, and some of the schools were getting excited about downloading other courses (shared by other schools) from the main BucksGfL site, I couldn't help but wonder: If we gave schools to opportunity to pay for these resources (or to pay in kind by committing to sharing their own) if they wanted to, would they? Should they? Or should (as the NWLG (and I) believe) the outcome of so much Government investment, so much time and effort, so much intelligence, crafty and creativity be a wealth of resources which are available, for free, to anyone who wants to use them? Come to think of it, won't the commercial VLE companies just incorporate the content (even if it's licensed under Creative Commons) into their own systems ("at no extra cost - so we're not using it for commercial gain...")? Hmmm...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Moodle training - and some tools to help

At the moment I'm in the middle of I don't know how many sets of training in schools... The Royal Latin School in Buckingham, about ten primary schools in Aylesbury Vale, about eight around Wycombe, plus we've just finished training in The Amersham School, Dr Challoner's High School and are in the process of doing follow-up support visits at The Grange, The Cottesloe School and Buckingham School.
Primaries are done in regional groups, with up to two staff from each school coming to a series of four sessions in their locality which aim to introduce them to Moodle and put them in charge of their school's own VLE. We also try and run termly workshops for those who've been through the training and want to share what they've done or bring any issues along to have them solved.

Here's how our secondary training works: I work with one of our ICT Consultants and we arrange a series of dates -typically with about a week between them but this varies depending on availability. We will pay supply cover for six members of staff to attend four sessions of three(ish) hours, always in the morning if possible. The school can also send up to six other people, but will have to cover them itself. We try and insist on a member of SLT/SMT being involved, to provide the leadership mentioned yesterday, and if possible someone in charge of the school's specialism. The best example of this working was where the Headteacher (a) attended and (b) hand-picked staff who were keen and capable - and also where the use of the VLE is an overall school target.
This is rooted in a firm belief that we're better off spending our money on investing in people rather than investing in software licenses. I don't know of any piece of software which can, by itself, magically transform teaching and learning, but I'm willing to bet whatever professional reputation I have that what will transform teaching and learning are staff who are capable of thinking creatively about how tools such as those found in a VLE can be used, and also have transferable skills to use those tools. That's why we fund the schools to cover staff to be released - it sends out a message that it's important (twilight training sessions are rarely well-received and send out a signal that this is only for the keen ones or those who don't have a life) and (hopefully) it highlights to school leaders that resourcing this sort of development (whether in time or funding) is a crucial enabler for it. After the four sessions we'll book in an after school training session for any staff who are using the VLE to bring along issues or problems they're having, which we'll solve during the 60-90 minute-long support session.
We try and work the sessions as alternating between brief demonstrations at the front, followed by worked through examples of whatever it was that was demonstrated, then some time to practice and discuss how thec tool in question might be used. As ever, training people in something new isn't always that straightforward, so here are a couple of tools which might come in useful:
  • Mousepos√© is a slick little tool (for Macs only, US$14.95) which allows you to spotlight part of the screen while dimming the rest - useful for higlighting certain areas. There's a PC version called MouseLight (Windows, £10.17) but I was looking around for a free tool which would do the same - I came across MouseShade (Windows, free), written by someone on the message boards at DonationCoder. It's not as snazzy as Mousepos√© or MouseLight, but does the job. A really useful tool which mimics some of the functionality of interactive whiteboard software without needing a 100MB download.
  • The next tool is something which is really quite fabulous for something so small (well I think so anyway). ZoomIt (Windows, free) is a tiny download from the Microsoft web site which has many useful functions - and for me it seems that the zoom function (using the mouse scroll wheel or the up and down arrow keys once the program is enabled) is the least of them. It's a very simple program for annotating a screen (these annotations aren't persistent, so hide the tool and they are lost) but it's a simple tool which could be very useful when you just have a projector and a wireless mouse, rather than an interactive whiteboard. Pressing w or k gets a white or black screen to write on and there's also a timer which will run on the screen if you want to give people a set time for discussing something, or simply a break from what you're saying!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Learning Platforms - are Ofsted bovvered?

A couple of weeks ago there was a (relatively) interesting discussion on the Naacetalk Advisory list about what it would take to get most schools to think seriously about Learning Platforms. A few people wondered aloud if schools might be more motivated if Ofsted included effective (or I'd imagine at least appropriate) use of a VLE/Learning Platform in their inspection framework. After all, a fair amount of money is being invested in this area and, depending on your point of view, LPs could be a fundamental part of the school-focused side of the E-Strategy.
This became more relevant today when I had a conversation with a member of the Senior Leadership Team of a secondary school which has been using a VLE for over eighteen months, and has been mentioned in previous posts around here. The school was inspected by Ofsted this week and the staff member in question spent some time preparing lots of evidence from across the VLE - reflections by students, examples of work, comments from parents, etc.
So, was the Ofsted inspector interested in this?
What do you think?
Apparently, the interest went as far as "give me a paragraph which summarises its impact on achievement". C'est ca.
When I worked in Hertfordshire some colleagues used to half joke that inspected schools would sometimes prepare a CD of evidence and information to give to their Ofsed inspector, safe in the knowledge that the inspector wouldn't know what to do with it. We're encouraging schools to look at their VLEs and think how they might give access to an inspector (including - off the top of my head - creating a generic Inspector username for each school which they could share with the inspector and give them non-editing & hidden access to representative courses) through the VLE. However, do you think that the inspector would use it? How many inspectors would know how to assess effective online teaching and learning anyway?
For what it's worth, the paragraph which was given to the inspector talked about significant rises in predicted A*-C grades in the GCSE courses where the VLE was effectively used to support classroom teaching, and similar effects at A-level. I'm hoping to get some more data from the school as the year progresses - and don't think that it's all down to the VLE, it's clearly not, but there is a marked difference there, and I'll be interested to see the figures...

Two cans of lager and a well-managed VLE please

Over the last few weeks Geoff L and I have been working in a number of our secondary schools, both re-visiting some who we offered training to last term and visiting some other schools for the first time. It's been an interesting experience and some common threads have started to emerge.

  • it's clear that (as we always knew and as applies to most things in school) effective and involved leadership at a senior level is essential if a school's virtual learning environment/learning platform is to be used effectively by more than just a few keen teachers. In particular, in a couple of schools where senior leaders said they were very keen but only turned up for the first training session (to ensure that everyone else came? who knows...) then nothing really moved on. Why bother doing this if it's not part of your school's overall development plan, if your senior team don't seem bothered (even if they really are)?
  • the role of ICT support staff is crucial in many ways - both as enablers for keen but relatively untechnical senior leaders and limiters for keen staff who really want to get going. At last week's Becta conference on Harnessing Technology Niel McLean made the observation that there's no way a school would allow its caretaking / facilities staff to dictate how teaching was done in the classroom, or even what was taught, but that's effectively what happens if a network manager pulls the strings concerning what can and cannot be used in the classroom - even down to the implementation of a VLE.
  • school staff should do what they're employed to do - in the case of a VLE I would surmise that this means:
    • Senior Leaders providing much of the vision, leadership and resourcing for the use of a Learning Platform - without necessarily having the technical know-how of how to run the thing, although they should be aware of what it can do;
    • ICT Support Staff ensuring that everyone in school has an account and can access the system;
    • Administrative Staff ensuring (where necessary) that class lists, year groups etc, are up to date and accurate;
    • Learning Resource/Library Staff (where the school is enlightened enough to include them in its planning) being involved in planning, organising the management of and encouraging students and staff to use the VLE;
    • Teachers using the VLE to support their teaching - they shouldn't be responsible for knowing who's in which year or class, or ensuring that all students and fellow staff have accounts, or anything. They should use it to enhance, extend and challenge their students and teaching;
    • Students having the (optional) role of challenging all of the above to see how things could be better... maybe.
  • if the above isn't in place to a greater extent, any learning platform implementation will not succeed, at least not on a whole-school, embedded basis. It makes me smile when vendors of Learning Platforms market things to schools as if they are a magic bullet which will transform a school at the flick of a switch - when in reality nothing can be further from the truth.
  • as has been written elsewhere around here, primary schools will drive practice in secondary schools. An approximate quote from one person who's leading the use of Moodle in one of our schools:
    "we started teaching our Year 7s how to use the VLE and they said "We've been doing this for a year in Primary School so we already know what to do thanks..." - that really gave us a kick up the backside..."
    ...and this is only going to increase...

And finally... the picture at the top? Well, at the end of one of our current rounds of training one of the participants presented Geoff and I with a can of Carling each. Cheers!

Monday, October 01, 2007

An informal survey of Naace members on ePortfolios

A few weeks ago I sent a message to the Naacetalk Advisory list - the general mailing list for members of Naace. The message went something like this...

If you're in a Local Authority or RBC and are considering implementing or have already implemented an ePortfolio system, I'd really appreciate it if you could follow the link below and complete a brief survey (consisting of 10 questions) about your approach. I'm interested in the various parameters that might affect how an ePortfolio is deployed on a medium- to large-scale...
This used a fairly simple online survey to ask the following questions:

  • Who would be the intended users of an ePortfolio system across your LA/RBC?
  • How many potential users (both staff and pupils) would use an ePortfolio system in your LA / RBC at any one point (i.e. the total number of staff, pupils and LA employees if you are counting these)?
  • If you are planning on offering ePortfolio functionality to both primary and secondary age pupils, are you planning on using different ePortfolio systems for each of these groups?
  • What potential online storage capacity you would consider making available to an individual user in the following categories: primary staff, primary pupils, secondary staff, secondary pupils, LA/RBC staff?
  • Would you supplement this storage capacity by allowing your ePortfolio to access existing resources on the internet (such as Flickr, Bebo, Box.net and other online storage services)?
  • Have you selected or implemented one or more ePortfolio systems to offer to your schools?

Thirty six people filled in the survey to some extent, although only about 19 filled in the majority of the survey to count as what I'd call "complete responses". I asked the questions as a result of a previous post entitled Thinking about MyStuff which asked (among other things) How much storage space should each user (staff and pupils) be offered? Some quick points from the responses are (all links are to a Google Spreadsheet summary of the responses):

While this questionnaire was closing, it's all kicked off on Naacetalk about ePortfolios, with the usual cycle of statement-opinion-counter-opinion-misunderstanding-clarification which accounts for many of the 97 unread messages in that folder in my mailbox - possibly why an ex-colleague of mine referred to it as the "Naace will eat itself" list before they unsubscribed. However, there are some good points on the list, maybe when I get a second I'll think about them.

It's worth pointing out that these issues of storage, capacity and availability aren't all I am / we are thinking about as regards ePortfolios, however they're critical so that we can enable things, hence my interest in the answers to the above questions.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Becta Harnessing Technology Seminar

"Delivering the Future for Learners - how you can "harness technology"

The view from my table I'm at a hotel in London for a Becta regional conference on Harnessing Technology. There are a number of speakers giving case studies and the whole day is ostensibly to share practice between people here. It's a typical Becta event so we're sat at numbered tables and will use a tablet PC to feed back and ask questions.

First up is Mark Lloyd, headteacher at Barking Abbey School. This was an ICT Test Bed school (which received something like £2.1 million to invest in ICT over 4 years) and he's got some very interesting thoughts on how technology can address restructuring (workforce reform) and changing culture. I've seen a presentation (possibly by him) at a Becta conference before and I think I remember the school talking about using Moodle - and in one of the video clips of staff at the school they mention how they're using Moodle as a VLE. The school is also going in to the BSF programme, so I'd be interested to see how any "imposed" ICT solution from a BSF provider fits in with and affects what the school is doing now.

Tony Richardson is talking about the E-Strategy - here's a quote after looking at a video from Walsall of kids using GPS enabled devices to record things "[that is] people coming together to challenge, support and develop one another in their learning" - sounds something like social constructivism to me.

Steve Molyneux from The Learning Lab talking about moving from pedagogy to andragogy - where learners aren't in a submissive role but in a controlling role. He proposes three alternative models:

  • Resource and guidance
  • Content & Support
  • Social Constructivist Model

There are lots of interesting things about the day - it's very London-centric (understandably) - but one thread that comes through for me is an emphasis on the whole idea of social learning, something that Moodle is based around. There is the usual mixture of interesting ideas and some misconceptions - one in particular is one which Steve Molyneux repeated from his seminar at Naace. He showed a screenshot (it happened to be from Moodle, but it could have come from any learning environment) - and made the point that a layout like a "normal" learning environment doesn't encourage learning in the way that children learn nowadays. Personally I think it's difficult to surmise the quality of or the nature of learning which a VLE/LP could support from a screenshot - a bit like looking at a still from a film and surmising that the acting or plot is not very good.

There's also some interesting and vaguely uninformed opinions on Moodle which I overheard from a colleague from a London borough. Since London has moved from DigitalBrain (which didn't make the framework) to Fronter, most of the schools will opt for that, but as with the rest of the framework, there's scope for schools & London LAs to do their own thing if they believe it's the right thing to do.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moodling on a mobile phone - properly

(Note - this was started in May, yes, May) but now finally gets finished and published, complete with a set of images on Flickr)
The reasons for this post:
Most kids have phones. The features of phones are improving and exceeding much of what's available in school in terms of accessible technology in a compact device. Using the PC as the main way of interacting won't disappear - but it will be joined by mobile access (subject to tariffs - more about that later) which will become the norm rather than the exception. So just how much of our current learning platform offering here in Bucks is accessible and (more importantly) useable on a device which is available to (and being used now by) kids in our schools.
N95 cameraFor about a week and a bit five months now I've been experimenting in all sorts of ways with my new contract phone. I'd had a Sony Ericsson W800i for 18 months (a sucker for a long contract, y'see) and finally decided to get a new phone recently. Prior to working in Bucks and Herts I worked in HE departments in GIS, Remote Sensing and some work with GPS so the Nokia N95 is pretty much as close to a "convergent device" as I could get. The tariff is a T-Mobile Web & Walk one, which gives "unlimited internet" (a 1GB monthly limit) and the usual Flext mixture of txts and minutes.
The speed of the HDSPA enhanced 3G connection is phenomenal - downloading a 15MB podcast takes a couple of minutes and that would seem to be the main advantage of this device over the makes-a-certain-type-of-person-dribble iPhone. The iPhone won't do 3G - and having downloaded a podcast over a non-3G connection I can tell you it takes forever.
Having an "unmetered" data tariff is essential with a device like this - here are the applications I'm currently using which eat into my allowance...

  • browsing and downloading Google Maps, Live Earth maps, Yahoo Maps, Ask.com maps and all sorts of other information using the excellent (free, natch) Mobile GMaps application (important note, if you want to use Google Maps then get a version prior to GMaps 1.36, as this version doesn't contain Google Maps due to a toys-out-of-the-pram moment from Google);
    Google Maps hybrid on Mobile GMaps Mobile GMaps showing favourites across Cheltenham Racecourse Mobile GMaps' services
  • podcast subscriptions (currently these three podcasts so far) through the free Nokia podcast application - which will apparently allow you to create podcasts using the device soon.
    My subscribed podcasts Playing a podcast
  • uploading pictures taken on the very nice 5Mp camera (and geotagged using the GPS receiver) to Flickr through Shozu - but you can also set it up to send straight to YouTube, or even BBC News...
    Sending picture to flickr Send video / photos to these services automatically
  • downloading video podcasts from RocketBoom, YouTube and many other services
    ZuCasts through Shozu
  • synchronising my BucksGfL email account (where all my Bucks Moodle alerts go to) and my Gmail through the dedicated Gmail application
    IMAP mailbox Gmail messages
  • calling & messaging Skype and MSN contacts through Fring
    Skype contacts in Fring Calling options from Fring Calling the Fring test service
  • subscribing to RSS feeds for... well, all sorts of stuff. Updates to Google Docs, activity on my Flickr pics, etc. etc.

However, these are all "standard" things - what I'm interested in is how a user of the elements of our learning platform might use a device like this. So, first stop, Moodle...

BBC News home page Part of BBC News story

The browser in the N95 is very usable - it doesn't re-render the page but gives a zoomed view of it, with an easy way of navigating around larger pages. Logging in to a school's Moodle was easy and more simple than when using a PSP (see previous posting) mainly due to the ease of text input.

Winslow Moodle on N95 Logging in to WinsLE WinsLE radio course List of Moodle courses Viewing a Moodle course Completing an online text assignment Moodle forum view

Accessing all sorts of resources within the school's Moodle was very straightforward, however the limitations of interaction are mainly concerned with whether or not the browser can access the file system of the device it's running on (to upload files etc.). One critical difference between the N95 and a PSP is that the N95 allows access to its own file system, so that files stored on the internal memory card or memory can be uploaded from the browser - for example into an "upload a file" assignment, or a photograph taken on the internal camera could be attached to a forum or used as a profile image.

Listening to Radio WinsLEThe built in MP3 / video / media player also means that audio files can be downloaded and played - and as if to prove it, while in San Francisco after the Adobe AEL Summer Institute, I downloaded an episode of Radio WinsLE over the free wifi at the Java Beach Cafe. The MP3 was stored on the memory card and played in the media player with no problem.

Next stop: Macromedia Breeze/Adobe Connect...

Logging in to Breeze Logged in to our Breeze/Connect server m.youtube.com on N95

Well, nearly but not quite - it's possible to log in to and access the resources on the Breeze site but the issue with watching a presentation or attending a meeting all comes down to the version of Flash on the device - which is Flash Lite. However, the mobile YouTube site works fine (though the files are 3GP files played in RealPlayer). It would be fantastic to get both on-board cameras accessible by a richer version of Flash, which would allow interaction with a live Breeze/Connect meeting.

Next element: email - see bullet points above.

Well that (to my mind) isn't bad. Apart from the Flash version issue with Breeze, everything is accessible so far.

Also, the N95 is a wifi device, which (in a school set up correctly) would give great benefit to schools sharing learning resources with a range of devices.

Standby screen when connected to home wifi network ('ush') Connectivity options Choose your wireless network Connectivity details Available wireless networks

The wifi connection is very reliable, it's possible to set up a default home network and connect to it automagically, or simply browse the available wifi networks and (if a key is needed) log in to them.

Nokia Sports Tracker Nokia Maps application 3D view Address = blue, me in the garden = yellow Truleigh Hill, Shoreham-by-Sea on Mobile GMaps soton.ac.uk Google Maps through Mobile GMaps

Finally, the built-in GPS opens up a wealth of mobile applications which could only be used on a device like this. Whether it's the obvious mapping tools, or something like Nokia's Sports Tracker application, the location-aware capabilities make this a fascinating tool to start to use.

Also, the camera's not bad.

The main down side to the device (apart from the interface, which could learn a lot from any recent Sony Ericsson mobile) is the battery life, which is very poor when 3G and the GPS are used. Allegedly one of the reasons the iPhone doesn't have 3G is the effect it would have had on the device's battery life. If the N95 is going to be used to exploit the greater part of its potential then it'll need charging every night and a car charger if you're driving anywhere with it. Tip 6 in 3lib's page of N95 tips is useful in this area...

So where does this leave the Year 9 student who's got a device like this? Well, unless she can afford a data plan which includes everything she might want to download and upload, she'll barely use the potential in the device. My T-Mobile web'n'walk service (nearly unlimited data - well, 1 or 2GB per month, apparently if you exceed this for 3 months "you might get a letter" - said a manager in a T-Mobile shop somewhere) costs £7.50 per month and, as previously mentioned, offers ridiculously fast data speeds on the N95. But for kids? Hmmm, maybe some lateral thinking...

OK, here's a plan. Say the mobile operators offered a data package for a couple of pounds per month - including some data transfer allowance but not much - but (due to the goodness of their hearts) didn't charge for data coming from "educational sites" - including .sch.uk sites and curriculum online-badged ones. Those sites would have to be formatted to be mobile-friendly (this would keep the volume of data down, hence lessening what the operators might have to carry in terms of volume of data). Would this work? Is this do-able? Are there other models which could support the potentially heaviest users (kids) accessing rich educational sites (schools, learning resources etc) in a way which (for the mobile phone companies) turns them into long-term consumers of £7.50 a month packages when they go on to university and work? Please don't tell me Microsoft doesn't see the Student version of Office as a loss-leader to ensure that when students move into jobs they expect to see MS Office on the desktop when they get there? Of course they do, it's definitely not from the goodness of their hearts...

All in all, there is so much potential in this device, and those that will follow it, to access resources in a way that most people in education management haven't thought of yet. But will it ever be affordable for kids?

Edit 1:
If you've ever read about the history of aerial photography, you'll know that early "aerial photographs" were taken from church towers, balloons, cameras mounted on kites, etc. Can you see where this is going? After all, the video camera on the N95 is VGA-quality...


Edit 2:
If you want a very interesting and relevant post on a comparison of the N95 and the geek's-wet-dream (the iPhone), then read this blog post - its central premise:

The iPhone is for consuming content, while the N95 is for creating it.

Sums things up about about right for me...