Friday, April 25, 2008

Stone UMPC review

It was just before the "Easter" break and being signed off from work for a couple of weeks I got to use another of the sub-notebooks doing the rounds. The Stone UMPC (I think UM = Ultra Mobile) is a rebranded Belinea 1 and runs Windows XP Tablet Edition, has 1GB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive (unlike the Elonex ONE or Asus EeePC). As it's running XP Tablet it has a small stylus hidden in the top and what feels like The World's Smallest touch-pad - seriously, it's tiny. The keys are also slightly smaller than what might be considered 'normal', which reminds me of watching delegates at the Naace Conference in Torquay this year carrying EeePCs around, yet struggling to type on the tinier-than-you-think keyboards and squinting from behind glasses at the smaller-than-I'm-used-to screen. Ah well, such is the price of fashion...

Anyway, my main interest in the UMPC is how it works with our BucksGfL tools - in particularly our Moodle sites, our Adobe Connect server and (just as important in my opinion) the RIAs which are increasingly available and commonplace.
Well, most of the answers to those are fairly straightforward - it's running Windows, right? Well, sort of... of course, it's a doddle to install a recent version of Flash to access the Connect server, and Moodle just does what it always does (even on my N95), which is work in a browser without any second thought. It's where the RIAs come into play that the only slight glitch appears. If you've a normal laptop, then you know it's struggling when the fan comes on and the ensuing hum is the equivalent of a cry for mercy from an overwarm and overworked processor. It's immediately apparent when using the UMPC that the fan is on a lot of the time - and almost always when using something like Aviary, Splashup, or even Google Documents. Use Firefox or Internet Explorer with a couple of tabs open - and the fan joins in, even if the pages loaded are fairly low-key. This gives you an idea of the heat being generated inside the machine and boy does it get hot.
One of the interesting aspects of the device is the modular bay to the right of the screen. In the test machine I had this was occupied by a Skype-compatible phone, which connected by Bluetooth and so could be removed from the slot, with Skype being controllable from the handset. This can be swapped for a GPS unit or a webcam which would make things much more usable in terms of using the device to access a videoconference on Connect. Unfortunately, the machine in question wasn't supplied with a webcam, so it was time to improvise.
The Nokia N95 has an excellent camera and, like most modern phones, Bluetooth. The UMPC has Bluetooth as well, so using a simple (and - of course - free) application called Webcam Wherever I Go (WWIGO) it's possible to set the UMPC up with a webcam. WWIGO (currently in beta) only works with Nokia devices, but once installed a client program on the N95 sends the camera's input to any other Bluetooth device, such as the N95, it even shows up in the Flash Player's camera menu as a Flash-compatible webcam, so can easily be used with Connect, or Splashup, or any Flash-based RIA.
Searching Stone's web site it's nigh on impossible to find the UMPC, but the Belinea is available online for around £400 - so is the loss of functionality / capacity and smaller size desirable compared to a similarly priced "standard" laptop? The small touch pad can be got round by using one of the two USB ports to plug in an external mouse into and it can display on an external screen or projector through its DVI connection.
The UMPC is a nice device, but would I have one? Have a look...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Poetry with Motion in Moodle

Apologies for the most obvious title for a blog posting (don't worry, you'll see why...).

Today I've been at one of our secondary schools for an introductory session to what might be known as the Bucks Poetry E-Anthology. It's the project of one of my colleagues who's undertaking our M-Level course on E-Pedagogy (which had its fourth face-to-face day yesterday).
The project works with twenty students from a number of Bucks secondary schools and allows to get them to work together to create an anthology of original poetry.
This might a 'normal' piece of poetry or it might be something which has a more multimedia bent about it - like many of Billy Collins' poems which are on YouTube in abundance.

Billy Collins is the former US Poet Laureate and our own Poet Laureate, Professor Andrew Motion, will be taking part in a workshop with the students in a few weeks time and writing an introduction to the printed anthology - more of which in a moment.
In between the face-to-face sessions we'll be using a central Buckinghamshire Moodle VLE (which allows all staff and pupils from all Bucks schools to log in) to allow the students to work together. They'll be using forums, wikis and other activities to create & plan the anthology, reflect on what they think about poetry by keeping a blog and provide us with feedback on how this might work with other similar cross-school projects. At the introductory session most of the students already knew their BucksGfL usernames and passwords and many had used the VLE in their schools - which was really encouraging. Their teachers won't be involved at all so hopefully it'll be something almost entirely created by them. The new central Moodle has over 88,000 users on it, and is essentially an amalgamation of all the potential school Moodles put together. It's an ideal tool for working on the new Diplomas (since these are cross-school), though we may host a separate Moodle purely for that purpose.
As far as the printed anthology goes, I'd like to use a service like Blurb to produce a high quality, hard bound version - this would mean we could buy a number of copies for the students involved and then they (or their parents or friends) could buy further copies from Blurb. This would prevent us from, say, buying 100 copies and then not using them all and also uses the idea of print on demand to ensure that we don't run out. Do you think it's possible for a local authority to have in place procedures which allow it to buy from a service like Blurb? No, I didn't think so either... I wonder if we'd be able to buy from the UK branch of - and if it's as good as Blurb?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Microsoft certified" Moodle available

A brief message from Kristian Still on twitter says that SpikeSource Solutions are offering a "Microsoft Certified" version of Moodle. This follows on from (though probably isn't directly related to) the developments a few years ago where Microsoft funded the development coding so that Moodle would work better with Microsoft's database offerings.
The offering is designed to work on MS Server 2008 and registration is required at the SpikeSource site to download this. I haven't spent the time registering (I don't have spare copies of Windows Server 2008 kicking around, though if you want a free copy of Apache then you're of course welcome) but I'd imagine that the main development would be around the tuning of the performance of the underlying database - which, if you believe the appalling marketese on the SpikeSource website - means it has been spikeignited. Really? That'll be a synonym for "tweaked" then. Other spikeignited tools include Drupal, phpBB and a few others.
Through Atomwide we used to run our Moodles on a Windows server running PHP & MySQL but have since moved them all to Linux machines running Apache. I'd be interested to hear anyone's experience of running this "certified" version - as I understood it the Microsoft funding was to ensure that those organisations whose internal policies meant that they would only run Miccrosoft internally could sit Moodle on top of their databases and not have to install something like MySQL. The SpikeSource offering looks like it's a further development of that and would allow Moodle to sit easily in an organisation whose IT staff would take a sharp intake of breath through their teeth when asked to install something which didn't have an MS badge. Anyway, I'm off to ignite my phone... or something.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

What Becta / DCSF / someone should do about ePortfolios

[this is quite a long post, but please bear with me, I think it's worth it, if only as a vehicle for reflecting on things]
A few days weeks ago I was sat in a session on ePortfolios at the Naace conference - there were many parallel sessions on at the time and I had quickly and quietly ducked out of the Learning Platforms one (call me chicken if you like). The reason for this is that the whole area of ePortfolios is looming on my mental radar at the moment, for a number of reasons:

  1. there are vague but seemingly definite targets on it (from Government);
  2. there are many definitions about what an ePortfolio is, and not one of them appears to concur with any other;
  3. I don't want us to make a decision which hitches our wagons to whatever's in the news around the time we make that decision.

So, the session is going on and I'm tapping away wondering if being in this session was the correct decision. Then, at some point when the discussion was centred around what should happen next in the area of ePortfolios (which begs the question - what's happened already?), a thought wandered into my mind and wouldn't leave.

Here's the problem: the specification for Learning Platforms is, in parts, one of the most vague things you could ever read. By "Spring 2008" (when is/was Spring?):

every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio

Apart from the obvious questions:

  • What exactly do we mean by personalised?
  • Is potential enough, or should it really support an ePortfolio?
  • If (as is indicated above) a "personalised online learning space" is different to an ePortfolio, does a VLE count as one?
  • If that's the case, what's the relationship between a VLE and an ePortfolio?

At the moment, as far as I can tell, the "market" in ePortfolios for school-age children is packed with vendors of all shapes and sizes claiming that whatever they're selling ticks the above box. In some ways, they're right - in that the target above is so vague that you could almost give every child a 8GB USB memory drive and be done with it, so anything with the label "ePortfolio" on it would tick the above box.

Now, some of the tools on offer are substantial, have learning (rather than simply file storage) at the core, and allow reflection, publication, and many of the other tools which crop up once you start to dig, even at a shallow depth, into the literature on ePortfolios. Some are simply file storage with a customisable front-end (no thanks).

The major problem (and one that mirrors the situation with Learning Platforms) is that there's no true interoperability - a pupil who might create a stunning portfolio of work at a primary school risks losing this on transition to secondary school - and the only option might be "getting a copy of it on CD" or, at best, as a structured .zip file with files in specific folders (assuming someone at primary age remembers to place their work in meanginful folders). Also, we have the problem that the "stuff" - whatever's in the portfolio, the associated learning reflections and other information would need to be moved between portfolio hosts if different providers are providing the primary and secondary schools' ePortfolio systems. Now that (so the "ePortfolio" provider would have you believe) is a reason for everyone (across a Local Authority, an RBC, a nation?) to use the same system - which doesn't really sound like true interoperability to me, more like so-called "lock in" on a grander, and possible more frightening, scale. From the market's point of view, it gives vendors a chance to clean up - anyone who gets (for example) the whole of London, or the whole of an RBC, has a licence to print money, as theirs is the only option.

One of the problems is, that the guidance on this is so vague about what an ePortfolio might be that the concept of "interoperability" between different systems is clearly a pipe dream. Of course, any system should be able to read files, but it's the nuances, the processes, the learning associated with those simple files which is as, if not more, important. Coupled with the fact that the Becta guidance just throws that phrase "potential to support an ePortfolio" in there.

So here's what I think Becta should do. It involves:

  • funding;
  • guidance;
  • standards;
  • above all it takes the guts to do something which is quite directive, but at the same time gives schools and vendors the freedom to be creative.

Put simply, in my ideal world / parallel universe Becta would commission what might be the world's largest amount of online storage space (including hosting, backup, redundancy, whatever it takes), using some of the former Grant 121 money designed to help schools meet the vague targets mentioned above. Whatever size they decided it should be, it would be. Wherever it was sited, it would be sited.

What Becta would specify would be the ways in which this space could be accessed - i.e. the ways in which any tool would pass data to and from this space, using common (open) standards based methods. If you've got a flickr account, you'll know it's possible to allow other applications to access the data stored in flickr - well that's what I'm thinking of for this space. Vendors would have to use these standards to be able to write to and read from the space. What exactly they "wrote" there would be up to them - and schools could pick from any vendor knowing that their tool or product could write to this national ePortfolio space.
Schools would have administrative control over their own space and staff and pupils would simply be "hooked" onto the online "peg" of their school and then moved on as appropriate. LAs would have access to their schools - etc. etc., with a bit of thought you can work out how this would work. Of course, users would ultimately own their space (and who knows, the Becta space might be configured to export to currently popular and free online storage in case a user wanted their own backup).

The advantage for users, schools, LAs, etc would be that because any tool could write to and read from this space, that an individual moving from one institution to another could use whatever tool that those institutions used (the same or different) and still access and manage their information - in the same way that a whole load of applications can access my space on flickr (if I let them). This removes the fear of "what if I move schools?" or (horror!) move across an LA or RBC boundary, in which case you're almost certainly back to having your work on a CD.

I think that this approach would increase creativity in the area of ePortfolios as it would be obvious to a vendor that any school, LA, or RBC would be able to move to a better product if the current one wasn't up to scratch - an ease of movement which has obviously been missing from the dominated-by-one-vendor MIS market for years. It also gets around the cumbersome and (in my opinion) wrong view that an ePortfolio should live inside a Learning Platform. At a stroke it would at remove the issue about interoperability - since ePortfolio tools would be interacting with a single central data store, rather than each other.

Is this achievable? I think I know the answer to that one - but I think it's desirable, and as the definitions around ePortfolios are so vague & multifarious that Becta will offend most people if it comes up with a definitive one, could it / should it provide the tools to get all sorts of portfolios working in harmony, rather than simply sowing a few seeds, turning its back and then having to manage all sorts of different, competing crops and their accompanying weeds?

The Byron Review and BBC Jam

There's a lot of talk about the Byron Review at the moment, but an interesting aspect of it caught my eye today, from the former head of BBC Jam, on the Guardian's letters page:

So, we'll settle on £100 million shall we...?