The Power Of Spreadsheets

I had a knock on our front door a few weeks ago. It was a young English guy going door to door for an electricity retailer, trying to get me to switch my power company.  As it turns out, it was his first day so he didn’t really know a lot about what he was selling and couldn’t answer many of my questions in detail. To be fair, I can be a bit analytical about these things and I don’t think he was prepared for so many questions. His spiel was basically “You should switch to us because we are better”, but when I asked about the rates they charge, all he could respond with was “We have really good rates”.

If you ever come knocking on my door, whether you’re trying to get me to switch energy companies, or convince me that Jesus loves me, you better be prepared to engage. I ask lots of questions. You better have answers.

So I grabbed my most recent power bill, and asked him exactly what their rates were per KWh. He had never heard of a Time Of Use meter (TOU), which our house uses, so I had to explain the concepts of Peak, Shoulder and Off Peak rates to him. As we compared the rates, we both learned that his company’s “really good rates” were not quite as good as he had been led to believe.  Compared to what we were currently paying, they were slightly cheaper for Peak and Shoulder, and quite a bit more for Off Peak.  It was an interesting discussion and I told him I would take the data he provided and think about it.

When I think about data, I do it with a spreadsheet. I often amazes me how few people really understand the power of a spreadsheet to analyse numbers. Even with just a few simple formulas, it’s possible to dig into numbers and see what they really represent.  Especially with consumer level data – like knowing how much things really cost – it astounds me that more people don’t know how to make sense of the numbers for their basic expenses.

So I knocked up a spreadsheet in Google Sheets. I transferred the KWh usage from my last power bill onto the sheet (which was a little tricky as there was a rate change part way through the quarter, so I had to calculate the different rate amounts and add them together for the total) but in the end was able to correctly derive the exact same $429 figure as I actually paid. Just that part of the exercise was useful as it helped me understand exactly how my power bill was calculated. (Do you understand how yours is calculated?) I then projected the amount of my next quarterly power bill – $529 – assuming the usage was the same, but with the latest rates.

Then I copied the usage data and plugged in the KWh rates being quoted to me by my door knocking friend. His company was offering a 15% pay-on-time discount on the bill (but only on the actual power usage, not the supply charge, as I found out later by reading the fine print). As it turns out, his company – Simply Energy – was indeed cheaper than my current provider, coming in at $439 for the same usage and a saving of $89.88. Not bad.

But wait, it got me thinking. Could I do even better? A quick internet search turned up a power provider called Red Energy. Red Energy was highly recommended by Canstar, so I found their rates and plugged them into my spreadsheet. Their KWh rates were cheaper, however they only offered a 10% pay-on-time discount, but it was on the whole bill not just the consumption component.  Can you see why you really need a spreadsheet to analyse this data if you want to make any informed decisions? I’m sure that companies deliberately calculate their charges using different formulas to their competition, just to make it harder for consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Thank goodness for spreadsheets and knowing how to use them.

Red Energy was not actually the cheapest option, but they were close enough and the one I felt best about as they are a 100% Australian owned company. So I called them, and made the switch.

And then the fun started. Yesterday I got a call from Energy Australia, my current power provider, telling me what a valued customer I am and how much they wanted to keep my business. So much so that they offered an ongoing 26% (!) pay-on-time discount on my power bill. While that certainly sounded like an attractive deal, their actual rates were still higher, so how can you tell?  Yes, with a spreadsheet.

As the Energy Australia rep was wooing me with enticing offers I was able to say “Hang on, I have a spreadsheet!”  I quickly entered their data into the sheet and was now discussing the options knowing exactly what I was talking about. Having data is powerful.  Turns out it was a good deal, so I decided to remain with my original provider (although I was a little bit annoyed that you need to threaten to leave them before they suddenly discovered they can offer me a discount!)

Now I had to call Red Energy and tell them I was cancelling the switch. But, surprise surprise, Red has a customer retention department as well and they didn’t want to lose me as a potential new customer either. So they upped the ante to a 12% pay-on-time discount AND a $100 rebate on my next bill. Into the spreadsheet that new data went. And it turns out that when you take all of that into account, Red wins – by $6.34 annually.  So I decided to stick with my decision to switch after all.

You can check out the spreadsheet I made here if you are interested.

I think there are a couple of lessons here…

  1. If you want to be a canny consumer, you need to have the facts. Many companies give you information that is confusing, incomplete or just misleading. Take the time to analyse the data for yourself so you know the reality of their claims.
  2. If you want to save money on basic bills, then leave your current provider (or at least threaten to). Switching your power, phone, gas, or other service to a competitor is likely to get their customer retention department calling with a much sweeter deal than you currently get.
  3. Learn to use a spreadsheet! They are a simple tool, but oh so powerful. I can tell you, at least anecdotally, that most people I meet have absolutely no idea how to use one. Don’t be one of those people.
  4. If buying locally matters to you at all, do some research. Turns out that Energy Australia, despite the name, is a wholly owned Hong Kong company. Red is 100% Australian owned by the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Foreign ownership of Australian companies is an interesting can of worms.

Here the educational part of this blog post…

As a teacher, I see this kind of thing as a brilliant activity for students. What if you gave your learners the basic skills of calculating numbers with a spreadsheet, and then a bunch of different rates from different competing companies and simply asked “Who is offering the best deal?”  This process usually raises lots and lots of questions, and will certainly make them better consumers, better at understanding data, and better users of spreadsheets.

For an example of the kinds of ways you can take this convoluted consumer experience and turn it into a reasonably useful learning task for students, the links below are from a task I have used with my Year 11 students looking into how to figure out the best mobile phone plan. As you will see from looking at the task, it tried to take account of the complexities of the word “best” by introducing a user-centric approach (best for who?) and encouraging them to really dig into the information being provided to make sense of it. I’ve also included a grading rubric to give you an idea of how I graded this task.

Is This Thing On?

Hello?  Is this thing on? Anyone?

That’s how it feels at the moment with my blogging. Or non-blogging. I can’t believe I have not written here since July! That’s 5 months, and the longest time I have gone without writing here since I started this blog just over 10 years ago. But August – my 10 year ‘blogaversary’ – came and went and I still just didn’t seem to get around to it. Not sure why. Partly being busy with my work with EdTechTeam. Partly being busy with other stuff. And partly, I think maybe just a little bit of a need to disconnect from this online space, and reconnect with the real world a little more.

I have good intentions of writing again. I enjoy writing, and as I’ve said on many occasions, writing is my way of thinking out loud, of throwing ideas around in my own head in a public space so I can be kept accountable for them. But lately I just haven’t felt motivated to do that.

I think it’s partly the impact of social media. It’s now so easy to just throw an idea out there, usually in a few sentences (or 140 characters), so that it feels pointless taking the time to express it here in a longer form.  It may be partly because I read other blogs that are full of ideas that seem so timely, so eloquent, so contemporary, that even when I’m thinking along the the same lines it feels kind of redundant and derivative to bother expressing it.

But I need to remind myself that I still have my own voice, and I can still make contributions to this ongoing global conversation in my own way. I forget that sometimes.

So I just wanted to assure you that I’m still here. Still alive. Still with a head full of ideas, thoughts and questions. And I plan to start writing here again. Honest. There, I said it. Now it has to happen.  Bring on 2017.

Oh, and a belated 10th birthday to Betchablog and to the many readers like yourself that have made the last 10 years such an amazing experience in learning together.  I appreciate you all.

Header image: Microphone by Alex Indigo
Creative Commons CC BY

Code4Kids – Building a Simple Scratch Game

I had the pleasure this week to be a guest on Code4Kids, a webinar series with Kelly Moore. Kelly is a teacher and tech coach in Melbourne, and she asked if I’d come on the show and talk about the use of Scratch to help teach computational thinking and coding. Well, you might know I’m a bit of a Scratch fanboy so I didn’t take too much convincing!

Rather than just talk about theory stuff, we actually created a classic but simple guessing game in Scratch during the live show.  I thought this was a good example because it uses quite a few fundamental programming constructs such as sequencing, looping and branching, etc. It also makes good use of Boolean comparisons, if-then decisions, and reassignment of variables. Throw in some simple maths like random number generation, greater than and less than operators, and it’s the start of some simple yet sophisticated Scratch coding.

It was nice to get some comments from the livestream viewers that they learned something from watching.

If you’d like to check out Kelly’s channel and her other videos, head on over to her Code4Kids playlist

And if you’d like to check your own Scratch skills, you can take the 15 question Scratch Quiz I mention at the end of the video… just head to and take the quiz… your results will be emailed to you immediately thanks to Google Forms and Flubaroo!

The Most Dangerous Phrase In The World

If you’ve been in education for a while there is a phrase you’ll hear regularly if you listen for it. It’s just seven little words but the impact of those words can be enormous. The people who utter this phrase often mean well, but it rarely leads to much that is positive. This phrase can kill a potentially good idea, ruin a worthwhile initiative or demoralise others who want to make a difference.

It may just be the most dangerous phrase in the world.

The phrase is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

You may have been on the receiving end of these words. Perhaps you came up with what you believed was a brilliant, clever, innovative or time-saving idea. You honestly feel your idea can improve an existing outcome and make a huge difference. So you approach your colleagues with your idea, knowing that by making just a few simple changes the world will be a better place. And while they might listen and thank you for your interesting suggestion, they inform you of all the reasons why your idea cannot possibly work, because the way things are currently done is just the way they’ve always been done.

It might not be said with these exact words, and it sometimes comes in many variations. There’s “We tried that years ago and it didn’t work”, or “We’d never be able to do it because the others won’t go along with it”, or “That might be ok for other schools but it would never work here”, or even the time tested “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However it’s phrased, the message is essentially the same; we like the way things are and we don’t want to change them.

The irony is that while all these phrases are used to resist change, the world around us constantly changes. Change is just a natural thing.

We want our students to learn, which is just another way of saying we want them to change. Of course we want them to be better tomorrow than they were today. We want them to know more at the end of each term than they knew at the beginning. We want them to be more mature, have more wisdom, and make better decisions. All of that is based on the idea that they need to change. We call it growth.

And yet, far too often in schools we see systems and processes that stubbornly resist change. We see outdated curriculum, often locked in time by static syllabii and aging textbooks. We see processes being repeated each year, often without ever stopping to consider whether there may be a better way. We sometimes stick with “proven” tools and technologies without looking around to see if there may be better alternatives. And we also see the occasional teacher who does not realise that their 30 years of teaching experience has in fact been one year of teaching experience, repeated 30 times.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it”, or TTWWADI for short, is the reason we see the same old worksheets, the same old assessment tasks, the same old resources, used year and year. It’s also often the reason that we structure our schools in ways that contradict everything we know about how students learn most effectively. We want to make decisions in the best interests of our students, but we don’t because those decisions often contradict the way we’ve always done things.

Despite the fact that the outside world changes constantly it is still far too easy to find classrooms that don’t. TTWWADI-thinking does a grave disservice to the students that pass through those classrooms.

I recently overheard two sisters talking. The younger of the pair had the same teacher that her elder sister had five years before. Despite the five years that had passed, the older student was listening to her younger sibling talk about the work she was doing in class and remarking “Oh yes, I remember doing that assignment when I had that same teacher”. Unless that assignment was perfect and timeless, repeating it year after year without considering alternatives makes is seem like that teacher is simply on autopilot.

As this new school year begins, stop and think about what you’re doing. Are you reaching into your files and digging out the same teaching program you used last year? The same activities and worksheets you gave your students last year? The same letters to parents that were sent home last year?

If you’ve been in a school for more than a few years, think about how much has changed in the world around you. Even just five short years ago, most of us were not storing work in “the cloud”, or working collaboratively with others on shared documents, or learning by being digitally connected through various social streams. Technology provides great examples of these rapid changes but it’s hardly the only area of change. (Although you could probably argue that technology is the main driver that is forcing change in so many other areas). However you look at it and whatever the driver may be, it seems that change really is the only constant.

So why do some teachers embrace change and get excited about the possibilities of doing things in new and different ways, while others cling doggedly to doing things in ways that they have always done them? Why do some people immediately dismiss new or innovative ideas because they are not “the way we’ve always done it”?

Before exploring that question, it’s important to also recognise that just because something is different does not necessarily mean it’s better. Some of the things we repeat year after year may be done that way because they actually are the best way to do them. It can be exhausting to constantly be reinventing wheels that have already been invented. We don’t need to throw out everything we do and start again but we certainly should look at everything we do with fresh eyes and continually ask ourselves the critical question “Is there a better way to do this?”  

Carol Dweck’s work on the ideas of Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset is a good place to start. Without restating all of her research, essentially Dweck found that people see their world differently depending on whether they embrace a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. That is, whether they believe they are capable of growing and changing, or not. Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe the abilities they were born with, or that they have right now, are the abilities they will always have. Those with growth mindsets believe that they are capable of growing, so they see change as an opportunity for learning and trying new things. Ironically, having a fixed mindset is not fixed; once you realise that you are limiting yourself with this kind of thinking you can catch yourself doing it and consciously decide to respond differently.

Responding differently is hard. It’s not always easy to see past “the way we’ve always done it” and reimagine how things might be done differently because many of us have not been conditioned to think this way. But you can start by consciously and deliberately asking yourself one very simple question. Begin by asking yourself “Why?”

  • “Why are the desks in my classroom arranged like that?”
  • “Why do my students do that same geography assignment every year?”
  • “Why do we always study that same novel?”

Thinking bigger, consider some of the many aspects of school we take for granted, such as…

  • “Why is our school day structured the way it is?”
  • “Why are our lessons 50 minutes long?”
  • “Why does the school day start at 8:30 and finish at 3:00?”
  • “Why do we group students according to the age they were born?”

As you begin to ask “why?”, take note of your answers. If you find yourself answering the question with “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” then dig a little deeper. Why have you always done it like that? Is it because it is the best way? Maybe it was the best way at one time, but is it still the best way now? Could there be a better way? So many of the things we do, we don’t even think about anymore. We get so used to the way things work that we forget to question them.

One easy (and fun) thing you can do is simply to visit other schools. Just walking into a different environment and looking around can be enlightening. When you walk into someone else’s classroom you cannot help but notice how things are done differently. You find yourself noticing little things and saying “That’s interesting. I wonder why they do it like that?” You’ll see ideas that you hadn’t thought of. Ways of doing things you hadn’t considered. And when you return to your own classroom you’ll see it just a little bit differently. Looking outside the world you experience every day helps you have fresh eyes.

Consider this. Kodak, the once great film and camera company, is these days little more than a footnote in the history of photography. The reason? Their entire worldview was rooted in the idea of film cameras and film processing. When digital photography came along they dismissed it as a fad because it was “not the way we’ve always done it”. They failed to respond to the changes around them and that failure hit them hard. History is full of similar examples where entire industries – often large, seemingly entrenched empires – have been decimated because of their failure to respond to change. The Swiss watch industry refused to adopt the quartz movement because it was not the way they always made watches. It took them years to recover. The record industry initially rejected digital downloads because they were not they way they always distributed music. They eventually relented, but it put them years behind where they could have been had they chosen to lead that change. The list goes on.

There is no denying that we live in a world of enormous change, where a single technology can make “the way we’ve always done it” obsolete very quickly. As educators, we need to be leaders in the ability to change and adapt and learn. The students we teach today will be the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and world-changers, and will be the ones who must address the big, wicked problems that need be solved in our future. If we want the education we offer to our students to be the key to making the world a better place, then we need to develop mindful, creative, critical thinkers, who constantly ask “why?”

We will never get the future we want if we keep saying “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

An edited version of this post was also published as an article in the March 2016 edition of Education Technology Solutions Magazine


Be Smart On Air Interview

I was recently asked to be a guest on the Be Smart On Air podcast by Niilo Alhovaara. Niilo is a fan of The Google Educast and was keen to catch up to talk about podcasting, technology in education, and the good old days of the internet.

I thoughts I’d cross post the recording here, because, well, that’s just what the Internet does.

You can Tweet Niilo at @niiloa and check out his other interviews on his YouTube Channel.

When is a Remix no longer a Remix?

As many of you may know, I’m a big supporter of Creative Commons and the ideals of open sharing. I publish most of my stuff under a CC licence, usually BY-SA, because I think sharing is important and I believe that the world is a better place if we allow others to build on what we do (in the same way that I often build on the influences of others).

So, a while back I published a couple of things to the OER Commons; a site where teachers can upload and freely share their educational resources with others. The general idea is that if you publish to OER Commons, anyone can take your work and remix it and build upon it to create a version for their own individualised use. For busy teachers who all too often find themselves “reinventing the wheel” in the creation of their own teaching resources, it’s a brilliant concept. You can also attach metadata to the resources you share to make them more searchable, and even map them to the US Common Core standards if you wish. If someone finds your work useful, but wants to make slight changes, the site provides the option to remix the work, connecting the new work with the old work via metadata. Like I said, it’s a brilliant concept.

One of the resources I published to the OER Commons was a worksheet called “What Rights, where?” which aims to be a guide on how to select the appropriate Creative Commons license for a piece of creative work. It links to a Google Doc which suggests a range of scenarios and asks the user to think about which of the CC attributes might be most appropriate for the circumstances.

I got an email the other day informing me that another OER Commons user, Binod Deka, had made a remix of my What Rights, where? worksheet. I was pleased to think that someone liked it and might have found it useful enough to remix it for their own needs. After all, that’s the whole point of OER Commons.

Of course, I was also curious as to what changes he might have made to it, so I took a look at his version to see what was different. You can see his version here. The weird thing is that, from what I can see, it bears absolutely no resemblance to my original. His seems to have just removed 100% of the content that I provided, and he has replaced it with a plagiarised cut and paste of information from the Wikipedia definition of what Rights are. It’s a related idea I suppose, but completely disconnected from my original work.

I suppose it’s one of the risks you take when you share openly, that you have to trust that people building upon your work won’t destroy more than they create. While I’m glad to see my work getting used, I’m not too thrilled about the idea that his work of plagiarism from Wikipedia purports to be a remix of something of mine. I don’t think it was done with malice or any ill-intent, but it’s a bit annoying. It’s also a bit ironic that the work that gets credited as the source (mine) gets cited with a remix link, and the work that is actually used in the remix (from Wikipedia) is not cited at all.

I like the term “remix” because it implicitly suggests that the original work should still be somewhat evident in the new work. A remix is not designed to completely mask the original work in the same way that students are taught to hide their original sources lest they risk an accusation of plagiarism. I have no issue with someone remixing my work, but I’m perplexed by the idea of my work not being even remotely evident in the remix.

All of this got me thinking… At what point is a remix no longer a remix? For that matter, when does plagiarism cease to be plagiarism? And how much originality needs to added to an idea of influence before you can legitimately consider it to be a new work?

As always, your thoughts are valued in the comments…

Featured Image: Acrylic Paint from Wikipedia

The Case For Chromebooks

I was asked via email recently about Chromebooks and whether I thought they were a good choice for schools. Here is my email response, posted here for anyone that might be interested in reading it…

I’ll start by suggesting that any resistance you get on Chromebooks from tech and IT staff will be made for reasons that have nothing to do with pedagogy. I think you could argue that by almost any relevant measure Chromebooks are CLEARLY a better choice for schools. (which is why they are now the number 1 device in US schools)

They are easier to deploy and manage, more secure, more robust, and less expensive. They do everything that a student would need them to do. They integrate directly with Google Apps for Education and are easily shared between students in ways that other devices are not.  They boot fast (under 7 seconds), save work automatically, are completely immune to viruses, and are fast to use. ChromeOS does not slow down over time like other operating systems, and to completely wipe and reset a Chromebook to a fresh configuration takes about 40 seconds. They can be easily managed via the GAFE console, where you can enforce policies and restrictions if needed, install apps, and monitor usage.It’s true that Chromebooks are less expensive, with quality machines available for only around $300 to $500. But price should NOT be the deciding factor here.  The fact that they are cheaper is a great benefit, but it’s not the reason you should consider them. You should consider them because they are arguably better for school use.

I am using my own Chromebook to respond to this email, and in fact my primary computer is now a Chromebook.  I think ChromeOS is the best option for my own use (and I have access to Macs and PCs if I want them).  ChromeOS is not a cheap compromise of an operating system…  it is an excellent, fast, stable operating system that rivals major OSes in terms of functionality and usability. Anyone who tells you otherwise simply has never spent any time with ChromeOS to make an informed decision.

If you are a Google Apps for Education school, Chromebooks make enormous sense.

Some people compare Chromebooks to Windows by listing their features and looking at what Chromebooks supposedly don’t have that Windows does. They are missing the point. The advantage of Chromebooks is that they are NOT Windows. Again, anyone who attempts to make a decision about Chromebooks by comparing them to Windows is completely missing the point of what Chromebooks are all about.

In terms of managing Chromebooks in a school domain they are TRIVIALLY easy to manage.  Because they are managed via a web interface and can be placed into OUs (organisational units) they can have different policies and settings easily applied remotely. Managing 5000 Chromebooks literally requires no more effort than managing 1 Chromebook.  That is NOT true of Windows or Mac. New Chromebooks are added to your domain with a simple keystroke, and then all settings, including wifi details and all apps, are automatically configured. I used to manage a large Windows network in a school and I speak from some experience.  Chromebooks are astonishingly simple to manage!

You will hear all sorts of conflicting opinions about Chromebooks, mostly from people who have never actually used them. Many IT people are not keen on them (why would they be? Chromebooks are so simple to deploy and manage they threaten their jobs!) Many school leaders are ignorant about them because they often simply don’t know any better (and have usually been taking their advice from the IT people; see previous point)  In short, when it comes to Chromebooks there are a lot of ill-informed people out there.

You’ll see from the responses you got in the original thread where you asked about Chromebooks that there is a great deal of enthusiasm and positive attitudes from many people who use them. Seriously, once you go to Chromebooks in a school you’d NEVER go back to the old ways of traditional PCs.

They do require rethinking the way you approach your computing tasks. Chromebooks are different. Not worse, not less capable, not more limited. Just different. And perfectly suited for schools.