Not Very Smart

I’m sitting on a Virgin Blue 737-800 as I write this, flying home to Sydney after an excellent weekend at the 4th Australian Interactive Whiteboard Conference hosted by IWBnet and Emmanuel College on the Gold Coast. As I mentioned in previous posts it was a thoroughly enjoyable conference. It had “buzz”… a great general ambience and perfect location. I was fortunate to have been asked to present a few sessions at the conference too, since I always enjoy the opportunity to share ideas with other teachers as I find I learn a great deal from the experience myself. The feedback was also fairly positive, so that’s a nice thing. Whether is was just because I got to hang out with great teachers, catch up with old friends, stay in a nice resort, or do canapes and cocktails from the observation deck at Q1on Friday night, I thought it was a top conference.

If you’re interested in hearing a bit about what went on there you might like to keep an ear on The Virtual Staffroom podcast… I recorded a whole lot of audio from the event as I wandered around with my iPod nano and iTalk voice recorder. There are some interviews with the organisers, impromptu chats with some of the delegates and a special interview with Ben Hazzard from the infamous Smartboard Lesson Podcast. Check it out!

As fellow OzTeacher Fiona Banjer pointed out to me, it’s nice to be able to go somewhere where you can talk geek stuff without people looking at you like you’re a geek. 😉 There were lots and lots of sessions over the two days of the conference covering just about every aspect of interactive whiteboards you can think of… from implementation strategies, creative use of the software, linking it to sound pedagogy, and great hands-on practical examples of how teachers are using it in their schools. If you had any doubts about the impact that IWBs are having in schools, attending this conference would quickly dispel them. There is enormous interest in this technology, and the fact that the conference has grown so much in size since last year is testament to this fact. It’s clear that IWBs are not just a passing educational fad but are here to stay, with many schools making large investments into the technology and many claiming some remarkable improvements to student learning outcomes in the process.

However, one question that arose for me was where the hell was Smart? SmartBoards, made by Smart Technology and distributed excusively in Australia by Electroboard, was notable by their absence at this event. The fact that they didn’t turn up to this event (and most every other major IWB event) is starting to worry me. My school is looking at a fairly significant IWB rollout over the next few months – over $100,000 – and we had planned to implement the SmartBoard brand because we really like them. I have done my comparisons between Smart, Promethean, Easiteach, StarBoard, Interwrite and so on – in fact there were 18 different vendors at the conference – but so far I still like Smart the best. I find their software effective and easy to use and overall I am impressed with their products… what I don’t get is their stealth approach to marketing in this country. I don’t know if it’s just a sense of arrogance that they feel they are the major players in the IWB market and therefore don’t need to promote any sort of presence at events like this, or whether they are not planning on staying in the Australian market… I really just don’t get their lack of interest in promoting their product.

There were lots of vendors at the conference, all showing their wares. There is tremendous innovation happening with IWB technology at the moment and delegates came to the conference eager to learn more about the hottest new emerging products. There’s no doubt that Smart is historically a major player in the IWB market, but they were certainly not around to solidify that reputation at Emmanuel. If I were a teacher in the market for IWB technology (and lots of people at the conference were) I might well be having a few nagging doubts about Smart’s ongoing presence in the Australian marketplace. I’ve been watching this technology for a couple of years now, and having taught in Canada at a Smart reference school in Ontario and getting training from the PD team attached to Smart’s Calgary headquarters, I feel I have a reasonable grasp of what Smart offers. But to a casual observer, or someone taking a more recent interest in IWB technology, Smart in Australia is all but invisible.

I’m really disappointed with Electroboard, since they are supposed to be Smart’s Australian distributor. From what I see, Electroboard is doing nothing to promote the brand here… I think Electroboard’s lack of presence at this event sent a hugely negative message about their committment level to this market… to me it screams “we are not interested in the education market”. Just think… there will be 450 people going home from the conference this weekend, many of them all fired up about what this technology offers and eager to start implementing an IWB program. Many are ready to spend their money on what they think is the right technology for their school. These teachers, principals, ICT coordinators, librarians, etc, came to this conference to learn more about what they need and to look at what options they have, and there is little doubt in my mind that this conference will be a catalyst for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of IWB purchases over the next 12 months. To many people who attended the conference this weekend, Smart appears not to even exist, and it’s quite unfortunate to think that so many of them will not even consider Smart when it comes time to purchase. I’ve always been a big SmartBoard fan, but I’m starting to have second thoughts about whether they are at all interested in gaining my school’s business and wondering whether maybe I need to start looking at other brands more seriously.

So come on Electroboard! Get your act together! I don’t know what issue you have with respresenting your product at this sort of event but it’s about time you dealt with it and started convincing us that you really do want to be a player in this game.

I’d be interested in your comments…

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G'day from sunny Queensland

DSC00516.JPG I’m currently on the Gold Coast at the 4th Interactive Whiteboard Conference.  It’s a big event with  around 450 delegates, and about 120 different presentation sessions!   I had the pleasure this morning of presenting two of those sessions, and have spent most of the  rest of the day flitting around, checking out what else is on offer, looking at new products and generally enjoying the beautiful weather here on the Gold Coast.  Right now, I’m sitting here in a Web 2.0 workshop run by John Pearce.  John is teaching teachers how to set up their own blogs and wikis, so I figured this would be a good moment to add a quick blog entry myself.  There are a few photos in the Flickr sidebar, and I’ll add more over the weekend.

Commanding The Tide To Stay Out

That old argument about the validity of Wikipedia as a tool for research raised its head again at school this week when our library staff asked that a link to Wikipedia be removed from the “Library Links” section of our school intranet. Naturally, I questioned this and was politely informed that although the library staff think Wikipedia probably has a use, that use was not as a legitimate research tool. They preferred to disassociate the school library from Wikipedia, and only endorse “real” encyclopedias like Britannica and World Book. It seems that real encyclopedias are not free and require a login.

To avoid an argument I removed it. (Besides, the kids would still use it anyway whether it was linked from the library links list or not.) But it made me disappointed to realise just how much some of us still don’t “get it”, to say nothing of how embarrassing it is that I work at a school where the library wants to stick its head in the sand about tools like Wikipedia and pretend they don’t exist. I sent a reply back explaining that I was disappointed we didn’t want to acknowledge Wikipedia as a useful research option. I tried to point out that, like all tools for research, wikipedia need to be validated and cross-checked against other references. I also tried to make the point that kids WILL use wikipedia to gather information on a wide range of topics whether the library endorses it or not, and simply removing it from the list of links won’t change that, and that perhaps we should be teaching kids to use tools like this properly and not just avoiding them or pretending they don’t exist.

I promptly got a reply back, basically saying we are the library and they are our toys, so just remove the link anyway.

Feeling somewhat frustrated, I put a note out to my colleagues on the OzTeachers list asking for their experiences with Wikipedia in schools. Perhaps it was me that was wrong. Maybe I was the one who didn’t “get it”. The replies flooded back in over the next couple of hours with a series of overwhelmingly positive responses about how Wikipedia was used in school across Australia. I was pleased to see that so many educators (and librarians) are embracing this tool and using is as a means to teach better research skills. I was sent an excellent link to the Education Department of WA’s website where they not only tolerated Wikipedia, they are actually promoting its use. You can read the mailing list’s responses at the OZTeachers Archives… just scroll down to the bottom of this page.

Virginia Tech on WikipediaI was particularly struck by a post by Peter Ruwoldt, who suggested I take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the recent Virginia Tech Massacre, and in particular to cross check the creation date for the article with the date of the actual event. It was no real surprise to discover that both the event and the first Wikipedia entry about the event happened on the same date, April 16, 2007… in other words, the article was being written as the event unfolded. What I found really fascinating as I searched for the article creation date was to browse through the history of page revisions to see how the article actually grew minute by minute.

It began with a very simple line, “The Virigina Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16th, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain.” Three minutes later, it was amended to read “The Virginia Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain and one person is reported wounded.” The next revision came 2 minutes later and added a citation to a newspaper report. 7 minutes later, someone corrected a minor grammatical error. The article continued to grow, with over 100 edits in the next few hours, each one improving and correcting the one before it. There was a clearly evident group of people whose names keep appearing in the edit history list, demonstrating how people emerge to become the “keepers” of these articles. This is a completely organic process…. No one is elected to be in charge, no one has to hold a meeting to delegate responsibility. It just works.

The article has now been edited over 500 times, with each revision building on what has gone before it. The quality of the writing and the way it explains the incident seem to be excellent quality… at least of the standard that one would expect in a “real” encyclopedia.

This is what people who are critical of wikis don’t seem to get… Their assumption is that articles are spuriously written by people wishing to cause trouble by spreading misinformation. They don’t seem to get that these things are written by large groups of people who, through a process of self governance and wisdom-of-crowds, manage to refine and evolve some very good articles through a process of constant iteration. By the time this article has come to its current revision, many hundreds of people have contributed to it, and thousands of eyes have looked at it. How long do you think a spurious edit or a vandalised paragraph would last? Do you really think that the volunteer army that helped create this information would stand idly by and allow it to be ruined?

We live in a connected world, where peer-to-peer networks of people and information have forever changed the top-down approach that characterised the pre-web world. We can fight it, or we can embrace it. The fact is that no matter how much you might want to stand by the ocean and command the tide not to come in, it will come in anyway. The sooner we all “get that”, the better.

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Turning Data into Knowledge

Steve Madsen emailed me a few months ago behalf of the NSW Computer Studies Teachers Association, asking if I’d like to run a workshop at the next CSTA quarterly meeting. He didn’t have any particular theme in mind at the time, and indicated that he was happy for me to pick the topic… anything that might be useful to teachers of computing… and he asked that I get back to him with my idea for a workshop. No problem I said.

I thought about what might be useful to a group of computing teachers. They would be a tech savvy group, so what could I possibly share with them? As much as it might sound like a buzzword, it seems to me that there is still an awful lot about the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon that many teachers are still trying to get their heads around, so I thought something along those lines might be useful. I didn’t want it to be too predictable though, and simply talking about blogs and wikis seemed like just a little too… I don’t know… obvious? I started thinking about ways to explore the ideas behind Web 2.0 in a fundamental yet interesting way. Around the same time, I was struck by a couple of websites that do some very Web 2.0 sorts of things, and when looked at in context with each other it became clear that they were tapping into the same fundamental principles in some very interesting ways.

The three sites that grabbed my attention were www.ilike.com, www.43things.com, and del.icio.us. All of these sites shared the same underlying theme of tagging personal data which could then be viewed as a semantic snapshot of the collective consciousness. That seemed like a cool concept to me; this idea of thousands of people all voluntarily submitting many terabytes of content to the web – a massive collection of text, photos, audio and video. More importantly, they were also submitting their opinions and interpretations about that content, and doing it in a way where it could be collated and organised into a broader meaning. Thinking I was being clever, I decided to call the workshop “I Like 43 Delicious Things”.

I emailed Steve back with the idea and he responded by saying that the DET proxy filters might make it hard to do much with that, since they are locked down pretty tight. A little disappointed, I figured I’d mull it over a bit more and maybe some other idea would come to me. However, the next time I heard from Steve he sent me a copy of the agenda for the meeting and there was my original workshop suggestion, listed as a definite thing. Hmm, now I had to make my clever idea actually work.

I sent a couple of emails to clarify the filter situation and it seemed that I might be able to go ahead with the original idea after all, so I started to gather some resources for the workshop. I kinda sorta knew what I wanted to say, but it was all still a bit nebulous in my head. How could I tie it all together so that it made sense to people? (and me!)

It’s funny how things just fall into place sometimes… a few days before the workshop I was still trying to figure out how to make sense of my original idea, and I stumbled across three items that brought it all together for me… one I’d come across before but completely forgotten about, and the other two I’d never seen. When I put these three resources together with the three original websites, it formed a powerful summary of what I felt was going on behind the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

Del.icio.us’s use of tagging to create semantic taxonomies of knowledge was pretty clear to me. The way the tag clouds formed around large collections of bookmarked resources provided a clear snapshot into their hidden meaning. The same concept seemed to apply to the lists of personal goals submitted by people on 43things.com. Lots of people sharing ideas about life goals and forming patterns of collective thought by contributing those thoughts into one place. By tagging and adding metadata to their goals, it formed a “zeitgeist” picture of what the masses were thinking about. Finally, ilike.com tapped into the large store of metadata collected within thousands of iTunes music libraries and brought it all together online to form a collective community of music lovers that were able to share their tastes and suggestions, linking musical tastes and suggestions from the crowd. Three very different sites that all used a common idea of data sharing, metadata tagging and community building.

The glue that held these ideas together was three more things… Firstly, a website which created dynamic tag clouds based on the past 200+ years of US presidential speeches. Chirag Mehta has cleverly been able to delve into the words of America’s past presidents, analyse the frequency and relative importance of their words, and create an interactive tag cloud concept which gives an amazing insight into the way the issues of their day could be seen as a summary of the culture at the time. It was a powerful example of the way existing data can be easily mined for greater meaning.

The second resource was a video called The Machine is Us/ing Us. Although this video has shown up on many education blogs in the last few months, it really explains well why the web is the way it is right now, and how the contribution of user data, tagging, XML and CSS are increasingly responsible for the new web landscape.

The final resource was a video from the TED Talks series called “The Web’s Secret Stories” by Jonathan Harris. In this video, Harris shows a piece of research work (it was more like conceptual art to me) called We Feel Fine. This incredible piece of work needs to be seen for yourself, but I felt it perfectly tied the loose threads together… it was the closest thing I’ve seen to an IT-based system that constantly analyses the random thoughts of the blogosphere’s collective consciousness in near real-time and massages it into a form that is not only informative and interesting, but utterly compelling. You simply must watch the video, then go have a play with the website. It is amazing.

I think most people got something out of the workshop, at least I hope they did. More to the point, I know that I learnt an enormous amount by preparing to share this information with my colleagues. I felt I came away from it with a much deeper insight in the nature of the new web, and in the process got to grips with tools that I had often used but never truly understood. It’s so true that if you want to really understand something, try teaching it to someone else.

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Data Projectors for Dummies

Back in the day, when data projectors were still somewhat of a novelty, it was probably acceptable to be a little unsure of how to set one up. But these days we are finding them in great demand and although our school techs are still willing to come set it up for teachers if they ask, I think there ought to come a point when we learn to do these things for ourselves. I mean, you don’t ask a tech to come set up an regular overheap projector for you, or a TV and DVD player, so why would a data projector be any different? As our classrooms start to depend more and more on a range of “devices”, surely we need to know how to use them for ourselves?

Anyway, In an attempt to ease the way (and more-or-less gently drop the hint that it’s about time some of you figured out how to do this stuff for yourselves) I made this little video that explains the step-by-step process of using a data projector the right way.

After adding it to our intranet, I had a copy just sitting on my hard drive so I figured I may as well share it with the rest of the world on my blog (Not that the rest of the world reads my blog mind you!) It might be of some use to someone.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/Ly1Y4ytO100" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Your comments are welcome. And yes, I know I needed a haircut.

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We Blog

Top_30_Edublogs
How many educators are actually blogging these days? How big is the edublogosphere? What makes a “good” blog?

These are some of the questions being posed by Scott McLeod over at the Dangerously Irrelevant blog. Scott has been trying to do some research into the size and scope of the educational blogosphere, in order to get some feel for just how big it is and how much influence it might have.

Scott tries to do this survey twice a year. If you are a blogging educator, you may like to fill in this very brief form to let Scott know about your work for his next count in January 2008.

I found his thoughts on Authority and Rank by using Technorati was rather interesting.

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Move those Laptops

My school bought a few class sets of laptops recently. The whole point of having laptops instead of another computer lab was so they could be used more flexibly around the school, but the obvious problem was how to store and transport them from room to room.

I’d seen classroom laptop trolleys on the market but none of them seemed to be exactly what we were after. The main laptop trolley maker in the Australian market appears to be PC-Locs from Western Australia, and although their products look ok, in my opinion they are hugely overpriced for what they are. For our 15 laptops we would have had to buy their 20 bay model, and at just over $5000 each they seemed outrageously expensive! I’d had a number of conversations with them on the telephone, but they were pretty firm on their pricing and there was no way I was going to pay that sort of money for a few pieces of welded steel and some rubber wheels, so this was a business deal that was clearly never going to happen. I even rang them on a couple of different occasions because I was so incredulous about the price and doubted that I was getting the correct quote for the unit I was looking at in the brochure. I was.

So I started to shop around to see what other alternatives existed. I found a company in Ingleburn in Sydney that made a pretty basic unit that housed only 10 computers. It was nearly $2000 and of course it didn’t fit our 15 units anyway.

I even considered making my own… I mean, I can weld, and how hard could this actually be anyway?

Then I decided to try turning to the wisdom of the crowds… I dropped a question to the OzTeachers forum asking the following question…

I was wondering if anyone on this list has any experience with portable laptop trolleys? We have a three class sets of 15 laptops and I am interested in a trolley system to share them between classrooms. So we need to get three trolleys…

I have looked at some of the products from PC Locs in WA, and although the products look ok the prices are completely over the top IMHO. Their 20 laptop trolley retails for around $5000 and seems outrageously expensive to me for what it is… (a few pieces of steel welded together and four pneumatic wheels! I’m oversimplifying I know, but I just can’t see $5000 worth of parts, labour and profit margin in it.) http://www.laptoptrolleys.com/

I saw another one from a company called Process Systems from Ingleburn in Sydney that was cheaper but looked really clunky, plus it only held 10 computers. http://www.process-systems.com.au/computer_trolleys.html

An american company called Loxit makes a nice looking unit, but they have no pricing on their website and they have not returned any of my emails to date. http://www.loxit.com/

Are there any others out there that you know of?

So, my question is do any of you use laptop trolleys, and if so what brand/type did you go with? Do you find them a useful method for storing, transporting and charging bays of laptops? Are there any pitfalls I should be aware of? Where do I find a good one at a fair price? How can I find a good quality product that does the job I need without having to take out a second mortgage, sell a kidney or promise my first-born child to the devil?

Any ideas?

I got a number of replies from people, all offering suggestions about their trolley experiences, and some even offered to sell me theirs because they really didn’t like them too much. From what I could see, there were not many alternatives on the Australian market.

I thought there HAD to be a better solution at a reasonable pricepoint so I kept looking. Eventually, through an online contact, I found a guy in Hong Kong called Marco, whose company made a very nice looking unit. We swapped a few emails and he sent me some photos, and we negotiated a price we were both happy with. It was a bit of an exercise in faith when I went to see our school business manager to tell him I had negotiated a deal with a guy in Hong Kong, but he went along with it and we now have two very nice laptop trolleys that are exactly what we were after and at a price less than half what the PC-Locs people were asking. I’m very happy with the deal, and the trolleys are really well engineered and well made.

Lessons learned through this experience….

  • Hold out for what you really want. Don’t compromise.
  • It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
  • The wisdom of crowds can open new doors for you.
  • Sometimes you just have to trust people.
  • There is a real business opportunity in well made, reasonably priced laptop trolleys!