If you can read this, thank a Teacher

Yes, it’s almost that time of year again. Yes, on October 5 it will be World Teacher Day. So take a moment and send a quick email to a teacher that made a difference to you or your children. There’s nothing quite so lovely as getting a note from a student who tells you that you made a difference to them. I know it’s the true reward of the teaching profession.

PodcastGraphicsmall.jpgAnyway, I’m looking to also launch a new project I’ve been working on, and I reckon October 5 could be just the right date to do it. It’s a podcasting project where I’m getting the bestest, smartest, most creative teachers I know and sticking a few of them in a Skype conference, recording our conversation and releasing it as a podcast. We’ll talk about technology education in particular and what we can do to make school a great experience for the kids we teach.

Check it out on www.virtualstaffroom.net, and hopefully by October 5 we will have podcast number 1 up and running! Details for subscribing via iTunes or some other RSS aggregator will be on the site.

An Invasion of Armies Can be Resisted…

…but not an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo.

I just read a wonderful post over on the Fischbowl blog about a school ban on the use of certain “electronic devices” in class. The school I’m currently teaching at has just implemented a similar policy… and I think it sucks.

I was quite horrified when I heard the “new rule” for the start of the school year at my school here in Canada…

“No iPods, Cellphones or other electronic devices in class at any time”.

I can see little point in introducing rules that clearly cannot be enforced. I approached the vice principal after our first staff meeting and quizzed him about it, pointing out that I felt there were many educationally sound uses of an iPod in class, from class podcast projects to their use as a portable harddrive to some quiet private music to work to without bothering the rest of the class. He nodded sagely and said that of course, if it was for educational purposes it would be ok.

So what constitutes an “educational use” of these devices in the eyes of the administration? Apparently not very much, as we get reminded every morning that these devices of the devil are NOT to be in any classrooms.  In my opinion, any use of these devices that makes the classroom a better place to be or for learning to be made more effective, relevant or just plain enjoyable counts as an educational use. I really don’t think many teachers would be prepared to tolerate too many ongoing “un-educational” uses of them, such as having kids blasting music into their heads while the teacher was trying to explain something to the class.

But other than that, what really is the problem? Can’t teachers, if they see the MP3 player being used in a disruptive or annoying way, just say so to the kid and use it as a chance to impart a little “learning experience” about appropriate behaviour and appropriate uses of the device?

By placing a blanket ban on iPods and cell phones and “any other electronic device” (whatever that means), the administration sets themselves up for failure, or at least an ongoing battle that they will ever really win.

Just a thought

I want to see if this works.

It’s a voice recording made in GCast, a web based podcasting tool. Since Edublogs don’t appear to support podcasting, I’m curious about ways to create/store an audio file somewhere and then link to it from inside the blog post. What intrigues me about GCast is that you can create the recording for free using a telephone. Just call the phone number provided and enter your PIN, then record you message. Hmmm, interesting. What can we do with that idea?

The dial in number is US based, but I suppose you could always Skype it. Otherwise just record locally with Audacity and upload the audio file to GCast as usual.

It’s not technically a podcast if you just link to it like this, as there is no RSS feed involved, but it still has possibilities.

Horse before the Cart

The release of Google’s new “Google Apps for your Domain” program is an interesting business move, and I can see more clearly now how Google is making inroads into territory that has traditionally belonged to Microsoft. GAfyD offers email, calendar, chat and a webpage designer – all for free – but enables organisations to rebadge these apps with their own domain and graphics. All you need to do is edit the MX records for any domain you might own, telling it to reroute the mail requests through to Google’s Gmail servers. End result is the abilty to have yourname@yourdomain.com become a defacto Gmail service. Same goes for the calendar and chat… runs in your own domain but is hosted by Google.

My first thought was to register for my school… the thought of having 1000 student email accounts hosted offsite, with 2Gb of storage space each, complete with calendar, webspace and chat, all at no cost, seemed to good of an option to pass up. So I registered, changed the MX records, added a custom graphic to replace the Gmail one, and sure enough it all works exactly as advertised.

Next step was to ask the school to look at this as a serious option for student mail. The alternative would be to host an Exchange server ourselves, providing infrastructure, storage and backup for 1000 mail accounts. I know which is less work.

Seems I was a few days too late though. The school had just committed to buying a new server expressly to host student email, so the GAfyD program, despite its free pricetag and simple implementation, is on hold for now as we try to go it alone and host the mail services ourselves. Sure there are some advantages to hosting the mail ourselves such as Active Directory integration, fine control over content, filtering, etc, but it sure does create a lot more work. I’m undecided as to the trade off and which would have been a better path to take.

But it did cause me to think about the need to supply student email, mainly when I asked the question “what sort of things will they be doing with their email account?” It wasn’t meant as a facetious question… I could not survive without access to email, and I think every student should have an school email account of their own. My reservation revolves around the idea that I would like to think that the other teachers should have a clear idea of what they plan to do with students via email. I doubt that many are fully prepared for the onslaught on mail volume that can be created when each student has an email address and actually uses it to submit work, ask questions, clarify issues, etc. The volume of mail will increase exponentially… say you teach 5 classes of 25 kids, thats 125 kids. If they all use email effectively to send, reply, dialog with teachers, then that’s an awful lot of mail that starts to flow into the inboxes of teachers that previously thought getting 3 emails a day was a big deal. For those of use used to getting high volume mail its no big problem, but for those not used to it… I can hear the complaints now…

With the huge boom in Web 2.0 technologies, sometimes called the read/write Web, email is not the critical tool that it once was, even a few years ago. The explosion of educational use of blogs, wikis, podcasts, forums, etc, changes things somewhat. These things all offer the same sort of publicly accessible interactions that email only provides on a private level, making plain old email a little redundant. Email is still important, but not as important as it once was. In an educational setting, if I had to chose between giving each student an email address or giving each student access to a blog or a wiki, I think I would be going for the latter option.

The point is that providing an email account for each student is a relatively small first step. It’s what they then do with that email account that really matters, and in the case of my school I still don’t think we have a clear idea of just how we plan to use email effectively to enhance real learning. It’s like being given a hammer and some nails but not having any idea of what you might make with them.

Destined for Extinction

Acer C100I read an interesting, albeit quite old, post by a guy called kstaken called “Has Microsoft lost its Marketing Touch?” about Microsoft’s track record of failure to capitalise on its own marketing hype. I found it interesting because it talks particularly about the Tablet PC.

Back in the day, I was actually quite involved with the marketing of the Tablet PC when I was working with Microsoft Australia’s case study program. As a technical writer it was my job to write business case studies on how Microsoft technologies were being implemented for success in the corporate and educational arenas. Just before the tablets were released I had the job of getting all the rapid deployment program (pre-release) stories together, writing all the case studies, and even travelling with the film crew as they made short promo pieces about the tablet technology. When the day arrived for the release it was with much fanfare, a big press event in Sydney, and then… nothing.

Well very little anyway. The technology was promising, so much so that I bought a Tablet PC myself. As it turns out, the build quality was crap and, despite having a couple of years of use out of the machine, it was a reasonable concept executed in a mediocre way and marketed even more poorly. As a teacher, I saw great potential for tablet technology, in lots of really interesting ways, but thanks to an almost total lack of promotion by one of the world’s biggest companies, there are still very few people who have even heard of tablets. Even among schoolage kids, usually a pretty switched on bunch when it comes to technology and gadgets; most of my students are amazed when I show them my tablet PC and usually have the same response… “I want one!”… but of course nobody actually gets one, because the marketing is so abysmally poor. It always starts out big and bold, but then just dribbles into nothing.

Where do these much hyped products go? What DID happen to the Tablet PC, the PocketPC phone, SmartDisplays, Windows XP Media Center, the “top secret” Origami Project? What about Sharepoint or, heaven forbid, .NET? Why do they always amount to 4/5’s of bugger all? Already it seems that future products such as Vista are running out of steam before they even get off the ground. What on earth is Microsoft doing wrong? Surely a cashed up company like Bill’s can afford to get some of their marketing right?

I met a lot of bright, well meaning people at Microsoft who believe that the products they market are good stuff, and who genuinely want those products to be a success. They must get incredibly frustrated by the failure of the marketing machine to follow through.

I don’t much care for Microsoft’s products these days, and have abandoned Windows in favour of another more mature (dare I say, real) operating system. But I just can’t figure out why Microsoft has so much trouble following up on those products that it goes to so much trouble to develop.

It just doesn’t make sense.