The shocking cost of international data

I was in New Zealand recently for a conference and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I got to meet other passionate educators, talk geeky edtech stuff and just generally hang out with them for a couple of days.  As part of the fun of hanging out with fellow geeks, I made a short video from my Nokia N95 using the live streaming ability of Qik.  The live stream was just a bit of fun, and went for a total of 5 minutes and 15 seconds.  Apart from the brief live stream, I also checked my email twice using the mobile Gmail client, and also checked my location on a Google Map while wandering through the streets of Napier.

While in Napier, a text message arrived from my carrier, 3 Mobile, saying that my account balance for the month has just reached $535.  What??!!  I mean, I know that mobile roaming can be expensive, but surely this had to be some sort of mistake!  I switched my phone off and left it off until I returned to Australia.

When I arrived back home (I was in NZ for three days) I rang 3 Mobile to clarify their message.  I was told that, yes, I had been using data while roaming and that my roaming data bill was $480 (plus my regular monthly charges).  I was stunned.  How can anyone possibly accrue a $480 roaming data bill in just a couple of days, and quite literally only using mobile broadband for less than 10 minutes in total?

I spoke to a “3 Care” operator, who kept calling me “Christopher” and repeating back every question I asked her. She was almost no help whatsoever, so eventually I insisted that she escalate this call to a supervisor.  The supervisor I spoke to was equally as unhelpful, and told me that he would have to check with a different department and get back to me.

Two days later, they called back and basically reiterated everything they said on the last call, except they were now telling me that my roaming bill was $850, as all the data had not been logged as of my last contact with them.  $850!!!!!  For a few minutes of broadband access in New Zealand!!!

Outraged, I asked what they could do about this bill, only to be told that there was nothing they could do, that roaming data in New Zealand comes through NZ Vodafone and is charged at $20/Mb.  I argued that $850 equated to roughly 42Mb of data and that I seriously doubted my mobile phone could have transferred 42Mb of data in less than 10 minutes.  The supervisor said they would check it and get back to me.

A week later, I had still heard nothing, so I called them back again, having to explain the whole story again to a new person.  This guy agreed that the data charges did seem excessive and way beyond my regular monthly charge.  He commiserated and said he was sorry, but insisted that there was nothing he could do.  He said the charges would stick, although they offered a token $100 discount.

I pointed out that I had been a customer with 3 Mobile since its inception in Australia, in fact I was one of their original “family and Friends” customers.  I pointed out that I pay my bill on time each month and do in fact pay a relatively high amount every month for their services, since I don’t have a landline and my mobile phone is my only phone.  I pointed out that between my immediate family, I am responsible for a number of phone accounts with them.  He agreed I was a model  customer, but still refused to do anything about my bill.  This call lasted nearly an hour, only to get absolutely nowhere.

So, 3 Mobile, I’m not happy with you.  You charge 50 cents a Mb for off-network data roaming in Australia, yet have the audacious gall to charge me $20 per Mb when I’m in New Zealand?  You have the courtesy to send me a warning SMS when my balance gets excessive, but the balls to wait until it’s more than six times my regular monthly spend until you bother flagging it with me?  You admit that the charge is excessive, yet you happily charge me for it? Your response to me was that I should read the terms of service more carefully and that it was all there in the fine print.  (Try finding it on their website without using the search function!)

I threatened to cancel my phone services with you, and still you insist that there is nothing you can do about this bill. You would rather lose me as a long term valued customer, than to cut me some slack on this outrageously excessive charge.

I WILL cancel all of my phone services with you, and I will take as many other account holders with me as possible.  I’m not happy, 3 Mobile.  Not happy at all.

To everyone else who reads this, my advice is to be really careful when travelling with your mobile phone overseas.  Data roaming charges can be ridiculously excessive, even for small amounts of usage.  Check the data roaming costs before you leave home and perhaps even disable it unless you really need it.  Even at those costs, there is no way I would have expected an $850 bill for a few minutes of network use.

Oh, and my other advice would be to avoid 3 Mobile as a carrier. Their attitude to their customers sucks.

UPDATE: Just received my official bill from 3 this morning…  the final amount was $874.41.  I have also lodged a formal complaint with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.  Oh, and then I also find out about this!  Wish I’d have know about it a few weeks ago!

Getting Kids to Blog

I recently worked with our Year 4 teachers to get their kids blogging for the first time. I’d suggested blogging as a good activity for these students as a way to get them writing and reading more, as well as being for a potentially more authentic audience.  The teachers involved were a little apprehensive at first but quickly warmed to the idea and were quite keen to give it a go, especially as I said I  would work closely with them to get our blogging project off the ground… this was the first time we had tried to use blogs with the students so I was very keen to see it succeed of course.

As you may have read in a previous post, we managed to be hit with numerous technical hurdles as Edublogs recovered from a series of password resets, something the kids found annoying and tedious but also that they took very well.  The teachers of the students were a little confused that blogging was so complicated (“why do we need to reset our passwords every time we try to use the blogs?”) but again, they managed to take it all in their stride and just carry on with it.  I tried to explain that this was just a freak glitch, that blogging really was very straightforward, and to their credit they coped quite well, although I’m doubtful whether they will be willing to try it again in a hurry unless I’m there to support them with it.  The technical hassles really damage the perception of the process.

All that aside however, the kids really got into it.  They loved working on their blogs, and figured out how to add photos and videos, make categories, add widgets and change themes.  It was great to see the way they encouraged each other, helped each other work out the issues and kept adding to their own blogs both in and out of school.

I thought I’d just share a couple of tips that we picked up along the way and relate a few ideas for how we worked through the project.

The kids were each given their own blogs, set up using the multiple blog registration tool in Edublogs.  I set up the kids’ blogs 15 at a time, and made each of the teachers co-administrators.  This meant that the teacher could log in and make changes to any inappropriate content if required, although thankfully it was never required.

I also created an OPML file of each classes blogs, and used that file to import the kids’ blogs into the teachers’ feedreader.  Our school uses Outlook 2007, which has a reasonable RSS reader built in, so it was straightforward to import the OPML file into each teacher’s Outlook client, thereby giving them a feed for all their kids’ blogposts.  This made it much easier to keep on top of the many posts that were being written.  I also imported the OPML file into my Google Reader and kept an eye on the posts there as well.  To date there have been 49 posts written by one class and 71 posts by the other… not a bad effort for a first time blogging project plagued by technical troubles.

We also made sure we spent enough time discussing with the kids some of the issues about staying safe online… things like not revealing any personal information, not using your last name, not mentioning your school or where you will be at any particular time. We talked about how to handle comments and how to be a responsible online citizen. They took all this very seriously and stuck to the rules the whole time.

Of course, the real point of a blog is to write, so I worked with the teachers to come up with some way to encourage the students to write more, and especially to relate it to the topic they were doing last term which was “Australia, You’re Standing In It”.

To that end, we designed a grid of writing prompts.  It was arranged into four threads – Built Environment, Natural Environment, Flora and Fauna, and States and Territories.  We gave the students three options for each thread, one from the lower end of Blooms Taxonomy, one from the middle and one from the upper end, making 12 possible writing topics in all.  The easier topics were rated at 10 points, the middle ones at 15 points and the harder ones at 20 points and each student was asked to accumulate 60 points, with a special prize given to any student that accumulated 100 points or more. The idea was to create a range of choices that each student could make for what they wrote about, from the easier research and recall type tasks, all the way up to harder tasks that requires greater creativity and synthesis of ideas.  A student could opt for the easier tasks if they wanted to, but obviously they would need to do more of them.  Alternatively, they could do fewer but harder tasks if they chose.  The actual tasks they chose did not matter, as long as they collected at least 60 points worth.  Despite the issues with Edublogs and the large chunks of wasted class time, many students managed to get to the 60 point mark, and some collected as many as 120 points.

Cut and pasted from our Moodle page, it looked like this…

Year 4 Blogging Topics

Choose from the following list of blog topics. You need to collect at least 60 points, and anyone who gets 100 points will get a special prize.

Write each as a separate blog post. Give each a good title and a put them into a suitable category.

10 points 15 points 20 points
The Built Environment Choose a built environment and describe it in words. Add a couple of pictures as well. Write a poem about the built environment. It needs at least 2 verses. Pick two Australian built environments and compare and contrast them. (Describe their similarities and their differences) Include pictures to support your views.
The Natural Environment List 5 natural sites in NSW and include a short description of each one. Include a photo of each if possible. Should tourists be allowed to climb Uluru?
Give 5 good reasons to support your argument. Include a photo or two.
Choose an Australian natural environment and explain how and why it needs to be protected. Give as much detail as you can.
States and Territories Find the weather in 5 other states right now. Include a link to the page where you find this information. In the form of a travel log, describe a holiday you’ve taken in NSW or interstate. Include a few pictures. Which is the best Australian state? Why? Give at least 5 reasons that would convince an overseas visitor to go there.
Flora and Fauna Choose an area of Australia and list at least 3 plants or animals you would find there. Include pictures. Find 3 pictures of Australian flora and/or fauna, and write descriptions about them for someone who was blind. Choose one endangered Australian plant or animal and explain what you might do to help save them from extinction.

What struck me as I watched the students work on this project was just how many other skills they used along the way.  From technical skill trying to figure out how to include photos or YouTube videos, to information literacy skills in choosing the rights sites to gather information from, to improving their general knowledge as they learned things they didn’t know before they started.  I thought it was a successful project on a number of levels, and I do see how blogging can be a very powerful tool for learning.

Anyway, I’m certainly not claiming it was perfect or ideal, and I’d certainly appreciate any comments you might like to make on ways to improve our attempt at blogging.  What can we do to improve it?

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When Everything Looks Like a Nail

The regularity of my blogging has dropped off a bit lately, mainly because I’m in the middle of writing a book about the use of interactive whiteboard technology for teachers. Although I’ve got almost 20,000 words written so far, I am way behind deadline and really need to get the first draft finished so it can be submitted to the publishers in a few weeks. Until I get that done, every time I feel the urge to blog I have to remind myself that there is a (new) deadline looming and direct my writing efforts to the book instead of the blog. I feel bad that my blogging has been suffering lately, but I really need to get this done. So there you have the reason I’ve not been updating lately.

However, I simply had to take a few minutes to share this wonderful new tool I’ve found called Scrivener. It’s an incredible tool for anyone taking on a large writing task and I really can’t believe I’ve never tried it before. I had heard the name mentioned but assumed it was just another word processor. How wrong I was!

There is an assumption that the defining software tool for writers is Microsoft Word. While Word is a very powerful application and has many, many features that most people never even discover, Word can be a frustrating tool for anyone contemplating the writing of a very long piece of work such as a book. I use Word a lot and know it quite well… in fact I hold a Advanced level Microsoft Office Specialist certification in Word, so I feel quite at home in it. I can generally twist Word to my will and make it do pretty much whatever I need, but it’s still a pain in the neck when working on something as large and fragmented as a book.

There’s no doubt that Word is a great tool for certain types of writing. But as they say, when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Enter Scrivener. Designed expressly for anyone working on long documents that require many edits, such as books and screenplays, Scrivener takes an entirely different approach to writing. Essentially, it treats easch writing task as a project, collecting resources for writing into a single place and then enables you to break long text into short, movable, definable chunks, letting you categorise and synopsise each chunk and assemble them into the final work. You can break text into chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences… whatever you like… and move them around to let your ideas flow far better than Word will ever allow. Unfortunately Scrivener is a Mac only application, but Windows users might like to check out PageFour which apparently does similar things.

Using Scrivener has been somewhat of an eye-opening paradigm shift for me. It has challenged my assumptions about the very nature of the software tools we give our students. It made me realise what a mistake it is to assume that Word – or any “industry standard” software tool – is necessarily the tool for the job as far as student use is concerned. We inflict tools like Word on our students because they are supposed to be “what everybody uses” and we insist that the best tools to teach them to use are the tools used “by industry”. The fact is, schools are not offices, and the writing needs of a business person are not necessarily the writing needs of a student. The best tool for a student is not the one that they will use when they get older, but the one that helps them do what they need to do right now.

There is nothing “wrong” with Word, but having now spent some time with Scrivener it is now painfully obvious just how much more we could offer our students if we stopped assuming the tools of the business world were what they should master in order to create written texts. Real writing is a process of collecting ideas and thoughts together, manipulating them into a cohesive form, and editing and re-editing them until they make sense to other people. I now see how tools such as Scrivener approach the task of writing from a completely different angle and enable it to take place in a far more fluid way.

Now back to work! I have a book to finish…

PS: Here’s a video that gives a great overview of what Scrivener is all about…

video overview

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