Apple European Education Leadership Summit

It sounds a pretty impressive title, and it was a pretty impressive day! Epic location – St Pancras Renaissance Hotel – and usual Apple polish and detail. But it was a very useful and interesting day, with big and small session input, discussions with schools and even presentations from kids using iPads about their learning (very startling that one!)

Apple TV

I think the Apple TV was the secret star of the show, effortlessly allowing iPad screens to be mirrored to any projected surface or TV. This sets the iPad free to become a genuinely useful tool to teach from, share children’s work and all kinds of other things. Lots of interest in this. And it’s remarkably, remarkably cheap. I feel that the rip-off days of the ‘Interactive-if-you’re-lucky-whiteboard’ are numbered.

The ecosystem (the ‘glue’)

A guy called Abdul Chohan from a secondary academy called ‘ESSA’ in Bolton had an amazing story to tell. The school he worked at had something like 55% of pupils achieving 5 A*-C at GCSE. Not great. Something had to be done. So he bought an iPod touch for every student. That, plus lots of other changes, saw the now academy turned around and they now have 100% achieving at least 5 A*-Cs. It’s not magic but technology plays a huge part in it. They now have a purpose-build new campus with technology everywhere. It looks like a stunning place.

The really interesting part came though when he talked about the apple ecosystem (the ‘glue’ – mac/iPod/iPad). In a workshop, he showed us the wiki server that they use to deliver all their lessons. Pupils log on using their iPod touches and then download any resources required, such as ePub documents that can be viewed in iBooks anytime (no Internet connection required). I’ve used the wiki server at school for our ICT club but I never seriously thought of using it to replace a VLE…

Shoes-off Learning

There was also this guy called Stephen Heppell who talked about lots things he’d seen in technology over the world. One thing he mentioned was where classrooms were ‘shoes off’ (mainly in Scandinavian places) which hugely helped children’s learning and behaviour. Apparently it helps kids feel more like they’re at home and so are more relaxed and engaged. Worth a try sometime…?

He also talked about a thing Apple do called Challenged Based Learning. Worth a look too.

Anyway, that’ll do for now. Brain very buzzing!

BETT Brewings

Just got back from BETT so thought I would share some of my observations and thoughts.

  • Insane numbers of new ‘Interactive Whiteboards’ were on offer. Some boasted the ability to interact on any projected surface, others were just enormous touchscreen LCD displays. Perhaps the ‘SMART’ stranglehold is loosening? Certainly the market seems ripe for disruption.
  • Many stalls were running Macs, even if not particularly selling Apple products. Saw quite a few Keynote presentations running too…
  • iPads seemed to be the prize of choice in competitions.
  • Not a huge amount of software on sale but certainly lots of ‘cloud’ or web offerings.
  • Multiple laptop/iPad trolleys/flight cases. Expensive though!

We also visited several demos of iPads and what you can do with them. There are lots of cool apps out there that I didn’t know about so will hopefully get to try them out soon. 1-1 deployment seems to be the holy grail, but many schools are settling for a class set that can be shared around a school. The demos were not always of the highest quality though; perhaps I’m spoilt by watching too many flawless Stevenote software demos?

Wireless access for iPads is an important consideration as well. Running a couple of devices from a cheap wifi point is one things, but 30 devices trying to access the network is a whole new ball game. It seems like it is very easy to spend £10k on doing the job properly! Needs more research…

I am interested what else I’ll learn at the Apple Education Summit tomorrow. It will certainly be fun to try things out!

On my way to BETT

Well, I’m currently on the train on the way to BETT. I’m not really sure what to expect, but it should be an informative and enjoyable day. I’ll post some thoughts later.

Here’s what I’m particularly interested in:

  • Ways of deploying and using iPads
  • What 2Simple have got to say about their shocking lack of support for native Mac apps
  • Any Windows 8 news
  • If anyone is talking about ICT assessment
  • More interesting ways of using a VLE. Fronter is still very underused in our school – are there better ways or platforms out there?

I’ll keep you posted (hurrah for WordPress’ iOS app!

Lion and interactive whiteboards

Today I made the happy discovery that even our aged 580 series Smartboards work with Lion. Yay! Our school has been gradually buying Smartboards over the last decade, which means some classrooms have some very antique models (with serial to USB cables and the old-style round erasers.  I once rang Smart’s UK technical support about one of these boards and they were in complete shock that they still worked at all…). I was not looking forward to paying thousands to replace them when we either bought new Lion Macs or upgraded from Snow Leopard.

Smart still claim that OSX 10.7 isn’t officially supported by their Notebook software, but they have released a patch that fixes things up well enough.

BETT on Wednesday

I and some others from my school are off to BETT on Wednesday. What is BETT I hear you say? Well, it’s basically an enormous technology in education trade fair show thingy with all the great and good (and bad and ugly) from the world of IT there to pitch their wares (apart from Apple, of course, as they don’t do trade fairs no more). I have no idea what the acronym ‘BETT’ stand for though.

In preparation for this no-doubt exciting and fun-packed day, I’ve been having a look through the list of exhibitors to see who is worth investigating. I am personally interested in finding out more about how useful iPads really could be in a school. My friends at Toucan have put together an iOS app with details of their stall, with lots of information about ways to use iPads. You can download it for free from the app store.

London Mail made useful!

LGfL (London Grid for Learning) offer a wide variety of services for schools, including a Microsoft-hosted ‘London Mail’ for use by children in schools. This includes features such as ‘safe mail’ where you can control who the user can send and receive email with.

The only problem is that it requires children to remember their USO login details to access it, which is not the most memorable string of letters and numbers in the world. My experience is that email for children is therefore often underused in the classroom.

At our school we’re running a trial classroom with an emphasis on more independent learning. Part of this was to email work to groups of children that they can then access at one of the classroom iMacs. But with email access requiring putting in obscure usernames and passwords and visiting obtuse websites, it never really happened.

Whilst perusing LGfL’s website, I discovered a new section about London Mail where they promised access for smartphones and with Outlook, so I contacted Atomwide and they sent me the login details.

It requires Outlook IMAP access, which can be done natively in Apple’s Mail, and was very easy to sort out. Now one child just has to log onto one of the iMacs and open Mail – easy!

For this interested, here are the server details:

  • username:
  • Incoming hostname:
  • Outgoing hostname:

Munki and automatic updates

Apple’s approach to software updates betrays their consumer-centric view of computing: on a Windows PC, updates can be set to automatically install and in fact your system administrator can take that power off you and install updates whether you like it or not; on the Mac, it’s up to the user to install updates when they want to, and there are no official ways to fully automate this process.

This is all very well, but is a bit of a pain when managing a school-full of Macs, especially when all the remaining PCs happily pull updates off the Windows Software Update Service without anyone lifting a finger.  In a bid to keep everything reasonably up to date, I would use Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) to send a UNIX command to run software update every now and again.  This worked reasonably well, but required each machine to be unoccupied and for me to keep an eye to check everything was working ok.  I also tried setting machines to wake up in the night and then scheduled ARD to send the update command at that time, but this would never quite work properly with machines losing their connection or going to sleep etc.

I then stumbled upon a program called Munki, which describes itself as ‘Managed software installation for OSX’. It’s a pretty powerful bit of software, but with quite a steep learning curve and no friendly GUI to get things going.  However, after a bit of reading of the help files I realised that it could quite easily be set up to automatically install software updates whenever the Mac was idle at the login screen.  Here’s how (using a Mac OSX Server to manage preferences):

  1. Install the Munki package on a Mac.
  2. Open Workgroup Manager and then add a managed preference, using the ‘Managed Software Update’ application to provide an MCX .plist manifest.
  3. Add the following keys:
  • AppleSoftwareUpdatesOnly = true
  • InstallAppleSoftwareUpdates = true
  • SoftwareUpdateServerURL = your own Apple Software Update Server or just leave blank to use Apple’s
  • SuppressUserNotification = true

Tada, it should work!

Unfortunately for me it didn’t, not straightaway.  It turned out that I was having problems with our Software Update on our Mac server because the DNS wasn’t sorted correctly.  A useful tool in terminal is ‘changeip’ for that…

But it all seems to be working now.  Hurrah.

Sidebar in Lion

Having got the Lion machines to actually log onto our network, the task was to tweak away the preferences using Workgroup Manager on our Snow Leopard server.

One of my aims for the Macs in the school is that they should be just as easy to use for everyday tasks as a PC was before; it’s no good it being super simple to make a video in iMovie if it’s a complete pain to access the school shared drive.  Putting a shortcut to the ‘school’ shared drive in the Finder sidebar was therefore a priority for me.  I managed to get this to work in Snow Leopard because a mounted network drive appears under ‘devices’ rather than ‘places’ so I just managed those preferences with Workgroup Manager.

Toucan set up our Macs with a log script that renames the ~/Documents folder to something called ‘MacDocuments’ and then creates a shortcut to the user’s network home (i.e. Tim.Lings$ in my case) called ‘Documents’. Without any further trickery, Finder then puts this link to the network home in the sidebar instead of the normal link to the user’s Documents folder.  This is remarkably handy, as default folder for saving files automatically becomes the network home folder rather than a local documents folder.  This is much easier than having to train children and teachers to always save to the network drives.

Now the problem with Lion and the sidebar is that it puts any extra shared drives under the ‘favourites’ heading on the sidebar, along with ‘Pictures’, ‘Movies’, ‘Desktop’ etc.  The clever hack mentioned earlier still works, meaning that my network home folder appears in the sidebar instead of the local ‘Documents’ folder.  Normally to manage the preferences of a feature in OSX, you just set it how you want it, find the relevant .plist file in ~/Library/Preferences (i.e., make a copy of the file, open it with Property List Editor, remove all the XML keys you don’t want to manage, and then import it into Workgroup Manager.  However, this then means that every user would have ‘Tim.Lings$’ in their sidebar, as well as the ‘school’ shared drive as they all lived under that ‘Favourites’ heading in the sidebar.  What to do?

It then struck me that maybe if I changed the key in the preference file to go back to just showing the default ~/Documents shortcut, Finder would swap in the relevant network home drive, as before.  I copied that key from a blank Lion login account and it seemed to work.  Hurrah!

The curse of .local

When Toucan first installed our suite of iMacs, we had a simple Active Directory (AD) integration setup, authenticating and accessing network home folders from our Windows Server 2003  Active Directory.  This worked well, with fast log-on speeds and generally playing properly.  However, over the year the login speeds started to deteriorate.  I originally thought this was because we had installed a Mac Mini server to add some golden triangle goodness to our network, so didn’t investigate much further.  Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse at the end of October 2011 when all the Macs decided that they wouldn’t log onto our AD any more, instead just showing the red light and ‘Network accounts not available’.

Understandably, this wasn’t so great, especially as one of the reasons for getting some Macs in the first place was that they ‘just work’.  Really bad is probably a better way to put it.

After much Internet research, we managed to get things working a little bit by doing the following:

  • creating computer accounts for each Mac on the AD before binding each machine
  • rebinding each machine, making sure we put in the IP address in Directory Utility where it says ‘Prefer this domain server’ and unchecking the box for ‘allow authentication from any domain in the forest’

This still wasn’t a very reliable solution, with the dreaded network red light still appearing regularly and log-on times taking up to six minutes.  It was like returning to the good old bad days of a decrepit ICT suite of aged XP machines…nooooo!

It turned out that the problem was because our internal domain ended with .local.  Apple uses this for its Bonjour technologies and, despite several possible hacks suggested by Apple (involving mdns_timeout and IPv6), things weren’t getting any better or likely to anytime soon.  Apparently Apple changed the way Macs resolve DNS around 10.6.7/8 in order to get ready for Lion.  The couple of Lion machines we had weren’t working at all with our AD so something needed to be done.

In the end we decided to change our domain.  Not an easy task (so I’m told) so our technician suggested buying a cheap new Windows 2008 Server and setting up a new .sch domain on it.  We would bind all the Macs to that server, leaving the PCs as they were and with the old server still doing all the file sharing for the network homes and shared drives.

We did the transition on a day when no teachers were in and managed to set up a new server and bind 50 machines in a day…not bad!  The only major snag was that all the home folder permissions on any existing network accounts on a machine didn’t work any more, resulting in not being allowed to look in the ~/Pictures, ~/Library folder etc.  Looking back we probably could have figured out how to reset the permissions, but instead we just deleted every account off every machine so that they would get freshly created on login.  Most children’s work gets saved to network folders so we only had to make sure we rescued any iMovie projects or important files saved to teacher’s desktops.

It was a bit of a job to sort out, and we now have two independent yet interconnected domains on our curriculum network, but things are now working much, much better (including our now fully-functioning Lion machines). Our technician is planning to wipe the old server during a holiday so we only have one domain, but I’m sure that’ll be another tale.