LGfL at the Mermaid (pt.III)

The last session of the LGfL conference was an update about the LGfL 2.0 migration. Basically, it’s a big job and it’s taking longer than we expected but will result in a faster, more secure and more resilient broadband connection for schools. Yay! One guy even tried enlivening his presentation by including Disney quotes. Fair dos.

The final 10 minutes or so was a very short presentation from Roger Larsen, the founder of Fronter. He gave a blistering tour of the history of education, starting with the Gutenberg press, through the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution to the computer revolution of the last 30 years. It was a bit similar to the metanarrative I heard at the Apple European Summit, only without mention of who invented all those computers. The contrast between the classroom of 100 years ago and today was also mentioned, albeit uncritical of the seeming lack of real change because we now have the data projector screen which lets you view your MLE (i.e. Fronter). Hmmm!

So, what did I make of the conference? I guess, because LGfL fundamentally is a broadband provider, the unspoken emphasis was on all the wonderful educational things you can do with the Internet. Conversely, the paradigm shift that the iPad is causing was hardly mentioned at all, maybe just in passing. A web browser is all well and good, but the interesting things are happening when you combine native software and web services (i.e. iOS).

However, LGfL (with Virgin Media and Atomwide) are doing a super job of providing broadband+services for schools in London and it was certainly interesting to hear more about that.

And I got a free mug.

LGfL at the Mermaid (pt.II)

Here’s some of the other things I heard today…

Best Value Technology

Helpful insights from Paul Shoesmith on how to make the most of your money and ICT resources in schools. Some of his suggestions:

  • Use what’s in your cupboards already. That USB webcam could also make a cheap visualiser!
  • Think about your total cost of ownership before buying. Cheaper upfront may not be in the long term, i.e. cheaper printer but expensive toner.
  • Paper. Huge amounts of money is wasted on printing that is unnecessary. In what ways could schools go paperless and save money?

‘Leading Creatively Costs Nothing’

The CEO of the Pearson Group came and talked about the importance of creativity. It was quite inspiring really, although trickier to put into practice due to the limitations and structures of our current schooling system. I loved her accounts of how six-year-olds might finish well-known sayings. For example: Strike while the…bug’s near. Don’t bite the hand…that’s dirty. A penny saved…is not much.

Anyway. Stuck for creativity? Go for a walk. Put things aside. Make links between unlikely concepts. Ask “What can go right?” when calculating risks.

LGfL Content Highlights

Showcasing new content on LGfL, such as Royal Mews and Romans in London. Not bad!

E-safety 360 Scheme

Ken Corish from South West Grid for Learning talked about a school self-assessment for e-safety called 360 degree safe. It seems pretty thorough and can result in an official ‘E-safety Mark’ for your school as well.

Fronter Updates

This was quite interesting, with lots of information about where Fronter is headed. They seem to be making it more attractive to look at and easier to use. Good news indeed!

More to follow…

LGfL at the Mermaid (pt.I)

On this remarkably sunny and pleasant morning I travelled to the Mermaid conference centre near Blackfriars station for the LGfL Schools Conference. It’s been interesting so far, and I’ll try and post throughout the day.

After some refreshments in a bar areas overlooking the Thames, the conference kicked off with a welcome from Brian Durrant, the CEO of LGfL. He’s a good guy, and was helpful when I had to email him to try and sort out our LGfL 2.0 fiasco. There was then a brief video welcome from Sir Richard Branson himself, as Virgin Media now provide all of the broadband for schools across London.

Niel McLean was the first keynote speaker proper, talking about ‘What next for online education’. Niel helped put together the original ICT curriculum in the UK and had lots of interesting things to say. I was particularly struck by his thoughts on the 5 basic competences in ICT (awareness, user, maker, evaluator, holistic) and we hopefully will be using them to think about reshaping our ICT curriculum over the next term. He also talked about the way that technology gets adopted in schools and that it has to reach a certain point for it to begin to give a return on the financial investment. For technology to really make a difference, the whole system needs to be redesigned in order to enable really innovate use of ICT.

The first seminar was done by a guy called Mike Briscoe, all about ‘Critical Leadership Decisions’. He outlined 9 different areas that need thinking about (direction, new technologies, future living, e-safety, teaching & learning, value for money, data, provision, beyond school) and posed us lots of questions. One thing I found fascinating was the off-the-cuff comment that most schools are now considering deploying iPads/tablet computers. This is pretty mind-blowing, considering that the iPad was only released a mere 2 years ago. The question is, what are the impacts for teaching & learning for things like iPads (apart from motivation)? Hmm…

Anyway, best listen to the seminar I’m in about ‘Best Value Technology’…

LGfL Conference

It’s the LGfL conference on Monday, somewhere in central London. I’ve never been before but I hope it’s going to be a useful time, hearing where things are going for the whole London network. There’s even going to be a video presentation from Sir Richard Branson himself, as Virgin Media now provide the infrastructure for the new LGfL 2.0 connection.

One seminar I’m particularly interested in is about ‘Best Value Technology’. I’m pretty sure they won’t be saying to go out and kit your school out with Macs (much as I would recommend it!). But I wonder it they will mention the price-disruptive iPad (no doubt they won’t, to avoid being too ‘Apple-focused’). One would be hard-pressed to find a £270 laptop that is worth even turning on, let alone one that is pushing the boundaries of technology.

They are also addressing the question of ‘Where next for online learning?’. My hope is that online learning escapes from the arbitrary and frustrating limits of the web browser. We use 2Simple’s Purple Mash, which is in many ways great and quite remarkable considering it’s all just done in Flash in a browser. But it would be incomparably better if it was a native ‘app’, making use of web content and interactivity where appropriate, but also harnessing the power of the operating system to print and save stuff properly. It’s just too easy to accidentally close a web browser and lose everything. A gazillion iOS apps and counting may be trying to tell us something…

WordPress Wonderfullness

For those avid readers out there who compulsively check my blog every day for new updates and insights, my sincerest apologies for not posting for the last week.  Y’see, I’ve been a-building a fan-dangled new website for my school using the wonder that is WordPress.  Our current website is built using the web-hosting tool of a certain MLE, which takes all its eye-melting ugliness and incomprehensibleness  and then foists it upon the unsuspecting Interweb public.  As LGfL offers free hosting as part of LGfL2.0, I thought it was at least worth exploring other options for websites.  Such as WordPress.

The path to an open source (i.e. free!) Content Management System is not entirely straightforward however.  Here are some of the hurdles for building a WordPress website using LGfL’s hostings.

  • Logging on using FTP.  Atomwide do give very clear and helpful instructions, but I still initially found this hard.
  • Installing WordPress using the famous five minute install. Easy once you know how I suppose!
  • Choosing a theme.  I ended up plumping for the ‘twenty eleven’ theme, which turned out to be quite a good idea as loads of people use it and so there’s plenty of community support out there on the web.
  • Editing the styling etc. of the theme.  I got stuck with a permissions error, which got me confused for a while.  But thankfully the WordPress ‘codex’ had lots of helpful advice.
  • Setting up a child theme.  I was a little dubious about directly editing the stylesheets and code of a theme and then discovered that I wasn’t meant to but rather set up a child theme instead.  It’s dashed clever really, and means you can tweak a theme to your heart’s content and then put everything back if you break things (as I invariably did).
  • Making use of widgets and the like.  WordPress comes with several options for what to put in the sidebar, but you can also download thousands of other widgets and plugins as well.  Very handy!
  • Using Keynote for easy image editing/creation. This might seem a bit bonkers, but Keynote is actually really helpful for creating web images.  Everything works in pixels, and then you’re only an export away from the perfect .PNG file.  Hurrah!

I would definitely not call myself a CSS Master by any means yet, but I think the nearly-finished site is looking quite good.  Maybe I’ll let you see it one day.

Toca Boca and digital toys

Over the Easter weekend I got to see my lovely niece and nephews, and as part of that was introduced to some cool iPad apps for kids.  Some of these are made by the company Toca Boca, who makes ‘digital toys’ for children rather than just games.

One of their apps is Toca Hair Salon, which lets you cut and trim hair with scissors and electric trimmers, blow-dry, wash and shampoo and even hair dye or add hair restorer.  It’s completely hilarious to use, particularly when it comes to using the hair drier, and is a bit like a digital version of a hairdressing mannequin head you might find in an early years role-play area.  Or there is the Toca Tea Party which lets you lay out a complete tea party and then consume it, including drinking the tea (or knocking it over…all virtually of course!).

I think what I like about the apps is that they let you the child explore them in a non-linear and play-based manner, rather than prescribing the route through a game.  A LEGO kit might have instructions for how to build it, but the way it ends up being played with is as open as a child’s imagination.  Go have a try!

Windows 8

Much like what they did with Windows 7, Microsoft are offering a Consumer Preview of the latest incarnation of their desktop operating system, Windows 8. Although it’s now designed to work on tablets/slates/mobile PC devices too. And thanks to Virtual Box, I get to play too, despite using a Mac.

It’s certainly a bold attempt at moving things forward, especially with the iPad single-handedly disrupting the entire PC market, but I don’t think it’s going to work too well. The problem is that it’s trying to offer a ‘no compromise’ fusion of the desktop and tablet experience, trying to please the pixel-perfect mouse and keyboard crowd whilst also reaching out to the touch-screen newbies. But you can’t have your cake and eat it: the reason iOS works is because it has been stripped back and reimagined for finger input, not because it tries to shoehorn in the Mac OS graphical user interface. Windows 8 tries to do both and it’s just a bit of a mess. I haven’t tried a touch-screen device but using a mouse and keyboard is decidedly unsatisfactory and sometimes completely confusing (such as trying to work out how to get back to the Start screen. Using touch it’s a swipe in from the right but using a mouse it involves hovering the mouse near the bottom right corner of the screen – not very intuitive!).

Once you’ve gotten the hang of actually using it, it seems very much like just the skeleton of a finished product, perhaps like the original iPhone when it was first released. Only this is 2012 not 2007, perhaps proving Steve Jobs correct that Apple had a 5-year head start with the iPhone. No doubt Microsoft will be able to sell lots of licences with new PCs, but perhaps it’ll get downgraded to Windows 7, much like what happened with Windows Vista.

(Image from thefoxisblack)

Fresh Install

The other week it was suggested to me that if/when we upgrade our Macs at school to Lion, building a fresh system image and then rolling that out is a good idea as it ensures computers are as stable as possible. It sounds like a bit of a job, and definitely a Summer Holiday job, but it does make sense as all manner of cruft can collect on a system image when it gets upgraded and then copied from one computer to another.

In anticipation of this, I decided to completely reinstall my new personal MacBook Air. I had been copying my accounts between machines since a 2004 12″ PowerBook (via a Black and then Aluminium MacBooks), and doing in-place upgrades from 10.3 to 10.7 (Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion!) so there undoubtedly was a lot of cruft!

Once I’d figured out how, doing a fresh install with Lion wasn’t too hard. Simply hold command+R when booting up to access the recovery partition, use Disk Utility to wipe the hard drive and then click the download and reinstall Lion button. Simples!

The Mac App Store then provided me with most of my software and all the iLife 11 titles and my Time Machine backup gave me back all my files. This second part wasn’t quite as easy as expected as restoring documents kept resulting in permissions errors. The solution to this was to use Migration Assistant to copy my old account onto the Mac under a new temporary name, log onto it and then move all the required files onto /Users/Shared. I could then log in onto my new account, copy the files across from shared and then delete the temporary account.

The upshot of all this is that I have regained an extra 30GB of space on my hard drive! Not bad… It also answers my question of where iLife apps that have been downloaded from the App Store keep their loops/audio samples. It seems that iPhoto and iMovie now keep everything within the application bundle, whereas GarageBand downloads 1GB of loops into /Library when you first open it if they’re not already there.

So hopefully all this will come in handy when creating a master image at school!

Virtual Machines

One of the main sticking points for running Macs in a school is that there’s still a lot of educational software out there there which is Windows-only (and indeed XP only, especially when CD-ROM software is still being sold that was written in 2003). Should this anachronistic clinging to the past hold back teachers from experiencing a virus-free and ‘just-works’ computing experience in their classroom? Perhaps not.

The solution lies in the fact that, since 2006, Macs now run on the same Intel x86 processors that Windows PCs do, meaning that you can easily run Windows on a Mac. And with the technical wonder of ‘Virtual Machines’, you can run Windows as an application on the OSX desktop. Nelson Handwriting Software here we come!

However, it’s not quite as simple as that: which VM (Virtual Machine) software do you use for this noble task? At our school we are running VMWare Fusion 3 on some Macs in Key Stage 2, which seems to work pretty well.


  • Lets you run Windows programs in ‘Unity’ mode, which means they look and act pretty much like Mac apps
  • Pretty easy to setup and use


  • Not cheap (around £30 per licence – the same as a Windows 7 licence from Ramesys!)
  • Doesn’t quite play nicely with Lion (paid upgrade required)

What are the other options? Well, Oracle offer a free program called VirtualBox, which lets you install whatever OS you so desire. It seems to work well and fast, with lots of configuration options for the more geeky ones out there. However, it’s rather more fiddly to set up and doesn’t offer the same integration with OSX that Fusion provides. It has a ‘seamless’ mode, which tries to mesh Windows and OSX together on the screen, but this results in having the task bar and Start menu across the bottom of the screen! That might be one step too far for a teacher who just wants to model the the letter ‘A’ and print off some handwriting worksheets. You get what you pay for, and my feeling at the moment is that Fusion is worth the price.