Choosing the right app

I love using Explain Everything for my teaching as it gives rich interactive-whiteboard-like functionality using an iPad instead of a clunky and often unaligned ‘smart’board.

However, today I discovered it’s not always the best tool to use with kids. In my music lesson we were listening to different sounds, and I wanted an app that could just be written on, much like a drywipe mini whiteboard. You can do that with Explain Everything, but it’s just a bit too complex for using with Year 2 kids as you can easily have the pen unselected and then end up moving all the items on the screen around instead.

As an alternative, I quickly downloaded Educreations (which is free!). This app offers a stripped down set of features and allows you to just use your finger to draw with on the screen. This worked much better.

I also had a go at using Socrative to do a class quiz. You have to set up a teacher account (which you can do online) and then you just give your room number for children to log onto your quiz. Children then answer the questions and get immediate feedback.

I’m realising more the power of the App Store in education. It can take a bit of thinking to discover the best app, or combinations of apps for a job, but once you do it leads you to all sorts of interesting places.

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Making the ICT Suite more iPad-like

Over half term we had the fun job of upgrading our Mac server to Mountain Lion and then fiddling around with user accounts to make the Macs play nicely with our new ADSync setup.  As part of this process, I decided to change the way that the ICT Suite worked.

The old setup had children logging in with a class login, which allowed for a shared ‘documents’ on the server.  However, you would have to be logged in with those credentials to see the files, which would be annoying for teachers wanting to access work elsewhere in the school.  Entering a password to login was also rather tricky for the younger children, wasting a substantial part of ICT lessons early on just with logging in.  Also, because iMovie projects were saved locally to a machine, children would have to go back to the same machine with the same login to continue with their video.  This generally worked well, but if a child didn’t check that the Mac was logged out before starting work, they may have no idea what login to use to go back to it in a later lesson.

Instead, I set up the ICT Suite as follows:

  • A local account, without a password
  • The login screen showing the local non-adminstrator account as a ‘badge’, rather than a text field for username and password
  • When children log in, a shared drive is mounted via Managed Preferences, which has the username and password build into the URL (e.g. smb://username:password@pathtoserver/sharepoint).  This shared drive is a subfolder of the shared drive that teachers use across the school, meaning teachers can see children’s work but children can’t see all of the teachers’ work.
  • A login script runs which renames ~/Documents to ~/MacDocuments and then creates a symbolic link to the mounted shared drive and calls that ‘Documents’.  This little manoeuvre tricks Finder into putting that shared drive into the sidebar where Documents used to be, and also makes it the default save position

The upshot of all of this is that it makes the ICT Suite have much more of an iOS-like experience; instead of typing in usernames and passwords, you just click and go.  Popping into the ICT Suite today, teachers and children certainly liked the change!

Munki really does work!

Munki really is brilliant. From the user’s end, it is basically invisible, installing software when the computers are sitting logged out and never bothering anyone.  From the admin side, it is super quick to import a package file  and super easy to add it to the list of files to be installed.  This week alone I have been able to push out three different installs, confident that, by the next day, they will be installed on all the machines.

The only problem with it is that the admin backend is not hugely user-friendly, relying on setting up your own webserver, typing stuff into Terminal and editing a .plist file of software to be installed. I would love it if someone might perhaps consider building a beautiful and simple GUI backend too.  Anyone offering?

ADSync

When I first heard about the LGfL USO, it made a whole lot of sense to me: one Unified Sign On, allowing you to log onto a range of different services using just one username and password.  As part of that service, something called ADSync is also offered, which allows your Active Directory to have all the same usernames and passwords as your USO account.

I first heard about this in 2010, and we have finally installed it in our school!  Hurrah!

We were a little bit wary of this (as was my technician, who didn’t like the thought of someone else controlling our AD), but the installation seems to have gone very well.  It was all installed remotely, but Atomwide were very friendly and helpful along the way.

The job isn’t completely done yet as all of the Mac home folders are still under the old names.  However, Toucan are coming in and running some sort of magical script that will rename everything and make everything work wonderfully.  For staff, this should mean there is one less username to remember.  And for support staff who don’t log onto their emails very often but do use the Macs, it might help them remember their login!

Flash vs. Safari

Upon arriving at school today, teachers started telling me that they couldn’t view their Flash content because Safari was saying that the plugin was out of date and therefore blocked. Some had the initiative and had download and install the update because they knew the admin credentials, but it wasn’t looking good for everyone else.

Thankfully, Munki was there to the rescue! I managed to quickly download the Flash installer (using the volume distribution link on Adobe’s website – long story) and then uploaded it to our Munki repository. Our Macs are set to update every morning using Munki, but that was no good in this situation as everyone was already logged in. Instead I had to post some instructions for staff on how to use the ‘Managed Software Update’ app which comes with Munki to manually activate the installation.

Simples. Kinda.

The reason this is all happening is because of Apple’s XProtect software, which downloads a list of software to watch out for and then proceeds to block it as it comes across it. Which includes any out-of-date versions of Flash.

I guess the annoying part of this is that there is no automatic way of downloading and installing Flash updates, particularly on a network and particularly because Adobe specialise in inventing their own balmy and non-standard installer files.

Maybe Safari should join Chrome and offer automatic updates of plugins (particularly Flash). Or maybe Flash should just hurry up and be replaced by HTML5.

BETT 2013

BETT this year was held at the EXCEL centre, a truly ginormous exhibition hall in docklands, London. It was a much better venue than Olympia, with much more space to go and get a coffee and sit down, as well as space in one big hall for all the exhibitors. The transport links are also great – it was just a short DLR ride from my school.

It was also a much better event. There seemed to be a lot more on offer, rather than just loads of options for interactive whiteboards. The mobile revolution was also being consciously acknowledged, with most people offering some sort of iPad solution to their product.

One particular find of the day was bit of school furniture which could charge 16 or 32 iPads. It is only a slightly more engineered version of what I’ve been doing with IKEA cabinets and 8-way power adapters, but it does have a more robust locking mechanism and also prevents people walking off with USB charging cables (which seems to be happening quite a bit at the mo!). It’s from a company called ISIS and you can have a look at it here. And they quoted me a bargain price of £450!

It was also fun to watch some Apple Distinguished Educators talk through some different ways of using iPads. It was good to hear them talk about the innovative apps but also the more mundane ‘write up your science experiment in Pages’. You’ve got to start somewhere!

This year at BETT there was also a big arena where you could go and listen to different speakers presenting in the middle. We went to see a presentation on the ‘Flipped Classroom‘. It’s an interesting idea really, where instruction is given by video to the students at a different time (maybe at home) and then the lesson is used to support students in the learning they have already been doing. Something to look into more.

All in all, I left BETT feeling like it had been a very useful day, which was a nice change from last year!