Slack: helping Teachers ‘be less busy’?

A few years ago, Julian Coultas recommended we tried using Slack at school. It’s basically a chat service for work, allowing users to easily and quickly communicate across the whole school team. You can pay for it, but the free option gives most of the functionality you would need. At that time, I knew it wouldn’t work because not everyone in the school had easy access to a computer. However, as we were making sure every member of staff had a computer from the beginning of this term (desktops for office staff, iPod Touch for Early Years and iPads for everyone else – teachers and TAs), I thought it was time to give it a try.

We’ve only been using it for a couple of months, but here’s some benefits I’ve seen:

  • I’m receiving and sending much less email internally. Much of that email was just letting people know things or having a conversation about a topic, all of which is easier in a ‘chat’ interface.
  • Slack’s organisational structure of open channels, private channels, individual direct messages and group direct messages means all communication comes ‘pre-filed’. For every email received, you have to decide whether to delete it, leave it in an inbox or file it away in a folder. With Slack, this decision has already been made by the sender.
  • Email, because it’s a bit like sending a letter, tends towards the more formal, insisting on a salutation and closing greeting. Short and to-the-point messages can come across rude. With Slack, short and concise messages are just informal and fun.
  • Sending emoji via email can be hit-and-miss whether the receiver can display it, whereas Slack loves emoji! This makes the communication that little bit more fun and light, something that the teaching profession could always benefit from.
  • With push notifications enabled, Slack can cut through the communication ‘noise’ of email. Because you choose what channels you want to be part of, and all communication is from within your team, every Slack message is potentially relevant and important and so worth a notification.
  • Email can have quite small attachment file size limits, whereas Slack allows for the sharing and resharing of all manner of files and media. It supports all the ‘Open In’ hooks in iOS too, which is nice.
  • The people at Slack seem like a really friendly bunch and have always been super helpful with any support issues.
  • Push notifications also make communication really instant. Our IT technician doesn’t have a walkie-talkie because sending a DM or posting to #ictfaults has just as quick a response!

There is a strong network effect with Slack – it only really works if everyone in your organisation is part of the team and has easy access to a computer device. But it seems to be working for us!

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Orbit.so

Many moons ago, I used to be a Nursery teacher.  This was fun, but the only downside was spending days of my holidays sticking little post-it notes and photos as evidence of what the children in my class had been doing into their respective profiles. Surely computers could make this all easier?

Yes indeed! This year, we’ve bitten the bullet and got a set of iPod Touches for the Foundation Stage staff to use for taking photos and writing observations on children.  We’ve looked at a couple of options for the database at the back end, but decided upon using a service called Orbit .  The advantages of it are that it:

  • Is free
  • Has an iOS app and a website which can be accessed from anywhere
  • Seems pretty straight forward but quite powerful too
  • Did I mention that it’s free?

The only niggling question I’ve had about it is how it’s going to make it’s money whilst being free and still be around in a few years’ time. They say that it’s through putting advertising on the parents’ section of the site.  They’ve only been around for less than a year but already have 1,700 providers registered and 10,000 registered users, so I’m hoping this works for them.  However, there is another catch: to make use of the evaluations and tracking part of the service, you have to have at least 50% of your children’s parents signed up in order for that part to be free, otherwise you have to pay £40 a year.  Which isn’t so bad.

We had the fun job last week of typing in all the children’s details and setting up the iPod Touches, and then today we did some training with the Foundation Stage staff.  Children start back this week so we’ll soon see how it all works out.

iPod Touches and Parasync

With great rejoicing, a set of 16 iPod touches arrived the other day, along with a clever Parasync case and docking system thingy.  The idea is for them to be used as digital still/video cameras with children, plus the use of apps such as Safari etc.  I have always been a bit snooty about syncing devices, being rather loathe to spend substantial amounts of money on a glorified USB hub in a box, but I think I am now convinced of their value, if only that 16 devices can all be charged using just one power lead.

Setting them up was a little bit more of a challenge, partly because I was trying to be too clever.  I initially tried using Apple Configurator to set them up, which would allow me to set a pretty lock screen with the iPod number on it.  However, this didn’t work so well, with several iPods refusing to accept the configuration profile.  They also then didn’t allow images to be downloaded to iPhoto or iMovie as the ‘Supervision Mode’ configuration profile essentially completely locks the device down.

I then tried the old-school but tried-and-tested approach of using iTunes (boo!).  Which worked really well! The steps were as follows:

  1. Disable automatic backups
  2. Download apps etc. on iTunes
  3. Plug in one iPod, sync across apps and set it up just how you want it (e.g. email accounts etc.)
  4. Backup that iPod to iTunes (right click on it in the left hand column and select ‘Backup now’), making sure that the backup is encrypted (this saves all the passwords etc.)
  5. Plug all the other iPods in and then restore from the initial backup
  6. Rename all the iPods to their correct names

I also used iPhone Configuration Utility to add a configuration profile for the Wifi and for Meraki on each device.

Definitely much quicker!

I showed the iPods to the staff team quickly at today’s staff meeting (after a few Q jokes as I open up a slightly formidable flight case) and people seemed enthusiastic.  Hopefully they will get used regularly across the school!