Beyond consumer based ICT

There is a change taking place in how schools approach ICT, one that has been coming for some time but is at the point of moving into the mainstream. A subtle but powerful shift that sees ICT build connections with the Maker Movement as a tool for solving what Bronwyn Moreton speaking at the ICT Educators of NSW conference describes as the ‘I wish it would . . .’ moment where a learner discovers that their technology doesn’t do everything they wished it would.

For a long time, ICT in the classroom was a mix of internet based information tools, some desktop publishing and for the adventuresome multimedia design, video and photo editing. This placed the user for the most part as a consumer of content or a user of software packages and more recently Apps. The skills required of these users would be found in user manuals and tutorials and revolved around learning the particular idiosyncrasies of various pieces of software. Skill with Microsoft Office, internet browser and Apples iLife suite of tools for video and photo management would suffice for the majority of users. With the rise of tablet computers such as iPad, Android tablet and Microsoft Surface the App economy has driven the required skill set down further as ICT moves firmly into the consumer device market.

This was not always the case. In computing’s early days when Steve Wozniak was a member of the ‘Homebrew’ computing club it was about problem solving to get the hardware and software to do what you wanted it to. Computer Geeks blended the skills of electrical engineers with software developers to get the early machines to power on. Computing at this time involved manipulating the core components of breadboards, processors, inputs and outputs all of which is well hidden from view in modern machines which are tightly focused on a pleasing 'out of box' experience. But as attendees at the ICTE NSW conference saw repeatedly a change is coming, we are moving back to tinkering with the hardware. Coding and electrical engineering are opening new opportunities.

Recognising the need for young people to understand computer coding and seeing a gap in the available software MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) developed Scratch. The aim is to provide a simple coding environment that allows students to literally assemble blocks of code in a digital environment in much the same way that they would assemble wooden blocks in the physical world. The drag and drop nature and friendly block design makes coding readily accessible and the user gets immediate feedback on their designs. Many students have been introduced to coding thanks to Scratch and others have followed a similar path with tools becoming available for all major platforms. The trouble with Scratch is that at some point learners will need something more and traditional response is to move on to more involved coding solutions such as Python.

There is an alternative route however. Move the students on from Scratch to using it to programme physical devices that they create using Arduino. The beauty of Arduino is that it allows low cost access to hardware that encourages user developed code. Arduino boards are a system on a chip meaning that the whole computer is on one board and to this you can connect other components such as lights, sensors, motors and speakers to give the system additional functionality. With Arduino the students are not just using a computer they are making and programming it. Arduino is just one of the ways that physical computing is making a come back. Other players include Raspberry Pi which was one of the first system on a chip type computers to grab the attention of the mainstream thanks to its low price point and functionality that matches many computers from as little as five years ago. Raspberry Pi gives its users access to fully functioning operating systems from the Linux environment and the latest versions will run Windows 10. The low cost and bare bones nature of the Raspberry Pi encourages tinkering in ways that laptops and desktops don’t.

Another way into this world of physical computing is through robotics. This is an area where the benefits are coming from increased consumerisation of robots and the availability of ready to go robots. This removes barriers to entry and allows younger users to experience what is possible with a programmable robot. Children in Prep Schools can use Apps like Scratch and Blockly to programme a robot and see immediately the effects that their code has on the robot’s movement. At more advanced levels students are able to design complex code that integrates feedback from the robot’s sensors with logical operators. As student expertise moves beyond the capabilities of consumer robots there is cope for them to use combinations of Arduino and Raspberry Pi type computers with sensors and motors to create bespoke robots of their own design.

As is the case with the whole Maker Movement the spirit of sharing and collaboration ensure that a rich support network has evolved. For those with a passion for tinkering with computers this support network is bound to answer your questions. Having spent a Sunday learning with some of the ICT educators of NSW this willingness to share expertise and learn collaboratively was most evident in everyone I spoke with. For teacher and learners beginning their journey into physical computing and coding there is no need to be alone.


By Nigel Coutts

Read & Write for Google

Every day we expect our students to engage with a wide variety of texts as readers, writers, editors and researchers. For many of our students this reliance on text presents a real challenge that can stand in the way of them achieving other goals. For a student still struggling with handwriting or typing, a routine task that requires a written response can be an obstacle to their success, despite a detailed understanding of the content. A student with a difficulty in reading will encounter similar obstacles when a task requires them to access information from a written text and the demands of bringing a mix of ideas presented in a document from working memory into a coherent summary can challenge many learners.

For teachers looking to apply a Universal Design for Learning approach these obstacles to learning could be overcome by selecting alternative ways of engaging with or responding to the content or students could be guided towards using Read & Write for Google.

Read & Write provides a useful set of tools for students who struggle with text. It provides a text reader, speech input, highlighter and summary tools, dictionary and picture dictionary. It works with Google Docs, PDF, ePub and Kes bringing new functionality to each format. It is free for teachers and is well worth exploration.

Jason Carroll of Spectronics Blog provides a detailed introduction to Read & Write for Google - Visit Now 


By Nigel Coutts

Google Reader, Skeumorphism, Games, Apps and Schools

On October 7th 2005 Google launched its Reader platform. Designed to be the best RSS (Real Simple Subscription) aggregator Reader grew to quickly become the most popular platform of its type. Despite its initial popularity on March 13th Google announced that Reader will be no more and that from July 1 its users will need to find an alternative service. For those who follow tech, Reader is just another example of an idea that had its day and has now been replaced by new processes. For schools Reader's demise has further implications and possibly a lesson for how we plan for teaching with and about ICT.

In the world of technology, change is inevitable. New ideas, new ways of working and interacting are driven both by advances in what is possible but also in response to our changing needs and wants. Faster chips, high speed connections and ubiquitous access are creating online communities that invent services to cater for their needs. As the needs of the community change and evolve so new services arise to meet those needs. Sometimes the new service creates a community of users around it, sometimes the service is a response to a community. 

Reader has gone away, not because people no longer want to have a one stop shop for their news but because new services have moved this community of RSS users on to other ideas. Why have a bland page of feeds when Flipboard presents you with a beautiful magazine like interface or Pinterest that provides a compelling experience by tapping straight into our desire for visual stimulation. 

David Winer the alleged inventor of Podcasting (a media distribution system that relies on RSS) says that the average user of the RSS model has moved on to living in a 'River of News'. Unlike RSS where the news is gathered together in one place 'The River of News' model involves watching a stream of news go by and the individual consuming the pieces they want. It is all very fast moving and focused on the immediate. In short it is Twitter. Twitter is not just short in terms of characters, but short in life span. Tweets come and go and the average user might see at best the tweets from the past hour. The perfect news source for the instant gratification, short attention span generation.

Of course Reader is only the latest victim of the pace of change. Some readers might recall MySpace. It had a huge user base, the backing of big names from the world of music and Hollywood and the financial might of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Founded in 2003 it allowed its users to create personalised profile pages to share with the world and in doing so build a community. MySpace was the next big thing, until in 2008 Facebook eclipsed it as the place to be seen on the web. In 2007 MySpace had an estimated value of $12 billion, by 2011 that value had plummeted to between $50 & $200 million.

Today Facebook is king and has over 1 billion active users. Some believe Facebook will survive and along with other tech giants, such as Google and Wikipedia, will survive the next 100 years. But in 2009 Forbes published a list of companies that would survive this timespan. Few would have argued the merit of Eastman Kodak appearing on this list and yet today the company is in receivership and the iconic red and yellow brand that started the careers of so many photographers and was immortalised in song by Simon & Garfunkel is likely to pass from memory. Mark Zuckerberg surely knows he can not rest easy, for Facebook the pressure is to invent the next big thing or be replaced by it.

Google founder and CEO Larry Page understands the need for innovation. His company is famous for the motto, 'Fail Fast'. When interviewed on the importance of 'Moon Shots' (Big New Ideas) he described the difficulties faced by companies that don't think big,

"That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change." (Larry Page interviewed by Steven Levy of Wired) 

These thoughts are echoed by John Herlihy in the quote below courtesy of "Business & Finance" - 

"Part of our culture is that we celebrate failure," says John Herlihy, who heads up Google's European operations centre in Barrow Street. "It's okay to fail here. If you are not failing enough, then you are not taking enough risks. When the Romans used to ransack Europe, they had this fantastic model where they would send scouts out in five different directions. The four that didn't come back, they knew not to go in that direction. So what we do here is fail and fail fast." 

So what does this mean for schools.

Most school systems, by comparison to Tech companies, move at a glacial pace. We invest our time and resources into projects that will take in excess of thirteen years to meet fruition. We plan for our students a journey that will take them from early childhood to adulthood via a series of carefully planned stages. Each phase or stage of learning builds on what went before and prepares them carefully for the one ahead. In maths students are firstly introduced to a set of symbols learning to move their minds and vocal chords around the sounds required to verbalise them. Sometime after they are performing operations with these numbers and are expected to solve simple problems, eventually they will know the inner workings of a complex system of numbers and symbols and face the challenge, if they wish, to discover new ideas where they apply their carefully developed understandings as mathematicians.

But technology challenges this system of carefully planned teaching and learning and lately it has been smashing it to pieces. 

All schools at some stage develop a strategy for teaching through and learning about ICT. We evaluate the needs of our students and the possibilities available to them and design programmes and resource acquisitions around these evaluations. A key part of this is typically the development of a scope and sequence of skills required of all computer users. With great care and diligence we map out a progression of knowledge required from beginner to expert.

Not all that long ago such a goal may have been achievable. Students would need to understand the fundamentals of opening and creating new documents, saving files to a folder and printing final copies. We would teach students how to copy and paste text or images from one file to another or from webpages. As students progressed they may learn keyboard short cuts for some of these operations and move from simple programs to more advanced ones with more options. Many schools taught students to touch type confident that such a skill would be as crucial as handwriting, assured that QWERTY would be with us for a long time to come. Some schools used Windows and so taught the subtle nuances of that system, others used Apple, all seemed to use Office and with that Word and Powerpoint. 

In more recent times schools have started to understand the need for their students to be versatile in their approach to technology. We have made efforts to be platform agnostic. To teach students to understand the common elements between operating systems. To read the symbols that make these platform intuitive to the user. Need to save a file, look for a picture of a disk, a pair of arrows pointing apart enlarges something, pointing together makes it smaller. Software designers tried to help by making icons that looked like items we use in the real world. This is what has come to be known as Skeumorphic design, a strategy that Apple took to extremes under the guidance of Steve Jobs.

But today the pace and scale of change means even these simple skills are of questionable value. 

The first big change to deal with is Touch. With the birth of the iPhone and then the iPad the way we interact with our devices started to shift. What this means for the existing paradigms of Graphic User Interfaces is still to be seen. Windows Eight will introduce its users to a new world of swipes and gestures. Developers for the three major platforms (iOS, Android, Windows 8) are all experimenting with different ways of interacting with their programs. Some aim for single handed use, others two thumbs, some a hybrid of touch and onscreen keyboard. The impact of voice control is yet to be seen. Do we now teach thumb typing and if so do we teach pick & peck or swipe?

With the passing of Steve Jobs even Apple is re-evaluating its passion for Skeumorphic design. Under the guidance of Sir Jony Ives we are set to see a flatter modern interface that takes its cues from a digital world and no longer mimics the physical. This new design language which was perhaps first seen in Windows 8 has few standards or conventions and yet the digital natives who use these devices are still able to discover its secrets.  

Apple has also turned us away from many of our typical routines. Create a new file on an Apple Computer or iOS device and you will discover some big changes. The way we save documents has changed, much of the process is automatic and to the cloud. Other than the first save it all happens without you doing a thing. Close an application and the document is saved in its latest form. As iOS and OSX share more features the features we are used to on our desktop computers will increasingly give way to those we use on our touch based devices, at some point many say the traditional Apple Computer will go away and we will all be using iPads.

Maybe schools should look at Microsoft for a vision of the future, not that Windows 8 is a great success but that here we see a once mighty company struggling to keep up with the pace of change; to discover the next big thing before it runs them over.

Microsoft was once mighty and feared by all. If it released a product into a category already occupied it was certain that the existing product would not survive. Microsoft was late to the internet but with its launch of Internet Explorer it both crushed Netscape and introduced the world to the term 'Anti-trust'. Microsoft has also been late to 'Touch' (it is recognised by the author that this statement belies the complexity of Microsoft's Tablet history). We now see Microsoft reinventing its core product, Windows, and in doing so forcing its users onto a new way of working and interacting. The Start button which has been with us since Windows 95 is gone, despite the many protests. 

Microsoft has launched two products onto the market, one which points to its needs to allow users to slowly transition, the other a sign of where they are going and where they hope to take their users.

Surface RT, is to many the future. It is a stripped bare Tablet operating system. It runs programs only from the Windows Store and is a clear response by Microsoft to the success of the iPad and more recently Android Tablets. Microsoft's other recent release is Surface Pro, a touch screen computer running a full version of Windows 8. It will run existing Windows programs and offers a traditional desktop environment although with no start button. The question is which product will survive, RT or Pro. My money is with RT, the Real Thing, the future, but not what we predicted. 

Presently the future for Windows 8 is bleak. It is unpopular and has been branded by many a fail of the same magnitude as Vista. For those without Touch it is difficult to use and breaks many traditional workflows so much loved by power users. Many tech pundits are already looking ahead to Windows 9 as the saviour. Others are looking to alternatives. Many users are quite happy with their Tablets or Phablets running Android or iOS. In a twist from the trajectory that technology was on, speed and power are of less importance than portability and convenience. The best device is the one you have with you.

Google has other plans. Their Chromebook computer runs no software besides a web browser. All services and file storage is provided via the cloud. The device and its significance as the holder of the users information and programs is removed entirely. For the user all that matters is their Google login as with this they have access to their digital world as they want it, on any device. Switch from one Chromebook to another and the experience you have with it will be identical to the one you have with your Chromebook. For a user coming from a traditional computer paradigm this presents numerous challenges but for the new user or one who has already shifted life to the cloud the experience is very smooth. For the up and coming generation of Digital Natives the demands of maintaing an expensive set of software on a bulky virus prone device are easily shed in favour of devices that just get them to their stuff, their community, their online life.

So how should schools approach ICT? What can we realistically hope to achieve for our students?

Instead of starting with the tool we need to first look at the purposes we wish to achieve. Learning any skill or piece of knowledge has no value if it is not to be applied to a meaningful task and the use of technology is no different. When looked at this way the constant changes to the tools available has little impact; the purposes remain the same. Our students will always need to Inquire, to use the resources available to them, to locate information that helps them to answer questions about their world. They will Create, taking their ideas and transforming them into products in many different forms across multiple mediums. They will Collaborate with peers both face-to-face, one-to-one and as a part of much larger communities that cross borders and cultures. They will Communicate for many different purposes and in many ways. These are the purposes that do not change and that as educators we need to include in our teaching.

But what skills should we teach? Computer Games and $1.99 apps for Tablets may have the answer.

Computer games face three challenges of design in that they must be easy to learn, instantly engaging yet sufficiently challenging to maintain the players interest. If a game is too hard for a novice user they will move on to something that offers less resistance. If the game does not offer a challenge the user will become bored or will finish the game too quickly. Good games manage this challenge well and are able to engage the player from first game through many hours of committed use. Great games balance ease of use with increasing complexity, immediate feedback and high levels of engagement. Developers of productivity software could and in some cases are learning much from game developers.

With the launch of the iTunes App store developers had a new market to tap with the $1.99 App. In this market the user has made a very minimal commitment to the App they have just purchased. If it is not immediately engaging, if it does not give instant satisfaction and results they will move on with little regret. The user of the $1.99 app has not committed sufficient coin to the purchase to warrant time spent learning it. The developers know this and the result is that only the apps which are easy to use and quickly meet the users needs will succeed.

Watch a child play a game or use an iPad and you will see how quickly they discover the workings of it. Discovery, inquiry, exploration and engagement combine to ensure rapid learning. The same is not true of programs like Office, but are these programs going to survive into the future. Already suffering because of their reliance on mouse and keyboard in a world of touch, these traditional stalwarts that rely on users taking courses and reading manuals are surely short lived.

So we teach our students to understand the purposes which ICT may assist with, we foster discovery and exploration and we assist our students to locate software and services that meet their needs. As users we demand with our purchasing power apps that meet our needs without imposing a steep learning curve.  It was once said that if you give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a life time. Today this has changed, now we must teach our students to teach themselves how to fish in waters where the fish learn new skills for dodging hooks on a daily basis.

By Nigel Coutts

Early Days with a Chromebook

For sometime now I have wanted to experiment with a Chromebook, to take on the challenge of living and working in the cloud. Until recently though the purchase of a Chromebook in Australia was not easy but this changed when Google announced local availability. A quick visit to the local JB HiFi and I became the owner of a Samsung Chromebook and a wallet that was only $346 lighter than before.

The experience of purchasing the Chromebook is worthy of some comment. The customers ahead of me were a father and daughter looking for a laptop and asking the clerk about the Chromebook. After a number of somewhat failed attempts to demonstrate what the computer could do he described the device to the pair as being just like a Windows or Mac computer but made running Google's software. I wonder how many people will be told this and leave with a device that they believe will run Word and Photoshop just like any other laptop. How many will then protest that their Chromebook doesn't perform as expected. I hope those charged with selling the product receive the support they need to do a good job of it and that Chromebooks wind up in the right hands.

Unboxing and setting up the Chromebook was unlike any computer I have used before. The box is very thin and light and the manual had fewer pages than a recently purchased toaster despite covering multiple languages. After an initial charging period I turned the computer, typed in my Google login, connected to WiFi and was immediately into my online world of bookmarks and previously opened tabs. A little time spent on the Chrome Web Store and I had access to the core Apps I use such as Evernote, DropBox and Skydrive. It was all very uneventful, no need to find discs of software or wait while software was installed. After 30 minutes of exploration it was as ready to go as it ever will be. With no work to do I put it down and went to make coffee. Such a very different experience from setting up my last Mac which provided hours of 'entertainment' as I installed all my bits and pieces.

So now I am using it for an increasing number of daily tasks and in most ways it is meeting expectation. All but one which is requiring a little rethink. I have used DropBox for years as my cloud storage option. It gives me access to all my files across all my different devices. On my computers I have it set to sync locally stored files so I always have access to the latest version of the files I work with. I can also access my files on the web and the DropBox app for the Chromebook is great too. Except that I don't have a way to edit my files and keep them updadted through DropBox. I have access to Live Office and Google Docs but neither gives me access to my DropBox files so for now I am shuffling files back and forth.

If I was starting over I would use either Google Docs or Skydrive for my cloud storage as both offer editing options for all my files. As I am rather committed to DropBox I am hoping to find a workflow that works with that.

In Other areas I am very impressed. Evernote unsurprisingly works very well and I can edit and publish my websites with ease. I like the keyboard and the new web centric buttons make life easier, or will once I get used to having them avaialble, I am still looking for the refresh button on screen even though I have a key for that exact job. I am getting to know the system a little better and have changed the way I work with Tabs so I can easily shift between workspace with a keyboard press rather than having to mouse between them.

I like that the device is light weight even though it is a little heavier than my Mac and while it is very plasticy it was very cheap and I am happy using it in places where I would be less relaxed using my Mac.

It is only early days but I like my Chromebook and can see how for many people it could be the perfect computer.

By Nigel Coutts

Pocket - Formerly Read It Later

So often when browsing the web you come across a great article that you don't have the time to read then and there. Other times the page is so distracting that it is not easy to read. For some people reading long form documents is something they prefer to do on a tablet device either and iPad or a similar device running Windows or Android.

Pocket is the answer to all these situations. Install the browser add on and use this to 'Pocket' any site you want to read later. Install the free app on your mobile device/tablet and link this to your pocket account to access the sites you have pocketed.

Pocket allows you to choose between an easy to read version of the site or the option of viewing the full site.

For students this could be a great option for research. They can develop a workflow where they skim read a site, evaluate its relevance and reliability and if they feel it is worth reading in detail they Pocket it to read and reference later.

Visit the Pocket Website to get started


Teach the art of Searching

It is often said that the downside of a free and open web is the challenge it presents to find reliable sources with the information you need. As teachers we need to show our students how to Search, to provide them with skills and strategies so the search engine does the heavy lifting for them.

Google recognises this and has provided a site for teachers that includes teaching resources, tips, daily challenges and live training all aimed at maximising the quality of the results returned for any search.

Read a review by Ed Tech

Visit Google Search Education


Popcorn Maker - Annotate Web Video

Popcorn Maker makes it easy to enhance, remix and share web video. Use your web browser to combine video and audio with content from the rest of the web — from text, links and maps to pictures and live feeds.

The web is full of educational video and the trend towards flipping the classroom is expanding, but how can you be sure your students are picking up on the key messages. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to comment on what is being watched or even add further details to it.

Popcorn Maker allows you to do this and by linking your additions to the web you can create a video lesson backed by any web based resource. Popcorn Maker is powered by Mozilla, is free and works with all major online video sources including TedTalks, Youtube and Vimeo.


Realtime Board

Realtime Board is a new service that provides users with a Whiteboard like page for sharing ideas, and collaborating on projects. It is highly visual and allows you to place comments  pictures, diagrams, documents, or notes onto an expanding board and then share this with team members. When you are ready you can use Realtime Board to create a presentation of the ideas controlling what your audience sees in a manner not unlike Prezi.

Realtime Board integrates with Google Drive providing easy access to your documents and allowing you to edit them with ease.

Realtime Board should work nicely in a classroom setting allowing students to collaborate ona project from anywhere and having the results available to all over the internet or via the Smartboard. It is presently in a Beta version and is free.