Don’t panic: Ask the gamers for help

Warning: This post contains important information about COVID-19 and online schools. Some teachers might find this distressing and choose to waste a few more days trying to get Adobe Connect to work. However, if you want a fast and easy online space up in less time it will take to read this rubbish … welcome to the server.


All this fuss about closing bricks and mortar schools is distressing. It’s also a timely reminder of how the billions (yes billions) which has flowed into the pockets of “EdTech” which is a long, drawn out crash site of experiments and failures.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of how poorly prepared western schools are for working at arms length, let alone ‘online’ in a meaningful way.

Today, I was informed my students need to be 1.5m apart.  – This is of course impossible. The message was telegraphed and then ignored due to pragmatics. Kids carried on in exactly the same way – because the paraphernalia of school was unchanged.

Schools are not ready of ‘online’ in the sense that few are able to meet students at the intersection of youth communications and actual usage. This results in dull conversations as to whether Google Classrooms “will do” or “can I just email it in”. A direct result of Audrey’s shit show of edtech.

95% of teachers are perhaps familiar with, or using, Ista, Email and FB with their friends and family, re-sharing photos of dogs or inspirational quotes.

95% of kids are online in Discord because they know it’s a productive way to save time and improve your chances of success and enjoyment.

Yep, Discord: That means every kid in you class can (or knows someone who can) use it right now.

They can also show you. You don’t need to panic or waste more time and money on “edtech” just because you’re a special snowflake teacher who only uses ‘teacher’ apps.

Just get your kids to create a server and relax. It took mine less than a minute and they are all over it.


The HSC of the future?

As I am currently travelling between edu-realms, working and teaching in Higher Ed and K12, it is impossible not to notice how the role communications now plays in widening the gap between “winners” and “losers” though the ongoing marketisation of education in this wide brown land. Today, as I walked out of Central Station, a dozen ‘promotional girls’ in gym pants and t-shirts were passing out leaflets in front of motor scooters hauling mobile bill boards. None seemed to pick up the leaflets disinterested punters dropped as they crossed the road.

They were promoting a ‘school’ called Talent 100, founded by some guy with a perfect ATAR result who will, for a fee, share his secrets of success as you enroll on a course, from year 9 onwards. All over the site are slick promotions which reduce learning to a systematic process of getting the highest grades by working ‘smarter’ not ‘harder’.

I tried to find any reference to scholarship in the website and failed. I did find a page listing the schools and the students who scored highly, which is yet more commodification of children. Glance down the list and you’ll soon notice that not only are these students “enrolled” here, but they are also enrolled at many of Sydney’s elite private schools too. Are we at that point where even the rich schools who are speeding away with funding, resources and staff now also need additional coaching services to reach that magic ATAR and get into the increasingly expensive Universities?

Just how wide is the gap between public and private and neoprivate ‘results orientated’ education. Should students be disqualified from sitting the HSC as they are clearly ‘cheating’ the vast majority of society out of the Australian “fair-go”.

In over a decade of being “online” it remains painfully obvious that despite the advocacy and brow beating, EdTech clearly favours those with money, while the public system is hamstrung by antiquated human-resource policies, staffing arrangements and dwindling pool of technological resources and staff (many who leave to join private schools or align with brands).

At what point could this service become an ‘open’ and staffed by teachers who simply want success for our society? Is this what the young chap who’s founded this wants? — is results driving his passion, or just eyeing off a market-place of parents whom value drill and skill learning, memorising and model answers? Are these students going to take society forward? … well the research into Higher Education success says no, but the marketing says yes.

I once thought that “online” would be a place teachers settled and created learning spaces for kids whom don’t have the kind of life advantages of neoprivate education — but it seems unlikely now, there are powerful factions, groups and alliances which present little in the way of ‘open education’ values of possibilities. Even ACEC (the IT Teachers annual convention is some $800) and needs imported speakers to flog tickets, which is another example of the barriers being created by the market-driven reforms of the last 20 years.

It makes me wonder if I should just buy-into this BS, like I buy a car which I’ll ditch in a few years. Take the financial hit and comply for each of my kids. Buying an education seems no different to buying an iPhone 6 when you have an iPhone 4 these days. Where do you think this will head in the next decade?

Using Duck Duck Go for more private search

I know there are many search engines which offer alternatives to Google. I also know that Google has become a verb and that most people gravitate to it without too much concern about why Google is showing you this particular information (and ads) and how much of what you do is shared with it’s vast network. With Google search embedded into corporate websites for search too — it seems that even if you go direct to a site, chances are your search, location and history is shared for future commercial interests.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 12.35.20 PMWhy am I showing you Duck Duck Go then? Well first up, it’s a Google friendly search layer, which says it doesn’t share your information with Google. I use a VPN a lot of the time, and Google hates it. One reason to use Duck Duck Go seems to be less whining from Google about “we can’t tell who you are”. Next up, it integrates into Chrome with ease. Lastly, it’s fast and has some user-friendly options to help filter your experience. I’ve started to notice, ironically via Google Analytics that Duck Duck Go appears more and more often as an organic search origin. Admittedly my traffic is very small, but never the less people do seem to be using it. A recent article in the Guardian broadens out their business model if you’re interested.

For parents and educators, the choice about where to go to find information as well as the tools used to do is not limited to Apple, Google or Microsoft. While I recognised the marketing mission to see these things installed in schools as firmly as bells and stackable chairs — Duck Duck Go as a default browser will disrupt commercial agendas — and the results of the search are far less media-laden.

Notice what it calls BANGS. These are things you can toggle on an off as sources for the search itself. There are hundreds to choose from, including those we know people use most often. One thing which is really useful is “Show Meanings”.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 12.35.45 PMWe know from research that first-page results has a huge influence on people’s perceptions of information-importance. It’s also the central mechanism Google use to eek out money from advertisers. To get on the first page (CPC) search requires money. You’d be amazed how much, even for obscure terms. The lucky highest bidder will be surrounded by secondary advertising too, so ultimately even if you rank first, you’re never alone. For students, it’s very distracting at best.

Simply displaying information differently — like this — will cause students to wonder why it’s not the same as Google, and that is an opportunity. One way to expand this important realisation is to talk about “The bubble” which Google puts people inside. A great way to do that is to look at the “Don’t Bubble Us” site, which has some great (simple) example graphics to talk about.

I wish I’d had more of this kind of technology several years ago. Tools such as Duck Duck Go would have been in my SOE because ethically there are HUGH issues with the commercialisation of children though technology (and information). The idea that information — what you can and can’t see should be based on your current circumstances, location and available history is as dark as any dystopian novel has eluded to. I am not saying avoid commercial tools — but do come up with an argument as to why not positively considering alternatives to Google Search is “good practice” and not just “yes, I told them”.

Why Windows Surface will replace iPads in schools

Okay, the title is provocative, but with the demise of Netbooks many schools are fumbling around with iPads as the natural successor. I’ve always said wait. I said wait last year to the CEO in Sydney and though pilots are a good thing, the iPad remains to me a ‘near future’ investment, as few IT departments have had time to establish the kind of processes and methods they have with Windows. Slow down, Wall Marts open all night.

Here’s why, and I’ll try to be concise. Apple’s business model is not to network people or schools – it is to connect paying consumers to it’s legion of app-developers. iPads are not designed to work on local networks – classrooms are. iPads deployment is volatile and the owner is a constant hostage to numerous ‘update’ demands. There is this insanity that Apple create workflows – and if you have enough apps you can build a Dreamliner on the train to work. Ahem …

So why the Surface?

  1. It is a real 64bit computer. It runs a nippy i5 processor with 4gb Ram
  2. It’s 10.6 inches, so looks and feels like a MacBook Air not an iPad
  3. It has real ports – microSDXC, USB3.0, Mini Display (HDMI)
  4. It has 128gb storage and a respectable 1920 x 1080 display
  5. It can be on a workgroup!
  6. It can use shared drives, have multiple user accounts and the kind of networking that schools like – student drives, teacher drives – the stuff that schools do well now.
  7. It has a ‘desktop’ and you can install things or image things – so you can fleet manage it without massive changes in work-practice.
  8. It plays Minecraft proper. And Steam, and Warcraft … so it’s going to grind though anything your school will actually allow to be installed.
  9. It has Narrator – which works really well for accessibility.
  10. It has Office – get over it, no school is going to give up Word and One Note anytime soon, and you can still use Dropbox and Google Apps, so don’t cry just yet.
  11. It has front and rear 720p HD cameras – I had it ustreaming and skyping at ver respectable quality, mirrored to a projector (standard classroom spec).
  12. it supports pen input. I know we all have fingers, but pens have proven popular with humans for hundreds of years too.
  13. It uses the metro ‘media’ interace for casual browsing and workflows, which feels way more fluid than iOS and if you are an Xbox user, you’ll know exactly how the system works. OR, press the ‘desktop’ tile and even the most un-interested teacher will recognise the familiar computer desktop.
  14. The 128gb version has 83gb of storage, which is more than enough for a thousand PowerPoints and essays.
  15. The one I’ve been testing has managed 6 hours on battery – enough for the school day!

Now the downside. Apple has provided many eLearning people with a fairly easy new ‘expert’ badge. Knowing about iPads and apps – pulling an off the cuff ‘oh, have you seen’ has enabled them to have a point of difference which they believe sets them apart from the regular Joe. However, most 8 year olds can read and use an iPad too, so I’ve never been impressed with iPad experts unless they’ve actually made an app or had an original idea.

So Apple iPad-ism will popular right now. The RT version of the Surface sold a mere million units in the last quarter of the year. This is due to the iPad compare and issues with Microsoft’s distribution, and early media bagging of the 23gig storage left over after RT was installed. Windows store is a ghost-town and Metro takes some getting used to (unless of course you’ve played an Xbox as millions of people/kids have).

The desktop interface is clunky, not quite useless, but hardly what XP users will be used to in your school. However, Metro boots Office nicely and in our Office no one really complained one they swiped right and booted Word. It was like someone opened the Window (pun) and in came some fresh air. It’s a tablet thats a laptop, but will slave to a desktop monitor and churn out school and university fare all day.

For most schools, the touch cover will be ‘okay’ and is essential to get the most out of the Surface experience. Things feel solid, there are click sounds – which are re-assuring, especially to those we work with who rely on audible feedback when using technology.

It took me a few days to get used to using the keyboard, but I liked it. I liked the Charms bar for navigation and loved the ability to arrange tiles into groups. Tiles being buttons which act as buttons to do things, like open a browser. If you have got an Xbox, Metro feels good and perhaps amplifies the clunky use of the ‘desktop’ interface, where tapping red ‘x’ buttons to close windows feels like a trip down memory lane. But – for those people I showed it to who have not be ‘iPad-ified’ yet, they didn’t say much about it at all. They largely ignored Metro and went back to their XP habits. Fair enough, as long as they use it right?

There are things Microsoft will work on. Apps (which for the most part schools don’t need), Video, Music and Games – which obviously they’d like you to buy as Apple does. However – for IT departments, these things can be disabled and made to go away. Even better if your school has NAS devices for audio and video, just hook into that … so play HD video around the LAN not over the cloud (saves time, money and frustration).

Reviews have said IE10 is sluggish – and of course it’s totally uncool these days. I did some load tests against a Macbook Air (Firefox) and Ipad 3 (Safari) and YouTube videos were marginally slower. However – what I’m saying is YouTube is banned most places, and the more sensible schools are running NAS servers with local streaming these days anyway – so videos are part of that place we called the Library. General websites opened just as fast in my opinion … and those using HTML5 with responsive designs loaded with less hassles than I’ve found on my iPad. So the web was not a slow-painful experience as some reports have suggested in my view.

The cameras do the job. They are not pro-sumer by any means, but for the kind of thing that kids might need them for in labs or assignments, both the video and still worked fine.

The question is – would I buy them for a school? Yes. Schools don’t have the capacity to buy into Apples vending machines in my opinion, and culturally parents and students don’t know how to create the kind of academic workflow needed, in the time eLearning gurus would like them to. I still believe great computing will come from renovating computer labs with decent, high end machines as well as a reformation of the geriatric IST, SDD, IPT and ITVET courses would do wonders.

So yes, I would buy them – despite the $1000 price tag for the 128gb model. Because as someone who’s designed and ran IT systems for 1000 plus kids and teachers on a network, the fact they can be workgrouped, managed and do the kinds of things that get kids though exams (not novelties acts at teach-meets) is the imperative.

I haven’t seen a Chromebook, but have serious reservations about thin-client machines in school or university networks. They never really worked well on a LAN let alone a cloud – and roaming profiles just lagged everything … so to me I still like my data on my network and my machines or use a VPN for teachers who are working at home for data.

More the point, I would not buy iPad minis (cost/desire) or iPads for the $369-$549. To me iPads are a bit like Alfa Romeos in the 80s. On a good day they are brilliant, but most of the time, you’re spending time and money maintaining them. There’s nothing more annoying in modern life than Apple’s relentless demands for passwords, syncing (most people wipe more than they transfer) and of course massive updates which progressively render the device with arthritis.

The CLOUD belongs to corporations – and subject to capture, abduction, outages and costs. To me the Surface presents somewhat of a hybrid device, which I could see lasting for the kind of time a school now needs – due to the end of IT funding. It also means that I could run intranets with HTML5 apps that will work to do all sorts of trick things to make kids and teacher lives easier. Yes Metro is ‘cloud’ ambitious, but the fact it’s not there yet actually feels okay to me.

The reality is that right now Apple is ‘cool’ and Windows is not. However Xbox is cool and as a first release, the have many aspects of legacy systems and infrastructure that can be more realistically handled by current IT departments. I realise many iPad advocates live in the ‘near future’ so to them the Surface will appear less – but I think different doesn’t mean less. I guess that’s why no ones asking me to design school networks … the crazy fools … designing a device for learning is like looking at the Harbour Bridge for a distance of three inches.

So 15 arguments for the Surface … and as iPads are not in schools to the kind of ‘spin’ the near-futurists claim … it might just be with more frugal times ahead, some clever school network managers might just find them just the thing to stop the tail wagging the dog.

Minecraft Dilemma

Minecraft Dilemma

A school in Sweden has made Minecraft compulsory. Settle down, this is a headline – Minecraft didn’t become a subject like Maths or Science, just another ‘thing’ schools make kids do during some appointed time. Mums against Minecraft will be horrified still.

This is a dilemma, as it’s impossible to make learning compulsory, however I get the point that as an immersive experience, some students would perhaps find it of use. How you’d measure that is another matter – especially as standardized tests are lump-hammers. Other comments immediately called for ‘evidence’ that it would be edumacational. A standard volley these days, but indicative of the cultural assumption that other parts of academic activities are more educational. This is the belief that what has proven true in the past is stable and improvements can be made every year.

I am not denying the nobility of that idea, but as this comment reflects, schools seem to assume while technology is useful in modernity, and notionally see this as ‘computer assisted learning’ – they remain unable to deal with the potential that it is only now that accepted educational theory from respected scholars like Dewey and Pappert can be leveraged though well designed games. Note that I am talking about ‘networked independence’ and ‘learning’ – not ‘teaching’ as an act.

I am also not suggesting that this would be true for all learners, or that having an adult teach something is not a worth while and valid part of childhood development – far from it – as there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise, though like games, there is no universal truism. For many kids (one of my own) not understanding how he learns, means he will tune-out. Many teachers do this too, “oh, video-games … I can’t learn anything from those” … and tune out too.

Tune back in – it may well be that kids can play games in learning episodes that don’t rely on teacher’s to police it, or put it in a lesson-cage at a certain time of day. This again is well documented in early childhood research. Games are useful for learning in many ways – however the outstanding problem with schools and teachers is pedagogy – something that remains dominated by teachers. Game design remains dominated by imagination and controversy – as games are also a form of art.

Art is education. Playing a guitar teaches you many things, and draws the learner into ever deeper learning. It is only objective bias that argues, picking up a game controller is time-wasting entertainment – mostly in order to deny the possibility that a more of the school-day can be given over to greater freedom of choice, liberty and art – not less. I do advocate for Minecraft, but endorse the sentiment in this comment completey. Learning is not better is you put it in a straight jacket and assume a teacher has to teach it.

I argue this lack of attention to games, and right now Minecraft is part of the reason parents are picking up the heat at home and concerned about the amount of time kids are playing it. When they think ‘is this learning’ – they imagine what learning looks like. If it looks like lessons, cells and bells – then you know what most will decide.

Games like Minecraft are a role model for how learning could occur – and schools as a function of society still refuse to accept their resistance to change the day to day regime is setting a bad example to kids and parents. Teachers are a function of school, so it’s futile to say they ‘don’t get it’. They do a good job, inside the parenthesis of the job. When people say “I’m stuck in traffic, the correct reply is, no … you are the traffic”. This to me is the  impass in educational technology right now. The gurus that espoused Web2.0 can’t see past it – because web2.0 dogma is based on computer assisted learning. You can sell that to schools, but clearly you can’t sell it to all teachers and only a handful of students.

Great to see Minecraft in schools – but better to see schools operate more like Minecraft.