ICT related news and ideas

BETTer at ExCel?

The annual visit to the BETT exhibition took place on Friday last, a couple of weeks later in the calendar than usual and at a new venue, the ExCel centre in place of dear old Olympia. Bit harder to get at by car, so we went up by train, which made for a rather more relaxing and sociable experience. The traditional lunchtime jaunt to the Persian restaurant or the pub with Thai food were sadly off the menu in these new surroundings, but we did find a fair substitute – might have been The Tavern, but can’t quite remember – which served up a pretty decent pint of bitter and 70s-style scampi and chips.

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So what was new this year? Well, I suppose there was no real sense of the next big thing about this year’s exhibition. Rather it was about further development, particularly of mobile devices and resources designed for that format. So lots of tablets and hybrids everywhere, many inspired by the recent arrival of the new Windows 8 OS. I especially liked the look of the sleek and shiny Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro, which sports its own stylus in the style of the Galaxy Note, making for a much better writing experience than with the more usual fat-tipped capacitive pens. But, as I suspect you could need a small mortgage to buy one, it might be better to settle for one of the other more affordable – but still sleek and shiny – alternatives.

In the afternoon I thought I should check out where the book publishers are up to in terms of developing e-book (horrible word!) alternatives to the school textbook. The much trumpeted RM Bookshelf has finally actually arrived but has a long way to go to before it becomes the one-stop shop it sets out to be. Hodder’s Dynamic Learning is kind of getting there but is still a bit stuck in the ‘let’s pdf the printed book and call it an e-book’ mode. The best progress, I think, is being made by Pearson whose Active Teach is much more like it, offering something truly interactive and flexible which could see the textbook heading for the recycling bin. We linguists already enjoy the interactive resources that go with the Expo and Logo courses, for example, and Active Teach takes these the next logical step forwards.

I was encouraged by the responses to my questions about pricing for these resources which indicate that there will be definite cost savings as the e-book (can we please stop calling it that?) replaces the traditional textbook. On the other hand, it was a tad depressing to think that, at this critical moment in the development of such resources, Mr Gove and his back-to-the-future reforms threaten to hold the whole thing up because of the need for publishers to adapt to new, hastily cobbled together specifications.

So, there we are for another year. Big, buzzy, captivating and confusing, BETT remains the definitive day out for the technophile within us, and its new location hasn’t changed anything about that.

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I have been using Office 2013 preview version for a while now on my main laptop and, more recently, on the Surface tablet and have been pretty impressed with this new iteration of the world’s most-used productivity suite. Much improved interface, effective integration with the cloud and a raft of small but very satisfying improvements in the way things work. Now it’s not for me to provide an in-depth review of all this: plenty of other more important people have done so already and a quick flick through the search engine results will provide hours of reading on the subject. I just wanted to flag up one little change that might prove useful for the hard-pressed teacher or, indeed, student, and that is the new Insert Online Picture command.

INSERT ONLINE PICTURE

This option now appears on the Insert tab in PowerPoint, Word and even Excel next to the more familiar Picture one and gives you the dialogue as shown in the screenshot above.You can choose from your own images on Skydrive or Flickr (which you add as a source) or from Bing search or the Office.com image bank (this is basically an improved version of the old ClipArt option). There is indeed some clipart on the latter site, which is probably best ignored, but there is a surprising wealth of good photographic imagery of decent file size available there too. And this is the clever bit: it’s royalty free and can be used without worrying about rights issues. Unless you want to start selling the images, of course. The best bit of this new command is that the Bing search defaults to Creative Commons licensed images (you can click to check the details of the licensing if you’re need to), which is clever,  or you can expand it to catch any image on the web.

All of which is neatly done and potentially a time saver, especially if you are trying to stay on the right side of copyright issues. And we should all be doing that, especially if you intend to share your work on  the web.

YouTube in PowerPoint

Now how to embed a YouTube video in PowerPoint might not exactly be breaking news, but the reason it came to my attention again was that, in preparing for a training presentation last week, I discovered to my horror that the ‘old embed code’ option had been removed from YouTube. Cue non-functional embedded videos.

So, a few days after that, having abandoned demonstrating embeds, I set out to see if the old-school and rather more complicated way still worked. In discovering it did, I was even more pleased (if rather puzzled) to find out that the ‘old embed code’ option had returned to YouTube as mysteriously as it had disappeared.The result? I was now reassured that there are two ways to embed a YouTube video in PowerPoint and both work.

If you click on the menu button (second from right) on the embedded player above and choose Download a copy you can find out the details of both methods by watching in slideshow mode. You will probably need to enable editing and then enable content to get the real deal. If you haven’t got PowerPoint running or just want the quick fix there is a pdf version here.

21st century classroom

It may be taken from an Australian site and presumably based on Australian data, but I like this infographic from the Open Colleges site on what makes for an effective teaching and learning environment in the early 21st century.Full size is here.

Components of a 21st Century Classroom – An infographic by the team at Open Colleges

remote control

mzl_hofjqivhWhen the machine you are using hasn’t got all the capabilities you need, what do you do? Well, go and use one that does. And when it’s not where you are? No problem, access it via remote control. We have grown used to this in a desktop / laptop environment, but it works for devices such as the iPad too. With a view to extending the otherwise rather ringfenced capabilities of said device, I thought I would try out some possibilities in the form of PocketCloud, LogMeIn and TeamViewer.

The last mentioned we can pretty much discount immediately, as it worked once then turned flaky and resisted all efforts to get it to work again. In any case, it was perhaps less impressive than the other two contenders. The basic premise is the same in all instances: download the app to the iPad and another program to the machine you want to control, set up an account (or use your Google one for PocketCloud) and make the connection. In all cases this was very straightforward and I was remote controlling within minutes.

In all honesty there isn’t much difference in terms of functionality, and both PocketCloud and LogMeIn do what they say on the tin. There are some small adjustments to get used to, such as using two fingers to scroll rather than one or double tapping and holding before you drag an object on screen. Pinch and zoom works just fine in both instances, and the overall experience is good. So you really can do whatever you like on your iPad. Sort of. At a distance.

In the end it comes down to the detail. PocketCloud wins on the toolbar front, as its clever toolbar can be hidden or on display as required. 1-0 PocketCloud. Both keyboards are perfectly useable. The LogMeIn one has a toggle button to acccess arrow keys and F keys, but PocketCloud rather trumps this by having an excellent keyboard (with optional input area) plus a mouse button that pulls up all the usual keyboard shortcuts. 2-0 PocketCloud. Both have a floating mouse that allows for accurate onscreen action, but the LogMeIn version is just that – a mouse – whereas PocketCloud give you not just a rather better designed tool (try it and you’ll see what I mean), but the shortcuts mentioned above along with a brilliant button that allows single fingered scrolling. Plus quick pull-up of the keyboard. 3-0 PocketCloud.

And the winner is …….. well, clearly PocketCloud, isn’t it? Hmm. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that, while LogMeIn doesn’t mind where it goes, PocketCloud is frightened off by network scenarios, where the machine you want to control remotely is hidden behind a proxy server. Wyse have said that this will be fixed, but no sign of them living up to their word, which was given quite some time ago.

So, for networks, you are stuck with LogMeIn (other tools are, however, available), which will be perfectly serviceable. But, if you can, go for PocketCloud, which – for me at least – is a clear winner. In fact I am using it right now in writing this post. ‘Nuff said.

Came across this rather nice infographic which compares the relative costs of deploying iPads to replace textbooks.

Ok, the statistics and the numbers are US-based, but we can assume some degrees of similarity in translating them for the UK. Interesting and food for thought as the debate develops.

iPads vs. Textbooks
Created by: Online Teaching Degree

 

Hands-on learning

I was interested recently, as I am sure a lot of us were, to read about developments in gesture control technology, which will soon see us control a wide range of devices, and not just our games consoles, by hand and finger movement. Some of the headlines rather exaggerated the matter by suggesting the imminent demise of the touchscreen. Well, I suspect that’s probably not true, and a good job, too, as I think the touchscreen is set to be one of the important keys to effective learning.

How so? Well, one of the the thorns in the side of so called e- learning has long been that the traditional read > write notes > remember sequence has struggled to retain its effectiveness in the transition from book and paper to the computer screen. This is because we are at heart tactile, touchy feely creatures and making notes by using a keyboard can’t quite replace the hands-on feel of pen on paper. The keyboard still separates us from our on-screen source of information.

Which is where the touch screen comes in. Just look at the success of the Kindle, which allows you to retain the sense of handling your reading material, or the iPad and its various imitators, on which the reading experience is made more immediate and engaging than on a traditional screen simply because you are in physical contact with it. And these tablet -style devices have the capability to make our note taking experience just as involving just as soon as they get their handwriting recognition properly sorted out. It’s still not great, but it must get better. If I can do it on my Windows 7 powered touchscreen netbook, you ought to be able to do it on an iPad!

Learning is certainly set to be revolutionised by tablet-style devices over the next few years. And my hope is that they will allow for the reinvention of effective learning by note taking and so finally put paid to the argument that you can’t learn properly by reading from a screen.