ICT related news and ideas

Paper-free MFL

Scrunched up paperTwo or three years ago, fed up with carting piles of exercise books to and from school, I ditched them in favour of homework completed and submitted electronically, using Acrobat.com(like Google docs but much nicer). I haven’t looked back since. About the same time, I tried with a small teaching set to go completely paper free. The Asus 7 inch eee pc netbooks were all the rage and we had some of those. Which were fine, even when Marietta tried pouring orange juice over the keyboard of her machine. That project died a death for two reasons: (1) my taking a sabbatical part way through the year, and (2) the failure of the existing wireless network in School to get anyway close to working.

So the installation of what seems to be a highly effective wireless network over the summer break and the School’s plans to run a number of mobile device pilots this year rekindled my enthusiasm and made me think about giving the paper-free thing another go.

The plan? To see if you can teach a modern language without the teacher or the students using paper in the process. Can we do it? Who knows, but we are going to give it a go.

Those interested can follow our brave attempt on our blog paperfreemfl. Advice from anyone on the same journey or who has successful experience of doing this would be most welcome!

To Kill A Textbook

In school today in the run up to next term, I was really pleased to note that the installation over the summer break of enterprise grade wireless across the school site appears to have been successful. Phone and laptop were picking up a strong signal in various locations where previously it was weak or non-existent. So the opportunities to try and go mobile and paper-free might be becoming real at last.

South Korea has had much publicity of late for its digital textbook project (they’ve been at it since 2007!). And Amazon have been getting in on the act with their Kindle textbook rental scheme in the US. We have got a bit further to go yet here in the UK, I suspect, but the tongue-in-cheek infographic below from Schools.com might give us some encouragement in the meantime!

Students prefer digital textbooks
Courtesy of: Schools.com

Plus ça change …..

With all the brouhaha over the last twelve months about the various incarnations of tablet-style devices and their application in the classroom, it has actually been quite interesting to note that the ‘device’ that appears to win most favour with students themselves is the strictly old-tech mini whiteboard. They just love using these within the context of a lesson and their inherent flexibility offers lots of scope to do so. Yet isn’t the mini whiteboard just the slate of the Victorian (and earlier) classroom in another guise?

Since, however, we are, at KEVI and elsewhere, seriously pondering the introduction of mobile devices into our classrooms, I found this potted history of the pad / slate / tablet a helpful and clear illustrative account of how we got where we are today.

History of ed tech
Courtesy of: OnlineSchools.com


Translation Add-ons

Now web page translation, which is these days down to a pretty slick art, is all very well for those who just want to grab the content of a foreign-language web page, but it’s not really for us or our students. What we (and they) need is a tool that aids not just understanding but learning, and that means something that will provide the meaning of individual words by hovering or clicking on them. Now Babylon is undoubtedly the best such tool out there, but it is a bit pricey and frustratingly restricted to a single machine per licence. So I thought I’d have a look at what can be done by browser add-ons and have selected my best bet in each case.

IE8 Translation

The bad news for Opera buffs like me is that there basically isn’t anything that is much good at all for this otherwise lovely browser. Grrrr. IE8 doesn’t really fare much better either. Right click on a highlighted word and hovering over Translate with Bing will just about do the job, but it’s a bit clunky and the translations rather perfunctory. Could do better just about sums it up. See image above.

Chrome Translate

Things are rather better for Chrome  afficionados, who are a growing band these days. Not surprising, as it’s a pretty nice browser, despite its handling of bookmarks being less than brilliant. Install the Google Dictionary  extension and double clicking on a word will pull up a translation (or Wikipedia entry) in a neat little pop-up. Automatic language recognition is built in, so it pretty much looks after itself, though this feature can on occasion lead to it getting a bit confused! See image above.

Now I’m not always Firefox‘s biggest fan, but I think that in this face-off it just about takes the top spot with its Babelfish add-on. This performs pretty much like the Chrome translator, but I’ll give it the nod for its greater flexibility, as you can manage the languages and various other options with some precision. Overall, it does a good job and is really easy to use. See image above.

So there you have it. I can’t vouch for Safari, as I’m not a Mac user, but the above are probably your best bets for a PC. Just don’t forget to tell your students!

PS I deliberately haven’t mentioned here the great services offered by web readers such as Wordchamp or Lingro – they are a different, and altogether more sophisticated, kettle of fish.


Pen and paper must go!

‘This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as their medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which youngsters learn.’ At last someone has said it. And, encouragingly, that someone is Ofqual chief executive Isabel Nisbet, writing today in the TES.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for the big wide world beyond full time education. But in that big wide world your boss won’t expect you to produce that paper as 10 neatly handwritten sides of A4. Your work colleagues won’t want your contributions to the project to be within the confines of an exercise book, however well presented. So why do we have  students  work like that in school? The only possible reason is the assessment format we use and have used since time immemorial. The hand written examination paper.

Exam Hall

We are now well into the 21st century. We have, as they say, the technology. Yes, there are aspects of computer-based assessment that need thinking through. But, as a representative of AQA told us at the recent ISC ICT conference, e-assessment is perfectly practicable for all types of examination, not just multiple choice tests. And quite a bit of work has been done by this forward-thinking awarding body through various pilot schemes.

And, when the black hat wearers suggest it is just not possible because of the sheer number of IT rooms that would be needed, let us remember that the future of computing is clearly not fixed, but mobile. Within a very short space of time, it will be entirely practicable to replicate the serried ranks of scribblers with equally serried but technologically equipped ranks. Whether you go down the laptop route, like Norway, or look to the tablet / pad solution, it can very certainly be done.

I am glad that someone with the clout of Isabel Nisbet is speaking out on this issue and let’s hope it opens up a meaningful debate on the future of assessment. But maybe I shouldn’t get too excited just yet. According to the TES, the Department for Education said it did not have a view on the computerisation of exams or want to be drawn into the debate. Oh well.

Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the art of presentation (sad, isn’t it?) and have to confess to an ongoing interest in the use of PowerPoint and, particularly, an interest in showing that this veteran program still has much to offer. Despite the competition from relative newcomers like SlideRocket and Prezi, not to mention a whole raft of other online pretenders to the presentation throne, the old stager still puts up a pretty good fight. In fact, I would go as far as to say that PowerPoint has a depth of capability and ease of use that keeps it some way ahead of the rest. Anything Microsoft may be deeply unfashionable, but that doesn’t make it bad.

For a humorous view of what we all know as death by PowerPoint, there is always the classic Don McMillan sketch.

So, you see, what makes people think PowerPoint is bad (Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely, and all that) is the fact that the vast majority of the PowerPoint presentations they have seen are bad. Too much text, too many bullet points, poor layout, misuse of animation, you know the score. Well used, PowerPoint can be absolutely dazzling – just see what people like Eyeful can do with it, if you don’t believe me. And for some really good practical advice about what works, I like this presentation.

I don’t make any claims to be a skilled author in PowerPoint, but – having gone through the I hate PowerPoint phase myself a couple of years ago – I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in learning to use it well. Largely as a exercise in self-motivation, I set up another blog frenchpowerpoints, spurred on by the dismal realisation that I had actually authored very few presentations that are up to much. My (probably vain) hope is that I will be motivated to spend some time creating presentations that are not entirely run of the mill. The latest entry is this one.

The original PowerPoint version is here.


Spicynodes Mind Mapping

Mind mapping has become quite a big thing in recent years, whether it’s to gather ideas for a project or an essay or to provide an outline for a lesson or a topic. The number of programs available to enable you to mind map is quite mind-boggling (if you can excuse the pun) – just look at this site to see what I mean. Most of these are paid, a few are free, and most need to be downloaded to your computer. Up till now MindMeister has been the main contender in the web-based arena, and even the free version offers quite a lot for education purposes. But the drawback about many of these programs is their rather static nature – even good old bubbl.us, which I used to fall back on a lot, isn’t exactly dynamic. Which is why Spicynodes, still in beta mode but seemingly near full release version, is an interesting new proposition.

Spicynodes Perfect Tense

It seems to be intended as a tool for mapping the content of a website, but it lends itself to the usual mind mapping functions, with the added bonus of being nicely interactive. Its key trick is that as you move out to focus on one branch of the content, that branch becomes the central focus on the screen. It’s attractively presented, even in the free version (paid accounts offer more formatting options) and I thought I’d give it a go in presenting the Perfect Tense in French. My hasty attempt is linked from the image above and is best viewed full screen. I’m not sure I’ve got the best out of it, but I think Spicynodes will prove a useful new entrant to the mind mapping market.