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February, 2011 - Education - Site Home - MSDN Blogs
The Australian Education Blog
Ray Fleming's take on what's interesting in Education IT in Australia

February, 2011

  • Education

    One in six schools block Wikipedia


    This morning's Sydney Morning Herald ran an education story "Teaching the Facebook Generation". The overall piece looks at how social media impacts on the relationship between students and teachers, and is worth a read to understand some of the issues faced in today's school environment, where Web 2.0 has both upsides and downsides.

    What caught me eye was some numbers on the proportion of Australian schools which block various websites:

    • 86% of schools block Facebook
    • 57% of schools block YouTube
    • 14% of schools block Wikipedia

    These stats are from the 2009 report "Web 2.0 site blocking in schools" from the Strategic ICT Advisory Service, which is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

    I understand the block on facebook in schools (although it's a little futile, because most students who want to can get to it any time that they want from their phone), and I kind of understand the YouTube block (although, some of best educational learning resources, like the 2,000+ videos Khan Academy for maths, get swept up into the all-encompassing ban, depriving students in the classroom of the chance to learn alongside the students who have taken 40 million free lessons on Khan Academy).

    What surprised me was that 1 in 6 schools block Wikipedia. Okay, not everything in it is 100% accurate, but researchers have demonstrated it is as accurate as conventional encyclopaedia's (and Wikipedia itself has an excellent self-reflective article on it's own accuracy). My daughter came home from school with a project on Antartica exploration, with specific instructions from her teacher that she must not use Wikipedia for her research.

    What worries me is that we're already falling behind with testing students for the skills needed for the 21st Century workplace - but are the technology restrictions meaning that we are also failing to teach the skills they need? For example, if so much of modern business involves integrating the web (eg a marketing agency with no skills in social networking will soon be an ex-marketing agency), how do we teach the skills the students will need as they move into the workplace? As businesses create their own internal social networks, wikis and information marketplaces, what's the correct way for a school to keep up with the skills and technology needed, whilst fulfilling their duty of care to their students.

    Most IT managers I've met in schools focus on the systems and processes (for example, they think about SharePoint as a way of controlling information flow and processes), whereas exactly the same systems could be turned upside down - put the user in control, and enable social networking and wikis within the safe environment of a school community. Is that what's happening in most schools? Or is it easy to ban something, but tricky to enable an alternative?

  • Education

    Windows Intune availability date for education


    We all know that we're living in a time of rapid change, and that the increasingly mobile status of our users - both students and staff - is creating increasing challenges for delivering a robust and secure IT infrastructure. We're responding to that with development of our conventional IT management tools, and also by creating a new wave of management tools designed to allow you to keep your more mobile users up-to-date, secure and supported.

    One of the new tools in your armoury for systems management is Windows Intune, which is a subscription service that allows you to manage your desktop and laptop computers in a different way. Overnight we announced the Windows Intune availability date, which is 23rd March 2011 (this date also applies for the 30-day trial version).

    You can find out more about Windows Intune on the website, and I recommend that you consider how it could help you in two key scenarios in education:

    • If you're a business providing IT support for a local school (perhaps if you provide shared technicians for a bunch of junior schools), and you want a model that reduces the need for in-personal, hands-on technical management.
    • If you're in a school, TAFE or university where you have users increasingly taking machines off campus for longer periods, you should consider whether this helps you to manage specific groups (for example, PhD researchers who are away from campus for six months in another country)

    image Find out more about Windows InTune

  • Education

    The easiest way to set up a free WordPress server


    imageThe Microsoft WebMatrix team have been working for quite a while now on making it easier to setup free web servers, so that you can easily implement a new web project - for example, if somebody in your school or uni asks for a platform for blogging - and especially when they come along with a very specific request, like "Can you setup a WordPress server for me". Of course, that's an ideal time to have the "Have you thought about running your blogs on SharePoint?" conversation, but sometimes people don't want to know about what you've already got - they've heard from a friend who uses WordPress/Joomla/Drupal - and they've been convinced nothing else will do.

    Normally, that may mean spending ages setting up a specific server for their custom WordPress install. And that's where the web team come in - they have created WebMatrix, which I reckon is the easiest way to setup a free WordPress server (or a Joomla/Drupal etc server).

    All you (or they) need to do is to download and install WebMatrix, which uses the Microsoft Web Platform Installer to get your server up and running (and the team claim you can do this in 5 minutes or less). The WebMatrix package includes support for ASP.NET and PHP applications, and includes SQL Server Compact to provide the back-end database, and integrates to Visual Studio for programming. From a student's or academic's point of view, it means that they can get started with web development more quickly, whether they are programming in PHP, HTML, CSS or JavaScript - and whether or not they want to add a content management or blogging system like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or others on the server.

    And for you as an IT manager, what it means is that you've got a basic platform which uses the same Microsoft infrastructure you use across your institution - giving you more control and uniformity across your network.

    So next time an academic wanders into the IT office and says "I need to setup a WordPress server", perhaps it'll be a more welcome question!

    You can find out more, and download the free WebMatrix yourself here

  • Education

    Five cool web tools for teachers


    I spent a week in January at the BETT show in London - the world's largest Education IT show. I had the luck of presenting with a colleague, Mark Stewart, about some of the websites and products that students use in their social lives, and talking about how they could also be useful for teachers and schools. I thought you might be interested in the the list of things we showed, and I'd also encourage you to take a look at what they can do, and see if they might be useful for your teachers. My favourite of the lot is the Montage site.

    Microsoft Montage

    Allows you to create your own 'daily' subject specific paper - ideal to put on the whiteboard as a lesson opener

    The montage examples I used was this one about floods


    Microsoft Chronozoom needs Silverlight, and then gives you the history of the universe, all on one zoomable web page

    Interactive Battle of Britain

    Uses Photosynth and DeepZoom to create an immersive learning experience


    Allows you to view, and create your own, 3D explorable models from a set of standard 2D photographs

    Office Web Apps

    Try out Office Web Apps for yourself, and see what your students can do with it without needing Office installed on their home computer

  • Education

    Free graphic calculator and an easy step-by-step equation solver


    One of the things that many schools and teachers miss out on when they think of Microsoft is the wide range of software that's free. It ranges from the things you already know (like Windows Live Messenger) to more technical applications (like the free version of the Visual Studio Express). But did you know that there are also a range of education specific applications to help teachers and students? And that these are free too?

    imageOne that's just been updated is Microsoft Mathematics, which contains a graphing calculator, an equation solver, a formulae and equations library, unit conversions tools etc (handy for old folks like me that work in feet and inches when the kids work in metres and centimetres).

    The Step-by-Step Equation SolverThe equation solver and graphic calculator allow you to take complex mathematical concepts and visualise them on the screen as charts and diagrams. And the best thing about Microsoft Mathematics 4.0 is that it is free - and doesn't need Office or anything else on your computer - just Windows.

    Find out more and download Microsoft Mathematics here

  • Education

    The perfect student laptop?



    Overnight, the Student PC offer for Australian students came out, which is a package with Dell of a high-specification laptop, and all of the main software that a student needs, including Windows 7 Ultimate (which means that they can be connected to a domain network at campus), Office 2010 (which include OneNote) and Microsoft Security Essentials (to ensure that anti-virus protection is there from day one).

    And the other compelling thing is that the PC is loaded with what's called the "Microsoft Signature" software - which is notable for what isn't included. Which means that it doesn't have the trial software (bloatware?) that's installed on most new PCs - the little applications that pop up messages, and by extension also slow down the boot-up of the computer and the way it runs.

    The final tip is that the pricing is specifically set for students - at one third of the normal RRP. So it's a fully loaded laptop for just over $1,000.

    Find out more about the Student PC

  • Education

    Windows 7 SP1 Releases


    Oh, how times have changed. It wasn't that long ago that the release of Service Pack 1 for software was a critical milestone. And in the case of many education customers, it became the equivalent of the starting gun for deploying the latest version of Windows to their desktop computers. But the software development process has changed enormously - such as the fact that millions of users were running the beta version of Windows 7 up to nine months before the product was released.

    It feels to me like we've shifted the product release mindset, and the period of public beta testing means that people don't have to wait for SP1 to get important issues resolved. And the biggest sign of that is that we've just released Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 - and I found out about it on the Windows blog. No fanfare, no trail of press articles leading up to the release. Just a blog post, and then it will appear on your computer through Automatic Updates soon. (Maybe that's the other thing that's changed - the use of Automatic Updates to regularly stream out updates, without having to wait for a big bunch in the Service Pack)

    Anyway, if you're an education customer still in the older mindset of "I'll wait for SP1", then you're wait is over, and it's time to catch up with the other customers who have already deployed Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

    Read the full blog post from the Windows Team

  • Education

    When software is indistinguishable from magic


    Sometimes you see people do something with software that looks more like a magic trick. The really visual examples end up on the stage at TED. But sometimes the examples are just too technical for a broad audience - like the two videos below about desktop optimisation.

    I've heard about the power of virtualised desktops for a long time. And it was when I watched this video that it all clicked together for me and made sense of just how useful this would be for an education customer. The ability to deploy a massive arrange of software applications, without having to worry about them clashing with each other or causing your computers to become unstable. And the way that the applications, operating system and user files can just follow your students around.

    Because most education network systems were setup before this kind of technology became popular, it's little used in schools today (although increasingly in higher ed). But this approach seems to solve lots of real problems that IT managers in education face every day.

    Watch the two short demonstrations (both in plain english!) and see if you can distinguish the difference between 'magic' and the 'optimized desktop'.

    Part One - an overview


    Part Two - the really magic bit
  • Education

    Reducing IT costs in education


    There is continuing pressure to reduce IT costs in education, perhaps to find resources and budget for new projects - and that means cutting the cost of running an existing project. But when you start thinking about reducing IT costs, how often do you consider the impact on other budget centres? I ask the question because there are many occasions when a small increase in resource in IT will deliver a much bigger reduction in resource or budget outside of IT. For example, reducing energy costs instead of reducing IT costs.

    In terms of power management of desktop computers, there is often a significant saving possible, because of the large amounts of computers in a typical school, TAFE or university. But because the costs are not visible to IT, it can be missed.

    But there's a four figure saving possible, every year - so perhaps I can share some advice as four steps that could save you $15,000

    1. Go down to your local Bunnings and buy a power monitor plug. They cost $20-$30, and they'll let you monitor all kinds of devices.
    2. Plug it into one of your computers for a week, so that it can tell you how much it costs per week/day/hour.
    3. Walk around your school/campus at 5 o'clock and count the number of unused computers that are switched on.
    4. Work out what it's costing you per year for unused computers left switched on
    5. Go and see the principal with your back-of-the-envelope stats

    If you've not done something like this before, I guarantee that you're in for a surprise!

    Although there are lots of other case studies, you may be interested to read how we've rolled out power saving settings within Microsoft (and if you think your teachers are hard to please with technology, imagine what it's like providing IT services for 100,000+ IT geeks).

    Our IT team at Microsoft have recently implemented a worldwide power management strategy across 165,000 desktop and laptop computers used within our business right around the world, to contribute to our goal of reducing our carbon emissions by 30% over five years.

    The benefits that they've calculated are:

    • 27% drop in power used by managed desktop computers
    • 12.33 kilowatt hours saving per desktop per month
    • $12 to $15 saving per desktop computer per year

    imageIn the case study, the framework of power settings are discussed, along with the practical implications and the lessons learnt. For example, the first method used was a simple policy setting on setting up a new user/computer, but they found that 80% of users simply permanently overrode the setting within 30 days. The second method was to have an extended 60-minute time-to-sleep setting, which would be refreshed regularly, so that even if the user changed it temporarily (eg to stay on for a presentation) it would reset again later.

    The team relied very heavily on System Center Configuration Manager, which meant that they could apply policies and measure the impact of them over time. The chart on Power Environmental Impact is one of the examples from the pilot. Having data displayed in this way allows you to demonstrate the savings impact to your senior management team, and calculate reduction in your carbon footprint or energy bills.

    You may not need to use System Center - you can make a start simply for free by changing some of the default power settings when you deploy new computers . But if you've got hundreds of computers, it might be worth starting to calculate just how much money you might save with a much more comprehensive power management strategy.

    Learn MoreRead the full Microsoft IT case study on power savings with Windows

  • Education

    The Lower Cost Cloud


    Before I left the UK, I had plenty of meetings and discussions with Microsoft partners and education customers about the impact of Cloud services in education - not just hosted email and collaboration services (like Live@edu), but also the data centre services used by developers and software companies, like Windows Azure. Cloud services are evolving in a way that challenges the fundamentals of IT provision in education - matched with an evolving user base who want anytime, anyplace access to services and data.

    Even hugely centralised systems, with large core databases, aren't immune to the changes driven by Cloud services - for example, the large economies of scale (and resulting lower bills) that come from using the shared datacentres that are part of the Cloud. And the other key benefit is the ability to scale a service to match the users - both upwards and downwards - which is really useful in education, which has big peaks and troughs of system usage:

    • Learning Management Systems with 38 weeks a year of heavy student use, and then 14 weeks of minimal use.
    • Examination systems with three weeks of very high use, and 49 weeks of nothing.
    • Admission systems that have a peak period of 3 months, and then go quiet for 9 months.

    In all of those examples, the ability to 'switch on' lots of Cloud servers for a short period, and then then 'switch off' is very different to the conventional model, where you build a private server farm capable of handing the peaks, with long periods of idle use in the troughs. And sometimes the cost of the servers needed for the peaks would be so prohibitive the whole project was too expensive.

    So moving to the Cloud in education isn't just about outsourcing your data centre - it is also about building a different model of service delivery that could allow you to deliver what was previously unaffordable. And if you can just switch it on and off like a light switch, then you can think quite differently.

    For an example of how the Cloud can help, read about how the Windows Azure service was used to rapidly develop and deliver a web service as part of the Queensland relief efforts.

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