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The Australian Education Blog
Ray Fleming's take on what's interesting in Education IT in Australia

  • Education

    Are you using Internet Explorer 6 anywhere in your establishment?

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    imageAlthough Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) is now over 10 years ago, and has been superseded by IE 7, IE8 and now IE9, one in 10 computers around the world are still running IE6. And that's a bad thing for the rest of us. This is because instead of building amazingly cool websites, the web developers and designers keep having to make compromises for the small proportion of people using IE6 (3.2% in Australia today). Which means the rest of us get websites that are less visual, less graphical, and, well, just less cool.

    So there's now an IE6 countdown clock on the web, and another campaign to persuade people to upgrade from IE6, so that we can all move to the beautiful world of HTML 5.

    If you're running IE6 on any of your school, college or university computers, it's time to stop.

    You can find out the latest IE6 numbers on the IE6 Countdown website. And you can also download a short snippet of code for your website, which will display a message if somebody comes your way whilst they are running IE6. It looks like this (Don't panic, you'll only get this message normally if you are using IE6)

    image

    This is also important because if you've got parents or students accessing your school or college website using IE6, then I reckon there's a very good chance they haven't updated their computer recently - with all of the trouble that implies for security etc

  • Education

    Is my data safe in the cloud?

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    Windows Live Mesh"Is my data safe in the cloud?" is a question that I sometimes get asked by customers, and it's also something I think about myself with my own data. Actually, the question I ask myself is "Is my data safer in the cloud?" - which encourages me to think about where it is today, and how safe it is - relative to storing it in the Cloud.

    For the grammatical purists, I know that the word 'data' is plural, and that therefore the correct question should be 'Are my data safer in the cloud?', but that would be both pedantic, and really awkward.

    My most critical items of personal data are my wedding photos. There is no way on earth that I can get those back if they disappear. So I put them on my local storage. And I put them in the Cloud. By asking the 'safer' question, a few years ago I realised that my photos were on my home computer, with a RAID configured hard disk, and a local backup disk. BUT if my house burnt down my photos were gone - hence the need to put them in the Cloud.

    Since then, I've become a big fan of synchronisation - having my data locally and in the Cloud - using Windows Live Mesh. So now my critical data is on my home computer and my travelling laptop and in the Cloud. And Windows Live Mesh automatically synchronises every new bit of data for me - as soon as I put a new photo on my hard disk, it automatically synchronises it to the cloud storage on SkyDrive and my other computer syncs when it's next connected.

    So, Yes, my data is safer in the Cloud. A darn sight safer than when it was just on my home computer.

    Next time somebody asks you "Is my data safe in the cloud?", then perhaps you might ask them to consider the "safer" question.

    This blog post was stimulated by the news that over 5 million devices, belonging to 3 million users, are now syncing 2.2 petabytes of data between the cloud and the hard disk on their computer(s). Smart or what?

    Learn MoreLearn More about how you can synch to the Cloud too

  • Education

    What's on, and over, the horizon for learning

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    imageThere are plenty of differing views about the future of learning (or teaching, or education etc) and I'm sure I could spend every waking hour reading them and still never finish.

    Some though are more worthwhile to read than others, and I've always appreciated the Horizon Report, published annually by the Horizon Project, part of the New Media Consortium's Emerging Technologies Initiative.

    The Horizon Report

    The Key Trends, Critical Challenges and Technologies to Watch identified in this year's report make interesting reading, and there's plenty of detail in the report for more information:

    Key Trends

    • The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing.
    • People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want.
    • The world of work is increasingly collaborative, giving rise to reflection about the way student projects are structured.
    • The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based, and our notions of IT support are decentralized.

    Critical Challenges

    • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
    • Appropriate metrics of evaluation lag behind the emergence of new scholarly forms of authoring, publishing, and researching
    • Economic pressures and new models of education are presenting unprecedented competition to traditional models of the university
    • Keeping pace with the rapid proliferation of information, software tools, and devices is challenging for students and teachers alike.

    Technologies to watch

    On the near-term horizon - within the next 12 months

    • Electronic Books
    • Mobiles

    On the second adoption horizon - within two to three years

    • Augmented reality
    • Game-based learning

    On the far-term horizon - within four to five years

    • Gesture-based computing
    • Learning analytics

    What?
    Learning Analytics is "far-term horizon"?
    Can we afford to wait that long?

    According to the report:

      At its heart, learning analytics is about analyzing a wealth of information about students in a way that would allow schools to take action. This information can include student profiles within an institution’s database, as well as the interactions of students within course management systems. A long absence from a course’s online activities, for example, can trigger faculty intervention. At its best, however, learning analytics goes much further than this, marrying information from disparate sources to create a far more robust and nuanced profile of students, in turn offering faculty members more insight.  

    That seems so critical, I don't think we can afford to wait five years for it. I know that there's plenty of work going on now by institutions, often in partnership with companies, which will hopefully start to produce meaningful Learning Analytics much sooner - and which could be adopted widely much sooner. I wonder if the timeframe is more reflection of the change management that will need to go along with the widespread use of Learning Analytics?

    Learn MoreThe full Horizon Report is a PDF free download from NMC

  • Education

    How to deploy Windows 7 to 200,000 computers

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    The Microsoft IT team have the job of running an complex and rapidly-changing IT infrastructure for a very demanding user base - our own. Sound familiar to you too? Well I guess it should, because almost every education institution has exactly the same challenges and budget pressures.

    The team are often on the leading edge of deploying our technology to our own in-house users - for example, not only supporting users running Windows 7 betas, but also rolling out Windows 7 to 84,000 clients within 2 months of the release day. They also have a role of documenting the processes and experiences, and publishing them for our customers to learn from.

    The story of how Microsoft deployed Windows 7 internally is online now, and here's some of the nuggets I picked up from it:

    • The team focused on providing a self-install process for non-technical users (yes, I did my own!)
    • Simultaneously, they wanted to reduce help-desk calls
    • They had to support 46 types of laptops, and 22 types of desktops - and offer 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows
    • Data security was increased by rolling out BitLocker Drive Encryption and DirectAccess at the same time
    • And they had to test 1,500 applications for compatibility

    And somehow, they did - seeing up to 3,000 Windows 7 installations a day, to get to 84,000 clients within 60 days, and a total now of over 190,000 internal clients around the world.

    Learn MoreThe article on how they did it, and the lessons they learnt (and the constraints they had) makes a good read if you're in an infrastructure planning role.

  • Education

    Curtin University and the Microsoft Cloud

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    After I mentioned the Curtin University Live@edu case study yesterday, somebody from Curtin sent me a link to the Microsoft video we'd produced on their wider use of our Cloud services. They're using Live@edu for student email, and they're also using Windows Azure to develop inhouse applications. In the example they are using Windows Azure to deliver their iPortfolio system to 47,000 students.

    Get Microsoft Silverlight

    (You can also view the video on the Cloud Power website)

    Peter Nikoletatos, CIO at Curtin University talks in the video about what they have done, and why they have done it. For example, towards the end he says:

      We've begun rethinking our whole bespoke development platform and using Azure as the way we're going to deliver corporate applications, in a scalable architecture that could grow as our product suite grew. One of the best benefits of moving to the cloud, was that as our partners grow the product suite, these are transparent to the end user. We don't need to schedule large maintenance windows to do updates. Universities are no longer focused on managing large data centres. We don't want to invest in architectures that will be come obsolete or cost us way to much to maintain. We know that the environment is going to change rapidly to meet the expectations of the next generation of students.  

    It reminded me about they early days when I was learning about Windows Azure, when I'd assumed it was something that our partners would use to develop applications for education customers to use. It was only after a few months that I realised it was also perfect for bigger education customers with their own development teams - like universities - to change their model for internal application development too - because they got the same benefits of reduced application deployment time, minimal capital expenditure, and massive scalability.

  • Education

    Tasmanian Polytechnic links 35,000 users across 20 campuses

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    There was a nicely written informative case study published on our global website on Tuesday about Tasmanian Polytechnic. It takes a long-term view of the changes that they have been making to increase collaboration for their staff, and the journey that they have gone on with their collaboration and communication systems. The end result now is that they have created a truly integrated communication and collaboration system, and then been able to help users save time and allow them to focus on their collaborative projects. (It's also interesting that it isn't driven by a move Cloud services, but is currently based on the Polytechnic's in-house infrastructure)

    Owain Williams, the Executive Manager of the ICT Services Branch, is quoted quite a few times in the case study. With all of the technology we have available to hand in our office, I guess I've taken for granted the way that it has changed my working style over the last five years. But Owain tells the story of how it has been a positive change for the staff in Tasmania:

    "It used to take 20 minutes to set up every teleconference meeting, but our very first meeting using Office Live Meeting and RoundTable* took a total of three minutes to arrange. People are more inclined to work together when it’s easy to do so, such as being able to put on a headset and launch an impromptu video phone conversation to complete a document, resolve an issue, and so on.”

    “One of the beautiful things about Exchange Server 2010 is how wonderfully straightforward it makes it for our growing number of mobile users to stay productive wherever they are. They can spend more time out of office because they can access everything—including email messages and files. Being better connected makes for a richer experience.”

    “The experience with our Microsoft tools is so much richer in terms of interaction and ease, compared with what we had before, that people actively want to use the solutions. Our new forms of collaboration are producing more valuable results in less time, too—with no car ride. In the short amount of time since implementing the Unified Communications solutions, I’ve seen collaboration go way up, both among internal colleagues and with vendors and industry experts from around the country.”

    Learn MoreRead the full case study on the worldwide Microsoft case studies website

     

    * RoundTable is a conference phone and video camera from Polycom with a built-in, 360-degree camera that uses advanced speech recognition to follow the conversation and identify active speakers

  • Education

    Ready-made IT user documentation

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    When I started working at Microsoft, I hadn’t been in such an open, technology rich culture before. And with so many IT systems around, and so many different software resources, my head was buzzing. In fact, I remember that at the end of the first week, the number of links in my Favourites was massive – just to internal websites.

    I’d never used internet telephony, encryption, instant messaging, live meeting or SharePoint before, so I was all at sea until I could play around and work out how they were supposed to operate. Meanwhile, people who’d been at Microsoft for a while were metaphorically whizzing past me, as they collaborated, shared, published and distributed information. Whilst I was trying to work out how to answer my desk phone.

    imageOne of the godsends for me was a set of documents called Work Smart Guides, which walked me through the basics of some of the new technology I was encountering.

    As our IT team describe it, Work Smart Guides bridge the gap between technology and users. Work Smart guides provide employees with scenario-based, best-use productivity aids on Microsoft products and technologies.

    We produce them because we expect to see more consistent, productive, and cost-effective use of products and technologies across the company – which helps the business ROI on IT investments, as well as helping people to understand the benefit the IT team deliver to users.

    Ready-made IT guides

    I found out today that we have also published them for customers to modify and use. This seems a great step – because I’m guessing that lots of schools are either producing user documentation for staff, or want to. And I bet that 80-90% of the content of some of them is identical. So these guides would make a good starter for 10, either for the format, or the instructions, or simply the screenshots. As an example, here’s the Email Basics one.

    The subjects covered in the step-by-step guides for users include:

    • Environmental sustainability (hints like using Balanced power settings on your laptop)
    • Protecting data with BitLocker
    • Getting started with email
    • Transfer files and settings to a new computer
    • Collaborating with SharePoint
    • An overview of collaboration tools
    • Customising SharePoint sites
    • Integrating Outlook with SharePoint
    • Basics of managing email (Are you a stacker or a filer?)
    • Office tips
    • Outlook email signatures
    • New features for users in Windows 7

    Download the Work Smart Guides

    You can download the customisable versions of Work Smart materials from TechNet. There are 23 of them, and they come in one big Zip file for you to play with.

    Bonus: You should also be looking at the Windows 7 Problem Steps Recorder, described by Long Zheng as a miracle tool. It does what it says on the tin, and the best bit is that the document it creates is brilliant for creating user guides, with screen shots and step-by-step instructions. Just stick “problem steps” into the search box of your Windows 7 Start menu. It would be fantastic when you’ve got to start from scratch, and especially for curriculum materials and lesson plans.

  • Education

    Do you take technology for granted until you need it? Collaboration in a calamity

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    Sometimes new technology fades into the background, and you forget what you did before it existed. But sometimes, you forget what it can do for you - you fall into the trap of using the bits you've always used, and not using the newer features until you're forced to.

    For me, one of those 'forced to' moments came when I had to turn a face-to-face training day into an online day, to cope with terrible weather that closed our training venue. It pushed me into using Live Meeting and remote webcams and conferencing - and I've not looked back since.

    I saw a similar story today when reading the news on the CIO.com.au website (which is a regular read for me, as it helps me to keep up to date with the kinds of business and technology challenges our customers face). The story's from a university in the States, so we're not likely to be hit by the same kind of snow blizzard, but this summer seems to have been full of other types of weather problems, so I'm sure there are parallels:

     

    Winconsin blizzard vs data center: How Marquette won

    When Marquette University's IT department deployed unified communications tools to improve collaboration among faculty and staff - IT staff collaboration wasn't the priority. But as it turned out, Microsoft's Lync suite of voice, videoconferencing and instant messaging tools proved to be IT's life raft during a snowstorm-related data center calamity.

    During a January blizzard so snowy that the Milwaukee-based university closed, the HVAC units that run Marquette's data center short circuited, after wind-driven snow piled up and then melted inside the air conditioning condensers on the roof.

     

    I'd recommend reading the full story online, because there are plenty of lessons in the story if you're running a team - whether or not you're running a data centre!

  • Education

    Examinations need to use the skills that students develop, and employers need

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    I have a daughter who is 15-years old. Since the age of 11, my biggest recurring worry has been that she'll not achieve her full potential in life because of the exam system. Because she suffers from hay fever, which might drag her down on the day of her key exam. Because she might lose a boyfriend the day before her exams. And because she is living her life digitally - communicating and collaborating with friends and classmates using technology. Getting and giving help to her school friends by text, email, Facebook and instant messenger.

    But in the summers of 2012 and 2014, she'll suddenly have to give up that mode of learning. She'll be stuck in an exam hall with a pencil and paper. She'll be told to stop working with others. She'll be told not to refer to any external information. And she'll not be expected to use a computer.

    How fair is that? Not just on students, but also on teachers. And also, critically, on employers.

    As students, they've worked collaboratively, communicating constantly, and learning through that. And once students become employees, they'll be encouraged to work with others, communicating and collaborating constantly, and be able to research information, use reference sources, and use other people's work to build their own. She'll never be put in a room with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and told to solve a business problem alone.

    We know employers need students with skills of communication and collaboration. They are looking for people who can manage projects, keep to deadlines, work well with teams etc.

    So it's about time we saw more passionate pleas from people, like the one from Isabel Nisbet (retiring head of the UK's education qualifications quango Ofqual) to change the exam system:

    "My generation and the next have a lot to learn from today's pupils about the centrality of technology. They use IT as their natural medium. Yet we are even now accrediting new GCSEs, due to run for several years, still taken largely on paper. This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as the medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which young people learn."

    Judging by the comments on this TES article from last week, my views aren't likely to be popular, but I strongly believe the exam system has to change, because today the principal use of a high school exam is to get into university, and the principal use for a degree for many students is to get into the job interview. (I don't mean the courses, or the learning journey - purely the exam process at the end of it). But not many employers spend much interview time looking at exam results - instead they focus on exploring experiences, skills and attitudes to make the right decision.

    Last year one of my colleagues was quoted saying "We are witnessing the death of teaching and the dawn of learning". I wonder what the epitaph should be for paper-based exams?

    All of this is just my personal opinion, not a reflection of anybody else's. You can add your opinion in the Comments section

  • Education

    Reducing IT costs in education - Part II

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    Last week, when I wrote about reducing IT costs in education, I talked about saving money by cutting down power bills. And there are plenty of other ways to reduce IT costs in education. Not every way is going to be right for every school, TAFE or university, but how about this pile of suggestions that might have something perfect for you:

    Pennsylvania Charter School saved $45,000 a year by changing their expense reporting and asset tracking systems, using SharePoint 2010 [Read more]

    Oxnard Union High School District saved $160,000 a year by switching off their old PBX systems, and introducing Lync Server - and also increased the availability of telephone services for staff [Read more]

    Florida Virtual School will save $2m over the next five years by switching from using Lotus Notes to our Cloud email and collaboration services [Read more]

    Fraser Public Schools in Michigan saved $600,000 on their new email and collaboration system by using the Live@edu Cloud service, instead of replacing their in-house system [Read more]

    The European University Institute saved $345,000 by moving to the Cloud for email too [Read more]

    Dundee High School saved $15,000 by using Windows MultiPoint Server to replace end-of-life computers in their IT suites and library - reducing the amount of hardware they needed, whilst improving the student experience [Read more]

    Aston University, in the UK, save $300,000, by replacing existing email service with Live@edu [Read more]

    And finally, Palm Beach State College saved $500,000 by consolidating their technology, and streamlining their IT operations [Read more]

    I know that saving money is only one aspect of IT service delivery, but if you need to improve the service you deliver whilst also reducing IT costs in education, then perhaps there's some examples above that might help?

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