Category Archives: Tim

Adding Post Categories

Until about 20 minutes ago all posts on the blog appeared in one long list.  Now they don’t have to.

David suggested that it might be a good idea to have a separate space for any posts that are only really intended for that author’s future reference.  I agree that it’s potentially a good idea to provide separate spaces for the “hey everyone, here’s an idea” posts and the “here’s something I really need to look at in the morning” posts.

The only real concern seemed to be that interesting posts might get lost and so I’ve added in a new widget which prominently displays the 10 most recent posts regardless of which category they are in.  I’ve also added a category choice widget.

Also, as a side effect of choosing a single category to display, the front page now only shows the first few lines of each post.  I’m not sure whether this is an improvement.  It does make it easier to scan through the posts but you can’t see the pretty pictures any more.

Let’s give it a go and see what we think.

PS: David, this is a test. Please comment on this post when you read it otherwise I’ll think categories might not be such a good idea ;-).

It’s only useful if you use it

Last weekend I installed Dropbox.  I won’t use it to store any sensitive files, because of the privacy concerns surrounding the system, but so far I have found it very useful for keeping my general academic files in sync between a few computers.

Then I ran into a PICNIC error.  Yesterday, during a Skype call with a colleague, I made some notes in a simple text file on my home computer.  I am now in the office and have just gone to open the file on my laptop.  Which would be fine if I had saved it in my Dropbox folder and not on the desktop.  Problem code ID-10-T diagnosed.

My first thought was the obvious one in the post title but it also made me think about the importance of users integrating a technology into their computing practices so that it becomes instinctive.

Continue reading

When best-efforts collides with business-critical

Just a quick rant while I wait for Skype to (excruciatingly slowly) download.

Skype is acting up for me this afternoon.  After problems logging in and a subsequent application error I decided to reinstall it.  I should have checked the Skype status page first but that’s another matter (maybe the sign in screen could have flashed up that there are issues today?).

It isn’t just about Skype.  It’s the whole “Cloud” thing that bothers me.  The Internet is inherently a “best efforts” means of facilitating communication and yet I seem to see increasing attempts by hosted services to seduce businesses.  “Got a server? Ha ha ha! Money-wasting fools! You need MyMiracleCloudDoofer<tm>”.

So let’s say I have a business with hosted file storage, email, VoIP and whatever else.  Whatever the perceived benefits of not having the server(s) in-house it doesn’t look good if the Internet connection fails.  Suddenly the Internet has become a business-critical resource, even if I want to send an internal email to the next office or print off a standard document.

To quote the wisdom of Yoda: “shafted are you”.

Tolerance of the learning curve

Having read David’s post about Dwarf Fortress (I keep wanting to call it Gnome Fortress for some reason) I had a “quick” play.  Admittedly my interest in computer games peaked when I owned a SNES (a D-pad and six buttons really should be enough for anything) and since then my tolerance of computer game complexity just about stretches to Command and Conquer style offerings.

But there was something strangely compelling about Gnome Dwarf Fortress.  ASCII graphics: check. Near-vertical learning curve: check. Certain defeat: check.  It doesn’t sound like a winning combination, but I was compelled to delete it before addiction set in.

Afterwards I kept thinking about the link between a product’s learning curve and the willingness of the end user to invest time and energy in learning how to use the product sufficiently well to obtain what they consider to be a successful outcome.

Continue reading

Ubuntu Adventures 2011

I haven’t used a desktop Linux distribution since a frustrating experience with Ubuntu some time in 2004 or 2005.  My lasting memory was of having to load a terminal window not long after installation and fiddle about with various configuration files.  Even then things didn’t work too well for me and I was (and still would be) a contended user of Windows XP for my day-to-day computing needs.  My working life was firmly focussed on all things Microsoft and Linux was forgotten.

This week, after my long avoidance of desktop Linux, I installed the most recent Ubuntu Desktop LTS edition on a test machine in the office and was very pleasantly surprised.  So I decided to give 11.04 at home on a computer that was in need of a XP reinstall.

It installed quickly, runs very responsively and handled all of the hardware right away.  Even the wireless networking.  Most impressive.

I then took the plunge and installed it on my laptop.  Because a reasonable processor and 3GB of RAM doesn’t seem to be enough for Vista.  All was going well until I tried to connect to a wireless network and a sense of deja vu kicked in.

Cue Google.  Cue the Terminal window.  In the end it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things.  The fourth or fifth possible solution worked.  Ubuntu didn’t keel over.  I only had to remove some packages, install one new application, download an obsolete driver, install it, protect it from updates and reboot.  I’ll put it down as a lucky escape.  For Ubuntu that is.  I was this close |<–>| to getting rid of it, buying Windows 7 and waiting another six or seven years before I tried again.

Taking a step back

I have been trying to configure a server and associated applications to use for research purposes.  The emphasis being on “trying to configure”.  It has driven me nuts.

My original goal was to configure this server so that it could be used in a production environment.  I also wanted to configure all the required applications from scratch and document the process to make it easily repeatable.  Things were not going well but I was determined to complete the job.

Then I asked for advice from someone with extensive experience of the software in question.  To paraphrase the response, my attempts to configure everything would be a nightmare and I should really think about using an existing pre-packaged bundle of the applications I needed.

Later that day I had everything up and running.  The solution is not immediately suitable for a production environment and does have a few niggles but it will be fine for research purposes.

Notes to self:

  • Spend more time at the outset thinking about the requirements of a technical project.
  • Sometimes “just enough” will do.  The server is just a tool to facilitate research and it is this research that will be the important outcome.
  • Take a step back and reconsider the situation when things are not going well.  Sometimes a different approach will lead to the required outcome.

McMeetup 11 May

Lots of interesting ideas from yesterday’s meeting but I was particularly taken with our discussion of what constitutes “success” and “failure” in a project and the value of documenting problems and unexpected outcomes for future reference.

The invention of Teflon seems a good example of achieving an unexpected success from an activity.

Definitely more scope for discussion and blogging.

Securing Google

I’ve been using my Google account to store increasing amounts of information.  It started with Gmail and moved on to Docs and Calendar.  It’s very handy to have access to my email and documents, especially research notes and other useful information, from any computer with an Internet connection.

But the more I stored on Google the more I worried about the safety of my information.  Admittedly I am paranoid when it comes to security but it troubled me that I was storing so much potentially sensitive information on publicly accessible servers, signing in on a number of computers and protecting it all with a keyloggable username and password.

Then I read this article and configured two-factor authentication on my Google account.  In a nutshell you sign in with your Google username and password and it then sends you a SMS message (or phones you using an automated voice system) with a six digit number which you have to enter before you can access your account.  You can configure several phone numbers including landlines.

There are issues if you need to use your Google account details somewhere other than the Google web interface.  This article goes into more detail but with the two-factor authentication in place I lost access to Gmail through the mobile app and my home email client.  Google will generate passwords for anything like this but they are complex and you can only view them once in order to enter them where required.  After this a password must be revoked and a new one generated if you need to re-enter it.  This will be a problem if an application is not able to store this view-once password.

For me personally the benefits, or at least my perception of improved security, far outweigh the niggle of occasionally generating a new password when my mobile’s Gmail app loses my account details.

Blogotron McMeetup 5 May

Spent a really interesting hour chatting with David over a coffee at McDonald’s yesterday afternoon.  It’s amazing how new threads can spark off unexpectedly and I feel like our collaborative blogging efforts have encouraged a lot of discussion in just one week and two informal meetings.

We discussed the iTEC workshop in Paris and the emphasis on positive feedback during the scenario building sessions.  We were encouraged to challenge any ideas with only two questions: “why does that happen?” and “what happens next?”.  This seemed a constructive approach and allowed the group members to contribute their thoughts freely without fearing a negative response.  The “permitted” challenges allowed the idea to be explored further, with the original contributor being the one to reach the conclusion that an idea might not be feasible if this was the case.

This lead to me mentioning Edward de Bono‘s Six Thinking Hats process and how being steered away from donning “The Black Hat” was a good approach in for the iTEC workshop.  Sometimes the thoughts of the devil’s advocate are necessary but in a creative situation where as many ideas as possible were wanted this could have had a negative impact.

David related this idea of guiding communication to Gamification, something about which I know very little but will look to find out more about.

We also discussed the idea of a Six Thinking Hats widget in a similar vein to the 8LEM widget developed in the IEC.  Not entirely sure how this might work or be used but one idea was that different individuals or groups could be given a different metaphorical hat to wear as part of a larger discussion on a topic.  The widget could provide useful suggestions on how to approach a discussion while wearing a particular hat or simply provide a visual reminder of each colour of hat and its main characteristics.

Technology for Teachers

Picture yourself in the following scenario if you will.

You are a teacher in a primary special school for children with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD).  All pupils have a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) and will most likely have been excluded or have been under the threat of exclusion from their mainstream school.  In this school your maximum class size is six pupils and you are assisted by a Teaching Assistant.  Your pupils are from a mixed age range, have mixed academic abilities and tend to be grouped by their requirements and specific needs.

Pupils have an initial assessment upon entry to the school.  This involves judging the child’s capabilities against a wide range of statements (for example “Knows that multiplying by four is the same as doubling and doubling again”).  This information is stored in target monitoring software which then produces a printed list of an individual child’s targets for reading, writing and maths.  There are strict progression targets for teachers to meet with their pupils.

In a nutshell you have six pupils with individual targets, specific needs and, in the majority of cases, very short tempers and classmates who know just the right buttons to press to illicit a response.  There is the continual risk of verbal and physical abuse from pupils ranging from being spat to being kicked or punched.

Now try to imagine what your priorities would be if you were this teacher.

Having spent the best part of 18 months working with teachers in such an environment it became very clear that they were always pushed for time.  Time to plan individually for six pupils whose targets didn’t conform to “the norm” and changed on a frequent basis.  Time in class to cajole often reluctant pupils through the activities they had planned.

One of my roles was to evaluate and purchase curriculum software.  It didn’t surprise me that the most popular teaching resources were those that could be copied on to an activity sheet or dropped into a demonstration on the interactive whiteboard.  Teachers had very little time (and inclination as a result) to learn new technologies, especially if those technologies would be difficult to explain to and therefore frustrating for the pupils.

I couldn’t help but think that this situation is perhaps the polar opposite of the usage scenario envisaged for IMS Learning Design (LD) to produce reusable Units of Learning for online teaching environments.  It also made me think that if you could “sell” the benefits of LD (or any other technology) to teachers in the unforgiving environment described above then you could persuade anyone to use it.

How do you allow teachers to see the benefits of a technology for themselves?  How do you make a technology accessible enough to encourage teachers to firstly explore it (and produce something useful with a minimal investment of time and effort) and then be compelled enough to spend the time improving their knowledge and familiarity with the product in order to make it a part of their planning and teaching?  How do you strike the balance between simplicity (for the quick fix) and feature richness (for more complex scenarios)?  What do teachers want?  How do you find out what teachers want?  Do teachers have time to think about (from a technology point of view) what they might want or do they, through necessity or some other reason, stick to tried and tested technologies and methods?