5 things you should do at the Cramlington conference

June 8, 2014

In the last Friday in June, Cramlington Learning Village hosts its annual conference, the Festival of Learning.  Each year around 300 heads, deputies and other decision-makers from schools all around the country (and a few other countries) trek up to Northumberland for a day of sharing, tips, workshops and networking.

40+ workshops on leadership, teaching and learning (including one on the VLE involving yours truly) and this year, it’s not just Cramlington’s own, but other teachers from other schools within the Teaching School Alliance.

OK, enough of the advert.  The day is intensive, busy and if you’re not careful, you’ll miss the best bits…so without further preamble, here’s 5 things I think you have to do:

1 – Go to the TeachMeet the night before

It’s become a tradition to host a Teachmeet the night before the conference.  This is a chance for everyone to jump in with their own tips and tricks.  Presentations are 2 or 7 minutes, drinks are donated by RealSmart (including their own brand beer, I believe).  If you’ve travelled up the night before, and don’t want to sit in a Travel Lodge all night, it’s a great opportunity to chat with like-minded people and get an idea of what CLV is really like.

I have to confess, I don’t go to the Teachmeet, but only because I’m shattered from running round all week getting things ready for the big day itself.  But the teachers running the Teachmeet are all completely fresh, having only had to teach off timetable projects for two weeks straight.    Please, please….that previous sentence was to be read with a touch of irony.

2 – Ask questions at any time

OK, maybe not during the keynotes, but any other time, really.   We’re running workshops not presentations.  Yes, it may interrupt the flow, but chances are you’re asking something others in the room are thinking.

There are no stupid questions

Personally, I prefer to be interrupted for questions rather than waiting for the end.  Breaking from delivery generally improves my pacing and gives me a chance to gauge the room properly:

  • “Are people looking interested?”
  • “Do they have lots of notes in front of them?”
  • “Is that one guy asleep or unconscious?”

Also, there’s its kinda awful to end on a PowerPoint slide which says “Any questions?” and…nothing.  And you’ve deliberately built in 10-15 minutes of a 75 minute presentation.  This year, I might get a tumbleweed prop ready.  Just in case.

If you see us in the refreshment bit, don’t be afraid to ask us then either.  The shutters don’t come down the second the workshop ends.  You’ve paid a chunk of money and travelled a fair way to visit Cramlington, I don’t think its unreasonable that you get all your questions answered.

3 – Split up

I talked about this in my previous post regarding the Frog conference, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.  There are 40+ workshops running over three sessions.  Split up and go to more than 3.  I find it surprising just how often schools will pay to send 4+ delegates <commercial>Group discounts are available</commercial> and two will come into my workshop.  Hey I’m a good speaker, but I’d understand if you didn’t all come to in.

4 – Speak to the Exhibitors

We have a policy of only allowing exhibitors who have products we use in school.  So if you see a stand at the Festival of Learning conference, you know it comes with our recommendation.  Speak to the people on the stands, then come find one of the workshop presenters.  They’ll back up what you’ve been told, because we use them.  Every day.

5 – Save room for dessert

This sounds silly and hardly ‘CPD-y’, but sometimes, you’ve got to just say “who cares”. The catering company we use always goes full-out for the food.  On arrival, the coffee / tea with sausage, bacon (or veggie alternative) sandwich starts the day off, followed by refreshments after the keynote and a really excellent lunch buffet.  I love our school kitchens, but this catering for this event is some of the best food I’ve ever tasted on a mass catering level and certainly puts school dinners to shame.

But all of that is nothing compared to the sweet treats.  Last year we had an ice cream tent, the year before popcorn and pick-and-mix.   Trust me, save room for dessert.

Bonus extra point

If you read my blog, come say “Hi” and say “I read your blog”.  I’m hardly in the top 100 bloggers or anything, but some people are reading this.  I know from the stats.  They can’t all by my mum.  In fact, the number of visitors I get is often what pushes me back to the keyboard.  There’s nothing more annoying than a dead blog.


5 things you should to do at Frog’s conference

June 1, 2014

It’s the annual Frog National Learning Platform’s conference this month.  It’s sort of like Comic Con for VLE Coordinators.  Sort of…a bit… you get to see cool previews and while nobody dresses up like The Doctor or Loki, you do get to rub shoulders with the people who make the platform.  The comparisons fade a bit after that…but it’s still fun and quite an intensive experience.

You could take my word for it.  Damn it, why wouldn’t you!  But in case you don’t, here’s one of Frog’s video about previous conferences.   I do insist you stop watching it before 1:30 though.

You can read more about the free event and sign up here

In order to get the most out of the day, I’ve prepared a list of things to do.  I’ll be using this list myself and thought I’d share with you:

1 – Split up

There’s plenty of workshops and loads to do.  As tempting as it is to go round the whole day with a conference buddy, split up and see twice as much.  There’s plenty of time to catch up in the refreshment breaks and all the workshops are taped so you can watch them afterwards.  At Cramlington, we run our own conference (more about that next week) and it always surprises me how often a group from one school will travel up and spend the day going to just 3 workshops.

I’m looking at this year’s agenda and wondering how I’m going to be in 3 places at once for each workshop session.  Meeting new people is daunting, but let’s face it, you’re going to be stuck with those work colleagues ALL DAY and the train journey home.  You’ll need a break and the above is a much better reason than:

“Seriously?  I already spend 8 hours a day in your company, what more do you want from me?!”

2  – Tweet

I tweet.  Occasionally.  At Frog, I probably double the number of tweets I make the rest of the year.  Tweeting at a conference makes you part of the larger community and it’s really the only way you can have a discussion.  The speakers and workshops always include Q&A which is useful (see point 3), but you can’t really voice opinions during that bit.  And of course, you have to wait until the end.

With Twitter, as soon as something is said which peaks your interest, you can make a record of it and share it with everyone.  In a sense, I use it to make notes and report back to base.  And if anyone back home is watching, they can throw in questions for me to get answers to.  Also the Frog team keep an eye on the hash tags throughout the day and respond both on Twitter and on the main stage to tweets.

I can’t mention Frog and Twitter without at least hinting at something that happened a couple of years ago.  A speaker booked to inspire the delegates really pitched his motivational speech to the wrong audience.  That’s putting it nicely.   He ended up boring a captive audience with smart phones.

Frog is an odd conference, the makeup of its delegates is approximately 50% teachers and 50% non-teaching techies.  Techies have an allergy to edu-speak.  I think most teachers probably do too, but they have built up an immunity.  If you’re speaking at Frog and prepare a presentation for teachers only, you’re going to bore the techies;  if you prepare just for the techies, you’re going to bore the teachers.  And as I said, these people have smart phones!

badtimememe

3 – Ask a question

As a workshop presenter, there’s something soul destroying about sitting there during the Q&A starting and no one asks a question.  Possible options:

  • “Have I bored them?” – Quick! Check Twitter
  • “Was my presentation so comprehensive that there is no possible question? – Nope, you’re not that good
  • “Did I slightly bore them, but not enough to tweet?” – possibly
  • “Did they all expect this workshop to be on something interesting they could use themselves, but have discovered it’s not”  – highly likely

There are probably many other, more likely reasons, but when you’re sitting up there, you can’t think of them.   Also, and this is a much better reason, we only get 10-15 minutes each, so you’re getting the highlight reel.   Asking a question gives us a chance to expand and go into detail.  Trying to guess what bits the audience will want more detail on while preparing a workshop is next to impossible.

4 – Speak to the presenters afterwards

I love it when people come up afterwards, generally they have follow up questions to the questions they asked and I still didn’t go into enough detail.  I try to go up when I’m in the audience too, not always because I have a question, sometimes just to say “good job”.  It’s always worth getting to know the speakers – networking I think it’s called.

Which leads me to a bonus point, bring business cards.  It’s so much quicker to pass over contact details than scribbling them down on a piece of paper, or even worse, trying to add someone into my phone contacts as they spell out each name and their number and their email and their web address.    Seriously, business cards.  I got 500 from Vista print and it makes this stuff so much easier.

5 – Go round the third party stands

Frog isn’t BETT, they don’t have lots and lots of trade stands.  They have a few very specific stands talking about products designed to work with the Frog VLEs.

I have found that the information I get from Frog is easily comparable to BETT and the salesmen are far less desperate to make a sale.

Plus the guys on the I Am Learning stand are always fun and almost always have some sort of game going on.

Extra special bonus things to do:

6 – Come to the bar afterwards

Don’t get the first train home, get the one after and have a drink with the guys who actually make Frog.  This is their chance to kick back after pushing hard to get things ready for the conference.  I sometimes wish it wasn’t a free bar, because I can’t buy them all a drink to say thank you.  So instead, I just say “thank you” and enjoy a free drink (thank you too, Gareth).

7 – Ask your Line Manager send you

There’s a good chance that if you’re responsible for your school’s VLE, you’re low down on the food chain.  I don’t understand why this is, but it’s unfortunate that the majority of VLE people in other schools I speak to, don’t get to leave the premises.  I’m lucky in that I do get to go.

Being there, I get an invaluable CPD experience and a bucket load of information about future developments for Frog.  There’s always a section of the conference where Frog’s CEO Gareth Davies (see my earlier thank you) stands up and shows off some cool new features.  This is massively useful for my future planning, as I know what my school needs and whether or not Frog is going to supply that in the next 12 months.

Some of this stuff you can get from the videos, but not all of it.  Speaking to other delegates for their impressions helps clarify what you’ve seen and asking questions can only really be done in person.

Ask your line manager for five minutes, sit down with them and ask to go.  Don’t just half mention it and hope they take the hint.  It’s a free conference, so all that’s needed is the will to free you up and transport costs.  It’s once a year for one day.  You can be spared.


FIXED: Webpages display correctly without using Compatibility Mode

May 19, 2014

Something strange started happening with Internet Explorer last year.  When IE10 turned up, it seemed like it rewrote the rule book on how the browser displays web pages.   For instance, if you hadn’t coded your font name in your style sheets absolutely correctly, then you had to deal Times New Roman.

Time's New Roman

That’s not what I meant!

Now of course, one should code their style sheets correctly.  But realistically, the rules change too often and there’s just too many pages I’ve built while on a learning curve.  I do not believe anyone can be reasonably expected to maintain and update static pages as browser standards change.

If you disagree…

Good for you.  Well done on having a differing opinion.  This post is not for you.  This post is to help others like me beat the system.

The Compromise

So, if something stops working in the latest version of the browser, you can switch on Compatibility Mode/View.  The problem with this is it displays everything like it’s in IE6/7.   Which means you lose anything clever or fancy.

The Solution

What’s needed is some way of telling IE to use all the bits you have at the time of coding, but don’t change things when you add new features.

And thanks to a long Google search (not having a clue what to search for) I eventually found this:

<meta http-equiv=”x-ua-compatible” content=”IE=9>

This single line of code at the top of a webpage, tells IE to run a webpage as if it is displaying it in Internet  Explorer 9, or 10 (content=”IE=10″) etc…

I love the simplicity of this.  It gives me the freedom to build a site/system however I need to and I know that there won’t be a massive panic when the browser updates and suddenly some bit of jQuery/CSS stops working.


YouTube Royalty-Free Music bank

May 1, 2014

When adding music to a video, there is always the point when you want to reach for your audio collection, be it iTunes, Amazon or that pile of dusty CDs and import your favourite song and use that.

Yeah, that’s called copyright infringement.  It’s so easy to do, but ethically and legally it’s a big NO.

Copyright infringement joke

The irony is not lost on me

The big problem is what do you do if you don’t (or know someone who does) have the talent  to create music for your video.  And let’s face it, even if you do, that’s a whole extra level of work.

There are royalty-free music websites out there, but whenever I’ve tried to use them, I’ve found it near impossible to find the right type of music for the mood I’m trying to convey.

The closest I’d found was Video Copilot, which sells a CD of audio effects and includes some music ambience tracks.   These tracks aren’t bad, but they are limited.

The Solution!

Last time I uploaded a video to YouTube* I noticed a new feature, Creation Tools.  And in there, is an Audio Library link.

YouTube's audio libraryThe mp3 files are catalogued by genre, mood, instrument, duration and sub-categorized as well.

And just like that, problem solved.  A decent, well organised collection of royalty-free music.

Thank you, YouTube*!

 

* It’s a video hosting website, some of you may have heard of it


Converting videos so they can be edited

April 18, 2014

At Cramlington, we don’t currently have a third-party video service.

Not that sort of video service!

Not that sort of video service!

Instead, having an entirely Windows server environment, we’ve used Windows Media Encoder and WMV files to stream all our videos.

Together with Graeme Porter (since moved to be Walbottle Campus’ VLE Coordinator), I put together our own video database system (CramTube – yeah, our naming’s not got better either).  We also methodically went through all of the encoding settings in Adobe Premiere to determine best compression – size ratio.  Using WMV we achieve around 4 Mbs per minute.

  • Bit rate encoding: CBR, 1 pass
  • Maximum bit rate: 550 kbps
  • Width: 640, height: 480

At this setting, you see a little artefacting (it’s not yet a word, but I’m holding out hope), but the file size has to double before the quality noticeably improves.  And so far, we’ve only rolled out Android devices to students which can play WMVs fine.

 

The problem

Of course, there’s a problem.  In this case, it’s our students, who use their Android tablets and phones (only in 6th form supposedly) to record video.

I'm currently pushing for month long detentions for filming the wrong way.

I’m currently pushing for month-long detentions for filming the wrong way.

Shockingly, they also to want to be able to edit it.  Trouble is, there’s no app in existence (I’ve looked) that allows the user to record video as WMV.  And if the student wishes to edit the video, generally it involves a trip to the IT support office with a memory stick.

Our Solution

Please note, that this bit is entitled Our Solution.  I’m sure there are many other ways to achieve this, but this is our solution using products we had to hand.  The solution required:

  1. Some way of students uploading video (large files).
  2. Have it convert automatically.
  3. Be able to download the new file.

1 – PL Upload
To solve the first point, a Google search (sorry Bing – I never even considered you) discovered PL Upload.  This system is a lovely bit of code which allows large files to be automatically uploaded by users.  This gets round the problem of standard file upload forms timing out.  The documentation is a little off-putting, but the example file provided works just fine.  From there, it’s easy enough to adapt to suit your own design.

2 – Adobe Media Encoder
The next part involves converting the video from whatever format into the editable WMV.  We’re lucky enough to have Adobe CC for our department.  It’s meant we have the latest versions of all the Adobe products, though I think AME has had watch folders for some time.

Hang on….sorry, got ahead of myself.  In AME, you can set up the program to “watch” for new files on a network drive.  So every time a user uploads a video file using PL Upload, it drops into one of these ‘watch folders’.  AME, running on a spare PC detects the new file, converts it and saves it into another folder.

3 – Auto menu – PHP
On upload, we used a bit of our own code to rename the video file with the user’s username, time and date.  Using a variation on the auto menu code I shared last time on this blog, the user sees a list of all the videos containing their username.

And that’s it.   Obviously AME can be set to convert to formats other than WMV, but seeing as our students use Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 (site licence years ago) and Windows Movie Maker (free), we find it’s the easiest format.

So far, only our sixth form students have used the uploader, but our Year 7 students are using a stop motion app which only saves in MOV or MP4 formats.  PL Upload being a web-based tool should allow them to upload and convert.


Auto Menu (PHP)

March 19, 2014

More often than not, I get asked to upload and link some files from our teachers to one page or another.  This is part of my job and I’m happy to do it.  But sometimes, I get asked to upload 20 – 30 files in one email.  This gets tedious.  And generally, I’ve no sooner finished than I get another email requesting a couple more in another location.  Complaining about this seems a little childish, but the truth is, it’s boring work that takes time.

How geeks deal with repetitive tasks

How geeks deal with repetitive tasks

I’m a great believer in “Work Smart, not Hard”.

Work smart, not hard

Work smart, not hard – nailed it!

Being a WSNH believer (some would say an evangelist), I wrote this bit of code, which automatically populates a page full of links to the resources inside a folder.  It even takes into account sub-folders.

Script

Hopefully, you can implement this yourselves, but if not, drop me a line.

You can download the script here.  I could have pasted it here, but the formatting was lost and it looked really ugly.


Need a small server capable of hosting databases?

June 16, 2013

In my last post, I talked about using PHP and if you didn’t have access to a server that allowed PHP to run, what could you do?  For the more technically minded out there, you may be surprised that this is even an issue.  The sad truth is that lots of free websites don’t offer PHP and quite a few schools have the servers locked down through official policy and end of argument.

Managed support does not simply allow access to our servers

Use all the memes!

There is hope

A year or two ago, our IT support (not a managed service) started buying QNAP Tera-stations.   Ultra-cool name aside, these network storage devices are great for back-ups.  We use them to hold our photo archives and video project construction files.  Some of you would be amazed* at how frequently I get asked to make a change to a five year-old video.   Keeping the source files makes that a lot easier.

Technology changes all the time, so rather than recommend a specific model, I’ll talk about the features available on even the basic, home model.  In the software section, this is just some of the features they offer:

QNAP TS-21

One of QNAP’s home range

  • iTunes server
  • Music server
  • Photo Station
  • Video Station
  • TV Station
  • FTP
  • Auto-back up
  • Print server
  • Anti-virus

And most importantly, for this post, it can also act as web server with PHP support and MySQL database support along with phpMyAdmin (which is an easy database management system)

While not wanting to endorse a particular product or even model, a quick Amazon search shows that these products are not bank-breaking (we’re talking a couple of hundred pounds here).

Uses

I think these products have been loaded with features to appeal to the geek-at-home.  I’ve quite tempted to get one for myself to house all my media.

When discussing them recently with an ICT teacher from another school, he pointed out it would be a huge benefit in his classroom.  He’d be able to allow his students to program webpages to interact with databases without risking the security of the school’s servers.

At Cramlington, we’re seriously discussing# the possibility of loading up one of these with our interactive webpages and offering it to other schools.  Another school could take the QNAP, plug it into their network, change a couple of settings and be running things like:

  • Drag-and-drop seating plans
  • Custom timetables
  • Class blogs
  • Rewards system
  • Random name selector
  • etc…

 

A nice, simple solution with a huge range of possibilities.   Damn, I should totally get sponsorship before hawking products for free.

 

 

* I suspect those of you in a support role would not be that surprised. :)

# Don’t get too excited just yet.  We’re discussing it properly and going about trials sensibly. Watch this space.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 311 other followers