Warning: Personal post – my new job

September 6, 2015

Once again I am breaking the editorial guidelines for this blog.  This post isn’t a tip, trick, useful software or hardware.  Last time I did this was in 2012, so I think I’m allowed one every three years.

willywonka

After 12 years of working for Cramlington Learning Village, I’ve moved on.

I’m thrilled to announced that I am joining FrogEducation as their Technical Customer Advocate.  My role is to work for and with Frog schools to help them get the most out of their platform.

I’m a huge fan of Frog, it has twice transformed CLV.  We embraced the concept of a VLE when we first bought Frog in 2008, creating a VLE which allowed teachers to push information to students and interconnect all our resources.  This was only 4 years after Facebook was founded, 3 years after YouTube, online learning was barely a concept in most UK schools.  Cramlington already had an intranet, containing hundreds of lesson plans – but this was a resource for teachers.  Frog3 flipped that by bringing our students online in a safe and secure portal.

In 2014, we upgraded to FrogLearn (still using Frog3 to manage it – recommended for upgrading schools at the time –  I don’t know if that’s still the case).  The effect was again transformative.  Frog3 (as good as it is) made lesson creation a slow process.  FrogLearn makes lesson plan writing easy.  Our staff (sorry, CLV’s staff) seem to have overwhelmingly embraced this, each writing dozens of lesson plans – last count was 3500 sites (1000 more since I spoke at Frog15).  These lesson plans sit within FrogDrive, but I helped created a department structure to aid in organising them and recreated the Accelerated Learning template first introduced to Cramlington in 1997 with the help of Alistair Smith.

You can watch me talk about it at Frog15:

It’s this experience and knowledge I hope to bring to all Frog schools and while I leave behind good friends and dedicated colleagues at CLV, I can’t wait to start!

future

 


My Top 4 Chrome extensions

August 10, 2015

Google Chrome is awesome a browser.   There are those who prefer it to other browsers and I can see why.  For an individual, it’s very customisable and while this can cause issues for schools, it’s an up-to-date, easy to use browser.

Let's face it, if you're reading this post, you probably already have a certain viewpoint

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this post, you probably already have a certain viewpoint

Added this one for balance

Whatever your opinion on Chrome, it’s extensions are really powerful, so much so that I keep a list of them to be able to reinstall them when Chrome decides to clean them out or I accidentally hit reset all (that happened this morning and it was like losing a family album 🙂 ). I thought I’d share this list with you – which also has the happy side effect of making it easy for me to find them again 🙂

Open in IE

open_ie_icon

Link to Chrome Store

Google Chrome considers it a security issue to be able to open a link in Windows Explorer.  The trouble is that this is a really handy thing to be able to do if you’re managing an intranet server. Annoying, Google does allow you to open the Chrome downloads folder on its own downloads page, but I can’t find the code to duplicate this.  If anyone does know how, please tell the world (and me).

This extension offers the chance to open a link in Internet Explorer when you right-click on a link.   So, if you’ve got a page with a link beginning file:// the extension opens IE, which then opens Windows Explorer (and closes IE as a bonus).

There is a problem with the current extension though, it uses NPAPI which Google have announced they are shutting down by version 45.   On that day, I will be wearing a black armband.

These instructions on the Chrome help page will allow you to use this really useful plugin until then (note the slightly smug “if you must use…”  – yes Google, we must use it – make your browser better and we won’t have to!):

How to temporarily enable NPAPI plug-ins
If you must use a NPAPI plug-in, there’s a temporary workaround that will work until Chrome version 45 is released later in 2015:

  1. Open Chrome.
  2. In the address bar at the top of the screen, type chrome://flags/#enable-npapi
  3. In the window that opens, click the link that says Enable under the Enable NPAPI flag.
  4. In the bottom-left corner of the page, click the Relaunch Now button.

Window Resizer

window_resizer_icon

Link to Chrome Store

I’ve got a HUGE desktop monitor.  I know, size isn’t everything, but sometimes inches do count.   It’s really handy for me to have multiple windows all visible at the same time.  Honest.

As any web designer worth their salt will tell you, it’s very important to design pages that fit on your target audiences screen.   It’s so easy to make a page too wide without realising it, or to have an important message below the “fold” (the bit not visible until you scroll down).

Window Resizer is a brilliant way of quickly resizing your browser to the size of the user’s screen.   We have multiple devices in school now; desktops running at 1024×768, others running 1440×900, mobile phones and Chromebooks.

Being able to quickly check what a page looks like, gives me a chance to catch mistakes and produce a better looking product.  You can customise the screens and shortcuts too, which just adds to my love for it.


User-Agent Switcher

ua_switcher

Link to Chrome Store

Speaking of designing for multiple devices, User-Agent switcher allows you to quickly check how your page looks on a range of devices and browsers. There’s not much more to say about it really.

It’s helped design our mobile VLE site and is really handy when identifying problems when users complain their phone doesn’t see something.


Clear Cache

clear_cache

Link to Chrome Store

For some bizarre reason, CTRL + F5 works in Chrome, but doesn’t completely clear the cache.   Isn’t that the point of CTRL + F5, to clear the cache and refresh the page?

Apparently not. This handy extension takes care of the problem at least.

It’s the Ronseal of Chrome Extensions.


Creating a ‘FrogLearn Widget’

April 24, 2015

First things first.  You can’t actually create a FrogLearn widget and have it appear in the sidebar, but this hack lets you come close in terms of functionality.

meme_morpheus

What it is

In a nutshell, I built a webpage which allows users to set up a date countdown.  Pressing the submit button generates a URL which can be pasted into a FrogLearn Embed a Website widget.

Frog's Embed a Website widget

Embed a Website

What you need

In this example, I created a webpage with jQuery embed and code to run a date countdown.  It’ s not my countdown code.  I got it from trulycode.com.   I’ve just adapted it into a form so that anyone can quickly set up an event countdown.

You can download the web page here

When you first open the page, you’ll see this form, with instructions:

Form to add a date

Filling in the form, adding  title, date and time and clicking Create a countdown sends you to the same page (with  few variables added).  The page now looks like this:

Countdown display

And that’s it!

If you copy the address of the webpage and paste that address into the Embed a Website widget, you’re able to create a customised, easy to edit “widget”.

Summary

Hopefully you can see the potential for this kind of hack.   It’s not limited to just this one resource.   By creating a simple form which generates a URL, we can start to add some Frog3 type customisation into FrogLearn.

Notes:

I’ve adapted this quite heavily so that the page will run locally.  All the CSS is on the page and it points to Google’s hosted jQuery.  This means it needs to be connected to the internet.  If you have your own server, then I’d suggest installing jQuery and repointing the links.

Feel free to adapt the code, although if you’re going to put it on your own blog, then a link back to here would be nice.


IT Support Geek Meet – North East

April 11, 2015

So… for the past few years (pathetic I know) I’ve been talking about organising a GeekMeet.  Like a TeachMeet, but with a focus more for school IT Support.  Teachers with an eye towards ICT would of course be more than welcome.

For those of you not familiar with TeachMeets. Congratulations.  🙂  The events are made up of 2- and 7-minute presentations where volunteers stand up and share good ideas / concepts.  There’s a few minutes for questions after each presentation and an interval for a chance to chat properly.  For those of you who use Frog, it would a bit like their Meet-Share-Learn days, just not only about VLEs.

I think realistically, there’d be a few differences between a GeekMeet and a TeachMeet.  In the couple of TeachMeets I’ve attended there was a clear drive to avoid specific products and to refer more to techniques.  While this makes sense in a teaching context, I don’t have an issue with an IT professional saying: “this product is really great, because …”.

I also think that some people have issues with public speaking.

Socially Awkward Penguin understands

Socially Awkward Penguin understands

I think we could look into offering Presentations-by-Proxy (PbP?).

Your voice

What do you think, is this something you’d come along to?

I’ve set up a Google Form so you can register interest and I can get an idea of what you’d want a GeekMeet to be like.

I’ll email out this link to everyone I know, but please forward it to your colleagues as well.  This will definitely be a case of the more, the merrier.

 


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.


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