Sparkbook

January 28, 2013

Sparkbook is a database driven system I’ve built for school which populates students directly from our MIS (Serco Facility) and allows teachers to quickly mark them against different criteria.

The system is designed to be customisable, so teachers can add their criteria. There is a tiered marking system built in – teachers can choose from 5 (and counting) marking tiers:

  • Expert, Apprentice, Novice
  • Gold, Silver, Bronze
  • etc…

You can set a target and Sparkbook calculates both the current level and ultimate grade.   It’s the sort of thing, I’ve discovered lots of staff had been doing manually in MS Excel for years, spending ages build all their spreadsheets.

Finally, I’ve described it as a mobile device companion markbook, in that it can run from a tablet (resized automatically and linked from our Frog VLE) leaving the user’s computer screen free.   Very handy if you are marking online work, no changing windows.

I’ve only soft launched it so far.  That is, I’ve linked it in, but not drawn everyone’s attention to it.  I prefer to do introduce new systems this way, it gives systems time to settle in.  There are bound to be glitches, change requests and training issues. By simply making the link available without a grand announcement,  it naturally limits the number of teachers who try it without training.

Showing off

I’m aware in writing this post that Sparkbook isn’t actually available for you all.   Sorry about that.  My long-term ambition is to take a lot of the systems built at Cramlington and package them up as a product for other schools.   Delays in MIS product updates have killed that ambition for the moment and even then, I’ll have to investigate just how we’d go about providing a dynamic product such as this; but that’s the goal someday.   For you, it’s either hang on or apply for a job teaching at Cramlington Learning Village.


FIXED: Read-only error on your phone’s SD card

September 4, 2011

Argh! Pants!  Nooooooo!  I’ve knacked my phone!?!?!?!

Just some of the many thoughts that went through my head on Friday when in the middle of a workshop, I went to show someone a picture I’d taken on my phone.   Suddenly the gallery crashed and an alert popped up saying “SD Card Readonly” or something equally terror inducing.

Adding to the panic, all my Apps disappeared, just leaving their names on the desktop with the generic Android logo.  It was like a graveyard.

Trying to calm down the panic, I turned the phone off.  Then turned it on again.   The alert came straight back.  I imagined the chortles of iPhone fans taunting “this doesn’t happen with Apple products”.

Removing the battery and starting up still didn’t fix the problem. 

That’s when I turned to the internet.  And as always, it solved my problem.  Eventually. 

How your parents see you when you're fixing their computer

How your parents see you when you're fixing their computer

What really hapens

What really hapens

Plenty of others have experienced this same panic and the default suggestion is… well let’s not say pig-stupid, let’s use the term over-reaction.    You see in some IT support circles the next stage after “turn it off and turn it back on again” is “format the storage”.  It’s sort of like demolishing a railway line and building a new one next to it just because there were leaves on the track.

All I needed to do was:

  • Plug my phone into my PC and open My Computer.  
  • Right-clicking on the SD drive icon and choosing Tools
  • Then click the Check Now button in the error-checking section.
  • Windows will then scan the drive and correct the errors.

Tools, Error Checking

It’s the same process that happens when you plug in a memory stick that was ejected incorrectly.

Phew, panic over.


Quick Tip: Creating an icon for mobile shortcuts

August 12, 2011

One of the cute things about most mobile sites these days, is that when you make an shortcut and set it to your phone’s desktop* a personalised favicon type image is used, instead of just a boring standard bookmark.

These are cute and very easy to do.  Simply paste the following code into the <head></head> section of your page.  Ideally it should be in the <head> bit, though it doesn’t have to be (if using Frog for example) :

 <link rel=”apple-touch-icon” href=”full path to your image” />

 There’s some debate on the internet as to whether you need the full path or if the local path will do, but I’ve used the full path and been happy with the results.

Your image should be the official 57×57 pixels, but again, there’s plenty of debate on the best size.  It should be  saved as a png.

And don’t worry Android users, the code may say apple-touch-icon, but works just the same. 

*(is that the right term???)


Quick tip: Make your web page mobile

June 19, 2011

Recently, I showed off some of our VLE pimping at Frog’s National Learning Platforms conference in Birmingham, things like our Rewards system and My Classes – a whole section where a teacher can create seating plans, interact with the students via blogs, run a Random Name Selector etc…  

I also showed everyone the mobile version of the VLE, built entirely inside Frog.  Just using an HTML brick with the code below, web pages render at the width of the browser viewing them.   It’s that simple.

<meta name = “viewport” content = “width = device-width, height = device-height” /> 

This code doesn’t detect if you’re using a mobile device.  Personally, while I have implemented them on my own blogging engine, I don’t recommend detection code.  Detection and redirection are simply too irritating for words.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to visit a site after searching from Google, only to be redirected to the site’s mobile front page (Gamespot I’m looking at you). 

We provide a link on the VLE frontpage to a different login screen.   Couple this with use of a tinyurl and a QR code and job done!


Battle of the handhelds – iPod Touch 4 vs Archos 43

April 27, 2011

We’re investigating handheld tablets at the moment.   I know, all tablets are handheld, these are small ones.

The advantages of handhelds are fairly obvious.  They’re cheaper than computers, their batteries last at least all day, they are always on.  And I think most importantly, unlike Netbooks, tablets don’t suffer from “mission creep”.   Netbooks look like laptops and sooner or later you expect them to do the same things as laptops, but they’re underpowered and can’t cope.  With tablets, you don’t expect laptop performance and so, aren’t disappointed.

Archos 43

iPod Touch 4To the battle then.  Which handheld offers the most educational value.  iPod Touch 4 (Apple iOS4) or an Archos 43 (Google Android Froyo).  It took a little bit of research to find an equivalent-sized Android tablet.  HTC, along with all the major players, only produce phones. 

Archos have come from the other way, from the media player direction and have always had devices to compete with Apple.

Cost, specifications and battery life

It’s really awkward to compare specifications for these devices, as they are quite different.  What we’ve done internally for our evaluation is compare the iPod 8 Gb (~£160) to the Archos 16 Gb (~£150).  There is an argument that we should have bought the 32 Gb iPod (~£230) but then the iPod would lose out straight away for its high price tag.

The two tablets together, showing their relative sizes

The Archos is a bit larger than the iPod.  Its screen is noticeably bigger too, though the iPod has a much larger (and sharper) resolution.  Personally, resolution on a 3″ screen isn’t something I’m bothered about.

I’m not going to get into the processor specs as direct comparisons won’t highlight anything relevant given the different operating systems.

I will say both devices impressed me with their actual battery life, given how used I am to charging my HTC phone every other day.  I suppose not having to look for phone networks really saves the battery.

Out of the box

The iPod requires a computer connection straight out of the box.  You have to have iTunes installed and more importantly, I seem to remember I had to set up an iTunes account (yes, I already have one, but I wanted a separate account for this work-purchased pod).  Setting up an iTunes account requires a credit card, whether you ever make a purchase or not.  Big black mark there Apple.  If we want the students to purchase these devices, it means letting them loose with their parents’ credit card.  I’ll touch more on this later, when looking at Apps.

The Archos sucks right of the box.  Despite the specs on the website, ours came preloaded with Android 1.6.  The OS equivalent of a Vuvuzala.  I know, how many operating systems have I written?

The Archos can be “used” immediately, but the controls were unresponsive.  The setup didn’t include accelerometer calibration (that was hidden in the Settings menu).  The device had to be hit on the side to get it to turn the screen round – who knew Al from Quantum Leap was using Android 1.6! 

After about 30 minutes, the Archos detected that a new version of Android was available.  It downloaded 2.2 (Froyo), but truly annoyingly, after downloading it had to be plugged into a PC before installing.  Not being next to my laptop at the time meant cancelling the installation, returning to my desk and starting again.

Once Froyo was installed, the difference was night-and-day.  The responsiveness was vastly improved.

Two things that the Archos had that were better than the iPod.  OS Password boxes carry an option to unhide the result as you type, and the keyboard contains a Caps Lock option.  C’mon Apple, 4 generations in, and you still have to press shift each time you want a capital letter???

Apps

Again, out of the box, the Archos isn’t very impressive when it comes to Apps.  The device comes with a limited AppsLib, instead of the full Android Market.  It’s preloaded with some decent enough stuff, the music and video players are good enough as is the file manager and the dedicated Uninstall App, but Flash isn’t there by default.  That can be downloaded from AppsLib, unlike Adobe Air (the easy way to make Apps).

It is possible to get the full market however.  Which is exactly what we did.  After about 30 minutes research, we found ArcTools, which once installed, installs the Market.  But here’s the thing.  You don’t actually need a Market App for Android devices.  You can download an .apk file from anywhere on the internet, unlike the iPod. 

Once the Market, and Adobe Air was installed, the Archos began to feel a bit more useful.  And I was able to start comparing  the devices properly.

For comparison, I went looking for an education App, specifically a Periodic Table.  From the Android Market, I installed the free Periodic Table, which had quizzes, flash cards and pronunciation audios (very nice touch).   Looking in Apple’s App Store was a huge disappointment.  I only found 1 free App.  If we’re going to want kids to download specific Apps, we can’t expect them to purchase them.  The App, iTeachU Free, was next to useless. 

Android’s Apps seem to be of the free, ad-sponsored variety and Apple’s are of the cheap kind (the pay Apps were generally only 59p). 

The bigger issue with Apple is the credit card.  Even for a free App, you have to enter your iTunes password in order to install it.  This means the students will have access to their parents’ credit cards.  We may have to operate with a delay, wherein we ask the kids to ask their parents to install Apps for them.

Browsing

Here there is a big difference.   The Archos uses screen technology that can only handle 1 finger.  So no pinch-and-zoom.  This is a major problem for the native browser when looking at non-mobile websites.  The view constantly zoomed in and out when I tried scrolling as the browser couldn’t decide which function I was trying to do.   Eventually, I gave up and installed Dolphin HD, which gave me better options, including using the volume buttons to scroll the page.  Browsing still isn’t as slick as on the iPod though.

Complaining that a handheld computer can only handle one touch at a time should be like complaining my car doesn’t have a flying mode.  But the truth is Apple have been showing everyone two fingers for years now.  I own a Gen 1 iPod Touch, that has pinch-and-zoom.  I know Archos were probably able to keep the costs down by not including the same type of touchscreen as Apple, but it really hurts browsing.

Don’t be downhearted Android fans, as Apple sucks in its own way when browsing.  The “walled garden” of iOS prevents uploading images from the iPod to a website.  This is a major flaw (especially as it is designed in).  This is why you need an App to engage with most Web 2.0 sites.  Their own web browser isn’t allowed to interact with their device!?!

Camera

I’m not a photographer.  When I take photos I don’t spend too much time worrying about light conditions or focal length.  I just want to point and shoot.

Below are comparisons trying to replicate the sort of photos the kids might take.  I’ve deliberately avoided optimal conditions.

Archos 43 - Indoors

The Archos 43 comes with a 2 Mb camera.  The image has a little bit of noise to it and is appears a little bit darker than reality. 

iPod Touch 4

The iPod Touch offers a resolution of less than 1 Mb.  Given that the iPhone comes with a reported 5 Mb camera, putting the equivalent of a web cam in this device is pretty inexcusable.  The image is full of noise and really quite small.  It was rumoured that the iPod camera has a fixed focus, but this is untrue.  The iPod comes with a touch screen interface to control focus.  Tapping any part of the screen creates a focus box which the device then uses focus.  There appears to be no focus control with the Archos.

 iPod - Close up

Moving the camera closer to the objects, you can see what the handhelds are like picking up detail. 

The iPod appears to produce a richer colour, though the red felt tip was bright red, which I don’t think the iPod picks up.  The iPod’s image is also pretty noisy, though there is some blurring with the Archos.

 Archos - close up

iPod - outdoors

Moving outdoors and taking a photo of some flowers in the garden (don’t email me to tell me what they are – I don’t care. 🙂 ).  The colours from the iPod are much more vibrant (but if I’m honest, the colours are more accurately reproduced in the Archos).

Archos - outdoors

  The additional light available makes both pictures less noisy.

In conclusion

 I find that the iPod Touch is lacking in the terms of its specifications.  When I imagine guiding students through finding specific Apps and working out how to pay for them and how to build and distribute them, coupled with the woefully poor camera I find I cannot recommend iPods. 

I should point out that there is another method for distributing iPods, which is that we could buy 30 devices and use a syncing device to control them.  This takes the self-financing out of the situation, but adds its own problems of the school having to buy and maintain them.

Distributing Apps to students using the Archos is child’s play.  Once they are set up correctly, we can simply make a page on our VLE with a list of Apps linked in.  Building and distribution is also simple.

So on paper the Archos 43 is a superior device.  But here’s the problem; while watching TV, I’ll often reach for a device to look something up on the internet.  I find myself reaching for the iPod instead of the Archos. 

The Archos just isn’t as responsive.  The auto-correct keyboard on both my HTC Desire and the iPod Touch makes typing on such small screens as not only possible but quick.  I cannot get the auto-correct to kick in on the Archos. 

There are moments on the Archos when you click on an App or link and nothing appears to happen for a moment.  Even taking photos appears to do nothing at first. 

So in conclusion, like I said I cannot recommend the iPod Touch, but I’m not yet sure if I can recommend the Archos.  It’s a good device with plenty of storage space, better camera, easy to use (once set up right) but it’s touch screen just isn’t as good.


My First App!

December 20, 2010

A few months ago I posted about the new App Inventor from Google which has a pretty impressive App maker for Android phones.

Unfortunately, I found it all a little awkward to use.  Animations for example seemed impossible.   Google own Android SDK also proved a steep learning curve.  And you need a Mac to use Apple’s iOS SDK.   So all in all, building useful Smart Phone Apps (or even rubbish ones) seemed out of my grasp.Buffalo Billy plays Pig on my HTC Desire

Then several things happened.   Firstly, Apple announced a relaxation of the policy towards third-party App making software, then Adobe released Air for Android.   Suddenly it was possible to build Apps in Flash Professional and export them for phones and tablets!

This weekend, in a couple of hours, I took a favourite game my wife and I built for a ventriliquist friend of ours (back in 2005) and converted it to ActionScript 3 (AS2 is a lot easier, but is being replaced by the more complex AS3 – though AS2 will still work for traditional flash resources on websites).   Once it was running in AS3, using the new AIR for Android template I was able to plug my phone into the PC, set it to development mode and build a new App. 

For some reason, Adobe have almost hidden their Android template.   After much searching, I found it on their Adobe Labs site.   But it was apparently available or linked from their Adobe AIR site.  Strange?

For those of you who don’t know the dice game Pig, you take turns rolling a dice and adding up the amount on the face.   If you throw a ‘1’, you lose your points and play reverts to the other person.   You can end your turn voluntarily at any point.  The winner is the first to 100 points.    You can play the original version here.  One cute thing we added for the app is that you can shake the phone to roll the dice. 

There are certificates to be correctly filled out, and testing to be handled before I submit this game to the App Market.  And in theory, I should also be able to press a button an convert it into an iPhone App too.  I’ll post here once I know more and as I understand, for Android at least, you don’t have to submit it.  You can just host an app install file on your own server.

This is going to be huge frankly!  As school budgets tighten, and ICT use expands, imagine the savings possible if we can build our own tailored apps.   The new Advent Amico is a 7″ Android tablet which costs £129.   That’s cheaper than most netbooks.   We found netbooks main disadvantage was that they look like laptops, so people assume they can handle the same software as laptops.   Smart phone tablets are taken to be big smart phones, and people only expect web browsing and basic use.

The future is looking very bright, and if not orange, then decidely mobile!


Gizmodo

December 3, 2010

A great website for staying in touch with the latest IT developments is the news site, Gizmodo.

Gizmodo's website

There are constant updates about new products and innovations.   Often the stories have no direct relevance to education, but they’re always interesting.

If you own an iPhone, iPad or Android device or Windows Phone 7  their best apps of the week is a really useful feature helping you keep up to date with the latest apps on the market.