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.


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.