Tuesday, 1 December 2009

To Tweet or not to Tweet

Well, it has been a while since we have posted from the depths of the Tech Dungeon. We have our reasons; the wireless network now appears to be working after what can be described as a 'difficult birth'. We are in the process of testing our netbooks on the network and that now seems to be progressing well. We are working on public access to our broadband connection, but need to be sure that our connection works seamlessly with our firewall and proxy server. So there has been a little to do and we have been busy trying to make things work properly.

To the theme for this month then. The clue is in the obvious title; should Rodborough School tweet? Tweeting is by it's nature short, immediate, to the point and, largely superficial. Or...well one of the criticisms of secondary schools is the lack of day to say communication. This is a fair point, but one that is not easy to solve. We do not have the same daily contact with parents or the the 'playground' culture that can be found in many primary schools. Perhaps a tool such as Twitter will allow us to distribute information that is considered 'low level' and 'low grade' but is, none the less, part of the fabric of any community. We'll give it a go and see if it works.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


We always moan about it, but it can be a problem! Time, or rather lack of it, has prevented me from updating the blog for the last month. This month the theme is 'have look at the new website' which can be found at http://www.rodborough.surrey.sch.uk/. We are grateful to Spherics Multimedia for the fantastic job that they have done, despite the fact that we have not been the best of clients.

Down in the dungeon we have been busy laying the foundations for the wireless networking that is being installed during the summer. We have taken delivery of our netbooks and are working out how to get the best out of them on the network before letting them loose in the classroom. Over the summer we will be dusting down the servers and clearing out the hard drives ready for the start of another year. Have a great summer.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Parents, Children and the one-eyed monster

This used to mean watching too much television. Too much Blue Peter and Grange Hill was going to turn us all into as much part of the lounge furniture as the rather natty new velour sofa our parents had recently purchased. Now this may have come to pass, but I suspect there may be other factors that lead many of us to collapse into the sofa staring vacantly at the corner of the sitting room.

The number of devices in our homes with screens has increased dramatically since the advent of home computing and computer gaming in the 1980s. Today's children are offered a range of choices; DSI, XBOX, Playstations, PSPs, Wiis, iPods, PCs, a whole host of media streaming devices. The popular view (perhaps supported by some qualified evidence) is that this creates a temptation for young people to spend too much time in a virtual world and not enough in the real one.

The 'truth' is that the way children play and communicate is changing. This presents challenges and generates (understandable) concerns, but it also allows them to develop new skills and exchange ideas in a way that was not even conceived of, let alone possible, just a few years ago. On a recent coach trip I was impressed by the way a group of pupils were exchanging video clips that they had made at home using a variety of devices including mobile phones and PSPs. The quality of the videos was impressive and showed a high degree of creativity, tenacity (to create some of the more complex elements must have taken time) and good humour. It occurred to me that most of what they had done had grown out of their own desire to explore new technologies and to share their work with each other - surely an excellent learning experience?

But a young person's computer is not the same as having a TV in the bedroom. PCs allow people to enter and become part of your world. In any human communication there are those skilled at manipulating and exploiting others and this is where there is a lot of current concern.

This entry was supposed to just be about safe use of the Internet and offer a few useful links to some software parents could download in order to safely manage their child's Internet use at home. This has proved more difficult than I first thought it would be (hence the delay to May's blog). There are features in Vista that allow parents to set up separate accounts for their children and these can be limited. There are options within browsers to limit access to websites. These could be used to some good effect, if passwords are kept secret, but the problem is they tend to be quite crude and block perfectly legitimate browsing. There are other firewalls and Internet security packages that allow some control over access to the Internet. These often use 'whitelists' to identify acceptable sites or banned sites can be added to a 'blacklist'. The trouble is that they all take a bit of work to administer and keep up to date.

At school we use a combination of systems that draws on an Internet database of inappropriate websites and allows us to add preferred sites. Our system allows us to enable different levels of access to each room or, if necessary, each PC on the network. All of this requires management and some quite expensive hardware as well as the software.

Those that advise on 'e-Safety' place an emphasis on the way behaviours when using Internet enabled resources at home. Adults are reminded that children and young people are emotionally immature (no matter how grown up they declare themselves to be) and, as such, are vulnerable when it comes to certain online situations. We try to raise awareness of these situations at school through assemblies and social studies and, from September, will formally introduce an 'e-safety' module into the Year 7 ICT induction programme. At home parents are advised to be pro-active about what their children are using their computers for and to be aware of signs such as excessive time spent online or a sudden withdrawal from family life and increase in secretive behaviour (i.e. being a teenager). We already have links to the 'Think You Know' site from the main site, but I have added a link to this site at the end of the blog. It is worth looking at whether you have a concern or not - lots of parents who found out that their child had been manipulated by someone into doing something out of character say they had no idea anything was going on.

I have not touched on 'cyber-bullying' in this entry. That is dealt with elsewhere, but many of the issues associated with this type of online misuse are covered very well through the 'Think You Know' website.

The reality is that the benefits of the Internet and many of the devices that use it outweigh the costs, but we must not be naive about the real harm some young people can come to through the virtual environment.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

On the Air

Connectivity is an important issue in all organisations - schools are no exception. The more devices we can have working together sharing information the better as far as we are concerned. We have a pretty good site-wide network at the moment,but most of our network attached devices are desktop PCs attached to the network via ethernet cabling. That's fine for the PCs in PC suites or permanently at the teacher's desk, but it's not particularly flexible.

This is where wireless networks offer an opportunity, but we have to tread carefully. I have had mixed experiences with wireless in the past. Traditionally wireless systems have found the way that schools work problematic - 30 pupils trying to log on at the same time tends to lock up access points (APs). Wireless technology has moved on a long way; switches are more intelligent, bandwidth higher and management software more sophisticated. So, after some small scale aborted attempts to use wireless in the past, we are in the process of tendering for a site-wide wireless network.

We intend to make the most of new technologies where we can. With 802.11n on the horizon we want to ensure that our network will allow us to take advantage of the higher bandwidth offered by this new standard. We also want to ensure that any 'overlay' of wireless access will have distinct 'layers' to allow differentiated access to network resources, such as the Internet.

The key advantages to implementing a wireless network, as far as we see it, are:

  • Greater flexibility in terms of network access. This will be particularly useful for allow the use of a greater range of devices on the network (such as mobile phones, netbooks, PDAs and even other remote devices such as cameras and security resources).
  • Wider access to the network, for instance allowing access to the network from the field.
  • Reducing the need for and the reliance on 'PC labs'.
  • Offering the possibility of wider access to the Internet for all site users, including visitors.

We are working with a number of providers at the moment and hope to have the network installed during the Summer so that we can be up and running by the start of the new academic year.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Cloud Hopping

This blog was not created using Microsfoft Office. Nothing especially unusual about that - last month's post was created using the freely downloadable Open Office. The difference this month is that I am not using a Word Processor that is stored on my PC; instead I have opted to create a document online using Google Documents.

The idea of going online to access a range of standard office tools is gaining popularity at the moment. Down in the dungeon we believe that there is real potential for schools to encourage use of such tools in order to support access to a central store of files that may be needed at home or school. From our point of view, this removes the risk of allowing users into our network from the Internet; from the users it offers a great deal of flexibility in terms of access to their documents. It also offers the option of using a common platform in and out of school for pupils who do not have access to MS Office at home.

As with all potentially great things, there are downsides; access to the tools depends on a decent connection to the Internet and there are questions about how confidential or secure these services are.

Concern was caused recently when Google's services went down for a few hours. This highlighted the danger of relying on such a service as your main means of productivity, but as part of a mixed economy approach we in the dungeon are fairly convinced it has a future and we believe that it is already a great tool for education users.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Love is in the Air

We in the Tech Dungeon at Rodborough; to be fair that does glamorise the situation a little, perhaps cupboard is more accurate, but dungeon seems more romantic, especially at this time of year. Anyway back to February 2009 and love is very much in the air.

For a while we have been seeing a petite, low maintenance and perfectly proportioned beauty called the Asus Eee around the place. The four devices we have had on site have been very popular with a number of staff and pupils alike. For those of you unfamiliar with what have become known as Web or Net books, they are best described as mini laptops. This description does not, however, do them justice, because by being so small they are so much more. The price is the first thing to notice – below £200 for most. Many of them ship with Linux rather than Windows and have a limited capacity in terms of RAM and storage that makes running the slightly cumbersome Windows a bit tricky. To some that might be a problem, to others a positive bonus, to us it means that we have to re-think how we use our network a little if we are going to integrate their use fully into school (more on this in a later edition when we consider how we intend to make the most of opportunities afforded by 'cloud hopping'). But, and perhaps here I should be saying BUT, once again our hearts have been stolen by something new on the block. We continue to like the Asus Eee, and Asus must be credited with finally delivering a device that can genuinely revolutionise the use of ICT within schools and enable truly mobile computing for the masses, BUT then the HP 2133 Mini Notebook came into our lives.

From the moment we held that quality chassis we knew we had found something special. The high resolution screen is something to behold (despite being just 8.9 inches across). The keyboard, given the size of the device, is almost astonishing; no problem to use even for our large, manly hands. Inside the chassis there is 1gb of RAM a 120gb hard drive, SD card slots, 2 x USB and and an external monitor connection. All this and it is less than £200.
Given the specification of this device we are, even as we speak, working to fully integrate its use into our school system. As soon as we have worked out exactly what we can do with this device we intend to use them widely for a range of tasks, including standard desktop functions, mobile data-logging and, I hope in the not too distant future, working from home as well.

The HP 2133 ships with Suse Linux or Windows (when the price goes up). We are intending to try a couple of flavours of Windows with it as we feel there are benefits from fully networking it.


Asus: http://eeepc.asus.com/global/index.html
HP: http://welcome.hp.com/country/uk/en/welcome.html#Product