Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet will be a major player in education

In my years as a teacher and then as a freelance consultant/trainer I have been very much at the forefront of the use of technology in education, and I have always been excited by the potential that effective use of technology can bring to education, but nothing has been as exciting as the potential that tablet devices brings to learning, and in particular Apple’s iPad – which has been designed beautifully, and is really easy to use, so when I run staff development in this area, I don’t spend most of the time talking about which buttons to press – instead I can focus most of my efforts into the pedagogic considerations of the training, and that is a very liberating feeling.

For the last few months I have been working with a company called ‘The Tablet Academy‘ (formerly The iPad Academy) and I have been going into schools and running iPad training – but now that the company has changed its name, they are also offering support and training for Android and Microsoft devices, and as such I have been experimenting with the basic Microsoft Surface RT device – and even though it has received some negative press, I think it (and its successors) are going to make a huge impact on education.

Microsoft Surface (black)

A Surface Tablet

If you compare an iPad alongside the Surface, then the iPad is going to win in almost all areas – it is built better, there are more apps, the battery seems to last longer, it is more intuitive etc. however  if we compared a new iPad to an iPad 1 (which is the best way of thinking of the Surface) then the gap between the 2 was huge, so we have to take that into consideration as well. The Surface has some key considerations which the iPad lacks and that is the purpose of this blog post:

  • Many schools and educational organisations, have IT support systems which have been built around the Microsoft model (rightly or wrongly), so for them adopting Apple’s iPad hasn’t been an option. The Surface will just slot into their existing mechanism – and that makes it a possibility for lots of organisations who have so far closed the door on tablet technology.
  • Where the iPad works really well is when there is a 1:1 deployment, and each learner has their own device, they then set it up with their email account, their cloud storage (e.g. dropbox or similar) and apps that work for them and their subjects. What some organisations have done is buy a bank of iPads to use in class, but these aren’t individually owned so you cannot set up these individual services – and it then becomes harder for learners to save and export work they have created. With the Surface, this is designed around the notion of having a Microsoft account (Skydrive) and everything is based on that – so if you pick up a device, you log into your Skydrive once – and this connects to all your services. At the end of the session you logout once and the device is ready for the next person.  This to me is one of the Surface’s main points regarding its strategic use within education, and if I was going to set up a bank of devices for a classroom, I would go Microsoft over iPad.
  • I let my kids use both my iPad and the Surface to see how they got on. I expected that they would hate the Surface (having used the iPad for much longer) but they didn’t – in some respects they preferred it. As my 9 year old quoted – “The Tablet is really clever, because you can use it with the keyboard and it is just like a computer, then when you take the keyboard off it turns into an iPad*”. As a device for my kids to do their homework, it is so much easier to use than the standard computer, as it fires up quickly, we can use it in any room in the house, it easily connects to our printers, and it has what the kids need for most of their work which is the internet, and access to office tools such as Word and PowerPoint.
  • Personally I hate flash, and always have done, and it is a technology that is well past its best before date – but there is a huge quantity of legacy material produced in flash especially within education. It is well known that the iPad doesn’t support flash, and Android doesn’t really (although there are work arounds for both). For the moment Microsoft does flash no problem. Many schools have entire maths and science departments based around the use of flash based resources, and if these schools have gone down an iPad route – they are finding this tough.
  • The cost of the Surface is significantly less than the iPad or Android equivalents. Over the summer of 2013, the surface could be bought for £133 + VAT, which is a much easier number to work with when buying potentially tens, hundreds or thousands of these devices.
  • Although the Surface may not have the wonderfully creative apps that the iPad has, it does have Microsoft Office – which gives us Word, Excel, PowerPoint, (and OneNote) – which are still the main tools used by many educators and students. Although I love my iPad, and I use a mac as well as a PC, and a mixture of Office, Open Office and iWork – when I want to do serious office based work, I still revert back to the PC as I find the Office suite works better for me than the others.
  • The surface is only going to get better. If we look at how the iPad has evolved in a few generations, then in a few years time the Microsoft devices should be much closer in performance. The iPad seems to have reached its own plateau – whereas Microsoft is only just starting.

I think the arrival of the Surface tablet is a very positive thing for education – there are now 3 viable options for education (iPad, Android and Microsoft) and choice has to be good – people can choose what is best for their situation, and the competition should keep all 3 providers on their toes, and prices competitive.

*Obviously the Surface doesn’t actually turn into an iPad – but these were the exact words of a 9 year old, and their perception on technology.

Printing a YouTube video and it’s uses in education

This may sound like a daft title for a blog post, but it is possible to easily get an export of still images taken at regular intervals from any YouTube video, to create a storyboard of that video. These can either be printed or easily saved as a PDF, and then used electronically.

I don’t want to claim any credit for discovering or developing the technique – that needs to go to Amit Agarwal, who explains the technique on his blogpost ‘Do you want to print a YouTube video?

I am not sure what the legal issues are regarding copyright and this technique, but assuming that this is OK legally, then this simple technique could have a few really smart educational uses.

  1. As someone with a sports background, my first instinct was to use this for movement analysis, but the gap between the frames is too great for this to be realistic – but this could be used in a sports setting for crude notational analysis. E.g. if watching a game of say netball – you could count how many frames is team A in possession, how many frames is team B in possession, then work out the ratio, and you have a rough gauge of possession – compare this to the final score line and see if there is a correlation?
  2. In a subject like marketing, you could look at the output from a companies advert, and analyse how much of the 30 seconds is spent doing different things e.g. showing the product, showing the prize, repeating a key message etc.
  3. In teacher training, if a trainee teacher is filmed completing a microteach – this can be uploaded to YouTube as a private video (so no-one else sees it) you can then create the storyboard of printed images, and then analyse how their time is spent – e.g. how many frames are they writing on the board (with their back turned), how many frames are the students doing something etc. This could be a very effective tool – as counting frames on a piece of paper is much quicker and easier than trying to do the same with complex timings and starting and stopping clocks etc.
  4. In media studies – you can analyse the different types of shot (close up, mid shot, scene setting etc.) that are used in a sequence, and what effect this has on the message being conveyed.

Although in general I often like to move away from paper, and converting a media rich resource such as a video into a less rich image, seems to be a backward step, I think the ease of this technique and the power that it brings to carry out a basic analysis of the video is superb, and would be an excellent teaching activity.

Why I stopped using a commerical VLE and made my own

In my last 2 blog posts, I have described my early forays into online learning, and using a VLE to support my face to face delivery.

In the second post I mentioned some of the problems that the VLE we were using at the time presented, and how these barriers were undermining the benefits that the VLE could bring, there was also a problem with the accessibility of the VLE, and with the the college that I was at having an RNIB college associated with it, making sure the VLE would work with things like screenreaders and magnification software was essential. So I decided to make my own! I sat down with the college webmaster and designed what we wanted, he did the clever stuff for me in Dreamweaver to create the pages, CSS files etc, and then I edited the pages using Microsoft Frontpage – which people will laugh at (and I was ridiculed by many ay the time) – but it was simple enough for a non web developer like me to use – and by creating a set of templates, all I had to do was copy and paste, then change the text and hyperlink to the desired files.

What we created did not have the functionality of a modern VLE – (e.g. tracking, assessment, integrated forums, etc) but at the time was a very effective way of making resources available to the learners. To this day it is still in my opinion the ‘best looking’ VLE that I have ever worked with – and I tested it extensively with a variety of visually impaired learners, and it did very well for them. The downside was it wasn’t as easy for the average tutor to upload – which is why we only used it for 2 years before changing to another system.

When I first started using a VLE there were only 3 commercial products available at the time. In the early 2000s the Government threw money at colleges to buy VLE systems, and as a result within a year there were over 100 systems that one could buy. Having built my own VLE and used it effectively for most of a year, the college principal told me I had to go and buy a commercial system – because we had been given money to do so. I spent many days visiting other colleges, going to presentations from companies like Blackboard and WebCT and each system that I saw had a fundamental problem – they hadn’t considered accessibility, and I wasn’t prepared to spend lots of money on something that was less accessible than what I (a PE teacher) and a web developer had put together effectively in our spare time.

So I told the principal that we didn’t want a commercial VLE, and suggested that he gave the money back to the Government. This didn’t go down very well, so I asked if we could use the money for anything else, which we were told no, so I contacted whichever government department or organisation was handling the money (to explain why I wasn’t going to buy a commercial VLE – which would have been breaking the law, by discriminating against disabled learners) and eventually we compromised that we could have half the money as long as it was invested in developing our in house system.

This decision to not invest in a commercial VLE was one of the best decisions that I made in my early career (not that I knew it at the time). Many colleges having jumped on the VLE bandwagon, didn’t pick the best product. Of the 100+ available, most didn’t last more than about a year, with a core of 10 main providers dominating the market, and many colleges ended up switching systems early on, others found the systems were just too complex for the tutors needs and abilities at the time, and many didn’t understand their potential so just used them as very expensive file dumps. The decision to not go commercial, meant the college could easily change what it was doing, and as a result the VLE use could evolve over the next few years. At the time that all this was happening, I started a debate on the ILT Champions mailing list about ‘do we really need a commercial VLE’ and what started off as me just asking a rhetorical question for the sake of discussion, turned into quite a profound thought process – and I am pleased that based on that discussion, at few other colleges also didn’t jump straight away into the commercial VLE quagmire.

Having started the debate about me not liking commercial VLEs, someone put me in touch with an Australian called Martin Dougiamas who was developing an open source system called ‘Moodle’. He gave me access to a sandbox area of his system and asked me to test it for him which I did. I gave him some feedback – and made a few suggestions, (and we spoke on the phone a few times) – the most important one being to consider accessibility, which Martin hadn’t thought of. Anyway things went very quiet on the Moodle front, until about 2 years later when it suddenly became widely available, and maverick teaching staff at various organisations who were frustrated with the limitations of whichever VLE they had, started to use Moodle instead. Over the next few years most FE organisations switched to Moodle, with many HE and Schools also doing the same.

It feels to me that many organisations took a similar journey (although later on and slightly slower) to myself as an individual with the VLE evolution and use. It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring – there have been many debates about ‘The VLE is dead’ but I cannot see that happening for many years yet. What is important is the way that it is used – and making use of the wonderful array of tools that a modern VLE has to interact with and engage learners, and not just use it as a file repository (which was where I started) – but sadly seems to be the norm for far to many education providers.

My first experiences with a VLE

In my last post, I talked about ‘What got me started in online learning?‘ with my first foray (in the late 1990s) into this area of work being the use of a joint drive to share files with learners, so that they complete self directed tasks – either assignments or other activities.

Although OK at the time, the obvious drawback of this technique was that the learners had to be in the college to be able to access the resources – what I wanted was a mechanism to give them access outside of college – the idea of learning anytime and anywhere! I spoke to the then college webmaster @KirstieC, who put me in touch with @Lesleywprice  who was at the time responsible for the online courses that the college was running, and for that they were using a VLE called LearningSpace by Lotus (although I think we referred to it as an MLE back then). I quickly saw the potential of this way of working, and set up areas on there to support my face to face teaching (which not many people were doing back then).

At first I added things to the VLE in a very Ad-hoc fashion, so there was no continuity, things took ages to upload, and in hindsight the software can only be described as a complete dog to use. However I persevered, and in my next year of teaching, I was a little cleverer – rather than adding files ad-hoc, I created a ‘template’ for each week or topic that I taught – this was a simple table that contained a box for key things such as a presentation, notes, web links, tasks for the students to do, a challenging question, and joke of the week (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/using-bad-jokes-to-get-learners-to-engage-with-a-vle/ ).

All I did was copy this template then add the files and hyperlink them to the relevant area. This wasn’t rocket science but it made my life easier as was quicker and made the learners lives easier as they knew where to look for things, and in many ways I use the idea of creating a template to this day with my VLE work.

What I was doing at this time, was definitely revolutionary, as wasn’t the norm by any means, but there were still many problems:

  • Learners had difficulty getting logged in – for some reason the software was a bit clunky and flakey and sometimes students could login, other times they couldn’t.
  • Learners would get confused with login details – when this was set up we didn’t have single sign on, so learners had a different username and password to their college login, which confused them no end and if they changed one they assumed it changed both.
  • I had to manage enrolments – The system was such that users had to be manually set up on the system, which meant sending details to a techy who was very good at spelling their names wrong and associating them with the wrong courses, and often taking 2 weeks to do this. This caused huge headaches at the start of term, and put many off before they had got going.

Although there were many problems, and in reality I expect very few learners actually accessed the resources when off-site – this period was an important area for me, in my understanding of VLE use, thinking about the purpose of why to use the VLE, and recognising the real factors that stopped the VLE from working.

In my next post in this series, I will detail the next stage of my journey which was to stop using the ‘purchased’ VLE and instead make my own, to overcome the problems listed above.

Return to Washington Square Park, Aug 2009 - 69

The idea of a learner being able to learn where ever and when ever was best for them as per the picture above, always appealed to me as a teacher.


What got me started in online learning

Earlier in the summer I was running some staff development, and a reluctant attendee asked how a sport science lecturer (as I was) ended up getting into online learning, so I told them about my first foray into this area of work.

In my first full year of teaching (1998), one of my units was a level 3 ‘diet and nutrition’ and one of the assignments was to carry out a basic analysis of a week’s diet, compare this to energy expenditure and then make suggestions of how to improve the diet. Or in other words the assignment from hell for a Level 3 sport student. Even though this should have been completed earlier in the year, I hardly had any work handed in on time as most students tactically worked out they were only ever going to get a pass, therefore there was no point in doing the assignment on time, instead they would wait until the end of the year and finish the assignment once teaching had finished. The problem was that I had about 40 students, and every single one came to see me for help with the assignment, and although I willingly helped them, if I spent 30 minutes with each student, that equated to 20 hours of my time – and I was still teaching on other courses – so for about 2 weeks at the end of term, if I wasn’t teaching I had a permanent queue of students outside the office waiting to see me (and I was part-time so wasn’t get paid for all this extra work).

I realised that the help that I was giving the learners was effectively the same over and over again, so the following year (and I now had 3 groups to teach, so 60+ students) I decided to create some information and instructions on how to complete the assignment. This included a worked example (Excel), a template diary they could use (Excel), an animated presentation that explained the steps that were needed (PowerPoint) and an instruction sheet (Word) which hyperlinked to the other files and a few useful websites as well. I didn’t have a VLE at my disposal, but we did have a shared network drive that I could upload files to and the students could access. So I uploaded the work to there, created a simple printed instruction sheet of how to locate this shared drive which I gave to the learners when the assignment was handed out. The result was that a larger percentage completed the assignments on time, some even got merit and distinction grades. Those that still waited until the end of term, when they came to see me, I gave them the instruction sheet again, sent them away to find a computer and come back if still not clear, most were able to follow the online support so I only had about 2 students to work with 1:1.

So my first foray into online learning (even though many would argue this isn’t online learning) was motivated by time saving potential for me. It took me about 2 or 3 hours to set up, but saved probably 30 hours (of my unpaid time!) in student support, and the quality of the work was significantly better.

Having created the folder structure on the joint drive I realised that there was potential in this way of working, and I uploaded more and more resources throughout the year, and started to create a resource bank to support the subjects I was teaching.

In my next blog post I will continue the story of how this behaviour evolved into me using (and creating) a VLE to support my classroom delivery, in what would now be identified as blended learning with elements of flipped classroom – but over 14 years ago and about 10 years before these 2 terms became fashionable!

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/8258/8671894359_891da1da8b_b.jpg on 2013-9-13
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/50251161@N08/8671894359/ created on 2013-04-21 12:50:39
Orin BlombergCC BY-NC 2.0