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Brunel’s Billiard Table June 30, 2008

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Today has been a day that I have been looking forward to for many months, entirely selfishly.  The conference is over and I am en route for Plymouth, I have  started this post as the train sits at Taunton station picking up new passengers and dropping off at others.

You will know from from previous posts that I am  a great fan of the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, although I not a train nut, his ingenuity has had an influrence upon the modern world that still resonates today.  But for the first time ever I am travelling on the route that made his name.  The Great Western Railway, now named after privatisation from British Rail, First Great Western, which in itself is a historical lie and a misnoma, as the Great Western Railway company was first set up  in the C19th, so how can this C21 encarnation be the first?

The rail route from London to Plymouth was a technological creation that had a psychological impact upon a nation’s psyche that is hard to grasp especially in our instantly connected world.  Englands naval power has for centuries been based in Plymouth.  Plymouth is synonymous with Drake, Cook, Chichester, Knox Johnson and a longer list than I can think of or research whilst on a train.  Plymouth  is still one of the major homes to the  Royal Naval fleet even today.  Yet in its heyday Plymouth was so remote from London.  The railway solved that problem.

When the route to Plymouth was opened, Brunel himself stood on the footplate of one of his seven foot singles, accompanied by his Chief engineer Daniel Gooch and steamed as I have done from Paddington to Plymouth.  Only Brunel promptly turned round and steamed back, getting back to London on the same day and immediately reported back to Parliament that “…this day I have steamed to Plymouth and back.”  The enormity of this statement should be seen in the light of Cook who some 60 years earlier had taken 4 days to journey from the admiralty in London to join his ship the Endeavour on a voyage of discovery that departed from Plymouth in 1769…

Today I have ridden over the Maidenhead bridge the flattest brick arched bridge ever, barrelled the two and a half miles of the Box Tunnel, sailed past the Clifton Suspension Bridge and terminated at Plymouth home to the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, all concieved, designed and built by the visionary IKB.  I have been in engineering heaven all day.

The telegraph was the Victorian Internet and the railways its super highway.  The Great Western Railway timetable unified local time  to GMT and the railways connected England to itself, telescoping time travelled into hours and not days.  Rather like that adage all roads lead to Rome. The Victorian railways connected England to London and the disposesed from the final land enclosures used the superhighway to migrate to the big cities, London in particular.

There has been a wonderful irony in my trip today, as I headed west I was reading Steven Johnsons book The Ghost  Map which catalogues the 1854 Cholera outbreak in London and how Dr John Snow discovered the relationship between, sewerage, the source of ‘fresh’ drinking water and mortality rates in Soho.

It was the railways that brought the masses to London, the cramped conditions and poor sanitation that ensued proved a breeding ground for cholera.  John Snow made the link between water quality, Cholera and the Broad Street water pump.  Johnson argues that it was Snow’s ability to recognise the interconnectedness of things that helped him to see the pattern death and where the dead drew their water from. He transceded populist quackery and looked from a top down perspective to see patterns of death to identify deaths  cause.  It was the clarity of Snow’s thinking and his ability to see patterns and connections where hysteria reigned that ensured his success in solving the cause of Cholera.

Is Dr John Snow the first example of Inquiry Learning?



Prague – conference day 4 June 27, 2008

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The most common word used in the various conference sessions today was ‘subvert.’ It seems that there is an impatience for change, that we can see change is happening or is about to occur, but it is not happening quickly enough. And much of the day was spent exploring just what the impediments to change might be and how we can facilitate the change, hence the guerilla tactics of subversion.

Many themes appeared again and again. Learning experiences need to be authentic and that students need to have a range of tools to choose from in order to do a set task and in addition they should know which tool is the most appropriate for the task. We have to resist the temptation or pressure to use an expensive ICT tool simply because it is an expensive ICT tool. With regard to pedagogies we discussed a lot about how ICT’s are often imposed onto an existing or traditional pedagogy, with the end result being a bit of a Prince Charles (“Carbunkle on the face of an old friend.”) We also discussed what an ICT pedagogy should look like, but the debate around this ranged around the argument that there is not a pencil pedagogy an OHP pedagogy, rather the environment of learning changes as a result of new technology and therefore the pedagogy that subsequently evolves is not specifically an ICT one.

One of the impediments to effective delivery was the whole permissions issue for users of networks. The managers of networks were likened as “network Nazis” Networks can become so locked down that any creativity is stiffled because of the draconian network security policies. There is a tension between network administrators and their users, there is an adage that goes, ‘this network would run just fine if it were not for those damned users.’ Security on a a network equates to stablility and minimised work load for administrators, but equates to inertia and disenfranchisement for the users. If we want innovation, we have to review the fortress mentality of our networks. I for one have recently gone down this road on our network and have yet to gain the benefits.

The final keynote of the day was a presentation of some research into the effectiveness of IWBs in classrooms. It was a UK government funded project and the findings are really interesting. It was found that in schools where the entire school was equipped with IWBs there was a technology critical mass that encouraged collaborative support amongst colleagues and was a very motivational addition to each classroom, even the teachers who were predicted not to be adopters of the technology found that they became enthusiastic about them in a very short time.

The study followed students in several schools over two years and it was found that the middle to high achieving students made significant progress in their numeracy and literacy attainment compared to students who had not been taught in classes without IWB’s in them. The bottom 20% of students made progress but not at the same rate as the others. It was discussed whether the IWB was actually an impediment to their attainment and the conclusion that has been postulated but has yet to be researched is that these children do not thrive in whole class situations and that it is the learning style and not the technology that is the issue.

With regard to teachers using IWB’s and student attainment, there was a clear relationship. When the board is first installed there is an innovation dip as the teacher gets to grips with using the technology and how to implement the new tool into their classroom practice. What happens is a clear three step process:

  • Teachers fit the new technology into their existing pedagogy
  • Collaborative exploration of new opportunities offered by the new technology
  • Embedding of the technologies into transformed pedagogic practices

It was made clear that it takes a long time up to two years for the full benefits of the IWB and student attainment to be gained as indicated by the results of the research. The conference has been a wonderfully affirming event, we have made some new friends met some really interesting people who are very interested in what Helen and I are doing. It looks as though we will get further follow up as a result of our presentation. The effort of putting a paper together, and of actually getting here has now been completely worth it.

Prague – conference day 3 June 26, 2008

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Today was meant to be split into two.  The morning was to be spent visiting two Czech schools and in the afternoon doing some cultural stuff visiting the local silver mines and the town hall.  At the end of the day yesterday we were informed that the schools would welcome us but the children would be on school trips, in other words we would be visiting empty classes!  I elected to give that a miss and take the opportunity to see a little bit of Prague.  

By all accounts history has been kind to Prague in terms of architectural loss due to conflict.  When you consider that cities like Plymouth, Dresden and London were heavily affected by the conflict of WWII Prague survived that, it seems to me, intact.  The Soviet invasion might also have been a stimulus for the removal of decadent architecture in the name of comrade Stalin, a cleansing process as it were.  I am glad to say that neither incident seems to have scarred the cities architecture, I am sure the populace would take a different view of the scars caused by invasion and occupation.  In short Prague is a delight, a fondant icing extravaganza, a city of embelishments and ornamentation.  Quite simply it is fantastic eye candy.  The winding streets of the old city, the mix of Gothic, Baroque and the European C17th and C18th styles make for an intoxicating mix.

We have walked through the winding streets, taken the trams and have got a real feel for the city.  We spent most of today up at the castle.  The following slide show is a representation of where we have been today.

[bubbleshare 410527.4b04c2b4f5e]

Prague – conference day 2 June 26, 2008

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Today was the day that we were to present our paper.  The first keynote presentation of the conference was given, it had been delayed 24 hours due to Easy Jet losing one of our speakers.  In fairness I think that the flight had been cancelled due to technical issues and so the speaker could not get to us yesterday.

The keynote meant that Helen and I finally we got to sit through a presentation that was not based around the interpretation of statistical analysis culled from some University funded research and got to listen to something that we could actually apply to our classes.  I will post about this later as it needs some research into websites and gps modules on PDAs but looks very exciting.

As the time drew nearer to our time slot, Helen grew progressively more anxious about the whole affair.  I was more sanguine although the butterflies were swarming somewhat by the time of the tea break.  We had one moment of stress when the flash video embedded into our second slide would not play.  Despite having triple checked everything before leaving New Zealand this one thing decided not to play ball today.  It was doubly difficult as I then had to try and troubleshoot the error using a computer that had been set up for Czech users and therefore all the menus were all in Czech.  Time ran out and we just had to run the slide without the animation, a shame really as it was a video made from Google Earth that flew from Woodford school to Meadowbank and back several times, visually illustrating the link and the distance over which our partnership has been created.

The presentation went really well and we infact ran out of time.  When it came to questions we were asked a lot of questions and the buzz in the room indicated that we had struck a chord with our audience, all the seats had been taken for our session and many were standing at the back too.  Not that we can claim the entire audience as there were two other presentations that followed us.  The questioning and congratulations continued as the other presenters set up for their session.  We felt very pleased at how the presentation had been received, the general buzz and the questioning.

At the end of the whole session we broke for lunch and were promptly joined by three others who wanted to continue discussing what we had presented, it was a very affirming moment.  At lunch we were questioned more closely about what we had done and how we had done it.  I also expanded on my ‘dial an expert’ initiative and they were interested in my links with Sandi in New York and remote music teaching.  We also discussed Second Life as a vehicle for learning, it was a really excellent lunch and passed far too quickly. As a result I have been asked to speak to a conference of Primary Head teachers in England later in the year.  At this stage it might be via a Skype connection or there was even talk of me being flown up to London to present next year.  This is all very affirming stuff and I have said yes to the offers too.

The rest of the day continued in a similar vein, the afternoon was dedicated to seeing how ICT has been implemented in schools from a Czech perspective, there were two particularly excellent presentations from students.  The first one was a whole bunch of interactive whiteboard activities that the sudents have created, they demonstrated the whole ‘interactive’ element of the whiteboards with them being the teachers and controlling the board.  There has been lots of disucssion over the last two days about effective whiteboard use and the concensus is that best practice comes when the teacher ceases to be the ‘controller of the board.’  There was an excellent presentation by a 19 year old student who designs and builds his own line following robots.  He has only been doing this for a year and already he has built a robot that fits inside a matchbox!

At the end of the day there is a always a reflection session.  Today Helen and I and our presentation was the focus of discussion for half of that entire block of time.  What we have done has made a significant section of the delegates sit up and think about the possibilities of an online collaborative learning environment to engage students in their learning.  We have certainly made the most audible buzz of the entire conference so far.

At one point one of the academics stated that  what we were doing and us in particular are not special,  there was an audible intake of breath from a lot of the other delegates, there was a feeling that this was a bit much!  But this particular person had earlier complimented us on what we had achieved and done.  It was a bit of a slap in the face at the time, but I do not think that is what she intended and on reflection I feel that what she was trying to say in a rather inelegant and clumsy way was this:  What Helen and I have achieved is the result of a mash up /a combination of readily available and  free technologies on the web.  We have subverted their use to our own ends and have put a lot of effort into getting our tohatoha community to work and it now has its own momentum.  

I still think, despite what she said, that this has taken vision on my behalf to marry up these technologies.  It has taken tremendous effort from both of us to sustain the community.  We will continue to explore new and varied ways to improve the methods of communication between students and between teachers and students.  

For me the bigger question and I think the implied criticism from this particular academic was; if these tools are so readily available, why are there not more of these communities doing exactly what we have created?  Discuss:

Prague Conference – day 1 June 24, 2008

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Our hotel is a short 400m walk from the University and over breakfast it was obvious, because of the conversations we heard, that many of the guests would turn out to be our fellow delegates.  After a short walk on cobbled streets, past one onion domed church in blistering heat at 8:00 am, we arrived at the university. The university is celebrating its 660th birthday, but the faculty of education is only 70 years old and this particular faculty building’s architecture proudly flaunted its stolid early C20th architectural style.  Registration was a quick affair and all at once we were in the lecture theatre armed with the usual booty of conference registrations!

A quick scan down the list of presenters revealed that I was the only representative from New Zealand and to my increasing alarm that Helen and I were the only practicing teachers.  All the others who were to speak are all University lecturers with PhD’s.  As the day wore on it became abundantly clear that the vast majority of the papers being discussed had already been published and peer reviewed in academic journals.  Helen and I started to feel like minnows swimming in a tank of sharks!   However as the day wore on this welling sense of dread was abated somewhat when the organising president of the World Computer Congress 2009 specifically mentioned our presentation stating that he was particularly looking forward to hearing how we had built and sustained our ‘vibrant online learning community.’  After that we started to begin to feel a little better, even privilleged to be the only representatives of the real world reality of classroom teaching that our fellow delegates theorise about at this conference.

There is no doubt that we are presenting at an important organisation.  IFIP is an organisation that was set up by UNESCO and has 14 organising committees.  The age of the committe is denoted by the number and the education one, at which we are speaking is 3, which indicates that it was set up at the start of the organisation.  The AGM is tomorrow.  By the way, the organising president of WCC2009 asked me in one of he breaks whether i would be presenting at WCC2009.  I knew about the conference from earlier net searches, it is in Brasil…. I wonder if I could get funding?

So as I write this we are due to do our presentation in just a few hours.  Last night, we wandered around the old part of the city to clear our heads.  Prague is truly wonderful, well the old bits that we have seen are.  We had dinner in a fantastic restaurant and then got back to the hotel to work on our presentation for the final time.  Today’s the day.

Prague June 24, 2008

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The journey to Prague has been an interesting one.  I will refrain from commenting on Easy Jet until I get back from Athens at the end of next week, but suffice it to say that we were delayed.  Indeed, delayed, inconvenienced and downright petrified would be good words to describe Sunday.

Apart from the fun of seeing my brother in law, there was a logic to staying in Luton, where he lives.  Over the duration of my stay I will be flying into and out of three of London’s airports, Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton.  Luton is ideally placed as a place to stay for this kind of trip. However I use the words Luton, ideal and stay advisedly in one sentence.  If the architectural historian who critiques northern architecture, Grundy’s Wonders could be enticed to venture south, he would have a lot to say about Luton and not a lot of it would be good…

However the train route that Luton is on links directly with Brighton on the south coast and one of the stations along the way is Gatwick airport, this is what makes makes Luton an ideal location, it is an easy drive from Heathrow, has its own airport and is on the direct train link to Gatwick.  However this weekend, right after I had been charged 22 pounds, I learnt that I was not able to go right through London, but had to get off at St Pancras due to essential engineering works at Blackfriars.  I therefore had to get accross town, suitcase and all using the tube, what an exercise in madness that is, how anyone with a wheelchair negotiates the London Underground with its myriad of levels, stairs and inter connecting bridges is a wonder.  Anyway the 50 minute trip from Luton to Gatwick took just over two hours.  So hot and sweaty I was late to meet Helen.

After the initial hellos we quickly settled to working on our presentation for the first time in person amidst the throngs of the great British public making their annual pilgrimage to the Costas for too much sun, too much of everything…

We were delayed by Easy Jet and had to hang around for ages to check in, the cute dogs of Auckland Airport were not nearly as cute at Gatwick. This was in part due to their breed but principally they were being handled by Police, armed to the teeth with machine guns and they were not checking to see if you had a banana in your bag, they were looking for something all together more sinister.  After the scrum of check in and the dogs and guns, we had to run the gauntlet of UK security.  They make you take everything off, shoes, belts, watches etc (interestingly the metal in my arm, does not set off the alarms).  With everything being scanned it is and was hard to keep track of what you had upon you before the deconstruction of your being to be scanned, prodded and x-rayed.  I temporarily mislaid my passport in the melee.  Helen however did not fair as well as me, she had already been through the same security process earlier in the day as part of her flight up to London from Plymouth, however on this second scan they found her utility knife in her handbag (see above) it was all very funny, but it was not happening to me…

90 minutes after we should have left we departed Gatwick on an Airbus bound for Prague.  We were further delayed by the luggage handlers in Prague, so it was well after 11:00 when we staggered out of the terminal to be picked up by the hotel transfer driver, who spoke two words of English, yes and no and used them in a random staccato fashion that made no sense, by the time we had left the airport perimeter we had all fallen into a weary silence, partly brought on by his driving skill.  He was a man on a mission, traffic lights and general road craft were an optional extra as was the brake pedal, my right leg had practically cramped through phantom breaking by the time we arrived at the hotel.  It has to be said that traveling at speed on a motorway is one thing, however doing that same speed on the cobbled streets of a medieval city is quite another.  At one point after we had crossed the river into the old city, we were doing 110km…  Sleep was not an easy state to acquire that night as images of the city, replayed at great speed, flashed disconcertingly across my sub conscious state…  What a way to prepare for a presentation.

Singapore June 20, 2008

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Arrivals concourse Changi.  Image ref:

I have just landed at Singapore after an uneventful flight.  It would have been different had I not purchased some noise canceling headphones.  My fellow passengers had to endure a seemingly endless musical round of disgruntled babies.  There were three of them and one would start crying and then be settled by their frazzled parents, however just as baby one was settling, baby two would wake from their disturbed slumber and start crying again.  Luckily for me my headphones cancelled out all that noise and I was able to sleep for nearly six hours.  For parents of such small children, long haul flights like this can only be described as an ordeal, no glamour of international travel for them and the reality is they are all heading for Europe, so they all have another 12-14 hours to battle through, I wish them well.  For me I have a supply of batteries to power my new toys!

I am waiting in the cavernous and new Terminal 3 at Changi.  The wifi connection is free and I now have two hours to resist the temptations of the massive duty free mall!  There is always the bar I guess!

Good to go June 18, 2008

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Image from: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/200710/r194207_736065.jpg

My bags are packed, tickets double checked. (Not that they issue tickets these days! I have a print out from my computer and have already reserved my seats there and back!) All cables and electronic peripherals that seem to be the indispensable ephemera of modern existence are all charged. International adapters packed and presentation printed off, saved in three places and even posted to a wiki (just in case!). Camera with plenty of CF cards packed and lenses polished. I am good to go.

The next couple of weeks will be daunting, fun an adventure all mixed into one. Tomorrow night (Thursday) I depart Auckland for Singapore, I hope to blog along the way if I can tap into some wifi hotspots. Not long to wait in Singapore, before getting on the London flight. I arrive in London Friday afternoon, local time. 2:15 AM Saturday morning for my body clock! I sat down and worked it out, this will be the 23rd time I have done this trip (Auckland to London or London to Auckland), I am currently working on a carbon footprint post…. As Steve Kosovich said to me recently, I will have to cycle to work for several eternities to work off that personal carbon debt!

I fly to Prague on Sunday and stay until Thursday. On the Friday I will ‘drop’ in on my old school in St Albans in Hertfordshire and surprise them, mind you if they read this, it will not be a surprise! I will be catching up with friends along the way too. On the Sunday I take a train to Plymouth, spend the remainder of Sunday on the trail of all things Brunel, especially the Royal Albert Bridge. Then on the Monday I will spend the day with Helen’s class and after school give a presentation at their staff meeting about how ICT is happening here on the Supertanker.

That evening it is back to London, then on the Tuesday I fly to Athens to meet my daughter who will have just flown in from Auckland, ensure that she makes her connecting flight to the island where her grandparents live for half of the year. Wednesday it is back to London and on the Friday I fly out of Heathrow on one of those shiny new A380 double deck super Jumbos that Singapore Airlines have just purchased.

Sometime on that Saturday evening I arrive back in Auckland.

As I have said, I intend to blog along the way, post a few images of my travels and generally divert from the educational norm of this post for some gratuitous tourist snaps! I will also be feeding back from the conference too.

For the next two weeks I think that, excess coffee, spirulina and the mantra that sleep is over rated will be the norm if I am to achieve what I have planned on my overly full itinerary. If there is a fuel embargo, French Air Traffic controllers strike or some such fact of European life, I am going to be in a bit of a bind as there is no room for error!

C’est la vie!

Stress can be a good thing – Yeah right! June 13, 2008

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As I have mentioned earlier, you can wait for ages for something to happen and then just like a London Bus, two come at once.  Perhaps many of you will be more familiar with the notion that ‘things come in threes’ just what the things are and whether they are positive or negative things depends upon your personal outlook and your philosophical take on life.

If I could have planned the last two weeks I would have certainly not planned it like they have turned out!  Right in the middle of report writing season our Primary Domain Controller decided to blow a gasket!  Well it blew a hard drive and I was faced with a dilema.  Repair the disk (it was a striped array on a 6 year old HP server) and nurse the ailing machine through the rest of the year then retire it as planned this Christmas.  The alternative was to bite the bullet and migrate all the data on this ailing machine and promote a younger, faster and greater capacity machine to the role of top dog on the domain.  It was a classic “take a chance or pay a $10 fine” situation from Monopoly.  I opted to migrate the data.

It has proved to have been the right move to make, but the ‘bump’ on the network has been a stressful event for all the staff and especially me.  I have had to placate a seemingly countless phalanx of  stressed teachers panicking that their work had gone west with the dead drive.  Added into the mix was the secondary decision to finally take the opportunity to break the heavily scripted, over policied  environment that was a legacy from the previous tech support arrangement. I now had a pressure cooker environment where printers kept appearing or dissapearing, profiles would or would not work, software would want to be re-installed after each re-boot.  Not a good environment to work in.  Then the Internet failed!

On top of having to cope with all of these changes and everyone demanding stability, the Internet stopped.  It did not really stop, it just went dead slow, dead, dead slow.  At one point I disconnected the entire network from the Internet router and plugged my laptop in, it was just me and the router connected to the Net and even then it took 11 seconds for Google to load!

I spent four days, one of them last Sunday, constantly phoning my ISP trying to get them to see that the fault was with them and not, as they asserted,  with us and our network.  Fortunately my ISA server and their own data stats painted a picture that proved that the fault lay beyond school.  On Sunday alone, they alleged that we had downloaded 8gb of data on a 512kb connecton with all the machines in school turned off! By Tuesday an engineer had finally been dispatched, Eddie.  Eddie could see straight away that there was a fault and stuck at it.  Eventually it was decided that their router might be at fault and was duly changed.  And what do you know, the Internet is back again, not lightening fast, but we can surf.  But it has never been fast.  This week also saw us install two more ADSL connections to school so that we can split our Internet traffic via three lines.  This will reduce our user to speed ratio from 183:512kb to 60:512kb thus making the net to individual users seem faster as they get a better slice of available bandwidth.

By the time I had left school today, I began to feel that for the first time this year we had broken the back of the strangle hold that our previous network had upon us and that we have now broken the shackles of that restrictive regime.  Now for the first time the staff on the Supertanker will be able to really forge ahead with their ideas unfettered by the scripted restraints that previously held them back.  Profiles are gradually coming right, printers are printing, reports have been printed in time for today’s deadline and the dust is settling.

Now I can turn my attention to Prague.  Before I do though I need to acknowledge the calm headed and unflappable  tenacity of Steve our IT guru.  The diligence of Mark our onsite tech and of Eddie who was prepared to wade through the sea of nonsense emanating from our ISP (his employer) to fix our problem.  Thanks to you guys the blood pressure has stabilised, just in time to tweak it again in preparation for Prague next week!