Air Server

Some time ago I spoke of how wonderful Air Server is. This is a piece of software that you can run on your PC (Window 7 or newer) or Mac so that it allows you to show you iPad screen on your desktop. This is brilliant in a class situation because you can wander around your class with your iPad demonstrating things or show children’s work on your IWB at the front of the class.

Well, Air Server has gone one better! You can now right click on your Air Server window on your PC and record what is happening on your iPad. Now you can record instructions on how to use your iPad and post them on your VLE or record what your pupil does on the iPad.


Web based OCR

OCR or “Optical Character Recognition” is a technology that has been around for some time and allows you to scan a printed document and turn the picture of the text into real text. There are free OCR packages available and there are paid for packages. Some of these are incredibly good and are able to decipher page layout as well as the text eg newspaper columns. I have used OCR for many years on lots of different types of documents, particularly in connection with local and family history documents which can be quite challenging. One of the frustrations I have though is when I am in a school and want to grab the text from a printed document so I was very pleased to find a free web based OCR package that fulfils some of my needs.

free-ocr-logoFree OCR does the basics quite well. You have to put up with some fairly unobtrusive adverts and it is limited to a maximum 2MB file size but documents I have tried out so far have been pretty accurate. The site is explicit about its privacy policy which I am sure will be acceptable for most jobs but I wouldn’t scan sensitive information.


Fit for Purpose?

I have recently visited a number of primary schools where their ICT System was obviously not “fit for purpose”. Rather than being an aid to learning it was a huge hindrance. So I thought it would be useful to put together a check list of questions that you could use to help decide if your system is helping your pupils and staff.


  • Do staff have their own secure logon and user area? Teachers should be able to store work and information about pupils in a secure space on the system and not share it with other teachers or pupils.
  • Do staff have a shared space where they can share their resources with other staff but is secure from pupils? I recommend a place to share planning, policies, resources, etc that is not visible to pupils – this could be on the school server or the VLE. Without such a shared area staff end up emailing documents to each other and someone will get missed out!
  • Do pupils have their own individual log on and user area? Giving pupils their own individual log on encourages responsibility and accountability and many schools start this from year 1. If pupils have a shared user area then work often goes missing, pupils and staff then lose confidence. We don’t expect pupils to share a single exercise book so why share a user area? It shouldn’t be difficult to setup users and there is no reason why staff shouldn’t have read access of the pupil user areas.
  • Is there a shared resource area where staff can put resources for pupils to use but doesn’t allow pupils to delete them? Just as teachers hand out worksheets, so they should be able to put documents onto the system that pupils can load up, work on and save to their user area without deleting the original. The shared resource area can also be a useful place to put shortcuts to websites.
  • When a user logs on to a computer do they get a reliable, consistent and helpful interface on every computer or do they spend ages trying to find the piece of software they want? Why oh why oh why do so many school computers have inconsistent user interfaces? What better way of wasting time in school than giving every user a different interface on every computer so that they cannot find the programmes they want. And why not give them access to the “uninstall program” shortcuts whilst we are at it then users can remove software! Putting shortcuts to programmes into sensibly named folders that appears on every computer makes it so much easier for pupils to find the application they should be using.
  • When a user saves a piece of work does it save automatically to their user area or do users find that work “disappears”? Disappearing work is a guaranteed way to destroy confidence in the ICT system. Users need to know that the work they do is safe. Would they want to work hard for a teacher who kept losing their exercise books or worksheets? Safe and secure work areas that function properly show that we value the work done by pupils.
  • Do users have easy access to software manuals and other learning resources? If we want to encourage pupils to learn then making software manuals and links to websites about the software encourages them to find out more about what the software can do or to look up “how to do animation in Textease” for themselves when they have forgotten.
  • Do users have confidence in the system and the equipment?
  • Does it aid their learning?

Equipment and system

  • Are the computers, monitors, printers and other equipment reliable? Will they switch on and start up in an acceptable time or are they incredibly slow, time wasting and frustrating? They may be slow and unreliable because of their age, they may benefit from an upgrade or some basic servicing. It may be that the equipment is in the wrong place – I often find the fastest and newest computers being used to do basic word processing whilst the slowest computers are attached to the Interactive White Board where they are expected to sing and dance all day! Sometimes I find the most expensive to run printer handling the largest amount of printing whilst a much cheaper to run printer stands idle elsewhere.
  • Does the network actually work? Some networks with expensive equipment are badly configured or put together, a few simple changes can have them running at full speed again.
  • Do computers have all the right software on them? Modern networks allow your service provider to roll out new software automatically to every computer and to run a report to show what software is on each machine. Do they do this?
  • If a new piece of software needs installing can the technician roll it out to all of the computers in a relatively short time, or does it take weeks and then doesn’t end up on all of the computers? See above!
  • Do computers have access to the right printers?
  • Do all of your computers (PC, Apple, Linux, iPads, etc) integrate together? Can you produce work on one and easily access it from another? This is not always easy but it should be possible. More and more software allows data to be shared between programs. Networks, servers and apps like SharePoint, Google Drive and Dropbox or your VLE should allow you to access work from any platform.
  • Is the anti-virus system up to date and actually working? If not, why not?
  • Do your computers update automatically or does the technician spend hours doing them manually? Or at all?
  • If a hard disc or the operating system fails can it be restored to working order quickly or does it take weeks? Any system under warranty should have repairs done straight away but often the warranty doesn’t cover data restoration. Modern systems should allow the technician to restore a machine back to full operation in an hour or so with little intervention – in other words, they don’t have to sit in front of it all the time!
  • Does the backup work? Has it been tested recently? If someone accidentally deletes a piece of work, can your technician get it back quickly?
  • Are users accountable? If someone sends a huge print job to a printer, can you find out who it was? Easily?
  • Do you have a full audit of all equipment including purchase price and date of purchase? There are free bits of software that will audit networked equipment for you, you just need to add the extra information like date of purchase and price. Having this information is invaluable for planning a strategy for replacing and updating your system.
  • Do you have a plan or strategy for replacing / updating your equipment?
  • Do you have a strategy for relocating equipment around the school as it gets older? As mentioned earlier, some people need fast, all singing, all dancing equipment, some can make do with older, slower equipment. Teachers are going to feel more confident, and valued, if their workstation can actually play the video they want to show. The workstation in the office may only need to run much less demanding office software!

Website and VLE

  • Is your website up to date? Does it have the correct staff on it? Does it have an up to date calendar, or can we still see last year’s term time dates? Has the content changed at all? Is it attracting parents or pupils or prospective employees?
  • Can the Ofsted inspector see the information that they want on the website?
  • Does the website celebrate and showcase your pupil’s work?
  • Does the VLE serve any purpose? Are you paying for something you don’t use? Could it be of use?

If these questions raise concerns about your system then why not contact me for a chat to see if I can help you. I have worked in educational ICT for over 20 years and have considerable experience of helping schools make more effective use of their ICT without breaking the budget. I can help you identify areas that can be most easily improved and help you to plan towards an ICT system that aids learning rather than hindering.

If you and your school would like help and advice then do contact me to see how I might be able to help.

Hands up

hands-upBack in 2010 the BBC showed a short series called “The Classroom Experiment” where Professor Dylan Williams took over a year 8 class to test out some simple ideas that he believes could improve the quality of education. One of these ideas was to ban hands up when the teacher asks a question and instead choose students at random. To aid the fair and even selection of students he wrote their names onto lollipop sticks and picked them out at random.

thehatI was reminded of this programme today because my daughter, who is currently studying to be a teacher on a PGCE course, bought some lollipop sticks. And this triggered another memory, that of a free program called “The Hat” from Harmony Hollow Software which allows you to select students at random on the computer screen. It adds a slightly different dynamic to selecting students and also allows you to group students at random.

Obviously, if you have some difficult students you would have to be brave to use it to group students at random as Darren and Clive are bound to end up grouped together!

Anyway, I’ve found it to be quite a nifty and useful piece of software in the past. You can run it from a USB pen, you can load up different classes onto it, and you can use it to draw numbers or words rather than names. All in all, this software can provide that little bit of fun without distracting from the education process, it can fool students into blaming the machine rather than you and it allows you to try out the “no hands up” approach without lollipop sticks. If you try it out let me know what you think of it.

iPad apps: Morfo

Morfo may seem a strange iPad app to use in the classroom but we have had some fun using it to improve writing and reading confidence.

Morfo allows you to take an image of a face, preferably a face-on portrait, which you then line up the position and size of the different parts of the face. The more care you take over this the better the results. You can then record your voice onto the iPad and play the recording back as if the face is saying your words. We have used the faces of pupils and teaching staff with other people’s voices but it is even more fun if you load a face from a historic painting eg one of Henry VIII. We have had pupils write and record short speeches that Henry might have made. These can be saved as videos or shared via Facebook. A very short example is shown here.

There are lots of other features. You can morph the face and make it move in all sorts of ways. You can also pay to have access to even more features but I think the free version provides enough for most teachers.

iPad, Mathletics and Lexia

It’s good to hear that both Mathletics and Lexia are developing apps for the iPad, even though they cannot give a time scale. Are there other educational software writers out there like these two who are developing their apps for the iPad? Let me know if you know!

Noggin the Nog

The other day I was reminiscing with a young teacher about children’s TV of bygone eras. I was surprised how many of the old programmes were admired by a younger generation. I then remembered Oliver Postgate’s amazing Smallfilms especially Noggin the Nog. There is a lovely tribute to Oliver and his films on the Dragon Friendly Society website.

A year or two ago a friend of mine introduced his KS2 pupils to Noggin and showed them how to do this sort of animation and now that I have been reminded how wonderful the stories are I thought I would share the ideas with you.

There are some good websites for introducing Noggin including the following:

Creating animations like Noggin the Nog used to be very time consuming with the camera technology available at the time. With modern computers, cameras and software it is much easier though it can still take some time. Successful animation in the classroom requires careful planning. Pupils need to tackle something that is achievable in the time available and with the resources at hand. To do a project like Noggin the Nog it may be an idea to get the whole class involved in producing a short storyboard and then splitting the story into short episodes that small groups can work on. Each short episode can then be stitched into the main story.

There are lots of suitable software packages available that can be used to do this sort of stop frame animation including:

These software packages will work with most USB webcams and with some more sophisticated cameras. The most versatile webcams I have come across so far are the Hue webcams which are webcams on a flexible neck; the best range of cameras are the Sanyo Xacti (but their tripod bush is right next to the USB connector – derrr!)

If you would like to discuss animation in schools further, would like training or help with an after school or holiday club involving animation do please contact me.

And of course, you mustn’t forget Ivor the Engine! 

Windows Live Writer

I’ve just read that Windows Live Writer (part of the Windows Live package) can be used to write blogs and publish them into almost any blog package whilst providing a much friendlier interface (it even spell checks!) So this is my first blog entry using it. Below is a picture of the toolbar (captured using Jing)


It was simple to capture the image and paste it in – just like any document editor. If you can see the picture in the blog this means that it also got uploaded to a suitable place, if you can’t then I need to read the instructions! If it does work I will be trying to use it for the next few blogs at least. Now to hit the Publish button!

Analysing data with Excel

If you have loads of data to analyse then PowerPivot may be of use to you. It is a plugin for Excel 2010 and allows you to analyse very large sets of data, very rapidly, in real-time. The documenation suggests that you think of it as Excel PivotTables on steroids! The main advantage that it has over PivotTables is its ability to pull data from one database and match it against data from elsewhere.

So, if your school has pupil data in lots of different files and formats this may be the tool for you. It’s free, you just need to learn to use it and find its potential!

Chemistry Add-in for Word

For all you science teachers out there – a new add-in for Word has just been released that makes it easier to insert and modify chemical information, such as labels, formulas and 2-D depictions, within Microsoft Office Word. You will need to read the documentation to get the best out of it but it looks as though it could help to simplify the production of worksheets, etc. I’m going to play with it to see how easy it is to produce clear documents that can be used on IWBs (I need to remember that Word is a word processor and not a DTP or animation package – repeat 100 times!)