What an amazing age we live in: app-controlled devices, connected homes. So why aren't I wildly enthusiastic even though I am not by any means a Luddite?

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  1. Two cheers for the internet of things
  2. Review of ASAP Utilities for Excel
  3. 11 tips for organising an education conference
  4. Thumbnail sketch of The Secret Teacher
  5. Thumbnail sketch of the Raspberry Pi User Guide
  6. More Recent Articles

Two cheers for the internet of things

Picture from Geralt on Pixabay.  Licence: CC0

Picture from Geralt on Pixabay.  Licence: CC0

A few weeks ago we had a person here trying to convince us of the benefits of having an app-controlled heating and water system.

"Instead of fiddling about with the thermostat trying to get the temperature just right, you could do it from your phone before you even get into the house."

"So", I said. "What you're saying is that instead of fiddling about inside, I could fiddle about outside instead?"

That's the thing about the internet of things as far as I can tell. It seems sexy and up-to-the minute and all that, until you question what exactly you stand to gain from it. I've been told that we could get our house up to a nice warm temperature so that when we come in we are comfortable straight away.

At the moment, if it's cold outside, we come in, switch the heating on, and by the time we've put away our shopping and put the kettle on for a cup of tea, the house is warm. So for us, at least, an app-controlled home really is a solution looking for a problem.

Certainly at the moment, the potential disadvantages outweigh the benefits. What if your house gets hacked, for example? 

There was an article doing the rounds today on a similar issue, about driverless cars. A security expert is warning that cars could be hacked into and used as weapons. If you look beyond the hysterical headline, it sounds pretty feasible to me.

I wrote an article a few years ago about the internet of things. I wasn't convinced then, and I'm not convinced now. You may find the article useful, as it contains a list of discussion points for the classroom. Here it is:

British Gas and the Internet of Things

You may also enjoy this infographic which features an unfortunate (though humorous) incident involving Alexa:


The butterfly effect: “Alexa, order me a dollhouse…” from Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine.
Click here for zoomable version.

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Review of ASAP Utilities for Excel

asap1.jpg

Someone just had to go and do this, didn't they? One of my sole pleasures in life (cue violins) has been pitting my wits against the spreadsheet application Excel. Against the odds, I have devised formulae and functions, and code, to push Excel into doing things it was probably never designed to do.

Many of these were useful, like a staff rota and a technical support reporting system. Others were simply for the heck of it, like my (in)famous Homework Excuse Management System, which will tell you instantly if a pupil has used the same excuse before for not handing in their homework.

I even have a folder on my computer labelled 'Useless Utilities', which houses the results of my experiments. For example, there's the one that will create an index sheet from all the worksheets in a workbook. And there's one that does the opposite, that is creates separate worksheets from a list of titles in a single worksheet.

In other words, that folder, together with the other applications I've mentioned, and more, represent my lifelong quest to challenge myself to ever greater heights of spreadsheet brilliance.

But as far as formulae are concerned, none of that burning the midnight oil, searching forums for advice, poring over tomes with such enchanting titles as 'Advanced Functions and Formulae for Excel' is necessary. How come? Because ASAP Utilities has it nailed.

I haven't counted them all, but there must be scores, if not hundreds, of ready-made formulae that can be applied immediately. As if that wasn't bad enough, the program is free for non-commercial use, and it seems to work with any version of Excel.

The screenshot shows just a few of ASAP's utilities...

The screenshot shows just a few of ASAP's utilities...

... as does this one.

... as does this one.

So, my days of tweaking Excel are over, apart from fiddling with bits of code now and again. Still, I haven't done much with Microsoft Word for a long time....

To download the program, go here: ASAP Utilities

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11 tips for organising an education conference

If you're thinking of organising a conference for teachers and other educational professionals, you can learn from the best – and the worst – practice. Here are 11 tips that you ignore at your peril!

Even great content may not be enough to counteract the effects on attendanceof poor organisation. Photo from Stencil. Licence: CC0

Even great content may not be enough to counteract the effects on attendanceof poor organisation. Photo from Stencil. Licence: CC0

1.      Have the conference programme sorted out before tickets go on sale. I do sometimes receive invitations to buy a conference ticket when it's not even clear what talks are going to take place there. Sending out invitations before all of the speakers have been confirmed isn't wonderful, but at least it indicates that the topics have been decided and appropriate speakers approached. Asking people to trust what is, in effect, a blank sheet of paper is really a definition of optimism.

2.      Have one website and login, even if better individual apps are available. Sometimes conference organisers have a website for the conference programme and updates, another one for the conference blog, another one where people can sign up and take part in discussions, another one... Well, you get the idea. Perhaps each of these uses the best tool available for the job, but that's at a huge cost of having to remember the details for multiple websites.

3.      Have passworded access to slides. Some people may object to paying for a conference only to discover afterwards that all the talks and presentations are available for free online. They may know that downloading a set of slides is not the same as actually being there, but when it comes to watching a video of a presentation that is often even better than attending in person (better view, no disturbance from people talking amongst themselves).

4.      Make Early Bird tickets available, and definitely not late bird tickets. I once attended a conference at which I was penalised, in effect, for buying my ticket as soon as sales opened. As an incentive to people to buy tickets after the virtual ticket office had been open a few months, the organisers offered a free subscription to a resource. I was told that I couldn't enjoy that freebie because I'd booked too early. That sort of behaviour is not fair on those who have supported you by purchasing a ticket early. It also smacks of desperation: why have you had to offer such a thing at such a late stage? Isn't anyone attending?

5.      Give attendees the opportunity to have their Twitter names on their badges. That really helps to facilitate networking, because people spot those they've been following and conversing with online. Being able to put a face to a name can be very powerful.

6.      To assist in this process, consider having a conference app which enables people to communicate with other attendees. This isn't strictly necessary – after all, there is always Twitter. But it may be a 'nice-to-have'.

7.      When organising the programme, please don't put the keynotes on at the same time as other talks. I attended a brilliant presentation by a young teacher at one conference. All six of us really enjoyed her talk – the other 150 attendees were at the big name keynote. I thought that was very unfair on someone who had clearly made a great deal of effort. It also meant that many people missed some very good information.

8.       On the subject of 'big names', remember that there are plenty of experts who have not become (nor wish to become) celebrities. Perhaps having a big name or two helps to attract delegates, but don't overlook experts in schools, universities and people you've met at other conferences.

9.      Remember that you don't have to pin down every minute. Why not have a slot (perhaps one of the parallel sessions) and a room available for people who wish to discuss issues that are not covered in the conference programme?

10.  Make sure the wi-fi is good, available everywhere, and that there are enough watering holes for the number of delegates you're expecting.

11.  Finally, devise (and promote) your conference hashtag. If you don't, confusion will reign ("is it Conference17, Conference2017, Conference_2017...?").

There's no guarantee that following these tips will ensure your conference's success of course. You also need great content that is timely, good publicity, a good location and the right slot in the calendar. But not following them will almost certainly affect ticket sales, maybe not this time, but next time.

My book, Education Conferences: Teachers' Guide to Getting the Most out of Education Conferences, is available on Amazon at http://viewbook.at/conferences

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Thumbnail sketch of The Secret Teacher

It was somewhat disconcerting to discover this book in the 'creative writing' section of Foyles (which, for those not familiar with the name, is a bookshop chain in the UK). This probably has more to do with the section's unfortunate juxtaposition to that labelled 'Education', given the fact that a few months ago I happened upon a book on assessment in the exact same spot. (Hmm, although I don't know.)

secret teacher.jpg

I started reading it today, and because I chanced upon a discussion on Twitter about lesson observations (inspired by an article in TES) I read the chapters on lesson observations, Ofsted and a few others. So, because I haven't read the whole book yet, this is by way of a quick look and initial thoughts.

Like the column of the same name in The Guardian, the author remains anonymous, and although the book is based on real life, it has been fictionalised in the sense that the characters who feature in it are amalgams rather than actual people.

The chapters I've read so far seem to me to be quite accurate: the hapless teacher trying to inspire a class of children who see no reason to be inspired, getting to grips with jargon, and coming across 'rules' that one could not be expected to know about. For example, in one chapter he is told by his head of department that the vice principal has observed (complained?) that his walk is too laid back, and that he needs to look more dynamic and purposeful.

Actually, this is not bad advice for any new teacher, but the way it is conveyed by the vice principal does not come across as supportive: far from it.

The chapter on lesson preparation for an observation by the vice principal highlights very clearly the trap of spending half the night preparing a special lesson with all the bells and whistles imaginable,  and a written lesson plan, and a printer the other side of the school. I've come across schools like this before, where the senior leadership team fail in their duty of care towards staff by insisting on written lesson plans, contrary to what Ofsted expects, and not discouraging the spending of hours and hours on a single lesson, and where the technology, far from supporting teachers, almost actively conspires against them.

The chapter on parents evening is quite humorous, and reminded me of a conversation I had with a mother quite early in my teaching career:

Me: Fred hardly ever does any work, and when he does it is very poor.

Mother: But apart from that is he doing OK?

Me: Erm well, yes.

Mother: (Beaming with pride) Oh good!

The book acts as a useful reminder to new teachers that they are not alone in the trials they may be facing. What I don't like much about the book is the liberally sprinkled expletives, although I suppose they help to paint a very realistic picture.

Much better are the 'rules' found on virtually every page. These are full of sound wisdom and excellent advice, although why they are numbered in such a haphazard fashion is a mystery. 

On the whole I'd recommend this book from what I've read so far. An alternative and complementary view of the hazards of inner-city teaching may be found in the book It's your time you're wasting

The Secret Teacher (Amazon affiliate link)

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Thumbnail sketch of the Raspberry Pi User Guide

The Raspberry Pi User Guide 4th Edition

The Raspberry Pi User Guide 4th Edition

I always dread having to open any kind of manual. For a start, it’s against the natural order of things. (I don’t ask for directions either, even when I’m hopelessly lost.) Secondly, they usually seem to be written for people for whom they are superfluous.

Imagine, then, what a pleasant surprise it was to open this book and discover that it is not only well-structured, but an enjoyable read.

I wouldn’t say it is bedtime reading exactly (mind you, I used to read books on Excel functions and VBA before retiring for the night). However, it is very comprehensive.

For example, if you are interested in setting up your Pi to take time-lapse video, this book takes you step by step through the process.

If you’re serious about pushing your Raspberry Pi to its limits, and even if you’re already pretty familiar with what it can do, this book is a must-have for your bookshelf or workbench.

Raspberry PI User Guide (Amazon affiliate link) 

This review was first published in Digital Education, our free newsletter. To find out more, and to sign up, please visit the newsletter page. We use a double opt-in system, and you won't be spammed.

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