Thursday, 19 July 2007

A New Offering - Hot off the Press!

Tatung are due to hit the market with what looks like a possible competitor for the Samsung Q1 Ultra.
It is affectionately known as the TTAB-T70A and looks pretty good...

Available in black or white.
It has an impressive spec as follows:
CPU VIA C7M @ 1.2GHz
Chipset VIA VX700
Hard Disk 1.8” HDD Options from 30GB or
Compact Flash Based Storage alternatives.
DDR-II Memory 512MB (Options up to 1GB)
Display 7.0” Wide TFT LCD Panel (LED Backlight)
800x480 Resolution
Resistive Touchscreen Input
Video Shared Video Memory up to 128MB
Audio Integral Speakers 2 x 0.5 W
Integral Microphone
Camera Integral 1.3 Mega Pixels
Security AuthenTec Slide type fingerprint sensor (Optional)
Operating System Options: Windows Xpe
Windows XP Pro
Networking Wireless LAN 802.11b/g
Wired LAN 10/100 Mbps (RJ-45 Connector)
Bluetooth v2.0 EDR
Expansion I/O PCMCIA CardBus type II Slot
SD Memory Slot
2 x USB 2.0 Ports
VGA Output (15pin female D-Connector)
Headphone Output Jack
Docking Connector
DC Input Jack
Front Panel Controls 1 x Power Button
4 x Hotkeys
Track Point 1 with Z-Axis Function
Front Panel Indicators 1 x Wireless Status
1 x Power/Charge Status.
1 x HDD Activity
Power Universal AC Adaptor 19V/65W (100~240V)
Rechargeable Li-ion Battery (14.8V@2600 mAh)
Battery runtime up to 4hrs
IP Rating IP53 (Front Bezel only)
Dimensions (W x H x D) 206 x 135 x 31mm
Weight 0.895kg with battery.
Operating Temperature +5°C ~ +35°C
Environmental EMC & Safety CE/FCC
Included Accessories TBC
Optional Accessories Kick Stand (Removable)
Docking Station providing:
1 x LAN
3 x USB 2.0 Ports,
1 x Serial
1 x DC-in
My thinking is that this, too, would present similar screen-size problems. However, it may not 'free the teacher' but I think this (and other similar devices) really do represent a glimpse of the future. Might this be the exercise book of 2010? Should we be looking to put devices like these into the hands of children? My feeling is to say 'yes' to both.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Back to the future.

The burgeoning UMPC field is such that today's awesome new device is tomorrow's old hat. To think that I was at the BETT show in January and struggled to find even a choice of devices illustrates how fast things are moving right now. I'm put in mind of the increasingly ubiquitous 'Shift Happens' presentation that is doing the rounds at the moment.
I was at a Mobile Learning event at Microsoft Campus in Reading last week which was 'mixed' in terms of value for me. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect was the presentation by a senior Microsoft representative elucidating the varied features and improvements inherent in Windows Mobile 6. Not entertaining, I hasten to add, for the content; but rather for the fact that the presentation completely bombed, crashed and died for technical reasons. Despite my obvious sympathy for anyone suffering technical problems whilst giving a techie presentation, there is something slightly smugly satisfying about this happening at Microsoft's supposed centre of excellence. A fact not missed by my neighbour who, on his Apple ibook, had a distinct ironic smile playing on his lips throughout.
Anyway, back to the future. Is it still UMPC? What about PDAa and EDAs? Well the answer is clearly 'That depends what you want it for'. There was much at the mobile learning event to persuade of the value of the PDA type device as a solution for the learner, but I'm interested in freeing the teacher.
I have to admit to a slight rise in pulse rate when I saw the latest offering from Samsung at the Microsoft event.

The Samsung Q1 Ultra

This has Qwerty keys on the housing that can be used relatively easily and make this device something that will definitely attract the PSP generation. Importantly, it also has cameras facing fore and aft (you'll remember how important this was to me) and is a fully functioning computer (also important). It is also extremely portable - more so than the Tatung M84A - and I gather that little rubberised bump-covers for the Q1 are now beginning to appear on e-bay.
HOWEVER, where the 7 inch screen and dinkiness of these little devices may appeal to the minimalists amongst us and will certainly turn on the teenagers, I mustn't forget the teachers and my original purpose. Because of this, the Tatung M84A is still winning. This is because of the perfect combination of mobility and screen size. I (and I suspect teachers) will want to be able to see a document page and easily read the text on it, whilst also using 20% of the display for the handwriting recognition/keyboard application. This is why 7 inches is too small and a PDA will never adequately solve the problem.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Release into the wild

Three devices have arrived and been sent out to schools.
To date, all my ideas have been 'in theory'. Now we'll see how they fare in the classroom. I'm going to provide a 'quick-start' face-to-face with the teachers. This will include a quick tour of the features (camera, audio recording, handwriting recognition) and how to get the software on - MS Office and MyScript Stylus (via network? Portable hard-drive? USB CDROM drive?). Also, a quick look at my e-portfolio/learning journey Powerpoint. I've also set up a UMPC community on the VLE for ongoing support/discussion/forum activity.
I am still very annoyed at the fact that Tatung didn't ship my device with XP Tablet edition, requiring me to buy handwriting recognition and rendering Onenote a shadow of its potential self. Now, of course, they are shipping the M84A with Tablet XP installed (at an additional cost) - too late for me.
I gather that the version of Blogger I'm using won't support Youtube video. This is a shame as I broke my Youtube duck with a bit of video taken with the Tatung and wanted to post it here. Not to worry, here's a link to it:

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

A Trip to the Seaside

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to speak at a conference in Sicily on Pen-based Learning Technologies. I knew that this would be an opportunity to meet with colleagues from around the world who shared an interest in such technology and it would also be a chance for the UMPC to potentially fraternise with some close relatives.

Sure enough, it was truly tablet-tastic with many a speaker extolling the vitues of tablet technologies for use by teacher and student alike. The little Tatung stirred some considerable interest, not least with a North American colleague who could envisage it being used in the field by vetinary students.

Microsoft Learning were also present and gave a practical workshop on how Onenote might be used in an educational setting with tablets etc (this was interesting). I moaned about how Onenote wouldn't work fully on my Tatung because of its apparent non-tablet status and there was an interesting solution suggested that has stretched my technical understanding somewhat. There may be a way to make it into a tablet apparently and this would involve downloading and installing the Microsoft SDK (software development kit) and then installing the XP Tablet Edition Operating System. I am yet to try this, watch this space.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Current musings.

So we've been together a while now and we're getting to know each others' quirks. I've got to say I'm still very happy but there are some issues that need to be aired.

First of all, we'll start with battery life. Now this was always going to be an issue which is why I felt it was a great idea to have the spare battery and charger. The idea here being that one battery charges while the other powers the device so that seamless battery operation is possible. However, the battery runs down on the device before the other one has fully charged. I put this to Tatung who advised employing as many power-saving strategies on the device as possible. So I dimmed the display down (using the handy thumb wheel - shame there isn't also a thumb wheel for volume), set the display settings to 1 minute before switching off the monitor etc. This extended the life (about 3 hours) slightly, but still it ran down too quickly. Ultimately, this shouldn't be a problem in the classroom as there will always be overnight charging that will get both batteries up to speed for the following day.

The blue-screen-of-death returned. It seems that there is indeed a problem specific to the Tatung devices and my workplace. We have honed it down to the wireless network card, which, if disabled, allows the device to work fine. As soon as it is enabled, the device blue-screens. This may well be due to the enormous RF transmitter on the roof. All this is slightly concerning in light of recent scare stories around the whole wifi, RF situation. If it kills my computer, what might it be doing to me. The only solution I have is to use a (purchased) wireless network card that fits into the PCMCIA slot on the device. Slightly irritating, this.

Now my biggest moan. Tatung don't consider this device to be a Tablet PC. Now this is bizarre as it so clearly is. As a consequence, it does not ship with Windows XP Tablet Edition Operating System installed. Instead, it just has regular XP. This is significant. Tablet Edition comes with built-in handwriting recognition (I would consider this essential on a device that has a stylus-based input). So the M84A has a stylus but no handwriting recognition. This problem urgently needed a resolution. It was suggested (by Tatung) that I try (28 day trial period) Myscript Stylus software. I've done this and I like the software. 28 days has passed and I now need to buy it but at £30 this is an additional cost to be considered. What's more, Microsoft Onenote will not work properly unless XPTE is installed - this is annoying. Tatung now tell me that they are preparing machines that will have XPTE pre-installed, but that I can't retro-activate my device. Disappointing.

On the subject of additional costs, potential purchasers might also need to consider the cost of a USB mouse, keyboard and CDROM drive (for the installation of software), although the latter may not be necessary if software is installable via a network/server (which may be the case in a school).

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Doubt creeps in

What am I doing? Have I made a monster? I wanted to free the teacher from the post-it. Have I just shifted the manacles onto electronic post-its? Having read some very impassioned and heartfelt posts on Debbie Hepplewhite's thread on the TES Early Years Forum and an article for the Guardian by Ted Wragg some worrying questions are arising in my head.
Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in assessment for learning and practice being informed by quality observations of children whilst learning. However, if there is an obsession with making observations and recording, then there is a danger that the skills of the excellent practitioner will be buried under a wave of over-observation. Shouldn't practitioners be spending their time doing what they do best and what is best for children - teaching, engaging, facilitating? Would the hand-held PC only serve to keep practitioners from doing what they do best?
Many of the teachers I've spoken to recently seem more concerned with the 'e-profile' as opposed to the 'e-portfolio' idea as outlined below. I think the distinction is that the e-portfolio idea is more about a record of a learning journey, reporting to parents, and, to a certain extent, evidence gathering. This, in itself, is not lacking in value. I could imagine what a wonderful 'document' this portfolio/record of learning might be once a student reaches the end of formal education. Imagine presenting relevant parts of it at a job interview for instance.
The e-profile, on the other hand, is seen by many practitioners as a once-termly chore, to be completed whilst sifting through a mass of evidence. The message I am getting is that what people are looking for is some sort of application that will allow e-profile updates 'on the hoof'. I'm not sure such a thing exists, but have contacted Target Tracker to find out more about their product.
I also spoke to a Headteacher of a Primary school today who is a big fan of Microsoft Excel for number-crunching purposes. Might some sort of Excel-based system be part of the solution? Might there be a need to somehow synchronise applications like Onenote with e-profile software? How?
Questions, questions...


And so it arrived. With the blog in mind, I unboxed methodically, savouring each boxed, plastic-bagged, twist-tied component. This is what you get for your £770:

Ready to go!

Spare battery.

Battery charger.

Rubberised bump-cover and harness.

Smart zip-up wallet in which to carry it round.

Power leads and VGA adapter (to plug in to a projector or additional monitor).

Here it is, the M84A

Rock and roll!

And here it all is. Ready to play!

Will it work in the office? Will I get a blue-screen of death?
Seems good to go at home. Satisfyingly speedy performance. Straight onto the internet via wireless without a hitch.
Very excited.

Saturday, 19 May 2007


So far no one had actually taken a thing like this into the classroom or early years setting. I was very keen to see what the response might be by actual practitioners when I had the opportunity to describe the 'Freetheteacher' project to them.
This opportunity presented itself when I was given an half hour slot at a Local Authority 'Early Years Update' event. My audience was 160 practitioners representing childminders, nurseries and foundation stage settings across the region.
The problem was, without a device, all they had was my word for it and a few pictures on a Powerpoint slide. I chased and hasseled Akhter to get me a device delivered ASAP. Luckily they had a sample that they lent me a few days prior to the event - I would still have to wait for my brand spanking new one to arrive though.
A strange thing happened when I booted up the sample M84A, within minutes it blue-screened and died (just like the H70 had before it). This continued (as it had with the H70 before). This too was met with bafflement by the guys at Tatung until one of the guys punted an out of the box speculation when he said, "You don't happen to have a powerful RF (Radio Frequency) transmitter nearby do you?" I replied that I wasn't sure but would check this out. I walked through to the IT technicians' room and asked the question. It was met with, "Have been out in the carpark and looked what's on the roof above your desk?" Out I went and sure enough, there is the largest mobile phone transmitter installation positioned directly above my head when I'm working. Could this be the source of the blue-screen-of-death? More investigation would be called for.

Armed with my rugged, bump-covered, harnessed up, sample M84A and with my Powerpoint eportfolio. I stood up in front of 160 early years experts. I envangelised, I described my journey and I appealed for their support on the next leg of the voyage. It went down well. There was a queue of eager, interested parties at the end of my spiel. Four schools were prepared to order one (or even two) pretty much on the spot!

This brings me to the point you've probably all been waitng for. How much? I was being sold the M84A with the bump cover, harness, spare battery and charger for a princely sum of £770. A price not to be sniffed at by the average UK primary school. A price that probably needs to come down a bit before schools might realistically take this on. Surely the ideal situation would be for there to be one of these in the hands of every adult. Not at £770 though!

Four more days to wait until it arrives and I can really get my teeth into it...

Monday, 14 May 2007

The eportfolio - Powerpoint or Onenote?

Tatung (or more specifically Akhter Computers - their UK distributers) were keen to take back the blue-screening H70 and replace it (for a slight increase in price) with the 8.4" M84A. All I had to do was wait (the following week I was told).
To keep my mind off the wait, I set about thinking around what the eportfolio might look like. My initial thoughts had been along the lines of a Powerpoint file. My thinking being that it would be the perfect host for the eportfolio. I set up a template such that boxes are ready to receive either text (via handwriting recognition) or media (photos, sound recordings or video). This presented a challenge. I wanted 'content boxes' and text boxes to be on the blank Powerpoint slides so that the practitioner could point at the children with the device, take a picture or make a recording and drop it straight into the content box. This was possible in my version of Powerpoint (2003) as I could choose Format->Slide Layout from the menu and choose a layout with a text box and content boxes for the media. I then fiddled about with the look of the page by organising and resizing the boxes until it looked like this:
Click image to see full size in a new window

There would be an unlimited number of pages like this for the ongoing record of the learning journey.

Using the same principal, my first (title page) would look like this:
See image full size in new window by clicking

The child's picture would go in the big, central content box.

I also thought it would be good to have a three point record (given that the initial idea was for this to work in the Foundation Stage) - 'On entry' (to Nursery), 'On entry to Reception' and 'on exit'. So page two would look like this:
Click image to see full size in a new window
Maybe the child just writes their name onto the screen of the umpc for the 'Picture of child's attempt to write name.' box.
A photo goes into the big box and a sound recording of the child saying "My name is..." is hyperlinked to the speech bubble.
Bob's your uncle.

This could be the ever-growing document I had in mind for the eportfolio. It would not only be a record of learning that could be used for assessment for learning purposes, but could also be the report to parents, shareable with parents in electronic form (a CDROM, via a secure area on the VLE?). This raised another issue in my mind, that of esafety. Would there be any issues for parents given that video clips and photos would include their own and other children, shareable with a wide community of parents (albeit those parents with a PC at home - in the absence of Microsoft Office, a free Powerpoint Viewer is downloadable). Would this be covered by the permission slips that are signed and returned by parents as their children enter school - regarding photos of children and internet policy?
However, a school that is very keen to try the device and the eportfolio idea had started looking into Microsoft Onenote as a possible alternative to Powerpoint as the host software for the eportfolio. This definitely needed looking at as it has similar functionality to Powerpoint, can be handwritten staight onto, will support all kinds of media files, is easily manageable and has some astonishing export functionality (including html - could the eportfolio be a webpage?).

Sunday, 13 May 2007


I'd been experiencing one or two problems with the Tatung H70 UMPC, specifically 'blue screen of death' type crashes. These crashes grew in frequency from one or two on the first day until it was 'dying' every 15 minutes or so by the time I'd had it a few days. As a result of this, I became engaged in protracted dialogue with the technical people at Tatung, who, it has to be said, were very supportive and eager to sort things out. I'd put it down to the newness of the technology having some inherent gliches and was fairly happy to help them iron these things out.
During one of my conversations, Tatung asked me about what I intended for the device. This was my opportunity to evangelise about the whole 'Freetheteacher' project. At that point, the following dialogue took place:
Tatung: "Well , have you seen any of our other products?"
Me: "No."
Tatung: "Have you got the internet infront of you now?"
Me: "Yes."
Tatung: "Just type in "
Me: "Ok."
Tatung: "Now click the 'more' link under the Mobile Power section"
Me (increasingly excited now): "Ok."
Tatung: "Now click on the link on the left for 'Ultra Mobile PC'."
Me (eyes on stalks): "Ok."
Tatung: "Take a look at the 8.4" Tablet PC, just click on the picture."
Me: "OMG!" (Or something similar).
Tatung: "Click on the 'Closer Look' link on the left. Is that the kind of thing you're looking for?"
Me: (Barely able to compose myself): "Looking good! I do have one issue, battery life. No device can really last long enough to be a real help for a classroom teacher."
Tatung: "Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the 'more>>' link. You'll see that it can be supplied with a spare battery and separate charger so you can pop one out and another in while you're on the go."
Me: "I need one. When can I send the H70 back and get one of these?"
Tatung: "Let me get back to you on that."
This is what I was looking at:

Note the robust rubberised 'bump-cover'.

Note the harness for the busy, on-the-go early years practitioner.

Note also (and perhaps most importantly) the built-in, flip-up webcam that will allow photos and video capture both towards and away from the user.

Was I nearing the end of the journey? It seemed too good to be true.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Flex - ability

Where could I find a webcam that would be easy to plug and play, have no messy wires, and, importantly, face away from the screen? For a considerable time I went down a path that led to frustration.
Here's why:

When I saw this, I thought my prayers had been answered. It is the Volvox USB Webcam
Now if I could just combine this with the Tatung H70, we might be in business. All I needed to do was get hold of one. Easier said than done. Try as I might, I couldn't find any way to actually buy one. Apparently they can only be sourced in Korea. Not to be put off, I even established a contact in Korea; who also could not get hold of one. At this point I stalled - I had exhausted Google and felt completely webcammed out.

I visited store after store (with the Tatung H70 clutched in my sweaty hand), trying all manner of clip-on, slide-on, balance-on webcams. None of them worked: the clip-ons sprung off, the slide-ons slid off, the balance-ons over-balanced and they all had a length of wire that needed dealing with.

A week or so of this eventually led me into a local branch of Curry's (an electrical store). In the webcam section I saw this:

This is the Philips SP610
Not much to write home about and the picture doesn't really do it justice but this was what I'd been looking for. The black USB lead is semi-rigid, bendable plastic which means you can plug in and bend accordingly.

With trembling fingers, I stuck it into the USB slot on the top of the H70. Bingo! I could take pictures, record video at the click of a stylus. I have finally found the solution I'd been looking for for so long. All in one device I had:
  • The ability to handwrite onto the screen and see it converted instantly to text.
  • The ability to quickly and easily take a photo and drop it straight into a document.
  • The ability to quickly and easily take video and drop it straight into a (powerpoint) document.
  • The ability to record sound quickly and easily and drop it straight into a (powerpoint) document.
Had I finally reached the end of my journey? Was this going to transform the life of the careworn and over-burdened Early Years practitioner frantically filling out post-it notes, juggling digital cameras etc?

Friday, 11 May 2007

The search for a device

So, what are we looking for? A device of some description. It needs to:

  • be hand-held
  • be able to run MS Office (in order to host Powerpoint)
  • be able to record sound (preferably without the necessity of a plug-in microphone)
  • include a camera (for stills and video)
  • have handwriting recognition

My initial ideas were around some sort of PDA or mobile phone . However, despite it's attractions, there were various drawbacks - no MS office and screen too small.

I then came across the Origami Project website. This introduced me to the idea of the UMPC. This appeared to be much more like it. It met so many of my criteria. I just needed to find the ideal UMPC for my needs. A trip to the BETT Show at Olympia in January 2007 might be where I would find my 'Holy Grail'.

What a disappointment BETT was. I saw a Samsung Q1.

This definitely showed promise but there was no camera built into the device itself.

I also saw the Tatung H70.

This device did have the camera I so desired. So, initally I was very excited.

The camera, it turns out, was mounted towards the user (presumably to facilitate video conferencing). This is all very well, but not very useful for a busy early years practitioner wanting to take video and/or photographs of children as they learn.

Now, I'm lucky enough to work for an organisation that were prepared to purchase two UMPCs with a view to supporting this project. Despite not having seen one 'in the flesh', we decided to buy an ASUS R2H and the Tatung H70

The ASUS arrived first and I could hardly hide my excitement as I unboxed it and booted it up. It boasted the most astonishing package of gizmos and tools: GPS, fingerprint recognition security, built-in camera etc etc. My initial excitement slowly dwindled as I discovered its limitations: a processor that couldn't cope with video (rendering the camera designed for video conferencing useless), GPS that didn't work, handwriting recognition that (due to the slow processor) couldn't keep up and so on.
Then came the Tatung H70, this was much more like it. It's 1GHz processor knocked the socks off the ASUS' sluggish 500MHz. It sang and it danced and I began to allow myself a degree of excitement again. Just the one problem remained with both devices: forward facing cameras.
The next stage of the quest began... The search for a suitable webcam.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Where to next?

Being passionate about ICT, I and colleagues at school were keen to investigate whether our problems could be solved with the assistance of technology. I was inspired when I saw an example of e-portfolios being created by practitioners in early years in a Local Authority in the North of England. They were using digital cameras and voice recorders to record children's learning and creating an electronic document to 'host' these recordings alongside written observations (that had been typed up). Very innovative and exciting - especially as Microsoft Powerpoint was being used as the host software. MS Powerpoint allows media such as photos, audio recordings and video to sit comfortably side by side with text based observations. What's more, it doesn't require paper, it can be shared with anyone (parents?) who have a computer and a (freely available) Powerpoint viewer. Shared on a CDROM? Shared via the VLE? It could also be an ever-growing document, charting the learning journey of a child, not just in the Early Years, but on, throughout their lives. An application like Powerpoint could also utilise hyperlinks to pieces of work completed by the learner - in other computer applications or scanned documents/pictures.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The journey begins

'Observation based assessment should underpin your practice in early years education'.
This is the message coming loud and clear from many authorities in UK early years education. What does this look like in reality? The answer is: quantities of post-it notes, clipboards, tick lists, digital cameras and an obsession with evidence gathering that threatens to (and often does) interfere with genuine, meaningful adult-child interaction and engagement (the things that should be what good practice in the early years is all about).
Early years practitioners are also producing comprehensive reports on children's learning, often as a document including text and digital photographs that is saved, printed and shared with parents.
All of this constitutes a considerable burden on practitioners who are already stretched to the limit by the pressures of new initiatives and those inherent to early years education anyway.

With this in mind, I commence my blogging journey with a shorter journey - one that I hope will lead to greater freedom on the part of the early years practitioner to get on with what they do best - teach the children, engage with children, and facilitate children's learning.