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.