Friday, April 17, 2009

Playing with Virtualisation & Jing

After the ATI course last week I decided to bring one of the school Apple laptops with me to Portrush to play with. OS X is all well and good with its smooth & snazzy gui etc. but I found myself missing my Linux desktop for getting things done. Yep I could do pretty much everything through OS X but ....... well ..... I like Linux.

So time to try out virtualisation. Found a free application from Sun called Virtualbox , downloaded it and a beta ISO of the next version of Ubuntu and gave it a whirl. My verdict after playing for a couple of hours - It works really well. It should both run on Windows and run a Windows virtual machine and I'll try this out when I go home at the weekend. It has settings for running virtual machines for every version of Windows from 7, which is still in beta, back to 3.1. It does loads of other operating systems including BSD unix and Solaris. While Virtualbox runs fine on a Mac you can't create an OS X virtual machine as this is forbidden in the licence for OS X.

I wanted to show this in action and started checking out screen video capturing software. Jing seemed to work just fine so I coughed up $15 for the version that saves as a video file as well as SWF, which the free version does and am very impressed with it. There is a free one called RecordMyDesktop that runs on Linux but I couldn't find a good free one for OS X. The video below shows the Linux desktop booting up inside a window on an Apple laptop. Jing will record a voiceover as well but when I was using it for this one the fans on the laptop came on and it sounded like an airplane taking off. So I pulled the video into iMovie, deleted the audio track and did a voiceover instead with the fans turned off. An external microphone is probably the best way to go but I don't have one here with me. Then I loaded it up to Youtube and voila.

Not sure where the educational value of Virtualbox lies yet. I suppose we could run software designed for one platform on another one but not sure we have a use for that in my school. I reckon any techie students I work with will be interested in playing with it.

Something like Jing though, which runs on Windows as well, will be very useful. Rather than trying to demo everything live in class I can do the old Blue Peter trick of "Here's one I made earlier". It will also mean I can record a good demo and reuse it whenever needed or make it available to students to watch in their own time. Wink is a similar application for Windows that may be worth checking out. It can output in a variety of formats including PDF and SWF but not a video format so you can't upload to Youtube or the likes unless you convert it to a video format first.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

OS X vs Windows Vs Linux - Part 2

The current computer room in Clongowes doubles up as a study where students can work during specified study times in the evening. It caters mainly for Transition year students who have access to computers most evenings during study. Students from other year groups can get permission from whoever is supervising their study to visit the computer room for a while to perform some specific task. The old computer room was Windows only but when we moved to a bigger room I had more scope for flexability. I decided to keep a bank of Win XP machines for class as that was what the teachers were more familiar with but decided to go with a bank of Macs and some Linux machines as well. I loaded some pictures of the construction of the computer room and the finished product onto the school website.

So what next. I tried a machine on Vista last year for a few months but it didn't integrate properly with XP and ran slower on the fastest machine in the school. The same machne is now running as a Youtube clone where we can run videos on the network. It runs on Linux using PHPmotion . It also runs as a music server that students can link into using iTunes on Windows and Mac machines and Rhythmbox on Linux machines. At one time I figured XP would be the last version of Windows we would use as the future was Linux. Now I'm of the opinion variety is a good thing but we are going to have XP for quite a few years yet as we have a lot of machines that run it just fine but would crawl with Vista. Windows 7? ....... well I'll try it out but I haven't seen anything that excites me too much yet.

On the Linux front I'm planning on moving to Ubuntu 8.04 on servers and clients during the summer. By that time there will be two newer versions, 8.10 and 9.04 but 8.04 is a long term support (LTS) version which means it will get updates through to 2011.

On the Mac front the move from Tiger to Leopard was painless and I suspect the jump to Snow Leopard will be painless as well. I'll probably look at upgrading RAM to 2GB in the Apple machines.

Virtualisation? Nope not yet.

And what do we do with computers here. As with most schools Internet, email, word processing covers 90% of it and all platforms do this equally well. I find Firefox seems to run a lot of the web 2.0 stuff better than Safari and Internet Explorer and web 2.0 stuff is becoming more important all the time. For speed the thin client linux machines win as they are running directly off the server. Apple wins hands down when it comes to more creative stuff with sound and video. This has become more important to us as we now do Digital Creator with the transition year students.

On the server end we are 100% Linux which I have found to be excellent over the last five years or more that we have been using it. I have never used an Apple server other than at a training session. I liked what I saw as much of it was using stuff that was very similar to the way I do things in Linux - in fact much of the software running on the server end is the same but with some extra Apple polish on the GUI. Unless we win the lotto though I reckon we will stick with Linux. I haven't used Windows servers since Windows 2000 server. I know it has come on a lot in the last decade but I reckon Linux is more secure, more robust, less prone to viruses and more cost efficient and so I don't feel any impetus to go back to Redmond.

I'm also wondering will Google's Android carve out a niche somewhere on the network. I keep reading stories like this one that make me think it may well get a role somewhere in the next couple of years.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

OS X vs Windows Vs Linux - Part 1

In Trinity I got used to Unix and liked it but when I was doing the H.Dip. and had to write up some essays I was directed to the Apple Macs in the computer room under the arches up by Westland Row. The screens were small but I was blown away by the word processor. The fonts were beautiful and the print quality from the laser printer just incredible compared to what I was used to from the wide carriage dot matrix stuff in the Maths Department.

When I started working in Clongowes there were 14 standalone DOS pcs, 2 with hard disks and colour monitors. One was linked to a 9-pin dot matrix. I remember loading up Windows 1.0 on one of them. I was fierce impressed byt the clock, it had hands that turned around. Yep I was easily impressed. Once Windows was up and running though you couldn't run any applications as Windows used all the RAM. A student insisted to me that this was the future ..... I was skeptical.

There followed Windows 3, 95, 98 & 98SE. By that time I was in Clongowes 10 years and had just taken over the role of ICT Coordinator in the school. I decided it was time we had a network and that Windows NT Server 4.0 was the way to go. It took me 3 days to get one computer to talk to another but before too long we had a network of two servers (Primary and Backup Domain Controllers in MS terminology) and 24 X Win 98 clients. Win 98 was too easy to mess up so we switched to NT Workstation on the clients. Another couple of years and we jumped to Windows 2000 on the clients and servers. XP on the clients came at a time when I was growing interested in Linux. At that stage I was getting concerned that we were spending a lot of money on licences for Microsoft software and we started using a fair amount of Open Source alternatives. Another couple of years and it was Linux on the servers with Linux and Windows on the clients. StarOffice and Gimp had replaced MS Office and Paint Shop Pro and I was getting confident enough with Linux to start thinking that perhaps XP would be the last version of Windows we would run on our network and that Linux everywhere might be the future albeit quite a few years off.

The computer room was Windows only on the clients as that was what teachers used with their classes. Apples decision to move to Intel chips and the development of boot camp opened up the possibility of having Apple computers in the room as we could boot it up as a Windows machine for class. I had some money left over from another project and splashed out on a Mac Mini. It took a while to get it integrated into the network so that students could log onto it in the same way as other computers and access their files on the server. I found the interface very polished and I liked the way the students embraced the differences and could make comparisons between it and the other operating systems we were using on the network. I started seeing things differently, that while my own preference was for Linux that it was in the students interest to have a variety of operating systems. In the same way that learning a number of languages improves a childs ability to learn any language, having the opportunity to play with a number of operating systems improves their understanding of all of them.

There was a time in Clongowes where we aimed to teach students how to use particular applications well with the understanding it would serve them well when they left the school. So DOS and Word Perfect were the order of the day. The thing is though the pace of change is so fast in the computer industry that it doesn't matter what applications you learn at at 2nd level there will be new versions or completely different applications in use within a few years.

Now the aim in Clongowes is that students be very comfortable with technology, confident that when they are presented with an application they have never used that they can learn it, aware that there are always several ways to get any job done and that one application isn't in itself better than another one just because it is the one they are familiar with.

Now that I have given some background to where we are at in Clongowes, tomorrow I'll have a look at where I think our school network is heading over the next few years both with open source and proprietary software.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Apple Teacher Institute - Cheltenham 2009

I was given an opportunity to attend an Apple Teacher Institute (ATI) event in Cheltenham College last week. I had never attended one before and didn't really know what I was letting myself in for but I figured Cheltenham during the Easter Holidays would be good anyway even if the ATI end of things turned out to be uninteresting.

Well I'm up in Portrush now, feet up, watching reruns of Top Gear, feeling lazy and reflecting on the time I had last week. Cheltenham College is a coeducational boarding secondary school, a truly beautiful school in the heart of Cheltenham, itself well worth a visit. However if I ever get a chance to attend an ATI event again I'd happily attend one in a borstal in the back end of nowhere, it was that good.

The people leading the course have the rather corny title "Apple Distinguished Educators" or ADE's. Whatever about the title, their talent, knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious and I expect they were even more tired than us "students" at the end of it all. I should highlight here that our own Ciaran McCormack (Fís, EuroCreator, IADT, Digital Creator, CESI) was among their number and while I didn't get a chance to attend his sessions I heard nothing but praise from those who did - except for that fire alarm at 1:30 in the morning but I'll let him tell that one.

Each day sessions started at 8:30am and we were still going at 9pm-10pm at night followed by social activity till all hours, though I was that tired I was usually in bed by midnight. Full timetable here though we did deviate from it at times.

Basically days one and two looked at skills training and activities based on the stuff we learned. Day three moved towards a group project where we had to produce something incorporating the various things that each member of the group had learned over the previous couple of days. The sessions running up to 2-3 hours each seem long but time really flew and at the end of them you got the feeling that both the students and the teachers (ADE's) could have kept going such was the interest and enthusiasm on both sides.

Day three was almost entirely given over to the group project where we had to create a 3 minute film/animation/presentation on a topic of our choice. Again the time allowed for this seems long on paper but most of us worked right through the day, in many cases skipping the evening meal in order to get the project finished. At different times we could get called apon to help another group where we could. I got hauled into two language based projects as I could string a few words of Irish together. The ADE's were on hand to help out in any way we needed and Ciaran gave me a hand with part of my groups project. While a lot of time was spent on skills using various Apple applications the focus was entirely on how they could be used in the classroom to aid teaching and learning. One of the sessions I didn't get a chance to go to was on geotagging of photographs in iPhoto and how this can be used in Geography classes. However by joining two teachers who had decided to do a project that involved geotagging I picked up a lot from working with them. The stuff I had learned in iMovie sessions helped put the project together. At the end of day three we all gathered together to see everyone elses project and the diversity, originality and talent was striking.

For me, one of the best things about the course was that it allowed us to become students and go through the learning process, playing with the software and the ideas, working in groups, getting to know, help and work with other educators with very different backgrounds and experiences, while having a lot of fun along the way and with no real pressure about the learning outcome - no exams to pass.

My groups humble effort involved, geotagging photographs of various locations round the town of Cheltenham, editing them in iPhoto, adding them to a film in iMovie, adding music from iTunes to the film, using Google Earth to help create the opening sequence which involved recording screen activity, using screen captures to show some geotagging features in iPhoto, using a microphone to record a voiceover to run during the film/presentation and finally playing round with the timing of everything to fit it into 3 minutes and exporting it out as a video file. The end product isn't intended to be particularly educational for the viewers but was more an opportunity for the creators to have some fun with the things we had learned, to produce something that might raise a giggle among the other groups. We were all encouraged to load up our creations to Eurocreator but the end of ours probably made it perhaps, possibly, maybe a tad unsuitable so I stuck it on youtube instead.

Something I haven't talked about here is the pretty exclusively Apple nature of the event. Being someone who often promotes the use of open source in education it might seem a bit odd I would speak so glowingly of what is essentially an Apple experience but more on that tomorrow.