Monday, July 5, 2010

A New Toy - iPad

When the iPad was announced, students and teachers in the school were asking me would I get one and my standard answer was "probably ........ but I'm not sure why"

I was having dinner with a past pupil a few weeks ago and he told me he was heading to the states so I asked him to do some shopping on my behalf. So here I sit blogging on an iPad. Still not sure why I have bought it other than a bit of self indulgence but I have no regrets, it is a very cool device.

I remember when the first iPhone came out there were only an handful of applications and no app store. It was a very limited device compared to the current iPhone and the growing range of Android devices snapping at Apple heels. This new iPad has a similar feel about it and I expect it will only get better as new versions are developed.

For example I only seem to be able to put in plain text for this piece as the toolbars I normally have available don't work on an iPad. One I really want as well is to be able to edit Google Docs but the interface on the iPad is the same as for the iPhone. On a device this size and this powerful it seems silly that I can't edit Google Docs. I have played with Pages and it is very good indeed. It would be nice to have a common file system for the various applications but I can live with that limitation for now and I'll email stuff to myself as needed so I can print etc. I'm not a big fan of flash but there is a lot of it out there and I'd prefer to be able to access it. Perhaps we will need to wait for Android tablets to get these kind of things.

I installed a nice application for writing code but it has the problem that getting code off the iPad and onto the server. I normally download a file, make changes and then put it back. The iPad doesn't really allow for moving files on and off easily. The application I installed takes a rather extraordinary step of installing a webserver on the iPad. To get files on or off the iPad for this app I have to go to another computer, fire up a web browser, put in the address of the web server running on the iPad which then allows me to download files from or upload files to the iPad. Much too convoluted for regular use.

I had a look at a couple of FTP applications but ran into a similar problem. I would be able to get files off the server to the iPad and vice versa with little problem but I can't then edit the files with the applications I would like to use. One FTP program did include a basic editor which might do and I'll check it out again to see if it will meet my needs.

Einstein once asked a student to write slowly on the board as he was a slow thinker. I'm no Einstein but I share the sentiment when it comes to typing. I'm not a very fast typist but that's ok as I don't think all that fast. I find though that I can type on the iPad about as fast as I normally type. I had thought I'd want to get the external keyboard but I'm not sure now I'll have a need for it.

The apps that work well on the iPhone are even better on the iPad. Things like VNC, email, web browsing, Stanza, Twitter etc. are nothing short of georgeous. Downloaded the Kindle app and bought a book and it seems promising too. YouTube and films look terrific. The iPad is in its element when you are consuming content rather than trying to create it.

Nonetheless a promising start and I'm looking forward to iOS 4 when it comes out. Most of all I hope the army of app developers find better ways to cope with the limitations Apple enforce.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

1000 ip Addresses?

The first network I setup and managed in my school was back in 1998 and consisted of 24 Windows 98 desktops with an NT4 server and backup server, all in one room with one computer linked to the internet. With over 200 machines on the network now I look back and wonder what on earth I used to do with my time when there were only 24.

I was over in Prague at Easter for an Apple education conference. I'd never been to Prague before and was glad of the opportunity to escape Ireland for a while and wind down a bit far from home. I reckon I'll see Prague again before too long as it is a beautiful city. I took a few photos and short video clips on an iPhone and stuck them together below.

Having time to reflect and chat with folk involved in ICT integration in other schools I had time to think about what trends I need to start planning for so I can start to support them as they emerge in my school. Nothing very unexpected really, a lot more mobile devices for the most part. Over the last couple of months we have reorganised the structure of the network a bit to allow for a lot more ip addresses to be dished out to students and staff as they are needed. I had been prompted to do this as we were running into a problem where we were running out of addresses and room for expansion was limited.

On the "more mobile devices" front I had been thinking along the lines of increased numbers of laptops and phones. I figured there might be a place for netbooks with their long battery life and handy size. I don't altogether buy Steve Jobs line that netbooks have no future as they "aren't better at anything".

However I don't see netbooks as laptop replacements for students. They do get some things right especially portability and battery life. While lighter laptops with better battery life are becoming available and will no doubt get lighter and better I don't think they are a particularly good technology for students to be taking from class to class. Battery life is still very much an issue and there are few laptops that will go for a full school day on one charge and with only a couple of sockets per classroom we can't support them. I'm thinking from a second level perspective where students move from class to class every 40 minutes. On the other side though I reckon a laptop is better for long periods of use if for no other reason than the size of the screen.

Nothing new in the above argument and I have been discussing this off and on with other teachers for nigh on two years since the 7" Asus came out. In the last couple of years netbooks have moved to bigger screens and faster processors so that there isn't much to choose between a low end laptop and a high end netbook other than the absence of a CD/DVD drive.

I have watched with interest what Apple might do in response to the growth of the netbook segment of the market but was taken aback when they announced the iPad which seemed to be just a big iPod touch. When asked would I be buying one I said I probably would but that I wasn't altogether sure why I would. Having read the reviews and thought about it a bit more I think the iPad will have a place in education but like the laptop, netbook and other mobile devices it won't cover all bases. I also see it as very much a version 1. I think the absence of a camera is the biggest omission for now. The absence of Flash support I can understand but it will be sorely missed in the classroom with the web content that is out there now. I wouldn't be surprised to see the camera appear in version 2 but it looks like Apple are hell bent on no Flash support. Lots of scope though for applications in education. Check out the periodic table of elements, iPad style ....

Of course there are other options coming on stream too. We are seeing quite a few Google Android based tablet devices appearing on the market and no doubt Chrome OS ones will follow before too long. These will support flash and will offer a more complete Internet experience I expect. However I don't expect they will get the kind of developer support that Apple have managed to get out of the gate but in time they may well catch up.

And Microsoft? They seem to have two possibilities at the moment. They are offering Windows 7 as the all singing, all dancing one size fits all OS. The HP iSlate is likely to be the lead product but I have my doubts about how useful it will be. From what I can see it will be a tablet laptop with no keyboard. One of the things that Apple have done with the iPod, iPhone and now iPad is develop a very easy to use, intuitive touch screen operating system. All the applications developed for iPhone OS work on that basis. Windows 7 though is a desktop/laptop operating system which will support touch screen technology. The vast majority of applications available for Windows 7 assume you will be using a keyboard and mouse/trackpad. I don't expect Microsoft will attract the level of Windows 7 development in the area of touch screen applications that Apple and Google will attract for their offerings. In the absence of a development community churning out applications I can see the iSlate having the drawbacks of a netbook without the advantages of a laptop that Windows 7 will support much better. Couple that with a smaller screen, lower resolution and half the battery life I don't think Apple or Google will lose sleep over the iSlate. Time will tell. One feature that Microsoft have that others don't do well is the use of a stylus. Writing and drawing diagrams is a lot easier with a stylus than with a finger. I could see there being interest in a 14" version of a HP iSlate in education circles but the trend with Windows tablets is towards smaller screens and the biggest tablet HP do now is 12". I know teachers with tablet laptops who are hanging on to their old ones just for the screen size.

The other path that Microsoft might choose is the Courier that was leaked to the Internet about 6 months ago - . As touch screen technology goes this is as good as anything I have seen and it has caused a fair bit of excitement among teachers I have discussed it with. Unfortunately all we have seen so far is the concept animations with no definite information of when or indeed if it will be developed commercially. Not as flexible or powerful as Windows 7 but better suited to a smaller touchscreen device. One to watch out for.

So where are we heading? I don't think there will be a single device that will meet all our classroom needs. I don't think students having laptops for use in every class is a particularly useful or sustainable model in the exam driven education system we work in at the moment. I think we are indeed going to see a plethora of mobile devices coming on the market that will find a place in our classrooms of which the iPad looks the most interesting at the moment.

From a network point of view all these devices may well need IP addresses as it is easy to see they will all have use for internet access of some sort. So if every student has some combination of phone, laptop and some other tablet device then you may need to be able to have 2-3 IP addresses per student and teacher in your school. There are a number of teachers in my school already using 2 IP addresses (laptop & phone). Being a boarding school we are already seeing a lot of devices using IP addresses including laptops, phones, Nintendo and Sony handheld gaming devices, iPods etc. I expect this to increase significantly in the next few months as we have recently made internet access available to students via wireless access points throughout most of the classroom and recreation areas of the school. When Abeline University introduced their iPod/iPhone per student policy they had to hugely increase the number of access points they provided. Now in a second level school we aren't going to need to provide Internet access to 200 students in one room very often, if ever. However at the moment I am getting away with 1 wireless access point for every 3 classrooms. I'll need to consider increasing the number of access points, not to increase the areas covered but to increase the bandwidth to areas already covered. So I am expecting to be using circa 500 IP addresses next September and have plans in place to support twice that number.

All this planning assumes of course that the school will be providing internet access either through our own lines or through the NCTE/HEAnet line. How long will it be I wonder before everyone will be subscribed to their own internet access independent of the school network. Already we are seeing students here with 3G dongles like this one from 3. Unrestricted access to the Internet is not something we are keen on in my school for all the obvious reasons but as the cost comes down I'm not sure how we can easily turn the tide on this trend. Fun fun fun.

So interesting times ahead on the mobile front and I'm looking forward to seeing the various models of tablet devices finding their niche in the school and just how many IP addresses we are dishing out on the network.