Brave or Stupid? Abandoning email #workflow #teacher5aday #wellbeing #productivity

https://pixabay.com/en/hustle-and-bustle-woman-face-arrows-1738072/
https://pixabay.com/en/hustle-and-bustle-woman-face-arrows-1738072/

There are plenty of articles out there about email productivity, labelling, filtering. Colour stars abound. Branching labels grow unchecked. I won’t link to them here.

My workflow – for years – has almost always been manually controlled: Interesting / useful email message? Forward to Evernote for archiving and tagging. An action from an email message? Add it to my To-Do list. An email bulletin from a website or solution provider with an interesting article to read? Forward to my Pocket address so I can read it on my Kobo later.

But the email pile grows ever bigger, even with archiving, and searching for an email is just as frustrating as it was before. Add to that the 24-7 nature of email and the “respond now” culture that has evolved over the past few years and you have very little chance of switching off. France are making headway with this issue (but not banning after work email) as they realise this seriously impacts staff wellbeing.

It has got to the point where I want to abandon email altogether and work with a system that helps organise and track tasks for me and others in my department. I have a feeling this is a simultaneously brave and incredibly stupid action but want to explain my reasons behind the decision:

Last weekend (yes, weekend – I’m such a hypocrite) I introduced Trello to my team. You may already know about it but for those who don’t it is a collaborative system where you can have discussions within a card. These cards can be organised on a board. Those boards can be private or public. After a week or use we have reduced our department email to a whimper of what it was previously. Within a week. The boards are evolving and we are communicating almost entirely within Trello cards. It has been so successful at channelling and tracking our asynchronous communication that I’ve put on hold the plan to introduce Slack (which I thought would be an essential component) for the time being.

However my non-department school email continued to pile in. I realised that most of these were being actioned then archived to Evernote. I use Evernote for its tagging and have been archiving web pages, resources and documents of interest since 2010. I have a nice labelling system set up and had previously attempted a productivity system within Evernote without much success. The main issue then was that I had to manually forward actions from email to Evernote, then manually tag them in Evernote appropriately, then remember to manually check the saved searches, etc. It was adding to my workload, not improving it. By removing my department email threads I realised that I had an opportunity to automate some of my workflow for the benefit of me, my team and perhaps the rest of the school.

dilbert-urgent

I looked again at email filters. I created two new ones: The first to file department mail into a “Computer Science Department” label, the other to file all other emails from within my school into a “Whole School” label. I’m working on the simple premise that, if I know who sent it, I know (roughly) what area of my school it relates to.

Then I used the IFTTT service to detect when unread emails with either label appear in my inbox and forward the email text (not attachment) to Evernote. The IFTTT applet files them in my Action Pending notebook and tags them as department or whole school.

At this point I have some manual intervention. I read the messages within Evernote and decide if they need actioning. If urgent I tag them as “1 – Now”. Other levels of urgency are available but none are automated as yet. I realise this is just moving an email to another system however Evernote does not notify me of new notes so removes the “respond now” demand and allows me to schedule a time to check messages every day.

I created another IFTTT applet that looks for a note in Evernote being tagged as “1 – Now”. When this happens it automatically creates a Trello card with the message text and puts it on a private board called “From Evernote”.

From Trello I can now move this from my board to public department boards if it requires action or input from my department.

Other emails from suppliers or subscriptions remain in my email for the moment but this now allows me to take time to purge what is spam (I’ll bet most of it) and what I can automate into Pocket articles in the future.

Potential issues:

I realise that the emails that have attachments will still have to be manually viewed in my email. If I need to forward emails to Evernote instead of using IFTTT in the future it is a minor change as I already have an automated workflow which archives scanned student work for marking within Notability. At present I can upload attachments up to 25MB into Trello cards if required.

There is a daily cover email which is important to read and action if necessary. This one cannot be delayed until a quiet moment of Evernote contemplation. At present I’m not sure how best to filter this – perhaps a separate private Trello board for cover is required (at least until I can convince the school that this is the way forward)….

So my questions are: Brave or stupid? Do you think this will work? Do you have any workflow suggestions to share?

And now I’m going to spend the rest of my day with my family…

Constructing my hackable classroom – Part 1 #ThisIsMyClassroom

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In late 2015 I had the opportunity to sit down and design a classroom environment suited to Computer Science students. After surveying my students and getting lots of ideas (including one which resembled a living-room with C shaped sofa – tempting, I’ll admit) for what they consider would be their optimal learning environment I let the ideas stew while over in London in January for the Apple Leadership event and BETT 2016.

My interest in flexible learning environments roll way back to my time at Inverurie Academy when I worked in an open plan floor of six classrooms. I posted my first #ThisIsMyClassroom blog in May 2011 as a way of recording the changes to my classroom environment. Even at this time I was asking students about how they would like their learning environments to be arranged and remember the 3D walkthrough videos created by a great S3 class. It was truly excellent work that culminated in a video conference with Anna Rossvoll, who was at that time creating her own flexible learning environment at Hill of Banchory school in Aberdeenshire. I’ll try and find these videos and upload some of them.

Since the launch of the Raspberry Pi Computer Science teachers have had the ever-increasing opportunity to embed low-cost working models in their classrooms. While at Robert Gordon’s College I set up a separate Raspberry Pi lab (imaginatively titled PiLab) but when we moved to new classrooms in 2015 integrated the Raspberry Pis into my Computing classroom and made them part of the curriculum rather than an extra-curricular club.

I also used my experience from attending the PiCademy in Cambridge to investigate how Raspberry Pi might be used to allow students to access previously static areas of the classroom environment and bring them to life.

Perhaps the final piece of the inspiration puzzle came when I visited OnHouse Milano during last session. While primarily a showcase design home I had a great discussion with their programmers on how they use themes and scenarios to integrate a number of systems. This gave me the idea of creating Python API wrappers that allow the students to move easily access a number of hackable devices in the same program. These libraries could then easily be imported into a student’s programming environment and let them, for example, take the colour sensed by a Raspberry Pi camera and mimic it in the Phillips Hue lighting system.

I still want to keep the same classroom environment ethos as I introduce more (relatively low cost) interactive technology to the classroom – the students connect more by displaying their work. So areas of the room are set aside ready for student posters which can then be augmented using Aurasma, CodeBug projects can be displayed in a gallery area around the LAUNCH posters, the robotics created by students in extra curricular clubs are always on display. It does sound like I’m looking forward to the room becoming a slightly updated version of Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio

At this point the desks are in, the screen is in a more suitable position so that all students can view, the double whiteboards are up and the power provision in the classroom has been enhanced. There are also elements of the hackable classroom in place and the students will begin to use these as part of their lessons in the coming weeks and months

Flipped / Blended Classroom with NEO LMS

NEOLMS

As the new school year started last week I wanted to push further with my Flipped Classroom approach. My hacked-together system of EdPuzzle videos, Google Form WSQs and Google Classroom feedback to the students worked but was very time-consuming for the teacher. There was also a drawback to the students as it was difficult for them to quickly return to a topic at a later date for review.

I am currently half-way through completion of a University of Georgia Coursera entitled “K12 Blended and Online Learning”. I wanted to complete this to further my own knowledge and experience in this field and hoped that it would open my eyes to some pedagogical or behavioural methods for use in this type of learning environment.

I am enjoying using the Coursera system but it doesn’t let individual teachers create their own courses. When I worked at Robert Gordon’s College I successfully developed a number of iTunesU courses for iPad but unfortunately couldn’t leverage the same system for Macbook. I did a little research and found NEO LMS. It’s early days but I wanted to give my initial impressions of the service.

Courses were easy to create and customise and students register for these with an access code. When I introduced it in class last week there were NO issues with sign up – that rarely happens with new services. Students were impressed by the interface and found it easy to navigate.

I spent some more time exploring the multitude of options this afternoon while setting up two new courses. NEO LMS has made it so easy that I’m going to attempt to Flip my entire curriculum, not just a course or two throughout the year. I’ve already worked out how to get my students into separate Groups which then makes it easy to register them for future courses without the need for an access code. In fact, if you have the Enterprise edition, you can leverage the Rules engine to automatically enroll students in the next course when they finish the current one!

If you are looking into building your own Flipped / Blended courses then I highly recommend you check out NEO LMS. The individual teacher account is free and supports up to 200 students. You also get a 14-day trial of the Enterprise edition when you sign up.

This was originally posted on LinkedIn, 11th September 2016

Evaluating Coursera for Blended and Online Learning (Part 1)

Adjusting back to the heat of Milan in August is taking a little time for the family and this means broken sleep all round. Add a fantastic thundstorm right overhead at 3am and you have the perfect recipe for an early start to your day!

Inspired by some of my notes from reading Jay Ashcroft’s The Tablet Revolution (see review) I decided to investigate alternative MOOC platforms to iTunesU. I love iTunesU but the iOS app is a far superior experience than a student gets using iTunes on a MacBook. I flitted between Coursera and Udemy for a while not really finding a suitable course for comparison before stumbling upon an old article related to e-Learning: Most Popular Online Courses for eLearning Professionals. It seemed familiar and my Evernote concurred that I’d been here before.

While many of the courses listed are now long gone I found that Georgia Tech had just begun running a course titled K12 Blended and Online Learning. I decided enrolling would be useful on two fronts:

  1. Allow me to evaluate the Coursera platform
  2. Further my own professional development in the area of blended learning

Week one concentrates on the standards and documents from iNACOL. For anyone interested in deepening their understanding  of blended learning I highly recommend visiting their site. Of course Georgia Tech have linked all the required reading into their MOOC for you.


The instructional videos were clear, less than 8mins each in length and punctuated with short multiple choice quizzes. I do however wonder if Coursera allows different types of questioning similar to EdPuzzle (which I love). The iOS app reminded me of iTunesU a little, especially the ability to download videos for offline viewing.


I do wonder what the extra space is for in the video player… Might have been nice to have a transcript here.


I realise that students might be accessing Coursera on their MacBook so their experience will probably be different.

I completed the pre-assessment you can see linked in the screenshot earlier and found it very useful in helping to focus my targets. I’m comfortable with policy, online tools and classroom teaching, but want to delve deeper into intervention strategies that will enhance the learning of my online students. As the pre-assessment was a spreadsheet (also a PDF option) I would have liked the ability to upload an image or type some notes to myself and link it to my current stage in the course. I couldn’t find a way of doing this outside of the discussion forums so will have to rely on Evernote instead. On reflection it is probably good to have my notes outside of my MOOC, just in case.

Supplemental information appears to be text-only with hyperlinks and this is fine. One of the pages had embedded PDF and XLSX files that opened in Coursera’s own browser. Clicking on a world icon then opened it in Safari so documents could then be opened in other applications or saved. It would have been nice to select between Safari and Chrome as the default.

The discussion forums were basic but easy to navigate. Nothing I’d want to add there, there’s a reply and an upvote button for each post. Not sure how you are notified of new posts but will find out soon I hope!

In summary this is a good start. I’ve not tried creating a unit in Coursera yet but as a user I’m finding it easy to learn and navigate. I’m also enjoying the course and picking up new tips along the way which I intend to share with you, dear reader, in another instalment.

Book review: The Tablet Revolution by Jay Ashcroft @LearnMakeruk

The Tablet Revolution by Jay Ashcroft (amazon paperback & kindle)

The Tablet Revolution Cover

As someone involved in the planning, design and implementation of a large scale iPad rollout project a few years ago I found this book a fascinating read that echoed much of my own school’s experience. Each of the chapters cover a particular area that a school or education authority must consider before putting devices into the hands of teachers and students with nuggets of wisdom from the other side of the fence: that of the sales or support team wanting to part you from your funds!

The case studies peppered throughout the book highlight the pitfalls of poor planning or vague vision as well as the better-known success stories. I found this refreshing as many articles and books tend to make it seem like every project has been a success whereas anyone involved in an IT project in education or commerce will know this is just not the case!

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I highly recommend this book to those who are planning a roll out of devices to students, those who are in the midst of the roll out and definitely to those who have been through the highs and lows already. I took the opportunity to reflect on my own approach, assumptions and practice as I read this book and think that Jay has given me insights in how to improve the learning and teaching outcomes of those using devices in the future.

Thank you for sharing this Jay!

Rating: 5 stars

As posted on Amazon.co.uk

You can read an interview with Jay Ashcroft here: http://www.ipadeducators.com/single-post/2015/04/03/INTERVIEW-Jay-Ashcroft

Cryptography #iGCSE #ComputerScience

One of the nice and not-so-nice things about vague arrangements documents is that you have to work out how to best fill the gap.

Encryption methods are part of the Computer Security section of the course – symmetric and asymmetric encryption to be exact – and, while I could simply put two slides up on the screen and move on, I saw this as an opportunity to break away from exam style questions and have a little bit of practical fun with the students.

I introduced my Year 10 students to the Caesar cipher this week, surprised that very few of them had even heard of it. They caught on quickly though and were soon manually translating coded messages back into plaintext.

But as the lesson progressed the messages got longer and the students began to find translation very time consuming. So, after a bit of discussion, we decided it might be best to ask a computer to do the translation for us. We would still provide the ciper-text and shift key, and it would do the rest.

This allowed us (imagine that) to then recap on relevant pre-defined functions to translate characters into ASCII codes and then build an algorithm to apply the shift key to these ASCII codes. Once the codes were converted back to characters they were ready to display on the screen! Most students managed to get to this point, with some even working on alternatives (more on that later).

The next day the students returned and were given a tougher challenge: decryption without the shift key! We discussed the letter frequency graph shown above and tried to create an algorithm to accurately calculate the shift key.

The open-endedness of this task challenged everyone and the variety of solutions suggested touched on some of the actual decryption methods utilised.

A few students suggested a brute force decryption of a digest of the entire message, looking for a small number of short English words before comparing the calculated shift key to the frequency analysis graph. When challenged further they explained that this would decrease the processing time of the decryption algorithm as it wouldn’t have to translate as many characters. Some students had even had researched further to find out which were the most used English words in written text!

The students rounded off the lesson by creating a list of advantages and disadvantages of symmetric encryption. While students took longer on the concepts it gave them the opportunity to understand some of the ideas and issues with this type of encryption.

Next week we tackle asymmetric encryption. I can’t wait!

Social media generated art in Python #ThisIsMyClassroom #Programming #STEAM

For the third blog post on this topic I wanted to use Python to generate different pieces of art without relying entirely on the random function. I decided to use the tweepy library, mainly because I had already used it to post content to Twitter but had never investigated how it could be used to read information back from Twitter.

It didn’t take long to find out how to read the latest 10 tweets from my own timeline using Python. Then I split the individual words into a list and sorted them into alphabetical order (for no real reason at the moment, but frequency analysis will follow!). Then I used the write method from the Turtle graphics library to place each word at a random location on the screen. This was my first attempt:

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A bit tricky to read the words I thought. And I’d accidentally forgotten to penup before moving the turtle. However this accidental vector spider web became part of the artwork (because when I removed it, it looked quite boring).

A little while later I was able to change the font size at random (I changed the font to palatino after experimenting with a few others) and changing the pencolor in the same way as previous Python art programs changed the text colour too.

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I had a lot of text to display, even just from 10 tweets, so I thought of ways to reduce the amount. I wrote a little Python subroutine that removed hashtags, mentions and URLs (as well as any other non ASCII text) and that was enough!

The video below shows the program in action. I decided to make a video this time because you can make out the individual words much more clearly at the beginning of the drawing than at the end!

As before the code is now on github (with my tweepy details removed for security). I’ve left in a commented out section of code that allows you to run a search for a keyword, hashtag or phrase instead of taking the latest timeline so you can experiment.

Any comments or improvements would be much appreciated!

SOUND GENERATED ART IN PYTHON #THISISMYCLASSROOM #PROGRAMMING #STEAM

I had a lot of fun experimenting with the subroutines and Python Turtle methods yesterday but wanted to push it a little further and find out if I could make use of a new Python library to help create automated art.

Somehow I’ve never built a program that utilises and analyses audio before, so challenged myself to find out more about libraries such as PyAudio and Wave this afternoon. My daughter was practising piano in the other room so it gave me a push to integrate live audio into my solution, rather than rely on pre-recorded wav files.

I learned about numpy a little this afternoon too. I hadn’t realised it had functions to extract the frequency from an audio block (FFT). The more I explore Python, the more I fall in love with it as a language!

Once I’d successfully extracted numeric frequencies from the 5 second wave file into a list I looped through them and attempted to place shapes on the Python Turtle screen to correlate with the current frequency. I decided on a simple X axis plot to begin with but then, as I realised the range between min and max frequencies usually exceeded 8000 I introduced a scale factor so they could be seen on the screen together and adjusted the Y axis so that each frequency appeared bottom to top in the order of analysis.

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Quite nice, but there’s a lot of white space where the unused frequency range lies. Instead of removing this range from the visualisation (which, in retrospect, might have been a good idea) I decided to attempt to create ghosts of the circles fading out as they get further from the original position. This led me into colorsys and all sorts of bother, reminding me (eventually) not to mess with anything that returns a Tuple until I convert it back to a List first. Anyway, I removed that part of the code and put my arty effects on the back burner. You can see one example of the mess below. Ugh.

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I decided to alter the colour of the background this time too. I think I’d like to use some audio analysis to decide on the colour range in a future version so that low audio frequencies create darker images and high frequencies create bright, bubblegum pop images.

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The last thing I added to the program was the option to use pre-recorded audio WAV files instead of always recording 5 seconds of audio. This was very easy to add as I’d modularised the code as I went, so all that was needed was a few lines extra in the main program:

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Trying out the program with a few WAV files from www.findsounds.com or playing a YouTube video in the background resulted in the following images:

chimpanzee.wav
chimpanzee.wav
uptown funk
uptown funk

Python files can be found at Github – https://github.com/familysimpson/PythonArt/. Feel free to fork the code, leave comments below or just enjoy the images it generates!

Computer Generated Art #thisismyclassroom #programming #steam

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I wanted to create a task that allowed students to create a computer program in Python that would automatically create its own artwork but be customisable so that each student could experiment and personalise their own program to their tastes.

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It’s a rough Python 3 program using the Turtle library and an array of Turtles but so far it has produced some really nice work. In the images shown below the program uses a user-defined function that draws a randomly sized square. I thought this would be easy for the students to understand and hack into something new!

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Of course art can be created as a response to an external stimulus so a possible extension of this program would be to get input from the user (colours, mood, age) or calculate a range of colours from an input sensor or device (temperature, time, image).

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The code is below! Any suggestions or improvements would be appreciated!

import turtle
import random
wn = turtle.Screen()
w = wn.window_width()
h = wn.window_height()

t1 = turtle.Turtle()
t2 = turtle.Turtle()
t3 = turtle.Turtle()
t4 = turtle.Turtle()
t5 = turtle.Turtle()
t6 = turtle.Turtle()

turtles = [t1, t2, t3, t4, t5, t6]

def square(item, size):
for x in range(4):
item.forward(size)
item.right(90)
item.forward(size)
item.left(random.randrange(-180, 180))

wn.tracer(False)
for iteration in range(3):
for item in turtles:
item.penup()
item.goto(random.randrange(-w,w),random.randrange(-h,h))
item.color(random.randrange(0,255)/255.,random.randrange(0,255)/255.,random.randrange(0,255)/255.)
item.pendown()
wn.tracer(False)
for move in range(2500):
for item in turtles:
item.speed(0)
square(item,random.randrange(5,25))
wn.tracer(True)

wn.exitonclick()

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Using CodeBug tethered via USB on a MacBook

It has been a few weeks since our CodeBugs arrived here in Milan and after playing around with some of the sample programs and thinking about their features I have decided to use these with next session’s Year 10 students as an introduction to the iGCSE Computer Science course in September.

While they worked really well with the Raspberry Pi I struggled to get the CodeBugs working with IDLE on the MacBook. Installing packages via Terminal updated the Python 2.7 install that comes with the OS and – for me anyway – Homebrew complicated what should have been a very easy process. In Visual Studio if you wanted to use a module library you simply added it to the project and IDLE does not have this function.

I found PyCharm today – an IDE for Python that allows me to add the codebug_tether module (and any others I need) with the minimum of fuss. Now my CodeBug can be programmed while connected via USB to my MacBook! As an added bonus I learned more about Virtual Environments.

IMAG1237

To make it easier for my students to get going with their CodeBugs in September I created a 20-step guide linked here. It’s CC0 so please feel free to use and adapt as required. If you find any mistakes or it just doesn’t work for you in the same way please let me know.

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