Saturday, 12 February 2011

Farewell to the Westbury Centre

If you are reading this, then you probably know me, and if that is the case you may well have visited the Westbury Centre, the home of the Barking and Dagenham ICT in Schools Team for the last 25 years, although I admit that I personally didn't join the team until 1990 when I was appointed to the newly created post of General Inspector for IT.

For all of that time we supported all aspects of ICT in schools, and latterly in Libraries and Museums, from our base in the Westbury Centre in Barking. As ICT grew in importance in education, so the team grew in size and at the peak of the last Government's enthusiasm for ICT in schools, we numbered 30 people, from advisers to technicians and at one time the Council's corporate web team.

The Westbury Centre started out as a primary school at the beginning of the last century and it was not until 1965 that the building became the home for the Barking and Dagenham Teachers' Centre. It is truly a testament to the quality of the school buildings of its day that more than one hundred years later it is now being turned back into a school with a mere refurbishment. The pressure for school places has meant that all available buildings and space now have to be used for school buildings, and it is with great sadness that we saw the last members of the school improvement service relocate to other accommodation in Barking yesterday.

The ICT in Schools Team has found new homes in Roycraft House, the Town Hall, and the Eastbrook City Learning Centre, where they continue to provide ICT advice, support and guidance for schools.

From our perspective, the Westbury provided the focal point for all of our ICT training courses, and support operations, the hub for the £12m ICT TestBed Project, and more recently the Building Schools for the Future procurement process.

Conveniently located near to Barking Town Centre, many people visited us there. We trained hundreds of teachers, we hosted London Grid for Learning sector meetings, we negotiated hard with all our suppliers, we evaluated the latest technology, we entertained overseas visitors and we bonded as a team in a way that only the Westbury Centre could have enabled us to do.

Our first (and last) Interactive whiteboard was installed in the ICT training room on the top floor of the main building, where we ran the innovative year-long RSA ICT Dilpoma course, and all of our early work developing truly fit for purpose interactive teaching tools took place in the Annexe building when we moved the advisory and training parts of the team there, having outgrown our previous space.

So, farewell Westbury, but look forward to another hundred years serving the children of Barking as a Primary School.


Sunday, 6 February 2011

360 degree panoramas

Back in the summer of 1999 we were delighted to host a visit from a colleague from North Carolina and we spent a day around London with a tripod and a digital camera to make some 360 degree panorama views for use in schools on both sides of the pond. We used a Sony Mavica digital camera which stored the images on 3.5in floppy disks. The resolution was unfortunately much lower than we are used to today. Pressures of work and the passage of time meant we never got around to completing the project, until now.

The complete collection can be found on the Photosynth website.

One of the views was taken in the Council Chamber of the Civic Centre in Dagenham, which was later extensively remodelled as part of the refurbishment of the Civic Centre and Barking Town Hall. This is therefore probably the only 360 view of the original chamber.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Is the Kindle any use in education?

I love my Kindle. I am reading much more, and in places I didn't read before. This is because I carry it around with me always as it fits in my pocket, and I love the fact that it always seems to be charged up. I also like that it remembers my page in in each book I have started. I have loaded it up with enough reading material to keep me going for years, and it still has space for more.

Some important points I am completely comfortable with are that I am not trying to use it as a computer or a phone; I am not expecting full colour graphics; I don't mind that it uses a proprietary ebook format (as converters are available); I like that the screen is not touch sensitive; and the screen size and weight are perfect. I like the lack of a back-light, as it is easier on my eyes. I like that I could annotate the texts I am reading, even though I don't, and I can cope perfectly well with moving the cursor or highlight around using the 5-way controller. Anything that improves on any of these aspects would make it heavier, more costly, and reduce the running time on a single charge. In other words, less good for reading books.

It seems to me that there is a perfect niche for the Kindle in education where it outstrips all the opposition, and that is for literature and history students who have a lot of text-heavy reading to do. Lots of bulky text books to carry around could be replaced by one well stocked Kindle. What's more, students can annotate texts in ways that schools would rather they didn't with paper versions.

However, if I was an A-Level English Literature teacher, I would want a way of organising and managing the distribution of ebooks across a class set of Kindle devices. Currently it is possible with a normal Amazon account to register up to 6 Kindle readers (either the Kindle devices themselves, or Kindle apps on other devices) and share a purchased ebook among them. This would be cumbersome for schools. Schools would need a different system which enables them to purchase ebooks for multiple devices. I have been unable to find out if anything like this is coming, so if anyone knows more, please get in contact.

Giving every student a small, light, unobtrusive, long-lasting and relatively inexpensive device containing all the set books they need for their studies looks like a good move, set against the way this is done at present. Those who say the students could use their own smart phones, or their iPads, or their laptops, are missing the point. They are nowhere near as good for reading, and reading long texts is what I am talking about. A device that is Jack-of-all-trades, is invariably master of none.

Providing a suitable and tested template is used, teachers can email worksheets and assignments relating to the books being studied, directly to each device. Ebooks are never lost, of course, even if the Kindle is. They never get dog-eared, and the pages don't fall out. Sustainability is built-in.

I have spent years yearning for the perfect ubiquitous device but I've stopped now. I have finally realised that for some activities I want a really big screen, a mouse and a full size keyboard, for some I need a pocket-sized high speed communications device, and for some I now need a Kindle.