Scottish Learning Festival ’13, Day 1

sparseThe Scottish Learning Festival this year looks at first sight to be less than it once was. The exhibition space is significantly reduced and the footprint of the event on the SECC seems similarly diminished. Indeed, when I arrived at my usual time of a little before 8 to catch up with the “usual crowd”, they and the coffee culture bars were conspicuous in their absence.

Eventually, however, the buzz of teachers revelling in a day’s respite from the pressures of CfE, assessment, reporting, The Management, development and the NAR, soon filled the corridors of the venue. Estimates of four thousand delegates or more for this year seem optimistic but the registration desks were busy with people grabbing the opportunity to attend some of the many seminars and events running this year.

FeorleanBy the time I was shuffling into the Lomond for the Minister’s keynote, I had pressed the flesh with a good number of “the usual suspects” and was feeling good about coming through to the wild west for the day. The keynote itself was what it always is with Mike Russell – a stunning display of eloquent fast thinking, masterly deflection and a little more party political dogma than the delegates were comfortable with or entitled to. The presentation of the inaugural Robert Owen award seemed a little weird, with so many incredibly innovative educators in Scotland, as it was awarded to a fully-deserving-but-never-heard-of-in-Scotland educator from overseas who happened to be speaking at the conference this year. Doug Belshaw expressed the zeitgeist well.

It’s often a bit of a gamble when picking seminars to attend and I have once or twice been disappointed in the past. This year was no exception as the first session I attended was pitched as, “Science Challenges to Inspire and Motivate”. I forgave myself for thinking that this was going to be innovative and new. It wasn’t. It was no more than a badly-delivered sales pitch from an independent sector head of Chemistry who has set himself up a wee business on the side selling ideas remarkably similar to those found in other places, including the courses I teach at Edinburgh University.

In contrast, the afternoon session I attended on Developing early number concepts, delivered by Craig Lowther and Mandy Milton from Moray, was a high-quality and pragmatic session which itself used exemplary andragogy. This team shared some really rich ideas for developing number concepts in young children, including some highly effective and dirt-cheap resources, backed up by evidence of its efficacy and clear strategies for supporting teachers and parents. This was one of the best sessions I have seen in the past 6 years at the SLF.

CLA_20bigcolour72dpiAlthough the rest of the day was busy with meetings, touring the small exhibition, chatting to exhibitors and other delegates, the evening teachmeet event at the SQA was the butter icing in the cake of the day. The event was recorded and will be available to listen to over at edutalk.cc. There was the usual eclectic but nevertheless interesting mix of talks and round tables. I joined in with Frank Crawford‘s session on what makes a great teacher and really enjoyed the debate as we tried to identify what we, as educators, thought made a great one.

A number of us finished the day in a bar, eating and drinking, courtesy of the teachmeet sponsors CLA (thank you), who not only facilitated the event itself, but also contributed to the “common weal” by delivering a short talk on copyright and schools.

So, I’m sitting in the Key West cafe at the SECC as the place wakes up, having demanded coffee, pastries and a place to write well before opening time. I’ve been accommodated with all of these and the cheery people-centric demeanour of the staff here that is the characteristic of this curate’s egg of a country. For all that it’s a work in progress, I still believe that it offers the best place to work in education, in the world.

Code hacks: Internet Explorer Compatibility mode

guess-browserI’ve been developing a site for a national competition to be launched in October and ran into a little difficulty with Internet Explorer. Despite this browser losing ground amongst even the unthinking default user community, it is still sufficiently popular that I needed to look at the problem.

The site is running WordPress on a LAMP server using Konstantin Kovshenin‘s Expound theme. One of the testers noticed the letters “Ski” next to the Home menu item. Mousing over it produces a fleeting grey box to appear top left of the browser window. This turned out to be only visible in IE8, IE9 and IE 10 in “compatibility mode”, a feature of IE that allows the browser to render sites that are broken by IE’s shockingly poor implementation of standards, using a model from an earlier version. It’s what a code monkey might call a Kludge.

SkiThe “Ski” is in fact, the first few letters of “Skip to content”. It is one of several features of the site’s theme implementation which are broken in IE’s compatibility mode.

There are several suggestions in the forums designed to force IE into non-compatibility mode and render the site properly. Most rely on delivering a <Doctype> tag on the very first line, followed immediately by a X-UA-Compatible meta tag. Unless this tag is placed on the line immediately after the Doctype tag, IE ignores it.

I considered trying to knock up a plugin to make this work in some kind of customisable way. Editing the theme’s header.php file seemed doomed to be overwritten on the next update, and branching a child theme felt like too much hard work for such a small fix to accommodate a browser that I personally would like everyone to stop using. Part of me wants all sites to look broken when viewed with IE so as to encourage the masses to make an intelligent choice for once. Let’s not start talking about democracy.

Anyway, a little more digging found a really elegant solution which suited my particular needs from Reza Qorbani, which is to use the .htaccess file to have the Apache server sniff the browser and send the metatag. This is what I finished up with:

BrowserMatch MSIE best-standards-support
Header set X-UA-Compatible IE=edge env=best-standards-support

It works a treat. Thanks, Reza!

This is a text

Electric_chair

“… a text is the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.”

So runs the CfE definition of a text. Therefore, this is a physics text. In the hands of a competent physics teacher, this image, of the first electric chair, tells the story of the current wars in which Westinghouse and Tesla fought Edison over which type of current would deliver energy from the generation plant to consumers: AC or DC. Edison secretly paid Harold P Brown to design and build the electric chair, to show the lethality of alternating current. He promoted the phrase, to be “Westinghoused” to mean executed by electrocution. In the event, the first electrocution failed to kill the prisoner, William Kemmler, due to a miscalculation. Westinghouse remarked that they would have done better using an axe.

With the right text, sufficient knowledge and passion, the competent teacher can bring even the dullest curriculum alive. Consider National 4 Physics Key Area: “Advantages and disadvantages of different methods of electricity generation and distribution.”

Pro Git and more MX DNS

Continuing the summer of code into the early autumn, I have been developing, enhancing and debugging the new server. New and migrated sites are stable and responding well within the resource limits I’ve chosen of 10GB disk, 50GB traffic (although we’re close to whacking this one) and 256/512 MB RAM/Swap space. Uptime has been 100% for over 60 days now.

Within the suite of services running on the server are database, web server, CGI, mail, stats and monitoring. What is not, is the DNS service, which I have learned to keep in a different place, with the registrar. Setting up reverse DNS for the mail service to work correctly is important: I discovered that one client had been having difficulties receiving mail from just one of his friends. This was because the MX DNS entry for his domain pointed to an IP address which some service providers will reject as it doesn’t comply with the RFC. Changing it to the host domain of the server’s IP, however, stopped all mail getting through to the client. This was finally resolved by pointing the MX record for the domain to the domain itself:

example.com. A     192.0.2.1
@            MX 10 example.com.

If you want to know how the Internet works, by the way, a really good place to start is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). They have a good introduction here. Many internet standards are defined in RFC documents.

Other services on the server operate as database-driven php suites such as the WordPress CMS, Moodle, LimeSurvey or phpBB. All of these are subject to modifications, code hacks and tweaks to make them work to the needs of the site owner. Whilst the Parallels Plesk Panel allows install-at-a-click for many application suites, I prefer to manage the installation and customisation of these myself. Until now, I had used the download-unzip-upload over FTP method but I’m going to try using the more elegant command-line facility offered by Git. I’m getting started by using their excellent online documentation. This should allow me a much faster update route and potentially a way to be a better contributor to open source than the consumer I have been.

AudioBoo for Education

audioboo-t_7I’ve been a user of AudioBoo for some time now, and have recorded a few dozen commentaries, some of which have been listened to thousands of times. I find it an excellent tool for easy podcasting and most of my broadcasts are automatically cross-posted to iTunes and edutalk.cc. I’m pleased to find that audioBoo have launched this week a facility for educators who might consider the power of audio for their learners. From the announcement:

…we’re delighted to announce the launch of Audioboo for Education: a new initiative to help students and educators to enrich the learning experience and encourage conversation and debate through the power of audio.

Apart from ideas and examples of how audioBoo can be used to support and enhance learning, there’s also an intelligent and useful app for Edmodo, the VLE of choice for many teachers.

New channels of engagement are essential to the flipped classroom and the enabling of access to education on the learner’s terms, which is something that if you’re an educator and not driving it, then it will soon be driving you. Why not try it? It’s free, it’s easy and it offers leverage to your impact on learners: if you want an example, my most recent public talk has reached hundreds more through the podcast than it did in the flesh, so to speak.

The Heat Death of the Universe

This is a recording of a public talk I gave this afternoon at the Embassy Gallery in Minto house, Edinburgh, as part of an installation by the artist Joseph Buckley titled, “One Third of a Series of Elegies : III, VII, XII, XIII, XV & XVIII : An Eternal September”

HeatDeath.004

You can download a transcript here.

Teaching Perspectives

tpiI was directed to something called the teaching perspectives inventory, which I had not heard of before, by a PGDE student at Moray House. She had taken the survey before starting the course to give herself an insight into her own attitudes to teaching and as a benchmark: she intends taking the survey again at the end of the year to try and gauge how much her outlook has changed as a consequence of the year. If you’re not aware, the PGDE in Scotland is a one-year professional graduate diploma at Master’s level which delivers 18 weeks in university and 18 weeks in school placement. At the end of the year, successful students progress to (paid) probation and on to full registration as teachers.

Those of you that know me will not be surprised that I couldn’t resist taking the inventory test myself, to see where I sit in the five perspectives as a fairly new university teacher. The results are interesting (click the image for the full size).

My dominant perspective according to the analysis is Nurturing: “Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, not the head”. I like this. It is characterised by phrases like, “learners […] are working on issues or problems without fear of failure”, “their achievement is a product of their own effort and ability”, “[teachers promote] a climate of caring and trust”, and “[t]heir assessments of learning consider individual growth as well as absolute achievement”.

I am recessive in Transmission: “Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter”. I think I like this too. My role as I see it is substantially about developing people and their attitudes, over content. In the survey, I am sure I was a little fuzzy with the responses, still being a recent secondary classroom teacher of physics. Although I have a responsibility to challenge student teachers to assess, challenge and develop their physics understanding (and to continue to do so), my more significant task is in areas like pedagogy, complexity, social justice and professional responsibility.

The other three perspectives (Apprenticeship, Development and Social Reform) sit around the mean. I’m not alarmed by this, although my conscience pricks itself when it comes to Development, “Effective teaching must be planned and conducted from the learner’s point of view.”, because it’s one of my mantras. Perhaps my response to the survey brings this out as below dominant because I put this principle into practice by proxy: in my mind as I do my job, above the needs of the students in front of me, are the needs of the young people they will teach. Controversially, my role has been defined by some as “gatekeeper”, the one who prevents ineffective teachers from making it to the classroom.

There’s more to reflect on here, I think. If you are an educator, you might give it a try yourself?

EDIT: There’s more information on teaching perspectives in Pratt, D. D. (2002). Good teaching: one size fits all?, which includes this:

Perspectives are neither good nor bad. They are simply philosophical orientations to knowledge, learning, and the role and responsibility of being a teacher. Therefore it is important to remember that each of these perspectives represents a legitimate view of teaching when enacted appropriately.

 

 

A summer of code

anarchyThe summer has had me getting to grips with the nitty-gritty of internet web hosting, caused by a consolidation and move of all of the websites and services that I host to a new server. I had been using HostPapa in a shared environment for several years but the traffic and resource usage of these sites had been on the increase for about 18 months, to the point that HostPapa invited me to pack up and leave.

After a detailed survey of requirements and possible alternatives, I elected to move to the affordable but much more powerful next-step-up of a virtual private server (VPS) solution from HostingUK. I’ve known these guys since they set up business in the late 90’s and felt comfortable that I would get good support from the people behind the business. I haven’t been disappointed.

The new server runs CentOS 6.4, a version of the Red Hat Linux operating system and has the usual LAMP features of Apache Web server, mySQL and PHP, with the Parallels Plex 11 management panel.

My development has been firstly in the area of learning how to set it all up using the Plex panel: it’s a very powerful tool but it’s not quite plug-and-play. The DNS for each of the domains on the site is best managed at the registration server using their nameservers: they have redundancy built in and although the VPS can be its own NS, if it goes down for any reason, this can lead to problems with mail transport and SEO indexing. Within the DNS records for each domain, minimum configuration requires appropriate A, MX and CNAME  entries as well as TXT or SPF records to stop your mail from being forever consigned to the spam folder.

Further learning has included getting down and dirty with the *nix command line, from basic file operations to examining logs, setting up CRON and managing and installing further packages. I’ve installed Munin to help identify what normal operation looks like. One of the things that my new insight has given me is an appreciation of just how much sustained attack is endured by even the smallest of websites by the likes of Turkish, Chinese, North Korean and other interests. The importance of having decent passwords is underlined when you see 20,000 (yes, twenty thousand) attempts to guess the root password in a single day.

The summer of code has reminded me of what I’m best at, and what I enjoy doing.

And(roid) it’s STILL faulty

Switched my Nexus 7 on today for the first time in a little while today. I’ve got to the point now where I don’t use it much, as it’s such a flaky piece of junk. I can’t be relying on flaky pieces of junk. This is what I saw:

2013-05-24 00.06.37 2013-05-24 00.07.25 2013-05-24 00.07.56

It’s still faulty. Same fault I returned it for back in November. And again twice more since. This is seriously the worst product service I have ever had. And that’s coming from a guy who once bought a Lada. Get it sorted, please, Asus.

Bigotry, spreading

condellI was sent an email recently which contained a link to one of Pat Condell’s nasty xenophobic rants. Personally, I find this guy to be of what we call here, the “Daily Mail” mentality. He represents the most xenophobic of southern English racist bigots, the kind of people like Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin, who will tell you all about a culture without ever having had any contact with it. He wallows in his own ignorance and promotes insular and neurotic stuff like this in the same way that Nazi sympathisers did about Jews, gays, gypsies and freemasons. Condell is viciously anti-religion and has been running his own personal campaign against all forms of religion and faith for several years now. He’s actually an Irish ex-Catholic who is still bitter and twisted about the poverty his father’s gambling and imprisonment brought. He’s what my stepfather Frank would have described as, “someone who has nothing and wants to share it with everyone else”.

NFHe’s worse than that. He promotes highly selective and factually incorrect portraits of religion, in this instance, Islam, wrapped in the Common Man’s language of bar-room Common Sense logic and in so doing, promotes his own brand of personal insecurity to those unable to discriminate.

If you think discrimination is wrong, you make my point.