Do Great Teachers Make A Great School?


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There are a lot of people who argue that the answer when it comes to transforming education is to start again. For some this is revolution, while for others it means starting again by building something new. Often the reason given is the opportunity to work with like-minded educators. The problem with this is that starting a new school is an exception to the case while revolutions are very rarely glorious. Another issue with this approach is that it often blames teachers for the state of education. If only we had the right people in the positions then everything would be ok, right?

This focus on the teacher could be construed as an influence of the work of John Hattie. For as Ivan Snook, John O’Neill, John Clark, Anne-Marie O’Neill and Roger Openshaw share in their analysis of Visible Learning:

There are; in fact, two different types of research on ‘school effects’. One compares the relative contribution made by social variables on the one hand and school variables on the other. The former includes social status, parental education, home resources and the like; the latter includes all variables within the school: curriculum, principal, buildings and the work of teachers. These studies typically find that most of the variance comes from the social variables and only a small part from the school (including the teachers).

As Snook and co explain, Hattie largely chooses to ignore socio-economic status and home background. This choice therefore places teachers front and centre.

So short of starting again with a bunch of like-minded teachers, here are five ideas for developing education without the blood and violence:

  • Student Action: So often people give credence to student voice, but as Nick Jackson explains that this is not enough, we need to be advocating for student action. For Jackson this comes in the form of the Digital Leaders movement, for Cameron Paterson it is involving students within faculty meetings.
  • Community Engagement: If a part of success is what happens at home, then one answer in regards to developing students is actually developing the whole community. Many schools offer literacy sessions to support migrant families, while others simply offer the means of gathering, therefore developing the school into a community hub.
  • Strong North Star: In many of the supposed innovative schools that I have either visited or read about, there is usually a strong vision that goes beyond the ‘learnification‘ of education. Grant Lichtman talks about having a strong North Star to drive change. This often starts with leadership, but goes beyond senior leadership to involve the whole staff school.
  • Distributed Leadership: A part of involving voices across the board is actually giving them some sort of autonomy. One model or method which does this is distributed leadership. This is not where menial tasks are delegated throughout the team, but rather where all members are given the chance to lead. This opportunity is as much about process and interaction as it is about formal titles.
  • Develop Capacity: To often I feel teachers stagnate because they neither know where to go next nor do they have the tools to get there. Fine we have standards to guide use, but they have their limits. They often lack context and nuance. It is for this reason that the Modern Learning Canvas is so interesting as it not only starts with a teacher’s own situation, but it also breaks teaching down into clear parts that can be developed further. Coupled with coaching, these the canvas allows for self-determined teaching.

Although working with an awesome group of like-minded teachers might seem like the best answer to fix our woes if this is not coupled with a clear understanding of the purposes associated with education them what is actually gained? In Good Education in an Age of Measurement, Gert Biesta explains how our focus on measurements has limited the conversation. As he states,

One effect of this redefinition process has been the depoliticization of the relationship between schools/teachers and parents/students, in that their interaction focuses primarily on questions about the “quality” of the provision (e.g., compared to other providers; an effect of league tables) and individual value for money (“Is my child getting the best out of this school?”), rather than on questions about the common educational good (“What is it that we want to achieve as a community for the community?”).

What is clear is that we are in a time of change and disruption with recent events only compounding this. So what about you? What steps are you taking? What dreams are you giving birth to? As always, comments welcome.


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Copying the Web


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I have lost track of the amount of applications and programs that are sold as the solution to getting students coding. The problem that I have with many of these is that they lack purpose and authenticity. One answer is to ‘Steal Like an Artist‘. Rather than learning from scratch, start by reusing someone else’s code in a new way. Two tools that help with this are Google Chrome Developer Tools and Mozilla X-Ray Goggles.

Google Chrome Developer

Google Chrome Developer Tools are designed to provide feedback to programmers and help with the debugging process. You can access it within the settings of the desktop version of Chrome, as well as with the keyboard shortcut Use Ctrl+Shift+I (or Cmd+Opt+I on Mac). Going beyond applications like Built With, which provide insight into the parts of a website, the Developer Tools provide insight into the code and the way it is put together. It provides a side-by-side view which provides into different parts of the page. Beyond the design process, it is useful when trying to lift the bonnet to see the code inside. Doug Belshaw shares how he uses the tools to get links to photos that are baked into the site.

Mozilla X-Ray Goggles

Along with Thimble and the Web Literacy Framework, X-Ray Goggles allows users to explore the building blocks of the web. It runs via a bookmarklet that you add to the bookmark bar. Like the Developer Tools, the Goggles allow you to peek into the code that makes up the web. However, where it differs is its intent to provide the means to tinker with the code. Some examples of how this could be used include remixing the news to appreciate how information is presented (see Kevin Hodgson post on fake news) or changing names and details for privacy reasons. These makes can be published, which gives them a unique address or you can just screenshot the page. It must be noted that unlike the Developer Tools, which is built into the Chrome browser, you need to create an account to use X-Ray Goggles. For more ideas and information, check out the following teaching kit as well as this introduction.


Whether coding is or is not the literacy of the 21st century, it is important to appreciate that coding is not always about starting from nothing. Sites like GitHub and Scratch provide the means of repurposing code. However, applications like the Developer Tools and X-Ray Goggles allow you a different means of borrowing. At the end of the day, maybe copying is who we are.


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Breaking the EdTech Machine


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A Revolution in Music Every Day

In a podcast associated with Steven Johnson’s  new book, Wonderland, he explores how new music comes from broken machines. What is interesting is that more than just serendipity, innovation in music often occurs when people push things to breaking point. The melody and chord progressions of today’s popular tracks have not really changed. See for example Chilly Gonzalez’s musical masterclasses, in particular, his link between Nicki Minaj’s Bed of Lies with Pachelbel’s Canon. However, the timbre and textures that are present in many of today’s hits were previously unknown.

Johnson puts these changes down to musicians not only playing their instruments to the best of their ability but playing with their instruments in order to find new possibilities. This is an old story. Johnson discusses how Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were always exploring the possibility of new technology; how Edgar Varèse used glissando around the time of the First World War to replicate the sound of a siren; how Brian Eno experimented with electronic devices to remix an instrument being played by somebody else; how Caroline Shaw messed with vocal phrases; how John Lennon recorded feedback by accidently getting too close to his amp at the start of I Feel Fine; and how electronic artist Antenes repurposed old technology, such as old telephone exchange, to create new instruments. For a deeper look into the role of technology, Synth Britannia documents the development of the synthesizer and the impact on British music. What stands out with each of these examples is that new possibilities are often made possible because the instruments were pushed to their extremes.

The idea that what an instrument affords has an impact on the creative process reminds me of David Byrnes’ work on how architecture has helped music evolve. It is easy to consider music as a consequence of one person’s creativity when it is often an assemblage of disparate parts, which include elements such as expertise, cultural capital, social context, access to opportunity, experiences, production, influence of record companies and performative opportunities.

First We Shape our Tools, then our Tools Shape Us

The impact of technology pushed to the breaking point is not unique to music. Education technology is no different. On the one hand, there are those who perpetuate the status quo, using tools how they are told to. The problem is that doing what has always been done does not necessarily transform education, nor does it always answer the needs of different situations.

Instead, it is those at the edges that are opening up new possibilities. In this way, technology provides new ways of working and thinking. Seymour Papert touched on this in his book Mindstorm, where he stated that,

The child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.

Papert argued that through the use of technology, we are able to develop a conceptual understanding that would not otherwise be possible.

Taking this further, Peter Skillen suggests that it is naive to think that it is not about the tools. Tools not only influence the way we think, but also how we act and behave. As he states,

Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.

In addition to the work of Papert, Skillen builds upon the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and the idea that we shape our tools, then our tools shape us.

This intent to investigate technology and the supposed transformation of education is something that it feels is often overlooked. Tools and technology have the potential to change education, but also the power to change it for us. You only need to look at Ben Williamson’s research into Class Dojo, Audrey Watters’ predictions for the future of edtech, Greg Thompson’s questions around the structural concerns and Graham Martin-Brown’s exploration of digital learning in Africa to appreciate some of the complexities. Although each of these examples reimagines education, this does not mean that this new vision is automatically a good thing.

Breaking the Machine, Mindfully

We need innovation, we need new tools, but we also need to consider these tools and the impacts that they may be having on education. As Greg Thompson explains,

We need to marry an enthusiasm for technology with a commitment to what may be called ‘technical democracy’, and I think that much of the utopian promise that characterised digital in the 80s and 90s is being replaced by a wariness regarding who controls the tools that we use, how they view the purpose of education and what it means for schools.

In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Douglas Rushkoff uses Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad as a tool for reflecting on the impact of technology:


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While the Modern Learning Canvas separates tools allowing you to both see them in isolation, as well as how they may interrelate with the other aspects of the IOI Process.


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So go ahead and break the machine, engage in intentional serendipity and engage with the opportunities at the edges. However, please do so mindful of the consequences and context that you are working within.


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Learnification and the Purpose of Education


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I have started reading Gert Biesta’s book, Good Education in an Age of Measurement. In the first chapter, he puts forward the case of three key arguments for a ‘good education‘: qualification, socialization and subjectification.

Qualification is defined as:

The qualification function is without doubt one of the major functions of organized education and constitutes an important rationale for having state-funded education in the first place.

Socialization as:

Through its socializing function education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and being. In this way education plays an important role in the continuation of culture and tradition—both with regard to its desirable and its undesirable aspects.

And subjectification as:

The subjectification function might perhaps best be understood as the opposite of the socialization function. It is precisely not about the insertion of “newcomers” into existing orders, but about ways of being that hint at independence from such orders, ways of being in which the individual is not simply a “specimen” of a more encompassing order.

These, Biesta argues, are not to simply be considered in isolation, but in how they interact:

The three functions of education can therefore best be represented in the form of a Venn diagram, i.e., as three partly overlapping areas, and the more interesting and important questions are actually about the intersections between the areas rather than the individual areas per se.

This focus on purpose is in contrast to what Biesta describes as the ‘learnification’ of education. This is where the sole concern becomes the individualistic process of learning, rather than the intent that is actually associated with this.

This discussion of purpose made me wonder about things like learning walks and annual review processes. What if the success or failure of something like a learning walk was decided before anyone even enters the room? What happens if a coach considers qualification as being the primary purpose of education and inadvertently applies this lens to what they see. Yet the teacher in question’s primary concern is socialization?

I am wondering if it is for this reason that we need something more than a set of standards to improve education. We need a holistic approach, like the Modern Learning Canvas, that incorporates all the different facets.


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What about you? What tools and techniques have you used to capture a rich picture of practice? As always, comments welcome.


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My Secret Art of Blogging

There are some things I don’t really write about. This is one of them, my secret art of blogging. Fine, I have written my share of posts touching on the purposes, whether it be reflecting on the uncanny, connect with others or curate different ideas. However, I have written very little about the time and space in which I write.

I am not exactly sure why after 300+ posts I haven’t really written about this. Maybe it is too personal? I have written about reading and listening to texts, but not the actual writing thereof. Maybe it isn’t something that is usually shared? How many posts do you read about how posts are written? Maybe it isn’t usual? Sometimes when you read about people and their Pomodoro Timers, my process somehow feels wrong. Maybe no one cares? Fine, I write for myself firstly, but there are some things I only write when I know it has an audience of at least one. Maybe I am scared of not being real? Sometimes I fear that when people find out that it is all the product of time and effort that I might be found out as being some sort of imposter? So why now? I chose to write this post  in response to Naomi Barnes recent on ‘What Works in Writing?’ Although I wrote a response to her post, I felt that it deserved a longer reflection.

In her post, Barnes reflects on the act of writing. In particular, she shares her thoughts on John Birmingham’s argument that to be a serious writer you need to be selfish and set aside time each day. The problem she explains is that such views ignore the instability of time. Some people balance family and work before even considering writing. Does this mean that they are not committed or serious? This point really stood out, especially in regards to what being a writer means to me.

As much as I would like to commit myself to writing or reading uninterrupted for a few hours each day, it is not something that my life currently affords. I really applaud those movements, such as #28daysofwriting, where people are encouraged to start a habit or those who write 750 words a day. With two young children, I am lucky to get five minutes uninterrupted. So at the end of the day, I have learned to make do with what I have. To be honest, having less time has really opened my eyes to the time that I do have. So here are some of the things I do with that time.

Building Ideas One Brick at a Time

There are those who argue for writing for a set time and then publishing. Others a word limit. Sadly, I do not have the conviction for either. This is not to say that I am not deliberate, I am instead deliberate about building ideas. Sometimes it is something someone says, sometimes something I read, sometimes something that happened, wherever the source, writing begins long before words hit the page. Doug Belshaw talks about increasing your ‘serendipity surface’, while David Culberhouse shares about spending regular time at the idea well, I think that the challenge is dedicating deliberate time combining seemingly disparate ideas.

Barnes captures this in her post when she explains,

While I’m pushing my daughter on a swing I am turning ideas over in my head. When I am watching TV or chatting with friends, I am thinking about how what we are saying fits with what I want to write about.

I could not agree more. My ideas often form and ferment when I am out and about.

It is easy to get caught up in impact and the influence of digital tools, but this has always been my habit. I have always built my ideas slowly. Back in university, I would always be writing down bits and pieces on anything and everything. Old envelopes were often my favourite.

Before becoming a teacher, I was a cleaner. Working odd hours, I was usually left to my own accord. Often I would stop after mopping this or cleaning that and hurriedly scribble down a few thoughts associated with an essay I was in the midst of. Nowadays I have replaced the paper with various apps. In the words of Bill Ferriter, technology has made this more doable. However, the habit itself of constructing ideas has not changed.

A Mobile Workflow

Over time, I have explored a range of digital workflows. I used Evernote for a while until I lost a post because of syncing issues. I think that I had a document open in two locations so when it backed up, I lost a whole lot of work. I then toyed with notes for a bit, as they connected with my Gmail account. However, the most dominant application that I have used for a while is Google Docs. The game changer with Docs was when offline capabilities were added a few years ago. So, for example, with my monthly newsletter, I create a template in Docs and progressively add to it as the month unfolds.

In addition to Docs, I use Google Keep for snippets of ideas that have not found a home or links that I might want to take further action on, whether it be adding them to a post or writing a comment.

I tinkered for a while with recording ideas. Both Keep and Docs allow this. However, I feel that recording works best when an initial draft is already written, not when ideas are still at a stage of stream-of-consciousness. I also found that the voice-to-text functionality on my Android mobile was not as good as using it via the web in Docs.

To support my working space, I develop ideas using social bookmarking, in particular, Diigo. Whether it be annotating posts or taking a few notes, these are the ideas that I store for later. Once I start building an idea, I will often go to Diigo to mine for further ideas and inspiration. It acts as something of an extended memory. Something that Clive Thompson touches on in his book, Smarter Than You Think. I also read quite a few books on my phone using either via the Kindle app or PDF and often dive into these as well.

Limits to Writing On the Fly

There are limits to going mobile. I could manage, but it would not be ideal. Earlier this year, with the arrival of our second daughter, I spent two months depending on my phone. Much of my writing was done while she was asleep in my arms. I wrote using Docs and posted via WordPress in the browser. Being a keen attributor, adding endless links can be fiddly. The continual cycle of flipping through tabs, copying links, adding them to text and making sure they open in a new tab is both frustrating and tedious. I have at least now discovered a plugin that makes all links open in a new tab, but the process is still annoying on a phone.

In addition to this, embedding content is near on impossible. Having ventured down the path of creating my own images, posting them to Flickr via my Known instance and adding them via Flickr using Alan Levine’s CC bookmarklet. This is very much dependant on the desktop. I won’t even start with embedding other content, such as video and audio.

Lately, I have also started exploring different apps and extensions for improving my writing. Grammarly and Hemingway App provide various forms of automated feedback. I am particularly interested in finding alternatives to the usual search engine optimisation aids which seem to focus on making writing machine readable, rather than human readable.

Although there is a WordPress app, I just do not think that it supports the way I write. Like with Evernote, I have had issues with losing work. It is getting better and I must admit I am slowly coming around.

When you are a writer, you write?

Gayle Munro recently wrote about her experience of writing a thesis. Like Barnes, Munro spoke about challenges of not necessarily having the luxury of time. With a job and a young family, she spoke about the challenges associated with having to “relearn and adapt study habits developed during my ‘free’ undergraduate years and a very focused full-time MA.” She describes how with each change to her situation she adjusted.

It can be easy to say that a writer needs dedicated time in a space of their own. However, to me, writing is a story of compromise. David Truss talks about finding the time by getting up early, so does David Culberhouse. Bill Ferriter has shared his regular  practice of doing his writing in a booth at McDonald’s. I also remember being told about how Raymond Carver wrote many of his stories in his car or how David Malouf wrote An Imaginary Life at night after teaching. Although each of these people managed to find time, they only did so by making some sort of compromise.

For me, I have written this post on a train, during my breaks, holding my daughter, wherever I have gotten the chance. It has grown bit by bit. Writing a bit, then reviewing, adding this and deleting that. I was once told that I should keep my posts to three paragraphs. However, I neither write to paragraph, to a structure or to a word count. I write with the hope of giving ideas flesh, but with the knowledge that it is a quest that shall never end.

So what about you? What is your process of writing? In what ways are you deliberate? How has your workflow changed over time? As always, comments welcome.


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A Comprehensive Guide to Google Chrome

 Why Chrome?

Web browsers have come a long way from the days of depending on Netscape or Internet Explorer to view anything. Now there is a range of options, such as Mozilla Firefox, Safari, Microsoft Edge and Vivaldi. In the past, you were often required to use a certain browser to access a particular site. This is sometimes still the case when it comes to particular applications, where the support and development are focused on a particular browser and even a particular version. However, for much of what we do on the web is accessible across all browsers, the choice now becomes about the various features provided by each.

There are many benefits to Chrome. It is fast to launch, load pages and search. The design is simple and customisable. In regards to security, it sandboxes tabs, preventing what happens in one impacting another, while auto-updates run when you close the browser. In relation to privacy, you are able to customise a number of the settings in order to control what is shared online, this includes the incognito mode which allows you to browse without the keeping a search history or logins. It must be noted that running as incognito does not protect you from cookies tracking you, while the extensions are turned off by default. Overall, Chrome is the most popular browser used.

Timeline of web browsers

The Basics of Chrome

When new to Chrome, there are some things to get your head around. Firstly, the different icons, such as menu, download and information. Associated with these, there are the usual functions found in modern browsers, such as back/forwards, refresh, home button, new tabs and windows.

Going to the next step, tabs offer a range of options, including the ability rearrange tabs by dragging them around, pulling tabs out of the strip to start a new window, dragging a URL into the strip to add a new tab and preventing the accidental closure by pinning a tab.

Bookmarks, on the other hand, allow you to easily store sites for later. To do this, you can use the star at the end of the URL, dragging a URL into the bookmarks bar or right-clicking to save all the tabs in a window. There is also options for organising bookmarks into folders. Although you could use social bookmarking to save links, keeping them in a folder offers benefits such as opening all the links with one click. Some possibilities for this maybe keeping all the files for a project in one spot.

In relation to convenience, signing into Google Chrome, rather than simply the web page, allows you to sync bookmarks, passwords, web history and settings across devices. This syncing includes both desktop and mobile devices. The benefit is that if you are using a different device you are simply able to pick up where you left off.

To take security a step further, you can encrypt your sync data with a sync passphrase. Doing this encrypts your data and allows you to use Google’s cloud without letting the algorithms read it. For most users, Google’s standard level of encryption is enough. However, it is at least an option.

At the heart of Chrome is the act of searching the web, whether it be by voice, image or text. Although we may simply enter a few words, there are many components that work together before we are fed back a result. Some of these elements include awareness of the latest news, identifying different spelling options and sorting content based on age appropriateness. In addition to this, there are many tips and tricks that are built into the browser to support users with getting stuff done, answering questions about entertainment, connecting information, getting facts and traveling smart. This includes such actions as the quick conversion of the latest currencies or solving a Pythagorean theorem. All of this can be done from address space at the top of the page. Unlike other browsers which separate these two functions, they are combined in Chrome. It is for this reason that this space is called the Omnibox.

Overall, Chrome offers a lot, sometimes the biggest challenge though is working efficiently. This is where keyboard shortcuts become so important. Although you can find a full list here, these are some of the most useful ones:

  • Bring back closed tab: CTRL + SHIFT + T = Reopens the last tab you’ve closed. Google Chrome remembers the last 10 tabs you’ve closed.
  • Clear your browser: CTRL + SHIFT  + DEL = Takes you directly to the page to clear browsing history, cache and cookies.
  • Switch to previous or next tab: CTRL + TAB = move to the next tab to the right and CTRL + SHIFT + TAB = move to the next tab to the left
  • Jump to specific tab: CTRL + #NUM = go to specific tab

Although these shortcuts may be useful to some, it is important to remember that it is always best to look at the full list and identify those habits that are most important to you. Also, for something more visual, check out this infographic from Hubspot.

Personalising Chrome

Although Chrome provides a lot of functionality, one way in which it really stands out is the ability to personalise it just for you. One of the most common ways to personalise Chrome is by adding multiple accounts. It is becoming more and more common for people to have multiple Google accounts, whether it be one for work, another for training and then a personal one. There are numerous ways of using different accounts in conjunction. For something quick, it can be easy just to use an incognito window. However, for more repeated uses, it is better to add another account in settings. To differentiate, it is useful to give each one a unique name. For the security conscious, you can even add an account that is not actually aligned to a Google account. However, unless you set up the sync passphrase, you will no longer benefit from sharing between devices.

Once you have added the various accounts, you can then easily move between the different accounts. Chromebooks even allows you to quickly change between different accounts, using the shortcut CTRL-ALT-Period or CTRL-ALT-Comma. However, it needs to be noted that this is not automatic and needs to be turned on within an instance of Google.

Another point of personalisation is the addition of a theme. These are accessed via settings in the Chrome menu or directly through the Chrome Web Store. Like adding a personal front cover to a workbook or a sticker to a laptop, themes offer a way of adding your own aesthetic touch to your browser. Although themes do not provide any added functionality, they can be useful in differentiating between accounts, especially when you have quite a few that you move between.

In regards to Chrome, the real personalisation comes via the adjustment of settings. Some of the things you can do include:

  • Changing what is shown at startup or in a new tab.
  • Adding and removing features like the home or bookmarks bar.
  • Modifying the privacy settings associated with things like networks, cookies, pop-ups and plug-ins.
  • Adjusting the presentation of content, whether it be the size and font of text or the translation of language.
  • Clearing your cache and browsing history.
  • Change download location.
  • Customise your search engine shortcuts in the Omnibox
  • Managing certificates and passwords.

Many of these changes often have little visible impact on how Chrome works. Instead, they often influence what is happening in the background around tracking and the way in which it is actually used. For a more in-depth exploration, Doug Belshaw has written a post reflecting on security and privacy associated with Chromebooks and therefore Chrome.

Going Further with the Google Store

Going beyond the usual functionality, Google Chrome provides access to a number of add-ons which allow users to extend the browser’s functionality even further. Whether it be access to apps or installing extensions, Chrome provides the means to not only personalise how you use it, but also take it further by adding additional functionality.

Apps

A core part of the internet experience is hosted web apps. Unlike applications that you might install on the hard drive of your computer, these are hosted in the cloud and continually updated without you needing to do a thing. Along with browsing the web, Google provides a suite of productivity apps collectively called G Suite (formerly Google Apps). This collection includes such apps such as Docs, Slides, Sheets, Forms, Drive, Sites and Gmail. These are automatically added to your Google Account and are accessible via the apps launcher.

In addition to these core suite of apps, there is a range of third party apps that you can add to your collection via the web store. These apps often allow you to log in using your Google Account. Some examples include Seesaw, Padlet, Canva, Verso, Feedly, Pocket and Powtoon. The reality though is that for the general user these are merely links to web pages and adding them to your app launcher simply means that they are bookmarked across all of your devices. There are however benefits for schools using G Suite for Education as they are able to easily deploy apps out to registered devices.

It needs to be noted that initially there were two types of apps: packaged and web. The difference was that packaged apps ran more like desktop apps often providing their own interface and usability, including the ability to run offline. Support for packaged apps on Windows, Linux and Mac is progressively being removed due to their lack of use. A part of the reasoning is that with HTML5 you are able to incorporate offline storage, meaning that the need for packaged apps is not the same. However, it would seem that with the addition of Android apps that this is a constantly evolving area and may become more and more prominent with Chromebooks.

Extension

The other way that the personalisation of Chrome allows you to go further is with the addition of extensions. An extension is a small program that adds functionality. They often use the application programming interfaces (API) provided by the browser to transform the way in which Google Chrome works. APIs though are in no ways unique to Chrome and are a part of the interrelated way in which many applications work. They offer developers a way incorporating different features, without recreating the wheel. For example, rather than create your own mapping program, Google provides the means of incorporating Google Maps. It needs to be noted though that in many respects the relationship between applications provided by APIs is a fragile one and may be broken at any time. For a richer discussion of APIs, I recommend reading Ben Werdmuller’s post.

Chrome provides developers a number of APIs. Having been created over time, this list is forever evolving. Some of the APIs currently provided by Chrome include Storage to designate where to information is kept, Commands to add shortcut keys, ContextMenu to add items to the context menu and Identify to get OAuth2 access. A good way of appreciating API’s is that when you add an extension (or an app) you are usually asked to give permission. So when asked if you ‘give permission’ it is in part saying do you allow access to the APIs.

For example, Extensify allows you to quickly enable and disable extensions. It does this by using the chrome.management API which manages the list of extensions/apps that are installed and running. It needs to be noted that in making these extensions and apps free, some companies will mine your data and pass this on as a point of revenue.

Coming back to extensions, the number of options is somewhat limitless. You are never going to add all of them at once. The focus instead should be on add those which help improve your workflow. To make sense of the options available, I find it useful to differentiate between those that change the way Chrome works and those that support efficiency.

Changing the Way Chrome Works

There are many ways that Extensions can change the way Chrome works. Some relate to the visual nature, others the overall functionality. Some examples include:

  • Cluttering: There is nothing more annoying than having your page filled with distractions. Just Read and Pocket take away the clutter and saves articles in clear readable view. While BehindTheOverlay allows you to close an overlay, such as those created by sites, such as Sumo Me. In regards to YouTube, DF YouTube and Turn Off the Lights provide a means of just focusing on the video. DF Youtube allows you to remove things like recommendations and comments, while Turn Off the Lights simply blacks out the screen except for the video.  One of Chrome’s perceived benefits is its clean layout. However, this can soon become busy when you begin to add a range of apps and extensions. Extensify allows you to easily turn extensions on and off. This not only speeds up the browser but means that you do not necessarily have to restrict yourself in regards to what extensions you add. Similarly, App Launcher Customizer for Google allows you to reorganise the app launcher to suit you. In regards to tabs, Too Many Tabs provides you a way  to manage any overflow.
  • Accessibility: Some have problems reading text online, others navigating the web. There is a range of accessibility extensions available to support users with Chrome. For those who struggle with actually reading, there are options for listening, such as Read&Write, Speak It! and Announcify. While those who want to change how information is presented, extensions such as Hover Zoom, High Contrast and OpenDyslexic provide a means of reformatting information. Eric Curts has written a detailed post unpacking some of these things further.
  • Functionality: One of the frustrating things on the web is having to modify the settings of various sites each time you go there. CraftyRights forces all Google Image searches to be for images free of copyright restrictions. One of many Crafty’s Extensions that improves the overall functionality of Chrome. Tab Resize, Tab Glue and Tab Scissors allow you to organise the tabs the way you like. Google Dictionary and Grammarly provide quick and easy language support with spelling and definitions. Although, sadly, at this point in time Grammarly does not work for Google Docs. Silent Site Sound Blocker allows you to easily block sounds, especially useful in regards to ads and news sites which often play automatically. Lazarus: Form Recovery saves information  so that if something happens midway through filling in a form, there is a backup.
  • Privacy and Security: Although Google build in a range of measures within Chrome to make the browser more secure, there are still further measures that you can go to in order to take it to the next level. In regards to privacy, Adblock Plus, Ghostery and Privacy Badger allow you to block malicious content and cookies. While HTTPS Everywhere automatically encrypts the web, especially useful for sites which do not provide this. A leading figure in this area is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Efficiencies and Workflows

In regards to improving efficiencies and workflows, these are often either about speeding up a process or providing a means of making the web more personal. Some examples include:

  • Additional Functions: Many extensions simply provide additional functions that are activated with one click. Those like OneTab and Tab Saver allow you to save tabs for later, something particularly useful when doing research. Send This Link and Mail Checker give easy access to Gmail, without opening it up in a new tab. 1-click Timer builds a visible timer into the browser. Goo.gl and Bit.ly allow you to quickly shorten a URL. Screencastify and QuickShare Screenshot provide the means to capture images and video and then save to Drive. While ColorPick Eyedropper and ColorHexa Search Tool give you the various colour codes and schemes.
  • Sharing Content: Maybe it is a post or a PDF document, whatever the content there are a number of ways of sharing it on to someone else or another platform. Google Drive, Google Keep, Pocket, Flip It, Classroom, Pearltree, Pinterest, Padlet Mini and Trello all provide the means of organising content elsewhere.
  • Annotating the Web: Taking the act of sharing a step further,  Diigo Web Collector allows you to bookmark links, annotate content and capture images. Similar to Diigo, Hypothesis provides the means to collaboratively annotate and tag web pages and documents. Kami provides a means of annotating PDF documents, however beyond the trial period you need to purchase a license. There are a few more options discussed here
  • Additional Information: TLDR and sentiSum use algorithms to provide shorter summaries to lengthier posts and articles. Although these extensions offer a convenient solution, it needs to be noted that summaries can be problematic and do not necessarily clearly present the main ideas. In regards to referencing, Cite This For Me allows you to appropriately source information using a range of styles. Using the associated website you can also build-up a bibliography. For further technical details, BuiltWith Technology Profiler provides information, such as code library and framework, that a site may be built upon.

What is clear is that there is an abundance of options when it comes to apps and extensions. You can even create your own using the Chrome Apps & Extensions Developer Tool. There is also a range of resources to support you.


In the end, whether you are changing the settings, using shortcuts or adding apps and extensions, what is important is to focus on what fits your needs and purpose. You might actually find something that better suits what you do, but only you can decide that.


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Adding the Learning Back to Space


Flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to not only support a wide range of schools but also to see some of the awesome things that are already happening. Today I visited a school and in the process was shown around one of the most remarkable learning spaces that I have ever seen.

It would be easy to call it ‘a garden’, but it just feels like something more. Just as calling an innovative learning space a classroom sometimes misses something as it encompasses all of the most traditional notions.

With a strong focus on the environment and sustainability, the space included the following:

  • Fully fledged indoor kitchen, including a pizza oven and outdoor seating
  • An amphitheater built out of recycled materials, including tires
  • Huge water tanks that not only supporting the plants and waterway, but also the school toilets and sporting fields
  • A waterway meandering its way through the space
  • A wide range of wildlife, such as ducks, lizards, sheep, fish, turtles, and chickens.
  • Various plants, ranging from herbs, vegetable beds and fruit trees.
  • Organic waste used as fertilizer, including compost heaps, worm farms, and an aquaponics system.
  • Propagation of plants in a greenhouse.

What was most interesting to me was that the learning seemed to stem from the space, rather than dictating how the space was to be used. The space provides numerous opportunities and beginnings, whether it be lunchtime clubs, regular cooking, and gardening classes or teachers using the space in their own way to provoke learning. Whereas some learning opportunities dictate the environment, what stood out from the conversations was that learning often evolved put of the space.

This focus on the learning made me wonder about the possibility and potential of technology to further enable learning in such an environment. Some of the things that came to mind included:

  • Telling the Story: I am a big believer in documentation as a means of owning the learning. I think that it would be amazing having a collective blog bringing together all the different stories and updates in one place.
  • Automating Processes: I have lost count of the amount of apps that promise to teach you how to code. Yet to me there is nothing better than trying to solve a real life problem. Whether it be creating a time-lapse or collecting data with senses, I wonder about the potential of a Raspberry Pi to make this happen.
  • Showing the Story: I recently stumbled upon a 360 school tour. What struck about the experience was that you could watch it again and again, each time taking in a different perspective. As I walked around the outdoor space trying to take everything in, I could see the potential of a virtual tour.

I remember a few years ago there was a push in the school I was at to investigate permaculture. Beyond getting my head around the concept, one of the challenges at the time was imagining such a space. Today I saw such a space.

What about you? What dynamic spaces have you.been a part of? How was technology incorporated? As always, comments welcome.


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