Sunday, 24 May 2020

The need for collboration and change.

I am truly blessed to work with a number of outstanding teachers and head teachers in close proximity. I didn't know it, but I've accidentally stumbled on my dream job, creating ways to educate students on the wonders of technology and digital creation is more rewarding than I ever thought it could be (who'd have thought after 20+ halcyonic years in retail), and helping teachers navigate the ever changing world of technology makes me feel useful and valued.

Throughout the covid crisis, the schools I work in, have coped amazingly well, receiving praise from teachers and colleagues, pupils and parents for effective communication and workload distribution. But what has struck me is the difference with which the schools have done things. Whilst highly effective, their approaches are completely different and I know that these two opposing approaches aren't the only solutions that schools have adopted. There is a massive spectrum of solutions in-between these two methods, and much more perhaps that's overlooked. I've seen the use of Adobe Spark, See-Saw, Purple Mash, Google Classrooms, RM easimaths, Flipgrid and a number of others as well.

Every solution will have it's own merits. Each teachers experience will influence their choice of solution, and that's how it should be. If the solution is effective, and workable, then every teacher should have the freedom to use what they feel more comfortable with. Likewise, each head teacher will have their own methods for communicating with parents, checking in on the well being of pupils and team members, and that is the right way it should be too.

A number of Hashtags on Twitter have promoted more ideas than we realistically need, there are online art classes, junk modelling ideas, programming courses that are free from the government, in Wales we have Hwb, with a gamut of solutions and work projects to explore. Not only are the solutions overwhelming, but there are also hashtags to follow, like #tvttagteam #talkupteaching #teacher5oclockclub and more refreshingly #nobestwayoverall

And it's this last hashtag that strikes the chord with me and echoes the above. There is no best way, everyone is coping the best way that they can, using the tools that they have at their disposal. But I still have questions. What if many of the solutions we're using are excessively labour intensive? What if other strategies are much less effort. It's very likely that many teachers and head teachers are working unsociable hours with few breaks doing work that is very mentally demanding. From a call I had at the end of last week, it would appear that teachers are working more hard than they've ever had to before. The effect on the individual, working in isolation, without the immediate access to delegatory support, (teaching assistants and volunteers) is significant and worth exploring. The well being of the individual is way more important than the immediate need for results.

If you were to ask (yourself or a colleague), is the work you're are doing now more or less mentally demanding, and more or less time consuming? What would the answers be, what would your answer be? Would everyone answer be the same? This is the first time we have faced these challenges, so it's likely some of us have ways that are more effective than others. It's likely when we get back into school, many will feel refreshed and many might feel drained or exhausted. It's likely that many of the solutions and practices we're doing now may continue, and may improve our practices in future, even during term time, and it's looking likely, this won't be the last time this happens. So how do we prepare for the future and ensure every teacher and every head is prepared the best that they can be?

How do we ensure our well-being is given the focus it deserves, how do we ensure we do-well and what's the best way, and what part do we play to guarantee we care for everyone; head teachers, parents, pupils, teachers and assistants?

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Lockdown - Kids safety for non techies.

With lockdown, childrens time spent online is naturally going to increase, and thus, the likelihood of bumping into an idiot online and children being targeted or bullied is increased.

It seems pertinent to start with the basic facts. If your child is going online to play games in situations that allow players from around the world to join, they will, (as in real life) occasionally encounter unpleasant people. I'm lucky as I am naturally interested in gaming, but if you're not, it pays to ask your child to show you what they play, how they play it and with whom they are mixing. It's also worth noting that Xbox Live and Playstation Plus, despite being for gaming, are not services that are designed for minors. The age for an account is 18 on both. It is anticipated, sometimes incorrectly, that minors will have an adult to steer them through the pitfalls of using the service. But there are ways we can keep our children safe and confident online. 

Online bullying can be incredibly hurtful and damaging to a childs well being, so cluing yourself up is a wise move if you're letting them play online, below I have covered the most popular online games to help with understanding of what they are.

The absolute game of the moment is Fortnite. Fortnite takes place with 100 random players on a small island. 99 players will get shot, the last player is the winner. Chances of winning are clearly low. It is possible to host a private game, with only your friends, but very few players do this. If you've joined a Zoom call since lockdown, a private game is like this, created using an invite, a password and a scheduled time. But the game is more fun, and most players agree, with the default 100 players. This is how 99% of players play the game. There is an open chat room, the age rating is 12. The 'kills' in the game are not graphic there is no depiction of blood or gore. Personally, I think it's a bit repetitive.

Roblox is a law unto itself. I researched this when it came out. I do not like it, I do not recommend it and I would not let my children play it (fortunately they never asked). To find out why, read my original blog post here. Although the PEGi rating is 7,  I found the measures that the company behind the game put in place to be woefully inadequate. I found it creepy and I would urge all parents to steer clear. There is an open chat room.

Minecraft is generally safe. Online games with friends in a closed environment are relatively easy to set up, assuming you subscribe to either Xbox live or PS Plus. But, there is a section called Servers (see pic), where anyone in the world can join in. You guessed it, that's where all the idiots are and where there is an open chat room. Bear in mind however, even in Friends, your Friends Friends are likely to be included in a game. So someone you may not know, could decide to be unpleasant.

Call of Duty is another very popular game, it is rated 18 for a reason, there are graphic depictions of blood, gore and death as it is, at it's core, a war simulation game. Parents of children under this age really should not be allowing their children to play this game, online or in story mode (single player). It was neither designed for, nor meant for children to see. To put it into perspective, the most controversial mission was a terrorist attack in an airport where players can play on either side.

Grand Theft Auto is another 18+ game and really should not be played by minors. Not only does it contain graphic violence, but also incredible coarse language, a strip club with partial nudity and story lines and characters of quite a perverse nature. It is wholly inappropriate for children either online or in single player mode. It too, like all of the others has an open chat room.

It may seem odd that I include these last two titles in this guidance, but I have heard of children bragging about being allowed to play these games at home. I can only assume that parents are unaware that the games are as graphic and inappropriate as they are.

In all of the above games the open chat room (which is live during gameplay) is generally where the poor behaviour occurs, this can either be vocal as chat is heard by each player, or typed. Noobs, or kids who are playing the game for the first time, and performing badly perhaps, are usually targeted, although anyone, as has happened recently, can become the victim, even on Minecraft Servers. Abuse doesn't always arrive in the form of written text, or spoken words. It can also involve players having their creations being destroyed, or being targeted unfairly by fellow players who hinder progress and also cheating.

Practical things we can do. 

Game console live services.
On Xbox Live and PS Plus your children will have friend lists.
This list will likely be made up of friends they know in real life, who have shared their username, and people they have met online while playing. Your child might have added them (because they enjoyed playing with them), or the other player might have added your child, and your child has accepted their invitation. Generally speaking, this can be ok playing online should be, and can be fun.

You could, either advise your children to ONLY play with people who they can positively identify, friends from school and delete the others, go through the list with them, or you could advise them to block (and report - see below) anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable.
You could only allow them to play games with their friends which you could set up via parental controls. The links below should help you, although for the non technically minded, this can be overwhelming.
Xbox Parental controls
Playstation Parental controls

Managing relationships. 

Regardless of my views on all of the above, the most useful thing a child can do is, with your support, manage their own relationships online. They will encounter people who say unpleasant things, whether its online, or in real life. How we deal with these people is not be significantly different. The good news for online gamers is, that some of the subscription you pay, is for moderators to investigate and exclude people who are abusive and unpleasant. It's important your child feels safe online, and reassuring them that these unpleasant people are morally wrong, and will get their comeuppance (if they're reported) should give your child an increase in confidence to expect people to play fair and nicely. Quite often, having a plan for when it happens, is enough in itself to soften the blow. If a child isn't expecting unpleasantness and does not know how to respond, or what actions they can take, this can be as confusing as it is upsetting. Panic, fear, upset can all be reduced if the child knows that the plan for dealing with online abuse is,
A) Make a note of the username.
B) Block and withdraw from the game.
B) Tell a trusted adult.
C) Report (see below)

Moderators can investigate cheating as well as general bullying. Everyone on both platforms has a unique username. These usernames aren't unique by accident, they're registration numbers or Player ID's for each and every online member. Making a note of the username is sufficient to file a report and get the user either a temporary or permanent ban.
For less serious unpleasantness. Simply ignore, and block the buffoons, but appreciate that this is much easier for an adult, and much more emotive for a child.

File a report against a user on Xbox or Playstation by following the links.

I hope this is useful, if you've any additional ideas or coping strategies, comment below. 

How I took these 'amazing' images.

I can only take some of the credit for some of the images that were described by a fellow tweeter, Ken, as 'amazing' last night. Knowing about photography helps capture these shots, but anyone who knows me well, knows I always prefer the easy way to do things, and if there isn't an easy way, I'll usually find one. This also makes it easy to explain to others, how they can do the same. So here goes.

Everyone is capable of spotting what a great image looks like. "Look at that view" and "What a beautiful sunset" aren't phrases exclusive to photographers, we all know what beautiful countryside looks like. But sometimes it's the contrasting light that makes the scene what it is. This happens more in the golden hour; an hour after the sun is rising or the hour before it sets. In these moments, we get huge variations in contrasting light. We have bright skies and deep dark shadows falling over the land, which create depth that give us texture. Our own eyes are incredible at picking the detail from a scene and as we flit from bright to low light, within an instant, our eyes have adjusted to give us the detail from that portion of the scene.

A camera cannot do this. A camera gets one shot to let the right amount of light in, and in a high contrast scenario it will inevitably fail with only one attempt. The answer to this is to use High Dynamic Range, however, don't assume your smartphone's HDR option will give you the results you want, as there are two ways devices can attempt it, and one, is far more effective than the other. A brief explanation why.

Method 1 - Most HDR options on smartphones will take one image and try to increase the brightness of the shadows, and decrease the exposure of the bright areas. The benefit to this method is that one shot often means sharper edges and better clarity. The disadvantage is that there is a lower variation in brightness.

Method 2 - The best way to create a HDR is to take 3 or more images with different parts of the image correctly exposed and then blend them together, which sounds complicated, but actually isn't, all of the shots I create on my phone, take less than 10 seconds. Have a look at the following images to see how this works.

In this image we can see the beauty of the sky. This is what I could see with my naked eye, so I knew there was a good shot here.

Without the outline of the trees to help us, this could be confused for a different scene altogether. But we can see that the exposure for the foreground is a little under exposed. We've lost some detail in the trees to the right, but we have a fair amount of detail in the shadow of the hill. The sky however is totally blown, so there is no detail whatsoever. But this, in real terms, is likely the best result we could get with just one shot. In essence, this is correctly exposed!

In the final image we can see more detail on the ground and we've pulled a little more detail from the shadows of the trees, but the sky has even less detail than the properly exposed shot.

So with three images captured, all with their individual merit what happens when we blend them together? We get this.

We can see that blending the images together gives us a shot to be proud of. We have nice white light where the sun is and dark where we'd expect the shadows to be and if anything, this is perhaps more beautiful than the actual scene was on the night. But there are compromises. If we zoom in on the left, the image is actually really sharp. But as my handheld effort shows, the camera did move ever so slightly during the three shots, on the right, the trees look like this.

This tell tale signature shows it was a HDR with three blended images. The ghosting effect is a dead giveaway. But it's a small compromise for such a lovely scene. We could reduce this effect by using a tripod, or a rock to steady our device, but I can live with it as most people would likely not see it.

So how can you achieve the same results?
Find an app you love.

The app I use is one I have bought twice, once for my iPhone many years ago, and again for my Android handset and it's called 'Pro HDR Camera' by Eyeapps. It's ugly, but it's functional and it does exactly what I want it to do, and visiting their website it looks like they have an update available for it. It doesn't take wide images, only 4:3, but it's fast and it creates results like the one above.

I hope this has been useful, if you snap any images using the HDR technique, make sure you tag me on twitter so I can appreciate your work!

PS. The angle is called Dutch tilt, but that's another thing altogether.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Digital music management - RIP Google Play Music

If you're a music lover that prefers to own their music than subscribe to a music streaming service, be it on vinyl, CD that you back up digitally, or that you buy digitally, you may have been disappointed yesterday to hear that Google Play Music is swapping to YouTube Music. While YouTube music is ok, it's not quite the same as Google Play Music.

Google Play Music simply offered 50,000 song storage capacity and a pretty neat app that allowed you to stream that entire library to your mobile devices. There are apps for iPad, iPhone, Android phone and tablets. It was ok. Sometimes it would muddle up your library and put songs in the wrong album, but hey iTunes used to do the same. Currently the You Tube app doesn't let you stream music in the background though, without a subscription, which is pretty lame. You also can't 'buy' music through it, you can only subscribe to the service, like Spotify, that lets you have access to all of the current music in their entire library. Sounds great, but I still prefer to buy music and own it.

Google yesterday announced that they were going to include a transfer button, to switch everything across from Play Music, to You Tube Music, but despite the promo videos, in the App, nothing has appeared yet, plus, the inability to play in the background without a subscription, is already too much of an inconvenience.

So today, I've set about finding an alternative, and I am pleased to say, I think I have found something that's better than Play. The solution seems to be iBroadcast and the process for switching seems convenient as all of the hardwork is done by hardware! If you have a digital library with Play, you'll need to follow all of these steps, if you just want a convenient way to access your digital library from your mobile, follow steps 6 onwards.

Step 1 - Login to Google Play on your computer.
Step 2 - Check you have sufficient storage space for downloading your entire library.
Step 3 - Create a Folder and name it something like 'Google Play Library'
Step 4 - Go to settings, find your download folder and hit Download entire library
Step 5 - Wait for entire library to download.
Step 6 - Visit iBroadcast and sign up, confirm your email address
Step 7 - Download Media Sync Lite from iBroadcast and sign in
Step 8 - Locate your Folder with all of your songs and upload.
Step 9 - Wait for upload to complete
Step 10 - Download iBroadcast app on your mobile device, sign in and listen.

Have you found something better than Google Play Music or iBroadcast, if so what is it?

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Top Ten Smartphone Tips.

Here are my Top Ten recommendations that you might not know, to help you get the best out of your Smartphone ...

1) Turn off Notifications for Social media - Be the boss of your phone, not the slave to it's chimes, because mental health matters.

2) Clean your lens before you take a photo -This makes a much bigger difference to the clarity and sharpness of your images than you might imagine.

3) Buy a Sim only deal - There's no reason to pay one company for your service and your phone anymore. Check your data usage and buy what you need. £10 will get you 8GB and unlimited social media use on Voxi. My whole family pay less for 4 agreements, than I see many individuals pay for one phone.

4) Buy a Sim free phone - Budget smartphones are now incredible, mid range phones are mind blowing. Save your pennies and don't get suckered into a contract that'll see you lose money if you crack your screen, and on that....

5) Get a good case - Nano technology isn't hype, get a recommended case that'll absorb drops (I've seen this tech work) and you should never crack your screen. Tech21 (effective), Otterbox (big) and Spigen (cool) are all excellent.

Google Photos - Free up Space
6) Clear the Cache - Save space on your phone by occasionally clearing the cache - Android - Settings, Apps, Select App, Clear cache. Apple still don't let you do this, offload Apps makes no sense, delete the App and reinstall to gain space.

7) Back up your Photos to Google Photos - Another space saving tip. If you install Google Photos, everything you take will be backed up. Swapping devices? Photos will be where you left them. Want space on your device, Goto 'free up space' in the app. Goto to easily manage them into albums and download them.

8) Use Newsflare - If you capture something extraordinary on Video, Newsflare is the easiest way to sell it to Ladbible. I once sold a 2 minute drone dance video and got £215 while in the middle of a holiday. Ker-ching!

9) Only charge to 80-85%. Phone Batteries degrade over time. Install a battery management app that tells you when you've reached 85% and unplug before the damage happens. I use Accu Battery.

10) Use Google Pay - Using my smartphone for payments is easier and more secure than contact-less (your phone has to be unlocked to use it) this has helped get me home as petrol stations take payment by it when I haven't had my wallet.

That's it, let me know, what is essential to you with your phone, what have I missed, what do you disagree with?

Google Drive for Desktop.