Erasing SMARTboards

As my fun treat for finishing term, I got to go back into school the next day and begin the great SMARTboard revolution.  This involved going round to every Mac in the school and unplugging the USB cable (and in some cases, the USB-serial cable…these are seriously old boards), taking away the pens and completely uninstalling any SMART software on the computer (drivers, extras, Notebook software etc.).  It felt good!

Reflecting on my passionate dislike for ‘smart’ boards (what an ironically misnamed product: I wonder how they’d take my preferred moniker of STUPIDboard?), I think it comes down to the fact that they’ve never really worked that well and have never really gotten any better:

  • endless aligning to try and make the pens write as they should
  • really quite horrible software for the Mac (although it has improved in recent years)
  • glare and shadow from the projectors
  • projectors!  Projectors are great in a darkened room (e.g. a cinema), but not in a bright classroom.  Plus the image quality degrades steadily but inevitably over time until you can barely see anything.
  • trying to make a mouse and keyboard user interface work with touch.  Apple have explicitly sworn off this idea (hence the iPad), but SMART seem to blithely carry on regardless.  I cannot count the amount of times I’ve tried to tap on some element of the user interface, but then for it to not quite be aligned correctly and so I give up and use the mouse instead.
  • really fragile board surface that results in areas of the board that just don’t work properly
  • have I ever mentioned the cost?  £2000 for a glorified trackpad is expensive in anyone’s book.

But I cannot sit back and bask in my delight for too long, as the challenge of communicating/demonstrating/inspiring teachers about how an iPad can be the smart man’s smart board still stands.

Thoughts on Notebook

As I’ve mentioned before, from September we are getting rid of SMART Notebook in our school and unplugging all the the SMARTboards. This is not a move without controversy and so there is a certain amount of vision-casting that will need to be done with staff to explain why this happening.  To help me get my thinking straightened out with it all, I thought I would do a preemptive response to possible/probably questions about it all.

I don’t see what’s wrong with Notebook

In our school, about a quarter of the installed boards are so old that they are no longer supported by SMART and so don’t work.  Another quarter are non-SMART interactive LCD displays that can’t be touch enabled and still use Notebook (due to licensing issues). Of the other half of boards that are reasonably new and should (in theory) work, a good proportion of them suffer from some damage to the surface which means they are pretty unusable on a day-to-day basis.

So the options are:

  1. Carry on as we are, with a few pioneers using Explain Everything on a mirrored iPad to give true interactivity, with everyone else using Notebook as a glorified slide deck
  2. Replace all of the boards with new SMARTboards
  3. Ditch SMART Notebook and unplug SMARTboards and move over to mirroring iPads using Explain Everything
Option Pros Cons
1 Teachers already know what they’re doing. Previous years’ resources can be reused. No or limited interactivity. Costs involved with updating Notebook software (which will inevitably need to be done following OSX upgrades) – an unknown, but could potentially be £kkk.
2 Teachers already know what they’re doing. Interactivity is restored. Very expensive and means budget cannot be spent on other stuff, like more class sets of iPads.
3 Reliable interactive surface is the iPad. Can make use of all the power of the iPad in the classroom, through camera, microphone etc. Taking the school forward rather than sticking with a fading and disrupted technology that is the SMARTboard. Teachers have to learn a new tool. Previous years’ resources cannot easily be reused. Potential opposition from staff!

Ok, so I can see that we need to make a change. But can’t we just keep Notebook anyway?

What is interesting is that we’ve had a year of this situation, and only a few teachers have taken up using an iPad instead of Notebook on the Mac.  Teachers are busy people who have got plenty of other things to think about, and I guess tweaking your pedagogy to incorporate new technology isn’t high on the list of priorities.  But if we don’t make a move, we may suddenly hit a brick wall in the future.  Say, for example, Notebook 11 doesn’t work on OSX Yosemite come Autumn.  Do we hold back our Macs to keep Notebook working?  Or pay lots of money for licensing the newer Notebook?

What’s so great about using a mirrored iPad and Explain Everything?

  • Cameras = visualiser anywhere in the classroom
  • You can teach from any point in the classroom – no wires!
  • You can teach facing your class
  • No need to align your interactive display on a daily/hourly basis ;-D
  • Cool screen recording stuff
  • Multi-touch interaction of onscreen elements
  • Using a user interface that is designed for touch

How can I write?

Classrooms have all got some other form of whiteboard/flipchart if you want to do some proper modelled writing.  But for scribing stuff, we’re investing in some proper capacitive styluses for teachers to use.

How can I share files across my year group?

We have a webDAV server that is accessible in and outside of school using the normal secure logins.  This allows you to open Explain Everything files from the shared drive and export them back there again.

What if I desperately need to open a Notebook file from previous years?

SMART have an online version of Notebook at http://express.smarttech.com where you can open files from your computer.

Giving up on Profile Manager (Again)

Today I was busy setting up some new iPad minis for school.  Apple Configurator is getting increasingly reliable and stable, so didn’t hit too many issues with that.  However, I then hit a problem that I couldn’t get the devices to enrol on Profile Manager.

Now, I’ve spent several years trying my best to get Profile Manager to work.  On Lion, it was basically broken. By Mavericks, it had improved quite a lot.  But it was never fully reliable, with odd quirks coming up every now and again.  There were some cool features, such as the use of variables when setting up things such as email accounts.  But the downside to this was that when the Mac server decided to lose the link to our Active Directory, this resulted in all of the teachers’ email settings being removed from their iPads. Not fun.

Now, I have used Meraki before, which has a free MDM solution.  It doesn’t do everything and can be a bit confusing to use, but it is certainly reliable.  And free.  So today I decided that I would use Profile Manager to actually build all of my profiles (which it is really good at, e.g. email settings, restrictions etc.) and then use Meraki to deploy them.

And so far, this seems to be working fine!  The only downside is that I have to remove every device from Profile Manager and enrol them onto Meraki instead, but I’m having to do a bit a refresh anyway, so it shouldn’t be too much work as well.

Keynote takes on SMART Notebook

As I have mentioned before, our school is ditching SMART Notebook from September.

But since that decision was made, we discovered a cool new feature in the iOS version of Keynote.  The feature is officially called ‘highlighter’, which basically adds the ability to write with your finger when you are presenting mode. There has always been a laser pointer when you tap and hold, but now a set of coloured pens appear as well.  You choose the colour you want and can then write where you wish.  Instead of swiping between slides, you now get some arrow buttons on the left and right of the screen to change slide.  All of you annotations stay even if you change slide, but they disappear when the slideshow ends.

The particularly cool thing about this is that there is now another alternative to Notebook on iPad if all you want is slides and the ability to write on them.  The other cool thing is that, because of iWork file compatibility, you can make your Keynote slides on your Mac (or even on iCloud on a PC) and then use them for teaching on your iPad.  This is good for those teachers who don’t feel they will be as fast making slides on ExplainEverything because they have to be created on the iPad itself.  (I personally don’t think it’s any slower, but I guess it makes the transition easier.)  And with iCloud, the slides should ‘just’ be there (in theory!).

Here’s a slightly provocative screenshot:

Keynote

Getting rid of SMART Notebook

So, it’s been decided that from September 2014, Smartboards will be no more in our school.  The physical boards themselves will remain (as they are pretty good data projector screens), as will the speakers and projectors, but the USB cables will be ceremoniously removed from the Macs and Notebook software will be aggressively uninstalled from every Mac in the school.

Instead, teachers will be encouraged to use ExplainEverything, or even just Keynote (on Mac or iPad).  Or in fact anything they like.  If they just want a set of slides, Keynote will do the trick, and if they want interactivity, a mirrored iPad + stylus will suffice.  And if they want to just do some writing, there’s always a whiteboard and dry wipe pen!

Why the big move?

Well, for a long time I have had a particular dislike for Smartboards.  They are very expensive for what they are (a giant touchpad) and they never really work properly (always needing aligning, and once the surface gets damaged, are useless for writing). The Notebook software for the Mac isn’t really the greatest of Mac citizens, and using a giant but not always accurate touch interface to control OSX isn’t always very pleasant.  Apple has long realised that a touch interface needs a different user interface (as have Microsoft to a certain degree), but Smartboards seem to just try and fudge the issue.

Now that we have iPads, and the ability to mirror the display to the Smartboard display (via Reflector App), it in many ways removes the need for a Smartboard.  The interactive surface is freed from being fixed to one spot and can instead be wherever the teacher or child wants in the classroom. No wires!

The other issue is that Smart are now charging for their Notebook software via a subscription model.  It used to be that the software was free because everyone was buying the interactive boards.  But I suspect that schools aren’t buying or replacing boards very often (for example, we have some very old boards at our school), but are continuing to use the free software.  So Smart needs to make some money somewhere…

So we are left at a crossroads: do we pay (potentially) lots of money to keep using the Notebook software on interactive boards that increasingly don’t work? Or do we move away from a technology in its autumn and instead embrace the one that it’s still in its springtime.  It’ll probably be as popular as Apple’s position on Flash on the iPad, but I do think it’s the right thing to do.

How to get alert emails to work from a Mac Server

With LGfL, they are quite strict on what devices on their networks send email.  However, they are happy for you to make use of Google’s SMTP server.

Things like Profile Manager make use of email for inviting users onto the Managed Distribution programme, so I wanted to setup our Mac server to be able to send emails like that.  After a bit of searching, I came across this brilliant explanation of how to send mails from localhost.  And it seems to have done the trick!

Fixing DVD player crashes in Mavericks

We run our SMARTBoards in school from Mac minis, some of which are old enough to have DVD drives and so which make use of Super Drives.  Anyway, since Mavericks there has been an issue where the DVD player will crash upon loading.  Annoying.

After trying out things like resetting the PRAM and the SMC, it turned out that the issue was due to the second display.  The machines have two displays: a monitor connected via DVI and a projector via VGA (which are mirrored).  I tried changing which screen the display was optimised for (in System Preferences > Displays) and this seemed to do the trick.  Yay.

Finally getting WeDo working

I think I spoke too soon in my last post. Having tried the software on several other machines, it turned out the greyed out head was still present.

After some contact with LEGO support, we still couldn’t figure out what was wrong. However, I did discover that the software did work properly on a different account on my MacBook. What was so different about that account? In the end I discovered it was because of some login scripts we had running on all the other Macs. This script moved and renamed the ~/Documents folder to trick the sidebar into defaulting the save location to the network home rather than locally. After changing this script so that ~/Documents was back in its default setting, everything seemed to work fine. Yay!

LEGO WeDo and Munki

As part of Mr Gove’s wonderful new Computing Curriculum in Primary schools, we’ve invested in some LEGO WeDo kit to teach some simple robotics stuff to KS2. It’s basically a USB hub which connects to a computer, into which you can plug a motor, a distance sensor or a tilt sensor. You can then program these sensors using LEGO’s own WeDo software (or MIT’s Scratch!) to build cool stuff like a spinning top, an aeroplane or an automatic goalie.

So far so good.

Then I came to trying to install the software on all the Macs in the school using Munki. I love Munki as it means I can remotely install and update stuff on all the Macs in the school really quickly. But it does rely on software coming in a reasonably decently packaged form. Which LEGO WeDo does not. Rather than using a sensible .pkg file, it instead has an Installer App (I know!) which then asks you to choose a language, which then opens up a meta package (.mpkg) which runs 6 different installers, each with various pre and post-flight scripts that liberally sprinkle files across various parts of your system.

Lovely.

Having used Pacifist to look inside the meta-package to see what was being installed, I tried using Munki to install each of these packages remotely. Except this didn’t work – the App icon for WeDo stopped working and you couldn’t view all the build instructions (leaving the dreaded greyed-out LEGO head).

So I tried a different tack. I downloaded Packages, a brilliant package-builder for Mac, and decided to build my own package for the software. The LEGO installer handily gave a list of all the files to delete to uninstall it, so I just added those to my package. And this worked. Kinda, only the LEGO head was stilled greyed out.

[Incidently, making changes to a package and changing the version number of the package, makes it keep testing an installation on Munki. Because Munki checks package receipts, it won't reinstall a package it's already installed. But it will install a package with a higher version number.]

Having spent far to much time on this problem already, I decided to give LEGO support a call. They were quite helpful, and suggested I try log in with an administrator account and see if that worked. Lo and behold, it did. They then suggested I tweak permissions on different files and folders to see if that helped. I basically gave write permissions to anyone on all files and that seemed to fix it. Not ideal really.