Managing the classroom
by Simon Williams
Educational software is not just for the pupils – it can help schools and colleges manage the whole teaching process.
HardCopy Issue: 63 | Published: May 20, 2014
There are plenty of ways in which software can help with the learning process. The most obvious is as an e-learning tool, but there are also educational copies of business software for training, administration applications to smooth timetabling and project management, security software to ensure compliance with data protection legislation and guard against malware, and assistive technology for students with physical or learning disabilities. And much is extremely cost-effective, thanks to special licensing options available to educational establishments.
Office 365 at Sandymoor School
Sandymore School in Runcorn, Cheshire is a secondary Free School that currently has 110 students in Foundation 1 and Foundation 2. The school was set up with the intention of putting a lot of the day-to-day classwork into the Cloud. To this end, Office 365 is the main platform for course work. As Principle Andrew Green-Howard says, “The reason I’m so excited about Office 365 is that we can take everything we do in school and where absolutely possible, put it in the Cloud.”
The school has 50 Surface RT tablets which form the core of their student computing devices, although they also have a policy of system “agnosticism” so students can use their own, if appropriate. The Office applications are based in the Cloud so they can be accessed through a browser on Mac or Android platforms, just as well as from a PC.
This policy of ‘anywhere computing’ benefits the staff as well as the students. Green-Howard sites the process of getting comments on a document:
“Doing it the old way, I’d create a document then email it to three people to ask for comments. They’d all work on it and I couldn’t until it came back. Working on a shared version in OneDrive means everyone can see the changes.”
The students are enthusiastic too, and there’s a keen group who helped set up the system and offer ‘tech support’ to staff. James says, “Sometimes, if I want to change something, I can just edit it on my phone.” Aaron adds, “If you’re stuck with homework, you can email them and they will usually email you back during the same weekend.”
As a new school, Sandymore has benefitted from the ability to create a teaching environment from the ground up. Office 365 and its associated infrastructure has enabled a new way of implementing a comprehensive learning environment.
For more information, see http://bit.ly/1iwhxud.
Training in the basics of office software – word processing, spreadsheet, database and Internet use – is a core skill for most young people going into employment. Providing industry-standard applications to learn on is essential in most secondary level institutions and training colleges.
With the rapidly changing ways in which people use office software, the most efficient ways of equipping a classroom can easily involve several platforms. Although desktop machines may still be the most suitable for IT labs, laptops and tablets can be more convenient in the general classroom.
Microsoft offers several different ways in which you can obtain Office for educational use. In particular the company is pushing its online solution Office 365 and the subscription model is the way it wants us to pay for software going forward.
There are three Education Plans on offer, namely Office 365 Education A2, A3 and A4. These each offer web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, with A2 being free of charge. They also include spam and malware protection, 50GB of email storage and 25GB of online storage on OneDrive for each person.
These plans include web conferencing, 24/7 phone support and office app support on Windows phones. The A3 and A4 versions extend this coverage to iPhone and Android phones, include 99.9 percent guaranteed uptime, and add desktop versions of the eight main office applications on up to five machines per person. The A4 version adds PC-based voice phone calls.
It’s not just Microsoft which is heading into subscription software. Adobe has the Education Enterprise Agreement (EEA) which offers the complete suite on a subscription basis to primary and secondary schools. For colleges and universities there is the Enterprise Term License Agreement (ETLA). There are also schemes tailored for bodies responsible for multiple schools, such as local education authorities.
Creative Cloud is a massive resource, comprising nearly 30 applications and services including industry standards such as Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign for page layout, Dreamweaver for web design, and Premier for video editing. Applications are available for both Windows and Mac platforms and you can mix and match, depending on your mix of devices.
There is also Creative Cloud for education, which now offers the whole suite in smaller quantities suitable for classroom deployment or even named individuals.
If you are not concerned with web design then there is Corel’s License for Learning which provides CorelDraw, Paint Shop Pro and Painter. CorelDraw is still a very powerful vector graphics editor, while Paint Shop Pro has many similar features to Adobe Photoshop, and Painter is a natural media drawing tool for budding electronic artists.
There are plenty of other desktop applications that can make working with Office and Adobe products in a learning environment more convenient. These range from SmartDraw, which produces quick and easy diagrams of all kinds, and ABBYY OCR, which converts printed documents to editable electronic ones, to MathMagic the equation editor, and Parallels, which enables Windows to be run on a Mac. With such tools the full workflow of a typical office or design studio can be easily simulated in the classroom.
Running a modern school or college requires the support of quality administration software. There are many areas where applications can help, but we’ll look at two of them here to give an idea of what’s available.
Monitoring student progress, in academic terms as a result of tests and exams, behavioural incidents, both good and bad, and attendance via the use of registers are requirements throughout the education system. BromCom’s Teacher’s WebFolder is an interface which can be used to access live data from systems such as Capita SIMS, installed across one or more educational establishments. It enables attendance registers to be taken electronically and replaces the need for paper registers to be physically carried between classrooms and admin office. Teachers can access historical attendance data within the classroom to assess changes in attendance patterns, and it promotes good timekeeping with features such as pupil photo display during the taking of the register.
The attainment and achievement module does a similar thing for test results and gives immediate access to the pupil’s past history to help assess any changes in attainment patterns. Behavioural details can also be kept live, and with an intuitive interface, complete with appropriate password safeguards, make it easy for teachers and administrative staff to gain quick access to all this information.
Work on new projects within schools often involves brainstorming sessions for staff. Software such as Mindjet’s MindManager helps visualise ideas related to a core project. For those who haven’t used mind mapping software, it enables thoughts to be organised in relation to others, so that you gradually build up a map of the things that need to be done to achieve a particular goal.
In higher education, MindManager can also be useful as an organisational tool for students. Anybody involved in research, having to make use of a series of disparate sources and to organise them into a logical whole to support an essay or paper, will find it extremely useful. Some students have claimed that using MindManager to organise research can improve speed of access to information by a factor of as much as four when compared to holding the same information in a multi-sheet spreadsheet. The very process of mapping the information can also create the paper’s structure, reducing the need for separate outlining software when approaching the writing.
These are just two of the large category of administrative tools suitable for education. Others include to-do lists, referencing tools and desktop classroom management.
There are many places in which conventional ‘front of class’ whiteboard teaching may not be the best medium. For distance learning and for distributed lessons to a classroom of tablets, it may be better to have a recorded teaching session, so that individual help can be offered to those with particular needs. There are a number of tools for creating electronic lectures, such as TechSmith’s Camtasia Relay, Adobe Captivate and iSpring Presenter.
Camtasia Relay grew out of Camtasia Studio, one of the top-selling screen recording utilities. As well as being able to record actions on-screen, which is useful in ICT and computer training, it also enables live video recording and can combine the two in various ways to, for example, show a procedure on-screen with a tutor talking it through in an inset.
Recorded videos can be hosted on a school or college server and accessed from any device with suitable permissions. Teachers and lecturers can build in quizzes at the end of a recorded session, to evaluate the level of understanding individual students have attained. These results can be exported for tabulation and graphing in applications such as Microsoft Excel.
Netop Vision is a desktop and classroom manager which enables teachers to monitor and assist a complete class of students, each working on his or her own PC or device. The teacher’s computer screen shows thumbnails of all the student screens, and at any time the teacher can select a thumbnail to display full screen exactly what the student is seings on his or her screen.
The teacher can chat to a single student or to a group, and can take control of any screen remotely to help a student complete a given task. Messages can also be sent by students to ask for specific help.
Teachers who have used Netop Vision say it is an improvement over walking round the class and hovering over a student’s shoulder. The students become more self-reliant, only referring back to the ‘help desk’ provided by the teacher when really necessary. They are more inclined to experiment and find their own solutions to minor problems that they might encounter.
Although suited best to ICT sessions, Netop Vision can be used to monitor any class using computer assistance. For example, a class undertaking Internet research to complete an assignment in any subject can benefit from the whole-group monitoring and assistance provided by the management software.
Netop Vision Pro also includes Learning Center, a cloud-based tool that is particularly useful for ‘blended learning’. This is an education system formalised some ten years ago that allows students to take some control over not only the pace and direction of delivery, but also when and where content is delivered, so blending the face-to-face classroom with web-based solutions.
Vision Pro Learning Center helps with delivery and assessment under such conditions.
Alternative teaching aids include the music notation software Avid Sibelius, and Keep I.T. Easy Flowol, a small but feature-rich application for making flowcharts.
Students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, or those who suffer from a visual impairment, can often be helped with the appropriate software fitted to their computer or tablet device. Applications such as Ginger, which provides a contextual grammar checker as well as a spell checker and text-to-speech facilities, can help people needing extra support in English.
Addressing dyslexia, literacy difficulties and English as a second language, Text Help Read and Write Gold offers a text-to-speech screenshot reader, phonetic spell checker, speech recognition and a picture dictionary, so that students can locate words through images. The software can also tint out areas of the screen, so the phrase being read is effectively highlighted on the page.
Physical disabilities, such as visual impairment, can also be helped through software. Apart from the assistance available within Windows – such as the text magnifier and Narrator for basic text-to-speech – there are third-party applications available that can take things further.
AI Squared’s ZoomText Express also magnifies text, like Windows, except that it anti-aliases the fonts, so that they look as sharp at double size as they do at normal magnification. Additionally, the program can tint backgrounds to applications to cut down screen glare, or reverse pages to white on black. It can also enlarge pointers and cursors to make them easier to find.
Audio Notetaker from Sonocent can help both visually impaired and normal-sighted students with note taking. The software uses the microphones built into many laptops and tablets and enables students to annotate what they hear, so key parts of a lecture can be labelled.
After the lecture, any recorded passages can be extracted, or reordered as best suits the individual student. Images and other text can be added to help illustrate points from a lecture, too.
Careful choice of assistive software can help students with difficulties integrate into mainstream learning environments.
Securing student data is both vital and required by best Data Protection practice. One of the easiest ways to do this is to encrypt it. DESlock+ uses 256-bit encryption on all hard drives within a system, and also on removable devices such as recordable DVDs and USB drives. The encryption runs as the computer starts up, so insuring against intruders trying to boot from an independent operating system.
The program also encrypts email for anybody using Outlook and is linked to a Cloud service so that, in the event of a local encryption server failure, access to data is still maintained until the hardware is fixed. Another popular encryption solution for schools, colleges and universities is Becrypt DISK Protect. This provides both full disk encryption and pre-boot authentication, and is claimed to be up to the standards required by NATO and the Ministry of Defence.
Additionally, of course, it’s important to protect not only the servers and networks in any educational system but also the computers used by students from malware attack. This is particularly important if students are allowed to bring their own devices to school and use them in the classroom.
There’s a surprisingly large number of Internet Security suites that can be employed to protect these systems, but names like AVG, F-Secure and Kaspersky rank high in the results from organisations like AV-Test. These labs spend their time testing the efficacy of software in detecting and eradicating viruses and other malware.
The networks installed within educational establishments, particularly larger colleges and universities, is every bit as complex as those found in business, and arguably subject to even more stress. Paessler PRTG Network Monitor is a popular tool for monitoring the performance of a network and identifying problem areas before anything actually crashes. It comes with real-time dashboards to monitor status and performance, and can alert administrative staff in a number of ways including by email and SMS text message. There is also Impero which combines the network management features of PRTG with the classroom management features of Netop Vision.
Also important is data backup which, in all but the smallest of schools, needs to go beyond the capabilities of the tools provided with the operating system. There are a wide range of solutions available, many of which can work with cloud-based services, so providing a further layer of security.
Those particularly suited to educational environments include BackupAssist, which offers special Education and Not-For-Profit licences, and Symantec Backup Exec through its Academic Program. CA ARCserve Backup offers component-based licensing, so you only pay for what you need, and has a Government Licensing Program (GLP) that covers academic institutions. Finally, Veeam Backup is available in a number of versions, including Veeam Backup Essentials for smaller organisations, at reduced rates to qualifying educational establishments and to students and teaching staff.