Settings for usability

Spent a bit of time fiddling with the settings as there were some slightly odd choices.  The wifi on the Lenovos appears to have a tendency to switch itself off and not come back to life properly when the tablet goes to sleep.  The annoying thing is it doesn’t actually report dropping the connection – the icon stays lit – you just lose connectivity.  Disabling and reenabling the wifi cures it.  Until next time! The advanced network settings were buried somewhat and we had to look them up to find the possible fix.  Switching off the option to disable wifi when sleeping will hopefully cure it.  There was also an option to never disable it when connected to a particular SSID.

Another setting which looked useful but rather baffled me was the automatic brightness option.  (And for ‘automatic’ read ‘random!).   In theory this automatically sets the brightness based on the ambient light levels.  In practice it made the screen fade to dim at random moments and after doing some background reading might also have been responsible for the screen blackout during setup which I’d put down to not giving it a thourough enough charge before starting.

None of these issues are really deal breakers especially as both assessors using the devices are fairly comfortable with IT issues, but they could be offputting when giving the devices to less confident users.


More on recording with the Lenovo…

Still potching with trying to get a decent recording I resorted to the little ‘map’ of where everything is and discovered the mic pickup is beside the lens for the front facing camera – i.e Flat on the desk when using the rear camera!

Another experiment with it carefully uncovered gave somewhat better results.  And using the front facing camera works fairly well.

Rear facing camera with mic unobstructed!


And using the front facing camera as we might in an observation.

Looking at the Lenovo tablets

This is a quick combination of trying out the video feature and looking at the first tablet choices we’ve bought in (A Lenovo Thinkpad tablet 10inch).

It came out very quiet so sorry about that-  Should have experimented with the mic setting first probably.  Hopefully it will work without a dedicated mic – recording ad hoc videos is one of the main things we want to do with them!  I also need to keep my eyes open until AFTER stopping the recording.

Well, some fiddling with the setting on the in built mic has not produced much improvement which is a shade disappointing.  It’s a bit better with the dedicated audio recording software and with the clip on collar mic that came with it, but the need to faff with that could be a drawback when using it for recording learners in the workplace and definitayel for doing recorded discussions with more than one person which is one of the main uses we hope to put it to.  I don’t think it’s the Lenovo specifically here – the little Acer that I only just started playing with has the same issue.

This is from the Lenovo using Soundcloud with the clip on mic.


In fact my phone seems to pick up better than either.  Perhaps by the nature of it – phones being designed to talk on after all!  Below clip is from my phone (Samsung Galaxy Ace with Soundcloud, no mic)

On the plus side the web access is very good on the Lenovo, all the various media, embedded calendars, video, Prezis all play without fuss.  Should be an interesting few months getting these embedded.


Upgrading to enable M-Learning

During our research into mobile Apps – The Wanted List we discovered we needed to upgrade Moodle and Mahara.

The much awaited official Moodle Android App is due for release any moment and requires Moodle 2.1 or higher.  Additionally Moodle 2.2 onwards has the MyMobile theme especially designed for mobile devices.  The bad news was our Moodle was lagging behind on version 2.0.4.  At the time of our last upgrade Moodle 2.1.1 was available but would not work on our webserver because it requires PHP 5.3.2 and we were restricted to PHP 5.2.

Fortunately, our web host, United Hosting had announced they were due to upgrade the servers from 5.2 to 5.3 on 10th January, so we upgraded to the latest Moodle 2.2.1 on 16th January.

Twitter announcement - Upgrading Moodle

Mobile Moodle

Everything went smoothly with the upgrade 🙂  With a little bit of configuring the MyMobile theme also works very well – though we needed to adjust the fixed width of the Google Calender and will also need to redesign graphical navigation so all elements adapt well to various screen widths.

We also upgraded to the latest Mahara 1.4.1 which supports the MaharaDroid app. MaharaDroid enables Android phones to share or upload content to Mahara and requires a minimum of Mahara 1.4.

Unfortunately we are experiencing a few browser and operational inconsistencies with the latest version of Mahara, particularly with regard to editing uploaded files in Portfolio Pages.  We are investigating:

  • Firefox 9.0.1: On some PCs the edit buttons not working on File uploads (but inconsistency between alike versions)
  • Chrome 16.0.912.75: Edit and Select buttons not working in the File uploads
These 2 issues also trigger a set of PHP errors:
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] [WAR] 8d (lib/errors.php:464) An exception was thrown of class PieformException.
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] [WAR] 8d (lib/errors.php:464) THIS IS BAD and should be changed to something extending MaharaException,
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] [WAR] 8d (lib/errors.php:464) unless the exception is from a third party library.
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] [WAR] 8d (lib/errors.php:464) Original trace follows
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] [WAR] 8d (lib/pieforms/pieform.php:528) No function registered to handle form submission for form "files"
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] Call stack (most recent first):
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] * Pieform->__construct(array(size 12)) at /home/administrator2/public_html/mahara/lib/pieforms/pieform.php:161
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] * Pieform::process(array(size 12)) at /home/administrator2/public_html/mahara/lib/pieforms/pieform.php:71
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53] * pieform(array(size 12)) at /home/administrator2/public_html/mahara/artefact/file/index.php:38
[18-Jan-2012 14:26:53]

The Mahara Bugtracker does not list these issues – the closest bug being Bug #891436 which mentions the same PHP errors.  I have made small customised changes to the Resume artefact as documented here, but I do not think it is at all related, so I will submit our own bug report.

Out of interest the demo Mahara site does not have the same issue using the same browsers, but I am not unable to confirm if the Mahara version is exactly the same version 1.4.1.

Also identified this bug:

  • Internet Explorer 7 to 9: Hyperlinks to uploaded content on portfolio pages only click-able on baseline of text.

And this is replicable on the demo Mahara website – this bug also needs submitting to Mahara Bugtracker.


Reported to Bugtracker 🙂

Summary Importance Status Heat
918262 Clicking links to uploaded files in Page view using Internet Explorer Undecided New 0 out of 4 heat flames
918259 Select and Edit files in Chrome and sometimes Firefox – different to Bug #819102? Undecided New 0 out of 4 heat flames

Further Troubleshooting

I updated Bug #918259 to reflect the fact that it wasn’t a bug after all.  The problem was caused by missing or corrupt files in the folder mahara/lib/pieforms.  🙂

Shopping for tablets at BETT

Yesterday will had our semi-regular trip to the BETT Show, this year with a fairly clearer than normal aim in mind – we wanted Android tablets…

The selection being offered was a bit smaller than expected, and of the three stands we mainly looked at (Samsung, Toshiba, and Lenovo) everyone seemed to have wheeled out the big guns for demonstration rather than their entry level offerings.

We were fairly tempted to change tack slightly and admired an exceptionally large smartphone from Samsung, a 5″ Galaxy Note – small enough to use onehanded but big enough for fairly easy reading, web browsing, and form filling. The Galaxy Tab devices at 10″ were lovely but unfortunately they wouldn’t be drawn on price, they work entirely through resellers and I suspect it might be well outside the planned budget unless they do a smaller version.

Toshiba offered a software management tool with the tablets to enable distribution of sets of apps and management and lockdown of access to web, marketplace etc which looked potentially useful as a time saving in getting set up.  The AT100 was around the £290 mark – a little higher than we’d planned but a bigger formed factor than we’d expected in the budget.  Fairly tempting.

Lenovo had a lovely handwriting interface integrated with Docs To Go which had very good recognition and a very slick looking setup but topped out the budget as the most expensive we looked at.

All of them ‘beeped up’ with the barcode badges to send more information, so a bit more browsing over the current week should bring us to a decision.

Apps – The WANTED List

So we’ve worked out a set of apps we’re going to give a go (always subject to update and change!) but there’s a few gaps remaining…

Moodle – a biggy.  We use Moodle a lot, but just at the moment our Moodle isn’t particularly well optimised for mobile use.  This might not be an issue on the actual tablets (it’s fine on a netbook), but if we want to look at the broader mobile picture it needs looking at.  There’s an official Moodle app for iPhone which is coming to Android “any time now” and two work in progress efforts (Mbot and MPage) both of which require Moodle 2.2 upwards (and we’re still on 2.0 pending an upgrade of our PHP version on the webserver!).  Server side the customisation for mobile also requires the update 2.2 for best results, so that’s on my colleague’s to do list!

Mahara – similarly we use the Mahara electronic portfolio which has a very new app to support direct uploading it which needs version 1.4 of Mahara and we’re on 1.3.  I suspect there might also be configuration issues related to the single signon we’ve got set up between Moodle and Mahara since direct log-on to Mahara doesn’t work well (if at all!)

Voice recognition – Possibly asking too much but I’m sure other people have had more success with voice recognition than we’ve had so far.  Any good apps out there for speech to text, that could be used to genuinely replace typing for lower literacy learners?

And in the other direction – text to speech tools.  The engine is installed but doesn’t seem well integrated – we’d ideally want something including reading of webpages, documents and to really put the icing ont he cake, OCR scanning from the camera.

Quizzes and surveys.  This one is just a research issue I think.  I was eyeballing Socrative which appears to be very similar to the eInstruction system we use for quizzes and survey’s in class.  Unfortunately it’s still in private beta.  Anything similar out there?

Choosing apps – The Experiments…

The current Work in Progress list of apps we’re going to put on and try out.  We’ve compiled the list in a collaborative Google doc, as well as tweeting and blogging out requests for suggestions from learners and our various connections.  (Feel free to tell us your favourites too!)

QRDroid – QR code scanner.  I use Google Goggle for this myself, but this one scores very well in the marketplace and seems to have a bit more functionality – Reference for learners, and will do voice input so hopefully can be a spelling aid as well.  The voice input works better with some staff and produces the occasional bizarre output like “manhunt this month” for “assessment”!

MindMap Memo and Mindjet for Android – Several of us here at ITeC are hooked on mindmapping, using and Mind42 mainly, neither of which have an app so I looked for alternatives.  There are hundreds so these choices are a bit pot luck, but on there because I liked the ease of creation of new links with MindMap Memo (just swish your finger from an existing node) and the fact the Mindjet will export in a heirachical text format – something I use a lot.  Would be particularly interested to hear what others have found useful here

DroidScanLite – Integrates with the camera to turn snaps of documents etc into PDFs or images and share them to various services.

Wunderlist – Shared task scheduling.  The plan it to have a list per learners that both they and the assessor can add targets, tasks and comments too. Thing recently marked as completed show up in a special section so can be viewed by the assessor and checked (and marked as not complete after all if needed!).  Has both web and app interface and will integrate with a Facebook account if wanted saving a bit of setup.

Evernote – I seem to be behind the game on this one, I know loads of people who swear by it and it gets loads of coverage but I’ve never used it.  It might prove to do some of the things we’ve looked at other apps for.

The First Apps

Identify a set of appropriate apps for assessment and learning with a focus on:

  • Free
  • Capable of being integrated with common standards within the organisation e.g. Google Docs, Moodle, Mahara
  • Literacy support and facility for alternatives to writing for theory elements
  • Visual learning – e.g. mindmapping tools
  • Time management and progress tracking

Task Two on our plan…

Step one was to have a look at which apps I already find myself using the most on my phone.  In fact, as we haven’t got the tablets yet I’ve set up one of the homescreens to have the collection of apps on it for reference and to quickly try out.

Google formed something of a core with the Search widget, and the GMail interface being essential.  We use Docs heavily so that goes on too, as well as the QR reader Googles.  (I also use Translate a lot in my Welsh learning) and Maps will be useful for assessors – finding the way to new work placements for visits is hugely simpler with it!

My phone arrived with ThinkFree Office Mobile on it which is useful as a quick tool for working with Microsoft Office compatible files which is useful as they always crop up even when trying to work more with cloud and open source resources.  There’s a free viewer, a mobile editor and a tablet specific version which I haven’t investigated yet – the mobile editor is the version on the phone, but about a fiver to buy.

We use WordPress a lot at ITeC (this site for one!) including our trainees Learning Reflections Blog, our main Trainee News site (hosted) and when learners do online projects they often use a WordPress blog and several apprentices are now doing the Collaborative Software unit of the ITQ qualification  Happily the WordPress App has an outstandingly well presented interface which is very well optimised for mobile.

As part of our assessment of what used to be called NVQs and are now called diplomas, we make use of ‘professional discussions’ – learners talking about what they know which is a much faster and easier way of gathering theory evidence. We have an MP3 recorder we use for this and various learners and assessors have already used their phones to do the same job.  Android generally arrives with a built in sound recorder in any case but the one I’ve been using on my phone for both work and Welsh is Rehearsal Assistant which is a little bit slicker, has good quality recording and allows instant sharing of recordings to various services or via email.  It also lets you create ‘projects and sessions’ – a bit like folders for storing recordings, so you could have a ‘project’ for each learner for example.  Sessions also allow you to add comments directly onto the audio at any point – something which we hope will speed up the assessment process as up until now ‘faster and easier’ has mainly meant ‘faster and easier for the learner‘ – assessing sound recordings, writing them up with timestamps and portfolios references and unit standards takes quite a while – it hopefully will be considerably quicker to do them inline – we’ll see!

SoundCloud has similar functionality to Rehearsal assistant with the difference that its online – recordings can be shared publicly or privately, and commented on by others.  It needs and account and some of the privacy and grouping settings are subscription only.  We intend to get an account as part of the grant to try it out in full.  (I use the free version for Welsh – the little pictures of people on the waveform are the comments).  It also will link to a Facebook account if desired saving one layer of setup.  It also embeds nicely in webpages, Moodle, blogs etc.

Also on the assessment front, screenshots and photos tend to feature highly so Skitch (an ultraquick markup tool similar to one of our favourites, Aviary Falcon) and Photoshop Express are also on the intro list.

Rounding out the list is DropBox for file sharing between different sites and Diigo Power Note, a web bookmarking, highlighting and commenting tool we use a lot for project work (as discussed in an RSC Wales newsletter (PDF) a while back)

Next up…  Apps which have been selected with by recommendation or because we were looking for something to do a specific job.

Thinking about hardware

We’ve come up with a rough spec for kit.

  • Capacitive touchscreen (multitouch)
  • Android 2.3 or higher (for no better reason that what the two assessor are using on their phones and already know – no sense making more barriers than needed!  It’s an approach which has worked well for us before with things like WordPress)
  • 3G (for those occasions we’re out and about without wifi)
  • Camera & Video/Audio recording (essential for evidence gathering and more or less standard anyway)

We’re looking mid-range in terms of physical size – don’t want something that’s a big to cart around as a laptop, but do want something that offers enough extra screen real estate to offer a real advantage over  a phone.

A bit of background reading dropped into my inbox my coincidence the same day, about the Kindle Fire we’ve been hearing so much about.  Not entirely a positive review, but highlights some of the issues to be aware of.

As we intend to loan the kit out to learners we’ve also put ‘robust’ as a desirable quantity and we’re not looking to spend more than about £250 per tablet.

Getting learners involved from the get go we’ve set up a shared Google doc and set them off looking for quotes based on that spec!

Thought and experiences welcome…