Big changes in elearning sphere

 

MY EDUCATION WEEK:PATRICK BARRY, Digital development manager at the Educational Company of Ireland

THURSDAY

Meath beckons – the Royal County. I’m on the road early to visit a number of schools in Meath this morning, to review their ebook strategies and fine-tune plans for incoming first years this September. It is so encouraging to witness how schools throughout the country are embracing elearning, given the considerable potential it has to bring learning to life. My role as digital development manager with the Educational Company of Ireland encompasses ebook product development, business development, school deployments and support. One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of my role is talking to teachers, parents and pupils about their needs, fears and expectations around all things digital.

The classroom is being transformed with the growth of one-to-one student devices. Many teachers embrace it from the start. Others, understandably, are more cautious and reserved. However, the most important message I try to get across to teachers is that these devices are only changing how students absorb the content in line with their digital lifestyle, and that the teaching process is still as important as ever. Of course, depending on a school’s appetite for change, these devices can go far beyond simple content absorption.

I had a very productive session in St Fintina’s school, part of Meath VEC, as all of the stakeholders involved in ebooks were in attendance. We first installed ebooks within Meath VEC in 2009. It is great to see the needs and digital capabilities of schools advancing each year, and how the features of our ebook platform must evolve accordingly. Three years ago it was simply a case of installing a small application on a laptop that displayed the content. Now schools are comfortable discussing whether our 100-plus ebooks are HTML5 or ePub based, whether the 8,000-plus videos and resources are streamed or downloaded, and if user-generated content is backed up and synchronised to the cloud. Technology moves quickly.

On top of that, we only had Windows and Mac OS to cater for back in 2009. Now we need to be compatible with every popular consumer device, platform and web browser, from iPad to Android and the soon-to-be-launched Windows 8. The next big shift will be when schools adopt BYOD – bring your own device – schemes, at which point cross-compatibility with devices for ebooks will be at the top of every school’s requirement list, as well as the ability for students to log in seamlessly from device to device, with their content following them across the apps.

The months ahead will involve similar meetings with schools and VECs to review the past year and to plan for the year ahead.

Back to the office after these visits. The digital team is working at full speed, converting our 2012 publications into ebook format. It involves not only converting our existing book content into a digital format but also developing and sourcing interactive videos and animations that enhance the learning experience when using ebooks.

I leave the office at about 6.30pm and take a short drive to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown to attend a launch of our new primary English programme, Big Box Adventures. Great bunch of teachers there with lots of interest in the digital components of the series. I haven’t been operationally involved in this project, other than some early-stage digital-strategy sessions almost a year ago. But I’m here for the free sandwiches and coffee – as well as to offer my support, of course.

FRIDAY

A day of back-to-back first- and second-round interviews to fill new positions for Edco’s growing digital department, which will double in size this year alone. Up for grabs are several roles, including digital marketing assistant, digital co-ordinator/support, product manager and user-experience designer. First-round interviews are always CV-led and a chance to get a sense of a candidate’s personality. Second round is always task based.

Coming from a Java development background, I remember well the programming task thrown at me during my first interview out of college. When you think about it, hiring somebody based on just two short conversations and a task they have had time to prepare does not always guarantee the perfect candidate. It’s not easy to make decisions on the right person for the role. Weighing up personality versus experience versus attitude: what’s more important to the team and which is more important for the role in question? Thankfully, we get it right most of the time.

One of our colleagues retired today at 65, having spent 51 years with the Educational Company – more than half of the company’s 100-year history. Eddie McMahon started when he was 14 in Talbot Street, where the company was based at the time. Plenty of food, reminiscing and buckets of emotion. I’m three years with Edco this May, so I have a few years of catching up to do yet.

SATURDAY

The Irish Science Teachers’ Association conference was on today at the Science Gallery, at Trinity College – a really interesting place and well worth a visit. These events tend to be very productive, as they’re just the right size to chat to everyone and have good discussions with teachers on our approach to digital material – in this case our science content. The mix of exhibitors at the event is intriguing, particularly Jungle Dave, who visits schools with a collection of exotic animals. He had an impressive-looking lizard on display – I imagine it’s a big hit with schools. What better way to teach lessons than have the real thing in the classroom?

Saturday night and it’s a friend’s 30th. Between 30th birthdays, stag weekends and weddings, the summer’s already booked up.

SUNDAY

Day of rest . . .

MONDAY

The latest version of our Windows and Web ebook application is available for testing today. We have a test environment set up that is run by our developers, but I always like to get a copy myself on my devices for testing. No two schools are the same when it comes to network configuration and device-management policies. Broadband quality can vary dramatically, from 100Mb to almost dial-up speeds. It is one thing to test internally, but there’s no better test than putting it in the hands of the students. Before schools break for the summer, we’ll deploy to some of our test schools to confirm the build quality of the application. While out in the schools, it’s great to get feedback on the latest features before an official release is done. Windows-based schools will be looking for the September 2012 version in June, at which point they build an image of the device that is deployed in bulk to 40-plus laptops at a time, if not more. iPad and Android schools can allow students to simply download the app from the appropriate app store.

I’m mostly testing our new device-synchronisation feature today, highlighting and taking notes on my offline laptop application. A quick sync to the cloud and I can see the same highlights on the iPad and web app. Exciting feature, as it acts as a secure back-up process in case a device is replaced.

I ordered the new iPad today. Also floating around here is a Samsung Galaxy Tab, Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet and a Fizzbook. I’m spoiled with devices, as we need a copy of each for testing.

TUESDAY

I’m meeting with our Digital Skills Academy team this morning. A great, diverse group with a wide array of previous experience. The programme is focused on reskilling participants for the digital-technology sector by working closely with industry partners on development projects. They present me with an overview of the analysis and scoping completed on our project to date, along with the proposed next steps for implementation for the next phase. I’m looking forward to the prototypes in October. Some big innovations coming.

WEDNESDAY

I catch up with the development team today on our 2012 road map. Great team. They’re really pushing the boundaries with HTML5. Having been a developer in the past, I can appreciate what they have achieved. I moved away from programming after completing a master’s in ebusiness, although I still keep on top of new developments at a very high level, but my role doesn’t require a deep dive into programming any more. We discussed a new feature that integrates all of our additional digital resources, such as videos, audio files and PowerPoint presentations, into the ebooks directly.

At any point, students can pull up a list of available resources for the page they are reading. This is one of the most important features, as the resources facilitate one-to-one learning, something traditional textbooks can’t provide. For example, students can view all mandatory Junior Cert science experiment videos – recorded by our authors in a lab – ahead of actually doing the experiment in school. Equally, they can revise by watching the experiment in action again. Time in class and science labs can be spent far more effectively and efficiently as a result. In addition we are starting a process whereby our authors will contribute new content based on real-world events that will be added to the ebooks throughout an academic year, offering schools a truly dynamic publishing experience. As more ebooks and one-to-one devices are adopted within schools, we will start to see some truly innovative features that were simply not possible with traditional printed texts.

I spend time today with a Kilkenny school that is considering moving to ebooks in September. They have some valid questions around the requirements for deploying such a scheme. The question about broadband arises, and they had concerns over the speed of their network. While the speed of broadband in schools is certainly an important element of a successful ebook scheme, the crucial element that I try to drive home is the capacity of the network in terms of how many devices can connect simultaneously. I demonstrate our ebooks working in offline mode, and this seems to address their concerns, as it means that students can access their content while travelling or in rooms that don’t have Wi-Fi access.

I also receive some great feedback from a school in Kerry today. They adopted our ebooks last September, and enrolment for first years for September 2012 has doubled.

This week I was...

READING

Pricing on Purpose by Ron Baker – a book I keep coming back to

WATCHING

Homeland and This Week in Startups at iti.ms/IyUT23

LISTENING

I need to update my iTunes . . . Villagers and the Drive soundtrack. I also use Grooveshark.comregularly