Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ahead in the Cloud

Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the pilot of Google Chromebooks at St Ursula's Primary Academy in Bristol. I am working with a primary school in Cumbria at the moment to implement a similar solution for the start of the new school year in September.

A number of developments have occurred since the conception of the St Ursula's project that make a server-free solution with solid-state devices running remotely hosted applications even more compelling for primary schools.

The St Ursula's project used Google Docs (now re-branded as Google Drive) which, along with 25Gb of personal storage provides word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and forms database applications. These, alongside GMail and Google Calendar constitute a pretty good suite of office applications available free to schools as Google Apps for Education. However, the admin staff in the school I am currently working with are adamant that they want access to Microsoft Office and this was starting to look like the reason the school would shy away from a server-free model. They don't want the Web Apps versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel which come with Office365, they want to run the full versions of these applications.

I was stumped until I spotted a post on the Chromebook Ratings website that reviewed InstallFree Nexus with Microsoft Office.  At first I couldn't believe what I was reading, but a quick visit to the Chrome Web Store and two minutes later I was running a full version of Word 2010 on my Chromebook.

Installfree Nexus gives you 60 days free use of Word, Excel and PowerPoint and you will then be able to license the software by upgrading to Installfree Nexus Premium. This gives you:
  • Full-fidelity viewing for Microsoft Office documents.
  • Seamless integration with Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive, SharePoint, Office 365 and other storage services.
  • Microsoft Office 2010 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher) 
for an academic user's licence cost of $4.99 per month / $49.99 per year. 

Even more impressive is the fact that the solution works on Android Tablets, iPads and Chrome devices. Although office applications on a tablet without a decent keyboard sounds like a suboptimal configuration to me.

I demonstrated Installfree Nexus with Microsoft Office to the head and admin staff last Thursday and they were convinced. They will go ahead with Google Apps for Education on Chromebooks for classroom use  and Microsoft Office + Gmail and Google Calendar on Chromeboxes for the head and admin staff. An order has been placed for the new remotely-managed wireless network (Aerohive) and we have an official order form with Google for 30 Chromebooks (£266 each) and 3 Chromeboxes (£287 each). I'll keep you posted on the installation and commissioning process over the summer.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

No Knead Bread and Frugal Food

A quiet day today. Sporadic email traffic and a sense of quiet satisfaction at having dealt with everything in my in-tray and given the dog a good walk. So, time in the kitchen with no sense of guilt that I should be out earning a crust but having the time to bake one instead.

One of the joys of living in Cumbria is proximity to the Old Watermill at Little Salkeld ( ; a working flour mill which has a great tearoom and produces a range of excellent flours. Driving over to a meeting in Gateshead via the back-roads a couple of weeks ago, I called in at the Co-op in Lazonby and was pleased to see a shelf full of Old Watermill products. I picked up a couple of bags of Miller's Magic and was about to head for the till when I spotted something I hadn't seen before. The usual brown paper bag but bearing a green label with the intriguing words "No Knead Flour". On closer inspection this mixture of coarse wholewheat flour and pinhead oatmeal promised to be able to produce a loaf simply by mixing with warm water, salt and yeast, leaving to rise in a 1 lb loaf tin and then baking in a 230C oven (210C in a fan oven) for 30 minutes. I bought a bag, pushed it into the cupboard when I got home and promptly forgot all about it ... until this morning when I went searching for pasta flour (that's a posting for another day).

I put 288g of the flour in a mixing bowl with 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt and 1 teaspoon of quick-acting dried yeast then added 300ml of very warm (but not hot!) water; stirred the lot to a sloppy mixture and poured it into a non-stick loaf tin which went into the airing cupboard until the mixture had risen level with the top of the tin (about 40 minutes). After 30 minutes in the oven (230C) the loaf slid easily out of the tin and the picture below shows the finished product. The crust slice has since disappeared with a helping of Bowland whey butter!

The loaf has an open texture and will probably be good toasted. It's delicious as it is.

I'm the lad who got 17% in a Chemistry exam when I was 13 so I have no idea how this works ... but it does.

Whilst the loaf was baking I browsed the recipe bookshelves and pulled out the first recipe book that Gill and I bought after we married - Delia Smith's "Frugal Food", the Coronet paperback that cost the princely sum of 70p back in 1976. You can see the effects of 36 years of regular use in the picture below. And look how young Delia loooks!

There are so many good recipes in this little book that is is no surprise we have returned to it often as our family grew up. I don't know if it is still available or has been updated (some of the recipes are "of their time") but if you haven't got a copy it is certainly worth seeking out.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Savoury Bread & Butter Pudding

Having just finished the remains of last night's sweet bread and butter pudding with a dollop of crème fraiche my memory spooled back 37 years to when Gill and I were living in a student flat in Morecambe waiting for her to finish college. In those days we kept a handwritten recipe book in an old school exercise book. This went missing when we moved house a few years ago.

In the mid 1970s, there were two rival children's TV magazine programmes, Blue Peter on BBC and Magpie on ITV. The former had pedigree and status but the latter boasted the beautiful Susan Stranks which made it required viewing (although my excuse was that I needed to watch so I could have a conversation with my class about it next day). One of these programmes had an item on food in Tudor / Elizabethan times and they gave a recipe for a savoury bread and butter pudding with cheese, leeks, sultanas and mustard. I copied it down and made it for supper the next day. Memory tells me it was delicious and possibly a contributory factor to Gill agreeing to marry me later that year. I looked at the recipe a couple of times subsequently but never got around to making it again. 

I think I could busk it - and I probably will in the next couple of weeks but if one of my readers (?) has the recipe (what are the odds on that, I wonder?), do let me have it.

Ah, Susan Stranks ....

A Server-Free School

One of my concerns at the moment is designing an ICT solution for primary schools that minimises their requirement for technical support whilst maximising the ease of use and reliability of the equipment and applications. Here's a report I wrote on a pilot project we ran at Partnerships for Schools with E-ACT and one of their primary academies. I hope it will be useful for any primary schools looking for a different and reliable solution.

The Server-Free School - a pilot project for sustainable ICT infrastructure and equipment in primary schools

The ICT Advisers at Partnerships for Schools have responsibility for supporting Academies, Free Schools, Studio Schools and UTCs in planning and procuring their ICT provision. Over the past two years we have become increasingly aware of the need to drive down capital and revenue costs for ICT and have been active in seeking ways of achieving this.

We were concerned that many of the solutions being proposed for smaller primary schools in the Free Schools programme were technically quite complex and required specialist on-site support. We were also concerned that schools were being expected to purchase equipment rather than leasing or renting as is the case in most other sectors.

With these concerns in mind, we started to investigate the potential for reducing the complexity of on-site ICT infrastructure and equipment and taking more services (especially free services) from the “cloud”. We were particularly concerned to trial devices that did not store programmes or content locally, thus reducing the need (and cost) for on-site technical support to install and maintain software. We became aware of the Chromebook laptop from Google and following further investigation decided that this would be the ideal device for a trial project.

We shared our thinking with a group of ICT Directors from Academy groups at a meeting in July 2011 and were subsequently approached by the ICT Director of the E-ACT group of academies which had recently taken over a small independent school in Bristol that was due to be re-opened as an academy in September 2011. The school had spent little on ICT in recent years and its infrastructure and equipment were in need of an upgrade to include WiFI coverage.

Infrastructure Upgrade
The school went out to tender for a wireless network to provide coverage across the whole school site. The competition was won by PW Comms UK Ltd from Lymm in Cheshire. Over the half-term holiday week in October / November 2011 they installed new Cat6 cabling and active infrastructure with 24 Trapeze Wireless Access Points and 2 controllers as well as a 24 port HP Procurve PoE switch. A fibre link was provided between the main school buildings and the adjacent sports centre. The cost of this infrastructure upgrade was £37,600 + VAT

User Equipment
The school previously had an ICT suite with 25 Windows PCs and a single PC in each classroom attached to an interactive whiteboard (a mixture of Promethean and Smart boards). There were also Windows PCs for admin in the school office.

The school decided to get rid of its ICT suite completely and use the room for other purposes. All PCs were replaced with 60 Chromebooks (47 for pupil use and 1 for each teacher and member of the administrative staff. The pupil devices are stored and charged in EcoCart trolleys in the classrooms. 33 further devices for pupil use are on order for April 2012.  All IWBs are now Smart Boards.

Chromebooks have proved to be robust and reliable in everyday use with no equipment failures reported so far. However, the school advises that any school contemplating a similar approach in future should retain at least one Windows laptop to help with configuration of printers and active network equipment. Chromebooks are not suitable for those tasks at present.

All devices use Google Apps for Schools with the Google Docs suite of office applications. The school replaced its old management information tools with the ScholarPack MIS which is a remotely hosted (cloud-based) service. This is accessed by the headteacher, all teachers and the admin staff. The school has found ScholarPack to be reliable and responsive to their requests for additional features to be added to meet their particular needs. The frequent additions and changes to the MIS system mean that there is no printed or online manual but the company responds quickly to email requests for help.

Teachers and pupils find the Google Docs suite of applications easy to use and comment that the facility for pupils and staff to work collaboratively editing a single document has transformed their way of working. This is a feature which the school hopes to make even more use of in future.

Pupils are allowed to install free apps from the Chrome App Store on to their personalised desktop. This approach works well on cloud-ready devices like Chromebooks because no apps or data are stored on the device and the personalised desktop appears instantly as soon as a user is logged on to any Chromebook, even if they have never used that particular device before. It is interesting to note that several pupils have installed apps to help them practice basic maths and language skills. The ICT Manager can ensure that unsuitable apps are not added by pupils.

The Chromebooks are connected to the Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) and projectors using the USB and mini-VGA ports. This allows the teacher to show web-based material and to use the interactive surface of the IWB but not the coloured pens which come with the Smart Boards.

The school purchased HP Laserjet Pro 1415 multifunction laser printers which support printing across the Internet through the ePrint function. All Chromebooks use the Google Cloud Print app to send work to the printers. This works reliably but when printing long documents through Cloud Print admin users experience frustration as they are unable to complete other tasks until printing is complete and this can take an excessive length of time. As there is no direct network connection between the multifunction printers and the Chromebooks it is not possible to scan directly. However, the printers will scan images to a USB memory stick which can be uploaded on to the Chromebook. If conventional printing procedures do not work, it is possible to email documents directly to the printer. When printing photographs, the staff tend to transfer these to a memory stick which is then inserted into the printer.

The school has recently ordered additional USB devices such as TuffCams and recording microphones and Beebots, Easi-view visualisers and anticipates no problems in using these with the Chromebooks.

Staff Development / Support (on-site and from Google)
Google provided a Google Certified Teacher to lead an after-school training / familiarisation session for all teachers as soon as the Chromebooks were installed in October 2011. This was followed by a second after-school session in March 2012. The staff praise the quality of this training highly and say that it has helped them to make effective use of the Chromebooks. The headteacher comments that “what the trainer helped the staff achieve in a relatively short time was incredible”. The school feels that the gap between the first and second training sessions has been too long and has resulted in some staff questions going unanswered and slower progress in making full use of the equipment and software.

However, the Google programme of training is not tailored to meet the needs of administrative staff and the school feels that this would be a useful addition to the programme. As a result of the change to Chromebooks, the ICT manager feels that a school could manage without on-site tech support. Admin staff could add and remove users and generally oversee the management console in 1 or 2 hours a week. Most staff requests relate to blocking websites given the current situation on filtering.

The school has had to resolve lots of technical issues for itself including understanding how print services need to be configured and even something as simple as knowing the keyboard shortcut to set the CAPS LOCK. It would be helpful if Google were to develop an online forum with FAQs to help schools setting up a Chromebook solution for the first time.

It is also recommended that Google considers adding an official Chromebook Education Forum to Chromebook Central to deal with enterprise deployment issues and highlight OS changes when these take place - “patch release notes”.

Cost and Sustainability
The school purchased its Chromebooks with an up-front payment of £568.42 per device however it is possible to lease the equipment for £15 per device per month for the WiFi only Chromebooks (and £17 per month for the Headteacher’s 3G & WiFi version). This includes access the the Google Chromebooks Management Console and replacement of any faulty equipment for a 3-year period.

The maintenance contract for the network is £2,737 per annum
SWGfL broadband annual recurring charges are £5,487 for a 20Mb fibre connection.

There are no licensing costs for Google Apps or the Google Docs office suite and this has resulted in a saving of approximately £1500 per annum to the school. Many apps are free and those which are paid are usually a one-off charge.

Printer consumable costs are currently higher with the new system. There are more printers than previously and the staff have not yet taken advantage of the fact that documents could be shared electronically rather than printed. They have established a central admin folder for policy documents. Print Management Console allows the ICT manager to assign users to particular printers and to track the number of print jobs.

Electricity usage should be considerably lower with no servers and browser-only devices. The school took meter readings in September 2011 before the pilot commenced and will compare these with readings in April and May 2012 when temperatures are likely to be comparable.

A major benefit of the server-free approach using leased “browser in a box” devices such as Chromebooks is that the school’s costs each year for ICT are predictable and it is easier to budget for an ICT solution that is affordable. The reduction in revenue costs for technical support and equipment maintenance is substantial. In the case of St Ursula’s, the total ICT costs for a 68 device solution would be no more than £25,000 per annum with no “spike” in capital costs when equipment needs to be replaced.


  • The concept of a “server-free school” has been proved and such a solution should be considered by primary schools as they seek to renew / update their infrastructure and/or equipment.
  • It has been possible to find satisfactory replacements for most of the applications which were previously used by teachers and administrators. The cost of many of these replacements is much lower.

Here Goes!

My first blog posting. I'm almost as nervous as the moment I set off down the luge track on the Calgary Winter Olympics park for the one and only time. More on that, perhaps, on another occasion.

I'm going to use this space to share thoughts and experiences from my work as an independent consultant on technologies for learning and also my passion for cooking which I have far more time to indulge since retiring from full-time work recently.

Combining the consultancy work with house husbandry is an interesting experience. I'm now expected to prepare evening meals for my partner and our two grown-up (but still at home) sons. Whilst I may have spent yesterday reading and preparing for this morning's teleconference with the Expert Council of the Skolkovo Foundation in Russia; as far as the rest of the family is concerned, I was at home and therefore had plenty of time to prepare an evening meal of a sufficiently high standard to meet their expectations. This has become the norm.

This morning, number one son announced that he had caught a bug from his girlfriend and would not be going to work. The sounds of sneezing, groaning and occasional farting could be heard each time I passed his room. He emerged just before noon and announced that he could just eat some mushroom soup if I had time to make it. The assumption being that I had lots of time on my hands despite the incessant pinging of my Blackberry to announce the arrival of another email.

So here's my recipe for a quick and tasty mushroom soup that isn't so thick you could trot a mouse on it. More on the mouse in a moment ...

Invalid's Mushroom Soup

Finely chop a 250g pack of chestnut mushrooms and a large onion.
Melt 40g of unsalted butter in a saucepan, add the mushrooms and onion, cover and sweat for 5 minutes over a medium low heat (4 on our induction hob).
Boil the kettle and make 1 litre of chicken stock using a couple of Kallo Organic stock cubes.
Remove the lid from the pan, sprinkle in a heaped tablespoon of plain flour, turn the heat up a notch and stir constantly for 2 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and gradually stir in the stock.
Add a bouquet garni, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then put the lid back on the pan and leave it to simmer over a low heat (2 on our hob) for 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat, take out the bouquet garni and stir in 150 ml of milk and the same amount of single cream.
Blend using a hand blender or liquidiser then reheat gently.

I served this with croutons made with stale white bread (crust removed), cubed, tossed in a little olive oil and cooked on a baking tray on the top shelf of a hot (220C) oven whilst the soup was on its 20 minute simmer. It seems to have done the trick because the invalid is now sufficiently recovered to be hogging the living room sofa whilst marking end-of-year geography test papers.

Now, back to the mouse. Last Thursday afternoon, whilst Kendal was rapidly submerged by an apocalyptic downpour, I sat in a first floor flat in some local, sheltered accommodation with Ken and Marjorie. They are both in their late eighties,Geordies born and bred who moved to Kendal a few years ago to be close to their daughter. They are both gifts for any oral historian of the North East, but someone needs to get to them quickly. Anyway, I'd popped in for a cup of tea and Marjorie was telling me how their daughter had taken them out for lunch the previous week to a local golf club. Vegetable soup was on the menu and was Marjorie's choice of starter. When it arrived, she looked at it and said to the waiter, "I can't eat that. It's thick enough to trot a mouse on!". To his credit, he immediately offered to return it to the kitchen and get the chef to let it down with some stock.