Category Archives: apps

Airbase: web made easy

UPDATE: Airhead Education Ltd have built a production version of AirBase. Check it out here!

Airbase is a resource I’ve put together to help learners and educators by giving them a place to record and find exciting Web stuff for learning and teaching. The simple premise of this project is that the Web is useful for learning and teaching. It’s useful because stuff on the Web is dynamic, accessible and very often free.

The Web is no longer just about information. For every piece of software on your computer, there’s probably an equivalent free Web app. Not only that, but Web apps don’t need installing, supporting or updating. The strength of the Web is also its weakness. There’s a lot of stuff out there and most of it is not easy to find, even with a good search engine. Airbase is a crowd-sourced solution to this challenge.

Educators and learners all around the world are finding really useful stuff on the Web all the time. The challenge is collecting this information together in one place and making it easy to find what you need, when you need it. Crowd sourcing uses a little bit of a lot of people’s time. If 10,000 people spend 10 minutes entering their top 10 web resources or apps into Airbase, we’ll have 50,000 great items for you to search! The Web makes this possible. If you like the resource, recommend it to a friend. If you don’t, tell us how to improve it.

I’ve built Airbase with two free Web apps: Google Forms and Google Spreadsheets. Google Forms is used to collect the information. Google Spreadsheets is used to store and filter the information. The information is freely shared for anyone to use. If this approach proves successful, I will move the resources across to a database so they can be searched more easily. This will also be free!

In order to contribute to Airbase, all you have to do is complete this form for any great Web sites, apps, resources or files you find on your Web travels. The more information you put in, the better it is for everyone. I estimate it takes less than one minute to enter all the data for one item.

The benefits of Airbase for you are that:

  • Educational categorisation means you’ll quickly find the stuff you need
  • You’ll only take time to submit good stuff so you’ll only find good stuff
  • Ratings and reviews will help you to identify the best of the best

All the entries are automatically stored in a spreadsheet which you can visit. The spreadsheet has filters which mean you can quickly find useful stuff which meets your particular needs. Don’t worry about duplicating information. Although you can search to find if a site already exists, each duplicate will carry its own rating and possibly other unique information. I will worry about rationalising data if the concept works.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. Please comment here or include them in the suggestion box at the end of the submission form. Yes, that means you have to submit an item in order to make a suggestion!

I do it in the cloud!

For a while now I’ve been exploring the value of the so-called ‘cloud’ technology paradigm to the education community. For clarity, I’m referring to services hosted off-premises and delivered to premises via wide area network connectivity. I’m interested in this technology paradigm because it offers the possibility of increased access to technology at reduced cost. More for less. But how?

Hosting applications and data away from school premises means fewer or no technical staff employed by the school. Every pound/dollar spent on employing technical staff to manage, deploy and/or support your technology is a pound/dollar less spent on the technology or staff directly supporting learning. A 2006 research report by Becta in the UK found that for both primary and secondary schools, around one third of the technology budget was spent on formal technical support. Pushing services out to the cloud reduces or eliminates the requirement for in-house technical support because technology management, deployment and support take place off-premises. For companies who deliver these services, aggregating demand means a lower cost-base, higher resilience and faster innovation. Cloud services also increase access. For example, web applications (apps) are available on any web-enabled device, including mobile devices, and fulfil the promise of anytime, anywhere, device-independent learning.

The pivotal question is: what proportion or parts of the user experience can be delivered with cloud services while maintaining or improving learning outcomes?

In order to evaluate the user experience, one must start with a baseline. Rather than use anecdotal evidence, I used audit data from three UK schools, two secondary and one primary. These schools are part of a large managed service and application usage data is recorded automatically by an audit tool. The usage was tracked over between 64 (primary) and 138 (secondary) school days in early 2011. It is worth noting that the sample schools had a high application diversity with over 3,500 application installed across all schools subscribed to the managed service. The technology paradigm is traditional client-server and MS Windows-based.

I don’t intend to reproduce all the detail from my analysis here, but I’d like to focus on some of the more interesting trends I identified. I excluded all browser events and non-user triggered events from the analysis. Firstly, I looked at what proportion of the events were ‘Office’ or equivalent, i.e. word processor, spreadsheet, database or presentation software.

Noting the high usage of ‘Office’ software titles, I reapplied the analysis, extending the range of applications to cover office and multimedia tools such as graphics, video and audio creators/editors. The objective of this analysis was simply to understand what proportion of usage a core productivity suite of software for education was receiving. The result were startling. This core productivity suite of applications was receiving very high usage relative to other applications in both primary and secondary schools.

Finally, I analysed the data with a view to understanding what proportion of the application usage might be delivered by an existing web app (as opposed to a local software application). We were trying to establish what proportion of a user’s current technology experience might be delivered via the web.Again the results were very clear. It’s quite possible to cover the majority of requirements currently delivered with local software applications with web apps. The key question that remains unanswered in this analysis is the relative merits of local versus web apps in supporting learning outcomes. In making this comparison, it would be understandable to think that the local version of the software is better than the web app but I want to challenge this assumption.

Most users, most of the time, use a small fraction of the total feature set of an application, especially core productivity applications such as Microsoft Office or indeed Open Office. So the first issue is one of utilisation. Local applications are generally too feature rich for most users, most of the time, and thus under-utilised. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of access to the same applications from any potential learning location and – as is still the case in the majority of schools – fixed provision of technology rather than personal ownership. Not only is utilisation of the resource low, but the utilisation of the capabilities of the resource is low. A double hit of inefficiency.

Most web apps are less feature-rich than their local cousins but they make up for it in other ways. They are upgraded regularly without any impact on the user and therefore evolve quickly with user demand. They usually have native support for collaboration and social engagement. Most importantly, web apps are available anywhere, anytime, and are broadly device independent. This means consistent delivery of user experience at home, in school or in any learning location.

So as a school leader, just imagine: you move to 80% cloud delivered services, saving money by reducing your support bill and paying less for applications. Into the bargain you greatly increase the consistency of the user experience and widen the choice. You use the saving to subsidise a personal device ownership scheme thereby further enhancing access, reducing your support bill further and focusing the attention of educators on what to do with technology rather than how to use it. Your learners are immersed in a web experience that they know and love already and will arm them with the skills they need for the workplace. Just imagine.

It’s my assertion that a cloud ‘desktop’ for education is here now, but as is often the case in the education community, we’re lagging a little behind . It’d cost less and deliver – arguably – more. I’m not suggesting that this is the end of local software; just that it is possible to have a lot less of it and use it as necessary rather than as first choice. We have the opportunity to put our learners at the heart of the web experience, absorbing the social and collaborative skills that today’s workplace demands, let alone tomorrow’s.