Ubuntu November Idea

The problem with the school holidays is it gives me more time to think about things than usual. Most years I come up with something to trial in the school to suck up some more of our staff free time, this year I’m thinking maybe we could extend the idea to a few others that are reading this.

Earlier in the week I read this post on the Grumbledook blog and it got me thinking. We really need to be working harder on minimising our IT spend in schools and we’ve never really put Ubuntu (or any other Linux flavour) up to a proper test to see if we could actually work with it. Like the man in the short at the start of Toy Story 3 said, we stay with the familiar.

So, my plan is to attempt to run for the whole of November using Ubuntu. I’m going to dual boot my laptop/desktop and see just how far I get before I need something it can’t do. Throughout the process I’ll document how it goes, from the install through to how I find editing video there compared to with iMovie/etc.

But, I want to go further than that and really produce some useful case study work. In addition to my own personal set up:

1) As many other members of the Wildern team will do the same thing. This will obviously cover the technician roles, but also out into our media/programming/teaching types as well. The more people involved the better the results will be, and the wider the range of needs covered.

2) We’ll set up a dual booting IT suite and look to deliver our ICT curriculum using the same setup. Again, documented to look at all the various aspects of the process but with a focus on the impact on teaching and learning.

At the moment I’m feeling incredibly positive about this as a trial. Feels to me like something that the sector needs, and hopefully the data we produce from it will encourage others to try it too. I’m hoping I have the impact to get plenty of our own staff involved as well as the wider Hampshire area, but it would be great if others would be prepared to join in too. Drop me an email/stick something in the comments if you fancy it, and please pass on to others you might think might be interested. As a school we probably have some resource available to help others who want to try but don’t feel too confident, and if you’ve already been down this route we’d be really appreciative of any support/tips you might have.

Edit- this is getting a slightly larger response than expected so I thought a quick Google Form would be an easier way for people to say they’d be interested. No pressure, just add yourself if you want to know what’s going on. Thanks…

Image source- Tux by Matt McGee. CC licensed on Flickr

Moodle Monday: Banning users from messaging

We like the Moodle message block, but it can be open to student misuse. This simple little trick allows you to create a new role that stops certain users from using the message block. You could use this to ban particular students, or whole groups of users.

The Moodle permission system has a set of rules about what certain types of users are allowed to do. It calls these roles. There is a teacher role (allowed to create and edit content), a student role (allowed to view content), and a few others. The default system roles are well set up (you can tell this as you probably haven’t changed them), but you can also create your own. What we want to do is take an existing role and just modify it to remove the message capability.

To do this:

  1. In the site admin menu go users-permissions-define roles.
  2. Select the ‘Authenticated user’ role.
  3. Click the ‘duplicate role’ button. It will ask if you are sure you want to do this.
  4. Your duplicate role will appear on the list, click the edit button.
  5. Rename the role (something like ‘banned from messaging’)
  6. Now, search the list of permissions for the ones related to messaging. There are 2 you need to find: Read all messages on site, Send messages to any user.
  7. Change the tick box next to these two to PROHIBIT and save you changes.

These steps will have left you with a role that will allow you to ban students from messaging. The reason we used prohibit rather than prevent is that this stops them from using messaging even if they have a higher level of role somewhere else on the site. So, if they are set as students in other courses they will still be banned from messaging there too.

The last part of the job is to assign your banned students to the role. Again in your admin menu, go users-permissions-assign system roles. Select the banned from messaging role and add the students to it. This completes the job.

Can my school buy a Kindle?

Earlier this week our librarian popped in to see us. They purchased a Kindle but had since been told that the license agreement wouldn’t allow them to use it with students. This didn’t seem right to me (& it seemed a shame not to let them open the box…) so I decided to have a look in a bit more detail. A call to Amazon & a bit of Googling later this is the current position in the UK.

Can a school purchase a Kindle?

Yes. Just like you buy anything else from Amazon.

Who do I license it to?

The Kindle needs to be licensed to an individual, not a company. However, this doesn’t stop a school purchasing them. When you get your Kindle it has to be set up to connect to an Amazon account for purchasing books, so this needs to be a person. The way I see it there are 2 options:

1) The school librarian sets up an Amazon account and links the Kindle to this. 2) School bursar (or whoever you call your finance person/people) has an Amazon account and links the Kindle to this.

Personally I think I would swing towards option 2 (linked to the purchasing books question below), but either is possible, and Amazon don’t have any problem with you doing either.

How many can we have?

There is no limit to the number of Kindles you can register on one account. The reason why you would want to register them all on the same account is so you can share books between the devices. If the school purchases a book it would be good to be able to put it on any Kindle it owns. There are however rules about the number of devices that can have any one book on. More on this below.

It is worth noting this can also include the Kindle app for Mac/PC/iPad/etc.

How do we purchase books?

From the Kindle store. There are a few different ways a school could approach the purchase:

1) The librarian could purchase the books and get this money refunded by the school.

2) The school could purchase Amazon gift certificates for the librarian to use to purchase books.

3) The bursar could purchase books using the account they set up when licensing the device.

I think option 3 might be the neatest here. If the device is registered by the finance team it makes sense for them to purchase books in the same way they deal with all other school purchases. The advantage I see to this method is it provides more control, more accountability. With option 1 or 2 the audit trail of what has been purchased isn’t so tidy.

Interesting parallels here with the iTunes Store, another current purchasing problem area for schools.

What are the rules about these books?

This is a slightly different approach to how you would use a paper book, so worth expanding on. When you purchase a book from the Kindle store you are buying a license to read it rather than the physical book itself. You purchase the license to read the book and choose to put it on your Kindle. Generally, a book can be on up to 6 devices (that are registered to you) at any one time, but this varies depending on the publisher. Some will be less, some will be unlimited.

Amazon help you manage this- if you try and put a book on too many devices it tells you so you cannot accidentally break the license agreement. Before you purchase a book the Kindle store provides information on the number of devices it can go on.

Can I loan the device to a student?

Yes. Giving the physical device to a student to read in the library/wherever is fine by Amazon. In much the same way I could loan my Kindle to a friend, they are happy for the librarian to give the device to a student. You might want to think about insurance implications for the school, but that isn’t really specific to this one device.

Can I loan a book to a student who already owns a Kindle?

This is currently a no. The books the school purchase can only go on to devices the school owns. I do expect this model to change though- the US Kindle store allows loans (with a whole other set of rules), and organisations like Hampshire Library Service have a system in place to loan eBooks. One to come back to.

Thanks to Colm at Amazon for all the help, and credit to the fantastic I Love my Kindle website for some of the detail. If anybody knows any different to this do add to the comments, but this appears to be our current position.

Ideology vs. commercial success

We’ve recently been learning how mentors can help and/or hinder our progress through the startup maze. Here’s what we’ve discovered about picking and choosing their advice.

Like many other early stage tech companies we have mentors helping steer our work in the right direction. If you’re in a similar position I’m sure you do too, or if you’re thinking about getting in to the startup world I’d recommend you get some. You can’t be an expert at every aspect of your business, but you can find people who’ll help you learn pretty fast.

That said, I’ve become increasingly conscious of the need to pick and choose the advice we take; it’s easy to be awestruck by ‘older & wiser’ influences and to forget the reason you started the company in the first place.

Specifically, the advice I’m currently struggling with is that you should split what you believe to be right from doing what will make you the most money.

Whilst I appreciate our mentors are there to guide our company to success, I strongly believe that success is about more than just a big number in a bank account.

I’ll give you an example from the software license world. From a purely commercial perspective annual contracts are preferable to rolling monthlies. Your accountant will tell you it’s about financial security – once the customer is in you know you have that guaranteed income for the year.

But, there are countless examples of successful companies who ignore this advice. FreeAgent and 37Signals to name just two- great products that our team couldn’t do without, excellent company ethos, businesses doing very well. In short, the kind of company we would want to emulate.

The real way to keep a customer is to make a product they love, and offer it on terms they aren’t challenged by. For us that equates to free trials, and easy entry/exit routes. It doesn’t mean they have to promise to pay you for a whole year even if it turns out they decide your software wasn’t right for them after 3 months.

Making your customers sign for a year may mean you don’t lose money if they hate it and stop using it early, but what you do end up with is a customer who can’t get out of their contract so are stuck complaining about paying for something they don’t want.

To my mind, designing a contract to keep people even if they want to leave is a negative starting point. Of far greater value than keeping one client for the minimum of a year is losing one early that is still positive about their experience with you. This particular product wasn’t for them, but others may be and the experience was still good enough for them to recommend you to others.

If, like us you’re starting-up or doing the freelancing thing, one of the main reasons you chose this route was to not have a boss and to run things the way you want. You don’t always have to agree with your mentors.