Network nightmare

This is the tale of dealing with the frustration of an intermittent WiFi connectivity issue and finding a solution.

It’s almost 5 years since we moved into our present house. Because I had been experimenting with WiFi Internet sharing using my iMac as a base station in our previous house I was confident we would manage networking without cables in the new house. Shortly after we moved in I signed up for ADSL broadband and hooked up a Belkin ADSL modem-router which worked well for sharing the connection with the laptop my wife used from toward the back of the house.

Just more than 3 years ago we moved my wife to an Intel Core Duo Mac Mini that allowed her to run some Windows embroidery software using Parallels. Its WiFi connection to the Internet via the Belkin router worked well until a few months ago when it began to occasionally drop, or not make, its connection.

I tinkered with it, as we do, and noticing the presence of other WiFi networks in the neighbourhood, surmised that there might be interference. Using CoconutWiFi I was able to see that at least some of the time one or other of the other networks was on the same channel so I tried selecting and locking to a different channel.

The intermittent connectivity problems continued and appeared to be getting worse so in the week between Christmas and New Year I decided it was time to find a solution. I also decided that it was time I implemented WPA security rather than relying entirely on filtering by MAC address – effective for keeping interlopers out but inconvenient when adding guests.

I began by confirming with my iPhone and laptop that I had plenty of signal at the mac Mini and beyond. That should have told me something about the nature of the problem. If some devices could connect from the troublesome location and beyond it was unlikely that interference or signal strength could be the problem.

Confident that I had signal, I implemented WPA security and managed to get everything, including the Airport Express on the stereo system back on the network and operating. The Mini had intermittent problems with connecting at all or getting other than a self-assigned address from the DHCP server. My iPhone and iPod Touch had similar problems so I recalled that I had read that cycling power and creating a new network could fix such problems. I shut everything down and brought them up with a different name and passkey on the network. The problems persisted.

I tried moving the Mini closer to the base station. That worked sometimes, mostly when it had been off for a while, but not at other times. At one point I had it sitting beside the base station and unable to see the signal and connect. I began to think that the airport card might have a fault, possibly temperature related. Short of buying a replacement computer – likely to happen in 2010 but not yet – I needed some way to get a WiFi connection to the Mini without using the internal airport card (or paying to replace it). Searches of the likely producers of alternative WiFi cards with USB connections came up blank – at least for devices with easy to install Mac drivers.

I played briefly with the Airport Express but discovered it would not do the necessary bridging to the Mini ethernet port. However, in my searching I came across some mention of ProxySTA using the newer 802.11n version of the Airport Express. That, and an Airport Extreme for the near end, gave me the solution I needed. The Belkin box is now functioning as a simple ADSL modem with PPPoE and DHCP handled by the Airport Extreme. Moving to N should increase range and the Airport Extreme is dual band which allows for additional flexibility down the track. The fix cost me more than I would have preferred but at least the extra pieces of equipment represent an upgrade to the home network and should be useful for the next several years regardless of what eventually replaces the Mini.

Take a tablet for a headache?

Late last Friday afternoon I received an offer that I found difficult to refuse. One of our Faculty members had been participating in a trial of tablet computers, primarily for marking electronic assessment submissions, but was struggling to find the time to fully participate in the trial and decided to opt out. Suddenly the Faculty had a ‘spare’ tablet computer from the trial and wanted to pass it to somebody who might be expected to use it. That somebody was me.

I’m not a tablet computer ‘true believer’. I have serious doubts that it is worth spending roughly twice the money on a tablet for no real gain for what I consider ‘normal’ use and a considerable loss for a Mac user. In fact I recently commented elsewhere on a post by another participant in the trial, in relation to online marking with a tablet computer:

I’m not sure that I’d like using a Tablet PC (even if that PC were a Mac ;-)). I’ve always had an aversion to people touching computer screens and leaving greasy finger marks and for a long time I used a fountain pen in preference to a ballpoint because I liked writing with something that had sufficient friction for me to feel confident the tip would not slip all over.

Then again, I really do like using my iPhone and have learned to look past the greasy finger marks. I also used a Palm with a stylus for several years and found that easy enough to adapt to. Perhaps I need to try doing something with a Tablet PC and see how that works out but the tools I have been using for the past few years seem to work for me and inertia is strong.

The tablet trial is being run by Birgit Loch as part of her USQ Teaching Fellowship. As part of that trial, those of us who are experimenting with tablets are expected to document our experience and share it with others involved in the project. There is a closed USQ space for that purpose but I figured I could post here and copy or link to get my thoughts into the ‘official’ space.

I spent an hour or so tinkering/playing with the tablet on Friday evening. The onboard help files were not all that helpful and, without administrator access (why do techs insist on setting things up like that?), I apparently could not install some online help that appeared in a search. A quick exchange of email with Birgit straightened me out on how to get the ‘digital ink’ flowing and I was able to scratch around in a test file.

The weekend and Monday were committed so it was Tuesday afternoon before I sat down in my office, transferred some downloaded student submissions from my Mac to the tablet, and proceeded to try my hand at marking. Because I had seen folk using tablets in ‘pad’ mode, once I had the files in place I rotated the screen and went to work with the stylus.

It took me longer than it would have with the keyboard and mouse to insert a new page at the end of the submission and insert a copy of my marking guide. Part of that was lack of familiarity with the Word 2007 interface (I use 2008 on my Mac), part was my usual awkwardness with Windows (it is not my Mac), and some was the trackpad (not a mouse). With a bit of exploration I was able to record a macro that automated the insertion of a marking guide at the end of subsequent submissions.

Working with the stylus was awkward enough but I found that, although I could enter text using the on-screen entry box or keyboard, I could not locate the inking controls that Brigit had helped with on Friday night. I resorted to using Google on my Mac to find instructions, but even when I found the controls to switch on inking I could not get it to work. After several attempts I opened the test file I’d used on Friday night and had no such difficulty there. Back in the student file ink would still not activate and I spent most of 30 minutes becoming increasingly frustrated. Eventually I tried a different student submission and found that ink worked immediately. Evidently the first file was different in some way. When I checked later with Birgit she had no explanation either. Most of the 27 submissions I had to work with had no problems but at least one more did. Apparently some DOCX files behave that way for no reason we could discern. Ultimately the fix for such files was simple – save in the older DOC format and get on with it.

After talking with Birgit I adjusted my approach to use the tablet in a normal laptop configuration, typing any larger blocks of comment and using the stylus with ink for less formal comments. Even then I found it awkward to write accurately and legibly with the stylus sliding on the surface and the calibration apparently not quite right. Part of that may be related to my inexperience with the equipment but I suspect it is inherent in the device. I worked through my 27 files reasonably quickly, though no more so than if I had used my usual techniques on the Mac and probably less legibly in places. Once they were done I transferred the files back to the Mac where I was able to upload in bulk to the assessment system.

What of the tablet and the headache? Based on this limited experience I don’t think it is going to cure any assessment headaches for me and, though on this occasion it did not cause me any real headache other than some brief frustration, I see no reason yet to move from my previous scepticism about tablets. Given a choice of spending the difference between the price of a decent Mac laptop and a tablet on something else I’m sure I’d find plenty of ways to spend the money on things that would do more for my productivity than a tablet.

More new tools online

The rate at which new tools, mostly online and free, are appearing seems to have ramped up recently. I’ve scarcely had time to register their existence and bookmark them. I’ve certainly not had time to try them all but many of them do seem to have some potential for teaching, learning and research online.

Writeboard is a new tool from 37signals, the company that drives project and persoanl organisation tools, Basecamp and Backpack. Writeboards are sharable, web-based documents that support versions, rollback and subscription. Spaces like this should be able to support collaborative work among teams separated by time and distance.

SynchroEdit is an open source, browser-based simultaneous editor. Multiple users can work in a document at the same time and maintain synchronisation of changes. It seems both more capable and more complex than Writeboard. It provides a WYSIWYG editor rather than the wiki-style tags of some alternatives. It might be interesting to try working with colleagues in such an environment but I expect it might take some getting used to.

Writely is yet another browser-based editing solution. In this case the text can be imported from Word or HTML and exported in various formats, including to a blog. Collaboration is arranged by email.

Mayomi is a free online mind-mapping tool built in Flash. The site claims that the tool is still in development and that features like printing and export may be added in time. For the moment, the best that can be done is to take a snapshot of the map image.

Just in case Backpack is not your choice for an online calendar there is also Upcoming.org.

There are plenty more out there with new tools and combinations appearing daily. How many of them have any lasting value, for education or otherwise, remains to be seen but their emergence certainly adds a touch of excitement to poking around on the web.

Ubiquitous computing and beyond – an emerging new common sense model

Chris Lott at Ruminate writes about a Singapore presentation by John Seely Brown:

Brown recalls key points about rapid change in computing, communication, storage and content; P2P and social software; and the interaction of economic, institutional and technological change. His common sense model has 5 components:

  1. Supply push is becoming demand pull. For education this implies a shift from building stocks of knowledge in schools to learning on demand.
  2. Open source movements are active in programming, knowledge creation and learning.
  3. Entertainment is changing from passive to active with massively multiplayer online role playing games with social life around the edge.
  4. Literacy is being extended into new multimedia forms.
  5. A creative class is rising through participation in niche communities of interest/practice.

Most of these ideas are not entirely new but seeing them together encourages thinking about what they may mean for education. The presentation file is available as PDF. It was there when I wrote the post and linked to it but it seems to have gone missing since.

(Via Stephen’s Web – OLDaily.)

SITE 2005

This post is something of a departure from my usual quick notes about other sites. It’s a very minor revision of my mandated report to the Faculty on conference travel.

I spent the week from 26 Feb to 7 Mar traveling and attending SITE 2005 – the 16th Annual Meeting of the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education in Phoenix, Arizona. This was the 8th SITE conference that I have attended. Annual attendance has afforded me the opportunity to develop strong networks with leaders in the field of ICT in teacher education and to play an active role in the affairs of the society. The majority of attendees at SITE are from the USA, with smaller but significant contingents from other parts of the world, especially the UK. Attendance had grown from around 600 in 1998 to around 1500 in 2004. The slightly smaller number, around 1200, in 2005 reflects the end of the PT3 funding program in the USA.

Many of the same issues surrounding the uptake and impact of ICT in education, especially teacher education, have persisted over the years. At the same time online and distance education issues have assumed a higher profile and, over the past couple of years, there have been significant numbers of papers around ePortfolios. A new area drawing strong interest this year was the role of games and simulations in education.

The SITE Proceedings will be available in the AACE Digital Library which is easily searchable at http://www.aace.org/dl/.

What follows represents some of my thoughts on highlights from sessions I attended.

The keynotes this year were consistently thought provoking. The first day keynote from Yong Zhao of University of Michigan presented some of his work on an ecological approach to studying ICT in education. I had read some of the published material but it was stimulating to hear a first hand account of the research approach which treats ICT and its particular uses as new species attempting to establish in the existing ecology of the school. The parallels are convincing and the approach encourages researchers and implementers of ICT to take a more holistic view rather than focus on isolated implementations of technology.

The second day keynote was given by Ian Gibson, from Wichita State (formerly from USQ), the incoming President of SITE. Ian’s presentation included live connections to contributors from around the USA and from the UK. His challenge to the audience was to look beyond the technology to the effects that it could have. His examples included the work of the Global Nomads Group http://gng.org which is working with youth around the world to establish links that promote greater levels of understanding.

The third day keynote was given by Eduardo Chaves, a philosopher from Campinas University in Sao Paolo, Brazil. He spoke about the preconditions for ICT integration in education, arguing that true integration requires a change in how we conceive education and that it may be easier to achieve the shift in thinking in countries where the current education system is less effective and people are therefore more open to radical change. He presented a view of education as more about learning than teaching and of learning as integral to life. ICT is disintermediating, makes information more readily available to all and removes the need for memorising facts, allowing the focus to shift to solving real problems of the learner.

The final keynote was presented by a panel comprising Glen Bull, Peggy Roblyer, Ann Thomson and Lynne Schrum who, as editors of the key journals in the field, spoke about the need to develop a research agenda that would focus more closely on the impact of ICT on learning. This is an urgent need in the USA where the NCLB program is requiring “scientific research” to justify funding but it is equally applicable in other parts of the world. They outlined a project that, through a series of sessions at various conferences and through editorials in the journals, will work to develop a research agenda.

I attended several presentations related to ePortfolios in teacher education. The most significant was a symposium led by Helen Barrett who has been an active figure in ePortfolios for several years. Helen outlined some background about the nature and purposes of portfolios. Neal Strudler (UNLV) and Keith Wetzel (ASU) spoke about the preliminary results of their joint sabbatical project in which they have been researching ePortfolios in 6 US universities that have “mature” implementations of ePortfolios across entire programs. The initial evidence suggests that there is a wide variation in how ePortfolios are envisaged and implemented. They hope to develop guidelines for institutions seeking to introduce ePortfolios and to provide a useful basis for cost benefit analysis of ePortfolios. There appears to be clear evidence that successful implementations require significant resources and methods that ensure broad faculty support and seem to work best when the program includes an ICT course to develop skills that are reinforced in later courses as students work with the portfolio. Joanne Carney (WWU) described a research project related to ePortfolios and outlined some factors that needed to be considered. I attended a later presentation by Neal & Keith in which they presented the results from a survey of US universities which they conducted as part of their search for ePortfolio cases. There were few teacher preparation schools that had “mature” ePortfolio programs despite the expenditure of considerable time and funding on development.

I attended a symposium on games and simulations in education. The session was very well attended and covered some aspects of learning from games and degree programs being mounted to prepare games developers. There is strong interest in the potential of games to reach learners of all ages. Other departments at USQ have researchers (notably Penny Baillie-de Byl of Math & Computing) working in games development and it might be productive to engage in discussions about how we might work with them on the development and evaluation of games in education.

Following Ian’s use of simple video conferencing in his Keynote, I attended a session which reported on the use of video conferencing (iSight/iChatAV with Mac laptops and/or Marratech conferencing rooms) for remote supervision of professional experience. Students had opportunity to invite university supervisors and/or peers to observe classes that were beamed directly from the classrooms. The project was conducted in Wyoming where the population is relatively sparse and students are often a considerable distance from base for their experience. The use of video conferencing was perceived by students and cooperating teachers as less intrusive than a supervisor visit and, in some cases, saved supervisors several hours of travel in each direction. There may be value for USQ in trialing such a system.

An invited session by Judi Harris (College of William & Mary and known for her virtual architecture work on patterns of telelearning) was an unanticipated highlight. Judi led a conversation about what is meant by ICT integration and how we might better approach it in schools. The thrust of her argument was that the overlay of constructivist pedagogical assumptions that is common to most people promoting ICT might be blinding us to alternative applications that would be initially more acceptable in some contexts. She challenged us to consider meeting teachers where they are and helping them to use technologies that fit their pedagogy as a first step.

I was involved in four presentations, two with Petrea (Jerry Maroulis is third author on one), one written with Margaret Lloyd of QUT and the fourth as sole author. The first presentation with Petrea presented some results from the IRGS funded project we undertook with Jerry & Louise to look at final year students’ intentions for ICT integration during professional experience, the actual experience and the facilitating and inhibiting factors. We had a constructive conversation with Keith Wetzel (ASU) who thought that the evidence suggested our students may be attempting more with ICT than they might expect from equivalent students. One of the goals of our IRGS study was to establish baseline data against which we can compare results for the new program in coming years.

The second paper with Petrea presented results from the survey of staff that we conducted in 2004 to look at integration of ICT within the BEd courses and staff perceptions of their personal capability with ICT and priorities for development. The response from the audience confirmed that the relatively low levels of self-reported capability with applications beyond WP, PPT, email and Internet searching were typical of many teacher education faculties. there was some useful discussion of approaches to developing capability.

My paper with Marg Lloyd used activity theory as a framework for comparing data from previous studies Marg had completed with QUT colleagues with a view to finding common explanations for low levels of ICT adoption by some teachers. Our conclusion was that the teachers in the study were, in activity theory terms, confusing the tool with the object. There was some useful discussion of similar observations elsewhere and approaches to working with teachers who appeared to be reluctant to adopt ICT.

The fourth paper I presented discussed the potential for development of an online community to support doctoral students in our program at USQ. Again there were examples of similar challenges being faced elsewhere and some useful comments about approaches that appeared to have borne some benefits.

In addition to attending 35 to 40 presentations I also attended several committee meetings and met with the editor of the journal, JTATE, for which I review. Since 2002 I have been SITE Vice president of the committee for Graduate Education and Faculty Development. I chaired that meeting again this year and attended others dealing with the conference and distance education. The committee I chaired sits with several others within the SITE Information Technology/Generalist Council. Ian Gibson has chaired the council since 2002 but vacated that position on taking up the Presidency of SITE. I was elected unopposed as chair of the council which is the second tier leadership structure of SITE.