Microsoft PowerBI

power-bi-mobile-apps-all-upMicrosoft PowerBI is an excellent tool for use in presenting and analysing school data, allowing staff to explore and interact with data which traditionally may be locked away in complex and very flat spreadsheets.

Schools have access to a massive amount of data.   This includes information about each student, academic data from assessment and testing, or from professional judgments made by teachers.    Secondary schools will also have baseline data such as the Centre for evaluation and monitoring (CEM) MIDYIS or ALIS data.   You will have data on attendance and on where students have been acknowledged for their efforts, or where they have had to be warned regarding poor effort or behaviour.  The above only scratches the surface of the available data.   For me this has long been a challenge in that all of this data is usually in difficult to read spreadsheets, where without well developed skills in using excel for example, trends and patterns will not be easy to identify. Even with well developed spreadsheet skills, attempts to analyse and interpret will be time consuming.  In addition it is often extremely difficult to bring together data sets such as looking for possible links between academic data, behaviour, attendance, etc.

PowerBI allows you to take all of this data and start exploring it.    You can create reports which present the data in simple graphical form however allow for the data to be explored.    For example you might display the count of behaviour issues by gender.   Clicking on a given gender would then filter to this gender, thereby allowing you to see other graphs such as academic performance or attendance by the selected gender, but also still showing the full cohort average, thereby allowing you to see where a particular subset of students vary from the average.

graphs
The above example shows how PowerBI displays focus on a given subset of data within graphs.  The dark pink bars relate to the selected focus whereas the light pink show dark for the whole data set.

Clicking other graphs would then allow you to easily explore other subsets of the data.   You can create reports allowing filtering by SEN status, native language, gender, subject, year and any other fields for which you have data.

PowerBI also comes with its own analytics engine which will analyse your data and identify where subsets of your data deviate from the average.     It is clear Microsoft are continuing to develop this functionality as when I first used this it identified correlations which were obvious and therefore of little use however more recently when I have used the analytics it has identified some more useful correlations.   I suspect this area will be further developed over time bringing greater potential for how it could be used.

The one drawback with PowerBI at this point is licensing.    For free you can create your PowerBI reports for individual use or can share these as files for viewing in the Desktop application complete with full editing rights however the main potential as I see it is to centrally create PowerBI reports and share them via Sharepoint so that staff can access as and when required but without the ability to change the report and without the complexity of the desktop applications interface.   You basically present them with a web page of the data for staff to interact with and explore using the graphs and other visuals and filtering provided by the person who creates the report.   For this Microsoft are currently charging a per user per month cost.      Given the potential power which PowerBI could provide to schools my hope is that Microsoft will eventually reconsider this and make PowerBI more affordable for use by schools.

PowerBI for me is about putting school data in the hands of staff in a way that is quick and easily to interpret plus usable.   It is about being able to explore data by simply clicking on individual elements and about using the data we already capture more efficiently.    With carefully crafted reports, generated through discussion with staff, the time taken to manage and analyse school data can be reduced, yet staff can be empowered to know and use the available school data appropriately.   If you haven’t tried PowerBI with you school data I would recommend you give it a try.

 

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Microsoft Stream

microsoft_streamStream is another of the many Microsoft Office 365 apps which are available.   Stream is basically a video streaming solution designed in a similar vain to Microsoft Teams in that Groups are created and within a group, various channels can be created.

I have recently started experimenting using Stream to host our user training videos for our IT Services department.   Stream allows me to easily upload the videos and then provide a description including hashtags so that users can easily find videos when they need them.    As such users can easily find the training videos which relate to Microsoft Teams, to our management information system or to other topics based on the tagging of each video.

Another little feature of Stream is that it automatically processes the audio from uploaded videos and creates subtitles.    This makes videos accessible for those who may have a hearing impairment.  This seems like an excellent idea however in my initial tests it wasn’t sufficiently accurate to be of use and in some cases managed to create some spectacularly confusing sentences.   Thankfully you can easily download the created subtitle files, correct them and then re-upload them thereby solving this issue.   I would also suspect it may work better for those without a (mild) Glasgow accent like myself, plus I also think with time the engine which processes the audio will only get better and more accurate.

Outside of our current experimentation with Stream I wonder about using it with students where they might create a school news programme which is shared video stream or they might create vlogs as part of a project.    The walled garden of Stream makes it ideal for these kinds of uses as students can share with their peers and staff with the content limited to those within the school rather than the wider internet.

Stream, currently, is a rather basic app however in terms of allowing you to upload and share video content, often all that is needed is a simple app.   Stream therefore fits nicely.

 

 

Microsoft Teams

TeamsI have been playing more and more with Microsoft Teams for use in school over the last 6 months of so.    My focus to date has very much been on the teacher and department side of things as opposed to the pupil and classroom side of things however there are already a number of key benefits.

Discussion

One of the excellent things about MS Teams is the Conversation section.     This allows comments to be shared along with documents, links, etc very much in a similar vain to you would share things via social media.    Users can comment on the posts of others plus can “like” what they see.   As a way for teachers to share lessons thoughts and ideas along with resources, this is easy to do plus for those who use social media the format and process will seem very familiar.   For those not so engaged in social media it may take a little getting used to however not much, and as their colleagues start sharing resources and ideas they will soon be drawn in.   I also see this as a key opportunity to engage such staff in social media such as twitter given the wealth of ideas and resources bouncing around out there.

Communication

A department might decide as I have done to have a weekly briefing which is shared.    For me this is now published in Teams with team members invited to comment or action things in teams.    This in turn has allowed us to start to reduce some of our email traffic, where email had almost become the default method of communication.    As such ideas and resources might be published in teams, where I can view them when I have appropriate time as opposed to having them emailed to me as would have happened previously, where they would become just another email in amongst many emails.    If I really want I can receive notifications via email, however this is at each individual users control.

Collaboration

Teams allows collaborative working in that files can be shared.    Department staff might be invited to contribute to a joint scheme of work, with multiple staff able to concurrently access and edit a shared document.  Gone are the days of heads of department having to receive individual emails and comments from their team and then collate their responses.

Cloud Hosted

Through using Teams files are hosted in the cloud.   This allows users to access the files from any device, anywhere.   This offers a flexibility that was often achieved through the use of VPNs, remote desk or third party apps like Foldr, without the complexity.    Staff can easily download the app to their devices and then access it on an iPad, on an android device or on a desktop computer.

 Final thoughts

MS Teams is an excellent tool which ticks a lot of admin boxes in terms of sharing resources and allowing easy communications.   This is not however where I see its biggest strength.    Its biggest strength for me is in being a space for teachers to openly share thoughts, ideas and resources; An almost IntraTwitter system, internal to the school.  All the benefits of sharing ideas as in twitter but without the scale, a minor disadvantage, and without the online posturing about the “correct” way to teach or policy or educational theory, a major advantage of teams.

I haven’t as yet ventured into class teams however I am sure that will be something we will be looking at in the future and I am sure it too will bring with it benefits.

 

Future Gazing: Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The phrase “future gazing” has came up recently so I thought it worth sharing some thoughts on the future of EdTech as I see them.     As such I intend to share a series of separate posts on different technologies which might have an impact on education in the years ahead.

hand-3685829_640Artificial Intelligence

This is a big topic in the wider IT world but also increasingly in education.   The challenge is that AI covers a multitude of sins plus the application of the different AIs are substantial.

The holy grail of AI, as I see it, is the general-purpose AI.   Am not going to spend any real time in this area as this is, in my opinion, some way off.    When it does become a realisation, there is great potent

ial for it to be used in education to supplement teaching staff both as a virtual teacher, a virtual classroom assistant or a virtual coach or mentor.     As I said however, this is some years off.

More specific purpose AIs are much more likely to make an appearance in the short term.   An example of this might be a Mathematics AI which students can pose questions to in natural language, and that will then either provide answers or direct students to appropriate learning materials.   This isn’t that far off and is being used already on organisations help pages.    It just hasn’t thus far been focused on education.

Another application of AI might be in its ability to recognise emotions and activities of students.   This is already in trial in China.   Basically, this involves a classroom camera and an AI which analyses the facial expressions of students along with what they are doing.   This information is then fed back to the teacher to inform learning.    The teacher will get information on the students which appear confused or upset, indicating possibly they are struggling with the materials, along with data on which pupils have been busy with the work, which have been raising their hands to ask questions or provide answers and those which have been more disengaged or not participating.    From this the teacher can then decide how to change the learning activities, target questions or revisit concepts.   I suspect this AI could also be expanded to look at teacher questioning and provide feedback and advice on the types of questions being asked, the frequency and who the questions are directed to.  It might also look at the engagement of students throughout the school day to try and identify trends and develop a structure for the school day which is more in line with the physiological and psychological needs of students.

School data analysis is one area where I think AI is very close to being usable widely in schools.    Schools already are sat on a wealth of data in terms of the student academic data, student demographic data and pastoral data among others.    AI or machine learning can easily analyse the data and identify patterns which humans may not be able to identify.     At a school level this can easily be applied to summative academic results, identifying how different student groups perform, allowing comparisons across subjects, etc, however as we gather more and more formative data these AIs will then be able to feedback to teachers in relation to areas which students do or do not understand.   It will also be able to identify whether there is a pattern across different teachers therefore suggesting a change to how a particular topic is taught, or whether it relates to a group of students or to specific related topics.

In the wider school there will also be opportunities for use of AI.   In the dining hall for example AI might be able to examine data to identify possible lunch timings to improve efficiency.    Analysis of book titles taken from the Library might help in providing a window into pupil preferences and interests.    AI may have the ability to examine parents evenings and parents meetings to try and streamline these events and ensure everyone gets to see who they need to see with a minimal period of waiting.    Machine learning may be able to examine teacher performance management data and identify opportunities for peer support and peer learning to occur, or to identify cross school professional development needs.   Facilities use might be analysed to identify when they are under-utilised and then seek to make them available to the local community.    Teacher work days might be optimised through AI recommendations resulting from an analysis of our working habits looking at when we tend to send emails, our timetable, who we commonly meet with, etc.   These are just some of the ways in which AI may makes its way into our school.

Artificial Intelligence is going to make an increasing appearance in schools.  I think this is inevitable.   In actual fact I would say to some extent AI or Machine Learning is already in schools possibly in the schools firewall or mail filtering solutions or in the network infrastructure.    Going forward however it will become much more visible as it enters more areas of school life.       Or maybe like all good technology use, may become more common yet will be transparent in its use, with users unaware of where AI is providing help, support and guidance.

I think the general-purpose AI, the Data from Star Trek TNG, or HAL for 2001: A Space Odyssey is some way off.   In the first instance AI will provide hints and tips as well as other low-level recommendations or suggestions.     It is to this, and the possible productivity and efficiency gains that may result, that we should therefore first look.

The Surface Go: An initial trial

A couple of months ago I had a Surface Pro device on loan from Microsoft to see if it might be appropriate as part of my schools future IT strategy.   I was quite impressed by the device however the one stumbling point was the price of the unit.   When Microsoft announced the release of a cheaper surface device, the Surface Go, I was therefore eager to get hold of one to try it out.

Last week I took possession of a Surface Go on loan.   This post includes my initial observations based on a couple days of use.

boxSurfaceGoUnboxing

The unboxing experience for the Microsoft device was very much in line the experience you get unboxing Apple products.   Unboxing new tech item should be enjoyable; with the Surface Go, everything felt high quality and as if time had been taken in considering the design and function of each element.

Keyboard

Once I had the Surface Go out the next step was to connect the keyboard cover which had been supplied with it.   Like the bigger surface Pro this snapped happily to the magnetic connector at the bottom of the device, when held in landscape mode.    The keyboard was very much similar to that of the Surface Pro in terms of quality.    The keyboard is lifted slightly off the table you have the device on.    This gives the keyboard a slight angle which makes it more comfortable for use when compared with being rested flat on the table.   It also introduces a slight amount of play in the keyboard under typing.    I didn’t find this to be an issue with the keyboard giving a reassuring feel when typing.   The keys were slightly too small for my liking however I think this is simply to do with the fact the keyboard on my 13” Dell XPS is a fair bit larger than that on the Surface Go.    With time and repeated use, I think I would become used to the marginally smaller keyboard.    Another important point of note in relation to the keyboard is the large trackpad which it provides.   I found this easy to use and very useful.   I must admit to having spent significant time in the past on the road and therefore I am very used to having to use a trackpad as opposed to a mouse.   Having a decent size of trackpad for me therefore was a bit of a bonus.

Weight

Another positive aspect of the Go when compared to its big brother, the Surface Pro, is that the reduced size has resulted in a reduction in weight.   This makes the surface Go more comfortable to use one handed.   The Pro device is just a little bit too heavy for regular one-handed use whereas the slightly smaller go seemed to be almost designed with one handed use in mind.   This may not seem like an important factor however if you are a busy teacher on the move wanting to take quick notes then the ease of one handed operation is an important feature.     Compared to the iPad, the Go seems heavier however given it is a full desktop OS I think this is to be expected.   I also liked the bezel round the screen when using the device one handed as it clearly showed me where to put my thumb without encroaching on the available screen space.

penandpackageStylus

The stylus worked quite well as it had done in my test of the Pro device.   I will acknowledge that I don’t think it is quite as good as Apples in terms of accuracy however it was more than good enough for sketch notes, annotations and other common tasks.  I tested the ability to vary the thickness of lines in relation to the pressure exerted and this seemed to work well however am unsure how useful or if this would be sufficiently sensitive for use in creating art work.   An artist would need to try this to make this decision.   I do however continue to like the feature by which you can flip the stylus around and use the “eraser” button on the back of it.  This just seems so natural, harking back to the days of my HB pencils with an eraser on the end.

The Surface Go like the larger surface Pro allows the stylus to be magnetically connected to either of the short sides of the device.    When in landscape mode on a desk I noted that as a right-handed person I wanted to attach the stylus on the right-hand side, however this side also has the surface Go’s connection ports on it.  This is a minor issue as when in portrait mode, with the keyboard folding away to the left, the pen would end up on the bottom of the device as opposed to the top if connected on the right side.    This goes to show that there need to be some compromises when you are trying to design a device to be a tablet in portrait or landscape mode but also to serve as a laptop with keyboard operating in landscape mode;  you simply can’t have it all.

Camera

I tested the rear facing camera of the Surface Go using the Microsoft Lens app to capture a photo of my office whiteboard at an angle.    The app adjusted the image to accommodate for the angle and produced a clear image.    This seems to suggest that for basic use in the class, taking pictures of displays, student work, etc, the rear facing camera would suffice.    I then tried using the front facing camera with Skype.   Again, nothing extraordinary however it delivered a clear and usable image.   I suspect the main use of the front facing camera is likely to be for use video conferencing so this simple skype test to me seems to indicate the Go is up to the task.

Ports

The available ports on the surface were rather limited in a headphone socket, single USB-C, the charge connector and also the keyboard connector.   On reflection though I am not sure this is an issue as the iPad has but two connectors.   As we move to Office 365 there is no longer a need to have multiple USB ports on a device.   As I type on my docked laptop, I am using only a single USB-C port to serve two monitors, a full-size keyboard and mouse.    As such I can see why Microsoft went minimalist here.   During my trial I tried the Go as my source for my desktop dock equipment and it was more than happy running both screens at HD resolution which is perfect for those that have a fixed office space and would want to use a docking station.

Storage

The device I had came with a 128GB SDD.   With Windows and MS Office installed I was left with 85Gb free.   Not a massive amount of space but more than enough for the average user.

uprightwithpenandkeyboardIn Use

In use I found the Go simple but then again I have spent many years working on various windows platforms.    The interface is natural.   I will acknowledge that the screen size is a challenge in that the standard windows interface on the 1800 x 1200 Go screen can result in some icons being a little on the small side.   Even with the stylus some items are not easy to select and you end up having to use the trackpad.    This however is all the result of the smaller size of the unit where the benefit is lower weight and ease of use onehanded.   If you want a simpler interface for big fingers then the iPad is a better option, but your iPad will never replace your desktop; another example of being unable to have it all.     I liked the ability to use the sticky notes app and drop the teachers best friend, an electronic equivalent of a post-it note, anywhere on screen and then scribble notes on it.     Throughout use the device seemed responsive and going into the trial I was concerned that Microsoft may have cut the hardware significantly to meet the lower price point, resulting in a more sluggish and unresponsive device.   In my trial I saw no signs of this.    One little niggle I had was in how the device switched from portrait to landscape.   I found the device to switch sometimes when I didn’t want it to which was a little annoying.

Conclusion

Overall I liked the surface Go device.    The major issue of price, when looking at the Surface Pro, seems to be solved with the significantly cheaper Go device.   It is worth noting that the price is good, however the stylus and keyboard/case are extras and at extra cost, as they are with an iPad.   In relation to the lower cost, when compared with the Surface Pro, I had however expected this to result in significant deficiencies in the hardware and therefore in the experience of using the Go.   In use I didn’t see these deficiencies.    I will acknowledge that I only made use of the device for a couple of days so testing was limited and therefore issues related to the hardware may appear under more prolonged use and testing.     My niggles around the ease of use of the windows interface on a small screen are to be expected.   I get the greater flexibility of a desktop OS but this results in it being a little bit more fidgety in use.   Am I willing to accept this trade off?    Yes, as I would rather have a single device which I can dock and use with a screen and keyboard, than having to have two devices in a desktop/laptop and a separate portable tablet device.    I will also acknowledge that I don’t believe the Go will be up to any heavy lifting in very large complex spreadsheets, video or graphics related work.   It wasn’t designed for this.    The Go to me is a simple general use device, which will fit the majority of teachers and students who will be using Office 365 as their main tool.   Here the Go covers most, if not all bases.

Following my limited trial, I was positively surprised. The next step for me is to get a longer trial with the Surface Go to see how it fares in longer term use.

 

 

 

Microsoft Forms: Sharing access to form data

Was playing around with MS Forms yesterday when I came across a feature I wasn’t aware of.   Basically you can create a link which will allow others to access the a summary of responses to a particular from.    I have been looking for this functionality for a while as it is often useful to allow multiple people to be able to review responses without allowing them access to change the form.

To do this simply create your form then click the responses tab.    On the responses tab click the … icon to reveal the option to “Get a summary link”.

MS Forms Summary Link

You will then see a dialogue complete with a link to share with those who you wish to be able to access the data.

MS Forms Summary Link2

Now the above is useful however I must admit I would prefer the ability to access the data as a spreadsheet as opposed to as a summary list.   It would also be better if forms could provide specific access rights on a user level as opposed to in a link.   This is a feature I would also like to see where you are providing collaborative access to a form.   Here you are also able to create a link only, rather than to assign individual user level access.   Hopefully Microsoft are working on this.   For now, however, if you want to share responses as a spreadsheet or if you need user level access control you will need to look at using Google forms instead.

Changing the narrative, one thank you at a time.

text-2111328_640 (1)Recently saw the below tweet from Amjad Ali (@ASTsupportAAli) on twitter which I thought was a great idea.   As such I went and added it to my email footer in the hope of encouraging others to pay it forward.

“If your weeks been incredibly busy then it’s more than likely to have been super busy for a colleague or two of yours. End the week by sending them an email to say thank you. You don’t need to be their line manager. Just a friendly face. It’ll make a difference.“

This however got me thinking about the prevailing narrative around education and why it might often be seen as negative.

Lets first consider education theories and practices.  It takes a lot of effort to come up with an educational theory or practice.   This might be through action research efforts or through conventional research.   A teacher might first think up a new idea then might develop resources and content.  They then have to try out their practice with students.   This however isn’t enough as they either need to repeat this with the same students or ideally with different groups of students to check that their initial findings and beliefs hold true.   The issue is that it takes significantly less effort to prove a theory to be flawed.   This is the same for a lot of things.    Creating takes time and effort, however criticizing and identifying error and fault takes less.

The next issue we have is that when we remember things we tend to overweight the negatives.   This is likely a result of human survival instincts.    For our ancestors, the fact a particular fruit tasted very nice was less important to remember than the negative fact that the lions on the horizon consider us to be a key item on the lunch menu.     The result from this is that when we read reports online or watch reports on TV we will tend to remember the negative reports more than the positive reports.   This in turn builds up a negative picture in our minds even where we are exposed to equal number of positive and negative stories.

The above are just two reasons I believe that the narrative around schools and education is becoming negative.    The focus is on declining results, struggles recruiting teachers, lack of basic Maths and English skills along with other negative stories.   These stories all came readily to my mind.   I am sure I have seen lots of positive stories too however these don’t occur to me quite so easily.

This is why I really liked the tweet from Amjad.   It is time we started to change the narrative starting in our schools and among our hardworking educators.    If we each made an effort to thank someone in our school for their efforts, someone not necessarily within our line management, we might be able to start building more positivity.   We might start remembering all the excellent work done on a day to day basis.  The small achievements with individual students.    The moment of inspiration or the moment of intense engagement by a student which are often forgotten in the hard work of a term or an academic year.  We will need to work hard at this.   As I have suggested the negative memories and stories are stronger than the positive ones so we will need to share more positives than negatives even to achieve a balance.   But if we all commit to little things, often, like thanking our colleagues and also our students we might bring about a significant change.

The sooner we start the better………

And on that note, thank you for reading this and also thank you for the work you do in which ever school or educational capacity you work in.