Category: Articles

2010-07-13

Permalink 10:08:37, by Eric Baber Email , 973 words, 20565 views   English (EU)
Categories: News, Articles

Thoughts on the Dell Streak

Yesterday I received a Dell Streak and already like it a lot. I thought I'd put down a number of impressions in writing.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Streak is a bigger-than-a-phone-smaller-than-the-iPad device that calls itself a "tablet". It's got a 5"/12.7cm screen, which makes the whole thing just barely fit into a shirt pocket. It'll very comfortably fit into a jacket pocket though, and it somehow feels like it's aimed at the type of person who would be wearing a (suit) jacket.

One of the first thing that strikes about it is the fact that it's designed to be used in landscape mode, unlike most phones, which are designed to be used in portrait mode. The physical home, menu and back buttons are down the right-hand side, and the home screen is always displayed in landscape mode and doesn't rotate unlike any of the other screens, so it immediately tells you what the whole machine is about - consuming content, basically, rather than making phone calls. Yes it's also a phone but my guess is that you'd look pretty silly with it stuck to your ear; used as a phone it would definitely look like a throwback to the first carphones of the 80s.

I say "you'd look pretty silly" because I haven't actually used it as a phone yet, and my guess is that I'm not alone in that. It's clearly designed for people who read and input text a lot - to that effect it's got a full (virtual) QWERTY keyboard whenever text entry is required, unlike the phone-style keyboard input of most mobiles. The expanded screen size makes inputing text much easier than on, say, the Nexus One given the increased likelihood of actually hitting the right keys; having said that, the iPhone is pretty much the same size as the Nexus One and text-entry on that is good, so maybe it's as much a software issue as a hardware one.

On that note - software - the thing that irks me most is that the Streak (in the UK at least) is still on Android 1.6 rather than 2.1 or even 2.2 like you can get on the Nexus One. Attempts to update it have so far eluded me; chances are it would take a manual update of a type "not supported by Dell", which is annoying given that it's a brand-new device.

What else. Reception is excellent - usually at work I get one or at most two bars on most of my phones. On the Streak I'm getting four and even occasionally five. Whether it's actually lying to me a la iOS who knows, but download speeds are better than on other phones I've used at my desk, so it seems to be accurate.

I've also installed Kindle and have downloaded a couple of books I'd already started reading on it. Reading on the Streak screen so far is good - I've always struggled with reading any decent amounts of text on the Nexus One or the iPhone, but this screen is big enough to display a decent amount of text in a reasonable font size which is nice. And a praise for the Kindle architecture - it's great being able to read a book on another device, close it down, fire up Kindle on another one and immediately carry on reading where you left off without having to remember where you'd got to. Very nice indeed.

As to apps, the Android Market now has everything I want, and a whole lot more. One curious thing that struck me is that when logging into the Market via the Streak it serves me up predominantly paid-for apps; when logging in from the Nexus One it serves me up predominantly free ones. Fluke? The fact that the Streak is running 1.6 and therefore perhaps supports fewer apps, and those happen to be fee-charging? I have no idea, but it's definitely a marked difference. I doubt it's as a result of the OS version - I've been able to find and install every app on the Streak I'd already had on the Nexus One, so it doesn't seem to be a matter of fewer apps being supported on 1.6. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this difference?

A minor thing - having a larger screen-size also makes it easier to keep the home and adjacent screens tidier. It's nice being able to put more of your commonly-used apps on the home screen. As I say a minor thing, but nice nonetheless.

Another not-quite-so-minor thing - I do miss the trackball that the Nexus One has. Occasionally, e.g. when scrolling through tweets on Twidroid, it's far easier to accurately scroll through and highlight content via the trackball than it is with your finger. I'm sure I'll get used to not having one, but initially I do miss it.

And finally one huge irritation - the charger is a non-standard, i.e. non-(micro) USB one. Yet another charger needed!!! How very annoying. What's wrong with micro USB, Dell??

However, on the whole, I like it. I'm still trying to decide who this machine is aimed at: it tries to - and succeeds at - integrate social networking (it has a built-in Facebook app which works better than any other one I've previously used). However, the price (£500) and size (brick) means it's unlikely to be attractive to kidz. Instead, it's likely to appeal to thirties-somethings - people who do do the social networking thing but also want something a bit heavier-weight on which to do proper e-mails and view work-related documents (it comes pre-installed with Quickoffice). A substantial market-size I'm sure, so this may well be the first of a tranche of similar devices.

If anyone else out there has used one feel free to add your own comments. And if anyone has managed to update their OS to 2.1 or 2.2 I'd love to hear how!

2009-08-10

Permalink 10:18:49, by Eric Baber Email , 766 words, 15165 views   English (EU)
Categories: Articles, Thoughts

On (e)textbooks in the (ELT) classroom

The New York Times came out with an article about how the traditional, paper-based textbook is going the way of the dodo and how it'll ultimately be replaced by teachers putting together their own learning paths for their students based on materials that are available online for free. This predictably has caused the various camps who have strong opinions one way or the other over how the educational sector should operate to jump on this as being the ultimate truth, or as being complete nonsense. Personally, I think neither of these points of view are particularly helpful, and that we need to look at the realities of how teachers and the educational establishment actually works. Here are some of my predictions and opinions.

  • For students to be able to access core material digitally, all students in a particular school need to have their own electronic reading/working devices (laptops, netbooks, ebook readers, whatever). Percentage-wise globally speaking, especially in the parts of the world that ELT reaches, this isn't going to be particularly widespread anytime soon. In those areas, paper-based textbooks will persist for some time yet.
  • Like it or not, many teachers aren't hugely interested in putting together a bespoke set of materials for each class every day. They've got 20+ teaching hours per week, grading of assignments to do, homework to mark, their own families to look after... They like having a clear learning path with related materials mapped out for them and their students from the beginning to the end of the term/semester/schoolyear. This means that even in classes where all learners have their own devices, most teachers will prefer it if they can work with one piece of content which will see them through the entire schoolyear. Sure they'll supplement it here and there along the way, but they'll still want one core set of materials they can work through linearly.
  • Let's not forget that it's rarely actually the teachers who decide what happens in the bigger picture; instead, that's done by Directors of Studies, principals etc. Concerns that they have include overall quality control (we like to think) - i.e. they want to be able to tell parents/educational authorities/school inspectors that all learners come out having had the same learning opportunities. This - unfortunately, perhaps - is one of the largest things against learning personalisation. Schools nowadays have to protect themselves from being sued, and one easy way of doing that is assigning the same textbook/coursebook/set of materials to all learners of a certain level/age/whatever. It also protects the school from less-good teachers in that they can argue that if the materials at least are good, that can make up for shortcomings of individual teachers. Yes this may straightjacket the better and more enthusiastic teachers, but that's the way it is.
  • Following on from that, in many parts of the world, teachers have only received very basic training, may only be fresh out of schools themselves, may have ongoing health issues which stop them from being able to teach regularly etc; so having a set of linear materials which they can rely on is vital both for them as teachers and for the learners.

So: death of the fixed-beginning-fixed-end-work-through-linearly coursebook? No. Neither on paper, nor in electronic format (but a shift from paper to electronic core materials will happen gradually as individual markets become more high-tech). And designing materials that build on each other and achieve an externally imposed set of learning objectives (i.e. exams) takes time and professional input. Yes there will be open courseware initiatives, some of which will no doubt produce excellent results. Is it likely that many educational establishments will adopt these though? Not many, I personally don't think. There are too many entities along the line - parents, principals, school boards, even the learners - who want some form of guarantee that the materials have been put together by a well-known brand and a set of people who know what they're doing. This will, of course, come with a price tag. While some educational entities or even entire authorities will consider that price tag too high and go for an open source alternative, I really think these will be few and far between.

None of this is meant to be a value judgement in favour of the book, in favour of a particular form of delivery mechanism or whatever. These are just my interpretations of own observations about how things actually are, and how I think they will continue to be, rather than what some enthusiasts one way or another think should happen.

2008-10-30

Permalink 10:51:13, by Eric Baber Email , 369 words, 5906 views   English (EU)
Categories: Announcements, News, Articles

Guardian article: Phil Beadle on the demise of the whiteboard

What an amazingly ill-informed article. Phil Beadle bemoans the loss of the old-style whiteboard to electronic interactive ones. Some choice quotes:

"But their place at the front of the class means every lesson must have a PowerPoint presentation"

Erm... no. Personally I don't think I've ever used a PowerPoint on an interactive whiteboard. PowerPoints are for presentations; in a classroom of 10 - 20 people I don't do presentations, I do teaching. Interactive whiteboards do not equal PowerPoint presentations.

"The Smart Board's central positioning destroys a teacher's ability to be spontaneous. You cannot come in any more with a couple of board markers and a handful of good ideas."

Erm... no. Turn on the whiteboard and it's blank. Write on it what you will. Go mad. The only thing that limits it is the user's creativity. If you can be creative on a blackboard, or a non-interactive whiteboard, and you can be creative on an interactive whiteboard.

"If I am modelling sentence construction or the semicolon, drawing a map illustrating colonialism in Africa, or scribing arrows outlining connections between ideas, I want to be able to do it quickly: as quick as I think"

You can do all of those things on an interactive whiteboard.

"They have their uses, Smart Boards, but they are a tool, not a teacher."

I completely agree, but precisely the same holds true of a non-interactive whiteboard.

"Their central position gives them primacy."

Again, just like the old-fashioned whiteboards.

"If you have a say, get yours put at the side of the room. Or ask for it to be given to someone more worthy; you'll make do and have your old whiteboard back."

Or ask for some training in how to use it more fully.

An electronic whiteboard is a tool, not a teacher - absolutely. But it does everything a non-interactive whiteboard can do and then a whole lot more. If a teacher feels they have to use a PowerPoint presentation in each lesson they shouldn't t blame that on the board but instead either themselves for imposing that view on themselves, or else on their management that has placed that upon them. That's not the fault of the whiteboard, but of the humans that surround it.

2008-08-07

Permalink 15:37:07, by Eric Baber Email , 311 words, 1622 views   English (EU)
Categories: Articles, Thoughts

BBC article: Is it time to embrace the e-book?

A good article on electronic books and the devices available to read them. There aren't yet any dedicated readers on the UK market but the first one to arrive will be the Sony Reader, in September 2008. Some interesting quotes from the article:

"While in the US there are an increasing number of new books available online, publishers in the UK have been slow to release their books in an electronic format. "

""The younger generation have spent their formative years reading from screens. We don't really know how they are going to react," says Goss. "

(I can hazard a guess though - they won't think twice about using an e-reader, and won't miss traditional books.)

And, funnily enough I was thinking exactly the following this morning:

"It is perfectly conceivable that in the future we could have something that looks like a book, feels like a book, reads like a book and with separate paper-thin pages like a book, but which uses e-ink instead of the normal kind."

Much of what people seem to think they will miss in an e-reader is the tactile aspect of it - the turning of the page, the feeling of closing it etc. An answer to this is what is described here - an e-reader that consists of, say, 100 electronic pages which display 100 pages of a book. When you get to the end of those and the book is, say, 300 pages long, you go back to the beginning and tell the reader to start displaying from page 101 - 200, and so on.

Having said that, I would see that as being an interim device - something to please that generation which still values the page-turning feeling. For the next generation this is likely to be a quaint concept, much like turning over LPs or cassettes to play side B. Why would you want to do that if there is an easier way?

2008-03-20

Permalink 13:20:06, by Eric Baber Email , 85 words, 25872 views   English (EU)
Categories: Announcements, Articles

Kindle: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device

When writing my last blog post just now I visited the Amazon website only to find information about their new wireless reading device, Kindle. It looks neat and does what the label says: it's a wireless devise which allows you to dip into and buy electronic books from the associated website/service. It holds 200 titles, has an "electronic-paper display [which] provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper", doesn't need a computer to hook up to, and so on. Looks good.

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