Apple and Education

Ibera - 4Apple held an education event last week at a ridiculously huge high school in Chicago. It was squarely aimed at what used to be one of their core (and most loyal) markets: K-12 schools in the United States. On this side of the pond, there have only been isolated areas where Apple gets a look-in. I used to be one of them, when I taught Media and Film Studies, but even then I didn’t have enough computers in the classroom for anything other than group work.

In these financially straitened times, Apple have been losing share to Google. Schools are starved of funds for ideological reasons, teacher salaries are rock bottom (also for ideological reasons), and Google offer both cheap computers (Chromebook) and a “free” suite of software that integrates with school systems.

Apple’s event introduced a new, cheaper iPad aimed at schools, which supports their (expensive) Pencil and has a suite of software aimed at school IT managers and teachers.

Now, if you take the iPad and consider what it can do, it’s great value. Whereas a Chromebook, like most cheap laptops, will fall apart within 3 years, an iPad will go on forever (as long as you don’t drop it). An iPad can be a still or video camera, and includes software to edit photos, create documents, and edit video or make music. Nothing in the Google suite of apps matches the quality of Apple’s software. Throw in the Pencil, and you can use the iPad across the curriculum. Which is not to mention the privacy concerns I’d have regarding Google and their “free” software.

It seems, however, that Apple has a problem when it comes to implementing class sets and multiple log-ins. Their user-switching tools are reportedly clunky. I don’t think, personally, that this is unique to Apple. I’ve watched students log into networked (PC) computers and (especially if it’s the first time they’ve used that particular machine), it can take a ridiculously long time. I’ve had students in my lessons who’d been issued with a laptop because of special needs, and they have sat waiting for it to log in for an entire lesson.

But if I was in charge of a budget and had the power to make things happen, would I buy iPads?

I don’t think I would. I’d replace suites of Windows PC and Chromebook computers with Apple in a heartbeat, but I’ve never been sold on the iPad.

Here’s the thing. A computer is only as good as its software, and while Apple’s software may be good (the best, even), here in the real world, teachers don’t have time to learn it. It’s not just budgets and salaries that are constrained, but time. You offer me a class set of brand new iPads (or even a one-iPad-per-child policy), and I’m going to shrug my shoulders. Those iPads are going to stay locked away, or in the students’ bags. Not only do I not have time to get to grips with the software I’d be using to assign work and set homework, but I don’t have time to design lessons and activities, or the inevitable administrative tasks that go along with setting class and homework.

We already get pointed towards online services that can be used for homework and resources. “It’ll save you time in marking,” they say. “It’s all marked automatically.” But it’s not just the marking time I don’t have. I don’t have the setting time, the thinking time, or the time to deal with the students who don’t do the assigned tasks (because, when a student doesn’t do the homework, you’re supposed to do something about it).

You think I’m whining. I teach seven different sets of students. Outside the extra time I choose to put in, I get 21 minutes per week, per class to plan lessons, set work, mark books, and do the admin for that class. Obviously, that’s impossible, so the extra time I put in is dedicated to those basic tasks.

So you can hand me the greatest IT tools in the world, the most amazing hardware and software, but I still don’t have time. It wouldn’t be so bad if the students themselves had any IT savvy, but it’s a rare student indeed who knows how to do anything beyond the basics. I spent 10 years teaching students how to use Page Setup and calling out, “You’ve got caps lock on,” when their log-in “wasn’t working.” These days, not being able to do something on a computer has replaced the dog as the the most common reason homework isn’t done. I’ve decided that life’s too short to watch any more people accidentally lose all the work they did in an hour, or not know how to resize an image. 

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Google Photos

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 20.53.50I blogged a while ago about the new Apple Photos for Mac, and gave the post a rather intemperate title because I was frustrated by the application’s refusal to connect to the Store to print a book, and by the outrageously high pricing of Apple’s iCloud storage options.

A lot of tech pundits scratch their heads about why Apple charges (in general) about twice as much for online backup as their nearest competitors, but the answer is simple. They gouge you for storage space because their ideal customer is a consumer who doesn’t really understand or think about technology, wouldn’t consider alternatives, and just pays what Apple charges because it’s Apple and it works with their phone. Most people aren’t very interested in the nuts and bolts and just want stuff that works. That’s Apple’s core market, not the likes of me or the podcasting crowd who know what else is out there.

Something else that is out there – now – is Google’s own Photos app and online service. For a Mac user, the disadvantage is that the Mac interface is browser-based. For an iPhone user, even the icon of Google Photos looks familiar, and what it allows you to do is compelling.

In my assessment of Apple Photos I said I’d rather continue investing in one or two printed books per year to keep my best photos safe. Now Google are offering free, unlimited* backup of all your photos, whilst offering a few very clever features to help you sort through the vast number of images in your library.

I’ve been keeping my own library lean because of how slow iPhoto was, and since switching to Aperture I’ve been trying to delete the out-of-focus or badly composed pictures. I wasn’t trying hard enough though, so last week (when I was on holiday and had time on my hands), I went through all my photos and ruthlessly culled another 300+, reducing my current library (which only goes back about a year) to about 530. I have older libraries on hard drives and DVDs, and a long term ambition is to re-import them and combine them, whilst deleting at least 50 percent of them.

What this means is that when I installed Google Photos, I only had 530 or so pictures to synch to the service. This took several hours – the bulk of it happened overnight, while my phone was plugged in to charge. So if you have a good-sized photo library (and I know there are people out there with 10,000 or so), the initial synch might take several days.

Privacy Matters

Everyone knows Google is creepy, and that free doesn’t mean free. You pay with data. In this case, you’re letting Google look at all your pictures. All digital photos have metadata, and you’re telling Google a hell of a lot by uploading your pictures. What does Google do with this data? Of course, they’re going to try to monetise it at some point. Now, I’m not keen on advertising and don’t use Facebook, but I do use Gmail. Some people complain about Gmail ads, but I never see them because I access Gmail through Apple Mail. Also, I’m not busy and important enough to get much email, and not much of it matters. I’m not the kind of person who takes naked selfies or whatever, so I figure there’s nothing much in my Photostream that I care if anyone sees. I already upload to Flickr and Instagram (yes, owned by Facebook), so I decided not to be fussy about Google.

It’s what else Google can do with the photos and their metadata that interests me. One thing is the automatic creation of animated Gifs from your burst shots (or banks of very similar photos). You get a notification from the Assistant that Google has created something for you, and there it is. It also occasionally applies a filter to a photo and wants to show it to you, like a keen student who has just discovered Photoshop.

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Over and above this are the Collections, which include Albums and Stories. You an create these yourself, but Google can also create them automatically. The app looks at the time/date and location metadata, and puts related photos together in a time-line, together with location maps (!) and spaces for you to add explanatory captions. If there was a person doing this, it would be decidedly creepy, but artificial intelligence (aka machine learning)? Not so much. It’s just strikingly clever, even supplying titles and an end credit. It’s the sort of clever thing that you want to share with others. So you can see where Google is going with this.Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 21.15.35

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 21.15.10This example selected photos and videos from my last Xmas stay in France, and even took note of when we went out for a meal (in a snowstorm, natch), supplying a map and noting the table decorations, as well as the snowy aftermath (above).Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 21.15.01

All in all, this is worth a look, unless you have lots of nudes or some other reason why you wouldn’t want Google looking over your shoulder.

*There is a paid option if you want to upload uncompressed image files over a 15GB storage space limit. Otherwise, Google is going to compress your pics and give you “good enough” versions.

Using Google Maps as my main sat nav

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One of the first apps I bought when I got my iPhone 4, back in the 19th Century, was CoPilot, the slightly cheaper alternative to TomTom. Both apps cost 30-something quid for the Western Europe edition, and like all proper satnav apps they allow you to navigate without needing a network connection. This is their chief advantage over the built-in Apple Maps app, or the venerable Google Maps.

For some time after Apple released Maps, I didn’t even have Google Maps on my iPhone. Both my 4 and my 5 were paltry 16GB models, and I couldn’t afford to keep stuff around that was’t paying its way in terms of storage space used. But my iPhone 6 Plus is a 64GB model, and I downloaded the Google app again recently, and started experimenting with using it as a sat nav.

Why did I feel the need? Hard to say. Nothing much wrong with CoPilot, but it does charge you a subscription fee for its fairly lacklustre traffic/rerouting feature. I had this for a couple of years (only one of which I paid for) and it never once saved me any time or got me onto another route. It would notify me of 5-10 minute delays, but it always said there was no quicker route. I’m also not enamoured with CoPilot’s Points of Interest feature. They never really are points of interest, and it’s rubbish at finding the supermarket you know you want, or the car park.

Because G Maps is connected to regular Google search, you can find just about anywhere using the words you would use. For example, CoPilot is hopeless at identifying the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone, whereas it pops up in G Maps immediately. In the example above, ‘Waitrose Milton Keynes’ is near-impossible to find in CoPilot, but Google gets it.

When I tried Google Maps, I was immediately impressed with the speed/accuracy of its traffic feature, which pisses all over the service offered by Apple Maps. Google’s harvesting of data is obviously on a different level.

Another thing that has impressed me about G Maps is its estimation of journey and arrival time, which has proved far more accurate than CoPilot’s. I’m a person with a great sense of direction (fact) and I generally learn how to get places when I’ve been once, so I don’t need a sat nav unless I’m going somewhere entirely new. On the other hand, when I’m on a journey of any length, I do like to know ‘how much longer?’ and to have a rough idea of what time I’ll arrive.

I confess I’ve become obsessed by this latter since starting my new job with its horrible commute. It’s not about arriving at work, but rather getting home. Anything around an hour or slightly under is a triumph. It helps too, when I’m feeling a bit frazzled and tempted to leave the motorway to take the A5 or something. When Google tells you the A5 will take 12 minutes longer, you stick with Plan A.

Google colour codes both the route and the time till you arrive. The road you’re supposed to be on is blue. Alternative routes, as they come along, are shown in grey, with an indication of how much longer or shorter they’ll be. A cross-country grey route that’s ‘1 minute longer’ is usually a good bet, if you know the blue route takes you through a town centre and a series of traffic lights at rush hour. You can usually make up the minute fairly quickly and use less fuel on a more direct route on country roads.

When there’s slow moving traffic, the route turns orange. When the traffic is stationary, it turns red. As to the time indicator, it’s green when you’re on target to hit Google’s original prediction (or go slightly under). It turns orange when there’s a slight increase, and red when you’re going to face considerable delay. Interestingly, it also turns black when the arrival time gets ‘locked in’ by the laws of physics. If you’re two minutes from home you can no longer make up any time.

Google’s orange-red coding of the route is not exact, but it is pretty good. When the motorway matrix signs are saying ‘Queue After Junction’ you will see the red or orange ahead. On the A422 towards Buckingham, there’s often a patch of orange at the Maids Moreton right turn, because this frequently causes a shift into first gear and a short delay. What’s good about this is that it reminds you, sometimes, not to go hurtling round a corner at top speed, because there’s orange ahead.

What I really like about G Maps is the usual offering of 3 alternative routes, with live traffic information. Even then, you still have the option of cutting onto a back road, and instead of insisting that you ‘turn around when possible’ G Maps takes it in its stride, and simply recalculates the route and arrival time. It’s also very smart when it comes to map display. You can see it zoom in as you get to a junction, and it then zooms out again to show you more of your route. This is much more flexible than CoPilot’s display, which is something you have to adjust yourself.

The one drawback is that G Maps needs a data connection and uses quite a lot of data. I’m on an unlimited plan. Still, when I drive in France, I would normally revert to CoPilot, because the maps are already downloaded. Except now France is a Feel at Home destination on the Three network, which means I can use my existing data plan (within reason) when I go. When you’re in an area with no signal, G Maps can get very flaky. It’s not good at  calculating a route on the move, and I did experience a number of app crashes when driving in France at half term. The app has been updated more recently, and hasn’t crashed since the update. It still prefers you to be stationary when it’s calculating a route, though.

The thing I miss in G Maps compared to CoPilot is the display of the speed limit wherever you are and the GPS-calculated speed you’re doing. Surely it would be possible for G Maps to display this?

As to Apple Maps, its key advantage is the way it carries on working in the background, even with your phone screen off. I quite like the way it wakes itself to display the map on the lock screen as you approach a junction. On the other hand, when you’re driving somewhere like Milton Keynes, it gets irritating to hear ‘take the second exit at the roundabout’ 50,000 times. Google Maps has a less irritating voice, which is easy to mute and unmute, depending on your circumstances.

Short version: if you have a decent data plan, the free Google Maps is all the sat nav you’ll ever need.