Designing a Cloud-Only College

I have the privilege of helping a new Bible College1 to get their ICT systems up and running. As the college is both young and small, and also because they are trying to remain affordable for students, one of the key goals is to keep expenses down. An additional challenge is that there are multiple "campuses", and by that I mean there are a few different churches around Australia where students meet for training, but no head office, no existing infrastructure and no budget for ICT Support staff. For these reasons I am endeavouring to help them deploy a "cloud-only" (as opposed to cloud-first) infrastructure.

As with any education provider there are a few standard requirements, as well as one or two additional requirements as a not-for-profit:

  • A domain, DNS and website
  • Mail, calendar and contacts
  • Productivity suite and collaboration tools
  • Accounting (finance and payroll) package
  • Student Management System
  • Learning Management System
  • Authentication and Directory Services
  • Fundraising system
  • Inbound phone calls

I'm learning as I go but so far I'm pretty impressed with the quality of the offerings that are available.

Domain, DNS and Website

The most expensive thing so far has been the domain name... for some reason a .edu.au domain costs $45 a year, more than most premium (e.g. .tv, .ws) domains.

For DNS I chose CloudFlare as they give you full control over your DNS (including TXT and SRV records) and their free tier seems more than adequate for a small college.

I haven't set up a website yet but at this stage I'm leaning towards Squarespace. I probably just listen to too many podcasts but I use them for two of my own sites and I like how good the sites look (especially on mobile, which is outpacing desktop web browsing in many cases), I love that they take care of everything so I don't have to patch WordPress or install plug-ins and I know I can get under the hood to tinker if I need to. That being said, if anyone has any better ideas I'm all ears.

Mail, Calendar and Contacts

I know some people love Office 365 but for a cloud-only organisation I feel like Microsoft is often held back by their legacy (of being the largest desktop computing platform ever). They seem to be improving rapidly but I still think Google has them beat in many ways. Additionally, the staff are comfortable with Gmail so that's a win for training and user acceptance.

Productivity Suite and Collaboration

This is another contest in which I think Microsoft is held back a little by their legacy. On the other hand, when dealing with other organisations, greater legacy support can be a good thing. Both Office 365 and Google Apps are brilliant in their own ways which makes it hard to recommend one. So I don't think I will. At this stage I'll suggest we make both available and let people gravitate towards the one they are more comfortable with.

Accounting Package

This decision was out of my hands as the college will be using a financial services provider for finance and payroll. This company also offers additional support services if required such as phone answering, mail handling and supporter administration. That being said, I was very pleased when I found out they'll be using Xero. I'm quite impressed with Xero and how well it integrates with other SaaS and cloud offerings.

Student Management System

The college will be using a good system that's been designed by someone who used to audit training organisations and who knows all the compliance requirements. My only concern is that it is an Access database and I suspect it is designed for and suited to local use in a regular office. This is the least "cloud-only" part of the solution so far but given the circumstances I still think it's the right choice.

Learning Management System

I need to do more digging but at this stage I'm leaning towards recommending that the college keeps this very simple. Given their size and requirements I think their best bet may be to just incorporate it into the website (by giving instructors control over a password protected area for their students) or perhaps using Google Classroom. My biggest concern with Classroom is that it may not be suited to vocational style training but that isn't a well founded fear, just a gut feeling I'll need to investigate.

Authentication and Directory Services

The de-facto standard in the industry is Active Directory but the college doesn't have a server room and doesn't have an IT Staff to maintain an AD Server running in the cloud. Thankfully, Office 365 includes Azure AD Services (in fact, it relies on it behind the scenes). Based on my initial testing this is a powerful option for a cloud-only organisation.

I have no doubt I will come across some older or poorly designed apps that refuse to work with anything other than an on-premise AD server but so far I'm very happy. In a relatively short space of time this morning I was able to register for both Google Apps for Education and Office 365 Education and get them linked together. Creating an account in Azure AD Services provides access to both Office 365 and Google Apps (via Single Sign On) and Xero can be linked in this way too.

Fundraising System

The financial services company I mentioned earlier put us in touch with someone who develops a web based fundraising system that doesn't seem to be available publicly. It's in use in a number of ministries, is very customisable, integrates with Mandrill/MailChimp for emails, supports multiple SMS gateways and connects directly with Xero for finances. The only thing it lacks is SSO capabilities, a minor complaint given it will only be used by a few people.

Inbound Phone Calls

This is an area I need to do more research on. It's probably overkill but one possibility I have experimented with in the past is Twilio. Twilio is very flexible and supports phone trees, call routing, text messaging and interactive voice features. It can scale up or down as required and it's APIs could link back in with many of the other systems.

Another option I will need to investigate more is the Office 365/Skype solution. If anyone has any experience with it in Australia at an organisation with multiple sites, no IT staff and very little money I'd love for you to get in touch!


Footnote 1: The unique thing about this Bible College is that it offers Vocational Education and Training (VET) qualifications, rather than the typical Higher Education (university style) approach. This makes it suitable for a broader audience and gives hair dressers, office workers, tradies, factory workers, retail staff and many more an unprecedented opportunity to study the Bible and gain practical ministry experience. ↩︎

Removing YouTube Distractions

I was in my son's classroom last week to help out during art. Afterwards the teacher put on a Numberjacks video from YouTube while we hung their art, distributed home readers and tidied up. During the video, YouTube displayed ads for McDonalds Happy Meals and women's clothing from EziBuy. Unsurprisingly, the kids got a little bit silly each time and it was quite disruptive. There was also plenty of other potentially inappropriate content on the screen including user comments and video suggestions.

In this article I will discuss two very simple options1 for a teacher to show YouTube videos without ads, comments or related videos. They don't require Flash, they don't involve changes to the network and they don't rely on IT Staff to work2.

ViewPure

In my testing ViewPure worked really well and was quite simple to use. It also has advanced options (hidden by default) letting you choose a custom start and finish time, create a custom link (e.g. viewpure.com/MrSmith) and password protect links.

It has three options for finding and "purifying" a YouTube video including search, copy and paste and a bookmarklet.

ViewPure's search page is simple and uncluttered. By default it sets SafeSearch to "strict" so teachers shouldn't get any nasty surprises in the search results. There are no ads or promoted videos which should also put teacher's minds at ease.

ViewPure's search would be fantastic for classroom use if it weren't for the fact (at least in my testing using Safari on iPhone & Mac and Chrome on Mac) that it doesn't show thumbnails of the videos. This makes it much harder to identify videos and specific episodes at a glance.

Using this search functionality is much safer than visiting the YouTube home page (with who knows what in the "recently uploaded" section) but unless they fix it soon I think most teachers won't like the lack of thumbnails.

Copy and Paste

This method involves opening a YouTube video, copying its URL and pasting it into the ViewPure website. Whilst a little more complicated for teachers, copying and pasting a URL should be a core competency for most by now.

ViewPure accepts various YouTube links including mobile links (m.youtube.com/watch?v=xyz123), YouTube shortened links (youtu.be/xyz123) and full YouTube links (www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyz123).

It doesn't support redirects though so pasting a bit.ly link, or even a link from a Google search page, won't work (as at May 2016).

Bookmarklet

The bookmarklet method is a simplified version of copy and paste. With the bookmarklet installed you open up a YouTube video and then select the special ViewPure bookmarklet from your bookmarks bar, bookmarks menu or favourites. It uses JavaScript to get the current page's URL, paste it into ViewPure and open the resulting page.

To add the bookmarklet to your bookmarks or favourites in the first place is as simple as dragging and dropping. Unfortunately the place to "drop" it varies from browser to browser and may be hidden by default.

To make sure the "drop" destination is visible on the Mac (both Safari and Chrome) look in the View menu for an option to "Show Favorites Bar" (Safari) or "Always Show Bookmarks Bar" (Chrome). For other browsers/platforms/versions it's probably similar so poke around or ask another teacher.

SafeShare

In many ways SafeShare is slightly easier to use than ViewPure. It provides similar advanced options to ViewPure (e.g. start and finish adjustments) but makes them easier to find.

However, in my limited testing it was not nearly as reliable. It wasn't working at all for a few minutes this morning and this afternoon I had to reload the page numerous times to make things work. That may be okay during lesson prep time but teachers won't like it if it doesn't work during class.

Whilst it only officially supports the copy and paste method, I was able to create a bookmarklet that seemed to work fine.

Copy and Paste

This method involves opening a YouTube video, copying its URL and pasting it into the SafeShare website. Whilst this is a multi-step process, copying and pasting a URL should be a core competency for most teachers by now.

SafeShare accepts various YouTube links including mobile links (m.youtube.com/watch?v=xyz123), YouTube shortened links (youtu.be/xyz123) and full YouTube links (www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyz123). SafeShare also supports Vimeo links if you happen to need that functionality too.

Like ViewPure, it doesn't support redirects so pasting a bit.ly link, or even a link from a Google search page, won't work (as at May 2016).

Bookmarklet

SafeShare doesn't provide a bookmarklet but I was able to tweak the ViewPure one to use SafeShare instead. Just create a bookmark and paste the following code into the address/location/URL field:

javascript:void(location.href='http://safeshare.tv/submit?url='+encodeURIComponent(location.href))

I tested this bookmarklet successfully with both YouTube and Vimeo.

Summary

Similarities

Both services solve the problem of playing YouTube clips without risk of inappropriate content in the way of ads, comments or related/promoted videos.

Most YouTube clips can be viewed this way although both services rely on embedding. It is possible for YouTube creators to prevent their videos from being embedded so you may come across videos that can't be displayed in either service.

Both services are currently free and may go away at any time.

Both services provide a fairly standard YouTube experience in terms of captions, playback controls and full screen although SafeShare also offers a "dim lights" option which lets you dim the background without going full screen.

Neither service displayed ads on the video playback page.

Other Minor Differences

ViewPure has a single banner ad on the home page which may be a negative but during my visits the ads they displayed were neither invasive nor offensive.

SafeShare lets you drag the start and finish markers which is either a nice little touch or a fiddly nuisance depending on your point of view. It also provides a "Download Video" link, however this is a negative in my mind as downloading is against the YouTube terms of service and SafeShare relies on a scammy looking website that's plastered in ads for this feature.

ViewPure's built in URL shortening service gives some nice "old school" sharing options (e.g. printed handouts, on a whiteboard or on a poster).

Whilst they seem to use the same embedded YouTube Player on one occasion SafeShare provided an AirPlay option while ViewPure didn't. If you are using a Mac or iPad and have an AppleTV in your classroom this may be a deciding factor.

Conclusion

Whilst both services work my personal recommendation would be ViewPure, mainly for reliability reasons. That being said, my issues with SafeShare may have just been bad timing and other than that it was a solid option.


Footnote 1: The simpler the better... Most teachers don't live and breathe technology and even tech-savvy teachers don't want to be messing around with embed links, embed options and adding embeds to a webpage or LMS in the middle of a lesson while 20-30 students watch (im)patiently. ↩︎

Footnote 2: If you or your school's IT staff would like advice on ways to regulate all YouTube traffic on the school network I am available for local or remote consultations. Visit Sagacity IT Consulting for more information. ↩︎

Wifi Exposure and Parent Concerns

This is a lightly modified version of a response I posted on the MITIE forums recently. MITIE (pronounced "mighty") stands for Managers of IT In Education. It is an association made up of ICT Professionals from educational institutions as well as representatives from various organisations that support the use of ICT in education. If you're involved in ICT in an Australian or NZ school I highly recommend you join MITIE.


Schools regularly get asked by parents about whether it is safe for their child to be constantly exposed to RF radiation from school Wireless Access Points. These concerns are usually based on fear more than evidence1, often thanks to media scaremongering or dubious social media posts.

Assuming your school is adhering to the relevant RF standards (which you almost certainly are unless someone has maliciously modified your microwave ovens or performed illegal modifications on radio equipment) then I encourage you to work with your executive and senior teachers to present a united front. As it is fear you are dealing with, use the same strategies you would use for any other fear:

  • Show that you care by listening to the concerns and taking them seriously. Don't belittle the fears or humiliate the parent, even if the fears are overblown or irrational
  • Point to the school's track record of caring about the whole child (healthy food, sun protection, physical activity, safety initiatives, extra-curricular activities, etc) and stay up to date with the latest standards
  • Solicit the parent's help in coming up with a reasonable solution or mitigation strategies (even if you're already doing them) such as mounting APs on ceilings, encouraging outside play during breaks, ensuring radio power settings are set relatively low (which also improves network performance), etc. This not only involves the parent in the process and gives them ownership but helps them to identify the drawbacks of more extreme alternatives (e.g. removing all Internet access, their child being isolated from the class or wearing a foil helmet, etc)
  • Providing evidence or engaging directly with their "evidence" can be helpful in group settings (to stop the fear from spreading) but don't get drawn in to a debate. Just defer to a higher authority such as WHO, ARPANSA, Australian Standards or the Education Department and then use the broken record technique2 to keep the conversation on track
  • In extreme cases you may need to simply explain that the school exceeds (in a good way) the requirements of the higher authority and then politely refuse to engage any further.

If you would like additional information or independent advice to present to your executive or school community I am available for consultations remotely or on-site in the Sydney metro area.


Footnote 1: As far as I am aware there is no evidence linking RF exposure to adverse health effects, even in the case of cell phones that generally operate much closer to the body. Whilst lack of contradictory evidence does not prove it is safe, I think it is reasonable to assume that we would have seen conclusive evidence by now (several decades into the spread of mobile phones and wifi).

The other common criticism of current standards is that they only consider the thermal effect of non-iodising radiation and that there may be other effects to DNA, hormones or glands. The reason these standards only consider the thermal effects is because much research has been done into other possible effects and no link has been found. The only link scientists can find between non-ionising RF exposure and human health is as a result of thermal fluctuations (see, for example, Radiofrequency (RF) Effects on Blood Cells, Cardiac, Endocrine,
and Immunological Functions
), hence their use in the standards.

Footnote 2: For those who aren't familiar with it, the broken record technique is a good way of dealing with someone, child or adult, once you've ascertained they are just trying to score points or pick a fight. Remain calm, acknowledge what they have just said and then repeat your main point:

You: "We understand your concerns which is why we adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure"

Them: "But 'A Current Affair' said that two students got leukaemia the day after wifi got installed at their school"

You: "We're familiar with some of the more sensational claims being made by the media and we understand your concerns which is why we adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure"

Them: "What about the change in power flux density that comes with 5GHz Wifi and the corresponding increase in Specific Absorption Rate"

You: "We understand your concerns about new developments which is why we stay up to date with and adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure"

Them: "But what about the Frey effect and possible impacts to DNA and glands?"

You: "We are concerned about all the possible dangers which is why we adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure"

↩︎

Unwritten Rules

It often seemed to me like the Army was full of rules and regulations. They didn't always make sense (see also 5 Monkeys vs the Army) but at least you could reference them, verify whether people were just making stuff up and use the rules to get things done. In fact, there were so many laws, policies, procedures, manuals, directives, standing orders and standing instructions that it seemed like there was no room for unwritten rules. But of course there were, and there was one occasion where not following one (that I didn't even know about) almost got me charged.

It all came about when the Signals Corps made some changes to the way we advanced (both technically and in rank) through our individual trades. The changes themselves weren't bad but the rules required that the detachment commander (with a rank of corporal) needed to sign off before signallers (private equivalent) could advance to the next pay grade, etc. I knew this would be a problem for the soldiers in my detachment because there was a serious shortage of geek (the nickname for our trade) corporals at the time. In fact, I had ended up as the acting detachment commander, despite being the same rank as everyone else.

Our "Career Manager" from SCMA1 at the time (who was supposed to be a geek warrant officer but came from another trade because there was a shortage of geeks at the sergeant and warrant officer level too) came to visit our unit as part of a roadshow to introduce and explain the new system. During the Q&A section at the end of the roadshow I got brave and asked if the requirement was for sign-off by a corporal, the detachment commander or someone who was both (an impossibility for us). The unambiguous response came back that if someone had been entrusted with the role of detachment commander, then they could sign off on it.

I got brave again and chanced a second, carefully worded, question (unwritten rule 1: tread very carefully when questioning people who rank more highly than you, particularly when doing so in front of others). I asked if it would be possible to have the instructions amended to state that acting detachment commanders were authorised to sign, given that written instructions carried more weight than hearsay. To the Career Manager's credit, he didn't get upset with my impertinence but he reiterated the intent of the instructions and said we could take it up with him if we had problems (unwritten rule 2: "take it up with me" actually means "take it up with me through your chain of command").

A few months later I was trying to get some of the younger guys in my detachment qualified. We dutifully filled out all the paperwork, multiple times in order to get it past various bureaucratic hurdles. Eventually it was all in order so we submitted it to the senior geek in our regiment for final sign off. After all that effort he rejected it based on the written instructions from SCMA stating that it had to be signed by a corporal (he chose to focus on the "corporal" requirement, rather than the "detachment commander" requirement)2.

I explained to him what our Career Manager had said during the open day (as the sergeant had been away) but rather than checking with SCMA he stood by his own interpretation of what he had in writing. As predicted, the written word carried more weight than hearsay.

I wanted our Career Manager to weigh in but my technical chain of command lead through the person I was having an issue with. The Army's official grievance management policy clearly stated that in the unlikely event your grievance was against someone in your chain of command, you were well within your rights to bypass them in those cases. I figured the same principle applied here so I wrote a long email directly to the Career Manager. Soon after, sparks started flying.

First I got hauled in front of the SSM (senior soldier in our squadron) who was ready to blow his stack. He had clearly been told that I had "shouted at the Career Manager" but he soon calmed down and had lots of questions about the who, what and why. He later explained that some people consider bold text in an email to be shouting, even though I had been using it to emphasise part of a quote.

I was later summoned to the office of the OC (senior officer in our squadron) who was a lot calmer. He told me that because my intentions were good there was no need to do anything more about the matter. When I asked him what I had down wrong the best he could do was tell me that all correspondence out of the unit needs to go through HQ. That's an old (written) rule which I didn't know about because I joined the Army in the age of email. It turns out that unwritten rule 3 is that the other rule only applies to "official" correspondence. That being said, my OC couldn't really tell me when an email becomes official correspondence. All in all this was a much more friendly chat and I got the impression that it was mostly for show (so that my superiors could tell someone that I had been told off by the OC).

To this day I still don't exactly know what went wrong. I didn't have anyone else in my technical chain of command (due to all the vacancies and shortages) so even though I went straight to the top I really only bypassed one person. I suspect my email out of the blue to SCMA must have got the sergeant I bypassed in trouble (someone who worked with him later told me the sergeant had pushed very hard to have me charged). As they say in the Army, "S*&% runs down hill" so I suspect he just wanted me to get in trouble too. I don't think he had a leg to stand on but during my time I saw others get charged (and found guilty) for even more trivial things after angering someone senior. I suspect my actual chain of command (as opposed to my technical chain of command) closed ranks and protected me. If so I'm very grateful to them!

Unwritten rule 4: watch out for the unwritten rules.


Footnote 1: SCMA (pronounced "schema") stands for Soldier Career Management Agency. In theory there was a warrant officer from every corps and trade posted to SCMA in Canberra who was responsible for the careers of everyone in the same trade. They were the ones ultimately responsible for postings to different units every two years and making sure promotions, etc were happening as needed. ↩︎

Footnote 2: As I wrote this I belatedly realised the irony of his requirement: he himself was actually only a sergeant from our sister squadron... the warrant officer geek position for our regiment was vacant due to - you guessed it - a shortage of geeks. Based on his logic, the thing that excluded me from signing off on my section of the paperwork should have also excluded him from signing his section. *facepalm* ↩︎

Making the Most of #AISIT16

The 2016 AIS ICT Leadership Conference starts today in Canberra and continues tomorrow and Friday. I had the privilege of attending this event three times previously (once in the Hunter Valley, and twice in Canberra) but I haven't attended the last two due to the fact I no longer work in a school. The openness and collaboration amongst IT staff from "competing" schools is one of the things I miss most about working in education and the annual conference is where I saw that collaboration most intensely. As I thought about how much I enjoyed the conferences I also got to thinking about how much I struggled socially at those same conferences. So today's post contains some tips on how to get more out of the conference, even if your social skills are as bad as mine.

Tip 1: Show Up

Meeting new people can be hard, especially for introverts (which includes the majority of IT people). My preference was to try to avoid awkward situations and mind my own business but at the same time I really wanted to get to know the people I respected on the MITIE forums better. Hiding in my hotel room or going for a walk on my own was always more comfortable than mingling during breaks, meals and events, but mingling is a much better way of getting to know people than stalking them on the forums. So show up!

Tip 2: Approach Someone

If you're anything like me, once you've shown up somewhere you'll immediately start second guessing yourself and feeling like a loser for standing on your own, not having as much fun as everyone else or generally being awkward. Don't leave and don't bury your face in your phone! Look for someone else standing on their own, take a deep breath and walk up to them. It feels awkward but they'll most likely be grateful you took the first step.

Tip 3: Use Their Name a Few Times

Once you've said hello to the person (you did remember to smile and look them in the eye as you shook hands didn't you?) it's time to exchange small talk. As you're asking the usual questions try to sprinkle the other person's name in. It will help you remember it and it will help them feel valued and important.

  • "What school are you from?" could become "So Tim, what school are you from?"
  • "How big is it?" could be changed to "How many students are there at Awesome College Tim?"
  • "How are you enjoying the conference?" can become "What's your favourite thing about the conference so far Tim?"

Tip 4: Ask a Few Open Ended Questions

After the small talk, an awkward silence will probably descend. Once again you'll start second guessing yourself and looking for exits. This is where you need to pull out the big guns and ask an open ended question, preferably one that isn't about the conference.

I'm no conversational wizard but some possible questions to try include:

  • What's your earliest memory of using computers?
  • What led you into working in technology?
  • What do you like to do when you aren't at work?
  • What's the best book you've ever read?

Tip 5: Actively Listen

Minds have a tendency to wander, so as the other person is talking, try to focus on what they are saying. The idea behind asking open ended questions isn't to quiz them but to give them a chance to talk about something they're interested in with the goal of finding some common ground or mutual interests.

As you listen, you'll probably think of things to say and questions to ask. Instead of chipping in your two cents worth any time they stop talking, try to ask questions. Questions generally do a better job of keeping the conversation flowing.

Tip 6: Expand

If you don't hit it off and the conversation starts dragging, don't run for the hills yet. Look for another single, pair or trio and try to approach them. The person that your with probably wants to run for the hills too but if you're honest and ask them to come with you as a favour they probably won't (be able to) say no. They may even thank you later! Try something along the lines of "I'd like to keep meeting people but I'm not very good at it. Would you be happy to come and chat to those people over there with me?"

Tip 7: Strategic Retreat

This socialising stuff can be exhausting so don't overdo it on the first day. Once you've spent a while outside your comfort zone you'll probably need some time to yourself. Head somewhere quiet and jot down some notes about the people you've been speaking to. Write down names and any details you learned. Writing it down will help you recall it later and allow you to enjoy good follow up conversations.

Tip 8: Build on the Foundations

The next time you see someone (the next day at breakfast, in a session or at the dinner) say hello to them by name. If it's appropriate, ask them a question about something they told you previously. This will reinforce your memories and show them that you were listening to them. Questions could include:

  • Are you missing your kids/pets/significant other?
  • Have you had any emergency calls from Awesome College?
  • Did you get a chance to ask the speaker about that point that didn't make sense?

Tip 9: Follow Up

Once you're back at work and in the swing of things, get in touch with a few people you spoke to. You may even want to schedule one or two additional follow ups in your calendar for a few months down the track so you don't forget to keep in touch.

You could contact them via email, Twitter, Facebook or on MITIE. Keep it short but friendly with a maximum of one question:

  • Hey Tim, it was nice meeting you at the conference. Hope you're settling back into Awesome College. Matt
  • Hi Tim, we just had a meeting with SuperEduCo. Are you still using them for your LMS?
  • Are you going to the Term 3 MITIE day next week?

Tip 10: Rinse and Repeat

Meeting new people never feels comfortable to me but I have found that I get better at it when I practise. If you repeat these steps you'll get better at meeting new people. You'll also find you there are more and more people at these events that you already know.

I trust everyone at #AISIT16 has a great conference and I hope to be able to join you there in future years!