Thursday, March 19, 2009

Taking IT out of the Classroom

On Wednesday I joined our Year 7's on their annual Geography Field trip. With my aim to "Move IT Forward", my volunteering was with totally self-serving reasons... to try out some Mobile Learning Technologies.
So into the fray I dived. I didn't let a little thing like not using the hardware myself daunt me. Only one way to find out the issues... give it a go (on a small scale) and deal with the problems as they arise.
I nearly gave up...before we left the building. The last 24 hours were a comedy of errors and madness. On the day though the only evidence was the dark bags under my eyes signalling a lack of sleep on my part.

The Wicked Plan:
Take a group of 16 Year 7 students (av age 11years old) and arm them with a PDA, digital camera and GPS. Take them up to The Peak in Hong Kong and then march them down the mountain to IFC in Central. Along the way students were to do traffic counts, pedestrian counts, landuse survey and interviews with people at 3 different sites.

The Kit:
So what was on the PDA? I loaded it with 3 programmes:
iCount - this is a programme developed by David Kennedy at HKU. It enables the students to do a count of the different items and save each directly to a .csv file. This is then uploaded to a computer on returning to school for importing into a spreadsheet for analysis.
Create-A-Scape - this is a programme from FutureLab in the UK. You load up a map, create hotspots, synch to a GPS and as you enter the "Hot Zones" you are given instructions. As you move there is a little blue person that indicates your position on the map. Very cool.
Phototate - this is a programme also from David Kennedy at HKU that enables you to annotate photos taken with the PDA. The annotation can be written or a voice recording.
So What Could Possibly Go Wrong with such a Wicked Plan?
As anyone who has ever used technology can attest to something will always go wrong... it seemed that in the weeks leading up to the Field Trip that just about everything was going wrong.
1) Making a Mediascape: the way that I'd been taught to create-a-scape was to take a screen shot from Google Earth of the area, mark and then get the UMS co-ordinates of each corner, trim the image and import into mscape before loading the hotspots. Easy enough - I've also experimented with this using an image of my local area. Worked great on my PDA with my GPS.
Problems Encountered: Google Earth gave my a trapezium not rectangle - this would have resulted in the GPS possitioning us in the wrong place on the map. Cause? The elevation change between The Peak and IFC - over a relatively short horizontal distance the vertical drop is around 300m. How to Fix? PLN Rescue #1 -- after an emergency phone call to Matthew Bristow (guru with MScape) in Singapore (thankfully he is still in the same time zone!) I find out that my suspicion is correct and the best way forward is to get the ordinance survey map from the map shop in Quarry Bay, and use the UMS blue lines as my 'cutting' lines in creating the map.
2) GPS devices not talking to the PDAs - this is (apparently) a simple step. Turn on GPS. Connect via bluetooth to PDA. Activate the GPS tool on PDA to connect via bluetooth connection to GPS. Simple! Yeh right! My GPS worked. Of the 5 that I collected from ESF only 2 would work! Great!!
3) eTrex devices disappeared from ESF - no one had any idea where these have gone to in the last 6 months (changing of guard). This device was to track our position as we walked from The Peak to IFC so we could superimpose it on Google Earth. At the 11th hour a new one was purchased. Of course no one knew how to work it - PLN Rescue #2 - so another emergency dash across HK to the school where Peter Woodhead now works to stand out in the carpark at his school (between parent interview for him) and try and get a satelite fix and work out how to use.
On The Day:
So being up until midnight, creating the new mscapes, reloading them onto the PDAs, making sure all PDAs had the right software, standing out on my basketball court trying to get satelite fixes to set up the GPS/PDA relationship (only 3 worked).... I was ready to tackle the trip. We ditched the mscape about 200m down the track from The Peak when we lost the satelite under the canopy of the trees. The kids loved the iCount -- until Des Vous Road where the pedestrain count got up to over 380 in 5 minutes.
Follow Up:
What we now have to do is work in class with the kids and the data that they have collected. Some of the classes will have the 'old fashioned' tally charts, but in the end they will all have to use the track plotted on Google Earth and the pictures they have taken to create a presentation on which of the three sites is the most suitable location for their business.

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