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Archive for April, 2010

Are Interactive Whiteboards all that useful?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now. Our school is one of the first, if not the first to have every classroom kitted out with data projectors and SMART Boards in South Africa. Each class has also has a fixed computer with full network access, as well as speakers and a DVD drive. It’s often used as a marketing hook, and the school takes pride in the fact.

In theory, this should and often does produce a rich multimedia experience in lessons. It far outstrips a plain whiteboard, stuffy notes and a teacher that may drone if the subject is a dry one. It certainly beats the old static overhead projector! However, on the flipside, I think that too many teachers rely on this thing as an essential tool, without making backup plans in case of power cuts, tech issues and so on. A teacher should be able to continue teaching the lesson even if the board conks in during the middle of a lesson.

Many a time, we have had a projector go down, board act weirdly or some other issue that prevents a teacher from using the board for a period. All of a sudden when that happens, the teachers become lost and have no idea what to do. In some cases, some classes don’t even have plain whiteboards in them anymore, so the teacher can’t even use that.  Usually we try to minimize the delay as much as possible, but sometimes the factors are out of our hands.

I’ve also seen that the IWB’s make more sense in some subjects than others. Maths, science, geography and biology greatly benefit from it, but subjects such as languages, history, accounting and so on don’t have such a benefit, at least in my view. Often, the board is used more as a projection screen than anything else. Kids also sometimes see the board as a novelty, and after a while they no longer pay attention.

I’ve read that in UK schools, they have hit a similar issue where they have thrown all this technology into the class, but students don’t necessarily do any better. In many cases the tech even goes unused because the teacher isn’t skilled enough to use it. We haven’t hit such a point in our school yet, but I can’t help but wonder if and when we will.

In the end, I’m still a bit ambiguous about the whole concept. I know that it would have made a difference in some subjects when I was in high school, but in others not. Taken into account the fairly high maintenance cost and extra electricity used, it again leaves me wondering. Technology definitely has its place in the class, but I think it comes down again to how well teachers are using it, and if it really makes a difference. If a school is going to pour money into IWB’s at the expense of textbooks or other crucial areas, the whole benefit of the IWB becomes a moot point.

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More dodgy Realtek drivers

My week has been crazy enough as is, but today I reached the point where I wanted to use a jackhammer on one computer I am busy setting up. It’s nothing too fancy, but it was given free of charge to my school. I was quite happy at the time we got it, because it contained an Intel motherboard, something I normally associate with quality and an “it just works” view. I was sadly only half right.

Setting up the box went well enough, only to discover it had a Realtek network card onboard. I thought to myself “not a problem, just grab drivers off of Realtek’s website” That duly done, I installed the driver and continue on with setting the box up. Eventually, I join it to the domain and reboot. The computer account is in the right OU, so when it starts it should start installing software. I should mention that this is Windows XP, though not by my choice.

The software was nowhere in sight, so I kept working, not worrying too much. After a few more reboots however, I got that sinking feeling when it comes to dealing with Realtek drivers after the debacle at the start of this year. Sure enough, opening up Event Viewer said it all: errors all over the show about network activities not taking place.

In vain I went to Intel’s site, downloaded drivers. Didn’t work. Went back to Realtek, got slightly newer driver. Didn’t work. Tried all sorts of black magic with installing and uninstalling. Didn’t work. At this point I went home cursing Realtek yet again.

As I was preparing to write this post, I remembered something. I have working Realtek drivers on the server at work that may do the trick. These drivers seem to be in the same family as this card, so I will install it tomorrow and see what happens. Fingers crossed, it will work and I can deliver this pc up to the relevant classroom.

Suffice to say, I am not amused by the fact that I’m suffering this problem again, nor am I pleased that Intel put a Realtek card on that board, probably to save a few bucks. Whoever made that decision at Intel needs to be shot.

I know I’m ranting about drivers on a slowly dying OS, but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that this happens. WHQL signed drivers or not, they simply suck. The world doesn’t have time to deal with such problems anymore.

Another reason to ditch Windows XP

In my view, Windows XP is a wonderful product that has far outlived its useful life. In order to keep this post short, I’m going to cut straight to the chase. The fact that XP does not have a built in DVD codec is a massive problem.

Our school is still XP based. In the classrooms, DVD’s often need to be played, but because of the lack of a codec and the fact the Media Player 11 needs to be validated, staff struggle. To get around this, we installed VLC onto the computers. It works, but is a clunky solution. Most of the staff are barely able to work on the computer, and VLC just confuses them.

Most DVD drives come with Cyberlink PowerPlayer or some other piece of software that will add the codec to XP and Media Player, or we could have installed a codec pack, but the point is that none of these are built in. I understand why at the time Microsoft couldn’t include a codec, but as time has moved on this has become more and more painful to deal with. PowerDVD is a clunky piece of software, and the whole idea to keep things simple and clean on the class computers.

This is yet another reason to move over to Windows 7. Simply pop a DVD into the drive, and it auto launches. No need to do anything, it just works. Simple, convenient and straight forward. I know it will save me lots of cursing under my breath as even the simplest of teachers can get this right, instead of calling me when they can’t play a DVD.

Categories: General, Software

Microsoft Volume Activation Management Tool

Recently, our school started getting some new computers. It was decided that we should put Windows 7 on these computers, as it made sense to use the new and improved OS on the nice hardware. Using XP would be a waste really, and as we are looking towards the future, we don’t want to be stuck on old technology.

We got Windows 7 under a special agreement Microsoft has with our country’s government. We were given a MAK key to use to activate all our Windows 7 copies. The key works without a problem, but it is a bit of a pain to have to give the client computers a default gateway address first. We don’t hand out that as a safety measure on our network, so doing it on the client computers could become quite tedious. At the end of this year, we will be getting a hardware refresh in our main computer lab, and we are planning to run Windows 7 in both that lab and our second lab. Activating them manually would eat up loads of time.

Enter the Volume Activation Management Tool.

This tool is part of the Windows 7 Automated Installation Kit, a vital piece of software if you want to manage Windows Vista and 7 computers on a network. It is a free download from Microsoft, but be warned, it weighs in at over 1GB in size.

After installing, the tool can be found in your Start Menu, in a sub folder called VAMT 1.2 under Microsoft Windows AIK.

Main window of VAMT 1.2

I discovered this tool by accident, as I was searching for a way of activating a Windows 7 computer without letting it connect directly to the internet. Although you can get a product key installed during Sysprep, the need for activation is always there. It is probably my only gripe about Vista and 7 compared to XP, though I fully understand why Microsoft had to take such drastic action with its volume license keys.

In a nutshell, you enter your volume key into this tool, it checks and authorises it with Microsoft and tells you how many activations you have left on that key. A blessing since these keys are no longer infinite.

Once your Vista/7 computers are joined to the domain, you can search for them, or you can specify a computer by name/IP address

VAMT 2

Once the computer(s) have been added, you can see their licensing status in the main window. You can also create groups when adding computers, so that you have a more organised grouping.

Once you have your computers, you can activate them remotely. Basically, your management computer installs the product key onto the targets, gets an authorisation code from Microsoft and applies it to that computer. This is exactly the same thing that happens when you do it manually, but this process is more manageable, and lets you activate more computers at once.

To get this to work, your target computers need to have the WMI port open on their firewalls, so that the tool can do its job. It is a pretty straightforward tool, and the help file is well written.

I am glad I found this tool, it will now become part of my ever growing tool kit. I will be digging into the rest of the AIK soon, there are other tools in there I need to learn as well.