Making Timetables

One of my responsibilities at school is the generation of the timetable. It is a job that is at once incredibly frustrating and yet incredibly rewarding when it works. I’m in that particular head-space now and while I have a timetable that generates, it is ugly. There are minimal considerations taken into account at this stage and so a process of potentially infinite refinement begins.

Of course, ending up with a “perfect” timetable is not the goal. Instead, we aim for one that is “good enough.” Getting a “perfect” timetable is simply not worth the effort. And of course you can’t please everyone. Someone has to teach last lesson on a Friday!

The first thing I need to make clear is that I use software to help me. I’ve never manually generated a timetable by hand and in that respect, I really wouldn’t know where to start.  I’ve been using ASC Timetables for at least five years now and can recommend its easy-to-get-going interface with some incredibly powerful options, should you need them.

The most difficult thing, it seems, is getting an equitable spread. This is invariably what takes the longest and it seems to be the most difficult for the software to take into account. Having a certain lesson at the same time each day, or on the same days (we run a 10-day cycle) often means that the same lessons are missed when extraordinary schedules arise. So a certain amount of randomness is needed to ensure that there is a fair mix.

Another consideration is to have at least one day in the 10-day cycle where all of the classes for a particular subject are either consecutive or overlapping to provide an opportunity for standardised tests with minimal contact happening between the classes.

Also, in terms of distribution, I try, where-ever possible, to limit the number of times a subject has a lesson after lunch and never schedule any double-lessons for that time either.

Some statistics:

  • 15 classes
  • 66 lessons over 10 days
  • 33 teachers
  • 808 lessons to schedule

Media Sharing at Home

A while ago, my laptop screen’s backlight gave up on me. The rest of the machine works perfectly.

I’d always wanted a setup that would allow me to watch media in the lounge as opposed to the office. We have a relatively old CRT television (definitely not HDTV capable) but it does have auxiliary RCA connections available. The laptop has an S-Video Out (yes, very 2002) and so an S-Video-to-RCA converter later, and I can get picture on the TV. I’ve simply hooked up the audio-out with the TV’s audio in for the sound. There is no home theatre system in our house.

I have been a long time fan of J. River’s Media Center (way back since version 7 or 8 — I have forgotten). Mainly I like it’s ability to sort and organise media but its built-in media server is really what impresses me. I have the server running upstairs on my PC which has several TB of storage with quite a bit of music and video content.

Theatreview

The laptop runs the same Media Center software but is set to get a copy of the main machine’s database of media and synchronise as it changes. Thus as new media is imported into the master DB, it is available for viewing on TV.

As media is downloaded, it is automatically imported into the library and part of the import process will look up metadata on the internet based on data it can find. This normally includes cover art, posters, actor information and more.

Fe5f3e23-1c69-4c4a-b991-dc274f0fb429

Media Center has a great Theatre View and to control it, I use HippoRemote on my iPhone. It has a customised interface (although you do need to find it in Hippo’s extensive list of software it can control) especially for this. There are a few niggles I have – no volume control on the main navigation screen which is where one spends most of one’s time – but overall it works really well.

Since the house we live in is not cabled, I’m relying on WiFi. I’ve extended a WiFi point to as close as I can get it (about 4m LOS) and the performance that we get is reasonable. It can’t stream 720p video though which is often a pain in the neck.

One consideration between having to WiFi APs in your house – especially if they are set up with the same SSID and password – is that if the downstairs AP reboots for any reason, the laptop locks on to the upstairs AP and the streaming dies. There are possible solutions to this, and the one I’m most inclined to do is put a MAC filter to ban that machine from attaching to the upstairs AP.

First Experience with a Mac OS X Server

Our school is going to start a BYOD programme in 2014. In 2013 the goal is to get an iPad into the hands of every teacher in the school and to provide them with training. This will allow us, I hope, to move more easily than some schools have done into a scenario where each pupil has some form of device in front of them.

In addition, other schools within our group have already got MacBooks and iPads but have been managing them the hard way. With the Mac OS X Server, we hope to be able to manage them a little easier.

The configuration of the Server App is trivial and, given that it’s sitting in a Windows environment, did not need things like DHCP and DNS services configured. The most complicated part about setting it up was providing the Windows DNS entry for the Mac box.

Initial experiments with it are promising in terms of deploying policies and apps to iPads. I can see that the initial setup might be tedious (each device has to be enrolled manually). Once that is done, however, it looks simple enough to push apps to the devices.

We also plan, in one school, to configure each iPad with its own e-mail address so that pupils can e-mail work done to their teachers. The Profile Manager seems to be able to take care of this step – but initial setup might be boring.

One problem I am predicting is the distribution of content (e.g. ePubs to iBooks, and so on). The Profile Manager does not cater for this scenario and I’m not entirely sure how to get around it. E-mail is a possible work around, but could be tedious.

Another school has a fleet of MacBooks and is excited to use the Update Service provided within Server. This is the Mac answer to WSUS, but does not do any App Store purchase updates. This is somewhat problematic for the likes of iBooks Author which is huge and coming down to a school with very poor bandwidth. I’m still not sure how to solve that problem.

One other thing that I’m quite excited to try is the printing solution so that we can print from iPads. We make use of PaperCut and they have a working solution to printing and authenticating from an iPad.

Stay tuned for updates.