Thursday, March 1, 2018

A cheap and pretty digital sign for under €200

Suitable for:

Small schools, community centres and businesses that only need one or two information screens.

To make the screen more interesting, we installed in in portrait (vertical) orientation not landscape.

Ingredients (hardware) 

All available from CPC Ireland.
This setup will not work if you don't have reasonable broadband Internet eg more than 2Mb per second.

Acer 24 inch LED monitor – about €125
Raspberry Pi Model 3 value starter kit with power supply - about €58 
Gothenburg Designs metal case for Raspberry Pi about €9
Pro Elec 13A 24 hr digital timer switch  – about €5 
Ethernet patch cable to connect Raspberry Pi to Internet – a few cents 
HDMI cable to connect screen and Pi – about €3.80 for 5 metre cable
Micro SD card of at least 8 Gb - about €9 

Total just under €200.


Noobs (free; to save time you can get it pre-installed on an SD card)
Screenly Pro – free for up to 2 screens


If you haven't installed a Raspberry Pi before using Noobs, then this is a great video.
And these instructions are very clear:

We found it was important to have a correct power supply for the Raspberry Pi, and because it was being installed in a community centre, we put the Pi in a strong case with good ventilation.

Connect the Raspberry Pi to power, WiFi (orange ethernet cable in picture) and to the screen (via the black HDMI cable).
Do not put the Pi on the timer. Only the screen goes on the timer to turn off the screen when the premises is unused.
Use a computer to set up your account at
The website is unclear as it does not show how simple the setup process is, but once you have an account setup then you get access to the instructions which are straightforward to download software to the Raspberry Pi.


We have used images, URLs and slideshows created in Apple Mac Keynote, then exported into Quicktime format. These are uploaded as "assets" to and then added to a playlist. By using  a Quicktime export of the slide presentation with imported videos, we found you can also include videos from Youtube.

Keynote has excellent animation effects and is easy to learn compared to PowerPoint.
One major advantage of is you can update the content over the Internet eg from home.
For the design, we found using a black background was most effective.

Possible contents:

Adverts for upcoming events
Weekly schedule of classes and activities
Map of where the named rooms in the building are so users can find their event
Videos about the local area
The free public Wifi password
Closure notices due to severe weather
Details of how to join centre activities
Explain how to book or organise an event
Daily activities drawn from a public Outlook calendar



You can connect the screens by WiFi, you don't have to use a connecting cable but we did this for reliability and low cost, and because the location where the screen was required happened to be close to a secure cupboard containing the network hardware and space where the Pi could be stored out of the way of curious fingers.

Another option is to use the free RiseVision software on a Chromebook with Google Slides and for schools the slideshow can also be districbuted to students' devices when they are on the school network:
We didn't do this in the end because it requires a computer and like any solution that uses Google kiosk mode, it puts the screen into the resolution of the computer which is usually worse than that of the screen.
Other suggestions implemented by other CESI members included a Xibo server, or a LibreOffice presentation. Our setup does not allow for the videos to play sound, but we felt that would be annoying to centre users.

Picture of digital screen on display for discussion at community centreWe found the best way to get content for the screen (often the most time-consuming part of a digital sign project) was to display the screen at an event where many of the community centre's groups were in attendance so they could see what it could do. This encouraged them to supply pictures and text about their activities.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to plant summer window boxes

This is my method for window box planting, perfected over many years, with "how-to" pictures.
To save money on plants, I often buy smaller ones in April, but keep them in the greenhouse until the last frosts are over around May 15th. B&Q is usually best value and range, but I also use Woodies, Dairygold, Hanleys and Kiernan's, as well as The Pavilion.

You will need

  • A big space to spread stuff out
  • A tarpaulin so everything doesn't end up covered in compost
  • A bowl of warm water, washing up liquid and scrubbing brush
  • Pieces of broken crock
  • Farmyard manure
  • Topsoil
  • Compost
  • Slug pellets
  • Osmocote long-acting fertiliser
  • Water crystals
  • Plants
  • Gloves
  • Watering can/hose
  • Bucket of water

Wash the boxes

This is to avoid diseases and pests from last year and make them look nicer on the outside. When you've washed them, lay them on the tarpaulin the way that the windows on your house are arranged so that you don't forget which colours will be next to which, or where you might have a shadier window that needs different plants.

Prepare the bottoms

You need to put crocks over the drainage holes. Wait, did I forget to mention, check that your window boxes actually have drainage holes? Some cheaper ones do not. You can get someone good at DIY to drill holes if needed, otherwise your plants will drown. If you don't use curved bits of old broken pots and plates over the holes, roots will block them and... your plants will drown.

For the bottom of the pots, I usually use a mixture of organic farmyard manure and topsoil. If you only use compost, when it's dry your plants will not get enough water, and also the boxes may not have enough weight to be stable on your window sill in a gale.

"Magic" ingredients

I find that if you want your window boxes to last, you need to add water crystals to ensure the plants stay moist, and also osmocote slow-release fertiliser. Slug pellets to dress the tops of the soil after planting are also important. 

There is at trade-off between environmental damage caused by effective chemical slug pellets, and loss of plants to slugs if you go a more "organic" but less effective route. Each to their own on that debate! I add the fertiliser and water crystals to the topsoil/manure layer before planting.

Designing your planting

Just get all the plants out and lay them roughly in position, thinking about colour, which windows get most sun, and which side of the box is the "front" where you will put the trailing plants. Move them around until you are "least dissatisfied". It will never be perfect. I use surfinias, fuchsias, osteospermums, trailing lobelia, verbenas and I'm fond of good old reliable yellow bidens too.

Get your fingers dirty!

Some plants these days are raised in "tea bags", small individual paper mesh containers of compost. These need to be removed carefully before planting. I like to then soak every plant's roots briefly in a bucket of clean water before planting. Gently loosen the plant's roots before placing it into the box.

The next bit is messy. Shovel in the potting compost, firming it around the roots and making sure there are no "holes". I usually push the trailing plants like lobelia in last of all, directly into the potting compost. At this point your boxes probably look awful and you think you did it wrong. Don't worry.  They just need watering.

Water well

Once you spray off the boxes ,all will be well.  I usually use a watering can from the top followed by spraying the sides of the boxes with a hose. Don't use too forceful a jet. Test the hose first - I find a gentle spray with a circumference of about 6 inches works well. After watering, sprinkle on the slug pellets or other slug and snail prevention.

Now they are ready to go to their final location. If it is a damp summer, I use old bits of floor tile to raise up the window boxes just a small amount to assist in drainage.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Retrospective edit 2016: after EDCMOOC, I did an absolutely fantastic Statistics MOOC run by Princeton which I completed with test scores of over 95% as well as completing OcTEL.  if you want an example of how to do a MOOC right, try those ones.

Times Higher Education piece - what I actually said to Chris Parr about #EDCMOOC ... (Chris' summary quote is fine, it's just I did say a little bit more than that...) and by the way, I'm getting on better with the #OcTEL MOOC despite still being very confused...

  1. You were disappointed by the edcmooc – in what ways did it fail to reach your expectations?
    The content did not match the title or course description. There was too much video content. The navigation was poor. The time estimate per week was heavily underestimated.
  2. What was the best thing about your Mooc experience?
    Contact with others via my own blog and MOOC discussions.
  3. And the worst?
    Not completing the course
  4. Did you involve yourself with your Mooc’s community or study independently?
    Mainly independent - I think a study group would have helped but my schedule didn't really allow it and due to the navigation issues I never spotted the study groups until the rot had set in...
  5. What would you change about your MOOC?
    Improve the yield of completion - use the technology currently in place in the IT industry around tracking helpdesk requests and supply chain issues to improve "picking up where you left off" (progress), improve general user experience and website navigation, use analytics to spot how people are contributing and where problems may lie. Signal core content in a more obvious way. Make the assessment methods clearer in the course description so people don't sign up without understanding what they are committing to. Do not rely on a lot of video content as it is hard to complete for time-pressed learners.
  6. General comments.
    Great project, all kudos to Edinburgh for trying it. But the overall effect for me was knowing that I don't want to do an elearning course they run that I had previously been interested in taking. I think that's a good thing, for me and for them. I think MOOCs are the "book clubs" of education at the moment. Probably there will be a bifurcation into general study group activities on the Internet (particularly for recent or esoteric topics) compared to more "certified" and "instructor-led" MOOCs that use the best of blended learning techniques but on a larger scale.
I was also discussing with (redacted) earlier today the information from The Chronicle about HEI views of MOOCs. I think part of the problem is related to the inability to value, train and reward tutorial/teaching assistants for working on eLearning courses. There are a whole set of skills that can overcome the technical problems with MOOCs that exist already in the IT support sector. What there isn't is much recognition that moving in this direction will mean HE has to start properly paying and rewarding people who "teach" online but aren't tenured... old problem, unlikely to be resolved any time soon. :)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Quitting #edcmooc

I'm going to delete these MOOC blogs in a couple of weeks because they aren't interesting.

Gave up #EDCMOOC, but may browse the remaining two weeks of content, because:
  • The induction was poor and the first week I was completely confused about what to do.
  • The assessment was not made apparent until week 2, when it turned out to be "whatever you're having yourself" and to involve something which would be very time consuming to do well (a "digital artefact" with the examples produced by full time students in week 2, and I bet they took a good bit of time to create… They mainly involved recycling the confusion of the MOOC participants)
  • The navigation remained unclear although they did add a page to try to help the confused. Why isn't it responsive to your progress? The design involved a great deal of scrolling and remembering.
  • It didn't do what it said on the tin. It wasn't about ELEARNING and digital cultures, it was in fact about linguistic structuralism and ideas of humanism. 
  • There was far too much content and much of it was duplicated or same-y. There was too much video which is time consuming because you can't scan it like text to find out if it is worthwhile. Content needs to be more clearly signalled as crucial, core and optional.
  • The time effort was way underestimated at 3-4 hours per week
  • The forums were full of thousands of people making introductory comments. Hard to find the popular threads where any concrete points were being argued.
  • Because I found the first week so confusing, which took a lot of time, I never got around to trying the study groups. They may be the answer.
  • The introductory hangout was disastrous in signal to noise ratio.
  • There was lots of confusing antonymic argument - black and white is never interesting. 
Bottom line, I wasn't learning anything I found useful, so last night I sewed my veg seeds instead of sitting down to the computer…

One interesting point. Some MOOC proponents believe they are actually marketing tools for the institution's conventional courses. I had considered trying to find time/money to do the Edinburgh MSc based on some of the student work I've seen but definitely would not follow that option up now. I think that's a good thing, both for me and for Edinburgh!

One sad point. There was actually no content I saw other than Clay Shirky's piece, which I'd already read previously, that I have felt the need to bookmark or remember from this MOOC. Steve Fuller's TED talk was a great 15 minute summary of ideas on what it is to be human, but this isn't what I thought we were going to be learning about... 

Would I have been better off just looking at TED talks with the time I spent on #edcmooc? Probably.