RISC World

The Education Column

Andrew Harmsworth continues his series

This month I take a look at something which causes all teachers headaches - report writing. And, in keeping with my hope that not just educationalists will be interested in this column, I take a look at a rather natty little program called !webgen.

In addition I'd like your feedback: who are the readers of this column? What do they do? Your replies will be vital in helping shape its future. If you don't want to read the articles below, please complete the survey anyway.

Silly Season Support

Silly season in schools is that time of year when reports have to be written. In some cases, this can be more than once per term. In all cases, writing them by hand is an outdated process. But can you really trust a computer with such important words?

The answer to that question is, of course, yes. Saving regularly (every minute seems ludicrous, but why not?) and taking multiple back-ups will give you peace of mind, and no excuse for losing them.

Most schools seem to be leaning - sadly not like the newly-straightened Tower of Pisa - towards the use of Microsoft Word for most of their admin tasks. Staff are given a disc with a nicely laid out document template into which they enter their pupils' reports. So, what are the potential problems:

  • Typing directly into a template produces a document of many pages, making editing a pain.
  • Complex DTP-like layouts in Word documents often don't convert properly in EasiWriter.
  • Making a change to the layout requires you to change all the pages one at a time.

The first problem is easily solved in Word by using a mail merge. Simply create a blank document and in it make a table with suitable headings. These can then be read by the report template, row by row, pupil by pupil. In a flash this also solves the last problem - now, any changes you desire, such as the addition of a box for test grades - can be included on all reports by entering it only once.

Now for the really clever bit! Both EasiWriter and TechWriter (hereinafter EasiWriter) can happily cope with importing and exporting Word documents with tables in. This means that you should be able to create your table in EasiWriter, save as a Word document, and merge them straight into the Word template. Sounds too good to be true.

Let's start by creating the following table in MSWord:

Name Set Test Mark Attainment Effort Comment
Darren Black A1 81 B 1 Darren is by far the hardest working boy in the class, although he would do better if he wore sunglasses outside.
Dave Green A1 85 A 1 Dave should really wipe his nose more often, it will simply not do!
Dorris Pink A1 96 A 1 Dorris has had a lovely year, although things will only get worse in the future.
Drusilla Red A1 100 A 3 Drusilla is an outstanding physicist, but I fear that her interest in blood might prevent her taking her academic studies as far as we might hope.
Dean Rose A1 71 C 2 Dean would do really well at this subject if he actually bothered attending classes.
Dan White A1 89 A 1 Dan has spent far too long cleaning his teeth for his physics grade to ever improve beyond this level.

Just to show that it works in EasiWriter, I've included the document here. Whilst we're at it, compare it to this one, saved from EasiWriter. They're the same in every respect, apart from size: the first is 20K, the second 4K. If you can't load them, here's the screen shot:

MS Word screenshot
The table as created in MSWord

We could, of course, have just created the table in EasiWriter. An important point with this program - it automatically sizes table column widths. This is a problem in this sort of document, as we want a wide right hand column, with multiple lines of text. The solution is to turn on word wrap. This is done by turning off automatic column widths:

The table being created in TechWriter

Automatic column widths having trouble coping without a line break!

Having selected the table, change its format...

... by turning column widths off

Aha: perfection!

The file can then be written as if it were on a PC - except for numerous obvious advantages. It can then be saved as a Word document for transfer to a PC for mail merging into your Word template. So - you can now print reports from Word, without having to write them in it. Or, indeed, without having to despair at the thought of buying a PC for use at home just for this purpose.

I don't wish to go into using Word's mail merge facility, but suffice it to say that it's easy, and the following link will give you all the help you need: creating a mail merge in MS Word.

Mail merging is a tool that is not reserved solely for printing letters with different addresses on - its power is in its flexibility. Most of the RISC OS word processing and desktop-publishing programs have the facility. Give it a whirl - you'll be surprised at how useful it is at saving you time.

Getting Photos Online

Jessops Photos on a CD

The digital image is here to stay, and it's about time more people realised that. However, one of the problems with them is that most people can't cope with putting images of a sensible size onto websites. By this I don't just mean bytes, but also size on screen. Even if, like me, you get Jessops to transfer your photos onto CD at time of processing <shameless plug> £1·99 per CD for up to 4 films!</shameless plug> getting the collection of photos onto a website quickly and satisfactorily can be difficult. Unless you have the right tools for the job.

webgenThere are a number of tools for RISC OS now that will take a bunch of images, and create from them a set of web pages with them all in. One I tried recently was !webgen, by Dave Stratford, and it's terribly good at its job. More importantly, it's free!

Quoting from its !Help file:

    "!Webgen is a simple application, and interface to !ChangeFSI, which can generate simple image galleries, in a format suitable for either publishing on the web, or as a CDRom interface/front end. There is no limit to the uses that the generated site could be used for, though the simplicity of the generated HTML may make large galleries a little unwieldy. The output is generated to a directory, default name 'website' which contains an index.html, a few png files to act as buttons or flags, directories called thumbnails, and optionally images, and also optionally an html page for each image."

Last year I took 72 photographs of my school's leavers' ball, and put them on a website for the kids to print out. This year, I did the same. Last year I had manually built the site. This year, I entrusted !webgen to the task. And what a great job it did.

    If you just want to see the results, go online (javascript required) and click here.

Jessops supply two versions of each photograph as shown in the directory display above: low res (597 × 400) and high res (1840 × 1232). For my purposes, putting the low resolution photos online was sufficient. Deciding to see what !webgen could do, I copied 6 images to a fresh directory, and threw them at it. You are instantly presented with the following window:

Webgen's main window
Webgen's main window

Given that the chance of anyone who was going to be accessing the photos would be using an incapable browser was virtually nil, I decided to go for the "on same page (rollover)" option. This uses some clever javascript code to display a larger version of each thumbnail when the mouse pointer is moved over it.

For some reason, webgen thinks that all the input images need to be square for the code to work. I ignored this, to see what it would do. A save box is presented to you, from which the site is created. Webgen uses !ChangeFSI to process the images into sensible sizes, as well as creating the thumbnails. It displays its progress in a large window as follows:

webgen at work, whilst you make the tea
Webgen at work. Make the tea whilst it, and ChangeFSI, do their stuff

The result is what you asked for: a single web page with a tidy collection of thumbnails that, when rolled-over, are displayed alongside for all to admire. The rollovers work in Oregano and Fresco too, so don't be shy of using this.

Curiously, the HTML code forces the large versions to be square, but this is easily rectified via a search and replace. Each web page it creates is more than good enough for quickly presenting your masterpieces. I edited each of my pages to be different colours, and the resulting pages are shown below (rollover animated for effect!):



The default image on the right of the thumbnails is a 1×1 pixel white blob, but this is easily replaced by whatever you like - in this case instructions on how to use the site, and order reprints and enlargements!

Overall I have been terribly impressed by !webgen, and will certainly keep using it for my own photographic needs. There is no reason, of course, why it could not be put in charge of creating pages of any artwork, for example. In fact, RISCWorld has created a special award for programs reviewed by this column: highly recommended! Well done, David.

N.B. Since my first use of !Webgen, its author, David Stratford, has updated it to version 1.41 after some suggestions I made. That's one thing I love about RISC OS software authors!

Opinion Poll

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Next Time

Well, sadly at the time of writing, my new RISCStation laptop has still not surfaced. RISCStation are (once again) due to make an announcement shortly, and there is a good reason for the delay. All being well, and the wind being in the right direction, let us hope that it's third time lucky for the education column. If indeed it does arrive, look forward to a special article on its first visits to the classroom at the start of the autumn term.

If you have any questions or comments on the use of RISC OS computers in education, please either email or better still join the RISC OS Education Discussion List, and air them there.

Andrew Harmsworth