Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Archive for January, 2011

Great Moments: Google Earth

A few weeks ago, we received an exchange student from Korea. I am endlessly proud of my students for their patience, kindness, and hospitality in welcoming this student into our classroom and making him feel a part of our school. While being an exchange student must be a tremendous learning experience for the student, it has also been great for my class, a majority of whom live on farms and rarely get to visit any city, let alone any of the larger cities in our area such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Green Bay.

I spoke to this student the other day about a recent trip he and the other kids from his program will be making to Chicago. I talked about places he would visit and things he could do, and naturally this led to looking up places that served Chicago-style hot dogs and Chicago-style pizza. I am a hot dog nut and have worked Chi-Dogs into my diet (4 Weight Watchers Points! Even with fries, that’s less than a Snickers bar!). Naturally, this led to Google Earth.

Google Earth, the program, is a godsend for our isolated little school. With the ability to show images of places anywhere in the world, and find street views of most of those places, it lets our kids travel the world without leaving the room. After showing him around Navy Pier and the Loop, someone asked our new student, “Where do you live?”

After a few minutes, we saw the sprawling metropolis of Seoul. Our student showed us the blocks and blocks of high rise apartment buildings, pointed out good places to eat, his school, and the nearby headquarters of Hyundai, Samsung, and Kia. In a town like ours where there is not a single three-story building, and for kids like mine who have never seen a skyscraper, let alone been surrounded by them, this was mind-blowing.

Our guy has opened up a little bit more, he is respected a little bit more, and our class was a little humbled by a program that puts the whole world in your classroom.

A Whiteboardless Whiteboard?

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The interactive whiteboard market, having done so well, is now rife with competition. What does this mean for education? It means better and cheaper products. Do I love my SMARTboard? Absolutely, but there have also been times where I was frustrated with it and wished there were more options out there.

Now the whiteboard itself may be on the way out. Projectors are being developed with technology similar to the way that the X-box Kinect uses cameras to track movement. Essentially, whatever surfaces the projector is projecting on to become a touch-responding surface: a whiteboard sans the whiteboard.

Again, I ask: what does this mean for teachers? It means that setting up an interactive classroom will get easier; you may not have to install a semi-permanent piece of proprietary equipment in your classroom, or wheel it in and spend a tremendous amount of time setting it up. In my opinion, it should also turn up the heat on the companies making interactive whiteboards (SMART, Promethean and others) to make a better and more innovative product.

The cheapest projector that I was able to find with this feature is the Sanyo PLC-WL2503, a projector made especially for schools with great features such as making a 80 inch screen only 34 inches from a surface (ultra- short throw) and being able to color-correct the image if it is projected onto a blackboard or a whiteboard. It still costs around $1800, but that’s still less than an interactive whiteboard and a similarly-equipped non-interactive projector.

Review: Pogo Digital Photo Printer


Teachers tend to be luddites when it comes to new technologies. Certain technologies just work so well that we don’t give them up. For example, audio tape is dead to the outside world; I long ago abandoned my last Metallica cassette to the wayside. Even the successor to the cassette tape, the compact disc, is on its way out, replaced by digital audio downloads and the iPod. But go into any school and you will still see hundreds of the tapes and scores of the recorders, bought for speech classes, foreign language or read-along books and never abandoned because they just worked so well. The same goes for the hundreds of VHS tapes in any school, their populations dwarfing the few DVDs we have bought. And what is being shouted at every consumer electronics show? The end of the DVD is nigh! Up next: Blu-Ray, 3-D, and digital downloads! End the DVD? We have barely begun! And who stopped making VHS recorders?! How are my students supposed to watch our library’s videos?

Sometimes, though, a product comes along that promises, at least in part, to bring back the spirit of something that worked so well in the past. I speak, in this case, of the Polaroid camera. For teachers it was great to have a way to capture a moment in a photograph and have that instant print instead of waiting up to a week to get down to the local photo-hut and get prints made. Digital cameras helped a little, but they created extra steps: having to upload, edit, and print the photos. Since most schools use massive, networked laser printers for cost reasons, printing nice color glossy photos is a hassle.

Polaroid claims to be back with Zink (zero-ink) printing technology. Using special paper and a special printer you get a water and fade resistant print in a few seconds with no ink. It seems like a good idea in practice, but I got my hands on a printer for Christmas and I am less than thrilled.

The paper costs $10 for a pack of 30, making the price around $.30 a print. Not bad—except that the prints are 2×3 wallets. On the plus side, each print is sticker-backed, allowing them to be used for journals or name cards—great for teacher projects or records.

The printer is fast, but the prints show it, with dim colors and lots of streaks, something that should have been fixed if they had spent a little longer with it.

But the glaring problems are as follows, and I will not recommend this product until these get fixed:

No computer connection: You cannot hook a computer directly to this printer; it can only be connected directly to a Pict-Bridge enabled camera (my classroom’s Kodak cameras would not work) or to some Bluetooth enabled cell-phones. Printing directly from the camera is handy; as is the Bluetooth feature, but when these are the only ways to print, it makes it a novelty more than a tool.

Battery power: A tiny battery-powered printer is a great idea, except that my battery, new out of the box, only printed ten photos and then promptly stopped holding a charge despite being plugged in overnight.

Bottom Line: Great idea, but poor execution. This would have made a great product, and I still think that there would be a huge market for this, if they could overcome some fundamental problems.


It is my business if I change my mind.

I will soon be taking part in an advanced Moodle course through our local educational cooperative, CESA. I am getting some money to buy whatever I need for this course, and I will most likely be buying an iPad. I know I railed against it for student use. But after using my iPod Touch and looking at many of its other features, I see no reason not to buy one of my own for my use, hopefully making it easier to keep an eye on my online classroom and remotely writing on my SMARTboard.

I give them this, Apple is just so easy to use that the little things (like not having Flash) don’t seem so bad compared to all the good it will do to keep me connected to all the other toys in my classroom.

I am interested in what I am hearing about Brainchild, the company that makes the StudyBuddy handheld testing and learning system. Word is that they will be announcing their Android-powered tablet geared JUST FOR EDUCATION at FETC 2011 in Orlando, Florida. I would love to be there but money and professional obligations keep me from going, although I expect my feeds to be overflowing due to this event as they did for the Consumer Electronics Show last week.

Bridge Building

My students are working hard on their next science club project: bridge-building. This is a project in engineering where students try and build the strongest bridge with the least amount of materials. The lesson is great as a practical way of showing engineering principles and teaching ratios, since the goal is not to make the strongest bridge but the strongest for its weight. Last year went well but my room was filled with broken ends of noodles and fluffs of hot glue for a month.

I was able to find a lot of resources, however, that showed kids how bridges work. A great site—as long as it’s teacher-led, since some of it is NSFSK (not safe for school kids)—is howstuffworks.com, home of the How Stuff Works set of articles and their fantastic podcasts. Videos were found that described in detail how bridges work and are maintained.

Another great resource has been a bridge-building game we found that lets kids build and test simple bridge designs. It was so addictive that we had to limit it to students who are actually in the science club.

Thoughts on E-Readers

The big gift item this holiday season appeared to be eReaders. I followed this trend myself and bought two: one for my wife and one for my dad. What did I buy? More on that later.

The eReader seems to me to be where the MP3 player market was about 10 years ago, when the iPod was just getting on the scene. Before that, the Blue-Ray/HDDVD debate and the VHS/Beta debate before that. In all these cases, the product had been around for a while but was not mainstream. Big companies like Sony have put out a few products half-heartedly, but then another company comes in and one way or another sets a standard. In the case of the MP3 player it was the iPod, and in the case of the eReader it is beginning to look like the Amazon Kindle.

Just like 10 years ago, there is a debate about which product to buy, what features are a “must” and what files they will support. The difference is that 10 years ago, the MP3 file came first, and the player followed; every player had to support MP3s. Today, the hardware for eReaders has come first and the file format seems to be different for each one.

For example, the Kindle supports its own format, but not the format used by public libraries. The Nook, however, does support public library files, but not Kindle books. The files you buy from Apple’s iBooks site will work on your iPad, but not on the Kindle or the Nook. However, the iPad, since it is app-based, will read anything.

I have made a chart to keep track of it all.

Kindle Nook iPad
Kindle books Yes no Yes
Barnes and Noble Books No Yes Yes
iBooks No No Yes
Project Gutenberg Yes Yes Yes
Overdrive (library books) no yes yes
Kitchen Sink No No There’s an App for that. Seriously, look it up.
Cost $($139) $$$ ($250) $$$$ ($500)

I know that there are too many reviews for eReaders out there, but I think that reading is such a personal thing that the real question is, What do you want your book reader to do? Just like 10 years ago with the MP3 player market, the dust has yet to settle on who will be the winner. There were MP3 players 10 years ago that did a lot more than the iPod and yet the popularity and ease of use of the early iPods won out. In the end I went with the Kindle, not because it does a lot—I can only get book from Amazon, Project Gutenberg or convert them using a handy albeit complicated, program called Calibre. But the Kindle is just so lean, uncomplicated, simple to navigate, and the screen is just great to look at. Basically, I chose it for the same reasons I chose my first iPod: because it didn’t waste time trying to be anything but a music player.

The real losers, just like 10 years ago, are schools. The eReader revolution could really help education in a meaningful way. Think of the kids lugging home 50 pounds of textbooks or wheeling their overstuffed backpacks around. Think of the note-taking possibilities when a group of readers can see each other’s notes on a textbook and share their results collaboratively. Think of kids being able to download library books onto their school-sponsored reader from anywhere, including their own home. Think of having classroom assessments built into textbooks (a “join this quiz” button on the screen). The potential for these options is out there, but they are far from the demands of the mainstream. Instead of schools driving innovation, the market is the everyman consumer—mainly guys like me. For schools, I wouldn’t recommend the Kindle. Because of the library features and versatility, I would probably recommend the Nook or an iPad for schools, which is a shame since they are also the most expensive. Perhaps the best thing is to wait for the dust to settle. Now if I could only find someone to get these Beta tapes off my hands…

Things I want to see:

  • A quality color E-Ink screen for crisp images and text and long battery life. They are working on it, but right now LCD color screens are cheaper and look better than the E-Ink options.
  • A universal and standard book format for libraries that can be used by EVERYONE.
  • A way to bring social networking and classroom response to the book reader.
  • Major textbook companies embracing the eReader as an option. I can download PDFs of my students’ new reading textbook, but an e-book version of the textbook would be great.
  • Simplicity. Make them read a book with none of the extra fluff. This should keep costs down and keep my kids from playing Angry Birds. That’s my job.

My Swiss Army Knife

My grandfather was a farmer. He carried a small pocket knife wherever he went, and it did not stop when the farm was sold off. One of my only memories of the guy was him cutting apples and feeding us kids like seals when we were toddlers. I inherited his need to be handy, and carry around a little multi-tool around in my jacket in case I should need a scissors or a screwdriver. It has come in handy more than you would think.

I like having tools around when I need them. That is why I don’t tend to organize my SMARTboard lessons into separate “lessons” where I have a new presentation for each day. I end up using the same tools every day and those I keep in a single file I call my “basic board.”

Some things on my “basic board”:

1) Mock-up of the school’s assignment notebook. The slide was made to look exactly like the one the students have to minimize confusion.

2) Timers. I have a small timer on nearly every page. This is a great way for managing time in the class: two minutes from when the bell rings we start class, five minutes of spelling practice, a minute to get ready for math, etc.

3) Dueling timers. A page that has two timers. Say the class has two minutes to get ready and the timer says it only took them 1:30. I add the “leftover” 30 seconds to the second “free time” timer. When the class has saved up 45 minutes they can cash in their time for a fun day.

3) Group-o-Tron. That’s my fancy name for a random group generator. You put in the students’ names and tell the generator how many groups you want and students are randomly assigned into groups. Sure, every so often you as the teacher don’t agree with the Group-o-tron, but it sets an objective policy that you work with who you get—no arguments.

4) Randomizer. I use a random word generator with the students’ names put in it. Students get picked at random, complete with little “game show” sounds. Great for picking kids to call for reading or giving answers. Because it is random (and because it repeats) I never have trouble with kids not following along.

5) Grid paper, notebook paper, dot paper. These are all great for modeling work and making large, quick graphs of data.

6) Maps. I have at the ready maps of the world, the United States, Wisconsin, and the solar system, or things that we might come across in our reading or class.

7) Links. I’ve got a whole page where I dump links to websites we use all the time. It keeps me from having to navigate my bookmarks in the browser and makes it a lot more kid-friendly.

Here it is in action.

Tag Cloud