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

Archive for February, 2011

Downloading Videos

One of the things that I get asked a lot is how to download video from websites like YouTube. Because we are behind a proxy filter at my school, this is often the only way to get video from this great online source into the classroom. The other reason that this is useful is because YouTube tends to try to suggest other videos to you that might not be safe for school and sometimes a stand-alone video file is safer.

There are countless ways to take video from a website. After all, it has been loaded onto your computer already; all you need to do is tell your computer to “grab” it. I am going to share my method of downloading and displaying a flash video. By no means will it work every time, but it’s another option in meeting your needs.

There are three programs I use for this: two to get the video and one to display it without a lot of fuss.

  1. First, install Firefox, mostly because it is awesome. Argue it if you want, but this is a rule in my classroom, kind of like the rule about never bringing ranch dressing into my room. It’s a great browser with lots a features and more importantly the ability to install extensions that expand what it can do, Just go to tools>add-ons.
  2. Second, about those extensions: the one you want to install either through Firefox or their extension library is called downloadhelper. It’s a nice little program that creates a neat three-color icon in your browser whenever it finds something it can download.

    Download Helper, helping

  3. Go to your favorite source of online video. When it starts to spin, click it and select whatever file looks like it might be the one you want. This can be tricky since they will often be named in some strange code, but look for one that ends in .flv. click it to start the download.
  4. The .FLV file is the most common type of online video these days; a flash video file that can probably be played on your browser, but not by itself and not in many media players such as Windows Media Player or QuickTime. It can, however, be played using the second greatest program ever: Video LAN Client, or VLC. This is a simple, streamlined media player that is very powerful. It does one thing—plays files. And it leaves out all the bloatware you find in QuickTime or Windows Media Player.

There are other methods, of course, like converting the file into something easier for your computer to handle, but VLC does such a great job I tend to save myself the trouble. Save the file to a flash drive, or save yourself a lot of trouble and save it to your Dropbox.

Instant Newspapers (another neat way to use the cloud)

I am the gifted and talented coordinator for my district. In a larger district this would be a full-time position spending more time testing kids and placing them in programs. In a district of my size, however, it means that on top of being a full-time teacher I am also testing, identifying, and running these programs. But I digress. I love my job and I love that I get to do all the extras like the science club and the newspaper.

Having a school or classroom newspaper is a great activity for reaching all kinds of kids, informing parents and the community, and promoting your classroom and your school. However, the main roadblock to making a newspaper is the important layout stage. Once you have all the written work from the kids, how do you put it together? Do you copy and paste it into Word? What if Billy’s piece on mystery meat is too long or too short? How does he know it has to be longer? When you have to manage 30 students, all writing different things, all saving to different files, it soon seems to become more trouble than it’s worth.

Enter Google Documents (Google Docs), my favorite (and free) cloud application. With Google Docs, it is possible for students to work on the same document—at the same time. It just takes a little bit of setup and a little bit of student training. Here’s how you can create a classroom newspaper on Google Docs.

  1. Set up an new word processing document
  2. Create a ‘blank’ newspaper layout using tables; decide how many columns you want, how many pictures and so on. Be careful, because a Google Doc does not like to include page breaks—you don’t want your column cut in half.
  3. Put your student’s names into the cell you want them to write in.
  4. Set up Google Docs sharing so that anyone can see this document and edit it if they have the link.
  5. Give the students the link, I would be careful about this because anyone who has this link can anonymously change it, I like to put it on my Moodle, so that students have to log in to access the link, and at the very least I can go back to the Moodle login records if someone messes with the document. The best option for security purposes would be to be part of Google Docs education, and add your students, that way you know who did what to the document.
  6. Let the students fill their “cells” with their writing. They should be able to not only see their work, but the work of other students, creating a great incentive for students to finish on time and to aid in editing. Tell the students who get done early to start fixing their classmates’ columns.


A news page created in Google Docs

What is really great about this is not just having students working on the same “page” as one another, but also that you, as the teacher, can go right from assigning the project to printing it without much hassle. Want to publish on the web too? Google Documents lets you publish the document as a web page, making it a read-only web page that you can link to your blog or email to parents.


I am not a huge football fan. Part of it comes from being the son of a coach and never being all that competitive. I was more interested in forensics, Frisbee, and hanging out with the band even though I had no talent for music. But there are things that as a native Wisconsinite, you cannot let pass without losing your mind a little bit. For instance, it is our custom that every household have a grill and know how to use it; every car must have a bag of cat litter and a blanket in the trunk; and every man, woman, and child must lose their minds when the Packers get into the playoffs.

Having a Korean exchange student in the classroom, we had to explain football to him and how it fits in Wisconsin; why it is so important to us. We are an underdog state in many ways, lacking the size of Illinois and Minnesota; we feel the need to constantly remind everyone around us of our toughness. Our kids play football and basketball in the snow, going outside for recess in well-below freezing temperatures. We have a tendency to take that which we are mocked for and wear it like a badge, knowing that it makes us strong. No other team has anything resembling the cheese head as a symbol of proud self-deprivation.

Our joy was reflected in the great story run by Weekly Reader online, written by a student reporter who attended the Super Bowl. The only complaint my kids had when we read it: “THAT SHOULD BE ME!!!” This lead to a project by some of my students to document the craziness that has infected our fair state, created by using our library’s digital and Flip video cameras. Stay tuned for that.


Call me a sucker for the compact. My first vehicle was a moped; my first car an itty-bitty hatchback; my last computer a netbook. It must be the German part of me that wants something to do its job and do it well without a lot of fluff. For example, I am very interested in the idea of nettops.

The netbook, as many of you know, is a no-frills laptop that focuses mainly on surfing and relying on a lot of cloud applications available from the internet to do things. For schools they are great because 95% of what we seem to do is work on the internet or type up reports in Word. Even though a lot of “experts” claim that the netbook is on the way out, to be replaced by cheaper and more portable tablets, I can see a long future for netbooks in the classroom since it’s hard to type well on a tablet.

Once more, most schools I find still use computer labs heavily. Why use the computer lab when you have a cart of netbooks? Well, for one thing, logistics. First, the netbooks have to be charged, and as a teacher you run the risk that they will kick out after 5 minutes because the third-graders forgot to plug them in last hour. Second, wireless has to be up to the task. Wireless has come a long way, but for many schools, having 30 or more machines log in at the same time is just too much of a drain on the system. I personally have had a class where the students have had to log in five at a time to prevent overloading the network; meanwhile, the students who were waiting were crawling up the walls. Third, security. It is very easy for one of those little laptops to fall off a desk or “go missing.” Last, there is distraction; the lab is used for one thing—working—and taking the kids there physically means it’s time for business.

So forget tablets. Forget netbooks. Many schools still rely on the tried-and-true desktop as the dependable, no-frills workhorse of their technology program. In my humble opinion, I feel that we can have the best of both worlds, taking the no-frills and small form factor atheistic of the netbook and the dependability of the desktop to create the “nettop.”


The itty-bitty Dreamplug

A nettop is a small computer, usually low-powered, that is designed to surf the web and type up documents and little else. The most well known example to me is Apple’s Mac Mini. But to many in the nettop world, even the Mini, with its optical drive, is seen as decedent. Enter such liliputian machines as the Asus EEEBox—little bigger than a paperback book, and looks great mounted to the back of a monitor or whiteboard. But why stop there? There are also such great products as the upcoming Fit-PC3 from Compulab or even the ridiculously small Dreamplug, a computer that, get this, is the size of most AC adapters and is designed to plug into your wall’s AC outlet.

Can these tiny machines do everything? No, but like my car, they will get you where you need to go most of the time and free up plenty of space in your computer lab/garage for important things like more students or your hammock.

Great Free Program: Tux Paint

I remember fondly my favorite childhood activity using a computer. This was not much of a computer; it was a small “Mac-in-a-box” Macintosh Classic. As I recall, it had a single 3.5 disk drive, a 7-inch black and white screen, enough horsepower to type a document, and not much else. I would play with Aldus Superpaint for hours—cutting, pasting and using the multitude of brushes and shapes to create everything from pictures of my house to floor plans for my perfect RV (it was a stage).

Over the years, there have been a few programs that get kids used to drawing on the computer, used to pointing and clicking—Kid-Pix for one.

Lately, I have been having my younger kids from kindergarten on up use a program called Tux Paint. Tux Paint is one of the many educational programs created by Open-source programmers for the Linux platform. However, Tux Paint (along with many other programs) is also ported to Windows and Mac.

Tux Paint lets kids color with an array of bushes on hundreds of backgrounds. They can stamp any number of pictures from the large clip art library and draw to their heart’s delight. One of my favorite pictures lately was of a penguin performing a drum solo in outer space surrounded by monster trucks that shot lightning out of their headlights. I may be a little biased, but I think it’s destined to be a modern classic.

tux paint

Awesome drawing created using Tux Paint

News from HP

I gush a lot about whiteboards, but it’s a broken record I never get tired of, since it is the most-used item in my own classroom and I would give up coffee to keep it (and I love coffee).


HP's Digital Sketch wirelessly connects to a teacher’s notebook or desktop. The teacher can work with the lesson from anywhere in the classroom.

I said a little while back that we would see more options in the interactive whiteboard scene, and that motion-capture technology—the kind found in the Wii and Xbox Kinect—will make them more affordable. HP’s latest press release mentions their new educational initiative and a whiteboard product that is the most portable I have seen yet. It looks to be a small sensor that you attach to an existing whiteboard and provides wireless interactivity. It’s similar to the MimioTeach device, but smaller. That a player like HP is getting into this already crowded market should make it interesting; and that this device will hopefully work seamlessly with their other educational products should make it a good sell for districts that are looking to buy things from the smallest amount of vendors.

The release also mentions a “thin client,” a single computer that connects up to 10 workstations, letting them “share” the same computer. With more schools embracing cloud computing, the demand for these small, cheap solutions to computer labs may grow. I also found their idea of a netbook-charging cart slick; they claim that it will charge up to 30 machines regardless of brand. I personally would like to see how they do this, since every cart I have used has turned into a rat’s nest of cables.

The Joys of Filters

Flickr.com/The Daring Librarian

I would like to start out by saying that I understand why we need filters on the Internet in a school. Children can get into an awful lot of trouble if given the chance—and what better chance is there than a computer connected to information on every topic known to man? I would never put a child in front of a computer that is not filtered in some way. I also would keep track of what has been seen on that computer to catch those things that manage to get through the filter. I go so far as to want key-logging software on school computers as well. I have heard cases of cyber-bullying being discovered and put down by tracking the things typed into school computers. If people say that this is spying, I like to point out that these are school computers on a school network and therefore everything on them or passing through them is subject to search—just as a locker or a car parked in the school lot can be searched.

I also agree that the Internet can be huge waste of time for professionals. A recent Tumblr post I read described a “Bermuda Triangle” of office productivity in Twitter, Facebook and Gmail . However, I am a professional, and using a school computer, I know I am being watched. By law everything I do on the computer is public record. Several schools got sued, successfully, to give up their staffs’ email.

In my own workplace, I am behind a filter; the same filter as my students. This shouldn’t be a problem, since, after all, what would I look at work that I couldn’t have a child see? It’s not the filters that I object to, but rather the difficulty the filters sometimes create. For instance, I can’t download a computer version of chess because it shows up as “games” in our filter. I cannot look on Marvel Comics’ or DC Comics’ websites to find age-appropriate comic books, because they are blocked as “comics.” I cannot go to YouTube; many schools, technology blogs and news sites and my own blog use YouTube as a place to host video. When my kids got their snowman video on YouTube a few months ago, they could not watch it at school. Our music teacher often comes to me with requests for music that she would like me to download from YouTube, since a VHS tape describing Indian music can be hard to come by.

I know that there are a lot of better filtering and administration systems out there, but I was reminded by our district tech coordinator that many of these cost upwards of $16,000. For a small district like ours, that kind of money is better spent on other things.

I don’t want to raise a fuss about this. Putting up with the filtering issues is a small price to pay for knowing that the kids are safe, but there are times when I am frustrated. Like when I found out that Sesame Street, who put all of their content online and indexed them by topic for parents and educators, was blocked because its online video was from YouTube and therefore treated as “R-Rated” content by our filter.

I wish for the day when, as a teacher, I could have a little more control over the filter other than sending an email to our provider. I am hopeful that someday soon the system will make a little more sense. Maybe a two-tiered system, where teachers have more access than students, would be better. Or a system where students get more and more access (but the same amount of supervision) as they get older.

How does your school handle this issue, one I find so frustrating?


Last week I talked very abstractly about “The Cloud.” I summed up the cloud as Internet services that exist completely on the Internet such as email, file sharing and web streaming.

Today I want to talk about one such service that has completely changed how I use my computer. It’s called Dropbox.

DropboxDropbox is a free application that you run on your computer. When it is installed, it creates a folder called a “Dropbox.” To your computer it resembles a regular folder; you can copy files to it, save and run documents and even some applications (like Firefox portable).

When you copy a file to the Dropbox, it uploads a copy up to the cloud automatically, then copies that file to your home computer, cell phone, iPod, Macintosh computer, Linux computer, or any other device that has Internet and drop-box enabled.

Most teachers have a network that they save their files on; here in Greenwood it’s our “U” drive. The only problem is that accessing this U drive outside of school is difficult to impossible and for most people accessing their networks from home means downloading the file from your browser and uploading it again when you are done. Or it means using a flash drive to back your files up and hope that you have the latest copy of your file.

The dropbox means that wherever I am, I will have access to my stuff, and that it will be the same stuff, and that it will have been backed up and safe, even if I run my flash drive though the laundry.

I can also ‘share’ folders in my dropbox with co-workers so that they can see my files and save to them no matter where they are; a shared drive accessible from anywhere.

Think of a file that you use all the time, that you are updating and using all the time and really should be backed up in more than a few places. It belongs on your Dropbox.

Dropbox is a free download and it gives you the first 2 gigs for free. For the 50 and 100 gig options you have to pay a monthly fee.

My New Favorite Website

I found out through another blogger about a great site called Qwiki.com. Qwiki works like a standard encyclopedia; you type in a name or a subject and it finds a bunch of results. What makes it different is that it takes the results (mostly from Wikipedia) and stitches the words, text, and pictures into a short, two minute or so movie. I typed in “Edward Teach” and it began reading to me about the golden age of piracy complete with timeline graphics of Blackbeard’s life and pictures of his exploits. All of this text linked to other qwikis, so naturally the movie could lead to many new topics.

Can you imagine using this in class to answer those little questions you get every day? “Mr. Briggs, why is the sky blue?” “Mr. Briggs, what is tea?” or “How do rockets work”?

Check it out if you haven’t already; it’s really slick.

“What is the cloud?”

… was the question I was asked by a co-worker the other day in the lunchroom. We have all seen the Microsoft ads where people go “to the cloud” and it magically fixes all of their problems involving computers.

“The cloud” refers to “cloud computing,” a term created to describe how more and more of our actual computing occurs on the internet and how the internet—not our hard drives—seems to be where most of our stuff now exists.

For me, the best example is email. Rather than having all of your email messages stored on your computer (as they used to be), most are now stored on a server, if you work for a school, most likely this server is a big computer locked in a back closet somewhere. Having your mail stored on a secure, well-backed-up server is a lot safer than storing on your hard drive since the chances are slim that somebody will accidentally delete your email, like I once did to a client in college. To this man, I say: I AM SO, SO, SORRY!

But cloud computing takes this a step further. Rather than storing those files on a server in a back closet, it stores those files on a server out in California or any one of the thousands of ‘server farms’ that are owned by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others. And now, instead of needing to be in front of your computer to check your email, you can access it from any computer with internet. Tah-dah! You were on the cloud without knowing it.

As the years have gone by, more and more is computing has been done on the internet, existing not in one central location but on the ambiguous, ethereal internet “cloud.” For example, one of my favorite sites for teaching kids about digital cameras is Picnik, a free site with some premium features; it serves as a basic photo-editor. Kids can plug in their cameras into any computer and crop, brighten and red-eye correct to their hearts content without having to worry about file management issues, losing their photos, or mucking around in a program like Photoshop. Picnik is one of those sites that does one thing—basic photo editing—and does it well. And all of the computing power behind it, all of the processing and rendering that used to be such a drain on a computer, happens thousands of miles away on a server farm.


Fun with Picnick.

With the internet taking the weight off of your computer’s processor, you can now do more and more with a basic device with an internet connection—hence the rise in netbooks and tablets and smartphones. It’s not that the phones are all that smart; they just happen to be connected to a network of great devices.

I would take the time to go over some of the really great things to come to education from cloud computing, but honestly, I find it really overwhelming. There is just so much of it that I could spend hours of my day poring over these sites. Unfortunately, I still have a class to teach; they are showing up in about 15 minutes and I have to have their multiplication practice ready for when they get back, so I’ll have to ask my readers to share anything that they use that falls into the category of “cloud” computing, and share some more of my solutions in future posts.

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