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

Archive for June, 2011

My iPad Arrives

In the darkest days of February, when the sun shone not on the frozen tundra of Wisconsin but for a handful of hours, I made a request of the mighty, turtle-necked lord of Cupertino. The request was a humble one: A 16GB iPad with a camera. Many moons did pass, and lo, plagues of consumer shortages, recalls, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and an explosion in the factory stood in the way of deliverance. My faith was shaken that I would ever receive this glowing tablet. Last Wednesday my faith was rewarded, my iPad arrived with my name etched on the back.

They're here!

If I sound like this is a big deal for me, it is. Since the first iPad came out I have had my doubts about how the iPad could be used in the classroom. Mostly having to do with schools that shell out good money buying them for every student. That said, I wanted one soooo bad. Since getting my iPod Touch I realized how much I enjoyed having my documents, email, calendars, and notes all in one place. I wanted that kind of organization an convenience in my classroom. I wanted to streamline my professional work the same way that my SmartBoard streamlined my instruction.

I will have to wait a little longer before I can use it to its full potential. First, because it is a school iPad, I need to work with others to install the apps in order to share them with Scott, my partner in this iPad trial. Secondly, my students don’t show up for another few months. Only then, when my students are in the classroom and I am once again exposed to the pressures of running my classroom, will I know what works in the field and what does not. Which apps are useful, which are toys, and which are wastes of time?

I am developing a list of the apps that I will use in the coming school year. Any ideas on what should make the cut?

Making The Most of Tech Budgets, or How I Bowed to Those Wiser Than I

Wisconsin is like a lot of states in that it has taken a beating in terms of its education budget. I won’t go into the political quagmire that has erupted in the Badger State from one group’s attempts to balance state budgets by giving schools less and businesses more. I do know that it has forced a lot of schools to make some potentially difficult decisions, and in most cases if given a choice between hiring enough staff, keeping the heat on, and buying new computers, the computers tend to be the first thing written out.

The cost of technology seems to be on the rise as more and more schools begin to see wireless Internet and providing laptops to their students as a necessity and not a luxury. Even as my school considers how many laptops to buy, I can’t help feeling that the day will come when a computer or tablet will be required and not provided by the district. It would certainly lower our operating costs and provide more money for our network and Internet filter.

On that note, my school and thousands of others dodged a big bullet in our overhead costs recently. Lawmakers threatened to eliminate our Internet provider, Wiscnet, because the University of Wisconsin operates it and is therefore a “public” option competing with private businesses. Thankfully, thousands of angry calls from parents, teachers, and library patrons seemed to have an effect. Wiscnet will remain in business for now and continue to provide a small, rural school district like ours an affordable option and ability to provide needed services such as distance learning classes.

I did, however, see some light at the end of the tunnel recently. A fellow blogger by the name of Doug Johnson (from Minnesota, but I won’t hold it against him) posted a wonderful series of posts on his blog, The Blue Skunk Blog, about how to make technology money last. I take no credit whatsoever for the fantastic insight that these posts contain.

Introduction: Strategies for stretching your tech budget

  1. Use effective budgeting techniques
  2. The (buying) power of groups: consortium purchasing, state contracts, bidding and quotes
  3. Sustainable technology
  4. The right tool for the right job: avoid buying a new semi when a used pickup will do
  5. Free is good
  6. Head to the cloud
  7. Enforce standardization
  8. Maximize your e-rate funding
  9. Are you still supporting 16mm film projectors? I thought so
  10. Stuff without training is money wasted

These posts showed me that there is a way out of this budget crunch that schools are currently having to endure and that teachers like me will have the ability to reach children through technology despite these cuts.

Free Books

I commute about an hour each day getting to and from my little school in the country. I love the drive really as a chance to meditate on the day and get some time to myself as I watch the green hills roll by. I get to see eagles, deer, kingfishers, and other wildlife as well as the new calves, colts, and other adorable animals bound through the pasture.

But finding something to listen to on my commute is a chore, which is why I love a good Audiobook. Finding the time to get to the library has been hard lately and loading one CD after another is also cumbersome. But thanks to the good people at Libirvox, I don’t see that being a problem any longer.


The idea of putting free books on the web is nothing new. Since 1971, Project Gutenberg has been making thousands of public domain books available to the public over the internet (of course in 1971 it wasn’t yet called the internet, but still…). Now, thanks to the Kindle, millions of people download classic works each day, most typed up by volunteers and all of it free. (If you don’t believe me, point your Kindle’s web browser to http://m.gutenberg.org/)

Now, Libirvox attempts to do for audiobooks what Gutenberg did for the eBook.  Volunteers record themselves reading public domain books and put them up for download on the Libirvox site. If you have an iPod, the Audiobook App can help you download these titles directly onto your mobile device.

Many of these books are old. You won’t find Harry Potter or John Grisham here, but you will find Dickens, Twain, and Austen. Students can find Frankenstein, Treasure Island, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Tarzan of the Apes, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland—all wonderfully read to them. I just spent the last week listening to King Solomon’s Mines and highly recommend it.

It Feels Like Home

There is a week between when the school year ends in Greenwood, and when summer school starts. I am taking this time to get to know my newest toy.

My first computer was a Macintosh Classic that I bought from my father for $5. He was the district technology coordinator and was selling old stock. I wrote my high school papers on that 7-inch black and white screen before spending half a year flipping burgers to buy an iMac DV. The iMac would be replaced in college for an iBook G4. It was a few years’ later dear readers that I fell off the wagon. Teachers don’t have the kind of disposable income that college students do, and I caved and bought a netbook.

I undid this mistake a few weeks ago and bought a (refurbished) Macbook Pro, a tile-topped bistro set, and $20 worth of potted plants. I spent an afternoon on the deck today, using Boot Camp to allow my little Mac to boot into Windows, should I need it.

Let the summer begin.


Aviary Suite

There are lots of great free web applications coming out now that cloud applications are all the rage. One of the more interesting ones I found was actually a suite of online applications that specializes in media, which is different from services like Google Documents that focus on things like word processing and spreadsheets. Aviary has tools such as Phoenix, which does most of what Photoshop does only for free and on any computer with Internet. Also included in the suite is a great vector art application for making tee shirts and logos, and (according to my students) and great little music editor called Myna. For those of you familiar with Apple’s Garageband, Myna is basically an online equivalent. It allows you to drag and drop music clips and arrange your own songs that you can then download as MP3s.  For kids wanting to make their own ‘soundtracks’ this is easily hours of fun. Unless, as their teacher (as I found myself) you end up subjected to the noise that these kids call music!

Aviary also has an educational option made just for teachers and is also free.  After you receive your invite to Aviary Education, setting up your classes is incredibly easy.  Take note, educational websites: this is how you set up a class. Quickly and easily, without too many bells and whistles.  It took me all of 5 minutes to get accounts made for all my students and have them logged in.

If you ever find yourself in need of quality photo editing on the cheap, or want your students to arrange a song, Aviary is a free and powerful option.

The Last Day of School

The last week of school came and went so fast I still feel like I am reeling. The second to last week was such a fury of activity that now, with all the important things done, it seems like the end of the year has come too soon.

With the year over, are my students better off than the beginning of the year? Absolutely. But as always I am full of doubts. Should I have drilled long division into them a little more? I know that I should have spent more time on writing.

But then I have to relax, and remind myself that all of this is normal. Part of being a teacher is worrying about the final product. I don’t know why I am so hard on myself. Perhaps it’s my midwestern upbringing but I never seem satisfied with myself. At the end of the year I tend to think that a lot of my job is continual improvement, and if I ever feel that I know it all, it’s a sign that I’m not pushing myself enough.

Case in point: I spent most of the final hours before checkout running around in a panic much to the amusement of my co-workers. I had counted on all my report cards and cumulative information to print out flawlessly. Silly me. I am lucky man to work in a place where my co-workers laugh at this and chip in to help.

And now, the desks are all cleaned. My posters are off the wall; the books are all boxed up for the summer and a new yellow ukulele joins the five others collected from each class I have taught. I look forward to a week off, a camping trip and then three weeks of summer school. This summer it will be kindergarten in the morning, digital photography and hiking in the afternoon. Not a bad way to spend June.

So Long, Flip Cam! (Long Live the Flip Cam!)

A few years back, Flip Digital, the company that created the iconic Flip cam, was purchased by electronic giant Cisco. Cisco, more commonly known as specializing in networking equipment, was hoping that that the simple-to-use Flip cam could be adapted and allow users to teleconference and post video straight to their blogs.

So about a month ago, Cisco pulled the plug on the Flip camera. Why? The answer had to do with the big picture. You see, the Flip does one thing: video. Its ease of use was the main idea behind its design and software. Smartphones and tablets, on the other hand, do video as well, but they also do a million other things.  Smartphones and tablets are more popular and more profitable than the uni-tasker Flip cam.  Lo and behold, the powers at Cisco killed my beloved little camera.

Most of the teachers who have used them loved the Flip camera. The fact that they only did one thing was part of their appeal. You could hand them off to students on a field trip, give them to a parent, record a student reading, or any number of other activities.  A smartphone does all of those things but most smartphones are ill-suited for casual school use. Alas, what we do?

Thankfully, with the loss of the largest player in the entry-level camcorder market, plenty of other options are stepping up to fill the void, such as the Kodak Playsport. This camera not only films video as well as the Flip, but is also waterproof (and therefore field-trip proof). I hope to get one soon and put it through the paces.

eBook Library Lending

Good news for bibliophiles! The Kindle will soon work with OverDrive, the free online eBook lending system that works with local libraries to loan books electronically. The system is simple. You go to OverDrive, punch in your library card, and join a waiting list for your eBook. When your turn comes up, you download your book and have two weeks to read it on your computer or eBook reader before it stops working and is ‘returned’ automatically.

Why is this good for schools like Greenwood? Our library is fantastic, but is very small and relies on an advanced interlibrary loan system to get books from other, better-stocked libraries. This new development will allow students, teachers, and others in the community to download books easily, allowing even rural districts like mine to have access to wonderful content at a lower cost to our local library. Lastly, with the Kindle finally joining the library lending system, we might finally see some standardization in the new and fractured eBook market.

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