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

Archive for July, 2011

Whiteboards Win Again

Interactive whiteboards have been great for my instruction. I can never say enough about the whiteboard acts a magic window in my classroom, allowing me to make my lessons engaging and relevant to students who are increasingly plugged-in. What I discovered this last week was that a whiteboard can also be very useful in staff meetings.

One of the other great aspects of the interactive whiteboard is that you never have to erase it. There are no bad or outdated ideas on my SmartBoard. I only have to create a new page to move on to a new topic, and only have to go back a few pages to see what was on the board last week.

This came in handy during a scheduling meeting that took place last week. Despite it being the middle of July, everyone showed up and even I managed to pry myself off my hammock. Scheduling in a small school is always difficult, balancing the needs of gym, music, and art teachers, and the lunchroom staff, and still trying to create solid blocks for math and reading is complicated. Often, with all the grades represented in the meeting, it gets difficult to see the big picture and take everyone’s schedule into account.

Enter the whiteboard. Within a few minutes, our mobile SmartBoard was retrieved from the library, the blank schedule was copied into Smart Notebook, and for the rest of the meeting I played Vanna White, creating color-coded “blocks” of classes that we then moved around like pieces of a puzzle, until at last, they fit and (hopefully) the schedule was made.

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Hands On With Google+

Social networking has been all the rage the last few years. However, like so many things with the Internet, social media has started out as a tremendous waste of time and then over time seems to have become a mainstream waste of time and finally a tool of modern life as we know it.

The problem with social networking is that we have professional lives and a private lives. Facebook is a fantastic tool for sharing jokes with my college buddies, but would I want my boss to see them? Facebook has recently introduced a way to create ‘lists’ of people that you want to share things with, but they were always hard to manage, and Facebook as a company has never been very enthusiastic about keeping their user’s data private and separate from their professional lives. The answer to this was to maintain two accounts, a Facebook account for your friends and, for the adventurous, family; and another account/service for your professional networking, in my case, LinkedIn. Maintaining two different accounts is time consuming, and what happens when the two overlap?

After some initial missteps, Google has waded into the social networking scene with Google+. Google+ looks a lot like Facebook. Except that all the Google services that we use everyday such as Google Documents, Picasa (now Google photos) and Blogger (now Google Blogs) are all incorporated into Google+. The primary difference with Facebook, however, is the idea of “social circles.” In Google+ you do not “friend” someone, instead Google acknowledges the existence of family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and any other group you wish to create. All of your content is shared only with these easy-to-manage groups. For example, my latest embarrassing, geeky rant on the last episode of Doctor Who will never be shared with my colleges at work, just as the latest draft of our district’s technology policy will never been seen by my college roommate. And all of this will be hidden from the parents in my school, who will only see my latest spelling lists and missing work lists.

All of these “Circles” are easy to manage, and Google has gone out of its way to make sure that privacy (something that has dogged Facebook from the get-go) has been made a priority. Will there be mistakes made? Sure, Google makes it clear that Google+ is in ‘testing’ until the kinks get hammered out. What is exciting is that this new tool has the ability to connect all of the stray ‘cloud’ computing services out there to the people that need them.

First App-ressions

I have had some time now to play with my iPad now that summer school is out. Here are some of the apps that I have been using and how they have worked out:

Quickoffice HD: Quickoffice is an office suite for the iPad. It allows you to create, open and edit PowerPoint, Excel and Word documents. This is nothing new; Apple makes a wonderful product in its iWork line (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) and several others. What I like about quick office is that instead of paying $10 each for Apple’s apps and thus paying $30 for a mobile version of office, I can pay $15 and get Quickoffice. It works very well and has lots of interesting features, such as working with Dropbox and Google docs.

GoodReader: GoodReader is a slightly intimidating but powerful program. It allows you to open more file formats than you can shake a stick at. It works with Dropbox and even has a feature where you can upload files to your iPad from any computer on your network. My favorite feature? It allows you to mark up your PDFs and save them. Finally, a way to fill out worksheet masters and forms!

Feeddler: A great little app that syncs with my Google Reader account. It lets me search all my RSS feeds and keep up to date with what’s going on in the world. Basically it has made my iPad into my morning paper.

BlogPress: BlogPress is an app that allows me to directly post information to my WordPress blog on the fly. From wherever I might happen to be I can type up a post, attach a photo and send it to the blog.

Dropbox: Absolutely vital for anyone with a mobile device. Dropbox makes sure that the files on my iPod, iPad, as well as the files on my work and home PC’s are all synced up. It doesn’t pay to spend a bunch of time writing something in Quickoffice and not have a place to save it.

Remoter VNC: Remoter lets me control any PC on my network, including the computer that is connected to my SmartBoard. It still does not work exactly the way I would like, with my tablet working seamlessly with my SmartBoard, but allows me to point, click, and type wirelessly from anywhere in my school.

VuPoint Magic Wand

There are times when a single-use item is best, and wrapping it up in other products is a bad idea. For example, take the scanner. Time was there used to be a variety of flat-bed scanners out there, and while they were hard to use, they performed an important task: to change paper hard copies into digital ones. Sadly, the humble scanner was a clunky thing and took up a lot of desk space. Now scanners are more often seen attached to all-in-one inkjet printers as an afterthought since most consumers no longer use them for scanning in photos and don’t bother scanning in documents.

As a teacher, I love scanners. I love to get my student’s work on a computer either to make a record of it, pass it on to a colleague or parent, or to pop it up on my SmartBoard. Part of my teaching routine is to go to the staff room and wrangle with the massive copier’s scanner function in order to make a PDF ‘overhead’ I can actually use since most of my teacher materials still come in the form of a bound, blackline master books. Sure, there are overhead options—for example, document cameras such as the ELMO—but they tend to be expensive, take up valuable desk space, and lack the ability to digitally share the document or mark it up.

The VuPoint Magic Wand, scanning.

Enter my newest toy and salvation: the VuPoint ‘Magic Wand’ scanner. It’s a foot-long rod that runs on two AA batteries and allows me to scan documents by simply passing it over a page. No clunky flat-bed, no waiting for it to ‘warm up’ or messing around with software, just pass it over your document and the image is popped onto a microSD card. I see myself spending a day before school starts scanning through all my textbooks and overheads so that they will be ready for my SmartBoard. I see myself passing this around to students so that they can share their work either on my whiteboard or via my online classroom. I finally have an easy, child-proof method of converting written work to digital work.

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