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

Archive for March, 2012

The Real iPad Announcement

The iPad just got an update, better screen, faster speed, and a better camera (finally), but it was not the monumental update that some on the Internet were claiming it would be. For me, the best news was that the iPad 2 was kept on as an entry-level tablet at a cost of under $400.

Why would I be excited that there would be an entry level tablet?  Because it means that there will be a cheap tablets for schools and families who otherwise would not have the means to buy the only-cutting-edge products that Apple has been known for lately. This is makes the iPad a device that anyone can own, not just a toy for the rich that they upgrade every year.

The announcement that I was most excited about, however, was not really noticed by the media.  Apple quietly rolled out Apple Configurator, a free tool for schools, businesses, and governments to manage large numbers of iPads, making sure that they are running smoothly and are up to date.  This solves the problem that a lot of schools have in adjusting and maintaining large numbers of iPads, which are admittedly set up as ‘personal’ devices, not something easily rolled out in droves.

Can’t Wait for a Slice of Pi!

The tech world is abuzz over a little gadget called Raspberry Pi. Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer out of the UK that fits on a single board and is designed with education in mind. The goal of the project: develop a cheap computer that can run a simple version of Linux and inspire children to learn programming. There is a lot of tech jargon in the PR release of this wonderful little device, but the facts are pretty simple.

The device costs $35, has a 700Mhz ARM processor (similar to the processors found on cell phones and tablets), a USB port for a keyboard/mouse, 256 MB of RAM, an HDMI and analog video-out and built-in wi-fi. Wait a minute… $35! I flipped burgers for a whole year to buy a computer with less horsepower than this little thing! Great stuff is truly wasted on the young.

This device has the computer industry in general in a tizzy. Fact is, most of the things that we do on computers now do not require the horsepower of a full-on desktop or laptop. Many see this device being used as a platform for smart TVs or computer labs. But I think it is just as important that schools look into buying a few and trying them out. Sure, they are limited, and it will take a while for the software to catch up, but for less than $50 a group of students can have a computer they can play around with and learn the basics of programming. Something that I already do using recycled desktops and Puppy Linux.

Raspberry Pi

Imagine the fun you could have with students working on a computer that fits inside an Altoids tin. Or imagine a $35 bare-bones computer that could be sent home to get impoverished families internet access, one that could hook up to their existing TV and allow children to access school resources. I don’t want to make a big deal about it, but this little piece of hardware reminds me a lot of the original Apple I Computer—a tiny, cheap, underpowered device that changes everything. Or maybe it’s just really cool. I suppose that is good enough.

We Would Like To Thank The Academy …

The past few weeks I have been making movies with my technology classes. Now, I love movies, but making them—that is another thing. The fact is, making movies on a PC (our lab has no Macs) is a difficult and cumbersome process. Windows Movie Maker, which is loaded on all our machines, is cumbersome to use. It is integrated into the whole “My Documents” home folder thing, not our student file server. It does not play nice with many of the common file formats and makes many of the most common editing tasks awkward. In short, it is not iMovie.

That said, it’s free, and available, and even though there are great, web-based options out there, they are all a little too complicated or require too much personal information for my taste. Also, I don’t know how much bandwidth out network can take pushing high-def MP4 video down the pipe, multiplied by 33 students.

That brings me to another problem. Every camera out there is hi definition. For the love of Pete, why? I understand that people want their videos crisp these days, but it all ends up on YouTube anyway! Meanwhile, our server is filling up with 10meg-a-second videos.

To solve both the file size problem and Windows Movie Maker’s limited tolerance for video formats, I found a great and now indispensable little program called Any Video Converter. It does just what it says it does: converts nearly any video (including our proprietary Flip video formats) into any other format and size. Suddenly that high-def video is cut down to a decent size again.

With the technical part of this project out of the way, I had to figure out how to plan this thing. Most of my students, if given a camera, want to point it at their friends and re-enact America’s Funniest Home Videos. So it fell to me to give them direction. Their assignment was to make an instructional video to give to the lower grades, explaining how to do things in the school. Examples included how to walk in a line, how to stand up to a name-caller, how to check out a book, and how to get ready for skiing (our gym teacher is awesome).

I had the students write up a “treatment” in the form of an outline and a list of materials and permissions they would need to get to film this movie. They then made storyboard cards and laid out their story.

After that, it was all very easy. Most the principles of video editing match PowerPoint—except when it comes to inserting sounds and trimming clips in the timeline—but I was glad I spent so much time on presentations before starting this.

Next week should be interesting. That’s when we focus on entertaining videos…

Finding Great iPad Apps

The iPad is an amazing device. If you don’t have one, it’s hard to describe what having one is like; the closest thing I can think of is what life was like when [the Internet/cell phones/wi-fi/automatic transmissions/wheels] first came out. You have those yet to make the switch wondering what the fuss is about, and those who made the switch wondering how they ever did without it.

I believe that this will be the case for schools in the next few years. Apple is betting on it with its educational push, and schools are doing their best to figure out best practices for these devices. What kinds of activities do we want to support? How will we authenticate and distribute purchases? In their own way, each distinct seems to be answering these nuts and bolts questions. But it’s all just so new! And finding educational resources for the iPad, while not impossible, is often a slow process. You can wade through dozens of apps; some are good, some not so good.

Which is why it was great to find this site. The author lays out 14 best practices for the use of the iPad and includes a shopping list of apps that help meet those needs. Each one is reviewed briefly and labeled in terms of difficulty. After mucking around in what passes for an education department in the App Store, it is nice to see something put together by a teacher that lays everything out so clearly. Thank you, good sir!

Easy Peasy Weebly

Kids these days. In my day, if you wanted to make a website, it meant playing around with HTML code and staring at a screen until your eyes bled. Oh, things got better; pretty soon we could play around in programs like Dreamweaver or FrontPage. Let me tell you, teaching kids to use FrontPage is about as fun as a root canal. Lots of hard work agonizing about the placement of tables and the resulting web pages still look like something produced around 1991.

How are students supposed to put their work on the web without the technological barriers that come with laying out a web page? How do we make this easier so we can skip the code and the tables and make web publishing more accessible?

Weebly.

Weebly is a great web hosting site, similar to offerings from WordPress, Tumblr or Blogger (none of which are really appropriate for school students), but focused more on the look and feel of an actual page than creating a running blog for advanced users. Weebly uses a drag and drop interface. Drag web items into the page and that is where they will be. No coding or tweaking needed. It is easy enough for a 3rd grader or a grandmother and that is exactly the point: to get people on the web and make web creation easy enough for anyone. Think of it as the internet from Playskool. I don’t mean to be demeaning; it’s just that easy to use!

This makes for a great project for students who want to report on something, allowing them to show the world what they have learned. It might not make the best whole-class activity since it does require an account and an email, so a permission slip from mom and dad will be necessary.

I also want to point out that there is more to Weebly than the fact that it’s a free, easy-to-use website service. Weebly has also jumped on the quickly-crowded, all-inclusive educational website bandwagon with a full-featured suite of education-only web services which include teacher websites, grad eBooks and other goodies. I will look in on that part of Weebly later. In the meantime it pays ot give the regular site a look if you don’t know the first thing about starting a website or know a student who could use one.

Tag Cloud