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

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Taking QR Codes to the Next Level

I have a rather obsessive pattern of learning new things. I only started learning about QR codes a few weeks ago and I’ve already discovered two exceptional tools for using the fancy phone-candy.

The first is an all-around awesome site from popular QR-code reader Kaywa. This easy-to-use site creates QR codes that generate text, SMS messages, phone numbers or links. The text option alone has dozens of possibilities: creating stickers of questions to put into the margins of books or label a class library. Remember the tests we used to make using colored cellophane that reveals answers? This could make a fantastic 21st century spin on an old idea.

For example: What year did Wisconsin become a state?

Answer correctly and get a jelly bean!

You could also easily add links to paper books that connect students to online material, just as you add links to web pages. Instantly you could make every book a ‘smart book’ by connecting it to online resources.

For example: This could easily be attached as a label to the back of Little Women:

The second resource comes from Classtools.net, and is an automatic QR code scavenger hunt maker. It makes a great introductory activity for students. Just pop in questions and it creates QR codes to post around your school. The site also has great additional resources.

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The Case for a “Farm Truck” Computer

I wrote in a previous article about a project in which my students and I got a bunch of old, donated desktops, took them apart and rebuilt them into ‘frankencomputers’ running various forms of Linux, my favorite being Puppy Linux because it’s easy to install on even the oldest computers.

Recently, though, the pile of old computer parts that I had been building in one of the back rooms came the attention of the custodians and I was forced to clean house. Needless to say, my mess has been relocated, at least partly, to my classroom. Then, about two weeks ago, during our classroom spring cleaning, I ordered my students to set up one of the computers permanently on a lark. It was dubbed the ‘farm truck computer’ by my students.

Taking the farm truck computer for a spin

For those not in a rural district, most homes have two trucks: the ‘new truck,’ or the truck that you take into town and use on vacation to tow your boat; and the ‘farm truck’ or the beat up old truck that used to be the new truck. The farm truck is the one that you don’t bother washing, usually because soap would only wash off the protective layer of dust holding the all the rust together. To give you an idea of what one of these trucks is worth, my father once bought a load of hay for his hobby farm and the farmer threw in a farm truck to sweeten the deal. But every country kid knows that the farm truck is also a lot of fun, you don’t have to be nice to it, you can drive it through snow banks, grind the gears to your heart’s content, straight pipe the exhaust and grind the gears right down. If you happen to kill this truck, no one would miss it.

So it was true with our computer, a ten-year-old Dell running an OS off a CD. No one would miss it. It was a simple machine meant to tool around on. But you know what? It’s been great! The machine does only a few things, but it does them well; it gets on the internet, runs Flash (which is more than I can say for my iPad), and gives a place in my room for students to take their AR tests or look up their spelling words. But, it’s also so boring and slow that they can’t use it for anything fun. The cost of this incredibly useful little machine? $0. Every piece of its hardware was donated (as I am sure any computer repair shop would be happy to do) and the total cost of the software was $.10 for the CD the OS runs on. If it breaks down (which is unlikely) it costs the school absolutely nothing, and no one, except maybe me, would miss it.

Teach Your Parents Tech

If you are reading this blog, there is a chance that you know a few things about technology.  I don’t want to alienate anyone who does not consider themselves an “expert”—I don’t consider myself an expert.  But chances are you know how to get online, know how to check your email, and know better than to send your credit card information to a Nigerian Prince.

If you know these things, then chances are that you know more than the average person about technology, and chances are you are the go-to person for parents, fellow staff, and members of your own family for technology help.  I have spent more than my fair share of evenings using Join.me to fix my mother-in-law’s email.  You may have encountered more than a few families that enlist their children to maintain their computers, an often unwise and unsafe situation.

There are a few really great options for bringing families and parents up to speed when it comes to technology, especially the kind of technology that relates to their child’s education.  I have heard of more than one student use the excuse  “I need it for school” as an excuse to talk with their friends on the computer or waste time surfing the web (okay, that was me).

I recommend using a portion of your school’s open house or beginning of the year orientation to hold a brief primer on the technology in the school and cover thoroughly what their child will be using and how often.  This serves the purpose of bringing parents up to speed with what is required and lets them know what resources they have available.  For example, a parent who wants to know how they can help their student in math may not know that you have online tutoring videos, or that your school subscribes to a practice service such as Ten Marks.

Then make sure that you have your most tech-savvy staff on hand for an open forum where parents who have concerns or want to know more can talk one-on-one with a teacher about their personal tech issues, such as: “How can my child write a Word document without buying Word?” (Answer: libreoffice or Google docs) or “What apps should we get for our child’s iPad?” (a few tips here) or “What is a great free antivirus program?” (Microsoft Security Essentials)

Have your students interview their parents about what skills they would like to know more about, then point them to Teach Parents Tech.  Developed by Google, this great site seeks educate non-computer people in how to better use their machines by providing them a great list of simple-to-follow instructional videos on how to do such tasks as sharing a photo, setting up a webcam, getting on the internet, and more. Making it into an assignment for your students will serve the purpose of helping parents know more about technology and starting a conversation about computer use at home that most parents would rather avoid.

Picnik is Dead. Long Live PicMonkey!

My favorite tool for online image editing, Picnik, was bought by Google a few years back. On April 19, Picnik was shut down so that its image editing tools could get wrapped up into Google’s master plan of having services such as Picasa (their image hosting service) and Picnik (providing the editing) all incorporate into their Google+ social network.  My beloved little online image editor was sacrificed—a causality of Google/Facebook wars of the 2010’s.

That made me wonder what I would use instead of Picnik to teach my students photo editing. Sure, there are options out there; Aviary Suite or GIMP comes to mind. But most are trying to be Photoshop, and that is completely over the heads of my students.  What I wanted was something more along the lines of Instagram: cropping, basic filters and effects, and above all, SIMPLE TO USE.

The market it seems is an ecosystem, and in the void created by Picnik, PicMonkey has taken hold. PicMonkey copies many of the features of Picasa and Instagram to create a simple, registration-free photo editor on your browser.  No email needed for setup, no installing software. Just lots and lots of fun.

If you have a digital camera in your classroom, you will want to go to this site right now and give it a spin.

NO THEY DIDN’T

Not to be messed with.

Has technology gone too far?  The iPod has replaced my CD player, my datebook, my calculator, my remote control, my radio, and my alarm clock. My iPad has replaced my newspaper, much of my library, and my laptop for a good portion of my surfing.  I am a huge technophile, but everyone has their limits, and today, I am sorry to say, I reached my limit.

The tag-team of the iPod and iPad have joined forces to replace something near and dear to my heart: a replacement so diabolical that it almost makes me want to renounce all things digital and take up with the Amish I see every day on my way to work.  Sure, the life is hard, but it beats the evil that has been done to something so dear to my heart.

The company Amidio has created a dual app that uses the iPad and the iPod to create a ‘virtual’ ukulele.   I have seven ukuleles in my classroom (with an eighth one on the way; this one hunter orange). A group of students meets three times a week to practice. And now this?  I feel like a candlemaker who has seen his first lightbulb. For shame.

Saved By the Cloud

Ok, so most of the time, when I rely on anything electronic it ends up betraying me somehow. Nearly every gadget I own has turned on me to the point that when we go shopping, my wife refuses to allow me to pick the actual box we are taking home because my luck is so bad. I think most of my experience in technology can be traced to having it fail and being forced to fix it.

But for once, this is not one of those stories. For once, my horrible bad luck with all things gadget-y has turned. For the last few weeks, sixth grade has split its math classes into two groups: a standard math group and an advanced math group. For most schools, this is normal. But in our small school, it is unmarked territory. We have had to learn to make it work as we go. For the most part, it has gone great. The kids are picking up the concepts better than ever and everyone is challenged. As for the logistics, Scott (the other sixth grade teacher) and I shared an Excel document on Dropbox to keep track of grades so that we can coordinate and eventually feed them into our school’s online gradebook.

Let me repeat that: we are sharing a document.

I bet most of you who have done this already know what happened.

At some point, Scott (I choose to blame him; it just saves time) or I had the file open, then the other teacher opened it at the same time. One person saved the file over the other. The result: I lost two weeks of grading (Scott lost nothing, which makes it even more convenient for me to blame him). If this were a shared drive on our network, or a file on a disk drive, we would have been out of luck. But Scott, bless his heart, is a Dropbox user, and our Excel file was shared via Dropbox. In fewer than five minutes I was able to ‘restore’ my old grades and paste them into the new file without a single grade lost. With our third quarter ending this week, I was saved from certain doom. Seriously, if only for the ability to automatically track versions of your files and backing them up: START PUTTING YOUR FILES ON THE CLOUD NOW!

Futurecade and the Science Museum

I got a chance to play with a really nice set of games created by the Science Museum in England. They have developed a set of really fun games called Futurecade. Some of these games are based some of the real problems of the future. For example, removing land mines using robot drones you have to program (dealing with the real issue of mine removal) or creating strains of e-coli that can clean up oil spills. Others involve teaching genetics by having students care for, nurture, and breed ‘Things’ in the game Thingdom.

Many educational games are little more than regular arcade-style games with some math facts thrown in. These games were created to promote issues in math and science, but also to develop thinking and problem-solving. These could easily be adapted to lessons on global warming, energy, genetics, food distribution, and natural resources. What really makes them great is the optimism that science can solve these seemingly overwhelming problems, and that they allow your students to stand in the shoes of the problem solvers of tomorrow. Good thing too, since they will have to fill that role in the future.

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