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

Posts tagged ‘computers’

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.

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Keep it Simple

I am head of the Elementary School Science Club in Greenwood and this week we started one of my favorite units: computers.

The goal of this unit is to show students the overall theory of how computers work. Many of these kids don’t see the computer as anything special anymore; it’s an appliance like a lamp or a toaster that simply works. The concepts of hardware, software, memory, and RAM are all lost on them. The best way to show kids how computers work is similar to teaching them how an engine works: take it apart, rebuild it, and make it work better than before.

Last year I did this for the first time and nearly tore my hair out. I had two pretty well-equipped machines, older but not ancient, and I loaded them up with the excellent Ubuntu brand of Linux. Now, Ubuntu runs like a dream on newer computers, has great components, installs quickly, and if I were so inclined I could probably cut the cord and use it day to day if it were not for a few Windows/Mac holdout applications. That said, these older machines are now, well, old. Period. Two even OLDER machines were then donated by our music teacher, who wanted the computers retired and put to good use. A whole wall of my classroom looks like a junkyard.

As it happens, all four computers are too slow to load Ubuntu. I tried a few alternatives, but most Linux installs are very complicated (at least for me) and require you to know at least some code. I don’t know code. I don’t have time to learn, and expecting that from my students is crazy. Luckily, I discovered this man’s best friend: Puppy Linux.

As its name implies, Puppy is very small and very friendly—129 MB in all. It installs onto a CD or flash drive very easily. Then, just insert your disk, reboot your machine, and within five seconds (really, it’s that fast) you have a slick little operating system complete with web browser, word processor, spreadsheet software, and even a few multimedia programs and games. And it does this all WITHOUT INSTALLING OR ERASING ANYTHING! Any changes or new software you add are put on the nearest disk (hard drive, flash drive, or CD) in a hidden file without affecting your main OS.

Good Puppy.

Everything is very, very easy to use—easy enough for my 5th graders to go it alone and learn the ropes of what an OS does. All the network settings are easy to find and we managed to get our proxy settings and a new browser installed in a few minutes. I found myself excited over a yellowed, 10-year-old tower; in short, this amazing OS really breathes new life into old machines, making them great again.

One student took a disk home; she and her mother got it running on her laptop, connected it to wireless, and checked mom’s Facebook. Two boys who live only for tractors and hunting are excited by installing network printers. One even wants to see if he can use Puppy Linux to fix up his grandma’s computer.

Here’s what my students had to say:

“Some of the computers were slow, but we got them to run. It was surprising that all that could run off of one little disk.”

“I asked my mom if I could try something, and she said ‘Sure, just don’t break anything.’  I had some trouble at first, but my dad helped and when we restarted, it worked.”

Puppy can be used to teach computers to students, or to refurbish an old lab with a basic browser/word processing setup. I am a Mac user now, full of smugness over the stability of my machine; but seriously, if I still had a PC I would keep a Puppy disk around just in case I got a virus or the machine died on me. Within a few minutes, I could pull off my files and check my email using this adorable life raft of an OS. If you want to have a little geeky fun, download this Puppy. It is a great way to explore Linux without compromising your machine.

Lessons From my Typewriter

Through college, I worked as tech support for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh journalism department. I was an education major, but looking back on it, a lot of that job and that department rubbed off on me. One of my favorite professors in the journalism department would still have his students lay out pages by cutting and pasting articles with a scissors and rubber cement. He often complained that with tools like modern computers and page layout, most of his students never appreciated how much easier their craft had become. I think that’s even truer with my students, many of whom have never seen a TV screen that was not flat, never dialed a rotary phone, and never had to be taught how a tape player worked.

But if I learned one lesson in that job, it was to hold on to those old tools of the trade. You never know when they might come in handy.

I still have two manual typewriters. One is my grandmother’s Underwood typewriter that she used as the accountant for the Richland Dairy Co-op. It’s made of black rubber, enamel, and cast iron; a hundred years old and still working fine. The other is a portable Olympia typewriter that I got for $10 at Goodwill. It’s in mint condition with the original manual and cleaning kit. I keep the Olympia around specifically to punish students who misbehave on the computers, but it doesn’t work.

They like my typewriter too much.

A week ago I was short on computers due to MAPS testing taking over the labs. And being short on netbooks, kids had to use my typewriter for our exercise in writing an outline. They loved it. They loved the click and clack of it, the little bell that rang, the instant-printing that went along with it. For them, it must have seemed like some kind of noisy metal computer with a printer attached to it! It was not long before a team of boys were huddled around the machine, giving pointers to the person doing the typing. For once, my boys were having to think every keystroke through before they punched a key and it became a team effort to avoid mistakes in spelling or format.

They walked away with a sense of wonder about how the machine worked, and more importantly, an appreciation for how wonderful a tool a computer is. How many of the things like underlining, centering, and justification are taken for granted? The other day a student asked me if he could use my “old-fashioned metal computer.” My old professor friend would be proud.

Nettops

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.”

dreamplug

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.

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