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

Posts tagged ‘edtech’

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.

Shortcuts

I am descended from the dairy-men of Wisconsin, perhaps the most stubborn people in all the world. My father remembered getting electricity in the barn for the first time; in the mid-sixties. They only used one lightbulb because there was a fear that too much light would spook the cows. Years later, my father got eye surgery on only one eye, because he wanted to try it out for a year before he committed to this new-fangled Lasik thing and risked his good eye.

I must have inherited some level of that stubbornness because I did not immediately jump on the QR code bandwagon. It seems far too gimmicky, something put together to promote movies and sell coupons for laundry detergent. Certainly not something I could see being used I my classroom.

But my mind changed a little when I came across an issue last week where I wanted to easily link to a bunch of files on my Dropbox account. Dropbox added a great feature a few weeks ago that lets you share any file you have just by right-clicking it and selecting ‘get link.’ This is great for me, because now when I want to send videos or whole files to a group of people, I don’t have to muck around finding a website to host them all or even worry about if my audience has Dropbox.

The only problem is that the link to the file is really long, so long that I would have to email it or link it on my blog, not something that I could easily put on a business card or a worksheet. So then I turned to a great URL-shortening service called Goo.gl. It takes a long web address and makes it into a much, much shorter one. It also, for some reason, gives you a QR code. Copy and paste that code into a business card, put it into a PowerPoint, or attach it to a flyer, and you have instant file distribution. This comes in handy if you have a classroom full of iPads or other tablets in a BYOT (bring your own tech) environment. Want students to download today’s homework, or view a video? Using a shortened URL or a QR code can help make that easier.

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.

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.

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.

The “Flipped” Classroom

Flipped classrooms are a recent trend in many schools and are getting a lot of attention with a advent of new technologies and the large-scale use of video on the internet through such wonderful sites as Khan Academy and Learn Zillion to name a few.

The idea of a flipped classroom is students watch a video demonstration or presentation of the content at home or during their free time, and do their coursework at school where they can get help. This new method hopes to use the online media revolution to streamline the educational process and have students take ownership in their education.

Another great explanation can be found in this short video:

Personally, I like this idea. I find that I get the most out of my teaching working one on one with struggling students, rather than speaking to the whole class, most of whom (if I did my job right) should know most of the content right away (if they followed along in their textbook). I would gladly give up my time in front of the board to look over the shoulders of my students while they do their homework.

But there are some speed bumps on the way to a flipped classroom that I can see down the road.

  • Dependence on technology: Many teachers would love to be in a situation where every student had a dependable computer or tablet, and a high-speed internet connection. However, most of the world is not there yet. School budgets are tight lately and most don’t want to buy a laptop for each student when they have trouble keeping the heat on. Asking students to foot the bill? Any school with lots of free and reduced lunch students and a back room full of second-hand winter clothes would have a hard time asking families to shell out hundreds of dollars for a device and a high-speed internet bill. For this to work there needs to be a rock-solid 1 to 1 laptop or BYOD program in place.
  • A tech-savvy staff: There needs to be a breed of teacher who is comfortable publishing, grading and interacting on the web, and has the ability to keep up with trends down the road. A teacher that occasionally sends an email and has a shelf full of VHS tapes and a film-strip projector is not going to feel comfortable exporting lessons on the web.
  • Lots of oversight: Students are distractible. There needs to be a level of structure and discipline in place to ensure that students are learning their content in their free time. This would seem to be solved by the homework-at-school part of a flipped classroom; a teacher would know if students missed their lesson when he or she sees them at work, as long as they’re checking them while they work. I could see students forgetting to watch their lesson just as easily as forgetting their homework.
  • Professional considerations: What is the role of the teacher if the teacher is not instructing? They are no longer lecturing, sure, but then their role changes into that of a super-tutor. Many teachers define their jobs by instruction. But I would argue that giving up instruction frees up time for labs, demonstrations, experiments, and the kinds of hands-on lessons that define me as a teacher.

This last week I dipped a toe into the flipped classroom. I decided to record a set of lessons using a great little screen capture tool called camstudio, my smartboard and a USB headset. I then had most of my class follow along with the recording as I worked with students that had not yet mastered the topics from the day before. This ensured that every student had mastered their needed skills before proceeding to the next lesson. The work was stressful, fast-paced and exciting. While I was not in full control, I was much more available to my students than I had been before, and got a chance to intervene with students where I had not been able to before. A week later, my students’ grades are up and everyone is challenged and getting the help they need.

Anyone in flipped classroom or seen one at work? Ever used Khan Academy as a stand-in for a lesson? Please share your experiences!

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