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

Posts tagged ‘educational technology’


Skype is the most popular teleconferencing platform in the world. Developed by (allegedly) former online media pirates, Skype is seen as an alternative to long distance calling, providing free voice and video communication over the internet from anywhere in the world. In the past few years it has exploded, to the point that I spent last Christmas at my in-laws as they received video call after video call from family in Trinidad, Florida, and England.

Skype is behind most of the live news broadcasts that you see from remote areas of the world. Anyone with an iPod and an Internet connection can connect in real time to anyone else.

What are the educational advantages to Skype? How about connecting with a teacher in Peru during a unit on South America? Have your students talk—really talk—to their students. Have your class and their class do a math lesson together. Have wireless? Take the other class for a field trip around the school. While we are the subject of field trips, why not have ’embedded reporters’ in your class report to another grade, live from their field trip?

How do you connect to these schools? Since becoming more mainstream, Skype has set up an education portal designed to allow teachers to connect with one another and collaborate using teleconferencing. Just make sure to clear it with your district’s tech support first; Skype is blocked by most filters, and modifications might need to be made for teacher use.

Brilliant BBC

I am a huge BBC nerd. My wife and I watch episodes of “Top Gear” every Sunday when we have our pancakes and I am eagerly awaiting the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special. (Last year had a flying shark. This year they parody Narnia!)

But our friends across the pond have also made some fantastic educational resources that could add a lot to your classroom, provided that your students don’t giggle at the accents like my students did.

Learn a language: The BBC provides lots of great language lesson for free, they make a great tool for students wanting to work on their own or as a supplement for an foreign language course.

Learn to type: A great (but personally annoying; make sure your kids have headphones) website for learning to touch type, Dance Mat Typing teaches students to type using funny songs and typing lessons that work similar to Guitar Hero or Dance, Dance Revolution.

Know the news: The BBC World Service is a national recognized source of quality journalism.  They also produce a short, daily podcast that updates schoolchildren on world events.  A great way to start the day and serve as a global current events.

Bedtime stories: The BBC produces a great children’s program called CBeebies. Part of the show, called ‘The Bedtime Hour,’ involves acclaimed actors (including the 10th Doctor, David Tennant) reading bedtime stories in the manner of Reading Rainbow, but incredibly relaxing. Search YouTube for “CBeebies Bedtime Stories” to see these delightful clips.

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.

A Scan-tastic Day at the Office

My fellow teachers! No more will I be a slave to the copy machine! Today I declare my independence from the daily ritual of lining up behind the beige, beeping monstrosity with blackline masters in hand! Today I took my fancy box of student handout masters, tore the bindings out of them, and stuffed them through the business end of said copier and set it for scan instead of copy. I spent the whole morning feeding the machine my masters. Sure, I had to unclog it a few times, but at the end of the morning all 30 weeks of my reading program were rendered into fancy, organized PDFs, now living happily on the cloud within my Dropbox.

Why scan all these in? Mostly to save time, to prevent having my eggs in one basket and hopefully allow me to be more versatile with how I can distribute my homework. Instead of having to spend time leafing through my book, figuring out the settings on the copier and barring access to the copier for my co-workers, I can now send the pages I want from my computer. (A trick accomplished by separating the pages with commas: for example, if I only want pages 5, 24, and 6 I tell the printer I want pages 5,24,6) Instead of having a single copy of my masters, through the magic of the cloud I have them at home on my iPad and on my SMARTboard at work. I can never lose the digital copy (hopefully) or have it damaged though a coffee spill or a hungry dog. If a student is absent, I can shoot them a PDF from my desk since I already have it on my computer. If I have an emergency, I can access the files I need from home and create a packet to send to my sub.

Would I replace my books for a digital edition? No. I like to have book to thumb through and mark up with sticky notes. But it helps to have a digital edition as well, since the act of printing and presenting can be hard on their binding. I hope that as ebooks and digital editions of textbooks become more common that more books include digital versions with their print materials. Then I don’t have to spend so many mornings wrestling with the great beige beast.

My iPad Arrives

In the darkest days of February, when the sun shone not on the frozen tundra of Wisconsin but for a handful of hours, I made a request of the mighty, turtle-necked lord of Cupertino. The request was a humble one: A 16GB iPad with a camera. Many moons did pass, and lo, plagues of consumer shortages, recalls, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and an explosion in the factory stood in the way of deliverance. My faith was shaken that I would ever receive this glowing tablet. Last Wednesday my faith was rewarded, my iPad arrived with my name etched on the back.

They're here!

If I sound like this is a big deal for me, it is. Since the first iPad came out I have had my doubts about how the iPad could be used in the classroom. Mostly having to do with schools that shell out good money buying them for every student. That said, I wanted one soooo bad. Since getting my iPod Touch I realized how much I enjoyed having my documents, email, calendars, and notes all in one place. I wanted that kind of organization an convenience in my classroom. I wanted to streamline my professional work the same way that my SmartBoard streamlined my instruction.

I will have to wait a little longer before I can use it to its full potential. First, because it is a school iPad, I need to work with others to install the apps in order to share them with Scott, my partner in this iPad trial. Secondly, my students don’t show up for another few months. Only then, when my students are in the classroom and I am once again exposed to the pressures of running my classroom, will I know what works in the field and what does not. Which apps are useful, which are toys, and which are wastes of time?

I am developing a list of the apps that I will use in the coming school year. Any ideas on what should make the cut?

Robot Projects

As I said before, it is science fair season in Greenwood. After finishing up the required LEGO robot project, many of my science club members are going for their ‘independent study’ badges. This means I give them unlimited access to the bins of LEGO Mindstorms and they run with it.  Some students are coming up with their own creations but, due to limited time, most are using instructions from the internet communities that sprung up to support LEGO robotics. So far the projects are constructive (a machine that sorts bricks by color, a machine that solves the Rubik’s Cube) and destructive (voice activated catapult, machine gun rapid brick launcher) I am going another route, hoping to get the kids more into the programming side of things and exploration. I built a “rover-bot” by modifying a design I found. With the help of the students, we programmed him to explore the school, avoid objects using the distance sensors, and back away from chairs, walls, and students if he bumps into them. We then strapped a Flip camera to him to “record” his travels. My original plan was to attach a skype-equipped iPod touch to the robot and set him loose in the high school so that, like the Mars Rover, students could see a live feed of this strange new world from across town.  But, sadly, Skype is, for good reason, filtered off our network.

Here is a little video we made explaining the robot and his great journey.


It’s science fair season in Greenwood, Wisconsin. A week ago I asked what kinds of things the generation of LEGO would create when they grew up. I think that I may have discovered what the future may hold for the amateur engineers in my classroom. Enter the world of “makers.” Often referred to as “hackers,” these are not the notorious computer criminals of my childhood. The term “hack” now refers to modifying any device, computer program, or skill to improve one’s life—basically, anything under the DIY umbrella. By this definition you may be hacking and not know it. For example, that baseball card you put in your bike spokes as a kid? Yeah, you hacked your bike.

What is interesting when cruising the sites dedicated to this new, broader vision of engineering is the creativity and technical skill of these ‘makers,’ as they call themselves. Many of the creations I found, such as the pedal-powered blender, seemed to be creation for creation’s sake. However, many seemed to have a genuinely humanitarian and educational goal.

For example, the Civilization Construction Set is basically a giant LEGO set of metal and hydraulics that, assembled in the right way, can provide a community with infrastructure. Arrange the parts one way, you have a tractor to plow a field. Rearrange the parts and you have a brick making machine or a blast furnace. The group created all the CAD drawings in their spare time and has even prototyped many of their projects. I showed this to my science club and a few of my more gearhead-oriented students, and they were ecstatic seeing how what they were learning could be applied on a larger scale. A trip to the Maker magazine website is akin to traveling through a candy store of cleverness.

MakerBot Thing-O-Matic

I believe this spirit is the future of Tech Ed programs. Give students the tools they need to solve realistic problems and the freedom to tinker. Many of the production tools that used to be solely industrial have now trickled down to the consumer and educational level. There are several microcontroller kits that allow students to create their own networked and easily programmable minicomputers that can fit inside a shoebox or Altoid tin—the same technology present in every factory’s automation line. HP now sells a 3D DesignJet printer. For a mere $18,000, a high school student can prototype anything created in CAD.


But why worry about price? Some of these same ‘Hackers’ I spoke of before created the MakerBot Thing-o-Matic, a 3-D printer that can create any 3-D object you can imagine for under $1,300. This is not for the faint of heart, because in the spirit of DIY you have to assemble the Thing-O-Matic yourself. For Tech Ed people, this tool would revolutionize the classroom. Imagine a group of kids who need a custom part for their LEGO robot, something never devised before; the Thing-O-Matic creates a prototype from scratch in about an hour. They design their very own sports car and in a few minutes they could have a scale model.  We are truly coming to a point where the technology is limited by our imaginations and not the other way around.

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