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

Posts tagged ‘internet’

Wireless Outage

It happened this Monday. Due to testing we were set to use our new netbooks and wireless had been working fine all day.  Then, without warning, minutes before I was to teach group of sixth graders the wireless cut out. We tried restarting the router but to no avail, and my impatient little cherubs were not happy about it and had absolutely no patience for me. “What do you mean it doesn’t work”? I could almost hear them say.  “Starbucks never has this problem!” I thought I heard them whisper. Then again, in my hurried state, I don’t know what I heard; only an unhappy rabble of children who wanted their internet now.
I wanted to tell them that in my day we had nothing better than flimsy little floppy disks and if you so much as looked at them the wrong way you lost all your data and we JUST LIVED WITH IT.  The internet was on ONE computer that shared a phone line with the office and went out every time someone picked up the phone and we LOVED IT.

Wikimedia Commons

What have I learned from this outage? From running between two different rooms to get something done only to have it all blow up in my face and being accosted by angry students who blame me for it all?  Being a reflective type, I have considered the following:

1.     I need to remind students that this whole internet thing, and in fact computers and technology in general will fail and what matters is that you handle it with grace. Something I have not fully mastered myself. It’s like I tell the kids: “If you get your leg caught in a bear trap, at least you’ll make a great pirate for Halloween”

2.     I need to plan for the worst when it comes to these things. Teaching technology means that a power outage, a blip in our network, or any other number of little disasters could turn my lessons upside down. I need to be prepared for the worst. Activities that while technology related could be adapted to work without internet, like going on nature walks with the digital cameras, or collecting data that could be used in a future spreadsheet.

Oh, internet readers! Is there something that you do when everything that can go wrong does? Is there any advice you could give this poor soul that like his students just expected everything to work?

The Joys of Filters

Flickr.com/The Daring Librarian

I would like to start out by saying that I understand why we need filters on the Internet in a school. Children can get into an awful lot of trouble if given the chance—and what better chance is there than a computer connected to information on every topic known to man? I would never put a child in front of a computer that is not filtered in some way. I also would keep track of what has been seen on that computer to catch those things that manage to get through the filter. I go so far as to want key-logging software on school computers as well. I have heard cases of cyber-bullying being discovered and put down by tracking the things typed into school computers. If people say that this is spying, I like to point out that these are school computers on a school network and therefore everything on them or passing through them is subject to search—just as a locker or a car parked in the school lot can be searched.

I also agree that the Internet can be huge waste of time for professionals. A recent Tumblr post I read described a “Bermuda Triangle” of office productivity in Twitter, Facebook and Gmail . However, I am a professional, and using a school computer, I know I am being watched. By law everything I do on the computer is public record. Several schools got sued, successfully, to give up their staffs’ email.

In my own workplace, I am behind a filter; the same filter as my students. This shouldn’t be a problem, since, after all, what would I look at work that I couldn’t have a child see? It’s not the filters that I object to, but rather the difficulty the filters sometimes create. For instance, I can’t download a computer version of chess because it shows up as “games” in our filter. I cannot look on Marvel Comics’ or DC Comics’ websites to find age-appropriate comic books, because they are blocked as “comics.” I cannot go to YouTube; many schools, technology blogs and news sites and my own blog use YouTube as a place to host video. When my kids got their snowman video on YouTube a few months ago, they could not watch it at school. Our music teacher often comes to me with requests for music that she would like me to download from YouTube, since a VHS tape describing Indian music can be hard to come by.

I know that there are a lot of better filtering and administration systems out there, but I was reminded by our district tech coordinator that many of these cost upwards of $16,000. For a small district like ours, that kind of money is better spent on other things.

I don’t want to raise a fuss about this. Putting up with the filtering issues is a small price to pay for knowing that the kids are safe, but there are times when I am frustrated. Like when I found out that Sesame Street, who put all of their content online and indexed them by topic for parents and educators, was blocked because its online video was from YouTube and therefore treated as “R-Rated” content by our filter.

I wish for the day when, as a teacher, I could have a little more control over the filter other than sending an email to our provider. I am hopeful that someday soon the system will make a little more sense. Maybe a two-tiered system, where teachers have more access than students, would be better. Or a system where students get more and more access (but the same amount of supervision) as they get older.

How does your school handle this issue, one I find so frustrating?

My New Favorite Website

I found out through another blogger about a great site called Qwiki.com. Qwiki works like a standard encyclopedia; you type in a name or a subject and it finds a bunch of results. What makes it different is that it takes the results (mostly from Wikipedia) and stitches the words, text, and pictures into a short, two minute or so movie. I typed in “Edward Teach” and it began reading to me about the golden age of piracy complete with timeline graphics of Blackbeard’s life and pictures of his exploits. All of this text linked to other qwikis, so naturally the movie could lead to many new topics.

Can you imagine using this in class to answer those little questions you get every day? “Mr. Briggs, why is the sky blue?” “Mr. Briggs, what is tea?” or “How do rockets work”?

Check it out if you haven’t already; it’s really slick.

“What is the cloud?”

… was the question I was asked by a co-worker the other day in the lunchroom. We have all seen the Microsoft ads where people go “to the cloud” and it magically fixes all of their problems involving computers.

“The cloud” refers to “cloud computing,” a term created to describe how more and more of our actual computing occurs on the internet and how the internet—not our hard drives—seems to be where most of our stuff now exists.

For me, the best example is email. Rather than having all of your email messages stored on your computer (as they used to be), most are now stored on a server, if you work for a school, most likely this server is a big computer locked in a back closet somewhere. Having your mail stored on a secure, well-backed-up server is a lot safer than storing on your hard drive since the chances are slim that somebody will accidentally delete your email, like I once did to a client in college. To this man, I say: I AM SO, SO, SORRY!

But cloud computing takes this a step further. Rather than storing those files on a server in a back closet, it stores those files on a server out in California or any one of the thousands of ‘server farms’ that are owned by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others. And now, instead of needing to be in front of your computer to check your email, you can access it from any computer with internet. Tah-dah! You were on the cloud without knowing it.

As the years have gone by, more and more is computing has been done on the internet, existing not in one central location but on the ambiguous, ethereal internet “cloud.” For example, one of my favorite sites for teaching kids about digital cameras is Picnik, a free site with some premium features; it serves as a basic photo-editor. Kids can plug in their cameras into any computer and crop, brighten and red-eye correct to their hearts content without having to worry about file management issues, losing their photos, or mucking around in a program like Photoshop. Picnik is one of those sites that does one thing—basic photo editing—and does it well. And all of the computing power behind it, all of the processing and rendering that used to be such a drain on a computer, happens thousands of miles away on a server farm.


Fun with Picnick.

With the internet taking the weight off of your computer’s processor, you can now do more and more with a basic device with an internet connection—hence the rise in netbooks and tablets and smartphones. It’s not that the phones are all that smart; they just happen to be connected to a network of great devices.

I would take the time to go over some of the really great things to come to education from cloud computing, but honestly, I find it really overwhelming. There is just so much of it that I could spend hours of my day poring over these sites. Unfortunately, I still have a class to teach; they are showing up in about 15 minutes and I have to have their multiplication practice ready for when they get back, so I’ll have to ask my readers to share anything that they use that falls into the category of “cloud” computing, and share some more of my solutions in future posts.

Great Moments: Google Earth

A few weeks ago, we received an exchange student from Korea. I am endlessly proud of my students for their patience, kindness, and hospitality in welcoming this student into our classroom and making him feel a part of our school. While being an exchange student must be a tremendous learning experience for the student, it has also been great for my class, a majority of whom live on farms and rarely get to visit any city, let alone any of the larger cities in our area such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Green Bay.

I spoke to this student the other day about a recent trip he and the other kids from his program will be making to Chicago. I talked about places he would visit and things he could do, and naturally this led to looking up places that served Chicago-style hot dogs and Chicago-style pizza. I am a hot dog nut and have worked Chi-Dogs into my diet (4 Weight Watchers Points! Even with fries, that’s less than a Snickers bar!). Naturally, this led to Google Earth.

Google Earth, the program, is a godsend for our isolated little school. With the ability to show images of places anywhere in the world, and find street views of most of those places, it lets our kids travel the world without leaving the room. After showing him around Navy Pier and the Loop, someone asked our new student, “Where do you live?”

After a few minutes, we saw the sprawling metropolis of Seoul. Our student showed us the blocks and blocks of high rise apartment buildings, pointed out good places to eat, his school, and the nearby headquarters of Hyundai, Samsung, and Kia. In a town like ours where there is not a single three-story building, and for kids like mine who have never seen a skyscraper, let alone been surrounded by them, this was mind-blowing.

Our guy has opened up a little bit more, he is respected a little bit more, and our class was a little humbled by a program that puts the whole world in your classroom.

A few interesting things from the feeds

The Educator’s PLN: A teacher discussed taking part in a webinar that discussed how schools are integrating netbooks. I would have liked to have taken part in this one, but like so many things I didn’t know about it until it was too late. The superintendent of Lake Tahoe spoke about their netbook program that puts a netbook in the hands of every student from 3rd grade to graduation. What was fascinating to me is that the school seems to be very realistic about how they are used. The school made sure that the web was filtered so that the computers couldn’t be used as a distraction. They also made a deal with AT&T to provide the computers with mobile internet to make sure that students would be able to connect to their document servers; nothing is stored on the computer itself.

What blew me away about this was that the school paid only about $40 per laptop; the rest was picked up through grants, textbook funds and lots of clever accounting.

Talking Tech With Robin: Another teacher-blogger like me brought up the need for a quality safe search engine for kids. Honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Google’s best filters only manage to get a little off the top. Using their image search from an educator’s point of view is like walking through an appropriateness minefield. Yahooligans (now Yahoo Kids) used to do a good job, but now mostly markets games and movies to kids and does little for research. Ask Kids also does a good job, but tends to direct kids to their own services rather than reputable sites.

Lo and behold, there is Sweetsearch, a clean, easy-to-use search engine that contains sites that have been approved by actual people involved in education. This could be a godsend if the organization that reviews the sites does a good job of expanding the list. As of now many searches refer to libraries, which is good, but not the first place I would look to learn about a subject such as dinosaurs, at least not on the web. I am just overjoyed that anyone is working on this issue.

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