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

Posts tagged ‘technology’

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.

What “Dream Product” Would You Like In Your Classroom?

In my last post I raved about the DIY Maker movement and how I believe it may be the future of Tech Ed programs.  I recently received an email from a group of Makers in Madison called sector67, that maintains a nonprofit workshop there where fellow Hackers are able to work on their projects.  The email went like this:

“We are currently in brainstorming mode (and on a tight time line) and hoping that your educational expertise and frustration could provide us with some inspiration. Our request is that you (and any peers you forward this too!) take a moment to share a thought or two about issues and obstacles you deal with in the classroom. Or maybe you have a dream machine you have always wanted? Perhaps you need a device that visually conveys an abstract concept? Something that helps relax the kids during reading/quiet time? A support tool that can be used with any topic? If you don’t have a particular idea, please just outline the problem with a little detail. The challenge is for us to create a solution. Really, anything is possible!”

Any ideas for a device, any device that helps in the classroom, electronic or otherwise and this group could potentially make your dreams come true.  Please comment with any ideas and I’ll pass them on.

My idea, in flowchart form, is to have a lunchbox we can take with us on field trips. Inside the lunchbox is a wirelessly enabled hard drive, a big battery and a few dozen wireless SD cards to be put into whatever digital cameras we have. Then, every time a kid takes a picture the photos are instantly put on the hard drive, in one place, ready for projects when we get back to school.

Monkeying with PDFs

If you are like me, many of the things you use in the classroom arrive in PDF format. PDFs are great for publishing. My wife, who works in graphic arts, praises them to no end because for once there is a simple file format that will look the same on whatever computer you open it on. Many publishers love it too because it offers a certain level of copy protection. It’s hard (but not impossible) to monkey with a PDF. But as a teacher, I run into times when I need to monkey with it. I need to get it on my SMARTboard; I need to make a master copy; and so on.

And, so, these are the ways I like to manage PDFs:

1)    Screenshots: Hit the printscreen key and what happens? It takes a picture of whatever is on your screen and puts it in your clipboard. This includes whatever PDF you might be displaying. Just paste it into your favorite program and edit it any way you want. I like to use this with my whiteboard software to make a “transparency” of a PDF.

2)    Edit directly/write on PDF: One problem I run into is having to fill out forms or create masters of my PDF documents. I use a program called Foxit Reader and “typewriter mode” to enter text into applications or forms. This is a “must have” if you get a tablet PC, as it lets you open a PDF, write on it, and then email it without any trouble—completely paperless.

3)    “Cut out” pages you don’t want: Let’s say you have a PDF that contains not only your student’s worksheets, but also the masters. Here is how to make a packet with only what you need. First, download a PDF maker. I like Nitro PDF, but CutePDF works too. Basically, both create a “printer” that takes your print job and makes it into a PDF. The beauty of this is that you tell the “printer” you only want certain pages; for example, pages 1,5,7. Make sure that you put commas between pages. The program will then make a new PDF with only your chosen pages.

Monkey away.

Eyeing the iPad

One of the great things about Wisconsin, apart from being a dynamic place in the realm of labor relations, is that we get access to lots of good training through our local CESA co-op. A fellow teacher and I have been taking courses on the advanced use of Moodle. We’ve been having lots of fun with it. As part of the grant, we get funds to purchase a laptop. Already having a laptop, I was thinking of getting a tablet so I can look at my Moodle page while on the move since I spend so little of my time sitting down. I also like the idea of writing on my SMARTboard wirelessly via a VNC client. I like passing the tablet around in lieu of coming up to the board, or putting something on the board without taking my eyes off of a particular student (think kindergarten, where turning your back on a class can have tragic consequences).

I think I am going with the iPad. Not because it is the cheapest or best performing tablet out there—the Motorola Xoom, for one, caught my eye.  No, it comes down to the difference in market between the Android and the iPad’s iOS. Android, first and foremost, was made as a smartphone OS, and most of its Apps are geared around lifestyle, business, and personal-phone type applications. Apple’s iOS, on the other hand, has been developed both on their iPhone and on the iPod Touch. As a result of thousands of schools embracing the iPod Touch and the relatively cheap wi-fi only iPad, many more apps on iOS are geared toward education. They are a significant chunk of Apple’s market share, and while I don’t mind wading into the pool of tablets in my classroom, I don’t want to dive into a platform that has not proven itself in education yet. Funny, but it seems in this age of tablets, Apple is again the favorite of schools, and Android/Blackberry the favorite of business.

What will I use my iPad for? For starters, I hope to remotely control my smartboard as I have said before. Then, through Google documents I hope to get my gradebook on there as well. The idea of carrying around a few books and having a lot of resource apps at my disposal is also something I hope to have, if a student needs a question answered I hope to have it right away. Are there any Apps that you find useful in the classroom? If so, please share; I want to know what I should fill my new toy up with!

Downloading Videos

One of the things that I get asked a lot is how to download video from websites like YouTube. Because we are behind a proxy filter at my school, this is often the only way to get video from this great online source into the classroom. The other reason that this is useful is because YouTube tends to try to suggest other videos to you that might not be safe for school and sometimes a stand-alone video file is safer.

There are countless ways to take video from a website. After all, it has been loaded onto your computer already; all you need to do is tell your computer to “grab” it. I am going to share my method of downloading and displaying a flash video. By no means will it work every time, but it’s another option in meeting your needs.

There are three programs I use for this: two to get the video and one to display it without a lot of fuss.

  1. First, install Firefox, mostly because it is awesome. Argue it if you want, but this is a rule in my classroom, kind of like the rule about never bringing ranch dressing into my room. It’s a great browser with lots a features and more importantly the ability to install extensions that expand what it can do, Just go to tools>add-ons.
  2. Second, about those extensions: the one you want to install either through Firefox or their extension library is called downloadhelper. It’s a nice little program that creates a neat three-color icon in your browser whenever it finds something it can download.

    Download Helper, helping

  3. Go to your favorite source of online video. When it starts to spin, click it and select whatever file looks like it might be the one you want. This can be tricky since they will often be named in some strange code, but look for one that ends in .flv. click it to start the download.
  4. The .FLV file is the most common type of online video these days; a flash video file that can probably be played on your browser, but not by itself and not in many media players such as Windows Media Player or QuickTime. It can, however, be played using the second greatest program ever: Video LAN Client, or VLC. This is a simple, streamlined media player that is very powerful. It does one thing—plays files. And it leaves out all the bloatware you find in QuickTime or Windows Media Player.

There are other methods, of course, like converting the file into something easier for your computer to handle, but VLC does such a great job I tend to save myself the trouble. Save the file to a flash drive, or save yourself a lot of trouble and save it to your Dropbox.


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.”


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.

News from HP

I gush a lot about whiteboards, but it’s a broken record I never get tired of, since it is the most-used item in my own classroom and I would give up coffee to keep it (and I love coffee).


HP's Digital Sketch wirelessly connects to a teacher’s notebook or desktop. The teacher can work with the lesson from anywhere in the classroom.

I said a little while back that we would see more options in the interactive whiteboard scene, and that motion-capture technology—the kind found in the Wii and Xbox Kinect—will make them more affordable. HP’s latest press release mentions their new educational initiative and a whiteboard product that is the most portable I have seen yet. It looks to be a small sensor that you attach to an existing whiteboard and provides wireless interactivity. It’s similar to the MimioTeach device, but smaller. That a player like HP is getting into this already crowded market should make it interesting; and that this device will hopefully work seamlessly with their other educational products should make it a good sell for districts that are looking to buy things from the smallest amount of vendors.

The release also mentions a “thin client,” a single computer that connects up to 10 workstations, letting them “share” the same computer. With more schools embracing cloud computing, the demand for these small, cheap solutions to computer labs may grow. I also found their idea of a netbook-charging cart slick; they claim that it will charge up to 30 machines regardless of brand. I personally would like to see how they do this, since every cart I have used has turned into a rat’s nest of cables.

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.

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.

Tag Cloud