Monday, July 15, 2013

Tools We Use and Why We Use Them

In our 1:1 computing program we recommend our students buy netbooks. We give them several recommendations from models we've tried, then a list of minimum specs. After that, we leave it to the family to decide what to buy. They bring their own devices to school and we provide the WiFi throughout our campus.

During the summer we send out our netbook requirements and a list of software students should download and install before school begins in August. Our netbook recommendations and list of software to download is fairly short, and all the software we use is free and open source.

Why We Use the Cloud

We use cloud services extensively in our workflow including Google Drive and Dropbox. Which one depends on the software and the type of project or assignment we're working on. If the project requires collaboration between students, or between student(s) and teacher(s), we almost always use Open Office and Dropbox.

When we need to collaborate we use Google Drive. Anything other than Google Drive docs goes into Dropbox and is synced to "the Cloud".

Google Drive does the syncing automatically. We have had students lose their netbook hard drive and we're able to get them back up and running within a half hour with all of their files available. We install Dropbox on their loaner computer, sync it with their Dropbox account, and all of their files automatically download to the loaner computer. They can get back to work with minimal interruption and repeat the process when their computer comes back from the repair shop. Whatever work they did on the loaner is instantly available when they re-download Dropbox on their own computer. We then simply delete Dropbox and the student's files from the loaner and it's ready to go for the next unfortunate student whose computer is not functioning.

With Google Drive this process is automatic and works by simply logging into the student's account with a web browser. We use the Google Chrome browser because it's designed to work with Google Drive. Other browsers work, too, but not as well as Chrome. Chrome was designed by Google with cloud computing in mind. In addition, our school participates in Google Apps for Education which Google offers to educational institutions for free. The advantage here is that the school's administrator can make the school's domain completely private. This provides a "walled garden" that many have suggested is important for children when they collaborate on the Internet. They can learn in a safe environment, free from many of the distractions and dangers that the greater Internet brings.

(CC 2.0 license)
We use the free audio editor Audacity to capture, edit and publish student voices. Much has been written about the benefits of having students show and tell what they know using podcasts. In my class we use them a lot. One example is when we go on our annual overnight trip to Kennedy Space Center. At Space Camp our students call a Google Voice number I've set up for the purpose of capturing children's voices. The recording files go straight to my email as .mp3 files. The students work with their peer group to create simple scripts. Everyone carries a 3x5 inch spiral notebook and a ball point pen to keep track of the things they've seen and want to recall when they do this script-making. Once the scripts are organized the chaperones call the special Google Voice number and help the students record their audio program. In these 1-2 minute recordings the students share what they've seen and learned so far at Space Camp.

When we return to school we spend some time editing and publishing our best recordings. Our podcasts are published on our class website for others to enjoy. We always ask our listeners to provide feedback to our students, which motivates them to learn and share even more. We spend quite a bit of time before this field trip learning and practicing how to make a podcast using Audacity.

Office Suites: Open Office and Google Drive

Both Open Office (OO) and Google Drive (Drive) offer modules for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. In addition Drive offers Forms, which we use to gather data that we later manage and analyze with a spreadsheet. Here's a sample of an online form created using Google Drive's Forms module. Go ahead and try it; choose YES or NO and Submit.

Most Kids Like Computer Writing
We do a lot of writing on our netbooks. If our project or assignment requires no collaboration with others we use OO. The advantage is that OO can be worked on whether or not there is an Internet connection. Files are saved in the Dropbox folder on a student's netbook. When back in range of a WiFi hotspot, Dropbox syncs the file back up to "the cloud".

When we need to collaborate we use Drive. We've done this with pair-share stories for example. One begins, then shares the doc with the other. Anything written by one is accessible by the other, even if both students are working at home. We've seen some amazing collaborative stories come out of this simple exercise. Drive docs save automatically, and both students can be working on the same doc simultaneously. The disadvantage is that the student(s) must be online while using Drive documents. The advantage is the collaboration made possible by shared docs. These docs can even be shared with everyone by making them public. A public link is available for anyone to view in their web browser. This document is an example of that.

In our science unit on weather we've used spreadsheets in both OO and Drive to track changes in temperature or precipitation over time. We graph our results, then put the graphs into a word processing document with a report of our findings. Finally, we put these graphs into presentations to be shared with our classmates or the world. The examples shown here were created in Google Drive and shared with "the world" so you could see what they look like. They could just as easily have been shared only with classmates to be viewed as part of a class project.

Avast, Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader

These behind-the-scenes programs keep our netbooks out of trouble on the Internet (Avast) and enable us to view content that requires a little extra help (.pdf files or Flash videos and other content). Avast checks regularly for viruses and other types of files that would harm our netbooks. All three programs run in the background; we mostly forget about them after they're initially downloaded and installed.

Why We Use These Tools

We use these tools along with a handful of others to supplement an enhance our curriculum. Just like I try to integrate several core subject areas when planning lessons, I also try to use technology tools where appropriate. The tools help us get the job done, and they help us learn. The science project with temperature change involves multiple skill areas: writing, graphing, data-gathering, measuring, weather observing and prediction, and of course computer skills. We could make hand-drawn graphs, of course. Computer-generated ones not only look better, they're more fun to make.

In addition we use online tools such as Socrative to engage learners in responses during classroom sessions, Testmoz for online assessment, and DropItToMe for turning in digital files quickly and easily. There are others, but these are our most-used tools. 

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