Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Netbook Teacher Gets MacBook Air "Netbook"

I just love my new MacBook Air! Technically, it's not a netbook. I guess I'll need to expand my definition of netbook, or change the title of my blog! Either way, I still love this new laptop. I opted for the 13" model because this is my main computer. I use it all day long at school, then come home and use it some more. I thought I might feel cramped after a day of using a scrunched-down 11" model. Several reviewers said that, and I think I agree. At least for the way I use a computer. The vertical height would feel like 6 foot ceilings to me, and I'm 5'9" tall.

When I come home and want to get some heavy lifting done I plug in a 32" HDTV as a monitor (now, that's a BIG screen!), my Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad, my Wacom Bamboo tablet, and I can sit in front of the computer for hours. Oh, I do this in clamshell mode — laptop closed and tilted up against a bookshelf. It runs cool and quiet, best of all worlds. Who needs a "desktop" machine when you can take an ultra-light laptop with you that also runs as a desktop computer at home? Add an external hard drive and a few peripherals and you've got what I consider the perfect setup. At least for me.

Lucky for me, I got the "loaded" MBA with 8 Gb of RAM and a 500 Gb hard drive. This solid state drive is both quiet and fast! Did I mention that I love this thing?

I've had 3 MacBook Pros over the past 9-10 or so years. I started with a 17" model — too big. It was like a portable desktop machine, complete with all the extra weight. After the motherboard died and the battery swelled and bent the battery door I was able, under Applecare, to get a FREE 15-inch "loaded" MBP. Don't buy a Mac laptop without the Applecare warranty! After purchasing it for $183 per laptop under Apple's educator discount on 4 different laptops over a dozen years (less than $800 total) I more than made up the investment with a single replacement laptop that Apple gave me for this faulty MacBook Pro. The replacement model was worth well over $2000, and ended up being an upgrade for me, right before the warranty expired! Don't leave home without it!

Then, I got another 15" MacBook Pro (after a few years with the first one). Finally, I lost a few pounds (of laptop weight) and got this Air. I ditched my backpack of the past 14 years and went to a satchel that is only big enough for the Air and a few pieces of paper. I manage to also put in the charger, but I really don't use it much. I have one at school and one at home, and I can go all day without it — so far. 

I unplugged it when I left home at 7 am today, started using it around 7:20 am at school, and it just died at 6:30 pm this evening while I was typing in the recliner. I'm running on "shore power" again and will charge this thing overnight after I finish this article and close the lid. Tomorrow, repeat, rinse, and do it again. It went for 11 hours of nearly non-stop computing today. I close the lid only when not using it, and today I used it almost all day between the time with my students using this as a presentation machine, and the time when they were away at another class and I was reading their work on the laptop.

Oh, and if you're a Windows lover, this thing even runs Windows 7 or 8 with no problem. Even side-by-side with Mac OS. That little tidbit is what finally convinced my principal to allow me to be the only Mac-using teacher in our school. A few teachers have since converted and use Mac as their personal machines. I'm fortunate, and with a collection of cross-platform apps, I can use this as my main computer for home and work. If you can handle the $2K for a killer machine, go for the MacBook Air (less if you don't need the memory). It's worth every penny! 


Disclaimer: I use several Windows machines at work and home for a variety of special purposes. I teach in a Windows school. Most of my 80 students in 4th and 5th grade run Windows 7 or 8 on their BYOD netbooks. So, I have a Windows 8 touch screen Asus netbook that I use when I must show them something in Windows. Otherwise, they look at my Mac screen (and the apps that run on it) all day long for one thing or another. 

The side benefit: most of my kids could probably sit down in front of a Mac or a PC and function just fine. I call that ambidextrous teaching and learning!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Google Classroom Used for 5th Grade Science

Over the summer of 2014 I spent some time with Google Classroom. I see it as a portal for managing all of the GAFE (Google Apps for Education) tools—gmail, Google Drive, YouTube, and more. It just makes my students' workflow management much simpler, and puts everything in one place for them. 

I started the year using Classroom with one course in my homeroom. After 3 weeks, I'm ready to move to my science classes where I use a blended approach for two different groups of students. They watch a video at home, answer some online questions (a Google Form). I grade the questions using Flubaroo, then I'm ready for the next day's class period where we discuss any of the questions students struggled with. After that, we have a hands-on demonstration of the science concepts, we work in small groups, check our understanding using tools like Socrative, and much more. I'm working to improve the "time on task" of my students, both in and out of the classroom. The idea of maximizing time on task is something I learned from my principal. Google Classroom helps me with this goal.

In Praise of Free Tech 4 Teachers

I just finished writing a thank you note to Richard Byrne of FreeTech4Teachers, and then I decided I should also add a note here. Over the summer of 2014 I sat down every morning with my Raisin Bran and iPhone, and read through Richard's half-dozen or so new articles offering "free tech tools" for teachers on his blog. I consider it his labor of love, I wondered (in my email to him) how he manages to find the time, and I simply offered a word of thanks for all the time-saving tools he's shared with me over the past couple of years. If you're reading this, do yourself a favor and click on the link to his blog. Subscribe via email updates and sift through his daily updates, using what you find helpful. I click on "share" and pass the best stuff on to Evernote for later reading and checking-out.

Over the summer I was able to add a few add-on tools to my Google Drive arsenal, making my assignment and project workflow move even more efficiently between me, my students, and back again. I can now give my kids an online quiz or offer them a few reflection questions after sharing a short video with them, and get the results of their answers delivered to me. Multiple choice questions are graded and delivered with "item analysis", so I know which of the questions gave my class-as-a-whole the most trouble. Armed with that data prior to my next class session, I can focus my attention on the area(s) most in need of my attention and move past those areas that the kids have already mastered. This is just one area of growth for me over the summer, thanks to the resources that Richard has shared with all of us.

Today, I made a Google Custom Search Engine after reading Richard's latest articles. Now, my students and their parents can search my website for the document or video they need. I also did the same for our school website which is in need of a facelift. In the meantime, at least I can find the stuff I need quickly and easily thanks to Google and thanks to Richard Byrne.

As you can see, it was a productive summer for me. Now, if I can just find the time during the school year to keep plowing through all this good and free tech!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Dropbox Public Folder Goes Away for FREE Accounts

In a previous post about my Netbook Teacher tools I mentioned Dropbox as part of my workflow. I've used Dropbox for years as a cloud-based method of backing up and syncing mission-critical files between my various computers and computing devices. I can get to these files from a Mac, a PC, my iPad or iPhone. It’s a great solution. I even spend $99 a year for a Pro account, which gives me 100 Gb of cloud-based storage in my personal Dropbox account.

However, I was disappointed to discover today that Dropbox has dropped the Public folder for all new and FREE accounts. They apparently did this starting back in 2012, but somehow I missed it until today when I tried to create and use a new Public folder on a new (FREE) Dropbox account. 

Why is this a problem? I’ve used this feature for years to host podcasts for very small audiences of users whom I serve as part of a couple of hobbies or work-related, but extra-curricular, activities in which I participate. For example, I host training session podcasts for a ham radio related project on a Google Site. I also post my audio recordings from sessions I attend at FETC, an educational-technology conference I attend annually. Dropbox provided a perfect place to store these files, then to share them with anyone who may be interested in the content I collect, store and share online.

The Public folder automatically makes any file inside both downloadable and playable within one’s browser. I can embed the URLs from .mp3 files inside this Public folder into my blog or Google Site and a visitor to my site can click and listen, right in their browser. These files can also be set up via RSS to stream to a podcatcher. I often listen to them on my iPhone via Bluetooth headphones while cutting the grass.

I understand why Dropbox did this. On their website they say they now have a new way to create links to files in a Dropbox account. I've used this "new way", but it only gives users the option of downloading the podcast (.mp3) file to the hard drive where you must open it with Quicktime or Media Player, or some other .mp3 player on your computer or other device. The "old way" enabled people like me to use multiple FREE Dropbox accounts to host podcasts indefinitely at a great price!

My discovery came when I was trying to upload the latest training session podcast from one of my hobby projects. The 55 minute podcast cut off at 43 minutes. I discovered my 2 Gb FREE Dropbox account was full, so that was as far as the uploaded file could go, apparently, when the 2 Gb limit was reached. No problem, I thought. I just created a new, FREE, Dropbox account and uploaded the .mp3 file there. However, that's when I discovered that the Public folder, normally created automatically when a new Dropbox account is created, was not there! A quick Google search brought me up to date with the Dropbox news.

So, no hard feelings, Dropbox. Thanks for all the FREE podcast hosting over several years. Fortunately, they included a grandfather clause and all my previous files are still working just fine. But, now, I must find a new place to host my podcast files—hopefully for free!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Google Classroom: My Preview Came Today!

When I first heard of the forthcoming Google Classroom I decided to apply for an early look. Well, my invitation came through today, and I've just finished my first look. So far, I'm impressed. Google Classroom will add some much-needed functionality and simplicity to our classroom workflow come August when we begin our new school year.

I hope you'll check out Google Classroom. Meanwhile, here's my contribution to the many "first look" videos and articles popping up each day on the Internet. There are many others, including one from Google Educast that I'm enjoying, too. Mine is embedded below. It's a quickie at 8:56. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Using Gmail +1 Email Addresses to Comply With COPPA for Student Online Accounts

Have you ever wanted to use an online technology tool with your students, but couldn't, because they're under age 13? That problem has plagued me for several years as I've attempted to find solutions for my fifth graders in a 1:1 netbook class. Thanks to a couple of ed-tech resource people I follow, I now have a workaround!

First, the citations:
Thank you to Richard Byrne who writes the Free Technology for Teachers blog. His article How to Register Students for Services When They Don't have Email Addresses got me started on the road to a solution.
Then, while researching COPPA and its rules, I found the FTC's Complying With COPPA: Frequently Asked Questions. If you're looking at the COPPA guidelines for classroom use of online technology tools, scroll down to M: COPPA and Schools. The key is to safeguard student identity and information, especially if they're under the magic age of 13.
Finally, to round out my understanding of how to create a Gmail +1 email address for each of my students, I ran into Stormy Cullum's Gmail +1 ~ Create Student Email (Survive Under 13 Guidelines - COPPA). Stormy does a great job of explaining how to use Google's tools to solve this problem. If you use (or would be willing to use) Gmail and/or GAFE (Google Apps for Education), read on.

The above citations, if you read the 3 articles, will show you the way. Here's my brief summary — the reason why you're reading this article...

So, I wanted to have my kids use ed.ted.com which would enable me to take any YouTube video and easily create some pre- and post-video watching questions and discussions online for my kids. I want them to engage with these videos, and I want a way to verify that they have done this online work. Since I "flip" some of my lessons, this idea is especially useful for when I assign a video for my students to watch and engage with. However, in order to comply with COPPA, ed.ted.com will only allow students to create accounts if they're over age 12. My kids are not. I even wrote to them to ask if they knew of a workaround. They suggested I have the students' parents create the accounts for the students. While this would work, I didn't want to ask parents to do this. I wanted them to know and give consent for their children to use this resource; I just didn't want to bother them to do the legwork of setting things up for me.

So, I started searching for a way that I could manage this sign-up process for each of my students and, at the same time, control the accounts and avoid having kids give personal information to the folks at ed.ted.com. That's when I discovered the Gmail +1 idea.

The idea is simple. I created a new Gmail account for my class. I also forwarded all the emails for this new class account to my own Gmail email address. I suppose you could do this with an email address even if it's not Gmail; mine just happens to be a gmail address. Then, for each student I use the +1 idea. It works like this: sign up each student for ed.ted.com using the class email address, but add +1 to the end of the email address. For example, if your class email is myclass@gmail.com, then you would use something like this as an email address for the first kid in your class: myclass+firstkid@gmail.com. The second kid's email address would then be: myclass+secondkid@gmail.com, and so on. Whenever any of these student email accounts (they're actually just aliases of the primary account, myclass@gmail.com) receive any email, they all go straight to the primary account which, you'll recall, forwards all email to my email address. I've created a filter in Gmail to bypass my Inbox and just file these emails in a certain "folder", so to speak, where I can deal with them when I'm ready. For example, for the ed.ted.com I will need to verify each kid's account by clicking on a link in an email sent to the kid's myclass+firstkid@gmail.com account. Other than that, though, I shouldn't need to do anything else to manage the ed.ted.com account. By the way, the primary class email account is not accessible to my students because I don't share the password with them. That's why they'll never see any of "their" email that may be sent to this made-up email address.

The student signs into his/her account using this email address and whatever password he/she used when creating the account. I can choose to provide a password or simply allow the students to create their own. It doesn't matter, because all correspondence for the ed.ted.com account goes straight to me, and not the student(s). That allows them to remain anonymous when creating or using these online tools, whether it's ed.ted.com or something else that may be off-limits to kids under 13. I probably wouldn't use this for all online tools; only those that would work while allowing kids to remain anonymous online and protect their privacy.

I should mention one last point. Each year I set up my students with a class number, usually from 01 to 25 (or however many kids I have that year). They use their number plus first name as an identifier for many things in my class. So, their email address will probably be something like: myclass+00paul@gmail.com. I always reserve the class number 00 for me, and my name is Paul, so I'm "00paul" in all my examples when I'm teaching kids how to identify themselves. This system has worked well for us for many years, so I'm planning to use it for this "fake" email system, too.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pick One Horse and Ride It

A fellow blogger, Bradley Chambers, recently wrote an article about BYOD entitled The Promise And Failure of BYOD in Education. In it he does a great job of outlining why a school should never let kids bring whatever device they want to school and expect to do any meaningful projects or design any meaningful assignments that tie in with the school's curriculum. Why? Because the management of these varied devices will be an IT nightmare. I agree with him completely.

In our school we use a different approach with our BYOD laptop program. We prescribe a minimum set of laptop standards (notice I said laptop, not tablet, iPad, or other device), including the "horsepower" needed to run our short list of open source software that makes our program work. Most kids this year brought in Windows 8 touch screen 11.6" Asus netbooks. A few brought in either a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. All of these options "work" in our setting because they all run the list of open source, cross-platform software we require.

A couple of students brought in the new Surface RT which doesn't work so well with some of our software requirements because Microsoft has locked it into the Windows Store. Most things work, but not all. These kids constantly have to either work around the limitations, or must go to our Windows 7 lab to finish projects or assignments. A few who tried to use iPads found even more limitations, eventually gave up and spent $300-400 on a new netbook. Finally, I have a few students who cannot afford a netbook. Our principal has amassed a whole inventory of donated netbooks, given to the school by students who've graduated and moved on (or up) to a full laptop for their high school years. 

Our school ends after eighth grade, and several students now have used their fifth grade netbook for four years, until they graduated and moved on to another school. Treated properly, a well-maintained netbook can give an upper-elementary and/or middle school student several years of service. Given the relatively low cost of entry ($300-400 or so), the fact that a netbook is a "real computer" that runs most Windows software with no problem — especially the list we give our students to download before school starts — we will continue using this computing option for the foreseeable future.