RocketCodes are Go for Launch!

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Published on: November 21, 2014

This week I launched a new initiative in my school district: RocketCodes.

We are currently a BYOT district with a Chromebook initiative in place, but we’re getting a lot of pushback from staff on whether or not to continue allowing students to bring their smartphones to school. The common arguments apply, ranging from “phones are just a distraction” to “students only use their phones to text one another.”

Our band director and I disagree. We feel, for the most part, students have not been given a reason to use their phones in class. The problem with banning smartphones in class is it interferes with the education of students who want to use their smartphones for educational purposes. Furthermore, we feel the best way to find educational uses for smartphones and BYOT devices—in addition to Chromebooks or other devices a school district might provide—is to find out what students are using them for.

RocketCodes is our attempt to discover this, as well as take technology straight to the students. We hope to educate students and staff on the advantages of smartphones and tablets in the classroom, whether as a primary device or in association with a school-supplied 1:1 device.

Before we can make a final decision on the fate of BYOT in our district, we need data. To get data, we need to give the technology a fair shot.

This led to the creation of RocketCodes, which are simply QR codes linked to our RocketCodes website.

A RocketCode QR code in a hallway
A RocketCode QR code in a hallway

As part of a soft launch, I purchased a dozen cookies and left six each in our high school and junior high offices, then linked a QR code to the first RocketCodes blog post. Any student who scanned the code and visited the website on Thursday or Friday of this week was told to take their device to the building secretary, show her the website, and claim their cookie. We didn’t announce the contest, we only posted the QR code in a common area and waited.

On Thursday, we had no activity at the high school. At the junior high, I saw several students glance at the QR code but keep on walking. Our first-year English teacher, however, scanned the code and claimed a cookie for himself.

On Friday morning we moved the QR codes to different locations and put a simple hint in the announcements. In the high school, it only said, “Staff and Students: Win a free Caleri’s cookie! Yesterday, a clue was posted in the school.” At the junior high, we told the students, “Yesterday, Mr Fellner’s curiosity was rewarded with a Caleri’s chocolate chip cookie. There are five more cookies available. Keep your eyes open!” (Everybody in our district knows Caleri’s cookies can’t be beat, so it becomes a real incentive!)

All six cookies were claimed by 11am at the high school. At the junior high, it took until 2pm. One student actually took down the QR code during 1st hour and brought it to the office, thinking it must be related to the cookie. Because he hadn’t figured out how to scan a QR code by his last hour study hall, I’ll be giving him a lesson on QR code scanning and he’ll be rewarded with an alternate snack prize from our secretary.

A junior high cookie winner
A junior high cookie winner

Next week we’ll be doing a full launch and explaining the program to both students and staff. In the future we’ll be featuring tips on using smartphones and Chromebooks, app reviews, clever classroom uses, and occasionally fun videos and interviews with staff and students. Mystery and curiosity were not a tremendous incentive on Thursday, but the cookies sure generated some excitement. We hope the RocketCodes will be incentives themselves in the future.

If all goes well, maybe we’ll see a lot of BYOT uses in the classroom at last. If not, we can finally make an informed decision on handling smartphones in the classroom.

Accept Any File in Google Classroom

Categories: Media, The Classroom
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Published on: November 18, 2014

Many teachers like the idea of accepting homework through Google Classroom, but a common concern is accepting files from students who don’t use Google Docs, or accepting photos and files from other software.

Fear not! Google Classroom can handle this just fine. Set up an assignment as usual, and students will be presented with the option to upload files from Google Drive or from their computer.

I created my first one-take screencast to illustrate the process for those of you who haven’t tinkered with Classroom yet. It will demonstrate how to create the assignment, what it looks like on the student’s end, and then how the teacher can access the submitted assignments.

Got a student who feels more productive in Office or Pages? Using lab or math software that isn’t tied into Google Drive? No problem! Teachers can accept files in any format this way.

Teachers don’t even need the same software, as students can generate PDFs and turn those in instead. This will make things a lot easier for teachers who don’t want to install dedicated school software on home computers or who want to be able to view assignments on a tablet or smartphone.

If the student can create it, Google Classroom can collect it. Classroom makes organization and access a lot easier for teachers.

If You Can Print, You Can Make a PDF

Categories: The Classroom
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Published on: November 18, 2014

Google Docs, Microsoft Office,, and Pages, oh my. Everyone has a favorite, and unfortunately they forget not everyone can open these files when they send attachments. I tell my staff to be sure to send PDF files to recipients. In most cases, the question comes back: “How do I make a PDF?”

I’m glad you asked.

First, many of these applications allow easy exporting to PDF. Google Docs can attach a PDF version of a Doc directly to an email. and Pages have PDF exports, and even Microsoft has caught up with the rest of the world (confirmed on Office 2011 on a Mac, anyway). These are your best option when available.

However, there are times students will be working in another app, such as a lab app, a desktop publishing app, or maybe a yearbook app, that doesn’t have native PDF generation or easy online sharing. The students or teachers then feel like printing is the only option.

Not true! If you can print, you can generate a PDF. Even users unfamiliar with PDF export options know how to print, so this is an easy solution for them as well. Let’s take a look at how it works on different platforms.

On a Chromebook (or in the Chrome browser)

Google was smart enough to build PDF printing right into Chrome, whether on a Chromebook or on a Chrome browser installed on your favorite desktop or laptop. This way, if students are working with online content that doesn’t have an easy sharing option, they can print to PDF and save it for themselves, drop it into a Drive or Dropbox folder, or email it to other students or teachers.

The print dialog in Chrome

Simply start the print job from the browser, then look for the “Save as PDF” option. If you see your printer listed instead, just click the Change button near the Destination option, as illustrated above. Then click the Save button, give the file a name, and select a folder, and voila, you’ve got a PDF.

On a Mac

Firefox user? Or printing from another app? No problem. Apple builds PDF creation right into their print dialog. You’ll see the PDF option in the lower left-hand corner of the print dialog box.

Apple's PDF options from the print dialog
Apple’s PDF options from the print dialog

You’ll see, too, that Apple offers several options for handling the PDF. You can open it in the Preview app for annotation, for example. It can also be sent via email, or dumped right into other applications. Evernote users can save data from lab software straight to a class notebook for analysis at home, which can be a big time saver.

On Windows

I feel for you, Windows users. Microsoft just doesn’t want to make this easy. Fortunately there are a plethora of developers willing to help you out! Simply install a PDF converter and you’re golden.

There are several options, free and paid, which install a PDF creator as a system printer. When you’re ready to generate a PDF, start the print job as normal, but choose your PDF converter as the printer and you’ll be prompted for a save destination for your file. Beats retrieving a slice of dead tree from a noisy box of gears, no?

I have always had good luck with CuteDPF Writer. It’s free, it’s easy to install, and it’s easy to use. Hit their website and you will see two components to install: the CutePDF Writer installer and the installer for Ghostscript, the interpreter. (Click the “Get Zipped Setup” link and you’ll get both files.) Simply run both installers and you’ll be up and running.

Don’t let software limitations derail your technology initiatives. Whether you’re looking for increased flexibility in collaboration and communication, a paperless workflow, or just to eliminate clutter, printing to PDF can solve a lot of problems.

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