What’s an OS? An EdTech Failure

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Published on: December 1, 2015

A young woman purchased a laptop with the Ubuntu operating system, didn’t know how to work with it, and the frustration made her abandon her plans to start online college courses. Then a local news reporter picked up on the story:

It seems this news report is trying to say Dell, or perhaps technology in general, is at fault for this young woman’s problem, despite the reporter contacting the college and her ISP for additional assistance. Meanwhile, there are several reaction videos online as well, with people calling the woman stupid and blaming her for not knowing what she was purchasing and/or not being able to figure things out.

Unfortunately the problem is not that simple, in either direction.

The video was posted in 2009, but I hear of similar stories today, often with Chromebooks. It’s 2015. Let’s consider:

Students should not be graduating from high school without any clue what an operating system is. Even if they haven’t been exposed to ChromeOS or Linux, even if they only use Windows at home or at school, they should understand that there are indeed different operating systems out there and they should be able to recognize the difference in product literature.

Students should also understand what they’re asking for when they’re talking to Internet providers. If she’d purchased a shiny new MacBook Pro today, would the disc from her ISP have Mac software on it? Or if she’d purchased a MacBook Air with no drive, would she have been just as lost? If she went the cheap route and purchased a Chromebook, would she have the same problem? (And just wait until she tries to print.)

If she can’t connect to the Internet or set up an email client without a disc from an ISP, then it’s safe to say she will be just as lost when she visits a coffee shop or other public hotspot. She hasn’t learned the basics of what a network is, and probably not what a browser is or how they work. It’s probably safe to say she doesn’t even have an understanding of how the Internet works.

And yes, while Ubuntu will work just fine with all of her courses as the college confirmed, she’s going to be facing an uphill battle by learning her way around an OS while studying (and probably working a day job, too). The same is true if she’d purchased a Chromebook. There are plenty of online resources to help her learn, but that’s more time spent not working on class materials.

With enough basic information on operating systems, file systems/structures, networking, and software, a student should be able to sit down in front of any operating system and find the settings and software they need. It may take a little tinkering or searching, but networking is networking and a browser is a browser. At worst case they should know how to find the information they need with a Google search on a phone or a friend’s computer.

Unfortunately most classes teach “click here.” When “here” is not there anymore, students are lost.

I don’t know how many schools address these things in curriculum, but it’s something that needs to be taught. Any student who graduates without being proficient in computing—not just specific apps like Office—is only going to fall behind.

Responsible Classroom Management

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: November 16, 2015

Classroom management is evolving with the introduction of 1:1 and BYOT programs and, understandably, some teachers find it intimidating. When students have easily-concealable smartphones or screens that are not immediately visible to a teacher, they find it difficult to tell which students are on task and which are focused on other things.

Fortunately there are several products that make this easier. Districts can choose from several different products to monitor student activity to ensure they are being productive during class. Teachers can see what a student is working on, and in many cases, teachers can see what tabs a student has open in a browser, close some of those tabs remotely, or even lock students’ screens completely.

Many teachers regard these abilities as the savior of their classroom. However, these tools are also incredibly easy to abuse by teachers, and can quickly turn students against them.

When a teacher goes in remotely and closes students’ tabs or simply locks out devices for the entirety of the hour, it creates two different perceptions.

The teacher expects something like this:

To the students, however, it feels something like this:

Clockwork Orange

While the temptation is great to zap every browser tab a student opens that isn’t related to their class work, doing so is going to create resentment in the student. The student is going to seek out a way around being monitored. Everyone deserves a brain break now and again, and sometimes a brief diversion helps develop a thought. It’s not uncommon for adults to multitask, so why should we not expect students to do the same?

For example, I have yet to attend a meeting or conference where most of the attendees (myself included) were not also checking email, visiting Facebook, playing Solitaire, surfing the Web, working on other projects, or otherwise not being 100% focused on the speaker. Can you imagine the outcry if someone sat at the back of the room, managing those adults’ screens?

Digital classroom management should focus more on developing behaviors and habits than micromanaging a student’s time. Teachers should focus more on what is not getting done with class time than what a student is doing at a particular moment. If they’ve been wracking their brains for several minutes, why shouldn’t they clear their head wth a short game? If they’re sweating something that happened during the day or at home and they need to communicate something to someone, is preventing them from doing so really going to solve their problem, or make them any less distracted?

For the students getting their work done, we should not worry about how they spend their time. For the students who cannot or will not manage their time effectively, however, we may need to rethink how we address their behavior.

Take the chronic YouTube watcher, for example. He insists he only watched a video “for a minute or two,” but that minute rapidly expanded into the whole hour. These are the students who get lost in digital time and honestly do not realize how much time has passed. Closing their tabs can be effective in the short term, but doing so over and over only makes them agitated and does little to solve the problem in the long term.

These are the students who need to be taught how to manage their time. Track and show them the time spent on task versus off. Show them how long videos negatively affect their productivity. Teach them the use of time-management tools like Moosti. Work with them on recognizing procrastination. In extreme cases, have the student research study time management techniques and see what they feel will work for them.

This is one example, and experienced teachers or school psychologists will have many more. However, my point remains that a teacher must use these digital classroom management tools responsibly. If teachers uses a digital classroom management package like a weapon, their students are going to respond in kind.

My Favorite Teachers

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: June 8, 2015

My favorite teachers ask questions.

The day we stop learning is the day we stop living, and that’s especially critical for teachers. Not just learning in their field, but in their classroom, about their students, about teaching, and yes, about technology.

Today, one of our teachers sat down with me to learn more about using Google Classroom and Google Apps in class. He’s one of our veteran teachers, not particularly tech savvy. He told me, “I could retire, but I don’t want to yet, and I want to be the best teacher I can be.” We’re going forward with a Chromebook 1:1/BYOT hybrid next year, and he wants to be ready for it.

I was blown away.

Not because it was him doing the asking, but because he’s the first teacher in my ten years with the district to do so. Sure, a few have called me to their room for some refreshers, but he is the first teacher to ask for one-on-one instruction in the Summer after they’ve all clocked out for the school year.

He worried about imposing on my time, and to be honest, many of the others do, too. I’m running a one-man show across three buildings with a wide variety of devices and tasks that larger districts assign a tech staff to. But he asked, and I told him, by all means, come on in.

We spent over an hour together. I took him on a tour of Google Classroom and Docs, and we did some hands-on training with him building a class and me opening and submitting assignments as a student. We also touched on Drive, and we used Flubaroo to grade a Google Form. He took notes along the way, and at the end we agreed to sit down again in a couple of weeks: he would play with things and come up with questions, and maybe we’d look at something else new as well.

I loved every minute of it. This is the part of the job I feel is key. Keeping the servers running and the computers working is one thing, but this is the part that impacts student learning. If all goes well, he’ll be able to do new things with students, and the students will get to work that much more with technology. Win-win.

My favorite teachers ask the questions that help them improve. My favorite teachers are curious, learning technology because they want it to make them better, because they trust that it can help them in the long run, not because they have to fulfill an evaluation obligation or tick a checkbox in a certification form.

Even the self-motivated tech learners like Steve Hayes will find something to ask me, because they’re hungry to learn more and occasionally they get tripped up by the technology itself. They’re my favorite teachers because they’re not too embarrassed (or are willing to be embarrassed) to ask for help, just like their students who may meet roadblocks in their classrooms.

Technology is changing. Teaching is changing. Our students are changing, and the world is changing. If we don’t work together, we’re never going to keep up.

If we can’t keep up with today, our students will never be prepared for tomorrow.

Teaching Productivity to Students

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: April 8, 2015

Productivity information abounds on the Internet. There are systems like Getting Things Done and 43 Folders, and blogs like Lifehacker are loaded with tips and tricks for increasing productivity and managing workflow.

Why should our students be left to discover these things on their own?

A common complaint about putting a device in every student’s hand is distraction. In fact, I would argue this is the number one argument against going 1:1 or BYOD, ahead of things like cost or issues of breakage and theft. People feel students will spend all their time watching YouTube and playing video games rather than getting their work done.

I’m not going to say it’s an invalid complaint, but I think it’s one that can be addressed with education. If we just put a device in a child’s hand and turn them loose, education is not going to be the first thing on their mind. That’s just nature. Educators need to guide and develop students’ device usage just as they help guide and develop any other skill or social behavior.

For in-class work, this isn’t too difficult. Part of it is keeping them busy on the device, and part of it is classroom management. There are tools to make the teacher’s job easier in the classroom, but in this article I’d like to address student device usage during their personal time. We need to teach students to stay organized and on-task during class work time, study halls, and at home while working on homework.

Let’s start with music. Most students—and adults—like to listen to music while they work. Music provides enough distraction for the idle part of our minds while we concentrate on homework or work tasks. Where do most students turn for their music these days? YouTube.

YouTube presents a dual problem. For schools, one problem is bandwidth. Audio takes much less bandwidth, so as a school tech I would rather students (and teachers) turn to streaming audio like Slacker Radio or Pandora. There is still, however, a greater problem of distraction. Students will end up watching the videos, or they will spend several minutes looking for a song they want to hear or building playlists during valuable work time. Or worse, they see another interesting video in the recommended list, and “just this one video” becomes one more, and one more, and one more… You get the idea. Heck, it’s probably happened to you.

Streaming audio can help us here, too: Slacker and Pandora build playlists automatically, and now the student is back to, for the most part, passively listening rather than actively managing their music selections. Once they choose their first song or genre, they’re off and running, maybe clicking over for an occasional skip or to change their lineup. Even a picky and fidgety listener is not going to be clicking and fiddling as much on Slacker as they would in YouTube.

Then we take it to the next level. Today, I introduced my 5th graders to the Pomodoro Technique for time management. It works for any task, but I have personally found it useful for managing computer-related tasks.

The concept is simple: focus on work for a given time period, then take a short break. A student following the Pomodoro Technique would work on their homework for a 25-minute period, then take five or ten minutes to stretch, play a video game, or surf idly. After the break, they return to another 25-minute round of work, repeating breaks and work periods as needed. In any given hour, they would perform 50 minutes of productive, homework-related work.

To get started, today I had my 5th graders install the Moosti Pomodoro timer as an app from the Chrome Web Store. This gives them timers for their focus time and their long or short breaks. They agreed they should be able to work on their math or English assignments for 25 minutes. At that point, an alarm would go off and they would start a five- or ten-minute timer and go do something else (stand up and stretch, go outside, shoot a few hoops, or play Minecraft were the suggestions they came up with). Then the break alarm would go off and they get back to work.

By the end of that hour, their homework is done.

This, I feel, is a more than acceptable trade-off for teachers and parents. How many of us can concentrate on an intense work task for an hour straight? How many teachers can actually sit and grade papers for an hour straight? (Yes, sometimes we do it for hours at a time, but be honest: do we do it without short breaks?) Why should we expect any more from our students? Some teachers envision this utopia of a class full of students with pencils crawling across paper for a full hour straight, but that’s just not the reality we live in.

In time, maybe students won’t need a timer and will build up a habit of working. Or, maybe some students will find they need a more intense option, like Freedom or StayFocusd, to manage their self control. Either way we are training students’ behavior and work habits for today’s classroom, and we are ensuring that the majority of our students are getting their work done rather than wasting time.

When students are getting their work done, a 1:1 or BYOD school is a far happier place.

Creativity and Jobs of the Future

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: February 9, 2015

Most educators are familiar with Ken Robinson. The following TED presentation, “Do schools kill creativity?”, strikes home for me.

In most school districts, when funds are scarce, the first classes to go are the arts. Art classes and music are always first on the chopping block. As Robinson discusses, schools are putting all of their effort into the “core” curriculum and turning our schools into extended college entrance courses. Kids who want to pursue creative endeavors are left to do it on their own.

But here’s the problem:

We’re also telling everyone that most jobs of the future will require creativity. Our corporations are shipping labor and manufacturing overseas and stressing the generation of intellectual property over the ability to, say, read a schematic and solder wires together.

Consider this other educator favorite video:

The video focuses on the proliferation of technology, but consider as well the portion about jobs and products that did not even exist in the last couple of years. The iPod, for example, and apps on the app store.

Consider a student who wants to be a computer programmer. To most adults, this means getting a job punching in code for some major corporation to make some business software work. To most kids, this means app development and game design.

There’s a lot more to app development than hammering on code. App programmers need to design interfaces. They need to create artwork and market the product. Heck, they need to come up with a way to address a specific need, or to entertain users. It all has to start with creativity before they can start punching in lines of code.

Our schools get students who want to be game designers all the time. What do we do? Tell them how unlikely it is they’ll get anywhere, and discourage them. Of course we should be realistic with them, but let’s be realistic with ourselves: take a look at the sheer numbers of games on the shelves, and the staggering numbers of apps in the app stores. There has never been a better opportunity for a student to become a game designer than right now. Shouldn’t we be nurturing whatever it is about games that engages them? We assume they want to be lazy and sit on the couch all day, but what is it that draws them to gaming? Do they like the storylines? Or the problem-solving? Why not continue providing opportunities like the Hour of Code so they can get a realistic expectation of programming on their own rather than just tell them to stop dreaming and do their math homework?

The same goes with any creative endeavor. Music, publishing, and film are all so much more accessible than at any time in the past. Creative people are making a good living thanks to Web publishing, and are at least living comfortably if they’re not at a level we’d consider famous. The odds of an artist, writer, or musician successfully connecting with an audience are better now than they’ve ever been.

My point is, I think the real warning from Robinson’s talk is we are beyond just stifling creativity, we are actively limiting our students’ future success. We are still teaching to future success as we perceived it in the ’80s and early ’90s, not what future success can look like today.

If academia doesn’t change with the times, we’re going to find ourselves left behind.

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
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: November 18, 2014

Google Docs, Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, 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. OpenOffice.org 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.

Internet down? Punt.

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: October 15, 2014

I knew I was in for a long day when the first email I read upon waking said our Internet connection was down. I called our provider, and sure enough they had outages all across central Illinois.

That’s when the panicked texts from teachers started rolling in.

"No Internet? Call an emergency day."
“No Internet? Call an emergency day.”

Yes, we’re more dependent upon the Internet with digital lessons and BYOT/1:1 initiatives. However, that doesn’t mean everything has to come to a standstill.

This morning I met with both of my 5th-grade classes, and I planned to do an assessment via Kahoot!, a game-like quiz site. I had two options:

  1. Cancel class and sit by a phone waiting for our ISP to call me back
  2. Use modern technology to solve a modern technology problem

Of course I chose #2. I simply set my smartphone up as a hotspot to serve up the quiz. Rather than try to shoehorn 20 connections through my phone, I divided the classes into teams and gave each team a Chromebook. My phone had no trouble handling the quiz and the responses, and in the end, the students had a lot more fun working in teams and choosing team names like the Geniuses, the Bananamen, and the Doughnuts!!! (emphasis theirs).

We had ten minutes left following the quiz. I didn’t have time or the resources to dig into Google Drive as I planned, so the kids requested to play the classic Heads-Up 7-up. I was reluctant to just make it free time because I only see them once a week. That’s when the students suggested anyone who gets selected has to answer a computer question to play.

I agreed, the kids had a blast, and it still turned into a teaching opportunity when we discussed the computer questions.

An Internet outage doesn’t have to be the end of class, yet it’s one of the first things people cite as an objection to going 1:1 or starting a BYOT initiative. I just counter the objection with similar questions:

  • What if there’s a fire drill that day?
  • What if there’s a surprise assembly?
  • What if half the class is out due to field trips or illnesses?
  • What if there’s a real emergency, like a fire or tornado?
  • What if the teacher was unprepared that day, or is out for a personal emergency or illness?

The answer is simple: class moves on. Whether we realize it or not, we’re always overcoming obstacles to teaching, and an Internet outage is no different.

Coming Soon: The Google Classroom

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Published on: May 7, 2014

Google yesterday announced their new Classroom product, a free learning management system for Google Apps schools. I think this is a natural evolution for what they’re trying to accomplish with GAFE, and I look forward to learning more about it.

I’ve tinkered with Promevo’s gScholar and looked at the Hapara LMS, and it seems Google is finally bringing the same functionality in natively. I imagine there will be premium features with the third-party LMS software which isn’t available in Classroom, but it may be Classroom is enough for most schools to get rolling.

I’ve signed up to be part of the preview. With luck I’ll be able to get some hands-on information soon.

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