Monday, August 27, 2012

Better Internet access for your personally-owned computer or phone

Our district previously had two wireless networks for a majority of our data.  There was the network for district-owned computers, and there was the guest network for all other devices.  The guest network was fine if you didn't have any other options for getting on the Internet, but it simply wasn't as good as the district network where the Internet seemed faster and it was filtered less stringently than the guest network.

Cell phone users were especially frustrated by the guest network, though.  The Internet provided by your cell phone company is completely unfiltered, which lets you access Facebook among other things.  People would rather be on their own Internet rather than the guest network for this reason.  Unfortunately, our high schools were built before cell phones were invented, and there are many places in our buildings where there is simply no cell phone reception.   You could see students and staff alike cringe as they walked deeper into the school, not because of their upcoming class but because they knew their cell phone would lose reception... right about... here (draw an imaginary line on the ground right now).

This year, the district has created a new wireless network called StaffNet which fixes the problem by allowing you to have better, faster Internet on any device you own.  Your Kindle Fire, Nexus 7, Mac laptop, iPad, and of course your cell phone will now be filtered less and will have faster speeds on the Internet.

Choose StaffNet from the list of wireless connections, then open up an Internet browser.  You will be asked to "Login for Web Authentication", which is the nerdy way of saying, "What's the username and password you use when you log on to your school computer or email?"  Enter the correct information and you will have the same Internet access that you currently have on your district-owned computer.

And it's okay to bring in that Kindle Fire, Nexus 7, and Mac laptop all at once.  This summer we added new access points that can handle 7,000 more devices across the district.  The bandwidth was also increased from 240mbps to 340 mbps and next summer it is expected to rise to over 500mbps.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apple helped kill off Flash a little too soon

The biggest complaint about the iPad is that it does not run Adobe's Flash, which is used to display videos and animation on the Internet.  Steve Jobs called Flash an old technology in 2010 and said the iPad would never support Flash.  Unfortunately, millions of web pages still use Flash, so if you are a teacher who wants to watch some really great educational videos with your students then you're in for a bad experience.  There are some apps (like Rover) for the iPad that try to run Flash, but they are unreliable and buggy.

So if Flash is part of the past, then what is the future of videos on the Internet?  It is called HTML5, and there is no doubt that it will be the format developers use moving forward.  Apple, Microsoft, Google, and just about everybody else is supporting this standard.

But when will HTML5 actually arrive?  It is available right now, but it has not been fully embraced yet.  The first television broadcasting station started in 1928, but televisions weren't really popular until the 1950s.  Blu-ray officially arrived in 2006, but DVDs still outsell Blu-ray six years later.  The claim that Flash is "dead" isn't entirely accurate considering Flash use still far exceeds HTML5 use.  Flash is a goner, I agree, but not yet.

Until HTML5 becomes part of the mainstream, should we worry that the iPad will not be the amazing product it could be until it that day?  Gartner reported that HTML5 will not be officially adopted as a standard until 2014, and that it could take between 5 and 10 years from now until it is fully embraced (like the television and Blu-ray examples above).  I don't believe it will take ten years or even five.  I do believe it will take three years, though, which means the freshman walking into school today will not truly take advantage of their iPads until they are seniors.  That worries me.

Until those old videos run on the iPad then we will continue to be frustrated.  I know no one at Apple will change their mind about using Flash, and I also know that HTML5 is on the way.  The future is coming... eventually. I am really hoping that until we see full adoption of HTML5 that better apps arrive to run Flash videos on an iPad, and I hope that developers are willing to work backwards to convert their web pages to HTML5 as quickly as possible.

Get your class online with these six steps

Teachers want to build an online environment for their classroom but they don't know where to begin.  It's an overwhelming task considering how much technology has changed in the last two or three years.  But you have to start somewhere, and you need to start NOW.  Here are six steps for you to begin moving forward.

First, choose a Learning Management System (LMS).  Blackboard is what you probably think of when you hear "LMS", but there are many other choices that have many of the same features, are easier to use, and are also free.  Schoology is my personal favorite because it has some of the best communication features like wall posts (similar to Facebook), text messages, and a classroom calendar.   It also contains offers a well-organized classroom environment to place your assignments, videos, discussion boards, and presentations.  Schoology also integrates with Google Docs and Khan Academy.  Other very good LMS choices include Edmodo, CourseSites, OpenClass, and Haiku.

Second, get all of your current classroom materials online. For most people, this will mean scanning all of their documents into PDF format and posting them on their LMS, which is fine for your first year of going towards a digital environment.  The PDF format is great for viewing a document because you can view it on a PC, Mac, tablet, iPad, or cell phone.  The drawback is that most users will not be able to type or write on it without some form of conversion or software.  At some point you are going to have to answer a very serious question - are you ready to convert all your documents to something else like Google Docs?  Until you are ready to ask that question of yourself, just get your things online so your students can access them.

Third, find the best resources to supplement and expand your instruction.  The fact is, everything you teach is being taught by someone else, and they can probably say it or explain it better than you. Find videos, lessons, activities and games created by others that support what you teach.  Khan Academy has thousands of videos but they focus mainly on math and science.  YouTube has excellent videos if you can sort through the clutter of baby videos, pet videos, rambling video blogs, and 10,000 renditions of Gotye's Someone That I Used To Know.  A new site to consider is Sophia which has instructional modules for students and also for teachers' professional development.

Fourth, decide if you are going to use a textbook as the main source of information, as a supplemental resource, or not at all.  Once you make that decision you will be able to decide how much of your students' reading will be online.  Start by contacting the textbook company and see if they are willing to provide you with an electronic version of your current book.  Some of them will do so for free.  If you are looking for a new textbook, consider sources such as CK12 which creates actual classroom textbooks for free in a digital format. Another option is browsing the iTunes U catalog to see if another teacher has created a book or a course that your students could use.

Fifth, choose sites, materials, and software that are free, Internet-based, and work on multiple devices.  Evernote is an example of this. It is a powerful online notebook that can be used with your computer, tablet, or cell phone.  Free materials and apps allows your classroom to become a model for other teachers, and choosing resources that can be used on most devices allows all students regardless of location or income to access your lessons.  What is the importance of being accessible on multiple devices?  Well, look at what you currently own.  I use a computer at work, a tablet on the couch, and a cell phone on the go.  We own different devices, and nothing is more frustrating than having access to data on one device but not another.  Also, you have no control over what your students will bring to school.  Students will bring every device ever made, and you have a responsibility to make sure your materials and assignments are available to the widest audience possible.

Sixth, expect to tear your site apart and start over next year.  For every assignment posted on your site, you need to ask yourself, "Is this really what I want my students to do with their time?"  The answer is usually, "no."  You will slowly get away from worksheets and readings and move more towards discussions, videos, and collaborative assignments where students create new bodies of information and share it with the world.  You might even move towards a flipped classroom model (search flipped classroom, Jon Bergmann, or Ramsay Musallam).  A traditional classroom involves a teacher providing instruction during class time, and then students practice their work at home without the benefit of a teacher to guide them.  A flipped classroom involves providing as much instruction as possible online through videos and other means which allows you to use classroom time for guided practice.

Your students are going to love your new classroom, but it takes time.  A lot of time.  Today is the day you should get started.

Free apps vs. paid apps

Using apps on your tablet or cell phone is fast and convenient, and they provide access to your personal data as well as to specific information related to a specific topic.  But should you use paid apps with your students?  Paid apps definitely have advantages, and there are examples where a $10 app can replace a $100 scientific calculator.  But can you get a free app that replaces that same $100 calculator?  Most often the answer is yes.

Whenever possible, choose free apps when working with your students.  There are thousands of free educational apps, and many of them are VERY good.  They might not be perfect, but they should be close enough - and aren't the free app still better than what your class was using a year ago?

Paid apps become a barrier for many students, teachers, and school districts.  There are three inter-related reasons you should try to use only free apps: accessexample, and finances.

Your online classroom should be available to all students - your students sitting in your class, other students in your school who are not fortunate enough to have you as your teacher, the students across the country who have Internet access but do not have teachers who place any of their materials online, and every kid throughout the world who can find your site when they search on Google.  You are not teaching 25 students - you are teaching all students.  Those kids need access to your classroom, your materials and your assignments.  Paid apps prevent access if a student cannot pay for them.

Free apps are available to anyone and any school district.  By eliminating cost you allow other teachers to mimic what you do in class regardless of their school's budget and allows your classroom to be an example for other teachers to follow.  At the district level, creating a one-to-one program that only uses free apps allows other districts to follow your example and move to a one-to-one environment.

Your school district might be able to buy apps for your students this year, but what is the long-term cost of purchased apps?  We have over 3,000 incoming freshman in our district.  If we spent just $10 per student on apps, we would have to pay $30,000 annually just in apps.  Yes, you can probably save money elsewhere like lower printing costs or reduced textbook purchases.  But those savings went towards purchasing the devices - not the apps.  It is important for teachers to help protect the finances of the district, especially when trying to create a cost-neutral one-to-one program.