Friday, February 11, 2011

Playing with an Android tablet for education.

For the past few days I have been playing with an Android tablet to explore the possibilities of its use as a computing device for students. The Archos 101 is an inexpensive tablet with a 10.1 inch screen, 16gb of memory, a micro sd slot for more expansion, a vga webcam, and wifi.

The size, shape, and weight are excellent. The device is as thin as a magazine and has a built in kickstand to keep it at good angles both for viewing content and for typing. It is unnoticed in my briefcase and is as easy to carry as a legal pad.  The screen is big enough to easily read and the virtual keyboard is adequate if not just as good as a netbook. It can be held in one hand comfortably.

The screen on the 101 is not the greatest. The resolution is fine but the glare on the screen is terrible and the viewing angles are poor.  It is a magnet for fingerprints. That said, it is acceptable and I will be getting a screen protector that should make these issues easier to deal with.

Although the typing is OK I decided to plug a keyboard into the USB port just to see what would happen. It workded flawlessly with no setup at all.  So I tried a mouse.  That workded too. So did a keyboard with a USB port and a mouse at the same time. A USB flash drive worked just as well. I could view video, office files, and pictures with no issues. One thing that impressed me was the ability to see shared network folders and open and save documents to and from the network.

The wifi was shaky at first and I had trouble staying connected but it settled itslef down after a couple of days. Speed online was good and the browser was as good as a desktop browser.  Yes, flash works well for video but is iffy for interactive stuff. Using Google docs, dropbox, twiiter, Flickr, all worked very well.

The battery life is very good and should get students through a day pretty well.  The hardware seems relatively durable although a case would be a must for students use. For $300 the device seems pretty darn good.

But.. we are talking about education here. What can it do? Android has advertised itself with the slogan "Android Does". It is true. I can create and edit office docs easily. I can share those docs. I can colloborate live. I can take and watch video. I can research and take notes. I can check books out of the library and read. I can listen to music on surpringly good speakers or with a headset.  I can communicate through email, chat, twitter, facebook and almost any other social tool you'd like. In some cases better than on you PC. The apps are there. The Android developer tools and Google app inventor make it easy to create apps too.

In the next year we will see a good number of these tablets hit the market in a range of sizes and prices. Some will have 3g or 4g, some only wifi. As a learning tool these are flexible devices with a great range of applications. As a computing device they are powerful and accessible. As a communication and social device they are top notch.

Overall I give Android a huge thumbs up and this particular tablet a B+.  Better screen angles and a better out of the box experience could have pushed it higher as I had to tweak a few things to get it funtioning at its best. An Android tablet is looking like an attractive option for 1:1.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Finding the right one to one device

One to one computing is an interesting endeavor. In heading down this road things have changed a bit in the past yar or two.  The choice of devices is broader than ever and their capabilities vary significantly. Often schools choose their devices due to grants or discounts, financial restraints, one individual's preference, or specific program requirements.

In considering such a significant investment the most important factor is flexibility. The cost of this type of investment means the device must be able to meet a multitude of needs. What should a mobile computing platform be able to do?

Mobile computing for students must be able to offer a truly mobile platform to really engage students and level the playing field for all learners. This means the batteries need to last a whole school day. The device needs to be rugged enough to handle student abuse. It needs to be portable and affordable enough to give it to the students. Yep, give it to them. Take it home, make it yours, and use it.

It has to be able to be loaded with appropriate applications, documents, and books for learners. It has to be kept open enough to allow learners to fnd ther own programs without putting the whole school network at risk. It must have internet access and allow that access outside and inside of school.

More important than all of this, the device needs to allow students to create and share. It has to allow students to come up with their own ideas of what it should do and afford the capability of students to actually write progams for it. It needs to allow teachers to create learning oppotunities that they can turn kids loose on.

So... what does all of that mean? First of all it eliminates the handheld as it just doesn't have the screen real estate to meet these needs. Laptops are much cheaper than they used to be, but their batteries just don't hold up in the more affordable models. What else is there?

Tablets and netbooks are both affordable and have incredible battery life. Netbooks run standard windows software and have keyboards that allow for easy writing.  Tablets are extremely portable and their OS's pose little threat to networks compared to windows machines. Both are tough enough for our students to handle although kids will break anything no matter how tough.

Netbooks come in lots of flavors but they are all pretty similar.  They are small power sipping laptops that in their early days seemed underpowered. With new chips and some optimizations in software they are now pretty capable little computers that rival low end laptops. They usually lack an optical drive which is not as big an issue as it used to be. They can run just about any software you would run on a desktop save serious film editing and autocad. The are capable but not ideal for annotating other works, note taking, and book reading.

Conversely tablets are great readers. They excel at Internet browsing and consuming all sorts of content ad media. The iPad lacks flash but otherwise Android, Apple, Windows, and soon WebOS all have tablets available.  They are very engaging portable devices that fit nicely into the world of texting, portable gaming, and media consumption our students thrive in.

What about creation? Desktops have apps to create and share work easily. Netbooks can run most of it as well. Tablets? To a lesser degree but this post is being written on one. Tablets do make data collection, taking pictures and even movies (the iPad does noy habe a camera currently) very convenient. There is software available to do it all.

And programming? What about actually creating applications to solve problems? Can our students design their own apps? They can. All of these platforms have development tools. Google app inventor makes programing for Android accessible for anyone. Scratch runs on netbooks and soon on Android as well. The tools are there no matter which device we choose.

Netbooks and tablets, both compelling platforms.  Both much cheaper than the laptops of a couple of years ago.  Some of these aren't much more expensive than the TI graphing calculators we make many of our students purchase and then barely teach them to use.  As a matter of fact there are TI emulators for just about every platform and many are free.

Connectivity is another consideration in 1:1.  Schools are kind of strapped for bandwidth.  Most have about the same as you do at home with a cable Internet provider.  And wireless, well that's another issue entirely.  Think about the last time you went to a conference.  When hundreds of people are on the wireless network at once, how reliable is it?  Can schools provide enough to keep 400 students running at once- reliably?  They CAN, but it is expensive and short term. 

Wifi is a standard that is about to move to its next phase, wireless AC. Should we be investing hundreds of thousands into an infrastructure that will be outdated within a few years?  It is a tough call because we can't afford to wait.  How else can we get all of these devices the Internet access essential to make these devices reach their potential as learning tools?

Cellular IS an option although many discount it because of the cost.  Looking at it carefully, the costs are not as outrageous as you might think though.  Verizon will give a school a netbook for free with a $40 per month data package. 10 months of school is $400 per student.  Yes, it is a bit pricey, but the bandwidth, the device, the connectivity, are all the carriers responsibility.  They can provide filtering (required by CIPA). This has the added benefit of providing that Internet access at home, regardless of a family income and in most cases even the most rural locations with no high speed home access still get cellular coverage.  Talk about leveling the playing field, this does it very effectively!

Where does all of this leave us?  The answer is simple, there is no single solution.  The only question that needs to be asked though is "what do I want students to do?"  Once that is established the advantages and disadvantages presented here can be weighed.  Good Luck to those brave enough to make the decision and the commitment.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Arguing for the Retweet

Lately I have seen a number of admonishments toward the retweet, discouraging the practice and encouraging everyone to create original thoughts, ideas, and resources to tweet.  This is contradictory in my opinion to how Twitter actually works.

I am not one of the "cool kids" in education, or ed tech for that matter.  I don't have thousands of followers or readers.  I don't keynote at conferences or write for the Huffington Post every few weeks.  Very few people in the education community have heard me speak or read my few published pieces.

Let's say I post an excellent, but not well known resource or a really profound statement.  Who will read it?  How do I share it?  I post it to twitter, so what.  If by chance however it is retweeted by someone with a greater following the audience for that comment increases dramatically.  The response increases as well.  Possibly my audience increases as many who may not have followed me in the past decide now that they should.

This is how I follow new people on Twitter most of the time.  I do not read every Twiiter post that hits my feed.  I am pretty selective.  When someone whose ideas and thoughts I respect posts something, I usually read it.  When they retweet someone else's idea, link, blog post, etc. I often find a new resource for good information.  If I find the information of value I add people to the list of those I follow.

So please, if you see something posted that you truly feel adds to the conversation, retweet it.  There may be people following you that would otherwise miss it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Real Gap in Education

This week was the first week back for teachers in my new home district. Our Superintendent delivered the big welcome back speech in the auditorium just as happened in countless other small school districts across the country. She showed a video clip of Yong Zhao, an education professor, whose point was that there are important parts in education we are forgetting about because all of the focus is on test scores. ( ).

Her speech and this video inspired me to write on a blog I have ignored for some time. It inspired me because almost everything negative I hear about schools today is related to test scores, achievement gaps, dropout rates, and schools not meeting the needs of kids. It also inspired me because I have grown a bit weary and frustrated, feeling I listen to and speak in an echo chamber of educational technology proponents who "get it" but work in an environment where most do not.

I have begun to realize it really isn't an echo chamber. The message that the educational technology community so passionately speaks of everyday is heard. Boards of Education, school leaders, and teachers hear it and get it. Unfortunately it is our policy makers and decision makers that do not.

Herein lies the true gap in education. It is a gap of knowing and doing. Practicing educators- and many educational experts, bloggers, writers, and professors- know that education needs to focus on better teaching and learning with broader and deeper paths for our students to explore. The practitioners also know that they are only funded for the things that the government puts assessments on. They are also aware that only what is measured has any bearing on the perception of the job they and their students are doing.

We are faced with a gap between knowing what is the right thing to do in education vs. doing what the federal and state governments insist we do based on standardized tests that measure a very narrow scope of what is taught and learned in schools. Most of us do what we are forced to. We design "curriculum" and teach what is going to be measured.

Some of us realize, my Superintendent included, that we can go beyond this. We can teach art and music, be creative and passionate, use modern tools to design engaging and collaborative learning models, and think past the test scores.

The gap between most of us knowing what we need to do and change in education versus what we actually do is caused (IMHO) by a few possible problems. Maybe Arne Duncan and the rest of the "educational leadership" that make policy decisions that effect our funding and national perceptions really don't get it Maybe they simply can't back it because the testing companies, textbook writers, and even the unions are blocking it because they don't know how to measure it. Could it be possible that those in power don't back it because the media can't sell it the way they sell how our schools are failing?

I don't have a lot of answers. I do have an endless number of questions. I know that my own Superintendent encourages our teachers to be innovative, creative, passionate, and inspiring and she is not ready to judge any teacher based on standardized test scores alone. I know that when I introduced myself to the staff at our high school staff and said to them that my goal as Director of Technology was not to control the network but to leverage our technology to improve the learning environment for all and that the first thing I did was open Youtube for all teachers, our teachers actually cheered at me.

The gap is simple. Most of us know what to do. Most know what needs to change. Many of us are not doing it. Many either don't have the support, don't have the tools, or don't have enough know how to do it. Some of us are actually blocked from doing it by a system where most of us get it, but our policy makers either don't get it or refuse to back it.

Yep, what many highly regarded bloggers and speakers say can frustrate our teachers. It can discourage them because they can't do what is suggested, what they know is right for kids. (This is a must read on the subject- ). More and more of those that are blocking educational change are "getting it". Maybe soon those that control policy, funding, and assessment will get it too.

Stay passionate about what you know is right, do what you know you can do, and keep shouting it- even if some are frustrated or discouraged it. The more of us who practice what we preach there are, the more likely it is that those discouraged by it will take the stand and make their own changes as well. Close the gap between what you know and you do-please.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Educon Part 1 -Student Voice

Educon 2.0 is an event that will take a number of posts for me to truly express what I learned and experienced. I absolutely must begin by thanking Chris Lehman, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy for his hospitality and vision in hosting this conference and allowing us to see the incredible school that he leads.

One of the initial differences I noticed at this conference was the "student voice". I attended an excellent session by Sylvia Martinez of GenYes on the subject. We spent a good amount of time talking about how student voice is tokenized in many of our schools and what truly allowing students to have voice means in terms of integrating them into the decision making processes in schools.

The Science Leadership Academy served as an excellent place to have this discussion. Students in this school sit on the hiring committees that interview new teachers. This is an amazing amount of "voice" to give students. One of the teachers (I apologize for not remembering your name) at SLA expressed his concern and asked the group if it was appropriate to allow a 15 year old high school student to make decisions that will effect a teacher's career and life. I found him afterward to continue the discussion.

More and more, adulthood has been delayed. Responsibility, maturity, discretion, and professionalism have been put off until "kids" are in their mid-twenties. My argument was that we need to give kids the opportunities to learn these adult skills. I think the teacher began to agree. We cannot expect kids to use their "voice" maturely if we do not teach them how in REAL situations. This is an incredible way to do that. Much more powerful than letting them decide if they can have french fries during lunch, don't you think?

"We're All Student Teachers" was another presentation that illustrated the power of student voice. It was conducted by Arthus Erea, an amazing young man of 15, an edublogger instrumental in the creation of Students2.0, and a learner. He led a discussion around the following 5 questions:
  1. How can a wrinkled model of education be created
  2. How can students be authentic leaders?
  3. How can students direct their own learning?
  4. How can students become teachers?
  5. How will our perceptions of students and teachers change?
The last question was the one that seemed to spark the most discussion and we were all talking about it before we even "got to it" in the sequence of the questions. What became apparent to me is that teacher and student are poor terms. We are all learners in the classroom. Although usually it is the teacher that should be facilitating the learning, it does not always need to be.

This realization came from a discussion led by a 15 year old "student". Arthus, you are truly a learner and a teacher. I would also like to thank the SLA students and Meg Peters (daughter of Sharon Peters) for sharing your voices with the rest of us during the session. If Megan has a blog someone please let me know! This was truly an example of a group of learners in a room, not students and teachers.

As powerful as student voice was here, I am sad to say that the incredible panel of Sylvia Martinez, Joyce Valenza, Dr. Gary Stager, David Jakes, Chris Lehmann, and Will Richardson. Although I agree there is a place for experts and research, this particular discussion could have used that voice.

Students at this conference were not showpieces. They were not tokens. They had voices. People were listening to them. They were participants in the conversation. It is amazing to me that this is unusual in education. Thanks for reminding me that school is where we learn together, not where we just teach kids stuff.

More to come on Educon soon........