Saturday, March 16, 2013

Nexus 7 Tablet = Mighty Mini Awesomeness

Now that I've had a chance to haul the Google Nexus 7 Tablet around, run a bunch of apps on it, and put it through it's paces in and out of the classroom, count me impressed. At $200, it's a pretty good deal. The display is crisp, speed is blazing fast, and the overall feel and heft solid, comfortable, and well-made. Honestly, kinda like something Apple would make, if Apple made an Android tablet. It took a day or two for me to make the switch from iOS-to-Android environments, but really pretty intuitive once I figured out basic navigation, and a lot of it is Apple-like anyway.

One thing I LOVE about the Nexus 7 is the way it handles all things Google like a native because, well, it is, and Google is making a serious run for Ruler of the Universe. I've pretty much switched over to doing all word processing/blogging/spreadsheets/email with Google anyway, and while I would run into little glitches on the iPad in Google environments, the Nexus 7 is smooth smooth smooth. Case in point. I belong to several Google Groups from which I receive regular message digests, like the RBW or the iBOB list. and on the iPad I have to manually scroll down the list to read the messages I want. On the Nexus tablet, when I click the blue headings it automatically takes me to those messages. It's a little thing I know, but noticeable.

As for apps, I feel like I'm just scratching the surface - I haven't yet had a chance to run any apps I can't get on the iPad. Using Google Play to stream my music has been a revelation. It took, like, 3 days and nights for Google to upload my iTunes library to the cloud (for free!) but now that it's there, I can access it anywhere I've got a wireless connection, and anything I add to iTunes automatically gets added. So when I want music in my classroom, I just hook up the Nexus 7 to the speakers and roll Google Play or the KMHD app from our local jazz station.

After languishing for a couple months, I was able to drum up some enthusiasm for the Nexus 7 project I created for my class, thanks to a Valentine's week matching incentive they ran. We were fully funded on Valentine's Day, and my kids were unpacking the new tablets and bluetooth keyboards about a week later. One of the great things about the Nexus 7 that the iPad does not have, is the ability for the device owner to create up to 6 separate accounts on each tablet (One account is mine - leaving 5 on each tablet for students) So some of my students are acting as Nexus 7 test pilots in figuring out how to use them and what they can do. So far, Temple Run and Subway Surfer are hits. But next week I'm going to be a bit more insistent that they find more school-oriented apps and teach others how to use them.

With three tablets and about 55 kids (between my 2 block classes), obviously not everyone is using them. I did an initial screen by creating a list of those most committed. To get on the list, students had to bring me a signed DonorsChoose photo release (since I'd be taking their picture for part of the thank-you package). They also had to post a reply on Edmodo to the question "what would you like to use the Nexus 7 tablet for in class?" And they had to give me a handshake agreement that after creating an account and using the tablet, they would write a donor thank you letter. All three tablets are now fully booked, and in April I'll delete the accounts and move on to 15 new students.

A couple of limitations I've discovered. We've been having great success with creating presentations using Haiku Deck, an awesome app I first discovered at the IntegratED PDX conference. Unfortunately, it is currently an iPad only app. So we only have access through my iPad, or on a day when we have the iPad cart. And my new favorite photo app - Hipstamatic - isn't available as an Android app either. Which is probably OK since, to my mind, the biggest drawback to the Nexus 7, when stacked against the iPad/iPad mini, is the lack of a back camera. Honestly, the only thing you can really do with a front-facing camera like that on the Nexus 7 is take pictures of yourself or use it for FaceTime. It's awkward-to-impossible to point the front of the tablet at something and tap he screen to take a picture. And that includes using the tablet for QR scans as well. A back camera would make the Nexus 7 MUCH more versatile.

A final word of comparison. In September I started using an IPad with retina display (I'm typing this blog post on the iPad with a Zagg carbon fiber folio w/bluetooth keyboard.) In December I started using the Nexus 7. Last month I also got an iPad mini. In some ways, I think the mini is the perfect device. It runs every app I could want, is the perfect size for walking around the classroom or hauling it in my handlebar bag. and at first my wife was smitten until she started using it. "What's up with this screen? Ugh - No Likey." the resolution on the iPad mini is noticeably pixelated, especially in viewing some fonts and videos. The comparison with the retina display is pretty striking, and the Nexus 7 has much better resolution as well. Not sure how Apple will address this with round 2, but I'll be very surprised if the next iPad mini doesn't have a retina display. Still, if money was a consideration, the Nexus 7 is pretty amazing and has a lot of promise as a powerful classroom tool.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nexus 7 Tablet - First Impressions

I've been intrigued by the possibilities that could open up in my classroom with the introduction of tablets for students to use. Because our district is a Google Apps For Education district, it makes sense to look at a true Google-native tablet, and right now the king of the hill is the Nexus 7. After reading reviews, I wrote up a proposal which, unfortunately, has been languishing here for the last couple of months. (if you feel so inclined, please check it out. And donate. It's for a really really good group of kids!) Back in the fall I was fortunate to receive a grant from our school's parent group - to be used for purchasing eReaders for the class and some books to load on them. The hope for the $600 was to acquire six eReaders and use whatever was left for eBooks. At the time, the basic Amazon Kindle was the most economical option at $69. I use a Kindle keyboard at home and like it fine, and the idea of mixing them with the B & N Nooks we already have in the classroom was appealing - getting real-world feedback from the students on their preferences. Bu after viewing one student's broken Kindle screen, and learning that the setting controls on the Kindle didn't allow password protection for one-touch purchases like the Nook (an issue Amazon has since resolved.) Aesthetically speaking, for a middle school classroom, the Nook just feels more robust and durable.

Then I got a tip from a colleague that Groupon was selling the Nook color for $75, with a limit of three, which I jumped on. Then I waited in line at Target on Thanksgiving night and picked up a couple more of the Nook Simple Touch eReaders for $49 each. After getting a couple screen protectors and cheap cases for the Nook Colors from, I had five eReaders and still had about $250 left from the grant.

As an eReader, the Nexus 7 tablet was appealing because (I thought) I could load the Nook app, the Kindle app, and the Scholastic Storia app, giving my students access to all three platforms on one device, and increasing the size of their desktop library. Of course, the tablet has much more capability than as a "simple" eReader, and those uses would be big bonuses as well.

The Nexus 7 was a hot ticket for Christmas shoppers, and never went on sale. As a matter of fact, The Google Store sold out of the popular 16G $199 model before Christmas, and most other retailers were out as well. Luckily, I was able to find one at my local Office Depot on 12/26. Here's my initial impressions.

As an Apple native, it's taking a little adjustment for me to get used to the interface, but it's pretty intuitive (no,I haven't read the directions yet!). The tablet feels great and is zippy switching between functions. One thing I immediately noticed is the smooth way it runs Google apps - though strangely I needed to download the Google Drive app before I could try writing a document or accessing my account. On my iPad, Google stuff - especially word processing - is sometimes kind of clunky. Not so on the Nexus. Also, in Gmail I noticed that my "digest" emails from my Google Groups - which I have to manually scroll through on the iPad - on the Nexus I can tap on the headings and they open without the need to scroll down. A small, but appreciated convenience.

Next, I tried to download the Scholastc Storia app, and hit my first roadblock. Apparently, this app is only available for a small number of Android devices - all with 10" screens. So I sent an email to Scholastic and learned that they are "developing" updates that will allow other devices to run Storia, but they couldn't give me a timeline. As I said in my reply, this will be an important upgrade since the use of tablets like the Nexus or Galaxy are becoming increasingly popular in classrooms. If Scholastic expects to gain any kind of toehold with Storia in classrooms, they will need to get it on tablets quickly. But for me, now, this was a drawback, though hopefully a temporary one.

My next "surprise" came when I downloaded and opened the Nook Android app. It works just fine on the Nexus, BUT...I noticed that it was really easy - too easy - to "one-click" books to purchase. Fine for personal use, but not so great in the hands of 12-year-olds. And when I checked the settings, I couldn't find a way to turn this feature off. Interestingly, on an iPad, you can't even purchase books on the Nook app - that has to be done online; the app is only for reading the books. Why is the Android Nook app so different? I get it from a retailer's standpoint that you want to facilitate impulse shopping, but really, on a tablet where your web browser is just a click away, it seems like having the Nook app set up just for reading would be a more useful feature. Especially for classroom use. I had an online chat with a B & N tech rep and he confirmed that the feature could not be turned off and he sympathized with my plight. Unlike the Storia issue, this one is a big deal. It means that in my classroom, if students are gong to be able to use the Nexus tablet to access the Nook books I've already purchased, I'll need to remove my credit card from the account in order to avoid unwanted purchases - a hassle on an account that needs to be kept active. There may be other work-arounds for this, but I haven't been able to find them yet. What it means in the short-term, though, is that the Nook app will not be available for student use.

As I've learned, Android devices are not the seamless products that iOS devices are. Apple is successful not just because of design and advertising, but because everything Apple produces works, pretty much flawlessly and without a hitch, because Apple designs it that way. With Android devices, it's more hit-and-miss because the more open platform environment means there isn't one over-arching entity ensuring app quality or seamless program integration. Some apps - like Google apps - will work great. And some, like the Nook app, not so much. As I said, I'm just scratching the surface. As this article indicates, tablets have tremendous potential to absolutely transform the classroom and teacher/students relationships. But the limitations can also be frustrating. In February I'll be getting an iPad mini, and I'm anxious to make a side-by-side comparison once I get more familiar with the Nexus tablet.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Classroom Organization, Pt. 2

My experiment with using Classroom Organizer as a tool to catalog my classroom library and to check in/check out books for students has probably come to an end. As I suspected, it was just too time consuming to try to get all the books scanned and entered into the system. I am plenty busy during the work day as it is, unwilling to come in to my classroom on weekends for the sake of creating a new inventory of books, and while the sheer number of books in my classroom is at times overwhelming (I've got literally hundreds of new books in boxes waiting to be labeled and put on the shelves), it's a good problem to have, no? Complicating the plan is the fact that well over half of the books I scan to add to the database read the barcode but come up with an "Un known Title" message, so I have to manually enter the title anyway. My students are used to the checkout system I use now with notebooks for each block class, so I'd either need to operate dual systems, or ask the students to make a cold-turkey switch to bringing the books to me to scan in or out. Part of the reason I went to the notebook system a couple of years ago was to free myself up during independent reading time for individual reading conferences. The last thing I want to do during that time is to become the class librarian.

Perhaps It would work to have a student take on that role. Now that I think of it, it would be a GREAT use of the Google Nexus 7 Android tablet I'm hoping to get soon - turn it over to a couple of trained "class librarians" for use during the independent reading time. I'll bet I could even get students to volunteer to come in and start entering books into the program during lunch recess.

I also think part of the problem has been that the program is created for Booksource booksellers. Perhaps the reason I can't accurately scan many of my books is because they are a few years old and while the title may be one that Booksource carries, the barcode may be off enough that the program doesn't pick it up. I attended the AMLE national conference here in Portland several weeks ago, and Booksource had a booth in the exhibit hall. I told them I was using their iPad app and they got all chipper and asked how I liked it. "Not so well," I replied, explaining that the manual entries were frustrating and tedious. The man and woman manning the booth both gave me identical furrowed brow looks and said they were surprised to hear that. They suggested I contact technical support. I doubt that's the issue, but if it is, it's just further proof that the program isn't a good fit and probably won't provide a god solution to my book inventory issue.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Multimedia Lesson #2

First, I want to say that the new iPad update to Google Blogger is making it SOOO much easier to write this post, right now, than what I was trying to do a week ago. Honestly, I liked the look of the site when I was done, but the awkwardness of the interface pre-update for typing on the iPad was frustrating (I'm typing on a Zagg iPad bluetooth portfolio/keyboard). It was easier to just do it on the laptop. I don't need my iPad to be everything, but when it is, it makes me smile. I'm smiling now.

OK - pretty simple post here, but more amazing iPad usage coupled with good old-fashioned real paper text and using Edmodo. We booked most of our 6th graders for a field trip to downtown Portland to watch the Tears Of Joy Puppet Theater production of the Greek myth Perseus. It will tie in with our social studies curriculum later this year, and honestly, a good lesson in hero archetypes is always welcome, no? So to get the kids ready - and to address the CCSS Reading Standard 6.RL.7 - comparing the experience of reading a story with watching a presentation of the story - we read a couple versions of the Perseus myth in class. Now here's where Edmodo and the multimedia part comes in. I posted copies of the story on Edmodo, along with a version we had not read in class. I also posted PDF Venn diagram that students could fill in comparing and contrasting two versions of the story and submit for credit. AND I posted links to Youtube cartoon versions of the Perseus story because I had a couple students who were unable to attend the play. AND I posted an Edmodo poll asking students whether seeing the play had deepened their understanding of the Perseus story, Yes/No. All of this was pretty simple to put together - I'm really liking Edmodo - and most students were able to access it very easily.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Common Core State Standards, Pt. 2

One of the ways that I've worked hard to incorporate technology in my class is by acquiring eReaders for my students and the other 6th grade Language Arts classrooms. And it has been work. It's unfortunate, but the nature of public education funding is such that most of us gave up asking for money for classroom supplies years ago. I can remember the day when I used to have a whole $250 budget to use on whatever supplies my classroom needed as the year progressed. It wasn't a lot, but compared to today it was everything.

And of course education technology isn't cheap. $250 would buy a lot of paperbacks, but it won't get you far in acquiring the technology resources our classrooms need if we're going to create a learning environment that's anything like the "real world" we're hopefully getting our students ready for. So I've faced the challenge with some creative fundraising. One thing works in our favor when it comes to seeking funds; people generally like schools, realize times are hard, and want to help out kids and classrooms. Therefore, getting the eReaders for my school has been a matter of finding out where the money is and communicating the need and the expected benefits. I'm never too proud to beg, and a firm believer in the Theory of the Squeaky Wheel. You won't get anything if you don't ask, and never take the first "no" as the final word; it often just means you haven't communicated clearly enough.

Through a combination of funding from and our local school parent group, we now have 25 Nook eReaders for our 6th graders. I won't go into all the benefits here, but there are many, and after rolling out the first five eReaders last spring, I'm starting to see the increased engagement among my struggling readers that I had hoped for. I'm also seeing more willingness to read appropriate-level texts among my lower level readers who don't have to worry about other students seeing the cover of their "little-kid" books.

One of the foundations to the Common Core Reading Standards, embedded in the College and Career  Readiness standards, is the expectation that students are not only reading contempory literature, but also "...seminal U.S. documents" and classic literature. In this area the eReaders are an excellent resource. I've found the Barnes and Noble Nooks to be durable, user friendly, and - unlike the Amazon Kindle - easy to set up so that students can't go online and "one-click" order a bunch of books (or other stuff) on my dime. But both B&N and Amazon have extensive libraries of free books that can be loaded on their eReaders. And Project Gutenburg has made available for free an extensive library of books that can be downloaded easily to most eReaders, thanks to the fact that the copyright has expired on books written before 1923, so they are considered public domain.

Of course, at the 6th grade level, it will take a lot of extensive reading work for many of our students to get to the point where they can confidently tackle Moby Dick or Huck Finn with any hope of deep comprehension - and that's a topic for another post - but with proper support, many of our students can and are accessing these "old" texts using our "new" technology.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Black Friday and the Digital Classroom

Several weeks ago I was fortunate to receive a requested PTA grant for $600 to purchase additional eReaders and eBooks to add to the 5 Nook Simple Touch eReaders we're using in my class. The check hasn't been cut yet, so I've had some time to think about whether I want to continue with the Nooks - which I like aesthetically and functionally - or whether to try some of the basic Kindles, with maybe a Kindle Fire thrown in just for the sake of having a classroom tablet.

Last year I received a Kindle Keyboard for Christmas - my first experience with an eReader - thanks to the great Black Friday sale Target had on these devices ($85). I wanted to play around with the WiFi and experimental free 3G included with this model, and it's been a good, solid, unflashy device - a good eReader that can access the web and send email in a very basic way, anywhere I have a phone signal, for free.

So I've been keeping an eye out for what kind of deals would pop up this Black Friday that would allow me to get the most bang for my buck. This week the ads "leaked" and there's a couple good ones I'll probably try to access. The best for my classroom is Target, who will have the Nook Simple Touch - the same device I already have in my class - for $49. They are also offering a $60 gift card for iPad purchases (NOT on the mini, unfortunately). As per usual, it doesn't look - at this point - like Apple will allow discounts on the iPad. But Walmart is also offering a gift card ($75) on 2nd gen iPad purchases. Take the card and cash it in for an iTunes card - that's a lot of bonus apps/music/movies.

If I decide to go with a Kindle Fire, it doesn't look like that will be discounted anywhere either, but OfficeMax is offering a $25 gift card with a purchase, so if I decide to go that route I'll do that. Unless Amazon offers a better deal, which is possible.

A couple other things I found. Best Buy will offer the Zagg Bluetooth Carbon Fiber iPad portfolio case for $69. I payed $99 for mine and it was worth every penny. They will also have the Rocketfish Stylus for $7.99.

Finally, I just got a tip from a friend that Groupon is offering a deal on the Nook Color for $75. This device was originally released 2 years ago, November 2010, for $249 and was well-reviewed. It was later reduced to $169. Last month it went to $139. Walmart will offer it Black Friday for $99. It's a tablet that runs an early version of Android. It does NOT have a camera, and is not Bluetooth-enabled. But apparently has Bluetooth capability on its WiFi chip - disabled by B&N. But there's a way to turn it on, which would be great for classroom use, enabling it to be used with a bluetooth keyboard and Google Drive as a mini-laptop. This Groupon is only available for the next couple of days, so if you're interested, get on it!

Digital School Communication, Part 1

My district has one of the ugliest and least user-friendly web-based communication tools I have ever seen. It's called Web Fusion, or something like that, and looks like it was really cheap and designed to  keep teachers from using it. Which, if you're the district tech department, probably means less work for you if people just avoid using your product. After all, it's not like we're trying to make a buck here or anything. I can't even open up the site or work on it from my iPad, which tells you something. I've posted a couple of times this year so far, and maybe 4 or 5 all of last year. But it's just too painful and ugly to spend much time with it. Still,  it's what we have, so when I have a message I need to get out and leave there (as opposed to just sending on Gmail) I will use it. Grudgingly.

Last week I stood on the edge of the high dive and took the plunge, partially blindfolded, with my students, into the Edmodo waters. Wow - now THIS is how to do student-parent-school communication. Talk about a tool for flipped instruction!

If you are not familiar with Edmodo, it's kind of a combination of Facebook and Moodle. It's a private, invite only, teacher moderated networking site. I set my Edmodo account up the way I think most other teachers probably set theirs up. I created a separate "group" on the Mr. Mann Edmodo site for each of my classes. Each student enters a private group code to enroll in a class. They can access their account anywhere they access the internet. Thay also have the option - encouraged - to put their email into their Edmodo account. That way, whenever I post an assignment or whatever - let's say on a Friday night, they receive a notice by emal. As a Google Apps For Education district, all our students have their own email account and can use this. But if they have their own email they check more often, they can use that if they want.

As an example, here's what I've done in the past week or so. Twice I've posted an independent reading "bonus" assignment. Read for one hour on the Budget Reduction Day (BRD)/Veterans Day AND get a parent signature for the reading on your reading log, and there will be a treat for you in class (my kids leftover Halloween candy.) Basically reinforcing the benefit of checking the Edmodo account over the weekend - wink. I also posted an assignment asking students to comment on the Perseus play they saw on the field trip last week (I wasn't there - I was attending the AMSA conference) They could write their impressions as a response to my post. As soon as I get their response I can grade it right there on Edmodo and the student can see their grade as soon as I post it. I also posted a "poll" asking students to comment yes or no on whether seeing the play deepened their understanding of the Perseus story. Students can watch the poll to see how their answer compares with the rest of the class.

It's also easy in Edmodo to post links and attachments. I created an assignment that included reading an attached story, viewing a YouTube link, and filling in a Venn Diagram PDF comparing the two. It was simple to create, simple to post, and relatively simple for kids with a little digital skill to complete and send in.

Edmodo had sort of been on my radar, but like so much that's hyped as the latest thing, I didn't take the time to investigate. Now I'm glad I did. Part of creating an Edmodo account is joining the online Edmodo community. Basically, anything I want to learn to do with Edmodo and my students I can get help with from teachers all over the world who are using it every day. And it's fun - for me and my kids - to learn how to use this technology.