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.