Teaching With Gadgets

How Technology Can Help Today's Teacher

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Would Somebody Please?!

While I will sing the joys about my Tablet PC to anyone that cares to listen, there are simply times during the school day that carrying a PDA is more convenient. I find it a joy to have a device, slightly more than six ounces, that can rest easily in my pocket. When I need it I simply can turn it on, scribble my notes, and put it back into my pocket.

The one area in which Palm has always lead over Windows Mobile is in the area of electronic gradebooks. I know you may be thinking "why not simply use a spreadsheet?" Spreadsheets are OK but are no substitute for databases. At the very least I need a program that will allow me to create assignments, add a category, and mark either on a rubric or by standard grading.

There are MANY gradebooks that exist for the Palm platform. While there are standalone programs (ie. Teacher's P.E.T.), I would much rather have a program that joins up with a desktop database program. Some notables in this category include programs by Pinnacle Software and Easygradepro.

That's not to say all is lost on Windows Mobile - it's just that the options are not desirable. Teacher's Assistant Professional is a powerful gradebook that has both Palm and Windows Mobile support. This problem is that it only works on the PC platform. Also, you cannot create assignments on the device - they must be created on the desktop program and then transferred over. Bummer....

Easy Grade Pro has long been a popular program amongst teachers. While the capturing of annecdotal comments is not strong (and non-existant on the PDA side), I can live without that. For the 2006-2007 school year they are even adding the ability to grade by standards. However, they only offer a Palm app. Sure, the Windows Mobile application is in the works but they will not commit to a date. I call that vapourware.

There is Gradekeeper which is a pretty good little program created for both Mac and PC, Palm and Windows Mobile. It is cheap (only $20 US) as well! My only issue with this program is in it's cummulative reporting. I'm an elementary teacher and have 9 different subject classes that I teach. The program only prints one subject (with all assignment grades) per page. There is no date-range selecting. The spells A LOT of paper!! We don't have unlimited budgets in school. I did write to the creator who replied that he doesn't add that type of reporting because he doesn't want to make the program that complicated. Fair enough.

I'm frustrated! It seems that teacher gradebooks are written by programmers, not teachers. If you're an IT person or programmer, please do not take that as a knock against you (I have time toward a minor in computer science). However, it takes a teacher to know what type of software a teacher wants. While some good programs have been written by teachers on the Palm side, it seems that no one wants to develop educational software for Windows Mobile. Here you have this amazing device but no truly useful PDA app for teachers (in my opinion).

On a final note, I have been using Gradebook Wizard this year. It's an amazing program and it's platform agnostic because it runs on the internet. The only downfall is that you pay a $49 US fee per year to use it (I use my classroom budget to cover the cost). Parents love it as they can view their child's grades and it has very powerful reporting features. While there is no PDA application for it, you can use any program that can collect data and then export in .txt or .csv format. Windows Mobile, with ListPro, really helps here.

You can also surf the gradebook with your PDA (although the tablet is better here). While I have no problem connecting to our District proxy server on my tablet or Palm, I cannot for the life of me figure it out on Windows Mobile (bad PIE, bad!). If I could maybe I would have 90% of my solution.

Developers! Help out your country's teachers and create something for Windows Mobile. Please?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mobile Tech Roundup

Check out my favourite podcast (well, it's in a tie with On The Run With Tablet PCs) Mobile Tech Roundup. If you love mobile technology then you will love this podcast. James Kendrick, Dave Ciccone, and Kevin Toffel offer great insight into a wide range of mobile gadgets. I find their discussions to be brilliant and often find myself having a chuckle as I listen to them on the 30 minute drive in to work.

On that note, check out how other professionals use their mobile technology and think about how you can apply that to teaching. I've been doing this for a number of years and find myself inspired by these people who volunteer their time for the better good of us all.

Great podcast guys! Keep up the great work and thanks for getting out the new podcast - I was having withdrawal symptoms!

Planning With A Tablet

Yesterday, I discussed using your PDA to help plan for school. Today, I would like to discuss how I use my Tablet PC (or another Windows based machine).

Windows has the one program that the Mac has yet to present to me (and I may be misinformed) - OneNote. Imagine having a virtual binder on your computer. OneNote fits the bill!

OneNote allows you to set up sections and related tabs in a binder style format. You can password individual pages or sections in OneNote. I keep all of my student notes here and password protect them so that prying eyes cannot view these pages.

But this is about planning, right? Microsoft has place some excellent templates that you can download into OneNote. I have created my own templates that very closely resemble my planning pages in my paper day planner (which I tossed long ago). If you are using a Tablet PC then I suggest making your notes in ink. Leave them in ink as it is searchable in OneNote and it just seems more intuitive than typing. If you have a notebook PC or a desktop, simply type in the template.

The wonderous thing about this is that you can archive your entire year in June and start a new file at the beginning of the next year. Simply make sure you have a section called "Planning" and tabs for each month of the year. Add pages for each of the days in the month. I actually have templates for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I can curl up in my chair and write using the wonderful ink system. I even add voice notes using the built in voice recorder to add more detail. Finally, if I'm ill (I haven't missed a day in 11 years) I can simply select a page and e-mail it to our school admin assistant to print out.

Check out OneNote. The possibilities for this program are unending. Perhaps an article on how I use it to track students would be in order? Let's face it - with OneNote you can toss all of those binders and/or file folders that you were hauling around. It's worth it!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Planning Your Day....

Sorry about the brief break with my post - it's been a busy one at the school!

When I saw the first Palm Pilot back in early 1997 I knew that I had to have one. It was this amazing device that would do far more than I ever imagined. I had to convince my wife to allow me to buy one so I needed some justification for the price at the time.

The first thing that I had ever used a mobile device for, in the classroom, was planning. I'm actually surprised that more teachers are not carrying around a PDA with them. With the staring price point being $149 ($99 US) for the Palm Z you would think that more teachers would be adding it to their arsenal.

The built in datebook on any Palm or Windows Mobile PDA will do wonders for your teaching practice. Both PDAs will allow you to assign your appointments to categories so that if you need to print them out according to a category (your day plan as opposed to meetings) then you can. I still see many teachers carrying around a binder or dayplanner. All of that stuff fits nicely into my 6 oz. PDA.

While both Windows Mobile and Palm PDAs come with nice built in calendars (the Palm PDA actually allows you to colour code appointments according to category), there are many third party calender programs. My two favourites: Pocket Informant (Windows Mobile) and Datebook 5 (Palm PDA). Both give you a trial and more functionality than the built in applications.

As a teacher I get my timetable at the beginning of the year. I then create each of my subject periods as recurring appointments on the PDA (you can also do this on the Tablet PC using Outlook or whatever calendar program that you like). In the note field of each appointment I set up information that will always be the same. Think of this like your lesson planning template. You will want to state the objecive, materials, procedure, etc. of your lesson. I leave areas to list all of these. After creating these for the first time I synchronize the PDA with both my tablet and my Mac computer. I can now do my planning on any of these devices and synchronize it with the rest.

The note field on any datebook program is key. One thing that is great about Windows Mobile is that your note field has unlimited length and allows drawings, pen entry, etc. These will then transfer over to Outlook (which comes with every Windows Mobile device). However, the Palm does allow for 32K notes and this is more than enough to state objectives, materials, procedure, etc. for your lessons. Each time I enter information for a lesson, the PDA will ask me if I want to make the change to all appointments or only the selected one. This is great! I usually select just one appointment and begin typing it up.

If I need to print I simply synchronize the PDA with my computer and print out of my calendar program (Outlook or Entourage). On a Mac I can even print to a PDF file and send it to the school if I am ill.

The PDA allows me to have all of my lesson plans with me at all times. I can work on them whenever and wherever I am. If someone asks me about a particular lesson, I can look it up. One thing that Windows Mobile allows you to do is to assign MULTIPLE categories. For example if I have Language Arts class from 9:00 until 10:00 I create the appointment. The categories are: dayplan and science. If I want to view my dayplan only, this appointment will show up in the filter. If I want to look at only my science lessons it will show up there too! What a brilliant way to organize!

That's the first, and easiest, use for a PDA in teaching. Just a reminder that for a Tablet PC owner all of this applies and then some. Tablets use the same software that you use on your desktop computer. Next time we'll discuss the Contacts application and how you can have student information at your fingertips.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Times That I Wish I Was In The Tech Industry...

If you follow the mobile technology industry, like I do, you know that there are reviewers out there that get to play and test all sorts of cool toys! My hat is off to folks out there that get an early preview or an evaluation device to test.

The device that just has me DROOLING is the new DualCor cPC. This device will combine the best of the tablet PC with a Windows Mobile device....and will include a phone as well. (!!) It seems to be a simply amazing product.

If you want to read (or listen to more), head over to the following links:

DualCor - www.dualcor.com - The main site for this device. I still can't believe it.

JK On The Run - www.jkontherun.com - The first mobile site dealing with mobile technology that I visit on a daily basis. James Kendrick does an excellent job of finding great Tablet PC information and has two awesome podcasts that you can link to from his site (more on this in a future post). He was recently at CES and posted information about the DualCor product. You can read about it here.

Mobility Today (formerly Dave's iPaq) - www.mobilitytoday.com - I hadn't visited the site often until I started listening to podcasts. This was the first podcast that I became hooked on. The most recent podcast had a 30 minute interview with DualCor about the product. I can just imagine using this as a teacher. Listen to it here.

One More Wi-Fi Demonstration....

For this post I have my HP iPaq 6320 Pocket PC Phone Edition (isn't THAT a mouthful!) hooked up to my Wi-Fi router in the classroom. It's currently after school and I'm enjoying a nice cup of coffee in the staff room while typing this on the excellent little snap on keyboard that comes with the 6320. I can even use Gradebook Wizard on this device although the tablet is a much better platform.

Flying High With Wi-Fi

Wi-fi is, perhaps, one of the greatest inventions of the last decade. From a teaching standpoint it has made my life so efficient that I no longer can do without it.

I got my first Wi-Fi router almost three years ago. Most Windows Mobile devices were starting to include Wi-Fi inside the package and I manged to pick up a PC Card for my notebook computer. Ahhhhh, the joy of being able to sit outside on a nice summer day to conduct research for my lessons (yes, there are those of us in the profession who actually do plan over the summer months!).

Only recently, though, have I leveraged the technology in my classroom. While my school does not have wireless access points per se, it's really not that difficult to add it into your classroom.

My dad had recently purchased a computer and he received a D-Link wireless router with the machine (about $40). All Dad wants to do is to hop on the internet using his boat anchor of a computer. He lovingly gave me the router.

I must say that I enjoy a productive relationship with the IT guys at my school district. They provided me with the proxy address (most districts will employ this for security reasons). I simply plugged the router into the wall, entered the proxy address in Internet Explorer and, voila, I was surfing the Internet on my TC1100 tablet!

Now I am completely mobile. I use Gradebook Wizard (www.gradebookwizard.com) to store my grades. I was able to walk between the hallway and my classroom and have access at all time. The tablet allows me to post grades immediately for my parents to view and allows me to respond in good time to any e-mail requests that they may have. I'd say that my turn-around time with parental response is under an hour. This is due to always having a device that can connect to Wi-Fi.

Today, I was using OneNote to take my students through a guided lesson for their science projects. I used wireless Internet to insert bits and pieces of information into OneNote. Amazing technology!

Teachers, talk to your District and see what they can do to help implement wireless technology. Whether you own a table, Windows Mobile device, Palm, or even a notebook computer, you won't know how you lived without it!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Different Phone!

I had mentioned before that I have two mobile phones - the Treo 600 and the HP iPaq 6320. I had thought last week that the Treo would be the better device for me because of its smaller form factor. Today, I moved my SIM chip from the Treo to the iPaq and it was like coming home to me.

The debate over Palm vs. Windows Mobile really does bother me. Personally, I can move back and forth between both platforms as easily as I can change my shirt. Sure, there are some slight differences but, ultimately, they both do the same thing. I find that people who "flame" people just because they like the other OS to be detrimental to the adoption of mobile technology and the strong communities that are built from it.

Why did I switch back to Windows Mobile? One application stood out - Styletap! I have just started my evaluation of the software and already know that I will be purchasing it. Styletap is a Windows Mobile application that allows you to run your Palm applications on the Pocket PC. The real caveat is that conduits are not supported. However, some of my favourite Palm apps are now running in 160 X 160 mode on my iPaq (if you have a VGA display then it will be 320 X 320). I realized that I could have the best of both worlds, PLUS a phone on one device. What more can you ask for?

You can check out Styletap at www.styletap.com. There is 14 day trial download.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Enter The Tablet...

In my last post I described how my PDA can be used to retrieve my morning news and have all of my information updated. If I was to use my Treo 600 (a great Palm OS smartphone but no wi-fi) I would simply hook it up to my Mac and synchronize all information with Avantgo using this method. This morning I decided to take my Treo with me so I synced it with the Mac and was able to read my Avantgo news while having breakfast.

However, while the PDA was the "end-all, be-all" for me over the past few years it has been replaced by the tablet PC. What is a tablet PC? Imagine your laptop with all of the goodies that goes along with it (Wi-Fi, bluetooth, a keyboard) and add the ability to use a pen and ink on it! It is, perhaps, one of the most revolutionary devices ever created and can be a phenomenal teaching tool.

I purchased my HP TC1100 tablet PC back in September of 2004. At the time it was selling for $2800 CDN. Thankfully, we have since seen tablet PC prices begin to decend in recent months. Yes, it still has a good $300-$500 price premium over a regular laptop but the functionality cannot be beat.

How would this help you as a teacher? Think of that clipboard that you are carrying around right now. You probably have your attendance sheet, gradebook, and anecdotal notes on the clipboard. However, this clipboard means that you will eventually have to transcribe everything AND your information just isn't that secure. Before you scoff at that remark think about this carefully. Many provinces and states have privacy policies. If you leave that clipboard around and someone "accidentally" reads what is written on it....well...you can figure out the rest!

The tablet PC allows you to take a full Windows XP machine in the form factor of a clipboard. My TC1100 has a 10 inch screen and sits in a beautiful portfolio. If I want a laptop, I simply rotate the screen and I have a screen and keyboard. If I want just the slate the screen will simply detach from the keyboard and now I have a machine that relies only on the pen (see the imagine, above).

Many have asked "how do you use the ink"? Digital ink is WONDERFUL. If you want to "ink-up" a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, you can do that. When you print out the document your ink and the original text will live in harmony. On the other hand, if you wish to take notes in ink and then convert that to text you can do that as well. Forget about learning grafitti (Palm OS) or JOT. The Tablet OS let's you write in YOUR handwriting and will convert it to text. My handwriting can be brutal but the OS recognizes at least 95% of it. If I PRINT then it's 99% of the time.

By the time I get to school this little device with it's excellent battery power becomes my new new tool. My students respect the tablet and know not to touch it (I teach grade 4). I initially had concerns with taking this device to school and now I don't even think about it.

Read more at Hewlett Packard or Microsoft. I should also state that there are many different brands of tablets out there for you to check out.

Next post: How I use the tablet in day to day teaching....

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Day With My Gadgets

Today I will begin a multi-part description of how I use my Pocket PC and tablet PC in my teaching and home life.

6:30 A.M.
I get up and literally stumble downstairs for my breakfast. I use this time of day to enjoy the peace and quiet (have some coffee) and catch up on my morning news.

Having either a Pocket pc or Palm with built an Wi-Fi is extremely handy. I use AvantGO for my news and rss news feeds. While I am cooking breakfast I connect my Ipaq to my wireless Linksys router and AvantGo syncs my predetermined websites to my handheld. I can then go offline and read my news throughout the day.

There is much debate over which platform is best. Personally, I have used both and like both! Palm and Windows Mobile each have their own strengths. Play with each platform in the store and buy the one that feels best to you.

...next article ... Planning your day.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Switching Back

Well once again I am switching my daily PDA. Right now I am back to using my HP 6320. I really do enjoy the Treo but that lack of WiFi was starting to really bother me. With the 6320 I have my choice of WiFi or GPRS. As a teacher I have been using Gradebook Wizard for grading purposes (more on this in another post). To use it over GPRS would be really expensive. WiFi doesn’t cost me a cent. I’m currently sitting at my table and using the great thumboard (that is detachable) to quickly hammer out this post. I will write more about this fantastic device n a future post.

Planning Again....

Well the Christmas holiday season is about over and it's back to work on Monday. I actually look forward to our first day back as my students are always excited to share their Christmas experience. This year was an odd one as we had virtually no snow. It was 15 degrees Celsius on Christmas day - a day on which we normally would have snow and colder temperatures.

I will be doing any new posts today either from my tablet PC or my Treo 600. I find it interesting how the Treo can simply update my blog by using e-mail. The blog would also be an excellent tool if you wanted to have a classroom homework site. Each time you have homework or projects assigned you can simply send a quick e-mail from practically anywhere - including your mobile phone! My parents love how they can login to check homework whenever possible.

Friday, January 06, 2006

My Gear

I'm surprised that I'm still married after all of the gear that I have
bought over the years. Here is my current list:

- HP Tablet PC 1100C - This is simply one of the most brilliant devices ever
created. I will talk quite often about the tablet PC and how it has benefit
my teaching over time. The HP is such a brilliant device because it allows
you to detach the main screen (the slate) away from the keyboard. It's form
factor is actually smaller than that paper clipboard that you are carrying
and, yet, it runs a full blown version of Windows XP (known as Windows XP
Tablet OS).

-HP iPaq 6320 Pocket PC Phone Edition - It's a phone and a PDA. Loaded with
WiFi (wireless internet), a phone, and bluetooth (so that I can wear one of
those cyborg head pieces). It's a battle for my heart between Windows
Mobile and...

-Palm Treo 600 - While a bit outdated (the low res screen became a beautiful
screen on the Treo 650) this is still a powerhouse phone and Palm PDA. Read
about how I see-saw between Windows Mobile and the Palm OS. Regardless of
your choice, PDAs are a must for today's teacher.

-Mac Mini - I had to see what all the fuss was about! This past summer I
took the plunge and now my Windows XP computer is beginning to collect some
dust. The last time I looked there was no spyware or viruses for the Mac
OS. It's a wonderful platform that's winning my heart away from windows.

I have other gadgets that I will talk about as time goes by. These are the
four major players in my day to day life!

Welcome To Day 1

Many people who know me would probably ask why I would start a blog. After all, aren't blogs for people who are in the tech industry or are leaders in a particular field? I think not. The blog, as I see it, is a place to record your thoughts in an easy to use format. If people read the blog then that's great! If I get no readership it at least is a way that I can review the progress that I've made using technology.

I'm a teacher of elementary school children. For those of you that are teachers (and even those of you who are not) you can well imagine that there is not much time in the day to handle the multitude of administrative tasks that go along with the job. Technology and other gadgets can make administration much easier and allow the teacher (or any other mobile professional) the time to focus on what matters most.

I have always been interested in computers and gadgets. My first computer was a Commondore 64 and I haven't looked back since. My first year as a teacher was a watershed moment for me. I can still remember doing report cards. We were required to comment on the student's progress in each subject (that's 8 different subjects in elementary school). On top of that the comments were handwritten. I actually logged the time it took and calculated it to take well over 45 hours (outside of the classroom) to write these up.

The following year I had switched school districts and, thus, schools. During my first informal chat with my new principal I asked him if it would be okay to use a computer to generate comments. He thought that they would look more professional (you think??) and gave me permission. My journey down the road of educators and technology thus began.

I have now been teaching for twelve years and am still surprised by the number of my colleagues that do not use technology to not only help with administrative tasks but also to help with furthering their teaching practice. I have searched for different websites dealing with teaching and technology. There are some that are related to much larger publication journals (read by the IT guys and lead tech teachers mostly) and not much else. There are certainly plenty of technological tools aimed for the education market.

I decided to create this blog to help those that want to learn more about the technology available to them. The options are dizzying. Also, while we may have the tools, we still could benefit from someone showing us how to use those tools effectively in our practice. I know that my favourite tech website and magazine articles are those that deal with real people having real experiences with their devices. When you read about someone else's experiences they get the creative juices flowing.

I am hoping to create a diary of my experiences with the technology in and out of the classroom. I also plan to keep track of frequent updates pertaining to new mobile technology, podcasts of interest, and websites of interest.

Thanks for dropping by and I hope we see more of each other.