Chromebooks – the anti-netbook netbook

May 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

So, Chromebooks. A browser-based laptop. Virtually no on-board storage (just like an iPad). Keyboard attached. Webcam attached. Half the price of an iPad. Why wouldn’t someone want this as their every day device?

I think that ultimately, devices with installable apps are going to go by the wayside. Web based apps are going to be the thing that puts cheap mobile devices in every student’s hands. No proprietary hardware or software, just stuff you can access from any web browser, on any device.

Chrome has the right idea. The stuff you can “install” on a Chromebook is the same stuff you can “install” in your chrome browser, and all of that syncs across devices. When I install an app in my browser at work, it shows up on my Chromebook the next time I log in, too.

The argument against netbooks was that they were under powered and didn’t run Windows well. Chromebooks don’t need to run anything but Chrome, so they don’t need a fancy high end processor, or a ton of RAM. The biggest compliment I’ve heard about Chromebooks is that “the device just goes away.”

I think that Chrome OS devices really can be the game changer in Education that netbooks were not. I also think that we, as educational technologists, should have a serious talk about just WHY people feel the need to get the devices they do. I’m sure there are people who have a very compelling reason for getting iPads, but I have always been the “do it for cheap or free” guy. Why would I buy something that costs a lot of money when there might be a solution for cheap or free? I will admit, some of the very expensive solutions to things (and I’m not just talking about devices here, I’m also talking about services) may be more polished or elegant, and if your organization is at a point where they need something that’s polished or elegant, and that isn’t going to take a lot of maintenance, I can understand going that route.

However, when we’re talking about devices, I’m not one to just jump on the bandwagon. I have seen too many people buy a device because it was the trend, but they didn’t really understand the limitations of the device. I think if you were to give people a chance to try devices out and made them think about the cost comparison, I believe that a lot of people, for what they would do with the device, would ultimately choose the less expensive one. Maybe I’m wrong on this. Maybe it’s just me. But convince me. Show me the data that says the more expensive device makes students learn better. Show me how it engages them more. Show me that their engagement can’t be just as high with multiple lower-cost devices as it is with the single expensive device.

I’ve had people say to me, “students tried device X and they just didn’t like it as much as the iPad.” OK, but WHY? Did you really take a hard look in the mirror on that? If you, as a teacher, have a preference for a certain device, don’t you think your students might pick up on that, too? Ultimately, shouldn’t the device be the one thing that matters least? I bet if you tried hard enough, you could make a compelling and engaging lesson with any mobile device a student brings in. It might just take a little more work than googling “ipad apps for education.”

Geek a Week #2 – Google Earth in Education

May 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Geek a Week #1 – Google Earth

May 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m going to try to start a weekly hangout on air to do some short professional development. This is my second first attempt at it (earlier video has a messed up screen share).

The Windows 8 User Interface. I’m a tablet. No, I’m a phone. No, I’m a computer.

May 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

I recently spent some quality time with a couple of Windows 8 devices and I came away with mixed feelings. As far as a computing device, it’s great to finally have something light and mobile that will run the full compliment of software that we have in school. But I felt like the UI was severely lacking in spots.

Part of blame for this lays with the manufacturers not understanding the constraints of the devices that they’re producing. A larger part, though, lays directly with Microsoft. I’ll explain:

The Dell Latitude 10, to me, was a far superior user experience to the XPS 12 in several aspects, weight being the biggest factor. But forget about weight for a moment, because this post is about the user interface and user experience (UI and UX, respectively).

You would think that the XPS 12 would have a better UX simply because of the larger screen size, but it also has a larger screen resolution (1920 X 1080) compared to the Latitude (1366 x 768). But more pixels is better, right? Full HD is better, isn’t it? Only for watching movies, or working on 19″ monitors.

Look, full HD is great for a desktop computer, but Windows hasn’t decided yet if it wants to be a mobile operating system, or a desktop one. Until Microsoft decides to either go full on touch UI, or redesign the desktop interface with icons you can actually hit when you touch the screen, full HD is the absolute worst to work with on a touch device. Because the Latitude uses the minimum resolution for Windows 8, the icons on the screen in desktop mode are significantly larger and easier to touch with your finger.

In addition to all of that, a 12″ tablet is just too big. I really think the 10-11″ range in the sweet spot for these devices. You go much smaller and even the minimum screen resolution is too small. Bigger than 11, and it’s just not easy to hold with one hand. Factor in the weight of the XPS, and it’s just an all around non-starter as a tablet.

Even using the XPS as a laptop is hard because everything on the screen just looks so small. Maybe part of that is my old eyes and my refusal to wear my glasses all the time, but for my money, if I’m going from the default Windows 8 tiles to the desktop, I shouldn’t have to squint to see the latter, nor should I have to squint to see the text on the tiles.

The Windows 8 Tiles UI is really cool, but even there, Microsoft failed to get it 100% right. You would they would want to spend the time to get everything right before releasing it, but to me, it felt like they’d taken several different teams of people, had each one come up with different parts of the UI and then lumped them all together and said “here’s Windows 8” without really checking for consistency among the different moving parts. It felt a lot like my experience with Live@Edu.

Case and point. In the Microsoft Store, where you go to browse/purchase/download apps, there is a little back arrow button in the upper left corner. But guess what happens when you tap it to go back to the previous menu? Nothing. You have to swipe from the top to get a menu where you’ll get a “home” button that actually does work.

And while we’re talking about the UI and swiping, can we please come up with consistent gestures amongst different mobile OSss? Pretty please? Switching between using iOS, Android, and Windows 8 is very frustrating. Trying to remember how to do things like deleting an icon or shortcut in all the different systems (multiplied by finding hidden menus, creating shortcuts, and everything else) takes more of my time than actually using the device. On desktop OSss, a lot of these things work the same – drag and drop in the trash (or hit the delete button), right-clicking (or ctrl-clicking for single button mice) brings up a context menu where you can cut, copy, paste, delete, rename, etc. Keyboard shortcuts work the same no matter what OS you’re using, so why can’t these people bring some consistency to their mobile OSes, too?

On to more inconsistencies. In Windows 8, if you use Internet Explorer from the tiles menu, it has a very nice touch interface. If you launch it from the desktop, you get a desktop version, and guess what? That tab you had open in the touch version doesn’t transfer over. Neither do your bookmarks. Or history. Or anything else. They are completely separate applications. Seriously.

Other browsers work the same no matter where you launch them from, but they don’t benefit from the ability to pinch to zoom like IE does.

Probably my biggest complaint about Windows 8 is finding what in the world I have open. There is no easy way to pull up everything you have open and kill off the stuff you don’t want. The snap feature where you can pull up all the open apps on the left side is buggy at best, and often times results in just swiping you to the previous app you had open. Being able to see at a glance what’s open and running and giving me the option to kill those apps is something Apple and Google figured out over a year ago. Come on, Microsoft. Start playing catch up.

I really, really wanted to like both of these devices. I use a Windows 8 desktop as my media center, and once I figured out how to use it as a regular desktop machine, we got along just fine, but Microsoft really needs to decide how they want to proceed with this. Apple hasn’t tried to fit their mobile OS over top of their desktop OS, but that’s exactly what Microsoft has tried to do, and it’s not working that well.

I hope they make some much needed improvements with the next release.

Setting my professional goal

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m putting this out there because I want to make clear what my goal is. I aim to become a Technology Director (or CTO, or whatever you want to call it) in a field related to education.

I think pretty much everyone who knows me knows that I have a passion for both education and technology. Over the past 10+ years, I’ve been lucky enough to have found jobs that allow me to work with both. When I discovered that I loved teaching adults as much as I loved teaching kids, it opened a new career path for me.

You can find out more about my career by looking at my portfolio, or my LinkedIn profile, but for those that don’t know me, I’ll give you the bullet points.  I have a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. I taught middle school for 5 years and K-8 for 1 year before becoming a Technology Coordinator who handled all of the boxes and wires in addition to the professional development. I got my Master of Arts in Educational Technology in July 2003, and that eventually led to a job as an Instructional Technology Specialist, where I did a lot of professional development and team teaching to help teachers integrate technology in their lessons. I did that job for 6 years until some changes took place that have now put me purely on the technical side of things. I now am in charge of the technicians and computer systems (replacements, upgrades, generally making sure everything keeps running) in my district and have been doing that for 2 years.

TL;DR, I”m an educator and a geek. Just like it says in my twitter profile. I know what it’s like in the classroom but I can also hold my own in a conversation about technical things.

I’d like to end up in a place where Educational Technology is the focus of the technology director. I feel like, in a school district, how technology impacts education should be the focus of the tech director. Yes, a CTO needs to understand security and boxes and wires and all of those things, but I’ve always felt very strongly that if you’ve never been a teacher, you are at a disadvantage for understanding the instructional piece. That’s not to say that someone who hasn’t been a teacher can’t do the job (and I’ve had plenty of arguments about this with my colleagues). There are lots of great tech directors out there who have made it their job to understand as much about classroom instruction as possible, or hired people who can help them in that regard.

My point is this: I am well rounded in all aspects. I may not know as much about the boxes and wires and security as someone who is formally trained in those things, but I am willing to admit my deficiencies and listen to the experts when it comes to those things. On the other hand, I’m really good at being able to tell when someone is trying to sell me a bill of goods or use excuses about why something can’t be done because they simply don’t want to do it.

A large part of my current job is managing people, and motivating them to get things done. I would like to think that I’ve done a good job at that over the past couple of years. We’ve managed to get our inventory straightened out and move it to a completely new system. We’ve also put a dedicated help desk in place, and we’ve seen great results because of it. Every decision I’ve made hasn’t been the most popular, but I haven’t had a revolt, either, and I’d like to think that the people who work for me would say that I’m a pretty good boss.

Part of the reason for this post is to get it out there. I want people to know what it is that I want to do. At this point in my career, there is no point in me applying for jobs that aren’t going to get me to that end goal. The other point of this post is to remind myself of that very thing. Keep the faith. Point toward that goal. Do the things that will get you there. I’ve known for a long time that this was my ultimate goal, but lately, I seem to have needed some reminders, and this post will serve as such.

So…if anyone (preferably in the San Antonio area) is looking for a geeky educator who likes being on the cutting edge of technology and helping teachers see the future, please drop me a line.

Tried out Saba Meeting today, thanks to @techyturner @len_horn #edtech

May 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

I got to try out an online meeting tool today, thanks to Rodney Turner and Len Horn over in the Phoenix area.

Rodney has posted a link on G+ to come help him try out this tool. I jumped in because I was sitting at my desk bored on this testing day. For the next hour or so, Rodney, Len and I had a great discussion about educational technology and the things we were doing to help teachers integrate.

We all had our camera and mics on, so it was easy to converse. During the entire time, my connection never dropped, although Len had some issues with his browsers freezing up. He was using IE at one point, and I think Firefox at another (feel free to correct me on this!).

Rodney and I were both using Chrome, and it worked like a charm. We worked through how to get our cameras and mics going, found that ctrl+v would allow us to paste to the whiteboard, but simultaneously muted our mics.

We discussed the pros and cons of this particular tool vesus things like Adobe Connect, The Big Blue Button, and G+ Hangouts.

We were able to share our screens with each other, type in the chat box, and face to face chat. Saba does have the ability to record your meeting, but not on the free demo we were using.

Rodney and Len’s school district is considering using a tool like this to allow students at multiple campuses to be in “class” with a teacher at another campus. This sounds like a very innovative solution for districts with staffing problems. If you can only hire 1 IB Math teacher for your district, but you have 50 students across 4 campuses that want to take IB Math, using an online meeting tool like Saba would be a great solution.

While it isn’t free, the pricing options aren’t out of reach for education. Of course, there are free or inexpensive options out there, but you ultimately have to balance the amount of time and manpower it would take to set up and maintain one of those systems with the cost of something that you don’t have to do as much management in.

Overall, it was a great tool, and I got to meet some new people. Looking forward to meeting them in person in a few weeks at ISTE and showing them around San Antonio.

Tablets and laptops and phones, oh my!

May 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about what the “best” mobile device is for students and teachers since the tablet wars started heating up, but I hadn’t really spend enough quality time with all of the available devices to be able to speak intelligently on the subject.

It’s taken some time, but I have finally had a chance to play with all of the major players out there. In no particular order, these are the devices that I’ve used and will be discussing in this post:

And the winner is?

It depends.

No, really. It depends. When people ask me what device they should buy, the very first thing I ask them is, “what are you going to use it for?” It’s the same thing I tell people when they ask about what type of computer they should buy. If all you’re going to do is surf the web, then you don’t need the most expensive or fastest laptop. If you’re going to do video editing and graphics production, then we can talk about specs and screen resolution and color reproduction, but if all you’re going to do is check mail and look at Facebook, any old device will do.

And so, here are my notes on each of these devices and what they do well.

  • Apple iPad (2nd gen), Apple iPod touch (2nd/3rd gen) – I’m combining these two because they run most of the same software. I’ll point out the differences in the camera and web browsing experience in those sections.
    • System software – iOS is pretty polished, but not very customizable. You can change your background and lock screen, and that’s about it. But if you’re looking at classroom use, it’s also pretty hard to screw up, so from a teacher perspective, it’s nice because everyone’s device will look pretty much the same.
    • Installable Software – App based, and there are a TON of apps for it. Because it was the first tablet of its kind, it gets the most attention. Do a search for “education ipad apps” and see how many more hits you get than if you search for “education android apps.” Does that mean the iPad apps are better? Not necessarily. But developers tend to develop for iOS first. There is also a larger percentage of iOS apps that are NOT free, but there are hundreds of sites out there that will track when apps go on sale or become free for a day.
    • Camera – the cameras on iOS devices get better as the generations progress. The first generation iPad and 1st/2nd gen iPod touches didn’t have a camera (sorry, early adopters). The second gen iPad has an HD camera on the back, but the front one is pretty poor quality, and it’s noticeable on video calls with Skype or Google+.  The rear camera  on an iPad is awkward to shoot photos and videos with, but it doesn’t stop people from trying. The cameras on iPod touches are as easy to shoot photos and video with as any phone or small camera, and are the perfect size for student hands. If you’re going to have students doing photo and video products, these are great devices to get. They cost the same as a similar quality point and shoot camera but come with the ability to run apps and browse the web.
    • Web – you’ve already heard it – iOS doesn’t do flash. This has probably lead to the downfall of many flash-based sites, and has lead to an uptick in HTML5 based sites. The web experience on an iPad is somewhere between mobile and full, but not quite as good as you’d get on a Windows or Mac laptop/desktop. The experience on an iPod touch is pure mobile. If you’re going to be doing a lot of web browsing, you probably don’t want these devices. Also, if your school or district has sites that have to be run in Internet Explorer (don’t get me started), you won’t be able to access those on an iOS device.
    • Overall experience – the flash and the glitz and the glam of Apple devices is nice, but my biggest question is always, “Is it worth the cost?” When people as “should I buy an iPad,” my answer is almost always, “I like mine, but I wouldn’t shell out $500 of my own money for it.” With more and more developers starting to cross over and develop the same apps for Android that they do for iOS, I think Apple is going to have to innovate more in order to justify their cost. Android continues to beat Apple in specs on devices and features in those devices at a much lower cost.
  • Kindle Fire
    • System software – a heavily modified version of Android. This makes it virtually impossible to customize without “rooting” the device. The good new, like with iOS, is that it will be a very consistent experience for students.
    • Installable Software – Android apps, but only from the Amazon App Store*. This is a curated app store, so you can’t install google apps like Google Drive, or Gmail (if your district uses those things). The * is because you CAN sideload apps, but it’s not easy to do. You have to dig around in the system settings to allow apps to be side loaded, and you have to download the APK beforehand, meaning you can’t just pick it out of the store and have it install automatically. One upside to the Amazon app store is that they do offer a different app for free every day. You can also load the Amazon app store on any Android device, so you can get those free apps anywhere.
    • Camera – The original and second generation Kindle Fires don’t have a camera. The Kindle Fire HD (both 7″ and 8.9″) have a front facing camera.
    • Web – Amazon’s silk browser is supposed to be faster than traditional mobile web browsing, and offers a more full browsing experience than iOS devices, albeit on a smaller screen (except the 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD). I found that on the 7″ devices, full versions of web sites were difficult to read without zooming in. This goes for all 7″ devices.
    • Overall experience – the Kindle Fire is as locked down as an Android device can get. It’s almost as locked down as an iOS device, but with fewer available apps. It’s great as a pure consumption device. You won’t be creating any videos or photo collages on a Kindle Fire, but you will be able to surf and check email. At it’s price point though (under $200), maybe that’s worth it.
  • Kindle Fire (as a Nexus 7 – rooted and with stock Jellybean installed), Galaxy Nexus
    • System software – Android. Highly customizable. The Google Play store has hundreds of downloadable widgets, home screen launcher replacements, etc. The good news is that students and teachers can create home screens that suit their needs. The bad news is that every device can look different, making it difficult to troubleshoot problems.
    • Installable Software – The Google Play store has almost as many apps as the iTunes app store, and will probably beat iTunes to one million available apps. Apple enthusiasts will talk about quality, as Google does not have as strict of quality controls as the iTunes app store, and several apps in the Play store have recently been removed due to malware. However, Google has a higher percentage of free apps compared to iTunes.
    • Camera – The rooted kindle fire doesn’t have a camera, but the camera on my Galaxy Nexus is good enough to be my day to day camera. Most of the time, I’m finding I leave my DSLR at home unless I need to compose really great shots or do telephoto shots. As with iPads, shooting on any device larger than a phone is going to be awkward, but the cameras on the latest high end phones are as good or better than many point and shoot cameras, and almost all can shoot HD video as well.
    • Web – This is comparable to the iOS devices as well. Mobile only experience on the smaller devices, fuller experience on the larger, but still hard to read without zooming. Android devices historically supported flash, but Adobe dropped flash support on mobile devices last year.
    • Overall experience – I’m a pure android guy so I’m going to be a bit biased, but I think for the money, I’d buy an Android based device over an iOS device any day of the week. You have a much more open experience in being able to customize your device to fit your needs, and you’re not going to spend as much money as you would with an Apple device, either for the device itself or after you’ve bought it, because of the number of Android apps that are free.
  • Google Chromebook
    • System software – Chrome OS, which is basically a Chrome web browser. Everything happens in the browser.
    • Installable Software – pretty much any Chrome extension. These aren’t “installable” in the traditional sense of software or apps as we know them, but they do show up in your menu as installed to Chrome. The nice thing is that no matter where the web apps are installed, they’ll show up if you’re logged in to Chrome. I had adblock plus installed on my Windows laptop’s Chrome browser, and the first time I logged in to a Chromebook, adblock plus automatically installed.
    • Camera – A front facing camera suitable for video chat, but not much else. If you thought taking photos with a 10″ tablet was awkward, try taking photos with a laptop’s camera
    • Web – The only drawback to the web browsing experience on Chromebooks thus far is no java support. While this isn’t a big deal for most sites, it IS a major drawback if you’re thinking about using these devices for online testing (at least in Texas), as Pearson’s TestNav site requires java. Other than that, you have a full web browsing experience. On the Samsung and Acer Chromebooks, the screens are a little small for my 40 year old eyes, but ctrl+ works just fine to increase the font on those web sites I have trouble reading. The 12″ screens on the Intel based Samsung Chromebooks were just the right size.
    • Overall experience – I use my Chromebook as my daily computer when I’m away from the office. It’s lightweight in two ways – in physical weight, it’s not much heavier than most tablets. As a computer, the Chrome OS is very lightweight. When you log in, you’re in. No waiting for other programs to start or policies to load. If you can type fast, you can boot the device and be on the web in less than 15 seconds. While it doesn’t have a touchscreen (yet…the Chromebook Pixel does, so maybe this is a new direction for Chrome devices?), it does have an attached keyboard. Maybe that will be a relic in the coming years as students who have come up typing on virtual keyboards grow up and enter the workforce, but for me, an actual keyboard is still important. My Chromebook is my go-to device. I usually leave the iPad sitting on my desk. And, by the way, you can buy 2 Chromebooks for the cost of 1 iPad.
  • Dell XPS convertible laptop (Windows 8 touch-screen ultrabook), Dell Latitude 10 (Atom-based Windows 8 tablet)
    • System software – Windows 8.  If you know Windows, you know what it can do. Throw the new tile-based UI over it and you’ve got Windows 8. The UI can take some getting used to, but overall, it’s a solid experience.
    • Installable Software – As long as you get a full Windows 8 tablet (not RT), you can install any software that you could install on legacy systems. That’s to say, pretty much anything.
    • Camera – For the life of me, I couldn’t get the camera on the Latitude to take a photo. Maybe I’m just not getting the UI, but all I could do was shoot video, and the quality wasn’t fantastic. I hope these get better cameras and that the software gets better, but as with the other devices, how silly are you going to look shooting video or photos with a big old 10 – 12″ device?
    • Web – Full web experience. In fact, this is the only mobile device that truly offers a full web browsing experience. The drawback here is, again, the size. For kids, it will be fine, but my eyes are starting to go, and I had a really hard time reading without zooming.
    • Overall experience – I love the idea of a full windows machine in the tablet form factor, but I just don’t think it’s there yet. When it’s in tablet mode (that is, you’re using the start menu and related apps as they’re intended) it works really well in that form, but drop to the desktop and try to do anything, and the screen size really becomes an issue. I also loved the flip-screen on the XPS 12, but those extra two inches and the full keyboard and everything else that’s attached just made it too bulky as a tablet. Using a Windows 8 machine in desktop mode (as most of us are used to from previous versions of Windows), you almost have to have a mouse available. The legacy Windows UI is just not designed for touch, and on these devices at the screen resolution they’re set at, it’s just too tiny to even try to work with unless you have a mouse. On the flip side, the touch UI in Windows 8 just doesn’t feel polished. There are back buttons everywhere (like in the store) that don’t work, and the UI overall is just not intuitive (another post about that is coming). I use Windows 8 on a desktop machine and it works great, but if Microsoft is going to make it work in a tablet, they still have a long way to go.

One caveat to the mobile web browsing is that Google’s Chrome browser is available on all platforms now, which allows you to sync you bookmarks and other information across devices. It will even sync the latest tabs you had open, so you don’t have to “send to…” anymore. Open a link on your desktop, then go to your phone and open “Other devices” in Chrome, and your link should be there. Of course, this requires that you are logged in to Chrome with your Google account on all of your devices.

Like I said in the beginning, it all depends on what you want to use your device for. That will determine what you should get. For me, the Chromebook is exactly what I need for the work I do. However, in the evening, I like to switch to the iPad to do some reading in Flipboard or the Kindle app. If I was buying for myself, though, I’d buy a 8-9 inch Android tablet to do those things, since you can pick one up for around $200, and run those same apps.  At the end of the day, there are things that each of these devices do really well, and other things they don’t do so well. You have to decide for yourself which of those things are important and pick your device accordingly.

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