Microsoft Surface SE – I like it but have questions

This has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It has long been known that Google Chromebooks are the go-to student devices for most schools (especially if they are running Google Workspace). I wrote a two part series that you can read here and here about it back in 2018. Interesting about those articles is that there is a lot of student feedback in there which is something you don’t normally see.

How did we get here?

Apple’s answer was creating a low priced iPad and while they are nice to have in a learning environment, if pushed comes to shove a laptop would be better. It is just more productive. Microsoft offered the Microsoft Surface Go. The problem is that it was running full on Windows but didn’t (still doesn’t) seem to have the power under the hood to actually pull that off in a convincing fashion. On top of that – it’s pretty pricey too.

When Microsoft made their new Edge browser on Chromium (what Chrome OS on Chromebooks is built on) many people felt that this would end up with a Microsoft Edge Chromebook like competitor. We kind of got it. This new Surface SE device runs a special version of Windows 11, so it isn’t running a version of Edge that runs the whole show.

So what is it?

It’s a $250 (USD) laptop that only schools can purchase to deploy to their students. Here is a picture of what it looks like.

It looks very much like a $250 Chromebook. Here are the highlights:

  • 11.6″ display that has a resolution of 1366 x 768 (no touchscreen)
  • Intel Celeron N4020 or N4120 processor (like in a lot of Chromebooks)
  • 64/128 GB of storage (something you do not see on Chromebooks at this price point)
  • USB-C, USB-A, headphone jack, Power adapter connection
  • Bluetooth
  • Windows SE and Microsoft Office for Education

When you purchase it you can have it auto-enrolled in your deployment program to make it very easy to get it up and running with students. This will also allow you to remotely manage it as well (push out/remove apps, extensions, bookmarks, etc.)

I’ve never managed Windows devices in a school, but it I would bet dollars for donuts that it is pretty similar to Apple or Chromebooks with what you can do with them (which is a lot).

Windows 11 SE

The SE probably stands for Student Edition though it doesn’t say that on its website. Like Chrome OS it is a cloud operating system. For Chromebooks this means that it needs to be online in order to do most things (browse the web, open Google Docs, etc.) That is probably the case here.

Though it looks like it will have a standalone Microsoft Office Suite installed, so as long as the document is also stored on the device, students should be able to work on them.

Unlike other versions of Windows, this version has no app store and students cannot install apps of their choice. They have to be pushed out it looks like. There might be a future update where students will have access to an app store that is populated with only school approved apps (Chrome OS has this option), but it is unclear right now.

You can only have two windows open at a time side by side. Regular windows will let you have Windows all over the place. This is probably a good decision, especially with an 11.6″ screen. As expected, students cannot create other accounts on here – this is very typical.

Windows 11 SE is also pretty stripped down, so a lot of features or programs that you will find in regular Windows will be absent. This, again, is probably a good thing. It will help keep students focused and without all those other programs taking up space, hopefully Windows 11 runs a lot more efficiently.What I like?

There is a lot to like here

If you are in a school district that runs Microsoft Office for Education, then this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is definitely a Chromebook alternative. It’s cheap, it’s managed by the school or district, it gets kids connected with just the apps they need and it’s repairable.

According The Verge, you should be able to easily get inside and repair screen, keyboard, battery, mother board (I am also assuming you could replace the trackpad too). This is huge for schools. It will allow them to do this repair work themselves and not have to outsource it. We’ve been using Chromebooks here for 4 years and we have never had to send a Chromebook out for repair. We either fix it or we replace it (the latter happens very rarely).

I like the storage options. Chromebooks at that price point you are usually getting only 32GB of storage – here you get 64. That is nice.

I also like that it is a Surface device. If you’ve ever used a Surface device, you know how well built they are. My Surface Book lasted me a good 5-6 years and I bequeathed it to my dear mother and so it is still going strong! I doubt these will last that long, but for 4 years – I bet they’ll last that long pretty consistently.

Questions I have

I still have questions about this whole venture though. Though it is very repairable, how easy will it be to get parts? This is a Microsoft device after all so will you have to go through them to purchase these parts? Chromebooks are great – you can get parts all over the place. No screens available at Stores A, B or C? No problem, let’s look at stores D, E and F. Also, since you can buy these parts from so many different vendors, the price of the parts is reasonable. You’re not going to find a $200 screen replacement for a Samsung, HP, Dell or Lenovo Chromebook. Though if you can only get the parts from Microsoft, you may have to pay more. We will see.

I wonder about Windows 11 SE – how well will it run? My guess is that it will run just fine out of the box and since schools will control what is installed and what updates are pushed out, I expect this thing to run . . . fine. I don’t expect it to be a blazing fast iPad but I do expect it to chug through its jobs consistently without too much of an issue.

A big question is what happens with these devices when a school is done with them? What we do with our Chromebooks is to de-provision them and then give them to the families. This means, that it is reset to factory settings, it removes all restrictions. It basically becomes another, regular old Chromebook you would buy.

With this – I don’t know. I think it can only run Windows 11 SE. This means no Microsoft Store. If it is deprovisioned, does it get Windows 11 Home? That would be sweet, but if not can it be used outside of a school environment? If not, this seems like a waste – even at the $250 price point.

Conclusion

If you are not a Microsoft school, then obviously don’t use this thing. I mean – why would you? If you are however – you owe it to yourself and your students to look at this as an IT option. We will know more later this year and certainly next school year when schools start deploying these bad boys in the thousands. Until then I’ll keep my ear to the ground and try report back what I hear.

What do you think of the Surface SE? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Life with a desktop

Yes – that is an official Hot Bench coffee mug.

This year the technology department decided to ditch our laptops in lieu of a an iMac. That’s right we got rid of those super convenient computers that we can tuck under our arm and take nearly anywhere. So why did we do this? What was the motivation behind such a portable convenience to tie us to our desks? Well read on for the answers and leave some comments below.

Computer cycles

At our school an employee receives a new computer every four years whether they want one or not. We then take those older laptops and use them to slowly replace laptops on carts or we give them to our teaching assistants to use.

We also keep a few on hand for loaners in case someone forgets their computer or in case a speaker needs one. Overall it works pretty well and if we ever find ourself with a surplus we either donate them to local schools or within our school community.

Summer of ’21

This was the time when we had to hand in our laptops and look for a replacement. We could have gone with the 13″ MacBook Air with the M1 chip, but one of my colleagues said “Why don’t we get iMacs instead?” I couldn’t tell if she was half joking or half serious.

At any rate, the next few weeks as we looked around the idea grew on us as a department. Why not? What would be giving up? What would we be gaining? So we started talking seriously about switching from a laptop to a desktop. Here is how that played out.

What we gain

The most obvious gain is the screen real estate. Going from a 13″ laptop to a 24″ desktop is no small jump. I can fit two full websites side-by-side on one screen.

No, I am not writing about sports I just needed two websites to show off 🙂

That is pretty great, especially when researching or working in multiple databases. This may seem like a small quality of life improvement, but it speeds up my workflow tremendously.

The next big gain is that this desktop has an ethernet port. That means I can plug into our school’s LAN and have uninterrupted Internet access and the fastest speeds that our school offers. Sometimes when there are a lot of people visiting the school, the WiFi in my office can bog down a little. This fixes that problem. Also, system updates that used to take 40 minutes now are essentially 30% or more faster because the download is so much speedier. Lots to like there.

What we lose

Portability – this is the obvious one. We need to meet with other teachers or staff members and having a laptop can be helpful to compare calendars, pull up agendas, open up databases or other systems. That is helpful, but worry not dear reader – we have a solution. We either use one of the older replacement MacBook Airs we have or we use our own laptop (which is what I do).

You also lose the ability to work anywhere in the school. Having a laptop means I could work in the conference room, outside in the pavilion, in a hallway. The choice was mine and having a desktop means I have to give that up. I guess I could unplug the iMac and tote it around, but realistically if I need to do that then I should have just chosen a laptop.

What’s the same?

I do most serious work in my office. That is work where I am writing out strategic plans, proposals and working within various databases or systems. That work I do in my office, even with a laptop. So having the desktop doesn’t change that aspect.

I am already used to toting my laptop to and from school so no big deal. Most of my work is in the cloud so there is very, very little that I can do on my desktop that I cannot do on my personal laptop. I also don’t mind doing schoolwork on my personal laptop. I know there are others who like to keep their personal and professional lives as separate as possible and I do like to have that separation. You can achieve this with multiple accounts on the laptop, so there is that solution.

So far so good

It’s been over three months and I have to say those gains or far outweighing the losses right now. I think we’ve made a good choice. I really love the larger screen. It frees up more space on my desk and I can find that I work more efficiently. I did have a monitor that I hooked up my laptop up to and I have kept it. The two 24″ screens make a very spacious digital working environment.

What do you think? If you were offered the choice of a desktop or a laptop which would you choose and why? Leave those comments below!

Soul Machines – A demo

www.soulmachines.com

There is a new company name Soul Machines. They make artificial intelligent digital people that are intended to be an active workforce for the metaverse. Whether you think the metaverse is the actual future, just a buzz word or complete nonsense is for another post or podcast. What interests me is whether Soul Machines can actually make a persona that can be genuinely helpful to others.

I got my introduction to Soul Machines in an article written by Alexis On on The Verge titled “This Company is Making Digital Humans to Serve the Metaverse” In the article Alexis is interviewing co-founder Greg Cross. Cross steails that they are targeting healthcare and education. They are not looking to replace those people but to work alongside. I guess to handle very low level questions.

I also imagine that Soul Machines will work with specific companies to program their digital assistants with specific knowledge of that specific company. They have a video below of what could be.

On their website you can talk to Viola, so why not. How smart is their AI? I made some rules first:

  1. Ask general knowledge questions that it should “know”
  2. Ask follow up contextual questions – for example: Who is the President of the USA? Where does he live?
  3. If it cannot answer a question I will move on
  4. I will speak slowly and clearly

You can see my “interview” at the top of the post. Basically the digital person is not very smart or all that helpful. It was programmed to bull information from YouTube, Wolfram Alpha and a few other sources, but I was surprised about how often Viola misheard me or was not able to answer very basic facts.

Conclusion

AI has a looooong way to go. As for used for basic information it could be helpful but I fear it will cause more frustration when it mishears or misunderstands the question. I cannot imagine a school district using Soul Machines as supplemental tutors or a way for students to get extra help or extra practice while at home or even at school.

Students just need too much contextual information such as a silent head nod or subtle gesture from an adult or peer to reassure them or let them know if they’re on the right track or not. The learning curve is just too high for everyone involved. What I mean about that is that students will have to learn how to interact with the Digital Person, teachers will have to learn what a Digital Person can and cannot do so when they instruct students and families to use it as a resource they know that something will be achieved. Schools and districts will need to know what realistic gains can be achieved rolling this out as a wide scale project.

As it stands now – this nothing more than a research project that offers little value to schools or districts. Be skeptical if Soul Machines or other companies come knocking on your door. Make sure they erase all doubts and shadows of doubts about what they are offering and what you can achieve with it before moving forward.

Technology is exciting and it is easy to get caught up in the hype and buzz words, so be careful and keep your students’ best interest in mind.

WordPress + Anchor.fm = It’s a little broken

When I heard about this in March of 2021 I thought that this was too good to be true? How could this partnership last? here is are two services that want you to consumer content on their websites/apps. How are they willing to split their revenue? Well it looks like it’s starting to fall apart a little bit.

What should happen?

Well here is how this was working. You would write your post on WordPress.com and then publish it. You had to publish it for Anchor.fm to see it, so once it was published you would log into your Anchor account and click on Episodes at the top.

If there were new episodes to be converted they would show up in the list.

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iPad Mini, Surface Pro 8, Surface Go 3 and Surface Studio Laptop – Are they good buys?

Recently Apple and Microsoft held events and unveiled some new products. Looking through my educator glasses I thought I’d write about them and try to evaluate if they are good for schools. When I say that, I mean, are they good to buy a whole bunch and give them to teachers, staff and/or students. So let’s dive in.

iPad Mini

No. There you go. The iPad Mini looks great. It probably has good battery life, the screen looks bright and the build quality is solid. In the past the iPad Mini was the “cheap” iPad, so schools bought them and teachers/students liked them. The landscape has now changed. Now schools can buy an iPad Mini for $449 (education discount) but the “cheap” iPad is $309 (education discount).

Continue reading “iPad Mini, Surface Pro 8, Surface Go 3 and Surface Studio Laptop – Are they good buys?”

Laptop recommendations? Check with your school

Back in June I wrote this same article. You can read it here. Basically it was in response to an article written by Monica Chen of The Verge. The article “recommends” the best laptop for students at all levels by students.

Well, they just republished the article again and I thought I’d just remind parents and students out there to use these articles as a jumping off point. A place to start your research not as a definitive source.

Remember that all of these sites are powered off of ad revenue. All of them, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these recommendations were actually paid for. For example, no way I would recommend an iPad Air for a high school student where I live. I know that all the surrounding high schools are either Google Workspace schools or Office 365 schools. There are much better options at that price point for those students than an iPad. An advertisement that looks like an actual article is a native ad and it may be what is happening here.

Again, check with your school. They will have recommendations and can help you narrow down your search much better than a tech journalist or a blogger like myself 🙂

Streaming events – An ongoing experiment

Photo by CoWomen on Pexels.com

This is going to be an ongoing series. Here I am talking about what we currently do and are planning. In future posts I will talk about the testing of the equipment, the use of the equipment and finally changes that we’ve made.

Streaming school events (concerts, athletics, presentations) has always been a bit of mystery for me. In theory it is pretty simple. You need cameras that feed into a computer and that computer then encodes and feeds the video to a streaming service. In practice it is pretty complicated and there are lots of questions:

  • What cameras do I use?
  • Do I have to wire the cameras?
  • How do I manage multiple camera feeds?
  • Can I brand or add graphics?
  • How do I capture audio from the event?
  • How do I encode the video feed so it streams properly?
  • Does it have to be 4K?
  • What service do I use?
  • What programs do I use?

What we do now

Right now, we have it super simple. We use a Mevo Plus camera. They have a newer version but here is what ours looks like.

Here is how you use it. You turn it on (it has a battery) and it connects to your smartphone via its Mevo app. Once they connect you control the camera with your smartphone. You can zoom in, out, and even pan all digitally. It can stream from your phone to YouTube, Ustream, Facebook and others live or you can record it to its micro SD card and then edit the footage later. The camera is a wide angle lens so it does a good job of covering a large area and the output can be up to 4K.

The quality is very good and while the camera we purchased was $400, outside of a tripod we did not need much more. We did buy some accessories, but we have figured to run audio from a soundboard or mixer into the Mevo for greatly improved sound. Overall, we have been very happy with our Mevo and will continue to use it.

There are some issues though. The Mevo is a single camera. There is no way to integrate it with other cameras. It is its own singular solution for streaming. You have one camera and that is it. It is simple and straightforward and that is the beauty of our Mevo, but as we look at covering athletic events, having more than one camera is desirable to cover more of the action. This has led to some good conversations and more importantly a plan.

The Plan

We are looking to stream with multiple cameras but as you add complexity to any solution, it usually requires more equipment, training and of course – money. We are looking for this equipment to be managed by middle school students (with appropriate teacher/administrator supervision – of course) so the solution has to be pretty easy. Easy to set up, use and tear down. All of this is important.

The first part is the BlackMagic Design ATEM Mini Pro ($499). This is going to be the brains of the operation.

This thing looks expensive but it offers a lot of flexibility and power when it comes to streaming. You can have 4 HDMI inputs, professional switching between the inputs as well. You can have two microphone line ins and if you hook it up to a monitor you can view all four inputs at once. Great for producing. Also, you can attach a hard drive to it to record if you don’t want to stream. There is also powerful software you can download and use to get even more power out of this thing. Best of all, it is pretty easy to use. I’ve watched a few demo videos about it and I think that middle school students could be up and running with this deck with some minimal practice and training. This video by Zebra Zone is particularly good. He shows the set up and goes through all of its features one at a time. Just great!

Now on to cameras. We don’t want super expensive prosumer cameras. We are looking to save a little money and through my research we are going with the Canon Vixia HF r800. Yeah that name just rolls right off the toungue there doesn’t it? Here it is from BH Photo.

Since it is going to be covering athletic events, it could get damaged so having a less expensive camera that does OK with motion is what is important. All of our events are going to be well lit (for the most part), so low light is not a factor. Another plus to this camera is that it comes with optical image stability. If we put it in the hands of someone or are doing a panning shot on a tripod it should look pretty smooth. The big thing it offers though is HDMI mini out. This means we can plug it into the ATEM Mini Pro! We are planning on purchasing two of these cameras.

Now here is the expensive part. We don’t want to be running HDMI cables all over the place, especially if student athletes are going to be walking or running in those areas. We want to do this wirelessly if possible and so an HDMI wireless transmitter/receiver set is in order. This starts expensive and can get really expensive. We decided on the Hollyland Mars 300.

This is for one camera! Right now we are going to stick with just one, even though we are starting with two cameras. We need to try it out even though it has great reviews. This boasts 300 feet wireless connectivity which is way more than we need, but to know that it can go that far is pretty impressive.

Broadcasting live!

Another piece I would like to add into this setup is the ability for people (ideally students) to announce the games. Rather than just have coaches and athletes talking to each other, it may be a nice touch, but how do you do this?

The ATEM Mini Pro does have two mic inputs and so we were thinking of just adding them that way. Perhaps purchasing some “cheap” broadcasting headsets. The problem with that is that many of them are only XLR and we need a 3.5mm input instead of XLR or 1/4″ inputs.

Another issue is the price. The cheaper headsets are starting at $50 and they quickly go up from there.

What’s next?

The equipment has been ordered. Once we set things up and try it out we try to find a workflow that works for us.

Google Chrome – Tab groups

How did I not know about this?! If you’re like me, then you rarely have more than 10 tabs open at a time. However, not everyone is as . . . considerate to their computer as I am. I have seen colleagues of mine have anywhere from 30-50 tabs open and not feel shame!

I know each browser has there own way of managing lots of tabs and there are more than a few extensions out there that can help people as well. Since my school uses Google, it only makes sense for me to use Google Chrome, plus I like all the extensions they have to offer, but this feature is built right into the browser itself. No need to install anything else or create an account with a third party. Just open tabs up and group them!

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Computer reviews – Check with your school

I saw this article on the Verge titled What’s the best student laptop? We asked students by Monica Chin. Being I am in IT and education I am always interested in these articles and this one asks students themselves. What would students say they like? Here is a group of people who typically don’t have a lot of spending power, so I was curious what they would suggest. Needless to say I was pretty disappointed.

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Blackbird – A review

I’m always interested in websites that teach coding. I like the idea of learning new skills and testing oneself. Blackbird is one of those sites. The goal here is to teach people JavaScript which is pretty cool because JavaScript runs in browser making a bit easier for people to play around in it.

This website is geared for middle school students and up and unlike block programming (like the super popular Scratch) this has students working with actual code, but it does it with a lot of hand holding which I like. Just to be clear I am no programmer. I have dabbled here and there with mostly Python but with this review I was learning right along everyone else. Let’s see if it is worth using.

Continue reading “Blackbird – A review”