School portal – How to Improve the Parent Experience

A lot of schools offer a Parent Portal. Some portals are more robust than others but they all seem to offer these features:

  • Check their child’s academic progress
  • Check out school events (athletics, groups and clubs alike)
  • Pay for fees

Sounds good right? Well, yeah, but sometimes parents don’t use the portal. Why don’t they use it and is that a bad thing. I’ll talk about our portal and my thoughts.

My School’s Portal

Let me tell you about what parents can do in our portal. Unlike other parent portals I have seen, ours is pretty modest.

As you can see parents can access information about their children (of course) and here is what everything else does:

  • Groups – This gives parents quick access to their and their child’s groups. Those could be parent groups, athletic groups and clubs
  • Resources – This is link page. It uses icons that give parents quick access to important information. That could be to pay their tuition, a list of study tips, etc.
  • News – This is a summary of all news and announcements from their groups or their child’s classes.
  • Calendar – Pretty self explanatory
  • Directories – This is where parents can look up contact information for other members in the school community.

That’s it. That is all it does. We also have the ability to assign certain school forms through the portal so the parents can login here and take care of that.

The portal is all hosted in the cloud and for us, we get limited options on how to customize it.

The Problem?

Well, the problem is that not a lot of parents use the portal on a regular basis. We can talk about why that is and I would also like to explore is that such a bad thing? Let’s get into it.

Some parents do not like the portal – plain as that. They find it not very organized or easy to navigate. This, unfortunately, is not something we can control. Another reason parents have given me is that the portal is used differently from one grade to another. Specifically, they are referring to grades that are in different divisions. For example, the difference between 4th grade and 5th grade. 4th grade is in our lower school and 5th grade is in our middle school. The problem is in middle school the students travel from one class to another with a dedicated teacher for that discipline. In 4th grade, they see the same two teachers for all core subjects and there is a lighter homework load. So, it is understandable that these two grades use the portal differently and parents can sometimes not like that.

Then there are inconsistencies within the divisions themselves of how the teachers use the portal. For example a 1st grade teacher uses it differently than a 4th grade teacher. This is also understandable as 1st graders have very little homework, while 4th graders have homework almost every night.

However, there is something to be said for consistencies in the portal. Regardless of grade level, all portal pages have the same options. They all have the same sections, they all start with similar layouts and having some more consistencies about what information should go where could be a good thing.

Now, that is the why – but is it a bad thing that parents don’t access it on a regular basis? Hmmm – I think it is but hear me out about my hesitation. Parents should know what is happening in the classrooms academically and where they are at in the curriculum. This information leads to better reinforcement at home and this usually translates to better understanding in the classroom. This is undeniably good.

Do parents need to log in every night though? Maybe not. Maybe the portal should be treated like a reference book. Reaching for it when needed, like a dictionary or encyclopedia. So when would those times be? Perhaps at the end and beginning of a unit. To check up on major assessments and projects. Maybe if their child is struggling. I don’t have the answer but I wonder if this would work better for most.

Purpose of the portal

The portal is a hub of information for the school. The information will center around their child but then there is also school information as well, but if you think about it a little more – the portal is also a training exercise. Schools are using the portal to train their parents (and older students) that if you want/need info about our school, athletics, classes or groups then this is where you need to go.

It is here to train them to keep up with their child’s schedule and academic performance and also important events and actions they need to complete (signing a permission slip for example). Like any good training program – consistency is key. Without it, the program fails and I think that is the situation my school finds itself in. We have an OK portal but the consistency isn’t there . . . yet.

Ask

I think it is important to ask the stake holders (parents, students, teachers) about how they use the portal and what they would like to see out of it. While there will never be a perfect portal that all three stake holders agree on how it is used, trying to make it as accessible and streamlined as possible is still a valiant goal.

With that in mind, ask how these people are using the portal. Create survey’s and listen. What I have found is that you can very often hear one person say they use the portal in a certain way and then you will hear another person say they use it in a completely different way.

What you are looking for here are common threads. Again, it won’t make everyone happy but we are looking for a streamlined and consistent experience for the students and parents and with enough feedback hopefully you can start shaping the portal to your school’s needs.

I’m working on a survey right now and when I have it ready – I’ll be sure to share it with the IT Babble community.

Consistency

Finally, once you have data and feedback it is time to layout guidelines. Talk with administrators to work on what is realistic and sustainable but once those are set share those guidelines with everyone. Make the community accountable to making sure that teachers post to the portal and that students and parents are checking the portal. This shared responsibility takes a lot of pressure off of everyone’s shoulders and shares the load across the teachers, parents and students.

Streaming in the classroom: BenQ – Instashow

READ ALL THE REVIEWS ON THIS PAGE – STREAMING IN THE CLASSROOM SERIES

The journey continues! This time we are looking at the BenQ Instashow. A lot of people may not be too familiar with BenQ in North America, but they have it looks as though they have been making steady inroads into the continent. They may a bevy of products and this is one of them.

If you are familiar with Barco’s ClickShare (review coming soon) you will notice an immediate similarity, and you would be correct! It basically works under the same principal which I’ll check out below.

Price

OK – let’s get this out of the way. The BenQ Instashow is expensive. I looked the cost up on CDW and the cost for this system is $1100 USD. That’s a hunk of change people. The version I have is USB but they do have other connector types available to purchase and all are around the same price point.

One unit is good for one display. We do have two buttons that will allow you to quickly (and seemlessly) switch between one computer and another on the same display.

What can it do?

It can mirror your screen or allow the second screen to act as an extended display. Let me tell you fellow reader – it works really well. That is all it does though. No whiteboard, no multiple computers on the same screen simultaneously, just takes your screen and puts on a projector/TV.

You get a button or two and a base station. The base station obviously plugs into the projector or display and the buttons plug into the computer. The first time, you will need to pair the buttons with the base station. This initial pairing is pretty quick and you only need to do it once.

On the back of the base station you have few options.

As you can see, there is a pairing button, an Ethernet input, and HDMI connector and a microUSB connector (for power). Unfortunatelye the BenQ Instashare does not have Power Over Ethernet (POE). Meaning you need to use the micro USB port to power the device. The good news is that connecting it to a TV or projector’s USB port is sufficient to power the base station. The packaging does include a traditional plug if your device doesn’t have a USB.

What makes this different from the Mersive and the Barco WePresent is that no software is needed. There is no client to download, install and run to connect. It just connects. You plug in one of the buttons into your computer, wait for the light to turn green, press the light and you’re connected.

The lag is nearly nonexistent and the image is crystal clear. It really is pretty nice.

How this works is that the button and the base station form their own private (and encrypted) network. You don’t have to connect the BenQ to your schools’s WiFi or even the LAN. All you need to do is plug it into the display make sure it has power and you’re off and running. Something to note though, the dongle must be plugged in the entire time to work. Which means you are carrying that dongle plugged into your computer with you at all streaming times.

When it is connected to the display here is what is shown.

That is really all the instructions you get. No navigating to an IP address or anything else. Just very straight forward which is really nice.

Streaming Video

Ease of use is one thing, but performance is another. How does the BenQ stream video? It streams video great! There is no lag, no distortion of picture or dropped frames. Audio came through with no problems (though I did have to change the audio output on my Mac each time I connected).

It worked very, very well. I would go so far as to say it streamed video better than an Apple TV and at this price point it had better. Check out the example below. Again, I used a random Ted Talk because you get to see a lot of people talking on screen.

Pretty good eh?

When we had two buttons connected, all a person had to do was hit their button and the image switched instantly. There was no loading screen, no black screen while it was processing. It just switched. We did this many times even trying to see how fast it would go. The BenQ handled it all with ease. Very impressive.

It does take a little time to connect but more about that below.

Issues

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops with the BenQ though. It works pretty well with MacBooks, Windows laptops and Chromebooks, but it was a no go for iPads or mobile phones with USB. I am not sure why, but it wouldn’t react at all when plugged into my OnePlus 6. Does this mean it won’t work at all? Not sure, but we had no success with it.

Then there was the time it took to connect. I would hope that all I had to do was plug in the dongle and a few seconds later I could connect. Not quite. I plugged in the dongle and then after about 25-30 seconds I got a green light on the ring, but when I pressed the button to connect it failed. Here is a video of that happening. I sped up the speed by two but put a time code in the upper left hand corner for reference.

If you were thinking that you could pass the dongle around from student to student to seamlessly stream you better have some buffer time planned in between. This seemed to be the case with any of the computers we tried including the Chromebook. Sometimes we got it up and running in about 30 seconds, but it was always 30 seconds or more.

Once connected though, it was solid. It stayed connected and nothing we threw at it seemed to deter it at all.

The range of the BenQ Instashow is pretty decent at around 8 meters (26 feet) as advertised in its included documentation. It didn’t stutter or try to keep the connection. When it hit the limit it just disconnected instantly – this is nice. No games, no maybe I can stretch it today, it just stops.

The reason I include this in the Issues section is that if you wanted to use this in your theater or large multipurpose room, it may restrict where you can place it. Keep that in mind, before plunking down all that cash. In most classrooms though this would work without issue.

The last issue is the dongles. They’re not heavy or poorly built, in fact they’re feel good. In order for this to work, your computer must stay plugged into the dongle at all times. I had no issues plugging it in, and picking up my computer and walking around the room with it. It worked just fine. Even accidentally bumping the dongle didn’t interrupt the stream.

Managing the BenQ

Well, there is no management option I could find, but really there isn’t much to manage. Since they are plugged into the projector/display via USB, they pull their power from it. If it were to freeze, we would simply restart our projectors. Since we have laser projectors this whole process would take 15 seconds and then a short boot time for the BenQ. That’s not too hard.

I do worry about the dongles (buttons) getting lost as classrooms can move pretty fast but overall teachers could easily power cycle these units themselves.

Would teachers like it?

Hell yeah! Great video streaming and solid connection? You bet they would. I am sure they wouldn’t be too thrilled with the dongle but right now that is where technology is. I do like the fact that it works with Mac, Windows and Chromebooks. The long load times may keep teachers from freely passing the dongle around the room. The cost of a dongle is around $600 USD, so that may also keep teachers from passing it around as well.

Will it replace our Apple TV’s?

Not a chance. It is just too expensive. I like what BenQ has made, but the cost is waaaay out there.

$1100 vs $179 (that’s the 4K version)

There is no way I can sit in front of our CFO and justify the price per unit cost. I’ll be sure to keep my eye on the Instashow but at this point it may be a good idea to have one in the building for presenters.

The Support Puzzle

Jigsaw

By Tony DePrato | Follow Me on LinkedIn

I was recently in a conversation with a large group of people who provide IT Support. Many do not work in education, which is why I like the group. One of the members was recently asked in an interview to rank the following support requests in terms of importance.

1) A teacher has standardized testing starting in 30 minutes however she is unable to access the testing site.

2) The principal (aka your immediate supervisor) can’t open a spreadsheet that she needs to have ready for a presentation later that same day.

3) A teacher is unable to start a lecture because her PowerPoint won’t open. Students are waiting in the classroom.

This scenario truly exemplifies the difference between EdTech and CorpTech. In EdTech the order of importance should be, 1-3-2. In CorpTech it could easily be 1-2-3, or, even 2-1-3. Anyone who has worked with a demanding boss in a Hire-At-Will employment environment would understand why.

In a school, unless the school is on the bad side of accreditation standards, the answer would be 3-2-1.

Here is why.

Teaching and Learning

Most people look at the options and see time and urgency. And although the right answer can be derived from time and urgency, that metric will not always apply. A universal metric is to always focus on Teaching and Learning (TL).

This means that all processes at the school, IT included, need to be on mission and that mission is to support Teaching and Learning. In order to do that, students and teachers come first, and everything else later.

The business of the school is education, education happens within the TL dynamic.

Most school administrators will not even interrupt classes unless there is a real emergency. School administrators will inconvenience themselves to reduce the impact on teachers and students.

In organizations with a head of school or superintendent, those offices may have their own separate support for the technology to further reduce any impact to TL.

The Eisenhower Matrix

I am a big fan of using time management and decision management frameworks. My favorite is The Eisenhower Matrix. I have written about it here if for those who are not familiar with it. 

matrix22

I use the layout above for decision making and project planning. I also use Agile and Scrum when executing the actual pieces of projects. I need these tools to prevent reacting emotionally to problems.

In the scenario above this is how I would categorize each of the three support problems.

DO, Do it Now: 1) A teacher has standardized testing starting in 30 minutes however she is unable to access the testing site.

The reasoning here is that standardized tests have controls that the school must follow. This is a tricky scenario because unless you have implemented IT procedures for standardized testing you would not realize that the pre-testing is completed well in advance. That means the school has already scheduled and guaranteed a test window. The test either has to occur or be canceled and rescheduled. I would write a guide on test implementation, and they vary greatly. For older children, there is a high risk if these test fail.

DECIDE: 3) A teacher is unable to start a lecture because her PowerPoint won’t open. Students are waiting in the classroom.

As a school administrator, I would, of course, ask IT to go help the teacher immediately. In this case, you really need to know the schedule before deciding when to go. If classes are 70-80 minutes every other day, you would want someone in there immediately. If classes are 35-40 minutes daily, you would want to send someone at the end of the class.

The technology has made achieving the lesson goals impossible if the lesson is short. However, the lesson occurs so often that the impact on TL is low. In fact, taking more time in the end when the students are transitioning will allow someone to look at prevention instead of just adding a quick solution that only deals with the symptom.

Most schools have requirements that teachers should be able to run their lessons in the event of an IT failure. This should not happen every day, but it can happen, and teachers are required to work through the issue. If a teacher follows protocol going into the class 5-10 minutes after class has begun, could interrupt their backup plan.

This is why it is a DECIDE. It varies based-on campus and culture.

Delegate: 2) The principal (aka your immediate supervisor) can’t open a spreadsheet that she needs to have ready for a presentation later that same day.

Anyone can do this job as soon as the others are in progress. If there is one IT support person, they will do this last. It is not time-sensitive. Most principals would angry if a teacher or class of students were put in lower priority.

If there is a team, the leader could assign someone to this with a reasonable timeframe.

If you are in EdTech IT Support, make sure you are connected to the culture of your school. Understanding the policies and procedures outside of IT is key to understanding how to support Teaching and Learning.

 

 

Cubit Robotics: Probably Better Than What You Are Doing

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By Tony DePrato | Follow Me on LinkedIn

I have been working with robotics since 2005. I have worked with students from US Grade 4 to students competing in university competitions.

As of late, I have been shocked by this trend: remote control.

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=2082
https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=2082

Remote control is not the future. The future is autonomous and AI-driven. So why are schools teaching robotics via remote control at all levels with very little autonomous programming?

The software that was once easy to access, often free, and allowed for fairly deep programming has reverted to big graphical blocks.

This is why I am very excited about Cubit Robotics/Electronics for STEM.

I asked Cubit for a sample kit, and they sent it along. My robot frame and build were simple because I wanted to focus on programming.

cubit-rover

The Cubit was loaded with sensor options, and the programming interface was Bluetooth.

For the record, I was using a Macbook, and I was very happy to get back into a programming environment that empowered real coding on an Apple. As of late, most of the robotics packages I have used on an Apple have removed the text-based coding options.

The flexibility was nice, and the educational scaffolding was clear.

You can start with the colorful blocks, and easily get things working.

Screen Shot 2020-01-16 at 7.44.43 AM

Then, you can get into the code, and make things work the way you want.

Screen Shot 2020-01-16 at 7.45.03 AM

Cubit uses Lua language. I found it to be an excellent primer for going in a variety of programming directions. I have always found that using robotics and electronics as a prerequisite for IB or AP computer science is a better primer than simply having an introductory course based solely in a language. Let’s be honest, robots are fun, and they can really help build the programming competency base.

If you are new to robotics and have no idea where to get started, Cubit is an excellent solution. Cubit provides a built-in curriculum with projects ranging from elementary to high school. The programming environment guides users through the initial steps.

Screen Shot 2020-01-16 at 8.10.41 AM

Robotic’s education needs to move away from the obsession with remote control. I believe this obsession emerged from the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the realization that automation is usually a low scoring and frustrating endeavor. When students can use a remote control, they can get more points and do more in less time.

The process, stress, and failure should be the goal when using robotics for K-12 education. If a student can understand the complexities of automation before they leave high school, then they are better prepared for the AI-driven future and their place within it.

It is small, affordable, and easy to build, but Cubit is a step towards authentic learning and forward-thinking.

AI Research

  1. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/artificial-intelligence-ai-market
  2. https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/library/artificial-intelligence-predictions-2019.html
  3. https://apnews.com/Business%20Wire/df8bdcfa4de84f6aa301d3683c2e1b55
  4. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/br/Documents/technology/DI_TechTrends2019.pdf

Virtual Reality – I am hopeful for its future

I recently wrote a post titled I Played with Virtual Reality. In that post I review the Mirage Solo – A standalone (no wires) Google Day Dream device. I did not find it super impressive and it got me thinking. Is the virtual reality done for right now? Is it over? I mean the hype is pretty non-existent right now concerning anything that is coming out in this area (I am also lumping in mixed and augmented reality into this topic).

I can relate

I wondered to myself about what happened? I was super pumped about this! I thought this would be revolutionary to education. Something along the lines of giving students laptops, but I was wrong. Then I ran across this CNET article by Mark Serrels titled Virtual reality feels like a dream gathering dust.

In the article, he points out that in 2019 at CES (one of the largest technology shows in the world) that VR is nothing more than a talking point in a presentation. It’s not a key feature to any device that adds value to it.

He later goes on to explain that he attended a panel at CES called AR-VR-MR Think Tank. Here the panel of professionals talk shop about these different technologies. If you are unfamiliar with those acronyms here is what they stand for:
* AR – Augmented Reality
* VR – Virtual Reality
* MR – Mixed Reality

The panel basically says that the public was sold the idea of virtual reality as a consumer product too early. It still hadn’t been developed enough by corporations or people long enough. I remember reading feverishly all that I could about VR and the different headsets (Oculus, HTC Vive) and when they were going to be sold to

There is a new version of the HTC Vive and Occulus is coming out with the Quest both are stand-alone and far more powerful than the Lenovo Mirage I got to play with, but still, it’s not that great. There are games out there for VR, but not a ton of good ones or so I thought.

So the outlook doesn’t sound too promising but then I listened to a podcast.

Top 10

I was listening to the Kinda Funny Gamecast and the hosts were going over their top 10 games of 2018. A number of Playstation VR games had made the list. Here were the three that I can remember off the top of my head.
* Beat Saber
* Moss
* Astro Bot

Kinda Funny is well respected and pretty prominent in the gaming industry and for any VR games to make their top 10 makes me feel hopeful for VR. It makes me feel that there are still companies out there who are dedicated to making it work and making it better and developing it.

Video games seem like the industry that will carry the torch. I am sure that the corporate world and maybe the medical industry may use it for training, but to make it a truly interactive experience and a seamless one I feel that the video game industry is probably the best industry for its development. They can create products that give users a chance to test it out and then give feedback on a larger scale than any other industry. Not every VR game has to be Grand Theft Auto or Super Smash Brothers to make a lasting impact too. Meaning that smaller independent companies have a chance to push the boundaries here.

I still don’t recommend schools investing in VR unless they have a very specific program with a VR need, but I do recommend that schools keep an eye on the space and an open mind a few years down the road.

Fun Holiday movies

Only a few more days until the winter break and the end of 2018 so I thought that some teachers might like some holiday movies that they could show some of their students. Here you go!

How the Grinch that Stole Christmas

Yep – it’s a classic and no I am not talking about the latest animated version or the terrible Jim Carey version. I’m talking the 1966 original with Boris Karloff. You can find it on YouTube and it is less than 30 minutes and a lot of fun.

 

Toy Story

The first Toy Story changed everything and it was released pretty close to Thanksgiving (making it a holiday movie) in 1995. The movie holds up and it is pretty remarkable to see just how far Pixar has come with its animation. It’s also pretty interesting to see just how mean Woody was in the first movie.

 

Song of the Sea

I’m cheating here. This movie released in the US around the holidays but the movie itself takes place during Halloween. Hey – it’s my blog I can cheat a little if I want 🙂 At any rate, this movie is great! It has a wonderful story, beautiful animation and the voice acting is top notch.  It is far better than Big Hero 6 which I believe won best-animated movie that year.

 

Arthur Christmas

Another Christmas movie but like How the Grinch Stole Christmas this is also not very religious and addresses more of the logistical practicality that surrounds Santa Claus. It’s fun, enjoyable, has a nice message and is through and through a good movie.

DON’T WATCH THIS MOVIE!

Adam Sandler made an animated holiday film titled 8 Crazy Nights. It is terrible. Everything from the voice acting to the animation to the writing. It is PG-13 for adult language but it is just bad.

There you have it – what videos would you think to be a good idea for the holidays?

I Played with Virtual Reality

In the not too distant past there was a promise that virtual reality and/or augmented reality was going to be the “next big thing.” Well both are here and there is less buzz around them than ever before? I have played around with a virtual reality headset and was less than impressed. Let me tell you what went wrong.

Lenovo Mirage Solo

I attended the HECC Tech Conference in Indianapolis this year. Every participant was given a Lenovo Mirage Solo virtual reality headset. What makes this a little intriguing is that it is completely wireless. There is no smartphone that needs to be slipped into a piece of cardboard or power/data cables that are tethered to the headset. There is also a wireless handheld controller that will let you navigate through the menus and also allow you to interact with the different apps.

At the conference, a Lenovo sales representative predicted that every school in America would have a cart of VR headsets for teachers to check out and use with their class. He did say that Lenovo recommends that the headset is used with children at least 13 years or older.

So what powers this thing? The Mirage runs Android and Google Daydream. Of course, this means you need to have a Google account and access to the Google Play store to download apps. It has a wall charger with a USB C connector to charge the device and the remote control (you need to charge them separately). There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack on the side of the headset and it includes some earbuds, though I suspect you could pair some wireless Bluetooth headphones to it.

OK – that’s the background info now let’s get into the use.

Setting it up

I must say strapping on the headset for the first time and powering it on was pretty neat. After the system actually loads you find yourself looking everywhere just to test it all out. There was a preloaded Wild Immersion app that has various videos (all shot in 360 naturally) of a wildlife nature reserve in Africa. It is pretty neat to look behind you and see animals right behind you. It’s a short experience but got me pretty jazzed up and so I jumped right into the setup.

Man, this was like jumping into a 3 foot mud puddle, slow and clumsy. Using the controller to manually type in your Google account name and password took forever oh, but before that, you needed to select and type in the WiFi password. It sounds simple, put pretend a large keyboard is 1.5–2 meters in front of you. This keyboard has very large keys. Now you have a stick and need to type all that in. It’s certainly doable, just not enjoyable or super easy. I’m not sure a solution here but this process stunk.

It is very slow and tedious. Then once in, I had to run some updates, restart the device and then I was ready to go. This (including the Wild Immersion experience took about 30 minutes.

Using it

Once logged in, you can navigate and download apps. You don’t have a normal app store, but a curated one with basically just VR ready apps at the forefront. Select an app, type in your password (like you would on your smartphone) and away you go. The first app I downloaded was a virtual roller coaster. It was free – I’m not going to lie – that’s why I picked it.

The roller coaster app was an unusual experience. It was odd because I was sitting in a kitchen chair, I wasn’t moving, I knew I wasn’t moving, but somehow my brain still experienced moments of vertigo as I crested a tall hill. It is a little surreal. It wasn’t that the rollercoaster was going fast either and I could see and predict what was coming and when. Like I said – surreal.

There are those moments of interest but overall the experience isn’t that great. First, the image was never fully in focus. I had to hold the headset to my head to minimize this effect. Most of the image as but near the top left-hand part it seemed to be always out of focus.

Perhaps I didn’t adjust it just right, I am willing to put that on me, but think for a moment of a class of twenty students and trying to get each student (or even just half of them) adequately adjusted. This sounds like a nightmare.

There is an interesting safety feature built into it. If you move too far from your original position, the screen dims (or fades to black altogether) and there is a message that you need to return to the position for your own safety. I am sure this is to keep people from roaming, tripping, falling or just inadvertently hurting themselves.

Image quality

The image quality is good but feels lacking. The image is clearly framed within your vision forcing you to move your head around to see something. Try to picture yourself looking through a box. In order to see what is to your left or right, you need to actually move your head instead of just your eyes.

Though the headset is fairly comfortable after a while it gets tiring.

The actual resolution is pretty good and there is the screen door effect (where the image looks like it is being viewed behind a screen) but it seems very minimal.

App selection & afterward

There just isn’t a ton of selection out there and what is out there you feel more like a passenger and not someone who can interact. I did download a BBC app called BBC Earth. It is kind of neat but a bit buggy. You can use the remote to access information about your surroundings and you tether yourself to a seal who leads you around the ocean. It’s neat but I had trouble lassoing the seal and sometimes other trouble selecting items to get information. After a good 10 minutes in here, I found myself frustrated and wanting to leave.

There are some YouTube videos that are 360 but again, you are just along for the ride. There needs to be more. I am not exactly sure I can describe what this “more” should be I just know that what I had on my noggin was not enough.

Many of the apps I tried had minimal interaction and some felt as though it was an after thought. Remember when 3D films were all the rage. James Cameron made Avatar – a movie purpose designed and shot on special 3D cameras. Then there was a deluge of all these other films that had been “turned into” 3D films. The difference between the two were staggering and some audience members had issues with the 3D in Avatar as well.

After using it for about 45 minutes I took the headset off and I noticed an issue of my eyes focusing on objects. It was as if my right and left eyes were trying to focus differently on the same object. I cannot explain it any better than that. This effect lasted for a good 30 minutes after I had set the headset down. I don’t believe it would have impaired me from driving but it certainly bugged me.

It needs to just work & other problems

I know this is a tall order but if you want teachers and schools to go through all of this and invest their money (and time) it just needs to work. There can’t be all these slowdowns or bugs within apps. It needs to do more than just allow students to be a “passenger.”

I can see other problems with this. Students jumping into other apps, students jumping into the correct app and then go off exploring without waiting for instructions. Also, when you utilize sound (which does improve the immersion effect) forget about giving instructions at all after that point. Instructions need to be crystal clear and understood before this device is even passed out. Once it is on and the outside world is blocked out the students are on their own.

The remote is another issue. As a consumer it is great to have. It is wireless, fairly easy to use and is pretty accurate (though it can be tedious as mentioned earlier). Now you have a class set. These remotes are fairly small and I can see them getting lost. I mean how often have students “misplaced” Chromebooks or iPads and think how large those are compared to these tiny remotes.

Should you buy it

I think my tone is pretty clear here. Skip this and all virtual reality devices … for now. In the past (heck still now) you can find articles touting how VR will change the world! It may but is pretty far away. It is exciting to watch but don’t waste your time or classroom budget on these devices yet.

They are too big, still buggy, still out of focus, still not fully baked.

I was genuinely excited about the Mirage. I wanted to like it, I wanted it to bring something new to the table. It does but it is fleeting. It is very cool for a few minutes and then you realize that you are just along for the ride. This breaks that immersion a bit. It takes some of the thrill away from the experience.

I still have hopes for VR, but the reality is that it is farther from the mainstream than I initially realized and that unless it is done correctly, it’s not worth being done at all.

Keep hoping people – I know I will.

I Did the Hour of Code, and then I Did Three More Hours of Coding


By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

Every year I take a few minutes to express slight annoyance at “The Hour of Code”. In my professional life, I will support any teacher wishing to participate. However, if anyone does happen to ask my opinion, I would explain to them my reservations about the event.

This year I want to take a new approach. Let’s skip the part about how an hour of coding is not a practical amount of time to plan, draft, built, and evaluate a creative solution or idea. Let’s move beyond the fact that the majority of the programming environments children are using are telling them what to do and how to do it (because they only have an hour). Finally, let’s completely ignore the potential disappointment students will face when they decide to actually try and build something on their own.

The first important fact I would like to address is that I have taught children as young as  grade three how to code something meaningful. It was a slow, and often painful process, that seemed to be futile. However, the children always surprised me, and after 6-8 hours of work, there was usually a working program that connected to an idea. I would like to stress that I am aware many students are not able to simple open an IDE and begin creating the next Mario Kart. Coding/Programing is tough. It takes practice. Students need to learn and evolve. Doing an Hour of Code ONCE to get them going is fun, and I would support that.

Why Are We Still At An Hour of Code?

My rant this year is on this simple question: why do we still just have an hour of code?
It seems like since many schools have been doing this for a few years that there would be another, possibly required, track that regular participants would need to follow.

For example, Three Hours of Code. Or maybe Two Hours of Code, the Wrath of Python. Anything beyond on hour for those who understand the mission, and have mastered an hour of code, would be preferable.

Maybe if it is the first time coding with students, schools do one hour, and join the movement.

Since those schools have a full year to prepare for the next challenge, how about level it up a bit? Why wait all year to just do one more hour?

If we are saying the mission of the project is to get students interested in coding, then shouldn’t the continued mission require more  levels of participation?

An Hour of Code year-after-year is not a going to make an impact.

Are You Really Serious About Coding and Project Based Learning?

If you are serious about working with young learners, then you need to find programs like AppJamming. These types of contests connect all the aspects of the Systems Life Cycle , to the student experience. Working with a program like AppJamming allows students to experience the various phases of creation from the idea to the end-product.

Makerfaires are another outlet for getting students involved in true project based learning initiatives. These types of events are excellent. Coding is part of a tool kit instead of the sole focus. Students who may “like” coding, but do not “love” coding, would be more likely to participate. Students would learn to integrate coding as a process into a larger product.

In Summary

Support teachers and students who want to do new things. Do not keep allowing people to easily do the same thing over and over. The learning becomes less and less when the goals are easy to achieve. Encourage people to challenge themselves, and take some risks.

 

 

Apple products in schools? It’s complicated

Apple just unveiled a new MacBook Air, Mac Mini and iPad Pro. Much of this news should get schools excited. I want to be excited so why am I not excited? To oversimplify my issue is price. I am not sure the new MacBook Air is worth $1200 and I am not sure the Mac Mini is worth $800 and then to have Apple compare its iPads to laptops (kind of undercutting the MacBook Air a little) it makes me a little worried. So let me ramble a bit more below.

MacBook Air


This MacBook Air at one point was arguably the best laptop period. It didn’t matter if you were comparing it to a Windows device or not. It had incredible battery, pretty powerful and for the price probably the best laptop you could buy. That was 7 years ago.

Now they have a new MacBook Air starting at $1200. It has a much better display, a fair amount of RAM, a new Intel Y processor, a fingerprint sensor for easy logging in and some others bells and whistles. Sounds good but the problem is that Windows laptops have come a long way since then and if you’re spending $1200 on a laptop and you decide to look across the aisle at Windows, well you can see some compelling arguments to switch over.

A Dell XPS 13″ is a great computer to compare it with. You can find almost the same specs for $200 cheaper. When you’re buying 13–20 laptops at a time – that $200 is nothing to sneeze at. I’ve played around with one and it is a really nice laptop. Also, when most of our work is in the cloud (including our SIS) it makes one wonder why stick with Apple?

I do like Mac OS and I do find it easier to work with but we’re talking a lot of money that could go back into the budget every year. Do we stick with Mac because that is what everyone else uses? How would the staff react? Those are questions for another time.

The OLD MacBook Air

Apple is still selling the old MacBook Air and I would be fine with that if they dropped the price since we are talking about a computer that is still using a processor three generations so it’s not nearly as powerful and they are still selling it for $999. At the price point it is a poor investment for schools. We try to get to four years out of our laptops and while we probably could get four years from the old Airs I wonder how it will be performing for our teachers and staff in four years? It seems like a bad investment.

Mac Mini


I really like it except it is very expensive for a $800 desktop. Still it is a good computer for running a small server (which we do) and will probably pick one up and then manually upgrade the RAM. You cannot upgrade the storage or processor as both are still soldered to the board.

iPad Pro confusion

OK – here is what worries me. Apple is clearly stacking the iPad Pro up against traditional laptops (including their own). It’s priced like a laptop. It is more powerful than most laptops. To me, Apple is clearly telling us to ditch our laptops for the iPad Pro. This only reinforces my opinion that iOS and Mac OS are going to merge one day and the device Apple would like to see that happen is with its own iPad. I have no idea what this would look like and if any company can pull it off it will be Apple.

I’ve talked with a couple of people in various different professions who use the iPad Pro as their daily device. They all said the same thing. It’s great but it takes time to figure out how to do some tasks that are pretty basic with my laptop. Such as finding and organizing files, not using a mouse, etc. This is not a good future in my opinion and I worry that Apple will continue to let its laptop line become more and more mediocre.

Right now we are budgeting to purchase the new 13″ Retina MacBook Air but it doesn’t sit well with me and we won’t make the purchase till the summer so we will see how it turns out.

Predictions, Patience and Observation

I saw this article by Jamey Keaten in the Huffington Post titled Automation In The Workplace Means Machines Will Handle Half Of Tasks By 2025: Report. It basically says that automation will replace people at their jobs. So schools need to adjust right? I mean the future is happening right now so schools have to act right now! RIGHT!?!?! WE MUST CHANGE NOW!!!!!

OK, let’s take a step back, take a breath and look at this article (and others like it). The article claims (in the title) that half of all workplace tasks will be handled by automation. That is a pretty bold prediction right there. They don’t define what a “task” is nor do they offer what is a “workplace”. In fact, there are very little details that give any actual example. It turns out this is just a prediction. I have a problem with this prediction and others like but I’ll talk about that later.

Educational Impact

So, if you’re in a school should you be pushing for more coding, more robotics, more maker space opportunities to better prepare your students for this future? Well yes and no! You want more and better opportunities for your students. These particular areas challenge students to think creatively, critically and help build good team skills which in turn helps them learn how to communicate better with their peers and others. Nice – but that should be the push behind it not because an article says that this is the future. A less informed person may ask the question “Should these classes be mandatory?”

I personally don’t think so. You must remember that there are only so many hours in a school day and to make a new subject mandatory it must push something else out in order to make space. So what goes? Certainly not a core subject (English, History/Social Studies, Math, Science). So that leaves Physical Education, Art, Music and World Languages. So which one would you remove? Leave your comments below

I see the importance of coding and so forth but I just cannot pick another class or subject and say “Yep! That’s the weak link in our school. It’s time to replace it with something new!” It just doesn’t make sense.

Saying that every student needs to learn coding or robotics may sound progressive and forward thinking but I believe that it is usually a statement that is not fully thought out or that someone has not considered how it would impact the school itself.

Computers, systems and databases are getting simpler and easier for the common user. Computers are a great example. Computer operating systems have been becoming easier and easier to use. While they still have their head scratching moments (like the the Control Panel and the Settings page in Windows 10). Windows 10 is certainly a lot easier to find files, use programs and navigate than Windows 3.1 or even Mac 7.0.1. The point here is that computer interfaces are becoming easier and easier to use. The need to dive under-the-hood to fix something is becoming less and less necessary.

A lot people argue that students need to know how to code to learn how to build something. Sure, you can certainly accomplish that with coding, but you can also accomplish that with video or image editing software, a project art class, an experiment in a science lab or in just about any other class. One does not need coding to create or problem solve. There are countless other ways that children can learn to create, think critically and problem solve. Coding is just one way to go.

Prediction problem

Now back to the prediction in the article and the problem I have with it. These articles are written with such an air of authority that how could anyone deny this is coming? How could this possibly not happen? It makes people jump up and want to take action. People like educators, parents, students and policy makers.

Let us not forget this is a prediction and nothing more. Predictions have been wrong before. Now let’s talk about what is wrong with this article and its very confident prediction.

I already mentioned the lack of details of what a task is and what a workspace is. Nor does it give a specific case of this happening. For example, saying that McDonald’s self-ordering Kiosk that will eliminate a traditional cashier position.

Now back to what is a task. This could be any type of action. Turning on and off a light. That is a task. A lot of schools already use motion sensors to perform this task. Does it replace an employee? No, in fact it actually creates some jobs for others outside of the school. How about using a card to unlock a door at your school?

At our school the parent/teacher conferences is now automated as we use an online service but this actually creates a little more work for the IT department as we set up the system, but it saves a lot of work for our teachers which is great. Again, no one loses their job.

So if this article is talking about these types of tasks I can agree that in less than a decade a lot of basic tasks could be automated. Would I go so far to say 50% will be automated? No, I think that is a little ridiculous. So at school are we teaching our students “tasks”? Sure, but that is a quick skill and nothing more. We don’t have light switch class offered in middle school. We do, however, encourage students to turn off the lights in rooms no one is in to save electricity.

Conclusion

Be critical of these articles (and of this one!) Think about what they are talking about and proposing and then see if it makes sense. Look at around your world, be observant and see if those predictions really seem like they could come to fruition. Driverless cars are a good example. Some have said that there will be plenty on the road by 2020. That is less than two years away. Does it seem that way to you? Has their been legislation passed to allow the everyday driver the ability to purchase these cars? Can it navigate through a dense urban environment? Has the ethical issues and the industry issues been tackled?

Virtual reality and augmented reality (sometimes referred to as mixed reality) was supposed to take the world be storm. Well, they are here and most people, most schools, most businesses and industries rarely use it, or use it meaningfully.

I am merely saying that predictions do not always go the way people have predicted them to go. Don’t be so eager to believe a prediction (regardless of where it comes from) and react to every headline, news report, blog or discussion around the water cooler.