Who needs books? Not me

OK, I just finished reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001 on my Nexus 7. After reading it I came to a two conclusions. The book wasn’t all that great and I can’t see myself purchasing or borrowing a physical book in the near future and I’m more than OK with that.

As far as the book goes, the Amazon reviews are a pretty good place to start. It just didn’t seem complete and the conclusion was pretty lack luster and just a bit of a disappointment. At any rate, the other books in the series are pretty good if you like sci-fi and probably worth your time.

Now onto my other conclusion. I can’t really see myself holding a physical book (if I have a choice in the matter) again. I just don’t see the point of it. Let me go to the beginning.

For Christmas of 2013 my wife bequeathed to me her old Kindle Keyboard as she upgrade to the newer Paperwhite. So I immediately started to find free ebooks by heading over to Project Guttenberg. Here you can find books that are out of copyright and can be downloaded for free – Shakespeare, Conrad basically a lot of classics. It was great and reading on the kindle was sweet. It was fast, easy, convenient and I can do it almost anywhere and the battery life oh man – it was a month! It fit in just about any bag, was light and comfortable to hold. I was hooked – this is how I wanted to read.

I also had the ability to borrow books from Amazon because I’m a Prime member, but Guttenberg and Amazon didn’t always offer everything I wanted and Amazon only let me borrow one book per month. So if I polished it off in a few days I was left waiting another 27 to borrow another one and there are some books I’d like to read but don’t necessarily want to buy. That’s OK because these two options were not my only source of literature my good people. I could also borrow books from my local library in Ohio.

Yep, I live more than 7,000 miles from my hometown and I can still access, browse and borrow books electronically. That is truly amazing. If you’re wondering, I use the my Kindle (if it allows it) or the Overdrive app Nexus 7. Of course not everything was available but that’s OK – a lot of what I want is there which is awesome! So why do I need a physical book to enjoy it?

I know people love to go to bookstores, sit, peruse and browse through the stacks, maybe sit and have a latte and talk with friends. I get that, I do, but living where I live, there aren’t that many places here to do that and even back home I rarely felt the urge to jump in my car and head out to a Barnes and Noble or a local haunt just to kill a couple of hours. It just wasn’t my bag baby.

I know that textbooks for example allow you to write notes in the margin, highlight more easily than a tablet or e-reader will allow but for general reading – I see no reason why I need to pick up a physical copy of a book ever again.

What do you think?

How I blog

byword_logo

I just wrote about workflows in school and I thought I would share my blogging workflow and how it has changed over the years. Obviously I currently use Byword2 right now but before I start talking about how this works, I figure I will start at the beginning.

The Old, Old Way

When Omar and I started IT Babble over five years ago (damn that’s longer than I thought) I simply logged into our WordPress blog and then wrote my posts there. What I found was that it was a bit of a hassle. I had to have an Internet connect, I had to log in, I had to get to the posts section of the dashboard and I had to upload each and every image. It just wasn’t convenient.

I tried stand alone programs like Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages but the problem here were the images. I would put them in my post, but when I copied and pasted my post over to WordPress, the images didn’t come over.

Enter MacJournal

So I started looking for programs that would let me publish directly to WordPress. I was surprised to find that my options here were quite limited and even more so on a Mac. What I ended going with was MacJournal.

macjournal

MacJournal is pretty sweet actually, I set up my blogging credentials.

blogging

Then all I do is write and add my images. When I publish it goes directly to the blog. I can even select categories from MacJournal, set the date it will appear on the blog – I mean it is pretty sweet and that’s what I’ve been using for the past five years pretty exclusively. So why did I switch – what were the shortcomings?

The Shortcomings

MacJournal was very good but there were some issues. On rare occasions the images wouldn’t publish. There was no rhyme or reason behind it – MacJournal just failed. Again, this was rare and not a big deal. Another reason was I had no access to the HTML code at all. There was no way I could tweak it, embed certain media from various services. At first this wasn’t a big deal but as my blogging progressed and my needs grew I often found that MacJournal was adequate but just not meeting my needs all the time.

As far images, I was using Voila which is a great screen capture tool. I could resize, add images, add borders, blur out areas. It was lightweight and easy to use. It even let me organize them and then I would copy and paste them into MacJournal.

voila

The workflow was clunky but there really wasn’t anything out there that could do what I wanted. There was MarsEdit 3 which seemed to be my answer, but when I tried the trial I just couldn’t get comfortable with it. So I resigned to using MacJournal and Voila.

The Change and MarkDown

Recently I started using Coggle as my preferred Mind Mapping tool. I like Coggle a lot and one feature that it boasts is using Markdown instead of a rich text editor. This frees doesn’t clutter the workspace with floating palettes that contain formatting choices like bold, italics, font size, etc. It clears out all that stuff and let you focus on one thing – your ideas. After figuring out how to use Markdown language (that took a whole 30 minutes for the basics people and no need for coding experience is necessary) I found it an efficient and very quick way to work especially as the mind map started to grow – there was then nothing really in the way which is very nice – especially for presentations.

Not only was it a good way to work but it supported images as well (as long as they were published on the web).

Recently I started looking again for another blogging program and came across Byword2 which is a markdown editor check out this post in markdown (I’ve taken a screen shot of the very beginning).

byword_doc

Looks like a word processing app, but all formatting and images are handled with Markdown – which is easy to learn people. Also, Byword lets me focus on my writing. Right now, that’s all I see – no underlined red marks, no images, no formatting bars – just my thoughts and like Coggle – that’s the way I like it.

Skitch

OK, now to an area that was a bit of a problem – images. I needed a screen capture tool that was easy to use, flexible and could let me annotate when needed. As I mentioned before, I used Voila for this previously and it is great. So why switch to Skitch? In one word – sharing. With Skitch I can take a screen shot, annotate it, resize and then publish it directly to the web and give me a full link that WordPress will recognize and work with.

Granted Skitch is not as robust or as good as Voila but I can work with that and am willing to give up some of those features in order to have all my images in one document and the ability to simply focus.

Another plus is the cost. MacJournal costs $50 US dollars and Voila costs $30 (if you get it from the website you may find discounts there). Byword (with the publishing feature) costs $15 and Skitch is free and this makes my workflow much easier and more efficient.

Why Should You Care?

Good question and honestly maybe you shouldn’t so much, but the point I am trying to make here (as I did in my previous article) was that I didn’t just find something that was “good enough.” I wanted it to be better. I kept looking and refining my workflow to get it the way I like. I spent time researching and thinking about it and for you maybe blogging isn’t something you’re all that keen on – that’s cool. It’s not for everyone, but what about grading papers? What about planning out units? These are definitely tasks that I think all teachers should look into and can find some improvements? What do you think? Leave them, there comments below.

How is your school’s workflow?

I like crossing things off my to-do list as much as the next chap, but let me tell you people sometimes I’ve completed a task and though Yeah, that took a lot longer than it should have. Usually that happens when trying or learning something new. In that case I often quickly forgive myself and try to do better next time.

In the video above, Terry Gilliam (famed director and Monty Python alum) talks about how he did his now famous animations for [The Flying Circus] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python’s_Flying_Circus). The video is a little long and does have some quick nudity in it so watch out.

The reason I put it on this post, is that watching him work was fascinating. He knows exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. He has made the process as effecient as he can and anything he does is to express his story not dazzle people with his skills. He also keeps it as simple as possible so he can focus on presenting his story (or jokes in this case) as concisely as possible. The workflow doesn’t get in the way with his creative process. After watching that I thought to myself That’s how it should be with schools! Of course without babies eating adults (watch the video and you’ll see what I’m talking about :)).

True ,Terry was working mostly by himself and schools are typically dealing with loads of people but it made me think. How often do schools actually revisit their workflows and policies for everyday activities, and how often do they try to improve them? How often do they sit down with their staff and ask the question How can we improve taking attendance? What changes do we need to smooth out reporting grades? How can we better manage students in the hallway? As technology grows, new solutions to old problems are presented (like using workflows to deal with budgets, or track discipline in a way that allows all involved to help monitor certain students?)

Most schools I’ve worked at simply find a quick answer to these questions and then never revisit it again unless they need to react to an incident. I think it is worth while for schools to sit down and take the time to revisit the nuts and bolts of the procedures and policies that help it function. They don’t need to do it every year but once every few years would be ideal. It’ll give people an idea of who is responsible for what and how it affects the whole school not just a portion of it.

Google Smarty Pins – Trivia with pins

smarty_pins

Google has a number of fun little games that you can play with your students and we can add one more Google’s Smarty Pins. This is a trivia game that works with Google Maps. You can select a specific category to work from or just start and get a mix of them all.
category
Here is how the game works. You start off with a set number of kilometers. Google will ask you a geography question that is realted to the cateogry you chose. Instead of time, kilometers tick down. If you get the question correct you don’t lose any more kilometers. If you answer the question quickly enough, you get bonus kilometers. When you answer a certain number of questions correctly you receive bronze, silver or gold badges.

So here is a quick look at what you can expect. When you start they will ask you a question and then place the pin in the “vicinity” of the correct answer. I think it is within 1000km.

question

If you get the question correct you get the question correct – nice work! You get to continue on without any losing any additional kilometers. If you answer correctly within a certain amount of time you get some bonus kilometers.
correct

If you answer the question incorrectly. It calculates how many kilometers you are off and subtracts that from your total.
incorrect
When you have no more kilometers left, then the game is over.
If you work in a one-to-one laptop school or a a BYOD school then this could be a good way to help focus your students when they walk in the door, or use it as a reward for some students if they finish their work early.

Smarty Pins
http://smartypins.withgoogle.com/

The good, bad and ugly – A look back at 2013-2014

goodbadugly

This year I stepped into a new role that I wasn’t exactly expecting or prepared for but hey that’s life and it has certainly been exciting to say the least. So, like Tony, I thought I’d take this time to take a look back and reflect a little about . . . well the title says it all. Instead of going into that order though, I’d thought I would start with the ugly first.

The Ugly
The most obvious issues were the networking issues that bookended the school year. At the beginning of the year we were instructed from the powers to be to install a new component into our network. Myself, nor Tony, nor anyone on our team had any say about this. Needless to say it took about a month to get everything working but having a month of terrible Internet (not just WiFi) and that kind of leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the staff. Then towards the end of the year we had issues with two separate issues that caused increasingly poor havoc across our network. While it wasn’t “unusable” for many it seemed that way for some and it just ended the year in a bad place. Neither of these incidents were expected (at least to that extent) and it was ugly. The staff was upset (rightfully so) and I was left in a situation where we had to be rescued and that took time.

Now, onto other ugly. It was our new electronic gradebook we started the year out with but did not end the year with. It was another nightmare. Grades being lost, teachers unable to enter grades, progress reports not showing all inputted grades, serious display issues and much, much more. It was a long first semester for sure. For some teachers it worked fine from day one and others it never worked as it should. When one problem was “fixed” by the company they added new and more features. Needless to say this ugliness was not confined to the staff but spread to the administration and student body. Very few people had confidence in the program and led to grades being questioned . . . often. Teachers have enough to worry about and do than to sit down with a calculator and make sure the grades in the electronic gradebook are being calculated correctly.

The Bad
Now that’s out of the way let’s talk about the “bad” part of my year. I don’t consider this to be “bad” per say, but it was a part of the job I underestimated.I had big aspirations of creating a rotating IT Essential PD program where several workshops to teach people the basics and essentials but that never came to be. I underestimated how many fires I had to put out. I underestimated how projects seemingly found their way to my desk and then consumed my time. I’m not saying that those projects were’t worth my effort – on the contrary. They were important and I was needed and happily helped out, but to make room I had to push other projects off to the side and that included projects that had not taken flight yet. I regrettably didn’t blog enough. My blog just isn’t a means for me to get my opinions and views out in the world but a place for me to reflect and take stock of what I’m doing and where I’m going. It is very therapeutic and I neglected it which was more to my detriment than anyone else’s

One thing that was “bad” was communication in our school. One part of my job that I don’t like was dealing with email. On average I was receiving between 25-40 emails a day. Wow, that doesn’t sound like a lot until you are real busy and neglect it for a day or two then it becomes a problem and demands quite a bit of time to sit down and mow through. I’ve tried several techniques to deal with it but none I like. The problem is not just volume but the content. Some emails are from people who haven’t read their own and are asking a question I’ve answered. Other email issues occur when someone replies to an email that has nothing to do with the original email. Unless I deal with it right then and there it becomes hard for me to find that email again. It gets lost and that person feels like I’ve given them the shaft. Then there are those people who don’t communicate or report an issue because they think that someone else has. Then when no action is taken, they feel that they’re being ignored.

As you can see it’s not just email – it’s a bigger issue and it’s something I hope to address in the next school year.

Then, there was the issue with getting grades out of our new – stand alone gradebook into our student information system. It was a learning experience and I think we have figured out for next year.

The Good
In a word: Google. This was our first year with Google Apps for Education (GAfE) and it worked exactly as advertised. There were a few hiccups of course, but basically Google came through in just about every way imaginable. Teachers were using it in ways I hadn’t dreamed and those teachers that really embraced it found it a tool that changed the way they teach and work with their students. Also, the fact that our students had accounts made emailing keeping in touch with them easier than ever before. If there was an issue I couldn’t figure out – I called Google and they came through each time usually within hours of the inquiry. Just great.

I haven’t even gotten into the fact that teachers are starting to work collaboratively with their peers by utilizing Google Docs more and more and using stand alone word processing programs bringing more synergy and equality across classrooms. Every month so more and more Google Docs created.

kahoot_048

There is still a long way to go to get everyone on board but as you can see as off June 23rd – more than 60,000 Google Docs had been created – not bad.

Another good point was the switch to Engrade. As I mentioned in the ugly part, we were in a bad way with the old gradebook. I realized in early October that this was an issue that was not going to get better. I started looking elsewhere. I found Engrade – good reputation, used by millions and a solid gradebook with a robust learning management system. It didn’t integrate with our student information system but that’s OK and myself and most of the staff were happy to trade that off for a gradebook that actually worked. The best compliment I received about Engrade was none at all. No compliment or complaints meant that it was working and that meant that teachers weren’t . We had a few issues, but they were each rectified within a day or so and their tech support, while not as fast as Google was every bit as reliable.

Also, Google gets better and better. Drive will soon have the ability to open and edit MS Office documents and the add ons are making it an incredibly robust content creation platform.

Printing
While this was a small win – we got half of our school on a card based printing solution from Xerox. Basically teachers send their print job to a print server (not a specific printer). They then go to whatever Xerox machine is nearest to them, tap a card on the sensor and the print job comes out right then and there. The goal here was not to track printing – we were already doing that. The goal here was to cut down on waste and make the printing process more efficient. This did work out. Before teachers would print and it would be sent to a specific printer and print immediately. We had people accidentally picking up other people’s print jobs, people actually canceling other print jobs in order to move their’s up in the queue and even parents and anyone could print from a USB or make copies. Now it is held until they are ready to pick it up and unless you have a card you can’t use any of the features on the machine.

Even when Xerox machines went down, teachers could still go to another Xerox machine and pick up their print jobs. Not super convenient at all but It worked pretty well until the machine was repaired. The only problem we had were the Xerox machines themselves. They went down a little more than what we were hoping for, but the system worked pretty flawlessly for the most part and was a welcomed addition to that part of our school. We intend to roll it out to the other half in the fall.

The final good was Drupal. Tony started our school’s website with Drupal and while I didn’t do much with it for most of the year, I spent time learning the ins and outs of it. Around April, I started to work on a very robust section aimed for just our teachers and to redesign other aspects of it. Drupal made it easy and while our site is still under construction it is much larger than before with a lot more options. What is great about Drupal is that once I have the architecture in place I can turn over the ability to add content to other staff members. Thus freeing my time up to do other projects (PD workshops anyone?)

There were a bunch of ups and downs for sure, but those were the big ones. As a teacher, I could always look forward and know (with a reasonable bit of accuracy) what to expect the upcoming year. With my new role as IT Coordinator I find that pretty hard to do. Maybe with time and more experience I will get there. As of right now, I’m just enjoying the excitement that comes with my job and enjoying a little downtime this summer before gearing back up for 2014-2015!