Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Next Great Equalizer

The HP stream is my new favorite device.  HP Stream 11-d077nr Signature Edition Laptop


Wait? Whaaaat?

Nope, ya heard me.  Straight up love this little laptop.  It is not the fastest, nor is it the most feature rich.  I love it because it is a great equalizer. 





No, not THAT kind of Equalizer!




I did a side by side comparison with a Chromebook.  A really well made Chromebook.  Both were affordable devices.  Both offered all day battery life.  Both have access to a variety of apps that students will find useful.  Both devices would offer students today a leg up in their education with proper application.  But, I choose the HP Stream hands down, if given the choice.

It runs full on Windows.

Yes you can download and install apps, but for most students, the key productivity apps are found in MS Office.  I can download and install most legacy programs.

It has only a 32 Gb SSD, but this means it is possible to save files to the machine, upload it to a website like my SharePoint classroom, or to your choice of cloud services.

With a full operating system, I can use both installed programs and web based programs.  The Stream can do what the Chromebook can do, and more. 

I can also install Bluestacks which is an android app player for Windows.  This allows me to run android apps on the Stream.  I tested out Angry birds through Bluestacks, and it worked great.


I have been piloting Office 365 with my class.  Students have been making PowerPoint presentations, and the Stream 11 allows them to open the web app with the full featured installed program.  This means they can take advantage of more features than the web app has, and it runs faster as the work is being performed on the local machine.

I couldn’t install Minecraft, as despite it’s simple looking graphics, it is a “hefty” game.  But Kodu and Sketchup ran well on this device.  I have not tested it extensively, across multiple users and with large and complex projects, but for student use I think it will be great. 

I had a number of kids play games on it, with my 9 year old son being one of the chief testers.  He found that games on Miniclip, like Tanki were a bit slow at first, but rapidly caught up (starting at 20 frames-per-second, but quickly moving up to 50 frames-per-second).  My_TankiGames are a very good way to measure the performance of a machine, and if I am realistic, my students want a machine for work and play.  All testers said it wasn’t quite as high performing as their i3 or i5 machines, but it was good enough to be enjoyable.


Also, when it comes to adding pictures, the Stream 11 allows you to save pictures on the local machine or on OneDrive (which is browsable in Windows 7 and 8).  With the Chromebook, my students were able to work in Office 365, but had to save pictures in Google Drive. 


It works like the desktops and laptops we distribute in schools.  This means a shorter learning curve, and that the licenses a district has purchased will be usable on these devices. 

It means better integration. You can hit print if you like.  It also means my students will be familiar with world class productivity software.  I can connect it to our local server drives.

Final thoughts

It costs $250, it can be put in the hands of my students for less than the price of a Chromebook.  If you buy it from “the Microsoft stores, you can get good deals on shipping and most importantly, you can get “Signature” editions of laptops.  This rather innocuous title means no “value-added trial software”, otherwise known as “bloatware” or “crapware.” 

Big box stores will sell you laptops at the same price, but with this bloatware installed, which makes them money. Some even offer a service to “clean up that new laptop” before you take it home.  Should a new laptop need to be cleaned?

I ran it through some pretty demanding critics, my students and my children.  They all agree it doesn’t replace a more powerful desktop, but for day to day use they all agree, it’s a great bargain.


UPDATE: There was a sale.  My friend got one on December 22rd from the Microsoft Store for $179. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Getting to Know Office 365 with my Students

This week I signed up my students on Office 365 as part of a district initiative. I sent home a draft waiver provided for me by the district IS department. 


Office365 landing page

On the first day, I got 22 of 29 responses back, all with a “yes” answer. 

Once I had all the waivers back I created accounts for my students one at a time.  There is the option to bulk upload names of kids all at once in a CSV file, but I chose to do it one at a time so that I could assign the students’ password.  I followed a naming scheme for login ID’s designated by the district, and create a set of passwords for my class that each student would find easy to remember.  Office 365 wants an 8-16 digit password with capitals, letters and numbers.

Unfortunately, even though I assigned the password (as opposed to letting my students choose one), I left the box ticked that told them to change their password after first login.  Because we did this as a class at the same time, I instructed them how to change their password so they could easily remember it.

I asked my four students that have their own laptops (2 have laptops purchased by their parents, two with old laptops from their parents’ businesses), and showed them how to login first during our silent reading.  They logged in, with no trouble. They then distributed a set of Chromebooks on loan from CUEBC (really awesome initiative) to students who didn’t have a device.
Some kids who were watching and waiting, jumped in and logged in on the own.  Kids who could login themselves easily helped kids who were having difficulties, or who didn’t remember where to click.  To make it easy, I put a link on my teacher website.

Our first adventure related to our Math class (which is what we would normally be doing at this time).  Each student open an excel spreadsheet.
I then gave every student $1,000,000.  Using only Black Friday or Cyber Monday flyers they found online,

Using a simple formula, kids added the 12% sales tax to the sticker price of their purchase, and kept a running total as they shopped.

The rules were simple:
1.) Shop only using online flyers
2.) Always factor in the taxes
3.) Keep a running total
4.) At the end of 20 minutes, MR GILL KEEPS WHAT YOU DON’T SPEND.
Students worked independently, or formed ad hoc collaborations.  In a frantic shopping frenzy akin to the real Black Friday sales, kids feverishly scoured the flyers for deals, deals, deals.  Students bought gaming computers, tablets, and leather purses.  This was not making enough of dent in their budget, so they started buying higher end items, like watches and jewelry.  One student found a 4.5 meter tall replica of a the Transformer, Bumblebee. 
I have no idea where he found it.
When they read out numbers, I discovered they were not fluent in reading numbers above 9,999.  This needs to be revisited.   I also found that they were talking about math, and trying to estimate and strategize when they were shopping. 


Overall, we had students on Chromebooks, iPads, Android tablets, and laptops working on Office 365, and it performed well.  I noticed a little lag when Excel was performing a calculation, as did my students.  In some cases it could have been as a result of using lower powered tablet devices.  Or, it could have been our network speed at the time.  I don’t think I can attribute this to Office 365, but more testing over time will tell. 
Also we learned that you don’t have to hit save in the web app.  You can give your spreadsheet a name by using “Save As”, or by just typing it right over the word document.
Students are able to open Office365 documents using apps installed on their local devices, but then they may need to save their work as they go.  But at least it is saved in an accessible location, and needs only a browser to get to their “stuff”. 
Up next: tear-free grammar lessons, and editing dialogue with ease.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Mobile in the Classroom: Office Lens

Who uses this handy survival tool? image What does Office Lens do? Something vastly better than taking a picture of a piece of paper.  It takes a picture of a document: image(Actual angle of document in picture) And then it justifies the angle, corrects the color, and makes cropping the picture easy. image It then sends it to my OneNote in the cloud!  (Adds to my Quick Notes section of my Personal Notebook)  On average it takes about a minute, possibly two with slower bandwidth to appear in my Notebook, while I am working in it.   What could be easier?  Putting resources in OneNote means I can then mark it up, write directly on the page, save it as a PDF, and then put it where my students can access it.  Also, OneNote can read the text in photos, so I can extract the text to edit it if I would like! I have been using multiple math sources to cobble together a combined Grade 6&7 curriculum.  With OfficeLens and my Surface Pro 3 and stylus, I can shoot different pages from multiple sources into my One Note.  I can then mark up the page of notes, and post them to my SharePoint at the end of each lesson. One ambitious student checked the notes when he was away from class, and was ready to make up his work when he came back to class.  This saved both of us a lot of time and effort. At conferences or meetings you can capture slides and whiteboard drawings while people are presenting.  Just keep writing notes, and the pictures you take in OfficeLens appear after a bit for you to put in place.  I use it for my daughter who benefits from using technology, and finds working with paper challenging. Other students  in my class that have adaptations for learning disabilities also benefit from using digital copy, and OfficeLens allows me to go from paper to OneNote – where kids can choose how they want to mark up their work.  I just send them the page from my notebook to theirs. Although OfficeLens is available for Windows phone and now iOS, I cannot find it in the app store for my friends with iPhones.  Perhaps this is available only in the US?  Regardless, keep an eye out for this app, as it is a time saver and a game changer!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

My Own “Hole in the Wall”


Sugata Mitra is one of my favorite educational researchers and presenters.  I was intrigued by this thought:

There will always be places in the world where good schools don't exist and good teachers don't want to go, not just in the developing world but in places of socioeconomic hardship.

His 2010 TED talk does a pretty good job of explaining his “Hole in the Wall” experiment on children self-organizing and learning, with the aid of a computer, and no adult intervention.  I strongly recommend his thought provoking and highly entertaining TED talk.

Pretty cool stuff.

Some members of CUEBC, the Computer Using Educators of BC, a provincial specialist association here in my home province, would like to revive the “hour of code” or other approaches  to get the average student interested, or at least aware of, computer programming.  This gave me an idea. 

One of my learnings having played with this Surface Pro 3 is with Kodu.  Kodu is a free program that introduces kids to the idea of computer programming by creating a video game with simple instructions and a Minecraft like environment. 

What if I combined the two ideas? 

I propose to put a Microsoft Surface tablet (probably a Surface Pro 3) on the wall of an elementary school hallway, about three and a half feet off the ground.  It would be encased around the perimeter in Plexiglas, secured to the wall, and powered.  I further propose that it be set to wake up when you hit the windows button on the tablet, and then it would be configured as to show Kodu.  Perhaps it would also have a few other apps too, but they would be quite limited in selection. Other than explaining that there is a tablet in the hallway, and that it is very nice, and can be used to make video games, I would then offer no adult intervention or help.   I wonder if kids when they go by the tablet would:

a) play with it

b) figure out how to edit Kodu

c) gather in numbers around the screen

d) talk about what they are learning

e) create something new

What could go wrong.  Someone could damage the tablet.  Someone could attempt to steal the tablet.  But, if reasonable precautions are taken, I bet the kids would find it an interesting experience, and would treat the tablet well.   Perhaps the tablet would be behind Plexiglas, but a Surface Touch keyboard would be open to the kids (touchable, but not removable).  They are quite durable! 

surface touch keyboard

This would further mitigate risk to the tablet.

I believe we need teachers, but I also believe that kids are able to self-organize and learn in the right situations, and think that Kodu would be perfect for this.  Imagine getting elementary aged children interested in computer programming because they like challenge, and enables them to make a world how THEY envision it.  One where they are in the driver seat. 

Isn’t that why people code in the first place?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Survival Skills for Digital Natives in the Analog Jungle

Part 1

Students in my class come with their own set of needs.  In this series of blog posts, I will be sharing some of the skills I am teaching them to help themselves in class.  I teach the whole class these skills because although they are targeted to some, they are beneficial to all.

Lost in Translation

Some of my students are newly-arrived from other countries, and they are paying a lot of money to attend our schools as International Education Students.  But, due to government cutbacks there is less support for these students, in class or in the form of pull out classes. 
I have a borrowed Surface Pro 3 tablet for my classroom, a 1st generation Surface RT and my own personal Windows phone.  All have the Bing Translator app.  This app allows someone to speak into the device, or hold the camera over some text, and the app will use the power of the cloud to translate.  There are offline translation packs available.  My most commonly used one now is Chinese (simplified)
When you use the translate app on the tablet, it allows you to easily toggle between translation direction.  I can ask a question, hit the switch arrow, and my Mandarin speaking student can answer back in his own language.  Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Back and Forth Conversation Using Bing Translate
Sometimes I needed to translate part of a sentence, sometimes we used it for the whole sentence in our conversation.  At the bottom is the two way arrows that we use to switch back and forth between languages. 
And on my Windows phone:
Bing Translate on my Phone

Wherever it is supported I use the speaker icon so that my students can hear the words spoken to them from the device.  This is because early in my career I read a book by Jim Trelease (the Read Aloud Handbook) which said that listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension for children up to age 13.
I am told the translation is pretty accurate, and that the pronunciation is understandable. 
This is incredibly empowering for my students.  One student has now gotten his own tablet, and is writing Mandarin characters which are being translated into English.  He feels very proud to be able to communicate on his own while he is learning English as fast as he can.
It isn’t perfect, but it is one more way to equip kids with skills to advocate for themselves, and to be more independent in school.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Surface Pro 3 Part 1


Removing Barriers

My inquiry this year is around using technology in ways that improve student – teachers rapport and communication.  There is a natural tendency to focus on the new and shiny, but this year I am looking at using technology only where it makes a positive impact on student learning. 

But choosing the right tool can make all the difference.  Today I want to talk about meetings and technology.

Meetings are mostly about listening.  Meetings are sometimes about recording, and about making conscientious contributions when the moment presents itself.  Sometimes the meeting is in a room full of people, and sometimes it is with one parent.  Regardless, if you have your screen up, and keyboard clicking with eyes on the screen, some people will be wondering if you are distracted.
With the Surface Pro 3, I can use OneNote with my stylus in the lying-flat position.

This means that people can see what I am writing, and for some reason people associate writing with being on-task whereas typing may or may not be on-task behaviour.
By being transparent in my technology use, I won’t risk being distracted, and more importantly I will not risk others thinking I am distracted. 
Surface Pro 3 Tablet
Photo from
I believe the Surface does this better than the iPad because of the finer tipped stylus, built in palm block, and great handwriting recognition native to the OneNote app.  While it is possible to accomplish much of this on an iPad, I have to use different add-ins, and I can’t save it to my server or my classroom website.  I could also save it to a flash drive, or an SD card as well if I so chose.Device or someone else’s cloud are my only choices with the iPad, which means I may not be compliant with FIPPA regulations keeping sensitive information in some sort of cloud application.
Now, let’s see what else I can make this thing do.