Part 1: The Hardware of Portability

It’s odd to think that my first school year has quietly and swiftly passed by, leaving me in a whirlwind of experiences that I’ve been meaning to write down, but never got around to. I suppose that’s what summer is for.

Teaching in a private school fresh out of teacher’s college was a great experience, but as a colleague often stated, “Your first year is a blizzard, where you can hardly see into next week, let alone the next unit.” I’m out of the blizzard now, and it’s time to write down my thoughts of using technology effectively (and ineffectively) in the classroom.

Please note that the bulk of the following post is mostly on hardware, and focuses mostly on my experience with the 8″ Dell Venue 8 Pro Window’s tablet, and the setup I used to make it a laptop replacement. Later posts will focus on how I paired this with OneNote; an incredible duo that changed my first year of teaching.

Part 1: The Hardware of Portability – An Intro to the DV8 Pro and My Computing Needs

As stated above, my first third of the school year was a flurry of orientation, photocopying, and uncovering the quirks of inheriting curriculum from previous teachers. Just before Christmas, my wife’s laptop died and the DV8 Pro was released. I had been interested in Windows 8 tablets before that point, and even tried out the original Surface RT, but was left with mixed feelings. As a longtime Windows user, I loved my desktop, and the .exe programs RT was unable to run.

Enter the Dell Venue 8 Pro. This little machine runs full Windows 8, which means it can run everything that your typical Windows 7 machine can run, and comes with Student Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote). It’s about half as fast as a typical core i5 processor, but handles most light weight tasks very well, such as document creation, web browsing, video playback, and OneNote – my bread and butter for my classroom needs.

As I taught in two classrooms throughout the year, I needed something relatively portable if I wanted to use tech in both classrooms. While usually laptops fit this description, the DV8 was a dream, weighing substantially less than the lightest textbook I used for my class. Many reviews have commented on the shortcomings of this device, which mainly discuss the lack of peripherals options/ports. While lack of ports was a mild nuisance initially, I found solutions, which I’ll explain below.

Set-Up

32 GB Dell Venue 8 Pro – the computer itself  for ~$220 – $300 and these things are always on sale (Note that Student Office is a $140 alone, but it’s included with the tablet). If I had to do it again, I would buy the 64 GB version. I supplemented the lack of space with a 64 GB microSD , and haven’t had any problems with space since then.


Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard – ~$25 from Amazon. There are many different styles of keyboard to choose from. This one worked fine with a Win8 device, despite being labelled for iOS/Android devices.


Wireless Bluetooth Mouse – ~$10-15 from a local computer shop. Very rarely did it lag. For the price, I was thoroughly impressed. However, just recently it started malfunctioning after 5 months of use. I suppose you get what you pay for.


Netgear PTV3000 – ~$50 – $70 from an online retailer. This was my “HDMI” option, a wireless miracast dongle that works with Windows 8. This was a bit tricky to get in Canada, but they’re around.  Many reviews will advise you not to get this dongle, but their frustrations are mostly with firmware and driver updates, which I had little problem updating (though it took about ~1 hour to do). It still has its quirks, which I’ll address later on future posts, but the pros far outweighed the cons for me.


Asustek case for the tablet – ~$25 from Amazon, and works similarly to any iPad style case that folds up into a stand. It’s a sturdy, nice feeling case, that’s built in stand functionality was super convenient.


USB On-the-Go Adapter – ~ $1 from Amazon. This turns the only port on the tablet into a USB slot so that you can use thumbdrives, keyboards, mice (basically anything you would use a normal USB port for).


 

Dell Active Stylus – $35 from Dell. This is why I bought the Dell as apposed to the other 8″ windows tablets that are on the market. At the time, only the Dell  featured an active stylus that had palm rejection and pressure sensitivity (The Asus VivoTab Note 8 now has this as well). While there were some serious flaws with the first stylus that resulted in a halt of production, the later renditions work good enough for me as a teacher. I’ll explain in later posts how I used the stylus paired with OneNote/PowerPoint as a blackboard replacement.


 

 

All the hardware above cost about $400 when all was said and done. Possibly pricey for an 8″ tablet, but it still runs cheaper than the iPad Mini, and has the full functionality of a desktop.

If the above workarounds seem like more of a hassle than a solution, then there will be another route in the near future for you thanks to Plugable. Plugable will be releasing a docking station for the Dell Venue 8 Pro, which charges your device while giving additional USB ports, Ethernet, and display out options, which really transforms this little tablet into a desktop replacement (albeit a relatively gutless one). The docking station is currently raising funds through Kickstarter, and hopes to send out the product this fall.

The next post will cover how I used OneNote to reorganize my teaching – one of the best things I did all year.

 

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Programing and Pedagogy: Can They Mix?

An article this morning in the Telegraph (UK) highlighted an education problem occurring in Europe, but I’m sure it is occurring here in Ontario as well. The author explains in the article that UK schools are teaching computer skills that are limited to Microsoft Office, and are not branching out to other areas of computer science such as coding and programing. While computer science is a growing field in the world, companies are struggling to find adequately trained personnel, a problem the article attributes to the school system. The article highlights attempts to mediate this situation at an early level, referring to the effort from MIT Media Lab to build an interactive creative software, Scratch.

Scratch is easy to understand, and powerful at creating games, videos, and other interactive activities for the computer. Best of all, the software introduces key concepts of coding and programing to its users in a fun, interactive way.

The greatest thing about Scratch is that it can be used in all disciplines. Doing a unit on story elements in English? Have the students create a short video to demonstrate the parts of a story. Need to get kids involved in geometry? Have the students create an interactive game to use shapes to build different objects.

However, all these applications are easier said then done. Teaching the students to use the software could be laborious, as can learning the software yourself. While unique individual student projects might seem more plausible than whole class involvement, Scratch adds another tool to your arsenal to encourage creativity, as well as foster an interest in programing through any course or discipline the student might find themselves in.

Schoology: Social Media for Education

While much is being said about the role of social media in our Canadian schools, I’m sure that most of us will agree that it is here to stay. This leads to many common threads of thought among teachers. Primarily, how will social media effect the way my students learn and interact, and, can I use it to my advantage to keep kids engaged.

To many teachers, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterst, etc. have become distractions for their students. With the sheer number of students with mobile devices, the world of their friends and family is in their pocket, often occupying their mind during your lessons. If we can harness the power of social media to engage students and keep their attention, would we be able to improve classroom dynamics?

Enter Schoology, the educational social media network. Schoology seeks to use the structure of social media (with it’s own aesthetic looking similar to Facebook’s) to enhance student-teacher, student-student, and parent-student-teacher interactions. Previously this has been attempted by email lists, phone calls, class websites or blogs, and a variety of other means. However, while many of the previous options may have been steps in the right direction, Schoology provides a seamless communication experience in one package. Whether it’s posting homework due dates, extra handouts as PDFs, or asking students to digitally hand in assignments via their dropbox, Schoology provides a clear way for teachers, students, and parents to see what is expected in that particular class.

Best of all, it’s all FREE. Despite the great amount of tools that Schoology can provide for you, it can be compared to Google+ in this way: nobody’s going to use it if nobody’s there. This means that the teacher must incorporate it into their teaching regularly (via forum discussions, submitting homework assignments, etc.). Along with this, the school as a whole needs to incorporate it to maximize its effectiveness. If a student has all of his courses on Schoology, you can be assured that s/he will spend more time on the site as it will soon become a one stop shop for all things “school”.

I am excited about the prospect of using this tool in my classroom, and I hope that with its user friendly interface and familiar feel, it will be adapted by many teachers so that we can use social media effectively in our classrooms.

Introduction

A hearty greeting to everyone (and possibly no one) who will stumble across this website in attempts to improve their classroom by utilizing technology. While I am a mere teacher candidate at the time of this post, I hope to convey effective strategies and techniques involving tech that relate to the 21st century Ontario teacher. While my area of study is in the sciences, this blog hopes to equally represent all subjects in how they can effectively integrate technology without elevating frustration. Join the fun.