Thursday, April 7, 2011

Changes are afoot

The tech team at Flynn came back from Spring break feeling more cheerful I think, or at least I did, and not just because we'd had a break. Just before the vacation, two things happened which will hopefully significantly improve our teachers' lot in life in the classroom.

First, the PTA voted unanimously to reallocate some funds from an area no longer needed, towards buying 11 LCD projectors for the 3rd through 5th grade classrooms. We can't stretch to new laptops for them, but the majority have their own they can use and those that don't will be supplied with laptops from the library (old ones that hopefully will continue to function). We're now at the testing stage having identified one projector at a good price, and hope to order the rest in the next week or so.

The second event, was the visit from three charming IPEVO people who came from their office in Sunnyvale down the peninsula, to deliver two cameras to us and to show Miss Lisa, the Media Tech Teacher at our school, and I how they work and all they can do. After talking for a couple of hours we realised that we had only started to see their potential when we first looked at them. Like the ELMO they can be used as a document camera. But we were also able to see that they can film presentations, act as a web cam, and their zoom macro function worked brilliantly when looking at the chrysalises in the butterfly house in the library. So many possibilities for teachers to look at.

So, good things are happening and more work is needed to make sure that we make the most of this: training for staff, use of the cameras in the classroom and so on. Expect to hear much more soon on this blog.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Setting up computers: the frustrations and belated rewards from living off handouts

Note: apologies for any mistakes in my lamentable use of technical jargon. I am not trained on this stuff. Just enthusiastic. So bear with me.

So today, I finally managed to set up a donated computer in a classroom that has had nothing to date. It has taken me a few days to get this far.

We started with finding the computer - a donated vintage 2005 MiniMac that was sitting around at home not doing much. Then I found what I thought would be a suitable screen - it was an Apple - which I thought would help, but needed to be mounted to the wall. So I had to get the teacher to reorganize his classroom and find a wall that was clear enough, near enough to all the required plug points, and strong enough to take the weight.

Next step - test the screen. That worked, but then I found the screen didn't connect to my MiniMac. It was an ADC not a DVI. I needed an adapter or connector or whatever they are called. Cue a long session online wading through male and female plugs, and VGA, DVI, and assorted other acronyms I don't understand. Only to discover that they don't make them any more. Well why should they? Who on earth would want to connect a 10 year old screen with a 5 year old computer? Who of course except a parent in an underfunded elementary school.

At this point, a guardian angel stepped in. A dad at school has very generously donated 3 new flat screens to the school and they arrived yesterday. So this afternoon, I sat down with a new recruit to our tech team (well, he is now!) and started to work out how to set up this computer.

Should have been simple, right? Plug everything into the right places and it will all work. Well the computer switched on. The screen went live. So far so good. Then I tried to type in the account password and discovered that the letter N, on the keyboard I had found, didn't work. Find another keyboard. This time it wouldn't work because it only liked PCs. Don't ask me why, I have no idea. Finally I found a keyboard which worked. Then we couldn't get the Internet to go live. We had an ethernet cable connected and at first we thought it might be the classroom cabling. But we realized that in fact it was this particular ethernet cable. New ethernet cable and finally the holy grail that is the Google home page was found.

So I think, fingers crossed, all systems are go. I left a very happy teacher sitting on a very small chair in front of the classroom's new resource.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The IPEVO point 2 view USB camera: a cheap alternative to the ELMO document camera

Ah. The ELMO. Teachers love the ELMO. It's a document camera with a light that plugs into your projector and allows you to share books, children's work, small things like bugs with a whole class of children. But. The ELMO costs several hundred dollars. Dollars which as you know we just don't have. Of course our school is not alone in being strapped for cash and searching the net led me to the IPEVO camera.

This is a neat little webcam that most importantly comes with a stand. It autofocuses, can take pictures and can be clamped to your computer. For us, it comes into its own as a document camera and a quick read of the reviews on Amazon shows that it is already working well in many classrooms.

Today, I had a go testing it in our library where we have a good laptop and projector (unfortunately it's one of the few places like that in our school). It was simple to set up. Pop the CD in the drive, load the software, plug in the camera and there you go.

Laptop and projector

A book under the camera

Image on the laptop

Projected onto the screen (looked better in real life than it does here).

The stand does need to be raised a little if you want to see the whole of a page. And I found that lighting levels also need working out. For example, sometimes it helped to have a lamp cast some extra light (the ELMO has a built in light) in case light levels have to be lowered for the projector to work. But overall this worked really well.

What does it cost? Just under $70. Less than a tenth of the cost of the ELMO (currently selling for over $700 on Amazon and that's a discount!). Add a lamp at c. $20 and for less than $100, we could kit a classroom out with a new way to share work, read together, look at objects, share scarce books and  photographs, Skype with other schools - so many ways to use this handy tool.

Of course we still need to get projectors and laptops into the classroom first....

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Our first tech work day

It was a gloriously sunny day in San Francisco on Saturday. So obviously what else would a small group of teachers and parents want to do, but spend it inside the school fixing things, installing computers and testing new hardware?

Thanks to that small group of teachers and parents, we achieved the following:

Two 3rd grade classrooms got more computers set up for the children to work on, meaning that access to the internet for research, or to Ticket to Read will be that much easier.

One 3rd grade teacher finally got her laptop to work with her LCD projector.

Three teachers have new art and math software loaded onto their classroom computers, ready for their students to use.

Sadly two non-functioning computers were diagnosed and found to have serious if not fatal problems. But at least we know that now.

And we set up and tested the Wiimote Whiteboard and an IPEVO USB Camera in a classroom. More on that later.

I suspect it may have felt to the parents with the technology know-how that they weren't doing anything special. But as the "runner" on the team, I know that what they were doing may come easily to them, but really doesn't to a lot of other people. There will be some very grateful people in school next week.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A New Year and a new(ish) start

Life was busy in the library and computer lab over the break. The library now has a new floor, newly painted walls, and is gaining a 28 seater computer lab from the district, as a result of lobbying by Lisa Bishop, our Library Media Teacher. The computers will be c. 4 year old PCs running Windows and come with flat screens, which is a distinct improvement on the situation at the end of last year. We continue to dream of new Mac Labs and we will continue to work to get them, but for the moment, the open mouths of astonishment from teachers, children and parents alike when they first see the room show how much this development means to our school.

With the computers come office tables and chairs. Big thank yous are due to Corovan and Levi Strauss who donated the furniture, and in particular to the delivery man from Corovan who realised our school chairs wouldn't work with the new tables, and arranged the donation of 30 chairs on the spot. 

The computers that were in the library have now been moved into classrooms, so the advent of the new computer lab has had a positive influence not just on the library but also on the rest of the school. More on that later.

And of course we would still welcome donations of equipment or contributions towards the purchase of equipment. Any help you can give would be very gratefully received.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The interactive whiteboard

This weekend a few parents got together to build an interactive whiteboard and drink a few beers. With a little work we were able to get things running pretty well!

For those of you that don't know about this, the idea is to use a wiimote (the remote from a Wii game system) to record the placement and movement of an IR light on a wall. If you combine this with an LCD projector, a computer, and some special software, you can make a very cheap interactive whiteboard. We found out about the wiimote approach from Johnny Lee's TED talk.

You need software to allow your computer to interpret the signal from the IR light. The software we used to do this was from Uwe Schmidt. Uwe has done a really nice job making Johnny Lee’s original WiimoteWhiteboard software functional on a mac. The Mac we used was obviously not from the public school system.... We used a MacBook Pro with built-in blue tooth. I doubt any of the computers at the school have built-in blue tooth, so we'll probably have to rely on the USB bluetooth adapters for the classroom setups. For the IR light source, we ordered an IR pen from WII Teachers.

The experience using the system was much better than we had anticipated. The ability to interact with the computer was very similar to what we had seen in Johnny Lee's TED talk. Just playing around with the system, we realized the kind of potential that exists for our teachers to work with our children in classrooms. We could imagine the children drawing pictures, writing group stories, or working on math problems using this system. The work could be saved and used later not only as a recorded document of the work but also as a learning exercise with teachers saying things like "look how differently you thought through this problem last week". Without sounding too geeky, it seems there are clearly ways that more abstract concepts could be easily taught using this system.

The other thing that we really started to appreciate from this process was how much teachers could benefit from having a projector connected to a computer. As adults, we all remembered when we were in school and teachers would use overhead projectors to show transparencies. A simple LCD projector coupled with the wiimote and a webcam similar to IPEVO could provide a much richer learning experience. We could imagine a teacher displaying a chapter from a Mark Twain book, followed by images of boats on the Mississippi from a Google search, followed by finding quotes from the web from the recent Mark Twain autobiography that might explain some of the imagery. These kinds of interactive and integrated approaches, natural extensions of the wiimote, can allow children to begin to appreciate the historical context of literature and become easy to do with these tools.

We're excited to show our work to the teachers so that they can start to imagine different ways to teach our children.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Our first donation!

On Monday afternoon we received our first donation of $1200 from a San Francisco law firm. Thank you! We knew that we would find generous Angels to help us.

Library Media Teacher