Thursday, September 25, 2014

Building Digital Citizenship Through Minecraft

Thunder Mountain Railroad earlier this week.

Why Minecraft? It is a question I often get. I have to admit that if I were creating a list of digital learning tools six months ago Minecraft likely would not have made that list. However, since the start of the school year I have witnessed an explosion of interest in using this program from both teachers and kids. Students are using Minecaft at home to develop book trailers, while second grade students at Star are using Minecraft to collaboratively develop urban, suburban, and rural communities. Both Star Academy and the main campus have two active Minecraft clubs where students are creating online communities while also building foundational programming and sequencing skills. However, one of the most interesting uses of Minecraft is occurring at PACT.

This fall Tracy Chatters has been teaching a seven week American Icons Minecraft enrichment workshop for 2nd-8th grade students. Each week students are given an American icon they have to research and use the information they learn construct a replica. The first week started off relatively easy with students independently building their own versions of the Washington Monument. However, as the weeks have progressed the challenges have increased. Last week for example, students studied the Gold Rush and used the information they learned to collaboratively build a Gold Rush era community complete with mines, stores, and log cabins. This week the group is using a mix of history, mathematics, computer logic, and conceptual physics to collaboratively re-create Disneyland.

While the passionate student use of Minecraft has been interesting, what has been more fascinating to observe is the simultaneous development of digital citizenship and distance learning skills occurring within the course. The students have never met face-to-face. Instead they are using the chat feature within Minecraft, along with occasional emails and Skype sessions to teach each other building skills. Tracy did not teach them how to do this. The students connected on their own and in many cases took on responsibilities. For example, during the first assignment two middle school students jumped in and showed other students how to collect resources and purchase items in a virtual store.

One of the most important lessons in this course has been the lessons for parents and students in online behavior and personalities. When student's work is "griefed" (Minecraft lingo for broken or destroyed), they are understandably frustrated and angry. However, working in an entirely virtual world has allowed us to teach important lessons in digital citizenship and responsibility. While many of our students would never walk up and rip a classmate’s drawing in a classroom, they have struggled with the idea that a virtual building requires the same level of ethics, respect and trust as tangible artwork. This has led to many conversations and lessons that integrity and ethics are what you do when nobody is watching. The person you are in a virtual world should be a better version of the you in person, so that others may grow to trust you and want to work with you.

This is an important lesson, as the 21st century is full of opportunities for online collaboration and work assignments in which you may never meet your colleagues and coworkers in person. Using Minecraft as both the academic and social learning platform, Tracy and her PACT students have created a high interest, low risk opportunity for students to develop their online ethics and begin to understand the consequences, risks and rewards of the choices they make in a virtual setting.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tuesday Tech Tip #12 - Computer Logins

In the IT department we're often asked about computer logins. Part of the confusion is that in the past we have maintained a series of generic logins (charterle, charterpfaa, etc), but now everyone has their very own unique username and password for logging into the computers on campus. We made the switch to individual accounts because it reinforces positive digital citizenship skills by teaching students how to manage their own accounts and provides some ability for students and staff to customize their desktops on computers they regularly use.

Staff Logins
Every single staff member has their own login. These work on any computer on campus and Chromebooks. Users with laptops have logins that are configured to even work from home. Your login is meant to be used by you only, so please don't share it with others. There is a slight difference between computer and Chromebook logins for the Name field which is demonstrated below.
Computers: jsmith
Student Logins
In Leading Edge, PFAA, and VLA every student has their own unique login, along with Star Academy and PACT students starting in 1st grade. PACT and Star Academy have special generic logins which are meant to be used by younger students who do not have their own accounts. Similar to staff logins, these should only be used by the student to whom the account is assigned and there is a slight difference between computer and Chromebook logins.
Computers: JohnS2020
Special Events
We do have a few generic logins which are used for special events. For example, the Area 3 Writing Project workshops have a login for outside guests to use our computers. We turn these logins on for the event and turn them off afterwards. If you have a special event where you will need to use the computers simply let us know through the Activities Request Form or Help Desk and we will make sure a login is set up.

New Students & Forgotten Passwords
When students enroll both Google and computer accounts are automatically created for them. Sometimes, however, account creation can be missed as part of the enrollment process. If you find that this has happened just let one of us know on the IT team via a Help Ticket and we can quickly create an account for the student. Similarly, if you find that a student has forgotten his or her password anyone on the IT team can quickly reset it.

However, please understand that our computer and Google accounts are linked, so when the student resets their password they must do it from a computer on campus. It can be any computer, but it cannot be a Chrombook at this point.

Hopefully, this post clears up some of the confusion around computer logins. If you have any questions please let me know.


Friday, September 19, 2014

When Students are in Charge, Go Along for the Ride!

This post first appeared in as part of  Marnie Hill's ongoing posts about teaching Lego Robotics at PACT. This "real" look at Lego Robotics in the classroom is exciting and exhausting!

Today was our 4th class in Lego Robotics.  The kids are now familiar with the Lego pieces, and the WeDo programming icons.  They are able to work at their own pace, following directions in the WeDo program.  They start off following the instructions step by step, but along the way they invariably find their own way to do things.  They modify the build, or they add components to the program.  They try, fail, and try again.  My students are learning how things work - gears, pulleys, levers, motors and sensors.  They are also developing their eye for details. Gears that don't touch just right, won't work they way they should, and pieces that are put together backwards won't fit where they belong.  
All of this is important stuff.  But the most important thing they are learning is to trust themselves - take risks, use trial and error to test ideas, and look beyond the instructions to what could be.

Class is noisy, Legos are everywhere, and my attention is pulled in many directions - but I love every minute, and so do the kids.  They are in charge of their learning, and I am along for the ride.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Star Academy Wireless Document Cameras

Student using the iPad
document camera
At the end of last year Star Academy teachers came up with a novel request - What if instead of new document cameras we purchased teacher iPads that could wirelessly display student work and do so much more? Instead of standard ELMO or AverMedia document cameras, for roughly the same price Star Academy purchased iPads, adjustable stands, and the Reflector application for all of the teachers. As I shared in my post on display options for iPhones and iPads last week, Reflector is a program that allows users to wirelessly display devices to their computers.

Our one concern was wireless - would the new network support all 13 iPads all broadcasting at the same time along with the school's other wireless devices (iPads, Chromebooks, teacher computers)? We're about six weeks into our little experiment and things seem to be working well. The wireless is holding up and both teachers and students have found the iPads simple to use.

Student work displayed
during Author's Chair
Through Reflector and an iPad teachers can quickly move about the room displaying different pieces of student work. They can also connect the iPad to the stand and provide a more traditional lesson under the iPad's camera. What iPad apps are they using? The teachers are keeping it simple, primarily using the iPad's native Camera app, as well as a free app called Stage that allows users to add annotations. The document camera function is just one piece to the iPad's use in the classroom. The teachers are also using these devices to model for students use of apps that are on the student iPads including iMovie, Keynote, and Pages. What's kind of handy is that switching between document camera and one of these apps is as simple as pressing the home button on the iPads.

If you have an iPad or are considering ordering one through a grant or donations try using it as a document camera. I think you will be impressed with how easy it is and you will be able to easily move about the classroom.


Photos: Courtesy of Hope Kloczko's 1st Grade Class

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday Tech Tip # 11 - Wireless Networks

Today we're starting a new series of posts - Tuesday Tech Tips. These will be quick and easy reminders for using technology resources at Natomas Charter School.

This week our focus is wireless networks. At Natomas Charter School we maintain multiple wireless networks. We maintain separate networks because our devices need to be filtered at different levels and we need to ensure that our internal network resources are safe from malware and viruses. While useful, the separate networks can be a bit confusing, so here is a listing of each network and its intended use by campus.

Main Campus

Here we maintain four networks - two for devices owned by the school and two for devices owned by students and staff

This network is used by wireless devices owned by Natomas Charter School, primarily teacher and staff laptops. All of these devices have antivirus and malware protection software and since the devices are used by staff the filtering is fairly open. Only the IT department has access to this password and we add it to all devices when they are set up.

This network is almost identical to NCS-Staff with more restrictive filtering. It is used to support our school-owned Chromebooks and iPads. Similar to NCS-Staff this password is maintained by the IT department. 

Bringing your own iPad, iPhone, or laptop to school? No problem. You can use NCS-StaffGuest to connect to the network. It is filtered at the same level as NCS-Guest, but does not allow users to access internal network resources (servers, networked printers, etc.) and instead routes users directly to the Internet. We do this because personal devices may not have adequate antivirus/malware protection software. All NCS staff members have access to this password. I am not posting it here since this is a public site, but feel free to contact the IT department or check your email if you do not know the password. Please do not provide it to students. Last year this happened and everyone ended up having to reset their devices.

This network is available for all students (at teacher-direction) and guests who are not NCS employees. It is filtered like NCS-Student, but similar to NCS-Staff Guest does not allow access to internal network resources. When using NCS-Guest it is important to launch a web-browser after connecting, accept the security certificate, and enter your email address.

PACT & Star

These two campuses have different wireless hardware than the main campus, so their system is slightly different as well.

Identical to NCS-Staff at the Main Campus

Identical to NCS-Student at the Main Campus

Very similar to NCS-Guest at the Main Campus and meant for use by student, staff, or outside guest personal devices.

Hopefully, this post clears up some confusion about our wireless networks. We are constantly working on improving the system, so you may hear of updates as well in the future. Please let us know if you have any questions. Should you ever come across a site you or your students need simply put in a Help Ticket (or email if it is an emergency) and we will take care of it.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tuesday Tech Tip #10 - Displaying iPads & iPhones

A question that I am often asked when I am in classrooms is, "How can I display my iPhone or iPad?" Increasingly, teachers are finding these to be valuable instructional tools whether showing students how to create a movie using an iPad or simply modeling how students might set up email or Schoology on their iPhones. There are a few different ways you can display your mobile device through a projector ranging from low-tech to fancy-schmancy. Some methods have an associated cost, while one is free and ready to go at any moment.

Document Camera - Free & Simple
Have something you need to display right now? Try putting your iPhone or iPad right under your document camera. As long as your camera is hooked up to your projector or computer you should be able to show anything being displayed on your mobile device. This strategy does have one downside though. Depending on the lighting situation in your room you might have problems with screen glare.

VGA Adapter - Dependable, but Pricey
Most mobile devices now have an available VGA adapter. For example, Apple makes VGA adapters for the iPhone and iPad that are robust and work like a charm. You simply plug one end into the device and the other into aVGA cable. If your projector has two sources you can then use the source button to toggle between your computer and mobile device. The only downside is that these little adapters alone can run anywhere from $15-$50 and they do keep you tethered to your projector.

AirPlay Mirroring - Magical, but Can Relies on Wireless
My preferred method of displaying iPhones and iPads is Airplay mirroring using the Reflector App. This program is installed on your computer (Mac or Windows) and once running will allow you to wirelessly display your device on your computer screen. Assuming your computer is also plugged into a projector, your mobile device screen can also be displayed in front of the class. This is actually how Star Academy teachers are using teacher iPads as wireless document cameras this year. If you are familiar with Apple TV, Reflector basically turns your computer into an Apple TV in terms of being able to AirPlay mobile devices.

There are, however, a few limitations with this approach. It does required paid software ($12.99) and both devices (computer and iPhone/iPad) must be on the same wireless network with robust wireless density. One of our projects this year is to investigate the possibility of displaying across networks (NCS-Staff Guest to NCS Staff and NCS-Student to NCS-Staff), but for the time being devices really have to be on the same network.

If you are interested in displaying your teacher or student iPads let me know and we can look into each of these options and find one that will work for you.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

LucidChart & LuicidPress - Publishing Options Beyond Docs

Google Docs - they are tried and true, but sometimes you need something a little bit more. Even Slides, Sheets, and Drawing might not be quite what you need. When you find yourself in that situation take a look at two other tools you should see listed in Drive - Lucidchart and Lucidpress.

Lucidchart is similar to other concept-mapping or brainstorming tools like Inspiration or Popplet that allow users to easily create diagrams demonstrating a workflow or how concepts are related to each other.  Once your project is complete it can be downloaded as a PDF or image file to be used in other documents or simply submitted as a work assignment.

Lucidpress is Google Docs on steroids. I like to think of it as either Pages, Publisher, or InDesign just in the cloud. Using Lucidpress you can create professional looking publications, such as posters, brochures, or magazines. All of the documents are formatted for print or digital layout.

A handy feature of Lucidchart and Lucidpress is that both programs integrate with Google Drive, so your diagrams and publications show up in your Drive folder with all of your other files.  Similar to Google Docs, Spreadsheets, and Presentations, both products allow for real-time collaboration between users in the same document.

To get started with either product check out these online tutorials. Both products also have excellent support pages and a fantastic collection of templates.

Please let me know if you have any questions.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday Tech Tip #9 - Keeping Your Mac Speedy

At the beginning of the school year all of our Apple users started off with a newly reimaged computer fully optimized for speed and efficiency. However, as the year progresses you might notice some sluggishness. This week's Tech Tip consists of four ways you can keep your work Mac speedy and one additional idea for speeding up your computer at home.

1. Clear Off the Desktop
I know that many of you enjoy storing files on your desktop because it makes things easy to find, but it also slows down your computer significantly. The Desktop is basically the first screen the computer has to load and if it is loaded with tons of files it takes more time to render everything. Your Mac views all of the items on your Desktop as separate windows and is constantly generating thumbnail previews for them. A great idea is to try keeping items in folders, preferably not on your Desktop. Make use of Documents or even better - the Google Drive folder for automatic backups.

2. Restart Your Mac
When was the last time you restarted your computer? Can't remember? Restart it...right now! This process will likely solve any problems you are having and speed things up. As you launch programs and forget to quit them they continue to run in the background eating up overall computer performance. A quick restart is the fastest way to make sure quit all of these programs and as a tech once told me is the equivalent of "flushing the toilet" on errant programs.

3. Run Updates
Inevitably the Apple update message appears at the most inopportune time - right in the middle of a lesson or just as you are trying to respond to a time-sensitive email. However, remembering to go back and actually run the update when you have a moment is key to keeping you Mac performing its best. This process not only ensures your computer is protected from possible security vulnerabilities, but many updates are also fixes geared towards efficiency and performance. The same thing is true for other applications that have separate update tools including Microsoft Office and Chrome. Update...update...update.

4. Clear Out Some Space
When you save files your computer actually does not save the file in one continuous chunk. Instead, it breaks up the file into fragments that can fit in differently sized spaces. This helps your computer maximize its hard drive capacity. However, if you are getting close to having a completely full hard drive your computer will actually slow down because it is continuously attempting to break files into smaller and smaller chunks. Clearing out space so that you only store what you absolutely need is a quick way to speed up your computer.

5. Add RAM or Install an SSD - Personal Computers
When we purchase school computers we often maximize the amount of RAM and the speed of the hard drive as part of the order. However, when you purchased a personal device you might not have selected the same options. For example, when I bought my latest personal laptop I opted for the least expensive model. Within a year I was ready to throw it out the window. Fortunately, someone talked me into spending $250 on RAM and a new, much faster solid-state drive (SSD). After watching a YouTube video and spending about 15 minutes performing surgery on my Macbook Pro I suddenly had an amazing little machine. It was definitely the best $250 I have ever spent on a personal device. If your computer at home is slowing down before you purchase a new one do a little research and see if you can add any RAM or swap out your hard drive.

So take a few moments, and try out a few of these tricks. You should find that they speed things up nicely. I you have any questions simply let one of us in the IT Department know.