123D Circuits: An online circuit builder and emulator (Tech tip 8 of 31)

123D Circuits (from Autodesk) is a free, online tool for designing, building and testing a variety of different electrical circuits.  Working within their web-based Electronics Lab, you start with an empty, virtual circuit breadboard.  A pop up menu reveals a variety of electronic components that can be quickly added to your breadboard.  Batteries, resistors, capacitors, servos and motors are just a few of the components available to the user.  There is also an option to use and program a virtual Arduino board and incorporate it into your circuit.

Testing and running circuits is done quickly as you run the simulation online and allows for quick troubleshooting and feedback.  Projects are automatically saved to your account and can be shared with other users.  New accounts for 123D Circuits are free to create or users can opt to login using an existing FaceBook, Yahoo, Microsoft or Google account.  As this is a web application, 123D Circuits works well from any Mac, Chromebook or Windows PC but as of the date of this post there are no dedicated applications for Android or iOS devices.

 

Drag and drop components; draw in your wires and then test your circuit!
Drag and drop components; draw in your wires and then test your circuit!

For teachers looking for a new and innovative way for students to learn about and play with electrical circuits, you are going to want to check this out.

– K. Takahashi

Use IFTTT to coordinate your favourite apps and platforms (Tech tip 4 of 31)

There are about 180 different platforms that can connect to the IFTTT service.
There are about 180 different platforms that can connect to the IFTTT service.

IFTTT allows the user to connect different online platforms and applications by establishing conditional relationships between them.  IFTTT stands for “IF This Then That” and it nicely sums up how one connects two applications together.  Changes in one application or platform will trigger an action in another.  These simple chains or strings of commands are referred to as “recipes” and they can be shared to other IFTTT users looking to do the same thing with their own respective applications.

IFTTT does a great job in walking new users through the process of creating their own recipe.  Currently, IFTTT can connect to about 180 different online applications or “channels” that support productivity, social media, home automation and wearable technologies.  As a result, one can create some unique recipes that can combine and automate applications that would otherwise work independently from each other.

Examples of some possible recipes include:

  • Save and document all of your Twitter posts to a Google spreadsheet
  • Save your Instagram photos to DropBox
  • Automatically save Gmail attachments to either Dropbox, Box or OneDrive
  • Receive a SMS text message if any new post appears on your Tumblr blog
  • Download SoundCloud tracks to your Google Drive

IFTTT is also available as an app for iOS and Android. The developers at IFTTT have just released their DO applications that allow you to connect action items to their DO Button, DO Camera or DO Note apps. If you are looking to automate and coordinate your favourite applications, you will want to check out IFTTT.

– K. Takahashi

Find out what is streaming on Netflix, Hulu, etc. (Tech tip 2 of 31)

Search for a title across several streaming platforms at once.
Search for a title across several streaming platforms at once.

Searching for a movie or television show within and across different streaming services (ex. Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, etc.) can be a painful and lengthy process.  If you know what you want to watch but have no idea what streaming service is currently offering the title, check out Can I Stream.it.  This is a free service that also allows you to search for titles available as digital rentals, digital purchases as well as disc purchases.  Can I Stream.it is also available as an app for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Chrome.

– K. Takahashi

Powtoon: A closer look at this engaging presentation platform for the classroom

Powtoon is a web-based presentation platform that allows the user to create animated presentations.  Originally designed for business, Powtoon may prove to be another way for students to “show what they know” and demonstrate understanding of a concept or learning expectation.  Educators can try Powtoon for free and for those looking for another alternative to PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi, Powtoon may be worth checking out.  But beware, there are some important limitations and issues to consider as dive into your first project.

– K. Takahashi

Review: Chromecast in the Classroom

The Chromecast is a small, portable streaming device that is backed by Google’s Chrome browser.  A winning combination right?  But how does it fit within the classroom environment and infrastructure?

Strengths

Small form factor – The Chromecast looks like an oversized thumbdrive that essentially plugs right into the HDMI port of a data projector or display. This makes for an easier installation as there is no need to stow or mount the hardware.

Works across different platforms – Since the Chromecast works through the Chrome browser and other Google services it provides the ability for different platforms (ex. Windows, Mac, Android and iOS) to connect with this streaming device.  In a modern classroom where it is not unusual to see Windows desktop computers working alongside iPads and Android devices, the Chromecast places itself in a unique position where those different devices can be supported.

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Limitations

HDMI only – Similar to the Apple TV, the Chromecast is only able to connect to displays (monitors, televisions) and data projectors through an HDMI port. This will be a challenge for classrooms with older projectors and displays.  HDMI to VGA converters threaten to undermine the compact form factor of the Chromecast and there is no guarantee that a converter will work.

Power via USB – Another potential drawback in the set up of a Chromecast is the need to provide additional power via a USB cable.  Although the Chromecast comes with an AC-to-USB power adapter (and a fairly long USB cable), it can still serve as a challenge to power the Chromecast if there is no powered USB port or available AC outlet near the data projector or display.

Different platforms, different functionality – Although the Chromecast brings the ability to support different platforms, Chromecast functionality and features differ as you move from Windows PCs and Macs to Android tablets and iOS devices.  A Chrome browser running on a Mac or PC will allow the user to broadcast their browser and mirror their entire desktop (beta feature) to the Chromecast.  On the other hand, iOS and some Android devices will only be able to connect to the Chromecast through specific, supported applications.  So for those looking for an all-in-one, classroom solution to project the screens of different devices (mirroring), the Chromecast is not able to do this for iOS and specific Android devices… at least not yet (see the next section below).

Consider this…

Google’s I/O 2014 event unveiled some encouraging plans for the Chromecast.  Most notable were the updates around mirroring and connectivity across different wireless networks.  Mirroring functionality is currently being extended to certain Android devices and will allow for the broadcast of an Android device to another display through the Chromecast.  As mentioned above, this is a feature that PCs and Macs currently enjoy through the Chrome browser.

Future Chromecast features that would allow devices to connect across different wireless networks is a function that seems to rely upon technologies that allow for devices to locally connect to each other.  It will be interesting to see if this feature will support a BYOD environment where personal student and teacher devices connect to a classroom Chromecast residing on a secured wireless network.  Ultimately the news around Chromecast at Google’s I/O 2014 event helps to assure users that there is still more in store for this device over the next year.

K. Takahashi

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye Surface RT: Back to the Drawing Board

Surface RT home screen

Microsoft’s Surface event on May 20th, 2014 outlined the future for the Surface tablet and unfortunately the Windows RT-based Surface does not seem to be in their plans moving forward.  For schools and educators who were looking to the Surface RT tablet as a versatile yet affordable tool to support learning, it seems time is running out for this struggling tablet.  Looking back, it can be argued that there were several signs signalling the demise of the Surface RT and Surface 2 (the 2nd generation of the Surface RT).

A screen capture of the Windows app store
Although you can most of the big name apps that most of us have to rely upon in our office and classroom, there are still some notable apps that are absent from the Windows store.

APPS

There are many critical apps that are still missing from the Windows Store.  In my experience, the lack of a Google Drive application presents a significant challenge in trying to tie in the Surface RT with a learning environment that encourages BYOD where Google Apps for Education (GAFE) is being used to bring together a wide variety of operating systems and platforms.  Furthermore, some of the essential apps that are currently available for the Surface RT have been prone to bugs and glitches.  Most notably, the Evernote Touch app was rendered useless for many Surface RT users who reported persistent issues of the app crashing upon start up.  To make matters worse, it was the slow response of Evernote to update their app that certainly reinforced the notion that the RT platform was not on front burner for many developers.  Understandably, these issues cannot be pinned to Microsoft directly but it ultimately impacts user experience and the functionality of the Surface RT in the classroom.

SUBSTANTIAL DISCOUNTS

Although the attractive educational pricing for Surface RT grabbed the attention of many schools and districts, it can be argued that it was a harbinger of bigger problems for the device and platform.  Now faced with the demise of the Windows RT platform, school districts that took advantage of the educational pricing for the Surface RT (and to a lesser extent the Surface 2) are now left with the task of making the most of a technology that looks to have run its course.

MICROSOFT WORD, EXCEL, POWERPOINT and for iOS and ANDROID

One of the defining features of the Surface RT and Surface 2 tablet was the inclusion of the Office 2013 RT productivity suite.  At the time, the RT version of Microsoft Office was the only mobile, touch-friendly offering of this popular software.  However with the release of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications for the iPad (with Android versions coming soon) it now takes one of the redeeming features of the Surface RT tablet off the table.  More importantly, it suggests a shift in Microsoft’s approach and leverage with its coveted productivity suite.  Rather than use Microsoft Office to attract new users to Windows devices, their approach appears to leverage the software in an attempt to permeate into other hardware platforms.  As noted by ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, this move by Microsoft is about market share.

NO SURFACE MINI

As mentioned above, Microsoft’s Surface event on May 20th set the stage for the future of the Surface tablet and it was the notable no-show of the rumoured Surface Mini tablet that signals the end of the Surface RT tablet and most likely the Windows RT platform as well.  Speculation around the Surface Mini tablet described a 7″-8″ tablet running Windows RT but in what looks to be a last minute decision, Microsoft opted to shelve the latest version of an RT-based tablet.  Paul Thurrott suggests that the impact of a quickly changing tablet market and the resistance on the part of some Windows users towards the new user interface of Windows 8 has helped hinder the push for new Windows Surface RT tablets.

When you add it up, it does not look good for Windows RT-based Surface tablets moving forward.  Although the speed and volatility surrounding technological change and advancements is unavoidable, for school boards and districts working with limited resources and funding it is still a tough pill to swallow.  Looking towards the positive, perhaps the move to bring Microsoft products and services across different platforms and hardware is a hopeful change that will be of better value and use to the learner than the introduction of a new Surface tablet.

K. Takahashi

Evernote Crashing on my RT: My Solution & a Bigger Problem?

Evernote Touch on the Windows Store yield mixed reviews.
Evernote Touch on the Windows Store yield mixed reviews.

The ability to access and use Evernote across my computing and mobile devices has been an incredible way for me to record and organize my notes, thoughts and observations at work and home. It allows me to move between platforms and devices seamlessly and capture those moments when they occur as they occur.

However my experience recently with Evernote Touch on the Microsoft Surface has been plagued with persistent crashing of this touch application. Updating Windows and applying application updates did not resolve the issue. Reinstalling the application also failed to fix these frustrating crashes.

A quick search online revealed that this is a problem that others are experiencing with their RT devices. What is more, there seems to be no official solution to this problem. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that this issue has pestered some Evernote/Windows RT users as far back as October 2012. Not surprisingly, a number of reviews of the Evernote Touch app on the Windows Store also draw attention to this problem.

Solving the Evernote crashing problem comes at the cost of not being able to access my Evernote notes from other user accounts on the Surface.
Solving the Evernote crashing problem comes at the cost of not being able to access my Evernote notes from other user accounts on the Surface.

My “Solution”?

With some trial and error, it seems like my problem of Evernote crashing is linked to the multiple user accounts on the RT. Originally, I had two user accounts on my Surface; a Microsoft Live account for work that I used when I initially set up the RT and my own personal Microsoft Live account. Evernote was originally installed with my work account but once I started using my personal account on the Surface, I wanted to access Evernote from my personal account as well. And that’s when my Evernote crashing problems started.

However I found that once I completely uninstalled the Evernote program from my work account and then reinstalled the app again within my personal account the crashing seemed to stop. All of my notes (over 1500) loaded up successfully and quickly synced any changes to my notes. What is more, when I reinstalled the app under the work account/user and logged into my Evernote account the crashing started up again. It would seem that at least for me, the Evernote Touch app works on my Windows RT device providing that I am not trying to access Evernote under a different Windows user account on the same Surface tablet. To be clear, this is a stopgap solution that I have found that circumvents the Evernote crashing issue on my RT but it certainly does not resolve the problem.

A Sign Of Bigger Issues?

I cannot say for sure if the root of this problem resides with the Windows RT operating system or the Evernote Touch application. What I do find concerning is the persistence of this problem and the lack of success in trying to find a solution to this issue. If the crashing application is indeed linked to its use under multiple users on Windows RT then this becomes a potential problem for educators who wish to use Evernote in a classroom setting where students would be logging in under their own personal Microsoft Live accounts. Could this also indicate potential problems for other applications when used within different user accounts on one RT device? I guess only time will tell…

K. Takahashi

The Surface RT (Surface) Tablet for the Classroom – One Year Later…

Looking back to December 2012, my first post on the Windows Surface RT explored the potential strengths and challenges of the Surface RT tablet in the classroom. Well, a lot can change in a year and it presents an opportunity to now reassess and see what the RT has to show since that first blog post.

Windows 8.1

Updating the Surface RT to Windows 8.1 provided some critical improvements to the overall experience of the tablet. Battery life and overall performance has improved significantly on the Surface RT (now the Surface) tablet and for many, this update brought new life into the Windows tablet. The addition of a “Start” button and the improvements to the user interface were all welcome improvements. For me personally, these changes go on to make the argument that the “metro” or “live tile” interface is indeed the future of Windows and the days of the aging Windows desktop are definitely numbered.

What's new in the Windows Store?
What’s new in the Windows Store?

Windows RT Apps: A Source of Hope and Frustration

With the Windows RT platform, it is all about the apps or applications. Although the number of apps offered in the Windows Store have increased, there is still a lot to be desired in the overall quality of apps available. This is especially true of compelling, creative applications for the classroom. Having said that there are a few apps that I have stumbled across that may be of value to the classroom.

  • Novamind Mind Mapping (Free, $14.99) – A mind mapping application that is worth checking out if this is a learning activity that you would like to move to the tablet.
  • Record Voice & Pen (Free, Paid Upgrades) – Draw, write, annotate and record on your tablet. A nice interface, but not as fully featured as Explain Everything.
  • Photo Editor by Aviary (Free) – A solid photo editor for the Windows tablet.

Of course there are also some big name apps like Twitter, WordPress, Evernote Touch and now Flipboard that are available to the RT user. However, there are still a couple of critical apps that I have been waiting for since the launch of the RT. Just having these apps available for the Surface RT (or Surface) would go a long way to secure the Windows RT tablet as a compelling classroom tablet.

  • Google Chrome / Google Drive – Having access to these Google services and applications would be huge.
  • MovieMaker – Why is it taking so long to have a native video editor for the RT?
SkyDrive has enjoyed some nice improvements.
SkyDrive has enjoyed some nice improvements.

SkyDrive is HOT, Skype is NOT

Better SkyDrive integration was a critical and most welcome improvement on the Surface RT and Windows 8 in general. Back in the summer of 2013, Microsoft improved the integration of SkyDrive on the RT operating system and essentially made the cloud storage service much more seamless with the overall experience of Windows 8. Combine that with the ability to have the SkyDrive app installed on your iOS and/or Android device and you have now got another compelling choice for online storage.

Skype on the other hand has had a rough year as it continues to try to establish its place of prominence in the Microsoft ecosystem. The integration of instant messages in Skype marked the shutdown of the popular Windows Live Messenger and with it an increased scrutiny over how this transition would play out. Unfortunately, the transition did not come without glitches and headaches which were quickly vented to the world. Skype is an important piece of the Microsoft ecosystem and it will be interesting to see where this conversation goes over the course of another year.

Microsoft Buys Nokia – More RTs on the Way?

Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia back in the fall of 2013 added to the speculation surrounding Microsoft’s move toward the future. Around the same time, Nokia released the Lumia 2520 – a tablet running Windows RT. Although nothing has been announced to suggest a surge in more RT tablets, those who are looking to have more variety in Windows RT hardware may be hopeful that the acquisition of Nokia will help make that happen.

So that is pretty much the year for the Surface RT (or Surface). With rumours already swirling around the 3rd generation of this tablet, it will be interesting to see what another year will bring. Stay tuned…

– K. Takahashi

Microsoft’s Future in Education: The Xbox

A lot has been made about Microsoft’s foray into tablet hardware with its Surface Pro and Surface RT tablets. With Apple and Android tablets having a substantial head start in finding their way into classrooms, Windows-based tablets are still trying to gain a foothold in this competitive and crowded market. (See Best Student Tablets for 2013 from LAPTOP) But in looking at hardware for the classroom, the products that are now attracting my attention are the devices that allow for the sharing and display of content on a screen or projector. Devices like the Apple TV and more recently Google’s Chromecast offer a way for students to share and project content and media with the class. Right now, it seems this particular corner of the market is still up for grabs, but for how long? If Microsoft is looking to innovate in the classroom, I would argue that opportunity lies not in their line of tablets but in their Xbox.

From http://www.xbox.com/en-US/xboxone/meet-xbox-one
From http://www.xbox.com/en-US/xboxone/meet-xbox-one

A device to rule them all

As a teacher, I am constantly looking for a way to bring together and utilize the variety of electronic devices that enter my classroom. The ability to have students project their laptop or tablet screens to a classroom TV or projector irregardless of the brand or operating system would be a powerful tool for the educator. This piece alone would help bolster the potential of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative in a school.

One major disadvantage of the Apple TV is its ability to only work with Apple devices. Google’s Chromecast however, makes the first major step in bringing together multiple platforms as it works through the Chrome browser. There is nothing stopping Microsoft from doing the same with the Explorer browser. Factor in the wide scope of tools and services at Microsoft’s disposal and you begin to craft a pretty compelling product.

Play to your strengths, Microsoft!

Unlike the Apple TV or the Chromecast, the Xbox is essentially a computer and as a result, it opens up a larger scope of functionality that would be of great interest to educators.

Microsoft Office – if the Surface RT comes with a free version of the Office Suite, why can’t the XBox? The ability to connect a keyboard to the Xbox as well as the ability to call up, display and edit documents, presentations and/or spreadsheets on a large screen would be a welcome feature in the classroom.

SkyDrive – right now Xbox users are able to install a SkyDrive app on their Xbox but are only able to view photos and videos on SkyDrive stored on their SkyDrive. If Xbox users could access the same level of SkyDrive integration that Surface RT users enjoy, this would be another powerful feature for all Xbox users.

Skype – Although not yet available as an app for the Xbox, Skype seems like an obvious addition particularly once the Xbox One is released with a Kinect as part of the bundle. Video communication with other classrooms, teachers or guest speakers would extend the reach of the classroom whether it is across the hall or across the globe.

Kinect – In the context of gaming, the Kinect is still trying to find its audience and purpose. In the context of the classroom, the Kinect could offer a compelling alternative to the interactive whiteboard. For students who are visual/spatial or kinaesthetic learners, the Kinect can offer a new way of interacting with digital media and content.

Going beyond

from http://www.xbox.com/en-US/xboxone/meet-xbox-one
from http://www.xbox.com/en-US/xboxone/meet-xbox-one

Right now the applications available for the Xbox 360 are quite limited. However, speculation and rumours about the upcoming Xbox One being able to run Windows 8 applications is a compelling feature that would extend the scope and use of this console in the classroom. Granted, the selection of applications in the Windows Store is quite limited when compared to the offerings from Google’s Play Store as well as Apple’s App Store. However, simply having access to the current selection of Windows 8 applications would provide access to titles such as Paint.net, Evernote, Google Search and Twitter. Having applications like these now accessible from the classroom Xbox would further solidify its position as being more than just a gaming rig.

But what’s wrong with gaming? Admittedly, the first thing people (students included) will associate with the Xbox is video gaming. Looking beyond simply playing video games is the intriguing opportunity to create your own video game. Microsoft’s DreamSpark in conjunction with Xbox Indie LIVE Games Development offers access to developer and designer tools where students can create their own games and then play them on the Xbox.

“What Most Schools Don’t Teach” is a video from CODE.ORG that makes the call for schools to address the need for students to learn how to code. Being able to read and write code prepares students with the mindset and skills to live and work in the rapidly developing digital age. The Xbox can position itself as the educational tool of choice that allows for the viewing and testing of student-created games.

 

With the upcoming release of the Xbox One this fall (2013), there is an opportunity for Microsoft to move the Xbox console beyond the gaming market. Though there have been a lot of predictions and rumours, we will just have to wait until the official release to see what this new hardware has to offer.

K. Takahashi

Five More Things To Consider About The Surface RT In The Classroom

Adding to my initial assessment of the Surface RT tablet, here are some additional thoughts on the RT after having a chance to use the device more extensively.
1.  If you need a Touch Cover keyboard it is an additional $100 to your purchase ($119 if purchased separately). You can opt to enter text using the onscreen keyboard but keep in mind that the built-in kickstand will not allow for easy onscreen typing which leaves you to type with the tablet lying flat on a surface (or lap) or with the user holding the device and thumb typing. There are cheaper case options for the RT (Best 15 Cases for the Windows Surface RT Tablet –  Computer Shopper) and one may provide a more comfortable and stable stance for touch typing.
2.  The built in kickstand and Touch Cover design severely limits the RT’s ability to be placed anywhere but on a flat surface. Unlike the laptop, the Surface design does not easily allow for placement on uneven surfaces like someone’s lap or in situations where you would like to adjust the angle of the screen.
3.  Although you may have a desktop, you do not have a full copy of Windows. Any piece of software that you wish to add to your Surface RT needs to come from the Windows Store. As a result, the desktop mode is really a mystery to me as I have found very little reason to access my apps and content through that interface. If anything, the presence of the desktop only serves to confuse the consumer into momentarily thinking they have a full version of Windows.
Looks like good old Windows but just try to install some programs and you will see it is not Windows.
Looks like good old Windows but just try to install some programs and you will see it is not Windows.
4.  Windows SkyDrive is an important supporting piece to the Surface RT and Windows just made it better. Paul Thurrott (Supersite for Windows) recently posted that Microsoft has improved the implementation of SkyDrive on the Surface Pro and Surface RT. My concern with SkyDrive being only accessible through the SkyDrive app has now been addressed. SkyDrive is now integrated into both the “Metro” and desktop modes of Windows RT. This now adds to greater value in having students log into the Surface RT using their own Windows Live account.
5.  Consider the future of the Surface RT. Although Microsoft confirms that it is moving forward with this platform, recent news on Microsoft’s failure to meet its sales expectations of the Surface RT resulted in a loss of nearly $900 million. Obviously, this explains the drastic price reductions for the Surface RT and one has to question what Microsoft will do with future versions of the tablet to keep this product line alive. If new versions of the Surface RT are released will they try to maintain a lower price point? If so, what will the cost be to the specs and hardware? Perhaps a reduction in the size of the tablet is in store?