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Freebee Friday: iWork, Therefore I Am

Apple iworkRegardless of whether your school has the latest MacBooks or elderly Air models, they can all get a big boost with free software. You can download and install the latest iWork suite with Pages, Keynote and Numbers but you’ll have to install them one at a time. The GarageBand and iMovie apps are also free. Just go to the App Store and grab what you like before they change their mind. Depending on the app, you’ll need something between OSX 9.3 to 10.12 to do this upgrade.


Freebee Friday: Doing Good by Doing Well

ParadigmWhile the Web can supply an abundance of lesson plans for math, science and the other mainstream subjects, it doesn’t do very well in teaching about life, generosity and helping those in need. That’s where Project Paradigm comes it. Sponsored by a slew of corporate giants and the Red Cross, Paradigm stresses collaboration, creativity and especially kindness to make a better tomorrow for students, teachers and the rest of the planet. To start, there’re a bunch of online lesson plans and supporting material to help get this message out. Then, there’s the money. The non-profit offers innovative and creative students and teachers cash for submitting and sharing problem-solving lessons that get kids to actually work together to identify and solve a major global social problem.

Streamline your School

JitasaThe modern school runs not on chalk and blackboards, but on data, and the K12 Jitasa Enterprise Suite does it all, allowing the institution to run more efficiently. In addition to governmental reporting of scores, the software can bill students for fees, handle payroll and handle all the intricacies of human relations. The company will do a remote demo for you.

An A in Chromebook Design

Chromebook plus compositeSamsung’s Chromebook Plus sets the pace for Chromebooks at school with an unequaled combination of size, weight and versatility. It may cost more than plain utilitarian systems, but it’s a powerful and versatile Chromebook that punches above its weight. And, a more powerful model is on the way.

At 8.7 by 11.0-inches and 0.6-inches thick, the 2.4-pound (2.7-pounds with its small AC adapter) Chromebook Plus is significantly smaller and lighter than either the Acer C731T or Asus C202, in spite of the fact that the Chromebook Plus has a slightly bigger screen. In fact, the Chromebook Plus’s dull silver case is only marginally thicker and heavier than the Asus Flip C100A, a convertible Chromebook with a similar design that has a smaller 10.1-inch screen versus 12.3-inchs for the Chromebook Plus.

Despite its slim profile, the system is a convertible notebook with a 360-degree hinge that allows it to assume several computing profiles. It can be a traditional keyboard-centric system, but if you want a tablet, flip the screen over. You can even set it up on a tabletop in tent orientation or with the keyboard facing down and speakers facing up for presentations or small-group video watching.  

Chromebook plus bIts hinge action is smooth, the display doesn’t wobble too much when you tap it and the display locks in place when it’s set to tablet mode. Overall, the system feels good in the hand as a slate and its 18.5-mm keys are easy on the fingers.

Just like Flip, the Chromebook Plus has a tough metallic skin over a strong internal frame to protect it from damage. Unlike the C202 and the C731T, the Chromebook Plus is not Mil-Std 810G certified for rugged use.

It lacks the Celeron processor that many other Chromebooks use and instead has the RockChip OP1 ARM-based six-core chip that runs at 2GHz. An evolutionary update of the RockChip used in the Asus Flip C100A, it’s faster and has more computing cores to work with, yet doesn’t overwhelm the battery.

In addition to the $450 Plus model I looked at, Samsung plans an all-black $550 Pro model that’s aimed at businesses, but just might be the ultimate teacher or administrator’s system. It uses an Intel Core m3 processor that runs at between 1- and 2.2GHz, but otherwise mirrors the Plus system.

Either way, the systems come with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage space. Need more room for lessons, assignments and grades? You can add extra storage space with a micro-SD card.

As is the case with many newer systems, its ports are a mixed bag. The Chromebook Plus has a pair of USB-C ports, one of which is used for charging the system. In other words, like others, you’ll need to get an adapter to connect with a projector, display and accessories. It worked fine with a Minix Neo C Mini adapter, which also provided a pair of USB 3.0 ports and HDMI connections, but you’ll probably be using its 802.11ac networking and Bluetooth 4 wireless connections more often.

Chromebook plus iLike many new Chrome-based designs, the Chromebook Plus lacks a cooling fan, which can make it a more reliable system with longer battery life. While it generally keeps its cool, there’s a hot spot near the USB-C port while it’s plugged in.

The 12.3-inch display is a gem that is not only able to interpret 10 independent touch inputs but has a highly detailed 2,400 by 1,600 resolution versus 1,366 by 768 screens for the competition. In fact, it handles UHD videos extremely well with sharp detail and smoothness, but could be a weak link it its longevity by not having reinforced glass, like Gorilla Glass.

At an aspect ratio of 3:2, the screen is taller than most of the competition and might end up being a way for kids to hide from the teacher during class. It lets you work comfortably with three taller documents or Web pages at once, though.

Above the screen is a 720p Web cam, but there’s no camera in the screen lid. It does have a pair of microphones that can filter out background noise, something that’s usually reserved for more expensive models.

A big step forward for this class of Chromebook is the inclusion of the Chromebook Plus’s pop-out stylus for sketching and annotating what’s on the screen. It does a good job of mimicking the feel of a pen on paper, but there’s no way to tether it to the system. 

The stylus software on the Chromebook Plus lets you define an area and save it as a screen shot and write notes, but there’s also a magnifying glass tool. My favorite is the cool laser pointer mode that leaves a bright blue trail that’s perfect for highlighting something on-screen. There’re also downloadable programs that can use the pen, from math graphic and drawing to note-taking and signature apps.

It’s more secure than most with a second-generation Trusted Platform Module. The Chromebook Plus, however, lacks a fingerprint scanner or Web cam capable of facial recognition for log-ins.

With version 56 of the Chrome OS software, the Chromebook Plus has one more trick up its long sleeve. In addition to including ArtCanvas and AirDroid Premium, it can run manyAndroid apps. Unfortunately, this doesn’t yet include the free versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but Samsung is working with Google and Microsoft on an update to open these apps to the Chromebook Plus.

Chromebook plus gThis is a Chromebook that won’t set any performance records, but it was more than powerful enough to work with those apps as well as things like MathWays online graphing calculator and the University of Colorado’s PHET science simulations. It scored 521.1 milliseconds and 9,675 on SunSpider and Octane benchmarks, slightly ahead of the Celeron-based Acer C731T. 

Its battery ran for 8 hours and 45 minutes of non-stop video playing. This should translate into more than enough for a full day of lessons, assignments and Web searches with a little left over at the end of the day. Still, it was more than an hour short of the Asus Flip C100’s 9:20. The system was able to start up and be ready for class in 7.8 seconds.

At $450, penny-pinching districts will see the Chromebook Plus as more expensive than the typical Chromebook, but it pays dividends with an excellent design and a slew of unexpected goodies, like an ultra-HD screen, TPM security and included stylus. Look for the $550 Intel Core M3-powered black Chromebook Pro in the coming months that will have more processing power and could be the ultimate teacher’s computer.

When the Android compatibility software is ready later this year, the Chromebook Plus/Pro pair will set a new standard for school computers. Which you get depends on whether your outfitting students or teachers with what will likely be the best all-around school system ever made


Cb plus a

Samsung Chromebook Plus



+ Versatile convertible design

+ UHD screen

+ Thin and light

+ Includes stylus

+ Two USB-C ports

+ TPM module

- Doesn’t work with Android-based Word, PowerPoint and Excel apps

Who’s Where

ESS-on-Mobile-and-TabletLenvica’s Smart School attendance software not only keeps track of who’s at school and who isn’t for state aid purposes but during an emergency, you can compile a list of those in the facility along with photographs in a matter of seconds. The program works with fingerprint readers and can alert parents via text or email messages if a student doesn’t show up for school.


The Ears Have It

Icelever boost careSchools usually buy the plainest black headphones they can, but they don’t have to. With the iClever BoostCare family of headphones, the class can listen to their podcasts, lessons and music with a little extra style. There are Cat-Inspired headphones in pink or blue with small ears, Christmas Reindeer antlers in red and Halloween headphones with bat wings in yellow and black.

They cost $17 (for the bat wing set), $20 (for the reindeer set) or $25 (for the cat set) and have adjustable headbands that are sized for small children with soft ear muffs. The headphones can be twisted and the 47-inch audio cord is not only tangle-proof but you can pull it without damaging the cable or 3.5-mm plug.

BatEach ear muff has a 30mm driver that delivers 20 to 20,000 hertz frequency response, roughly mirroring human hearing. They are excellent for listening to everything from spoken word programming to music to the audio output of edugames. None of them, however, have a volume control, but are electronically limited to deliver no more than 85 decibels of sound to tender ears, so there won’t be any damage.

These headphones sound as good as they look, and are perfect for the first few grades. They may cost a little more than the bargain basement headphones that schools generally buy, but these are different in that they include an 18-month replacement warranty that can be extended to 30-months, or two-and-a-half years, if you register.

Freebee Friday: Safe Schools, Step 1

School safetyThere are safe schools and those that are not so safe, but if you follow the National School Safety and Security Services’ checklist of best practices, chances are you’ll have a safe and secure school. The recommendations range from training and keeping your emergency plan up to date to reaching out to local first responders and having a social media strategy that’s part of a communications plan. Throughout the exercise, you need to be constantly reacting to new threats with a flexible school security plan. While the company can help by filling in the gaps in your school’s safety infrastructure, they have a very detailed outline on how to do it yourself.

4K for the Classroom

Xj-l8300HNWith the ability to run for its life without a bulb change, Casio’s XJ-8300HN projector adds a new level of detail with 4K imaging. With the ability to put 3,840 by 2,160 resolution images onto a classroom or auditorium screen, the projector puts out 5,000 lumens and has a 1.5X zoom lens. It’s based on a single chip DLP system, can shift its image up-and-down or side-to-side for a perfect setup and can fill up to a 12.5-foot screen. Happily, it has all the ports you’re likely to need today and tomorrow.

Touch the Future of Education

BrightLink-697UiIf you’re tired of using (and likely losing) those clunky digital markers for teaching with an interactive projector, Epson’s BrightLink 697Ui is for you. Sure, you can use the included pair of markers to write, draw or annotate on the projected image, but you can also do it all with your fingers like vertical finger-painting.

To start, the BrightLink 697Ui lives up to its first name by combining WUXGA (1,920 by 1,200) resolution with a spec-sheet output of 4,400 lumens, 20-percent more brightness than its competitors provide. It can fill up to a 100-inch (diagonal) screen, show four system screens at once and has been designed for ease of use from start to finish.

The price you pay for this is that the BL 697Ui is large at 5.0- by 18.7- x 17.6-inches – more than twice the size of NEC’s U321Hi-WK. A lot of that extra bulk is because Epson uses three polysilicon imaging targets, but the results speak for themselves with sharp, extremely bright images that are surprisingly rich.

There are five projection modes to choose from, ranging from Presentation (the brightest), Cinema (warmer images) and sRGB (more realistic) to Dicom Sim and Dynamic. You can also easily adjust the brightness, contrast, color saturation and tint to optimize it for each room and use.

On the downside, the dual-action of the BL 697Ui’s interactivity makes for a complex set up. Plan on it taking a couple of hours to complete. The reason is that there’s a lot to do with a separate control box for remotely turning the BL 697Ui on and off as well as switching between Whiteboard mode and connecting to a video source, like a notebook. There’s also a pen holder for stowing the pair of styluses.

Bl697ui cThe Touch Module is what takes the bulk of the extra time to install. It uses lasers to scan the board’s surface to sense where fingers are. It not only needs to be attached to the top of the screen or wall, but it can require reflector strips to be attached around the screen to reduce interference. It takes a sensitive touch to properly calibrate the lasers so they are neither pointed away from or at the screen. Happily, the touch unit has magnets in the back for those lucky enough to have a metallic screen. Others can use the included metal mounting bracket.

The good news is that the BL 697Ui comes with everything you’ll need, including batteries for the pens, all the cables and excellent mounting hardware for putting it on a wall. The mount allows pitch, roll and yaw adjustments; on its own, it’s a bargain at $109 with Epson’s Brighter Futures school discount.

It has every port you’d want for today or tomorrow, including a pair of HDMI, VGA, USB, RS-232 serial, three audio connections and two video-out ports. There’s built-in wired Ethernet and the BL 697Ui comes with Epson’s USB WiFi transmitter for wireless data, an option on many of its competitors. As is the case with other BrightLink projectors, Epson’s thoughtful designers have included a plastic cable cover that can hide a multitude of wiring sins.

Once everything is together, the BL 697UI pays dividends in terms of ease and flexibility of interaction that few projectors can match. When you turn it on, the opening screen shows the cornucopia of possibilities, from projecting the image of a PC or Mac and wireless transfer of a tablet or Chromebook’s display to a variety of PC-free operations, including free-form whiteboard mode, screen sharing and video conferencing.

Bl697ui bI used the BL 697Ui to mark up a colonial map of Africa, model a couple of sentences as well as mark-up the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. It’s responsive with nearly instantaneous action whether you use your fingers or the markers. While you can use up to six fingers for an excellent group dynamic, the projector can handle interacting with two pens at once; they have a handy click button on the stylus’s side that can help navigating a connected computer.

Two things the BL 697Ui lack are the digital protractor and ruler of the U321Hi-WK that can make some classes easier to show rather than explain. The projector package does include a copy of SMART’s Notebook. Anything you mark-up on-screen can be printed or saved for future use. If it’s connected to the school’s network, the BL 697Ui can even email this material to a student home sick. 

The BL 697UI’s output is nothing short of stunning with ultra-sharp images, smooth video and rich saturated colors. It was able to put 4,830 lumens on screen in Presentation mode, more than 10-percent above its spec. This drops by 8-percent in sRGB mode, but it’s more than made up for with more naturalistic flesh tones and color balance. This means that the BL 697Ui can outshine even the brightest day with the shades up.

At its highest output, the BL697Ui used 391-watts, which drops to 2-watts when the projector is idle. Its replacement lamp is a bargain at $63 and an estimated lifetime of 5,000 hours; you can stretch that to 10,000 hours, according to Epson by using the lower-output Eco mode, but at the cost of reduced brightness. Still, if it’s used for 6 hours a day during the school year, you can expect the BL697Ui to cost only $73 a year to operate, assuming that you pay the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity. That’s one-third the cost of using NEC’s U321Hi-WK.

Slaves bLike other BrightLink projectors for schools, the BL 697Ui includes a three-year warranty as well as overnight replacement units should a failure shut it down. At $2,500 with Epson’s Brighter Futures discount, it’s worth every penny because it includes everything you need to teach, ranging from essentials (like the mounting hardware) to the ability to encrypt the data traffic and wirelessly connect 50 projectors together.

Rather than taking a short-throw projector and adding wireless markers piecemeal, the BrightLink 697Ui started from scratch with a new design that bakes in interactivity from the start and it shows. This is, without a doubt, the most versatile classroom projector made to date.


Bl697ui a

Epson BrightLink 697Ui

$2,500 (with Brighter Futures discount)


+ Pen or touch

+ Very bright

+ Includes mounting hardware

+ PC-free operation

+ Wireless activities

- Long set up

- Lacks some digital teaching aids

Open and Shut Case

SlideEvery laptop, tablet and many desktop monitors come with Web cams that you can turn off in the cam’s software, but what if a hacker has taken over the system and turned the camera on. It’s not a remote or theoretical possibility. How do you stop them from peering into your classroom? Most use masking tape, a Band Aid or a Post-It note to cover the camera’s lens, but C-Slide’s Webcam Cover 3.0 actually blocks anyone who has taken over the system from seeing who or what is in front of it. The 1 millimeter thick sliding plastic sleeve fits over any notebook- or display-based camera and can be pushed to cover the lens or leave it open. Available for $6 in black, white or gray, it’s better than taping over the lens.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.