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Freebee Friday: Shopping for Photoshop?

Paint netIt may be early for Christmas presents, but if you’re looking for a less expensive replacement for Photoshop, how does free sound? Versions 4.03 of Paint.net is a powerful Windows image editor that can work with layers, has a good variety of plug-ins available and – best of all – unlimited undo history. On the downside, you’ll need to load Microsoft’s .Net Framework for Paint.net to work. There are helpful tutorials and how-to videos available online that can be the basis for several classroom lessons. The software is absolutely free, but feel free to donate to the effort.

The Wired School

01_G8SW_main_3000Schools and district offices may be closed today for Thanksgiving, but when they reopen, the issue of how to distribute data throughout campuses remains an open question. In fact, school networking means more than WiFi and Amped Wireless’s G8SW makes wired connections easier and cheaper. The $40 8-port unmanaged switch can deliver gigabit per second speeds while reducing power demands. There’s also 16-port version for $100 and a $120 8-port switch that has four POE-enabled ports for delivering electricity to LAN devices.

 

Chromecast Plus

Nexus Player aIf you like using Google’s Chromecast to transmit a lesson from a notebook, phone or tablet to the classroom’s projector, you’ll love the company’s $100 Nexus Player. It may cost more than twice as much but can act as a Chromecast receiver, tap into a small but expanding variety of programming channels and includes a handy remote control.

Made by Asus, the Nexus Player is a flat black disc that looks like a big hockey puck. It has a 4.8-inch diameter and is 0.8-inches tall, making it small and light enough to use Velcro tape to attach it to the back of a monitor or stash behind a projector. There’s an LED underneath and the player has HDMI and micro-USB ports as well as a power input for its included AC adapter. In fact, all you’re likely to need to get started is an HDMI cable.

Inside is the equivalent of a mid- to high-range computer or tablet with a 1.8GHz quad-core Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of solid-state storage. It uses Google’s Android 5 software, connects to a WiFi network and can work with Bluetooth devices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an SD or USB port for playing images or videos.

One of the easiest classroom items to set up, all you do is plug the Player in and connect it to a projector or large-screen display’s HDMI input. At that point, the Player connects to the local WiFi network and performs a software update. On the downside, it only connected intermittently using DHCP auto-IP addressing, so I immediately switched to using a static IP address and it worked fine.

Nexus player bWith no buttons or controls on the Player, you’ll need to use the Player’s minimalist remote control. It has a circular switch as well as buttons to go back, pause-play and return to the Home screen, but lacks a volume control and the keys aren’t backlit for teaching to the light of a projector.

The remote does have a button with the microphone icon that allows the remote to listen to your spoken search terms. It works fairly well, but be careful what you say because the system can misinterpret your commands as things that are simply silly or grossly offensive.

Still, it misses a huge opportunity by not being able to link the wireless microphone to the projector or monitor’s speakers. In essence, with a little extra work, it could have been the basis for a room-wide PA system.

Overall, it takes the Player a few seconds to find and prepare the item you want to show. The video quality is surprisingly good, but there’s the occasional pixilation, stutter and freeze-up, but these might be due to the source material or online slow-downs. In fact, it looked great on a wide-XGA Casio projector and a 32-inch HD TV.

Once everything is set up, the player presents a variety of programming options as icons across the screen. This includes movies, TV shows and games. In fact, there’s a surprisingly nice gaming controller that costs just $40 and includes directional, back and function buttons as well as a pair of control sticks.

Nexus Player with RemoteYou can also use the player to connect with YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus and Songza, which pales in comparison to the offerings from similar systems like Roku, Apple TV or Netgear’s NeoTV. There are a lot of classroom-ready documentaries available on everything from the Manhattan Project to a look at worldwide poverty, but the Player lacks the ability to tap into Google Play’s ebooks.

Overall, if what you want is a Chromecast receiver and a way to play YouTube videos, like those from Khan Academy to English Lessons with Alex, the Player is a winner. If you want more, you’ll be disappointed because its programming choices are limited. Ironically, one major hole in its abilities is the Player’s lack of Web browsing, which is an odd deficiency in light of Google’s Chrome software and emphasis on the Internet.

That said, Google has ambitious plans for the Player that include content from a wide variety of sources, including TED and PBS Kids. I hope that this is just the beginning with a great variety of programming on the way. It’s available on the Google Play Store for $100, but includes a $20 gift card for use on the site, making it one of the cheapest ways to replace an expensive computer connected to a projector.

A

Nexus Player Controller Hero

Google Nexus Player

$100

+ Small and easy to set up

+ HD resolution

+ Chromecast receiver

+ Programming channels

+ Remote and game controller

+ Can speak commands

 

- Light on programming

- No volume control on remote

- Can’t connect to Web sites

Count by Legos

45210_350x350_1_xx-xxIf your school’s early educational math manipulative items are worn out or starting to look dated, Lego has a tactile way to teach basic math. The MoreToMath 1-2 Curriculum pack is aimed at first and second graders and includes 521 Lego bricks that kids play with while larning their numbers and basic skills. The set comes with software, a book of 48 activities with images, assembly instructions and a sample Q&A section for interacting with students. There are interactive-whiteboard based lessons and a nice checklist for the teacher to record student progress.

45210_350x350_3_xx-xxThe set’s activities typically take between 30 and 45 minutes and involve creating scenes of baking, counting flowers and shopping that make the abstract concepts of counting, basic math operations and problem solving come alive. None, however, bring in calculators. While its early learner focus is commendable, there should be a version for the increasing Kindergarten and pre-K classes that schools are offering, maybe using the larger Duplo pieces. The $830 Lego set includes enough pieces for twelve groups of two. It can be pre-ordered for delivery in early 2015.

The Last Cables You’ll Need

Mos usbTired of having to buy new cables to charge and connect phones, tablets and small notebooks because they just can’t stand up to the daily use at school? Rather than plain old plastic, MOS has a better idea: cables with strong anodized aluminum plugs, woven covers and protective electroplated spring covered ends, making them just about impossible to tear, rip or break. In addition to an audio jumper cable, there are USB cables with micro-USB or Lightning plugs for charging an Android, Windows or Apple iOS device.

Mos audioOn the downside, there aren’t USB extension cables, those for first-generation iPads or anything for USB 3.0 although the latter is in the works. Plus, the MOS cables don’t have anything like Trip-Lite’s reversible USB plugs that can make plugging-in a less frustrating event. The cables are a little pricey at $19 and $30 for the 3-foot micro-USB and Lightning models and $25 for the 6-foot micro-USB version. They work with the company’s ingenious $20 magnetic Kick base that holds the plugs in place until needed. It includes a three-pack of magnetic cable ties that can retrofit older cables for use with the base; extras are available in five colors at three for $5.

It’s fitting that these cables come with a lifetime warranty, so think of them as a one-time investment that will likely outlast anything you plug them into.

Weather Watcher

Acurite 01057Forget about expensive weather stations for teaching about the environment and meteorology because AcuRite’s 1057 kit can do it for less. The $160 set includes the sensing gear, an LCD receiving screen as well as the ability to remotely log in from a PC, Android or iOS device. The wireless sensing package is self-contained, solar-powered and can connect at up to 300-feet. In addition to rainfall, wind direction and barometric pressure, it measures and records temperature and humidity. You can easily share your readings with Weather Underground’s network of amateur meteorologists.

Freebee Friday: Space to Learn

Interstellar_gravitylessonGoogle Play for Education and the movie “Interstellar” have teamed up with a slew of lessons that use the film as a way to teach about the science of space. There are 20 lessons online that are indexed to Common Core and Next Generation Science standards, including designing a planet, building your own biosphere and a tutorial on black holes.

Little Big Phone

Nexus 9 H Image aAs tablets get smaller and phones get bigger, they are meeting in the middle with devices like the Nexus 6. The Motorola-made Nexus 6 is one big phone, that’s for certain. It barely fits into a shirt pocket, occupies 6.3- by 3.2- by 0.4-inches and weighs in at a hefty 6.5-ounces, nearly 30 percent bigger and half an ounce heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus

Still, it feels good int eh hand, but its curved back menas that it wobbles if you use it on a desk. The system’s 6-inch AMOLED screen is one of the best and brightest displays around and can show 2,560 by 1,440 resolution, putting it at least two steps ahead of the iPhone 6 Plus’s Nexus 6bdisplay. Made of Gorilla Glass it should stand up to punishment and the phone has a pair of cameras front and rear that can create 2- and 13-megapixel images.

Powered by a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 805 quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM and 32- or 64GB of storage space, the Nexus 6 uses Google’s latest Android 5.0 software and will cost $650 when it is introduced later this year, although you can get it for a lot less with a two-year service contract.

Snap-Together Electronics Lab

Little bits aWhen it’s time to teach a physics class about electronics, the soldering irons, alligator clips, resistors, capacitors and wires usually come out of drawers. That dynamic can be changed for the better with littleBits with an innovative set of discreet electronic modules that snap together to make all kinds of things from lights that turn on when you clap to a pressure switch that starts a fan.

An ingenious approach to teaching about electronics, littleBits is based on self-standing functional electronic modules that do a specific thing. They are color coded for power (blue), input (red), wires (orange) and output (green), but the key breakthrough is that the modules have magnets at their ends that draw them together, creating a circuit. In fact, the modules are so well designed that if you try to use one backwards, the magnets repel each other, making it impossible to make a mistake.

Education is front and center with littleBits. In addition to the $99 Base Kit, there's the $149 Premium Kit I used, which  includes enough modules for up to three students to make a bunch of projects. There’s also the 24-part $233 Student Set that’s good for small groups as well as the $999 100-module Workshop version and comes in a plastic case and is perfect for a full class. Finally, littleBits sells the $3,299 Pro Library with 100 modules packaged in a wall storage unit that’s more than enough for an afterschool activity or club. You can get the littleBits kits online or at Radio Shack stores

The included booklet provides nice descriptions of the modules along with their color coding and a photo with what looks like hand-written explanations of its purpose. Each module has its circuit diagram printed on the board and you can use them on a desk or attach them to a board that costs $15.

Little bits classThe booklet has a dozen projects with step-by-step directions for things like creating a back massager and drawer mounted burglar alarm. My favorite is involves using the LED lights as eyeballs for a haunted Halloween mask.

While the projects are fun, the real learning happens when you throw the book away and get kids to think independently to create their own projects from the modules and whatever might be lying around the classroom. For instance, I animated a small Teddy Bear by putting the vibration motor underneath its arms along with the pulse generator and topped it off with the sound level trigger that makes the stuffed bear moves when you talk to it. All told, 5 minutes to think-through, 10-minutes to make and less than that to take apart for the next project.

There’re several videos of how to make projects as well as 50 lesson plans and a workshop guide. It, however, falls short of a teacher’s ideal because there’re no measurement modules, for things like voltage, resistance or current that could help make littleBits part of a physics lab. I was able to sneak in a multimeter’s probes but the connections are a tight fit.

A USB module with simple measurement software for a tablet or notebook would have been a great addition to the kit. littleBits does sell an Arduino-based control module and a software development kit, so this could be the class’s next project. 

A

Little bits d

littleBits Premium Kit

$149

+ Snap-together electronic modules

+ Wide assortment of parts

+ Inexpensive

+ Project videos

+ Lessons

+ Quick to make and take apart projects

 

- Lacks module for meters

 

 

 

The New GED

Ged Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.10.08 PMThe next-generation General Equivalency Diploma test is coming and Odsseyware has an online prep class to help students who missed out on a diploma the first time around pass it. It prepares them to take the GED, TASC and HiSet tests with modules for all the major test topics, assessments, study tips and test-taking strategies. Each program has four practice exams and Odysseyware’s text-to-speech generator that lets it speak to students as well as translate items into several languages.

 

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