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Freebee Friday: Yea or Nay on the Common Core

Common coreWhether you’re pro or con on the Common Core question, you’ll want to listen to the debate at New York’s Kaufman Center on September 9th. Titled, “Embrace the Common Core,” the program will feature spirited debate and the opportunity to vote either way before and after the presentations. Those lining up in favor of the Common Core curriculum include former assistant Secretary of Education Carmel Martin and Michael Petrilli, President of the Fordham Institute. They’ll be arguing with Carol Burris, Principal at South Side High School in Rockville Center, NY and Frederick Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Educational Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. ABC reporter John Donvan will moderate the event. It will be part of an NPR show called “Intelligence Squared U.S.” and will be streamed on the Intelligence Squared Web site.

Freebee Friday: Admin on the Cheap

AlmaWith schools spending too much on administration software, Alma comes to the rescue. The free student information system can not only track student grades and attendance, but align the school’s curriculum to state and Common Core standards. It integrates a student dossier, scheduling and lets a school import digital records. There are paid options that include migrating paper records and setting up emergency notifications.

The School Pad

Jamf bThe biggest downside of making teachers and students bring their own computers to school is that logging them onto the school network can be a chore with different software for different platforms. JAMF’s latest Casper Suite puts an end to the BYOD shuffle with a system that relies on iPad and Android users to do most of the work of enrolling and maintaining networking connections.

Touch Me

Activboard-touch-classflow-5-studentsThe latest ActivBoard Touch interactive whiteboards from Promethean have been made for classroom collaboration with support up to six individual touch inputs. This makes it great for group work or having several students doing a problem independently on the board. Available in 78- and 88-inch models, the boards work with Windows, Mac and Linux computers and work with a stylus or fingers. You can use it to teach with PrometheanPlanet’s library of 80,000 educational resources, there’s an optional sound bar and you can order the screen with the company’s marker-friendly Dry-erase surface option.

Amping Up the Classroom

Amp logoThe goal of a single place to log-in to start teaching and learning is a step closer to being a reality with the introduction of Smart Technologies’ Amp. The online service acts like a repository and portal that brings the world of digital education to classrooms.

Based in the cloud, Amp can do things that local curriculum storage can’t. It can integrate Google apps, the company’s Smart Notebook-based lessons and all the material on Smart’s online Exchange as well as deliver the curriculum from 28 individual curriculum providers. The list currently runs from Ablenet to Zondle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Discovery Education are the service’s major anchor publishers.

It’s a pretty good start and the list of participating publishers continues to increase. Rather than working with one curriculum provider, Amp’s goal is to be agnostic as to educational services. In fact, the more the merrier is their concept. While Amp doesn’t consolidate the payments and licensing for the world of online learning, it provides a single log-in point for students and teachers and gives them an effective delivery service to bring curriculum and collaboration to the classroom.

The key is that rather than using a series of native applications to run the software locally, Amp delivers everything over the Internet to students and teachers in a browser window. Think of it as a virtualized environment that can bring lots of different material together onto a single screen. This makes Amp appropriate for a school with mixed systems and software packages and perfect for a BYOD school with many different systems and software.

Getting started is easy because the company offers a 30-day trial that’s instructive as to the system’s strengths and weaknesses. I used a full version over the course of three months with several different teacher and student client machines, including Android tablets, PCs, Chromebooks and iPads.

Amp ipadTo start, there’s no software to load because everything is delivered over the Web to a familiar browser window; it worked well with recent versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari; while it’s not specifically supported, Opera worked fine as well. A big bonus is that no matter what you’re using, you always have the most recent version of the software.

A one-stop shop for classrooms, Amp can use a Google ID to sign-on to the service and it can bring up classroom items stored on GoogleDrive. This makes it particularly advantageous for those schools that have integrated GMail and other online services. Plus, the use of GoogleDrive within Amp doesn’t count towards your storage limit. Unfortunately, Amp hasn’t incorporated the recently introduced Google Classroom software, but it should be just a matter of time.

In addition to starting with a class list, teachers can add students by having them log in and use a six digit code or snap a shot of a QR code that can be sent to them. After that, they’re automatically part of the digital class.

To start teaching, I created a Workspace that I filled with everything from Smart’s existing lessons, stuff stashed on GoogleDrive and the content of publishers that I have an account with. It’s, ironically easier to grab stuff off of the Web than from a local server at school, though.

There are nine different templates to start with, from a sheet of graph paper to a storyboard for examining plot development. Of course, you can work from a blank screen as if Amp were a digital board. The teacher can work alone, with selected students or the whole class at once. Alternatively, kids can work on their own or in groups with the teacher periodically looking in.

Amp math classA big step forward for neophyte and technophobic teachers is that there’re several how-to videos that can help get them started. Regardless of what you do, Smart is always saving your Workspace lessons; deleted items can be retrieved. Unfortunately, there’s no way to undo a change, but you can use the eraser to make any annotation disappear. Those lessons you plan to reuse during the day, year or career can be turned into templates.

It took me a couple of lessons to get the hang of using Amp, but I suspect that kids will figure out the ins and outs of the software. Items can be dragged to the main screen to be worked on and kids can work together over a single screen or share a virtual desktop space with a student or teacher across the room or country.

Over the course of lessons on grammar, math and geography, the system worked well. The items on the screen can be brought forward or back, and locked into place and the service’s pen and markers offer a variety of colors and line weights. It works better with a touch-screen system and finger or stylus, but if you’re careful a touchpad should suffice.

The leader can pass control to a student or work one-on-one with any child and control what appears in the browser window. On the downside, Amp can’t lock a student’s screen to keep inattentive students from wandering to other sites or local apps.

Based on Smart’s heritage, as you might guess, it works well with an interactive projector or digital board, but you don’t need to use a Smart product. In fact, I used Acer and Epson projectors and everything worked without a hitch.

With everything in place, the system can allow teachers and students to work through the material on their own or in groups, grabbing different elements from different sources. In this regard, Amp allows teachers and students to create their own curriculum from the best sources available.

Amp testAmp has a place in both traditional lessons as well as flipped curriculum. It has three big extras for thoughtful teachers and administrators: it is perfect for keeping children stuck home sick engaged in the lesson and means that a snow day doesn’t have to be dead time. It can even be used for afterschool enrichment away from school.

The key to Amp’s feedback is its Dashboard. Here, a teacher can see who’s connected, start a lesson and review assignments and assessment results. The software includes six different test formats, including True/False, numeric entry and multiple choice.

All this can put more stress on the school’s data infrastructure than traditional digital apps that work locally. Rather than the immediate response of a local program Amp can take a few seconds to grab and display a screen on a student’s computer. Most schools can handle the extra flow, but I suspect that schools with marginal data connections and internal networks will find them quickly overwhelmed and in need of a revamping.

While it works well on a notebook or desktop computer, Amp can feel cramped on a smaller slate or phone screen and require zooming, scrolling and panning to see everything. Of what I’ve seen and experienced, Amp is off to a good start with some impressive integration and lessons. With Amp starting at $8 per student per year, the service can streamline how kids are taught by consolidating their instruction resources. As is the case with school software, the larger the school or district, the lower the price for Amp.

At the moment, it is a work in progress and only time will tell if they are able to aggressively add more publishers, but for now, Amp can deliver the lesson regardless of where it is coming from.


Amp logo

Smart Technologies Amp

$8 per student

 + Brings digital lessons to kids

+ Works with a variety of hardware and services

+ Google ID log in

+ Free trial

+ Works well with interactive displays

+ Provides collaborative space


- Need to purchase curriculum separately

- Limited array of providers

Instant Connection

Epson EX7235 Pro AngleWhy is it that you always have trouble connecting to a projector when you didn’t have time to spare? Epson can make quick work of putting what’s on an iPad or Android tablet onto the big screen with its PowerLite EX7235 Pro projector. Rather than fumbling with cables, the device projects a QR code that you snap a photo of with the slate or phone and after choosing what you want to show, it’s projected via the company's iProjection app. All told, it takes less than a minute.

The projector itself is no slouch, either. Like other Epson projectors, the EX7235 Pro uses a trio of LCD screens to create its image. It can put 3,000 lumens onto a screen with WXGA resolution and its HDMI port can work with an MHL-equipped phone or tablet. It costs $649.

Color by Numbers

Fx-9860G2_PK_FCasio’s FX-9860G2 scientific calculator not only now has a backlit screen for better viewing, but can be had in a variety of colors, including pink, blue or white. Designed for grades six through graduation, the calculator has a built-in spreadsheet program that can help with science classroom lab work and business assignments. It can work with statistics, conversions, regressions as well as a variety of graphing tasks. The calculator costs about $80.

Freebee Friday: Google Takes on the Classroom

Assignment creationWhen Google announced its Classroom learning management system this past spring, the service’s ability to work with Google Docs and an emerging array of educational apps was impressive. Well, the software is finished and Classroom is now available. It’s used by 100,000 students worldwide and because it’s browser-based, the free Classroom system works with just about any connected computer you’ll find in a school. The software not only coordinates Google Education apps and can create separate folders on Google Drive for kids to turn in assignments, but handles everything from student feedback to grading. Happily, it’s all ad-free, secure and available at no cost.

Livening Up the Classroom

This fall, Tci 5th gradelook for the arrival of TCI’s Bring Science Alive series of science lessons. Purchased by subscription, the service is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and will cover Kindergarten through 5th grade curriculum. The class gets interactive lessons, assessments and a full digital textbook that’s delivered over the Internet to a browser window so just about any computer can be used.


Inspiring Choice

Inspiron11_3000Who says that notebooks must have an upright screen, keyboard and can only be used on the lap or a desk. Not Dell, because the company’s Inspiron 11 3000 is like a Transformer toy that can change among several different configurations depending on what needs to be done.

The company calls it a 2-in-1, but that’s a modest understatement. In fact, I found that the Inspiron 11 can assume at least five different computing personalities appropriate for schools, plus, I suspect, a few more that I haven’t thought of. Rather than having a removable keyboard base, the magic of the system’s multiple personalities is its sturdy pair of hinges that allows the display to rotate nearly 360-degrees.

While the system can sit on a table or lap like a true notebook, it has a touch-screen that can be rotated, allowing it to be used flat on a tabletop, making it perfect for finger painting or drawing a map. Rotate it farther and the system turns into a tablet; the keyboard, which is underneath is automatically turned off. The screen and keyboard base can also be formed into a “V” shaped tent for group work or with the keyboard pointing down and bringing the screen up so that it can be used for collaboration, presentations or viewing videos.

Going between the configurations is easy and takes little effort. On the downside, the screen wobbles a bit too much when it’s in notebook mode and you swipe or tap it.

At 3.1-pounds and measuring 11.8- by 7.9-inches, it is the right size for a variety of classroom uses from the teacher showing a group about vowels to students using it in a physics lab. The system is only 0.8-inches thick, which leaves more room in the backpack at the end of the day. By contrast, Dell’s similar XPS 11 is a few tenths of an inch thinner and lighter, but is more expensive and its keyboard isn’t as comfortable to type on.

Inspiron11_3000_6With its AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 3.6-pounds. This makes it great for going from room to room all day in a bag. Fortunately, there’s a large touchpad and keyboard that has dedicated keys for adjusting the system’s brightness, volume and playing videos. The 18.6-millimeter keys aren’t backlit for projector-based lessons but it’s much better than the screen-based keypads on tablets for typing anything longer than a Web site address.

Its 11.6-inch screen shows 1,366 by 768 resolution, which should be just fine at school, but pales in comparison to full HD displays. It can interpret up to ten independent touch inputs, but sometimes didn’t respond on the first try.

The $480 version that I looked at is priced right in the range that schools can afford. It features a quad-core Pentium N3530 processor that runs at 2.2GHz as well as 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Dell also has an entry-level $400 model that is built around a Celeron processor.

While it can connect via its 802.11n WiFi system, the Inspiron 11 3000 gets by without a wired LAN port and a Trusted Platform Module for secure remote access. The system has Bluetooth and a good assortment of connection possibilities including one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports. The Inspiron 11 3000 can run a projector with its HDMI connection, but lacks an old-school VGA port. There’s also a headphone jack and an SD card slot; happily, the card doesn’t stick out.

Inspiron11_3000_7In addition to a recessed power button, the system has a volume control that is handy regardless of what form the system is taking at the moment. It has an LED that shows its battery status, but not one for system activity.

Above the display is a 720p Web cam that has a microphone on either side. The system has Waves MaxxAudio Pro software that lets you customize the system’s sound. It has a pair of speakers.

For such an inexpensive system, it was a surprisingly good performer. Based on its PerformanceTest 8 score of 716.5, it won’t set any records but can handle just about anything that a student, teacher or administrator can throw at it. Even with a bright screen that delivered 292 candelas per square meter of illumination, its 3,600 milli-amp hour battery was able to power the machine for 6 hours and 40 minutes of continuously playing videos over WiFi. That’s more than two hours longer than Dell’s XPS 11 and more than enough for a full day of school work with something left over at 3PM. The Inspiron 11 3000, however, requires a three-prong outlet to charge up, which might pose a problem in an older building.

All in all, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 brings together everything needed to make it a success in the classroom and does so at a price that districts can afford.



Dell Inspiron 11 3000


+ Price

+ Five computing personalities

+ Right size for variety of tasks

+ Performance

+ Battery life


- Screen wobbles

- Neither VGA nor LAN port




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