2 Days @ Google: Geo Teachers Institute

Google is an interesting and unique technology company. Not only has it created an industry based on web search (which it basically has a monopoly on), but it has expanded into other unique fields. From cell phones to online word processing, selling advertisements to self-driving cars, Google’s scope and reach has grown exponentially over the last ten years.

It should be of no surprise that Google has expanded into education.  It does this by offering technology tools and services such as Google Apps for Education and Chromebooks, but it also offers professional development and opportunities to network with other educators across the globe.  My first experience with Google in this regard was when I became a Google Certified teacher in 2009.  Since then I have led a multitude of conferences and training a based on Google’s tools, but with the intent to show other educators how to think differently about teaching, learning, and curriculum.


I recently had an opportunity to head to Mountain View, California – home of the Google campuses – to attend the Geography Teachers Institute.  This two day event was focused on exposing teachers to different geographic tools created by Google.  More than that, it was a chance to think about our educational place in the world and how we as educators can connect our kids learning to a global community.

Day 1

A short night’s sleep caused by a late night flight  led to an early morning.  This did not dampen my excitement for the first day of the Geo Institute however.  Google’s campuses inspire the type of creativity and enthusiasm for dedication to work every employer should use.  Granted, it’s a little harder to do when you’re a public school district and not a billion dollar company, but I think the culture can still be adapted in a lot of ways.  When the opening session started, we were reminded of a quote from Larry Page that you should “always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.”  This resonated with me.  How often in education do we truly get excited for what we do?  Regardless of your position in the district, we ought to be excited about the work we’re doing for kids, otherwise, why are we doing it?  The goals of the Geo Institute are to discover, learn, and create.  I tried to keep this in mind throughout the two days I was there, and, as a learner I realized that if I couldn’t do one of the three, then that was on me as a learner, and not the presenters.  The rest of the day (aside from amazing food and bike rides on the multi-colored bikes strewn all over the campuses) was broken down into different sessions.  Here’s my quick snapshot of the sessions I attended.



Session 1 – Google Earth Engine

This session was led by a “Googler” about the possibilities and the power of the Google Earth Engine.  In a nutshell, the Google Earth Engine is a catalog of data with access to over 40 years of satellite imagery.  Google uses scientific data to analyze this data and make sense of the satellite imagery.  This has been used from a wide range of things from analyzing deforestation patterns around the world, tracking diseases, and monitoring urban sprawl.  Honestly, a lot of it was over my head and I’m not sure that I understood it well enough to help a teacher use it effectively.  I’m not sure that it’s ready for prime time for the average educator to use in class because it’s not that efficient or user friendly at the moment, but when/if it becomes more accessible, it can be used as a powerful tool for synthesis and analysis of data that carries real world consequences.

Session 2 – Storytelling with Tour Builder

Tour Builder was the best thing I learned at the institute.  About five years ago when I was in the classroom teaching social studies, I had my students build maps in Google Maps, insert pictures, draw lines for travel, and more.  This is like that, but it’s cleaner, well built, and works really, really well.  I had all sorts of visions on how I could have teachers use this tool across all curriculum areas, elementary and secondary.


Day 2

Session 1 – Google Maps Engine Lite

There are more parts to Google Maps than you think.  99% of the population uses Google Maps to find their route to work, check traffic, or look up a new coffee shop.    Google Maps Engine Lite  allows you to do this, but it also allows you to build maps of your own.  One of the handiest features of this is the ability to import data from a spreadsheet that can be automatically mapped in a Google Map.  It’s a really cool and useful tool.  I have a little experience using GME Lite, so I was looking for something a little more powerful.  I got that and more during the next session.

Session 2 – Fusion Tables

Fusion Tables allow you to import a lot of data and manipulate it so it will affect a map the way you want to (that explanation probably covers about 5% of what Fusion Tables is actually capable of, but it was so in depth and awesome, my brain couldn’t keep up with the learning as I was thinking of ways I could use it).  If Storybuilder was the most satisfying to learn during the Institute, Fusion Tables was the thing that inspired me the most and made me want to dig deeper.  I can see a lot of applications to how this could be used in all types of classes and even at the district level.


I always enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about topics I’m interested in.  Google does a tremendous job of presenting their tools and explaining it’s application in classrooms, usually leveraging current classroom teachers and educators in the process.  Since all of these tools are free to use for educators (let me repeat: they’re free tools), it never feels like a sales pitch.  The thing that nurtures me the most, however, is the opportunity to spend time with like minded colleagues in the field of education and hear their thoughts about the possibilities education has to change children’s lives.  That’s something I got in spades.  The Geo Institute was an amazing time that nurtured me as a learner and raised enough provoking ideas to fuel my desire to keep learning and sharing more.


Charting a New Course

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything in this space and it’s been even longer since I’ve felt compelled to write something of importance.  I’ve come to realize that the act of putting my thoughts down is a good practice for me.  The blank white space the page provides allows me to throw all of my ideas and thoughts down and provides organization and structure to them.  Time has a way of crippling even the fittest of athletes, and it does the same to the writing process.  You spend enough  time away from it, and the mental muscles it takes to write deteriorate and atrophy.  Admittedly, keeping up a blog and writing became more of a chore for me as I always felt the need to come up with a new idea to get eyes on the page and keep the blog fresh and relevant…whatever that means.  I’ve since come to realize that misses the point of a blog, this blog anyways.

Epic Epoch was always about me finding my place in education and appreciating this very interesting period where the nexus of technology, pedagogy, and leadership are poised to change educational practices and provide more equitable education to kids than ever before.  Along the way I got a little sidetracked with thinking more about devices than about more important things like devices and how to use them.  I hope to get back to a place where I’m focusing more on figuring what I believe and analyzing my thoughts and experiences along the way.  That’s not to say I’ll never write a post about iPads, or Google Apps, or anything other type of technology, but it’s not the focus, nor should it be.

Today I began a new chapter of my life.  I joined a new district in an entirely new role; Director of Digital Curriculum.  To say that I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am for this role would be inaccurate.  I can tell you.  I’m very excited.  The intent of this position is not to decide what type of technology should be adopted, but once it’s adopted, analyze how it should be used. What do kids need and how can technology and different types of pedagogy be coupled with effective curriculum to move all kids?  That’s what’s most exciting to me.


We’ll talk again, soon I hope.


Google Drive Update Adds Functionality for the Classroom

The Google Drive app for Android was updated yesterday and includes a bunch of cool features for teachers.

The standout updates for me were:

Ability to download files.  The older Drive app allowed you (and still does) the ability to save a document or file for offline viewing.  Now, however, you can actually download the file directly to your Android device.  I tested it out by uploading an .mp3 to Drive on my laptop, then downloading it onto my device and it worked.  From there I was able to open it up in the Google Play Music app.  This is great because file management on mobile devices – how to get things from point A the student to point B the teacher – has always been an issue.  Yes there are workarounds but it’s usually a process and it’s hardly ever seamless.  Now, if a student creates a movie or audio file on one device, they should be able to save it to their Drive account, download it to another device and keep working without having to include Dropbox, and thus another login account.

Download a file
Download a file

Scan documents.  Drive for Android now allows you to scan documents as a PDF.  I use this function quite a bit with Evernote for anything from receipts to important documents, so it’s nice to see that functionality extended to Drive.  Drive utilizes OCR to help quickly search for a document and pull it up, which is helpful.  Scanning documents from a mobile device is one step closer to becoming a near paperless class.

Scan a doc in Drive
Scan a doc in Drive

Although this is available for Android only at the moment, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that the update will be coming to iOS devices in the not too distant future.  Google has a pretty good track record as of late of keeping iOS and Android apps competitive with each other (i.e. Maps) and in some cases, better (still no YouTube Capture for Android?).

See the list below for all of the features available for the latest Google Drive for Android.

* With Google Drive, you can store all your files in one place, so you can access them from anywhere and share them with others
* Use the Google Drive Android app to access your photos, documents, videos and other files stored on your Google Drive
* Upload files to Google Drive directly from your Android device
* Share any file with your contacts
* Access files others have shared with you on Google Drive
* Make any file available offline so you can view them even when you don’t have an Internet connection
* Manage files on the go
* Create and edit Google documents with support for tables, comments and rich text formatting
* Create and edit Google spreadsheets with support for text formatting, multiple sheets and sorting
* Edits to your Google documents and spreadsheets appear to collaborators in seconds
* View Google presentations with full animations and speaker notes
* View your PDFs, Office documents and more
* Scan documents, receipts and letters for safe keeping in Drive; then search by contents once uploaded
* Print files stored in Google Drive on the go using Google Cloud Print
* Open files stored in Google Drive through Drive enabled apps in the browser
* Optimized experience to take advantage of larger screens for tablet users, Honeycomb (Android 3.0+)

List taken from Google Play.

Drawing Upon PBS Kids

Something dawned on me the other day while making dinner.  My son was watching PBS Kids as I was cooking in the kitchen (cranberry chicken, quite tasty).  Martha Speaks and Word Girl make regular appearances around our house and my son, although he doesn’t understand most of it, does get wrapped up in their episodic exploits.  While we were watching these animated creations, I realized something: certain “explanation-creation” apps such as Educreations and Explain Everything follow the same core premise PBS Kids anchors itself to.

  • Create drawings and animations that are visually appealing? Check. 
  • Tell a good story? Check. 
  • Try to teach somebody something new? Check. 

The end results of PBS Kids and using an “explanation-creation” (is there a better term for these?) app maybe vastly different, but the goals are basically the same; try to teach somebody something new in an engaging informative and visually appealing way. So how does this translate to the classroom? Well, it’s more relevant than you might think. Rather than just tell kids to open up an app on their iPads and tell me what you know, why not instead frame it as though they need to tell me a story?  Or, teach me something without me realizing that I’m learning.  Because that is essentially what a lot of these shows do, and they’re quite good at it.  I’ve never been part of a group of TV writers but I imagine that when the creators of these kids  shows try to think of new episodes, it is equal parts “how are we going to get kids to learn?” and “how am I going to make it engaging so that they’ll actually want to watch it?”. Oftentimes in education we get bogged down with the former and don’t pay much attention to the latter.  We become very transfixed with figuring out how kids are going to show the teacher what they know.  Now, that is very important – don’t get me wrong – however, if that is our sole focus in the classroom, that mindset often eliminates creativity for kids.  If kids are so content on only explaining what they know then they aren’t accessing different parts of their mind to allow them to be creative.



And kids need that permission.  They need to be encouraged to not just show what they know but to show it in a creative way that is engaging to them and to their audience. There are a lot of kids who try to please the teacher and just do the most “academic” work they can for the teacher and in the process they will sacrifice their own creativity.  There are also a lot of kids who may not want to do anything because their perception is that the only right answer for a teacher is the one that has a lot of words and looks very rehearsed and looks as though they are writing a college level term paper.  But it does not have to be that way.  We can assess whether or not students know and understand the things that they need to understand by allowing them to breathe life into a topic they are interested in and creatively changing it to give it meaning for themselves.

Explain Everything
Explain Everything

So, this is something that I’m going to try to keep in mind as I use iPads in my class more and more and more as a creation tool to help not only with student engagement but to grow a student center of creativity and authorship..

YouTube Capture

Capturing film on the iPad is one of it’s strengths, especially as a mobile device.  Getting that video onto YouTube – specifically a teacher or student created YouTube channel within my district, we’re single sign on – has been a struggle.

No more.

Google has recently released YouTube Capture.  YouTube Capture is built for an iPhone/iPod Touch, but will work on the iPad (I suspect full support for the iPad is forthcoming).  With YouTube Capture, filming and uploading your video straight to your YouTube channel is a breeze.  Once you have the app installed, you can access other videos you have saved on your iPad, upload them, and do some of the same light editing you can do on an the web, such as trimming clips, colore correction, stabilization, and adding soundtracks.  If students are using iMovie, they can save their feature rich videos to their camera roll, and then upload them via YouTube Capture.

The point of YouTube Capture is to get users to upload and create faster than ever before.  This is a huge boon for students who want to create videos for class, and for teachers who are sick of the workarounds on an iPad.


Click here to get the app.

1:1 with iPads – Reflections at the Halfway Point

At the beginning of the school year my role within my school has changed in a fairly significant way.  I went from a full time classroom teacher who passionately and excitedly uses technology in the classroom to reach my students to a part-time classroom teacher who still does those things, but now also oversee digital content creation and technology integration within my school and my district.  This year our district embarked on a new adventure when we decided to start going 1:1 with iPads in the classroom.
The plan is that for the school year of 2012-2013, all incoming seventh graders in both junior highs will receive an iPad. These iPad are still owned and are controlled by the district, but students are able to manage them on their own because each student has their own individual Apple ID. Their Apple ID’s are still known to us because we helped them sign up and create the account along with their parents.  Student email (and the email connected to the Apple ID) is tied to their Google apps email which they already have since we are a Google apps district. Our district has two junior highs with about 900 students each. So, it’s been quite an undertaking placing around 600 iPads in the hands of seventh graders.

Halfway through the school year we have had mixed results and there has been a sharp learning curve as we have had to adapt and evolve the program, but I would say that the grand experiment has been successful because it is changing the way teachers are teaching and it is helping to educate our students in more dynamic ways. It can be really easy to get caught up on the types of things that are not working well.  Cracked screens, apps should not be downloaded such as non-educational games and instant messaging, lost cables and chargers are all the types of things you have to accept if you’re going to go 1:1 with iPad. Usually in a school if you’re talking about behavioral problems you’re typically only talking about 5 to 10 percent of the kids. So it’s important for me to remember and remind myself that things such as cracked screens and other user error problems are frustrating and annoying, but it’s not all of the kids that are having these problems.  It’s a very small percentage of kids having these issues but it feels like it’s a bigger problem than it probably is.

1:1 with iPads
1:1 with iPads

Over the summer and at the start of this school year, introducing new iPad into the hands of students and staff was a revolution of sorts. It would significantly change the way teachers were going to operate, how students were going to operate within their school, and some of the policies and procedures our school has.  That was a Revolution.  Now that we have our feet under us once again and we’ve been doing this for a while now, we’ve had to focus our attention and change and now we have a constant evolution of the program.  The initial types of behavioral procedures have the evolved.  The way students are downloading apps has evolved.  The way that students take care of their iPads has evolved.  And, maybe most importantly, the way teachers are getting their kids to interact with what they’re learning and affect their education has also evolved.  This is what excites me most.  To be able to see how teachers are changing and adapting the way they teach to meet the needs of our students is very gratifying.  I cannot take credit for this evolution on the teachers part. And I won’t pretend to.  I work with some of the most creative, ingenious and dynamic teachers in the world.  A lot of what they’re doing is stemming from their core beliefs about teaching and their passion for serving kids.  Regardless it is really fun to be able to see our school through this positive experience.

Next year we are rolling out 300 more iPads in our school so that both seventh and eighth graders will have them, and then the following year, the ninth graders will get iPads as well. So in three years time all students in both junior highs in our district will have an iPad. As fun as it is to see how it’s transforming a single grade of students and teachers that work with them, it will really be amazing to see what happens in two more years when every student in our building has a mobile device to help them learn in engaging ways both inside the classroom and outside as well.