Et Tu, Courier?

Well, I guess I was wrong.  I was uber pumped about the potential of a device being worked on deep within the confines of Redmond , but it looks like the fabled Courier – like the Loch Ness, Unicorns, and Leprechauns before it – is just a myth.  Something that will never happen.  At least, not as it had first appeared.

After retiring, the former President of Entertainment & Devices Division at Microsoft, Robbie Bach, said that it was mostly a research and concept piece.  You know, much like my the volcano I made in 5th grade.

Just because it's not "real" doesn't mean it wouldn't be awesome.

The good news (if there is good news) is that Mr. Bach sees that elements of the Courier could be used someday.

Bach:  Well, Courier — Courier, first of all, wasn’t a device. The project and the incubation and the exploration we did on Courier I view as super important. The “device” people saw in the video isn’t going to ship, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn a bunch and innovate a bunch in the process. And I’m sure a bunch of that innovation will show up in Microsoft products, absolutely confident of it.

The thought of what Courier might be able to do in the classroom intrigued me greatly (and still does).  But, until a product like this ceases to be vapor ware and becomes a reality, guess I’ll just have to be content with my iTouches (which I am).

(For the full interview with Bach, check Tech Flash here)

The Case for a Student UI

By all accounts, Apple’s iPad is already a huge success. Pre-orders soared and it’s Apple sold a gazillion within the first few days.  I’ve posted in the past about whether or not I thought the iPad would be a successful tool to use in the classroom. It might be, it  just might, but ultimately, I think it’s success largely depends upon how well students are able to navigate it.

If you have fingers, you can navigate an iPad, but then what?

One of the biggest mistakes that can be made when introducing a new technology into a classroom is to assume all students know how to do what you’re asking them to. Students (especially this generation – insert symbolic individual letter here) are fairly adept at figuring these things out on their own. A lot of them are used to handling a new gadget and have some rudimentary understanding of how UIs work, but not all. That’s part of the problem though. Does the UI of a device have to be overly complicated to be great? And, if the goal for students using the device is to improve student success, do we really want them to hit the ground stumbling as opposed to running?

This brings into question the effectiveness of having the iPad as the defacto learning gadget of a classroom. Students all know how to use their fingers, so the idea of simple gestures like swiping and pinch-to-zoom should be second nature, in theory. But then what? If it’s really hard to open an ebook and annotate that book once it is open, is it worth it to force students to learn a completely new process?

I want my students to be able to pick up a device and have more familiarity with something they already know how to do without a gadget, like writing. That’s why I’m currently batting my eyes at the pretty girl across the room who goes by the name of Courier.

Courier is the still unofficial tablet product rumored to be created and released by Microsoft. Based on rumored leaks, the Courier can do everything the iPad can do but (from my classroom centric vantage point) better.

See, the Courier is designed to look like and act like a book or journal as it is. In addition to having multi-touch capabilities like the iPad, it also has a stylus input. Speaking for my classes alone, my students aren’t taking notes with their fingers, they’re using a pen or pencil. And (if recent potential demo video are to be believed) the pen/stylus does so much more than just draw.

Although the interface and the learning curve of the Courier might seem steeper, I think the payoffs might actually be greater.  There seems to be a lot more potential with interactivity and the device that goes beyond fingered brush strokes.

I already have a classroom set of iTouches, so the need for something “simple” is already met. What I want is for my students to create and read, something – I have a sneaking suspicion – is better suited for the dual screen format of the Courier.

If it ever exists…..of course.

Analysis: Google Teacher Academy

At the beginning of Dec. (’09) I attended the Google Teacher Academy in Washington D.C. My intent on going was to: A) learn more about the offerings of Google and gain a better understanding of how I could use Google apps in my 8th grade U.S. history class, and, B) pick the brains of fellow educators from around the country who are also doing great things with technology in their classrooms.

Worth it. Totally worth it.

The entire experience was the best professional workshop I’ve attended. Ever. Unlike a lot of workshop/conferences I’ve been to, GTADC equipped me with tools I can use in my classroom today, and it allowed me the creativity to think about how I could implement these skills into my curriculum.

Some of the highlights:

  • I teach 8th grade U.S. history, so the implementation of Google Maps AND Earth was phenomenal.  The point is not to just show students places on the earth, but to interact with them and expand them.  A presentation on Google Lit Trips sealed the deal for me.  Instead of just showing where battles of the Civil War were, I plan on having students add details into Earth about the surrounding areas and putting the battles in chronological order.
  • Speaking of the Civil War, how cool would it be to see a 3D modeling of Antietam, Gettysburg, or any other battle site of the Civil War?  SketchUp would allow me (or the students) to create one of these and bring the battlefield to them.
  • In past years I’ve set up a wiki from PBworks for a collaborative project where students research different events that followed the writing of the Constitution.  This year, I’m determined to use Google Sites.  My students already have Google Accounts, so there’s really no point in using a new service where they’d have to remember a brand new login and password they may use only once.  Plus, since their login will work with Google Maps, Docs, etc., there’s near limitless possibilities for embedding these existing tools into their own site page.
  • Since I don’t teach math, I’ve stayed away from using Google spreadsheets a lot because well, math is icky.  Really, it is….  After having a grand tour of it however, I’m ready to sing its praises.  While I’m not too interested in plotting and graphing points along an X and Y axis or managing different mathematical formulas (icky, like I said), I am interested in seeing different statistics from different countries over time.  Life expectancies, GDP, literacy rates, etc., are all different things one could graph into a Google Spreadsheet.  AND THEN, you can insert a gadget into that spreadsheet to make it look really cool and give it some animation over time.  AND THEN, you can insert that spreadsheet into a site or have multiple students collaborate on it.  Really cool stuff (and not icky at all).
  • Because of a generous grant in our district, I will soon be receiving a classroom set of iPod Touches.  In between guest speakers and breaks at GTADC, I spent a lot of timing picking the brains of teachers (like him and him) who know what they’re talking about and teachers who can help me make this leap.  Although it wasn’t sponsored  by Google, networking with so many fellow educators from other points on the map was really encouraging and inspiring.

I could go on and on about the awesome things I experienced, but sooner or later I’d run out of bullet-points.

The last thing I’ll say, is that before attending, I was skeptical.  And perhaps maybe even a little cynical, and I know I’m not the only educator out there who’s ever had this sentiment. Even though I wanted to go and applied to go, I was leery of drinking the Google Kool-Aid and having them use me as a conduit to hook my young and impressionable students into using their free products for life.  After I got there and went through the process, it became evident to me that I should really use these Google Apps for Education for what they are: products (FREE products mind you) to help students become engaged and learn.  What’s wrong with that?  Why is the outcry not as loud for text book publishers who have been price gouging school districts for decades?  Microsoft has been doing this for years, and even Apple fanboys have to admit that Apple’s expansive play into education is rooted in turning a profit first and providing an educational experience second (seriously, if nobody made any money in it, no company would ever bother with us plebes in the lowly public sector).  So, if Google is going to offer me and my students something for free to make their learning experience that much better, I’ll take it.

After all, when I was in high school we only had Coke machines, and now I prefer Pepsi.  Turns out I can make decisions for myself.  Who knew?