Monday, November 11, 2019

Relay, a Great Screen-less Starter Phone for Kids

Relay (image source)
A few years ago I wrote that it was best to wait until at least middle school to get a smartphone for a kid. I still believe that and don't think smartphones are needed in elementary school, but understand that some parents may like the ability to contact their kids and/or see where their kids are at any moment--did they remember to ride the bus home, are they at the park, how can I find them to let them know that our plans changed, etc.? There are certainly times where knowing this for our own current and former elementary aged kids would have been really helpful and/or provided peace of mind for my wife and me!

Over the past couple of years a few friends with elementary aged children have opted to purchase a Relay. It basically is a push-button cellular walkie talkie with GPS and an accompanying parent app. The Relay costs about $45 plus a $10/month subscription fee. Parents and kids can contact one another to talk. The device blinks if the child has a voicemail. Pre-programmed approved numbers can be added. Parents can view the location of the RelayGo on a map in the app, set up alerts marking off a geofence, listen to missed messages and get alerts when the device's rechargeable battery power is low. Kids can name their device, add music and a few other things like a "daily joke" channel, translation channel and voice changer. An armband and a case with lanyard and carabiner can also be purchased. It's water resistant.

A Minnetonka employee and parent using Relay explained to me that she and her husband wanted to start their fifth grade daughter on a screen-less communication device and not a smartphone. Their daughter wanted to bike on her own this summer. They wanted her to be able to be independent yet also keep in touch with her. The Relay was a way to build trust. They found it to be a great tool. She did mention that calls on WiFi were clear but initially they had to teach their daughter to not hold the Relay right next to her mouth when speaking on the cellular connection so they could understand her. 

There are other options beside the Relay. Companies like Verizon offer the Gizmo kid's watch for about $130 with a two year contract. I have seen a few elementary students wearing these. If you have experience with them, let me know what you think. 

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Monday, October 28, 2019

Mac's New Catalina Sidecar Shows Great Promise for iPads & Education

Recently Apple’s new operating system for Macs, Catalina, was released. When looking through the new features and debating how soon I should upgrade, I noticed Sidecar. Sidecar allows users with an iPad to use it as a second display for their Mac, either mirroring or extending their desktop. But it also allows way more than that—you can use the iPad itself to control the Mac, sort of like a Remote Desktop program. This caught my attention because we are always looking for ways for our teachers to make the most of the technology tools we have to help deepen learning experiences and make instruction more meaningful. Catalina Sidecar seems like a great new feature to do just that. 

Back in the early 2000s we installed interactive whiteboards in almost all of our classrooms and trained teachers to use the software. As I wrote previously, SMARTBoards were a catalyst for future technology integration and helped to push our teachers to digitize their curriculum. They helped teachers think about how to make lessons more engaging and interactive. 

Over the past few years many schools have been getting rid of interactive whiteboards and replacing them with HDTVs. Unfortunately doing this removes much of the interactivity possible and instruction has to move back in time to either pre-made slide presentations or lessons that limit how much a teacher can annotate, sketch and interact with the displayed content in general. There are many instructional benefits to having an open canvas/space to work out a problem, draw with digital ink, mark something up, etc. Having this electronically to be instantly saved, stored and/or shared collaboratively is lost when the interactive teaching tool is removed from the classroom. 

At our elementary level, much of our curriculum is in SMART Notebook after well over 15 years of use of that program. So as we look toward the future use of interactive displays, we don’t want to just replace SMART Boards with HDTV displays that don’t allow the teacher to interact with the content on it. That would be going backwards and against instructional best practices. 

Many of our teachers currently use their iPad during instruction and project it wirelessly onto a screen using software like AirSquirrel's Reflector or an Apple TV. Usually they are using an app like Notability to write and mark up something together with their students. But for our teachers with years' worth of curriculum in SMARTNotebook, switching entirely to an iPad would mean a lot of work to change the platform and/or start over rebuilding lessons. 

In my initial tests of Sidecar as pictured above, SMARTNotebook can controlled through an iPad connected wirelessly to a newer Mac connected by a HDMI dongle to either a projector or a HDTV. The display can either mirror the Mac's desktop or be an extension of it, allowing the teacher to have dual monitors which is super helpful. Sidecar allows the instructor to freely move around the room, write on the iPad and interact with and use the tools of SMARTNotebook (or any other program on the Mac). So not only could you potentially remove the SMARTBoard but keep the interactivity and the software, you gain the ability to move around the room and no longer have to stand at the display. This is very helpful for classroom management (see Tip #5 for a Successful 1:1 Implementation: Make Classroom Management an Early and Continuous Focus).

All of our teachers have an iPad Generation 6 and many have an Apple Pencil. However, not many of our teachers have a MacBook, let alone the newer models needed--most have a PC desktop connected to a SMARTBoard. So as we continue to test out Sidecar, we will need to weigh the pros along with the costs. But instead of buying replacement SMARTBoards this initially looks much more promising!

Interestingly, I found one HDTV model we had where this didn't work, and two that did, so be sure to do your own testing. And if you are considering this for classroom use and test things out, let me know what you think. FYI, Apple has detailed instructions for Sidecar here.

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Skipper Student Tech Tips Advance Use of Technology for Learning

SkipperTech Tips started last spring when I decided to start posting some technology tips to all of the students in our grades 4-12 1:1 iPad program. I started this in an effort to increase students’ efficiencies and skills using technology for learning. I began periodically posting a weekly tech tip using Schoology, our learning management system. I included all of our teachers and staff, too, so the tips have the potential to be seen by about 8,000 people.  

For about the past 15 years we have been sending our adult staff periodic tech tips by email, usually on a monthly basis. This was the first time time we brought the tips directly to the students districtwide. One of the reasons behind this was my desire to give the opportunity for all students to be informed of valuable tips rather than hope one of their teachers relay something to them--I haven’t seen this “trickle down” tech tips philosophy be very effective in the past. Posting a quick tip that everyone sees is a much more effective way to get the message out to as many people as possible. The pilot of this process last spring was very positive and I’ve resumed it this school year.

I also decided to have some fun with it and used my dog as the avatar for the poster. I took a photo of my dog wearing a Minnetonka hat and used that as the avatar for “SkipperTech”. My kids have helped with photo shoots with our dog and an iPad for each tip, and we've added some fun "Easter Eggs" for the observant--such as dog-related websites, tabs, and topics such as the presentation pictured above on squirrels. You get the idea.

I've used the SkipperTech account to post a request for students to submit their own ideas for future tips using a Google Form. I've received tips related to iPads, Notability, Google, iMove, Siri, other apps, and more. Last spring I had already received over 200 suggestions, so I have plenty of material for future posts. I included a place on the form to ask the students whether or not they wanted to remain anonymous or receive credit for their tip. 

I've also used the SkipperTech account to provide students with direct links to instructions apps such as Animatic and Stop Motion. A third use of the account has been to collect student work to showcase and share their ideas with one another. For example, last spring SkipperTech asked students to submit creative examples of animated GIFs they had made with the Animatic app. Almost 140 students submitted work. In a previous post, I shared over 20 examples of what Minnetonka students had made. Hopefully SkipperTech will inspire our students to not only use tech better but open their eyes to even more possible ways to use it to enhance and showcase learning.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Register today for the Annual Minnetonka Site Visit Oct. 24, 2019 or April 9, 2020

For the past 15 years, thousands of educators have visited Minnetonka Public Schools, including the National School Boards Association which held two visits to Minnetonka. Come see learning in action, witness proven programs and gather innovative ideas which you can take back to your school! This year's visits are on Thursday, October 24, 2019 and Thursday, April 9, 2020Register Today!

Historically, our tours focused on how Minnetonka uses technology as an accelerator of learning. Back in 2003, visitors came to see SMARTBoards and sound fields and a learning management system implemented in K-12. In 2011 visitors came to see iPads used in learning in a 1:1 environment. With the advent of our Teaching and Learning Instructional Framework the 2016 tour focus shifted from technology to the eight dimensions of the Framework and how they are embedded in our programming, our instructional platform, and our culture.

Visitors can choose to start your visit at an elementary school, middle school or our high school. Specialty programs include Navigators and high potential programs, VANTAGEMinnetonka ResearchChinese and Spanish language immersionTonka Online, athletics and the arts. After your tours at a school, you will transition to our District Service Center for lunch and breakout sessions of your choice. Choose from a wide variety of sessions led by Minnetonka staff to learn how things work behind the scenes. Sessions include innovation, the Teaching and Learning Instructional FrameworkcodingDesign for Learning, assessment, the curriculum review process, gifted and talented programming, student support services, personalized learning, 1:1 iPads and more. Discover best practices for implementing meaningful instruction that will accelerate learning, have time to ask questions and head back to your own school full of ideas! Additional details about possible sessions to choose from can be found hereAvailability is limited in order to keep sessions small. Lunch is provided. Complete your registration by October 5, 2019 to take advantage of our Early Bird pricing. Lunch is provided. Register Today! 

Learn more about Minnetonka Schools and Technology Integration:

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Minnetonka Screening "Like" Documentary About the Impact of Social Media

In our continued efforts to help our children (and ourselves) practice a healthy balance with our use of technology, Minnetonka Schools will be hosting a parent screening of a new documentary about the impact of social media on our lives called Like on November 13 and on January 27. (If you're in the area you can RSVP here and claim a free ticket). All students in grades 7-12 will also see the film this year as part of their health curriculum. 

I first learned about the film early this summer and previewed it with one of our principals. Then I pulled together a group of about 30 others 
to see it (principals, health teachers, counselors, media specialists, administrators and others). They confirmed its value and we discussed how to have our students and parents see it. Our health teachers liked the direct ties into their curriculum on relationships and the role of technology in our lives. Guidance counselors and administrators liked its messages about the impact of social media. Everyone agreed that it could be a helpful way to further educate both our students and their families and promote a healthier relationship with personal technology. 

Overall the film is really well done. It has a nice balance of interviews with students as well as experts. The film relays information about the purposeful design of social media apps to get us to use them more, a message that the Center for Humane Technology is working to inform the greater public about. This is an organization that I have been following and written about previously. The film includes interviews with Max Stossel, Head of Education & Content. It ends with an updated version of the Panda is Dancing short clip that Max stars in from a few years ago. The film also interviews the co-founder of the "Like" button on Facebook, Leah Pearlman, and discusses the effects of this numeric value on our interactions.

The film does a great job of educating the viewer on these important topics. The film not only addresses some negative effects of social media and phone use but also highlights positives, as well as suggests steps to take to regain a balanced and more healthy use. This is something other films I've seen haven't done and therefore we've avoided showing our community because they basically were too fear mongering and would not help bring change. 

In addition to the trailer linked above, here are two other for the film and learn about the Like documentary, visit

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