Friday, 13 December 2013

My Thoughts on the Chromebook for Elementary Education

I have been using a Chromebook for a couple of weeks now at school. Students in my Grade 3/4 class have been using it to do research, upload pictures to their blog, and write posts. I was curious what the limiting factors would be in our Elementary class, so I have been trying to use the Chromebook as my only computer.

The 11.6 in. screen is reasonable, and helps to keep the form-factor small, and light. I have previously owned a 10.1 in. netbook, and found the screen to be too limiting. The keyboard was also cramped on that netbook. The keyboard on the Chromebook is full size, and the trackpad is quite good as well. The learning curve was short, it took me a while to figure out I can tap with two fingers to "right click", and that was about it. Out of the box the trackpad reverse scrolls webpages like a Mac. If you are used to a windows machine, this is easily changed in the Settings menu. 

The iPad is famous for "there is an app for that". Well I imagine that Chromebooks will use "there is an interactive web app for that". In the two weeks I have been using the Chromebook I have had few issues that couldn't be easily worked around. 

It plays most video files, music files, reads and copies files from SD cards, easily connects to both a LCD TV, and a projector, and accepts usb flash drives, hard drives, mice, and keyboards. Bluetooth is reasonably good, but I did find some minor issues with lag on one specific bluetooth speaker. The great thing about all the things that work, is that they just... work. No loading of drivers, no searching, no 3 minute delay. It just works, or it doesn't, but at least you know right away.

I love how quickly it wakes up when the lid is opened. There are exactly 0 programs working in the background when I am on the internet, the computer doesn't want to update in the middle of a Twitter chat, and no virus apps are running a scan when I least want them to.

I have been using Google Drive for a while, so for me it was an easy switch. We have used online apps to edit photos, play and mix songs as virtual DJs for our Christmas concert, brush up on our math skills, create a slideshow, and take screenshots. I will admit that the Chromebook is less useful if you are unwilling to move your workflow to the cloud. 

It doesn't replace an iPad, which is a terrific device for many activities. Many creative tasks seem to be easier to produce on an iPad. The more traditional work tasks: word processing, spreadsheets, slideshows, and building websites are easier to accomplish on a Chromebook with a keyboard and trackpad. 

Offline apps are starting to show up in the Chrome Web Store, allowing access to, and editing of work when no wifi is available.

It doesn't work with external cd/dvd drives, and it doesn't really print at this point, in many ways it is a hybrid between a tablet device like an iPad, and a traditional computer.

The battery life is as good as its claim at about 6 and 1/2 hours. More if you keep the screen brightness down. Overall it has been a very positive experience. The students quickly acclimatize themselves to the two finger scrolling, and the two finger tap to "right click". They don't see any difference from a computer, except that it is "much faster to start doing things". 

I will post about apps that we are using with the Chromebook that work well for school purposes. If you have questions, leave them in the comments section below.

An Hour of Code, An Awesome Opportunity!

This week my class participated in's Hour of Code. This well laid out course of basic code skills was excellent, and very engaging for my Grade 3/4 class. Millions of students have participated this week from all around the globe. 

To fit in with our Inquiry-Based approach, I had planted a seed a month earlier when students were deciding what they would like to learn about. One of the ideas on our "Awesome Ideas" board was learning to code a video game.

In the computer lab we watched the introduction video together, and then we began. At first some students needed a little help, until they understood how to work the controls. Once everyone was started, I stepped back and let them help each other. As students began to finish, they helped other students who were stuck. The whole group working away to help everyone to succeed in the challenge. It took us longer than an hour. The lunch bell rang, no one wanted to stop or leave. Everyone finished their hour of code, and they took home their certificates to prove it!

What's next? For those students interested, we have Daisy the Dino ready on the iPads. When they are comfortable with that app and its challenges, we have Hopscotch for the iPad. Once they have been successful with those two, they will be able to move on to Scratch, an online Coding application developed by MIT. Scratch requires a computer, or a Chromebook, as it is not HTML5 yet, and doesn't work on the iPad. With Scratch they will be able to reach their goal, and create their very own video game!

A big thank you to Hadi Partovi, founder of You can follow here on Twitter.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A Field Trip to a... Field!: Project-Based Learning and the Maker Movement

The weather was blustery and cold, and snow was falling steadily. It was a perfect day for a field trip. We would be outside most of the day, and it wasn't raining, so... all in all, perfect weather. We loaded up on the bus and headed out to build! Today we would have the opportunity to build our own Rat Trap-Powered Cars!

I have tried to engage parents this year as local experts in various subjects that students would be interested in learning about. I quickly discovered the many diverse interests and talents available and I am trying to leverage this large pool of talent in our classroom this year. 

I was talking to one father and explaining what the idea behind Project-Based Learning was: how we would like to actually do, and make things, not just read and write about them. He thought that was great, and he offered his metal-working skills, and his shop for a class trip.

He offered the idea of a Rat-Trap-Powered Car, he created the design and sourced all the parts we would need. I kept what we were making a surprise for the class. The week before the trip I started a blog post with pictures of various parts we would use to make our project, inviting students to guess what we might be creating. Here are some of the parts I showed before the trip:

The class guessed all sorts of possibilities: a crane-style arm, a working elevator, a boat, a car, and a robot. Lots of great guesses, and lots of potential future projects! Today they finally found out what we were making. Each student was asked to bring 4 CDs, which they would use for wheels. The rat trap would be the chassis. The axles attached at either end of the trap.

The children used a drill press and an electric drill while creating their cars. They were well supervised, they worked hard, and were very focused on their creations. No one had to be reminded to be careful, or to pay attention to what they were doing.

When the students weren't working on their Rat Trap Cars, they were outside at one of the three activities. In previous years, I would carefully plan out various centres where the students would do a prescribed activity in small groups. Every group would do the same activity in the same way, and record their learning, or answers as they completed each task. 

This year instead of planning activities, I issued challenges. Each group chose how to create, modify, or rework their ideas to meet the various challenges. 

One challenge was:

The corn maze groups employed compasses and various items borrowed from our Phys. Ed. equipment room. While we did lose one bowling pin, we lost zero children, so I considered this activity wildly successful.

The second challenge was:

There was a lot of creativity, one group decided to use a hockey stick shaft to measure metres. With this tool they measured the distance between buildings, and landmarks. Another group took some string, measured out 50cm for each walking stride, and recorded a metre for every second step they took. This will allow them to later create an accurate map in Minecraft.

The third challenge was:

The groups started out with games similar to Lacrosse at the beginning, but this morphed to more of a Survival game with students playing the part of different animals, hunting, and evading each other in the bush.

For each centre the group could choose to play the game set up by the last group, modify and then play it, or just make their own game. Each group recorded their game for the next group when they were done. 

All in all, it was a great day. Outside the students created and led their own activities, and in the shop they created fantastic Rat Trap-Powered Cars. I imagine there will now be a lot of interest in various ways to design and build different vehicles, with various sources of propulsion in our class. I think December will be an exciting month!