Biblionasium – a reading network for the Under 13 crowd

Tour of BiblioNasium from Coach Manzee on Vimeo.

In a previous post last year, I lamented the lack of options the under 13 crowd is getting in Web 2.0 tools. Most of the free ones lock out children under 13 and the ones that have dedicated education sites can cost an arm and a leg in subscription fees. Occasionally you get gems like Edmodo and StoryJumper who are both free and Under 13 friendly. Today, thanks to my blogging friend Henrietta Miller, I came across another Under 13 friendly, free Web tool, Biblionasium.

For anyone familiar with Shelfari, the Amazon book related social networking site, Biblionasium works in a similar way but has been built specifically for the under 13 student. It is a teacher/parent controlled tool that acts as a reading journal and book sharing/recommending site. The video above, from the site itself via Vimeo, explains the site’s features in fairly good detail.

In a nutshell, teachers are able to set up a class site and assign children usernames and passwords to login. The students can record what they are reading, the teachers can monitor and recommend books to read and, with parent permission and control, students can ‘friend’ each other and share/recommend books to each other. Teachers have options of adding reading level indicators to books so they and parents can monitor the skill level their children are choosing to read at and encourage them to challenge themselves ( or conversely recommend books that are more reading ability appropriate.

Because Australian schools are on holidays, I haven’t had much of a chance to check out how it works but from what I have seen it seems like an excellent reading tool to add to your literacy program. I was able to search for a wide range of books to add to my list ( every search I did was successful, including Australian books) and I set up a couple of dummy student accounts using my own children without a hitch.

I actually like the level of involvement it encourages from parents. While the teacher sets up the account, ( although a parent could do it personally for their child if the school doesn’t use it) for the social networking features, which is where I see the benefits of sharing and recommending books with fellow students, can only occur if the parents grant the permission through the site. This puts the parents into an active role with the reading program, something we need more of in schools today.

Some of the more mature Grade 5/6 students may find its interface a bit cheesy, with its chimpanzee mascot, but other than that it is good to find  an educational tool aimed specifically at the younger child. It could be a great incentive and resource in particular for the early to middle grades (Grades 1-4). Check out the video above, go to the site and explore. It could prove worthwhile.

My iPad – the “nearly a PC” for teaching


Clearly from reading my blog, you can work out I love my iPad. Hopefully, you can also tell from reading my blog that I am also not a slavish “Apple Fanboy” who never finds fault with the product. Over the last year, I have been experimenting with the iPad extensively ( some would say obsessively) to see if I can completely do away with needing a laptop and relying exclusively on my ‘magical tablet’. As a teacher with ‘many hats to wear’, I rely on access to many computer dependent tools to complete my day to day responsibilities. What I have concluded is that if I was completely independent in carrying out my teaching, I would be almost laptop -free. Because I have to work within the constraints of a shared school environment, though, the iPad still had a little ways to go before it can completely replace my trusty MacBook Pro.

Because of its portability and multimedia functionality, the iPad is a great tool for assessment that has streamlined the data collection process in many ways. As a busy teacher and parent, the iPad has given me mo opportunities to access and input data wherever I am ( even during my son’s weekly basketball training )I can take written, audio and photo notes within the same program, whether Notability, Evernote, TagPad or any other similar note taking app and have access to a range of data on a given student. Using ShowMe, Educreations, Explain Everything or ScreenChomp, I can get a student to visually show their thinking in a recorded format and keep that for later analysis. I can use the assessment tools on Edmodo‘s iPad app to mark Student’s submitted work and do text based annotations through the assignments annotation tools. I can record, sort and analyse assessment data on spreadsheets using Numbers or Office2 HD. I can access the school’s shared Google Docs Online Assessment tool and record comments and scores for students I teach. So using just my iPad I can function very effectively in terms of assessing students, however…………

The actual user experience of Google Docs spreadsheets on iPads is a pain and most teachers at my school would not put up with the glitchy workarounds I use to make the assessment spreadsheet we use on laptops workable on the iPad. Proprietary software like school reporting programs and on demand testing programs generally won’t work on an iPad without mirroring from another computer (which obviously means still needing the computer!). Spreadsheet apps have limitations that don’t recognize high end functions on Excel which means some spreadsheets become unusable if originally created on a Windows/Mac computer. Therefore, in terms of individualized assessment procedures that collect really useful data, the iPad can be a standalone tool. Sharing school resources? Not so much.

Accessing and saving Files at school
Proxy server issues with certain apps like Dropbox and Evernote aside, which apparently will disappear when a new system is commissioned next term, accessing, updating and saving files has not been an issue. I very rarely use my laptop to read, edit or create documents anymore, unless they were created with a program incompatible with iPads. The teachers I work with use a combination of Google Docs, Dropbox, Edmodo and our school network to save their documents, all of which are accessible through my iPad through the Internet, their own iPad app or through Filebrowser for network and photo library access. All the apps I use can access these options either through the Open in… function, syncing options or in the case of Apple’s iWork apps, through Dropbox/Googledocs access via Otixo’s webDAV service. The only app that is problematic is GarageBand, which I still have to use iTunes file sharing with. ( Email is a poor option as is YouTube or Facebook for primary school setting). While sometimes I have to perform digital gymnastics to access some files via two or three apps like Goodreader and Filebrowser, it works for me. I’m going to do a post soon on Filebrowser specifically, partly as a lesson for my staff but also to share its features. There is also the option of using sendtodropbox service for apps that only use email for exporting. I really like it. Therefore, in my experience in terms of accessing compatible files, I can virtually put my laptop away and rely on my iPad.

Creating and Presenting Content
Despite protests from some in the anti iPad blogosphere, the iPad is indeed a fine content creation tool. I get the complaints about the keyboard ( personal preference and typing skill dependent) and the switching between screen issues ( I admit this bugs me) but that aside I think the complaints come down to what field of content creation you are in and how text typing dependent it is.
For me I can create everything I need to support my teaching on my iPad.
Attractive multimedia heavy documents and presentations are easily created through publishing apps like Pages, Keynote, ComicLife, Strip Designer, SonicPics, iDraw, Explain Everything et al, iMovie, GarageBand .. The list goes on.
PDF annotation of texts for class note taking can take place using PDF apps like GoodReader or iBooks on an interactive whiteboard or projector/TV. Books for sharing can be created using Book Creator or Creative Book Builder. Lesson content and collaboration can be covered with the Edmodo app or Coveritlive.

The biggest omission on the surface is the lack of compatibility with interactive whiteboard software such as ActiveInspire on Promethean Whiteboards. A plugged in iPad does not interact with the boards like laptops do because the touch based driver doesn’t support iPads ( any chance in future Promethean et al?). If I want to create flip charts, I still need my laptop to run ActiveInspire, however….

There are iPad based options with and without laptop. AppleTV is one solution. No computer required, but an expensive option if you need one for each whiteboard in your school. A relatively recent and cheap solution is the use of AirPlay compatible software that turns your Mac or PC into an AppleTV solution. Reflection and AirServer (PC and Mac) allow flexible projection of iPad screens onto the whiteboard through a connected laptop, including audio, all wirelessly. OS 10.8 for Mac ( Mountain Lion) will have the feature built in. With this feature, all the functionality of all the apps on the iPad appear on the whiteboard’s screen, giving it far more interactive possibilities
than a pen that has to touch the screen. Multiple iPad screens can be projected side by side for student sharing of their iPads. This could cut the cost of buying interactive whiteboards altogether and replace them with iPads and cheaper projectors and screens. The other option is using Splashtop Whiteboard (price has gone up since I bought it) to control the laptop screen through the iPad.

Of course the other elephant in the room in terms of sharing content with the iPad is the whole Flash issue. It’s not going away yet and I have covered this issue in an earlier blogpost this year. You can read that here to get my view on that. At this stage, yes I still need laptop access for some flash based web tools ( but I can use the school’s computers for that and leave mine home. )

In finishing, the question remains – How close to replacing a laptop with my iPad in my work environment am I ? ( I stress my environment because it is not feasible for all ). Not completely yet. And some of the workarounds I pull out to make some of the above possible is too much of a pain for less resourceful people. There are many days, though, that my laptop does remain in my bag untouched for the whole day. If I get AirServer installed on our school laptops connected to the whiteboards (at the moment I rely on my own ) , my laptop will barely see the light of day at school.
I’m not abandoning the Mac platform. There are tasks I would always prefer to do on my Macs. I just want to carry less around at school and if the iPad can be relied upon all day until I get home to my Macs, I’ll be happy. It’s close to fruition.

Obviously the solution is not for everyone and I would be interested to hear from others about their iPad experiences. Join the conversation.

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Can you share iPads – the case for Yes.

PART TWO – the case FOR Sharing
In my last post, I sort of positioned myself in the “iPads can’t be shared” camp. When the boss first asked me about the possibility of getting iPads into our school, one of my first concerns was ‘ for sharing or individual use’. As teachers trialled them last year, they passed them among some eager students and came to the belief it was fine to share them with children who wanted to use them. Everyone has different opinions on the matter. Depends on how much you believe the kids could or should use the iPad. Reality in our situation though is that we are not going 1:1 so sharing is the only option. That being the case, we have to find solutions to the problems I discussed in the previous post.

This is the most obvious and best solution. For those who don’t know, Dropbox is a cloud based network with dedicated mobile and desktop apps that make saving files as simple as saving to a standard file folder. If you want more info, look it up.
With the Dropbox app installed on an iPad, children and teachers are able to save their work from many ( but far from all ) apps and if there is a compatible app on a computer, open it up there as well. Dropbox integration is available in most publishing apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote being big exceptions) and a lot of other content creation and file sharing/reading apps. You can save attachments from your mail, the internet and other apps as well.

In some apps, like Notability, my favourite note taking app, even have automatic syncing to Dropbox. In my personal use, Dropbox has been a great way of accessing saved files. It is definitely a way of saving and opening files outside of the iPad file system.

However, there still are issues using Dropbox to support shared iPads. The hassle of having to login and log out of the Dropbox app every time a different user wants to access files could make it difficult for easy use. Some students and teachers may forget to do this and save their work in someone else’s folder. The fact that not all apps have Dropbox integration results in inconsistent access. The biggest problem at our school is that Dropbox doesn’t fully function over a proxy server setup that most schools in my system use. You can download your files but you can’t save to Dropbox. I’ve heard some schools have found workarounds to this but we haven’t solved it yet.

So is Dropbox a solution to sharing apps? Sort of – yes.

Another possibility for sharing is Googledocs. Many publishing apps have Googledocs integration so files can be accessed and saved in the same way as I described in the Dropbox explanation. Same problems arise as well. So again, Googledocs is a “sort of – yes” solution.

Network accessing apps
There are a number of apps that allow you to access the file structures of our computers or network servers. my favorite app, and the one I use successfully is called FileBrowser. It allows me to login to the school network and my computers at home and access any files that the iPad can open. With compatible apps, you can also copy files back into the file system. When it’s possible, it’s a good solution. However, like all of these options, not every app allows you to use Filebrowser to save back, although you can pretty much always open files already in FileBrowser in any app ( except Apple’s own apps like Pages.)

No. Least useful option. Good for syncing between personal iOS devices but that’s it. Apple has to do better here. At least integrate Dropbox with your apps. Feel free to disagree.

20120123-195115.jpgMost fiddly but most reliable sharing option. Every content creation app has an email option. As long as your school allows children to email, this will work. It’s just a lot of steps to get access to a file. Having said that, five years ago, it’s what we all did.

Not quite sharing but obviously a way to hand completed work to someone so you don’t have to keep the file on the iPad. Printing difficulty is another of the criticisms of the iPad which I’m not going to argue about now. It can be done. While there are ridiculously few AirPrint compatible printers currently in schools, my advice is get one Mac on the network ( if you’re getting iPads I strongly advise having a Mac a your syncing computer; Windows and iTunes have a testy relationship at best) and spend $20 bucks on installing Printopia ( click for info). I’ve used it at our school without any problems.

My final solution – don’t care.
Seriously, if you just want to share the iPads and not worry about who’s accessing what, then there is no problem to begin with. If you decide that the iPad will  not be the main content creation device at your school and will be used for specific purposes it best suits, then it’s not an issue. At our school, where the 5/6 students have access to about 100 laptops and desktop computers, the iPads can exist happily as a specific use device.

However, if you are seriously considering iPads as replacements for shared computers and not value added devices, you will need to consider the issues I have raised. Can you share iPads? Sort of. It’s not my ideal setup but it’s something I’m going to have to come to terms with in my current situation (and get that Dropbox issue resolved!).

Again, I would like to hear from others who have successfully shared iPads in their school environment or others who have solved their sharing problems with solutions I have mentioned or ones I haven’t.


Can we share iPads?

We are picking up my daughter’s iPad tomorrow. Her secondary school has decided to go 1:1 with iPads. Big, big investment. And decision. Lucky enough to have been sitting on the big wad of funding from the government, the path they have gone down is handing unofficial ownership of the iPad over to the child and the parent under a 2 year contract. We basically get it for free with just a levy to help pay for resourcing. Insurance is optional but if it’s lost or damaged, it’s our responsibility. In return, they hand over a $50 iTunes card and a list of apps that are compulsory downloads and the rest is up to the students. For two years it’s theirs to have.

Of course, most schools can’t afford that kind of sweet deal ( and to be honest, I don’t know the school’s future plans to continue the program beyond the initial purchasing. $3 million government grants don’t appear every two years!) but it is the ideal scenario for using iPads. After all, it was created as a personal consumer device, not a shared, networked computer for classrooms. So this is where my greatest concern with committing to any extensive, long term iPad program for my school. You know by now that I can see massive benefits in the use of iPads in education. But being a practical thinking man first and Apple zealot second, the burning question still remains:

Can you truly share an iPad?

As always, let’s start with the problems first. Since the personal computer went mainstream, there has always been one consistent user interface we could rely on – Save. You finished your work, hoping you didn’t lose it to a crash, and then saved it to some place on your computer or later in life to a networked folder. If someone else came along to use the computer, they could open up the program and start typing without knowing where your work was. With individual logins, even more privacy is ensured.

With the birth of the iPad, the whole saving paradigm shifted to a personalised system. Pick it up, open the app, and there’s your document ready and waiting to continue. Even if the app has a file system, you can’t hide it from others. Everyone’s work is there to be seen and altered. This spells potential disaster and privacy mayhem in the shared classroom environment. Sure, we can set up protocols and trust licenses to encourage responsible use but can we really trust every kid (not to mention unprepared, tech fearing teachers I know) to only touch their work? I can’t. I taught a child two years ago who managed to delete half my class network folders because our system wasn’t secure enough.

In a typical traditional networked computer set up, it doesn’t matter what computer a student uses. As long as the work is saved on the network, they can continue where they left off on any available computer. In its native, right out of the box setup, the iPad is useless in this way. Once you start it on the iPad, it stays on the iPad. (Remember I’m talking just using what comes with the iPad. I’ll cover possible sharing solutions shortly.)

A lot of the programs are iPad only and have no PC/Mac equivalent to continue working on the computer. No, what you will be left with too often without third party solutions are students fighting over access to iPad number 16 because that’s where their Toontastic animated story is. Also, if a child is half way through using an educational game, chances are someone else will take over the next day and wipe out their progress.

Similar concerns are evident in using the Internet as well. Without a lot of training in using the web on the iPad, still opened websites are free for anyone to see as soon as you open Safari. If you’re one of those Internet users like me who likes to save passwords so you don’t have to keep typing them in all the time, well then you’re in trouble on the iPad. If you setup an app to access cloud based networks, then it is open to anyone who picks the iPad up to use.

It sounds like I’ve argued myself into a corner on this issue. Sharing an iPad is not easy. Unlike my daughter, who has personal access to an iPad for the next 3 years, this is not going to be the case. There’s no way we are going 1:1 at our school. We’ve spend enough on ICT already. Sharing a limited number of iPads is our only option. So we need solutions.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my attempted answer to the problem. I know about Dropbox and use it. Googledocs is another possibility. Individual apps have their own ways of dealing with the issue. Of course there is the old fashioned way – email. None of them though are the perfect solution. In the meantime I would love to hear from anyone who has dealt with sharing iPads at their schools. I need help on this one.