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I’ll get to the point of this post in a bit, but first, if you’re wondering what I’ve been doing this summer, here are some pics from my deck construction project in my backyard:

Deck construction site


Back Deck


Back Deck 2


Aside from bragging about my deck, there’s a point about learning to be made here. How did I “know” how to build this deck? Was I born a carpenter? Certainly not. It was something I wanted to know how to do so I learned how to do it.

Let’s think about how we learn, for a second. And by we, I mean everyone, including educators. Do you read about what you are trying to learn? Do you watch videos? Do you look for pictures of what you are trying to understand? I would argue that we do all these, but often the most powerful modes of learning involve visuals. Even textbooks are not just text. They’ve got lots of helpful pictures and diagrams to help explain the concepts in the text.

When I wanted to learn how to build a bench on my deck, I did an image search and came up with this:

Deck Bench Plans

I didn’t really pay attention to the text of the article, at least at first. The picture pretty much does the explaining: tie in framing members to your joists, cut the back support at a certain angle, make each piece so long, etc. I could adapt this basic design to my deck by changing the dimensions of the bench and the hardware that I had on hand to attach it. The point is that I could get about 90% of the important details of how to build a bench just from this image alone.

You could certainly argue that this is a special case of learning that only applies to construction, but I’m going to suggest that our classrooms could operate along similar principles, especially as related to our use of lecture software tools such as Powerpoint.

Powerpoint lectures are often the whipping boy of the #edchat crowd, and rightfully so. On the teacher side, canned Powerpoint lectures, often partially or entirely prepared by textbook companies, seem to deliver content, but really don’t teach content to students. On the student side, we are often happy to have students create Powerpoint presentations to show what they’ve “learned” even when we know that often the vast majority of what shows up in those slide shows is mostly copy/paste from their sources.

From a more #edtech perspective, I read all the time about “alternatives to Powerpoint” like Prezi, Keynote, or Google Presentations (all of which my students and I use and love, by the way). There’s also a lot of tips out there about how to make your Powerpoint slide shows better, if you must use them. Most of those hints seem to be along the lines of getting rid of text and bullet points and simplifying your slides down to just a few important images that you can talk about as you “deliver” the slide show.

If we are talking about removing the text from our Powerpoints and just including images for discussion, why do we need Powerpoint? I’ll argue here that you can run an entire lecture (ahem, discussion) just using image search results projected for the class. Sure its a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but we have another phrase for that these days: its called just-in-time learning and its fun.

To see how this works, try out this scenario taken directly from my AP Bio class: you are discussing the topic of photosynthesis with the class, maybe some specific aspect of it like the light reactions. Do an image search and see what pops up:

Photosynthesis image search

Project the search results to the class. Discuss with students which images they like the best and use those to get the discussion rolling. You’ll notice that lots of related ideas pop up so be prepared for conversations to travel in directions that you didn’t plan. That’s kind of the point though, isn’t it?

If you think about it, putting a slideshow presentation together automatically assumes that you have a flow that you want the conversation with your students to follow: we’ll talk about this, then this, then this. If you’ve made a “path” in prezi, you know what I’m talking about. There are times that paths work well, to be sure, but if you want to allow for student interests while still exploring your topic, then a canned, preplanned set of lecture slides is a hindrance to exploration. An image search, on the other hand, has a lot of potential to replace your lecture slides but still creates a focal point from which to start a whole class or small group discussion. Not only can teachers use this simple technique (no more building slide shows for hours) but so can students. When students want to explore an idea with you or other students, they can pull up image search results and project them to the class to start or support discussions as well.

I’ve done several of these image search discussions now and have found the conversations to be much richer than anything that I’ve managed to stimulate using lecture slides. Many students reported really enjoying the format and documented our modified lectures using cell phone or iPad cameras (see here). Sometimes students used the images that we discussed in class as the focal points for later blog posts about the topic (see here). Either way, the images that we found quite adequately replaced both expensive prepared Powerpoints and the tediously hand-made slide shows that I used to spend time creating.

I’ll definitely try to work in more of these image search discussions this coming school year, but I know they aren’t for everyone. It takes a fair bit of confidence in your subject matter in order to feel comfortable with discussing the unknown results that come up with any given set of search terms. You can get around this by narrowing your search down to a more specific topic so that there are fewer surprises. But I happen to like surprises, particularly if they get students interested in what I’m trying to teach.

Surprises. Free scientific illustrations. Conversations with students about science. No more slaving away formatting lecture slides to get them “just right.” Yep, I’ll be doing more of these kinds of discussions.

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In which an Apple fan chooses a cheaper alternative for sharing iPad screens.

Simply put, there are times that I need to show content-related stuff to my class so we can engage material as a group. Call it lecture, call it discussion, call it whatever you like. When I first started teaching, that consisted of a chalkboard and my lame drawing skills. These days I’m much more of a tech geek, but even tech geeks have to experiment with what works for sharing material with the class.

For a long time I ran my classroom primarily with a standard setup of a laptop and an LCD projector that could project to a pull-down screen in the front of the class. A good setup, of course, but it requires the teacher to either be at the computer or use some sort of wireless mouse or controller to take over the computer if they want to walk around the room during discussions.

Enter the smartboard. I got one even though I didn’t request one. I learned to use it well enough but never fell in love with the software that came with it. What the smartboard does do reasonably well, though, is allow students and teachers to poke and prod the screen to make things happen. On the whole, I’ll overlook the software aspects of that particular tech fiasco and say that yes, the smartboard added some capability to the projection system.

Enter the iPad. Unlike the smartboard, I actually requested one of these, an iPad2. I also heard about teachers using AppleTV to mirror the iPad to their projector screen/smartboard so I requested and got one of those, too, the 2nd gen model that allows AirPlay streaming. At only $100, it seemed a cheap way to go to get some more functionality out of the iPad during class discussions. It works for that purpose, if you have an adapter for your old LCD projector to change the HDMI output of the AppleTV into something the projector can use. At first I used a HDMI to video converter box that worked through composite video. I was not too happy with the poor image quality, as might be visible in these pics:

AppleTV menu, composite videoiPad mirrored to AppleTV and composite video

I then upgraded to an HDMI to VGA converter box (with audio) that worked pretty well. Color reproduction was closer to the iPad and images and text were sharper:

HDMI to VGA adapter AppleTV menu with VGA adapteriPad mirrored to AppleTV with VGA adapter

My major beef with this setup was the shrinking of the screen. Why does the AppleTV menu take up the whole screen while the mirrored iPad, even in landscape mode, fills up only half of the screen? Text is just too small to see, both in the main menu and in several presentation apps. Sure you can pinch and zoom, but being crippled with a tiny screen area annoyed me. Plus, with this setup, the single VGA cable to the projector is occupied by the AppleTV, so the only way to share a laptop screen with the class (for the occasional flash site that doesn’t work with Puffin Browser, or some animations I use from a Windows XP virtual machine) is to use an iPad app like Splashtop that streams the laptop screen to the iPad and from there to the AppleTV. It works, but the small screen area was still a problem. Also, though I hate to admit it, I sometimes missed the smartboard functionality of tapping on the projected image. Since the laptop was mostly out of the loop, so was the connection to the smartboard, except in some amazingly convoluted smartboard-laptop-splashtop-ipad-appletv-projector chain of events.

Enter Airserver. Airserver software for the Mac has been around for a while, but apparently has only recently acquired AirPlay functionality and the ability to mirror an Airplay device (latest iPads or iPhone) to the screen of the laptop. There’s another Mac app, Reflection, that does something similar but in my hands it had some glitches with video playback and I never made it past the 10 minute trial period. Airserver on the other hand, has been a gem. Its only $12 for education types, a good start. It installs and fires up easily and my iPad quickly found my Mac on our school’s network. Basically, you connect the iPad to your laptop just as you would to mirror to the AppleTV. I set my Mac to not mirror displays and set the AirServer preferences so that it would stream to the second display (my LCD projector). This way I can have a set of resources open on the Mac screen that only I see (attendance, grades, email), a set of student resources on the projected display from the Mac, and, when I connect the iPad, a set of shared resources that are controlled from the iPad, all without switching any cables. The audio, video, and smartboard all run through the laptop, but I can take over the projection screen with an iPad at any time, including projecting student iPads when needed.

With Airserver, not only do I have the option to poke and prod my smartboard since the Mac is back in charge, but now the streamed iPad image fills the entire screen of the smartboard:

AirServer fixes the size issue in my iPad mirroring setup

In case you are wondering, the streaming performance of this Airserver setup seems pretty comparable to what I saw with the AppleTV in terms of framerate on streamed video and mirrored apps. I experienced a little audio lag every now and then with Coaster Physics, but haven’t noticed it with other apps. AirPlay-enhanced apps like Zombie Gunship work fine, too (after students have gone home, of course).

In summary, I traded a $100 piece of hardware for a $12 bit of software that allows streaming of iPad screens to my smartboard in a format large enough to read from the back of the classroom. This software-based solution, Airserver, seems to be superior in video quality to the AppleTV, particularly when used with an older projector without an HDMI input. Also, smartboard functionality is maintained by a setup that keeps a laptop as the primary driver of the projected image.

Edit: Another use for AirServer – If you are presenting iPad content, apps, etc. in a location with no network connectivity, connect the iPad to the Mac via Bluetooth to still allow the iPad screen to be projected to a large audience.

Edit 1/7/13: Your network infrastructure may need to be tweaked to get the best performance with either AirServer or AppleTV over WiFi. Both operate using AirPlay which relies on Bonjour technology to find devices on local networks. On our network the two devices (iPad and Mac or iPad and AppleTV) had to be on the same subnet, as Bonjour works best on the local subnet only. This means that if you have a big network with several subnets, as most larger organizations will, you will occasionally have the two devices pull addresses from different subnets, in which case AirPlay will not work. We got around this at my school by creating a separate subnet that is just for student iPads, a few AppleTV’s, and laptops that they connect to. This also solved a problem we were having with teachers using Doceri on the iPad where they could not connect to their laptop due to being on different subnets. If your network administrator doesn’t want to juggle WiFi subnets for you, a Bluetooth connection is your best bet.

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To celebrate my (belated) 1 year blogoversary, I went back over the year’s worth of posts just for kicks. The biggest trend I saw over time was more blogging about assessment and less blogging about 1:1 and edtech issues. Why the switch?

I think that the technology became so ingrained in what I do in my classroom that it is essentially invisible right in front of me. Of course we use blogs. Of course we have Edmodo, Moodle, and our Wikis. Why do I need to write about them? They are simply a routine part of what I do. I’d much rather be thinking of ways to improve assessment and instruction in my classes, now that the infrastructure is set.

Students, too, have made some comments lately to show they take our nearly paperless setup for granted. We made drawings of pedigrees in biology the other day and students, who have been in my class for over a semester now, didn’t know where to put their papers for me to review. When directed to place their pedigrees into the box, most students said “We have a box?” Some even made sure to do their pedigrees using drawing programs, just because that’s what they are used to.

So when did this shift happen? When did this blog stop being about technology? It stopped being about technology once I started teaching with 1:1 MacBooks and rock-solid wireless network. It stopped being about technology when I didn’t have to have my students leave the room to “go use the computers.” It stopped being about technology when access to the technology was no longer the pressing issue.  It feels like some sort of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs situation here, and I’ve somehow finally fulfilled one of the basic needs so that I can now pay attention to the other levels of need in my classroom.

Some people say they don’t “need” technology in their classroom, but I do.  It allows me to let students go off in multiple directions at once as they are pursuing their interests. It gives students multiple ways to show that they have acquired knowledge about our class topics. It gives students ways to communicate and stay organized. Access to technology allows my classroom to be student-centered.

That’s why you haven’t heard much from me lately about what technology we are using in class: it is so routine that it is ordinary and boring to consider as a separate issue. Of course we are using technology, why wouldn’t we?

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