Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Battle of the Cloud Storage

If you are a Google Docs or Dropbox user, you will want to read this closely!

Over the course of the last few years, we have strongly promoted Google Docs as an easy-to-use online suite of productivity tools that allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms. These files can be shared for easy collaboration with colleagues and students. 

We both upload most of our class handouts to Google Documents so they are easily accessible by students, who can either download/print a new handout or make a copy online and save it to their own Google Docs account. However, we do not have ALL of our files in Google Docs. Most of our Microsoft Office documents, pictures,  videos, and all of our other "stuff" stayed on our computer because there was either no need to share them or the files were just too large. For these files, we have Dropbox! 

Dropbox is a free service that lets you sync your files on multiple devices (desktops, laptops, tablets, and smart phones) while also storing a copy "in the cloud". You can make a change to your files on one device, and all other devices are automatically updated. It's a wonderful tool that eliminates the need for a flash drive and gives you peace of mind in case one of your computers crashes. 

Google Docs and Dropbox are both very popular in the field of education. During our visit last month to Burlington High School for the "New England 1-to-1 Summit", it was clear that even in an iPad environment, Dropbox and Google Docs continue to be very important tools. These two services have had their own little niche, but things are about to change...

Dropbox strikes first...

When you install Dropbox on your computer, all files are automatically private. It does come with a "public" folder, and any files placed within that folder are viewable by anyone. You can also share folders with one or more Dropbox users. For example, we have a shared "8 Gold" folder that contains all of our team documents. 

Just yesterday, Dropbox announced on their blog that sharing files is now much easier. Similar to Google Docs, you can now share any file saved in your Dropbox folder by creating a link for that document (or folder) and share it with others. This is important because you can now share files with anyone, regardless if they have a Dropbox account or not. You can email that link to just a few people, or you could post it on Facebook for all of your "friends" to see. 

What does this mean?

This new sharing feature could make it easier to share information with students and parents. Rather than upload all of our documents into Google Docs (where they are often saved in their original formats), it might be worth looking into sharing them through Dropbox instead. 

...and Google strikes back!

Google announced today that it is launching a brand new service called Google Drive. This service allows you to store, share, and edit files online. In fact, all of you Google Docs users will notice a new welcome screen soon as your "Google Docs" will soon become your "Google Drive". 

In addition to these docs though, you will also be able to share/store/edit all of your other files as well and sync them on all multiple devices...just like Dropbox. It is integrated with all of Google's other services, including Gmail and Google+, their social media component. 

I could write on and on about all of the features and make comparisons between Google Drive and Dropbox, but I won't. There have been some great blog posts written today that compare and contrast them perfectly. If you use either service (or for many of you, both), I highly recommend you read up on this!

What does this mean? 

I absolutely love Dropbox, but Google Drive could potentially replace Dropbox for me as a file storage/syncing service. There are two reasons why I think this could happen:

  1. Right now, I have some files that are just in Google Docs, some files just in Dropbox, and some files that are in both Dropbox AND Google Docs. It does get confusing at times trying to search for a file if I can't remember where I have it saved. If it's saved in both, I am not always sure if the two files are identical or if one is newer than the other. 
  2. One feature I do like about Google Drive is that it has some amazing search features. When I search for a file, it will search ALL of my files, including those both saved online and on my hard drive. It will even search for words that are visible in pictures or PDF documents!

Additional Resources

Introducing Google Drive...yes, really
Official blog post from Google announcing Google Drive



Free Technology for Teachers

Monday, April 9, 2012

Scan and save - right from your smart phone!

Earlier, one of our blog posts focused on using the copiers in the building as scanners, on which you could make a file and save it to a flash drive.  This week, we introduce you to a way to scan anything - from the convenience of your own classroom, in full color and in a fraction of the time.  In literally ten seconds, you can go from having the item in front of you to having a scanned PDF sitting in your Google Doc account or your Dropbox.  Interested?  Read on...

To do this, you'll need a smart phone - either an Android or an IPhone is fine.  First, get yourself this terrific application: Cam Scanner

 You'll want to get the pro one -- on Android and IPhone, it runs around 4 - 5 bucks.  Once you install it, this app is incredibly easy to use -- start it up, and use your camera phone to take a picture of the document / photo / project.   It can do documents, magazines, white boards... pretty much anything you could want to have saved, it will do...

 The scanner optimizes the image, creating easy-to-read, full color images of your document.

For example, here is an annotated copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream's first scene - I did this five minutes before class began:

I was able to scan 8 pages into one PDF file, which students can now access from home.

I use the scan in class, rather than projecting an open book itself, as the image is crisper than on my document reader, and I don't have to worry about losing the page...

Once you have finished scanning your documents, it's very easy to send it where you need it to go:

You can link it to your Google Docs, Evernote, Dropbox... almost any type of cloud storage you're using can accept these PDF files.

Once you select where you want your file to go, all you need to do is follow the on-screen directions to log in to your account with that particular service.

 Here is a basic tutorial / introduction that shows you some of what this tool can do (this is visible on the blog - otherwise follow this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xTruiyIt4U&feature=related 

So, how to use this in the classroom?

Scan demos of good projects and assignments to show to other classes
Create images of your board notes, that kids can access from home when they need to, and you have them for if and when you need to re-create them.
Make PDFs of chapters / lessons from books, so that students can access online.
Outside of the classroom, this tool is great as well:

Create a dropbox folder for any tax documents / receipts you might need to claim next year, and have them all in one place when this time rolls around next year
Scan any paper bills you get, and keep a virtual folder for your own records...
So, if you need help finding or installing it, just come by and let us know.

Derek & Jeremy

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Invasion of QR Codes

Have you noticed those strange-looking square bar codes lately? If you haven't noticed them, you need to work on your observation skills because they are EVERYWHERE!

The rest of you are probably wondering, "What the heck are those things and why are they all over the place?"

The answer: QR Codes! Think of them as bar codes on steroids. They are getting more and more popular (almost annoyingly so) and don't seem to be going away anytime soon.

What are QR codes?

QR Codes (short for Quick Response Codes)  are used to encode information in a 2-dimensional space (such as a website, magazine article, or product packaging). Normal bar codes encode information horizontally, but these codes can store info horizontally and vertically, allowing them to store different types of data and much more information. They are meant to be accessed quickly and easily through the use of any  phone or tablet with a camera. All you need is an Internet connection and some free software that is able to "translate" these codes.

How to read QR codes...
To start with, you will need to make sure your phone is capable of reading these codes. Unfortunately, you need a "smart phone". Normal cell phones are not capable (as far as I know) of being able to scan QR codes. Many Android and Blackberry phones are capable of doing this right out of the box. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you will need to download one of these free apps first. All you need to do is take a picture of a QR code using the app, and it will open it up for you.

Recommended "QR Reader" Apps:

Why are they so popular?
QR codes were invented at Toyota in 1994 to track automotive parts. They have become increasingly popular with the mainstream population for two main reasons. First, they can be accessed easily and quickly. All you need is a phone or tablet with a camera, the right software, and an Internet connection. Second, they can encode LOTS of different types of information.

If you scan a QR code with your camera, it may display plain text or act as a link to a website. This alone saves a lot of time trying to remember or having to write down the website address. (This means you can also link to public Google Docs and any file in public Dropbox folders.) BUT, it doesn't stop there. These codes may send you to pictures, YouTube videos, events, Google Map locations, phone numbers, email addresses, or social media information. Hopefully you are beginning to understand why so many people are using these codes to share information. It's easy, immediate access to the information we want.

How to make your own QR codes...
There are numerous apps and websites that let you generate a QR code to store information. As far as I know, each QR code can only store one type of data. In other words, a single code could display plain text, but it cannot store plain text, an image, and a website all at once. There are many websites and apps that let you easily generate your own QR codes. QRStuff.com is my favorite because it has a lot of options that are not always available.

As you can see in the image above, you must first choose the data type you wish to encode in the QR code. There are a lot of options to choose from! You then choose the output type. The QR code can be download as an image, printed, or emailed. If you're not sure how you want it, I would download the code as an image. This can always be printed or emailed later on.

How can QR codes be used in education?
To start with, students need access to the appropriate technology. This means allowing them to use their personal devices (such as their own smartphone or iPod touch) until the 1:1 iPad system is fully implemented. I would estimate that at least half of the students at OMS already have a device capable of reading QR codes. Even when the iPads are distributed, I believe the camera function is going to be restricted due to privacy concerns. I'm hopeful we can have the cameras activated for purposes like this.

Below is a public Google Presentation that currently includes 43 interesting ways to use QR codes in the classroom. As you watch it, you will see ideas for students to:
  1. Read teacher-created codes
  2. Create their own codes to share with the teacher
  3. Create their own codes to share with other students

    I leave you with the following Periodic Table of QR Codes. Enjoy!