Archive for Software/desktop

Dragon Box: Learn Algebra In a Visual Game

A few weeks ago, Wired published an article about a University of Washington professor’s experiment with algebra learning using an app called Dragon Box. Developed by a Norwegian company, the app comes in two versions, one for ages 5+ and the other for ages 12+. I bought both apps and invited our eight year-old to try them out.

Try them out he did! Perhaps not unusually for a boy his age, he completed the activities in the first app within three hours and moved on to the second app. After an additional three hours on Sunday, he announced that he had “finished” the ages 12+ app as well. Not so fast! Dragon Box invited him to “Side B,” which apparently provides about a hundred practice problems, still in the interactive environment, in traditional categories of pre-algebra and algebra problems. He still has plenty to do.

Indeed, the apps are very engaging. They provide a fun, exploration-based learning environment through which our son progressed when he correctly applied algebraic principles. Instruction was minimal. The app explained a few simple rules at the start of each set of challenges, using very simple, non-math language. Our son swiped and tapped his way through simplifying equations and solving for the unknown. Gradually, a few additional rules and more complex problems are presented until the player is multiplying by common denominators and solving complicated equations.

Ingeniously, the app starts with a sparkling box to represent an unknown variable, fantasy animals to represent numeric values, and a bar dividing right from left to represent equivalency. As one completes levels, eventually the box becomes x, the animals become numbers, the bar becomes an equal sign, and additional operands appear. The solution methods stay the same. The game is entirely faithful to the mathematical principles. Knowledge and skills learned transfer into solutions for algebraic equations.

Additional information:

We Want To Know (the Norwegian company)

Dragon Box (the apps, $6 and $10 for iOS, other mobile and desktop versions available)

Center for Game Science (University of Washington)

Kids Like to Learn Algebra, if It Comes in the Right App” (Wired)

DragonBox: Algebra Beats Angry Birds (Wired, detailed app info)


iTunes Match

iTunes Match is a paid service that, in my opinion, is very worthwhile althoug it flies under the radar. For $25 a year, Apple will host your personal iTunes music collection on their servers, irrespective of whether you purchased the music through them. I uploaded my entire music collection, nearly all imported from CDs, and now all of my songs and playlists are available on my work computer, phone, and tablet. Music used to use up the most storage space on these devices. Now, I have bought less storage in all of my new mobile devices: 16GB iPhone, 16GB iPad, and 256GB MacBook Air.

Always developing process improvements

If we add a responsibility to our plate, then we must remove a responsibility, right? It rarely works out that way. Not only do people expect us to continue to fulfill our existing responsibilities, but they also expect us to take on new responsibilities. Particularly for technology, current practice is always evolving, and new platforms and techniques appear at a rapid pace. Sometimes, we actually can let go of previous responsibilities that are now less important. More of the time, we must find a way to fit the new responsibilities into our existing, busy lives.

Perhaps a better way to make space for new work is to become more efficient at the old work. Each summer, our IT team performs routine maintenance and upgrades on all of the school and high school student computers. This is extremely time-consuming, but we have found it the best way to ensure that everyone has the correct settings and properly working machines for the start of the school year. We have given some consideration to doing away with summer maintenance completely but have consistently felt that this would cause more work during the school year, when people really need their computers to run smoothly.

Instead, we have worked each year to improve the summer maintenance process. We ask ourselves:

  • What summer maintenance tasks are essential?
  • How may we simplify our network systems to make annual maintenance easier?
  • How may we automate the summer maintenance process, so more happens automatically?
  • How may we get students involved in maintaining their own computers?

This year, the IT Team came up with a superb solution that accomplishes many of the above. We mailed a self-running DVD to each student. Over half of them ran the installer, performing the most easily automated and time-consuming tasks at home before bringing their computers into the office. The application is written in XCode using AppleScript, and the DVD includes the large installer files needed. This dramatically cut down maintenance time, allowed us to return machines to students quickly, and created more time for other IT summer work. As a result, we were more prepared for the start of school than ever before. Kudos to the whole team for inventing this process. Next year, we plan to make it entirely online and eliminate the DVD.

Write Chinese Characters with a Mac Trackpad

One of our Mandarin teachers discovered this feature the other day — very useful for students to practice handwriting Chinese characters!

Apple appears to be bringing touch features to the Mac using the trackpad rather than the screen. The handwriting feature includes virtual buttons that you press by tapping along the right or left edge of your trackpad, as if you were tapping a phone or tablet screen. David Pogue writes,

Touch-screen computers don’t work. There, I said it. Spending the day with your arm outstretched, manipulating tiny controls on a vertical surface is awkward and exhausting. The ache you feel later is not-so-affectionately known as Gorilla Arm.

Apple has built what it considers a better solution, a horizontal multitouch surface. That’s the trackpad of its laptops, and the top surface of its current mouse.


Easy YouTube Video Downloader

Do your students want to include YouTube video files in their Keynote or PowerPoint presentations? Our fourth grade students are adding videos of traditional music performances to their immigration presentations. We have found the Easy YouTube Video Downloader add-on for Firefox much easier to use and more reliable than SaveYouTube. The extension is also available for other browsers. Students can download videos without leaving and then drag the resulting MP4 file onto their presentation slides. The MP3 download works differently, directing the user to a third-party site that does not work for all videos. As always, it is important to discuss with students why they are allowed to download and use most YouTube videos for school projects but not for personal publication elsewhere.

Why aren’t systems more compatible?

A Mac can barely print to a Windows print server. Google Docs hardly works on an iPad. eBook readers  do not open the others’ formats. Outlook for Mac cannot save a PST. Why aren’t these popular systems more compatible? Eric Castro reminds us that these companies are competitors that work to maintain a strategic advantage and increase profit.

Users express the misconception that computers are designed to work as well as possible for the customer. If only this were always true! Great design can drive sales, but usability takes a back seat when competitive advantage is involved. Users would love a touch screen Mac, but Apple has little incentive to compromise its iPad strategy. Microsoft would prefer that Office for Windows always be stronger than Office for Mac.

Tech departments can help users avoiding incompatibilities by communicating issues clearly, suggesting workarounds, and helping people understand how companies develop features and consider compatibility.

Here is a helpful graphic from Gizmodo.

source: Gizmodo

Presentation Software For Good, Not Evil

Comparing an old photo of the bottle to its present state

Fifth grade recently spent several technology periods collaborating with science class on bottle biology project presentations. Students designed composting experiments, kept detailed notes, and took photos for weeks while their materials decomposed. Then, they prepared presentations that included speaking to the class and showing slides using the software of their choice. Nearly everyone chose Keynote.

The students used presentation software so that it would support their oral presentations, not steal attention from them. I relied heavily on examples from Presentation Zen (“Yoda vs. Darth Vader” and “Jobs, Gates, and the Zen Aesthetic“) to encourage students to limit text, use graphics, and say more than they wrote. While no student used the blank screen technique (one of my favorites), they created far more compelling graphics and used far less text than I had seen in previous student presentation projects. Well done, kids!

Hot Potatoes Now Free

I missed this when it happened in June. Hot Potatoes, the Moodle-compatible quiz-making application, is now free to everyone. It used to be free to public schools only. The application allows one to create a quiz using a desktop application and then upload it to a web application such as Moodle. Desktop application interfaces have traditionally been easier to use and more powerful than web application interfaces.

The Hot Potatoes suite includes six applications, enabling you to create interactive multiple-choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, crossword, matching/ordering and gap-fill exercises for the World Wide Web. Hot Potatoes is freeware, and you may use it for any purpose or project you like. It is not open-source.

Hot Potatoes web site

Mac Viruses Arrive

The antivirus software on my Mac recently detected the following virus, which is actually harmful to Macs as well as other platforms. Could this mean that schools and home users will no longer get away with not installing antivirus on Mac systems?

Office 2011 for Mac Gets Usability

A colleague recently wondered who would buy Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac, given the free cloud and desktop office applications available these days. For $80 (through TechHead), I would think that lots of people would. Office 2011 gets usability in a way that previous Office versions, Google Apps, and OpenOffice has not. One may conclude that Microsoft copied the elegant user interface of Apple’s iWork in places. Good usability is so critical to our users’ ability to adopt an application and use more than the most basic of its features.

Office 2011 for Mac places previously hard-to-find features in easy-to-find ribbons at the top of the screen.

  • Create a meeting invitation directly from the recipients of an email message.
  • Create and manage rules.
  • Mark a message as unread.
  • Mark a message with a category or follow-up flag.
  • View filtered views of mail, such as “only to me” and “flagged”.

  • Open another user’s calendar or a shared calendar object (if you have moved away from public folders)
  • Update your calendar’s permissions to share with others

  • Message window icons have grown in size, making them easier to notice when typing.

  • View messages in a unified inbox or separately by account.

  • Much improved network connection handling. Outlook now automatically resends one’s message when the network connection is restored.

  • Easy access to media objects

  • Now Word is actually useful for newsletters and other document templates. You know they got this idea from Apple Pages.

  • Should be a hit with our English and history teachers and librarians

  • Remember that picture of all of the MS Word toolbars visible at once? They took up practically the entire screen. Now take a look at how the ribbon has cleared away practically all of the toolbar clutter.

  • Try doing this with Google Apps. Just this week, I used this to create an awesome circular Venn diagram for an online conference presentation.

  • Automatically format table cells in Excel.

  • Excel function reference

  • Updated presentation themes. The previous ones were so 1996.

  • Second display presenter view and recording features, terrific for posting narrated slide shows to the Web

Isn’t good enough good enough? Why does one need these features? I see this less as a matter of need than of cost and benefit. Outlook alone is worth $80 to most of our users. Even upgrading Office sitewide is a good deal for the dollar, considering Microsoft’s heavily discounted education prices. Why not invest a few dollars in an application that is so essential for productive staff, teacher, and student work?