Google Apps Tips & Tricks

With an eye towards eventually applying to be a Google Apps Certified Trainer, I’ve been working my way through the various training modules for initial individual Google Apps certification. While I’ve been using Google Apps for many years, and in many different school and individual settings, the training modules have been providing me with great tips on how to improve my use of these tools and reminding me of some of the best practices that I’ve already seen in place. I thought it would be worthwhile sharing five of my favourite Google Apps customization tips with you here:

1. Putting your vacation responder to work

If you’re like me, you can often get many people emailing you asking for the same information (e.g. passwords to get in to a site that your school subscribes to). Have your Google Apps administrator create a new account (call it something like ‘passwords@yourschool.com’), and then set up the vacation responder in this account with the information that you’d like to provide to everyone. You can customize this so that it only responds to messages from your school’s email domain, solving any concerns about releasing information to external parties. Once everyone in your school is aware of the address to use for this, they’ll be able to get instant access to passwords or whatever other general information you’d like to share without always having to email you.

Labs for Google Calendar

Labs for Google Calendar

2. Labs in Calendar

You may have played with some of the experimental labs in Gmail already, but did you realize that there are also great lab add-ons available in Google Calendar? These are experimental features that you can add on to your calendar to better customize it for your needs. Click on the gear icon in the top right and select ‘labs’ to have a look at what’s available. ‘Year View’, ‘Event Flair’, ‘Next Meeting’, and ‘Event Attachments’ are some personal favourites.

 

3. Offline Apps

If you’re using Chrome as your browser, you can add apps to allow access to your Gmail, Calendar, and Google Drive even when you’re offline. You aren’t able to edit things in Google Drive when offline unfortunately, but this is still a handy feature to access your work when you aren’t able to connect (e.g. sitting on a plane).

Calendar Quick Add

4. Quick Add events in Calendar

Using the q key as a shortcut allows you to quickly add events to your calendar. Press q and then type your event in the pop up box just as you would relate the information to anyone else. For example, typing ‘Meeting Friday with bobsmith@hotmail.com from 3pm to 4pm’ will create an event in your calendar with all of this information. There are a few tricks to getting the syntax just right, but this can be a great way to create events without searching through your calendar first.

5. Adding on additional apps

That ‘more’ tab at the end of your toolbar list of Google Apps is just waiting for you to customize it. Many products that you may already be using in your school (e.g. EasyBib, BrainPOP) can be added to this list, allowing everyone to access them without needing to enter a password. Ask your Google Apps administrator to add these (in can take a little while to update) after having a look through the Google Apps Marketplace.

These are just a few ways of making the Google Apps experience even better. Even if you don’t intend to seek training as a Google Apps Certified Trainer or even the initial individual Google Apps certification, the training materials on the Google Apps for Education Training Center have a wealth of information, and are definitely worth a read.

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Starting From Scratch

Open Road © Brian Farrell

I am incredibly privileged to be embarking on a tremendous new challenge this school year. As part of the foundation staff of Branksome Hall Asia in Jeju, Korea, I have been charged with developing a whole school library facility and program. The facilities that have been created at the school are world class and truly remarkable (pictures to follow once all of the furnishings are in!), and my task now is to outfit and create a library and library programming that fits the needs of our learners.

In approaching this task, I’ve begun with a needs analysis to better articulate the end goals that I should be working towards. This processes is easier said than done since our students don’t arrive on campus for another month, but I’m beginning to understand Branksome, its rich heritage, and how it will differ from other international schools. The Branksome library will serve a unique group of learners, as the majority of our students will be:
– Korean girls
– Boarding students
– Using English as an additional language
– Unfamiliar with the International Baccalaureate and its three programs (we are a PYP, MYP, and DP candidate school)
– Connected with Branksome Hall in Toronto through exchanges and regular collaboration

With these traits in mind, I am aiming to create a library and library programming that is accessible (both physically and virtually – we will need to offer in-person services for resident students outside of the traditional school day, and I feel it’s critical that I’m accessible across the school outside of the physical library space), globally-minded, welcoming, and enriching to student growth and understanding.

As the year progresses, the needs of our community will become more clear, but I’m hopeful that the resources and systems that I am developing for our initial start-up will provide a good foundation to build upon. It’s such a great opportunity to have a blank canvas to draw on, particularly when you feel fully supported by your school administration, and I have a million ideas already bouncing around in my head about wonderful things that we can offer as a library.

Having said all of this, one thing that’s critical to developing a library space and programming that’s used and valued is soliciting input and feedback from our entire community. So this post is just one of many attempts to garner input; what would you want from your school library? How can the library best support your classroom practice, and how can it inspire a love of reading? What resources are critical to building understanding and developing the skills that we want to instill in our future graduates? I’m asking all of these questions of myself, but am looking forward to also hearing as many other opinions as possible.

Top 10 Educational Technology Developments of 2011

© 2011 Brian Farrell

As the year winds down (winter break started today, yay!), and as my COETAIL grading pile ramps up, I’ve been reflecting on some of the developments in educational technology over the past year, and what this will mean for our learning communities in 2012. By no means an exhaustive list, here are 10 developments (in no particular order – in fact, I think #2 is probably the most important!) that I think will impact our classrooms, libraries, and online learning spaces in the coming year:

1. Kindle eBook Lending for Libraries

Certainly not a complete solution (it isn’t even available outside of the US yet), but definitely a step in the right direction. While Amazon is not exactly a model citizen when it comes to supporting libraries, and while publishers are already getting itchy about people borrowing their books, ebooks are a space that libraries want to be in, and librarians need vendors that will work with them in providing ebook solutions to their patrons.

2. The Online Filter Bubble and a Junk Food Information Diet

Probably the most important idea of the year, and yet probably also something that most people don’t even realize is happening. If you aren’t aware of how the internet is being fed to you, and just how tailored your online experience has become, you need to watch this TED talk by Eli Pariser. This is something that all educators need to make sure that their students are aware of.

3. Skype in the Classroom

Skype was already a great tool for educators, particularly those of us working in international settings. The formalization of their education site now means easier collaboration amongst teachers and students around the world. I can already hear Google grumbling, so I’d watch for similar developments coming from Google Voice.

4. Steve Jobs’ death

I was torn about including this one, as Steve Jobs was not exactly a model corporate citizen. Still, his penchant for innovation and revival of Apple into a company that provides outstanding and highly useable products in educational spaces will mean that he will be greatly missed. I’m not naive enough to think that the loss of Jobs will mean the demise of Apple, but I do think that there’s a limit to how quickly and how many innovations can keep coming from them. As a result, schools like mine that rely heavily on Apple devices need to keep a keen eye on the competition to make sure that we’re providing the best tools to our students.

5. Google to acquire Motorola

Google is huge and just keeps getting bigger. Their purchase of a hardware manufacturer in Motorola means that they can now better compete in the smartphone market, which should be a positive development as far as new innovations and healthy competition is concerned. I’m a big fan of open source solutions though, and despite their promises, it’s hard to say whether Google will continue to keep Android truly open now that they are directly competing in the smartphone hardware marketplace. Still, the possibilities afforded to education by mobile platforms are already fantastic (see #10 below), and I’m excited to see what a Google/Motorola partnership will bring to our schools.

6. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

This law makes me nervous, and really is a step far too far. Respecting copyright is one thing (and the right thing), but a total clampdown on any sort of fair use online makes the US is now looking more like China and Iran when it comes to online spaces, and I’m hopeful that the recent backlash continues to slow things down. Even as a producer and seller of online content, I realize that for creativity to continue, people need to feel free to explore and share their creations online. While the online space may be new to legislators, this is just a case of a business model needing to change – if you think this is a new problem, watch this excellent video series.

7. Internet Explorer Auto-updates

This may seem like a small story, but I feel that it is actually quite significant. By making this move, Microsoft is attempting to make their platforms more secure by forcing users to update to the newest version of their software automatically. The Orwellian in me has doubts about others controlling my software remotely, but the realist in me  acknowledges that this will greatly benefit many computer users (hi mom!) who don’t realize that they’re putting themselves at risk by running out of date software. I currently work in an all-Mac school, but I can hear the cheers already from IT support people in schools that run on Windows.

8. WebOS Open Source

The more open source platforms, the better (see #5). While most don’t believe that WebOS will be a major competitor in the marketplace, by making this platform available to the public, HP is allowing new developers to get a foothold in the mobile marketplace. Any super programming geeks in your school? Why not let them loose on WebOS?

9. The other tablets – HP Touchpad, RIM Playbook, and Kindle Fire (with apologies to Samsung)

Yes, there are other tablets out there. The iPad is a fantastic tool, but there are other (cheaper) alternatives that can do a lot of the same things quite well. Well, assuming that they are still around in 2012 – the Touchpad is already on its way out, and I’m assuming that the Playbook is not far behind it. Particularly for schools that find it hard to fully fund a fleet of iPads, the alternatives are worth looking at, and their continued development means more innovation, which is good for everyone, iPad user or not.

10. iPhone 4s & iPad2

The iPhone and iPad are already tremendous additions to the classroom, but I feel as though we’re just scratching the surface of what we could be doing with these devices. The addition of a (in the case of the iPhone 4s, much better) camera to the iPhone and iPad mean even greater flexibility in how these devices can be used in our classrooms. Our field studies micro-blogging project at my school has been ongoing for several years, and is one great example of how smart phones can be integrated seamlessly into our schools.


Thanks for reading this far. I wish you and yours a restful holiday break, and all the best in 2012.

Developing Professionally Online and Off

I’m excited to today start co-teaching the second course of a fantastic graduate-level educational technology program that we’ve been running in-house at my school. The COETAIL@YIS program gives us a chance to look at the role that technology plays in education and how we can best equip educators and learners with the skills and tools that they need to be successful in their schools.

Walking Alone © 2011 Brian Farrell

In its delivery, this program stands in direct contrast to the masters program that I’ve just completed in that it involves several face-to-face meetings for each course, where my masters was completed entirely online. While students in the COETAIL program complete their assignments largely online in the form of blogging, they also regularly get the chance to meet and discuss issues with their peers.

Having been involved with online learning as a student, teacher, and coordinator for many years, I’ve certainly grown to appreciate the flexibility that this form of instruction can provide, and definitely can’t discount its merits entirely. But I am very excited to be working with a group of learners in a more traditional classroom setting that also incorporates online components. I will get a chance to attend my masters graduation in Vancouver in a few weeks, but will be arriving without having actually ‘met’ anyone in my program. This stands in stark contrast to students in the COETAIL program, who have already had the opportunity to regularly talk and debate with their colleagues. While all of the courses in my masters program involved asynchronous discussion components of one sort or another, I’m not certain that discussion posts in a forum can ever fully replace the kind of dynamic conversations that can happen in a live classroom. Where I often felt very much alone in my journey through my masters, the classroom space of the COETAIL environment is very much a collaborative group atmosphere.

I know that whenever I walk away from any workshop or conference, I always reflect that the personal conversations and networking that occurred at the event were likely the most valuable components. There’s a reason that I just ordered a book for our elementary learning support teacher called “Whole Body Listening Larry”. Learning in more formal environments is likely very similar. At least as far as group environments are concerned, for me, it comes down to a simple notion that learning online is a matter of content, where learning offline is a matter of context.

Learning 2.011, Creative Commons, and Connections with Kindergarten

Learning 2.011 in Shanghai has been a whirlwind weekend of fantastic resources, networking, and thinking about the role that technology plays in education. I was fortunate to attend the conference with several of my colleagues, but have also gained tremendously from the wider network that collaborated and shared what they’re doing at their schools. The greatest benefit of Learning 2.011 (and really any other conference that I’ve been to) came from people actively collaborating and sharing tools, ideas, and strategies that have worked well for them.

© Brian Farrell  Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

© Brian Farrell Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

It’s only fitting then that I started the first Monday back by collaborating with one of my wonderful colleagues at school by sharing some of my photos of patterns with her kindergarten students. We talked about the differences between natural patterns and those created by humans, and even found some patterns that managed to be a combination of both.

I haven’t done a good job of sharing my photos in the past, as creative commons licensing is a bit of a dilemma for me. I do sell some of my photos, and so I have to actively control what’s out there and what people are using it for. If a company wants to buy one of my photos, they need to be assured that they’re paying for something that people haven’t already used elsewhere for free. Still, I always tell the teachers and students that I work with about the merits of creative commons, and so it’s time I walked the walk and started sharing, even if just a little. Creative commons does allow me to limit this sharing to properly attributed non-commercial uses, and it only feels right to start giving back to a resource that has been of benefit to me.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and if people start looking at my creative commons licensed photos, they might just happen to see another copyrighted one that they’d like to buy (or trade for more delicious Shanghai moon cakes!).

My ePortfolio

©2011 Brian Farrell

As a culminating task for my masters program, I was required recently to create an ePortfolio illustrating my journey and progression through the program. While the forced reflection was good for reminding me of how much I’ve achieved over the past few years, it was also an eye opener in terms of how much more there is still to do and learn. Of course the ePortfolio could be an indefinite work in progress, but I did need to finalize it as much as possible for my program. The fruits of my labour should be viewable here (don’t be fooled by the similar layout to this site – you’re at the right spot!).

I’m happy to be finally done with my program, and will hopefully now use some of my newfound free time working on other things like my awful Japanese language skills and playing around with photography. Balancing the commitments of the program with full time work has been a challenge, but in the end, I’m happy to have completed it.

Braille as a Text Technology

An example of braille integrated into another assistive device, in this case a handrail at a Japanese train station (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Tokyo, Japan, October 17, 2010).

As part of a culminating course in my masters program, I recently reread this article that I wrote last year, and thought I’d share it again here. I’m sure there is a lot more to this technology than what I’ve simply covered here, but I really enjoyed learning about something (braille) that I knew very little about previously. Enjoy!

 

In a society that places a high value on the ability to read and write, those with visual disabilities were once at a tremendous educational loss and not able to participate fully in society. The current technology available to those with physical disabilities today is extensive, and means that many more people are now able to access, read, and author written texts. In the course of our history though, this is a change that has only occurred recently, and assistive technologies such as the braille system have been incredibly important in driving this change.

Braille is a standardized and tactile system that was developed by a blind man faced with the inability to view, and therefore read standard texts. In 1829, Louis Braille codified and developed a system of raised dots that would allow blind readers to use touch to discover texts, and while some modifications and additions have occurred, this same system largely remains in use today. Braille was inspired to create his system after learning about a military system using raised dots that would allow soldiers to communicate in the dark and without speaking aloud (Canadian National Institute for the Blind, 2010).

Rather than a distinct language, braille is a system of writing, reading, and transferring knowledge. Based upon the standard roman alphabet, braille also incorporates other written symbology such as punctuation and letter accents, without which the organization of written texts could prove difficult. This is an important distinction of braille from other reading technologies for the visually impaired, as it places an emphasis on the written word as it would be viewed by a sighted person. Where an audio recording may also serve to deliver a written body of work, its absence of explicit punctuation means that this technology may limit the listener’s understanding of standard grammatical structure used in writing.

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Similar to learners of other languages, learners of braille may gain an ability to read and access texts at differing levels. Like any other learners, “…findings show that braille patterns are processed in a variety of different ways by different people and in different conditions” (Millar, 1997, p. 249). It is certainly possible for one to have a learning or other disability in addition to a visual impairment, and so the education of a braille reader needs to be differentiated much in the same way that it may be for a fully sighted learner.

Unfortunately, the adoption of braille has not been incredibly widespread. Other assistive technologies such as audio recordings of written texts are often preferred, as they do not require the listener to have any special knowledge of the unique braille reading system. Braille requires an upfront commitment to learn and understand a formulaic system of communication, and in the case of someone who is born blind, this development occurs when a learner is also trying to gain a grasp of a language in its audio or spoken form. While this is realistically similar to the effort required of a sighted learner who is first learning to decode our written structures, the fact that there are other audio alternatives available for visually impaired learners can often mean that braille is not fully pursued. Indeed it has been estimated that braille readers constitute, “…fewer than 10 percent of the estimated number of persons who are legally blind in the United States and slightly fewer than 40 percent of the estimated number who are ‘functionally blind’ (defined as those whose ability to see is light perception or less).” (National Federation of the Blind, n.d.) This can easily create a vicious cycle, as fewer users of an assistive technology such as braille mean a corresponding decrease in those able to teach and transfer this knowledge to a new generation.

Braille incorporated alongside typed text (photo by Brian Farrell of Eric Hill's "Where's Spot", Ventura Publishing Ltd., London, 1988).

Like other writing systems, braille does have its limitations in functionality. Legibility can often become a problem, as a text can easily become altered by a reader who presses too hard on the pages on which it is transcribed, creating changes in the level of braille dots on the page (Millar, 1997, p. 138). Similar alterations can occur if a braille text becomes worn or otherwise damaged, and these frustrations are compounded by the fact that a blind reader, obviously unable to visually inspect a paper book, will not discover these deficiencies until he or she attempts to access the text.

Further, the requirement to indicate each letter of a word separately can mean that braille texts are many pages longer than their roman alphabet written counterparts. This challenge has meant that several systems, or ‘grades’ of braille have emerged, each with different characteristics. Grade one braille is a system that replicates only the 26 letters of the alphabet and punctuation, grade two braille, the most common system in use, incorporates contractions to shorten words, and grade three braille goes even further in shortening entire words to serve as a sort of shorthand (Omniglot, 2010).

Due to its historical era of creation, braille has been a pioneer system in advancing the abilities and education of previously disadvantaged and disabled people. While many more advanced and technical systems have emerged since the advent of braille, the idea of creating a system that would allow the blind to read the same texts as sighted people meant that an enormous gap in understanding and education for the blind could be bridged. Of course, the functionality of such a system can often depend on the assistance of those without a visual disability, and the limited portability of large braille texts has meant that digital audio solutions for the blind have thrived as an alternative.

The implementation of braille has meant a heightened awareness of the needs of those with disabilities, and the system has served as a model for further developments. The very idea of non verbal communicating by touch and feel has been applied to a variety of applications. Sidewalk strips using raised plastic guides of different levels that can be felt underfoot, braille-like dots on paper currency, and employing a variety of different edging, shapes, and sizes of coins are all similar applications. While many of these advancements are primarily intended to benefit the visually impaired, they can often prove useful to a sighted individual, and they do serve to heighten an awareness of the needs of others.

The future of printed text appears to be in flux with the advent of more and more advanced digital technologies, and braille is undergoing a similar period of questioning and transition. Still, braille remains an incredible enabler in breaking down traditional barriers, and its highly codified and touch-based foundations have served to expand the possibilities of non verbal communication for us all.

Highly visible and physically raised plastic panels along a walkway (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Yokohama, Japan, October 17, 2010).

Bibliography

Canadian Braille Authority. (2010). About Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from http://www.canadianbrailleauthority.ca/en/about_braille.php

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Biography of Louis Braille. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from http://www.cnib.ca/en/living/braille/louis-braille/

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Braille Literacy. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.cnib.ca/en/living/braille/literacy/

Millar, S. (1997). Reading by Touch. London, UK: Routledge.

National Federation of the Blind. (n.d.). Estimated Number of Adult Braille Readers in the United States. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.braille.org/papers/jvib0696/vb960329.htm

Omniglot. (2010). Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from http://www.omniglot.com/writing/braille.htm