Tuesday, May 23, 2017

These are the tools I pay to use

These are the tools I pay to use, John R. Sowash, ElectricEducator.com

I am a big fan of free classroom tools. Most of the tools that I recommend are free. But sometimes you really should pay for the "pro" or "premium" version of a tool that you use on a regular basis.

There are two reasons you should pay for a tool:

  1. To save time
  2. To support the tool so that it sticks around

I know that teacher salaries are meager (believe me; I made less than $30k for the first four years of my career!). And I am not suggesting that you pay for everything, but it's funny how we are comfortable spending $4 for a cup of coffee, but won't pay $100/year for something we use every day.

These are the tools I pay to use

Screencastify - $24/year

Screencastify is a screen recording tool that works on any device (even Chromebooks!). I use Screencastify to record screen videos, edit them, and save them as GIF files. Screencasting is an essential daily activity for me and the pro version of screencastify allows me to create content quickly and efficiently. Plus, you can't beat the price! This is a tool that I pay for primarily to support the developer.

Pear Deck - $99/year

Pear Deck allows me to create interactive presentations. I use Pear Deck during my workshops and occasionally use it to try to win a demo slam! The premium version of Pear Deck provides a ton of extra features that will save you time like PowerPoint imports and the ability to view students answers via the live dashboard. If you present on a regular basis, Pear Deck is an awesome investment.

Hello Sign - $156/year

I send and receive a lot of contracts. Hello Sign lets me sign and return them electronically. The annual price for Hello Sign is a bit steep considering what I do with it, but it has significantly reduced the annoyance of filling out paperwork.

Canva - $120/year

I just recently upgraded to Canva for work. I should have done so sooner. I have been using Canva to create graphics for my blog and various websites for over a year. I spend a lot of time in Canva. The work version of Canva makes it much easier to organize files and set up branding themes. Money well spent.

MileIQ - $60/year

Tracking mileage is another miserable task. Mile IQ makes it much easier. It uses your phone to track your location and mileage. Swipe left for personal; right for business. Mile IQ easily pays for itself in all of the lost mileage that I can now easily track.

Pandora - $4.99/month

It's pool season and my wife doesn't like commercials. So, we have Pandora premium....for the summer.

Amazon Prime - $99/year

You don't have Amazon Prime? How do you survive? I have five kids. Ordering from Amazon is WAY easier than dragging everyone into a store. Amazon Prime is the best! Worth every penny!

Audible - $14.95/month

I got a monthly subscription to Audible so that I could listen to Audio books in the car. This has been a great investment. Not only have I passed the time on long road trips across the Midwest (and in Chicago traffic), I have actually "read" quite a few books! If you read one book a month, this is a great deal as most new release hardcovers are more than $15.

Remember, time is money. The more time you can save, the more opportunities you have to do awesome, meaningful work.

Paying for something is a vote of support. When you support a product with your dollars you communicate to the developer that they are providing something of value to users.

What products have you "voted" for with your dollars? Leave me a comment and let me know if I am missing out on something awesome! 

Monday, May 22, 2017

The future of Android on ChromeOS

The future of Android on ChromeOS

Google I/O is an annual developer conference organized and hosted by Google. I/O is an important event during which Google announces features and products that are in development. Some of these products and features will make their way into the classroom.

Last year during Google I/O we learned that Android Apps would soon be available on Chromebooks. Over the past year we have seen access to Google Play on Chromebooks slowly roll out to select Chromebooks as an option beta experience.

Using Android apps on ChromeOS has been less than awesome. It has been pretty bad. You can read my previous posts on the reality of using Android on Chromebooks.

During Google I/O 2017 Google offered a session for developers called "Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices." Not surprisingly, Google has identified a few big issues that developers need to fix.

You can watch the entire session here, or read my summary below.

Large Screen Optimization

Using an app designed for a small, portrait phone, on a large, landscape screen is not enjoyable. This is the primary experience when using Android on ChromeOS right now. Google received a LOT of feedback from early users indicating that this was a major barrier preventing them from using and enjoying Android apps on ChromeOS.

Considering screen size and orientation is also important for convertible Chromebooks which can be put into tablet mode in either portrait or landscape format. The more developers take these use cases into consideration, the more their apps will be used.

Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices (Google I/O '17) - Via YouTube

Google is recommending that developers optimize their applications for large, landscape screens and take advantage of the larger screen by developing new layouts to display content.

Keyboard Integration

Android Apps aren't designed to take advantage of the keyboard (why would they?). But on a Chromebook you can. Google is recommending that developers build keyboard shortcuts into their apps, just like desktop applications. They demonstrated this feature Lightroom by Adobe.
While keyboard integration might not seem like a big deal, it really is once you realize how often you use ctrl + f (find), ctrl + c (copy), ctrl + a (select all), or use the arrow keys to navigate through selection screens.

Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices (Google I/O '17) - Via YouTube

Stylus Support / Integration

More and more Chromebooks are shipping with an included stylus. The stylus is useless if developers don't take advantage of it as an input device. This means optimizing apps for pressure sensitivity and recognizing a palm on the screen to avoid false input. Google demonstrated the app Squid which is already doing this.

Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices (Google I/O '17) - Via YouTube

What this means for teachers and students

Do you need to care about what is happening at Google I/O or in these developer sessions? Kind of. What Google is telling developers today will make its way into the apps and products that you use tomorrow. 

Today, the experience of using Android apps on a Chromebook isn't very good. But over the next 12 months, as developers optimize their applications for ChromeOS, you can expect the user experience to greatly improve. To the point that you might actually want to use Android apps on your Chromebook!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What happened at Google I/O 2017?

May 17, 2017 was the opening session of Google I/O, an annual developers conference organized by Google. This is one of the signature public events that Google organizes annually and usually contains some important new products and features that are planned in the next 12 months.

During the 2016 I/O conference we learned about Google Home, Android Apps for Chromebooks, and Google's VR initiatives. You can ready my review of the 2016 conference here.

I watched the 120 minute opening keynote during which Google shared their vision and plans for the next 12 months. Honestly, a lot of it is super nerdy and over my head (the word "petaflop" was used multiple times; and people cheered ).

You can watch the entire 2 hour keynote here, or you can read my summary below. = )

As an educator, I am primarily interested in the features, products, and services that will impact teachers and students in the coming year. My summary focuses on those elements of the keynote.

Machine Learning:

Google continues to work really hard on artificial intelligence / machine learning. Google CEO Sundar Pichai believes we are moving from a "mobile first" world to an "AI first world." Google's work in machine learning is already impacting you on a daily basis:
  • Facial recognition in Google Photos
  • Smart reply in Inbox
  • Better search results
  • Ability to spot and stop spam and phishing attacks
  • Google Assistant
  • Better voice recognition

Google also announced a few new features powered by machine learning:
  • Smart reply is coming to all Gmail users
  • Google Lens can understand visual imagery and location
  • Google Assistant is now available for iPhones

Classroom implications for machine learning: accessing information is becoming easier and easier; even when you don't know what to search for. In the very near future, students will be able to snap a picture or ask a verbal question to find what they need. Finding information is no longer a challenge. Teaching them what to do with that information is the critical skill we need to focus on.


Interestingly, the only mention of Chromebooks came during the portion of the keynote dedicated to Android. The blending of ChromeOS and Android continues to be a top priority for Google. There are other sessions during I/O that will hopefully yield information about the future of ChromeOS.

Google did mention that Chromebooks now comprise 60% of classroom devices. That's up from 53% earlier this year.
2017 Google I/O Keynote

Virtual Reality

Google has devoted a lot of resources to virtual reality. Specifically, the development of Daydream, Google's VR platform. This year Google quietly included augmented reality into their VR segment. They announced a cool new capability called VPS (Visual Positioning Service). VPS is very similar to GPS in that it helps identify your location. But while GPS uses satellites to triangulate your position on a map within a few feet, VPS uses visual elements in your surroundings to triangulate your position to within a few centimeters.

This ability opens up some really cool possibilities for Augmented Reality (AR). Watch Clay Bavor, Google's VP of VR and AR explain:

Later on in Clay's presentation he also shared an update on Google Expeditions, the VR kit for schools. Over 2 million expeditions have been taken in classrooms around the world. Starting in 2017, Google Expeditions will also support Augmented Reality tours. Take a look:

Expeditions AR is not yet available to the public. You can register your school as a "Pioneer School" here.

While Google I/O 2017 didn't reveal any major new features or services for the classroom, it provided a glimpse at Google continued efforts to organize the worlds information. Machine Learning and Augmented / Virtual reality are top priorities. These technologies will certainly trickle down to the classroom and impact how we teach and the skills that we need to prepare our students with in order for them to be successful. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

10 Tips for Organizing Google Drive

10 Tips for Organizing Google Drive

Google Drive has become one of my essential tools. All my files are in Google Drive. With unlimited storage and easy access from any device, I put everything in Drive. At first, this was no big deal. But after about five years of heavy drive usage, it became more difficult to find and manage my files. 

Here are my top 10 tips for organizing your Drive account.

1. Use folders

Your files are like people. Folders are like houses. Make sure that everyone has a home! The goal is to eliminate any "homeless" files.

Test it out: click on "my drive." What do you see - files or folders? Move any "homeless" files into folders. 

Put every file in a folder

Tip: Don't be shy about how many folders you create. I have folder "trees" that are 7+ deep. If you want your files to be in a specific order, add a number prefix.

Create sub folders to organize your files.

Tip: if you have a LOT of homeless files to organize, open the file tree on the left and drag and drop you files into folders. You can also hold down the ctrl key to select multiple files at the same time.

2. Name your files carefully

Generic files names were okay when they were only your files. But Google Drive is for sharing, and when you share a file called "notes," you aren't doing your friends any favors. Be super detailed and specific with your file names.

  • Bad: Lesson Plan
  • Good: Week 3 Lesson Plan | John Sowash, 2017
  • Bad: Meeting Agenda
  • Good: Curriculum Meeting Agenda, March 21, 2017

Tip: you can use hashtags and special characters to draw attention to special files. I use [template] to identify documents that I copy frequently.

Name your Google Drive files carefully

3. Share folders not files

Sharing individual files is fine if you are sharing with a small number of people on an infrequent basis. But most of us work in teams, groups or committees and share and pass files around. This is a prime use for a shared folder.

When you share a folder, no one has to remember everyone on the team. The folder already knows. Dump your file in and you're done!

Tip: I recommend sharing folders as "view only." You can make any file within the folder editable, but you don't want everything editable by default.

Tip: I recommend sharing folders as "view only." You can make any file within the folder editable, but you probably don't want everything editable by default.

Team Drive

Your team could benefit from using a TEAM Drive folder. This feature became available in the spring of 2017 and offers new features for team sharing:
  • The TEAM owns the files, not a person (important when team members leave) 
  • Team Drive files do not show up in shared with me 
  • Team Drive has a very different visual design to set it apart from a shared folder. 
  • Team Drives can be centrally created and managed through the Google Admin Console.
You can learn more about Team Drive here.

Google Groups

When sharing with large groups of people, set up a Google Group and share the resources with the group, not individuals. You can manage access to resources simply by adding / removing individuals from the group. No need to re-share files with people who were recently added to the group.

Google Groups are important when sharing files with more than 200 people (like all students). You can manage access to resources simply by adding / removing individuals from the group. No need to re-share files with people who were recently added to the group.

share with google groups

4. Use shift + z to add files to a folder

Tip #3 creates a problem: "How do you add a file to the shared folder and keep it in your files"? The answer is "shift + z." Use this shortcut to ADD a file to several folders. Now you can keep files organized using your personal system AND put it in a shared folder.

Try it: click on a file in drive and press "shift + z." It's magic!

Note: you can’t use shift + z to add a file to a team Drive, only a traditional folder.

don't duplicate files, add them!

5. Dealing with "shared with me."

It's hard enough organizing your own stuff. With Google Drive, you also need to organize shared files! Going into "shared with me" is enough to trigger a panic attack. Here's how to handle the clutter:

If you see something you want, drag it into "my drive" and place it into a folder. You are not making a copy, you are organizing the original into your personal system. Now that you have added it into a folder, you don't need to find it in shared with me.

Ignore any file in shared with me that you don't need. Don't do anything. These files will will "disappear" eventually. Yes, you can "remove" a file, but if your goal is to empty out "shared with me" it is going to take you a LONG time.

Do not treat "shared with me" like email. It is NOT your responsibility to visit and empty out shared files every day. It is the responsibility of the person who shares a file with you to explain why they are sharing the file.

If you are using Google Classroom you are going to see a LOT of files in shared with me that come from Classroom. Ignore them. To view or manage these files, visit Google Classroom.

6. Purge old files

Google Drive has unlimited storage (for those using G Suite for Education). This is a blessing and a curse. Over time, clutter increases. Take a few minutes and delete any duplicate or outdated files. This make is much easier to find what you are looking for!

Create an archive folder for files you can't delete, but don't access use. Hiding old content cuts down on the number of folders you need to sort through to find what you are looking for.

Create an archive folder in drive.

7. Upload with care

If you are a Microsoft Office user, you probably know that you can upload and convert your existing MS Office files into Drive. While it might be tempting to use the "folder upload" button to upload your entire my documents folder, resist the urge!

Upload existing office files to Drive.

If you are a Microsoft Office user, you know that you can upload your existing MS Office files into Drive. Resist the urge to upload and convert your entire my documents folder.

If your documents folder is anything like mine, it's a mess. I had hundreds of files that I had not used in years. Why upload them to Drive? Instead, adopt the Drive migration challenge:
  1. Each day, upload only the files that you use. 
  2. If you need to create a new file, create it in Drive. 
  3. After 1 year, throw whatever is left on to an external hard drive and toss in a drawer.

9. Color your folders

Add color to your most frequently used folders to make them easy to find. Right click on a folder and look for the "color" option.
add color to your drive folders.

8. Use emoji 😀

If color isn't enough for you, you can add emoji to your folder names. Install Emoji for Chrome and add your favorite emoji into your folder names!

Tip: If you add your emoji at the front of the folder name it will move to the top of your list.
add emoji to your drive folders

10. Use Google Keep

Convert a Keep note to Google Docs

Need somewhere to jot a quick note? Making a grocery list? Trying to keep track of your to-do list? This is a job for Google Keep, not Google Docs!

Google Keep is great for all of your digital odds-n-ends. Putting these items in Keep reduces clutter in your Drive account. Need to move a Keep note into Drive? No problem! You can quickly convert an entire note to a Google Doc!

Google Keep and Docs are now integrated!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

How to protect your Google Account

How to protect your Google account

This past week a massive phishing scam impacted millions of Google users. You may have seen this email. Clicking "open" gave a hacker access to your address book and email, allow them to send the same email to everyone in your address book.

Google Docs phishing scam

While annoying, this attack wasn't terribly malicious. The hacker did NOT get your password - they just sent out a LOT of emails.

This issue is a good reminder that we need to be vigilant when working on the web.

How can you protect your Google Account?

1. Think before you click - the original email looks nothing like a normal Google Drive email. That should have been the first clue.
Real vs. fake Google Docs sharing notification

Bonus tip: If you share a file with someone via Google Drive, I strongly encourage you to write a short note explaining why you are sharing the file. This will help your recipient verify that you are the one sharing this file with them. 

2. Don't just click "allow." For most of us, this is a familiar screen, but don't just click "allow."Make sure you know who you are giving your account information to. In the Docs phishing scam, clicking the "open" button prompted the user to give access to an app called "Google Docs." This is suspicious because you don't have to give Docs permission before you can view a file.
3. Periodically review your connected apps. Single sign on with your Google account is awesome. But over time you can have dozens of services accessing your data, even ones that you aren't using any more. If any of these services are compromised, you could be at risk (this recently happened with my account). Remove any apps or extensions that you no longer use.

To review the services that are connected to your Google Account, click here.

Review apps connected to your Google account

Issues like the Google Docs phishing scam are bound to happen. It will happen again. Make sure you learn how to secure your personal information and follow appropriate security practices. What are these practices? Check out the series of posts that I wrote on data security for teachers:

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Learning in Unexpected Ways

Sometimes learning occurs at unexpected times in unexpected ways. 

That's what happened to us this week around the dinner table.

I have a lovely wife and 5 kids. It's a bit crazy, but that's how we like it.

While we were eating dinner we were watching the birds at the bird feeder. I downloaded a cool bird identification app on my phone and we were figuring out the names of our flying visitors. The app also included songs and calls from each bird species which the kids thought was pretty cool.

Over Christmas we got an Amazon Echo which has turned into one of our favorite tech tools. I have been surprised how much we use and appreciate it (it's a great way for kids who can't yet type to look up information). The Echo has a great speaker with crystal clear quality, even at high volume.

All of a sudden I had an idea. Why not move the Echo to the porch, connect my phone via Blue Tooth and blast out bird calls to the entire neighborhood.

My kids were super excited and fascinated as we called robins, red-wing blackbirds, and cowbirds to our porch....and it worked! The birds were super confused as they perched on the feeder and looked around for the mysterious intruder invading their territory.

Learning and exploration can't always be scripted. 

This wasn't a lesson. There were no objectives. We were curious and decided to see what we could learn. Sometimes going off script yields the most memorable learning moments.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

I might actually use Android Apps on my Chromebook

I have been following the integration of Android and ChromeOS since it was merely a rumor (check out these posts). Overall, I have been underwhelmed by the addition of Android apps on my Chromebook.

Access to Android on my Chromebook has had no impact on my daily routines... until recently.

On a whim, I installed the Google Classroom Android App. I rarely use it. But then I noticed that I was getting very detailed notifications from the courses I am facilitating, which was quite helpful. I get notifications of comments, late assignments, and new posts in the notification window of my Chromebook. The web-based version of Classroom does not offer these detailed notifications.
Google Classroom notifications on ChromeOS
Next, I installed the Android versions of Basecamp and Slack, both offer superior notifications compared with their web-based versions.

Mobile devices have much better notification settings and capabilities than computers. Adding the Android app for tools that I use give me more control over when and how I am notified. This is the first time I have actually benefited from running Android apps on my Chromebook. Perhaps there is some benefits to the merging of Android and ChromeOS. What do you think?